The Seeker, the Tennis Coach and the Next Wave of Therapeutic Practice
by Katy Butler
Three years ago, a therapy-conference brochure arrived in the mail containing an arresting image of the tenuous act of human transformation. Under the title Shaping the Future, a man with butterfly wings–holding an artist’s palette under one arm–climbed up the rainbow he was painting into the air just steps ahead of his dancing feet.
This is how we often feel. Suspended in midair, we don’t know how to move from the life we live to the self we wish to be. Ask us to name what we value most, and we may talk about our families, our creativity, our relationships, or our health. Then look at how we really live: overworking, overeating, talking on the phone to someone we say we love while clicking through e-mail, or watching television while our children pester us over take-out cartons of KFC.
Once in a while–perhaps inspired by therapy or a retreat or a friend’s heart attack–we may make concerted attempts to be kinder to our spouses, less impatient with coworkers, more loving with our children, or more attentive to our own self-care. But our chaotic 21st-century lives often lack the structure, discipline, and even the raw physical energy required to make the changes stick. After a few weeks of trying something as simple as swimming at lunchtime–never mind reforming our characters–we sag beneath the weight of too much distraction and too little sleep. We know everything except how to live.
In earlier centuries, before the train whistle and the factory siren drowned out the village church bells, step-by-step systems of human transformation were embedded within local religious life. Whatever their limitations, the mosque, temple, and church offered communal, time-tested practices designed to foster altruism and slowly transform character–soft technologies of change, which the religious sociologist Robert Bellah called “habits of the heart” in his 1985 book of the same name.
These customs and ceremonies punctuated the narrow rhythms of village and shtetl life with regular periods of community-wide reflection, celebration, and remembrance. Each week took its shape in the quiet of Saturday’s Shabbat or Sunday morning’s mass and confession. Autumn brought Days of Atonement to Jewish people as regularly as late winter brought Lent to Catholics and spring the ancient pagan celebrations of the maypole and the morris dance. Inside the thick stone walls of monasteries from Ireland to China, every hour of the day, from meditation at dawn to the last chant by candlelight, was ordered, ritualized, and sacralized. Even the word ordained has its roots in the notion of communal order.
As religion faded in the early 20th century, the freer, secular discipline of the talking cure took its place, widening our sense of choice about who we might become, but rarely providing much practical guidance as to how we might get there.
Now, at the opening of the 21st century, in a culture freed from communal and familial rhythms by 24-hour Wal-Marts, Burger Kings, Nokia cell phones, and DSL lines, the practices that Bellah called habits of the heart are nearly forgotten. They lie in the backs of our mental closets, like robes dusty from disuse, barely serviceable when we put them on for a funeral or a retreat somewhere far from home. Therapy, the modern substitute, has often proven less effective in changing lives than once was hoped.
In this postmodern world of infinite choice and incoherent structure, what practical steps should we take now–a personal trainer? more therapy? feng shui? life coaching? Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous? martial arts? Zen meditation?–to become the self we see shining in our best moments? How can we learn to live in consonance with what we value most? And how can we construct a ladder to the stars while we stand on its lowest rung?
What Really Matters?
Such questions have long preoccupied the writer Tony Schwartz, who paid a price in the mid-1980s for failing to live in accord with what he valued most. He was a tennis player and a 35-year-old former New York Times reporter–quick, angular, pessimistic, thoroughly psychoanalyzed, and driven–when real estate developer Donald Trump offered him a quarter of a million dollars plus royalties to ghostwrite a book that became a bestseller, The Art of the Deal.
“I did it with great guilt, enormous guilt,” says Schwartz, who was raised in a relentlessly secular Manhattan family that valued political activism far more than either money-making or traditional religion. “My wife was pregnant with our second child. I was making $45,000 a year supporting a family in New York, and this was a chance to make a lot more money. I had two sides at war with each other, and what won was the darker, more primitive side–my desire for money, for fame.”
