Esalen and the human potential movement

In previous posts I’ve written about humanistic psychology, which has been called the Third Force in modern psychology, after Freudian psychodynamic psychology and Behaviorism. The founders – including Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Rollo May – seeing that psychology was primarily focused on psychopathology, wanted it to also focus on psychological health and personal growth. Esalen Institute, an isolated  retreat on the Pacific coast near Big Sur, California, is considered by many to be the birthplace of humanistic psychology. I’ve wanted to visit Esalen, a retreat center for growth and learning, since my graduate education in a humanistic psychology program. I’ve just returned home from a writing retreat at Esalen, and it felt like a weekend on holy ground.

Esalen Institute was founded by Michael Murphy and Richard Price in 1963. The land on which Esalen is located was owned  by Michael’s family for generations, and the two of them had a vision of a center for holistic learning. The place is called Esalen because for thousands of years the area was the home of the indigenous Esselen people. Accordingly, Esalen is considered sacred land, and is treated with reverence by residents and visitors. It’s isolated, far from any town, and doesn’t have cell phone service or television. There are hot springs down by the rocky shore, and everyone knows that clothing is optional at the baths. When I soaked, naked, in a pool, looking out at the Pacific sunset, I had the sense of participating in an ancient cleansing ritual.

Humanistic psychology has also been called the human potential movement. The only required course in my psychology Masters program was “Human Growth and Potential” – known by the students as “Gro and Po.” Although most of my coursework involved psychotherapy and psychological testing, I could understand why Gro and Po was required. Psychology had to be about more than psychopathology and the remediation of symptoms. Indeed, our equivalent of an “Abnormal Psychology” course was “Unconventional Modes of Experience,” lest there be any stigma regarding “abnormal.”

While psychanalytic theory and Behaviorism were dogmatic and monolithic, humanistic psychology was more like a tree, with many roots and branches. It was holistic in its orientation to the study of human behavior, focusing on mind and body as a unity, and exploring the factors that enhance creativity and enable self-actualization. It was holistic in studying both Eastern and Western philosophies and practices, recognizing the benefits of things such as yoga and Buddhist meditation, long before they became popular. Existentialism and phenomenology also influenced the human potential movement.

From the beginning of the movement, Esalen has been its Mecca. Fritz Perls did a five year residency in the late sixties, leading gestalt therapy seminars. Other eminent persons who influenced the development of humanistic psychology and had Esalen residencies were Gregory Bateson, Joseph Campbell, Ida Rolf, Virginia Satir, Rollo May, and Alan Watts. Today people go there to study massage and body work, wellness and alternative medicine, psychotherapy, meditation, and a variety of other subjects. I went there to work on being a better writer, and came home with my spiritual batteries re-charged.

A lot of what was new and esoteric back in the sixties and seventies has gone mainstream. Among the extra-curricular classes available to students in the psychology graduate program at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) were massage, hatha yoga, zen meditation, clowning, tai kwan do, and vegetarian cooking. The program was allied with the Philosophy Department, and there were opportunities to study existentialism and phenomenology. In my therapy courses, I learned about psychoanalytic theory, behavior modification, client-centered therapy, gestalt therapy, transactional analysis, sex therapy, and trance work. Once I was a working psychotherapist, my therapeutic orientation was existential, and I was very eclectic in terms of therapeutic style and techniques. I consider myself very fortunate to have attended the West Georgia College psychology Masters program.

Contemporary concepts like emotional intelligence and positive psychology couldn’t have emerged from Freudian psychodynamic theory or Behaviorism. The humanistic psychology movement created a new paradigm for human growth and potential as a legitimate area of study within the science of psychology. I think that the regard for Freud’s contribution to psychology and psychotherapy will diminish over time, relative to the contributions of humanistic pioneers like Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Milton Erickson.

