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The Many Faces Of Wisdom

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PNMA13-3Perspectives on Therapy’s Questions

By Tara Brach, Eugene Gendlin, Mary Pipher, Daniel Kahneman, and Irvin Yalom

Excerpts from a series of interviews with some of the wisest souls in the field of psychology and psychotherapy on essential questions clinicians struggle with every day.

You’d be hard pressed to argue that our society places a high premium on wisdom. Thanks in part to the explosive growth in mass media, we’re drowning in information—facts, nonfacts, factoids, opinion, gossip, and flat-out lies. Yet it’s hard to escape the creeping sense that despite what we know or think we know, we’ve never been less wise.

So much about our society seems to be the antithesis of wisdom. So many of the rich and powerful may be smart, but not wise; too often they appear to be barely disguised charlatans, hucksters, scoundrels, fools, or all of the above. Even the idea of wisdom seems to have suffered from a kind of brand degradation: how meaningful can the term be when it’s relegated to glib one-liners in animated movies like Mufasa in The Lion King, Yoda in Star Wars, or Gandalf in The Hobbit? There’s even a recent book, by an Oxford University research psychologist no less, called The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us about Success. Wisdom, how far hath thou fallen!

Nevertheless, genuine wisdom and wise people, however few and far between, are still around. If not, the human race would have self-destructed long ago. But how do we know it when we see it? Is it innate—a genetic gift, like perfect pitch? Do you get it in a sudden burst of enlightenment? Or is it a predilection of mind that you buff and polish until it glows? One dictionary definition of this notoriously slippery term is itself almost as slippery: “the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting; insight.” And that ability would demonstrate itself . . . how?

This fall, we brought together some of the people we think are the wisest souls in the world of psychology and psychotherapy for a series of webcast interviews called “6 Faces of Wisdom”, and spent an hour talking to each of them about a different aspect of wisdom relevant to the practice of psychotherapy. What follows are excerpts from five of these conversations with:

Tara Brach, a clinical psychologist and one of the foremost American teachers of Buddhist practices, who’s developed a distinctive approach to healing that bridges Western psychological knowledge and Eastern spiritual traditions. In person and in her books, Radical Acceptance and True Refuge, she’s a luminous and powerful presence, at once deeply comforting and inspiring. She not only conveys the message of Buddhist acceptance and wisdom, but illuminates the differences between therapy and the spiritual path.

Eugene Gendlin is best known as a pioneer in the development of mind-body approaches to therapy. He’s the developer of Focusing, an experiential form of psychotherapy that encourages clients to get in touch with a “felt sense” of their bodies. Gendlin is probably the most eloquent voice for the idea that, as he puts it, “The body isn’t a physiological machine: the body and the person are all one system,” and for developing a therapeutic approach that bypasses intellectualization and helps clients become much more aware of what they truly feel and want.

Mary Pipher might be considered the social and environmental conscience of the psychotherapy profession. Since writing her phenomenally popular and influential bestseller Reviving Ophelia, about the plight of young girls in our society, she’s written about broad social, cultural, and political issues of vital importance to us all. Her forthcoming book, The Green Boat, is about how we can move from despair in the face of overwhelming environmental destruction to a feeling of hope and empowerment by focusing on what might be called “wisdom in action.”

Daniel Kahneman, a cognitive research psychologist, received a 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work demonstrating that human beings tend to make decisions on the basis of fast, spontaneous, intuitive—often wrong!—reactions and subjective experiences, rather than objective facts, slow deliberation, and hard logic. His book Thinking Fast and Slow is a bestselling exploration of the role of the automatic response in human thought, and just how instinctively unwise we can be.

Irvin Yalom, probably psychotherapy’s most famous storyteller and author of several acclaimed novels, is the foremost practitioner of existential psychotherapy. Unlike the vast majority of therapists, he believes psychotherapy should focus on the great, timeless issues of ultimate concern to every human being: mortality, freedom, meaning, and human connection as the antidote to isolation and anomie.

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