Open Book

The New Consciousness

Bridging science and spirituality

Jim Naughton
The New Consciousness

This article first appeared in the May/June 2003 issue.

Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? A Scientific Collaboration with the Dalai Lama

Narrated by Daniel Goleman

Bantam Books. 370 pp. ISBN 0-553-80171-6

Daniel Goleman, who gave our culture the popular concept of emotional intelligence, has turned his attention in this book to the nature and manipulation of consciousness. He joins forces with an eclectic array of religious and scientific leaders to examine whether seemingly contradictory approaches to the subject are, in fact, complementary.

The experts he’s assembled are an impressive lot, including Matthieu Ricard, a geneticist turned Buddhist monk; Owen Flanagan, a neuroscientist and philosopher; the late Francisco J. Valera, biologist and author of The Embodied Mind; and, of course, the Dalai Lama. They and six others took part in a five-day seminar in Dharamsala, India, in March 2000. This book is a reader-friendly report on the proceedings, with Goleman serving as narrator.

The presenters take recent neuroscientific breakthroughs as their starting point. There’s no disagreement about the plasticity of the brain. Indeed, the entire conference rested on the realizations that the brain is in constant conversation with itself and its surroundings, and that these conversations exert a scientifically verifiable influence within the brain. But if the brain is malleable, how can we best mold it? And into what shape?

In addressing these questions, Easterners tended to speak of the self as subject, and emphasized the importance of a holistic approach to life that reduces the tension engendered by the human passions. Westerners spoke of the self as the object of analysis. But the seminar was permeated by the understanding that a dichotomous approach to consciousness is no longer beneficial. Participants articulated an openness to a multiplicity of methods for shaping consciousness, ranging from meditation to therapy to pharmaceuticals, but spoke most approvingly of self-regulatory skills that are typically developed through spiritual practices, such as yoga and prayer.

The strength of this book is its openhearted optimism. Goleman and his group clearly believe that we’re coming to know ourselves better as a species, and that good things will come of this. Goleman also does a creditable job of summarizing some fairly esoteric spiritual and scientific conversation. The book lacks grace, however, veering awkwardly from commendable exposition to cliched feature-writing and back again. (The Dalai Lama spends far too much time beaming beatifically at somebody or other.) There’s also some dissonance between the book’s title and its content. Readers looking for practical ways to deal with destructive emotions will be disappointed. Those whose interest is more theoretical will not.

Living Narrative: Creating Lives in Everyday Storytelling

By Elinor Ochs and Lisa Capps

Harvard University Press. 290 pp. ISBN 0-674-01010-8

When author Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” she wasn’t writing about psychotherapy, but she may as well have been, for that sentence distills much of the wisdom that has shaped the field in the last three decades. Despite their manifold philosophical differences, practitioners of narrative, solution-focused, and other innovative brands of therapy are united by a fascination with tellers, tales, the language tales get told in, and the power that telling tales confers upon the narrator.

With so many clinicians having devoted so many words to, well, words, it comes as a surprise to stumble upon a work that makes the whole subject seem fresh. But that’s what this brilliant book, just recently released in paperback, manages to do. Ochs, an anthropologist, and Capps, a psychologist who died of cancer as the book was nearing completion, have produced a work that’s at once rigorous and playful, one that employs state-of-the-art scholarship to analyze the kind of conversations that take place over coffee, beers, or Sunday dinner. In doing so, they not only validate Didion’s insight, but they demonstrate how it happens.

In painstaking analyses, they demonstrate how meaning is constructed through the give and take of casual conversation, how stories shift shape as they’re retold, and how the desire for consensus helps create mutually-agreed-upon versions of the truth. None of this is new, but Ochs and Capps are so alert to every nuance in inflection, phrasing, and meaning, that readers see the power of narrative with greater clarity than ever before. In one conversation, the authors demonstrate how a woman uncertain about how she handled a business transaction keeps opening her narrative up to reinterpretation by retelling it to the same listener but including new information each time. By the time she’s finished, a simple story of being taken advantage of by a rude client has become a richly layered tale of a woman who’s unwilling to communicate her needs if she thinks they’ll cause the slightest bit of conflict.