The concept of emotional intelligence suggests that there are other kinds of intelligence than cognitive intelligence. Accurate empathy and compassion are important factors in human relating, and are deserving of scientific study by students of human behavior. I had initial objections to the whole notion of positive psychology, thinking, “psychology is neither positive nor negative.” But then I came to realize that it’s an outgrowth of the impulses that inspired humanistic psychology. The study of psychological wellness and peak performance, of thriving, of human creativity and the process of self-actualizing, is a legitimate pursuit within the field. Psychodynamic theory and Behaviorism will always have their place in psychology, but they need to be viewed in the context of the psychology of growth and human transformation.

The Story of Jumping Mouse, Part 2

For those who may have read Part 1 of this Native American teaching story shortly after I first posted it, you might want to check out the end, as I subsequently added a paragraph. Here’s the conclusion:

On the afternoon of his second day crossing the prairie, much to his  surprise, Jumping Mouse came upon another mouse. It was an old mouse, who was drinking from a stream, and was just as surprised as he. After they’d introduced themselves, he learned that this mouse was from his tribe. They got to talking and the old mouse explained that long ago he, too, had set out on a vision quest; but he’d given up. “I almost got grabbed by an eagle, and I’m too scared to go on, or to go back. There’s all the food and water I need right here, and there are plenty of bushes I can hide under. Look, if you go on you’re likely to end up in an eagle’s belly. Why don’t you just stay here with me, where it’s safe.” Jumping Mouse replied, “Thank you, uncle, but I can’t stay. I have to find the Center of the World, so I’ll just have to take my chances out on the prairie.”

The next day he said goodbye to the old mouse at first light, and went on his way. At mid-morning he came upon the biggest animal he’d ever seen. It was lying on the ground, eyes closed, and its breathing was labored. Jumping Mouse approached the ailing beast, which opened one jaundiced eye. “I’m Jumping Mouse, and I’m on a vision quest. Who are you?” “I’m Buffalo Spirit, and I’m sick unto death. The only cure for what ails me is. . . . the eye of a mouse.” Jumping Mouse didn’t want for this magnificent creature to die, and reasoned that he could get along with just one eye. He told the buffalo that he could have one of his eyes, and by magic the eye flew out of his head and lodged in the buffalo’s heart, curing him.

Buffalo Spirit thanked Jumping Mouse for saving his life, and asked if there was anything he could do in return. “I have to cross the prairie to get to the Center of the World, but I’m scared all the time of getting eaten by an eagle.” “Well, I’m a prairie animal and I can’t protect you all the way, but I can walk all the way to the foothills by sunset, and there’s more cover for you once you’re in the hills. You’ll have to scamper to keep up with me; but as long as you stay beneath me, you’ll be safe from any eagles.” So the two of them set out for the mountains. Jumping Mouse was worried at first that the buffalo might step on him by mistake, but he soon learned that the giant beast was very sure-footed. They reached the foothills at dusk, thanked one another, and went their separate ways.

Now Jumping Mouse knew first-hand what mountains are, and he was excited. It took most of two days, mostly uphill, for him to reach the mountain pass. He felt sure that he’d find what he sought on the other side of the mountains.  But just short of the pass, he began to hear a mournful howling. When he got there he saw a wolf –  a creature that he’d normally run from. But this wolf looked pitiful and quite harmless. He seemed to be confused. “Hello cousin, my name’s Jumping Mouse, and I’m on a vision quest.”  “I’m. . .I’m. . . I used to know who I am, but I seem to have forgotten my nature.”  “I’m pretty sure you’re a wolf.” The wolf stood up and comprehension returned to his eyes. “You’re right, I’m a wolf.” He howled again, but this time it wasn’t a mournful sound. “My name is Wolf Spirit, and I. . . I. . . what did you say I was?” Jumping Mouse told him again, and once again he acted like a proud, strong wolf. But, again, his memory failed him, and he just looked sad and confused.

Jumping Mouse thought, Uh oh! He has a different kind of illness than Buffalo Spirit, but if he doesn’t know his nature, he’ll starve to death. I can’t let that happen. He said to the wolf, “It seems that there’s strong magic in the weak eyes of a mouse. If you need my other eye to get your memory back, you can have it.” And by magic his other eye flew out of his head and into the wolf’s heart, healing him. Now Jumping Mouse was scared. He was blind in the presence of a hungry wolf. “Please don’t eat me!”

