In physics, resonance is a sympathetic vibration between two elements, such as the prolongation of a sound, bell or musical tone that allows them to energetically entrain, synchronize and act in a sudden new harmony. Similarly, research results in cognitive neuro science and cognitive psychology over the last three decades point to the importance of mirror neurons that fire both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the very same action being performed by another animal. In other words, the neuron tends to ‘mirror’ the behavior enacted or observed of the other animal, seemingly as though the observer were doing the action.
Borrowing from physicists, neuroscientists speak of states of reverberating empathic resonance to describe this basic mechanism that allows us to vicariously learn what another animal is experiencing, directly observed in primates and other species such as birds (Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004; Keysers, 2010). Resonance is seen as a direct experience of temporarily entering into the perceptual / feeling / thinking / relational world of another in which the other is experienced as one’s own self—the you in me.
Psychologist Sue Johnson (2008), developer of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, supports this view and gives a complementary one in understanding the neurochemical basis of attachment, especially in the release of the hormone oxytocin. In humans, oxytocin is released when making physical contact or being in the proximity of an attachment figure, and particularly during times of heightened emotionality, such as sexual union, cuddling and breastfeeding. Oxytocin has the effect of giving calm comfort and pleasure, and some research studies indicate a tendency to trust and be with others. Johnson concludes that oxytocin appears to be nature’s mechanism of promoting attachment. It seems reasonable to consider that interactions that increase oxytocin, and thereby attachment, also may support resonance. The very same notion of resonance in these illustrations can apply between physical things as well as human beings, as Peter Fenner describes in the opening quote.
Resonance is understood as a cutting edge, direct clinical experience and a core therapeutic competency for being an effective therapist. At the 2011 Science and Nonduality conference John J. Prendergast Ph.D. referred to resonance as one of three key components, along with presence and deconstructive inquiry, for engaging in therapy from a nondual perspective. In this article I suggest that resonance is a core competence for any kind of deep, authentic and effective therapeutic engagement. Going further, I propose that without psychological resonance being developed, nurtured and built in the therapeutic environment, the success and effectiveness of the therapeutic work may well be seriously compromised. This subject is especially timely given the pervasiveness of connection masquerading as intimate conversation in a technology-driven, virtual modern life of sterile loneliness and disconnection.
I will explore resonance through: 1) Attachment theory and interpersonal attunement; and Deep empathy and projective identification. We will discover that in the context of psychotherapy, nondual awareness spontaneously provides a profound, mutually respectful and caring co-perceiving, co-feeling, co-thinking and co-understanding, while eclipsing disconnection and lack of intimacy, mindless merging, counter-transference, and projection identification. Resonance is the direct therapeutic experience of ‘welcoming you in me’ and is foundational in not only various approaches to conducting therapy, but in all psychological therapeutic relationships.
Attachment Theory and Interpersonal Attunement
Where does resonance fit within attachment theory and interpersonal attunement? Attachment theory, an interdisciplinary study drawing upon the fields of psychological, ethological, and evolutionary theory, outlines the dynamics of long-term relationships between human beings, with specific emphasis upon developing an affectional bond, secure base, and healthy emotional self-regulation for developing infants and usually a caregiver attachment figure. Seminal theorist psychiatrist / psychoanalyst John Bowlby pioneered attachment styles, which later were validated in research findings by developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth. This work showed a number of attachment styles in infants, including secure attachment, insecure-avoidant attachment, insecure-ambivalent attachment and disorganized-disoriented attachment. Attachment theory was later extended to adults with four corresponding attachment styles in adult romantic relationships: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant.
Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. has contributed pioneering work in Interpersonal Neurobiology, an interdisciplinary framework for understanding both our subjective and interpersonal lives. He has most recently drawn upon theories of mindfulness practice to propose a sophisticated process for intra and inter personal attunement (Siegel, 2007, 2010). Siegel found that interpersonal attunement, the core of healthy human relationships, enhances integration in the brain’s neurons. He describes the neurobiology of a “resonance circuit” that mindful awareness may harness involving mirror neurons, the insula and superior temporal regions, as well as aspects of the prefrontal cortex, particularly the middle areas. Overall, learning to be mindful in how we direct our attention within ourselves and with others can enhance the growth of areas of the brain associated with well-being.
