by Bill O'Hanlon
Nearly a decade ago, I treated a man named Abel, who was severely obsessive. He taught in a college communications program and loved words, but he'd become so obsessed with how human beings communicate that he could no longer put together words and meanings. He loved to read, but he could no longer concentrate because he obsessed about page margins and typefaces. He obsessed about art, sex, and his own writing. If one obsession went away, another took its place, from the moment he woke up till the moment he went to sleep. Nothing he tried brought any relief.
I thought hypnosis might help with his symptoms, but Abel, who'd unsuccessfully tried practically every form of therapy, including hypnosis, didn't think so. I assured him that I used a different approach to hypnosis, and he agreed to give it a try. During our second hypnosis session, he was symptom-free for about 15 minutes, and he continued to be for about 2 hours afterward. Even though he didn't entirely believe he'd been in trance, he was impressed and happy that something finally had helped.
In the third session, I began once more with hypnosis: "Okay, you can keep your eyes open, or you can close them, or they might open and close on their own," I said. Abel closed his eyes. "And as you're sitting there, you may be thinking you're not going to be able to go into trance. You can have that thought--that's okay. You may be thinking that this trance isn't going to work. You can think that--that's okay. You may be distracted by one of your symptoms, maybe by the tension in your jaw or your neck. You may even think you're too tense to go into trance--that's okay. You can be tense and you can still go into trance and you might relax as the moments go on. You don't have to relax to go into trance. You may be obsessing--that's okay. You can just let yourself feel what you feel, think what you think, experience what you're experiencing, and not think what you don't think, not experience what you don't experience, not feel what you don't feel, and you can still go into trance."
At that point Abel's eyes popped open. "That's it," he said. "Do more of that. That's what helped me last time."
"You mean do more trance?" I asked.
"No, no. I don't think I'm going into trance. But what you're doing now is exactly what I need. Do more of that."
"What do you mean?" I asked again.
"The way you're talking now is what's helping me. Because, somehow, when you talk that way, I get the sense I can't do anything wrong. It's the only time in my life when I can't do anything wrong. I long for that sense."
While Abel's symptoms didn't completely disappear, from this point on, he began to make progress in therapy. For the first time in years, he could relax his obsessive vigilance and begin to live his life instead of endlessly worrying about the details around life's edges.
Erickson and Not-Doing
I first learned this permissive approach watching Milton Erickson's work in the late 1970s, particularly the way Erickson used hypnosis and challenged standard ideas about hypnotic techniques and affects. Many considered hypnosis a rigid procedure, which could be effective only if certain exacting conditions were met: a person had to be physically and mentally relaxed to go into a trance; once in a trance, the person was supposed to be unaware of his or her surroundings except for the hypnotist's voice. So rigid were the requirements for succeeding at being hypnotized that many people believed they didn't have the ability to "go under" the hypnotist's spell.
Erickson's view was different. For him, trance was more of a not-doing than a doing. He understood that the hypnotist had to take the pressure off people, and make them realize that they didn't have to experience specific mental and physical stages in a particular order to go into trance. He invited people to just allow their own experiences to happen as they happened, without having to force anything. He used language that neutralized the mind's tendency to break experience down into dualistic opposites--this or that, right or wrong, correct or incorrect.
In a sense, he gave his clients permission to experience simultaneously or in rapid succession contradictory emotions and states of mind and body, emphasizing that no reaction excluded any other, and that all were "right." From Erickson, I learned to make statements like: "You can listen to and hear everything I say and you don't have to. You may remember what I say and you may not. You don't have to believe anything about this."
Abel's response to this approach--that it made him feel he couldn't do anything wrong--crystallized something for me. Here was a way to break up unconscious logjams; permissions enabled clients to experience two seemingly contradictory states simultaneously. The structure of hypnotic language freed people from the tyranny of having to choose, and choose correctly, what to feel and how to proceed. I began to appreciate the extraordinary power of permission, with or without hypnosis, particularly with my most challenging cases.
So I began focusing on how to most productively include the good, the bad, the ugly, and the in-between of my clients' experience to help them expand their sense of possibilities in life. But this was the mid-1980s, the height of the popularity of various forms of solution-based therapy, and people would sometimes come up to me at my workshops and say, "I really like your positive approach," thinking they were complimenting me, in spite of the fact that I wasn't particularly interested in accentuating the positive.
Around the same time, therapist David Nylund told me that the staff at his clinic had noticed a problem with therapists who were too focused on highlighting the positive. As they watched from behind the one-way mirror, they were struck by how often they saw therapists straining relentlessly to keep clients focused on solutions and solution-talk. Often, the effect was that clients became more and more frustrated and alienated, while the oblivious therapists continued asking about what was going better. Nylund and his colleagues named this phenomenon solution-forced therapy.
So, in my training workshops, I began emphasizing the importance of not excluding those thoughts and feelings that didn't look like solutions to anything. As valuable as it is to help people focus on solving their problems, it's equally important to validate people's experiences, however negative. The essence of good therapy is to be able to descend with people into their hell and at the same time keep one foot in the land of hope and possibility. I once heard a radio interview about research conducted with people who'd survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. The only common factor among them seemed to be that on the way down each of them had had more or less the same thought: Hmmm. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea.
As therapists, we must recognize the complexity and ambivalence at the core of human experience. Inevitably our therapy theories invite us to oversimplify, and solution-focused therapists aren't the only ones guilty of that: the client's problem is "cathected introjects"; she needs to "express her feelings"; he needs to "take responsibility for his life"; clients have to "reexperience their abuse to heal from it." Whatever ideas we therapists get are going to be helpful in some situations with some clients, but they necessarily diminish and impoverish our clients' inner realities. Recognizing this, we need to remind ourselves that whatever conclusions we come to about our clients, it's always more complicated than that.
The Power of Permission
People run into problems when their lives are dictated by rigid beliefs that make the stories they're living out too restrictive. One common set of beliefs is about what you must or should do. For example: "I must always be perfect," or "I should always smile and be happy," or "Females should take care of others' needs." Another common set of beliefs is about what you can't or shouldn't do: "I can't be angry," or "Big boys don't cry."
Permission counters these commands and prohibitions. The therapist who offers permission goes beyond accepting clients as they are and moves into encouraging them to expand their life stories and their sense of themselves. In effect, the therapist who offers permission is saying, "There's more to you than this story you've lived out up to this point." Permissions can introduce choice and possibilities into circumstances that have been limited by necessity and impossibility.
How do permissions work in practice? Some years ago, I worked with a woman who'd been sexually abused by a cousin in childhood. He routinely brought her to orgasm, which she liked and felt bad about--because she didn't like him and felt manipulated and coerced by him. As an adult, she never got sexually excited or had orgasms until she became involved in S&M in her early twenties. After a frightening experience in which she was almost killed, she left the S&M scene.
Now, after many years of therapy, she lived with her fiance and was still unresponsive sexually. She'd begin to get sexually excited, and then get frightened and go numb. She'd accepted that this was the way things were with her. Once, at a professional conference, she'd started chatting with a fellow attendee and had gone into an elevator with him. As the doors closed, sparks seemed to jump between them and they had sex in the elevator. She was surprised that she was doing this wild thing, and even more surprised to have an orgasm during the short encounter.
In our therapy, she realized she was operating under two beliefs: "You shouldn't enjoy sex, because it's bad," or, "You're bad if you're sexually excited or have an orgasm." Because she'd been coerced to be sexually aroused, she'd developed the idea that she had to be sexually aroused and have orgasms in any sexual situation, whether she felt like it or not. I gave her two permissions: "It's okay to have sexual pleasure and not be punished. It's also okay not to be sexually aroused and okay not to have sex." I started interspersing into our conversations permissions such as, "You can be a good person and be sexual." And "You don't have to be bad to be aroused." But also, "You don't have to have sex, if you don't feel like it." And, "You don't have to have orgasms when you have sex."
How did she begin putting these permissions into practice? She decided to let her partner know she became afraid or numb when they were having sex. She'd tell him she needed to stop and talk, or not have sex right then. He was understanding and appreciated that she was honest with him, rather than just forcing herself to go through the motions. The fact that he responded so well confirmed for her that she did not have to have sex or have an orgasm. Her new freedom actually enabled her to have orgasms with her fiance more often.
Although you can give the permission to or the permission not to, giving both permissions at the same is often most effective: "It's okay to be sexual, and you don't have to be sexual." If you give only one permission for one type of response, clients may feel pressured to experience only one part of the equation, or they may find the other side emerging in a more compelling and disturbing way.
In certain situations, it's important to give permission for feelings, not actions. For instance, "It's okay to feel like cutting yourself, and you don't have to feel like cutting yourself." Needless to say, never give permission for harmful, destructive behavior.
Other times, it's helpful to give a client permission to do two things at once. Such was the case with Josie, whom I'd seen for a few sessions when she came in very agitated. She said she had something to tell me, but was terrified to talk about it. I told her it was okay not to tell me until she was comfortable enough to do so. Josie responded that she had to tell me, or she felt she'd be wasting her time and money in therapy. I told her to go ahead and tell me in whatever way felt right.
She seemed to struggle for a while and then said, "I can't tell you. I'm too afraid." We went back and forth like that until I began to understand Josie's dilemma and said, "Okay, I know this may not make sense, but what I'm going to say can be understood somewhere deep inside. You can find a way to tell me and not tell me at the same time."
In response, Josie closed her eyes and her hands began to move in elaborate movements that reminded me of "hand dancing" I had seen done by Thai performers. After some time, she opened her eyes and smiled, obviously relieved. "There," she said, "you were right. I told you and didn't tell you at the same time. My hands told you the whole story of my abuse. Now I can tell you in words."
"That's good," I thought to myself, "because I didn't get the hand thing at all." Josie went on to tell me what had happened to her. Although she knew it was irrational, she'd feared that if she told me, she'd somehow be responsible if I had a car accident or a heart attack. Telling her story was a great relief to her. Once she could find a way out of her bind, she could embrace the possibility of breaking her "curse."
The Power of Inclusive Thinking
Sometimes the key to helping someone who seems hopelessly stuck is to invite them to experience two seemingly contradictory feelings or states without putting them in conflict. What's central is the use of the word and: "You can feel tense, and you could relax. You might think you can't change, and you might be surprised to discover that you're changing. You want to change, and you're so afraid to change." This contrasts with how most people unconsciously put things together: "I have to feel this or feel that. I feel this, but I should be feeling that." Instead of reinforcing one-dimensional definitions of ourselves, such permissions go beyond mere acceptance to actively encouraging clients to simultaneously experience thoughts and feelings that they consider irreconcilable. It's as if the therapist is saying, "Your story has become too small for you. Give yourself permission to begin to envision and live out a larger story."
I remember doing therapy with a woman who'd been severely and persistently abused as a child. She lived six hours away and we met every month or so for three-hour sessions. She'd struggled with suicidal impulses for years, and the work we were doing was leaving her emotionally raw. She called one day and told me she couldn't go on in the therapy. "You're getting too close, and I feel too vulnerable," she said. "Plus you're too far away, and I can't come easily for an emergency appointment if I need one."
"I understand," I replied, "and I think this isn't a good time to end treatment. So let's talk for a minute and see if we can get you through until the next appointment. You can find a way to be vulnerable and protected. And you can regulate the distance and closeness to make it work for you. I can be right there with you while I'm here. You can be right here with me while you're there. I can be as far away as you need me to be and as close as you need me to be. And I can be far away and close at the same time." I went on in a similar vein for a few minutes--trying to establish in her a direct feeling sense that she could have her cake and eat it, too. It seemed to work. "Okay. You're right," she said. "I can do that. I'll see you next appointment."
As therapists, we must always be sensitive to the enormous life-restricting pull of either/or thinking. This abused client believed she had to be either vulnerable or safe. But there were situations in which this particular client had been able to be both vulnerable and safe. She said she felt that I was getting too close. I suspected just the opposite as well: she felt that I was too far away, emotionally as well as physically. So I included both possibilities, instead of one or the other.
Typically, when people are stuck, it's like two people trying to go through a door at once. The two are present simultaneously: I want to change, and I'm afraid to change. Inclusion expands the doorway, leaving room for both--and perhaps more--aspects of self to move freely. Merely giving language to this double presence by inviting people to recast their life stories to match their expanded sense of themselves, is often enough to free them from the insidious internal demand to see themselves and their reactions monolithically.
Not long ago, I consulted at a hospital with a woman who was depressed, suicidal, self-mutilating, and defiant.
"How long have you been so depressed?" I asked.
"Since I was 8 years old," she said.
"That's a long time. I'm surprised you've lasted this long."
"Well, two times over the years I almost succeeded in killing myself."
I was curious about how she'd kept herself alive. She told me she'd struggled against the depression so long because in some ways she wanted to live and find a way out of depression. Nobody really understood that, she added, because she was always talking about killing herself.
A few weeks earlier, I'd seen Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes interviewing a woman with a degenerative illness, who was fighting through the courts for the right to die. Wallace asked her why she was suicidal. She replied, "I'm not suicidal. I just don't want to live like this, and I want the right to choose to die." Wallace insisted that, since she was fighting for the right to die, she must be suicidal. "No," she replied, "I love life. I just don't want to live like this. I love life."
I told the woman at the hospital the story and said, "You've lived all this time because you want to live. You've made it this far, by luck, or because the angels were watching over you, or because someone cared for you at times, but mostly because you just kept yourself going. You want to die and you want to live, but you definitely don't want to live like this."
"That's it exactly," she said. "No one has understood that. I'm suicidal and I'm not!"
Now you might say that these women really didn't want to die. But I think that's the cheap version of their reality. They did want to die in a certain way, and (there's that word again) they were still alive, which spoke powerfully for their desire to go on living. Only by recognizing the complex truth of the matter, taking it seriously, giving words to and accepting these dual realities can this permissive, inclusive method work. So clients really do want to live. And the reality that you must come to terms with is that they may really die.
Practicing What We Preach
If the approach I've been laying out here was purely a matter of logic, theory, and better clinical outcomes, its principles would be more widely demonstrated in therapists' consulting rooms. But embracing clients' multiple realities inevitably leads therapists to face emotional issues in their own lives, issues that make an inclusive approach much more than a merely intellectual exercise. At least that's what my own experience has taught me. It's been one thing to give clients permission to accept their ambivalence, but quite another to do that in my own life.
Some years ago, my wife Steffanie was stricken with a painful and life-threatening illness. By 1997, she was bedridden, gaunt, and in extreme physical pain. While the doctors could offer many diagnoses, they had no viable treatments. Many told her there was nothing more they could do. Others referred her for assessments or treatments she'd already tried. She was despondent and convinced she was going to die.
I would hear none of it and found it impossible to support her hopelessness. So I unswervingly emphasized the possibilities for treatments yet to be developed, and the need to keep a positive attitude to support her immune system. I thought, of course, that this would be helpful to her, but it often had the effect of sparking terrible arguments between us.
She would tell me, "You want me to feel better, and I don't feel better. What you're saying just makes me feel worse and more alone." But at some level, I felt that if I didn't expend all my energy in fighting her pain and hopelessness, I would be giving in to it, even making it worse. I was terrified that if I accepted her reality, she was doomed and I would lose her.
Finally, help came from an unusual quarter. We'd recently moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and rented a house out in the country. It turned out there were some problems with the well because of leaks and some toxic materials stored in the house. I called the landlady, explained the situation, and told her that we intended to move out. The landlady didn't want us to move and, in addition to making the needed repairs, had a suggestion that could only happen in Santa Fe (or perhaps Sedona): she proposed hiring a "house psychic" to do a reading on the house and deal with the problem at a more cosmic level. Skeptical and a bit bemused, Steffanie and I decided we had nothing to lose and agreed to let the house psychic do her thing.
After a few Feng Shui-type suggestions, the house psychic did a reading for us that revealed, she said, that in a previous life Steffanie and I had been a couple living on a large estate in ancient Italy. Steffanie was the heir and I, as the new husband, had taken over managing the estate. But because I had little experience in such things, I was running the estate into bankruptcy and stubbornly refusing to listen to Steffanie, who unsuccessfully kept trying to tell me what to do. In our past life, the psychic told us, our stalemate ultimately had led to tragedy for Steffanie and I'd spent the rest of my life regretting I hadn't listened to her.
I know, I know--only in Santa Fe! But whatever its value as a past-life story, the psychic's tale was so parallel to our situation that it had an electric effect on me. I realized that I hadn't been listening to Steffanie. However inclusive I'd tried to become as a therapist, at home, I'd been determined to screen out her "negativity." As I might have predicted had I had any distance from our situation, the more "positive" I got, the more desperate Steffanie became.
Something about the psychic's making me see how stubbornness can led to tragedy made me think about my own family story. I suddenly made the connection to growing up in a household in which the unwritten injunction was "don't get sick." We kids had to be essentially on our deathbeds to be allowed to stay home from school or work. If we did stay home, we were never coddled. There was no television or other distractions. My mother, a tough farm girl, would leave some 7-Up and soda crackers by the bedside and check back every few hours to make sure we were still alive. No doctors, no medications. It was as if sympathy would somehow reinforce the illness.
From fear that Steffanie might die, I'd been reenacting an old family drama. I saw that I had to quit trying so hard to make everything okay again. I needed to let myself just be with Steffanie in her hell. I remember going into our bedroom and just lying down and holding her for a long time, without saying much of anything. Then, we quietly spoke about the pain she was in. Later, she told me that it was the first time she hadn't felt left alone in her despair. From then on, something shifted between us. I realized that accepting her hopelessness didn't mean I had to give up my own hopes for our future. I could hold them both. Soon, Steffanie began to talk about future plans and other small dreams that indicated she hadn't given up. I could, in turn, speak to her about my fear of losing her and being left alone. She's still far from well, but the tension between us has been replaced by a sense of connection and an awareness of my tendency to "go positive."
It's relatively easy for most of us to think inclusively with our most functional clients, but much harder to do so with those who are difficult and demoralized, or when our own psychological hot buttons are being pushed. But being a therapist means taking the time to get all the pieces of people's reality, spoken and unspoken. At the most basic level, we must discover how to perform the balancing act of simultaneously giving up the need to see clients change while holding open the possibility of change. This attitude requires us to face our own fears (of lawsuits, suicide, failure) and be still with the client's pain, immobility, glaring absence of change, and , at the same time, we must be able to see the "and"--that something more, unrecognized and unspoken, happening beneath the dead calm of an apparently inert sea.
Bill O'Hanlon is a therapist, author, and workshop presenter. His latest books include Do One Thing Different; Try and Make Me; Collaborative, Competency-Based Counseling and Therapy; and Even From a Broken Web. His book A Guide to Inclusive Therapy is due in early 2003. Address: 551 West Cordova Road, Suite 715, Santa Fe, NM 87505. Website: www.brieftherapy.com.
by Frank Pittman
I've been in full-time private practice for almost 30 years. I've seen maybe 10,000 families (it certainly feels that way.) In that time, three patients in my practice killed themselves. Strangely enough, the three suicides were eerily similar. Each suicide has left me shell-shocked and questioning my therapeutic attitudes and methods.
I did not expect Adam to be one of my casualties. He reminded me of the guys I grew up with in rural Alabama. He was large, loud and rough, masking his intelligence behind a display of anti-intellectualism and cultural ignorance. I know these guys and I've had success at retraining them, since I'm not afraid of them or contemptuous of their fragile, hypermasculine pride and their awkwardness with emotion. Like so many of the scared, bullying men I see, Adam had been trained to fail at relationships.
Adam had grown up poor and fatherless. His mother divorced his violent father when he was 12. Adam never saw him again. He didn't drink, he went to church a lot and he was an active, hands-on father to his own children. He hovered protectively, though controllingly, over Angela, his quiet, compliant wife of almost 20 years, who was a nurse. He had made a great deal of money building houses, and was now building a gigantic dream house for their large family.
Six months before I saw them, Adam had slugged his hulking oldest son for quitting his high school football team. After being advised by a counselor at work, Angela threatened divorce. Adam, baffled that she would consider leaving him after such a (to him) minor incident, suspected her of having an affair and got first paranoid and then violent, breaking furniture and punching holes in the wall with his fist. Angela went for help to a therapist, who advised separate therapy for her and Adam, as the conventional wisdom in those years was to see violent couples separately and try to get them to divorce. Angela's therapist (who never met Adam) communicated both neutrality and pessimism about the marriage, and pushed for divorce.
Adam saw a psychiatrist, who put him on Prozac, which mixed badly with his two-pot-a-day coffee habit. He became toxically irritable and, as Angela pulled further and further away, increasingly violent. For the first time in all their years together, he actually hit her. Angela's therapist advised her to call the police (I would have given the same advice). They had Adam hospitalized for a few weeks in a special program for batterers. He went willingly and was a model patient. On discharge, he went home and found Angela and his kids had moved out. He stalked her, begged her to come back and, when she resisted, beat her up. At that point, Angela called me in. She had heard I was an expert with over-the-top men.
I saw Adam, Angela, the couple and the whole family in alternating combinations. She had a court order, which, while a good idea, offered no protection. I got Adam to promise us all there would be no more violence. And there wasn't, for the remaining few months of his life. Off caffeine and Prozac, he went into a clinging, dependent depression, but was stabilized on Stelazine for paranoia, Tegretol for explosiveness and Zoloft for depression.
Angela set up a separate home for herself and the children, and put Adam on notice that she was serious about getting a divorce. I did not question her intention or try to slow her down (a failure that continues to haunt me). Instead, I used the pressure of impending divorce to spur Adam on, as I tried to teach him some manners, some sensitivity to someone else's feelings besides his own. I hoped the changes in him would bring about a reversal of Angela's resolve to get away from him permanently. I saw him often by himself, developing what I thought was a great level of intimacy, full of personal revelations, shared experiences of the rural South and humor about the changing world around us. We talked about fishing and revivals. We talked about rattlesnakes, baseball, Hank Williams and the search for an exit from the swamps we grew up in. We talked most about the loss of his grandfather to bad homemade whiskey and his father to divorce. Then we talked about the difference between the father figures he had, the ones he imagined and the one he wanted to be. Once he was calmed and connected, I also put him in a group of non-batterers. I tried to be the gentle daddy he never had.
