Category Archives: Community Articles

Trusting Intuition

At times, you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself. – Alan Alda

Your life is running fine – house, job and relationships all in order – but now and then you feel something missing.

Or maybe you’re bored, unhappy, depressed even. A sense of doom is hanging over you, keeping you awake at night and anxious throughout the day.

You may be somewhere in between these scenarios. There’s no crisis, no reason to complain, but sometimes you’re restless and wondering if there’s more to life.

Any of this sounds familiar?

You may realize that something is asking for attention, but don’t know how to tune in. The uneasy feelings scare you. You don’t trust them, taught to rely on the rational mind and base your decisions on what you can see and believe to be real: a well-paying job, a loyal spouse, social responsibilities, a path once taken.

But life demands more of us than acceptance of the status quo.

Life wants us to live it to the fullest. To dive into the deep now and then. To face challenges and grab opportunities. Above all, it wants us to claim our birthright: to have a life that becomes us in every possible way. True to our uniqueness, free of constraint.

Life talks to us from within through hunches and inklings. Vague feelings and ideas that seem to come from nowhere. A voice speaking from our gut and heart aka intuition.

In-tuition literally means being tutored or learning from within. An innate knowing free of the interference of mind. We may receive it physically (spinal shiver, gut feeling), as inspiration (a sudden insight, a dream) or through sixth sense (something is off, a sense of knowing proprioceptively).

We sometimes dismiss an intuitive feeling believing we’re not ready (or being unsure how) to act on them. But we forget that we don’t need to do anything yet. On the outside nothing needs to change. Nobody needs to know. All we need to do is tune in and listen.

But how?

How do we connect with intuition, when it appears as nothing more than a faint feeling or a foggy idea?

Here are 5 easy steps to help you practice your intuitive muscle:

  1. Decide to trust it. Learn more about it, for instance by reading a book on the subject.
  2. Turn towards that vague instinctive feeling (or idea) when it plays up. Accept its validity. Really feel it, uncomfortable as it may be.
  3. Be curious and inquisitive. What is your intuition telling you?
  4. Be open to what you feel or hear without judgement or fear (shame, blame, etc). Silence the mental chatter (the stories in your mind).
  5. Practice! Don’t wait for intuition’s occasional visit. Look for it throughout the day. Practice with simple things (what to buy? have another drink or not?) so that when your intuitive voice wants to have a say in a bigger decision you’ll be able to tune in more easily.

We may not always trust our intuition, but it’s usually right. Intuition points us in the right direction, prepares us for change and is our ally on the path towards change. In fact, change from within is most often, if not always, set in motion by intuition.

Whether you’re on top of your game or down on your luck, don’t ignore that unsettling sense of “something”. The key to your next step (and a meaningful life) may very well lie in the messages embedded in these faint and foggy signs and feelings.

Article from Embrace Transition

Jacinta Hin was born in the Netherlands and has been living in Tokyo, Japan, since 1989. Her professional background is in human resources, career management and coaching. She is passionate about helping people, herself included, discover new perspectives of possibility, move to embracing and working with their transitions, and designing and realizing changes aligned with who they truly are and what they truly want from their lives.

Meaningful Change

When we are unhappy or facing hardship, our response is more often than not to make an immediate, visible change to elevate our discomfort. We change jobs, end a relationship, get a new hairstyle….Then we sit back, thinking our work is done, believing that somehow the rest will fall into place.

True, we may have removed an undesirable situation and feel a little better, shifted even. But have we changed?

No doubt it takes courage to leave a dead-end marriage or forsake the financial security of a paycheck to pursue entrepreneurship. Even the act of cleaning out the closet and throwing away items holding the slightest sentimental value can be daunting as we feel the pain of cutting away pieces of our past.

These steps are important, but most often our transitional work is far from done or just begun. If we don’t explore what made us miserable in the first place and what we actually want, we could find ourselves back at square one as soon the novelty of the new situation wears off.

Meaningful change, after all, is not a series of steps but a subtle process underneath the surface of what seems real and concrete. A stream of tiny little shifts flowing forwards and upwards, transforming us one step, one aspect at a time.

By all means make that immediate, visible change, but also acknowledge and engage with the bigger story behind your discontentment.

Dig into the belief systems and patterns that drive your behaviour and determine your choices. What do you need to change about or for yourself, so that you can move forwards into a truly new situation, not simply a replacement for one that no longer works?

Realise that the change you made is nothing more than a halfway step, a temporary haven where you can do the work needed to figure out what you really want.

Of course, enjoy the new job and the new cool haircut – and applaud yourself for taking these steps – without the pressure of transitioning homework.

But after a while, consider, ask yourself: what is next?

Article from Embrace Transition

Jacinta Hin was born in the Netherlands and has been living in Tokyo, Japan, since 1989. Her professional background is in human resources, career management and coaching. She is passionate about helping people, herself included, discover new perspectives of possibility, move to embracing and working with their transitions, and designing and realizing changes aligned with who they truly are and what they truly want from their lives.

Moving Beyond Our Story

Throughout life we are constantly changing. At any given moment, we are ending something, contemplating new choices or stepping into a new situation in our lives. The challenge lies in the process of these changes. Whether we are giving up on coffee, nurturing a broken heart or moving countries, change is always preceded by some time spend in limbo.

These moments of transition, when fully embraced and explored, are treasure grounds for anyone striving to live an authentic and conscious life, loyal to one’s personality, spirit and soul. When we learn how to turn a transitional call into a transformational opportunity, we turn our lives around for the better. We move from small to big and wake up to our true nature and potential, shifting our view of the world and the people around us.

To live in integrity, truthful to our very essence, does not come automatically to most of us. While in transition –  moving towards and eventually into authenticity – we more often than not need a little help. But look at it like this: transitions are life’s toolbox to help us find our way to alignment with our unique path.

In transition we’re able to move beyond the stories we bought into and take full responsibility for the life we created in hit and miss fashion. We learn how to relax into who we really are. We get down to the core, the reason of our existence, our exclusive gift to the world.

People who are seeking their truth often experience a sense of home-coming in transition. Life lightens up. Challenges in the present and ahead, once perceived as insurmountable, become opportunities.  They welcome transitions as periods of self-reflection that allow them to break through the cloud of fear and other negative emotions and find the courage to do the work needed to effect changes.

If the idea of an authentic life appeals to you, learn how to embrace transition. Surrender to the flow of change. Give in to that intuitive feeling that something else is possible.

Be in transition, again and again, for as long as it takes…

Article from Embrace Transition

Jacinta Hin was born in the Netherlands and has been living in Tokyo, Japan, since 1989. Her professional background is in human resources, career management and coaching. She is passionate about helping people, herself included, discover new perspectives of possibility, move to embracing and working with their transitions, and designing and realizing changes aligned with who they truly are and what they truly want from their lives.

Return to Inner Peace

“Everything we do is infused with the energy with which we do it. If we’re frantic, life will be frantic. If we’re peaceful, life will be peaceful. And so our goal in any situation becomes inner peace.” ― Marianne Williamson

When we get caught up in the whirlpool of a world upside down, we easily forget about ourselves feeling as if our own well-being is of less importance. Overwhelming events such as the loss of a loved one, a relationship falling apart, troubles at work or the threat or reality of a natural or man-made disaster draw our focus from the internal to the external, so throwing us of balance.

Two years ago a major earthquake and ensuing nuclear disaster disrupted my relatively comfortable life. My country is far from back to normal, and I am more “up in arms” than ever…volunteering my time to various causes, always full of ideas of what more I can do, how I can help.

But all that activity has also left me exhausted and, ironically, feeling oddly unfulfilled. From the outside, my life may seem rewarding and meaningful, but on the inside I often feel empty and disconnected. At some point, purposeful action became mere busyness, recurring tasks on an already loaded schedule.

Did I take a wrong turn somewhere, I wonder. Or is it normal that we eventually get lost in the face of so much external demand? Is what I am experiencing right now nature’s way of adjustment, a rebalancing act of some sorts?

My body seems to think so. The muscles in my left shoulder have frozen, an extremely painful condition that limits the movement of my left arm and apparently can last for months. I literally have no other choice than to slow down.

This may, however, be an opportune moment to take a break from a life in over-drive and restore the connection with myself.

I realize that in my zeal to make a difference to the world and the people I care about, I have neglected my own needs, pushing my boundaries to a point where I am no longer guided solely by passion, but also driven by a sense of duty.

Irritated at first and impatient for a quick recovery, causing more damage as a result, I now bless my shoulder for putting the breaks on and forcing me to rest and relax. Introspective by nature, I realize this is not just a matter of rest, but also of exploring what part of me got me into trouble -I recognize a pattern- and how I can prevent it from happening again.

I am not planning to retire from any of the causes I volunteer for. I see my situation more as a transitional moment to help me recoup and rebalance, so that I can approach the challenges in my life from a stronger, more self-centered foundation.

Nothing in life is sustainable if it does not come from sound and healthy motivation. Motivation can only come from the inside. If our actions are not in alignment with who we really are on a soul level, eventually we will give up.

Sometimes giving up is the right choice. Other times we just need to take a step back for a while. The causes I support are all worth my time. All the more reason to make sure I do so from a place of inner strength, self-worth and, most importantly, joy.

Article from Embrace Transition

Jacinta Hin was born in the Netherlands and has been living in Tokyo, Japan, since 1989. Her professional background is in human resources, career management and coaching. She is passionate about helping people, herself included, discover new perspectives of possibility, move to embracing and working with their transitions, and designing and realizing changes aligned with who they truly are and what they truly want from their lives.

On Being Present

Simply said, the purpose of transition time is to let go of what no longer works and prepare for something new. We must work through old stuff and at the same time come up with ideas for the next phase in our life. As a consequence, our feelings about past and future tend to overlap; this can be overwhelming and keep us stuck in limbo.

How can we break through this impasse?

We can start with being more present. If we focus our attention on the present moment, we can experience some distance from our feelings about the past and future. This will free up space not only in our mind for original thoughts, but also in our heart for a new way of relating to ourselves and the world around us.

Furthermore, when we are present, we connect with the unique opportunity that each moment brings. This is especially helpful when we are in transition, being challenged to review and renew our lives. Even more so because, when our old life is slipping away and a new one has yet to start, the present moment is really all we have.

When we rush from moment to moment, we remain skimming the surface of our life experience. We miss out on the depth that is always available. We could be chasing after our life purpose, and not see how it is already showing up. Or continue recreating a copy of what we know. We might, for instance, be leaving a job or relationship only to end up in one that is basically the same as the one we had before.

To be present does not mean we just blissfully sit in contentment, passively going with the flow of things. Presence is a very active state of being in which we allow life to come to us. We grasp the messages in unexpected encounters or a piece of writing. The smallest occurrence can shift our perspective or bring a life-altering insight. A person close-by becomes a mirror for self-reflection, our thoughts and feelings a source for learning.

When the present moment becomes central to our life, the past and future dynamic shifts as well. The past changes into the foundation from which we create our future, step-by-step, through action and awareness in the present.

Furthermore, if we’re fully engaged with each moment, we can focus on what comes up without too much judgement. We can acknowledge that what we feel is real and valid, but also let it go because we don’t need to connect these feelings to past happenings or future expectations.

Imagine how liberating that is.

When our feelings no longer dictate our outlook, new ideas can bubble up more freely. Free from the pull of past and future, we can relax into who we are and appreciate events and people for what and who they are. We’re free to interpret our life differently and explore what else is possible.

If we remain open and allow life to present itself, we are more likely to experience it more intensely too. There could be a stronger sense of being alive. We will bring more awareness to every experience, ideally refraining from labelling anything as good or bad.

All of the above of course requires practice, at least for most of us. Don’t beat yourself up if you find initially that you cannot step into the experience of being present so easily. As in meditation or any new discipline, just keep bringing yourself back each time you wander off.

In transition, to be in the present moment is a tool for more fully embracing the reasons why we are changing and becoming open to what lies ahead.

Transitions are periods of playful creation and reflection. An ideal time to be a student again, to discover and experiment with new ways of being, deepening our experience of the full spectrum of life. There’s no better time to practice being in the present than right now.

In fact, one way to look at transition is that being present in the now is precisely its purpose.

Article from Embrace Transition

Jacinta Hin was born in the Netherlands and has been living in Tokyo, Japan, since 1989. Her professional background is in human resources, career management and coaching. She is passionate about helping people, herself included, discover new perspectives of possibility, move to embracing and working with their transitions, and designing and realizing changes aligned with who they truly are and what they truly want from their lives.

Getting Ready for the New Year

It is not by chance that things happen in our life. What we see in our life today is the result of thoughts and actions that we put in motion a year, ten years, even twenty or more years ago. – Karen Berg

I’ve been in the new year swing of things for weeks already. Every day my head spins with ideas and my heart is full of resolutions: to take a stand in life that is bolder than ever. To go after the unimaginable, while being firmly grounded in the here and now. To trust  that broken pieces will eventually fall into place, and that new pieces will manifest when I’m ready. Life may be unpredictable, but it also finds a way to bring destiny to our doorsteps, provided we do our part to make things happen.

The new year has always been a special time for me to recommit to resolutions once made, to mull over new ways to establish the person I want to be and connect with who I already am. I love the first and last days of the year. There’s a special energy around that countless people are tapping into–an imaginary wind that sweeps us off our feet, high up to a point where we can see the whole of life and its possibilities from a bird’s eye view.

These are days I make a deeper-than-usual connection with who I am. I dust off old dreams, neglected perhaps but not forgotten, and remind myself of what really matters. I ask, what do I want to bring to the foreground of my life. What do I need to change?

Not long ago, a wise friend told me that the purpose of life is not to learn but to remember who we are. Our work, he said, is to become aware of what is already here and has always been available. We simply need to connect.This is a helpful perspective. My dreams can come true, but I don’t need to chase after them. Instead, I have only to unravel the tangled strands of thought and behavior that prevent me from seeing those dreams. I must change habits that distract, as well as  attitudes and beliefs that are keeping me “small” and may unconsciously be sabotaging my projects. “How am I standing in my own way?” becomes the question rather than, “What do I want”?

When we seek to achieve, changing how we look at or respond to a situation can often bring results beyond our expectations. We may pull off something we previously believed was impossible.  If you want to write a book, for instance, writing a little bit every day is a better strategy than talking about your ambitions over drinks with friends or beating yourself up for not finding the time or inspiration.

The layers we must unravel are made up of habit, attitude and belief.  Writing every day (habit), being confident about your skills and talent (belief) and making writing a priority (attitude) will bring you closer to your dream of being a published author. My friend would tell you that your book is actually already there.  By “being” with your book every day in the act of writing, you are allowing it to slowly come into existence, word by word, one page at a time.

Research has shown that traditional resolutions tend to fail because they are not creative (read: boring) and over-focused on shortcomings. I tend to agree. I like to organize the changes I am after under themes. It helps me create context and focus for what I want to achieve. Under the umbrella of a theme, I can define vision (the bigger picture), identify obstacles (the layers: habits, believes, etc), decide on action (a change in habit, a different attitude). I can be really creative, include any idea, even the crazy ones. Some 2014 themes I have come up with so far are ‘simplify’, ‘peace’, ‘connect’, ‘speak up’ and ‘believe in magic’.

I realize I won’t succeed in all areas in one year (or ever). But the goal is not to achieve a perfect score. The purpose of my New Year intentions is to infuse life with fresh energy. To awaken dormant tools and stay engaged with all that life has to offer and all I have to offer to life. My themes are uniquely mine. What are yours? What will help you unravel the layers that are in between you and your dreams?

Article from Embrace Transition

Jacinta Hin was born in the Netherlands and has been living in Tokyo, Japan, since 1989. Her professional background is in human resources, career management and coaching. She is passionate about helping people, herself included, discover new perspectives of possibility, move to embracing and working with their transitions, and designing and realizing changes aligned with who they truly are and what they truly want from their lives.

Mastery, New Coding and Systemic NLP

By Judith DeLozier.
Published in NLP World, Volume 2 No. 1, March 1995
Edited by James Lawley from a presentation to The NLP Group in Paddington, London.

Thank you for taking time out of your busy lives to be here tonight. What this group is doing here really does remind me of how NLP started in the first place. There are not very many places I’ve been in the world where the community spirit of NLP is creating what you are creating here. And that is a really wonderful thing and you all do yourselves proud. It makes me want to cry because this is what I want to see happening.

I was asked to write something for a brochure and I want to read it to you, “The discipline known as NLP began, before it had a name, with an interdisciplinary community of people. [Richard Bandler, John Grinder, Leslie Cameron, Mary Beth Megus, David Gordon, Robert Dilts, and myself, to name but a few.] We were motivated by a shared curiosity about how we know, about how we learn, how we communicate, and how we change. And how we can influence the process of change in a well-formed, ecological way. The patterns of NLP were not imparted to us, but unfolded in our learning.”

I want you to be aware of just how special what you are doing is. That you can get together on a regular basis and unfold knowledge in this group. Because it really is about unfolding knowledge in a group of people coming from different models of the world. So, bravo to you. I will carry this around the world and let them know what you are doing here.

In The Beginning
I want to tell you a little bit about myself. My background is in religious studies and anthropology. I got involved in NLP about the time the book, The Structure of Magic was just a manuscript. My friend, John Grinder, brought it to me, and said, “Read this, and tell me what you think.” And I read the book, and I said, “You know, this is a really nice thing for people to hang their experience on. This could really help people to make sense of things that happen to them in the world that they don’t have any way to express. It’s a really nice structure”. It was that particular setting, called the University of Santa Cruz, which really allowed us to do what we were doing. The Dean of the University at that time had a vision: to create a context where interdisciplinary ideas and different models of the world could come together in a creative way to produce new possibilities.

What I want to talk about tonight is the idea of mastery in NLP, especially with respect to New Code NLP. “New Coding” is what I call it. It is another description and actually has about seven different pieces to it. I also want to touch on the development of Systemic NLP.

Old Coding
There was the first description of NLP, Old Coding as I call it, which unfolded out of the disciplines of linguistics, Gestalt Therapy, and systems theory. This yielded the language patterns (The Meta Model) and their connection with the deep structure of experience which in turn yielded the ideas of Representational Systems and submodalities, strategies, separating intent from behaviour, and all the permutations we can do with these codings in order to create technology; call it six-step reframing, change personal history, anchoring, or visual/kinesthetic disassociation.

And a lot came out of the answer to one question: “How do you know?” The epistemological question. People would say, “Oh, I’m going to the show tonight.” And we would ask, “How do you know?” We began to notice that they made eye movements, and we would wonder what was going on. And they would say, “Well, I can see myself going to the show.” And we found out that they really do see something. We started connecting together the patterns of physiology, of language and of internal state. Once you understand the level of what patterns are involved, you can create your own patterns.

People would go out with just the meta model and start meta modelling the hell out of people. They couldn’t understand why they were losing all their friends! They were viewing NLP as technology, as a procedure which I call a ritual. There is no wisdom in a piece of technology. Wisdom has to be in the carrier of that information. John Grinder and myself thought, “How are we going to get people to start thinking about where is the wisdom?” and that is how Turtles All The Way Down: Prerequisites to Personal Genius got written in 1984.

New Coding
The second description, or New coding, developed from different roots; John Grinder’s and my own understanding of NLP, Gregory Bateson’s work with information theory and biology, the books of Carlos Castaneda about the Yacqui Way, and our African experience of drumming, dancing, singing and story-telling in the Congo. So we took these ideas, and we asked, “How can we give another description of what already has been specified in this other code?” And we came up with a series of about seven elements.

(1) State
One description is state. Just looking at the idea of state alone. What is the state that you would develop to model excellence in the world? We asked, what are the pieces that go into developing a quality state for modelling, and what are the things we can do to have a choice about our state, and to manage our state on the problem side, as well as the evolutionary and generative side for ourselves?

That was the first piece. And then we went out and began to look at people who had done interesting modelling projects, like Carlos Castaneda. What they had in common was using what I call the ‘nerk-nerk’ state. A state of ‘not knowing’ — when you don’t know… yet. You’re gathering information in the system. You have intuitions about it but you don’t know what it is that you know. As soon as you have an intuition, someplace in there knows something; it just has not come into consciousness. The pattern has not presented itself yet. But if you wait, and the pattern continues to happen, it will. This connects with Gregory Bateson’s idea that there are always two ways of knowing. There’s knowing in the unit of mind, and then there is knowing cognitively what we know. There is also understanding the relationship between those two.

In modelling mastery, certain patterns began to emerge. One being the idea of state management, that a person has tools to maintain the qualities in their breathing, physiology, representation and beliefs that support the outcome of demonstrating mastery or excellence in the world. For example, as you sit there, place tension in your shoulders, sit off balance; allow your shoulders to press towards your ears. A typical stress state. How is your breathing? Is this a comfortable state? Do you find the physiology useful for learning? Where is your attention? What beliefs about learning do you maintain in this state? Now change position, move a little, maybe stand up and sit down again. Find a balanced comfortable position. Go through the body and release any excess tension, breathe and repeat the questions above. Which state is more conducive to learning?

Another pattern we discovered is how to have the highest quality contact with the model. It requires a state where a person drops the filters of internal dialogue, foveal vision and excess tension. This is a very clear state, sometimes referred to as the uptime trance. It is a state in which we have interfaced our attention with the model where patterns are to be placed in our neurology and later extracted for the purpose of building a transferable code. A modelling state is quiet, without internal dialogue, uses peripheral vision, not foveal vision.

(2) Conscious-Unconscious Relationship
What else did those people do? Well, they had a really interesting quality relationship between conscious and unconscious. What we call first attention and second attention. Whatever that small piece is that we call consciousness, that feeds back into the larger unit, affects the quality of the relationship. These people said they were continuing to find ways to enhance and develop the quality of that relationship. With the understanding that you never “get there”, that it is an ongoing process, an evolution which enhances as time goes by.

How many people have done something called a “second-position shift”? Most of the group. Do you remember the first time you did it compared to the last time? Is the quality much different? Would you say that each time you do it, it goes up in quality? Well, that is what I’m talking about. So what kind of mechanisms do you have that continually develop this relationship? How many people meditate? How many people pray? How many people do self-hypnosis? How many people do something that requires that the whole unit of mind act in a one hundred percent and honest way, as Gregory Bateson would say?

Gregory also recognised that masters of anything have a highly developed quality relationship between their conscious and unconscious resources. In his words, a master knows when to use the tight thinking of the cognitive conscious mind, and when to use the loose thinking of the more creative unconscious mind. Take Milton Erickson’s metaphor of the horse and the rider. The horse being our unconscious mind and the rider being our conscious mind. Of course all of us who have ridden a horse know what happens when the rider wants to go in one direction and the horse another. Neither one easily reaches their destination and it requires a lot of time and uses up a lot of energy. So that was the second part of mastery and the New Coding.

(3) Balance Between Practice and Spontaneity
The third idea was, how do I balance between practice and spontaneity? Which is also very much connected with conscious and unconscious relationship. NLP is about having outcomes. So do you have a time when your outcome is not to have an outcome? Or if I go down south of the border to Mexico, they would say, “Judy, it’s very important to go to the Land of Not Doing.” Do you have that understanding in your life, to say “Yes, I learn these rituals called NLP. I learn these techniques, learn these tools, I come places like this and I practice them. I learn, I unfold in the world”? And there comes a point when it is so deep in your behaviour that you let it all go and act completely spontaneously. At this moment there is no self reflection: “Now, I wonder if their eyes are going to go up to the right, I wonder if they’re going to go down to the left.” There is only the systemic loop.

I like the Aikido metaphor: you are on the mat and you practice and you practice, and when you go to meet an opponent you are not going to stop and talk to yourself. You are not even going to decide beforehand what manoeuvre to use. You really can’t know until you interface with the opponent, because this is a dance with the outside world.