Siegel recognizes resonance as the key mechanism operating underneath attuned communication in secure attachment between parent and child. Drawing upon interpersonal attunement research, healthy attachment occurs when listening and responding are authentic and effective, and a reciprocal process or dance of attunement unfolds. In attuning to another being, we bring a feeling or empathy with another’s feelings as well as a kinesthetic and emotional sensing of another. The listener de-fixates from his or her experience and lets go of the mind’s thinking long enough to enter into another’s experience and world. We engage in a reciprocal interaction of emotional expression or affect and an exchange of felt resonance—we feel felt.
For Siegel (2007), shared attention initiates interpersonal attunement—feeling and experiencing being close, felt, heard, seen and understood by another, connected and no longer alone. “We sense a clear image of our mind in the mind of another,” what he calls “the internal state of the other” (ISO). This is remarkably close to how psychologist Lawrence LeShan describes an older sense of the word “understand.” In contrast to the standard meaning of understanding, that is, breaking something down into component parts and describing how they work together, is the meaning to “stand under,” that is to comprehend and perceive something by being a part or participating in it as an organic, complete and total process (LeShan, 1974). One example is the contrast between the direct experience of spiritual mystics and the beliefs of the religiously orthodox. Another example is to directly apprentice with someone to learn a skill instead of reading about it in a class.
Siegel differentiates between intrapersonal and interpersonal resonance. Intrapersonal resonance brings an openness and receptivity to direct internal experience and “an entrainment of lived and observing states with each other.” He sees value in balancing internal attunement with interpersonal resonance that arises from an external attunement and deep capacity to connect between one being and another. In moments of attunement to the other, there is a unity or oneness of contact.
Siegel (2010) describes how the essence of attunement is “Focus(ing) our attention on others and take their essence into our own inner world” that changes both people. He clarifies: “The observed takes in the observer having taken her in, and the two become joined. This is resonance.” The boundaries of oneself and another become permeable and the sense of being a separate self softens and loosens. Siegel’s paradigm begins with presence allowing an openness to ourselves and others and moves into attunement as an act of giving attention to another person (or ourselves) to bring into awareness the internal state of another. This, in turn, can move into resonance with a joining or coupling of two independent beings into a functioning whole. Presence and resonance forge the essential groundwork of trust. Resonance helps transcend mental understanding and moves into direct engagement.
In my clinical practice, an encounter with the father of a teenage boy with some developmental delays secondary to an early car accident illustrates Siegel’s definition of resonance. After a few years of steady, incremental therapeutic progress with this young man, it became clear in family work that the father’s frustration with the son’s slow progress was spilling over into holding a general negative expectancy for his son. With the father priding himself on “playing the tape all the way through,” that is, consequential thinking, the intuition arose within me that the father was teaching what he had not fully learned with his son. In other words, the father apparently did not see the negative impact his low expectancy for his son was having on his son’s growth. Being attuned with the father’s frustration, I compassionately looked deeply in his eyes and from the heart quietly asked, “Do you really want to bet against your son?” The father was stunned by this awareness and slowly answered, “No, of course not.” This moment was a turning point in the boy’s therapy and relationship with his father. After this, the father purely bet on his son, and his son further blossomed in all his relationships and schoolwork.
Empathic Resonance and Projective Identification
Psychologist Carl Rogers’ (1980) seminal work provides a springboard to understanding resonance, especially his seeing the centrality of accurate empathy that included the discovery of shared presence in his later years, although he did not use this phrase. Shared presence is just another description for the resonance of being that includes all dimensions of human experience. Thus, the heart of how spiritual transmission occurs, and how healing wholeness is evoked, is through True Nature resonating with itself. Prendergast (2003) writes that Rogers’ work “…also clearly pointed to an inherent healing awareness that would sometimes spontaneously unfold between and transcend therapist and client. This awareness or presence is the core of sacred mirroring.” He describes sacred mirroring as a mirroring of Being itself and a reflection of a client and therapist sharing the same impersonal Ground of Being. Prendergast (2007) describes what he calls “empathic resonance” or attunement with another, as “inwardly vibrating with a specific level of experience” and as, “a mutual attunement to a shared field or energetic frequency” while “shar(ing) in a vast, non-localized space of witnessing.” Beyond the experience of sharing the same feeling as another, Prendergast includes thoughts and somatic sensations.
