Joan Poelvoorde

Psychotherapy & Healing Arts

The Discipline of Epoché in Psychotherapy and Daily Life

55. See as if for the first time a beauteous person or an ordinary object.

Vigyan Bhairava
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
Charles E. Tuttle Co., Vermont, 1957.

In phenomenological psychotherapy, the therapist engages in an epoché prior to every session. In this context, epoché means abstaining from or putting out of action preconceptions, theories, and ideas that would interfere with listening to and hearing the person in therapy from his or her perspectives and views. This requires setting aside interfering moods, attachments, and concerns that intrude on the development of an open and fresh relationship that interfere with immediacy and spontaneity. —Clark Moustakis, Being-In, Being-For, Being-With, Jason Aronson, London,1995.

This concept of epoché [eh-poh-key] was first developed by Aristotle, and later used by other philosophers to signify the emptying of one's preconceptions.

The existential philosopher, Husserl, distinguishes between the "natural attitude," our straightforward involvement with things in which we accept, without reflection, our assessment and judgment of the world, and the "phenomenological attitude," the reflective point during which we put out of action or suspend all the intention and convictions of natural attitude.This does not mean that we negate them, only that we take a distance from them.This, for Husserl, is called the phenomenological epoché.

Husserl's student, Martin Heidegger, in Being and Time, amplifies Husserl's concept of epoché into something more immediate, so that the purpose of the practice is " … to let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself." The practice demands of us what is called "Gelassenheit: a certain letting be, letting the phenomenon show itself out of itself."

David Michael Levin
The Philosopher's Gaze, University of California Press, 1999.

As psychotherapists, healers, parents, friends, we use this practice, which can be seen only as a spiritual practice, in order that the essence of the person who sits before us be uncovered as it is. We create an open space for sitting phenomenologically with another through the cultivation of curiosity and compassion. This calls for the suspension of judgment. Judgment stands in the way of openness and awe. With judgment comes a complete lack of surprise. What we miss when we pre-judge (i.e., try to fix, or change), is the fact that the being who sits before you is a miraculous being who struggles as you struggle. Thinking that we know is the highest form of arrogance and disrespect. T. S. Eliot calls this arrogant knowing "the wisdom of old men."

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new in every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking
Valuation of all we have been …
Do not let me hear of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can ever hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

T. S. Eliot
The Four Quartets, East Coker, Section II

This humility underscores one of the main tenets of the Strengths Perspective: that only the client really knows what he or she needs in order to be healed. The following meditation can be useful for anyone working with or living with an addict—it's also useful for finding peace with anyone with whom you are having some difficulty.

Epoché Meditation

Joan Poelvoorde, a professional psychotherapist in Manhattan (NY) offering relationship, personal growth, anger management, creativity, shamanistic & Imago Relationship Therapy