The day the book was published in 1987, bookstore staff buyers around the country told The Wall Street Journal that nobody outside Manhattan would read it. They were wrong: it was the Gordon Gecko era of deals and Wall Street greed, and the book hit a nerve and the bestseller list.
Not long afterward, Schwartz woke up in the bedroom of the house he’d bought in Riverdale, just north of Manhattan. The Art of the Deal was number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and well on its way to selling a million copies in hardcover. He’d achieved much of the fame he’d hoped for, and earned enough to think he’d never worry about money again. “And I felt bad, I felt lousy,” Schwartz says. “That was what prompted me to write What Really Matters. It was my penance.”
For the next eight years, Schwartz abandoned the art of the deal for the heart of the matter. What’s a truly meaningful life? he asked. And who could show him how to live it? He flew to California and talked to Michael Murphy about human possibility at Esalen and to Ram Dass about transcendence. He tried meditation at Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and biofeedback at the Menninger Clinic. He worked with the mind-body back doctor John Sarno, drew on the right side of his brain, and explored his difficulties with intimacy through the Enneagram, the Diamond Heart method, and dreamwork.
When What Really Matters was published, in 1995, M. Scott Peck (author of The Road Less Traveled ) said its last chapter contained “as good a description of wisdom as any I know in literature.” But Schwartz had spent all the money he’d earned from The Art of the Deal. He still sometimes woke up in the bedroom of his house in Riverdale feeling pessimistic and driven. And he found his thoughts returning to one of the most prosaic of the people he’d interviewed–a former tennis coach named Jim Loehr.
Loehr was 47 and working at a Florida tennis camp when Schwartz first interviewed him about mind-body approaches to personal change. Raised in a devout Roman Catholic family in rural Colorado but intensely pragmatic, Loehr had attended Jesuit schools before becoming a clinical psychologist and the director of a community mental health agency. There, he’d lost faith in therapy (as he had earlier in religion) as a sufficient force to catalyze change. “I just didn’t see it working,” he told Schwartz. “I’d watch people get lost in their own conflicts and come out no better than when they started–and often worse.”
Loehr–a careful researcher and gifted amateur athlete with no patience for New Age spirituality or wishful thinking–left his agency in the early 1980s to become a sports psychologist in Denver, experimenting with a broader technology of human change. His first private clients were two demoralized professional athletes who went to see him, literally, under the cover of darkness, because they were choking during important games. Cobbling together cognitive approaches and guided imagery, he tried to apply conventional psychotherapy principles to high-stakes athletic performance. “I felt my brain was being squeezed,” he says. “I was completely ill-prepared.”
Loehr now says he was working in “too narrow a bandwidth. . . . I didn’t have any sense of how to connect them to the spiritual dimension–to a notion of their life mission or vision. Nothing in my therapeutic training had led me to that. And I had no sense that even professional athletes could just come apart because they lacked fitness or didn’t eat right or hadn’t been sleeping. That was completely off the page.”
In 1984, after nearly starving to death in private practice, Loehr went to work at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy near Sarasota, Florida–a struggling place full of talented but underperforming teenage athletes with overly ambitious parents. In this unpromising environment, he tried to get the kids to reframe their challenges as opportunities and to practice guided imagery and emotional discipline.
Conventional sports psychology alone didn’t work. He saw kids in the late afternoons, after six hours of nonstop tennis competition on top of a lunch of cheap fried food. “Their blood sugar was low, and they’d be tired, angry, upset, and spacey,” he says. “No matter how much training I did with them mentally and emotionally, the whole thing was an impossible nightmare.”
He first addressed the management of their bodily energy–the raw fuel for every sort of change. He got the school to throw out its doughnuts and deep-fat fryers and to provide healthier lunches and fruit between meals. In the mid-afternoons, he took the kids off the court and into a darkened classroom, where they lay down, closed their eyes, and rested while he played relaxing music.