Wolf Spirit reassured him. “Of course I won’t eat you; I owe you my life! How can I help you on your vision quest?” “Well, I’m blind now. Can you guide me to the Center of the World, and protect me from the eagles?”  “I’ll serve as your eyes and take you there. And don’t worry – eagles don’t mess with me!”  The next morning the two of them set out together and started downhill, with the wolf giving instructions. Jumping Mouse couldn’t see it, but Wolf Spirit described a beautiful circular valley, ringed by mountains. In the center of the valley was a round lake. By noon they’d reached the edge of the lake. “I don’t like leaving you here, alone and blind, but I have to rejoin my pack. You can find nuts and berry bushes with your sense of smell, and you can stay hidden from eagles most of the time.” Wolf Spirit thanked Jumping Mouse again and took his leave.

Jumping Mouse was at the Center of the World, but he was  blind! For most of the afternoon, he stayed hidden as he foraged, but as the day wore on, he became very thirsty. He would be visible from the air as he drank, so he knew he’d have to be quick. He ran from the shade of the bushes and slaked his thirst at the rim of the lake. But as he drank, he heard the beating of wings overhead, louder and louder. Just as he turned to run, he felt the eagle’s talons grab him, and he felt himself being lifted higher and higher into the air. He was terrified, knowing he was about to be eaten! And then some very strange things happened.

In a flash, his vision returned – only it was sharper than it had ever been! And the pain abruptly disappeared! It almost seemed that the beating wings were his own – that he was flying! Studying the lake with his new-found eyes, he saw someone he knew. Prince of Waters sat on a lily pad beneath him. Jumping Mouse wanted to talk to the shaman who’d re-named him, and with that thought he descended, landing on the shore near his teacher. “Prince of Waters, I’m so glad to see you! The strangest thing just happened! See, I was blind and an eagle grabbed me! And then suddenly I could see again – only better! And it felt like I was flying! What’s happening to me?”

Prince of Waters replied, “When we first met, I saw that you were curious and brave. When you rose to my challenge, I gave you a new name. Now I know that you are also tenacious and have a generous  spirit. You have passed many tests on your vision quest, so it is again time for a new name. You are no longer Jumping Mouse. Your new name is Eagle.”

 

When I tell this story to children, I preface it by explaining that in pre-literate cultures, storytelling is how the tribal culture (customs, values, etc.) is passed on from generation to generation. Then, after the story, I usually ask what it taught. The children usually get that it depicts curiosity, valor, tenacity and generosity as virtues. Sometimes one or more of them grasps the central metaphor of the story, without being told: In order to see with the vision of an eagle, you first have to stop looking at the world through the eyes of a mouse.

The happiest man in the world

I collect stories and used storytelling as a therapeutic technique throughout my career. Stories can be transformative and can trigger insights. Here are my re-tellings of two of my favorite teaching stories:

John was a very sad man. He suffered from what the Germans call Weltschmerz (world pain). The pain of the world weighed heavily upon him. He had a loving family and friends, and made a good living, but nothing gave him satisfaction. He was so depressed, he often thought about ending his life. But then one day he met a kindly old man, who asked him why he looked so sad. John poured his heart out, ending his account by expressing his hopelessness that he could ever find lasting happiness. The old man smiled at him and said, “I know what you can do to cure your sadness. You  need to track down the happiest man in the world and ask him for his shirt. When you put it on, you will know happiness.” “But how will I find him?” John asked. The old man replied, “If I were you, I’d travel to Istanbul and follow my nose wherever it takes me, then ask around. If he’s anywhere near, people will know, and they’ll tell you what they know. Seek him with your whole heart, and you’ll find him.”

