Psychotherapy as a political practice

For any idea to mean something substantial for a human being, it must be rooted in a deeply and honestly felt emotional experience in the present moment.

Else, the idea is only an intellectual entity that doesn’t touch anything at the core of us, even if it may provide us the gratification of exercising our cognitive functions and engaging in debates. Often, we are willing to exchange this gratification for the quieter movements of the heart.

Let us, therefore, so that we avoid doing this, start this communication between us with an experiential exercise.

Bring to your mind an image of your mother. Do not think of your mother as she actually is, but think of her, or any other figure in your life, in whose presence you feel a maternal experience – a sense of tenderness, quietness, a gentle smudging of a feeling of ‘I and the other’ giving way to a feeling of ‘us’, a feeling that we are together in what we are experiencing, and that I am not alone. Let each of these words evoke an emotional ripple in you before you move on to the next paragraph. Only then will this communication be experiential.

For a child, this is the role that the mother is called upon to play, so that the foundation of the child’s life is built on an ability to feel safe and trust the other.

Now, imagine a child of about 5 years of age, who has gone out to play, and while playing, has fallen down and bruised his knee. He comes home with a bleeding knee. What would be a truly maternal response to such a situation? It would be to clean and dress the wound, and attend to the child’s inner states. Perhaps it is the first time he has been wounded to this degree. Perhaps he feels anxious at the site of blood. Perhaps he doubts if it is a good idea to go out to play. There is anxiety, and there is a struggle to understand this experience that he has just had.

The mother may sit down with him, put her arm around him, and ask him what he is thinking. Through touch and through the tone of her voice, primarily, and secondarily through the content of what she says, she may convey to the child that she is with him, she can feel how he feels, and in feeling together with him his anxiety, she can also convey some of her calmness to him.

A bit later, she may tell him of how, once, when she was a child, she got hurt similarly, but she was met with love and care, and it did not deter her from exploring the world. She may sit quietly with him and gently move her hand on his hair, simply affirming their presence together. After a while, she may hum a song.


However, in real life, there are also other kinds of mothers.

The mother may be shocked at the sight of the wound and rush to clean and dress it, but be unable to feel calm in the face of this incident. Worse, she may convey to the child that this wound is shocking, and make him feel scared about going out to play. Her demeanour may convey being unsettled, shaken, rather than stillness.

Other mothers may not have any explicit emotional reaction, and mechanically clean and dress the wound, as if cleaning a piece of furniture in the house, and then carry on with their day’s activities. At best such a mother may dispassionately tell the child that the incident is not a matter of concern, he need not worry, before she moves her attention to the chores at hand.

In either of these two cases, the child is left by himself to handle this new, unpleasant, scary experience.

We have had figures in our lives who may have shades of all the above kind of mothers.


In the depth psychotherapy process, the therapist’s foundational role is to create a space for the client where they feel that their inner anxiety – which they themselves may not always have a clear sense of – can be brought out, felt, acknowledged, and allowed to subsist, rather than offered solutions to.

There are other roles to be played by the therapist – such as confronting the client with his defences which keep his inner anxiety shut away in a dark corner of his psyche, or helping him reflect on his life choices and their implications – but these roles are always structures that can touch the client deeply only on the foundation of the maternal experience.


Coming to the title of this post, imagine being in the position of the child who returns home wounded, who does happen to have an empathic, engaging mother, such as the one described in the first example above.

What are the emotions this child is experiencing in the presence of this mother? He may feel anxiety about his wound, but he also feels that his anxiety is being heard. He may feel vulnerable in front of the big world and the many mishaps that can happen there, but he also feels that this vulnerability need not be shut down because it is terrifying. Rather, this vulnerability seems to be something the mother is interested in, and is tenderly engaging with, by asking about it, and by sharing her own stories of vulnerability. The honest sharing of this vulnerability can become the ground for deeper relationship between mother and son.

Immerse yourself in what living feels like to this child. Perhaps he feels that I am vulnerable, but that is OK, because I have hope that this vulnerability can be contained and healed. Perhaps he feels that there are difficulties in my life, but I trust that there are persons and forces who will be with me – and ultimately, that this universe is a friendly place to be in, despite the suffering it brings.

There is pain and apprehension, but there is openness to these, and there is a sense of relatedness to an other, rather than being isolated in one’s unsurmountable difficulties.

Imagine that the child got this wound because, apparently, he was made to trip by another child, because of which he fell and got wounded. This child, in this particular emotional space with the mother, is very unlikely to hate the playmate and plot revenge against him when he meets him the next day. This child feels safe, held, taken care of by the universe, and there is no need to act out of hate and revenge.

Now, imagine the child of the other kinds of mothers. If the mother has simply performed the function of giving first-aid to the child, and then continued cooking food, the child feels lost regarding the emotional experience that accompanies the wound. He is anxious about the sight of blood, and about the thought that the wound could have been much worse. He is disoriented about whether he should continue to go out to play or not.

