A New Way of Healing: Introducing the “Communer”

Recently I was working with a client who couldn’t break through his problem with clutter. I suggested a sensitive, practical, easy way forward. I asked, “Does that seem do-able?” He laughed and replied, “Oh, it’s do-able, but the question is – will I do it?”

This client is a great stand-in for most of us, whether we’re trying to lose weight, overcome an addiction, shift out of unhealthy patterns, treat ourselves better, or heal long-debiliating trauma.

We know exactly what to do, and even have help in the way of therapists and coaches of all sorts. Still, we find ourselves unable to stay focused on, and complete, the necessary practices.

Why?

I’ve come to see a fundamental paradox in how we approach transformation. On the one hand, we pay lip service to the idea of oneness, of interdepence, of our deep connection and need for one another. On the other hand, when faced with our greatest challenges, we usually try to pull ourselves up by the bootstaps and do it all alone.

For example, I tell all my clients to be in touch between appointments, whenever something important comes up to ask or share. Many don’t, for fear of bothering me or overstepping boundaries, even though I implore them to “err on the side of over-communicating.”

Back to my client with the clutter. I asked him a follow-up question. “What if there were a caring acquaintance right beside you during your attempts at de-cluttering? If that person were a silent support, a resonating presence, but also available to listen and reflect what came up for you moment by moment, would it make a difference?”

There was a pause, then my client began to cry. He was so moved by the idea, it was instantly clear we’d struck gold.

But how could we arrange for such a person to support my client? Who could be there, on-call, rather than on an appointment basis?

Isn’t that the same key question for all of us? Isn’t the moment of truth so often at 1 a.m. when you’re reaching for that bag of chips? Or for whatever it is that will ease your present discomfort but ultimately make the situation worse?

For this reason I’m constantly looking for new ways to touch base with my clients in between sessions. I want, as much as humanly possible, to be available to them at these pivotal moments.

Still, it’s not enough. We need to be accompanied in our darkest, most challenging times in a way that rarely exists in today’s incredibly isolating culture.

Even for those of us with friends and family members who would like to support us in such a way, the complex nature of those relationships, and the challenges those people face in their own lives, makes them unlikely candidates.

That’s why I’ve begun imaging a new kind of occupation. I call the job professional communing. A Communer is nearby, on stand-by, especially during your most vunerable times of day. A Communer has been trained to accompany but not lead, to hold space, to invite you into the deepest possible connection to the emotions that are underlying your difficulty. A Communer will come close, or back off, as you wish.

Your first thought may be, “Incredible! But impossible! The whole thing would have to cost a fortune.” That’s probably right. But I wonder if it would actually cost less than what we pay as a society for the ravages of addiction, depression, anxiety, etc.

You might also think this sounds kind of like an AA sponsor. That’s true, but without a particular spiritual perspective, and available for the whole array of difficult life experience, not just for addiction.

I wonder if a lot of people would be drawn to a one year training program, following which they’d be eligible to provide this essential human service for a low but reasonable salary. Perhaps we’re not ready yet for something like this, but it’s time to start spreading the idea.

I’ve also brainstormed the idea of an online exchange, where you could offer this service to others and also procure it for yourself, approaching such partnerships with confidence knowing that everyone in the exchange has been trained and vetted. Along with that, I envision, you’d be able to touch base with people in an exploratory way, to assess your mutual “fit,” before actually beginning a relationship of support.

I know all this may seem like pie in the sky. But don’t many significant social shifts, before they eventually become commonplace?

Perhaps the biggest obstacle lies inside us. I saw this when working with another client who just couldn’t lose fifty life-threatening pounds. She tried everything to no avail. I suggested a Communer, knowing that she had the financial means to pay for the whole thing herself. I even offered to find great local candidates.

At first my client agreed, but then quickly backed out. It seemed too shameful to need such support, and too hard to actually put it into practice.

So it’s clear that the obstacles to our becoming a Communer culture are serious, both within and without. But imagine how all our lives would change, dramatically, beautifully, if it ever came to be.