(4) Perceptual Positions
Number four is perceptual positions. Gregory said, “It takes two to know one”. And we said, “We’ll go for three.” At the same time we got together with Robert Dilts, and he told us “I did this interesting thing the other day. I had somebody with a phobia. I asked them to take the perceptual position of the thing they were afraid of, and the most amazing thing happened: that snake was really scared too.” So, we were both on to the same thing. And then we began to think about the fact that, well, there is my position, there is your position, and then there is a third or neutral position, where it is only information.

I have found that for some of us, this is the difficult one. We would go there, and we didn’t want to say, “Well, it’s only information.” We wanted to say, “God, how stupid. I can’t believe I did that.” This is making sense of a pattern at another level. I can now see a bigger part of the world and understand it from a different position than when I was caught in first position or even when I occupied a second. From third position I can see the dance.

Characterlogical Adjectives
How many know about “characterlogical adjectives”? Think of someone you have a difficult time communicating with; a situation that is certainly not a creative or productive interaction. It is not a love-based communication. It doesn’t bring out the best in you. You feel stuck in some way. Got anybody like that?

Now imagine this is a movie theatre. See the person up there on the screen behaving the way they behave, and give me a word to describe their behaviour.

“Self Absorbed.” “Aggressive.”

OK. So this is a descriptor. Given all those bits of information of how this person is behaving, this is the way you would describe them. So now take a big, deep breath and see yourself up there in the loop with this person. Now you are in third position. It’s only information. And now, there you are, behaving the way you behave. What are the words you would use to describe your behaviour?


So they are self-absorbed, and you are withdrawn.


They are aggressive and you are defensive. Makes sense. If we put the Batesonian filter on it we are getting the difference between symmetrical escalating relationships and one that is complementary. You begin to see your part in the dance. They wouldn’t have any fun doing it by themselves and neither would you. This is what systems are about: getting a big enough piece of the interaction so that you can step back and say, “Oh, now I understand how I’m dancing with this person” and realise what choices you have of getting out of the dance. From this position you can ask, “What, when I step back in there with this information, can make a difference to the quality of that interaction?” Knowing that if one part of the system begins to move, the whole system is going to move.

Those perceptual positions then began to trigger off a whole set of other possibilities and it began to connect back to the meta model. Take the cause-effect pattern. When I think of how a pattern demonstrates itself in my life, I begin to understand the part I play, the part they play, and if I go to blame, or where I feel blamed, I realise it is a cause-effect relationship.

There is another way of using perceptual positions that is really fun to do if we think about it in terms of creativity. Think of a piece of art that has really moved you in your life. It wasn’t just something you looked at and said, “Oh, that’s cool.” Rather a piece of art that you felt deep inside your soul. This is being in the position of appreciating that art from the perceptual position of the viewer, or hearing a piece of music, or watching a dance.

Now take the position of the artist who created it. When you occupy that perceptual position, begin to use the implicit muscle movements of the painter, the sculptor or the composer in order to access similar kinds of neurology in yourself. It is there, it is just that you haven’t activated it in yourself in a long time.

Take the pygmy in the forest who has never been outside and seen the horizon. He is built to see horizons but he has never been in an environment that stimulates the nerves in the eyes in order to understand that difference. Things that are far away from him look really tiny, so he thinks they are bugs when they are really buffaloes!

Going to second position is a way in which we can start to stimulate that neurology within ourselves. Then you can stand back and ask, “What are the differences between being a perceiver of this art and being the creator?” And, “Gee, do I have different beliefs when I’m there compared to when I’m here? Do I have different beliefs about my ability to be creative?” I bet you do.

So the idea of perceptual positions is that out of this dance of multiple perspectives, wisdom may begin to unfold. To really consider the movement from my personal map to an understanding of your personal map and then to an objective position of the relationship gives us a basis of wisdom.

(5) Attention
The fifth description has to do with attention. How I use my attention, where I put my attention and how I get it back. This happens in very small ways and it also happens in larger ways that serve as a metaphor. As soon as I focus my attention on one place, large amounts of the world are deleted somewhere else and this connects to the meta model pattern called deletion. Am I fixing my attention so tightly, even when I am doing NLP, that I am fixated on eye movements and missing a whole lot of other information? If I get so focused on someone’s necklace that I don’t notice the beautiful colour of her eyes, I am doing a disservice to her. Then if I make a hallucination about this woman based on the necklace I could land on the Island of Conclusion and spend a lot of time trying to get off!

What happens if you move your attention to listening to the sound of the birds while you are interacting with a person? Does it drive your attention in a different way? Does it inform your behaviour in a way that is more creative? Does it make a difference? If your attention is in a certain representational system, with certain submodalities, what happens if you change just one aspect? You can change something very small, or very big. For example, here I am communicating with somebody, and I become… a woman from Honduras. Does it make a difference?

Have you read the story of ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’? The part that I liked is about the race of people who, when they are born, float around at the height that they are going to be when they are fully grown. They then grow down to the ground. And that is so that they never have to change their perspective.

If we use characterlogical adjectives again, we can apply the idea of attention to discover how it might be driving the relational loop. For example, while in the interaction, I can notice where my attention is fixed, i.e. on a voice tone, a gesture, a facial expression, an internal sensation. I may discover how fixing my attention on some small aspect of the interaction is driving my state to a value judgment that may make the interaction uncreative, difficult or problematic. The idea is to discover where I fix my attention, to move it to some other aspect of the interaction and, of course, to notice if the quality of the interaction changes in a positive direction.

This is another way of looking at the system; sometimes I want to chunk it down into small pieces, and sometimes I want to look at the big picture. Along that continuum of possibility there are places where I can begin to influence the system in a positive direction, with the least amount of effort for myself and the other person.

(6) Filters
My mother used to say to me, “Judy, if you walk through life with a hammer in your hand, you’re going to see a lot of nails.” She was teaching me about filters. If you sort the world in a certain way, that is what you are going to see, and if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. Did you ever play ‘Slug Bug?’ The family would go out driving and the game was for the first person who saw a Volkswagen to shout “Slug bug”. Of course, as soon as you put on the filter to sort for Volkswagens, they were everywhere.

We are designed to filter information. A big filter could be a belief. Something becomes believable to me because I sort the information in a certain way. If I am sorting for just certain information, I am going to connect that with my deeper experience and think, “Ah ha, I’m right. I believe this now.” So not only is it important to look at belief systems and filters, it is also important to look at disbelief systems.

If I maintain a certain filter and I do not have a way of moving my attention outside of that filter, then it is very easy to have the deeper experiences that are going to build a belief based on just that one filter. What mechanisms and processes do you have that allow you to move your attention around, to create opportunity, to ask, “What else is out there?” Because it is the differences that are going to be what makes the difference.

In parts of the United States there is not much distinction between discomfort and difference. I grew up in Oklahoma where the attitude was, “There’s a difference. Shoot it.” You got your membership to the National Rifleshooter’s Association at the same time you got your driver’s license. These were really wonderful people but there was not a lot of moving around of those filters and accepting of difference. And the world is changing now.

We can talk about filtering philosophically: “Am I really seeing what is in the world or am I seeing what is happening in the back of my brain?” But it is more useful to ask, “What are the filters that we can potentially let go of?” Then we find the edges of our map that allow us to know there is more territory on the other side. Most of us think of what is on the other side of that edge as uncomfortable, as opposed to merely different. Take the difference between a person having stage fright and a person really being frightened. There are certain physiological signals for both experiences. There are certain parts that are the same and there are other parts that are very different. Being able to find those small disparities in those states is a beginning of dropping certain filters.

Am I seeing this person as directly as I can, or do I already have a set of filters, of hallucinations, about this person? As Don Juan’s Castaneda said, every baby is born a sorcerer, every baby is born in the nerk-nerk state, not knowing… completely open to all possibilities. And then comes foveal vision and language. Those two big filters begin to get fixed. That fixing is a relationship between language, the external world and what happens internally as the child builds that deeper structure. If the rules in that deeper structure have relationships like cause-effect, nominalization, huge deletions, over-generalisations, then there are natural consequences for the child.

How many people speak more than one language? Do you feel different when you speak that other language? This is one way that you adopt certain filters. Politics is another, so is religion, male/female, and animate/inanimate. Just because I can’t see this chair moving does not mean that it is not moving. It is just that I do not have the apparatus to notice.

You can’t know what you can’t know, but knowing that, you can begin to build a belief that operates at another level. If I know that I don’t know, then what kind of things can I do to move my filters so that I can discover the edges of my map? We used to say, everything that you have never seen looks the same. In Winnie the Pooh , there is this great line, “The more Piglet looked, the more Pooh wasn’t there.” It’s a question of knowing that and then saying, “What sorts of arrangements can I make in my life to move myself to the edge so the surrounding unknown becomes available?”

(7) Multiple Descriptions
The last description is descriptions themselves. Multiple descriptions of the world, as opposed to just perceptual positions. Take this whole thing called NLP; how many other ways can I describe this? Where could I go to get another description? Myself, having studied anthropology, I like to go to another culture, because I have this intuition. I have this intuition that we’re all members of the same species. I say intuition because I am still questioning New Yorkers! Could be divergent evolution! There are places where we are the same. And there are places where we are different. What makes us the same is that we are members of the same species. We occupy the same form, we have language, we have the same neurology. We have different ways of carving it up, different ways of talking about it, and in different parts of the world we pay attention to different things.

Active Dreaming Exercise
I’m going to give you a little exercise to allow you to experience New Coding. It comes from the native Americans and is called active dreaming. It is like dreaming when you are awake and is a way of solving problems and of having a good time. It uses the modelling state, focus of attention, filters and triple description to gather information from the larger unit of mind.

i. First set an intention or take on a filter. Say you have a big decision coming up, or you have a problem you want to solve. This is what you are asking the larger unit of mind to filter information about.

ii. The second thing is to go into a state of not knowing, or the nerk-nerk state. It has the following characteristics: No internal dialogue; peripheral rather than foveal vision; and no excess tension. Going through the system and checking for tension is really good, I call this ‘cleaning’ quality states. The idea is to go through and check: Is there tension in the system and does it need to be there? Because when you start to ‘try’ you feel your shoulders going up, your attention starts to constrict, and the harder you try the more it constricts. Not everything has to be relaxed. You might want a little tension – it lets you know you are alive – but not too much.

iii. Then take a walk in this state. You are open to whatever happens and ready to notice when the outside world offers you a symbol. I find it usually takes five to ten minutes for a symbol to pop into my awareness. The symbol may be visual, auditory, or that you step in a mud puddle! You are just available to it. There are two ways to think about this. The western way would say that the unconscious mind just grabbed a symbol of importance. The native American would say that the universe just offered you a gift. Both beautiful perspectives, but different perspectives. Remember to walk with grace and ease.

iv. Assume the symbol is relevant to your original intention, decision or problem. Then, become the symbol. Go to second position with the symbol. Ask yourself, “If I am the symbol, what characteristics would I have?” For instance, if a particular tree very clearly popped into my awareness, this is my symbol. If I was that tree, what are my characteristics as that tree? I could be firmly planted, flexible on top, have birds build their nests in me with little animals coming to visit.

v. Then go to third position, as an observer, a witness. And from third position, notice the relationship between the information carried in the symbol and your intention. How does the intention and the symbolic information connect? How does my thinking change with this new information? Perhaps I discover ways to become more flexible with respect to my intent; perhaps I change my perception of time and that will be the key that makes a difference.

For me, the outcome for this exercise is to discover information. I want to use my consciousness to set the intent because that is where the problem is perceived. It presupposes that the lines are open to the larger unit of mind. Also it is a vehicle to continue to deepen the connection between conscious and unconscious.

Systemic NLP
We can create further descriptions by taking Old Coding and New Coding and asking how are they the same, how are they different and how do they interact with each other? What we get are the underpinnings for Systemic NLP. And I think a really big part of what is happening globally is connected to when pictures of the earth started to come back from outer space. We could actually see the whole world, a perspective we have never had before. We know that there are boundaries and countries down there, frontiers you have to go through, but from up here, they are not there. There is just one big, continuous place. And that is when we began to get other things spontaneously happening in science — like chaos theory, like fractal geometry, and all those other things that are happening in physics.

When you have a way to move yourself, change filters, notice when you are in a loop with another person, recognise you’re using characterlogical adjectives; when you are in there, when you are communicating with that person, where is your attention? And if you move it somewhere else does it make a difference? That is the only point. When these descriptions start to interact, you get Systemic NLP, which is just starting to develop.

When I go right back to the beginning, NLP is systemic anyway. “Systemic” means this whole unit of mind. But then when I start to code it, it becomes not so systemic. Right? Because coding is never this whole unit of mind, it is only what consciousness can pull out and say, “Well, this will represent this, and this will represent that.”

Coding. That is the paradox. As soon as we code something, is it systemic anymore? At what level do we have to go to in our thinking to maintain the systemic nature of it? For me, there is not any new meaning we discover, rather it is something that we have sort of forgotten and need to recover.

The question is then, how do we put it back in the body? We look at how the system emerges naturally. We look at how the system punctuates itself naturally. We look at how it goes out of bounds and then rebalances itself naturally. That is holistic, that is systemic. And I think this really is the next challenge for NLP.


Richard Bandler and John Grinder, The Structure of Magic I and II, Science and Behaviour Books, Inc., Palo Alto, California, 1975 and 1976.

Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979.

Judith DeLozier and John Grinder, Turtles All the Way Down: Prerequisites to Personal Genius, 1077 Smith Grade, Bonny Doon, California, 95060: Grinder, DeLozier & Associates 1987.

© Judith DeLozier, 1995

The Mind’s Eye

By Peter Shepherd.

When you get a picture in your mind’s eye, like for example a green camel (there, you pictured it, didn’t you!), it may seem quite ethereal and lacking substance, drowned out by your normal perception. But this inner universe is just as ‘actual’ as the physical world we live in, it is the substance of the mind, and understanding how the imagination works explains a lot about our psychological functioning.

There’s a simple exercise you can do to demonstrate this mechanism of mind. Create an object in your mind, say a red sports car. Move it around, open the doors and sit inside it. Note that the more that you consider it to be in its own time stream, it persists. Think about something else, then go back to the car – it’s still there.

Now go back to the time – just be at the same causative point – when you first created that car in your mind and put it there again, just as before. You’ll find the car disappears – poof! Re-create the same time, space, form and event and things disappear, like they never were. (While you’re at it, disappear the green camel too!).

This alternative universe of your own may seem intangible, but if you were in a flotation tank, with external senses nulled, the mind’s creations would seem far more tangible, indeed as real as the physical universe, just as dreams seem completely real when you are immersed in them. Indeed, our physical reality may be considered a shared dream from which we have not yet awoken, but as inevitably as we awaken from sleep, we will awaken at the end of our life cycle, if not to some extent before – in the same way as we may sometimes become lucid in our dreams.

What is the significance of this? Our thoughts, decisions, intentions and so on are tangible in our mental environment and once created they persist unless viewed again exactly as is their true nature. If they are suppressed, for example because they conflict with other information or decisions that we have a vested interest in holding on to – because of needs and corresponding fears – this conflict continues, and although subconscious it holds some of our available attention.

You can try making an intention and then re-create it so it blows away. Or make a counter-intention – one that goes against the first – and notice that then they both persist. We all have a multitude of these intentions and counter-intentions, that layer and form structures. We may be happy enough, successful in life and healthy, but our true potential for awareness is limited by this smoke-screen of suppressed frustration – our self-knowledge is obscured by attachments to many conflicting views – and we may only vaguely realise this is going on.

The value of biofeedback monitoring is to help uncover these suppressed mental elements, to expose them to view so they may now be seen in truth, as they are, and so blow away and have no further influence. The aim of the Insight Project is to use such tools to go further and ever deeper, to expose the full structure of our mental environment, to strip it away like the layers of an onion, to increasingly expose the nothingness that is our true spiritual being. And this is to truly awaken.

About the author:
Peter Shepherd is a psychologist who lives in France and runs the Tools for Transformation website. He publishes a free monthly newsletter in email format. Each issue offers informative articles about personal growth and life transformation, plus book reviews and recommended web sites. You can subscribe to Peter’s newsletter at

Educating the Will

By Peter Shepherd.

When you get a picture in your mind’s eye, like for example a green camel (there, you pictured it, didn’t you!), it may seem quite ethereal and lacking substance, drowned out by your normal perception. But this inner universe is just as ‘actual’ as the physical world we live in, it is the substance of the mind, and understanding how the imagination works explains a lot about our psychological functioning.

There’s a simple exercise you can do to demonstrate this mechanism of mind. Create an object in your mind, say a red sports car. Move it around, open the doors and sit inside it. Note that the more that you consider it to be in its own time stream, it persists. Think about something else, then go back to the car – it’s still there.

Now go back to the time – just be at the same causative point – when you first created that car in your mind and put it there again, just as before. You’ll find the car disappears – poof! Re-create the same time, space, form and event and things disappear, like they never were. (While you’re at it, disappear the green camel too!).

This alternative universe of your own may seem intangible, but if you were in a flotation tank, with external senses nulled, the mind’s creations would seem far more tangible, indeed as real as the physical universe, just as dreams seem completely real when you are immersed in them. Indeed, our physical reality may be considered a shared dream from which we have not yet awoken, but as inevitably as we awaken from sleep, we will awaken at the end of our life cycle, if not to some extent before – in the same way as we may sometimes become lucid in our dreams.

What is the significance of this? Our thoughts, decisions, intentions and so on are tangible in our mental environment and once created they persist unless viewed again exactly as is their true nature. If they are suppressed, for example because they conflict with other information or decisions that we have a vested interest in holding on to – because of needs and corresponding fears – this conflict continues, and although subconscious it holds some of our available attention.

You can try making an intention and then re-create it so it blows away. Or make a counter-intention – one that goes against the first – and notice that then they both persist. We all have a multitude of these intentions and counter-intentions, that layer and form structures. We may be happy enough, successful in life and healthy, but our true potential for awareness is limited by this smoke-screen of suppressed frustration – our self-knowledge is obscured by attachments to many conflicting views – and we may only vaguely realise this is going on.

The value of biofeedback monitoring is to help uncover these suppressed mental elements, to expose them to view so they may now be seen in truth, as they are, and so blow away and have no further influence. The aim of the Insight Project is to use such tools to go further and ever deeper, to expose the full structure of our mental environment, to strip it away like the layers of an onion, to increasingly expose the nothingness that is our true spiritual being. And this is to truly awaken.

About the author:
Peter Shepherd is a psychologist who lives in France and runs the Tools for Transformation website. He publishes a free monthly newsletter in email format. Each issue offers informative articles about personal growth and life transformation, plus book reviews and recommended web sites. You can subscribe to Peter’s newsletter at

Your Heart’s Desire

By Peter Shepherd.

We are each a complex system of ways of being, attachments, habitual behaviors, and decisions we have made. If there is a conflict between what one part of us wants and what another part wants, we pull against ourselves in opposite directions. It is a structural conflict. This is why the long-term use of will power leads to failure. When we stop applying will power to override other parts of us, we naturally go back to the way we were.

Developing the will and concentration are important, and Tools for Transformation has recently introduced a really good course to this end. But you can’t effectively achieve great things through will power alone. If you want one thing and at the same time you equally want another that is in conflict with the first, you will end up at square one.

For example, you may be trying to lose weight, so you determine not to eat the foods you have come to like best. You may feel you need to exercise more and so you force yourself to go to the gym, when you’d rather watch TV. You are using will power so that one desire wins over an opposing desire, to suppress that part of you which wants something different.

If you stop applying force and restraints on yourself, you naturally revert back to your original behavior – your goal to lose weight and get fit unfortunately fails. It’s like an elastic band: it’s stretched by willpower but then pulls back at the first opportunity. The use of will power alone – and positive thinking, affirmations, etc – in the context of structural conflict is why so many people fail to achieve their goals and life carries on the same.

Will power is great and necessary sometimes to push through obstacles. But it isn’t the first priority – it doesn’t change who we are! If we want to achieve something, we need to become the kind of person who has that in their life. We need to recognize and release the conflicting feelings and beliefs and ways of being that drive us in an opposing direction. When we remain with our true desire, we just naturally begin to achieve.

Often times there are many limiting beliefs, internal conflicts, destructive programming, etc. to sift through in order to change the structure of who we are (not just our behavior). However, the final result is always worth the effort. The final result reveals us at our purest and most beautiful level.

We adopt identities aligned with the goals we make for our life, the things we want to create and achieve. Some of these goals are original and personal, e.g. to help people through healing or to be a performer or inventor. Others we inherit from our cultural upbringing, e.g. the judgment of success as riches, the fashions of what beauty consists of. Some we bring from the unfinished business of childhood, e.g. to avoid the repetition of what was painful as a child, or to get vengeance. Some are basic human needs, for safety and survival, belonging and acceptance, self-expression, freedom and control of our lives, knowledge and self-realization. Goals may carry over from past lives, and we may have brought special purposes and talents with us into this life. Still more are part of the genetic, archetypal, mythological and informational collective consciousness of humankind, in which we are affected by each other’s thoughts and drives and the collective memories of the past. And then there are astrological and numerological influences. Much of this is blindly followed if we do not live with full consciousness. These goals and influences may be mutually reinforcing or conflicting.

A goal may start as one thing but as unresolvable barriers occur, the goal shifts to a compromised form, what seems to be a safer and more workable solution. For example, we may originate the goal to be an inventor but not being able to obtain the funding we may accept a more run of the mill career as a scientist. This cycle continues, perhaps over lifetimes, and passes through a reversal, so that one ends up with an identity, with respect to a particular original goal, which opposes that which originated the cycle. We may end up defending our interests by opposing innovators in our field of work. The original goal still remains active deep inside however. This causes confusion, indecision, stress and unease, and a sense of not knowing who one is, what one really wants.

These kind of goal conflict structures are at the root of our being, though they are normally largely unconscious, only part of the structure being apparent at any one time. The rest is suppressed but still active behind the scenes, affecting our feelings and behavior profoundly. Normally this sort of structure only becomes unstuck if there is a surprising major success or failure that serves to end the cycle. For most of us, we’re stuck with them for life.

Similar structures work within cultures, civilizations and humanity as a whole. We have group goals that become compromised to the extent that we end up pointing in the opposite direction – look what we do to the environment or to our babies with vaccines. Great teachings become distorted through myth and eventually our understanding is the opposite of truth – look at how Jesus’ teachings were turned into the Inquisition. Ancient cultures practiced the sacrifice of the ego for achieving enlightenment; this was distorted over time until the Aztecs sacrificed bodies in their millions in their religious quest.

However we can rebuild the structures of our life. It requires the tools of Meta-Programming to fully uncover and resolve our deepest goal conflict structures. Meanwhile, we can make every effort to recognize our feelings and to see where they come from, the roots of our identity. To drop the safe solutions of the past which our ways of being represent, to confront our fears and expand our boundaries.

Using tools for transformation, such as you’ll find at, conflicting feelings can be released, opposing beliefs can be revised, and we can be the person who is true to our heart’s desire.

About the author:
Peter Shepherd is a psychologist who lives in France and runs the Tools for Transformation website. He publishes a free monthly newsletter in email format. Each issue offers informative articles about personal growth and life transformation, plus book reviews and recommended web sites. You can subscribe to Peter’s newsletter at

The Role of the Mind in Healing

By Peter Shepherd.

Tim Rowe sent me the following brief notes he made from a lecture by Eric Hills, a kinesiologist who applied rigorous scientific testing to his theories, back in 1987.

1) Every change of state of mind (every new thought) causes a physical reaction however small.

2) Whatever the mind expects tends to be realised.

3) Imagination (visualisation) is more powerful than reason.

4) When imagination and reason are in equal conflict then imagination will always prevail.

5) Opposing ideas cannot exist in the mind at the same time.

6) The longer an idea remains in the subconscious mind, the more difficult it becomes to replace it with another idea.