Adam felt in better control of himself, and redoubled his efforts to get his family back. He completed the dream house, begged Angela to move into it with him, was rebuffed and moved in alone. They had talked a lot, in my office and outside, about the terms of the separation. He was generous, sweet and apologetic with her, without control or bombast. Angela, aware of the drastic change in him, feared her longstanding tendency to pity and protect him. She held firm about divorce, but he (and I) saw her softening. I couldn't imagine him doing better than he was doing; I couldn't imagine that she would want anything better than the reprogrammed Adam. I thought I was doing a great job with Adam and that it was just a matter of time before Angela gave him another chance.
Throughout his adult life, Adam hadn't been connected to anyone else except Angela and the kids. So I thought it was imperative that he heal the longstanding rift between him and his mother. I sent him over to South Carolina for a weekend with her. While there, he also dropped by to apologize and make peace with Angela's family. On his return, I called him to postpone our next appointment for a day, as I had to go the funeral of an old childhood buddy. Adam and I talked for a long time on the phone. He told me how good he felt on his visit with his mother, especially learning the story behind the breakup of his family. He was proud of his new skill of apologizing. He had called Angela and was optimistic he could get her back. He sounded eager to see me a couple of days later.
Adam didn't show up for his next appointment and didn't answer his telephone. I called his secretary and he had not made it in to work, either. She and I both somehow knew what had happened, though suicide had never been mentioned before. She went out to the new house, where she found Adam in a chair with a shotgun in his mouth and his brains all over the living room wall. The divorce papers, which Angela unexpectedly had served on him, were on his lap.
I was stunned. It was not just a personal loss (I wanted to save this guy); it was not just a blow to my grandiosity (I kept telling myself in my newfound humility, this sort of thing doesn't happen to therapists who work as hard and care as much as I). I was sad over the loss of what Adam could, with time and effort, have become. His suicide was a dumb and preventable waste. His children were devastated. Angela felt many things, among them relief: when the abuse started the year before, a well-intentioned counselor had warned her that violent men never change. She had been fearful that she could not get herself and the kids out of the marriage alive.
I had been trying so hard to respect Angela's need to empower herself and feel in control of her life and the marriage, I had been non-directive and neutral with her, so much so that she didn't fathom that I had hopes not only for Adam, but for the marriage. I certainly foresaw a different outcome than this.
I met often with Angela and the kids during the next year or so, and occasionally still do, as they and I try to recover and understand. Adam didn't leave a note. We know he spent the day before his death shopping with a friend for kitchen appliances--not the actions of a man planning suicide. No matter how much he and I had talked about the possibility of divorce, Angela and I think the divorce papers came as a bewildering shock, snapping him out of his, and my, optimistic fantasy that a change in his behavior would get him his life back. To him, the divorce papers meant that there was no hope, no future. He wasn't ready yet for divorce; he didn't yet have a life apart and he was not a patient man.
As I played the case over and over in my mind, I saw clearly that I could have asked Angela to slow it down. And she would have. She was in no hurry and would have proceeded at whatever pace seemed safest for herself, her children and for Adam, whom she still loved. She had no way of knowing what I knew: that, in time, as long as his behavior was different, she would very likely feel safe with Adam. Those who have been abused cannot trust the ups and downs of their own feelings. Even as they track the abuser's behavior and react to the changes they see in the way they are being treated, they can't trust their sense of their own power in the relationship. And even though I had experience, expertise and wisdom about such matters, I didn't use it.
I don't know why I didn't know that those papers would be served that day. Clearly, I knew they were coming soon, but I was actively trying not to direct Angela's divorce process, or anything else she found empowering. I was optimistic in my ability to turn Adam around and, more important, in his ability to turn himself around if he had a different model of manhood. Beyond that, I was optimistic, after so many hundreds of cases in which it has happened, that Angela would take him back and the violence would not recur. So I acted neutral. I realize from this tragedy that it is as idiotic for me to be neutral about matters of marriage and divorce as about matters of life and death.
At the time I saw Adam, I had been so influenced by the feminist critique of family therapy that I'd gotten into the pattern of treating men as amateur human beings and coaching them on just what to do--of supervising them in relationships. It worked great. But at the same time, I'd become increasingly careful to validate women's feelings and avoid telling them what to do. The result, of course, was that many men changed their behavior quickly and many women were left nursing their hurts, feeling like victims and not noticing or responding to the changes in the men or the increases in their own levels of empowerment.
My pragmatically mechanistic approach toward relationships (i.e., ignore your feelings, do what will get the desired response from your partner and let the new interaction change the emotions) has a certain limitation. There are some offenses against marriage that feel unforgivable--at the moment and for a little while after. And no change in behavior can provide the necessary reassurance--at the moment and for a little while after. We all have grounds for divorce (or suicide), but we know that tomorrow is another day. I get so carried away with my belief that any change can be made and any offense can be overcome that I may leave behind some traumatized casualties of life's cruelties. Adam and I got ahead of Angela. After the offenses stopped, we needed to slow down long enough for the healing to take place.
I often think about my three suicides. All three of them were men who had done the unforgivable and couldn't get their families back quickly enough. I beat myself up about them and sift through them to find what I can do to keep it from happening again. People can make such a mess of their lives that they see no hope, but suicide is too hard on the survivors--including me. It threatens to make me cautious, pessimistic and risk-averse. To be truly helpful, I need my jaunty optimism about what can be survived in life and in marriage. Without it, I can't keep people afloat long enough for them to get their lives back. Did I give Adam too much hope? Did I give Angela too little? Did I fail to coordinate the trajectories of the changes the therapy was bringing about by being two different kinds of therapists--feminist for her, behaviorist for him? Did I go to the wrong funeral on that last day? If I'd known the papers were being served that day, I would have been with him, even if only by telephone. If he had just called me when the papers came--
Clearly, it will never be over for any of us.
Frank Pittman, M.D., is a contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker and is in private practice. Address: 960 Johnson Ferry Road, N.E., Suite 543, Atlanta, GA 30342.
by Mary Pipher
I will never forget the Correys, who were referred to me by their family doctor in western Nebraska. As is not unusual in our vast, rural state, they flew to our sessions by private plane. Frank was a wealthy businessman and realtor. Donna was a housewife. They had a 16-year-old daughter. Every other week for a year, I saw them, during which time I tried pretty much every trick in my therapeutic arsenal. I spent hours discussing their case with trusted colleagues and read up on their particular problems. I don't know how many nights' sleep I lost worrying about how to get these folks on the right track. And in spite of all my efforts, the Correys were one of my most spectacular failures.
From the moment I met the Correys in my waiting room, I was baffled about why they were together. Frank was tall, good looking and suave; Donna dowdy and sullen. They were both in their mid-forties, although Frank looked younger than that and Donna older. She barely bothered to greet me, and stared resentfully at Frank. As soon as we were seated, Frank jumped in to complain about Donna's spending. He was clearly used to being in charge, confident and eager to explain their situation. And Donna was used to being passive and angry.
Frank explained that even though they lived in a town with only a grocery store and gas station, a town one hundred miles from the nearest mall, Donna used catalogs and the shopping channel to spend nearly $8,000 a month. I couldn't believe I heard him right, and actually asked him to repeat the figure. I tried to keep my expression mild and non-judgmental, but inside I was appalled. I can go months without buying anything but groceries, and have not spent $8,000 on consumer goods for myself in my entire life.
According to Frank, Donna tried to keep her spending secret. He only discovered the extent of her extravagance when he found credit card bills or his secretary noticed that his business accounts had been cleaned out. Ironically, even though Donna "owed" Frank more than $50,000 for unauthorized spending, she had little to show for it--no boats, fur coats or new cars, just boxes of shoes, clothes and household gadgets. Of all the questions and reactions I had to this case, my big question was--how could anyone stay married to such a loser wife?
I generally divide an intake into thirds: one-third for the presenting problem, one-third for some contextual information and one-third for a discussion of therapy. And I give each person a chance to explain the situation. Frank blamed Donna's spending on her depression and low self-esteem. He said he would be happy if only Donna would cook, clean and limit her spending to $1,000 a month. I thought to myself, "Climb a low mountain, Frank."
When her turn finally came, Donna pointed out that Frank was a millionaire and the sums she spent were insignificant. She complained that Frank was almost never home, and when he was home, he stayed in the basement managing his stock portfolio on his computer. She said, "Frank's moody and he takes no interest in us unless there is a crisis." She agreed she was depressed. She had once been active in her community, but in the last few years she had withdrawn from everyone but her daughter.
Ah-ha, I thought, now I get it. Her spending was functional. It kept Frank's attention. Frank worked all the time to keep Donna in dough, which she then spent rapidly to punish him for working. He worked to avoid a dull, depressed wife, while she spent to deal with her loneliness and sense of inadequacy, brought on partially by Frank's neglect. Still, even though I had a crisp intellectual formulation of the case, I suspected from the first that I wasn't quite on target. I couldn't get over Donna's spending and I was impatient with her stolid, stubborn demeanor. I felt sorry for Frank that he was stuck with such a lump.
At the end of that first session, I made a few recommendations to the Correys --that they tear up their credit cards, that Frank come home for dinner a couple nights a week and that they have a date as a couple. I suspected Donna was clinically depressed, so I encouraged her to exercise and to buy a copy of David Burns's Feeling Good. Neither one of them was happy with my suggestions. Frank insisted time demands made it impossible to spend more time with Donna. Meanwhile, Donna refused to cut up her credit cards. But they let me bully them into agreeing to try these assignments and we rescheduled for two weeks later. I sighed as they left.
Right after our first session, the cast of characters expanded. Donna scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist, who prescribed antidepressants and wrote me a letter saying that she thought the real problem was Frank, who was invested in his wife's being labeled sick and was a mean son of a bitch, although she said this in medical jargon. The psychiatrist didn't see Donna's spending as any big deal, and what's more, she actually liked Donna, whom she described as having a keen sense of humor and good insight.
I was baffled by the psychiatrist's take on this case. I didn't see any meanness in Frank. How could the psychiatrist have missed his charm? And where was Donna's sense of humor when she was with me and Frank? I explained the discrepancies in views by recalling that the psychiatrist was recently divorced and perhaps angry at men. I knew she was a major consumer herself.
The Correys did have a few dates, mostly dinner at the nearest restaurant, a Pizza Hut 30 miles from their home. But the dates didn't generate any romance. Donna didn't exercise and hated Feeling Good . I found myself resenting the failure of bibliotherapy. After all, books always helped me. Donna eventually agreed to cut up her credit cards and to attend Debtor's Anonymous, which meant Frank flew her in for a group meeting once a week. They actually liked these meetings, although Donna didn't really reduce her spending. Somehow, no matter how carefully Frank and I tried to control her, Donna found ways to charge stuff or order junk over the Internet, Although she said the medication helped, Donna was still mildly depressed and still not cooking or going out in her community. Frank stayed mad about Donna's spending, although not that mad. Meanwhile, no matter how therapeutically neutral I tried to be, I remained appalled by her extravagance.
By now our sessions had lost any therapeutic momentum. Increasingly, I felt as if I were dragging a barge across the desert. The couple would fly in, report little change in Donna's symptoms, Frank's work habits or their relationship, and fly out. Both said they were dissatisfied with the relationship, but after 22 years of marriage, neither was considering divorce.
The less progress I saw in our sessions, the harder I tried. I utilized every technique I could think of. I tried paradoxical techniques and prescribing the symptom. Thud. I saw them alone and encouraged Frank to draw a line in the sand. Thud. I saw Donna alone and encouraged her to find women friends, go back to school, get a job, take walks or find a volunteer commitment she could enjoy. Thud. I recommended a vacation, which they half-heartedly tried and both hated. Thud. I encouraged them toÂ communicate their needs, set up a budget and work on their emotional relationship. Thud. Thud. Thud.
My exasperation and confusion peaked during one session in which, as Frank itemized her wasteful spending, Donna actually fell asleep. After I woke her, I asked Frank how he felt about Donna's sleeping. He insisted that he didn't mind that much. After all, Donna was tired. At that point, I almost jumped out my own office window.
How could I work with someone who was about as different from me as a woman could be? Donna was passive, preoccupied with consumer goods and she actively disliked exercise. She was bored by trees and prairies and had no interest in education. That boggled my mind. How could anyone not be interested in education? I knew I was being judgmental, but I was convinced that I knew how to be happy and she didn't. There was no question in my mind that my way of being in the universe was better than hers.
I felt more sympathy with Frank, who was at least a hard worker. Also he was a high-powered salesman and could sell me on his excuses, his interest in making things better. But I didn't really understand Frank either. He wasn't much more cooperative in therapy than Donna, especially with my insistence that he tell his wife what he would and wouldn't put up with and then hold that line. In fact, as I worked harder and harder to fix this couple, they seemed to become more locked into their original problem behaviors.
Finally, I had it with the Correys. When Frank found that Donna had opened a new line of credit and charged another $10,000 of purchases, I fired them. I can still see the three of us in our last session, me earnest and serious, trying to hide my anger and wishing them well with a different therapist, "who would offer them a fresh approach." There was Frank, not as unhappy at being fired as I would have hoped. In fact, he was a little rude to me, as if I were an employee who no longer mattered. And Donna, smiling for the first time since we had met. As they left my office, she said almost kindly, "Don't be too hard on yourself, we are nutty and we're hard nuts to crack." There, for the first time, was the sense of humor the psychiatrist saw.
I thought a lot about the Correys in the months after our termination. I'd ignored the wisdom that people only change when they feel deeply accepted for who they are. Instead, I'd let my own values about spending prejudice me against Donna. And I had other values conflicts as well--over reading, education, gardening and the importance of taking action.
A wise therapist once told me that our first task in any therapeutic encounter is to find something to respect in our clients. Without respect it's impossible to really help anyone. I realize I flunked Therapy 101. I didn't respect Donna and I let that important fact slide. I suspect Donna sensed my lack of respect and that's why she fell asleep in our sessions. She had no connection to lose with me. The big lesson from the Correys was that I need to find something I can truly and authentically respect or I need to get out. I can't pretend respect. And without it, there is nothing on which to build a therapeutic alliance.
Being a therapist is intellectually taxing, emotionally draining work, and respect is what fuels the process; it's what gives us a reason to care. Without it, the work is mechanical, for us and our clients. With no respect, there can be no connection, and without connection, therapy loses its meaning.
Mary Pipher, Ph.D., is author of the bestselling books Reviving Ophelia and Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Lincoln, Nebraska. Address: c/o Family Therapy Networker, 7705 13th Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20012.
by Brent Atkinson
In the 15 years that I've been following developments in neuroscience, the most compelling clinical lesson I've learned is likely to rub you the wrong way. An overwhelming body of research now suggests that we clinicians rely too much on insight and understanding--and too little on repetitive practice--in promoting lasting change.
This wasn't welcome news to me. I'm a couples therapist, and I got into this business because I loved transformative moments when intimate partners' defenses crumbled and their deep emotions emerged. That was what juiced me--not, getting couples to do the same things over and over again.
Yet, year after year, I watched couples let go of judgment and blame for an instant, only to show up for the next session as miserable, critical, or withdrawn as ever. They didn't even remember the profound insights they'd had that I felt sure were going to rock their worlds.
Then I encountered a series of studies published by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, from Bowling Green State University, and came to understand that when they were upset, my clients were in the grip of one of seven major body-brain mood states, which he calls "executive operating systems."
Our Brains' Executive Systems
Panksepp uses the terms rage, fear, seeking, lust, care, panic , and play to describe the signature emotion of each system. But they're more than passing moods. They're complex neurochemical cascades, in which hormones race through the body and brain and electrical impulses fly over familiar neural synapses, shaping what we feel, do, and think. When one of these systems becomes active, emotions, motivation, and thoughts take over in the service of the goals it's programmed to achieve. It's as though we've gotten on a plane to Paris, and no amount of fiddling with the seatbelt is going to change the plane's direction before the wheels touch down at Orly.
Four of the systems are wired for love: they draw us together. One of these is old-fashioned lust. Another promotes spontaneity and play. A third, the instinct to nurture others, which Panksepp calls care , is activated by the release of the hormone oxytocin into the bloodstream and brain. Another mood system Panksepp calls "panic" is experienced as yearning or even abandonment, when an intimate partner leaves on an unexpected business trip or storms out of the house during a fight.
Most of these mood states can help promote emotional bonding during couples therapy. But the states that therapists find the most frustrating in the consulting room--and often the most common--are two other body-brain mood states that used to be called fight or flight. Activated by the amygdala, they produce self-protective thinking and action. Fight, which Panksepp calls rage, quickens the breathing, sends blood to the muscles in preparation for striking out, and releases adrenaline and noradrenaline into the bloodstream and brain. It sharpens some mental functions and leads a person to think in decisive, impulsive, blaming, oversimplified ways. It's accompanied by the attitude "You're wrong, and I'm right."
This hormonal cascade can be lifesaving in the appropriate situation--in the face of a dangerous driver, say, or a possible mugger or rapist. But in intimate relationships, it's often toxic. In its grip, men (and some women) can become physically abusive; others yell, nag, blame, and complain. And as almost everyone knows, it's much easier to get on this particular tiger than to get off.
The second self-protective cascade, which Panksepp calls fear, produces feelings ranging from anxiety to intense fright, along with worried thoughts and the impulse to freeze, flee, withdraw, or hide. It, too, is accompanied by critical thoughts about the intimate partner. A man in the grip of this neurochemical cascade may exhibit sullen, disgusted, or spacey withdrawal in the face of a barrage of angry complaints from his wife.
Hence my frustration. I couldn't understand why couples continued in these patterns when they'd learned--in those magical moments of insight--that blaming or withdrawing didn't help them get what they wanted. It seemed so irrational. But when people are in the grip of these emotional takeovers, certain parts of the prefrontal cortex (the folded outer layer of the brain behind the forehead) are less active than when they're calm. The prefrontal cortex is the seat of free will and self-awareness. It allows us to plan, strategize, imagine the results of our actions, and choose to do one thing rather than another. When portions of it are inactive, as they appear to be when we're in the grip of one of our executive operating systems, our inner switchmaster is asleep: we simply can't shift from one state or course of action to another. So the wife keeps blaming, like a hamster on its treadmill, and the husband, in an equally mechanical state, keeps staring out the window.
Learning to Shift Mood States
When I first encountered this information in the early '90s, I worked at getting clients to shift out of these powerful mood states. When I got frustrated, I reminded myself that they were caught in neurochemical reactions beyond their control. I'd usually have one partner wait in the waiting room for a few minutes while I worked with the other, finding that a few minutes of concentrated empathy, validation, and acceptance would often calm someone down. Under these conditions, they could hear me say--in a soothing tone--that blaming would only stimulate the other's defensiveness and not get them what they wanted. We could then brainstorm more pragmatic, emotionally open, skillful ways of communicating. I was training them to reactivate the neocortex--the inner switchmaster--in the face of strong emotion.
I assumed the lessons would stick, but I was disappointed. I'd underestimated the hardwired nature of my clients' automatically activated, neural- response programs, ingrained through years of relating to each other. They needed far more practice than a weekly therapy session could provide.
It wasn't enough for my clients to rehearse new thoughts in calm moments. They needed to practice new ways of thinking under "game conditions"--when they were actually upset and least able to think clearly. And they'd have to do this over and over: most neuroscience researchers agree that the brain acquires new habits through repetition. One of the most enduring concepts in neuroscience is Hebb's Law, named after the pioneering McGill University neuroscientist Donald Hebb, who stated that brain processes that occur together over and over again become grafted together, and are more likely to occur in conjunction in the future. According to Hebb's Law, if my clients engaged in new thinking processes while they were upset, and did this enough times, the new thinking processes would begin happening spontaneously each time they became upset.
Then one of my clients, a registered nurse named Judy, who kept struggling to tame her tendency to get enraged with her husband, said to me, "If only I could take you home with me!" When she was furious, she was in the grip of the delusion that her anger was her empowering friend, only to find that her outbursts actually disempowered her. She asked me to make an audiotape for her to listen to precisely at the moments when she became upset with her husband. In this audiotape, I offered encouraging words and reminded her repeatedly that she was far more influential and powerful when she stood up for herself in ways that didn't put her husband down.
She loved the tape and listened to it not only when she was upset, but also when she was driving in her car and on a Walkman, while she was doing the laundry and cleaning house. Within three weeks, she experienced a dramatic shift in a lifelong destructive pattern.
I made more elaborate tapes for Maria and Tony, who trudged into my office one crisp October evening for their fourth session. Maria was so upset that she refused to speak to Tony. She'd had elective surgery the previous week, and had gone into rage mode when Tony left her alone in the hospital one night to go home and get some sleep. I asked Tony to stay in the waiting room while Maria told me how incredibly selfish he was for thinking of himself when she was in so much distress. In the grip of her amygdala-driven cascade, she couldn't see that her attack was sending Tony into disgusted withdrawal as usual. I sympathized with her feelings, and then simply suggested that although her attitude was perfectly understandable, she'd need to drop the idea that he'd done something wrong, and simply tell him how she felt. She struggled inside for a moment and then relaxed. Her eyes moistened and she said softly, "Okay, I think I can do it." When Tony joined us, Maria spoke from a different place inside, and Tony responded instantly with an apology.
I then made an audiotape that essentially repeated the words that had helped Maria shift during this session, and asked her to listen to it each time she became upset with Tony during the following week. The next day, she got off work early, pulled into the driveway, and saw her children playing at the neighbor's house, even though Tony had agreed that he wouldn't let the kids go out to play after school until they'd finished their homework. She felt a surge of anger, but as she reached for the car door, she remembered the audiotape in her purse. She paused for a split second, torn between the urge to vent and the desire to avoid going down the same old path.
Reluctantly, she plugged in the tape and listened in the car. After 10 minutes, she realized that she was in no frame of mind to talk to Tony, and decided to take a walk around the block. After 20 minutes, she felt calmer, and by the time she saw Tony, she was able to keep an open mind and simply ask him why the kids were playing, rather than accuse him of breaking their agreement.