As a common example of this in my own work, I invite new clients to briefly experience presence using the simple, ancient approach of watching their breath without being swept away by thoughts or caught up in time. After settling into a shared presence together, I will ask clients whether their symptoms are still present. Looking together in timeless presence, clients are usually surprised to notice that all symptoms vanish at these moments. A shared awareness in silently seeing this reality is palpably present in the therapy room—there is a clearly shared resonance. At such moments clients can begin to recognize that following the mind’s programming usually helps create unwanted symptoms and uncomfortable psychological states. This direct experiential discovery for clients helps usher in a quiet realization of what is always already here along with an interest in letting go of mindlessly fueling thought and being preoccupied with time. Lower stress and greater relief for clients usually follow.
Transpersonal psychologist Tobin Hart (2000) describes “deep empathy” as including a loosening of the boundaries between oneself and another, “a more direct knowing” and “a refined sympathetic resonance” and nondual awareness. For Hart, such resonance is clearly not the same as a passing fusion or merging, imagining or interpreting, in the experience of alignment with another. Integral philosopher Ken Wilber describes a pre / trans fallacy where the distinction is blurred between the pre-egoic experiences of mindless merging, as found with infants or in regressed states, with trans-egoic experiences of mindful fusion with some healthy space and objectivity. Instead of becoming confused and lost in the client’s world in pre-egoic mindless merging, therapists can bring an inner space to engage with openness and discernment, objective detachment and deep intimacy. Within a mature trans-egoic level of functioning, deep empathy is not merely interpreting, imagining or extrapolating cues and time-limited fusion or merging for Hart. Rather it is “the experience of two selves connecting at a particular “frequency” of experience” in which “one seems to become the field itself while maintaining awareness.” Deep empathy encompasses the view of multiple perspectives that simultaneously arise, and includes witnessing with greater emotional detachment. Such a loosening of identification and attachment to self is what allows real contact, and requires courage to risk exposing the depth of oneself to another (Hart, 2000).
Taking a different tact, Judith Blackstone (2007) suggests that nondual consciousness has the ability to perceive the qualities and movement of another’s sensations, emotions and cognitions in another’s body. She proposes that one can tap into an ability to experience a deep connection between the inner space within oneself and the internal space of another, all within a unified field. Blackstone elaborates: “Nondual consciousness, pervading self and other equally, allows us to perceive the qualities of another person’s subjective life within the internal space of that person’s body, rather than in our own.” For Blackstone, resonance is experienced between two people when both touch the “essential qualities within their own bodies” feeling a “deep contact with each other.” The intensity of deep mutual contact in nondual consciousness can assist an expansion of each other’s realization and remove obstacles between partners, a phenomenon called ‘direct transmission’ in Asian spiritual literature.
Watkins (1978, 2009) similarly describes resonance as pointing to completely experiencing common moments of “withness” between therapist and client, of entering the patient’s world so fully that one temporarily relinquishes one’s own self and becomes the other. For Watkins, resonance is described as “that inner experience within the therapist during which he co-feels, (co-enjoys, co-suffers) and co-understands with his patient, though in mini form (1978, 234, italics in original). It is through resonance that you experience another as your own being, that is, “the other is you” (1978, 259, italics in original), by extending the boundary of an ego state to include another. The feelings of another are now experienced as within one’s own self, as are the ideas of another are similarly experienced as one’s own thoughts, much like immersing oneself into another’s inner world.
Fenner (2007b) points to the direct experience of resonance when he addresses energetic entrainment and the radiant mind. For Fenner, in resting in a thought-free space and sharing effortless and wordless nondual awareness with another, energetic entrainment or attunement can spontaneously arise. Inhabiting the experiential space of serenity and equanimity is seen as contributing to another who is stressed or upset by showing the possibility of nothing being wrong in this moment. This possibility balances intimate connection without compromising unconditioned awareness—an invitation to rise up into the space of unconditioned awareness without going down to join them in their agitation or distress.
