The Fundamentals of Co-Counseling

Report to the World Conference, July 19, 1979

Harvey Jackins

I want to try to recapitulate the fundamentals of Co-Counseling, and, if I am not understandable, please interrupt me at the end of a paragraph and I will repeat what I have just said.

Human beings probably evolved the capacity to think intelligently in a series of steps. To combine the incoming information from the environment with the information on file from past experiences and put together completely new responses and new understandings of current situations is quite a different function from, and beyond the capacity of, pre-human life. Most other life, at best, has been able to select from its stock of rigid responses one that would fit the situation well enough for the living creature to survive. These rigid responses are originally inherited, but, for other mammals and some other forms of animal life, are also acquired by a process very similar to the process which imposes a distress pattern upon us. That is, pre-human life could "learn," not in the way we use the word "learn," but in the sense of changing its behavior by modifying a previous rigid response into a new rigid response. Human beings somehow acquired the ability to create continually new, flexible responses. The details of how we evolved this, how much it is a function of the growth of our forebrains and the enormous complexity of our nervous systems, will be elucidated in the future but are not even close to being understood now.

People who currently write books saying that they understand the structure of this detailed functioning are simply indulging in pretense. At this stage, human knowledge permits us to examine the process as it functions and describe it but not as yet to explain it in any structural way.

As this ability to continually create new, successful responses to the environment evolved, it was encumbered from the first with the distress-pattern phenomenon. This mechanism, in a horse or a dog, has a sort of pro-survival value - a new rigid pattern acquired from a bad experience may work better for a horse or a dog than the inherited rigid pattern it replaces - but for a human being the distress pattern phenomenon degrades human functioning decisively, qualitatively, and allows the terrible results of distress patterns which we observe among human beings to occur. We humans don't just acquire a different kind of behavior on the same level as a result of the imposition of distress patterns. Our behavior is not only moved an evolutionary step backwards to where we become again some kind of rigid automaton, but part of our great ability and our power can be enslaved by the distress pattern. Human beings can be turned into functional monsters, terribly destructive, as you can read in the headlines of almost every day's paper, as a result of this phenomenon.

We can be, and are, degraded substantially by the distress. This wonderful characteristic, the flexible ability to think, this god-like ability to understand and care for the universe in continually increasing spheres of complexity, evolved encrusted with the distress-pattern ballast, handicapped by distress patterns, from the very beginning.


In ways that are not yet explained but which we observe, we also developed the abilities to remove the distress patterns under certain particular conditions.

Some of the dependable indications of this recovery process (which we call "discharge") are borrowed from simpler functioning: the trembling, which is dependably characteristic of the release of fear, the freeing of ourselves from fear, is, with simpler forms of life and also with ourselves, a means of keeping warm in cold weather. Trembling, the vibration of our muscles, is a means of releasing heat to preserve body temperature. Somehow we attached to it a process for releasing this particular kind of tension which we call fear or terror.

Undoubtedly tears were originally a way of washing insects and dirt out of our eyes, but tears have become a dependable indication of the release of the profound distress which we call grief. And so with other releases or discharges.

To recapitulate: we emerged in the evolutionary process with this tremendous gift of human intelligence and a nature which corresponds to it - a benign, loving, cooperative, caring, appreciative nature, carrying with it another characteristic that is even on a higher level than intelligence, the characteristic of awareness, which is so close to the limits of our functioning that we find it very hard to define, although we know when it's present and when it isn't. This tremendous ability arose encrusted from the moment of its emergence, with distress patterns. The nature of these patterns has been largely concealed from the view of humans about themselves and about each other. Our humanness also came accompanied by inherent, spontaneously acting processes for recovery from the effects of the distress patterns and the regaining of our full humanness.


Now this inherent ability to recover from distress, to resurge again into the heights of aware, intelligent, benign humanness, also became inhibited, apparently from the very beginning, so that most of the abilities of humans have been seen only in flashes. We see such a glimpse in the master juggler, who can keep ten plates and five balls in the air while twirling three sticks. We glimpse in this one individual the human's ability to coordinate things, to keep track of a lot of things at once. In the work of a Mozart (and of many other composers) we glimpse the ability of all humans to understand, master and create the beautiful mathematics of sound, of music. We glimpse in a Shakespeare the fully flowering ability of humans to use words. In an Einstein we see a human ability to see to the heart of the relationships in the universe.