In eight dense chapters–the book is invigorating, but difficult–the authors treat both the mechanics of everyday narrative and the role that collaborative narrative plays in our lives. This book will be of particular value to postmodern therapists, for it validates many of their insights while suggesting that the construction of meaning is a communal as well as an individual activity–one that in the end serves moral ends and not simply therapeutic ones.

Helping Children Cope with Disasters and Terrorism

Edited by Annette M. La Greca, Wendy K. Silverman, et al.

American Psychological Association. 423 pp. ISBN 1-557-98914-1

Annette La Greca and her collaborators have put between two covers almost everything we know about treating children and adolescents who have been exposed to disasters. The result is a book that may well be consulted for years to come, but is unlikely to be read from start to finish. The book devotes far more space to disasters such as floods, earthquakes, and toxic waste spills than to more recent front-page tragedies, such as the shootings at Columbine High School or the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This may disappoint readers looking for strategies on how to deal with client problems brought on by these media-magnified catastrophes, but others will be glad for the breadth of information on treating children in the wake of potentially traumatizing events.

The book is a valuable resource to clinicians, with 12 chapters on specific disasters sandwiched between four chapters on key issues and concepts, and a recommendations-oriented conclusion. One drawback, however, is that the authors don’t distill the clinical wisdom that arises from these pages. That’s a significant shortcoming, because even devoted clinicians, faced with 400 pages of uninviting prose, might be inclined to skip the chapters that don’t seem immediately relevant. Thus, those who are unlikely to treat flood victims might never learn about the culturally sensitive screening protocols developed in South Dakota after the 1993 floods, when psychologists were treating a population that included Anglos, Native Americans, and Latinos.

To their credit, the authors have the cautiousness common to good researchers. The scholarship here is impeccable. Unfortunately for readers attempting to absorb the entire book, a great deal of time is spent crossing T’s, dotting I’s, and establishing conclusively what, in some instances, was taken for granted to begin with. The editors conclude by telling us that “the field needs to move beyond asking what factors predict outcomes and begin to ask why certain variables are important and by what process certain variables influence children’s reactions.” They might have followed their own advice.

Bad Therapy: Master Therapists Share Their Worst Failures

By Jeffrey A. Kottler and Jon Carlson

Brunner Routledge. 199 pp. ISBN 0-415-93323-4

This book begins from a promising premise: that having the best minds in the field reflect on their mistakes will result in widely applicable therapeutic insights. Unfortunately, the authors don’t probe their subjects deeply enough or analyze their responses with sufficient rigor to make most of the interviews useful. Kottler and Carlson are compromised to some extent by their admiration for their subjects. They can’t stop telling us how wonderful people like Peggy Papp, Scott Miller, and Arnold Lazarus are. They may deserve such praise, but these encomiums do nothing to advance one’s understanding of the therapeutic craft.

This admiration also evinces itself in the authors’ deferential interviewing style. In most instances, the subjects guide the conversation, and we find them riding familiar hobbyhorses. No one who has read Lazarus’s work will be surprised to find him taking a swipe at psychoanalysts’ obsession with boundaries, even though the subject is in no way relevant to his worst failure. Papp tells them about the time she was before an audience of a thousand people and attempted to treat a family about whom she had too little information. The story is engaging and she relates it with palpable humility, but how many therapists out there are conducting sessions in an amphitheater? Francine Shapiro’s worst failure is of interest to a similarly small audience. At times it seems this book should have been entitled “When Bad Things Happen to Workshop Presenters.”

The therapists who come across best in the book are those who are both self-critical and intellectually honest, like Susan Johnson, who’s willing to admit that she was so deeply committed to her method of doing couples therapy that when she met a hostile husband who didn’t respond to it, she may have done damage to the marriage, or William Glasser, who reflects on whether he could have done anything more to prevent a suicide (although here, a skilled interviewer would have been able to take this conversation deeper). Readers curious about some of the better known therapists in the field might find this book useful as a quick, informal introduction to their thoughts, but those who look here for applicable insights will be far less satisfied.