John immediately quit his job and sold all of his worldly possessions, other than what he could wear, or carry on his back. He thought he had enough money to bankroll his quest, and booked passage to Turkey on a tramp steamer. When he got to Istanbul, he took a train east, but soon got off, sensing that he had to go the rest of the way on foot. Most people he asked knew nothing of the happiest man in the world, but others smiled, pointed to the east, and wished him well. A few claimed to have seen him, themselves, and gave John their blessings.

After a while John lost track of which day of the week it was, or which country he was in. He was meeting all kinds of people, and learning to make himself understood in new languages. He walked dirt roads through beautiful valleys and walked up and down mountain paths, avoiding cities. But he went on, because he knew he was getting closer to the itinerant man he sought. Now people were telling him things like, “I saw him go through town just last month” and “Two weeks ago he was in my home village, on the other side of these mountains.”

Bandits stole all of his money, and John came to rely on the kindness of strangers as he went on. His clothes were ragged and he had holes in his shoes. Strangers were not always kind, and he didn’t get to eat every day. When people didn’t take him in for the night, he had to sleep wherever he could find shelter. It seemed like the happiest man in the world was always just one or two days ahead of him.

One day John entered a village – he didn’t even know where it was – hungry, weary and raggedy. In the village square he inquired if anyone knew the whereabouts of the happiest man in the world. One of the villagers said, “Oh, he was just here!” When John’s face fell, the man pointed down the road and said, “If you go about two kilometers in that direction, you’ll find him under a big tree off to the right, in sight of the road.” John grew excited and pushed on, despite his exhaustion.

Sure enough, two kilometers down the road he spied a ring of colorfully dressed people surrounding a huge tree, dancing and singing. He ran and joined the circle. There, under the tree, danced a laughing man, who had to be the happiest man in the world. All of his few worldly possessions lay beside him on the grass. And then John noticed that he was shirtless, and realized that the happiest man in the world didn’t own a shirt! And with that knowledge, John knew happiness.

———————————-

Here’s another (very short) story about material things and happiness: A zen monk lived in a simple hut on a mountainside. He owned only the essential things he needed to sustain independent life – straw bedding, a blanket, cooking and eating utensils, a few tools, and a change of clothing. One day he went down to the nearby village in the valley. When he returned late at night, he discovered that thieves had stolen all of his meagre possessions. But he laughed, seeing that the thieves had left the moon in his window.

Joni Mitchell (my favorite female poet/troubadour) recorded her song, based on this story – “Moon at the Window.”  You might also want to check out “I Got Plenty o’ Nuthin'” on the soundtrack of George Gershwin’s classic American opera, Porgy and Bess.

 

 

 

 

 

Overcoming homophobia, Part 2

By my thirties I was already quite comfortable around gay people socially and professionally, and aware of many of the issues they faced, living in a homophobic society. But the final breakthrough in working to eradicate the vestiges of my own homophobia occurred when my older brother, Lindsay, came out of the closet. Now his homosexuality could become part of the weave of our lifelong ongoing dialogue. Things not previously apprehended about my brother fell into place.

Lindsay has told me that as early as age five, he knew that he was somehow different from most other boys. He grew up to be masculine in his demeanor, with no distinctly effeminate mannerisms. In high school he dated (though not much) and played football. It would take him many years before he admitted – even to himself – that he was gay. He preceded me by two years attending The Citadel, the Charleston military academy that was my father’s alma mater. He had an Army contract. While in graduate school, he went to a counselor and asked what he could do about his feelings of attraction to men. He received the rote -and ignorant – prescription “Find yourself a good woman and marry her.” Back in those days, homosexuality was still considered a psychiatric disorder, and many counselors believed that the cure was a good heterosexual marriage – if you really wanted to change.

I believe that Lindsay tried his best to become heterosexual, and that if he could have chosen, he would have chosen to be straight. He served in the Army, married a good woman, and fathered two children. He loved his wife in his own way, but knew he was living a lie. Sensing something amiss in their relationship, she persuaded him to join her in marital counseling. Lindsay finally confessed to the lie he was living. She was devastated, and filed for divorce soon afterward.