What happened during Maria's walk around the block? Frankly, I don't know. In Maria's audiotape, I didn't tell her what to do or how to shift her attitude, I simply reminded her of a few reasons why she might want to try. The decision was hers. Clients often have difficulty describing how they get shifts to happen. Most report a willingness to let go of control and a momentary surrender to the fact that you can't make life go exactly according to your plans. The shift is usually accompanied by physical relaxation and a release from obsessive thinking. The client returns to the present moment, and is able to respond to what's actually happening, rather than what they fear is going to happen. The most important ingredient in getting an attitude shift to happen is desire. When clients decide they truly want to shift, they do.
What clients report helps them shift brain states has something in common with many repetitive religious practices--from praying "Thy will be done" to practicing mindfulness, kissing a St. Christopher medal before going up to bat, or making a list each night of things one is grateful for. All of these approaches help people create enough of a pause to free them from the grip of intense rage or fear and to generate states of generosity, acceptance, and trust. Like them, my audiotapes allow the body and brain to calm down, and they serve as timely reminders that it's in the client's best interest to try to shift.
Maria, for instance, used her tape as regularly as some people light candles at mass. She told me that she often could feel an attitude change beginning as soon as she heard my calm, confident tone. It reminded me of what attachment researchers speak of when securely attached children evoke images of their caregivers to soothe themselves. In her third week of using the tapes, Maria told me that she began to spontaneously hear my voice inside her head every time she got upset.
Some clients need little more than a verbal reminder. Others require vivid images or metaphors. Tony, for instance, once told me that when he reflexively defended himself, he felt like he was swatting Maria's complaints back at her with a baseball bat. In a minisession without Maria, I helped him imagine turning the bat into a pillow. The image worked, and when Maria returned, he was better able to absorb and digest what she had to say.
I put the pillow image on a tape for Tony. Then we got Maria to record a tape full of her complaints--a litany about how Tony didn't keep his word, didn't fix things around the house, and hadn't kept the kids quiet on Saturday morning after promising he'd let her sleep in. In a solo session, I had Tony listen. As soon as he began feeling defensive, we'd stop the tape and he'd focus on how his body felt; he'd tremble and go into a sort of disgusted shutdown. Then he'd practice trying to shift, seeing the pillows, relaxing physically, reminding himself that there might be some validity to her point of view. Then we'd start the tape up again and repeat the process. Tony used the tape regularly in his truck and became so adept at generating a state of acceptance and compassion that one of his employees remarked that he'd undergone what seemed like a spiritual shift.
I still love the drama of transformative experiences, and my favorite moments are still the tearful ones, when partners drop their defenses and exchange heartfelt expressions of love. But nowadays, I see these moments as just the beginning. They give clients the motivation for the real work of change, which is much less dramatic. I rarely get to see it because it doesn't happen in my office. It happens a little bit at a time, day in, day out, as clients practice letting go of the critical judgments that arise with the brain's self-protective mood states.
My happiest clients make shifting a daily practice, not unlike prayer. The tape recorder, and all my modern knowledge about neuroscience, have ended up supporting the practice of routine and ritual, largely ignored by modern psychotherapists, but intuitively known and practiced by sages since the beginning of time.
Brent Atkinson is the director of the family therapy program at Northern Illinois University, and is in private practice in Geneva, Illinois. Address: School of FCNS, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, IL 60115. E-mails to the author may be sent to: Brent@thecouplesclinic.com.
by Babette Rothschild
Empathy is the connective tissue of good therapy. It's what enables us to establish bonds of trust with clients, and to meet them with our hearts as well as our minds. Empathy enhances our insights, sharpens our hunches, and, at times, seems to allow us to "read" a client's mind. Yet, vital as it is to our work, empathy has remained a rather fuzzy concept in psychotherapy. To many of us, it seems to arise from a kind of potluck stew of emotional resonance and insight, seasoned with lots of attuned presence and a generous dollop of luck.
Far from the therapy office, in the precisely measured environment of the research lab, brain scientists are discovering that a particular cluster of our neurons is specifically designed and primed to mirror another's bodily responses and emotions. We're hardwired, it appears, to feel each other's happiness and pain--more deeply than we ever knew. Moreover, the royal road to empathy is through the body, not the mind. Notwithstanding the river of words that flow through the therapy room, it's the sight of a client looking unhappy, or tense, or relieved, or enraged, that really gets our sympathetic synapses firing.
This news is both exhilarating and scary. The good news--for therapists, their clients, and the world at large--is that human beings may be more deeply capable of empathy than we ever imagined. If we're truly born to connect, perhaps there's hope for us all. The scarier news: if we're truly designed to mirror each other's feelings, we therapists may be exquisitely vulnerable to "catching" our clients' depression, rage, and anxiety, and succumbing to the ravages of "compassion fatigue." Given the hardwired nature of empathy, is it possible to say yea or nay to its effects on us? What steps might we take to harness and channel our natural-born empathy for the good of our clients--and ourselves?
I first recognized the physical force of empathy as a college student, with the help of my friend Nancy, who was studying to be a physical therapist. As we walked down a street together, she'd follow total strangers and subtly mimic their walking style. Copying a stranger's gait, and feeling it in her own body, gave her practice in identifying where one of her patients might be stiff, or in locating the source of a limp. Intrigued by this mysterious way of "knowing" someone, I asked her to teach me to do it, too. I began to surreptitiously mimic the walks of all manner of unsuspecting folk, from unsteady older people to cooler-than-thou teenage hipsters. What startled me was that not only did "walking in someone else's shoes" change the way I felt in my body, but it often altered my mood as well. When I copied the swaggering gait of a cocky young man, for example, I'd momentarily feel more confident--even happier--than before. I found this secret street life fascinating and fun, but I didn't think much about it until a few years later, when I started practicing clinical social work.
On my first job in the mid-1970s working in a family service agency, I began to notice peculiar things happening in my body when I sat in my office with clients. Some of my responses could be blamed on newbie jitters, but I strongly sensed that there was more to it than that. I particularly remember my bodily reactions to a young client named Allison. As she recounted the crises of her week in a spacey, disconnected way, she kept her body very still, and I had to lean forward to hear her whispery, almost inaudible, voice. As we worked together, I began to notice that I often felt lightheaded. When I began to pay attention to what was happening in my body, I found that my breathing had become very shallow--in fact, nearly undetectable. No wonder I was feeling lightheaded and spacey: I wasn't getting enough oxygen!
Turning my attention back to Allison, I noticed that her chest was barely moving. I was taken aback: we were breathing alike! I remembered then how my mimicry of walking patterns in college had often affected my bodily sensations and moods. Were my lightheadedness and general feelings of disconnectedness just the result of new-therapist nervousness, or the direct result of my imitation of Allison's breathing? If our breathing had actually become synchronized, I realized, it was totally unconscious on both our parts.
In all of my graduate-school discussions on the therapeutic relationship, including the fine points of transference and countertransference, I couldn't remember anyone who'd ever mentioned the possibility of "catching" bodily behaviors. Intrigued and a bit bewildered, I took my observations to my supervisor. I still remember her look of startled skepticism. "What an odd hypothesis," she finally remarked, her cool tone clearly implying that my experience wasn't to be taken seriously. I was dumbfounded by her lack of curiosity, but I never doubted my own sensations. On the contrary, increasingly fascinated with the role of the body in relational and emotional life, I began a serious study and practice of body psychotherapy.
In contrast to my suspicious supervisor, my body psychotherapy colleagues and teachers seemed to accept readily that their bodies were "in tune with" or "resonating with" those of their clients. Like actors, they regarded their bodies as essential, finely honed instruments of their craft. From these practitioners, I learned "postural mirroring," a technique instigated by dance therapists, wherein I'd attempt to get a reading on a client's emotional state by copying the way he sat, stood, or moved. There wasn't a lot of debate about the usefulness of such a technique: body psychotherapists simply assumed that "the body doesn't lie."
Tracking Down the Source
While I was heartened by the confirmation of my own observations, I was concerned about body psychotherapy's uncritical acceptance of a link between a therapist's and client's body states and emotions. I needed to know more: Where does our ability to resonate with each other, with such stunning immediacy and accuracy, come from? What core processes drive the dancelike synchronizations of movement and mood that I kept encountering?
Throughout the 1990s, I became a voracious student of neuroscience--at first, as a way to learn about the physiology of trauma. In the course of those studies, I discovered the term "vicarious traumatization" and documentation that therapists could actually suffer symptoms similar to their traumatized clients. At once, I was both concerned and excited. I wondered if the physiological and emotional reactions that accounted for this might have any relationship to my earlier gait experiments with Nancy, the incident with Allison, and my body psychotherapy colleagues' enthusiasm for client mimicry. I'd need to dig further.
I nurtured my curiosity at the library, on the internet, and through the PsychInfo and Medline databases. From the vast literature of social psychology, I learned that facial expressions were contagious--when baby smiles, Mom usually does, too--and that such synchrony affects the nervous system and can convey emotions. I also learned that people commonly, if unconsciously, copy each other's posture and synchronize breathing patterns.
As exciting as that research was, I still felt something was missing. The writings of neurologist Antonio Damasio, attachment specialist Allan Schore, interpersonal neurobiologist Daniel Siegel, and others told me that scientists could locate the effects of empathy in the brain. But, astonishingly, until the mid-1990s, no one had looked for a source of empathy in the brain. And, as I was to find out, the later discovery of the source of brain-to-brain empathy happened by accident.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
In 1996, an Italian neuroscience research team led by Giacomo Rizzolatti and Vittorio Gallese was studying grasping behaviors in monkeys. They attached electrodes to the monkeys' brains to observe precisely which neurons fired when a monkey grabbed a raisin with its hand. The research was routine: monkey grasped, specific neurons fired.
Then, during a break, one of the researchers hungrily reached out for a raisin. His fellow researchers coincidentally noticed something extraordinary on the monitor: neurons in the monkey's brain fired-- the exact same neurons that had fired earlier when the monkey grasped a raisin itself!
The team was astonished: nothing like this had ever been seen before. Their serendipitous finding was the first clue to the existence of what scientists now call "mirror neurons," so called because they appear to actually reflect the activity of another's brain cells. The monkey's response wasn't just simple recognition, as in "I know what the researcher is doing." That kind of observation activates other areas of the brain. What happened between monkey and researcher required a brand new concept, an altogether new theory of behavioral interdependence. The monkey's neurons fired as if it had made the same movement itself. This was a genuine brain-to-brain connection. In an instant, the definition of interconnectedness, the notion of empathy, changed forever.
Subsequent neuroimaging research in humans suggests that we, too, may have a similar mirror-neuron system that allows us to deeply "get" the experience of others. When people watch other individuals drumming their fingers, kicking a ball, or biting into an apple, the sectors of their brains that turn on are the same sectors that activate when they perform these behaviors themselves. Meanwhile, in a paper published last year entitled "The Roots of Empathy," Gallese pushed the envelope further by hypothesizing that "sensations and emotions displayed by others can also be 'empathized,' and therefore implicitly understood, through a mirror matching mechanism" in the brain. Soon, he believes, scientists will discover a mirror-neuron network that establishes, beyond a doubt, that we're born to resonate with one another at the deepest emotional levels.
While neuroscientists continue the slow work of confirming these promising findings and theories, therapists can begin to apply them now to empathize more strategically and effectively with their clients. Because empathy is rooted in the body, the more mindful therapists are of their own somatic responses, the more skillfully they can choose to engage mirror neurons to gain valuable information about a client's emotional state. Equally important, a therapist can choose to slow down, or even halt, the brain's rush to empathize when it might overwhelm the client--or the therapist.
Let's begin with the body's gift for sleuthing. When you want to get a literal feel for what it's like to be in your client's skin, you can consciously mirror some aspect of his or her behavior or expression. I tried this when I worked with Fred, a new college graduate who'd come into therapy to address his anxiety about dealing with authority in his first "real job." Though he'd grown up with a tyrannical father who'd beaten him regularly as a child, Fred couldn't see or feel any relationship between his childhood trauma and his current fear of standing up to his boss.
One afternoon, Fred arrived for his session deeply depressed. He'd been thinking about suicide, he said, but had no idea why. I wasn't sure either. As I asked him to describe what "suicidal" felt like in his body, I tuned in by copying his flat facial expression and slumped posture. Almost immediately, I began to experience in my own body the sense of deadness he'd just described to me. It reminded me of the "freeze" response that's an instinctive reaction to inescapable threat.
All at once, a light bulb flashed in my mind. "Fred," I asked, "have you ever seen a mouse that's been caught by a cat?" He nodded yes. "What does the mouse do?" I prodded. "It plays dead," he replied, his face beginning to brighten with interest. We then discussed the protective function of freezing for all prey, both animals and people. Finally, I asked Fred if he'd ever reacted that way himself.
"Yeah," he said softly, "when my dad beat me." As his father hit him, he told me, his body would lose all power and "go dead." For the first time, he made a felt connection between his childhood horrors and his current emotional state. It seemed a light bulb was also flashing in Fred's mind. As he began to talk thoughtfully about his own "internal mouse," his body posture gradually became more upright and animated, and by the end of the session he reported that his thoughts of suicide had receded.
Could I have helped Fred make this breakthrough with talk alone? Perhaps, but it would likely have entailed several more sessions full of the usual conversational roundabouts, byways, and detours. Instead, by mirroring him, I could quickly feel and then understand Fred's deadness.
While purposefully synchronizing with your client can often provide added insight or even jump-start a stalled session, be aware that the data you pick up isn't "pure" information. Just as gaps can occur between speaker and listener in verbal communication, so can somatic communication be distorted by your own filters. If, for example, you mimic your client's head tilt and get a feeling of anxiety in your chest, your client may indeed be anxious. But it also could be that you habitually tilt your head when you're anxious, so that repeating this action triggers the emotion. So be sure to check out your bodily hunches with your clients, as I did with Fred.
The Risks of Resonance
Mirroring a client can be a bit of a tightrope act. You can easily lose your balance and crash to earth, especially if you fail to stay focused. I learned this lesson the hard way.
A few years ago, my client Ronald was angry with me because I was leaving town for a few weeks. He was so full of fury that, for the first hour of a double session, he wouldn't talk at all. He sat half-facing away from me, tense and seething. From time to time, his eyes would fill with tears. Repeatedly, I tried to make verbal contact with him, using such standard gambits as "You seem very angry" and "This looks very difficult for you." But I had the unmistakable feeling that my words projected about a foot from my mouth, and then thudded heavily to the floor.
Finally, I decided to hold my tongue and let Ronald work it out himself. With my mind emptied of fix-it schemes and nothing much else to do, I began to consciously copy my client's hypertense posture. I clenched my jaw, clasped my hands tightly in my lap, and scrunched my shoulders forward.
Two things happened. The first was that within a minute or so, Ronald's posture began to loosen up a little and he began to talk about his feelings of impending abandonment. (I've since learned that mimicking another's posture can nonverbally convey understanding.) As he aired his rage and hurt, I was able to acknowledge his feelings and let him know that I could understand and accept his anger. By the end of the session, he reported feeling somewhat calmer.
But not me. After Ronald closed the door behind him, I realized that I was very uncomfortable. Actually, that's an understatement: I was practically unhinged with fury. But why? Was I angry at Ronald? Had the session triggered something from my own life? I tossed around a half-dozen possibilities in my mind, but nothing seemed to fit. Only later, when I talked it over with a colleague, did I remember: I'd copied Ronald's infuriated posture! My mirror neurons had done their job too well. Once I made this crucial connection, the "infection" began to drain--I could almost feel the fury leaking out of me. I returned to myself again in a matter of seconds.
To some therapists, what happened between Ronald and me may look like a textbook case of projective identification--a case of Ronald's "putting" his uncomfortable feelings into me and thereby "inducing" my fury. I couldn't disagree more. I was a full participant in the process: only after I actively mirrored Ronald did I begin to feel angry. But while my mimicry was entirely conscious--if later forgotten--I believe that this kind of brain-to-brain communication occurs at an unconscious level between clients and therapists all the time. The next time you feel that you may be suffering from the impact of a projective identification, you may need to look no further than your own body to discover whether you've mimicked your client's posture, facial expression, or breathing pattern. Routinely adding such a simple step could eliminate the blaming of clients for feelings that are, in fact, rooted in our own, naturally responsive, neural circuitry.
There's liberation here, particularly for therapists who often find themselves on the edge of emotional overload. Active awareness of your own neurally-mediated role in absorbing clients' feelings can help you control the contagion. Once you become aware of your mimicry, any behavior that brings you back to the sensations and feelings of your own body, and out of synchronization with the client, will help you to apply the "empathy brakes." You might stretch, take a drink of water, get up to fetch a pen, or write some notes. These steps won't short-circuit empathy, but rather will allow you to return to yourself--to a place of clarity, presence, and helpful attunement to your client.
When a Client Feels Your Pain
Empathy, of course, is a two-way street. Our clients often unconsciously mimic our body patterns and take on our corresponding emotional states. Many therapists instinctively foster this process. When, for example, you slow your own breathing and your anxious client subsequently slows his, you're engaging his mirror neurons. No words need be exchanged for the client to gradually match your slower respiration and begin to calm down.
But if clinicians' serenity is contagious, so, too, is their agitation. One morning, upon returning to Copenhagen (my then home) after a long visit to the United States, I was suffering from a particularly nasty case of jet lag. Though exhausted and headachy, I jumped right into my usual work schedule. At the end of my afternoon session with Helle, I asked her, as usual, "How are you feeling?" Helle proceeded to describe my jet lag in precise detail. "I feel very tired, and there's a feeling of pressure in my forehead," she said, rubbing her eyebrows. "I also feel an odd heaviness in my chest. And I'm hungry, though I shouldn't be: I ate a good lunch just before I came."
I suggested to Helle that she stand up and walk around the room, hoping that the physical activity would move her out of my somatic sphere of influence and back into her own body. After pacing for a minute or two, she returned to her chair, noticeably more energetic. "My exhaustion and hunger have disappeared!" she reported. I then told her how I was feeling, that she'd described my sensations precisely.
Since consciousness is an important part of the process of controlling the neuronal dance, we spent a few minutes tracking how Helle had "caught" my state. In retracing her postures, she realized she'd rested her head on her hand as I'd tiredly done. That ordinary act of unconscious mimicry was enough to make her vulnerable to feeling my jet lag and the untimely hunger that accompanied it.
Psychiatrist and early attachment expert Daniel Stern calls the moments of true meeting in therapy a "shared feeling voyage." Though each voyage may last but a few seconds, we've all experienced its potent rush--the sudden throb of feeling not just for but with a client, a sensation of jolting connectedness that can be both exhilarating and fearsome in its intensity. What we've always imagined to be a resonance born of voice, smile, tears, or touch is encoded in us, it turns out, far more deeply and inexorably than we ever knew. It may be that our mirror neurons, those tiny and inescapable vessels of empathy, encapsulate one of the most exciting challenges of psychotherapy--that of attuning two brains, and two hearts, so that they warmly vibrate together without melting into one.
Babette Rothschild, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., is in private practice in Los Angeles and gives professional trainings worldwide. She's the author of The Body Remembers:The Psychophysiologyy of Trauma and Trauma Treatment and The Body Remembers Casebook: Unifying Methods and Models in the Treatment of Trauma and PTSD . Address: P.O. Box 241783, Los Angeles, CA 90024. Website: www.trauma.cc. E-mails to the author may be sent to: email@example.com.
Gallese, Vittorio. "The Roots of Empathy: The Shared Manifold Hypothesis and the Neural Basis of Intersubjectivity." Psychopathology 36 (2003): 171-80.Hatfield, Elaine, John T. Cacioppo, and Richard L. Rapson. Emotional Contagion: Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Rothschild, Babette, and M. L. Rand. Help for the Helper: The Mind and Body of Compassion Fatigue, Vicarious Trauma, and Burnout. New York: W. W. Norton, forthcoming.
by Mary Sykes Wylie
In 1999, a few months after child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel's book The Developing Mind: Toward a Neurobiology of Interpersonal Experience was published, Siegel received an e-mail, purporting to be from a representative of Pope John Paul II, asking him to come to the Vatican to talk to the Pope. Thinking the e-mail was a prank, Siegel ignored it--why would the Pope invite an expert on the neurobiology of childhood attachment over to the Vatican to schmooze? Nevertheless, one enigmatic detail of the message stuck in Siegel's mind as he deleted it: the Pope, according to the message, wanted very much to know why "the mother's gaze" was so critical to the growth and emotional well-being of a baby.
As it turned out, the e-mail was legitimate. An official letter soon followed from the Pontifical Council for the Family, formally inviting Siegel to be the main speaker at a Vatican conference for church leaders and Catholic social services providers and missionaries, to be followed by a private Papal audience for Siegel and his family. Siegel accepted the invitation with one caveat: he wanted the Pope to know ahead of time that the all-important loving gaze could come from either parent or from another attachment figure--it didn't have to originate with the mother.
Reading John Paul's biography before he left for Rome, Siegel discovered something he thought might explain the Pope's request. When John Paul was asked by the biographer if he remembered much about his mother, who had died when he was a young child, he said no at first. Then, a bit later, he backed up, saying he did recall one thing--"I remember my mother's gaze." Could the Pope want Siegel to explain what happened in the brain that made this ephemeral moment in the life of a young boy still resonate, like a lost dream, many decades later in the heart and mind of a frail, elderly man?
What drew the Pope to Siegel's work was apparently the search for some illumination about the small, everyday miracle of that gaze--what novelist George Eliot called "the meeting eyes of love"--that every child yearns for and must have, literally, to survive. Repeated tens of thousands of times in the child's life, these small moments of mutual rapport serve to transmit the best part of our humanity--our capacity for love--from one generation to the next.
For many therapists, what Siegel has done is to show just how, from the moment we're born, our most important relationships fire into being the neural circuits of the brain that allow us to understand and empathize with others and feel their feelings. But beyond that, he's gone on to link his interest in both science and the nuance of relationship with the almost unfathomable complexities of neuroscience to generate a field he calls "interpersonal neurobiology," which has brought the latest findings of brain science directly into the therapist's consulting room. As much as any figure in the mental health field, he's taken on, as both a professional challenge and a personal quest, the task of showing his clinician colleagues how the objective, physical matter of the brain--its lobes, modules, folds, lumps, tubes, and fibers--creates the possibilities for the subjective life of the mind, heart, soul, and spirit that is the glory of our species.
