In therapy, after a short meditation, I often begin with the question “What’s alive for you right now?”
Even though this is a seemingly unusual choice of words, I’ve never had a client not know what I meant. There is actually a lot of direction condensed into this question. For the sake of anyone interested in therapy, unpacking the “why” behind it reveals a lot about how good therapy works.
When we are asked about our aliveness, it brings us first and foremost to the “here” and “now.” Many people underestimate just how crucial being in the moment is in regards to making a change that sticks in therapy. From a neuroscience point of view, to be in the present moment, feeling the body, noticing emotional signals and sensations rather than our story about them, activates our lower brain regions via our sense and motor functions. This is known as a bottom-up approach to processing.
As a contrast, if therapy keeps us talking about the past or the future, we rely heavily on our prefrontal cortex, the thinnest outer surface of our brain, and not much else. This is known as a top-down approach to processing. You might have experienced this as a sense of “being in your head” versus “embodying” an insight.
So, to engage in “mental health” and not just talk, the therapist and client should be working together to activate as much of the client’s brain as possible using the bottom-up approach. If your counselor employs mindfulness, brings attention to the body and talks about the here and now, then your therapist is employing a crucial strategy to enable you to access more of yourself, thereby increasing your potential for change by manyfold.
Finding aliveness in a therapy session very quickly points clients toward their true desires. Things that are alive have movement, energy, and life. They are the opposite of dead, stagnant and lifeless. Many people spend a lot of time closer to lifelessness than they might like to admit. It has increasingly become the norm to move very little, to feel very little, and to engage with stories on screens rather than feeling blood move from our actual lives.
Many have given up on the idea that their jobs, relationships, or lives, in general, are capable of generating passion, movements in the body, and/or an unquestionable sense of “YES!” Once they find what’s truly alive, it can be a blessing to those ready to do some work and a curse to those that want everything fixed quickly. Knowing what your heart truly desires leaves you seeing exactly where you want to go, while at the same time staring at all the obstacles in the way of getting there. I would argue that having a map of where you really want to go is a good thing, and a good therapist is like having a well-trained field guide along for the journey.
When I follow aliveness in therapy, I am looking for what makes someone wake up when they talk about it. It’s usually the thing that gets their body moving in some noticeable way (i.e. shift in position, a big sigh, a notable expression). Furthermore, as a therapist, my own body offers clues about what’s making a client feel alive. Certain things make me feel stirred when I hear them, and more often than not, a small signal within me leads me toward a valuable direction in the client. As I follow these clues in myself and others, I’m looking for bigger reactions, changes in the voice, micro movements in the body, until finally, we find where the source of that aliveness is. It could be a wide range of things, perhaps it’s a potent experience you once had, perhaps it’s a dream you’ve always had for yourself, a limiting belief, or a relationship dynamic… whatever it is, following aliveness always leads to what you actually need to look at (rather than what you might have thought you needed to). This may sound a bit mystical or magical - and sometimes it does feel that way - but it actually just entails tapping into underused abilities within our highly evolved social brains.
An example of this came up recently with a client that came to me in seeking help with depression. He was having a lot of trouble describing to me what “depressed” actually felt like. Following aliveness, I paused him and asked about the sensations going on for him in the midst of his attempts to describe it. With a little help, he eventually reported that he felt numb, low energy, and achy. Then suddenly he sighed and made this fast movement where he put his arms up on the top of the couch. So I asked, “I’m curious about that big movement you made, what just happened there?” Turns out he was thinking back to college. While in college he was pursuing his dream career, and he was really happy even though he struggled. That led us toward contrasting the life he’s living now, the career that he goes to each day that has little interest to him. For weeks following, that same exact sigh coupled with hands to the top of the couch movement was repeated almost every session, and every time it was a clue that there was something cooking in him. It got to the point where it was actually a joke we could laugh at together and with a look he would reveal the thing that produced the movement. In the end, following this led to him pursuing the other career, more awareness and embodiment in his life in other ways, and an absence of the depression.
Good therapists have the inherent goal of eventually putting themselves out of business by helping you reach the point that you no longer need their help. I believe a secret to living a life we love is to let aliveness steer our compass. If we are regularly following aliveness, we feel passionate, we feel energy in our lives, and we can know with certainty that we are steering toward the fullest life possible. Whether you ever come see me, I recommend connecting to your breath right now and simply asking yourself the question, “What is alive for me right now?”