Thursday, July 12, 2012

Keeping my own counsel

There are a few excuses for staying away from this blog. None of them is convincing. Perhaps I should open with this one: after nine years of anonymous struggle, I now have a contract with one of the biggest publishing houses in India. Ergo, my novel titled Behind the silicon mask will be released sometime soon. Not later than Jan 2013, I hope. It's a thriller linked to the Indian IT industry, set in a city in the American Midwest. It has been written with the mass audience in mind and should do quite well. So much for that one.
The other big excuse is that I am now studying to be a counselor. Over the past few months, people have been approaching me for counseling and, although they generously declared that I was being helpful, it occurred to me that my potential ineptitude might be affecting them. So I decided to go about it the right way. Learn the theoretical ropes and thereby be certain about the process and effectiveness of my counseling. And now I'm officially a student of this complex craft (I'm told nobody ever becomes its master).
At this juncture, I have learnt a few commandments applicable in the field. And they are so interesting that I feel compelled to share them with you right away. Here they are:

1) Thou shalt not solicit
A mantra that, ironically enough, applies equally to sex workers in Singapore!! Ply your trade but do not solicit clients. In other words, a counselor must never counsel unless a counselee asks for counseling. Assuming that a person needs assistance is out of the question. So don't try to fix your family member, neighbor or that cute dog-walker from across the street. They are all fine. Perhaps your tendency to spot problems in them points to your own problems.

2) Thou shalt listen
D-uh, right? Of course, a counselor must listen. But how? Answer: attentively, non-judgmentally, expertly and empathetically. This requires the counselor to sideline all the nonsense he has received and all the nonsense he doles out. He must ignore all the values he believes in and all the "truths" he stands by. In comparison, it's easier to start a religion.

3) Thou shalt not solve
A human being is not a Rubik's cube or the possibility of a unified theory of physics. He isn't an equation that must be cracked or a code that must be deciphered. He exists in his own cocoon of perfection. Even if he does ask for advice, the counselor must suppress his own know-it-all gene and, if required, suggest actions that the counselee may or may not accept. Everybody is born with an innate ability to solve his own problems. The counselor must either be a catalyst in this process or nothing at all.
3a) Thou shalt not understand
This commandment is especially confounding for most of us. Having accepted that another human being cannot be "solved," let's take one step further into the darkness and accept that we have zero ability to understand anybody else. Oh, sacrilege! People married for half a century might turn around and quip: 'But I understand my spouse perfectly!' Really? Then why did he or she behave in a manner inexplicable to you last Tuesday? Claiming to "understand" another person is akin to claiming to understand the nature of the universe. People are the way they are because of the lives they led. At best, you stayed by their side for a decent spell. Even twins baffle each other by their behavior. So the counselor must, at all times, desist from using the phrase: 'I understand.' The counselor cannot wholly, fully, completely, comprehensively understand. Yes, he does his best to understand the counselee. He perhaps even succeeds to a great extent, but end of the day, all he can really do is help the counselee understand himself.

4) Thou shalt be self-aware
I pondered long and hard whether to put this commandment at the top or the bottom of the list. The bottom won. In many ways, this is the cardinal commandment. You cannot counsel unless you have a certain grasp of yourself. You must make attempts to know your demons, your dark alleys, your neural mazes. Again, you need not "solve" yourself. You just need to bring self-awareness into the complex process of counseling. Once you know your own truth-filters, you will listen attentively and non-judgmentally. Once you realize your own imperfections, you will neither solicit counselees nor try to solve them. Once you accept that you cannot wholly understand yourself, you will not feel the dire need to understand others. Instead, you will treat yourself and others as works in progress. And you will be able to offer your humaneness to the person seated on the other side of the table. In most cases, that will suffice.

That's all I've learnt so far. Many more lessons are in the offing. And I just might be tempted to publish them in this blog as I sputter along this chosen path.Meanwhile, gnothi seauton. That's apparently Latin for Know Thyself.