In the therapeutic process, it is important to distinguish projective identification from resonance. With projective identification, the therapist unconsciously identifies and acts out parts of the client’s disowned ego, such as anxiety, rage, and fear. While projection is the ego defense of one party unconsciously throwing disowned positive or negative qualities onto another, projective identification can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy with the one being projected upon (e.g., the therapist) behaving as though he or she is actually characterized by the projected thoughts and beliefs from the one Resonance: projecting (e.g., the client). Thus, the danger of projective identification is the therapist unconsciously takes on and acts out disowned emotions and behaviors of the client’s psyche.
Shared moments of intense emotions with clients, in which the therapist has clearly joined the client in their felt inner world, can be most challenging ones for therapists since they are like being engulfed in a tsunami of grief, panic, disorganization or despondency at times. In experiencing hell-like experiences, therapists can refuse to be desensitized and deepen ‘standing under’ the experience, opening room for a more illuminated, clearer space, and a freer, more transparent lightness of humanity.
Prendergast (2003, 2007) addresses this therapeutic phenomenon, particularly within the nondual therapeutic context. On one side, he observes that therapists can be caught up in the client’s stories, feelings and drama, leading to merging, without a healthy sense of space, objectivity or detachment. On the other side, he notes the matching danger of therapists withdrawing into their minds analyzing clients with little attunement to the client’s feelings. This can lead to disconnection, that is, distance without interpersonal intimacy. He suggests that nondual awareness offers both the space and intimacy—a spacious intimacy—that is most naturally balanced and therapeutic. Empathic resonance can be distinguished from projective identification by the therapist’s ability to be in accurate attunement to their client’s felt experiences, such as a shared alienation, suffering or panic, without being caught up, lost or otherwise confused in them.
Four major threads run through the formulations of resonance that I have reviewed in this article. One thread describes the loosening of ego state boundaries or attachment to self to include another’s experience, perceptions, feelings and thoughts. This approach is congruent with Hart’s ‘deep empathy,’ Watkins’s psychological resonance, and Siegel’s intra and inter personal attunement. A second thread is the entrainment of empathic resonance and “withness” that includes others—their perceptions, feelings, thoughts, understandings and being. This way of looking at resonance aligns with Prendergast’s sacred mirroring and empathic resonance, Watkins’s co-feeling and co-understanding, Siegel’s holding the internal state of another, and Fenner’s energetic entrainment/attunement and radiant mind. This approach is also close to Rogers’ writings that point to an aware presence that can spontaneously arise between therapist and client, and to LeShan’s ancient meaning of understanding as “standing under” another’s experience.
A third thread of resonance is to first bring an open receptivity to one’s own direct experience as lived and observed (intrapersonal attunement), and extend this into an external attunement of deep connection of one being to another (interpersonal attunement) that yields a joining, unity and oneness of contact. This approach is only explicitly forwarded by Siegel, yet seems to be strongly implied in the writings of Rogers, Watkins, Prendergast, Fenner and Blackstone. This thread appears to be a prerequisite for interpersonal resonance. A fourth thread is to stand inside of nondual consciousness or a unified field and to feel a deep intimate connection between the inner space of oneself and inner space of another—the essential qualities within each of their bodies. This way of seeing resonance most characterizes Blackstone’s approach in suggesting that in nondual awareness we have the capacity to perceive the qualities and movements of another’s perceptions, sensations and cognitions inside of another. This view is also consonant with Hart’s ‘deep empathy’ approach, Prendergast’s sacred mirroring/empathic resonance and Fenner’s entrainment/attunement and radiant mind.
Taking a bird’s eye view of all these formulations of resonance, one possible perspective is to consider each portrait of resonance as a complementary perception of the same phenomenon.
Within this view, the four threads running throughout these descriptions of resonance can be seen as forming a kind of tapestry—different reflections of a common therapeutic experience, albeit using different words, approaches and ways to make sense of the subjective experience of resonance itself.
Alternatively, these descriptions of resonance between therapist and client may actually be quite different and entirely too gross or feeble, inarticulate or lacking in specificity to honestly ‘get at’ the essence of the actual phenomena of resonance itself. It is very possible that current writings do not clearly differentiate the variable forms of resonance.