True to his Catholic upbringing, he also addressed what a less practical person might comfortably call the spirit. He listened to the kids and tried to discover how becoming good tennis players could serve deeper values, like sportsmanship and courage, rather than simply their parents’ ambitions–or their own–for trophies, one-upmanship, and fame.
Loehr now says the tennis school was a “living laboratory–a fabulous arena for distilling how the mind, body, and spirit work, where nobody died and there was no real consequence if people didn’t get it.” He spent six years there. Bringing the scientific experimentalism of research psychology to bear on every factor affecting athletic performance, he worked by trial and error, jettisoning anything–self-hypnosis, for example–that didn’t bring measurable results on the court. Oddly enough, his greatest successes came when he got the athletes to adopt a life dominated by secular rituals–a life as repetitive and habitual as that of a 17th-century monk or a modern Marine.
Loehr got his first clue to the significance of what he calls “positive rituals” in 1987, while studying hundreds of hours of videotapes of professional tennis matches to find out what set champions apart from also-rans. It wasn’t their raw talent or their strokes, he discovered, but what they did during the seemingly unimportant 15- or 20-second pauses between points.
During these breaks, the less successful players–both among the kids at the training camp and on the professional circuits–dragged their rackets, muttered under their breaths, dropped their heads and shoulders, looked around at the crowd distractedly, or even threw fits. Giving vent to energy-draining emotions like anger and fear, they looked either demoralized or tense.
Champions like Chris Evert, on the other hand, kept their heads high even when they’d lost a point, maintaining a confident posture that telegraphed no big deal. Loehr nicknamed this “the matador walk” after a Spanish matador told him, “The most important lesson in courage is physical, not mental. From the age of 12, I was taught to walk in a way that produces courage.”
The tennis champions like Evert would next concentrate their gazes on their rackets or touch the strings with their fingers and stroll toward the back court–focusing, avoiding distraction, relaxing, and effectively letting the past go. After this mini-meditation, they’d turn back toward the net, bounce on their toes, and visualize playing the next point.
These athletes didn’t use their limited reservoir of “free will” to tell themselves to relax. Instead of cluttering their brains with that kind of management decision, they followed a behavioral sequence repeated so often that it had grooved itself into the cluster of brain cells close to the brainstem sometimes called the “reptilian brain.” Their rituals were automatic, even under pressure. They were done mindlessly, just as an experienced driver steps on the clutch and smoothly shifts gears without thinking about it.
Between-point rituals turned out to have startling training effects. Loehr fitted the athletes with wireless monitors and discovered that the heart rates of the champions dropped as much as 15 to 20 beats between points. They didn’t win every game. But because they took real breaks–what Loehr called “oscillation”–they played at the top of their games for years, while talented but volatile players, like John McEnroe, burned out young.
Loehr showed his videos to the tennis kids–and his growing list of private clients–and had them mimic the champions’ confident walks. Their games improved. He organized 90-minute cycles of oscillation (intense exertion followed by rest and recovery) into their days, and they improved again. He tailor-made new rituals to address individual weaknesses, and the athletes improved still more.
Outcome research shows that social support–or “team spirit”–makes any change easier to maintain. But most of Loehr’s private clients played individual rather than team sports, and the rituals he crafted for them were individual as well. Among his clients was the gifted speed-skater Don Jansen, who’d participated in three Olympics without winning a medal. He came to Loehr convinced he’d never win the 1,000-meter race and that he hated it. Loehr had Jansen repeat “I love the 1,000” hundreds of times, like a prayer, and got him to put the message on a Post-It on his bathroom mirror. At the next Olympic Games, Jansen won the gold medal for the 1,000-meter, breaking the world record.
Loehr became well known for pulling pro athletes out of slumps and helping them break through self-imposed limitations. Golfer Ernie Els, middleweight boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, and tennis player Martina Navratilova all came to work with him. More than 20 of his Bollettieri students became world-ranked tennis players, among them Andre Agassi, Monica Seles, and Jim Courier. Another client–tennis player Sergi Bruguera–went from a number 79 in world ranking to win two French Opens.
