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Notes on counselling

Freedom of choice

Dr. Soumitra Basu


A consciousness-based counselling approach provides a flexibility to the therapist to facilitate a growth in consciousness. One innovative approach is to offer a freedom of choice at an optimal point in therapy so that the client can choose from alternatives. This phenomenon is simultaneously therapeutically effective and increases compliance.

A consciousness approach to counselling gives a great flexibility and freedom, as one does not have to forcefully fit a client’s clinical repertoire into a fixed structure of a certain theory of psychopathology or a certain pattern of psychotherapy. In the case of an integral paradigm of counselling, the therapist can try to understand any problem at the plane of consciousness from where it arises and then devise an appropriate remedial intervention in consonance to that plane. If the therapist thinks it appropriate that a certain standard therapeutic technique like cognitive-behavioural therapy or even a psychoanalytic technique would be suitable, that also could be employed provided it is used as an intermediary route to a deeper vision of a growth in consciousness.

A consciousness-based counselling, founded on an integral perspective, has a wider aim that leads to a growth in consciousness and integration of the being around a principle greater than the ego. The initial symptom or constellation of symptoms is often a starting-point for a deeper journey to the depths of the being. After all, the ancient Sanskrit word for health is svastha, which means to be poised in one’s true Self or soul — the truth-principle of one’s being. Even the best of the world’s therapists cannot mitigate every suffering and a poise in one’s Self can help to bear suffering, anguish and pain with magnanimity, equipoise and joy. The true centre of our being is the harbinger of peace, love and unalloyed joy. To have that experience is the quintessence of a consciousness-based therapy.

A case study based on the consciousness approach:

The leftist intellectual

This was a leftist intellectual, a product of the turbulent 1960s — the decade of Che Guevera, Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro and the Vietnam War. In India, it saw the surfacing of the Naxalite movement. It was an era of the revolutionary spirit of freedom, the triumph of the weak and the strength of the downtrodden. It was a decade of a whirlwind of high emotional fervour. It attracted the best of the intellects and the more adventurous of the romantics. When it passed, many of its votaries were left wounded, forlorn, forsaken. Our client was one of those who had been psychologically affected when all hopes of social equality came crashing and capitalism reared its head with the lure of a consumerist culture.

In India, many of the champions of the ultra-left movement of the 1960s became demoralised and quite a few suffered from depressive spells. Among this group were some whose suffering started in an existential mode but switched to endogenous depression if there was a vulnerability for it. It was difficult to treat such clients, as there was an existential void that could be neither fully mitigated with drugs nor resolved by standard counselling techniques. A therapist could not easily impose a positive world-view to someone whose vision of a new global order based on social and economic equality was shattered. Our client was such an individual who even when deeply depressed would not be satisfied with the usual counselling sermons.

Knowing the client’s passion for children’s literature, the therapist gave him to read the book, Tales of All Times which chronicled stories narrated by The Mother to the children of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. There is a point where She extols children to appreciate and cultivate certain virtues. Among many things, She says:

“Let him strive to conquer poverty, the cause of hunger, which makes so many mothers grieve because their children have no bread (1).”

Our client was taken aback. Here was the Divine Mother, an exalted spiritual figure, echoing the sentiments of the Communists!

He was more impressed when he read one of Sri Aurobindo’s aphorisms:

“Help the poor while the poor are with thee; but study also and strive that there may be no poor for thy assistance (2).”

For the first time, he was confronted with a spiritual world-view that did not eulogise charity but sought to rise above the necessity of charity. He shifted his focus from the study of Marxism to developmental economics.

Our client felt reassured that, though the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s had waned, the ideals could continue to exist. The denouement shifts but the Truth persists.

His mental agony improved; the drugs worked better and the compliance in counselling got strengthened.

Nearly a decade after this interaction with the therapist, the Berlin Wall fell down and subsequently the Soviet Union collapsed. The leftist mindset in general tried to cope with this crisis by employing the defence mechanism of rationalisation. Nothing seemed to click. Our client had a fresh relapse of depression.

It was then that the therapist presented him with the concept of freedom that was relevant both for his personal well-being and for his world-view.

At the personal level, he had a choice. He could go on ruminating on the glories of a bygone revolution and remain depressed. Or else, he was free to pursue an alternative paradigm of social equality that could even be poised on a spiritual foundation that eulogised the Oneness of the Spirit. He could then have the freedom to expand the spiritual perspective for his own psychological well-being. Of course, he still would have the freedom to negate everything and opt for nihilistic thinking.

At the level of the world-view, it would be more prudent for votaries of social equality to accept Sri Aurobindo’s contention that, though an absolute equality was a chimera, a fundamental equality was possible and worth pursuing. “Certainly, absolute equality is non-existent in this world…Under a just social order, there must be an equal opportunity, an equal training for all to develop their faculties and to use them, and, so far as may be, an equal share in the advantages of the aggregate life as the right of all who contribute to the existence, vigour and development of that life by the use of their capacities (3).”

No efforts of the State to enforce social equality succeed. There is a psychological twist: the human nature opts for inequality. This is because the ego that rules is itself skewed in its functioning and facilitates inequality. Oneness is an attribute of the soul that surpasses the ego. It requires a yogic endeavour to surpass the ego and have an experiential contact with the Soul that alone can impart the value of Oneness. It is not possible for the mass to achieve that state.

However, what can be reasonably done is that the mass can be presented with a freedom to choose from many alternative pathways to develop themselves. They should have the freedom of education, of healthy living, of partaking in any social responsibility, even participating in any investment portfolio. Anything enforced as a law or rule does not work but if presented as a free choice can be heartily accepted. Any programme of social equality is more likely to succeed if opportunities are presented as a free choice.

Freedom is the language of the Spirit. This is important in psychotherapy too. In case of patients who undergo regular renal dialysis and concomitantly harbour suicidal thoughts, there is relief once they are told that they have the freedom of choice of non-compliance. That if they wished, they were free to absent themselves from the dialysis programme. This freedom of choice immediately relieves the burden of the great dependence that they have on the dialysis programme and actually enhances compliance.

In the case of our client, the freedom of choice in choosing an alternative narrative for social equality relieved an existential anguish that in turn helped him to recover from his depression. It also imparted a spiritual perspective resulting in a growth in consciousness. A consciousness-based counselling deals with different clients at different levels of consciousness. Our client was a bachelor and had he been married, a working with marital relations might have been needed to alleviate his suffering. Or else, our client could have been a die-hard trade unionist with a rusticity that lacked the finesse of intellectual thinking. In that case, he would have needed a more down-to-earth conventional counselling approach. The consciousness-based coun-selling is free to work through any approach but keeping in purview the greater aim of a growth in consciousness as its raison d’être.


1. The Mother. Collected Works of the Mother, Volume 2. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust; 1978, p. 235.

2. Sri Aurobindo. Birth Centenary Library, Volume 17. Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram Trust; 1971, p. 102.

3. Sri Aurobindo, SABCL, Volume 15. 1970, pp. 359-60.

Dr. Soumitra Basu, a practising psychiatrist and member of SAIIIHR, is the Director of a school of psychology, Integral Yoga Psychology. He is also one of the editors of NAMAH.

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