Lindsay called me in Beaufort, where I lived at the time, and asked me to drive up to our parents’ home, in the Charleston area. He had things to tell us. The four of us sat around the kitchen table, and he admitted to everything. He totally understood his wife’s feelings of fury and betrayal, and wouldn’t contest the terms of the divorce. We hugged one another and cried. Lindsay was afraid of our father’s judgment, but Dad came through. He allowed as how this was going to take some time to sink in, but said exactly what Lindsay needed to hear at that moment: “You’re still a man and you’re still my son, and I love you.”

Lindsay has been openly gay for decades now, and lives with his life partner. He still regrets what he put his ex-wife and kids through, saying “I found a good woman and messed up her life.” He came out in the local press  as a gay graduate of The Citadel – to my knowledge, the first ex-Citadel cadet to do so. At alumni gatherings some classmates were initially guarded, but most came around when they saw the he was the same old Lindsay they knew back then. My love for my big brother wasn’t influenced in the slightest by his revelation. I felt a little dumb for not having figured out on my own that he was gay, but he’s the same person I’ve known all my life. Now I fully understood that sexual orientation isn’t a lifestyle choice, but a part of who you fundamentally are. Homosexuality is a normal sexual variation, not a deviation.

I now recognize that I grew up in a racist, homophobic society, and that this has had consequences in my life. My father was less racist and homophobic than his own father, leaving me with less mental trash to discard. The first step in overcoming learned prejudices is to own them and examine them. Having biased beliefs about race or sexual orientation doesn’t make you a bad person, just someone with issues you need to examine and outgrow. It’s not who you love, with regard to gender or sexual orientation, that matters; it’s how you love. Being a sexually responsible but sexually active person means practicing safe sex with consensual partners who are capable of giving consent, and not using people sexually. Love is a natural sweetener, if not always a necessary ingredient.

Just as I’ve had to deal with the racist notions and memes I was exposed to in my youth, in order to understand and overcome any residual racist reflexes, I had to recognize the homophobia that still exists in our culture, in order to understand and rise above it. I take no pride in being either white or straight, because I had no choice in the matter. But – because black people have been told by so many that they’re inferior – if I were black, I’d embrace the Black Pride movement. Because of all the shaming and discrimination aimed at gay people, I fully support the Gay Pride movement as a corrective to intolerance.

Being openly gay isn’t easy when you have to deal with haters; but it’s so much better than having to live a lie. Living in the closet inevitably takes its emotional toll, and some closeted gay people end their own lives rather than coming out. Lindsay describes his own coming out as both a liberation and a “homecoming.” Gay and proud, he says he knows that there will always be homophobes, but he no longer fears them.

 

 

Overcoming homophobia, Part 1

My first memory related to homophobia is from middle school. I was about to attend my very first dance, at an international school in Vienna, and was talking to a friend who had already been to school dances. Asking for instruction, I reached out as if to a dance partner, left arm up, right arm at hip level. Jumping back, he said “What are you, a homo?” I’d never heard the term before. I didn’t know anything about homosexuality, except that it was bad.

Like most of my generation, in my teens I heard “fag” jokes, and my image of a gay person was the stereotype of the effeminate “fairy.” That image changed in high school, when I was groped by a “normal looking” man at a news stand in Columbus, Georgia. I was scared and disgusted, and practically ran from the store. I got propositioned by men a few times as a young man, and never had a positive, non-threatening encounter with a gay man until years later. When I was an Army Lieutenant, I was propositioned by a bisexual Major. When I thought about men having sex with men, I felt disgust.

I’ve already written about my time as a race relations educator in the Army.  Although I wasn’t raised in a racist family,  during my training at the Defense Race Relations Institute I realized that you can’t grow up in a racist society, untouched by racism’s taint. As I became aware of the need to work on ridding myself of my own residual racism, I also became aware of my homophobia. I’d grasped the principle that people often fear things they don’t understand;  and I certainly didn’t understand homosexuality.