By the early 1990s, Loehr had lost interest. He’d come to the conclusion that he’d helped many athletes develop a shallow “performer self” at the expense of a “real self” that he couldn’t fully define. He was tired of working with people narrowly focused on fame, million-dollar endorsements, and the pure pleasure of physical training. Many of his athletes had learned to use some version of the “matador walk” to handle any life problem. If they didn’t like an emotional state, they switched to a more pleasant one without further reflection. Living in a social vacuum populated mainly by their entourages, they were accountable to no larger community. “A lot of them,” Loehr says, “ended up with no idea of who they really were.”
A Larger Self
But could Loehr’sÂ training principlesÂ help people develop a “self” fueled by something larger than self-interest? Could people develop character, altruism, and closer relationships–things that really mattered to them–using the techniques that improved their hand-eye coordination? In the mid-1990s, Loehr began experimenting with nonathletes, especially middle-management employees on the verge of burnout, sent by their Fortune 500 companies to his training center in Orlando, Florida. Another early guinea pig was writer Tony Schwartz.
During his research on mind-body transformation for What Really Matters, Schwartz–an energetic but self-critical tennis player–had spent four days on a Florida tennis court with Loehr, learning to oscillate and to pump his arm in the air and cheer between points, no matter how badly he’d played. By the fourth day, his critical thoughts had quieted; he felt notably more cheerful, and he handily beat one of the young Bollettieri camp’s hotshots in a single game.
But tennis, after all, is just tennis.
Now Schwartz wanted to change negative character traits that affected the lives of his wife, his daughters, and other people he loved. Over the next couple of years, extrapolating from what he’d learned from Loehr, he designed three rituals. Every Saturday morning at 8, he’d talk privately with his wife for an hour. Every morning, he’d get up and write down his pessimistic thoughts, and then find the opportunity and challenge within each perceived threat. Before he went to bed at night, he’d make a list of what he was grateful for.
Over the course of a year, the pessimism Schwartz had assumed was indelibly stamped into his character began to melt. He and his wife grew closer; they’ve since voluntarily extended their “intimacy hour” to two 90-minute sessions a week. “I could’ve spent 15 years in therapy talking about my reluctance to be intimate,” Schwartz said. “Guess what? I just did it and I got better. Once you say–‘This is just a muscle that’s weak in me–if I developed it, I’d be more productive, I’d feel better, and I’d make other people feel better’–once that’s clear, it’s common sense. Push the weight.”
In the late 1990s, Schwartz did some freelance writing for Loehr and then became his partner. The collaboration was a two-way street: Schwartz’s contribution, drawn from his years of seeking, was articulating the connection between ritualized sports training and questions of deeper human purpose. Originally called the Corporate Athlete Training System, their work melded Loehr’s technologies of change with Schwartz’s ability to talk to businesspeople about a spiritual mission without sounding soft or squishy. Together they came up with a pragmatic definition of spirituality: actions taken in the service of deeply held values and a broader sense of purpose.
The book they cowrote chronicling this work– The Power of Full Engagement –was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show last spring, and reached number four on the New York Times’s “Advice” bestseller list. Perhaps, in a culture with so little common-sense understanding of the importance of daily ritual and rhythm, it touched a nerve. If The Art of the Deal promised something to a culture obsessed with the free market, The Power of Full Engagement spoke to the quotidian chaos of our present lives and their lack of self-care.
The case studies of businessmen and women in the book opened a disturbing window into well-compensated, 21st-century daily life. Many of the participants had high blood pressure and had gained 20 or 30 pounds since college. They rose at 6:30 a.m. and returned home from work at 7:30 p.m., too exhausted to exercise. After a preoccupied supper, they might spend an hour or so answering 50 to 75 business e-mails. Few practiced “habits of the heart” that counterbalanced the demands of their jobs. The concept of oscillation was foreign to them: there were no breaks in their days.
