Nanjing, Still Water Counseling Center

Mr. Sun, thirty years old, is one of the three shareholders of Still Water, a private counseling center that was founded last year after two years of preparations.

In China, more and more private counseling and psychotherapy companies emerge. However, Mr. Sun claims, it is not an easy business to run. Last year three counseling centers, including Still Water, were founded in Nanjing, but only Still Water survived. The overall demand for psychotherapy services is absolutely growing, but Mr. Sun thinks not many people can afford it right now.

As an example he mentions psychoanalysis, which requires an intensive and long-term treatment process. Usually, the treatment needs three to four sessions in a week. The price of each session depends on the counselors’ experience, which is decided by the accumulated therapy hours and supervision hours. Prices for one hour therapy sessions at Still Water are 200, 300, 400 and 600 RMB. Mr. Sun’s price is 300 RMB per session. Most of the people coming here, especially the younger generations born after the 1970s and also teenagers, can afford up to 30 sessions.

Today, the government issues official licenses for the counselor profession. Mr. Sun explains that it is the Labor Department of China that is responsible for issuing the psychological counseling certificates. There are two levels of certificates; one level for senior counselors and one for junior counselors.

The criteria to get a certificate includes passing basic psychology and clinical psychology tests, as well as concluding a certain amount of counseling cases that will indicate your ability to the conceptualize cases. The scientific foundations of the tests lie in the most prevalent psychotherapy approaches. The first is Freud’s methodology of psychoanalysis, because it is the earliest and most classical approach in history. All the counselors have to read some materials from Freud, not the original version but some abstracts. The second approach is the Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), an evidence-based approach with a “natural scientific flavor”, as Mr. Sun describes it. Through CBT, counselors learn to explore the stimuli and responses of their clients. The third includes a more humanistic approach. Mr. Sun refers here to Transactional Analysis and similar derived approaches.

Mr. Sun gives us a short introduction to the history of psychotherapy in China. Psychotherapy already existed before the establishment of the Republic of China. His grandfather was a psychologist. Together with colleagues he conducted psychotherapy research and practice.  However, the Cultural Revolution wiped out the whole discipline between 1966 and 1976. In a communist country like China, which puts material as the first substance, psychology with its concentration on spirituality was regarded as a fake and Bourgeois science. The early generation of psychologists either committed suicide or were captured. His grandpa, one of the captured, was forced to perform ridiculous tasks, like cleaning toilets.

The whole discipline was totally destroyed during the 10-year disaster and was not rebuilt until 1980s. Before 2001, there were only psychologists who prescribed pills. Therapies where psychologists would have sessions talking with their clients were nonexistent. It was in 2001 that the first new generation of counselors got their licenses from the government. According to Mr. Sun, at that time the government realized that some mental diseases cannot be totally cured by pills and they decided to issue the psychological counseling licenses.

When asked, Mr. Sun explains that there is not yet a market for affluent middle-class people who do not have serious disorders but want to take therapy sessions get to know themselves better.  His clients for therapy are mainly the neurotic persons, such as those suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCD). All of his clients come to him after having extremely serious quarrels or fights with their family and they have become too depressed to overcome the problems on their own. He shares with us an interesting finding that almost all his clients are from private companies or starting their own business. He speculates that civil servants working for public institutions live a pretty happy life, so none of them has the need of psychological counseling.

Since all the supervisors of Mr. Sun are Swedish, he has access to plenty of European cases of psychotherapy. Based on his comparison of the foreign and domestic cases, he tells that most of the foreign clients have problems deeply rooted in their family background, whereas the Chinese clients have problems driven by social changes taking place in the last decades.

According to him, the majority of Swedish clients suffer from personality disorders and neurosis conflicts caused by family miseries at their early ages, for example, sexual abuses and physical abuses. Thanks to the stable society in Sweden, few people have problems in adapting to social changes. However, for the last two to three decades, people born after the 1970s in China have undergone dramatic social changes. When they were in their primary schools, they were taught to love the country and the communist party. However, after they grew up, they found this cramming of ideology was fake and useless. They were exposed to and were forced to adapt to the brutal competitions for materials in the jungle society. They pursue so hard to own a house, a car and other materials, seen as necessities for marriage and life nowadays, that they lose their focus in the spiritual world as a consequence.

Now that the problems are driven by social changes, Mr. Sun sometimes feels that he cannot do anything to exterminate the root of these problems. However, he and his colleagues are endeavoring to guide their clients to address the problems with a peaceful state of mind. One of his colleagues joked that as a matter of fact, they are all working for the government, because their main job is to wipe out the anger of their clients and to make them more adapted to the society.