He doesn’t know what to do about this anxiety. But he has seen his parents, or people on TV, or his friends employ their physical or verbal power to shut down others. He sees there is a way to feel strong and confident rather than anxious and disoriented – through the exercise of power over another. He may then tell himself – tomorrow I will throw a stone at that boy who made me fall.

If these maternal experiences are chronic, these two children will, when they grow up, become two different kind of political beings. They will vote for different kind of parties. They will be drawn to different kind of representatives. They will have a different relationship with the nation and with the idea of community.

The first will be drawn to politics where there is attention to the pain of the weakest people in our society. He will prefer representatives who listen, who try to understand. His sense of nation and community will not find much place for an enemy to be vanquished, but it will find priority for those who are left behind in the race of life.

The second will be drawn to politics where there is a clear enemy against who I must prepare, else I am in danger. He will resonate with leaders who exude a sense of power, pride, victory. His sense of nation and community will be one that is perpetually in opposition to other nations and communities.

If one is honestly in touch with one’s vulnerability, rather than resorting to blaming others and being in a fight or flight response to them, it is not possible to hate.


Across the world, we see that political positions can be placed on a spectrum between these two ends. The first is a politics of compassion, the second the politics of hate.

The first was most palpable in the first half and middle of the 20th century, inspiring non-violent movements of decolonisation and racial equality.

The second has also been part of human life for long. It is emergent today, and has been for many decades. Hindu versus Muslim. Muslim versus others. Meitei versus Kuki. Sinhala versus Tamil. Native versus immigrant, and more.

The biggest crisis of all, climate change, seems to emerge from such a politics of us versus the other, in which us is the human species and nature the other.


There are many reasons for the rise of the politics of hate. These are historical, economic, sociological. However, there is, foundationally, another reason. The politics of hate arises from a crisis of consciousness.

It arises from the fact that too few of us have had mothers of the first kind. Too few of us, in our most formative years, have experienced spaces where pain that may be too much for us can be shared by another, where the overwhelming nature of this pain is lessened because we have a friend who is able to feel this pain along with us, so that we do not have to strive to feel powerful by finding someone to vanquish.

Even today, as adults, too few of us have friends, who, if we say that we feel a sorrow since this morning about the death of a loved one who died a few months ago, will respond by saying, “come, let’s talk about it.” Who will want to listen to this sorrow, to what precisely feels lost by this death, to what it is in us that the deceased touched deeply.

We have more friends who will not know what to say, because their own unprocessed pains are triggered. Or, who will say, “it’s alright, you will feel better in some time,” or “be strong, try to keep busy”, or “think of your responsibilities for x, y or z”, or will offer to take us out for a nice drive so that we can stop feeling our pain temporarily.

Hence, we look for positions that make us feel powerful, rather than positions that touch our hearts into vulnerability and sharing. In this lookout, we are drawn to the politics of power, victory, pride, which is a relief from an inner helplessness.

Such psychological attitudes exist across the spectrum of parties and ideologies, rather than being neatly deposited in one party, although they may be more common in one party than another. A person can believe in the most democratic principles, but assert them with hate and violence towards those who don’t.

Psychotherapy, then, when practiced in a certain way, addresses the crisis of consciousness from which the politics of power, victory and pride emerges.

Real change, in this sense, can only take place in the consciousness of the individual, from who it may radiate outward to family, community, nation, and the human species. Intellectual and moral debates often create echo chambers of their own, if not rooted in, and continuously going back to, this aspect of personal change, which is a change in emotional states before it is a change in ideas.

At every moment, each of us is sending into the collective consciousness of human beings emotions related to hate and violence, or emotions of peace, human connection, kindness. Each moment, our emotional states, and how we work with them, are shaping the collective emotional state of humankind.

Therefore, the impact of one human being trying to radically change his own self, even though small, is larger than what is palpable on a material level. Every time I let go of my tendency to hate someone, to think of someone as an ‘other’, an adversary, who I must be afraid of and prepare to fight or flee – every time I do this, I am making a transition away from the space of hate. I am doing this not just for myself but for all human beings. This other, who I move away from disliking, may be an ordinary person in my office rather than a politician, but the effect of my transition on collective consciousness is one of taking us all one step back from hate in all its forms.

This inner work is not limited to psychotherapy. In fact, many forms of therapy tend to do quite the opposite. This work is a possibility everywhere there is human interaction, or even inter-species interaction – parenting, teaching, friendship, art, and more.


The corollary of this line of thought is that healing and hope lie in circles of people who come together to listen and share. It is this, rather than existing social institutions of family, school, religious community, political party or nation, that holds most potential to bring a change in consciousness. The existing institutions are valuable, on this dimension of life, to the extent that they are formed like listening circles, rather than us-versus-them groups.

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