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About Raphael Cushnir

Raphael Cushnir is a popular contributor to O, The Oprah Magazine. He has also been a teacher, activist, screenwriter, and film director. His own heart was rekindled after a period of profound grief. His first book, Unconditional Bliss: Finding Happiness in the Face of Hardship, was twice nominated as Best Personal Growth title of the year and introduced the "Living the Questions" process. His second book, Setting Your Heart on Fire: Seven Invitations to Liberate Your Life, is used as a teaching tool in churches and spiritual centers around the country. His third book, How Now: 100 Ways to Celebrate the Present Moment, was named one of the "Best Spiritual Books of 2005" by Spirituality and Health magazine. Raphael shares his work in talks and workshops worldwide. For more info: www.livingthequestions.org; www.heartonfire.org; www.hownow100.com; www.innermanagement.biz.
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20 Responses to A New Way of Healing: Introducing the “Communer”

  1. Helena Alvarez says:

    That’s exactly what most of us need, a non-judgmental listener. It’s a pitty I live so far away! I live in Venezuela and my English is not fluent enough to do this in a foreign language.. I’m a good listener because most of my life has been molded through suffering but I know -as the example of that lady that wanted and then couldn’t accept it- that it won’t be easy. Two days ago I offered a friend to listen with a loving and open heart that’s incapable of judging because I do love Humanity, in fact, today this is my greatest pain. I do hope you can find ways to put this wonderful idea into action. With love and appreciation for a compassionate work.

  2. I think this is why people have successfully used the idea of a ‘guardian angel’ to help them through times of stress, trauma, worry or grief. They have, at their shoulder, an intangible ‘Communer’ whose only purpose in existing is precisely your definition, Raphael; someone who holds space, and is always available during the most vulnerable times of day.

    Whether or not the person is tangible or real, the idea of having another who Communes with you during the times you need them most, this is powerful stuff.

    Could your client…imagine you with them, as they are going through a decluttering hemorrhage? You could tell them, “When you begin to get frustrated, imagine me right there, Communing with you, giving you the perfect advice.”

  3. lisa lindenlaub says:

    Dear Raphael,
    Just prior to reading this blog I was thinking to myself, “if I ever get through this dark night i’m going to create a support house for people experiencing the excruciating labor of birthing the authentic self.” I am in total alignment with your beautiful idea and intention. You are so right on, we simply cannot walk this road completely on our own, its way to easy to get lost. So, if I do make it through, (I mean this literally), it would be my deepest honor and pleasure to hold the space for others on there journey.

    As love and gratitude,

    Lisa lindenlaub

  4. Nick says:

    When beginning to read about the communer, and before you suggested an actual person, I began thinking that you would refer to the communer as the idealised self, the self one might be after having tamed all of one’s personal demons. This self would know completely about the struggle having faced it and overcome in the past. The sympathy between this idealised or fully actualised self and the patient would be real and intimate, but also gently persistent in assuring that the problem not only could be faced but that in an odd sense already had been, (from the perspective of the idealised self.)

    I have no idea if this has formed a basis for therapy, but perhaps it could.

  5. Emma says:

    This very morning I was imagining what it would be like to have someone in my neighborhood who I didn’t even know particularly well start to walk with me in the mornings so that I could talk to her about my life (without worrying that she would judge me or tell the people in my life what I really think) and she could tell me about her life (same deal) and I even imagined posting something to this effect on our neighborhood listserv — like an ad for a friend. Your idea makes me think of it again, because I immediately dropped my idea out of fear, didn’t want the whole nabe to think I was needy, a sense of shame for even imagining it! It also makes me think of co-counseling which I never did, but I know those who get a lot out of it. Isn’t the problem the shame? And the fact that it would have to happen at 6am because of our schedules? And I could throw out a lot of other reasons why it couldn’t happen! So how could it?