7) (a) Long held ideas which condition lifestyle, in a manner not wholly suited to the person in their environment, eventually bring about organic changes – some of which are adaptive, but some may be alien to the organism.
(b) An emotionally induced symptom tends to cause organic change if persisted in long enough.

8) Each suggestion to the subconscious mind – if acted upon, creates less opposition to successive suggestion.

9) When dealing with the subconscious mind, the greater the conscious effort – the less the subconscious response.

10) (a) The subconscious mind is childlike. It accepts readily simple, direct, repetitive instructions without question.
(b) It prefers symbolic, dynamic and colourful imagery as a language instead of factual description, since this appeals greatly to the mind’s ability to fantasize.
(c) It attaches much emotional significance to such properties as colour, size, shape, power, rhythm and primitive fear.

11) The electromagnetic balance (meridians) of the physical / mental body optimizes the healing response.

At the same time I followed a link in the Reality Shifters newsletter to this article: ‘The Mind-Body Connection in Learning’ by Ruth Palombo Weiss. Again, it describes the science of the mind-body interaction. Certainly it is my experience both subjectively and also dealing with many students and clients over the years, that changes of mood and motivation have direct impact on physical well-being, and that altered expectations (according to beliefs) are frequently met in changing real-life circumstances.

We can change our bodies and our lives by the way we think. I write in Tools for Heart Intelligence about the cycles of positive and negative learning. Life is, to a significant degree, for learning – so when things don’t go right, when we do wrong, make mistakes, and when we do things right as well – these are all learning opportunities.

Learning can be positive, when an experience has been properly digested, so new skills, coping and mastery are developed – or learning can be negative, when the experience is perhaps overwhelming and has not been integrated and so future avoidance patterns become imprinted, what could be termed ‘unskills’. So long as you eventually learn from it in a positive way, no experience is wasted.

Similarly there is positive and negative imprinting. If an untruth is imprinted into our unconscious, it becomes a limiting, negative influence. If a truth is imprinted, it will necessarily therefore be based on love and freedom of thought, being in the present moment, recognizing what is without judgement – then it is an empowering, positive influence, especially if it is made fully conscious.

The message of the Thomas Children is something that children understand but adults lose touch of: the magical reality of our inner world. If you pretend something that is actually true, then of course it still is true – but now you realize it! The power of our minds is but a reflection of the source of that power, our spiritual nature, our connection with God – the magical wizard within us.

About the author:
Peter Shepherd is a psychologist who lives in France and runs the Tools for Transformation website. He publishes a free monthly newsletter in email format. Each issue offers informative articles about personal growth and life transformation, plus book reviews and recommended web sites. You can subscribe to Peter’s newsletter at

Emptiness and the Relational-self

By Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.

Bachelor points out that as shul, emptiness can be compared to the impression of something that used to be there. Thus emptiness might be thought of as impressions formed by the indentations, hollows, marks, and scars left by the turbulence of selfish craving. When the turmoil subsides, we experience tranquility, relief, and freedom. Bachelor then says something that is absolutely stunning and very relevant to contemporary psychotherapeutic practice. He says (p.80):

“To know emptiness is not just to understand the concept. It is more like stumbling into a clearing in the forest, where suddenly you can move freely and see clearly. To experience emptiness is to experience the shocking absence of what normally determines the sense of who you are and the kind of reality you inhabit. It may last only a moment before the habits of a lifetime reassert themselves and close in once more. But for that moment, we witness ourselves and the world as open and vulnerable.”

This calm, open and sensitive space is where meditators seek to dwell in dharma practice. I submit it is also where psychotherapists would like to dwell with clients in their psychotherapy practices. Such a place is immediate, imminent, and dynamic. But it is also a path, a track. It defines a place where the imminent and transcendent in our lives meet; it grants an intimation of the invisible forces that are at work as the lines of our life converge. Bachelor points out that we strive to create this kind of space because it allows unobstructed movement or freedom. It assures us that we are not alone and implies indebtedness to those who have trodden the path before us. It also marks out our responsibility to those who will follow. This is the way, in Gilligan’s language, that we become a part of those living traditions that sustain and transform life.

This latter field is the place from which we hear whispers of practices and presences embodied in the instincts, the life force, and the cumulative efforts of many generations to preserve life and build accessible pathways to awakened consciousness. It is a place that is sensed in the silence between words, and in the gaps in experience where “synchronicity” (Cf., Jung, 1960) appears. It is the sense we have of “presence.” This presence is a Source of being in the margins of our experience, participating in ways that irreducibly remind us that we are an important part — a carrier if you will — of a much larger field of experience and possibilities than we typically are aware of in our normal waking states (Cf. Senge, Sharmer, Jaworski, & Flowers, 2004).

Paradoxically, it is in this latter level of field that spirit and soul touch relationally, and often, if not always, in very energetic ways. That is why this second field is so deeply “implicated” as a trace in the awakening of something new and sacred that arises out of the emptiness of the implicate order. In fact, in describing the relationship between these two fields and how therapy awakens the birth of soul, it becomes apparent that it would be wrong to equate the first level of field as the conduit of this inexplicable energy and the latter as its container. Rather, it seems that both are container and conduit but in very different ways.

Through sponsorship we open the field so that the first level can both hold, contain, and make manifest the energy and grace implicit in the latter field. We can allow the inexplicable power and largeness of the later field to co-mingle and participate energetically in dynamic relational processes in the former and, in turn, embody both physically and emotionally. Art, parenting, athletics, spiritual practice, and psychotherapy all embody practices of sponsorship — through these each level of field can co-mingle and manifest essential qualities of being in the other.

Each of these manifestations of field embodies Ken Wilber’s (1997: 1998) idea of the “Great Chain of Being” where each level of field transcends but includes the one below, while manifesting its essential presence in the next domain. These interpenetrating levels of field are lived experiential realities that have to do with the awakening of something sacred in the somatic core of being in our clients. Thus the process is far from abstract and philosophical. It is literally life giving, and the essence of what we strive to sponsor in therapeutic conversations. To work optimally, sponsorship must somehow dwell at the boundary between soul and spirit. It must connect the head and the heart and gut, allowing one to breathe with another in deep recognition of the shared human condition linking all, and to speak from that recognition to something that links both to an inexplicable felt sense of the field.

Before delving more deeply into the question of how the Buddhist idea of “emptiness” might inform post-modern therapeutic practice and the self, let me share a little about what I think is similar about Buddhist and self-relations notions of the self. We have constructed two parallel ideas, one coming from an ancient Buddhist source and another coming from post-modern psychology and quantum physics. The first is that of shul; impressions that mark out instances of presence in essentially empty contingent relationships. The second; relational “fields” connecting the eminent phenomena of being to a transcendent order of experience lying beyond language and the space-time coordinates of everyday mind and self. In so doing I am attempting to build a bridge between these two very distinct traditions. Let us now look a little more deeply into these connections.

Stephen Batchelor says, (p. 82), “Emptiness is as devoid of intrinsic being as a pot, a banana or a daffodil. And if there were no pots, bananas, or daffodils, there would be no emptiness either. Emptiness does not deny that such things exist; it merely describes how they are devoid of an intrinsic, separate being. Emptiness is not apart from the world of everyday experience; it only makes sense in the context of making pots, eating bananas, and growing daffodils.” Here we see a clear link between the Buddhist notion of emptiness and the ideas about the relational-self Gilligan talked about above. From the standpoint of psychotherapy, just as in meditation, we seek to support ourselves and others in staying centered in a growing awareness of emptiness.” A life centered in awareness of emptiness,” Bachelor points out, “. . . is one dedicated to learning how to stay centered and grounded in this ever-changing, shocking, painful, joyous, frustrating, awesome, stubborn and ambiguous thing we call life.” Thus the Buddhist notion of “emptiness” becomes a clear path that leads not beyond the “reality” of our lives but right into its heart. As he showed in that stunning quote from Lama Tsongkhapa, it is the track within which the centered person moves. When we think about the impressions we leave in the wake of our lives, we see that we have been created, molded, and shaped by an amazing matrix of lives and shul that preceded us. All cultural and historical conditioning that goes into bringing the next generation into life, becomes the path through which we participate in creating the experiences that configure a unique trajectory culminating in the present moments of the children whose lives we touch. As Bachelor says, “What is here now is the unrepeatable impressions left by all of this, which we call ‘me.’ Yet so vivid and startling is this image that we confuse what is a mere impression for something that exists independently of what formed it.” Then he raises yet another stunning question. He asks: “So what are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, censoring, and embellishing in our heads? The self is not like the hero of a B-movie, who remains unaffected by the storms of passion and intrigue that swirl around him from the opening credits to the end. The self is more akin to the complex and ambiguous characters who emerge, develop, and suffer across the pages of a novel. There is nothing thing like about me at all. I am more like an unfolding narrative. As we become aware of all this, we can begin to assume greater responsibility for the course of our lives. Instead of clinging to habitual behavior and routines as a means to secure this sense of self, we realize the freedom to create who we are. Instead of being bewitched by impressions, we start to create them. Instead of taking ourselves so seriously, we discover the playful irony of a story that has never been told in quite this way before.”

The immediacy and reality of the experience of participation in an unfolding narrative was brought home to me vividly recently in a workshop for amateur chamber music players. One of my passions in life is chamber music. I play the violin and viola (rather badly, I am afraid, but with great enjoyment and a sense of participation in the fields we have been talking about). The notes we participate in with others when playing music might be thought of as shul in the way the Tibetan Lama and philosopher Tsongkhapa used the term. These “shul” we partake of in the notes on the page that fly by as we read the music are so fascinating. (I suppose the same thing could be said of the brush strokes of a painter, the words on the page of a novel or poem, or the chips flying off the marble as the artist seeks to release a meaningful image/object from the inert material from which he or she works). What are these impressions we receive and then pass on? They are “things” for sure. Inscribed by someone, in some cases centuries ago, on an inert piece of paper or a rock or canvas. But what are they as we partake of them? I read notes on the page. I try to transform the inscriptions into meaningful sounds and join with others in “interpreting” what they mean. As we practice and develop in our ability to use the inert material with which we work–the “implements” of the art — we begin to see we are a part of something much larger than ourselves. The more I am able to practice and join in the exquisite dance I share with others, I find I lose myself in the music and in the intersubjective, inter-being, of musical expression. Isn’t that fascinating? It is a paradox. The more I “lose” myself in the music, the larger I become; the more I give myself over to the experience, the more I see that I am a carrier of a great tradition. I partake of something that takes me both into myself and beyond myself at the same time. Suddenly I realize I am a small part in creating a field of experience and expression that carries me forward in time and allows me to create my life in the moment. The notes fly by me on the page. I try to keep up and play my part. I make mistakes but I have to let them go and move on to the next note, the next phrase, the next pause, the next dynamic interpretation, always appreciating that the notes in themselves are meaningless, they have to be woven together, paying attention to the gaps between them, the silence in the margins of expression that give them meaning. Learning to “let go” is as important in playing music as learning to hold on. They are the interrelated impulses that allow me to participate in the shared creative process of musical expression. For me music is a direct link to the “field” of cultural meaning and expression. For someone else I imagine surfing or scuba diving might have a very similar meaning and texture–only the field they are playing in has more to do with nature than culture. As human beings we are a part of both culture and nature. Both are “implicated” in the ways we surround ourselves with something that gives depth and meaning to our being. To be fully alive is to continually strive to reawaken our ability to notice and give ourselves over to the magic that surrounds us every moment wherever we are.

The language of music is one form of narrative. The languages of meditation and psychotherapy are other available forms of narrative. The important thing for therapists to remember is their central task is assisting clients in connecting to any form of language and expression that helps them directly and meaningfully connect to the unfolding narrative of their life. I personally have found psychotherapy fits very well with Buddhist practice. But I certainly do not require it of my clients. More and more I have come to see my work is to midwife clients into some form of dynamic animated connection to life and their body/mind. The form of connection is really up to them. I am very curious what practice will work best for them. I hope our conversations more and more shift from a story of pain, loss, suffering, etc. to one where more and more there is a recognition of the wonder and gifts of life.

Psychotherapy, like music and art, is thus inherently relational. It reflects both the intrapsychic development of therapist and client and the level of development of their relationship—i.e., the understanding and trust that they share. But I must admit there are times when it does not appear dependent on these things at all, or more accurately, it involves these things and something more. Sometimes “knowing” and working off of a specific model of reality actually becomes counterproductive, enticing me into a pre-formed, narrow, cognitive model of development, an image of my own making, subtly distracting me from a felt sense of the relationship. Sometimes all I can do is be with my client in dumbfounded awe at the irrationality, unfairness, unpredictable pain, unearned joy, beauty and grace of life. If I can just wait in this emptiness, while holding the sense of anticipation that something sacred is being born, it actually allows space for creative discovery on the part of my client uncolored by my preferences and attitudes. In these contexts we are talking about sponsoring a paradigm shift, a genuine birth of soul. It is also in this context that Buddhist notions of “emptiness” and the idea of the larger non-local-self make the most sense.

I believe that this “dumbfounded awe” we often feel in psychotherapy is the presence of the infolded “implicate order” awakening the dormant latent potential of emptiness in the living relational field. It is the ability and willingness of therapists to wait in respectful silence, trusting that the “birth of soul” and all the possibilities that that birth entails, is somehow also present in the field. It is the cultivated ability to trust in this presence and the latent possibilities held by the implicate order and the invisible field that surrounds it, a relatedness that takes us beyond local mind, ego, and the normally constituted self.

Seen from the point of view of emptiness, psychotherapy becomes a process of relating the energy and intelligence of the implicate order to embodied center, spirit and soul. It is loving awareness embracing something that is larger than somatic self and center, but includes it; loving awareness embracing something larger than soul, but again including it; loving awareness embracing something larger than spirit, but again, including it. All this takes place in the relational field of the self, a field constituted in and through language and somatic experience, but somehow or other touched by something much larger than can be held in consciousness.

The sacred realm of the implicate order co-mingles in the mundane activities of everyday life, giving them meaning and depth. After all, the everyday activities of living—buying groceries, going to work, doing the laundry, fighting, making love, parenting, being parented, caring for the sick and dying, etc.—are the manifest field of relationship within which the endless cycling of the wheel of life and death take place. Out of all these activities something sacred emerges—life is preserved and the perpetuation of life through the generations takes place.

*Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. is a Life Coach/hypnotherapist practicing in Los Altos Hills, California. He is a long-time practitioner of self-relations psychotherapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. With an abiding interest in music, art, yoga, and other body-mind practices, Dr. Rossel is also a long-time practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism and has sought for many years to find ways to apply meditation and mindfulness in his psychotherapy practice. He may be reached at 10490 Albertsworth Lane, Los Altos Hills, CA 94024. Address all correspondence to his e-mail address:


Bachelor, Stephen, Buddhism Without Beliefs: A contemporary Guide to Awakening, New York: Riverhead Books, 1997.

Senge, Peter, et al., Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future. Cambridge, MA: SOL (Society for Organizagional Lerning), 2004.

Wilber, Ken, The Eye of Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad. Boston: Shambhala. 1997.

Wilber, Ken. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. New York: Random House, 1998.

Things that Last

By Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.

We live in a culture that values youth and change. We seek the latest and newest. Many products—like this computer—are designed to be obsolete in a few years. That way we will “need” to buy a new one with all the latest developments and new technology.

Things break and wear out. Nothing is permanent. That is one of the laws of creation. Our bodies age. We grow old and eventually die.

This fact of life covers most if not all things. Perhaps because I am growing older, I look for things that last. I want to associate with things and activities that have the capacity to endure.

This is not so much for the purpose of denying or avoiding the fact that all things are impermanent and must fade. It is more to remind me that in all this flux, there are certain things that hold their value and embody a sublime ability to persist.

I admire people who exemplify this capacity to endure—those who carry their age with dignity, humor, and grace. They inspire me and give me hope for the future. I also admire old things—old houses, redwood trees, beautiful landscapes and other treasures of nature that have been around a long time. They remind me of strength, stability and that some things stand the test of time.

There are a few man-made objects that seem to have this capacity to endure like the best we find in nature. Rare among these are a few things that even seem to improve with use and age.

I play the violin and was reminded that some very old instruments not only increase in value but actually get better as they age. This is somewhat of a miracle. There are things that do not just increase in value as a commodity over time, they actually improve if they are used and treasured over their lifetime.

The very fine instruments made by the violin makers of Cremona, Italy—Amati, Guarneri, and Antonio Stradivari are highly valued because they have this quality. They are highly sought after and prized because of their beautiful sound and capacity in the right hands to express the highest forms of art.

But what is it that makes these instruments such treasures? Certainly the care and exacting craftsmanship that went into their creation contributed to their value. But is this sufficient to explain their value and uniqueness as instruments?

I believe these rare instruments improve over their lifetime because they are loved and valued as they are used. They become natural extensions of the human body and spirit, vibrating with sublime expressions of human imagination. To fully realize their value they need to be played!

It is a well known fact that fine instruments that are in museums or collections do not do as well over time as those instruments by the same makers that are played daily. This is perhaps the most direct evidence that musical instruments need to be used to realize their full potential as vehicles of musical expression.

But what is it about playing them that improves their quality and beauty of sound? There are any number of possible explanations.

Perhaps the physicality and exertion in playing them actually adds to their life if they are not abused. Human sweat and oil from the bodies of musicians actually join with wood, varnish, and rosin to add subtle qualities to the sound they make. Perhaps it is simply that they are loved and cherished for what they can do. There may be something about the way gifted musicians set the instruments vibrating that transforms their nature from merely being a natural object into something animated and lifelike.

It seems clear that whatever is involved, the fact that they are loved and held with such reverence and tenderness adds to their value and contributes to their ability to improve with age.

In their use they are reminders that what we choose to become involved with over our lifetime add or detract from the quality, beauty and value of our lives. Like a fine instrument we age beautifully if we are loved as we are played. Our lives—our postures, our eyes, our hearts—reflect the way we choose to interact with what life brings us. The more I live the more I have come to see that we are works of art shaped in the act of living. Our lives are precious as instruments of sublime expression. They must be cherished and preserved like the fine instruments they are. Through this we have the privilege of participating in creating great meaning and beauty.

About the author:
*Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. is a Life Coach living and practicing in Los Altos Hills California. He is a long-time practitioner of self-relations psychotherapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. With an abiding interest in music, art, yoga, and other mind-body practices, Dr. Rossel is also a Buddhist who has sought for many years to find ways to apply meditation and mindfulness in his practice. He may be reached at 10490 Albertsworth Lane, Los Altos Hills, CA 94024. Address all correspondence to his E-mail address:

Liminal Spaces and Transformation

By Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.

I woke up this morning with my mind buzzing with some loosely connected images that I think are related to questions about transformation and new beginnings. I had a dream in which I kept getting lost and had no reference point to help me find my way out. It was completely dark and very disorienting—much like the time I went scuba diving in Lake Champlain when the water was so murky that I could not see my hand immediately in front of my face. I don’t know if you have ever had such an experience.

I can tell you it is extremely disturbing. To see our way we need reference points. Without reference points we have no depth of vision, no way to orient ourselves in space. It feels claustrophobic, suffocating, deadly. In Lake Champlain I was doubly unnerved because my other senses—smell, hearing, touch—were unhinged from their usual, familiar, and useful place in my experience. I could hear the sound of my breath with each inhale and exhale (shorter and more panicky as time went on), I could feel the water as it passed over my body (somehow different from the water I knew and felt comfortable with), I could taste the dry, compressed air as I breathed (not very satisfying or comforting in this context). I was out of my element, groping around in 30 feet of water in utter darkness, bereft of my usual habitual responses in orienting myself in my experiential world.

Sometimes life is a lot like this. We get kicked in the gut. Nothing works. We can’t even tell what is up and what is down. All of our familiar and cherished ways of making sense of the world have flown out the window. We feel completely in the dark. As I look back over my life it is usually such times that are associated with major life transitions. Is that true for you too? Isn’t this the dying that has to take place for us to learn new ways to see? In Buddhism there is something called “the middle way.” In the middle way there are no reference points. We chose to let go of habitual responses and the usual attachments and things to grasp and see in the world. Instead, we embrace uncertainty and become more and more curious about a world where things can be both up and down, good and bad, bright and dark at the same time. If we can practice resting in the middle, we learn new ways or orienting in our world that draw on other senses we didn’t even know we had. As we exercise these new senses—intuition, beginners mind, faith—the world takes on a new shape and we can see things with new eyes. This gives us a way to stay centered in the tumult, to see possibilities where before we might have been mired in despair. Above all it gives us ways of being with those feelings that nag at us most insistently when we feel caught in those painful liminal spaces—loneliness, boredom, anxiety. It seems so basic to our conditioning that we seek some form of resolution from painful emotions. We feel more secure in the familiar world of praise or blame, victory or defeat, feeling good or feeling bad than in the liminal world where we sit with what we feel and do not rush to resolution. When we cultivate different practices that allow us to rest in the middle, we discover over time a growing ability to relax into the unfamiliar and eventually turn our usual fear driven patterns upside down. That, to me, is the essence of transformation.

I suppose if I were more enlightened at the time I could have transformed my Lake Champlain experience into something other than described above. Perhaps I could have allowed myself to be curious about the unusual experience of being utterly in the dark and groundless. I could have stayed with the breath as one grounding constant in my experience—something that embodies and joins the middle way of in/out, holding on/letting go. I could have then given myself over to curiosity about weightlessness, drifting in the dark and learning something about the benign quality of experience I could have allowed myself to trust that even in the dark I can relax into another unfamiliar dimension of experience where sounds are intensified by the surrounding fluid environment. I could have learned about orienting in unfamiliar space and wondered about all the things I miss when I feel like I am lost and groping in the dark.

I think it was Pema Chodron, in When Things Fall Apart, who said that disappointment, embarrassment, fear, and other such experiences where we feel off balance and out of sorts are a sort of death. We have lost our sense of meaning and purpose entirely and are unable to hold it together, losing the confidence that we are on top of things. Rather than accept that it takes death for there to be birth, we just perpetually struggle and fight against our fear of these little deaths that must happen in our lives for us to grow. Transformation, as I understand it, is change that emerges out of these little deaths we experience in our lives. It is the willingness to embrace uncertainty and fear as a message from the universe that we need to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. Transformation becomes the liberating process that opens the door to new beginnings, new perspectives, and allows us to truly step into unknown territory. The spiritual journey involves the willingness to go beyond hope and fear, stepping into unknown territory, letting the energy of what we are feeling pierce us to the heart. In the Buddhist tradition this is the path of compassion—the path of cultivating human bravery and kindheartedness. In my life the times of transformation were always marked by this experience of death and rebirth and a willingness to stay with the uncertainty and fear long enough to see things with new eyes—a deeper field of vision. Easier said than done, but still a noble way to live. It seems that every time I move into new territory physically and emotionally, if I do not rush into making it safe and familiar, I am able see things with this deeper field of vision and learn something new about myself and life. Any spiritual path if it is truly useful in promoting transformation must give one tools—prayer, meditation, reflection—to stay centered and open in this experience of death and uncertainty. The spiritual path gives us tools to lean into the discomfort of life and not rush to protect ourselves from it. To wake up is to cultivate the ability to stay focused and centered in our pleasure and our pain, in our confusion and our wisdom, so that we can fully drink in each moment of our confusing, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives.

About the author:
*Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. is a Life Coach living and practicing in Los Altos Hills California. He is a long-time practitioner of self-relations psychotherapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. With an abiding interest in music, art, yoga, and other mind-body practices, Dr. Rossel is also a Buddhist who has sought for many years to find ways to apply meditation and mindfulness in his practice. He may be reached at 10490 Albertsworth Lane, Los Altos Hills, CA 94024. Address all correspondence to his E-mail address:

The Expansion and Contraction of Being

By Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.