They skipped breakfast and lived on blueberry muffins, candy bars, sandwiches eaten at their desks, and pizza on the run. They drank too much, ate too much, and worked too much. Running on empty, many had lost touch with what they’d once passionately valued or wanted. More exhausted than they knew, they lived and worked in a culture hostile to rest.
Schwartz and Loehr first helped these men and women design rituals to recreate daily rhythms and rebuild raw, physical energy: a walk in the park at lunch, a mid-morning yoga break, a day a week working from home, a workout or snack in midafternoon.
Mindful of the power of environment and context in shaping behavior, Schwartz and Loehr also got them to clear out junk foods from the house, pack trail mix and protein bars in their briefcases, and put water bottles within arms’ reach everywhere. Night owls were trained (over the course of a couple of weeks) to become early birds by using bright lights and alarm clocks placed on the far side of the bedroom.
Next, participants moved on to emotional and ethical reforms. Through pen-and-paper exercises, each was encouraged to create his or her own list of important values–a set of do-it-yourself commandments. On questionnaires designed by Schwartz (sample questions: What would you like to have written on your tombstone? Name someone you deeply respect and describe the three qualities you most admire in him or her.) many had named “family,” or “respect for others,” or “integrity, ” or “meeting my commitments” at the top of the list.
In an earlier age, such a reflection on values might have taken place at church or temple, or implicitly, in gossip around the village well. Schwartz and Loehr turned to the Internet. There, family members and coworkers had posted responses to questionnaires. Asked about how the participants behaved in daily life, they often described these stressed men and women as short-tempered bosses and preoccupied spouses. They missed deadlines and made promises they didn’t keep. They bought gym memberships and never went. They bought T-shirts for their kids in airports and when they finally got home, yelled at those same kids and reduced them to tears.
When faced with such a moment of truth, many a 20th-century therapist would have focused on family or trauma history, Jungian archetypes, cognitive style, or training in assertiveness or communication skills. Schwartz and Loehr–building deliberately on humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs–first wanted to know if their clients were eating regular meals and getting enough exercise, rest, and sleep.
Then came training rituals to build what Schwartz and Loehr called emotional, mental, and spiritual “muscles.” One man, who left for work before dawn, began writing notes for his children’s lunch boxes before he went to bed. A woman executive took storybooks on business trips and read to her kids over the phone while they followed along in a copy of their own. Another participant, troubled by his superficial relationships, made a daily cell-phone call to a friend on his drive home.
A sales manager became a volunteer coach on Saturday mornings for a local Boys and Girls Club. A father scheduled a regular Wednesday night dinner out with his teenaged daughter. A once-scatterbrained woman who frequently missed deadlines began rising at 6:30 to spend half an hour in quiet reflection and planning. An impatient boss learned to recognize the physical signs of her mounting frustration, and made a practice of breathing deeply and repeating “kindness matters” like a mantra under her breath.
These tactics weren’t one-session wonders, but trainings–religious practices without the religion–to be repeated without fail until automatic, and then continued for life. Through the unexpected doorway of sports training, Schwartz and Loehr were creating a secular wisdom tradition that didn’t require putting on a medieval robe and chanting in Japanese in a barn on the California coast.
When participants returned to Schwartz and Loehr’s training center for six-month and one-year follow-ups, some had lost 10 to 15 pounds. Others had cut back on working hours and focused more on managing their energy than pouring in time. One exhausted, irascible, workaholic sales manager–who was on the verge of being fired when he entered the program–lost 19 pounds. Every afternoon, he took a break to call his two daughters and did 10 minutes of deep abdominal breathing; he also worked one day a week from home. “My life has acquired a certain rhythm,” said the man, whose job performance reviews had improved markedly.
A religious leader might call Schwartz and Loehr’s approach too individualistic–isolated fingers thrust in decaying cultural dikes. To a therapist familiar with cognitive and emotional approaches to change, it may appear ploddingly jocklike, mechanistic, or superficial. There’s little specific outcome research to support it, beyond Loehr’s proven success with athletes. Schwartz himself acknowledges that so far their work is “more wide than deep.”