  6. Gail Larsen says:

    Thanks for this, Raphael. When you said, “We need to be accompanied in our darkest, most challenging times in a way that rarely exists in today‚Äôs incredibly isolating culture,” that really hit home. Last night I had a three-hour phone conversation with a friend I hadn’t caught up with in 6 months, and it was incredibly healing to the point we could laugh at the human condition. To be witnessed, accompanied supported both of us. I’ll spread the word on FB with your ideas and observations. And for the woman above who talked about the guardian angel, I’m sure you know the angel of healing is Raphael//Rafael. You are well named! I’m proud to call you my friend. Love, Gail

  7. Kristen Reynolds says:

    A long time ago when I was in my twenties, I had the idea for something called as Attention Center; where one could go for attention. What I see now is that there needs very desperately to be an in between full out therapy and nothing at all. For one thing there is such a stigma against therapy even now, people who could really use the support, will not go. Then there is the cost.
    Most people I know who really could use support don’t have the money. Take my dear friend with ADHD. Because of ADHD, he never has enough money. But with the right support, he might be able to have the self organization needed to make his business pay more. I know others with PTSD who could seriously use support, but can’t afford it.

    Recently I’ve thought of listening centers, because my teen says Attention Centers sounds too militaristic. :) I believe it would be fairly simple to train people to listen well. Then I thought of Charlie Brown’s Lucy sitting behind a simple facade with a sign saying the doctor is in 5 cents please. OK drop the “doctor” and put in Listener or Communer (does it sound too much like communism or a strange religious rite? – I’m from the south originally and that matters) At any rate, train a group of people to listen as volunteers – not so different from therapeutic touch practitioners in hospitals.

    As for getting people to use this service. So they might not reach out for fear of bothering someone or because of shame? When I tried out this Listening Booth, I found people quite intrigued and interested in sitting down. I did it at a festival. I could imagine a booth at a Farmer’s Market, festival, or outdoor event. Very casual. The main thing is it’s fun and casual. It seems enjoyable and not so serious to the person. Done in a certain way it could have the same feeling as therapeutic touch, something everyone does, but not something that points you out as weird or broken. The people at the festival liked my Listening Booth. Several expressed surprised that they actually felt better.

    As you can see, I resonate with the Communer idea very much and would enjoy brainstorming some more.

  8. Kristy says:

    Hi Raphel,
    This is a great idea. I actually have this in an on-going, daily way in two different communities of which I am a part. I am in a 12-step recovery program for food addiction called Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA) in which the daily practices of our recovery include the following essential components: a 15 minute phone call with our sponsor; after 6 months’ abstinence (the FA-equivalent of sobriety in AA) sponsoring one or more people and having daily 15 minute calls with sponsees; making three telephone connections daily with other people in the FA program; attending 3 FA meetings a weeks; and doing service for the meetings and the fellowship. There are other elements, as well, but these are the ones most germaine to the idea of a “communer”, a concept which I see as having been utterly essential and pivotal in my getting sober with food. There is a saying in AA that where two people come together, God can be found. We cannot get well without each other. I have come to see through my recovery that it is ONLY through relationship that any of us can heal and grow; we are meant to be in communion, we are built emotionally, psychically, even neurologically, to be connected to one another. Our separation is only a physical appearance; we are like banyan trees, connected by an unseen web. When this connection is not attended to, we wither.
    The key to the power and potential of this kind of recovery program is that a) someone has to want it and ask for it (“Find a sponsor who has what you want and ask how it was achieved.”) and b) the people with whom we are connecting are in the same boat – we are saving ourselves as we save each other. At first this starts out as just saving ourselves from the torture of addiction, but ultimately, I have come to see that every relationship I have is served by the same kind of approach – listening, caring, not giving advice but being a compassionate presence, and sharing what worked for me. And then I see that my heart and my life are hugely enhanced by the growth and healing of my companions, so is born the desire to serve another.
    The other community in which I have experience this is in the School of Womanly Arts community created by Mama Gena (Regena Thomashauer.) Again, this community has specific practices in which our struggles and suffering get transmuted through relationship and the use of structured, clear practices that every woman elects to participate in. It requires believing that we are worth another’s time, that asking for what we need allows another to be of service (which I think is a human need…) and that receiving is as important as giving. Receiving is anathema in this over-masculinized culture, but I digress.
    I’d love to talk more about this. And I LOVE your thought-provoking, pie-in-the-sky brainstorming!! You have a gift for sailing out an idea that is right at the cusp of our evolving emotional consciousness in a way that opens the door even more the our potential for love and loving evolution. Thank you for being the conduit of Grace!
    love,
    Kristy

  9. Mj says:

    I have long believed that the care and support available to 12steppers should be available to everyone. We need something like ‘life’ anonymous.

