How can we live in the Present moment? Interview with Myrtle Heery, Part IV

The following is the fourth of a four-part interview with Myrtle Heery, Ph.D., Director of International Institute of Humanistic Studies, I.I.H.S., ( located in Petaluma, California. 

The Institute provides trainings in the Existential-Humanistic model of psychology and psychotherapy, based on the teachings of James F. T. Bugental, Ph.D., author and professor emeritus to I. I. H. S. 

Interviewer: What is the most meaningful change you have seen in someone when you have used this Existential –Humanistic approach?

Mytle Heery: It just happened about two or three days ago. I was working with a student from Hong Kong, who was here in America. She was doing a classroom demonstration with me. In that situation often what I do use the moment to explore what I am ‘talking about” and making it real in the moment.

So, I talked to the student about my aging. Afterward, we were reviewing the interview in front of the class, and she said, “What could I have done differently?” 

I answered, “Well, who else in the room is aging besides me?” And she said, “Well, not me!” All the students in the room burst into laughter, including her. She caught herself in the reality of the moment. She is a lot younger than I am, but of course she is aging. We are all aging. The readers are a few minutes older as they are reading this article.

It was an example of what I call an ‘aha’ moment. A very profound moment she realized, “Oh! I am in the same boat as this other person. The exact same boat. I am also aging and getting old and what am I doing with that fact?”

There is a lot of self-disclosure in this model of therapy. There is a joining nof in a specific problem but in an existential given of being. For example, of a therapist saying to a client, “Yes, I, too, am aging.” We hold this reality together. And then you open to the choices that are present for that person in that moment to that fact.

I: Can you give me another example?

MH: I had a client who had a child that was murdered. Now I don’t have a child who has been murdered. And I hope that never happens to me. But I do have a child. And once I shared that I had a child, her whole therapy changed. Because she felt joined with the fact that I was a mother. That the potential liability of losing a child is always there in any parent’s consciousness.

The naming of the obvious that is in the room, can be very deepening to the therapeutic relationship. And it opens the possibility of change in the person.

I: Can you talk about that more? What do you mean when you say ‘naming the obvious?’

MH: For instance, when I travel in a foreign country. I often do not speak their language, but I am a human being. I have a physical body, and I may be tired from my traveling. 

All people can understand that. If you travel a long distance you will be tired. And they think, “Well, yes. We have traveled far. We get tired. Maybe we should take a break right now. Maybe we should rest and come back a few moments.”

So it is using the obvious in the moment to join, to become closer to the people—as people living with the givens of being human.

I think there is a tremendous mystery of being here. And once we name the obvious things—being in a body, having choices, knowing that we are going to die—then we can begin to explore the whole mystery of what we are we doing here? What kind of choices are we making that can enhance our being here for each other.

This model is very altruistic, not selfish. It is not just about improving the individual, but rather helping the individual reach a point where they are giving to other people. In that respect it is very close to Buddhism or the Sufi tradition.

I: In other words, the connections are the important thing?

MH: Yes, the relationship. The biggest focus in this model is on the relationship between the client and the therapist, between the group and the group leader. It is not just about one person talking about their problems. It is about how that talk, that story, is effecting everyone in the room. And how everyone in that room can assist that person with their human condition. 

But we rarely use the word ‘problems,’ we use the word ‘challenge.’ So it is how the challenge can be met and about being helped by other people that are sitting together sharing in the room.

I: If someone who is not a psychologist would like to incorporate the principles of Existential-Humanistic psychology in their daily living, how do you suggest they might start?

MH: If they had a computer, I would tell them to go to our website,

On that site are links to some articles which have been written by students who have graduated from our training, called ‘Unearthing the Moment.’ The graduates have applied Existential-Humanism in many different settings. Some people have used this approach in prisons with prisoners. Other people have applied it in teaching, in different classrooms, in working with families, in your average day-to-day living.

We have people on our Board—this is a non-profit organization—trying to broaden this model of psychology into hospice settings and different lines of work. People are learning that using the present moment can really change your whole attitude toward living. 

What you perceive and experience to be a challenge can change, once you move your consciousness into the present moment instead of the past or the future. Living life in the present tense is such a rich experience for me whether I am teaching, doing psychotherapy, or being with you in this moment via a telephone interview. I feel delight as I speak of the passion I have for this work.

I: Can you say more about ‘living in the present moment’?

MH: For example, you can do that simply when you are cooking. Be aware of how you are cutting your vegetables, rather than worrying about how many people are coming to dinner, or what the meal is going to look like, or who is going to like the meal. Be very awake and alert to how you are using the knife to cut the zucchini.

In that perspective it is very close to a lot of meditative practices. That is how the average person can begin to live in the moment with whatever is appearing to be a challenge.

I: Can you give me an example of how you have done this in your own life?

MH: Yes. When people are diagnosed with cancer or have a life threatening illness, many times they move into fear and terror of the future. They do this rather than resting in the present tense with the person who is sitting in front of them, giving them this information, this diagnosis.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. My husband did survive cancer. During his treatment, we became very close friends with the nurses and the doctors. They still are good friends of ours. And I know we all made a positive impact on each other by staying present in the moment. 

For instance, when he was in the hospital, we became good friends with a nurse who directed me to a health food store to get my husband some carrot juice. Well my bringing carrot juice became the talk of the hall and others started asking where I got it and was it good?

We weren’t so focused on the possibility of him dying as much as, ‘well, what is happening between the two of us and others right now?”

I: Wow!

MH: And it was a wow. And it is just using all those moments to the fullest. That’s all we have is this moment, really. 

And it is in this moment right now that you and I are discussing these concepts in this interview. We are sharing how they are impacting us, and how those concepts might impact other people who will read about them.

I: Any last words you’d like to share?

MH: I would like to thank you for putting this up on your site. This is wonderful, to begin to dialogue about our human existence and all our possibilities on the internet, awesome possibilities for our human potential. I wish all those who are reading this interview to live the moment you have and to live it fully by being Present to the moment!


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I write a mystery series about a young rookie deputy on her first assignment in the Verde Valley of Arizona.
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