But this work echoes the common-sense wisdom within Alcoholics Anonymous mottoes like “HALT: Don’t let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired” and “Fake it till you make it,” and “If you want to change the inside, change the outside.” It also echoes something Aristotle understood nearly 2,500 years before James Loehr ever hooked up a perspiring tennis player to a heart-rate monitor on a Florida tennis court: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence isn’t an act, but a habit.”
Mechanical as these ways may seem, they confirm what ancient folkways, religious custom, and the old joke about Carnegie Hall make clear: change requires not just inspiration, but practice. We don’t simply paint a rainbow into the sky and climb it. We paint the rainbow over and over again until it’s strong enough to bear our weight.
Therapy, as practiced in the 20th century, placed many of its bets on inspiration, even on a single session. But even the most dramatic emotional expression and healing is a consolation prize if clients don’t or can’t then shape a life that satisfies them. People don’t just want to understand themselves better, have a paid friend, or quiet their demons. They want to shape their lives. They want to know how to live. And if therapists wish to be seen as experts in the technology of human transformation in the 21st century, they must help them.
This will require building on therapy’s emotional and cognitive strengths to embrace a broader, more multidimensional sense of the therapeutic mission. Therapeutic effectiveness will probably increase when powerful, seemingly “unpsychological,” factors–such as a client’s physical health, work hours, need for rest, connection to a sense of deeper purpose, and practices of daily life–are no longer regarded as background music. A convergence of respected therapeutic approaches (notably cognitive and behavioral therapies, addictions work, and integrative hybrids like ATRIUM work and Dialectical Behavior Therapy) is already integrating elements of this territory. The therapists of the 21st century will continue to create this wider mosaic.
The work of expansion, systematization, and integration can be done without dismissing therapy’s existing strengths. Make no mistake: every day, most therapists go where Schwartz and Loehr wouldn’t dare to tread. When people are half blind with grief and rage, they’re usually in no mood to hear someone talk about establishing a morning ritual. Therapists are natural experts at the delicate dance that in one moment emphasizes therapeutic rapport and emotional repair, and in the next moment turns to behaviors and habits.
This integrative work is necessary work. Forty years of outcome research confirms that no matter what the approach, the efficacy of all therapies remains positive, measurable, and less effective than anyone had originally hoped. The enormous semiprofessional armies on the borders of the profession–the addiction counselors, self-help groups, professional organizers, diet gurus, Narcotics Anonymous sponsors, inspirational speakers, personal trainers, and life coaches–are a testament to therapy’s frequent failure to help people shape their actions to fit their ideals. It’s into this gap that Schwartz and Loehr have stepped.
They call their work “training,” not “therapy.” But if therapy means helping people shape their lives, their work represents an implicit challenge to the effectiveness of the therapeutic enterprise. Their preoccupation with the minutiae of human behavior–and their ambition to tinker with it–place them within a larger tradition dating back at least to Sigmund Freud.
The Power of the Unconscious
Like Freud, they’re fascinated by the unconscious–and equally at war with it–although they define the unconscious far more broadly than Freud ever did. Freud wanted to replace hysterical misery with ordinary unhappiness. Trained as a neurologist, he gave the name “the unconscious” to the inner forces that shaped human behavior outside verbal awareness. He conceived of these forces as a mass of brain cells located entirely within the skull, a place where hidden motivations and dream logic wrestled in the dark with drives, instincts, memories, and representations of traumatic events. It was a place, like China in the 1960s, knowable only by indirection.
Simply by naming the territory, Freud implicitly refused to accept the prevailing cultural fantasy (inspired by the Renaissance and reinforced by the market capitalism of Adam Smith) that human life is primarily governed by free will and conscious choice. He was attacked for it, but he hoped that his “talking cure” would bring at least some of the unconscious’s puzzling and destructive behaviors under human control. “Where Id is,” he once declared magisterially, “Ego then shall be.”