Over time I came to the realization that homosexuality wasn’t a choice, and that the stereotypes I’d associated with being gay weren’t accurate. I saw the movie “The Boys in the Band” and for the first time realized that gay people are just as varied, as individuals, as straight people. I read a speculative fiction story about a future dystopian society where homosexuality was the legally-enforced norm, and heterosexuals were persecuted as “queers.”  It really made me wonder what it would be like to be labeled a “queer” just because of who I make love with.

After I got out of the Army, my then-wife Doris and I (we’re still good friends) visited a former soldier I’d worked, traveled, and even shared hotel rooms with during my time as a race relations educator. Although he’d successfully passed for straight during his Army service and I’d never suspected otherwise, seeing him in civilian life it was quickly apparent  that he was gay. He revealed that he’d always felt very attracted to me. I suddenly realized that I’d had many positive, non-threatening encounters with a gay man whom I considered my friend. And he’d never hit on me! It was a major breakthrough. Thank you, Scott, wherever you are!

In grad school I conscientiously worked on chipping-away at my residual homophobia, knowing that I’d have gay clients in therapy. My real-life test came when I attended an afternoon immersion-experience workshop at a psychology conference, titled “Being Gay for Part of a Day.”  We were split up into small groups by our gay facilitators, and asked to role-play being gay, in a bar with other gay men. (Each group had at least one gay facilitator in it.) I’ve acted on stage, and did my best to get into character, so as to make the most out of out of this educational experience. As instructed, I chose the man in my group that I thought I might be most attracted to if I were gay, and focused my attention on him.  After we ended the exercise and I broke character, it quickly became apparent that the guy was convinced that I was really gay, and either on-the-make or still in denial about my sexual orientation. At first, I felt humiliated and defensive. I protested that I was happily married and tried my best to convince him that it had just been an act; but my efforts just seemed to reinforce his belief. It was a liberating experience when I decided that it was okay for him to be convinced that I was gay. I just let it go and was immediately at peace, because I’d internalized the belief that I’d need in order to do therapy with gay people: There’s nothing wrong with being gay.

By the time I became a professional therapist, I felt comfortable working with gay (lesbian, trans, etc.) clients, many of whom were confused or conflicted about their sexual orientation/identity. Many were dealing with their own homophobia. As a non-judgmental straight male, I was in a good position to validate the client’s sexuality. More than once I said something like this: “I hear that you don’t want to be gay, but you can’t deny your feelings. I’d say that what’s important for now is to accept that you’re a sexual person, like everybody else, and that’s a good thing. In time, you’ll figure out what prefix – hetero, homo, bi, trans, whatever – to put in front of it. I just hope you know that there’s nothing wrong with you if it turns out that you’re gay. In the meantime, what’s important is that you’re a loving and sexually responsible person.”

In my next post I’ll tell you about my final breakthrough in overcoming my own homophobia.

Family systems therapy

Although I’ve never been a parent, during my thirty-plus years as a psychotherapist I taught parenting skills to many people in individual, family and group therapy, as well as community consultation and education activities. Even stable, functional parents might sometimes need coaching to improve their parenting skills, while some dysfunctional parents might not even grasp the concept, because they unquestioningly raise their children the way they were raised. The most dysfunctional parents can’t distinguish their child’s needs from their own. They rationalize abusive behavior, telling the child that they did it “for your own good” or “because you deserved it.” No child deserves to be abused, but many people have been taught by their families to blame themselves for abuse they suffered in childhood.

Family systems theory provides a helpful framework for doing family therapy, because the focus isn’t on simply achieving symptom remission in the child whose “problem behavior” is what brought the family into therapy. (“She throws temper tantrums.” “He can’t stop wetting the bed.”) Instead, the focus is on the family dynamics that perpetuate the symptom or problem behavior. The therapist avoids labeling Johnny as the identified patient when she says to the family, “This isn’t just Johnny’s problem, it’s a family problem.” If the therapist can facilitate specific changes in the dynamics of the family system, the problem behavior or symptom resolves itself. Dysfunctional families can learn to be more functional. I’ll give three examples: temper tantrums, bedwetting, and compulsive masturbation.