As children, our budding nervous systems were often overwhelmed with sensations or feelings that we couldn’t understand or contain. When this happened, we often learned to contract our mind and body, shutting ourselves down, to minimize the damage. Even more so if the adults we depended on were unable to be there for us to offer love or protection when we were frightened, exposed, or flooded with emotions. Shutting down and the experience of contraction became ways of protecting ourselves.

We learned to get very little when we needed to — To shut down our anger, our tenderness, our belief in love, even our will. Our survival often depended on it. We formed negative judgments about these parts of ourselves to justify this contraction and increasingly withdrew our awareness from them.

In time these contractions became the core of an overall style of living — basic habits shaping our identity. Our identity increasingly was based on learning to reject painful aspects of our experience, to numb out or comfort ourselves when we felt uncertain or in pain. For example, in my case contraction around the experience of anger grew into a pattern of always trying to be a “nice” person. I concluded, if I am just “nice,” enough people will like me and I won’t be rejected or hurt. My parents trained me well in this way of being. I also learned to curb a natural enthusiasm and zest for life out of fear that I would draw too much attention to myself and be shamed. I am sure each of you can identify exactly those places where you experienced the most contraction in your experience and how it shaped certain aspects of your identity.

This is important because these contractions eventually form the nucleus of our overall style of being. Our identities become more and more based on rejecting or defending against painful aspects of our history and experience. Because these “identities” are not really who we are, they require ongoing maintenance. We have to prop them up and defend them at all costs – especially when we feel they are threatened. It is like we are continually attempting to maintain the walls of a fragile sand castle against the rising tide of the ocean constantly smashing into them. As the noted psychotherapist Steve Gilligan has said many times, “Life is out to get you.” Like the ocean, life is continually wearing away these beliefs and constricted self-concepts, which limit our freedom and ability to experience the full wonder of life. The continual need to prop up our defended and constricted identity takes a tremendous amount of effort and attention. It becomes exhausting. This constant wear and tear and maintenance creates yet another level of pain and suffering — an ongoing state of tension, anxiety and stress that we carry with us wherever we go.

One way we learn to hold our constricted identity together is by telling ourselves stories about who we are and the way life REALLY is. The story serves as an unfolding interpretation of our experience that increasingly shapes how we perceive “reality.” After a while, these stories come to organize more and more of what we see, feel, and experience. They are so ubiquitous that we don’t even notice how they shape our perceptions and expectations about almost everything. That is the way stories work — they become self-fulfilling prophecies, creating a reality that in turn reinforces the story, locking us more and more into a false self system that increasingly distorts what we see, feel, experience. For example, in my case, my shut down around anger — and the pattern of “niceness” I constructed to defend against it — has led to an overall belief that I must “curb my enthusiasm” and be very careful in expressing myself, because people tend to get hurt when I “let myself out,” so to speak. This in turn is associated with a deep longing for attention and contact that goes underground but keeps bubbling up unexpectedly causing me to hurt or frighten people when the inherent largeness of my being shows up unexpectedly and in ways that feels a bit out of control. Then, horrified at the mess I appear to have created, I contract again, feeling great shame and with deeper resolve to be “nice” so that people won’t get hurt or offended by my presence. Get the picture? We all have these patterns that increasingly run our lives and prop up our “false self” system.

Of course there is no way we can completely identify with or give into to this false self. Our inherent expansiveness and intelligence knows we have been caught in a web of stories and manages to find a way to leak out and grab our attention. As we know in psychotherapy situations, this tends to be when symptoms show up. We also know that the first step in healing is to take the risk of exposing the wound and examining all the different ways we have been disconnected from this larger more expansive self. If we turn away from this we know it is only going to get worse and we will add yet another layer of contraction and frozenness that further constricts and dampens our inherent expansive nature. With good sponsorship, we learn to make a fundamental discrimination that allows us to slowly separate from our stories and connect more deeply with our core experience. I often talk about this as reestablishing the flow of beingness and relatedness.

We tell ourselves stories about the healing process as well. Sometimes therapists unwittingly help in this process. When we first start asking ourselves questions about our pain and suffering it usually takes the form, “What’s wrong with me?” “Why do I hurt so much?” Then our story telling mind steps up and says something like “Well, it is your inferiority complex,” or it is “Your hang-up with your mother,” or it is your “Codependency” or your “Wounded child.” This is very understandable, perhaps even necessary, at first. But eventually, such stories become major obstacles in healing because they tend to take us away from our felt experience and stuck in the limiting confines of the small self and its stories. Good sponsors develop many skills in helping clients move beyond these limiting accounts and into their experience. If a client tends to identify with labels or frozen categories in describing themselves, we attempt to get them to move beyond their stories into their feelings and core experience. Since we therapists also have our own models of the therapy process, we need to continually examine our stories as well – the stories that tell us we know exactly what’s going on or what our client needs to do to get better. Although we are trained to think of ourselves as “experts” in working with people who are in pain, the truth is that there is no such thing as an “expert” when human experience is involved. One of the profoundly important things Milton Erickson taught in the margins of his unique way of being with people, was that human experience is unique, unbounded and open-ended. Expertise is not so much based on what you know — the set of conceptual boxes into which you sort “reality” — it is the ability to join whatever arises with a fresh perspective, relinquishing any fixed idea of how experience should unfold. Skill in sponsorship is increasingly the ability to be present with what arises in experience, to stay with “not knowing” long enough to see things freshly and to find surprising new directions to pursue in the moment. It is the ability to trust that what is arising within the client is much larger than what can be placed in any conceptual box. To stay put in this uncertainty requires a lot of courage and experience. We have to quiet ourselves enough to be able just be present with the experience of the therapeutic relationship as it unfolds. We have to be able to trust that the sparks of our inherent brilliance will arise in the relational field, like a lotus rising out of the muck as Buddhists describe it, allowing healing to occur as the problem-saturated self dissolves.

When anyone is in pain, what they most want is this kind of presence rather than pre-formed answers, or soothing platitudes. They want to know we are willing to risk really being there with them no matter what they are experiencing. That’s also what our wounded places most need from us in our own self-relational process — to just stay there and not move away when the pain is great and the outcome uncertain. If this kind of presence is not there, no amount of symptom relief will ever result in genuine health. What have you noticed that a friend or sponsor has done when you have been in pain that has made the biggest difference? My guess is, whatever else they said or did, they demonstrated an unequivocal and clear commitment to being unconditionally present and available to you no matter what!

About the author:
*Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. is a Life Coach living and practicing in Los Altos Hills California. He is a long-time practitioner of self-relations psychotherapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. With an abiding interest in music, art, yoga, and other mind-body practices, Dr. Rossel is also a Buddhist who has sought for many years to find ways to apply meditation and mindfulness in his practice. He may be reached at 10490 Albertsworth Lane, Los Altos Hills, CA 94024. Address all correspondence to his E-mail address:

The Paradox of Surrender: Finding Strength and Wisdom in the Struggle

By Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.

I met with one of my favorite clients yesterday — a very deep and animate soul, a student getting an advanced degree in one of our local therapist training institutions— who shared an experience that touched me deeply. She is a bit of a psychic who frequently anticipates phone calls or animals crossing the road. She told me that she had one of her premonitions —a premonition that an animal was going to cross the road as she rounded a corner and over the crest of a hill, as she drove to our session.

She slowed her car, ready to break. As she cleared the hill and could see her way ahead, she was surprised because it appeared that nothing was there, no deer, moose, or other animal that she was accustomed to seeing when she had those premonitions. But something told her to slow down even more, almost to a complete stop. As she did this a little furry mouse scurried across the road, its legs all a blur, its little ears sticking up in alert attention, its whiskers alive with kinetic energy. She pulled over and started sobbing, filled with a complex mix of sadness, joy and a deep recognition of the subtle energies of the web of life surrounding her. She was aware as she seldom is of – what shall we call it — mouse consciousness, sensing its fear, its vigilance, its close-up mouse-view of textures, sounds, smells and vibrations, all the things that are such a basic part of its experiential world. I am not exactly sure why this story woke me out of a deep sleep this morning and why I was filled with an impulse to write it down. I guess it has something to do with our current life situation, its noise, frenetic pace, and shallowness, and a call to pay attention to the deeper currents of life that surround us, currents that we are often too numb, too distracted, too busy, to sense or notice. The “greater intelligence” our current life situation requires of us today is not just about paying attention to the “important” things that call upon us to notice, the distractions and preoccupations of our all too busy lives, it is also calls on us to stay connected deeply to the animate world; the trees, animals, earth tones and earth smells, the things the mouse knows. It is in our ability to pay attention, to sense beyond knowledge, to notice that our world is alive, animated with energies and possibilities that we easily miss if we don’t pay attention. It is also in our ability to connect with the mundane aspects of our lives, doing the dishes, making our beds, “doing the laundry,” in Jack Kornfield’s (2000) words. It is an invitation to awaken to the full spectrum of life’s possibilities—the good and the bad – dark currents as well as joy, noticing everything that surrounds our life. To enter mouse consciousness we must slow down, breathe, and listen deeply to each other. We must listen to the silence between the words, and, above all, as we would with any innocent child’s vulnerable self, be very respectful as we listen and respond. Eckhart Tolle, in his brilliant book, The Power of Now (1999) speaks of the importance of attending in this open way, discovering in this presence a way to free ourselves from the attachments of the ego that create suffering. As he says (1999: 79-80):

“Presence is needed to become aware of the beauty, the majesty, the sacredness of nature. Have you ever gazed up into the infinity of space on a clear night, awestruck by the awesome stillness and inconceivable vastness of it? Have you listened, truly listened, to the sound of a mountain stream in the forest? Or to the song of a blackbird at dusk on a quiet evening? To become aware of such things, the mind needs to be still. You have to put down for a moment your personal baggage of problems, of past and future, as well as all your knowledge; otherwise, you will see but not see, hear but not hear. Your total presence is required.”

In understanding this quality of presence, I am reminded of a client of mine who had just successfully finished the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii—a 54 year old woman who came to me because she had panic attacks in large crowds in the water and was afraid of being eaten by a shark – and how learning to surrender the ego in the moment-by-moment practice of mindfulness helped her deal with her panic and get through the race. I am amazed by her story and how she used the experience to transcend the ego through mindfulness and surrender—hardly the mentality one would assume is associated with the Ironman Triathlon. My client loves the poetry of Rilke and reminded me of his poem, “The Man Watching the Storm Approaching,” translated by Robert Bly, that we had shared in a session shortly before she left for Hawaii. Here is the poem (Rilke, 1993: 298):

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age;
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight with is so tiny!
what fights with us is so great!
if only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers in the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who so often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

She told me about the utter calm that came over her while practicing mindfulness as she rubbed the cramp out of her arch toward the end of the swim and was able to finish the swim and get on her bike. Then she described the powerful crosswinds that literally blew many riders off their bikes and how again she used mindfulness to stay present and centered on her bike. Rilke’s poem was particularly meaningful to her during this part of the race. She showed me photos taken of her as she ran across the finish line, and spoke of the amazing support she received from a multitude of people who where still there in the wee hours of the morning to welcome the runners home. The whole experience was a testimony to the power of mindfulness, the middle way, and the power of surrender.

But the connection to nature and the larger mind we establish through presence and surrender require constant practice—things like trance, mindfulness, dance, yoga, play, centered “belly” breathing, prayer—define the conditions where this connection to flow and presence is likely to happen but they in no way guarantee that it will happen. I think presence and the ability to surrender create the conditions where awareness opens up to currents that are always there but from which we are often distracted because of the imperiousness of our egos and because we become attached to particular fixed positions that shut down our capacity to surrender and be in the flow of our experience. I have found more and more that things begin to happen in therapy when I am able to sit with the discomfort or anxiety that invariably comes when I cut loose from my attachments to particular expectations or desired outcomes and look for the surprises that come into the field from the margins or gaps in experience. Subjectively, I sense this presence and connection with the larger mind when I find myself inexplicably chuckling at things that are said or done—the feeling tone and emotional quality of the interaction is playful and dead serious. What is said often has a poetic quality and perceptions open to make room for color, texture, vibrational qualities, and an increasingly rich and multi-layered non-verbal connection.

Far too often our associations with surrender and mindfulness suggest a kind of passiveness or resignation, having a distinct negative connotation, like giving up, becoming passive and fatalistic, or failing to rise to the challenges of life. In therapeutic situations, surrender has similar associations until one experiences the paradoxical transformational power of surrender, a power associated with letting go of struggle and resistance to change. It is the simple but profound realization that one can learn to yield to rather than oppose the flow of events in one’s life. There are many examples of this paradoxical transformation of perspective that come to mind from my clinical practice. I have come to see it as one of the most reliable indicators that therapy has begun to work. One of my clients, we will call him John, discovered the power of surrender when, after months of struggle with profound grief and unhappiness over the disintegration of his marriage, he finally let go of his resistance to this change in his life and the related story of loss and victimization to which he was fiercely attached. It was then and only then that things truly began to move in the therapy. He began to accept some personal responsibility for things that had gone wrong in his relationship with his wife. He began to open to some of the gifts in his suffering, a softening in his relationship with his kids, an awakening of a deep spiritual connection to life, the dawning of a new perspective on life that made room for irony, humor, and a deeper field of vision.

Pema Chodron, in her wonderful book, Start Where You Are (2001: 8) echoes these ideas when she says:

There is a saying that is the underlying principle of tonglen and slogan practice: ‘Gain and victory to others, loss and defeat to myself.’ The Tibetan word for pride or arrogance, which is nga-gyal, is literally in English, ‘me victorious.’ Me first. Ego. That kind of ‘me-victorious’ is the cause of all suffering. In essence what this little saying is getting at is that words like victory and defeat are completely interwoven with how we protect ourselves, how we guard our hearts. Our sense of victory just means that we guarded our heart enough so that nothing got through, and we think we won the war. The armor around our soft spot—our wounded heart – is now more fortified, and our world is smaller. … The words defeat and victory are so tied up with how we stay imprisoned. The real confusion is caused by not knowing that we have limitless wealth, and the confusion deepens each time we buy into this win/lose logic… Realizing our wealth would end our bewilderment and confusion. But the only way to do that is to let things fall apart. And that’s the very thing that we dread the most—the ultimate defeat. Yet letting things fall apart would actually let fresh air into this old, stale basement of a heart that we’ve got.

Surrender in therapeutic contexts is most importantly associated with a deepening connection with soul and some form of spiritual awareness and practice. Often in therapy surrender is the gateway through which this deeper, more vital, connection to life begins to come about. Before that, spirituality often is something only read about, talked about, and thought about in an abstract, disconnected kind of way, if that. In surrender life suddenly is filled with new-found vitality, soulfulness and depth. This animation of soul, in turn, is capable of touching other lives, emanating a new kind of spirit, a new vibrational frequency that literally transforms the relational field, a silent but intense presence that dissolves the unconscious patterns of thought and action in others it touches.

In my own life I have come to associate this new enlivened vibrational frequency with what I call “life as a living prayer.” I have completely given up thinking of prayer as a way to get what I want or make something happen. I now feel that prayer is much less about asking for help, blessing, and other things we are attached to and more about entering a process of surrender and letting go. Indeed, I think the essence of prayer is the surrendering of attachments. The process allows us to join with something much larger than ourselves that can take us beyond fear and beyond hope, both of which are attachments that keep us in the small mind and the small self. This is one of the links I see between prayer and meditation as spiritual practices. When I pray I don’t so much change the world as I change myself. It is a process which allows me to shift into a “being with” mode of being, a place where I can move out of my isolated individual-holding-up-the-world consciousness to a sense of connection at the deepest level to a much larger reality—a place of mystery and not-knowing that forces me to let go and trust in that not-knowing. Prayer also allows me to let go of my arrogance and attachment to outcomes. When I pray I stop trying to control my life and instead begin to wonder at the being of my life. Naomi Reiman, in her wonderfully moving book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, beautifully expresses this humility that connects one to the very large. She says (1996:244), “Prayer is a movement from mastery to mystery. I used it [she is a M.D.] to pray for my patients. These days I pray for myself, too. Sometimes I pray for compassion, but more often I pray for harmlessness, the great spiritual quality embodied in the Hippocratic oath. As a human being, I know I can never hope to have the depth and breadth of perspective to know whether any of my actions will ultimately harm or heal. Yet it is my hope I may be used to serve a holy purpose without ever knowing. So sometimes, before I see a patient I offer up a little wordless prayer: Understanding the suffering is beyond me. Understanding the healing is, too. But in this moment, I am here. Use me.”

Her humility and honest sharing strikes me as rare in medicine. It is very moving to witness her openness to the fact that healing, if it is to occur at all, is likely to be deepened as we begin drinking in and trusting the deep currents of the larger mind. Spoken and enacted prayer has become an integral part of my work as a healer as well. This is what I mean by “life as a living prayer.” Later in the book she shares a wonderful Sufi tale that speaks to the humility of surrender and enacted prayer in a beautiful way (1996: 245-246):

There is a Sufi story about a man who is so good that the angels ask God to give him the gift of miracles. God wisely tells them to ask him if that is what he would wish. So the angels visit this good man and offer him first the gift of healing by hands, and then the gift of conversion of souls, and lastly the gift of virtue. He refuses them all. They insist that he choose a gift or they will choose one for him, ‘Very well,’ he replies, ‘I ask that I may do a great deal of good without ever knowing it.’ The story ends this way: The angels were perplexed. They took counsel and resolved upon the following plan: Every time the saint’s shadow fell behind him it would have the power to cure disease, soothe pain, and comfort sorrow. As he walked, behind him his shadow made the paths green, caused withered plants to bloom, gave clear water to dried-up brooks, fresh color to pale children, and joy to unhappy men and women. The saint simply went about his daily life diffusing virtue as the stars diffuse light and the flowers scent, without ever being aware of it. The people respecting his humility followed him silently, never speaking to him about his miracles. Soon they even forgot his name and called him ‘The Holy Shadow.’

To me this is a very comforting tale that allows me to see the value in surrender and the mystery and power of the therapeutic relationship as a living prayer, a power that goes beyond attachments to specific outcomes and cultivates a vital connection to the larger mind and the practice of surrender. In saying this I am not talking about relinquishing any techniques we know or the special knowledge we have. Rather, I am talking about a particular kind of presence that allows us to go on even when we have no idea what we are doing, a trust in our ability to “be with” and tune in to an intelligence larger than our own. This special kind of presence is far from passive or lacking in thought. It only means that the “doing” of therapy becomes nonreactive, in the same way Akido or some other martial art embodies the unique power that comes only when one learns not to resist the opponent’s force, but, instead, to yield and overcome. This kind of active non-doing, a practice the Taoists call wu wei, when fully understood and mastered, opens an intense presence capable of transforming people and situations. It is a presence that connects mindfulness and soulfulness in such a way that active non-doing becomes fully engaged in the larger mind and in the larger relational field. I believe that soulfulness cannot exist without mindfulness, but dwells someplace between the mind and the heart and adds something extremely vital and animating to the experience of mindfulness. Soulfulness seems to come from outside of myself whereas mindfulness comes from within and is dependent on ongoing practice, attentiveness to body and breath, and an ability to see beyond the polarities and contradictions of the conscious mind. Soulfulness, as I experience it, is a gift freely given by the gods. I do nothing to create it, deserve it, or even invite it. And yet, there it is, often when I least expect and, in retrospect, come to see that I most needed it. Together mindfulness and soulfulness fill life with presence, taking us to an entirely different place of being, a place that one would hardly think possible, and yet, paradoxically, a place where we lose ourselves, our self consciousness, our fear of making mistakes, our self-doubt, and the need to “perform.” Finally, it is a place where we are able connect to play, joy, mischievousness, abandon, and bliss.

In talking about this unique kind of presence, it is useful to look briefly at play as something that defines its special qualities. I recently ran across a quote from the eminent British psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnecott, ” . . .psychology takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. . . .The corollary of this is that where playing is not possible then the work done by the therapist is directed toward bringing the patient from a state of not being able to play into a state of being able to pay.” (Playing and Reality, 1982: 38) I remember reading this statement years ago when Winnecott’s influential book first came out. I was intrigued—the statement rang true—but I also knew that I didn’t fully understand it. It hit me almost like a koan—I meditated on it for weeks. The present consideration of the unique quality of presence found in surrender and self-abandon seems to provide a rich context for considering it once again.

Playing defines a relational field where there is an immediate connection of body, mind and spirit in experience, where being is a context of becoming, where consciousness of self and other are woven together in an intersubjective dance, where language vibrates with meaning—in short, playing is a place where creativity and spontaneity dwell. When I am playing I am not self-conscious. My actions and sense of self are experienced as free from the grip of rigid thinking and negative sponsors. I can share and receive without needing to judge. At the same time I recognize the underlying seriousness of what I am doing. I can laugh from a place of deep recognition and connection with something I recognize is much larger than myself. This larger self is experienced as safe and comforting. Curiosity guides my actions and opens space for deep listening and unguarded receiving. A relational connection between differences feels natural—play allows the letting go of fixed identities and the embracing of complementary truths. In play I move beyond reactive responding and choose to be where I find myself. Playing awakens relatedness and the ability to stay in the present and open to the rhythms and somatic resonance of embodied knowledge, the sublime form of presence I previously called, enacted or “living prayer.” Restoring the capacity to play is restoring the connection of mind and body in the unique dance we previously called, mindfulness and soulfulness. This is why laughter and play is contagious. If one person is interested in playing it is difficult for the other not to play. This is also why play and humor are integral to healing.

Finally, to conclude, surrender is the path through which we most directly reclaim our humanness. Surrender allows a discriminating way of knowing and seeing that transcends the circumstances of our conditioning and makes room for inspiration, novelty, and genuine insight. This potential for brilliance and decisiveness is always there and a natural gift inherent in our humanness. Unfortunately this capacity for freshness, novelty and inspiration is far too often obscured by pain, suffering, and distress. One of the core challenges of therapy is the task of awakening the recognition of our essential human goodness and brilliance. Perhaps the most important gift that comes with the discovery of paradox of surrender is the awakening of our connection with these qualities. I was recently reading some of Chogyam Trumgpa’s early writing about the “primordial dot” which was his articulation of I call the tender human core at the center of our being. As he said in Great Eastern Sun, (1999:27):

There’s always the primordial dot—that spark of goodness that exists even before you think. We are worthy of that. Everybody possesses that unconditioned possibility of cheerfulness, which is not connected purely with either pain or pleasure. You have an inclination: in the flash of one second, you feel what needs to be done. It is not a product of your education; it is not scientific or logical: you simply pick up on the message. And then you act: you just do it. That basic human quality of suddenly opening up is the best part of human instinct. You know what to do right away, on the spot—which is fantastic. That is what we call the dot, or basic goodness and unconditional instinct…

Basic trust is knowing that there is such a thing as that spark of basic goodness in all human beings. The Buddha taught us that life is suffering. It is difficult to honor the currents and impulses flowing from our tender core when so much of life seems to conspire to sink us and pull us into despair as we awaken to the great suffering in and around us. The challenge that the path of surrender offers is the challenge of learning to remain awake and work with suffering without being sunk and discouraged by the continuous and relentless way the human situation pulls us into despair. It is easy to succumb to the distractions society offers in warding off suffering; things like addiction, consumerism, and rigid categorical thinking. Those of us who are not completely pulled into these distractions recognize the value of being on the path of surrender in resisting their seductive pull and the false promises they offer. In the same book, Trumpka talks about “renunciation” as an integral part of warriorship and as a particular skill that must be developed lest we become pulled apart by the deep currents of sorrow we touch when our tender human core is fully awakened to the suffering it sees and feels. Renunciation as Trumpka uses the term I associate with the active process of surrender, it is surrender used as a discipline taken into life. I believe the active use of surrender ultimately must be explored and fully exercised if the full potential of therapy is to be recognized. It is the aspect of surrender that allows the learnings of therapy to be brought into the world. As he says (1999:36):

Seeing the basic goodness in oneself and seeing the sadness of the setting-sun possibilities [by which he means all the distress, pain, suffering and ignorance we see as a part of the human condition], one is willing to make some kind of sacrifice… The negative aspect of renunciation, so to speak, is what you reject or avoid. In this case you are rejecting self-indulgence, purely pleasuring yourself… What you accept, on the positive side, is the development of genuine warriorship.

