Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning and its relevance to Somatic Psychotherapy, Counselling and Education.

by Donald Marmara

I will share an experience that I had when I was 20 years old. This is a true story and one of the formative experiences of my life.

I grew up in Malta, and I happened to meet an interesting guy at a party one night. I started chatting with this man, and discovered that he was one of England’s leading meteorological experts and that he had been hired by the government to help set up a met office in Malta.

He told me that he went to a fishing village a few days before and he was chatting with a local fisherman, and this fisherman looked out across the sea and up to the sky and said “ it will rain tomorrow”.

The met office expert went on to explain to the fisherman, who was illiterate, had never been to school, and had never traveled more than a few miles from his village, that the met office was able to determine with the help of modern technology that tomorrow would be a sunny day.

The fisherman smiled and repeated “ tomorrow it will rain”. And sure enough, the next day it rained all day.

The met office expert was impressed and said to me “ I don’t know why they’re paying me all this money – if you want a weather forecast you should ask a local fisherman”.

This is a true story and one of the formative experiences of my life. From then on if I wanted to learn something, I sought wherever possible to experience it first hand and come to my own understanding rather than just accepting what others have said about it.

That is why my training and work in somatic psychotherapy, counselling and emotional learning is predominantly experiential. In my work, which I call Core Development, I use only methods that I have personally experienced over a period of time.

That is also why, rather than giving you answers, I create a place where it is safe for you to explore your thoughts, feelings, desires and relationships, so you can find answers for yourself through your own experiencing.

The word experiential is often used to refer to observing a process. In psychotherapy and counselling, the process of observing another counsellor or psychotherapist working with a client is sometimes referred to as experiential learning. So is working with clients under the supervision of an experienced counsellor or psychotherapist.

This is not what I mean by experiential learning. What I mean when I use this term is actually experiencing the process by undergoing therapy myself.

So when somebody says their training or approach in psychotherapy or counselling is experiential, it’s important to ask “what exactly do you mean by experiential?” Have you been through this process yourself or have you just observed others going through it?

Think of it this way – if you wanted to learn to ride a horse, would you choose someone who has studied the theory of horse riding, and who has spent time observing others learn to ride, or would you prefer to learn from someone who has actually learnt to ride a horse themselves as well as studying the relevant theory?

Would you apply the same criteria in choosing a therapist?

Donald Marmara is a counsellor and somatic psychotherapist based in Sydney. He can be contacted on 0412 178 234.