Tom and Linda have brought their daughter Sue in for family counseling because she throws temper tantrums.  She’s the identified patient in the parents’ minds, but her behavior doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Tom and Linda say that they’ve tried everything, but the tantrums have just gotten worse. I explain that it’s normal for children to test the limits and try out new behaviors, to see what they can get away with. The first step in this family system interventions is to figure out the goal of Sue’s behavior – usually power or attention. If it’s power, Sue has learned from experience that she can wear one or both parents down, and they end up giving her something she wants (ice cream, a toy, staying up past her bedtime) in order to get her to stop. If her goal is attention, she’s learned from experience that one or both of her parents will hover over her and give their full attention to her, afraid to leave her alone when she’s having a tantrum.

In such cases I’d explain the behavioral psychology term positive reinforcement: rewarding any behavior, whether it’s seen as positive or negative,  tends to cause an increase in the frequency of its occurrence. Negative reinforcement isn’t  punishment, but rather the withholding of positive reinforcement. So if the child’s goal is power,  never give into her demands, in order to get her to stop screaming. (Both parents have to be consistent in their use of systematic reinforcement.) If it’s attention, both parents need to ignore her when she’s in tantrum mode, and give her positive attention when she’s behaving. Ignoring a tantrum can be very hard for parents at first, but when their response changes in a consistent manner, the tantrums stop.

I’ve already written about my “one-session enuresis cure,” and my family system intervention that enabled instant success in helping a ten-year-old boy to “keep a dry bed” after weeks or months of bedwetting. The mother came in with her miserable, humiliated son. She and her husband had “tried everything,” but the bedwetting was now a nightly occurrence. I explained that the cause of the enuresis was anxiety (“nerves”), and that anything family members did to increase his anxiety would just make the problem persist. I was told that the father yelled at him and spanked him when he wet his bed, and his siblings ridiculed him. We came up with a plan to change the family system response to Junior’s problem: No threats, shaming or corporal punishment. No yelling at him, or taunts from his siblings, etc. There was more to my one-session family intervention (involving the use of strategic metaphor and storytelling), but the mother was evidently successful in implementing our plan. When the family system response changed in a specified way, the symptom immediately went away.

A classic family systems technique called prescribing the symptom can be illustrated by the case history of a twelve-year-old “identified patient” (Ron), brought in by his red-faced parents (Tina and George), because they couldn’t stop him from compulsively masturbating. George and Tina were conservatively religious. They’d tried everything from prayer to punishment to pastoral counseling, and nothing had worked. At first it just seemed like Ron was always playing with himself whenever he thought he was alone. His parents had taught him that it was sinful, but he said that he just couldn’t help himself. Lately he seemed to be less cautious about when and where he masturbated, and his parents felt helpless.

Being family systems-savvy, the therapist knew that Ron’s “compulsion” was a symptom brought about by his parents’ response, and that Ron could control his autoerotic behavior if he felt motivated to do so. Paradoxically, by claiming to be powerless over his own behavior, Ron had power over his clueless, humiliated parents. The cure was to prescribe the symptom, and change the power dynamic within the family. So the therapist might need to convince the parents that private masturbation was something they could accept and not over-react to, as long as the behavior was no longer compulsive and indiscreet.

Once Ron heard his parents agree, in session, that he wouldn’t be criticized or punished for engaging in a normal sexual behavior – as long as it was done in private – the therapist might say something like this: “Now, what I say to Ron next might surprise you two but, believe me, this will work. Ron, paradoxically, your problem is that at this stage of hormonal development, you’re not masturbating enough! You say you average maybe four times a day? I think you need to do it at least five or six times a day, until you eventually reach the point where you feel like you have control again.”

By prescribing the symptom, the therapist has temporarily entered the family system and has taken the power out of (ahem) Ron’s hands. In effect, he has said to George and Tina that Ron is no longer responsible for/in control of his sexual excesses, he is. This defeats Ron’s tactic of being out-of-control and frustrating all attempts by his parents to establish control over this behavior. This change in the power dynamic – in behavioral terms – extinguishes the undesirable behavior. Ron no longer has a motivation to act like his behavior is out-of-control, because his parents are no longer freaking-out. A successful family systems-oriented therapist can accurately assess family dynamics and craft effective interventions that help make families more functional and harmonious.

