Thinking about psychotherapy I notice that there is an important distinction to be made about two different viewpoints or perspectives. Similar comments can be made about spiritual practice and, no doubt, some other domains of human knowledge. I call these two perspectives the inside view and the outside view. The two are non-commensurable. You cannot readily jump from one to the other and clinging to one can be the bane of the other, a problem which, in my view, is destroying psychotherapy as I originally learnt it.


Let me illustrate this by first thinking of the outside view. This is the view of the researcher, theorist or academic. If one of my students tells me that she is going to do some research into psychotherapy, I am encouraging. If she comes back and tells me she has discovered something, I am pleased. Perhaps she has found that sometimes in therapy a certain phenomenon or syndrome occurs. We’ll all it A. She has then found that in cases where A is followed by a second phenomenon, B, there is a statistical probability that C will follow. Let us say that C signifies some outcome generally regarded as desirable or beneficial. My student will be enthusiastic and I shall praise her work. As a piece of research, it is excellent and has added something to our knowledge.

However, if a practitioner now reads this thesis and seeks to apply it, problems arise. This is because the practitioner does not occupy the outside view. The practitioner occupies the inside view, and they muddle the two at the peril of the client. Thus, this practitioner observes that A is happening. She remembers what she has read and seeks to apply B, hoping that C will result. Either this will be completely unsuccessful, or, worse, it will impose B and C upon the client who might not naturally have been going in that direction at all. It may make the client more socially conformist and cowed, but it does not liberate them. Many clients in this situation will collude with the therapist, wishing to please, and will manufacture a semblance of C so that the therapist may feel satisfied and may add them to the list of “successful cases”, which list can then later be further cited as additional “evidence”. However, this is not psychotherapy. This is subtle coercion.


The good practitioner, encountering A, reflects A. When she encounters Z, she reflects Z. Whatever she encounters between A and Z, she responds to it appropriately. She does not mechanically churn out her own method as though clients were items on a standardised production line. Psychotherapy does not exist to render people into items in an industrial process but precisely to liberate them from it. We are already too much robots. Robotic therapy is not therapy at all.

When the good practitioner reflects A as A and Z as Z, it may well happen that B and even C sometimes occurs, but not always and not because the therapist was trying to contrive this. If the therapist reflects A and what follows is M, she then reflects M. She accommodates to the reality that is manifesting in all its dynamic glory before her. She does not try to manipulate or control or direct toward a preordained destination. I do not know the destination that the universe has in store for my client, but I can assist her travel and be a useful companion. It is, however, her journey, not mine.

The therapist’s efforts at contrivance always obstruct rather than assist the natural process. This is true even if the therapist goes to some lengths to get the client's agreement to whatever procedure is to take place. Clients are in a position of weakness and an assertive therapist presenting as an expert can commonly get their permission for almost anything. Such compliance does not aid the process of understanding, it merely, at best, enables us to eliminate a symptom.

Therapy is an accompaniment. I learn from her travelling and with my accompaniment she travels more freely and more boldly. As a therapist I am greatly privileged in being able to accompany so many travellers. However, this one is going to climb mountains, whereas that one is going down the river on a boat. If I think that the purpose of my job is to ensure that they all end up in Paris and go by car, I will fail them.


Now I want to extend this line of argument to spiritual practice. We can and do read many books about the subject. We read stories of this master and theories about that doctrine. We pick up a range of vocabulary, more or less useful. This is the outside view. I have met many people who can give long discourses on the nature of enlightenment or on absolute and relative truth, all given from the outside view position. These people may have no actual experience of what they are talking about. They have never inhabited the inside view. Indeed, the Buddhist world is full of them. Their students then adopt the same habit and talk endlessly and learnedly about the 12 factors of this or the 18 aspects of that. However, these people may actually not really know what they are talking about. They do not know it; they only know of it and about it.

The inside view is different. The person on the inside, encountering life, accommodates to life, encountering death, accommodates to death. They bow and rejoice. Encountering a master, they bloom with love and enthusiasm. Encountering a fool, they marvel and learn what human life is all about. The myriad dharmas come forth and confirm them at every step and as this is unceasing we cannot actually find them. They are not imposing themselves upon the situation, but are reflecting its ever changing pageant. Somebody observing such a person might conclude that that person is giving rise to the 12 factors of this or the 18 aspects of that, but this is not by contrivance, if it is happening at all.


The psychotherapy profession has, in recent years, been subjected to a takeover by people who purport to do therapy using the outside view. They get results. The results they get conform to the outside view protocols that they apply. Much of this is self-fulfilling prophecy. If I impose B on my client, C may result, but this is not really psychotherapy. It is manipulation. It does not free the human spirit. It mimics the taking of a pill. If you take an antidepressant chemical your mood may lighten temporarily. This consumption of chemicals, however, may not be good for your general health in the long run. The work of a real psychotherapist is different and more challenging. It is to enter into the inside view and discover the real meaning of what is happening.


The same is true in the world of spirituality. Thus we can distinguish between two different usages of the word teacher. A Buddhist teacher might occupy the outside view position. Perhaps he lectures in a university and tells people about Buddhism, its history, anthropology, doctrines, sociology and so on. That is one kind of teacher. There is another kind, the kind that we regard as the real thing. This person occupies the inside position. She depends upon her own experience and her living encounter with those whom she meets. She is spontaneous and free. One can spend any amount of time with the first type of teacher and be no closer to enlightenment whereas in time spent with the second kind of teacher one is already in its presence. No amount of research on the second kind will enable the first kind to reproduce it.