  10. Richard says:

    Certainly such a person could help. It has occurred to me that if I had more money than I knew what to do with I would hire one. For me, it would be best if this person were there all the time to get me places on time, stop me eating junk and keep me on focus. I would need a personal assistant, in other words. Without such a person right at my side, I would be unlikely to call them at a time of unconsciousness.

    I’ve had some luck recently with your notion of the flinch. It has helped me realize when I make decisions so automatically and quickly that I do not have time to consciously intervene.

    I’ve also been looking for ways to create structures to support myself; for example, calendar reminders to get me places on time. If I could create working structures then the Communer could be a useful supplement.

  11. Yolande says:

    I love this idea. Raphael, you are an inspiration as always. Thank you.

    In hindsight, the gift to me in your blog was that it took me out of my ‘healer’ mode and ‘mother’ mode and into a human who was feeling her way with your words and wishing for a communer in my life. I resolved to call my sister halfway through the post.

    Thank you for the invitation to “imagine” what it would be like if this came to be.

    YES, there is a need in our world for professional communers.

    Y

  12. I believe we can and must create a new culture where we learn from childhood how to team up effectively for success in our endeavors. What if emotional connection and authentic communication became the norm in schools? Imagine a nation of Communers! We are all connected, be we aware or not. The future of this earth lies in the hands of our young people. I see our loving intentions around them like a cocoon.

    I ask myself, how am I transmitting my wisdom into practicality? What can I do today? I found that I have more energy and my self esteem corrects once I see my dreams turn into reality, from the simple to the sublime. I noticed that fatigue maybe a sign that some aspect of me is resisting the expansion of personal power and the enactment of destiny. Noticing beauty everywhere, being real with myself and staying focused on the good is what works for me.

  13. Wendy says:

    Hi Raphael
    Thank you so much – just reading your blog made me feel I wasn’t alone any more. I do have a client who rings me up when he is feeling really bad, and it helps, and I know it has helped me also when there has been someone there I can talk about my feelings to when things are tough, and in doing so it creates more space for things to shift – but there is also the fear of seeming too needy, my own judgment of myself ‘I should be able to get through this on my own’. And yet, when I read your blog I could feel my heart opening to myself, with compassion. For me, maybe, it is enough to know that someone is with me in spirit, knowing how hard things can be at times when I am physically on my own, just to know that someone cares and is on the same wavelength – however many miles away they may be – means that I am no longer alone. Then, I am more able to be with myself, to open my heart to myself, and to listen and reflect on what comes up for me moment to moment – knowing that I’m not the only one doing this work! I think, in my life, I want to be the sort of person who is there for others to connect to in this way, because I feel privileged when they do open up to me, and we connect more deeply as human beings. And yes, in response to what Kristy said, asking for what one needs allows another to be of service… and I remember someone (famous?) saying that if we really do what is best for us, we are doing what is best for everyone else too. Great stuff!

  14. Dina says:

    “Life anonymous,” attention centers and listening booths, neighbors who walk with neighbors to non-judgmentally talk and listen to each other talk about their lives…! What beautiful, beautiful ideas (and so necessary!). What are we waiting for? All these ideas make something in my soul stir, and it makes me so happy to know people think of these things, even if they don’t exist (yet!).

  15. Fe says:

    Hi dear friends
    YES!! We need to have these kinds of strands of support in our communities – and by developing our communication with one another, perhaps we will be able to be ‘communers’ for each other. I am keen to build a world where such connections are an organic part of our lives and not attached to the money system. THANK YOU Raphael for inspiring and challenging us!

  16. Optimistic Cynic says:

    Raphael said—”Along with that, I envision, you’d be able to touch base with people in an exploratory way, to assess your mutual “fit,” before actually beginning a relationship of support.”— “Fit,” seems to me to be a matter of personality types and scheduling. “A relationship of support” is indeed a “relationship.” What presently existing relationship roles can we find that include some degree of this communing practice?