While still only 47 and not a formal brain researcher himself--certainly not the originator of the massive, accumulating body of theory regarding the processes of human attachment-- Siegel has displayed a unique ability as a synthesizer, weaving together strands of knowledge from a variety of fields. Through his highly influential book and hundreds of workshop presentations he's given around the globe in recent years, he's tried to bridge the previously disconnected worlds of neuroscience research and clinical practice. "Dan is the right person at the right time," says Pat Love, a noted couples therapist and workshop presenter who's devoted the past several years to integrating neuroscience into her own clinical work. "His work cuts across disciplinary lines to bring together neuroscience, developmental theory, evolutionary psychology, systems theory, psychiatry, medicine, and psychotherapy and point us toward the integrated thinking that will shape the future of our field."
Siegel is by no means the first clinician to have talked about the role of attachment and brain processes in clinical work. For more than 50 years, attachment theory has been a significant feature on the landscape of childhood development research. But until recently, how attachment research might inform knowledge about adult psychology was virtually ignored by psychotherapists. For example, Los Angeles psychologist Marion Solomon recalls traveling with a group of associates to England in the early 1980s to visit pioneering attachment researcher John Bowlby and enthusiastically bringing back tapes of his works. When she returned, however, she found that "no one was interested in considering the clinical implications of attachment theory. They just weren't buying the ideas." According to Solomon, however, "There's something about the way Dan has put this material together that makes the lights go on for people. He's propelled attachment theory and neuroscience beyond the tipping point within the therapy world."
Considered a tour de force by reviewers from the worlds of clinical and research psychology and psychiatry, The Developing Mind --a densely packed synthesis of childhood attachment research, cognitive science, the study of emotion, and complexity theory--has definitely established Siegel's credentials as a major expositor and interpretor of neuroscience esoterica to nonspecialists. But even the book's critical success doesn't, in itself, explain the excitement he's been able to generate within the field. After all, it's a daunting read that probably won't be chosen anytime soon for the Oprah book club.
Explaining Siegel's impact, students and colleagues again and again cite the distinctive personal electricity he conveys. "Dan is a born connector," says Marion Solomon, "whether it's one-to-one or with an audience of thousands." His friend Alan Schore, known for his groundbreaking research and theoretical work on childhood attachment, still remembers his first meeting with Siegel 10 years ago at a dinner party. "We just started talking, and before I knew it I was intellectually and emotionally in synch with him," recalls Schore. "The only other person with whom I'd ever clicked like that was my wife."
"Even if you're listening to him in a large audience, you have the sense that Dan is speaking directly to you," adds Schore. That seems to be part of the mesmerizing effect that Siegel's public lectures have. Take the 2003 Psychotherapy Networker Symposium at which Siegel delivered a 45-minute keynote loaded with high-end neurospeak, sprinkled with references to the orbitofrontal cortex, anterior cigulate, hippocampus, the intricacies of neural transmission, synaptic plasticity. and gene expression. Clearly, it wasn't the kind of thing calculated to electrify an early-morning crowd. But from the first moments of his talk, when the soft-spoken, boyish-looking Siegel, apparently dressed by L.L. Bean, ambled on stage without notes to address an audience of 3,000, he had the mostly neuroscientifically challenged crowd on the edge of their chairs with enthusiasm.
Hundreds of shoulders in the hall palpably relaxed as he drew a laugh admitting that, as a medical student, the task of trying to remember the multisyllabic names for different brain parts "made me nauseous." Like a class of born-again biology fans, the crowd happily imitated Siegel as he repeatedly referred to his "hand puppet" model of the brain--balled fist, with knuckles representing the prefrontal cortex and the middle of the palm standing in for the brain stem. "Dan can take complicated ideas and put them into everyday language," says Marion Solomon. "He just conveys a driving curiosity that's irresistible to audiences."
It isn't just Siegel's skill as a communicator that enables him to connect so well with an audience, but the message he brings about the nature of the brain. Most of us who had any exposure at all to the human (rather than, say, the frog) brain in our biology classes were taught about the "single-skull" version. Translating his thorny subject for nonspecialists, Siegel enthralls audiences with his vision of the brain as an exquisitely social organ. From birth, it's not the relentless unfolding of a genetic plan that determines the shape of our adult minds, Siegel explains, but what happens between different brains that largely shapes what happens inside our individual brains. He opens up unexplored vistas of a plastic, self-renewing brain, with capacities to rewire itself in response to changing circumstances that go well beyond assumptions about our innate, hardwired limitations prevalent in neuroscience circles until only a few years ago.
For those inspired by the synthesis Siegel offers, his contribution transcends a particular concept or a set of change techniques. "In recent years, the therapy field has been dominated by theoretical eclecticism and a lot of attention to techniques and practical interventions, as if you can believe anything you want theoretically," says Sue Johnson, an originator of Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy, one of the most empirically supported marital therapy approaches. "What Dan Siegel has done is give us a bridge to science and a much clearer idea about the organizing brain structure of relationships," adds Pat Love. "For the first time, Siegel is offering a neuroscientific paradigm for understanding how all kinds of psychotherapy work. He's taking us beyond anecdotes and metaphors and vague theories and 'it-works-because-I-say-so' into a measurable science of human nature."
DSM 'n Drugs
But the ability to connect disparate disciplines didn't come easily. Soon after enrolling at Harvard Medical School in 1978, the young Siegel, still unsure of his own career path, found himself plunged into a professional culture focused on diseases and pathologies. It jarred him to listen to doctors and his fellow medical students refer to patients as isolated body parts--"I saw an incredible kidney today," or "There's a very interesting liver in room 415." He soon found himself regularly being dressed down for spending too much time listening to his patients' stories. "If you want to listen to people's stories, go to social work school--that's not what doctors do!" one irate supervisor told him.
Disillusioned, he dropped out of med school and spent a vagabond year considering various "careers," including professional dancing, carpentry, documentary filmmaking, and salmon fishing. It was a fellow fisherman who turned Siegel away from that particular career choice, pointing out that fishing was all about "getting up at 3 a.m, bending over the side of a freezing boat for hours, your back killing you, throwing fishhooks out and pulling them in until your hands are too crippled to do much else." This de facto career advisor told Siegel that he himself was quitting fishing and going back to graduate school in psychology, and that Siegel should go back to medical school. Soon after that, working on a film interview of a man writing a book about the left and right sides of the brain, Siegel had a mini career epiphany and decided he, too, was fascinated by the brain and the mind. But since it would have taken him too long to get the credits he needed for psychology graduate school, he decided to return to medical school at Harvard and focus on psychiatry.
Academic psychiatry during the '80s, it turned out, was exactly the wrong place for someone eager to develop a holistic, integrated view of the mind and brain. An increasingly reductionistic biological (i.e. psychopharmaceutical) psychiatry had just begun its relentless push for dominance. With the advent of DSM III and the torrent of new medications pouring out of the pharmaceutical pipeline, psychiatry grew ever more inclined to define emotional and mental problems as purely medical illnesses reflecting biochemical imbalances in the brain. Diagnosis became a game of parsing DSM categories and subcategories, and treatment a matter of prescribing meds to amp up or dampen down the synaptic exchange of neurotransmitters. The last thing that interested these scientist-psychiatrists was a vaporous, 19th-century concept like mind. "There was no understanding that subjective human experience--feelings--was an objective scientific reality," recalls Siegel. "Psychiatrists were supposed to be experts on the brain, and all they were interested in was knowing how neurons fire--they weren't interested in feelings."
Siegel found the emerging infatuation with the DSM 'n Drugs combo deeply distasteful and a betrayal of what he considered the deeper mission of psychiatry. "I hated to see colleagues and trainees seeing patients for half an hour for a meds check, then sending them off until their next appointment three months later," he says. For him, the self-conscious scientism of the new psychiatry was a crabbed, distorted version of real scientific inquiry: "The only brain mechanisms we ever really talked about were neurotransmitter receptors."
One case from this frustrating period that underscored biological psychiatry's lack of imagination sticks in Siegel's mind. He was seeing a young woman in therapy who was suffering from unresolved grief and guilt at the loss of a parent. Eventually, she got better, and when she was ready to leave, Siegel asked her what had been most helpful about her treatment. She thought for a minute and then said, "When I'm with you, I feel felt. " Her remark about what is a perfectly commonplace experience in good therapy contrasted for Siegel with the indifference to relationship that he saw all around him. "She could see that my inner emotional state was affected by her inner emotional state, and that profoundly changed her experience of herself, which gave her hope that she could change." But the scientist in Siegel also wanted to know what exactly the objective brain mechanisms were that resulted in this profoundly healing interpersonal experience.
At the time, the psychiatry department at Harvard was a war zone of mutually antagonistic factions, each speaking its own language, sunk in its own pet paradigms (biological psychiatry, psychoanalytic psychiatry, descriptive psychiatry, social psychiatry) who, Siegel recalls, "all bad-mouthed each other." But whatever his feelings about the shortcomings of biological psychiatry, the field of psychotherapy offered little attraction for Siegel. Its most influential models didn't exhibit the barest interest in neurobiology or, in his opinion, even a decent regard for ordinary intellectual consistency. And despite his humanistic inclinations, he still wanted a disciplined, scientifically plausible explanation of the core phenomena therapists dealt with--human personality, emotion, memory, and identity. But none of the "explanations" offered by various psychiatric denominations, or the deceptively-neat DSM taxonomy, actually explained anything to him. Siegel regarded them as "ever more complicated definitions of observations--they all seemed about as substantial as plumes of smoke."
It seemed to Siegel that any explanation worth its salt must incorporate both the biological and the personal; it must somehow include the physical brain, the individual story of the particular human being, and the evolutionary story of the whole species. It had to reflect the tough-minded objectivity of science and the "soft" subjectivity of ordinary human experience. Neither "scientific" psychiatry, which reduced an individual to the ebb and flow of brain chemistry, nor a Tower of Babel of contending psychotherapies, which completely ignored the living brain, even came close to meeting these apparently impossible goals.
No Axe to Grind
During the late '80s, Siegel found something approaching the kind of theoretical connective tissue he was looking for when he discovered attachment theory. In the previous 40-odd years, attachment researchers following the pioneering work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth had built up a formidable body of empirical research to show that a young child's sense of security, safety, and well-being depends largely upon the emotional quality of his relationship with his primary caregivers. And it was this secure base in early childhood, the theory continued, that enabled a child to grow into an emotionally stable adult and become a good parent to his or her own children.
For Siegel, attachment researchers, with their careful attention to measurement and moment-by-moment interaction, "seemed beautifully nonpartisan and unbiased, without any clinical or theoretical axe to grind." He also found in attachment theory something he'd missed in other explanatory models--a rigorously scientific field that focused on something more emotionally compelling than the synaptic vicissitudes of neurotransmitters. Here was a field that posed the most fundamental questions about the small miracle by which we actually become human beings: How does a coherent sense of self emerge from the turmoil of fluctuating sensations that is a baby's mind? How does early experience shape our personalities? How do we learn to love? Why do we tend to treat our children the way we were treated? Why does parenting matter?
In 1988, Siegel heard one of the pioneers of attachment theory, Mary Main, give a talk about her work on what she called "coherent narrative." Main and her colleagues had devised an instrument called the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), in which parents were asked about their recollections of their own childhoods. What Main's research indicated was that the way these parents told their own stories--how they made sense of their past lives, or didn't--was the most powerful predictor (85 percent accuracy) of whether their own children would be securely attached to them. If adults could create a reflective, coherent, and emotionally-rich narrative about their own childhoods, they were likely to form a good, secure relationship with their children--no matter how "insecurely attached" they themselves had been as children or how inadequate or even abusive their own parents were. It wasn't what happened to them as children, but how they came to make sense of what happened to them that predicted their emotional integration as adults and what kind of parents they'd be.
The narrative material struck Siegel "like a lightning bolt," extending attachment research beyond the nonverbal attunement of "the mother's gaze" into the realm of memory and language. As much as we need the wordless love and the creaturely comfort of our parents and caregivers, we also need to acquire the ability--the mental and emotional wherewithal--to put our experience into words in order to fulfill our biological potential as human beings. For Siegel, the idea of narrative became the key to a bigger, more coherent, "story" than either psychiatry or psychology had so far been able to produce. "Anthropology shows us that every culture on earth tells stories. For the last 40,000 years we, as a species, have been trying to bring what's inside of us out--to make sense of what we see and put it out there for other people to hear," says Siegel. "Stories bring together the external, observable, objective world and our internal experience of our minds. The capacity and need to tell stories is not only part of our culture, but part of our evolutionary heritage, built into our genetic code and embedded in the circuits of our brains."
Furthermore, the findings on narrative were a real beacon of hope, empirically reinforcing the commonsense notion that people can change--their lives are not determined by their bad beginnings. In fact, according to the attachment researchers, a person can earn her emotional security and ability to create a coherent narrative about her past through personal growth and involvement in positive, healthy relationships with teachers, friends, lovers, mates, and, of course, therapists. "I loved the way attachment research showed that fate (having less-than-perfect parents) isn't necessarily destiny," says Siegel. "If you can make sense of your story, you can change it."
Of course, most therapists share Siegel's interest in the transformative power of narrative, but not his need to ground his beliefs in scientific principle. For him, however, it was as if he'd opened one of a set of nested Chinese boxes--discovering one powerful explanatory system in the connection between narrative and attachment theory--only to come across another, smaller, but even more intriguing box. What, he wondered, were the neurobiological mechanisms that made attachment so important? How does coherent narrative "happen" in the brain?
Of Coherence and Incoherence
The question of how we develop a coherent narrative was becoming clinically relevant for Siegel because he had a number of patients with PTSD, and one of the most striking symptoms of his traumatized patients was their inability to construct a coherent story about their past. If asked to talk about what happened to them as children, they became disorganized and incoherent, couldn't remember major events of their own life histories, and frequently became emotionally distraught just making the effort to recall the past. These patients remembered traumatic incidents while in one state of mind and then had no memory of the same incident when in another state of mind. They confused the past and the present and experienced highly charged, intrusive flashbacks that didn't seem like "normal" declarative memories. To Siegel, there was clearly some connection between their traumatic past--what was called their "disorganized attachment"--and something going on in their brains that prevented them from making sense of their own stories.
As a clinician, Siegel knew that PTSD was assumed to be related to dissociation, but what did that mean? How could clients both not remember enough to tell a coherent story and at the same time remember all too much, all too vividly? Psychiatrists still described these symptoms in the archaic and inadequate language of psychoanalysis--conscious versus unconscious or repressed memory--which was too schematic and narrowly sectarian to make sense of phenomena that, literally, burst the bounds of standard theories and models.
To find some more promising answers, Siegel began studying neuroscience in earnest. While exploring the complexities of memory, he learned from some of the leading authorities in the research world about the fascinating difference between implicit and explicit memory, and the newly discovered role of a horn-shaped region of the brain called the hippocampus. Implicit memory is a form of nonverbal, unconscious memory, present at birth, which lays down neural pathways encoding emotion (via the amygdala), behavioral patterns, and learned habits (like driving), perceptions, and probably bodily memory. We may experience very strong feelings or body sensations triggered by an implicit memory, for example, but have no subjective awareness of consciously recalling anything--we just feel something powerful. About a year after birth, the hippocampus comes online and begins to encode explicit memories, including consciously recalled facts--"Richard Wagner was married to Franz Liszt's daughter"--and the countless past experiences, feelings, and thoughts that make up our awareness of our autobiographical past.
Discovering the division between implicit and explicit memory and the role of the hippocampus in turning the former into the latter was, for Siegel, like finding a trail after hacking his way through a dense jungle. "The timing was wonderful, coming just when I was learning about attachment narratives and desperate to understand trauma," Siegel says. It dawned on him that the disruption of the hippocampus and the processing of explicit memory might have something to do with why both PTSD clients and "disorganized" parents in the attachment research couldn't relate a coherent story about the terrible past. What if trauma shut off the hippocampus, so that horrible sensations and experiences flooded the amygdala and were laid down as implicit memories, but were blocked from becoming explicit memories? That might explain the odd fact that people with PTSD experienced their memories in the here and now without having the sensation of remembering them. Today, this theory is old hat among trauma therapists and researchers (though still surprisingly unfamiliar to many other clinicians). Even so, however, when the discovery of what the hippocampus did was itself brand new, nobody seems to have made that connection.
Siegel first publicly floated his idea at a conference in 1992, attended by famous heavyweights from the trauma and neuroscience communities (including Eric Kandel, later winner of a Nobel prize for demonstrating how experience creates new neural connections in the brain). During one session, somebody in the audience asked, "How do you explain traumatic repression in terms of the brain?" Nobody had an answer. Siegel, still considered a junior colleague by many of the prominent figures in attendance, daringly raised his hand. "I was just this punk kid, but I threw out my idea--Is it possible that if the hippocampus is blocked during a trauma, you could be vulnerable to flashbacks and dissociation because, while you'd have the implicit memory of the event, you'd have no explicit, declarative memory of it?' Then I sat down."
At the break, an intrigued mob surrounded Siegel and asked him to amplify on this extremely interesting and radical idea of his. "It was the first experience I ever had of going to the brain to find out how people's mental processes work and coming up with an answer that might pave a way to better treatment," Siegel remembers.
Brain and Mind
Siegel was soon feverishly exploring anything else he could find out about how the brain worked and what light neurobiological research might shed on the problems of his patients. From 1991 to 1995, while the head of training in child psychiatry at UCLA, he led a study group, a multidisciplinary dream-team loaded with experts--anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, linguists, geneticists, psychiatrists, and heavily weighted with neuro-types, including neurobiologists, neurologists, and neurosurgeons. "I was realizing that the brain held the secrets to the mind," he says now.
He focused, for example, on the clinical implications of the fact that the right and left hemispheres work in dramatically different ways. By then it was commonly understood that the left brain is associated with logic, cause-effect reasoning, verbal processing, and linear thinking, while the right is associated with nonlinear, holistic (big-picture) thinking, intense emotion, body sense, social awareness, and nonverbal communication. What Siegel became interested in was that a coherent narrative about the past requires both hemispheres to be fully online: the right holds the images, themes, and sense of personal self existing across time, while the left holds the drive to make logical meaning and put words to these wordless feeling states and perceptions. Right away, this seemed to explain the difficulties many people had in creating coherent narrative: if the two sides of the brain weren't working together, the story would either be chaotic and confused--overwhelming feeling, overwhelmed thought--or superficially logical but lacking the emotional oomph of a good, coherent autobiographical story
He decided to try out the theory that integrating brain function could be beneficial therapeutically with clients who had an impoverished sense of their own past and couldn't really feel or express emotion: "I'd worked out a hypothesis that this type of patient might respond to therapy that explicitly stimulated the development of the right hemisphere." And it worked. A lot of the patients, who usually intellectualized their way through talk therapy, responded very well to guided imagery, sensate-body focusing, and practice in using and picking up on nonverbal cues.
Simply telling patients what might be going on in their brains, he discovered, could also be both deeply comforting and therapeutic. He explained to patients with PTSD the difference between implicit and explicit memory and the function of the hippocampus, and they felt less crazy. "You're telling me I'm not nuts," said one greatly relieved patient, who thought she was going insane because of the flashbacks and intrusive images that hounded her. As she put it, "It's just that the bad things that happened to me got fragmented in my mind and were never put together into my regular memory by my hippowhatsis."
Soon, he was spiking his therapy with brief, neurobiological vignettes that helped clients understand why they were so prone to sudden rages, or had such rotten love lives, or felt so anxious all the time. Siegel became adept at explaining the role of the unbridled amygdala, the self-calming talents of the neocortex, the heroically integrative properties of the orbitofrontal cortex, the amazing system of mirror neurons that allows us to pick up and feel the feelings and intentions of others--the remarkable capacity for "mindsight." He even started keeping a chalkboard in his office to draw rough sketches of the brain and its parts, which helped ground discussions of subjective mental experience in the world of physical reality. "Unlike most psychological concepts, the brain is a three-dimensional object that you can hold in your hand," he says. "It's also a visual entity, and we're very visual creatures--a lot of our cortical real estate is devoted to vision. So when I sketch the brain on the board, people can really 'see' it."
His patients loved it. Far from making them feel that their lives were completely determined by physiological processes beyond their control, they felt empowered. They discovered that their negative feelings weren't them, but originated from one part of their brains, which could be controlled by another part, actually altered by what they think . "Connections in the brain shape the way you think, but the flip side is true, too," says Siegel. "The way you think can change your brain. Neural firing changes neural connections--if you pay attention." We often have the idea that we have no power to control our own attention. Not so. "You can harness the power of your mind," says Siegel. "You can sit in your prefrontal cortex, where self-regulation is mediated, and simply notice, just notice, the mental processes emanating from different neural circuits of the brain--without locking onto them."
By now, the concept of mindfulness--detached attention to one's own feelings and thoughts--has acquired the fuzzy quality of overfamiliarity among therapists, becoming something of a New Age platitude. But Siegel gives it a fresh dimension by grounding it in the realities of neurobiology. His interest is in how mindfulness works in the brain and how it can, literally, change brain function. "Mindfulness promotes the integrative function of the prefrontal cortex," Siegel says. "It allows brain circuits to fire that have perhaps never fired before, giving people a sensation of inner awareness that they may never have had before." In short, it brings about neural changes that Siegel alternately calls "integration," "coherence," or "self-regulation."
At first glance, "self-regulation" is a mildly soporific term reminiscent of the psych lab, but from Siegel's perspective it defines the basic goal of all psychotherapy. "When you think about it, you can understand almost every mental health problem--anxiety, depression, eating disorders, personality disorders, thinking disorders--as an issue of self-regulation," Siegel remarks. Self-regulation, in the Siegel lexicon, is the balanced and integrated "flow of energy and information" through the major systems of the brain--brain stem, limbic circuits, neocortex, autonomic nervous system--and between one brain and another. When we're in this secure, stable state of mind-brain-body equilibrium, we can face life's vicissitudes with some measure of emotional calm, flexibility, self-awareness, and reason. Our relationships are good, and we're "mindful" almost as a matter of course.