Easier said than done! The intervening century has made it clear that in defining the unconscious, Freud didn’t go nearly far enough. If by “the unconscious” we mean all shapers of behavior outside verbal awareness, we now know that its territory extends far beyond the individual body and brain.
In the 1950s, behaviorists shone a light into one of the hidden valleys of this terrain: the blind, animal responses of stimulus and reward that shape many patterns of human action. In the 1960s, the first wave of effective antidepressants cast a glimmering half-light into another valley: biological influences on mood and behavior.
More terrain came to light in the 1970s, when family therapists and systems thinkers named external behavioral shapers outside the sliver of an individual’s conscious mind, such as habitual family patterns of interaction and other powerful forms of social context. In the 1980s, feminist and narrative therapists mapped out the unconscious further still, identifying “the problem that has no name” and addressing the shaping forces of gender, ideology, and power.
In the 1990s, the rapid growth of 12-step programs (whose systems of mutual support often succeeded where individual therapy and white-knuckle willpower had failed) named yet more shaping forces–physical and behavioral addictions, and the individual, familial, and social denial and isolation that often accompanied them. The 1990s–widely known as the “decade of the brain”–illuminated how trauma and perceived stress could reshape someone’s neurophysiology, and physiological states could alter cognitive and emotional responses to external events.
Now, at the dawn of the 21st century, Schwartz and Loehr–and an array of life coaches, sports psychologists, meditators, and addiction researchers–have illuminated even more shaping factors, notably basic physical health, deeply held values, and the habitual automaticity of the reptilian brain.
Much of this territory has been ignored by therapists as either beneath their attention or outside their range. But if it can shape behavior so powerfully, perhaps it’s time to expand the domain of the therapeutic enterprise beyond the cognitive and the emotional to the spirit, the body, the heart, and the larger human community that contains them all.
A therapist might explore, in an expanded initial clinical assessment., questions about values and physical health. (“Whom do you admire most, and why? Do you exercise? How much sugar and soda do you drink? When do you go to bed? Do you vote?”)
The answers may reveal levers of change as decisive to change as knowledge of a clients’ moods, family history, and sense of self-mastery. We’re animals and social beings and psychological beings and spiritual beings and habitual beings. And therapeutic success is most likely to occur when all these systems are mobilized in a systematic and hierarchical strategy.
This requires expanding beyond a psychological construction of the self–a notion that’s turning out to represent only a corner of our being, anyway. Free will–or, as we might call it now, the executive function of the neocortex–has turned out to be a limited commodity, more limited perhaps than even Freud understood. A vast body of research shows that human willpower is quickly exhausted, be it the capacity to resist a repeatedly proffered piece of cake or a toddler’s ability to sit still on a sofa for more than two minutes.
Willpower may be limited, but that doesn’t make it meaningless. Inside the consulting room, this precious and limited resource of conscious awareness can help clients clarify what they value and how they want to live. If there’s a disconnect between ideals and actions–and there usually is–a conversation can begin about the factors that make it so.
That, of course, is only the beginning. Having clarified the motivation for change, it’s time to address the mechanics of change more effectively than therapy ever has before. A good therapist can help clients build rituals outside sessions (see sidebar on page 36)–rituals that, over time, may transform the shape of clients’ lives. An early bedtime, a daily run, a diet low in sugar, a morning meditation, a ritual walk in the park, an inspirational photograph–even an uncluttered desk or a Daytimer–all can help determine whether our clients’ hopes become visions or remain dreams.
Nothing that we’ve learned about the unconscious suggests that the process will be easy. As anyone who’s tried to quit biting her nails or overeating knows, it’s far easier to decide to change a habit than to take action for 60 to 90 days in a row to make the changes stick. Destructive, ingrained life patterns like sleeping until noon or yelling at one’s children can be as intractable as substance addictions–whether we call them behavioral addictions, compulsions, or just plain bad habits. Relapses are so frequent that addiction counselors consider them part of the process of recovery. Instead of internally blaming our clients as “unmotivated,” we can turn our attention to the environmental context and every other factor that contributes to their success or failure.
