Nigel Collingwood


1986; published in Changes.

The other night I dreamt I was looking in a mirror. I saw a youngish fairly heavily-built man, clean-shaven, with black hair and a ruddy, fattish face. I did not like the look of him. Anyhow, he could not have been me, since I am sixty, lightly built, bearded, with greying hair and a pale, thinnish face. Yet in a strange way I recognised that it was only on the surface that he was not me. At the core, he was me.

Admittedly, I was having a restless night, and had been thinking about the experience which some people sometimes have of a non-specific self or existence behind or beneath the everyday self with a name, address (if lucky) and a life story. So my dream had a context which gave it the quality of a parable. The parable seemed to be inviting me too care about, and perhaps care for, another person whom I was inclined to dislike. Moreover, the ground for this invitation to care was that, in spite of appearances, he was myself.

Now one way to read the dream would be this: at some level I do not like myself, but need to care for myself and accept the caring of others. I see some validity in that interpretation. Yet it may be worth while to take it at something nearer its face value, as a dream suggesting not only that it is good to care for others, but that their otherness is, at bottom, illusory.

However, illusions cannot just be wished away. We need first to recognise their power, their provisional status, if we are later to make sense of relinquishing them. Hence we need to enquire into the process of caring insofar as it takes for granted the commonsense view that persons cared for are indeed other than those caring for them. By caring I refer primarily to the helping professions and to counselling and psychotherapy in particular, although the argument applies, I suggest, to any relationship that involves working closely with another person with their benefit in mind. Questions about large group and political relationships will have to be left on one side, though I wonder if the heart of socialism, still beating, does not cherish a realisation that other people are, ultimately, ourselves.

I want to say that there are at least four levels of caring, the first three of which are familiar enough.

First, there is defensive caring. Here we care for others in order to cope with our own need for care, which has not been adequately met. It is often said that most professional carers have a certain amount of this in their make-up, and that too much of it is disastrous. We project our neediness on to theirs – who may of course, and probably do, have a genuine need to be cared for. Then we identify ourselves with them. Our basic motive, albeit unconscious, is to obtain relief for ourselves. If it can be thought of as loving our neighbour as ourselves, this is only in a deeply ironic sense. For we are using our neighbour as a means to care for ourselves. However much our activities at this level may be dressed up as those of a nurturing parent, they in fact belong to the deprived child within.

Second, there is what might be called straightforward caring. This is caring insofar as it avoids the neurotic projections of the first level, and looks realistically at the needs of the person cared for. A degree of emotional involvement is not inconsistent with such caring, but its essential element is the conscientious application of relevant skills. It is to love your neighbour as yourself in the sense of their being another person with the same basic needs as yourself. Its tone is that of the mature adult.

Third, there is nurturing care. At this level we are looking after someone whom we allow to be dependent on us, at least for the time being. The primary case is, of course, that of the nursing parent or parent-figure. But this kind of caring can have a place in many other relationships, not excluding that of therapist to client – for instance, when regression is taking place. The caring is of an enfolding character, and even brings echoes of the archetypal nurturing whereby the foetus is nourished in the womb. In the latter case the one cared for is indeed of the mother’s and father’s flesh; to care in this context is to love your neighbour as a physical extension of yourself. Nurturing in the broader sense retains a certain sense of intimacy, only the neighbour is now rather a moral extension of yourself. Therapists need to be aware of the power of the counter-transference in this area.

Finally we come to the level of caring perhaps adumbrated by the dream mentioned above: what might be called transpersonal caring. This is where the ego is to some extent transcended, and language to describe what happens has to be stretched to the point of paradox. Experiences of being beyond the ego are, of course, not uncommon, and are well attested in mystical writings. They consist of leaving behind all the identities we have acquired, and in discovering bare existence. The duality of self and others, or self and environment, is replaced by a “non-dual” awareness. See for example, Wilber (1979). Such experiences are usually said to be located in the superconscious, the Self, the overself and so on. They are regarded as having a reality that far exceeds that of everyday experience, which is now looked upon as illusory.

What may seem surprising is to relate this kind of spirituality to the activity of caring for another person. For transpersonal states of consciousness are usually seen as arising from the privacy of meditation, or else from a sudden and unexpected change of awareness in some other context that is not social, as in the case of nature mysticism. Other people tend to come into the picture only at a later stage, when the fruits of contemplation are handed on to them in the form of spiritual teaching. Yet therapists sometimes have moments of intuition, when the distance between themselves and their clients seems to dwindle to zero. Some therapeutic move (verbal or otherwise) is made spontaneously, without calculation; but it appears to fit the client’s needs exactly. What I am suggesting is that at the moment when therapists make valid intuitional moves of this kind, they are, at least sometimes, no longer conscious of the client as other. For a time, they have travelled beyond the everyday boundaries of experience.

Yet they are not over-empathising with the person. For that would be to lose the essential “as if” quality as they enter another’s world of meaning, and so let themselves be overwhelmed by their depression or whatever. It would be letting the client within the bounds of the therapist’s ego – a form of introjection. If we have “swallowed” a client’s impasse, for example, we are unlikely to be able to make a helpful intervention, because we are at an impasse too. In our confusion we are experiencing the other’s needs as our own. Still less are therapists who find themselves guided by intuition indulging in the projections of the first, defensive, level of caring. For there one’s own needs are experienced as though they were the other person’s. No; here the client is experienced as not another person because the therapist too experiences her or himself as not another person. Individual personality has for a moment been found to be illusory, and has been transcended. From this vantage point the client’s present needs can be responded to without mediation across a boundary, for there is no longer a boundary to cross; it was an illusion. In a story which I am now unable to trace, someone outside a tent is asking to come in. “Who are you?” asks the person inside. The visitor makes a number of true statements in reply, but in the end is only admitted on giving the reply: “It is yourself”.

Needless to say, to value highly such intuitional moves and to locate them beyond the ego, implies absolutely no recommendation to abandon other levels of caring and aim to work simply through intuition. Experiences beyond the ego are never to be grasped; they only come. Therapy, like meditation, is for the most part just a hard grind. All I have done is to attempt to give an account, of an aspect of therapy which is often neglected. No doubt therapy that includes the transpersonal dimension is gaining acceptance. But it is usually concerned with the client’s transpersonal experience. Here I have tried to make sense of a possible transpersonal aspect of the therapist’s own experience. Now there is always a thin dividing line between understanding a client and helping them to understand themselves. Further, it is always difficult, if not impossible, to understand another in an area where one has not understood oneself. What I am arguing is that sometimes we can find ourselves helping and caring for others not so much by consciously understanding either them or ourselves, last: by dint of losing our own sense of particularity and otherness. Then we are loving our neighbour as being ultimately no other than ourselves. It is as though for a moment I may look at my client and hear within myself the words: “It is yourself”.

K Wilber, No Boundary, Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth, London, Shambhala, 1981.