Such flashes, we have every reason to think, are simply glimpses of the capacities which exist in every human being, and, particularly, which exist in all of us. They indicate that for an Eskimo hunter to become a great concert pianist, it would only require that he or she have the opportunity to be exposed to and become interested in the piano and piano lore, and for a Vladimir Horowitz to become an expert in a skin kayak and as a hunter of seal and whale it would only require that a Horowitz have the environment, the opportunity, and acquire the interest. We have much reason to think that every human being has enormous capacities in every direction and that the loftiest attainments of humans that we have any record of are only glimpses of what are possible for each of us.


We can understand how the recovery process which would have allowed, is allowing, and will in the future totally allow us to recover all of our abilities, all our humanness, became inhibited and was kept from functioning We observe among ourselves, an addictive pull to suffer a restimulated distress pattern, not in our original role, but in ways which pass on the damage to other people. We observe, even when we know better, a pull, when a distress pattern of having been invalidated is restimulated, to endure it in a kind of pseudo-comfort by invalidating someone else, instead of feeling the misery the way we did in the past. We observe the adult who was beaten as a small child, restimulated in the presence of his or her own small children, yielding to the addictive lure to beat the children and feel numb or "righteous" instead of enduring the feelings of distress and acting rational.

We observe this everywhere. This alone is enough to explain a major part of the inhibition of the recovery process that has taken place in all human existence that we have any history of or conjectures about.


It's also plain, much plainer now than it was even two years ago, that the invention of human societies led to systematic imposition of distress, and systematic inhibition of the recovery process. Oppressive societies have interfered with the opportunity of each new generation of human beings to make a fresh start. Any younger generation tends to escape from the weight of the past, but this has been interfered with by each oppressive society's mechanisms for conditioning each new generation to conform to the social roles of either accepting oppression or of acting as oppressors to others.

(Voice. Please repeat that last part.)

Sure. I'll elaborate. The invention of society, the yoking of ourselves together into rigid relationships in order to master the environment, offered many gains for human survival. For a society to arise on the Nile, for example, meant that many more children lived to maturity among the people who accepted the slave society than had in the preceeding generations that were free hunters, fishers and food gatherers. The establishment of slavery meant that some people had leisure to plan, to develop a calendar, and to forecast when the Nile would flood. It meant that the Pharaoh could order slave labor to build granaries that would store up surplus grains for famine years. In this and in many other ways organizing into an oppressive society enhanced the growth of large populations.

Apparently, we humans accepted the oppressive societies as a way of mastering an environment that must have seemed very threatening to all humans at that stage of development. Once fears were installed by an attack by a lion, it did not take a lion to frighten one again, it only took a strange sound in the bushes to bring the fears back. It must have seemed advantageous in some ways to enter into and submit to the society. Of course the people who were enslaved were not given much choice anyway; but to the people who had leisure to think about it, to the priests and the Pharaohs, it must have seemed very rational to persist in building such rigid structures.

As we begin to examine our own lives we can clearly see that the process of imposition of oppression means that each new generation is systematically loaded up with distress patterns in order to prepare them to conform and cooperate in the roles assigned to them by the society. So the recovery process, the inherent ability of every human being to undo the distress pattern effect, and emerge again into flexible, aware, intelligent functioning, became obscured and was systematically repressed in all societies.

There are some differences in different cultures. In one culture, tears will be encouraged in some situations, while laughter is always suppressed. In other cultures laughter is encouraged in some conditions, but tears are immediately blotted and repressed with eager handkerchiefs or tissues. Overall, every oppressive society has developed a culture which includes heavy patterns of repressing discharge.


It is only in the current period that overall mastery of the environment has reached the point that a group of people had enough slack that, when an accidental revelation of the profound effects of the discharge process occurred, this group of people were able to persist in exploring it and, step by step, revealing the occluded nature of reality in this area.

Re-evaluation Counseling theory and practice can be looked at from many viewpoints. One profitable viewpoint is to see it as a process of uncovering the reality of our relationships, our natures, and our environment from underneath the occluding pseudo-reality or false reality with which it has been obscured.