There are many specific lineages or traditions of warriorship that are available to be explored in therapy. What remains important is that therapy explicitly strive to be an instrument that puts one on a path of warriorship. Being a warrior, among other things, is a disciplined way of “holding your seat” and staying with the breath when you find yourself in the midst of great suffering—your own and that of others. It is a disciplined way of being fully, genuinely, and personally present wherever you are, sharing compassion and great kindness with others without giving away your self.


Chodron, Pema, 2001. Start Where You Are. Shambhala.

Kornfield, Jack. 2000. After the Ecstasy, The Laundry. Bantam.

Remen, Rachel Naomi, 1996. Kitchen Table Wisdom. Riverhead Books.

Trumpka, Chogyam, 1999. The Great Eastern Sun. Shambhala.

Winnicott, D.W. 1982. Playing and Reality. Routledge.

About the author:
*Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. is a Life Coach living and practicing in Los Altos Hills California. He is a long-time practitioner of self-relations psychotherapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. With an abiding interest in music, art, yoga, and other mind-body practices, Dr. Rossel is also a Buddhist who has sought for many years to find ways to apply meditation and mindfulness in his practice. He may be reached at 10490 Albertsworth Lane, Los Altos Hills, CA 94024. Address all correspondence to his E-mail address:

Foundations: The Ericksonian Legacy and Self-relations Psychotherapy

By Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.

Do you want to learn the sciences with ease?
Begin by learning your own language.
Etienne Condillac (1947: 216-217)

Although self-relations draws upon key ideas and practices from Carl Jung, Buddhism and various mind/body traditions, the influence of Milton H. Erickson. on the theory and practice of self-relations is undeniable. This article explores the foundation of self-relations in Stephen Gilligan’s long association with Milton Erickson and shows how many of the core concepts of self-relations have built on, systematized, and extended many of Erickson’s seminal ideas and practices. The journey began in the mid-1970s when Steve was a core member of a group of students from the University of California at Santa Cruz studying with Richard Bandler and John Grinder in their early attempts to puzzle out the magic of Erickson’s hypnotic approach. This journey, which in itself became critical in the founding of what was to become NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and several other key “schools” of psychotherapeutic practice, led Steve eventually to seek his Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford University and into an extended period between (1974-1980) where he and many other of Erickson’s students studied with him directly at his home in Phoenix, Arizona. Over that time Gilligan became known as one of the leading teachers of Ericksonian hypnosis and was a pioneer in expanding its relevance and depth of application to psychotherapy. In the mid 1980’s Steve slowly developed his own unique style of presenting Erickson’s seminal ideas and hypnotic techniques in supervision groups and residential training groups in self-relations. These groups were so experientially rich and impactful that an increasing number of practicing psychotherapists were drawn to them. By the early 1990s twenty–thirty such ongoing groups had been established all over the United Stated and then in England, Europe, South America, Australia and elsewhere. I mention these groups because I cannot emphasize enough their importance in the ultimate shape and depth of what was to become self-relations psychotherapy. It was in these groups that Steve formed the vital ongoing relationships that allowed him to find his voice as an articulate spokesperson in shaping and extending Erickson’s ideas. It was in these groups that the dynamic relational fields containing and deepening the experiential substance and “flow” of self-relations was fleshed out. It was in these groups that communities of practitioners came to learn and share a common orientation and also to use their experience in these groups to find their own voices as psychotherapists so they could increasingly make their own unique interpretations and applications of their experiences with Gilligan.

The Aesthetics of Relating the Universal to the Uniquely Personal

As has been noted by many of his students, Erickson was not known for his tendency to describe what he did in terms of an underlying system or theory. Nor was he known as someone who operated in standardized, predetermined ways in working with specific “kinds” of clients or diagnostic categories. Instead, he liked to start fresh with each case, emptying his mind of conscious preconceptions — kind of like the Buddhist’s “beginners mind” — so he could see the uniquely personal and human in each subject.

One essential contribution that Steve made to those attempting to understand and build on Milton Erickson’s unique genius was the thorough and innovative way he demonstrated the essence of Erickson’s legacy without violating the latter’s highly personal style of work by over-systematization or formalization. This was no small feat. As he himself said at the Fifth Ericksonian Congress in Phoenix: (Cf., Zeig, 1994:80):

I would like to suggest that the essence of Erickson had to do with things like soul and aesthetics, and that this essence is becoming increasingly obscured by the ever-increasing “stories” or models purporting to reveal what Erickson was “really” about. I don’t think this has anything to do with the myth-makers, of whom I have been one. I agree with Jeff Zeig’s insightful observation that one of Erickson’s great gifts was attracting and mentoring bright and dedicated students. Rather, my suggestion is that the way Erickson operated was so non-traditional that attempts to describe him in traditional terms, such as a particular framework or set of techniques, are woefully inadequate and misleading. 1

This is perhaps the first, and most important foundational link between Ericksonian hypnosis and self-relations. In both there is a profound respect for the uniqueness of each individual and an attempt to build approaches that are sensitive to this uniqueness and utilize it as the first principle in constructing the therapeutic relationship. This is a process of exquisite attunement, one that Gilligan often referred to as a “behavioral dance” within which the therapist “tunes in” on multiple levels to the subjects behavior and experience as a basis for constructing generative healing processes. As Gilligan himself has observed (Gilligan, 2002, 15):

. . . induction is a process in which the hypnotist uses his body as a music instrument, tuning it to get into rhythm with the “behavioral dance” of the subject. The hypnotist works to secure and hold the subject’s attentional process, thereby making it possible to access unconscious processes to develop hypnotic experiences. To the extent that the subject’s conscious processes interfere with this development, the hypnotist uses distraction, confusion, and boredom techniques. In short, the most effective induction strategy is one that maximally uses the subject’s ongoing experience as a basis for trance development.

How this “behavioral dance” is choreographed, and how with great sensitivity, discipline, and persistence, one learns all the steps in the dance and how to make them one’s own is, of course, a central question open to endless interpretation. Hopefully, this paper will make a small contribution in showing Gilligan’s own attempts to learn the steps of the dance and then gradually teach his students the artistry and aesthetic sensibilities that are essential in making the dance one’s own.

A second major foundational link between self-relations and the Ericksonian legacy is the shift from a technical and hierarchical therapeutic stance to one that is relational and based on co-creative collaboration between client and therapist. In one of my first associations with Gilligan, he told the story of an early encounter he had with Erickson in which he asked, “So Dr. Erickson, what is psychotherapy?” To this Erickson, quite seriously, replied, “I don’t know.” Not willing to be dismissed with such a cryptic answer, a bit later Steve again asked, ” So Dr. Erickson, what is psychotherapy?” Again came the answer, “I don’t know.” Finally, after being asked yet again to define psychotherapy, Erickson replied in his characteristic quasi-cryptic, quasi-hypnotic way, “Psychotherapy… is a process. . . whereby two people… sit down. . . and try to figure out. . . what the hell. . . one of them wants.”

I love this story because it so clearly illustrates the playful and loving way Erickson interacted with Gilligan and his other students. But, even more, I love this story because of the deeply metaphorical and evocative way it lays out this essential link between Erickson and what would later become self-relations psychotherapy.

Take a moment to reflect on what Erickson communicated in this cryptic statement. First, the fact that he could quite seriously claim to “not know” in answering his student was a very important, even essential, foundational link between Erickson the healer, and the core of what Steve Gilligan would later teach his students. “Not knowing,” the ability to empty one’s mind of preconceptions, the ability to relax into a place of “being-with,” the ability to hold a “soft-focus” where one is able to hear and see beyond the cover story into the inner experiential world of a human subject, is at the heart of the practice of self-relations. The cultivation of an ability to comfortably rest in a “not-knowing” space is an essential meta-position or framework in psychotherapy that allows a healing presence to arise and be experienced in the relational field connecting therapist and client.

But beyond his initial refusal to answer, itself so full of information–and the very playful and loving way Erickson encouraged his student to suspend his need to know–was the equally important information found in his cryptic answer. Erickson emphasized that psychotherapy was, above all, a collaborative process of two people focusing on one person’s questions. Here again, in a statement that says so little and yet so much, we see Erickson marking out an essential foundational link between what he did and what would become the core practice of self-relations psychotherapy. First, is Erickson’s emphasis on the word “process”. In this Erickson was emphasizing that the vital core of psychotherapy is found not so much in the ideas or techniques of the therapist, but in what happens between and around them–in the flow of experience connecting therapist and client. Early on, Gilligan demonstrated in multiple ways that the process of psychotherapy, above all, had something to do with releasing oneself into an experience of blessing others and welcoming them into the life of the community. In self-relations this process became more and more a willingness to be with another person’s suffering in such a way that what was experienced as broken, neglected, or silenced could be named and welcomed back into a vital, aware experience of the self as an open, flowing process deeply rooted in a relational “field”.

Second, Erickson also noted that the creation of this relationship — two people sitting down attempting to figure out what the hell one of them wants—is essentially a collaborative process. However simple and cryptic the statement may seem, when placed in the context of Erickson’s life, it represents a radical departure from much of the prevailing thought about psychotherapy and represents another core foundational link between Erickson and self-relations psychotherapy. Erickson was pointing out psychotherapy at its best involves two (or more) people actively joined together in the process of questioning and finding answers. He was also pointing out that one important task of the therapist in this collaborative work is to help the client sharpen his or her questions, indeed to deepen the very process of questioning. Ultimately this process opens up the ability of the client to grasp and name his or her deepest longings, the questions about basic purposes and wants to which the questioning is pointing but can never fully disclose.

Finally, the very form of this cryptic statement identifies yet another foundational link between Erickson and self-relations. Part of what makes it so rich and penetrating is that it is a communication on multiple levels. One of the qualities of communication that was so characteristic of Erickson was his ability to frame his utterances in such a way that they could be reflected on over a long period of time and interpreted in many different ways as the context surrounding the knowing shifted (Cf., O’Hanlon & Wilk, 1987). Many of his utterances and stories had this quality. They were ubiquitous, operating in a way that is similar to a Zen koan or a poem. This quality of Erickson’s communication was an essential aspect of what made it hypnotic—speaking to the conscious and unconscious mind at the same time, bringing past, present, and future together in generative ways, “depotentiating” rigid mental sets, opening possibilities for experiential change and deep insight in the heart of confusion.

All of these qualities that were later shown to be essential dimensions or formal properties of Erickson’s hypnotic communication became more and more flexibly incorporate as essential aspects of the “externally oriented trance” that Steve taught his students to incorporate into the behavioral dance he talked about above.

To summarize, here we are marking out three key closely interrelated foundational concepts in the origins of self-relations psychotherapy. The first is that the quality of what happens in psychotherapy has something to do with the quality of the relationship between therapist and client. The second is that the vitality and openness of this relationship is critical in opening up the scope and depth of the questions therapy is able to address. And finally, what is essential in healing is the ability of the therapist to have an “aesthetic” that allows him or her open up the relational field by using language, presence, and one’s body/mind as an instrument to awaken soul in the heart of suffering. As Gilligan himself has noted (2002:17), “I firmly believe that the most powerful aspect of Erickson’s communication was his integrity. Before training with him, I would read about all these wild things he did with his patients and I could never quite figure out how he could get these people to cooperate with him. After watching him in action, it became crystal clear that he had an unwavering intention to fully respect and support his patients and students. He wasn’t out to manipulate or control for his own personal gains. Consequently, people would really let go and cooperate with him.” As we will see, this intention, coupled with finely tuned sensibilities that allow one to stay flexible and open in one’s ability to flow with what is present in the relational field is at the foundation of Erickson’s influence on self-relations psychotherapy.


Another key foundational concept found in the Erickson legacy is the idea of “utilization” (Cf. Erickson, Rossi, & Rossi, 1976: 20). Specifically utilization, as a key description of Erickson’s hypnotic approach, is the art of simply being curious about what happens in trance and using what happens as a foundation to suggest other possibilities. As Rossi says:

The utilization approach to trance induction (Erickson, 1958, 1959) and the utilization of the patient’s presenting behavior and symptoms as an integral part of therapy (Erickson, 1955, 1965) are among Erickson’s original contributions to the field of clinical hypnosis. This utilization approach, wherein each patient’s individuality is carefully studied, facilitated, and utilized, is one of the ways “clinical” hypnosis is different from the standardized approaches of experimental and research hypnosis as it is usually conducted in the laboratory. It is in the clinician’s ability to evaluate and utilize patients’ uniqueness together with the exigencies of their ever-changing real-life situation that the most striking hypnotic and therapeutic results are often achieved. The utilization approaches achieve their results precisely because they activate and further develop what is already within the patient rather than attempting to impose something from the outside that might be unsuitable for the patient’s individuality.

In self-relations “utilization” becomes the art of joining naturalistic or “symptomatic” trances and, through pacing and leading, transforming the latter into pathways toward solution. Staying within Gilligan’s “dance” metaphor, utilization is essentially the art of learning to “dance with the symptom.” Self-relations has extended the flow and artistry of the basic concept of utilization by exploring a variety of practices for reading and sensing the body/mind, by learning to speak the language of the symptom on multiple levels, by using the relationship between therapist and client as an instrument in opening up transformational possibilities. This highly cultivated process of attunement allows a more elegant, multi-level reading of the problem and the utilization of the symptom as the foundation of generative change processes.

Self-relations thus broadened the context for understanding the power and aesthetics of utilization. It also explored and deepened the fundamental departure Erickson made from earlier more formal forms of hypnosis. First, the very notion of utilization radicalized the underlying assumption of formal hypnosis that trance is essentially unconscious control and manipulation through suggestion. Early on many of Erickson’s students such as Jay Haley (1973), members of the Mental Research Institute (Watslawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974) communications group, and Ernest Rossi (Rossi, Ryan, & Sharp, 1983) explored the paradox behind the notion of indirect suggestion and the communicational “strategies” involved in utilization. In various ways they pointed out and explored the paradox inherent in the idea that you cannot not communicate, you cannot not affect another person. Self-relations begins with this paradox and follows it to its natural conclusion, namely, if all behavior is manipulation, it becomes increasingly important to be ever mindful of the intent behind all communications. What is important is to become increasingly cognizant of the variety of ways in which we constantly influence others and are influenced by others both consciously and unconsciously. As a therapist becomes aware of such patterns, he or she can begin to use them systematically, and become more mindful of the need to align their behavior on more and more levels with their unfolding intent. Like all essentially artistic endeavors, this must be learned through hours and hours of practice.

Another essential contribution of self-relations to the foundational concept of utilization, is the notion that the heart of the practice of attunement is a growing sensitivity to the therapist’s own somatic and non-rational experiencing as it relates to and influences one’s client’s unfolding experience. This practice of opening to a more field-based awareness was honed in the laboratory of the self-relations residential workshops and, I believe, has become one of the hallmarks that distinguishes self-relations from its Ericksonian foundations. “Open to one’s center, extend to the field” became one of the mantras of all practitioners in self-relations workshops. When fully understood and artfully employed, this mantra came to embody what was essentially relational about self-relations. By working beyond the boxes of specific presupposition and techniques and cultivating a field-based consciousness, self-relations practitioners had the potential of becoming more fluid, more adaptive to the myriad conditions and question posed by clients, and ultimately more effective in helping clients change and find new possibilities in experience. This expanded awareness enabled them to move flexibly and responsibly to the unfolding needs of clients in the relational field therapist and clients co-create.


Ideodynamic processes, (Erickson’s notion that one can transform “ideas” into “dynamics” without conscious mediation) is also a core foundational concept coming out of the Ericksonian legacy. Erickson was the ultimate master in reading the “language” of the unconscious and learning to work with the body’s own autonomous utterances arising in the breath, subtle variations in posture and somatic presentation, and in the spaces and rhythms between specific words that are used. This part of the legacy became core in NLP explorations of ideomotor signals and eye accessing cues (Bandler & Grinder 1975a; 1975b; Grinder & Bandler, 1976), was deeply influential in the development of notions of “reframing” in paradoxical and strategic therapy (Grinder & Bandler, 1981; 1982; Haley, 1963; 1973; 1976) and also in the “solution” language of deShazer and his associates (deShazer, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1991). What these more “mechanical” applications of Erickson’s legacy missed was the elegant way he worked with ideodynamic processes on multiple levels and with much greater “flow” and sensitivity to the inherent energy and dynamism of the unconscious. In self-relations there is curiosity about the special character of such processes and their relationship to the breath, the spaces between words, and the physical rhythms of the body. Self relations has refined the art of touching something that is unconsciously present in the relational field – touching it not only by describing it in words, but welcoming it into a relational connection of blessing so the essence of the thing named can be revealed. Thus idiodynamicism is about more than ideas. It becomes a primary feature in “reading” the language of the body and working with symptoms. It becomes less about specific techniques to work with such processes, although it certainly employs them, and more about dancing with multiple textures of ideo-motor, ideo-sensory, ideo-cognitive, ideo-affective, ideo-perceptual, and/or ideo-imaginal expressions unfolding in the relational field. Any or all of these distinct processes may be involved. As Gilligan has observed (2002:30:

As we have seen, symptom phenomena and hypnotic phenomena share numerous characteristics. Both are developed from paradoxical injunctions and involve paradoxical (both/and) experience; both feature the principle if ideo-dynamicism, where by expressions (thoughts, behaviors, feelings etc.) develop outside of conscious control; and both involve intensified experiential absorption, sustained attention, temporal alterations, somatic changes, and other phenomenological shifts. In short, a person expressing a symptom is a person in trance.

Seeing symptoms in the context of the flow of experience rather than negative states that must be extinguished at all costs is the central skill that must be cultivated and utilized in self-relations psychotherapy. In a sense then, self-relations has attempted to return to its roots in Milton Erickson’s enormous gifts in accessing and utilizing such processes for the sake of therapeutic change.

Both/and Logic

Both/and logic is integral to both Ericksonian hypnotherapy and self-relations. It was shown to be the hallmark of trance in M.T. Orne’s (1959) classic study of “trance-logic,” discussed at length by Beahrs (1982 )– a study in which he demonstrated convincingly that in trance subjects can see and not-see something that is experientially present and comfortably hold these apparently contradictory states at the same time. Orne showed that trance states in their most essential form collapse boundaries and open consciousness to possibilities where opposing states, values, or experiences can be held at the same time. Rather than assuming that they are simply illogical or contradictory, exploring and working with these paradoxical experiential realities becomes the gateway to opening avenues for meaningful change and transformation. “Trance-formation” is literally a process of fundamentally altering the “form” of experience. “Trance” in transformation is the process of collapsing, altering or playing with fundamental distinctions in such a way that we radically change the way the phenomenal world is held in experience. The first step in such alterations is made as one experiences and notes that boundaries typically used to mark distinctions in one’s phenomenal world no longer operate in the way one assumes they should operate. The second step is to then utilize the confusion, uncertainty or curiosity — and resultant openness to change that typically accompanies such states – so that the process opens new possibilities for affirmative, self-valuing experiences in a subject’s phenomenal world. This is what makes therapy an experiential bridge in bringing the resource of trance into contact with the frozen logic and needless suffering of symptom states. In self-relations, the therapeutic utility of such “liminal” or “between” states is explored and exploited extensively. The core function of therapeutic trance– to break open, alter, invert, subvert, or in other ways scramble frozen experience in the service of radical change–became increasingly something self-relations practitioners learned to value and dance with on multiple levels. Again, in so doing, self-relations has in a very real sense attempted to rediscover and utilize something that Milton Erickson seemed to do intuitively, with great artistry and integrity.

Mirror Work

By Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.

I had a profoundly liberating experience recently sitting on the toilet at the B & B where my wife and I were staying during our Thanksgiving visit with my family. There is a large floor to ceiling mirror on the door immediately opposite the toilet, not more than 2 feet away from your face as you sit on the throne. In my drowsy, have asleep/half-awake state, I glanced up and saw my face in the mirror.

How I had aged! I looked so old, so tired, so different from the man I had imagined myself to be. It was hard to look and it was hard not to look—I mean really look—at myself. I was shocked. How long had it been since I really looked at this man in the mirror? How seldom I let me truly see me when I look in the mirror. But here I was, gazing at the image in the mirror again, amazed at little things that had changed since the last time I really looked at myself. I wonder if this is true for others as well—the reason I am writing this essay.

I urge you to take a few moments to do some mirror work. Take a few moments to look at yourself, preferably with the openness and curiosity of a child who sees him or herself for the first time. Talk to yourself. A few phrases I might suggest: I love you. Welcome to the world. I appreciate all you do for me. I am sorry I have neglected you. What do you need from me? Say things or ask questions that will touch your neglected self. You will know what needs to be said.

Here is what happened with my experience in the mirror. A compassionate voice from deep inside asked, “Who are you and what do you need from me?” As I continued my intense gaze, the compassionate voice continued, “You look so sad. I am truly sorry you are so sad.” Then it asked, “What is it like for others to look into those eyes? Do they experience your love? Do they see fear? Hope? A desire to play?” I looked again—deeper: I looked tired, yet my eyes were very expressive, full of love. The compassionate voice urged me to play with the image in the mirror. “Make a little face. What does your face look like when you are playing ‘peek-a-boo’ with your grandson, like you did last night?” I made that face. He was very loving, very playful, full of anticipation and glee. “What is the face you use looking into your wife’s eyes when you say/feel ‘I love you?’ Make that face. See your face full of love, lust, delight, play, anger, confusion. See love again. Now see your face simply regarding yourself. Start from a neutral place. Breathe. Look deeply into your eyes. At the mouth, nose, the color shape and texture of your skin, whiskers, teeth. etc.” I saw my exhaustion. How hard I have been on myself. How many obstacles I have placed in front of me. How spent I have become with the exertion and relentless pressure I have placed on myself. I saw how little room I have given myself recently for hope, joy, satisfaction, and contentment. I apologized for being so mean to myself, for being so dismissive of the value of who I am and what I have done. I imagined what I would feel like, what my life could become, if I removed all the obstacles for peace, delight, creativity, and excitement that I have placed in front of me. I actually felt a moment of freedom—as if I had been let out of a cage, released from a prison I have built around myself. For a few seconds I felt completely unencumbered by the pressure and negativity. What an amazing discovery! A door opened. I stepped through into an open field — A path with no obstacles. No fear, no self-doubt. Just open space. What would it be like to live this way? What would I want to do? What would I say?

It seems to me that this is a very direct experience of “self-relations”. Is this what it feels like to banish the hurtful voices of others that we have taken on over our lifetimes? Is this what it feels like to reestablish the flow of the relational self? I urge you to try it. Take some time to really see yourselves and if you would like, write down some of your impressions.