But, according to Siegel, "self-regulation" is really something of a misnomer. What should by now be blindingly obvious is that our capacity for self-regulation depends so much upon our interactions with other people that it might well be called "other-regulated self- regulation." We're not born knowing how to regulate ourselves--in fact, we're alarmingly, chaotically, un -self-regulated creatures at birth, more so than most other newborn animals on earth. Loving parents, if we're lucky, begin the long process of teaching us how to organize and regulate our inner selves--encoding their care and attention in the pliable neural fibers that integrate various regions throughout our brains. No matter how good we had it in the beginning, however, we'll need reinforcement of these early lessons throughout life, and much remedial work if we were shortchanged early on.
For Siegel, therapists are the remedial attachment experts and rescuers of the chronically un-self-regulated, and it is their job to, in effect, help rewire the frayed neural connections, reintegrate (or sometimes integrate for the first time) different areas and functions of the brain--implicit and explicit memory, right and left hemisphere, neocortex with limbic system and brain stem. From Siegel's viewpoint of interpersonal neurobiology, here's how a therapist influences a distraught patient reliving a past traumatic event that hasn't yet been consolidated and turned into an ordinary memory.
Imagine you're such a patient sitting in your therapist's office. She sees that you're not in good shape--pale, shaky, agitated--and knows that your sympathetic nervous system is clearly running in overdrive. She listens to you try to explain what happened and realizes right away that your story isn't coherent--your left brain is struggling to make sense of this past event, but your words are being swamped by waves of intense right-hemisphere emotion. You stutter, forget things, swallow nervously, feel nauseated, and have to keep starting your story all over again. Something about what you're trying to say is still locked in your amygdala, in your implicit memory--still hasn't been processed by your hippocampus so it can become simply part of your explicit memory, and then incorporated into your consciously remembered autobiographical story. How can she help this neural integration happen?
Listening closely to you, your therapist lets you know that she's really there with you, she feels some of what you're feeling. She picks up your fear, confusion, despair, but without being overcome by them as you are. As a result, you "feel felt" through nonverbal signals and mirror neurons and you "see yourself" in her, allowing you to realize that you're authentically in her mind, and this changes your experience of the moment. You take a deep breath and feel a little safer, more grounded, calmer, almost as if her strong, steady mind is embracing your fragmented, chaotic one.
Knowing the brain is an associational organ, your therapist tries to elicit what it was about the recent triggering experiences that might have reminded you of something from the past. She sees how the past event affects you in the present and she joins you in this mental time travel, carefully probing your past and your present life. This helps bring the two into a more stable, integrated relationship with each other--allowing you to put a past event in the past, so you can viscerally distinguish the present moment from it and move forward into the future without fear that it will continue to haunt you. By doing this, she helps you increase neural integration between differentiated areas of the brain--the consolidation of memory via the hippocampus into the neocortex, and the synthesis of left-brain logic and right-brain emotion, so that the past event becomes no more and no less than an aspect of your conscious autobiographical story.
And so it goes. With her as your guide, you go back and forth with her between mind and brain, using your capacity for conscious thought and reflection on the buzzing activity within that neural hive beneath your skull. And as you do so, your immediate experience--your sense of yourself and your story--gradually changes. You begin seeing the past event in the context of other events, other times, relationships past and present, and you can weave it into an ongoing narrative of your life. As the implicit memories from years back are turned into part of a more coherent and inclusive autobiographical story, you feel relieved, somehow lighter. You also feel deep gratitude and affection for your therapist, as you would for someone with whom you've been through a life-or-death struggle and emerged victorious. In a sense, nothing has changed-- the past is still what it was--but everything has changed, because, in concert, your mind and this other sensitive, deeply attuned, intelligent mind have changed your brain. The gradual improvement in your capacity for "self-regulation" hasn't been a solo performance, but a duet sung in counterpoint.
For all his curiosity about the brain and its workings, Siegel professes himself largely indifferent to the subject of therapeutic technique. He doesn't seem to care particularly what methods therapists use, and consistently avoids telling them what they should do in treatment. "You can shape and harness synaptic connections in the brain by giving patients medications or doing therapy," he says. "You can also do it just by teaching them to meditate and get in touch with their bodies, go jogging, play music. Or you might use the fact that the self is defined by interpersonal communication to form reparative attachments with them." He doesn't even try very hard to sell the idea that all good therapists must know about neurobiology. "If you're doing great work, I suppose you probably don't need to know about the brain," he says. In fact, he readily admits that, at this stage, many of the tenets of interpersonal neurobiology remain hypotheses, not scientific fact. Nobody really knows what exactly is going on in the brain during therapy--how a clinical encounter or two or seventy actually affect synapse formation. But he's convinced--and has convinced many thousands of others--that learning about the brain and the power of relationship to create and change neural circuits is the most important challenge the therapy field will face in the years to come.
Forty years ago, family systems theory transformed psychotherapy by forcing clinicians to see beyond the single psyche to the interlocking circles of relationships that also make up the reality of the "individual" self. It might be said that Siegel's system brings into every therapy encounter an even bigger system, which includes the entire psychological, biological, and genetic history of the human species. This awareness of the fact that every human being contains multitudes and carries within him- or herself a lineage extending back to the origins of life on this planet may not immediately change what a therapist does, but it almost certainly will change the way she understands her work and its impact on her patients. And as Pat Love says, describing the way neuroscience has transformed her own work, "Information is intervention."
At this point, what Siegel offers therapists in his synthesis of evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and developmental psychology has more to do with a way of seeing than practical clinical advice. To explain the effect of this way of looking at ourselves and others, he likes to describe a walk he recently took on a deserted Oregon beach late one night, with his flashlight turned off. It took his eyes a while to to pick out of the darkness the vague outlines of rocks, the billions of stars, the serpentine border of the sea and sand. Unlike the familiar reality that we see by the light of day, the world revealed to us by this kind of night vision, he notes, can be disorienting, even surreal, possibly menacing, but often magical. We feel our capacities for perception sharpened and transformed as we become more attuned and attentive to the smallest, most subtle, variations of shape and shadow. In some way, by seeing less, we see more.
For Siegel, night vision is a metaphor for the world of subtle processes that interpersonal neurobiology opens up for our investigation. It awakens us to the everyday marvels of the human brain--our ability to transcend the quotidian boundaries of space and time, to "see" through the barrier of the physical body into the invisible precincts of another's mind, conceive of imaginary worlds that never did and never could exist anywhere else except in the imagination--in short, to shatter the laws of ordinary reality. Interpersonal neurobiology not only gives us some idea of how these impossibilities really do happen in the physical world, it makes us more aware of them inside ourselves and in our relationships with others, taking us into unsuspected realms of consciousness. "We can see ourselves connected to other human beings, belonging to the whole planet, and even a part of the entire universe in a way that extends our own dimensions far beyond our merely mortal selves," says Siegel. "In this state, we become part of something that has existed long before we were born and will continue long after we die."
Mary Sykes Wylie, Ph.D., is a senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker. E-mails to the author may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Mary Sykes Wylie
Psychiatrist Daniel Amen is a trim, elfin figure with a puckish smile and the staccato delivery of a stand-up comic. The winner of a Distinguished Fellow Award from the American Psychiatric Association, a clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine, the author of 20 books and as many peer-reviewed papers, and a hugely popular public lecturer and workshop leader, he sounds, somewhat paradoxically given his own sum, a bit like a wiseacre underdog impudently challenging a reactionary establishment. He cheerfully rails against the self-satisfied stuffed shirts from the worlds of academic psychiatry who, in defiance of reason and good sense, don't accept his view that a brain-imaging method called SPECT is an invaluable tool for understanding and treating psychiatric disorders.
"I just don't get it. Why are we the only medical specialists who never look at the organ we treat?" he asks, his voice rising in exasperation before a jam-packed audience of 500 therapists drawn to a full-day workshop on his work. "Why is it controversial to get more information on people who suffer? The images are really easy to understand. What's the problem with having more data?"
And then the "piece de resistance". We're always being told that the brain is so terrifyingly, irreducibly complex that nobody except Nobel-caliber neuroscientists could ever begin to understand how it works. But Amen says, in effect, that it really isn't that hard for anybody--with a little training--to get a good sense of what all those brain modules are actually up to. "The images are really easy to understand--you don't need to make it any harder than it is," he says, as if explaining a new recipe to an insecure cooking student. "All SPECT does is measure three things--areas of the brain that work well, areas that are underactive, and areas that work too hard. Then you just gear the treatments to rebalance these areas."
So why not just take a look? What's the harm? His case is helped by the elegant, crisply articulated, brain images he shows that, in concert with his simple explanations, seem to luminously reveal what's actually going on upstairs.
Amen flashes two computer-reconstructed, three-dimensional, exquisitely tinted color scans, each of a different brain. One, a "healthy" brain, is a smooth ovoid shape, with some softly modulated rises and depressions; if it were a landscape, it would be a gently rolling pastoral scene. The other brain looks an awful mess. With its deep fissures, crevices, and "holes"--areas of severely low activity--it looks as if uneven chunks of it have been eaten away by a voracious rodent. This latter brain, Amen dramatically announces, is the brain of Kip Kinkel, the 15-year-old boy from Oregon who, in 1998, shot to death his mother and father and then drove to his high school, where he shot 24 more people, killing two.
Kinkel, Amen explains, had been seeing a psychotherapist and taking both Ritalin and Prozac, which only made him worse--more volatile and unreachable. His demoralized parents had taken him off his meds, after which he went on his murderous spree. "If a scan had been done on him before the killings, it would have shown an extraordinarily abnormal brain," says Amen. On the SPECT scan, he tells the audience, Kinkel's prefrontal lobe--associated with impulse control, judgment, and planning--exhibits extremely low activity. At the same time, his temporal lobe, controlling such functions as temper and mood stability, also showed abnormal patterns of blood flow, which can make a person more prone to aggression, emotional volatility, and violent suicidal and homicidal thoughts.
"If his therapists had actually seen his brain, they could have put him on mood stabilizers, and the odds are they'd have diminished his violent thinking dramatically." Amen pauses to let this sink in. "But because the current 'state of the art' in psychiatry is not to look at the brain, his doctors were simply throwing darts in the dark. Today you can try to kill yourself or kill other people, and nobody will look at your brain. But if your brain's not right, you won't be right."
Amen has a vast fund of salvation stories about people misdiagnosed and mismedicated, often for years, whose real problems are only finally revealed through the combination of intense clinical detective work--the kind any good therapist would do--and the nuclear magic of a SPECT camera, which, literally, casts light into the hidden recesses of the brain. "Giving a diagnosis of 'major depression' or 'ADD,' is like giving a diagnosis of 'chest pain,' or 'belly pain,'" says Amen with some asperity. "These are symptoms with many, many possible causes. And one treatment will not fit every person with similar symptoms. We need to start looking at the brain, to begin seeing the underlying physiology of what's going on. Scans aren't the answer, but they're certainly part of the answer. A psychiatric profession that doesn't look at the brain is archaic, dated, and stupid."
Amen now has the audience in the palm of his hand, laughing at his jokes, moved by his stories of troubled little kids whose lives were either saved or ruined, depending upon whether their underlying brain problems were discovered and treated. He seems to be as much on a personal crusade as a professional quest. But, periodically, a note of unabashed salesmanship and self-promotion intrudes--the repeated references to his "cool" books and their worldwide distribution; his bestseller, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life ; his column for Men's Health ; his media appearances on The Today Show, The Leeza Show, CNN ; his recent gig at the National Security Agency. For some in the audience, it's enough to induce emotional whiplash: are we hearing from a fearless pioneer dedicated to transforming the mental health field or a salesman whose most important product is himself?
To be sure, Amen has acquired a small, but growing, crowd of supporters and colleagues in psychiatry, psychology, and nuclear medicine--he says more than 1,000 professionals refer to him--who consider him a trailblazer and believe SPECT scans will revolutionize the practice of psychotherapy. "I think he's a real pioneer, making an enormous contribution to the field of psychiatry and helping to change the paradigm of how people think about the brain and psychiatric symptoms," says Joseph Wu, professor of psychiatry and clinical director of the brain imaging center at the University of California, Irvine. "Daniel Amen introduced me to a whole new universe of subcortical brain structures that we in nuclear medicine had only looked at casually before. He helped me realize that SPECT can be very useful for evaluating complex, difficult cases in which comorbidities are present," notes Dan Pavel, professor of radiology and nuclear medicine at the University of Illinois. "I came away from Amen's clinic convinced there is a place for SPECT in clinical psychiatry," writes AD/HD expert Edward M. Hallowell, coauthor with John J. Ratey of the bestselling Delivered from Distraction: Getting the Most Out of Life with Attention Deficit Disorder. "It is obviously helpful to be able to look at the brain before you try to treat it. Perhaps SPECT will prove to be the most practical way for psychiatrists to do that."
But utter the name Daniel Amen to some of the leading members of the psychiatry and neuroscience research community and the reaction ranges from dismissal to derision and denunciation. "He's made a mountain of money doing scans [a two-scan evaluation at one of Amen's clinics costs $3,250, which also includes, a history, physician evaluation, and follow-up visit], but never, to my knowledge, published any data, or provided one shred of evidence that an independent investigator would be able to reproduce," says George Bush, psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School and psychiatric neuroimaging researcher at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging. "Amen is extremely successful, has many franchises and is a wickedly good salesman, but what he's doing isn't supported by scientific evidence. Where's his data? What does he know that all the other practitioners and researchers don't know?" asks Helen Mayberg, psychiatry and neurology professor and brain-imaging researcher at Emory University. In fact, so exercised is much of psychiatric officialdom by Amen's approach that, last January, the American Psychiatric Association's nine-member Council on Children, Adolescents and Their Families felt moved to issue an independent position paper opposing the use of SPECT in the clinical practice of child and adolescent psychiatry.
It seems strange that a person so disarming and apparently eager to please, who's clearly distressed by the uproar he's caused and seems like the last person who'd mount a Rambo challenge against entrenched power, would arouse such hostility. Or that his cause--the incorporation into psychotherapeutic and psychiatric practice of SPECT scans, a technology that's been around for decades--should be so contentious. So what is it about Daniel Amen and his mission to get therapists to use brain imaging, and SPECT in particular, as an aid to diagnosis and treatment that makes him such a lightning rod?
The Man Behind the Cause
Daniel Amen's personal and professional biography is a palimpsest of the odd and extraordinary, which may help explain why he's never found a home in the clubby atmosphere of the psychiatric and research establishments. His entrepreneurial success seems to particularly gall them--it adds insult to injury that he's not only doing something totally beyond the scientific pale, but making pots of money at it.
His talent for business seems almost foreordained by his background. His parents, the children of poor Lebanese immigrants, went to the West Coast during the 1940s. There, Amen pere began clerking in a relative's grocery store and then, embodying both the American dream and the ancient Phoenician talent for trade, worked his way up to become chairman of the board of Unified Grocers (a position he still holds), one of the largest wholesale grocery businesses in the country. Amen's family was large (five sisters, one brother), loving, but strict and Roman Catholic, headed by a tough, authoritarian paterfamilias. "I grew up with an extraordinarily successful father, who always expected the most from us," says Amen. "Our family honored work, and our lives were centered around work--I worked from the time I was 10. And nobody ever thought it was a bad thing to be successful."
Amen joined the Army at 18, partly because he had a low draft number, but also because his father told him not to. It was 1972, and the Vietnam War was in full swing, but Amen believed the recruiter who told him he'd be assigned as a vet's assistant. (He'd always loved animals and, as a teen, considered becoming a vet.) "I thought that the odds were good that nobody would be shooting at a vet's assistant." Instead, he ended up as a combat medic in Germany, where he got himself retrained as an X-ray technician, mainly so he could work in a nice, warm dispensary, rather than a chilly tent. But he became fascinated by X-ray technology and found that he loved studying the ghostly images of people's insides. "I looked at kidneys, lungs, skulls, thigh bones," he says now with remembered relish. "That's where the imaging story really begins."
Because of his religious background, Amen had seriously considered becoming a priest, but, as he says sardonically, "I couldn't stand the idea of being called 'Father Amen.'" He declined the priesthood, but certainly not religion. In Germany, he found himself drawn to the wholehearted, emotional expressiveness of Pentecostalism--shouting, praying in tongues, healing ceremonies, and all--so different from the restrained solemnity of the Roman Catholic mass. He was sufficiently moved by his new religious tack that, when he returned home, he got off the plane dressed in a "Jesus loves you" T-shirt and carrying a Bible, much to the consternation of his blindsided mother. By this time, 1975, he knew he wanted to go to a small school, and a religious one, so he finished his college education at Vanguard University, a small Christian college. Then, in 1978, he became a member of the first class of a newly opened medical school (since closed) at Oral Roberts University.
The nexus between capitalism and religion appears to have shaped Amen's life. In Healing the Hardware of the Soul, his book about the connection between a healthy brain and the capacity for morality, conscience, and faith, Amen writes that he felt "led by God to pursue this [SPECT] work." These days, he uses his training and skills as a kind of reverse mission to churches, in an effort to persuade Christians and Jews that much "sinful" behavior may be due to brain problems, rather than evil motives. Some of his critics haven't looked kindly on this sense of religious mission. "He's a true believer, and evangelical medicine is scary," says Mayberg.
After medical school, Amen took a residency in psychiatry at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In 1987, the Army sent him to Fort Irwin, California, as the chief psychiatrist--the only psychiatrist in the middle of the desert for thousands of soldiers and their families--a population rife with drug abuse, depression, anxiety, domestic violence, psychosomatic ailments, and stress. This new gig would have been a daunting job for any psychiatrist, let alone a young, newly minted, and relatively untried one.
Serendipitously, in the old World War II building that housed his office, he found an antiquated biofeedback machine (an instrument that measures physiological responses, via electrodes or sensors attached to various parts of the body) left by his predecessor. He found that, even as a novice, he could use the machine to train people to warm their own hands by using their imaginations--thinking about burying their hands in hot sand, for example. He could also use it to help them reduce their anxiety or relieve their migraine headaches, while gaining a sense of self-control and personal mastery. Enthusiastic about his new toy, Amen convinced his dubious commander to pay $30,000 for an up-to-date model and send him for 10 days' training in biofeedback.
The biofeedback training program in San Francisco was, Amen remembers, a revelation: "The best, most exciting, training I'd ever had. I was just stunned by what I learned." It was the first major introduction he'd yet had to the powerful interaction of brain, body, and mind, and he was hooked. He discovered that people could learn how to control their own autonomic nervous system--relax their muscles, calm their breathing, reduce their sweat-gland activity, lower their blood pressure and heart rate--to relieve both physical tension and mental anxiety. Moreover, through neurofeedback (a form of biofeedback in which electrodes are attached to the scalp), they could learn to change their own brain-wave patterns, and thus their mental states. "I was so excited to have this cool new technology that I went back to Fort Erwin and started using it on everybody."
Amen was particularly anxious to try out this new brain-mind technique on kids with AD/HD. "Standard psychotherapy, as I'd been trained to do with AD/HD kids, made me crazy--they just never got any better," he recalls. Medications helped, but not nearly often enough, and there was no way to predict whether or not they would work. So Amen began using neurofeedback with his AD/HD patients to encourage more normal brain waves and reduce their symptoms. While not exactly the fast-track cure he'd have liked (it could take from one to two years to produce significant improvement), neurofeedback did work encouragingly well, with the side benefit of helping many kids avoid or lessen medications. In 1989, when he opened his private practice in northern California, he equipped it with his own biofeedback equipment.
Amen's clinic was an immediate success, no doubt partly because of the workaholic habits, business acumen, and marketing skills he says he inherited from his father; but also because he was the only child psychiatrist for 300,000 people in the county. During this period, he worked six- and seven-day weeks, building up his practice, directing the dual-diagnosis unit of a local hospital, lecturing in the local community, and writing a news column (he'd already published two self-help books on getting ahead in school and in work).
In March 1991, Amen attended a lecture on SPECT imaging at the hospital where he worked. If learning about neurofeedback had been a revelation to him, seeing SPECT scans was an epiphany. SPECT is the acronym for single photon emission computerized tomography, a nuclear-medicine imaging technique that measures an organ's blood flow or activity level--its function . An MRI, by contrast, looks at brain structure or anatomy, just as an ordinary X-ray does (but provides far more detailed images). A patient being SPECT-scanned is injected with a "radiopharmaceutical" and then lies on a table for about 15 minutes while a multiheaded camera rotates around his or her head picking up gamma rays (which are like pulses of light) from the radioactive material taken up by the brain cells. The data obtained by the camera are processed by a supercomputer to produce a series of two-dimensional cross sections of the brain. Different activity levels--relative blood flow--show up as shades of different colors or gray tones, depending on the color scale of the software program chosen by the imager.
These cross sections are then reconstructed into three-dimensional images. Notwithstanding Amen's suggestion that brain scans "aren't that hard to read," it's definitely not a simple process, requiring real skill and judgment to do well. To a lay viewer, the cross sections that first come out of the computer look like a meaningless kaleidoscope of colors and patterns. It takes an expert in reading, understanding, and manipulating the scans to tweak them into an accurate but elegant form--the dramatic, 3-D pictures of the kind Amen shows his audiences.
The Society for Nuclear Imaging officially recognizes only four common indicators for the clinical use of SPECT: to detect and evaluate strokes, brain trauma, and suspected dementia (a recent article says that brain scans like SPECT can predict Alzheimer's disease nine years before people have symptoms), or to locate focal points of epileptic-seizure activity. But SPECT has been used in a huge and highly eclectic number of research studies on almost every conceivable psychiatric and neurological condition, as well as some nonpsychiatric studies, like measuring the impact of meditation and prayer on blood flow to different brain areas.
The lecturer at Amen's hospital, a local nuclear physician named Jack Paldi, showed brain images of patients with depression, dementia, schizophrenia, and head trauma, comparing them with normal brains. Using these amazing images, Paldi tried to demonstrate that one could actually see the differences between brains that worked well and those that didn't, see how medications changed the way brains functioned and where those changes occurred. In this rush of graphically astonishing images, Amen thought he could begin, finally, to understand why some of his patients just couldn't seem to benefit from therapy or get their lives in order, no matter how hard they tried. It wasn't psychological resistance or personality type or deep-seated unconscious motives that kept them from getting better: it was simply that the software of their brains wasn't up to speed!