Let us remember that resonance is a cutting edge, direct clinical experience that has been described in several direct objective and subjective approaches that hone in upon it as a significant phenomenon available in psychotherapy and mutually rewarding therapeutic relationships. From an objective scientific perspective with a phenomenological subjective perspective, let us acknowledge that we do not know exactly what qualifies as resonance or how it works at this juncture. At the same time, resonance is clearly a very important therapeutic factor—one that is largely overlooked in contemporary theories of therapy and about which a nondual perspective offers profound insight since it is direct evidence of our non-separateness. Can we bring an investigative openness and honest curiosity while sitting with the questions of what qualifies as resonance, how it works, and the possibility that it may have different forms?
I see resonance as a direct experience of temporarily entering into the perceptual / feeling / thinking / relational world of another in which the other is experienced as one’s own self.
The capacity for therapists to develop the sensitivity, maturity, discernment and courage to hone the trans-egoic functioning abilities of presence, intra- and inter-personal attunement, and psychological resonance in co-perceiving, co-feeling, co-thinking, co-relating and co-understanding are undoubtedly a powerful leading edge for lifelong professional development.
In summary, resonance is the ‘welcoming you in me’ in its infinite forms. It is a foundation for not only therapy from a nondual perspective, but all psychotherapies and therapeutic relationships. It is also a core therapeutic competency that spontaneously unfolds as a recognition of nondual awareness deepens and clarifies in the therapist. Resonance provides an essential healing balm and intimate counter-balancing to modern life that has so many of us mesmerized by impersonal technological devices and virtual forms of communication that lack warmth, intimacy or genuine relationship. There is a strong tendency to mistake these superficial forms of connection for real intimacy. Perhaps the greatest value resonance brings is in giving direct evidence of our non-separateness as profoundly interconnected beings with a therapeutic capacity and deep felt appreciation for shared intimacy. If all separation is illusory, then “you” and “me” are actually nested inside the nondual field. We are the screen of awareness itself and the one universal movie being played for all of us to perceive, feel, think and understand together.
Blackstone, J. (2007) The Empathetic Ground: Intersubjectivity and Nonduality in the Psychotherapeutic Process. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, quotes: 33, 108.
Fenner, P. (2007a) Listening and Speaking From No-Mind, in Listening From the Heart of Silence, John J. Prendergast & Kenneth Bradford (Eds.). St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 121-149, quote: 125.
Fenner, P. (2007b) Radiant Mind: Awakening Unconditioned Awareness. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, Inc., 111-112, 121.
Hart, T. (2000) Deep Empathy, in Transpersonal Knowing (T. Hart, P. L. Nelson, & K. Puhakka (Eds.).
Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 253-270; quotes: 260, 261.
Johnson, S. (2008) Hold Me Tight. New York: Little, Brown and Company, reference: 160-162.
Keysers, Christian (2010). “Mirror Neurons.” Current Biology, 19 (21): R971–973.
LeShan, L. (1974) How To Meditate. New York: Little, Brown and Company, reference: 219-220.
Prendergast, J. J. (2003) The Sacred Mirror: Being Together, in The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy, John J. Prendergast, P. Fenner, & S. Krystal (Eds.). St. Paul, MN: Paragon House,
89-115, quote: 93; references: 94-95, 101-103.
Prendergast, J. J. (2007) Spacious Intimacy: Reflections on Essential Relationship, Empathic Resonance, Projective Identification, and Witnessing, in Listening From the Heart of Silence, John J. Prendergast & Kenneth Bradford (Eds.). St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 35-53, quotes: 43, 46-47.
Rizzolatti, G. & Craighero, L. (2004) The mirror-neuron system. Annual Review of Neuroscience 27: 169–192.
Rogers, C. (1980) A Way of Being. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Siegel, D. J. (2007) The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being. New York: WW Norton & Company, quotes: 290, 206.
Siegel, D. J. (2010) The Mindful Therapist: A Clinician’s Guide To Mindsight and Neural Integration. New York: WW Norton & Company, quotes: 34, 54.
Watkins, J. G. (1978) The Therapeutic Self: Developing Resonance—Key to Effective Relationships, quote: italics in original, 234; reference: 253.
Watkins, J. G. (2009) Hypnosis: Seventy years of amazement, and still don’t know what it is! American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 52 (2), October 2009, 133-145, quote: 143.