On reflection I see the beginnings of my mirror meditation in the dance of smiles, proto-language, mimicry, and gestures of mutual recognition as I sat down with my grandson on Thanksgiving to play peek-a-boo. How I laughed as he put and pulled Cheerios in and out of my mouth in acts of complete generosity and wonder. I tried very hard not to injure this innocence but recognize that his life, like mine, in many ways must become a process of gradual disillusionment. I want to protect him against this wounding and make a place for his innocence and wonder at the world. These feelings are particularly strong as I remember a psychotherapy session I had recently with a young father. He had spent a weekend with his mother and father who had come over from France to see their new grandson. In the midst of all the hard work of taking care of his son, feeding guests and providing taxi service, he had to deal with profound grief because he knew mother was very ill and would soon die of cancer. There was a post-visit letdown when he realized he would never receive the kind of blessing he wanted from his parents. He recognized that still, after all those years, there was no place for him in his parent’s world and sobbed deeply as he recalled the times his mother said, “If it had been possible I would have aborted you.” “You ruined my life” and other such curses. He had hoped against hope that this time would be different. He had invited his mother and father to participate in healing work with me with the hope that it would lead to healing and greater understanding. Once again, they missed the boat entirely. I have seldom had to deal with such profound sadness. The image he presented was that of a deep well or sink-hole that he was trapped in. I thought of an Oasis—the well of souls, the water of life coming from the depths of the earth and tried to offer this and other comforting words. Words failed me utterly, but I realized I must try to offer him something. I remembered words that were presented to me in a moment of similar grief by the well known psychotherapist, Steve Gilligan, in a residential workshop I had attended. I said, “Welcome to the world. There is a place for you here. I am sorry that you have had to make your way without the blessing you have deserved.” “I make a way for you.” “You belong here. This is your world. Welcome!” These words were strikingly similar to the ones that came to me from that deep presence in the mirror and I wonder if in some way I was unconsciously channeling the words I had received earlier from Steve and passed on to my client. This process was extremely moving for us both when it happened in session. It was equally moving when it happened to me in the mirror. I feel so honored and privileged that the cosmos has offered me this wonderful opportunity to bring the blessing back to myself. I also marveled at the perfect way life conspires to remind me why I do this work.

About the author:
*Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. is a Life Coach living and practicing in Los Altos Hills California. He is a long-time practitioner of self-relations psychotherapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. With an abiding interest in music, art, yoga, and other mind-body practices, Dr. Rossel is also a Buddhist who has sought for many years to find ways to apply meditation and mindfulness in his practice. He may be reached at 10490 Albertsworth Lane, Los Altos Hills, CA 94024. Address all correspondence to his E-mail address:

Growing Up With Music

By Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.

Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My dad was a composer and music teacher and my mother a singer. My dad would rise around 5:00 a.m. every morning to sit at the piano for two to three hours working on his latest composition—a choral piece, a bit of chamber music, a trumpet or violin solo for student musicians, a symphony or opera. My mother would frequently go over the solo she was preparing to sing the next Sunday at church. One of my sisters played the cello and the other the violin. The sounds of people practicing, impromptu gatherings of family friends for an evening of chamber music, music listened to on the radio or phonograph, and my father’s unwavering morning compositional ritual were the most constant and familiar experiences of my early life. Looking back, it all seems rather idyllic. How lucky to grow up in such a rich and stimulating musical environment. How fortunate to have such a sound introduction to one of the truly great traditions of artistic expression.

Unfortunately at the time I did not look at it that way. In my early years music was more torment than treasure—something to be endured rather than truly enjoyed. One of my great regrets is that I didn’t appreciate it more. Although I loved it that my father conducted the local town and high school band—it meant I could see him march in parades and stay out extra late on the summer nights when there was a band concert— it was not the music I enjoyed, it was the freedom and the fact that I could stay up past my bedtime. Often in an attempt to teach me to read music my father would invite me to sit in his lap and follow the score of a symphony or opera he was listening to on the radio. I enjoyed these rare moments of close contact with my dad but, in part because I was dyslexic and in part because I also wanted to be outside playing with my friends, I was unable to appreciate or benefit from these early attempts to expose me to music. To this day I detest opera, mostly because of the harshly enforced rule that there were to be no loud noises—fighting, running, shrieking, shouting, or door slamming—on Saturday afternoon during the time my father was listening to the Metropolitan Opera.

My dad attempted to introduce me to the piano when I was six or seven years of age. When it became clear to both my parents that I could not read music and was struggling with the piano (but had a very good ear for pitch), they decided to introduce me to be violin. I was about 9 at the time and in the fourth grade. My hands were big enough and arms long enough for a full sized violin, so my dad gave me an old instrument that had once belonged to my grandfather. It was not a very good violin but served me well enough to start out. It had a large crack on the back, gut strings that were quite old and had to be replaced, and ornate perpling front and back. Like most beginners in the violin, I had a terrible time at first twisting my hands and fingers in those unnatural and awkward positions violin players must assume to play scales and draw the bow across the strings. But I had a strong and quite pleasant tone almost from the first. I quickly learned to use my good ear to listen carefully and play in tune. Because I showed some promise, my grandfather’s violin was quickly replaced with another violin that became available when my parents purchased a new violin for my older sister. This shift to a new violin also resulted in improvement in my playing. I actually began to enjoy the sounds I could make and would practice longer before protesting that I wanted to go outside to be with my friends. I played by ear and could memorize and belt out most of the melodies I was taught at school. This precocity impressed others and allowed me to hide the fact that I continued to be almost totally unable to read music. This theme of visibility and hiding, pride and perceived defectiveness, became a central one in the development of my identity and my relationship to music over time.

As I grew older, I began to enjoy music more for its own sake. After a couple of years of giving me violin lessons and getting in constant fights with me, my dad wisely decided to let someone else teach me privately while continuing to be my instructor at school where he conduced the orchestra. As I got better, I slowly began to enjoy the violin and appreciate what I could do when playing it. At the same time, practicing was boring; performing was terrifying; and attending orchestra rehearsals meant being singled out as the conductor’s kid—a marked man as I saw it. Besides, playing the violin could be physically dangerous. It was Pittsburg, Kansas in the 1950s, and boys were supposed to play baseball or football, not the violin. I got into a few fights with other boys who mocked my playing, and though I often as not came off well in these skirmishes, I secretly shared my opponents’ conviction that a fellow who played the violin must not be worth much. I was so ashamed, in fact, that my parents finally bought me a second violin so that I could keep one at home and one at school, and avoid being caught in public with the offending instrument. I asked my dad to make me the principle second violin, rather than concertmaster, so I could more easily hide in the middle of the orchestra and not as easily be seen by my peers during concerts and school assemblies. I did well in regional and state music contests but found the nervousness prior to performance so unbearable that it completely offset any feelings of pride in my accomplishments or over the gold medals I won.

It is easy to see why I might argue that my relationship with the violin and music is both meaningful and messy. Music was my father’s passion and his profession; inevitably, it became the site of bitter conflict between us as I went through the normal rebellion of adolescence. Now, as I look back over my life, I feel sad that I didn’t value both more. It angers me that my peers robbed me of many potentially gratifying experiences with the violin. It also frustrates me that when my peers weren’t around, my own shame robbed me of the same enjoyment. I often wonder how far I would have gone, had I not felt such shame and internalized such absurd messages about music. At the same time, I realize I can’t go back and change the past. The parameters of my ability are partly determined by what I learned and refused to learn 50 years ago. To pick up the violin is, for me, to take up the complexities of my past.

I have been writing this article with the strains of Beethoven’s string quartets playing in the background. Right now I am listening to a favorite of mine, Opus 95 in F Minor, called the “Serioso.” This quartet, perhaps more than any others in his “middle” period presages the intense struggle Beethoven had with musical forms of the late—classical period—a struggle that we see even more starkly and powerfully manifest in his later quartets. It has often been characterized as a “hinge” quartet in his change of style, a true turning point in his ongoing struggle with the classical period. Fiercely self-absorbed and uncompromising, throughout the quartet one senses Beethoven’s impatience with all the forms, conventions and cadential passages of the classical style.

I have listened to this and his other quartets countless times. I find them inexhaustible and always fresh, continually revealing new secrets. To play one of his quartets (badly, I am afraid) is an utterly transcendent experience for me—as close to a spiritual awakening as I can have. I feel privileged to be able to participate in something I consider to be among the most profound expressions of the human creativity in existence. Each time I play or listen to his quartets, I feel blessed to partake in something that gives me hope for humanity. For all the pain, suffering, foolishness and brutality that characterizes our race, at least, I say to myself, there is Beethoven’s art.

In his late quartets, Beethoven carried his experimentation with the fugue—Bach’s form, the form of the Well-Tempered Clavier—to an extraordinary level. In Op. 133, the Grosse Fuge, for example, we see Beethoven taking the fugue to entirely new levels of complexity and power. To this day, Op. 133 remains an enigma. The effect is not just of formal mastery. Rather, as Milan Kundera has noted, the interlocked patterns of statement, repetition, and inversion at the heart of the Grosse Fuge are expressive of the eternal tension between order and chaos, of the necessity to confront and embrace Fate, a longing for stillness while remaining constantly—sometimes frantically—in motion. Here, in an extreme form, we find a statement found repeatedly in Beethoven’s late works, namely, the tension between struggle and resignation, and a relentless sense of the passage of time.

It is a curious fact, in connection with the Beethoven quartets, that they remained virtually un-played for many years after he died. They were widely viewed as the perverse scribblings of a madman. In some ways this reaction is understandable. In testing the limits of the quartet, Beethoven also tested the limits of musical coherence. Although the quartets as a whole were highly organized, the elements in the music seem quite autonomous, even disjointed. Each instrument’s voice moves independently, almost as if unaware of the presence of the others. The number of styles used (the fugue was only one of many) and rapid shifting of mood in the quartets can be unsettling. One can understand how listeners in Beethoven’s time, like those of many other composers in other times, found it difficult to decide whether they were listening pure music or utter noise appropriately dismissed with a riot.

But how is it that Beethoven’s first listeners did not recognize even the formal integrity, much less the meaningfulness, of these works? The notes on the page haven’t changed. Yet somehow the music has changed. Or, more likely, the audience—as if we had “grown up” as audiences, the adult embracing what the fourteen-year-old rejected as meaningless.

It seems to me that this maturing of music is not unique to Beethoven’s quartets, but occurs as a central aspect of musical experience. Music is composed as a system of notes on paper, but that is only the beginning. (Imagine reading a score in order to enjoy the music!) Like Ariel freed from the witch’s tree, music comes to life and takes on new dimensions when it is released from the page: when it is heard and interpreted, practiced and performed. My appreciation of a piece of music changes as my perspectives change. My understanding of it depends on whether I am listening to it “live” or on CD, or whether I am hearing it for the first time or the thousandth, on whether I have played it myself.

I recently revisited Beethoven’s “Spring” sonata, Op. 24, a piece I first learned 50 years ago when still in high school. It was interesting to take it up again after all these years because it gave me a sense of this “maturing” of musical experience with continued exposure. Though I had lost much of my “finger memory” as I practiced on the piece and struggled with many of the passages that came more easily to me earlier, I still could hear the way the music is supposed to sound as I struggled to get it right. What I lacked in technical facility I felt I made up for in interpretive “depth” and in an appreciation of the composition that can only come with exposure and greater maturity. I wondered how much I “understood” Beethoven and appreciated his genius when I was first introduced to the “Spring” sonata. I hadn’t played anything else Beethoven had written at the time. I knew little about his life, his culture, or his personal struggles; he was just the next assignment my violin teacher had given me. What was my experience of playing this sonata? I remember little about it now. I know I was still somewhat ashamed of the violin and resented its incursions into my time and social life? How did the experience then compare to my experience now after having played so much of his music, having read so many books about him, and learned so much about his life? How has my identification with Beethoven changed now that his struggle with deafness becomes increasingly real to me as I begin to struggle with my own hearing loss. Now, as I grow older, I can see, feel, and identify with the drama, the tension between struggle and surrender in his music, and his sense of the relentless press of time, in a way I could not fully appreciate in my youth. The notes I played then and now are the same but the experience of playing them entirely different.

Part of the change in my relationship to music is a growing knowledge of the physicality of musical expression. The awakening of my senses and a growing awareness of my mortality has definitely deepened my appreciation of music even as it has heightened my sensitivity to the aches and pains felt when I practice—aches and pains I could more easily ignore when I was younger.

And indeed, music is an extraordinarily physical art. Commonly, musicians spend more time doing exercises or working through sticky passages than they do performing or even playing whole pieces. As I discovered when I was fourteen, this process is neither aesthetically nor intellectually stimulating. It is generally just boring and repetitive. And yet practice is the means through which an artist grows in his or her ability to participate fully and find meaning in artistic expression. Playing the violin, I develop a relationship with my instrument—my hands, arms, neck, fingers become an extension of the instrument and the instrument a vehicle of expression intimately melded with my body. My shoulders, arms and hands “know” my instrument in an almost unconscious way. And this physical knowledge of the instrument, along with the physical basis in technique—acquired through years of scales, arpeggios, and bowing exercises—have a deeply subtle relationship to my knowledge of the music. Being able to play a difficult passage correctly, of course, is not the same thing as being able to interpret it. But the two are caught up with each other and grow on each other.

Though practicing is boring and repetitive, I learn a great deal about myself while doing it. Some time ago Susan, my teacher, noticed that my bow arm was stiff. I was tensing up while I played, she said. This awkwardness was extremely difficult to fix because it had been relegated to habit and was an automatic and largely unconscious response. But it proved extremely rewarding to work on it. As I practiced, I discovered there was a relationship between the tension in my bow arm, my breathing, and the way I shifted my weight from my left side to my right side while drawing the bow. I also learned there was a relationship between relaxation, pressure relayed through the bow arm, and the quality of sound I was able to produce. I had had no idea that my movements were so interconnected, or that this rich tone had been—as it were—inside me all the time, waiting to get out.

Susan is not the only person who has helped lead me to such realizations. My experience as a musician has been enhanced by many people, both present and past, dead and alive, composers, players, conductors, music teachers, and others who have in various ways touched me through some kind of shared involvement with and through music. Music, indeed, is a thoroughly social activity. It involves many complex conventions and expectations that are essential to make it meaningful and orderly. There are rules regarding stopping and starting. There are conventions about keeping time, and about the meaning of specific notations for tempo, dynamics, expression, and interpretation. Though apparently peripheral to music making, personal interactions and agreement about social conventions are central to the expressive quality of the music produced. Just as athletic teams at times “click” and individual members find themselves drawn into something greater than themselves, distinctly felt but hard to describe, similarly, members of musical groups at times feel deeply connected in the shared experience of making music. There is a strong sense of togetherness that enhances the playing. At other times, the opposite occurs. There is no felt connection between the people and it shows in the quality of the music making. Like the proverbial wedding rehearsal jitters, dress rehearsals are notoriously difficult social encounters. Such rehearsals are often very rough leaving participants doubtful regarding their ability to do well in performance. Usually the performance exceeds the expectations of all involved, a testimony to the power of intangible social factors that click in and draw out be best in the individuals and their social relationships.

In this sense, it is not just “practicing” music which makes it meaningful, but—broadly speaking—the “practice” of music: all of the different ways in which music is rehearsed, performed, studied, heard. If my involvement in music has taught me anything, it is that full enjoyment and meaningful participation requires that one learn to balance joy and sadness, boredom and excitement, hard work and play, social and solitary activities, order and risky abandon. The process is inexhaustible and the learning can last a lifetime.

What, then, can we conclude from this brief snapshot of my experience growing up with music? Music is one of those domains of experience that becomes increasingly rich, complex, and meaningful as one takes the time and makes the sacrifices necessary to learn about it. Often other areas of our life—relationships, leisure activities, other involvements—suffer because of the time we invest in something we find meaningful. We live it, breathe it, learn about it, and are deeply absorbed in exploring its many dimensions. This gives us great pleasure and enriches our life but it also contributes to its tendency to get messy and difficult. It takes time to train our bodies—the ears, eyes, hands, sense organs—to express ourselves in a meaningful way. Mind, body, and spirit are drawn together intimately when we are deeply absorbed in creative expression. This developing relationship with the body—its training, working with its limits–is an important part of the discipline through which meaning is embodied. It is also the relationship within which we “grow up” or mature in our understanding and enjoyment of a meaningful activity. It is through the body that we experience both the constraint, frustration, sadness, and limitation, as well as the joy, exultation, pride, and satisfaction of creative expression. Full participation in a meaningful domain invariably requires the awakening of the body, and a growing appreciation of the relationship between mind, body, and spirit. The embodiment of meaning is done through “practice.” Practice always involves time, effort, discipline, and the comparison of oneself against some ideal or standard of excellence. The embodiment of a practice involves a process of learning to work with limits. Pushing against limits—limits of form, limits of endurance, limits of understanding, limits of expression—is at the heart of the learning process that creates meaning in a practice.

These general principles can be applied in considering how we “grow up” in relationship to any meaningful domain of involvement. In my own life I have found that they apply not only to music, but to my marriage, my involvement in yoga and meditation, my life as a writer, any my practice as a psychotherapist. They are also highly relevant as we think about the process of “growing up” in relation to the world within which we live. The earth is the “body” within which we live. It constrains us and provides us an almost infinite range of avenues for expression. As we live within the world and its constraints we become more and more aware of both its limits and possibilities. It is calling upon us to put in the time and practice the kind of awareness that is embodied in the arts—a growing sensitivity to the constraints of our instrument and a willingness to work within those constraints with sensitivity and awareness to create a meaningful world.

About the author:
*Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. is a Life Coach living and practicing in Los Altos Hills California. He is a long-time practitioner of self-relations psychotherapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. With an abiding interest in music, art, yoga, and other mind-body practices, Dr. Rossel is also a Buddhist who has sought for many years to find ways to apply meditation and mindfulness in his practice. He may be reached at 10490 Albertsworth Lane, Los Altos Hills, CA 94024. Address all correspondence to his E-mail address:

Our Clients, Our Teachers

By Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D.

I began seeing a new client today who grew up in a large East Coast city… She reminded me of the five years I lived there, describing many of the neighborhoods where I had lived and had my first experiences as a fledgling psychotherapist. In particular she reminded me of the first psychotherapy client I saw and what an amazing teacher she had been for me.

I began my career as a psychotherapist 25 years ago as a resident house coordinator and counselor in a system of half-way houses in this city. We served a growing population of people who were leaving the state hospitals as a part of the movement toward “de-institutionalization” of the mentally ill. Most of my clients had been diagnosed as “early onset” “schizophrenics and tended to be young, fairly high functioning, and not at all like the stereotypical “chronic” patients released from the backwards of the hospitals who were typically given that label. I had begun working as a “resident house coordinator” in one of the houses—a job that involved living in the house, running group meetings, a work program, and providing emergency counseling for residents. I also saw a few clients weekly for sessions under the supervision of a psychiatrist who had established the system of houses and was their clinical director.

My first client was a young woman who had just joined my house as a resident after spending several months in a major hospital for people with paralysis from spinal cord injuries. A graduate student in one of the major universities in this city, she had suffered this injury falling from a seventh story window of the building where she worked, assuming in a major psychotic break that the world was ending and she was being rescued by a space ship that had come to whisk her away. Stepping out of the window onto what the thought was a ramp extended from the spaceship, to her great surprise she fell into a tree which broke her fall (and her back), saving her life and providing the impetus for a major shift of her identity to one that included that of being a mental patient and physically disabled person.

If this were not enough, I had “inherited” her from another counselor in our system of half-way houses with whom she had formed a very strong alliance. He had rather suddenly been forced to stop seeing all of his clients, because he learned that he had contracted a very virulent form of lung cancer and had only a few months to live. The other counselors in the system had taken over his case load, and for some reason that still remains unclear to me, she was assigned to me.

The first session was a blur. As I sat across from her and her wheelchair, I was struck by both by her beauty, intelligence, and the profound grief that gripped her as a result of the multiple losses she was forced to endure. She was not at all sure she belonged in the house and was even less sure she wanted to have anything to do with me. I couldn’t blame her. How could anybody have endured a crisis of the magnitude she had just endured without being filled with profound grief and bitterness. I was at a loss for words. All I could do is agree that life sucks and that she every reason to be pissed off her circumstances, me, the house, and the suffering that stretched out before her. In what proved to be a stroke of luck, my felt sense of inadequacy and awe at the complexity and gravity of her situation, struck me dumb—all I could do is mutter again and again that I would make every effort to not abandon her. I admitted I didn’t know much but was willing to listen and try to learn how to support her as long as she was willing to talk to me.

This turned out to be the best thing I could have said to her. All she wanted was a place where she could grieve, rage, and sort out her options. She also did not want to be labeled and treated like a mental patient. She pointed out that her fall into a tree had given her all the information she needed to unequivocally GET that there are conditions under which she can not trust her thinking and perceptions. Her top priority in the work would therefore be to learn how to recognize what she called “early warning signals” that she was losing it and to develop a way of riding them out, without using anti-psychotic medications which she strongly rejected because they dulled her intelligence and shut her down to an unbearable degree.

One of the important resources and tools that was available to her was a particular form of peer-counseling that was taught to all the residents in the house. This was done because of the strong belief held by the Clinical Director and staff that one very important source of healing available to all our clients was the challenge and opportunity provided by offering effective support to someone else. We had learned that many of the residents became exceptionally effective counselors and that finding and cultivating these relationships was extremely important in their own healing. I discovered quite early in our relationship that “Angela” was an excellent counselor for certain other residents in the house. Early on, it became increasingly clear that these skills and interests may eventually serve as the foundation for constructing a new identity.

In addition to her developing skills as a counselor, Angela had been a meditator before her psychotic break and accident. Her continued interest in meditation was clearly another resource to be supported and further developed. Armed with an inherent intelligence, curiosity, assertiveness, as well as the resources of counseling and meditation, over the next two years she began constructing a new identity as counselor for the disabled and skillful advocate for the mentally ill. She also built an effective support system of people within the counseling community she was building and among meditators she knew. She was increasingly effective at recognizing the “early warning signals” or “minimal cues” announcing periodic periods of decomposition and would gather her support system around her so that she could ride out these difficult times in her life. She had her own form of “advanced directives” long before such things were popular among those who have struggled with periods of madness. She also used mindfulness, significant dietary changes and body work to alter the frequency, severity, and nature of the periods of decomposition she experienced.

As I look back on my experience with Angela, I am filled with profound gratitude for the things she taught me—or the things I had to learn to continue to be of use to her. I am grateful that from the outset of my work as her counselor I learned that I had to trust that there was something larger than me, and even larger than our relationship in the room. My awareness of my limitations—limitation in experience, knowledge, and courage—forced me to surrender to the workings of a mind, spirit, will, that I knew was larger than mine and on whom I must depend to stay present in the relational field she and I shared. This reliance on the larger mind awakened me to the relational field and the process of sponsorship (although I didn’t have words for it then). This proved to be both a humbling and empowering realization.

I leaned that what we do with our clients requires that we think outside the boxes of psychiatric labels. Angela was a living testimony to the dangers and limitations of such labeling. Had I been more “experienced” and deeply indoctrinated in the language-game of medical model psychotherapy, I am sure the relationship would have been much more problematic, and the outcome less positive. I am extremely grateful that my relative ignorance and naivety forced me to listen with my heart and to hold on to the curiosity of a genuine “beginners mind.” I hope and pray that, while I learn more and more of the skills and knowledge of the practice to which I have been called, I continue also to hold on to my “beginners mind.”

I also learned that psychotherapy is a collaborative relationship and that I had to learn to sense and trust in both of our abilities to create and inhabit a world that bridged our very different ways of experiencing and knowing. The process of sensitizing myself to her unique private language system was a challenge that stretched me a great deal as a man and as a therapist and forced me to learn how to listen deeply beyond the surface meanings of our words and beyond language itself. This learning initiated a process that I have sought to practice ever since and I think it comes close to defining the essence of empathic understanding as I seek to understand and practice it today.

Finally, I learned that different aspects or stages in the therapeutic relationship require different skills or qualities of relationship. There were times when the best thing I could do as therapist was to stand back and get out of her way. There were other times when it was vitally important that I stand firm and hold my ground. There were yet other times when my capacity to love, validate and support, which has always been my most natural skill as therapist, was something she very much needed and which I happily gave. Above all, I slowly learned to recognize the different qualities of relationship that were required at different times or different contexts. This, of course, has been an ongoing challenge that I am still struggling to learn, something that self-relations has sensitized me to think about more and more.

I remember vividly the last session we had together a few days before I was to move away and begin my life here in Burlington. We spent most of the session reviewing all the many things she had accomplished. I remember asking her at one point, how she had figured out that she could somehow deal with all the new challenges life had thrust upon her and turn them into a crucible in forging a new identity. She said something that struck me at the time as extremely profound and revealing. She said, “When you are crossing four lanes of traffic in a busy city street in your wheelchair, you don’t have time for psychosis.”