The first glimpse of this reality we had was a small one. I, as well as everyone else I knew, was thoroughly convinced of the pseudo-reality that "if persons are crying they should be helped to stop crying in order to help them." I followed this pseudo-reality with my first client over and over again, but somehow this first client was in such a condition that he persisted in crying again no matter how many times I stopped him. At last I resigned myself to letting him cry, and got the first glimpse of the actual reality. As a result of what happened to him, from under the pseudo-reality that "people must be stopped from crying in order to help them" came the glimpse of the reality that "if persons are crying they should be allowed to cry," that that is much more helpful.

That is all that we had for a time. It was many months before we could see that it's even better to assist persons to persist in crying, to return their attention back to the subject so the tears can start again, instead of heaving a sigh of relief as soon as they stop, and leaving, which was our practice for a while. We had a wider glimpse of reality when we saw the possibility of persisting, that the discharge, the recovery could be enhanced, could be persisted in.

It was a longer time before we questioned the pseudo-reality that "people are different from each other in funny, peculiar ways," that "we have to be tolerant of each other's little idiosyncracies in order to get along." It was about five years before the actual reality began to appear (from our intense practice of what we already knew) that people are not different from each other in funny, peculiar ways. People are different from each other in creative ways, in interesting, positive ways, but what we had taken as their funny, peculiar differences were revealed as chronic patterns. This is a revelation that we have still not fully dealt with. We still, unawarely, even among Co-Counselors, tend to treat each other as if our chronic patterns were "funny, peculiar differences" to be respected. Don't we?

So, step by step, the theory of Re-evaluation Counseling has emerged as a re-discovery, a revealing of the actual reality from underneath the pseudo-reality with which it had been obscured by oppression, by continual mis-education, by the random effects of individual distress patterns, and by lack of information.


[Someone has suggested to me, and I think correctly, that when I talk about reality I should carefully say our notions about reality are, of course, assumptions. This is true. No one is in direct contact with reality. All we can hope to do is build a mental model of reality that will approximate it closely enough to serve our purposes. When we're being very careful, we must say these things. In practice, we generally understand this; but it is true that we assume that there is a reality, that there is a real universe. We assume that it would exist even without our perception of it. We assume (and we can pretty well show in practice) that, if we make an effort, our various perceptions of it can be brought into agreement, up to the difference in viewpoint, sufficiently well that we can cooperate as if we had an agreed-upon picture of reality. We assume we can construct a mental model for each of us and for all of us and that we can reach agreements that are in closer and closer approximation to the reality, and do this well enough to serve our purposes at any particular time. In general conversations this will not be important, but I agree that it should be said somewhere along the line because we will come in contact with and deal with other philosophies (which some people hold very dear) that have different starting points and assumptions We're not to say that they must not have their assumptions, but we should say exactly what assumptions we make.]


For whatever reasons, the recovery process, the discharge and re-evaluation process, operates spontaneously whenever one person tries to think about her or his distress in the presence of another person who is willing to think about the first person's distress also. In one sense the essence of the Co-Counseling relationship is two people thinking about one person's distress. It will sometimes appear to take other forms. It will sometimes appear as if two people are thinking about the positive aspects of the universe while one of them is discharging, but this simply means that both of them are thinking in an effective way about the one person's distress, which is to pull attention away from it enough to achieve a balance of attention. Such an appearance does not contradict the definition I just offered.

This thinking about one person by two people (or by more than two people) is divided conveniently into the roles of the client - the person whose distress is being tackled in whatever way - and the person (whose distress has no business being a factor in the relationship at all) whom we call the counselor or the counselors. In its optimum functioning, two or more people are together thinking about one of those people in terms of releasing them from their distress, and all the other people's distress is out of sight, is not allowed to intrude. This is the optimum situation for the recovery process.

As we all know, no two Co-Counselors have ever begun with an optimum condition. A great deal of the counseling that has taken place has included the counselor's distress being a factor in the situation in some way or other. The great genius and the great motivation of the client and sometimes the earnest determination of the counselor has, however, often sufficed to overwhelm that hindering factor and the Co-Counseling has worked anyway.