However, after years of practicing, he is more willing to describe his duty as growing the personal freedom inside his clients. He and his colleagues now share the view that if we get more personal freedom, sooner or later our society would be freer. He cites from one of his colleagues, that a free country cannot be built with a bunch of slaves. He says that “our people” are suffering from an inner constriction that they easily knee down to the authority of the government, and even worse, cherish “worship with a fever” for the authority. Through the communication between him and his clients, he believes that they have more courage to defend their own rights in their life and more knowledge to earn their money and status without abandoning their dignity.

We continue our conversation with the focus on Mr. Sun’s personal experience. He majored in English and Chinese Comparative Literature in college. In 2005, he pursued a master’s degree in clinical psychology and now has one year before getting his doctor’s degree in the same major. Till now, he has practiced clinical psychology for seven years. He will go to Norway next year for further study.

He describes his personal counseling style as the combination of Western methods and Buddhist theories. Despite utilizing the Western methods to analyze and research, he makes the wisdom of Buddhism the foundation of his counseling. The goal of Western psychotherapy is to cure people, while the marrow of Buddhism is to accept. For example, he uses Western techniques such as the double chair, i.e. he asks his clients to communicate with their family members as if they were present. However, if they refuse, he accepts and changes to another technique. The foundation based on Buddhist philosophy enables his clients to have the feeling of being accompanied in their most difficult period, not being treated as a patient. He is sure that this accompanying is curative to his clients.

Mr. Sun says that three or four years ago, he would agree that the western psychology attaches so much importance to the value of individual that it helps create too many selfish people. However, now, after further study and reflection upon Western theories and Buddhist philosophy, he has changed his view. First, more theories with the premise that human beings exist in relations, such as the “Dasein” analysis approach, are burgeoning in recent years. Also, he does not think there is a conflict between the emphasis on ego and the emphasis on relationship any more. The Buddhist, especially the South Buddhist theories, also focuses on the individual. What they advocate is that if people can love themselves, they will have more strength and power to love others. He further illustrates that if people have more personal freedom, they will have more chances to build the intimacy with others, while those haunted by inner constrictions find themselves hard to establish and maintain relationships.

Mr. Sun admits that seven years of study and practice of clinical psychology exerts a far-reaching influence on his own development as an individual. In the past, he could not bear some personal conflicts, but now he becomes more emotionally stable, peaceful and happier in his life. His professional goal in the next ten years is to develop his own approach and original therapy theory, which can better fit the Chinese people’s psychological need. He has been forging the way of integrating the Western methods and the Buddhist philosophy, theoretically and practically.

“Still Water”, the name of the counseling center, according to Mr. Sun, was derived from the movie “Almost Famous. There was a rock band called Still Water in this movie. He added that they were also inspired by the famous western saying, “Still waters run deep”.

Seven young therapists work in the center and they all want to go deeper in their counseling career and psychological research. For the first two years of this center, they invited supervisors from Sweden and America to have workshops and one year ago, they all thought it was high time to receive clients on their own. Clients can find them on their website through their advertisements.

At two o’clock p.m., a weekly salon begins in the center. About fifteen people participate in the salon, including three therapists, college students majoring in psychology in Nanjing Normal University as well as people interested in psychology. This week’s theme of the salon is peoples’ expression of their anger. All the participants are asked to share their experience of getting extremely irritated.

Mr. Chen, one of the therapists, lost his temper with a bunch of college students in Wenchuan during the post-earthquake (2008) reconstruction period. His team and the college students were both sent there to carry out psychological consultation to children. Since no task was assigned to the students, they were playing all day long and making a lot of noise. Mr. Chen, dissatisfied with the students for rather a long time, finally lost his temper because he could no longer bear their noisy behavior.

The two college graduates following Mr. Chen’s story have both identical stories. They both want to become psychotherapists in the future, whereas their parents insist that they have to do more stable and income-guaranteed jobs, such as a salesman or a civil servant. One of them left home when he had failed to control his resistance to such pressures.

Another girl was irritated after a sexual harassment. The boyfriend of her roommate touched her butt while she was washing her hair. She described her feeling at that moment as being instantly detonated. She poured all the water on him, slapped him in his face and did not allow him to come to their dorm any more.

Most of the participants regretted their outrage afterwards. However, Mr. Sun tells them it was the outrage that visualized their emotional needs for them. Through expressing their anger, they could see a clearer self and hear a clearer crave from the inside.

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