"I was absolutely blown away," remembers Amen, who took up Paldi's offer to do no-cost SPECTs on interested physicians and, six months later, got one himself. Shortly after the lecture, however, he ordered 10 scans on particularly difficult patients, which, according to Amen, resulted in "literally miraculous changes" in five of them. One patient was a 12-year-old boy with a nasty temper, a history of aggression, and school failure, who'd been hospitalized three times, prescribed assorted drugs (including Ritalin, which made him hallucinate), and treated with two years of psychoanalytic therapy. The scan showed low temporal-lobe function (associated, as in Kip Kinkel's case, with anger, violence, and mood swings), as well as frontal-lobe problems (which kept him from being able to concentrate in school). Amen placed him on mood stabilizers and a different stimulant, and voila! Within three weeks, he became milder tempered, began making friends, and, says Amen, "turned into the sweetest boy you'd ever want to meet." His school performance improved dramatically as well.
Another woman had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's after she'd nearly burned down her own home and lost her driver's license. Amen scanned her and found no signs of the characteristic abnormalities associated with dementia. But he did see that her deep limbic structures were "on fire" (a favorite bit of Amen-speak to describe brain areas of severe overactivity). This suggested depression, which can sometimes mimic Alzheimer's symptoms of memory loss, apathy, indifference, and disorientation. Amen prescribed Wellbutrin--an antidepressant and stimulant--and voila` again! Within weeks, she'd regained her memory, and her mood was much better. Within six months, she got her driver's license back.
"How many experiences does a psychiatrist have like these in a whole career?" Amen asks. "I had five of them in the space of a few weeks."
By Amen's lights, SPECT was not diagnosing new conditions. The scans didn't remotely correlate with DSM diagnostic categories, but they often revealed the inaccuracy of previous diagnoses and suggested functional anomalies that shed light on otherwise unexplained symptoms. Nor were his treatments miraculous, radical, or novel; they apparently just hit the target better than earlier interventions. In short order, he was a true believer in the modality. "I thought, 'How can I do psychiatry in good conscience without using scans when I don't really understand what is going on? How can I just continue to rely on guesswork when I have this tool at my disposal?'"
Between 1991 and 1995, he became something of a SPECTomaniac, reading everything he could find, attending meetings about SPECT, and ordering SPECT scans on hundreds of patients at the local hospital. He was asked to talk about SPECT at hospitals and at the University of Colorado medical school. He wrote a research paper comparing SPECT brain images of ADD children to those of normal children. He became an enthusiastic promoter of SPECT.
But there were signs of smoke from an impending firestorm almost from the beginning. In 1992, at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), where he attended an all-day course on the use of SPECT in child psychiatry, he went to a lecture by National Institute of Mental Health child-psychiatry researcher Alan Zametkin. This would-be colleague used PET scans (a form of nuclear imaging with higher-quality resolution than SPECT, though more difficult and expensive to use) in a groundbreaking study of what ADD brains look like. Zametkin, says Amen, was one of his heroes, so he went up to him after the talk in the spirit of a fan approaching a star. "I told him that, partially based on his work, I was using SPECT in my own practice," remembers Amen.
But if he'd expected an avuncular smile of approval, he was mistaken. Zametkin angrily barked at Amen that these techniques were strictly for research and in no way intended for clinical use. In no uncertain terms, he told Amen, in effect, to cease and desist what he was doing.
"But why do you do these studies if you don't intend this technology to be used clinically?" Amen asked, baffled.
"I do them just to learn more; it's interesting basic science," Zametkin replied loftily.
This is an attitude foreign to Amen. "I really have no interest in science for science's sake," he admits. "I'm a clinician through and through--it's my reason for living. I get my juice from my practice, from relationships with patients, not from research."
Back home in California, the natives were also getting restless. A local pediatric neurologist, after calling three or four researchers around the country and hearing that SPECT wasn't ready for clinical prime-time, complained to hospital officials about Amen's heterodox behavior. "The neurologist told me that my reasons for ordering scans weren't empirically proven, and that I should quit doing them. He said, 'The brain is for neurologists, not psychiatrists,'" Amen recalls, even now incredulous. "I told him he was nuts." At a meeting of the hospital authorities, Amen was given permission to continue getting SPECT scans for his patients, but he was now required to have the medical director sign off on his requests.
In 1993, he was asked to help teach a brain-imaging course at the APA annual meeting, but when the program came out, a Dallas SPECT researcher wrote the APA program chairman demanding to know why such a controversial figure was included. The program committee chair sat in on the presentation and supported Amen's work, but many others were openly hostile to him, making a point of telling him he was a fraud and a mountebank and ought to be drummed out of the medical profession. It had gotten to be too much, so he decided to retreat from the public field, help his patients in the relative privacy of his clinical practice, and let other people do the research and fight the battles.
It's hard to imagine as restless and driven a figure as Amen ever really settling for a quiet, low-profile practice in suburban California, so he'd probably have taken up the gauntlet again sooner or later. But a crisis involving his 9-year-old nephew, Andrew, launched him back into the fray.
Amen's sister called him in tears one day early in 1995, telling him that her son--his nephew and godchild--had attacked a little girl on the baseball field for no reason. Over the preceding year, this friendly, active, outgoing little boy had become surly, angry, mean, and depressed, and had begun drawing pictures of himself shooting other children or hanging from a tree. Amen told his sister to bring the boy in the next day and, after a lengthy interview, personally took him to the hospital to be scanned. "When I looked at the image, I saw he had no left temporal lobe at all!" recalls Amen. This was, again, a part of the brain associated with violence, aggression, and suicidal and homicidal feelings. Andrew was almost immediately given an MRI scan, which showed a cyst about the size of a golf ball where his temporal lobe should have been.
But Amen couldn't find anybody willing to remove the cyst. Three pediatric neurologists--one at Harvard--told him that Andrew's behavior was probably not related to the cyst and that they wouldn't remove it until there were "real symptoms." Amen was beside himself. "Hearing this made me nearly psychotic, I was so angry." He remembers shouting, "What do you mean, 'real symptoms?' You don't think suicidal and homicidal thoughts and behaviors in a 9-year-old are real symptoms?" Real symptoms, the Harvard neurologist coolly informed him, meant seizures and speech problems. Period.
Finally, he located a pediatric neurosurgeon at UCLA who said he'd operated on three other children with the same problem--a temporal lobe cyst resulting in aggression. This doctor performed the operation on Andrew. When the boy finally woke up after the surgery, he smiled at his mother--the first smile from him she'd seen in more than a year. Shortly afterward, he became, once again, the youngster he'd been before his problems began.
This event changed Amen's life, he says. "From that moment on, I felt I could no longer be shy, or allow myself to be hurt by criticism, or fearful that people wouldn't like what I was doing. I just thought of all the kids who are in residential treatment facilities or end up in prison because they've done terrible things, and nobody ever even knows whether or not it's because they have something terribly wrong with their brains."
Now a newly energized Amen charged full-steam ahead. He completed the 1,000-hour training and supervision program to obtain the license in handling radioactive material that's necessary to do scans, bought SPECT equipment, and became, as far as he knows, the only psychiatrist in the world who had then incorporated brain imaging in his own practice. He once again took up the SPECT gospel and began spreading the word, and once again was met with virulent attacks.
In 1996, after Amen gave the State of the Art Lecture in Medicine at the Society of Development Pediatrics, a San Francisco pediatrician stood up and excoriated him for using brain imaging to justify giving drugs to children for AD/HD--in effect, accusing him of shilling for Big Pharma. Shortly after the meeting, he was anonymously reported to the California Medical Board for practicing outside the generally accepted standards of care. The state medical board began an investigation, which took a full year--of lawyers, interviews, questions, reviews of his articles, office visitations. "The worst year of my life," Amen calls it. Finally, after his work was sent to the departments of neurology and nuclear medicine at UCLA, he was exonerated and became an expert reviewer of psychiatry for the California Medical Board.
Amen and His Critics
Today, about eight years later, Amen has no doubt succeeded as a medical entrepreneur. He has two clinics in California, one in Washington State, and one in Reston, Virginia. By any measure, he's a huge success. Besides founding his clinics and cranking out books (another is on the way), he's produced a "Clinician's Toolbox" of brain-related materials for therapists, a brain-scan atlas, and assorted CDs and videos. He's given more than 100 presentations in the United States and abroad, written or been the subject of numerous articles in the popular press, appeared on scores of radio and television shows, testified at numerous trials, and developed a 12-week high school course on the brain to be piloted in 30 schools this fall. There are perhaps 15, mostly for-profit, psychiatrist-run clinics around the country that now use SPECT--a fair number of the proprietors trained by Amen himself. In addition, an indeterminate number of psychiatrists around the country quietly, but regularly, refer their own patients for brain scans.
Nevertheless, most of the research community and the psychiatric establishment remain deeply unimpressed. Indeed, there isn't anything about Amen or what he does that his critics do like. Following the back-and-forth between them and him is like watching a bunch of increasingly infuriated boxers all trying to knock down an inflatable punching doll--the harder they hit, the faster he bounces back. They argue that Amen isn't competent to use scans because he's not board certified in nuclear medicine, didn't train in radiology (his several hundred hours of imaging training don't count), and doesn't follow science-based methods of differential diagnosis (using appropriate tests to differentiate systematically between distinct diseases with similar symptoms). He counters that he has the proper licenses to do his studies, teaches SPECT at a major medical school, has written or cowritten chapters about SPECT in three professional textbooks, has produced nearly two dozen peer-reviewed papers, instructs nuclear-medicine doctors who come from far away to spend weeks at his clinic, has chaired workshops on SPECT at the APA annual meeting, and, finally, just a year ago, received a Distinguished Fellow Award from the APA. "I have more experience with SPECT than anybody else in the world, and there are mountains of scientific literature backing up my clinical work--1,500 such studies are on my website alone."
They argue that he sits on a proprietary stash of 27,000 scans, like a miser sitting on a pile of gold bullion, and won't give researchers access to his data because he's afraid an independent look will undermine his claims. He contends that researchers are perfectly welcome at his clinic, to talk to his doctors, see how they interpret scans, and look at his database. But one leading researcher he invited out to see his scans hasn't followed through, and no one else has ever asked to see them.
They say, to quote Harvard's George Bush, that "he's unethically subjecting people, including children, to potentially dangerous ionizing medication in a diagnostic test of no proven benefit." He cites Michael Devous, a leading nuclear-medicine expert, who writes that "there are no data that have ever demonstrated any harm to humans by radiation exposure at diagnostic imaging levels." The average radiation exposure for one SPECT scan, Amen points out, is similar to that of an abdominal X-ray, which is routinely ordered for common childhood medical conditions, including constipation.
They say, repeatedly and maddeningly in Amen's view, that he claims to diagnose psychiatric illnesses from the scans. He just as repeatedly insists that he never uses SPECT to "diagnose" anything, but looks at the scan within the context of the person's life and after a full psychiatric evaluation to get more information that might shed light on puzzling, difficult, or anomalous symptoms. "I've never said the image is 'the answer.' We use it when we don't know what's going on, when we think it might supply a piece of the puzzle--it's like radar that helps us better target the problem. The alternative to doing scans is blindly putting kids on meds or multiple meds without looking at their brains either before or afterward."
Finally, and most damagingly, they say that what Amen is doing is totally unsupported by the facts--that he hasn't remotely demonstrated the scientific validity or reliability of using scans as he does. They argue that it isn't yet possible to identify subtle distinctions in single subjects that reliably correlate with specific symptoms. "When a radiologist looks at a chest X-ray, he recognizes pneumonia, or an enlarged heart or liquid at the base of the lungs that correlate with disease because he's compared these abnormal scans to thousands of normals and other abnormals," says neuroscientist Bush. "Maybe in 50 years, when someone comes in looking as if he or she has a certain syndrome, we'll be able to refer them to a radiologist who'd be able to interpret that individual scan. But we're not yet, as a field, in a position to distinguish one brain scan from another. Right now, you can look at any individual scan and what you'll find is color blobs across a screen. What separates science from nonscience is the ability to pick out quantitative, statistically reliable, patterns [in those blobs] based on large numbers of scans--set certain criteria for a disorder, show it in 50 cases compared with 50 normals, for example. Amen isn't doing that. Essentially, all he's doing is 'blobology.'"
To this, Amen responds that factoring in the individual variability in each brain, rather than drawing general, statistical inferences from a large base of cases, is a strength of his method, not a weakness. Researchers look for signature features in a scan that will reliably correlate with specific DSM categories, which do not reflect the complexity and heterogeneity of psychiatric disorders as they're experienced by real people, Amen argues. " DSM diagnoses are artificially derived from symptom clusters," he says. "But they don't explain why people are having these symptoms--why one person's depression or anxiety or AD/HD may be entirely different from the same formal diagnosis in somebody else. Only by looking at each person's individual scan can you get some insight into the underlying physiological pattern in the brain, so we can target treatment specifically to what that person needs."
In addition, he says, researchers study "pure" cases--people with one supposed diagnosis without the confounding variables of comorbid conditions (i.e., drug addiction along with their depression, AD/HD symptoms along with their anxiety). This approach simply doesn't reflect the complexity, variability, and individuality of real people and real patients.
Finally, researchers compare people with a DSM diagnosis to presumed "normals," but Amen doubts that there's such an entity as a "normal" brain. Recruiting people for a database of normals, his office screened 1,500 people and found only 72, who met the criteria for "normal"--no signs of head injury, no history of substance abuse, no psychiatric illness, and no first-degree relative with a psychiatric illness. "'Normal' is a myth," he says flatly.
Whatever the specifics of his critics' objections to Amen's work, it's hard not to suspect that underlying the intensity of their response is their objection to Amen himself--his persona, his style, his modus operandi. Most scientists lead comparatively monastic, inconspicuous lives (though not necessarily impecunious--many act as paid consultants to pharmaceutical and medical-device companies). Even those few who achieve eminence do so largely within the circumscribed universe of their peers. How many people can name a recent Nobel laureate in any scientific field? They have their own worldview, and what they consider Amen's heavy-handed promotion of high-tech gimmickry is as far from it as earth is from Pluto.
"The nature of science is agnosticism," says Helen Mayberg in a passionate defense of the way researchers do things. "Our job is to ask questions, measure data, continue doing the research until we find out what's real, what isn't. I've devoted my entire professional life to using imagery to understand depression, and the more progress I make, the more complicated it gets. As a clinical neurologist, I see patients die all the time. I don't have to have anybody tell me how much people suffer. But no matter how much, as a doctor, I want some idea for a promising new treatment to be true, as a scientist, I have to remain an agnostic. We all know the system isn't as good as it should be, but it's the best we've got. We get accused of living in ivory towers, but we do what researchers do--we can't leapfrog over the process."
For researchers like Mayberg, Amen is anathema--a leap-frogger to the nth degree. His disregard for professional politesse can make even his friends and defenders cringe. Jerry Rodos, a psychiatrist in the Chicago area, who regularly refers difficult patients for scans, remembers taking a younger colleague to hear him lecture. "We walked into the conference room, my friend took one look at the Amen concession--tapes and books and CDs, advertisements for his clinics, posters, etc.--and was completely turned off before he even sat down. I think Dan has done a lot of neat work, and what he is saying is very valuable, but he's not a traditionalist and hasn't spent a lot of effort trying to get refereed journals to review his material. If you have something important to say, you submit it to peer-reviewed journals, rather than just run off and start four clinics and write popular books about it. Dan Amen is a big promoter of Dan Amen, and that offends many of his colleagues."
Partly in response to critiques like this, even from allies, Amen has hired a statistician-researcher and is preparing several studies, including one on predicting treatment response in AD/HD patients based on their different scan subtypes. But Amen doesn't believe his opponents will come to like him anytime soon, no matter what kind of studies he publishes. "A friend of mine told me I was like somebody under an old Romanian curse--doomed to know something that's true, but nobody believes him," he says gloomily.
The Client's Experience
Meanwhile, anathema or not, Amen's clinics do 400 to 500 scans a month, and, according to follow-up questionnaires given one month and six months after treatment, 85 percent of this patients think they received "significant benefit" from the process. According to therapy researcher Jay Lebow, however, this isn't unusually high--about 90 percent of psychotherapy users report being satisfied with their treatment, which can simply mean they liked the therapist and felt understood and cared for.
At least some of Amen's patients, however, clearly feel that the experience transformed them, even saved their lives. Whole families get scanned, and then refer their friends and acquaintances and fellow church-members. Some of Amen's most convinced champions are evangelical Christians, who believe that Amen is doing God's work and want to help him do it. Linda and Gaylen Bronson, a California couple who are committed Christians, were so delighted with Amen's treatment of their family that they started the Recovery Assistants Foundation, a tax-exempt, charitable organization that helps people who couldn't otherwise afford it to get and pay for SPECT scans, therapy, and medications.
To get some idea of how the Amen phenomena can build on itself, consider the Woodmansees--Jack, a retired general and businessman, and his wife Patty--who live in a suburb of Dallas. The Woodmansees heard about Amen a decade ago from a friend who felt the SPECT scan and his treatment had dramatically improved her life. Because the Woodmansees had a grandson diagnosed with AD/HD, who was doing very poorly on Ritalin, they sent for an Amen video about AD/HD. Watching it as a family, their adult son (the father of the AD/HD child) came to the conclusion that he probably had AD/HD, too. The senior Woodmansees made appointments for the son and grandson to get scanned, and then decided to take their granddaughter, who had behavioral problems. Eventually, three different branches of the family trooped out to California to be scanned.
Soon they were all talking about the temporal lobes, cingulate gyrus, prefrontal cortex and noting the interesting family resemblances in their brain-perfusion patterns. They also became advocates for Amen, sending along friends, neighbors, and members of their congregation, and even financing scans for people who couldn't afford them. They brought Amen to Dallas to give lectures, and have been trying to convince him to open a clinic there.
Two years ago, Richard and Sarah Mitchell took their 10-year-old daughter, Terry, in for a scan. Always a difficult child, Terry was now throwing herself on the floor in explosive temper tantrums, harassing her siblings, causing classroom disruptions, and failing in school. Diagnosed with AD/HD and oppositional defiant disorder, she'd been prescribed a stimulant, which she vociferously fought taking, and which only made her worse. After the scan, Amen prescribed an antidepressant, a mood stabilizer, and a handful of supplements. He also recommended several therapists. But not one of the three therapists worked out, and the drugs didn't help much, either.
So Amen shifted course. He took Terry off meds, cranked up the supplements, including large doses of over-the-counter omega-3 fatty acids, GABA, and other amino acids (believed to reduce anxiety), recommended a high-protein diet, and helped her parents learn some techniques for handling their daughter better. Now, about two years later, Terry still tends to be bossy and overbearing, has a hard time picking up on social cues, and is emotionally immature. But she's much better than she was--her grades are now high Bs, she likes school, and her mood has generally improved. "She isn't raging anywhere near as much," her mother reports, and she clearly feels more at peace with herself.
Terry's case points to a paradoxical and perhaps misunderstood aspect of Amen's approach. However radical the use of SPECT may seem, his treatment is unconventional only in that it's far more heterogeneous and informed by alternative-healing methods than the Johnny-one-note pharmaceutical orientation of most psychiatrists. While not shy about prescribing medications, often in twos and threes, he also recommends nutritional and herbal supplements, cognitive therapy, EMDR, biofeedback, parenting-skills training, diet, exercise, meditation, and abstinence from alcohol.
How does treatment with Amen compare with what another psychiatrist might recommend? Might not Terry, for example, have done just as well if she'd found a reasonably creative and open-minded therapist willing to try a variety of different approaches and hang in with the family for as long as it took? Of course. Did the SPECT scan speed up the process? Possibly. Does Terry's family believe that scans are magical keys to the kingdom of the inner brain and that Amen is the sorcerer who, essentially, saved their child? Completely. "Without Dr. Amen, she'd probably be in some military school now," says Terry's mother. "I feel blessed to have met him." Among the Amenophiles, this attitude isn't unusual.
For all that people say about what most mattered to them about their experience at one of Amen's clinics, it would be a mistake to underestimate the weight of the old saw that a picture is worth a thousand words. People believe they're seeing an actual picture of something empirically real, fundamentally true, and undeniably revealing about themselves. This apparently incontrovertible glimpse of reality can be unwelcome, even shocking, but it has to be taken seriously. Before the scan, Terry Mitchell had furiously refused to take medications, and felt her parents were disciplining her unfairly. When her scan was shown to her and explained, she looked at it quietly and somberly for a long time, and said, "I guess I really do need medications." It's easy to believe Amen when he talks about the power of these scans to convince even adolescents that the drugs they ingest really are hurting their brains--there's the evidence.
Critics might argue that this troubled child has been conscripted into a possibly false sense of her personal pathology by a misused and misleading test. But, paradoxically, scans that show something amiss can be oddly reassuring. "Do you know what people's biggest worry is about seeing their scan?" Amen asks. "That the scan will show nothing ; that it'll look normal, which means that they're suffering because they're weak or bad." After her scan, Terry felt relieved, her mother said, because the scan explained why she was having so much trouble and removed her sense of self-blame for not acting like a "normal" girl.
Brain and Soul
This peculiar, but almost universal, sleight of thought--"it's not me, it's my brain "--helps explain Amen's appeal and, for that matter, the appeal of all "biological psychiatry." Whether or not we're religious, spiritual seekers, or hard-nosed materialists, we feel intuitively that our real selves, our souls, if you will, aren't the same as the soft "hardware" of the brain. And unlike many drive-thru drug dispensers, as psychiatrists have too often become, Amen actually seems to care about the soul, perhaps even in some way believes he's doing his part to save souls, or at least free them from the malign influence of a sick brain. And clearly, Amen and his staff do everything they can to make the people who come to them feel like real people with basically whole souls, whatever is wrong with their neurophysiology.
Recently, Ted, a nonprofit administrator who'd seen Amen at the Networker Symposium, decided to get his own brain scanned in Amen's clinic in Reston, Virginia, which is directed by psychiatrist Charles Parker. Now in his mid-fifties, Ted says he's been depressed since his late thirties. He describes his emotional state not as sadness so much as apathy, lack of energy, zest, and motivation. "Nothing's wrong in my life. In fact, I think I have a great life. I just don't enjoy it very much," he says. He also has a hard time concentrating and, while he used to read a lot, now just zones out in front of the TV. He was in therapy many years ago, though not since becoming depressed, and has tried a number of medications--Prozac, Wellbutrin, Cymbalta, Paxil--and acupuncture, all to no avail.