"The counselor thinking about the client" has very much the same meaning, we have learned, as "the counselor loving the client." We have come to realize that a rational meaning of "loving another person" is very close to the meaning of "thinking about another person," that you cannot have either one of them without the other in a rational sense. We can certainly see that if one would really love another person rationally (we're not talking about "patterned" sentiment), it would include thinking about that person. If one were aware that this person has distresses that they're struggling to be free from, loving the person would certainly include thinking about their distresses in a way to help the person become free of them. Certainly all of us here at this Conference who have ever had one good session as counselor know that if you really think about another person, you cannot help but love that person. Certainly if you're thinking about the person while the person is discharging, the discharging reveals the real person in the midst of the discharge and you fall deeply in love with him or her forever. If there is anyone here who has not had that experience yet, you will.

So, thinking and caring, thinking and loving, seem clearly to be two aspects of the same process and both must be present in the counselor's attitude toward the client.

A distortion of our understanding of the client's role has become widespread.This is the notion that the counselor thinks about the client but the client just discharges. This has slowed down the effectiveness of our counseling.

It is possible to have counseling succeed to some degree where the client is helped to think about or against the distress enough to get discharge started and then allowed to stop thinking as she or he discharges. All too often, the discharge stops and the counselor helps the client once again think against the distress a little bit, and discharge starts and then the client is allowed to "swamp" and stop thinking.

It is very clear, particularly since we have seen commitments, and especially the exchange of commitments, operate, that the client should be helped to keep thinking all the time, including while he or she is discharging. Really effective counseling means the client thinking all the time and the counselor thinking all the time. When we attain this we have rapid recovery, rapid re-emergence from the distress.

For counseling to be effective the client must be thinking before discharging, while discharging, and after discharging. The client's mind needs to be fully engaged as well as the counselor's.


The counselor's attention needs to be fully for the client. We are now engaged in the beginnings of a grand campaign to eliminate certain difficulties in counseling that stem, to a great extent, from carelessly allowing the counselor's distress to become a factor in the counseling situation. We want to be very clear that the counseling session must be completely devoted to the most rapid, profound re-emergence of the client, even if the counselor "dies in the process." Now we say "dies" because, of course, it's safe to say it. No counselor has ever yet died from a client's material, but at some point in the process his or her old fears of death are quite likely to deceive the counselor. Therefore we make no compromises here. In many counseling situations the counselor will feel that he or she will die if she persists in pushing through for the client. Since it's going to feel like that, and at that point, restimulated, he or she will be unable to tell the difference, we ask that each counselor make a commitment to "be there" for the client even if he or she dies doing it. That will get them through the pseudo-crisis of their fears of death which they will have to surmount. Afterwards, of course, they will realize that they were not in any danger of dying, but by then the job will be done.


Another commonly circulated notion which is completely false from the counselor's point of view (and in a sense from any point of view) is that the client is often at fault for not having a good session, that it is the client's responsibility if the session does not go well. Often I overhear such phrases as, "She didn't want to try, so there was no use working with her;" "She wasn't ready to be counseled;" "Everybody has given up on him, we should never have taken him into the Community;" and so on and so on.

The plain truth of the matter is, that all of us, viewed from the counselor's point of view (and in a sense viewed from any point of view), are perfect clients. Every one of us is a perfect client. Every human being is ready at this moment to completely re-emerge from their deepest distresses, if they're given the opportunity by the external factors, the most important of which is the counselor. Every one of us, as client, is shaking the bars of the prison cell of our distresses, is biting at the steel with our teeth, is kicking it and cursing it, and doing everything else we can think of in order to somehow emerge from this confining distress. Every human being is at all times a perfect client.

It is not ever a question of whether the client is ready to tackle something, whether the client is ready to re-emerge. The plain fact of the matter is that every one of us and every other human being is at every moment ready to re-emerge completely and almost instantaneously if we are given the intelligent, caring support and fearless counseling from outside that is necessary.