To stop or change any habit creates anxiety, and human contact, be it in the form of a therapist or a support group, is a proven antidote for it. We’re only generations away from the “habits of the heart” of the village well and temple; we remain communal creatures, and the individual-consumer model of change propagated by 20th-century therapy ignores the essence of our humanity. The influence we have on a broader community, and the way we’re influenced by it, is another powerful part of the territory of the unconscious, and one that remains only partly explored.
Group support, classes, or psychoeducation may be necessary. Anyone who’s ever had a running buddy or attended Alcoholics Anonymous or weighed in at Weight Watchers or chanted in unison at a meditation retreat knows the “entraining effect” of synchronizing one’s body, voice, intentions, or actions with those of others. A two-year study of 200 people who made New Year’s resolutions (by psychologist John Norcross of the University of Scranton) found the resolutions most likely to persist beyond six months were those with social support.
Change may also require learning the interpersonal effectiveness and communication skills required to say no to weekend work without getting fired, or to reinstate boundaries between work and home and between activity and rest. But once new routines are developed, they can help our clients structure a life worth living, without the cultural arrhythmia endemic to 21st-century life, even among people who’ve earned enough never to worry about money again.
The Illusion of Perfectability
Tony Schwartz was 35 when he lay in his bed in Riverdale, newly rich but as unhappy as ever, and decided to find out how to live. He was 43 when, in the same house, he finished the last chapter of What Really Matters, tapping out hard-won sentences like “No amount of insight counts for much if it doesn’t lead to changes in behavior,” and “I often feel I’m swimming upstream, not just against my own resistance but against the culture’s, too.”
Now, after five years of adapting the rituals of the tennis court to his daily life, much has changed, within him and the larger culture. Ram Dass, whom he interviewed for What Really Matters, is recovering from a stroke brought on by untreated high blood pressure. Michael Murphy, the founder of Esalen, now teaches (with author and Aikido teacher George Leonard) something called Integral Transformative Practice (ITP). The very opposite of a spontaneous Esalen gestalt weekend, it’s an integrated series of physical, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual disciplines designed–much like Schwartz and Loehr’s work–to be practiced for life.
Schwartz still lives in Riverdale. He’s still thin and angular, and he still runs and plays tennis. He isn’t as rich as he once was. He’s closer to his wife, less pessimistic, and less driven. These days, he’s trying to become kinder. Each night, he writes in an “accountability log,” about the opportunities he took that day–or passed up–to give to others without thought of return and to value people unconditionally rather than for their potential usefulness. Practice, it turns out, hasn’t made him perfect. He remains a work in progress.
This may be the greatest paradox of the expanded definition of the unconscious. The more we know about factors outside our conscious control, the greater the chance we have to influence and channel them. At the same time, the more the Renaissance vision of the perfectability of man recedes into the distance, the more our genuine ability to shape our lives grows, and the more our grandiose sense of complete control wanes. So does Freud’s magisterial conception of an Ego that would, after indefinite years of psychoanalysis, supplant the writhing Id.
This paradox invites us to look over our lives, take a deep breath, and hold the reins with a looser hand. We can’t control ourselves. We can’t even control the factors that control us. We can simply help shape what helps shape us. We influence our lives, but we don’t control them. If we want to be effective and happy, we need to include on our lists of values not only “excellence,” “effort,” and “integrity,” but “self-acceptance,” “persistence,” and “forgiveness.” This may be the deeper meaning of the notion of “practice” that the seeker and the tennis coach have stumbled on, and a way to approach the vast unconscious with a deeper emotional wisdom. n
Networker Â features editor Katy Butler, a former reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle , has contributed to Tricycle, The Los Angeles Times , The New Yorker , The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post . Address: P.O. Box 832, Mill Valley, CA 94942. E-mails to the author may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters to the Editor about this article may be sent to Letters@psychnetworker.org.