Ted loved his whole experience at the Amen clinic. The staff seemed entirely made up of young, attractive, extraordinarily pleasant women with big smiles who, Ted was intrigued to see, all wore very high heels. "It was a little like the Stepford Wives, only they seemed genuinely nice." He filled out a 15-page questionnaire, went through a lengthy interview with the "historian," and then underwent a concentration scan. Two days later, he went in for his resting scan, and a day or two after that, Dr. Parker reviewed the scans with him.
Ted found Dr. Parker to be the nicest person of an amazingly nice staff, scoring about 110 on a 100-point friendliness scale. "The psychiatrist I go to for my meds checks is a nice enough guy, I guess, but he's like an iceberg compared to Dr. Parker, whom I liked much better. He really seemed to want to spend as much time with me as I needed."
As for the scans and what emerged from them, things get a little murky. The report was long, complicated, and somewhat confusing to Ted, who said that, as he listened, "after five minutes or so, I kind of glazed over." The scans showed less than normal perfusion in areas of the prefrontal cortex, temporal lobes, and parietal lobes; increased, or excessive, perfusion in the basal ganglia and limbic system; and "scalloping," or dehydration, on the outer surface. Altogether, all of this signifies . . . well, a lot of possibilities--including, but not limited to, short attention span, low motivation, memory problems, abnormal perception, impulsivity, disorganization, distractibility, anxiety, irritability, depression, and mood cycles.
In this somewhat jumbled mass of findings, what fascinated Ted the most was the pronounced indentation in his left prefrontal cortex, consistent, said Parker, with past brain injury. Amen contends that many psychiatric conditions may result from undiagnosed, and even apparently mild, brain trauma without unconsciousness, and he makes it a practice to ask his patients at least five times if they've ever experienced head injuries. Ted was also interested to learn that several of the patterns picked up on in the scan are often seen in people with AD/HD.
The upshot of all this was that, according to Parker and Amen (who read the scan), Ted had been taking the wrong medication--Cymbalta only exaggerates symptoms of AD/HD and concentration difficulties. He was to begin taking Effexor right away, and Adderall a few weeks down the line. Besides this, he should begin exercising and take various supplements. Ted was given a list of books and referrals to holistically trained MDs specializing in nutrition and brain-injury recovery, neurofeedback experts, and brain-health websites. He was also told to make a follow-up appointment. For a technique that's supposed to provide the focus for well-targeted, specific clinical interventions, Ted's SPECT scan seems to have resulted in something of a hodgepodge of generic recommendations.
But Ted came away from his adventure feeling elated--less like somebody who's had a high-tech medical procedure with no very clear prognosis, and more like somebody who'd won the lottery and been given a new lease on life. "I thoroughly loved the whole thing. I'm very glad I did it. It was uplifting and made me feel so hopeful." And the scans? "They're interesting to look at--very pretty. It's neat to have somebody show you what your brain looks like. And then to be shown this big indentation that's not supposed to be there; well, it's concrete evidence that something really did happen to you. I do think I understand my own brain a little bit better."
Whatever the outcome for Ted's case, or for Amen's crusade overall, it seems inevitable that his work, or some variant of it, represents a glimpse into the future. With the development of revolutionary new technologies permitting a direct look inside the brain, people will be increasingly dissatisfied with the clinical guesswork and serial medication trials that constitute so much of psychiatry today.
Nor will psychotherapists, the workhorses of the mental health industry, be content to wait until the last peer-reviewed, double-blinded study demonstrating SPECT's empirical validity and reliability has been published before making use of these technologies in their own practices. They've never been willing to delay using what seemed useful to their patients until they've gotten the okay from the higher orders of scientific inquiry. EMDR and many forms of body-oriented trauma therapies, as well as a host of other therapeutic methods, are still considered fringe by research psychologists, but that isn't stopping therapists from using them. Whether one considers Amen a devil or a new messiah, his use of SPECT visionary or voodoo, it seems likely that time is on his side.
Mary Sykes Wylie, Ph.D., is a senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker. Contact: email@example.com.
By Daniel Siegel
I'm flying from Los Angeles to Boston for a week-long meditation retreat, and I'm feeling nervous. For the next seven days, I'll be sitting in silence with 100 other scientists at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, at an event sponsored by the Mind and Life Institute, an organization devoted to the scientific study of mindfulness and compassion. The event is unique: when before have 100 scientists, most of whom specialize in studying the brain, gathered together to sit in silence for a week and learn "mindfulness meditation"?
I know that teaching mindful awareness to people can markedly improve their physical and mental well-being. At the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, we recently conducted an eight-week pilot study that demonstrated that teaching meditation to people, including adults and adolescents with genetically loaded conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, could markedly reduce their level of distraction and impulsivity.
Still, I have no background in meditation, my mind is always busily running on at least 10 cylinders, and I've never been known for my taciturnity.
I told a friend about the silence coming up and he said that talking with other people is his "life's blood," and that connecting with others--the talk, the eye contact, the closeness--was what gave his life meaning. Me, too, I said. How will it be to sit completely still for long periods of time, not communicating either verbally or nonverbally (part of the deal) with anybody else for seven days? Why am I doing this? I wonder if it's too late to back out of the whole thing.
Scientists in Silence
There wasn't much for me to do in preparation except pack up warm clothes and shoes for this occasion to be in New England in the dead of winter. I was advised the best thing I could do to get ready was to tie up all the loose strings at home and work so that in the silence of the retreat, I wouldn't feel the urge to call, e-mail, or write anybody back in my ordinary world. As a psychiatrist interested in the brain and relationships, I can't help wondering what will take over the language-processing areas of my left hemisphere when they, presumably, become silent during meditation? Words are digital packets of information that convey to ourselves and others our models of conceptual reality--how we see and think about the world. They're part of the brain's top-down apparatus for ordering and making sense of incoming sensory information.
But then I think of poetry--a different use of language, which inhibits the strictly hierarchical, top-down, left-brain processes organizing our raw experience into a preconceived grid. Poetry, like silence, creates a new balance of memory and moment. We see with fresh eyes through the poet's artistry, which illuminates with words a new landscape that before was hidden beneath the veil of everyday language. Our ordinary language can be a prison, locking us in the jail of our own redundancies, dulling our senses, clouding our focus. By presenting ambiguities, by using words in unfamiliar ways, by juxtaposing elements of perceptual reality in new combinations, by evoking imagery, poets and their poetry offer us fresh, novel possibilities for experiencing life.
Perhaps the silence of this week will do the same for me.
I arrive at the Insight Meditation Society, where we'll be spending the week together. After a brief dinner, tour, assignments of daily cleaning duties, and an introductory talk, we've already begun the silence. The idea is to immerse ourselves in the subjective reality of our own minds. With some direction from the insight-meditation faculty here, we're to dive deeply into the waters of our own internal sea. The form of mindfulness we'll be learning this week comes from the 2,500-year-old Buddhist practice of Vipassana meditation, which is often translated as "clear seeing."
On the first day, we learn to sit in the meditation hall with the brief instructions to merely "watch our breathing." This capacity to focus attention is the first step of mindful-awareness training. When we notice our attention has wandered away from the breath, the instructions tell us, we're to gently return our focus of attention to the breath. That's it. Over and over again. I feel relieved. How hard can this be?
But by the end of the first day of practicing this concentration aspect of the meditation, my confidence level has definitely plummeted. I thought I had what the instructors call "good attention," but, in fact, my mind is repeatedly not cooperating with the instructions to "just focus on the breath." After a few moments, it seems I can barely make it through an entire breath without having my mind pulled toward different thoughts like a dog zigzagging on a walk, drawn this way and that by enticing scents along the path.
Our instructors tell us that this continual wandering is a totally natural part of the mind itself, and suggest we try just to focus on half a breath at a time: the in-breath, then the out-breath. This helps a bit, but my mind still goes strolling off in all directions. This is sometimes called a "proliferation of the mind," we're told--the way the thoughts generate more and more conceptual thinking. The "solution" to this dilemma, once we become aware that our minds have been hijacked by stray thoughts, is to calmly return to focusing on our breath, over and over and over--at least a million times, it seems to me, during the 45-minute session of sitting meditation.
After each sitting period, we do walking meditation that lasts from half an hour to an hour. While walking, we're to focus on the sensations in our feet and lower legs, step by step. When we notice our minds wandering from the sensation of the steps, we're to bring our focus back to the walking. Same deal: my mind has a mind of its own and goes where it wants to, not where "I" intend for it go.
Our instructions are expanded more as this first full day goes on. We learn that concentration on the breath will enhance the first step of mindfulness, which is to aim and sustain our attention. By learning to keep our attention focused, we can prevent the constant stream of wayward thoughts, the concepts that comprise our mental processes and get in the way of truly experiencing sensations. Sensation is the gateway to direct experience they tell us. When we can "just" see, or smell, or taste, or touch, or hear--our first five senses--then we enter the realm of being in the moment, a distant realm from where I am with all of the clutter in my mind, as I just sit, and walk, and sit, and walk. Getting close to sensation, it seems, is intended to enable us to just experience without the interference of thinking.
This first day has been both odd and stressful. Being in silence and out of direct communication with anyone makes me feel a bit stir-crazy. I'm driven to connect, but we're "forbidden" from communicating with anyone, with words or gestures, eye contact or facial acknowledgments of connection. This is the rule that precludes us from joining in any way, and I feel some part of my brain is aching to reach out to the many who are here. I'm beginning to talk to myself, not just in my head, but out loud. I'm even telling myself jokes and laughing. Then I say "Shhh!" to myself, remembering the rule about the noble silence: no communication with anyone. But how about with myself?
During the practice I try to remember what I told myself before this began: Make every breath an adventure. Now I say to myself, "Every half breath an adventure." But I'm saying this with words, and somehow words have become an enemy, those proliferative concepts that keep me from direct sensation. I'm trapped. I feel confused. I'm feeling the sensations directly, I feel, or I think, but I'm also not giving up the conceptual, word-based dialogue in my head--the words that summarize what I'm doing, like taking a walk, eating an apple--instead of just letting me be doing it. I've got some narrator in me that just won't quit. "Go ahead, try to just drink that soy milk: S-O-Y M-I-L-K I read on the carton. The letters jumping into my sight like a long-lost friend. I even have the words active in my mind when sitting and walking in our sessions. This makes me feel I'm not "meditating mindfully." Maybe I'm just too intellectual and filled with ideas and questions, words and concepts to be doing any of this.
Something shifted today. We get up at 5:15 every day and are in sitting meditation by 5:45. At the end of the first 45-minute session, I had the startling feeling that no time had passed at all. I sat down, began watching my half breath, and before I knew it, the bell had sounded for our 6:30 breakfast. I hadn't fallen asleep, as I was still sitting bolt upright, my head straight, legs still folded beneath me. Then I went for a long, mindful walk in the snow in the forest outside the main building. At one point, I saw this gorgeous vista of a white-blanketed valley framed by the snow-covered limb of a tall pine, icicles dangling down from a nearby boulder. To my surprise, I burst into tears at the vivid sights and smells and cool air on my face, the sound of the wind in the trees and the crunching snow beneath my boots. And then, just as quickly, I heard a thought in my head say, "You'll die one day and none of this will be here for you." My exhilaration vanished in an instant, leaving me distraught. I felt defeated and deflated. It was as if an ancient war were being waged, magnified in my isolated head, between thoughts and sensations.
Later, during a brief group meeting, I described this experience to the teacher and wondered if their mindfulness teaching was playing favorites, as if sensations were better than thinking or anything else we might do, perhaps even than talking with each other. Why were sensations being privileged over thoughts? A teacher said that we'd soon learn that anything arising in the mind, from sensations to thoughts, is to be accepted as it comes without judgment. Her instruction was deeply helpful, making me feel there didn't have to be a war in my head between direct sensation and conceptual thinking anymore. Perhaps I could broker a truce between the two. But I was surprised that such a simple instruction could produce such a huge shift in my experience.
With this new perspective in mind, at dinner, I had a remarkable experience eating an apple. At each of the meals, in fact in all of our activities besides just the formal sitting and walking practice, we're to be "mindful." What this means is to be awake and aware of what's happening as it's happening. I decided to eat an apple for dessert. Feeling free to think as well as sense, I decided to do a mind experiment of enhancing the experience of eating the apple. I cut a piece and looked at its texture. I felt the skin, the pulp, and the edge where they met. I smelled the aroma and drank in its wafting, expanding scent. I even decided to put the piece of apple to my ear and see how it sounded (yes, I know, ridiculous, but molecules vibrate and that's exactly what sound is, so why not try?). All I could hear was the sound of others in the room, no whirring atoms shaking my ear drum. When I placed the apple slowly in my mouth, I could hear the crunching, taste the burst of flavor, feel the pieces against my tongue and teeth, and then sense the shift as the mashing pieces got smaller, and then moved down my throat, into my esophagus, and down into my stomach.
Feeling free now to allow conceptual thoughts into the picture, I allowed my mind to expand and play with images and sensations of the apple's making its way through my digestive system, being absorbed into my body, and becoming an integral part of me. Then I thought about where the apple had come from--the people in the kitchen who (hopefully) washed it, the staff who bought it, the orchard from which it was picked, the tree on which it grew, and the seed from which that tree sprouted. With the freedom to enjoy this imagery, I suddenly felt a sense of wholeness and oneness with everything--the earth, the chain of people, my body.
I floated out of the dining room and wanted to speak to someone, but remembered the silence. A friend had been in the room, but we couldn't talk. I went outside and gazed at the almost-full moon in a cloud-strewn evening sky. I felt a presence next to me and found my friend had come out also, on his way to the sleeping area, and paused a moment by me in the silence under the stars. In that silence, a million words couldn't have said what that shared moment in the moonlight felt like.
Today I met with another teacher for a one-to-one meeting. I tried to describe the apple experience. I said that I felt as if there were a flowing river creating my awareness, and this meditation practice was enabling me to go up the current to visit the individual streams flowing into that river--one stream of sensation, one of concepts. This image made me feel more at ease with whatever arose in my mind. He answered by telling me that he often felt that he'd "finally gotten it," only to realize that there was always something new to experience in awareness. He suggested that I might not want to hold on to any fixed idea of "how things are," but just see what happened.
I felt dismissed and irritated by his response. After this ten-minute meeting, my head was filled with worded-thoughts and the next few sessions were "difficult." A difficult session feels as if it were going nowhere; as if instead of feeling the spaciousness of a calm and stable mind, I'm simply spacing out. Spacing out instead of "spacing in." I get lost in thoughts easily and somehow don't come back to the breath.
But in the end, this teacher was right. It would get quite a bit more complicated and would be forever changing. No matter how illuminating some experiences have been, you can never predict what the next session will feel like. The mind is always in flux, and nothing seems to predict anything. The idea is to give up expectation and let whatever happens, happen.
In our group instructions, we've gone from being told to just watch the breath to also being told to notice sounds and feel our bodies. The breath is like an anchor point, a place to start, but noticing sounds gives us a wider expanse. The body scan--sensing each part of our body, one area at a time--enables us to open our awareness intentionally to the predominant sensations in our body. We just drop into awareness of the body or our senses and take in whatever arises.
We're now expanding the field of awareness to move from the concentration on the breath to becoming mindful and receptive to all that arises, including the experience of mindfulness itself. Nothing is excluded. But the receptive mind isn't a passive mind. There's a quality of active engagement, not just with the object of attention, but with awareness itself. Yet this active sense isn't strained--it has a flowing, grounded, and intentional quality to it.
An insight that emerged on a walking session today came into my awareness without words. This insight was that deep in mindfulness, it isn't possible to get bored. Words portray a concept, a verbal thought that may articulate even a nonverbal idea. But an insight, like this one, feels more like a shift in internal perspective than a conceptual idea.
There's a strange change today. It feels as if some part of my mind that was aching to connect with others has given up aiming for them and has turned inward toward myself. I feel a surge of awareness of each step, a kind of connection to myself that wasn't there before. No moment is like any other, even step after step after step. I feel with each step the pressure on the ball of my feet transitioning to the sole and then the heel. And then the shift in weight in my legs as the next foot takes on the pressure of my body. Each step is unique. There's no place other than here, no moment other than now. I'm filled with excitement. I feel a floating sensation on the walking meditation, each moment inflated with a kind of helium from my mind.
I want to tell someone, so I tell myself.
We've been working on full mindfulness in experiencing our sensations, feelings, mental activities, and states. One practice is to start with grounding yourself in a focus on the breath and then move into a more open, expanded, and inquiring state of awareness, which feels something like "bring it on." Whatever comes, will come. We're told that it helps some people notice a thought or sensation or mental state (without getting sucked into it) to imagine it emerging from a mouse hole in the wall. Others imagine the thought appearing on a video screen that they can turn on or off.
Neither of those worked for me. Instead, my awareness of the present moment emerged in my mind's eye as a valley. Thoughts and feelings and images would float like clouds into this valley, where I could see them, name them ("thinking" or "feeling" or "imaging"), and just let them float off, out of my valley of the present moment. Sometimes a thought would arise without my awareness that it had come and, in an instant, I'd be "lost in thought." There'd be no separation between the thought and me. I'd not only be lost in it, I'd be the thought. At those moments, I was no longer in the valley, but had been swept up into the clouds.
When I became aware of my unawareness of my breath, the key wasn't to get mad or frustrated or feel like a failure, but to just take note of this experience. It also helped to remember what our teachers told us: that no matter how many decades people spend practicing mindful awareness, there's always the regular "getting lost in thought" experience. This is just how the mind works. But building mindful awareness helps you see a thought as just arising and floating away. The thought loses its power to kidnap you, make you its captive.
We've been also working on ancient meditative practices for the cultivation of "loving-kindness." Loving-kindness is a fundamental part of mindfulness meditation and aspires to imbue us with a positive regard for all living creatures, our selves included, and the world at large. A set of sayings is repeated, beginning with a focus on the self. These are the particular articulations of those sayings taught by Sharon Salzberg: "May I be safe and protected from harm. May I be happy and have a peaceful and joyful heart. May I be healthy and have a body that supports me with energy. May I live with the ease that comes from well-being." Having an image of your self in mind can deepen these practices. As these statements are made, the mind's awareness of the body can focus on the heart region, the area just beneath the chest, as one breathes in, and breathes out. Beginning with loving-kindness for ourselves is necessary, because if we can't feel it for ourselves, how can we feel it for others?
After focusing on the self, we focus on others. We wish safety, happiness, health, and ease first on a benefactor (someone who's supported us and our development in life), then on a friend, followed by someone about whom we feel neutral. Often an image of that person is useful to have in mind as these wishes are expressed. The next step is harder--wishing these blessings on a "difficult" person in our life, one with whom we may have a challenging relationship. And the next step can be even harder: we're asked to offer and ask for forgiveness. "I ask you for forgiveness for anything I've done or said that's caused you harm or painful feelings." Then, with the same words, one forgives this person.
I chose a friend with whom I've had a long-standing relationship that had ended with confusion and hostility recently. I pictured his face, saw the troubles that led to our rift, and asked his forgiveness for what had happened between us. It was hard, as he hasn't been forthcoming in trying to make a reconnection. But the exercise, including forgiving him for what had happened, helped me feel a sense of resolution.
I personally found this deeply moving, but several in the group during evening lectures expressed difficulty forgiving those who'd done them harm. For others, this entire "metta" or loving-kindness practice was uncomfortable, and some even stopped coming when this was the guided-meditation topic of the session. A number of people later would say that they had a hard time forgiving someone who'd wronged them and hadn't apologized for the transgressions.
I'm feeling as if I now have three palpable streams of awareness flowing into my river of consciousness. One is direct sensory experience. These sensations of my body or of my perceptions feel raw and bare. When I walk, I feel the pressure on the heel of my foot, the transition to the ball, the distribution of weight unevenly onto my toes, the movement of my hips as my other leg slowly swings over the center of gravity and my body leans forward, the next heel touching earth, my other foot's toes releasing and taking flight. I'm not observing this as a perception; I'm sensing it. As it's happening in real time, I feel there are no words to describe these sensations, no concepts to analyze and cluster them. They just are their sensory fullness--sights and sounds, inner gurglings, tensions, pressures. I also become quite aware of the second stream--the conceptual stream in the idea of walking. I can almost hear the thought--"walking"--in words that aren't quite audible in my mind. But now there's also a third stream flowing that I call the "observer"--the sense that I'm watching myself from afar, out of my head, floating in the hall above me or in the trees above the path where I'm walking.
Each stream--sensation, concept, observer--seems to coexist in the valley of the present moment. I note them, even observing the observer. How odd. At some point, I feel as if I'm losing my mind as my sense of reality crumbles, unraveling before my mind's eye, literally. Or am I actually finding it? I walk on. Step by step, I watch my mind. I feel my steps. I observe my feeling and even feel my observing.
I haven't had a conversation with anyone besides brief moments with my teachers in almost a week. No interactions, no speech, no reciprocity. I'm surrounded by others, but am far away, yet so close. I've been carrying out the assigned job of cleaning our hall's bathroom each day. I dreaded this routine at first, but somehow have come to enjoy it, to even relish the task. There's a kind of connection I feel with the mop, scrubbing the toilet, washing the sink. Day by day, I've come to expect the same sort of reaction from the cleaning fluids, the sponges, the rags. It feels comforting to know that somewhere in all this there's some sort of predictability. I scrub, the dirt disappears. Magic. But in the open valley of the present moment, I never know what will arise.
Needing some kind of anchor point during the walk, I think of a mnemonic for the whole thing. I know we've been told to say to ourselves, "not now" or "no thank you" to acknowledge an interesting idea and not get swept up in it. But I can't help myself. Or perhaps I am helping myself. Step by step my shoeless feet are floating over the wooden floor of this walking room. Step by step. I think: Sensation. Okay. Observation. Fine. Concept. Good. Each of these three streams gives me a sense of knowing the present moment, a knowing paradoxically without words, without concepts, without sensations. This knowing is a kind of subterranean stream beneath this valley of the present moment, a formless Knowing : K. How will I ever remember this amazing vision? Then I think, " S. O. C. K." So a sock is around the sole of my feet and SOCK is surrounding the soul of mindfulness, step by step, moment by moment.
