Community connections













Some friends and colleagues of mine held an open house Friday for their new counseling center, a lovely remodeled cottage with room for groups, and a kitchen for cooking, and a garden out back. Diana Elwyn and Barbara Christie and I all met when we worked at Star Lodge Hospital’s eating disorder residential treatment program back in the early 1990s. I’m so pleased to see them manifesting a dream, along with Lauren Mari-Navarro (who I met when she participated in a SoulCollage Facilitator’s training we hosted at Skyote Mountain years ago). I had a wonderful time there, reconnecting with people in the therapist community here that I know and making new connections as well. Best wishes to you Diana, Barbara, Lauren, and Cottage Counseling Center!

The Isolated Therapy Office

Another of my archived columns from the mid-90s. As I reread this, I find myself wondering how much our interconnectedness through the internet has changed things.

The Isolated Therapy Office

by Selene Vega

Santa Cruz CAMFT Newsletter, July/Aug 1995, Therapists for Social Responsibility column

What a strange paradox the work of a psychotherapist is. We sit with an individual or family in a closed room, separate from the rest of their lives, often separate from their relationships, definitely separate from the culture in which their ideas and values have formed. It would be so much more effective to change the environment in which we and our clients live! Unfortunately, though most of us would like to see our culture move towards health, and may be doing our best to help it along in our small ways, we’re not really expecting overnight miracles. In the meantime, we can at least create a safe respite for our clients. From there, we attempt to facilitate a change in the interactions that our clients have with the world outside our office door.

There’s something to be said for the perspective that can be gained from that distance. Perhaps our clients can see a bit more clearly when they are not in the thick of things. In the quiet of this place apart, the relationship we develop with them can move them in ways that seem impossible while they are surrounded by the messages of family and culture. From this safe space, with our support, they can begin to form their own sense of who they are and who they can be.

Of course, the changes that begin in our offices must be sustained in daily life, and this is often the most difficult part of the therapeutic process. We may be working against the cultural current, and our clients may feel as if they are swimming upstream to maintain their progress. Support groups can be a partial remedy for this, particularly if they meet frequently. For example, 12-step groups can provide a community that counteracts the media messages and reinforces the changing values and behaviors of a newly recovering addict. At least their members have a subculture to model and encourage new ways of being that may feel out of step with the rest of the culture.

The cultural messages that our clients incorporate into their own thinking may attack even the concept of therapy. The idea of seeing a therapist may make a client uncomfortable when they are told there is something wrong with them if they can’t “work out their problems” on their own. Those who value therapy as a means of growing further, or finding deeper satisfaction in their lives, or other non-pathological reasons, are a much smaller percentage of the population than we may want to believe. Santa Cruz and the Bay area have a larger than usual sub-culture that honors psychotherapy as part of fulfilling human potential and increasing our effectiveness in the world. Traveling around this month in other parts of the country has reminded me that this is not true everywhere.

I’ve been reading James Hillman and Michael Ventura’s We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse. Hillman and Ventura are concerned about the navel-gazing focus of therapy. They raise many questions about how therapy may be working at cross purposes to social change by keeping people engaged in their individual process without a sense of how that might connect to the rest of the world. That separation and distance that I mentioned at the beginning of this article is one of the aspects of therapy that they see as a problem. How can we help people to be more active in their world by taking them out of it?

I wish I had answers to the questions Hillman and Ventura raise, but even they don’t have answers. They have at least brought to light some issues that are worth pondering, and this is a first step (much as we often tell our clients that their awareness of what they need to change in themselves is the first step towards actually changing it). If we all begin to think about the paradox of therapy taking place so isolated from the cultural context in which our clients’ problems are born, perhaps we can find ways to bridge that isolation. Bringing our own awareness of the world into the work we do can be our first step.



I’ve been posting these columns from years ago to get this blog going, and to archive these somewhere – but rereading them, I am struck by how simple they seem, almost naive. Has 16 years really changed my thinking? Not so much changed, as left me feeling a pressure towards sophistication. This piece seems like yearning for more simple times – while we are moving further into complexity.


by Selene Vega

Santa Cruz CAMFT Newsletter, Sept./Oct. 1994, Therapists for Social Responsibility column

It seems like whatever topic we start out discussing in Therapists for Social Responsibility we end up talking about community. So many of us struggle to find or create a sense of community for ourselves, and as therapists we are often aware of what a difference community can make for our clients.