I would like for all of us to engage in a campaign to lay this nonsense that "clients are not ready" to rest, and put the responsibility (not the blame, because all of us as counselors have done the best we could up till now, but the responsibility) exactly where it belongs on all of us as counselors. As counselors, we have the freedom to improve. As we get ready to counsel we may feel terribly inhibited. We may have awakened this morning with an itchy nose and a post-nasal drip and a big toe which doesn't feel good, but if we see the reality of our client's position we will see there a magnificent, gallant hero or heroine who is tied down, with barbed wire cutting into his or her flesh, whose arms and legs are twisted into unnatural positions, whose air supply is almost cut off by occluding debris, but who is making a gallant struggle to emerge nevertheless. In reference to that situation, we, the counselors, in spite of our aching big toe and post-nasal drips, have enormous freedom, flexibility, strength, power and resources. We have the freedom to think flexibly about the client's distresses to a vastly greater degree than the client has, and so the responsibility of solving this situation, of putting resources to work correctly, lies overwhelmingly and primarily with us.


(A small footnote: As a client in a counseling situation, we must not use what I've just said to allow some of our powerless patterns to obscure our own strength. As clients we need to hold to the attitude that even if we never found a counselor at all, if we were stranded on a desert island with nothing but a palm tree and a fiddler crab, we have enough theory that we could determine to completely re-emerge and succeed in doing it. We have enough theory already in our possession that all we would have to do is look at our distresses as they show up in our feelings, calculate the exact opposite and do the exact opposite, and when we need companionship, tell the palm tree or the fiddler crab about it, and we could discharge. We could re-emerge. As clients we must assume this to keep from assisting ourselves to fall into the grip of our powerlessness. But that is a small footnote.)

Overwhelmingly, the job will be done by us as counselors, not as clients, because as clients we're perfect. All of us are ready to do anything to re-emerge, and the counselor's pattern that says, "You're not trying" (jeering), is completely unaware of the fact that we have just tried so hard that the barbed wire has cut an inch deeper into our flesh. This is an accurate description, I think, of where the responsibility falls.


How do we, as counselors, communicate this thinking, this caring, to the client? Well, we say we "pay attention to them," and we "sort of" know what we mean. What is attention? It's very hard to define. Perhaps we cannot define it well. Nevertheless it has meaning; it might be what a mathematician or a logician would call a necessary undefined term. At least all of us know very well the difference between somebody really paying attention to us and someone not really paying attention to us. Right? You are familiar with the phenomenon. So we can use the phrase for communication.

We say that the counselor "pays attention to the client." Can we describe it? How do we communicate this attention, this caring, this thinking about them? Certainly we do it in part by our regard, our visual regard. There's a bit of nonsense that's been circulated widely among the Communities, that it is up to the client to keep his or her eyes on the counselor at all times. Isn't that ridiculous? If any of you have mastered crying with your eyes open, please tell me how. But it is true that the client has the right to expect the visual regard of the counselor; when the client looks up, s/he should be reassured by the direction of your gaze that you are "with them." You indicate your caring by the availability of your visual regard.

You indicate your caring by the expression on your face. You all know the difference between the expression that is interested and cares (demonstrates), and the all-too-familiar chronic pattern expression (demonstrates).

You indicate this caring, this aware attention, this paying attention, by the posture of your body. Your posture can say, "I am relaxedly focused upon you," or, all too often, "I'm not really here."

You communicate this caring, this thoughtfulness, by the remark or the gesture which indicates you are following their thinking.

You cannot communicate this by any patterned or mechanical attitude. If there's one thing that stops me from discharging at all it's the counselor who fixes me with an anxious stare, or, the interjected "uh huh, uh huh, uh huh" after everything I say. I can't think about myself at all under those conditions, and feel a pull to turn them into clients at that point (which may be the necessary thing to do sometimes).

We can communicate by our regard, by our facial expression, by our body's posture, by our general attitude, by the short, encouraging word occasionally. "Go ahead, let the tears come," is an encouraging word if it works. If you say it and they stop crying, then you don't persist in saying it. You conclude that that isn't right for that client. There is a big range between "Let it come, it's all right," said in a gentle voice and someone shouting "Cry! Cry! Cry! It's good for you! Cry!" which I once heard someone do.

We fundamentally communicate this caring, this thinking about the client, by paying attention, and our ability to pay attention is a function of a number of factors.

It is a function of how well we have ourselves discharged, how well we have cleaned up the baggage of nonsense, the conglomeration of patterns, that follow us around and appear to speak for us. To the extent that we have cleaned up those through our own discharge, to that extent they are unlikely to intrude into the client's session. So, our ability to pay attention is in great part a function of our own progress as clients. Discharge in our sessions as client turns us into a better counselor.