Earlier I'd described a three-stream awareness in a question-and-answer period and asked if I was losing my mind. When the observer becomes excessively active, I said, it seems to destroy the direct sensory experience, just as the conceptual thoughts used to do. Do I need to get rid of the observer? I asked. No, the teacher responded. The idea is balance. I can live with that. In fact, I can float with that. And, of course, on the following walk, another mnemonic emerges--the ABCDE of mindfulness: A Balance of Concept and Direct Experience. My left hemisphere just won't quit!
This is the day we "break silence." They've planned a brief, three-hour period of formal discussion, followed by an evening meal full of chatter and social connections, during which we won't be aware of the taste the food, I imagine, and then a silent evening meditation before going to sleep until tomorrow morning's final meditation and discussion. We first meet in pairs, and I'm dying to describe my experience. I tell my partner about these mnemonics and he likes the YODA one best: You Observe and Decouple Automaticity. This describes the role of reflection in waking us up into mindful awareness: observation disrupts being on automatic pilot. We laugh about the idea of "Yoda's Socks." Mindfulness may involve more than just sensing--it may include that capacity to be aware of awareness, to observe experience. When we observe, we can disengage the automatic chatter and less obvious filtering that our emotions and habitual schema create as they distance us from direct experience. Observation feels like the key that ironically unlocks the doors for direct sensation: we observe and note our conceptual mind, and free ourselves to enter the valley of the present moment more fully.
As we emerged from silence, a strange phenomenon seemed to occur that I've subsequently been informed is common, not just with scientists: there was a frantic sense, a kind of party atmosphere, once we could speak after our lonely, silent sojourn. But when we later returned to silence, I felt surprising relief, and an open, spacious sense of my mind's coming back to me. I could feel a clearing of my awareness when I knew I wasn't to speak to anyone. That lack of contact freed my mind to be open again, to connect to itself. There's some kind of clarity that comes with silence.
Still, that night, when I called home for the first time in a week, I was glad to connect with my wife and children. And yet, even though things were fine at home, my mind couldn't stop thinking about our conversation, the plans, the tones of voice, things to be done. For the first time all week, I had a hard time falling asleep and awoke several times, just thinking of various things that had evaporated from my awareness during the week. The pull of my regular life made me realize that I hadn't been aware of how much quieter my mind had become.
I'd been drinking hot tea all week long without a problem. After calling home, moving out of mindfulness and back into the frenzy and hustle and bustle of "civilian" life, I burnt my tongue. I was thinking of something else instead of being aware of the tea as I was drinking it. Without mindfulness, we can get harried, and burnt.
During the brief science discussions about our ideas and experiences on the last night of the week, I couldn't get my head in gear. What struck me was how utterly conceptual the conversations felt, and I just wasn't in a frame of mind to reengage in that way. I welcomed the return to silence that last night. On the ride to the airport the next day with two friends, though, I felt we could go into our experience deeply, slowly, without interruption. It felt satisfying to try to put the week into words and share that with one another. I said that it had felt as though some part of my mind that usually connects with others had, by the middle to end of the week, turned its focus onto the only person available: me. As I described my experience, I could feel that they were attuning to me in a way that I'd felt I was attuning to myself during the week. My science mind imagined it was the mirror neurons that enabled us to resonate with one another. That resonance of internal and interpersonal attunement felt deeply gratifying.
Now, many months later, I find myself still riding the current of those four streams of awareness--sensation, observation, concept, and knowing--that seem to create my experience of the present moment. Having had a week of a silent retreat feels, for me, like a gift of getting to know myself in a new way. Even as a therapist and someone who engages in nearly nonstop reflection, being alone with my own mind during that time somehow brought out a new sense of myself that stays with me to this day.
How have I changed? One way is that the stream of direct sensation seems much stronger and less vulnerable to being crowded out of my life by conceptual thoughts, or even by observation. There's been more than a "truce" created among these distinct ways of knowing now--I feel a new sense of harmony since the retreat. I no longer become locked on any judgment that one way of being is better than another. Each has its own role to play in the spectrum of life.
In my professional world, I've found that teaching mindfulness has taken on a new dimension with my patients. There's a sense of a central "hub" within my mind that's become more spacious and holds more of the moment of being between us. It's hard to describe, but perhaps the feeling is best expressed like this: Being is just this. Whatever is here, we--you, me, relatives, friends, our patients, our students--can contain the fullness of the experience and ride the waves of our awareness streams together. That spaciousness can be shared. A wheel of our awareness can become a collective, group experience, filled with awe, and the illusion of our separateness revealed for what it is: a creation of our minds, a neural invention.
Somehow I feel an open access to a core self beneath identity from the week of silence. This core way of being, underneath the clutter of personality, is something we all have. The simplicity of attuning to our breath, to ourselves, perhaps permits us to gain access to a deeper self that's the common ground that we can share as we bring mindfulness to each other. At that core place, there may be a path toward healing our global community, one mind, one moment at a time, since kindness is to our relationships what breath is to life.
Daniel Siegel, M.D., is the author the forthcoming book The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being , from which this article was adapted. He's codirector of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
By Michael Ventura
Now is an obvious word, but a tricky concept. As soon as you say "now," the now in which you said it has passed. Where did it go? It went that-a-way. Just like the now in which you said "Where did it go?" Thinking about "now" can make you dizzy.
We speak about "the present moment" and the ability to be fully present, and we claim a sort of smudgy understanding of what that means. But what is "the present moment? Seriously! "Be in the now." "Be here now!" "Be present." "In family life be completely present," says Laozi's Tao Te Ching (in Stephen Mitchell's New Age-ish translation)--a sentiment echoed in one way or another by every marriage counselor alive.
Americans have heard and used these phrases for about 40 years, as Eastern and New Age concepts influenced psychology and other ologies. We're all familiar with expressions like "right attention," "mindfulness," and family therapy's emphasis on what's happening in this room right now.
There have even been attempts to quantify the present. In Daniel Stern's The Present Moment, he states that "present moments last from 1 to 10 seconds with an average around 3 to 4 seconds," and submits this definition: "The present moment is structured as a micro-lived story with a minimal plot and a line of dramatic tension made up of vitality effects." Obviously, once you delve into it, now isn't as exact a word as it appears.
Finding the Present
The primary definition of now in the Oxford English Dictionary is "at the present time or moment," which, as we've just seen, isn't very useful. There's more utility in the dictionary's second definition: "in the present circumstances"-- that spreads out "now" comfortably. We're not talking about one moment, or one perception, or 10 seconds; rather, we're talking about a kind of place within time, a "here," these present circumstances. "Here" as in: what we're presently engaged upon, in the place that we are.
So you're taking a walk, and the entire walk is "now." You're having a conversation, and the entire conversation is "now." You're making love, writing, cooking, telling a bedtime story--the entire act is "now." That's a manageable present, something that can be discussed without requiring the capacities of a Zen master.
A manageable present, but also complex and variable. You're taking a walk. In a park, say. And let's say you're an attentive person--you're not one of those people who walks staring down at their shoes. You notice birds, trees, clouds, kids playing, an aged person sitting on a bench, a couple walking hand-in-hand. It's nice, it's sane, you have the gently relaxed feeling that the world isn't ending at the moment; maybe soon, but there's time enough yet for a walk in the park. Also, something worrisome and/or interesting is going on in your relationship, and you're chewing on that.
The mind is a nonlinear organ: while you're mulling your thoughts and you're attentive to the comparative sanity of the park, something you see reminds you of something else and takes you away from your primary thoughts. "Now" you're in three places at once, at a leisurely pace: the park, the relationship, and the fact that kid over there is doing just what you used to do as a kid, or that you once had a dog like that dog this very pretty lady is walking, and you notice the lady, too. Thus "now" is continually expanding and contracting on your walk. It's a bird, it's a kid, it's a memory, it's your girl- or boyfriend, sometimes one at a time and sometimes kind of all at once--assuming, again, that you're having a decent sort of day, there's no particular crisis, and you aren't obsessing. Various things are going on all around you and within you, and you're walking in the park.
I take this walk-in-the-park kind of activity to be the state that the Zen poet Ikkyu described when he said: "so many people know but don't know they know / walking to work talking to themselves" (Stephen Berg's translation, Crow with No Mouth ). What do they know? They know how to be in the now. The trick is knowing that you know, which doesn't necessarily require years of meditation. The great mystics are always saying (infuriatingly) that the very big things are actually very simple. In this case, knowing that you know is simple. It doesn't require "enlightenment" (whatever that is); it requires only appreciation.
Add appreciation to this "now"--add, that is, a bit of consciousness, the awareness that, "Hey, this right here is pretty nice"--and your "now" expands to the whole walk, the whole park, the entire present circumstance. Presto, you're in the now! If you can appreciate it. If you can't, you may also be in the now, but you don't know it; that is, you don't appreciate it--and if you don't know it, don't appreciate it, you're not fully there.
So say you're walking in the park and appreciating it--it isn't over-the-top happiness, it isn't profound awareness, but it's pretty good. Then your cell phone rings. (We're assuming that, like many of us, you're foolish enough to take your cell phone on a walk in the park.) It's the significant other you've been thinking about, calling from another state where she (for the sake of argument) has been for a week on business or whatever, and she isn't due back for two more weeks. You're glad to hear her voice. She says she misses you. You sense that she expects you to say, in return, that you miss her. But what if you aren't missing her? That doesn't mean you don't love her. It's just that on this pleasant walk in the park, you aren't particularly missing her. It might be better if she was there, but she isn't, and she can't be, and she won't be, and it's still a good walk in the park without her. If you say, "I miss you, too," you're lying, and there's a flat dullness to that kind of little lie--it sours the moment; enough lies like that, and it sours the relationship. (As someone once said to me--a line I later stole--"Never say 'I love you' when what you mean is 'Good morning.'")
So she says "I miss you" and you don't want to say "I miss you, too" because, at the moment, you don't. But if you say, "I don't miss you," you're in trouble, and you're hurting a person you don't want to hurt. What's "missing" anyway? It's a feeling that leaves a hole inside; it's a feeling that says, "The present circumstance isn't enough, even though it's all you have."
Missing is usually a sense of incompleteness, a lonely insufficiency of the self; when acute, missing can even feel like a kind of panic. Either way, missing arises out of a feeling that's more profound: longing. But longing--if you allow yourself to long for someone, if you appreciate the depth of the feeling--can be a lovely sensation. Missing leaves a hole; longing can feel full. You feel the longing filling you up, expanding your heart. And "I long for you" is so much more romantic than a perfunctory "I miss you, too." (If you actually do long for her, as a sort of constant undertow when she isn't around.)
It's difficult to appreciate missing, but not as difficult to appreciate longing. Missing whisks you out of the present circumstance; but a recognition of longing deepens and nuances the present circumstance. Again, it's that small thing, appreciation--to appreciate the moment you're actually experiencing, instead of faking a feeling you aren't having or allowing yourself to be preoccupied with missing a moment you aren't experiencing.
"Be here now" is pretty vague. "Appreciate, and don't fake," that's concrete. You may or may not be able to do it, but at least you know what it is. It may take time and trouble to learn how to do it, but at least you know whether you're doing it or not. "Do I appreciate my circumstances? If not, why not?" That's at least a starting point. "Do I do a lot of faking?" That's at least an answerable question. It may take a lot of work to answer it thoroughly, but it can be answered. Maybe you need the help of a therapist to answer it. Maybe you can figure it out, sooner or later, on your own. Either way, through these questions, you enter a mental and emotional territory the poet Rilke described: " Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer."
But it isn't so easy to "live the questions" in a multimedia, interactive era of cell phones and pagers in which we're expected to be constantly available--I've called it "The Age of Interruption." We've even devised nifty gadgets for interrupting ourselves, and never letting the present speak to us on its own terms. The iPod supplies a constant soundtrack wherever you are--background music to force the present into whatever mood, or pastiche of moods, you programmed into it. (We may not experience this as a form of interruption, but that's what it is, albeit self-induced.) For many of the young, cell phones and iPods are taken for granted, almost as biological appendages, and their concept of "the present" involves instant electronic connection to their friends and family at all times. Meanwhile, in our big cities, it's hard to be out of sight of some ad that exists for no other reason than to wrest your attention from the present to something you can buy. Life now is a kind of cacophony that's difficult to turn down and almost impossible to turn off.
The daily round has become frantic, for workers and homemakers alike--we need Day Runners just to keep track of what we're supposed to do! Each task interrupts the last, nothing one does feels fully completed, and many live their lives always a little panicky, as though late for an appointment. (The appointment they're really late for is an appointment with themselves.)
Jungian psychologist James Hillman told me once that in his clinical practice, he found that nothing was harder to "treat," to do therapy with and upon, than peoples' schedules. He said it was very difficult to get people to see that their schedule was their life --the skeletal structure of their existence. You're not going to change your life much unless you change your schedule: open it up so that the unexpected may enter. Else how can the present be a presence instead of just another goal--or just something else you don't have time for?
So when I write of a walk in the park, someone might be saying, "What are you talking about, who the hell has time for a walk in the park?!" Your weeks may be so oppressively scheduled that you never, or rarely, take the time for something like a walk in the park. In such circumstances, your inner life, which no one can avoid having, can get in the way and become something to be suppressed, not explored. Your self becomes a burden--a danger to the marriage, the children, the job. Ask questions like "Do I do a lot of faking?" "Do I appreciate my present circumstances, and if not, why not?" and truthful answers could bring your life down around your head.
People in these circumstances rarely want to be "in the now," in the sense that we've been speaking of. Rather, they seek to lose themselves in their tasks so that they don't rock the boat. Their schedules become not something to be addressed and changed, but something in which to hide.
Living with Courage
Often the price of success, or the price of simply fitting in, demands not only conformity (the suppression of self) but passivity. And we can lock ourselves into conformity and passivity simply by, as the saying goes, "working hard and playing by the rules." For example, the average college student goes into massive debt to achieve a masters or doctoral degree. It's the work of a decade to pay off that debt, a decade during which one willingly accumulates many other obligations. Often by her mid-thirties, that Ph.D. recipient has a family and children. Sometime in her late thirties or early forties, the desire to be more her own person, more in charge of her own time, more "in the present moment" becomes urgent. How to do it? The possibility of breaking free, of fulfilling herself, seems slim to nonexistent. For many, the obligations they've bought into have compromised their inner lives beyond hope, and a genuine appointment with themselves can never be kept.
It's difficult, if not impossible, to appreciate your circumstances if those circumstances imprison. It's tough to learn not to fake if you're living a lie, or many lies, and if those lies have become the terms of your survival. For many people, that's "normal life." Therapy can help you cope, and coping is better than nothing, but no one mistakes it for fulfillment.
For some, "the present moment" is nothing less than terrifying, when faced full on, without blinders, without apologies. The marriage is sunk in compromise, the job sucks, the children are an endless worry, and God doesn't respond. If even one of these aspects goes well--the marriage is alive, or the job is full of interest, or the kids are alright, or God is a comforter instead of a terrorist--then we are (as Southerners say) shitting in high cotton. Who wants to face "the present moment" in most circumstances? Better to watch TV, videos, or Jeopardy. Anything becomes better than an awareness of where you are. Anything becomes better than not faking.
But this is really nothing new. In a world far milder and more orderly than ours, Thoreau observed that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."
The odds have always been against any individual who desires to live a free inner life--and a free inner life means not being afraid of, indeed relishing, the present moment. To buck the odds takes courage. To determine to find one's way through the societal maze to a place where "the present moment" can blossom requires not one but many small acts (perhaps large acts!) of courage. But "courage" isn't a fashionable word anymore; I can't remember the last time I heard anyone use it in conversation.
We don't tell each other, or ourselves, something our great-grandparents assumed: if you don't have a certain amount of courage, you can't live worth a damn in this world. Psychology, philosophy, religion, money--they won't help if you don't have any courage. But courage isn't necessarily something innate that one has or doesn't have; for most of us, courage is something that you learn, cultivate, grow into step by step, mistake by mistake--like love. Courage, like love or freedom, is something you have to want. Certainly, if you won't cultivate your courage, "be here now" is forever beyond your grasp.
"This was about courage," writes Doris Lessing in her Golden Notebook. "It's a small painful sort of courage which is at the root of every life, because injustice and cruelty is at the root of life. And the reason why I have only given my attention to the heroic or the beautiful or the intelligent is because I won't accept that injustice and cruelty, and so won't accept that small endurance that is bigger than anything." We aren't speaking of anything grand. It takes courage to admit that you're unhappy, and still more to address that fact. It takes courage to decide you need therapy, and more courage to go through the process. It even takes a kind of courage to say, "Today, come hell or high water, I'm taking a slow walk in the park."
Blessings from the Past
All I can offer as a guidepost to the present moment is something that happened to me--an element that helped me be "in the now," as that grating saying goes. And, for me, this step took what Lessing calls "a small painful sort of courage."
It involved memories. Memories "come up," as we say, all the time, in every kind of situation. The past adheres, in the form of memory, to most present circumstances. And, except when we're actually trying to remember, we're usually not in control of what we remember. Something reminds you of something and zap: you're remembering. A scent, a sight, a song can take you back decades.
As a writer, I'm perhaps especially susceptible to memory because there's a sense in which writing is memory. It may be argued that a writer works in the medium of memory even more than in the medium of language. For a writer, often the prime function of language is to serve, preserve, and transmute memory--as fiction, poetry, nonfiction, or even as thought. So I'm often preoccupied with the meaning of memory itself, and with the significance of specific memories.
Like anybody, I have many bad memories. Gradually, by hook or by crook, most of us learn to live with that. But I began to be bothered by this question: Why do good memories, wonderful memories, sometimes cause me intense pain?
Not all good memories, of course, but gorgeous memories like: when I was falling in love with Z (and with several other letters of the alphabet); or moments of great happiness in my first marriage and my second (both long past); or a good memory of a dead or lost friend; or a rare good memory from childhood--excellent moments, rich with life. So why should they cause pain--so much pain, sometimes, that, lacking courage, I'd shut the good memories down?
I began to wonder why these good memories, memories that shouldn't be avoided but cherished, should wrench me away from an appreciation of this moment--from the courage to be in this moment? The events evoked were anything but depressing or sad, so why should the memory of them depress and sadden me "in the now"? Because the romance or friendship or marriage later went bad. Because one good childhood memory brings up a dozen that were awful. What happened later colors the good memory and leaves a bad stain--the awful and ever-present fear of loss.
Even the good things that didn't go bad: a great bunch of kids I taught, whom I'll never see again; a marvelous adventure that I'll never have again; the sensation of being young (for I'm not young anymore and will never be again). Excellent times! Why should the sudden thought of them cause pain, and the fear of pain, in the present?
Because those times, those adventures, those loves are gone forever. And I seem particularly sensitive to that, not in a sentimental or nostalgic way, but simply with a sense of irrevocable loss. That sense of loss, and fear of further loss, was clouding my present.
Then one day, something changed. I can't tell you why it happened or how; it just happened. On a street where I'd once walked with someone precious to me, someone whom I'd since lost, I "saw" (in my mind's eye) the two of us walking ahead of me, as we used to walk, smiling as we used to smile, with our old radiance. And instead of feeling the pang of loss and fear of memory, I felt something very different, and I said softly but aloud: "Go well, my beauties."
The memory didn't wrench me out of the present, nor did it cause sadness and fear--it was poignant, yes, but in a sweet way. I knew everything that was going to happen to those people, some of it good, some of it not. I knew that, contrary to what they felt and thought then, one day, their paths would diverge forever. And what I felt was to wish them well. Both of them. He would one day turn into me, and she--I can't know whom she's become. But I wished them well. "Go well, my beauties." And that felt good in that present moment. And the memory faded, and the fear of loss faded, and I was right there on that street, in the present, with no past burden.
In Hillman's terms, George was "treating" my schedule.
From that time on, when a memory arises, I see it clearly, and I say, softly or to myself, "Go well, my beauties." And the memory passes without wounding. I'm doing something in the present that relates to the past but isn't gripped by the past. My ghosts are welcome, and, being welcome, they quickly go elsewhere--they still have much to do. Because of this, my present feels vastly expanded. Memories are no longer interruptive or fearsome; they're part of the present, and I've found that when I've blessed them--"Go well, my beauties"--good and bad alike leave a loveliness in my present air. It's as though the past is saying, as Jacob said to the angel, "I will not let thee go except thou bless me."
We cannot be in the present until the past lets us go. It'll never leave entirely; it must always return. I suppose it needs a lot of blessing. But, blessed, it'll let us go . . . and the blessing, because it occurs in the present, also blesses the present.
In a life running from one sort of appointment to another, space must be made for appointments with oneself. This, too, takes that "small courage," but all talk of being "in the now" is pointless without unspecific appointments with oneself.
Some time ago, my friend and teacher, George, asked if there was any moment of the day when I wasn't doing. I said, "I meditate." He said, "That's doing. It's a specific effort with a goal." "Well," I said, "occasionally I'll just pour myself a cup of tea and stare out the window." He said, "Drink more tea."
It was a concrete suggestion; a way for me to spend some unscheduled time with me, in the present. A walk is good, too. (Not for exercise. Exercise is doing. ) There are days when I'm all jangled with doing; when being in the present seems a distant memory. I suddenly remember George's "Drink more tea," and I make myself a cup of tea and just sit and sip a while. You sit and sip, the mind wanders (which is its natural state--the mind is a wanderer). It wanders back to itself, always. I find that I suddenly, again, really am where I am. In the present. And much more easeful about whatever comes next.
Our schedules are enemies of the presence of the present--"officiating devils," to steal Heinrich Zimmer's term. "But," he also said, "the officiating devil is not very difficult to trick." You can trick it with a cup of tea, a walk, a question, a blessing, appreciation. It isn't that complicated. The really important things are simple, the sages like to say. It simply takes attention. Even the most harried person can sit a little while with a cup of tea. To be "in the moment" is within anyone's reach.
I've found that many people don't like to be told that. Makes them cranky. Nevertheless, it's within anyone's reach, the now, the true present, the expansive moment in which one meets oneself and does . . . nothing. "Just visit," as they say in Texas. Be with the moment, which (the Zen guys are right) is yourself.
You can do it. Have a cup of tea.
Michael Ventura's biweekly column appears in the Austin Chronicle.