By “community” I don’t just mean the town that we live in, though the physical location where we spend our days can be a beginning. That home base is important – perhaps more important than we give it credit for. At this past meeting, each of us talked about our home and how we relate to it. From a physical description of the place that we live, we each moved into our feelings about that place – the healing and grounding of a garden, the freedom and creativity of a table in the house where projects can be spread out and ready to work on whenever the mood strikes, the frustration of streetlights that shine at us all night

As we went around the room, I noticed that part of the description always seemed to involve people – struggles with a roommate, neighbors that we feel a bond or a conflict with, a sense of how our space feels to those who visit us. We may have a relationship with our “place”, but our place is also a home to our relationships with people. Our sense of community starts here, from our homes. In other times and other places where there is less travel and transience, community expands from the home to the town, or at least the neighborhood. Our ancestors grew up surrounded by people they knew, with a sense of community based on history and familiarity and trust

Community today is not such a given. Often our community develops from co-workers, people we work together with on projects, friends we’ve grown relationships with from classes, or groups, or organizations we belong to. Sometimes our community feels scattered, as we may live too far to drop in for tea or to borrow a cup of flour. When we’re sick or lonely, we can feel isolated in a neighborhood of strangers

Though we started this past meeting with descriptions of our homes, we moved from that very personal vision into the overwhelmingly large issue of the failed crime bill. We tossed ideas and opinions back and forth, airing frustrations, disappointments, outrage, etc. with the attempts of our government to keep us safe from violence. But when we asked ourselves what truly COULD protect us from violence, it was not about government legislation. We found ourselves talking once again about community. If we lived in communities where we knew our neighbors and all watched out for each other, we could be safer. If children were raised in communities that felt secure, where there were more adults than just the parents who might be available to talk to, where the whole neighborhood felt like home, then perhaps gangs would feel less need to create their territories

Malidoma Patrice Somé , author of Ritual: Power, Healing and Community speaks of his village in West Africa where the children are welcome to eat in any house of the village for dinner. They just follow their noses to the culinary smells that appeal to them and show up at the door. He describes a world very different from ours, and one that we can’t really recreate here. But we can begin to think about what community means to us and how we might create it for ourselves, our families, our clients.

The Spiritual Realms of Therapy

Another post from the past:

The Spiritual Realms of Therapy

Santa Cruz CAMFT Newsletter, Nov/Dec 1995, Therapists for Social Responsibility column

The path that led me into my work as a psychotherapist from the movement and dance teaching I had focused on for many years took me through a period of teaching movement awareness and yoga in an addictions treatment program. Residents there would often tell me that the experiential work we did gave them a glimpse of what the treatment program staff and counselors meant when they talked about spirituality and meditation. My prejudices about the world of psychology included the idea that there was no room for spirituality in that mode of facilitating people’s growth, but here was an orientation (the addictions model) that included, in fact emphasized, spirituality as part of the process.

I had studied transpersonal psychology, but it seemed somehow removed from the lives of most people in this culture. I wanted to be able to include spirituality in my work with people who didn’t already know about Carl Jung or the many thinkers and writers who have built a theoretical base for the synthesis of psychology and spirit. Recognizing the acknowledgment of spirituality as an essential ingredient in recovery in the growing field of addictions treatment inspired me to take the plunge into the world of clinical psychology.

Once I entered this realm, I found that there is plenty of room for those of us who have trouble finding the line between psychology and spirituality. Perhaps this is a reflection on the company I keep, but many of the therapists I know seem to agree with me that the quest for psychological health overlaps the spiritual journey towards consciousness. Whether or not we include direct verbal acknowledgment in sessions of the spiritual aspects of the work we’re doing depends on the client and on our orientation, but we can honor that awareness in ourselves and share it with each other.

Even in cases where the word “spirituality” is unlikely to pass through my client’s lips, and it is clear that this is not a topic they feel drawn to discuss, this doesn’t mean that my own spiritual growth gets left outside the therapy room door. My own spiritual work continues in my interactions with that client and my commitment to bring consciousness to my own process with them as far as I am able. In fact, this is where even the Board of Behavioral Science Examiners might see the wisdom of what I’m saying. This very consciousness that I consider part of my spiritual path is what helps keep me out of ethical binds with clients. When my own issues enter into the relationship, my commitment to maintaining awareness enables me to recognize and deal with it quickly.

