I could have called this ZT Skills, but I don’t like the idea of reducing therapy to a set of skills, as though you could build it up like a set of lego bricks. Rather it is an art. To play music you might need certain abilities with a keyboard or set of strings, but good music is not primarily technical in that way. It requires a feel for the whole, an acumen that is difficult to teach and cannot be broken down into component parts. Nonetheless, we can list some things that a good therapist using a ZT approach will do.

1. Notice what comes first
This is a principle of wide application that fits into several others that I shall mention. Thus, notice the very first thing the client says. If you are busy making the client feel comfortable or dealing with preliminary administrative matters you may miss it. Often clients give away a key to the whole matter in their first utterance. The personal koan seems to press forward and take precedence.
2. Note rupas
As the client tells his story, there is likely to be embedded a parade of rupas. Notice them all, but particularly, again, notice what comes first. If the client starts by saying, “I have three daughters and I’m having a lot of problems with the youngest, Emily…” then some time will now likely be spent talking about Emily, but when that ebbs, the therapist will say, “You said you had three daughters…” Even if the client dismisses this with “Yes, but the others are no trouble,” the therapist can persist a little, “That’s nice, tell me about them, what are their names?” “Charlotte and Jane.” “So tell me about Charlotte.” again picking the first. We’ll come back to Jane later.
3. Notice when the rupa has power
Sometimes it seems as if Emily is actually present in the room standing before the client. You can tell this from the client’s eye movements and general animation and orientation. The client, talking of the rupa, is in a samjna trance. During these periods the client will experience all the thoughts and feelings he has in relation to the real Emily. However, he is not yet seeing Emily as she actually is, only seeing the rupa, not yet the dharma.
4. Keep the rupa vibrant
The therapist uses a range of prompts to keep the rupa alive and vivid before the client. This means observing the client’s state minutely on a moment by moment basis to see how deeply in the samjna he is. Also, it means gathering the vedana triggers that take the client deeper. There will be messages from the rupa-other that especially trigger the client.
5. Pulses and tracking
A client will typically talk animatedly about some matter for a period of time and then the energy goes out of it. That pulse seems now to be over. The therapist remembers how it began and what triggered it. She now goes back to that beginning: “And just before you started talking about this, you mentioned such and such.” Keeping track of how each pulse begins gives one a sense of how it all fits together and what deeper motivation is driving the presentation of stories.
6. Notice samskara
The client tells himself stories. Many of these are stories about the rupa-other. Out of these the client also weaves a self-image and general mentality (vijnana), a distortion in how he sees the world, designed to protect himself from further hurt or rejection. Samskara is the making of these stories. The therapist needs to have a sympathetic feeling for these stories, understanding the motivation behind them, without taking them as factual.
7. Notice attention
The mind is always cognising something, but usually there are a range of options available. Which does the client pick. What does he pick up upon? What does he not notice or avoid?
8. Notice association and abrupt shifts
One of the ways that the mind is conditioned is by association. The client moves from subject to subject according to his associations. The therapist notices these patterns. She also notices when the client seems to suddenly drop one subject and take up another that is seemingly unrelated. She poinders what does this mean.
9. Observe and listen
The Buddha statue has big ears. He does not just hear the superficial. Much of the above boils down to monitoring and attuning very carefully and minutely to what is happening in the client as it is happening. The general Buddhist sense is that energies pass through the client, generally triggered by exposure to some rupa stimulus. What is going on now? What “visitors” have taken over the mind of the client?
10. Be kindly while wondering
Ask yourself, “Why is the client telling me this now?” Why me? Why this? Why now? A communicated message is never just information, and rarely even primarily information. It is an attempt to get a particular anticipated kind of response. Why does he want such a response from me particularly? The fact that he is telling me this particular thing gives some clue to what response he is looking for. There has to be some reason why he needs this response at this time. How does it fit into the trajectory of our relationship so far?
11. Trajectory
It is important to observe and listen acutely in the here and now, but nothing in the here and now makes sense except as part of a longer trajectory, the trajectory of the current conversation, the trajectory of the therapist-client relationship, the tranjectory of the client’s life. What is the client on this planet for?
12. What is true?
As a rule of thumb, whatever the client tells you is doubtful. If the client were certain he would not be talking about it. Some therapy theory says that you should always stay within the client’s frame of reference, but from a ZT perspective, it is the clients FOR that is the problem. Sometimes a client says things and the therapist can tell from the client’s manner that these are stereotyped or second hand. She might ask, “Whose idea is that?” or even, “Is that true?” The client may be a little surprised, having expected the therapist to agree with what had been said. In fact, the client may only have served it up to please the therapist and get a nod of approval.
13. Notice when the client wakes up
Much of the time in ordinary conversation we glide along saying things that are well rehearsed and that no longer have the freshness of life about them. When the client speaks some hackneyed adage and the therapist says, “Is that true?” the client is suddenly challenged. Familiar ground has disappeared. suddenly he is alone for a moment, no longer moving in the soup of familiarity. Therapy should be a time when a client has an experience of being awake and alive and that means also alone, face to face with an other - the therapist.
14. Notice when dharma appears
When we explore the true nature of a rupa it loses its power. When a person who has been doubting if his father loved him and has been painfully obsessed with that thought arrives at clear conviction that his father did not love him, that the father had reasons for not loving him and that was the truth, the client is released just as much as when he discovers that the father really did love him. He can adjust to the reality and get on with life. Behind every rupa is dharma, truth. Therapy is about finding and living in the truth. Thus is a matter of waking up. The therapist cuts through the mist of familiar routine phrases and challenges the client to find the dharma behind the rupa.

This list is not comprehensive and some of the most important things that a therapist does go beyond these abilities. However, one wiull not get far without this foundation. I'll be happy to receive comments and suggestions. What else might one add to this list? What difficulties does it present? What is unclear?

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  • I agree Peter.  I would like that too.

    Peter Henderson said:

    I think this article would be ideal to explore at our get togethers.  

  • I think this article would be ideal to explore at our get togethers.  

  • Thank you Dharmavidya.

    It is not easy to make a summary of a this kind. As you have said this form of therapy is like playing an instrument , dancing or writing a poem, I mean it is a sort of art. Despite of this I think it is wisely described and I find it very clear.

    Really as you are pointing out and also Mat is suggesting, I think that the more the therapist includes his or her "self" in his interventions, the further the encounter is real. I think that the therapist becomes such when he or she surrenders, otherwise one can become an obstacle for healing. If the therapist has enough faith and does not think of an achievement, I think the conditions may be more favorable.
    That is why I found Dharmavidya´s comment very interesting, the one about putting the focus more on ourselves as therapists, on our difficulties, needs, feelings and not so much on how to achieve a successful result. .

    I am the first one looking for maps and ways to try to guide an encounter, I very often feel some sort of compulsive need of acquiring more and more knowledge to achieve an end that I consider "successful"..., but I usually forget the important thing, so in my particular case, at least, what I need most is to nurture my faith, relieve my fear, so as not becoming an obstacle in healing.

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