About the author:
*Robert D. Rossel, Ph.D. is a Life Coach living and practicing in Los Altos Hills California. He is a long-time practitioner of self-relations psychotherapy and Ericksonian hypnotherapy. With an abiding interest in music, art, yoga, and other mind-body practices, Dr. Rossel is also a Buddhist who has sought for many years to find ways to apply meditation and mindfulness in his practice. He may be reached at 10490 Albertsworth Lane, Los Altos Hills, CA 94024. Address all correspondence to his E-mail address:

An Unexpected Gift

By William Spencer.

Last summer, as a 50th birthday gift to myself, I decided to retrace the first part of a bicycle journey I made 28 years ago. That original journey had taken me overland from England through Europe and the Middle East to India. I’ve often contemplated the life-changing experiences from that time, and how the journey redefined me in my own eyes. With a wife, two children, work commitments and six extra inches on my waistline, I wasn’t at all sure what awaited me on this reprise.

Recognizing how important this was for me, my family gave me their blessings. So, in September I found myself in the glorious Loire valley in France. Having only a record of the cities I had passed through, I could not be sure that I would find the same roads I had traveled before, but wanted to try. In the old city of Blois I rented a bicycle, with an arrangement to return it in two weeks to a bike shop in Toulouse, south of France.

France was even more beautiful than I remembered. In the last decade, a passion had seized the nation for planting flowers most everywhere. My way was punctuated with bursts of fuschia, pink and crimson in gardens, village squares and in baskets hanging from lampposts. I cycled along narrow country roads with few cars. The skies became bluer the further south I traveled. As I approached Cognac, I wondered if I should visit the Vignaults. I had stayed with them for two nights those many years ago, on their small farm where they kept a few goats and grew Folle Blanche grapes for cognac. I remember their unquestioning hospitality, boisterous evening meals around a huge table filled with people and a parting gift of illicit triple-distilled cognac. Still, I didn’t know whether they would remember me. Perhaps they were no longer alive. Perhaps they had moved. A lot happens over such a span of time. Although I felt uncertain about arriving unannounced, I decided to visit.

Come with me now. The village of La Brousse has no more than 15 homes, yet as I cycle back and forth along the two streets, I can’t for the life of me remember their house. The village appears deserted, but I find an old woman in her garden. In my halting French, I ask for Monsieur Vignault. As I approach the house, shutters of peeling ochre-colored paint are the only detail that causes a vague tug of familiarity in my memory. I cycle into the small courtyard formed by house and barns. A large-framed old man sits shelling peas on a stone step outside the front door with a bowl between his knees. I ask for Monsieur Vignault. “Je suis Monsieur Vignault,” he responds in a quiet, neutral manner with that wisdom to conserve energy only the elderly seem to have.

He does not recognize me. I explain that I stayed with him almost 30 years ago. He is silent a moment, looking intently into my eyes. Then, with a gentle smile he reminds me of something I had forgotten: Brian, my traveling companion had left behind his tent and M. Vignault mailed it back to England. I laugh out loud at the humor of the moment, me expecting him to have forgotten, yet he remembering more than I. We talk a while, then his son arrives with wife and two beautiful young daughters. I remember Marcel as a gangly 14 year-old zipping about on one of those flimsy French mopeds. He is portly now, and seems to struggle as much as me to remember the past. His mother has arrived with them. She is a small sparrow of a woman, yet at 89 her mind is as sharp as a tack. She adds to her husband’s memories further detail of my stay. They invite me to stay for the evening meal.

The kitchen in which we sit is that of an old couple; outdated furniture and utensils, and griminess not seen with failing eyesight. We talk about the years, condensing major life events into simple sentences to accommodate my French. They tell me they kept just enough vineyard to produce wine for themselves. They sold most of their land as building plots for holiday homes for the British and Dutch retirees who are moving to France en masse. M. Vignault explains that his 30-acre vineyard, which took three days to harvest by hand, can now be harvested in three hours. The new machines pick the grapes by an ingenious combination of high-pressure air and mechanized clippers. “Much has changed,” he observes with a shrug of resignation.

After agreeing I won’t wait another 28 years to return, I say farewell to the family. M. Vignault drives me in his small car to the nearby town where I’m staying. Before going to sleep, I describe the events and feelings of the day in my diary. Suddenly, as I write, I am overcome by a wave of utter, desolate sadness. Sadness at the passage of time. Sadness at how old my good-hearted hosts have become. Sadness at the passage of so many years of my own life. Sadness to find myself 50. I weep and weep, unable to continue writing. Where did all that time go? How is it possible for me to be cycling down the same roads, perhaps a third of my life gone by, yet my inner sense of self not one jot older? Why am I no longer the 23-year-old on his bicycle, headed for India? How does this happen?

The next day something inside has shifted. The wish to retrace my steps no longer holds the same interest as it did yesterday. I remember so little, anyway. And I am now a different person. I have changed and matured. Yesterday afternoon, before visiting the Vignaults, I stopped at the local tourism office. I was amazed to see a map showing that one route of The Way of Santiago de Compostella runs quite close to here. For some years this important pilgrimage route of medieval Christianity has fascinated me. And so, half way into my carefully planned journey, it literally takes a new direction. I visit the monasteries and churches along The Way of Santiago de Compostella. Sitting to meditate in places made sacred by centuries of prayer, I contemplate the passage of time and ask for self-acceptance.

Cycling and introspection go well together; there are many hours to turn things over in my mind. I feel the sorrow of the passing of certain things: the freedom to continue cycling as long as I care to, the ability to take stairs three at a time, the absence of worldly responsibility. The treasures that replace these losses are not as easy to define. Yet, like the road passing beneath me, they support my progress forward. A rich plot of earth ‘my family’ in which the flower of love blooms. A certain steadiness of mind, a sensitivity to others I once lacked.

I would like to be able to tell you that the sadness has completely resolved itself. But you already know that life doesn’t fall into place that neatly. The self-acceptance I prayed for comes in fits and starts. But it comes. Years from now perhaps I will sit on a doorstep shelling peas, and someone who long ago was a guest of ours will arrive unexpectedly. I hope I will smile gently and say, “I am Mr. Spencer.”

William Spencer

About the author:
Originally from the UK, William Spencer has lived and worked in Europe, India, the Far East and the Americas. A defining moment for William came in the 1970’s while cycling from England to India. In the northwestern wastes of Iran, where nothing grows or lives, an orange and brown butterfly spontaneously accompanied him across the desert for several days and nights. This remarkable event represents for William the wonder of grace, that unbidden support from the Divine that guides and buoys us all. William is the creator of Whole-System Learning, a system of learning design and facilitation to engage participants’ head, heart and hands. William’s hallmark and personal passion are using innovative and experiential learning methods to increase attention, retention and application of the learning.

The experience of “negative otherness”: How shall we treat our enemies?

By Stephen Gilligan Ph. D.

Not too long ago, an American psychotherapist invited a Tibetan monk to his home for the weekend. During this time, the therapist did what I guess you do when you invite a Tibetan monk over for the weekend—namely, watch “The Exorcist”, the movie where the actress Linda Blair is possessed by a terrible devil who is then violently exorcised by a priest.

Halfway through the movie, the therapist suddenly realized that Tibetans take their demons pretty seriously—they’ve got a cartography of demonology more sophisticated than the psychiatric DSM-IV. He looked over at the monk, who sure enough was recoiling in horror at what he was seeing.

After the movie, the therapist, feeling terrible, expressed his apologies and hopes that the demon hadn’t disturbed the monk too much. The monk replied that he wasn’t disturbed by the demon, he rather liked him. The confused therapist pointed out that the monk appeared upset, that he was hiding his eyes. The monk again stated that he wasn’t disturbed by the demon. But why did you look upset, asked the therapist.

“Oh, that,” replied the monk. “I felt so badly for the priest that he so misunderstood the demon.” Each of us confronts a lot of demons in the course of our lives. They may be the demons we call anger, depression, fear, or criticism. They may be the demons of addiction or compulsions, the demons of managed care or the patriarchal system, or the demons of social injustice. These demons may possess us, tell us we’re worthless or no good, or induce us to sell our soul or prostitute ourselves.

Indeed, psychotherapy is in large part a conversation about our relationships to such enemies. These enemies embody what we might call “negative otherness”. It is “otherness” in that it doesn’t fit with our identity, ideals, values, hopes or plans; it’s negative in that it seems to want to negate our presence, our humanness, our integrity, our very lives. Without the presence of “negative others”—whether we think of them as internal states, behavioral patterns, external institutions, other people or groups—we would have no basis for a psychotherapy conversation. So how we think about this negative otherness, how we understand our relationship with it, how we develop our responses to them, makes a great deal of difference.

In long ago times, the negative others were thought to be helpful. In her beautiful book, The origin of Satan, Elaine Pagels (1995) described how the early Hebrew term for Satan meant “one who stands in the way of”. It was thought that Satan was a great angel, a trusted servant of God who was sent down when God thought a person was on the wrong path. Satan was a bit of a trickster type, a rascal who could engage you and get you out of your fixed ways so you could get back to where you belonged. This early figure was not an enemy to be destroyed, but an honorable adversary who was there to help. It was only later that Satan was seen as outside the field of life, someone to be destroyed at any costs. I guess the question is, has this latter way of understanding Satan been helpful? Has it worked?

Also in earlier times, the struggle with the dragon was seen in many cultural myths. Again, the dragon was regarded as a presence that challenged you to grow up, to become a person, to learn how to transform crises skillfully. The dragon was not to be killed, but engaged in a way that would allow the transformation of both the person and the dragon. A dangerous undertaking, to be sure, for if one slipped the results were catastrophic. But still, the relationship with the “negative other” of the dragon required not violence but intelligence, courage, and self-transformation. It was only later, for example in the Christian myth of St. George slaying the dragon, that the relationship shifted to violence and what Thomas Merton (1964) termed the “irreversibility of evil”—that is, the assumption that the enemy would never change, it would always stay in its state of “negative otherness”—an assumption that Merton described as the basis for the justification of violence.

Again I would ask, is the attitude of primarily opposing and destroying our enemies and their practices workable and helpful in the long run?

This is not a moot question, for the modern myth of the “negative other”—whether it be our enemies, or a symptom, or an out-of-control experience—as an inhuman “it” that requires violence to be changed lives deeply within us. It is a core assumption of the modernist era, one that has led to much suffering and injustice. But does it really change in post-modernism? It doesn’t seem so. I would like to suggest that in many ways this “us vs. them” or “self vs. it” frame continues unabated in many post-modernist myths and practices. I further suggest that this metaphor is both unnecessary and unhelpful in many ways. What Deborah Tannen has called the “argument culture” can only lead to greater violence, less community, more suffering, and deeper hopelessness. But until we develop more effective ways of transforming conflict nonviolently, we will perpetuate and exacerbate suffering in the name of ending it once and for all.

It is easy to talk about honoring differences and multiple possibilities, but the real test of it comes in our relationship to our “enemies”—the people, institutions, experiences, practices that seem to threaten our very survival. For example, I would like to invite you to take a moment to think of some person, experience, system that you really can’t stand. Maybe it’s someone who hurt you. Maybe it’s an unjust system. Perhaps managed care. Maybe it’s the ideology and practice of, say, racism. Maybe it’s a part of you—some lazy presence within you that’s stopping you from being an important person, some fearful presence that just doesn’t understanding your repeated pronouncements that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

It’s not too hard to come up with such examples, is it?

As you bring that “negative other” into your awareness, just notice what your internal response is. It could be many things: fear, anger, disgust, numbness. What fantasies do you entertain about engaging with this negative other? Would you like to hurt them? Scream at them? Run from them? Teach them a lesson they’ll never forget? What do you do with those feelings, those fantasies, those thoughts, those reactions?

In traditional terms, we generally respond to an enemy or threat in one of two ways: We fight it or flee from it. To fight it, we try to dominate it, repress it, destroy it, demonize it, analyze it, numb it, dissociate it. In trying to flee from it, we check out, drug out, give up, feel anxious, become paralyzed, get depressed.

Neither of these response styles is very helpful in the long run. The negative other keeps attacking, the conflict keeps recurring, and our human presence keeps diminishing. Such is the legacy of the fight or flight response.

Post-modernism is in a significant way about more options, more possibilities, more truths, more perspectives. For the promise of post-modernism to be realized, we need to develop more practices and understandings for how to deal with conflicts and “negative otherness”, within ourselves and between ourselves. Ghandi (in Merton, 1962) used to say that if the only alternative to passive submission to injustice were violence, he would recommend violence in virtually every case, for none should have to endure oppression and injustice. But he suggested a third path of what he called satyagraha (or “the force of love”), which involved neither submission to or violence against one’s enemies, as a more helpful alternative. I would like to speak to that third possibility here today.

In the martial art of aikido, this third way, this alternative to fight or flight, dominance or submission, is sometimes referred to as “flow”. This is not a wimpy flow where whatever the other wants, he gets. It’s a flow that allows one to stay relationally connected during conflict, both with our adversaries and ourselves so that the conflict itself is a creative, nonviolent event that leads to new understandings, new conversations, and new realities.

I’m suggesting that this is one of the great challenge of psychotherapy, and one of the great contributions that therapy can make in our culture today: offering creative ways to transform conflictual relationships. We need to accept that conflict is natural, inevitable, and helpful to human progress, both individual and collective. This is not to say that you go looking for conflict or go to provoke. On the contrary, hopefully we can advance peace however and wherever possible. But when conflict arises, we can look to accept it and work with as an opportunity for real growth. I hope to touch on various paths by which this might be done.

One is the practice of aikido which, by the way, can be roughly translated as “the path of resolving conflict by blending with energy”. In aikido, you look to open your heart, mind, and soul to your attacker in ways that protect you and the attacker. The interest is in how to join the attacker’s energy to transform it. It’s a beautiful and challenging practice, especially for big American guys like myself. For example, one of the major learnings is letting go of taking things so personally. For example, my aikido teacher is an extraordinary woman by the name of Coryl Crane. Coryl is a 5th degree black belt, and an inspiring person to learn from. One day in class we had about 8 big guys who were dealing with each other’s attacks in the traditional aggressive America way, slamming each other around to teach lessons that would never be forgotten. Coryl knelt on the side of the mat, watching the spectacle unfold. At the end of class, as we bowed out in front of the altar, she said, “I just want to mention one thing: A lot of you are taking this very personally. When the person attacks, you think they’re attacking you. So you’re either backing up or trying to oppose them. “If you look at me,” she said, “you can see that I wouldn’t last 2 minutes with such an approach. So you just might consider that the attacker is not attacking you, they’re just trying to get somewhere. And so if you can get out of their way, then can also join them and help them to get to where they want to go, maybe lessening a little bit of the violence and agitation as you walk with them.” Is such an approach workable? Is it possible to work with violence and injustice without punishing people, without hurting them, without getting hurt or destroyed? Is it possible to open your heart, mind, and soul to negative otherness as a way to help both yourself and them? Of course it is: we see examples of it everywhere. Not only in famous lives, like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, or Jesus, but in countless lives of lesser-known people. As the poet W.H. Auden wrote, love is the only rational response.

Our challenge, then, is to articulate what love looks like as a skill, as a vibrant practice of not only protecting life, but of transforming life. It’s an enormous challenge, to be sure, one made all the more difficult by the deeply held assumptions of our time. The roots of modernist thinking run deep within our consciousness. Of the many possible ways of describing, defining, or deconstructing modernism, I would like to offer a single phrase to describe its core: disembodied, isolated intellect. The great accomplishment of modernism, for better and worse, was to separate the intellect from the present moment of the body, nature and life itself. Once this separation was done, it was never undone. The mind was elevated to a supreme position of will and solitary intelligence, its task to monitor, control, and dominate all that it related to.

The hope was that if we could just think clearly and rationally enough, we could overcome the major problems of life. If we could just get the right idea, the proper text, the accurate theory, the clearest diagnosis, then we could control things. And if we could control and predict things, happiness would follow. Did it? Well, certainly advances were made in technology, in rational thinking, in materialistic comfort, in medicine, in food production, in many areas. And extremely important differentiation occurred between the fields of science, art, and religion, such that thinking and artistic expression were liberated from the dictates of the state. But with these advances came certain pathologies. Modernism bred urbanism, a strange lifestyle in which concrete is poured over everything, people live within walls and cars all day, and communicate primarily through machines. The disembodied intellect dictates a mind/nature split in which body is objectified, the intellect seen as the only valid intelligence, human life is primarily viewed in utilitarian values (what’s in it for me?), spirit and soul and heart-mind are denied, interconnectedness is rejected, nature is exploited, death is feared above all, materialism becomes a cult, relationships are seen in dominance-submission terms, ritual is ignored, and everything outside the self-identity is seen and feared as an “it”. In short, the disembodied intellect leads to a disconnection and denial of the precious life of the present moment.

See how that feels after 30 years. Or 40 years. Or 450 years.

If we allow these disconnections and denials to continue unabated, postmodernism can easily deteriorate into what Charlene Spretnak (1997) has called “hypermodernism”, or what Bruce Springsteen had in mind when he wrote the song, “57 channels and there’s nothing on”. It can be a practice of advanced consumerism and its main tool, television. More shallowness, more cynicism, more channels, more wasteland, more splintering into ever growing factions without any common base. Less soulfulness, less mystery, less healing, less deep listening, less sitting still, less wisdom, less hope for peace and understanding. Granted, we’re not sure what these words mean anymore, and we’ve almost forgotten how to use them poetically. But I’m trying to point here to a post-modern practice of what the psychologist Marion Woodman (1993) calls “embodied consciousness”, a consciousness that is full of living energy, connected to the world, to the present moment, filled with vitality, sensitive to shifting differences, discerning of subtle patterns, expressive of wondrous mystery. Embodied consciousness allows one to deal with differences creatively, without demonizing one’s adversary or getting locked into fixed understandings or rigid positions. I am suggesting that without some conscious practices of embodied consciousness, the hopes and dreams of post-modernism will go down the tubes.

Embodied consciousness can be talked about in a lot of different ways. I’d like to address two complementary aspects of it here today, namely the experience of a mind/body center and the experience of a relational field. It should be emphasized that these distinctions don’t make that much sense in academic, literary, or intellectual contexts, which are the bases for most of the thinking and practice of psychotherapy and social change. They are distinctions that come from performance art contexts, such as playing music, dancing, oratorical speaking, martial arts, and the like.

The experience of a mind/body center is the experience of a non-intellectual intelligence and presence within one’s self. It is a felt sense of dropping down under the words, into a balanced, calm, aware connection with self and others. The experience of centering has been described beautifully by the artist M.C. Richards (1962) in her priceless book entitled Centering in pottery, poetry, and the person. The Chilean novelist Isabelle Allende (in Toms, 1994) has talked about how she writes primarily from her belly mind. When you hear a great singer or a great speaker, you can sense immediately their connection to their center, how they are expressing themselves from a deep connection.

The idea of a center is central to many cultures. Malidoma Some (1994), a beautiful man from the African Dagara tribe, describes in his autobiography how he was kidnapped by the French Jesuits in Africa when he was four years old. They tried to raise him to be a priest, but he escaped his captors in late adolescence and returned to his people. When he finally underwent his initiation rituals, Some described the initial instructions given by the ritual elder as follows:
“Somehow what he said did not strange to me or—I found out later—to anyone. It was as if he were putting into words something we all knew, something we had never questioned and could never verbalize.

What he said was this: the place where he was standing was the center. Each one of us possessed a center that he had grown away from after birth. To be born was to lose contact with our center and to grow from childhood to adulthood was to walk away from it. The center is both within and without. But we must realize it exists, find it, and be with it, for without the center we cannot tell who we are, where we come from, and where we are going.

He explained that the purpose of Baor (the initiation process) was to find our center. This school specialized in repairing the wear and tear incurred in the course of thirteen rainy seasons of life. I was twenty. Had I been home all that time, I would have gone through this process seven years ago. I wondered if I was catching up too late but then thought, better late than never. No one’s center is like someone else’s. Find your own center, not the center of your neighbor; not the center of your father of mother or family or ancestor but that center which is yours and yours alone.” (pp. 198-199)

The basic idea of a mind/body center is that there is a non-linguistic presence within you that you can tune to, connect with, rest in, and receive from. It is not a linguistic distinction so much as a post-linguistic distinction, something that the poet Rilke (1981) perhaps had in mind when said:

“It seems that things are more like me now, that I can see farther into paintings. I feel closer to what language cannot reach.

Dancers dance from their center. Writers write from their center. Political prisoners engage from their center. I would hope that this skill would be available to the rest of us in our diverse situations.

In psychotherapy, this might be done in relation to the problem or complaint a client comes in with. A complaint always involves a somatic component. That is, the problem always carries a disturbing feeling or lack of feeling somewhere in the body. Were this distress not there, I don’t think most people would be bothered to seek psychotherapy. They are not caught in a philosophical conundrum; they are experiencing suffering in their moment to moment life experience.

In our self-relations approach to therapy (Gilligan, 1997), we typically ask folks to notice that when they experience the problem, where do they most feel the center of disturbance in their bodies. Interestingly, most folks point to their hearts, solar plexus, or gut area. Rather than regarding these as bad feelings that need to be removed, we become curious about listening to these felt centers of disturbances as ontological presences, that is, as the presence of another intelligence that is awakening in their life. In other words, the onset of a symptom may be regarded as the awakening of a person’s center. We see problems and crises therefore as positive events, as heralding the breakdown of the isolated intellect and the development of a more relational intelligence that is distributed throughout the mind/body.

For example, I recently worked with a fellow who said he was really depressed. He was 38 years old, just gotten through his second divorce. He was trying to start a new business, but wasn’t into it. He was trying to go out on dates, but just wasn’t into it. He was trying to connect with friends, but he just wasn’t into it. He was very concerned about it, because he couldn’t get himself motivated to “get on with it”. When I asked him what the problem was, he said “depression”. When I asked where he felt the center of the depression feeling, he at first said he felt nothing or just a big empty feeling. When I asked him to take some time to sense where he felt the center of the emptiness, he pointed to his solar plexus. When I asked him to listen to what that center of his experience was saying to him, he looked at me like I was nuts. I asked him again, and he reported hearing a voice saying “it’s no use, nothing will ever work”. I suggested that the felt sense in his belly and the voice that went with it perhaps spoke with a lot of integrity, and that it was worth listening to. The conversation continued to be organized around listening to the felt sense, and gradually its position of rejecting an old identity based on pleasing others emerged. In short, the depression in the belly transformed into a felt sense of acting with integrity, rather than following what his head identity had been conditioned to do.

In this view, the mind/body distress in a problem or complaint is indicative of the waking up of one’s center. We welcome disturbances as signals of new life. But rather than trying to understand or interpret such disturbances from the head, we connect and engage the language of the mind/body center. Through careful attentiveness, listening, and conversation, this center can be developed as a primary base for knowing and expressing identity.

Attending to a mind/body center has many other values as well. For example, it offers an important point for stabilizing attention, especially in stressful situations. In self-relations therapy, we ask the question, To whom or what or where do you give your first attention? First attention is like the cursor on the computer screen: you can move it all around. For example, if a person is yelling at you, where do you focus: on the person yelling, on a memory from childhood that is activated by that yelling, on a theory or text that says this person shouldn’t do it? If it gets locked onto another person or an old memory, you become reactive rather than responsive; that other person or memory becomes the “higher power” that dictates your action. If it gets locked onto a text or theoretical model, you slip into ideology and fundamentalism, trying to force the world into your frame of reference. By letting your first attention gently drop down and touch your center, whether in your heart or belly, you can allow your attention to stabilize and still have the freedom to be flexible and responsive.