Coming at this from the other side, I think about how my understanding of psychological issues informs my perspective of who I am in the world and my vision of the bigger picture that frames my personal life. As I learn about myself and the political, social and environmental context within which my personal story unfolds, my vision of that bigger picture becomes clearer. Seeing the many variations of context that exist in the world (as well as the commonalities between them) continues to broaden my understanding.

For me, this is an ongoing process of expanding my knowledge and wisdom, a continuing exploration of myself and the the amazing world we live in. The larger my perspective, the more I am able to avoid getting lost in the details and experience the wondrousness of it all. I may not have all the answers, but I am certainly excited and inspired by the questions, and that’s what keeps me walking on this path. That I happen to use the word “spiritual” to describe it may only be a matter of semantics. I recognize many fellow travelers along this road who don’t use that word – but we’re walking together nonetheless.

Therapeutic Selves (ponderings from the past)

As I pondered the best approach to archive some of my past writing here I realized that some of the columns I wrote in the mid-90s for the Santa Cruz CAMFT (California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists) Newsletter might be worth revisiting as a starting point for this blog. That was back before blogs, but those columns were the sort of pondering I would like to be presenting here. I began writing them as a way to share with our local therapists some of the discussions and thinking that emerged from a small group of us who met monthly to explore how our work as therapists and the issues in the world outside the therapy office overlapped and intertwined. I present a few of them here as a starting point for my ponderings in this blog.

Therapeutic Selves

by Selene Vega

Santa Cruz CAMFT Newsletter, Nov/Dec 1994, Therapists for Social Responsibility column

One of the members of our Therapists for Social Responsibility group was visiting South America studying shamanism this summer, and this took our discussion into the realms of different healing practices in other cultures. We explored some difficult issues, such as what makes a shaman from another culture worthy of respect in his/her own culture and how might that differ from our own evaluations of a shaman, coming as we do from an entirely different culture with our own perspectives.

Listening to this member’s descriptions of what impressed her, what stood out for me was that she looked for some of the same qualities that we attribute to good therapists here, no matter what their theoretical orientation. Particularly, she noticed accurate empathy – the shamans that impressed her got who she is, what her issues are, sometimes without her even saying anything. They were able to come up with interventions that seemed to her entirely appropriate given the specific issues of the individual, rather than applying standardized tasks. She seemed to have the most respect for those shamans that modeled healthy, functional relationships with their families and the world around them.

I pondered this after that meeting, and came to the next gathering with a question that many of us find ourselves asking as we practice this somewhat strange profession: What is therapy? What is it that we do that makes a difference for our clients? How is what we do different than or the same as the healing work that is done in other cultures?

Those two factors that engender our respect for the shaman and give him/her the ability to have impact on those who come for help (at least the Westerners) may take a different form than when we see it in a therapist here, but it may be the context that is different, not the attributes of the healer. The first is complete presence and attention to the client and accurate empathy with their current state (as well as permission to be in that state, feel those feelings, etc.). For clients who have never experienced that, never had anyone just hear them, this can be transformative. It can set a basic foundation of trust that allows for our further interventions to have an effect – and it can, all by itself, be the beginning of a shift in the self-perception of the client.

The second factor is the modeling that can be seen as a meta-communication that underlies whatever techniques or approaches we use. We talk about the therapist’s use of self, but what I’m referring to goes beyond anything we say about ourselves. We reveal ourselves as human beings by our presence – it has less to do with self-disclosure than with the inevitability of our exposure, just by virtue of being with and interacting with our clients.

The boundaries that we place around our relationships with clients are perhaps essential in the culture we live in. Unlike the shaman in a small tribal group, we lack the cultural agreements that provide the distance, respect, and containment the shaman’s community takes as unspoken givens. Something essential is lost, though, in our isolation. Those who work in settings where their contact with clients is broader than weekly one-hour sessions may have more of a sense of the therapeutic possibilities involved. In a halfway house, a residential addictions treatment program, a school setting – anywhere that a therapist has client contact beyond the “official” individual or group sessions – the therapist can be a model through all of the interactions that a client observes or participates in.

Our skills at intervention are certainly essential to our work, but it’s worth pondering the importance of those aspects of our being that we bring to our interactions as therapists (and in the world outside the therapy room, as well) and realize the impact that these have on the people we have contact with. The society we live in may not provide automatic respect for those of us in the mental health professions, but we can generate that respect by working to bring consciousness to all of our interactions and by continuing to work on ourselves.