How well we are able to pay attention is a function of how well we have understood the theory, assimilated the accumulated knowledge from successful counseling practice. We can pay much better attention if we understand the process in all its simplicity and in all its complexity. We will pay better attention the more mastery we have of the theory. Such mastery of theory means assimilation of the theory to where it is really ours, because we have thought it through, not that we are simply repeating phrases out of a publication.


However, even if we have discharged on and on and even if we have read every bit of literature five times over and memorized it so we can repeat it by heart, and even thought it through, there is still a third factor that is necessary for us to be effective counselors, for us to pay effective attention to the client. This is the factor of decision.

I don't think that this factor has yet received enough attention. We have understandably encouraged several generations of new counselors to believe that if they kept discharging enough they would eventually be very good counselors. This has certainly moved them in that direction, but I think we can say now that not only our own discharge and our own re-emergence, and not only our understanding of theory, but also that making up our minds to do a good job, to be there for our client, is crucial.

We do not have to wait until all of our distress is gone before we can decide to act as if all our distress was gone. We do not have to wait until we are "comfortable" before we act as if the client were the only person in the Co-Counseling situation that mattered. It does make a difference to make up our minds. "To the devil with my feelings. This client is going to re-emerge!" Do I make sense here? (Group responds with "Yes!")

There is a factor of decision. The decision is easier to make and clearer when we have discharged more, the decision can be carried out with more consistency when we have mastered theory, but the idea of decision, I think, has to be there from the very beginning.

These three factors largely determine our effectiveness as counselors. Our ability to pay attention is a function of all three: how much we have freed ourselves from distress, how much of the theory we have come to understand, and how much of a decision and a commitment we have made. In the Co-Counseling relationship the counselor's proper regard is for the client only, and the client's re-emergence, not at all for the counselor's comfort or the counselor's fears.

If we can pay good enough aware attention, then, for most counseling situations, we need to do little else. The client is everywhere and at all times so eager that in most situations this is all we need do. When we come to more demanding situations, where additional techniques are needed, we find that these advanced techniques only operate on a foundation of paying aware, thoughtful, caring attention. Counselors who try to use these advanced techniques without such a foundation do not do good counseling; they wind up trying to manipulate the client and frustrating both the client and the counselor. The fundamental foundation of counseling is paying aware, clear attention. This is so effective, this meets the needs of the client so well, that most people will respond as perfect clients even if they have never heard any theory at all.


There are simple additions to paying attention which will be helpful. Sometimes the client has embarrassments, speech inhibitions, various patterns that inhibit the beginning of the process. There are very simple things we can do in addition to paying attention that will allow this profound strength of the client to begin to operate. Such things as asking "What are you thinking?" and then listening. Often one question is enough for a long, long session. "Where were you born? What happened after that?" and the story of one's life unrolls with less and less inhibition. If the client stops and says, "I don't know why I am telling you all this. This is ridiculous," and you look interested and ask, "What did happen after that..." (group laughter), they will continue. Ask, "What do you feel are your strong points?" which to many people is easier to respond to than "What do you like about yourself?"

Any simple framework question such as, "What are your big interests in life?" will work. Anything that allows the person to start talking is likely to release this profound response to simply being paid attention to.

When I am asked to handle clients that everyone has difficulty with, I almost universally find that what solves the problem is to look at them with approving regard, be really interested in them, ask them to talk about themselves, perhaps indicate an interest in their work. If you indicate you find your clients interesting and take an interest in their jobs and in themselves and simply listen, the "impossible" client almost universally is into heavy discharge in about ten or fifteen minutes. On some deep computation her intelligence decides it is safe as long as the counselor is there acting human instead of trying to manipulate her.

The fundamental relationship of Co-Counseling is simple. It is not necessarily easy because it does require a decision on the part of the counselor, a decision that "my feelings don't matter, you matter. For the duration of this relationship, this session, you matter. I will think about you, I will care about you, I will love you, I will support you, I will be there for you no matter what rocks of restimulation you drag me over in the process." If we can express this, this is profound, this is powerful, this is almost everything we need. Every human being in the world is waiting for someone to present this opportunity to become the perfect client.

Last modified: 2014-10-18 21:30:09+00