Mind/body centering is another way of talking about tuning to different types of intelligences. Centering in your heart yields a different type of thinking than centering in your head. Centering in your belly tunes to a different brain, if you will, what scientists are now calling the enteric nervous system, or brain in the stomach. The type of mental processing that comes from centering is quite different from just intellectual thinking. It tends to be more archetypal than personal, more intuitive than causal in its logic, more tuned to the present moment than to some grand theory about the ways things work. Mind/body centering allows connection and responsiveness to other people as well. It’s what allows you to dance freely with a partner, not knowing what the next movement might be, but secure in knowing that you can find it in the moment. Centering allows you also to stay connected with yourself and a partner during conflict, so you can stay in tune with each moment. In aikido, we follow the relational principle of “heart to heart, mind to mind, center to center”, which means that as you connect with your attacker in these ways, you can deal most effectively with protecting yourself and transforming the conflict. When you’re just in your head, it’s hard to stay connected with others, whoever they might be.

Mind/body centering also allows you to create a place or sanctuary for holding experiences. Without a place to go, experiences–like people–get a little agitated and crazy. The mind/body center can be used as a container in which any feeling, image, or presence can rest. It’s kind of like when your 6-year old comes in with a skinned knee: she’s crying like there’s no tomorrow. You allow her to climb into your lap, where your feeling is a container for hers. It allows her experiences to play itself out.

In a similar way, we can ask, when you are visited by fear, anger, depression, or confusion, what do you with these visitors? One possibility is that you can give them place within your mind/body center. As you breathe, you can feel a nice sanctuary opening up in your belly, a safe place where any experiential presence can come. Rather than having, say, a fear fly all over the place or all through your body, you can let it rest in your sanctuary. You can then connect with it relationally, developing what Martin Buber (1923/1958) would call an “I-thou” relationship with it. This type of relationship is central to work in self-relations psychotherapy.

As you connect with your center, you also have a powerful place to move and extend your energies into the world. A center is a place to gather your strength, to focus your attention, to balance yourself into. As you sink into it, your voice, your self, your presence is able to extend into the world. Again, this is obvious and inspiring in gifted performance artists: their energetic presence radiates into the world. We are all performance artists, of course. But when we lose connection with our center, our expressions become less clear, less confident, less connected to life. By learning how to keep coming back and connecting with our center, we can regain our power and keep it present in the land of the living.

This extension of the self into the world of the living leads us to the complement of the center, namely, the relational field. The field is the larger space and context that we live in. When we feel connected to it and nurtured by it, we do all right. But when we lose connection to it, as when under stress, we tend to think and react in our isolated worlds with little effectiveness. The poet David Wagoner wrote about the field in his poem, “Lost”:

“Stand still. The trees ahead and the bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger.
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen.
It answers, I have made this place around you.
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.”

The basic idea is that there is an intelligence greater than you. Thank god! It’s not about giving yourself, but in joining in an experience of communion with a deeper wholeness than your individual self. If you feel it and can listen to it, your capacity to act with effectiveness and integrity, especially in response to your enemies, is increased tremendously. It’s important to recognize that people know the experience of a relational field in different ways. You may know it through walking in the forest, and call it nature. You may know it by joining with others in social justice, and call it community. You may know through athletic performance, and call it the zone. You may know it through prayer, and call it God. You may know it through an intimate relationship, and call it love.

There are many names for the field, but all involve an experience of being supported and guided by a deeper intelligence around you. If you want to know how a person knows the field, ask them what they do to get back to themselves. For example, say you’ve just worked all week and are really tired. What do you do to get back to yourself? Answers might include talking with friends, conscious breathing, going for a walk, meditating, playing or listening to music, knitting, reading, gardening, etc.

What happens when folks engage in such activities? Well, for one, their intellectual self mellows out a bit. Not so much chattering, controlling, agitating, conspiring, plotting. Second, people feel less of a need to control and more of a sense of relational connecting, curiosity, and quiet confidence. Third, if you ask folks where their sense of self “ends” in such experiences—where their boundaries delineate self from non-self– most people look puzzled by the questions and then start moving their hands outward, saying “it doesn’t end. It is an expansive field that has no limit.” The experience of this expansive, unitive feeling is what we call the field. Interestingly, as William James (1902/1982) and Aldous Huxley (1944) pointed out, this experience of unitive consciousness is a common element of so-called mystical experiences across many historical periods and cultures.

It is one thing to know the field under positive circumstances, where you feel safe and accepted. Is it possible to stay connected and supported by the field under adversarial circumstances? I think so. While the general response to attack is to constrict your field, thus leaving you locked into a small space that is under the influence of negative otherness, you can train yourself to stay connected to both your center and the relational field even in difficult circumstances. When you stay connected to your center and the field, alienating, negative influences cannot take hold of you. What I’m saying is that connecting with a living field is about a good a technique for externalizing alien presences as you can find.

A great example to me is Nelson Mandela. Reading his autobiography (Mandela, 1994) or watching him on television dancing so beautifully during a political gathering, one cannot help but wonder, What is this guy connected to that allows him such grace and strength, such a lack of bitterness, throughout what he calls “the long walk to freedom”. I would suggest that he is a beautiful example of somebody connected to the soulfulness of his center and to the depth and breadth of the larger field of life.

In aikido, we talk about this connection with the maxim, “drop into center, open into field”. That is, when you’re in a stressful situation, don’t fixate on the stressor. Don’t give first attention to the problem. Instead, drop down into your mind/body center as a base to listen, perceive, relax, and respond; and expand your awareness outward to connect with a field awareness that is bigger than the stressful event. Now your attention is not trapped on the stressor; it’s free to receive and give beyond the confines of the situation. This allows you to respond to conflict not in a dominant-submissive way, in which someone wins and someone loses, but in a relational way that protects both you and your attacker, and seeks to bring a resolution of whatever differences or agitation is present.

It’s a simple but difficult challenge, something that T.S. Eliot called “a condition of complete simplicity costing not less than everything.” Sometimes people say, well, you’re asking a lot. My response is, what else are you doing? And, what are the alternatives?

What I’ve been suggesting so far is that throughout our lives we will be confronted with “negative otherness”, with what we perceive to be enemies. Negative otherness comes in all shapes, forms, names, and sizes. It can be internal experiences like fear or anger that grip us, addictive behaviors that overtake us, oppressive systems that try to dominate us, old memories that try to possess us, angry people that try to control us, or fixed ideas that try to seduce us. If you are alive, these experiences will continue to visit you. The question is, how will you respond to these negative others?

You can capitulate to them, you can try to directly oppose and eradicate them, or you can relationally engage them as opportunities for mutual growth.

If we choose the third path, we need to overcome the modernist tradition of the disembodied intellect. We need to find ways to reconnect with a mind/body center and the relational field that surrounds us. By embodying consciousness and situating it in a larger relational field, we can become more attentive, more effective, more loving, and more skillful. We can find ways to work creatively and nonviolently with conflict, so that more connection to life and love may be possible for all involved.

There are so many examples of how this is can be done. For example, Zen Roshi Bernie Glassman in Yonkers, NY, is one of the leading figures in what is called socially engaged Buddhism, an American movement that tries to intregrate Buddhist mindfulness training with social change. Glassman, a self-described “Zen entrepreneur,” owns a number of businesses, including a large bakery, that are completely run and administrated by homeless and ex-homeless folks in New York. He has established a multi-faceted social service agency in Yonkers called the Greyston mandala.

Glassman (1997) has also developed a community called the Peacemaking Order. There are three basic tenets of the Peacemaking Order. The first is not knowing—being in the state of not knowing, letting go of fixed ideas. The second is bearing witness—totally immersing one’s self in the situations that one is involved in. The third is “healing one’s self and others”, out of the ingredients that come up from bearing witness.

To apply these tenets, Glassman (1997) recommends entering into situations that you are afraid of, situations that you think it would be great if healing could happen. For example, Glassman and his students have sat for periods of many days with homeless folks on the streets of New York City. They join the community, guided by the three tenets of opening up into not knowing, bearing witness, and healing one’’ self and others. On the basis of their experiences, they then initiate further action. For example, Glassman’s businesses with the homeless came out of the sittings with them.

Another project involved sitting with a large community in the Auschwitz concentration camp for a week or so. Numerous folks participated in the gathering: Jews, Germans, Poles, Catholics. The experiences and subsequent action that came from sitting in a not-knowing mindfulness state in the middle of the concentration camp were really quite extraordinary.

In a similar way, we as therapists need to continue to cultivate a similar openness as sit with our clients, bearing witness in a not-knowing state to their homelessness, their Auschwitzes, their unnamed, unwitnessed experiences. This cannot be done via the disembodied intellect. By “dropping into center, opening into field,” our capacity to not only tolerate but help heal ourselves and others is increased tremendously.

In connecting to center and to field, perhaps one of the best outcomes is that our awareness returns to the value of stillness and silence. Modernism is in no small part an emphasis on a linguistic universe, where talking and thinking and action, the YANG of the universe, is given total priority. The YIN principle of empty space, listening, receiving, and silence is ignored and marginalized. I know it is heresy in some quarters to suggest that something beyond linguistic construction exists, but isn’t it obvious any time you hold a baby or a dying person, anytime you connect in love or in wondrous amazement? Some deep presence, an extraordinary intelligence lives in the gap between the words, the space between the notes, the silence in the conversation. We lost that connection in the language-dominated, yang-based world of modernism. In this regard, I hope that the post-modern world can become a post-linguistic one, where we use language to go beyond language, to what T.S. Eliot has called “a further union, a deeper communion” with ourselves and others. This is where the experiences of mind/body centering and relational field can help. Towards this end, I will leave you with a beautiful poem by the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, entitled “Keeping Quiet”:

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
For once on the face of the
earth, let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about….

If we were not so single minded
about keeping our lives moving
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.”

Thank you very much for your listening.


Buber, M. (1923/1958) I and thou. (R. G. Smith, Trans.). New York: Scribner & Sons.
Gilligan, S. (1997) The courage to love: Principles and practices of self-relations psychotherapy. New York: Norton.
Huxley, A. (1944) The perennial philosophy. New York: Harper & Row.
James, W. (1902/1982) The varieties of religious experience. London: Penguin Books.
Mandela, N. (1994) The long walk to freedom. London: Little, Brown.
Merton, T. (Ed.) (1964) Gandhi on non-violence: A selection from the writings of Mahatma Gandhi. New York: New Directions.
Neruda, P. (1969) Keeping quiet. In Extravagaria (A. Reid, Trans.). London: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Pagels, E. (1995) The origin of Satan. New York: Vintage Books.
Richards, M. C. (1962) Centering: In pottery, poetry, and the person. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan U. Press.
Rilke, R. (1981). Moving forward. In R. Bly (Ed. & Trans.), Selected poems of Rainer Maria Rilke. New York: Harper & Row.
Some, M. (1994). Of water and spirit: Ritual, magic, and initiation in the life of an African Shaman. New York: Tarcher.
Spretnak, C. (1997) The resurgence of the real: Body, nature, and place in a hypermodern world. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Toms, M. (1994) Writing from the belly: An interview with Isabel Allende. Common Boundary, 12(3), 16-23.
Woodman, M. (1993) Conscious femininity: Interviews with Marion Woodman. Toronto: Inner City Books.

The problem is the solution: The principle of sponsorship in psychotherapy

By Stephen Gilligan Ph. D.

Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world
– Robert Hunter

I. Introduction

In the movie “Pleasantville”, two adolescent siblings from the 1990’s find themselves transported into a 1950’s black and white TV sitcom landscape based on the old show “Father Knows Best”. While on the surface everything seems perfect, there is no depth, mystery, color, or soul in this world. Everyone lives in an enclosed “pleasant trance” devoid of real liveliness, a sort of mindless “brave new world”. The two “visitors” instigate a series of happenings that precipitate awakenings in each person, including themselves. Each awakening occurs when a person connects with a hidden or undeveloped part of his or her being. For a teenage athlete, it happens via love and romance; for the kids’ “mother”, it comes from discovering the sensuality of her body; for the father, it comes from recognizing his longings; for the girl, it comes from reading classics; for the boy, it comes from finding his fierceness. In each case, the experience and expression of undeveloped parts of one’s self transforms the person into living “color”. They and others around them have then to deal with the myriad of responses that arise in response to this awakening.

Pleasantville is all around us. It keeps us asleep through false smiles, violent threats, unspoken fears, disembodied thinking, numbness, consumerism, and other practices of the modern and postmodern world. A corporate woman in a poetry workshop (cited by Whyte, 1994, p. 31) once wrote:

“Ten years ago…..
I turned my face for a moment
And it became my life.”

We have all suffered those ten-year “gaps” in our lives, where we thought we were present but then, in hindsight, realized we weren’t.

The damming of life cannot continue forever. Sooner or later, the river leaks through, bringing with it a myriad of memories, dreams, and reflections. This can be a frightening time, for the fear in exile is that we will be overwhelmed, perhaps even die, if we allow these currents to wash over and through us. New defenses arise–more dissociation, more compulsive behaviors, more “playing dead”, more intellectualization, more violence against self and others—all desperate attempts to regain control and expel the “negative otherness” that presses upon us. At some point, it becomes clear that we’re losing the battle—we’re dealing with a presence stronger than our ego, and our vaunted defenses can no longer keep separate from it. In desperation, we may turn to a therapist in hopes of fortifying our ego and its defenses.

When a client visits us, how we regard the disturbances in their lives—the experiences and events that are throwing them into “organized chaos” – makes a great deal of difference. The traditional view is generally that we should help the client overcome these “pathological” forces that threaten their well being. This view regards the “problem”as an “enemy” that should be defeated, through any means possible. Milton Erickson (1980a; 1980b) pioneered an entirely different approach, one based on accepting and working with a person’s “problems” as unique presences that could, under the proper conditions, be the basis for new learning and growth. For example, a young secretary was utterly convinced that a large gap in her teeth made her ugly and undesirable. Erickson had her learn to squirt water through the gap in her teeth until she was able to hit a distant target. He then got her to lay in waiting at the office water cooler in order to “ambush” a young man (to whom she was attracted) with a squirt of water. One thing led to another, and the couple lived happily ever after.

The legacy of Milton Erickson has been elaborated and deepened in many ways in the last 20 years. My own work has moved from a more mainstream Ericksonian emphasis (see Gilligan, 1987) to the development of a neo-Ericksonian approach I call self-relations psychotherapy (see Gilligan, 1997). Like Erickson’s work, self-relations emphasizes the positive aspects of problem and symptoms. It sees such disturbances of the “normal order” as evidence that “something is waking up” in the life of a person or community. Such disturbances are double-edged crises. On the one side, they are (often hidden) opportunities for major growth. Most of us, for example, can recall negative events—a death, divorce, illness, or addiction—that led to significant positive change in our lives. On the other side, such disturbances can very destructive—we can get lost in depression, acting out, or other problematic behaviors. Self-relations suggests that the difference is in whether a disturbance can be “sponsored” by a skillful human presence.

The principle and processes of sponsorship are the cornerstone of self-relations. The word “sponsorship” comes from the Latin spons, meaning, “to pledge solemnly”. So sponsorship is a vow to help a person (including one’s self) use each and every event and experience to awaken to the goodness and gifts of the self, the world, and the connections between the two. Self-relations suggests that experiences that come into a person’s life are not yet fully human; they have no human value until a person is able to “sponsor them”. Via sponsorship, experiences and behaviors that are problematic may be realized as resources and gifts. In this way, what had been framed and experienced as a problem is recognized as a “solution”.

The motto for therapeutic sponsorship may be found on the Statue of Liberty in the New York Harbor:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp by the golden door.”
Emma Lazarus, 1849-1887

In self-relations, this motto not only refers to people, but to experiences and behaviors as well. For example, Fred was an academic who was seeing me for what he described as “low-grade, long-time depression.” He arrived one session complaining of being “a sexual pervert.” Taking a sabbatical year off to write and to stay home with his baby son, Fred found himself downloading pornography from the Internet for up to 3 hours a day. He explained that it took him this long partly because his fear of being “caught” would not allow him to give his credit card; instead, he would search for sites featuring free “teaser pictures”, download them, and then meticulously organize them into a library that had to be constantly updated. I had been working with him for about three months on his presenting problems of feeling depressed and anxious in some work-related matters. He had let me know in general terms about the pornography interests when I previously inquired about his sexual and social life, but had strongly rebuffed my attempts to engage him around those topics.

In bringing it up now, he said it was draining his energy and he desperately wanted to do something about it. As I listened to him, I noticed that my early Catholic guilt had come back to visit me, suggesting I send Fred to Fr. McCarthy for confession, followed by a lifetime of very cold showers. I also noticed that this “suggestion” led to my feeling off-center and rigid, so I allowed it to pass. (A major benefit of both hypnosis and meditation is that it teaches you a “just let it happen” attitude toward your mind, so you can compassionately observe each thought or feeling without identification, and then decide how you’d like to proceed.). I worked to develop a receptive state in which I felt connected, open, and curious as to the positive gift that was awakening within Fred. After several minutes I became aware of what a beautiful man Fred was, something I had somehow overlooked previously. I found myself talking with him about how sexual energy is perhaps the most powerful, undefeatable energy in the world. I suggested that finding one’s deep sexual identity is a lifelong challenge that takes everything one has. I admired and complimented Fred on the amazing depth and intensity of his sexual presence, and noted that I had little confidence in his repressing it.

The relational “field” seemed filled with a deep connection, probably the most connected I’ve felt with Fred. He seemed touched and receptive to my compliments, and developed a light hypnotic state in response to them. I talked some more about how for whatever reasons, his sexuality seemed to be calling him to a deeper awareness. He agreed, but said he was scared. I acknowledged he was scared, taking special emphasis to note, “Yes, Fred, as a sexual being you are scared. “Pausing to let this stand on its own, I then asked, “As a sexual being, who else are you? “He laughed a bit nervously before saying, “I’m also very horny!” I paused to sense this part of his sexual self before feeding back, “Yes, Fred, as a sexual being you are also horny!” I then suggested he continue with further answers to the “Who am I as a sexual being?” question. It took a little coaching for Fred to settle down so he could speak, feel, hold, and make visible one sexual identity at a time. For example, he might say, “As a sexual being, I am really ashamed”, then be encouraged to let go, feel that identity in his bodymind as I fed it back and acknowledged the importance of that truth. The next one might be, “As a sexual being, I really get turned on by looking at beautiful naked female bodies”. As he spoke it, I would see it, nonverbally connect with it, gently name it, encourage him to know it, and nonverbally witness it. After ten seconds or so or silence, I would ask, “Who else are you as a sexual being?” This continued for about eight identities, including “I am….afraid, really turned on, interested in touch, numb, obsessed, paranoid, and intense. Each identity was individually sensed, felt, made visible, properly named, blessed, and allowed its special place.

Somewhere during the process, Fred looked so beautiful, the way people look in therapy when they’re no longer dissociating. It was like he somehow found a way to begin to make room and reveal the deepest parts of his sexual identity. We talked about how sexual identity had so many different emotional truths and identities enfolded within in it. I suggested that really distinguished a “pervert” from a vital, healthy sexual being was the ability to sense the relational connections between these diverse identities as well as feel the “unitary field” of self that held all of them. (For example, many identities might be contradictory, but all can have a place in the field of self.) We talked about a few technical ways (extensions of the exercise) he could practice this sponsorship of sexual identity.

Two weeks later, at the next session, Fred shared his surprise that for whatever reason, his preoccupation with Internet pornography had been virtually absent. At the same time, he started to focus on concerns for his wife and their relationship. Further sessions focused on couples work, especially in terms of the relation between intimacy and sexuality.

II. A few ideas about sponsorship

This small example provides a few hints about a number of ideas of therapeutic sponsorship. We might note three basic ideas here.

(1) There are two modes of experience: the “fressen”of nature and the “essen” of culture. In German, there are two words for eating: fressen and essen. Fressen means to eat like an animal or a pig; essen is to eat like a human being. As anybody who has raised a child can attest, the road from fressen to essen is a long one. It takes tremendous acts of sponsorship to help a child learn to eat like a person!

If we take this distinction and generalize it to other human activities, we can see that each aspect of being a person comes to us as “not ready for prime time”fressen energies. It is the “re-spons-ability”of the community to help a person develop social-cognitive relational skills to transform these energies into “essen forms” that have value to the person and the community. Thus, the fierceness that reveals itself as temper tantrums in a toddler can, if properly sponsored, developmentally progress into the admirable fierceness of the mature individual. If negatively sponsored, the same tantrums may later reveal themselves as rage, passive aggressiveness, violence, or other social forms that seem to have little or no value.

I discussed at length in “The courage to love” what some of these sponsorship practices involve, including the following:

centering/opening attention
deep listening/proper naming
being touched by/touching
connecting with resources and traditions
developing multiple frames/practicing behavioral skills
cultivating fierceness, tenderness, and playfulness

These practices, some of which are elaborated below, are the ways and the social/cognitive/experiential means by which a “fressen energy” is awakened into consciousness and cultivated into the human value of an “essen form”.

(2) A generative Self develops each time essen and fressen integrate. In this view, the experience of a self is arises at each moment that the “essen mind” – the cognitive self that performs meaning and value—integrates with the “fressen mind” – the somatic self organized within the archetypal, experiential language of the body. The generative Self is not a given nor it is always present: it is a dynamic realization that awakens each time the cognitive and somatic selves are cooperating. A good example of this creative/created self can be found in artists. Most artists – writers, painters, poets, dancers – emphasize that their creative energies come from some place other than their cognitive (conscious) self. The task of the artist is to find ways to receive those energies and cultivate a relationship with them. This relationship is neither one of domination nor submission—the artist neither totally “controls” the creative energy nor has “sponsor” these energies, to mid-wife them into creative form.

In the same way, each person is a performance artist. She is visited regularly by creative but chaotic life energies that are calling her to do something interesting. If she can develop sponsorship skills, these energies can take helpful forms in the social world. If not, they may become persistent, troubling feelings or behaviors—anxiety, depression, agitation, etc.

(3) Symptoms and other acts of violence arise each time essen ignores, curses, or exploits fressen energies. We can begin to see that while life flows through you, giving you everything you’ll need to become a person, your presence is deeply needed. If you do not “sponsor” the “fressen” gifts given in the moment, they will likely persist and repeat themselves with an even greater intensity. If you curse them, they will take on negative forms. If you exploit them, they will take on distorted forms. At some point they seem to be a presence greater than the social/cognitive self, a repetitive experience or behavior beyond your control. The more you try to get rid of it, the deeper it becomes entrenched. This is what we call a clinical symptom: a disturbing fressen energy that has not yet been therapeutically sponsored into a helpful essen form.

As therapists, we look for the unsponsored fressen energies. We become intently curious about the disturbing experiences and behaviors that a person feels overwhelmed by, and welcome them as the basis for creative new developments. We realize that efforts to resist or overcome these “problems” are not only futile but typically have the effect of sustaining them. As Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch (1974) emphasized, the attempted solution is the problem. For example, a person who tried to overcome nagging doubts by obsessive “positive thinking” became even more agitated, self-absorbed, and ineffective. Self-relations posits that the opposite is equally true: the problem is the solution. That is, what seems at first glance to be a terrible experience to be avoided at all costs is that which provides, under proper conditions and effective sponsorship, exactly what the person needs to grow and develop further. For example, the client with “nagging doubts” was invited to welcome them while in a deeply relaxed state. While doing so, he noticed a tender presence within his heart that had been ignored. Integration of this tender presence led to a more calm, centered presence; one that was neither “negative” nor “positive”.

The presence of “proper conditions and effective sponsorship” is the key here. Without them, more “ineffective suffering” (Merton, 1964) and disturbing events will be the case. So our major challenge in psychotherapy is to define and effectively create the ways and means of transformational sponsorship. I want to spend the rest of the paper speaking to a few of those possibilities.