Thus this notion of inside view and outside view can have wide application and bearing it in mind can help us, sometimes, to avoid some pitfalls. Of course, even this notion of outside view inside view can be used in an outside manner or in an inside one. Experiment! As Buddha said, one must find out for oneself.

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  • Thanks, Yaya. I agree. Yet also, the therapist is more than simply a witness, she is involved, she becomes part of the life of the client, she is a significant other and her existence makes a difference; yet it does so and does so powerfully, not because she is trying to be a presence, but precisely because she is wholly centred upon the wellbeing of the other, the client. She is empty of personal ambition. This presence of emptiness is something that the client has rarely if ever encountered and it makes a big impact.

    We can say this from the outside, but inside where the therapist is actually operating she is not trying to make any impact at all, she is trying to follow, to understand, to deepen, sometimes to dramatize and make clear, but never to manipulate or bend to her own ends. This is the power of emptiness. It is only possible to the therapist who has really learnt her part, which is to be the dark side of the mirror, who has learnt it by experience, not merely in theory, learnt from repeated exposure to many therapy situations.

    There is always an outside and an inside way of talking about a situation and both are useful in their place. It is not that there is one school of therapists who are outside therapists and another school who are inside therapists; every school has to have an inside view or it doesn't get anywhere and every school can be seen with an outside view and this can be informative, but the two perspectives can also interfere with one another if one becomes muddled about one's proper role.

    Politics, for instance, is mostly about the outside view. In the outside view, I might have a strong opinion about a social issue and as a citizen might even campaign for the law to be changed to ban something; but then I am in my office as a therapist and in walks a client who is deeply involved in the very thing that, qua citizen, I want to ban. This could be a considerable cognitive dissonance or it could be that I fall into trying to convert my client, but as therapist, I should be able to understand why this matters to him, what role it plays in his life, where it is taking him, and what is the human reality behind it. I can remember such a conversation with a South African woman who was incensed that black people had been allowed onto "her white beach", for instance. The role of therapist is quite different from that of social activist and the view is different.

  • very good article David.

    I am enjoying  talking to clients about "windows of tolerance" and some day I will write about it...

    it is always  relevant that clients see us, therapists, not as someone who will  guide them to a "right" path, but instead stay with them, and explore their walking and encounters, with no judgement, only as witness of their development.

  •    Replying to David.        I'm not suggesting the 'inner' as making the crucial difference, but is taken into account knowing that recall of 'historical' events are often coloured and distanced from the truth.  In my view, the 'outer'  requires more collaborative evidential sources of information that can be seen to be nearer to the clients truth and offer a longer lasting resolution.   

  • Nice to have so much discussion.

    Replying to Peter: I am sure that you are right that there are good and bad in both camps, but the interesting question is what it is that makes them so. Your comment "many of my like minded colleagues are able to blend the science with a great deal of the 'inner'" suggests to me that you also see that inner view as making the critical difference, even if a person is formally in the "outer camp".

    Replying to Ian: I think that it is true that the model or example that is the actual manner and life of the therapist is a big element in the process. Something rubs off. Although Rogerian therapists, for instance, are trying hard not to be directive or to influence their clients, nonetheless their clients become more empathic, congruent and positive simply through having spent time with such therapists. The influence is subtle, not didactic.

    Replying to Juline: Yes, nicely put.

  • I got to know the outside view through the study of Medicine.  This approach attracts and finds confidence in evidence, endless measuring, careful labelling, quantifying and explaining the process.  It can be useful but did not show me the brutal, uncomfortable rawness and beauty of how things really are.  At times it provided distraction and prevented completion of important inner learning generously offered by life.  The outside view at worst proclaims it knows what is best for others, is happy to offer suggestions and indirectly insults by not appreciating or acknowledging the other (inside view). 

    The inside view is hidden.  We stumble upon it maybe by grace?  The inside view appeared after I travelled, investigated and realised the limitations of the outer view.  A good therapist is a fellow pilgrim/friend willing to explore and investigate with the client his/her inner landscape. Neither know what they will find. The relationship gives confidence and courage and requires faith and willingness to give the first step.  The student knows the teacher is here now but later will leave.  The process is natural in beginning, middle and end.  There is no goal but sometimes issues are (dis)solved.  What happens is not clear?  There appears to be a change or shift providing an opportunity to pause, reflect, learn and then move on.  

  • Thank you Dharmavidya....a 'teacher' has nothing to teach but their genuineness/wisdom/authenticity in an engaging encounter (with love and compassion)?

  • As a 'Bad' practitioner I know many of my like minded colleagues are able to blend the science with a great deal of the 'inner'.  I know from the literature, conferences, self help groups and much more many patients are pleased to have met their R2D2, and their 'robotic' lives have enabled them to engage with life to the benefit of themselves and others. 'Bad' therapists  exist in both of the camps.   

  • Yes, I agree. Maps and models are not useless, even in the inside view, but when in that view one holds them lightly and does not take them as anything more than what they are. They may give one a sense of the landscape and some things to notice, but they do not provide reliable directions on how to proceed.

  • Thank you teacher.

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