WINTER 1997 VOLUME THREE NUMBER TWO
NOUMENON - A NEWSLETTER FOR THE NONDUAL PERSPECTIVE
USING ROLE-PLAY IN DEATH AND DYING COUNSELLING
Its Implications for Education
Death and dying counselling has become an important part of the healing process of the chronic and terminally ill, even in the cases where a strong religious context prevails.
However, it is recognised that the biggest hurdle facing counsellors in leading the chronic and terminally ill to an acceptance of the inevitability of death is the resistance put up by the patient’s self-image which concretises the experience of a ‘real’ me and the consequent fears that exist in relation to losing this ‘me’. This prevents any experiential transpersonal awareness to exist that goes beyond mere belief and into actually allowing the seeing of our true ontological status in which the fear of death has no meaning.
A possible counselling approach is to use role-play to bring about an understanding of our transpersonal reality which, theoretically and empirically, provides a more grounded, experiential approach to understanding the question ‘who dies?’.
The efficacy of role-play in psychotherapy is well documented. However, as it is used in these therapeutic modalities, there is still the use of role to effect psychosomatic adjustment.
Theoretically, the approach presented works on a different premise for bringing about psychological healing to that offered by psychodrama, although on the surface similarities exist. It may even be argued that the theoretical premise is not so much different as much as it is an extension of the main effect of role-playing in therapy; that of creating distance between observer and observed in a non-threatening context so that learning takes place from observation. The difference in intent is that traditional psychodrama hopes to increase awareness of the personal, while this approach is concerned with the transpersonal.
Role-play can perform a very valuable function in psychological transformation, leading to transpersonal awareness, if role-play is used as a model of the human mind in a way that experientially displays the perception that all of the mind’s movements relating to the self is a form of role-play. This is an important distinction in that the root of the problem - the identifications resulting from the role-generating mechanism of the mind - is directly addressed. Simply put, role is used to understand role. Within the context of non-dual transpersonal awareness - which in the spiritual traditions of the East, and now in transpersonal psychology in the West - we are urged to see our true nature by simply witnessing the mind’ s movements, which allows for the insight to arise that the witness is not a role or indeed a self as we have come to understand the term. It is the Ground of Being.
Role-play, Nondualism and Education
Non-dualism, in essence, sees the traditional dichotomy of subject and object as false, although it acknowledges its relative place in our perception of reality. Increasingly, supported by the insights of theoretical physics and that branch of mathematics known as fuzzy logic, it is being used as a critical tool in a number of disciplines (although not always referred to formally as non-dualism), because it allows the confounding problems presented by subject-object discourse and experience to be seen in a radically different way, thus allowing for a more practical solution to a problem to be attained.
It is not within the scope of this article to consider non-dualism as a critical tool, but to explore its potential value in making more productive the discipline of educational drama and theatre.
Non-dualism is also about multivalence, in contrast to much of Western thinking that is built up on binary oppositions or bivalence. Much of our education, even in the arts, is bound to a mind-set that sees the world in terms of this or that, black or white. Non-dualism is concerned with the world as a continuum where the finality of binary opposites makes way for the relativity of the multivalent perspective.
Educational drama and theatre, as displayed by its pioneering practitioners, is also about multivalence, but this is largely hidden by theoretical imprecision where ambivalence is equated with multivalence; a problem compounded by educational systems and world-views unconsciously, if not consciously, forcing a culture of bivalence. (Traditionally, the use of role-play in therapy aims at a psychological transformation within the bivalent paradigm, without clearly understanding that it is this very perspective of the world that results in our personal and social conflicts.)
Within an ontological framework, where role is used to understand role, role-play has the potential to release the tools of educational drama and theatre from its sometimes contradictory and self-limiting uses, for a more powerful incorporation into educational initiatives that are oriented towards multivalence. In this way, educational drama and theatre can match the strides taken by the multivalent discipline of fuzzy logic in the mathematical sciences, where the advances of the latter have not just been confined to theoretical speculation but to very practical applications in the applied sciences. Similarly, a new world of empowerment is available to educational drama and theatre when it begins to explore itself more emphatically as a multivalent tool.
From the two views of non-dualism - as both a critical tool and an experiential technique - it will thus be seen that the non-dual perspective, far from being an exotic, impractical philosophical system of thought, has much to offer practitioners of educational drama and theatre and that role-play, seen with new critical eyes, is one of the keys to this transformation.
Role-play and Transpersonal Awareness
It is the thesis of this article that the experiential use of role-play is towards ontological discovery. That is, experiencing our role-less nature is about experiencing ourselves as transpersonal awareness. It is important to realise that while most spiritual traditions point to the possibility of transpersonal awareness, various factors, including exploitation by the priestly class, have always contrived to make this realisation something to be attained in the future. In truth, who we really are, is always with us even in the absence of recognition. It is the ingrained habits of the mind and our social conditioning that make us ignore what is our fundamental nature, with all its negative consequences. The identification with the role can be so strong that very often there is a total resistance to this seeing in favour of playing out our fictions/games/ roles. Human beings have devised all manner of means to put off facing our fictions while giving the illusion that we are doing so. In consequence, we maintain our destructive sense of separation.
To come back to death and dying counselling While it may not be very practical to engage terminally ill patients in experiential exercises, unless of course they are agreeable and in a condition to do so, this approach is one that can have great value for death and dying counsellors. If the counsellor has not answered the question, who dies? (and not theoretically but actually), then all that the counsellor is doing is playing out another social role and entrenching beliefs without leading the patient to a transforming insight. Of course, it goes without saying that the counselling should always be for those who are looking for help (and this may extend to the patient’s family), and should never be imposed by the counsellor.
Based on a handout prepared for a workshop presentation given at the 2nd International Researching Drama and Theatre in Education Conference, University of Exeter, 8 - 12 April 1997.
The Little Book Of Life And Death and other books by Douglas Harding
I Am and other books by Jean Klein
On Living and Dying and other books by J. Krishnamurti
Writings by Meister Eckhart
I Am That - talks by Nisargadatta Maharaj
The poems of the Sufi poet, Rumi
Up From Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution and other books by Ken Wilber
Illness and death are an opportunity, par excellence, to clarify the fundamental error of our existence: that we have identified awareness, consciousness, life, with its object and it is through this mistake that all conflict and suffering arise. Illness then is a gift, a gift to help us realize more quickly what we are not. It gives us an opportunity that should not be refused: to be what we are.