    I’ve read some books on ‘personality type.’ They generally struck me as being ridiculously vague and arbitrary. There was one thing I ran across a mention of that made sense, but I haven’t seriously followed up on it. The author said that there are two physically measurable -in the brain- ranges that when charted as X and Y axes on a graph give you a measure of personality type that corresponds well with the ancient Greek system of four personality types. One was ‘phlegmatic.’

    Scheduling was once easy. There was a time when everyone in a community slept and worked on a naturally enforced schedule. Then we started using fire. My personal experience with meeting people and making friends in urban neighborhoods has been that differing schedules will keep people from connecting more than anything else in the world, even if they live in the same room. A huge benefit of our urban, electronically connected system, is that if you are on any kind of regular schedule, you can almost certainly find someone who is on a similar schedule. Next door or on the other side of the world doesn’t matter so much as long as your schedules coincide. Emma wants someone to talk to while she walks. If noone in the immediate neighborhood can join her on the same schedule, I recommend talking to someone on a mobile telephone during that time. It may be that sharing “time” with someone is more relevant to communing than physical presence.

    One kind of communing relationship, as presently practiced in American society, most often occurs between a man and a woman, and usually leads into a marriage. Looking at examples of these relationships shows little correlation between communing and personality fit. What does the literature on successful marriages say is most important? I seem to recall it being a conscious commitment, from both parties, to putting in as much time and work as is needed, when it is needed. Some might say that committing to that intense of a relationship without getting all of the benefits of marriage is reason enough to get you committed — to an insane asylum. The connection between giving someone the communing type of support and committing to a lifelong partnership is very strong in our popular culture. That cultural bias could make asking someone to listen to your troubles seem as risky as asking someone to marry you. How would you describe communing to people so as to break that automatic connection in their minds between sharing troubles and courting marriage?

    I hope my thoughts aren’t too random to follow.

  17. Love your ideas, Raphael. Healing needs a witness. And this, paradoxically, also came to mind: “In Buddhism we save ourselves.” This literally is the first thing my yoga teacher/therapist said to me after hearing my “story.” It stuck.

  18. Carol Lee says:

    This is a wonderful thought and it reminds me of what a true friend is to be… someone who loves and sees past the warts and stains. Gives a smile when a smile is needed, or a hug when it’s needed and cries tears that also cleanses the soul.
    I lost a dear friend over a year ago…. She called me her Guardian Angel. My voice helped her for several years, but it wasn’t loud enough to drive away the other voices that haunted her.
    My message to those that help others is …….. Know that your support and kindness does help those around you. We support, but we do not control.
    It took me a year to fully accept that I did everything that I could for Lauren. I loved her and encouraged her as much as I could and as much as she would let me.

    Helping others is a blessing to both involved!!

    Peace!
    Carol Lee

  19. John (BeyondAwakening) says:

    Hi Raphael,
    Loved the article. Don’t we have a Communer within each of us? – a ‘deeper self’ that we can call on. From listening to your BeyondAwakening chat with Terry Patten, I sense you’re actually teaching that, and manifesting it. Caelen and Nick and Allison might have pointed to it.
    But maybe in times of stress, and without training, we need an external Communer. We definitely need relationships.

  20. Lisa says:

    This reminds me of a story I heard of a speech given by the governor or Guam when they opened the first nursing home on that island. Rather than buy into the notion that it was an event to be celebrated, the governor said it was in fact a sad, tragic day in their culture when they had to institutionalize the care of their elderly, a thing that had until then been supported within the community and family. All this that I hear described in a formalized role as a “communer” seems to me what the essence of friendship used to be. (before it became a verb that applies to something you do with hundreds of anonymous people on the internet). It really chills me when these roles become something one person hires another to perform for them. It seems to me that perhaps one of the reasons this “communer” idea resonates so strongly for people is that we all have such a hunger and longing for simple friendship yet we keep trying to recreate it in ever more complicated ways rather than find a way to make room in the busy-ness of our lives so that friendship can be fostered.

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