 

Ericksonian hypnotherapy

Dr. Milton Erickson was one of the giants of psychotherapy, as evidenced by the fact that the largest convocation  of psychotherapists in the world, the Evolution of Psychotherapy conferences (held every four years), are organized by the Milton Erickson Foundation. He has been called the father of modern hypnosis. He not only developed a powerful alternative to traditional hypnosis, but introduced a new model of solution-focused brief psychotherapy.

I explained traditional hypnosis in a previous post. Ericksonian hypnotherapy was something new. Whereas traditional hypnotic inductions are characterized by commands and direct suggestions, implying that the therapist wields some kind of power over the “subject,” Ericksonian inductions use indirect suggestion, metaphors, and storytelling to induce trance states, circumventing client resistance to complying with the imperative voice. (You should, you will, etc.) Trance-inducing suggestions like “Your eyelids are getting very heavy and you want to close your eyes” were replaced by indirect suggestions such as “As you relax, you may find that you want to close your eyes.” Instead of hypnotic prescriptions for a person in trance, an Ericksonian hypnotherapist might say such things as “… and as you practice self-hypnosis, you may find that it’s easier for you to ________ .” Erickson also developed non-verbal methods for inducing trances.

Erickson’s life story is remarkable. Long story short, he was stricken with polio at age 17. Told that he would never walk, he taught himself to walk again. Told that he was too disabled to work, he went to medical school  and became a psychiatrist, and later a psychologist. He trained himself to be acutely aware of changes in peoples’ posture, respiration, vocalizations, skin tone (blanching or flushing) and pupillary dilation. He learned to “read people” and their immediate responses to his therapeutic interventions, adjusting his techniques to the unique individual and situation.

Erickson recognized that trances occur naturally every day in all of our lives. (There are many kinds of trance states, including confusion, daydreaming, rumination and jealousy.) He learned to induce them in non-traditional ways and to utilize the power of the subconscious mind to focus on solutions to the presenting problem that brought the person to therapy. He could induce a trance with a handshake or a story. Sometimes he used a confusion technique, framing his words with a deliberate complexity that caused confusion. This put the listener off-guard and receptive to suggestions aimed at the subconscious. The immediate results of some of his interventions would appear miraculous to someone unaware of the techniques being employed.

A well-told story can put listeners in a trance. Erickson was a master storyteller, as well as a master at crafting strategic metaphors that were aimed at the subconscious mind, pointing toward solutions. His verbal presentations – whether in conversation or telling a story – were often layered, talking about one thing on the surface, but using metaphors designed to become embedded at the subconscious level. Sometimes he’d prescribe specific activities related to the metaphors he employed, to amplify the embedding.

An example of this is a case history I remember reading, about a client who was an alcoholic. Erickson first asked questions until he felt he had a good understanding of the client’s life situation and his history of problem drinking. Then he gave a rambling discourse about cacti. “There are many varieties of cacti, but they all have one thing in common. They hardly ever need rain, because they have an amazing capacity to retain all the moisture they need. It’s like they’re never thirsty.” Having planted a strategic metaphor about thirst and resiliency, he then directed his client to take a hike on a specific nearby hiking trail (Erickson lived in Phoenix) the next day and study all of the different kinds of cacti. As I recall the case history, the client got and stayed sober after this strategic intervention. There are many such documented stories of Erickson’s successful brief therapies.

In his later life Erickson suffered from post-polio syndrome and lived with daily, severe pain, which he controlled using self-hypnosis. He knew first-hand how to harness the amazing powers of the subconscious mind, and taught many others how to do this. He frequently taught his clients self-hypnosis, for pain control as well a for anxiety and other psychopathologies. He was the founding president of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis, and had a major influence on brief therapy, strategic therapy, family systems therapy, and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).