Stephen Gilligan Interviews

In the interviews below, Dr. Gilligan is speaks on a variety of topics, including his early experiences with Milton Erickson, Gregory Bateson, John Grinder and others. In addition, Steve talks about the nature of hypnosis, neo-ericksonian approaches and his own models, often called self-relations psychotherapy. Enjoy.

An Interview with Dr Stephen Gilligan

By Chris & Jules Collingwood

Dr Gilligan talks about Milton Erickson, Hypnosis, Deep Trance Identification and the development of Ericksonian approaches.

Dr Stephen Gilligan was a member of the original group who where present when John Grinder and Richard Bandler were first developing NLP. He studied with Dr Milton Erickson and was able to model him extensively. as a result of this, Dr Gilligan became one of the greatest exponents of Ericksonian Hypnosis. Since then he has developed his own approach to psychotherapy and personal development and is a leading member of the Ericksonian Foundation, an organisation for health care professionals to promote Milton Erickson’s work. Dr Gilligan is the author of Therapeutic Trances; The co-operation principle is Ericksonian Hypnotherapy, Therapeutic Conversations, and is the editor with Jeffrey K. Zeig of Brief Therapy; myths, methods and metaphors. He is the co-presenter with Dr John Grinder of 2 volumes of the Syntax of Behavior audio tape series.

1. What was the atmosphere of the context you were in at UCSC?

I attended UCSC from 1972-1977. It was a very wild time. There were many different areas of activity-radical politics, t-groups and the humanistic psychology movement, the beginnings of ecology and feminism, the presence of people like Gregory Bateson and Norman O. Brown-and on and on. UCSC was the answer to the UC Berkeley riots, which railed against (among other things) the lack of attention to undergraduates. Santa Cruz was an experimental campus-no grades, very open, set in the redwood forests-that provided great resources and tremendous freedom to experiment. In that environment, John Grinder was an assistant professor of linguistics who was very interested in radical change, both at an individual and collective level. I met John right around the time he was getting together with Richard Bandler, who at that time was a renegade Gestalt therapist operating in the Santa Cruz mountains. I was in their first training and research groups, completely immersed with them from 1974 until I left Santa Cruz in 1977 to go to graduate school at Stanford. There were about a dozen of us altogether, pretty much all students at UCSC-people like Leslie Cameron, Judy Delozier, Paul Carter, Frank Pucilek, and David Gordon. (Robert Dilts started in about 1976, if I remember correctly.) This was before NLP was NLP-it was the Meta Model and Milton Model back in those days. A very wild and experimental time, to say the least!

2. What was it like to be a student entering into Milton Erickson’s world?

Incredible. Amazing. I was 19 years old. Milton Erickson touched a place deep in my soul and lit a fire within me. It has never been doused, despite my times of inattention and neglect. I had always been interested and very skilled in altered states of consciousness-I pretty much lived in a trance growing up as a kid in an Irish-American alcoholic family. I didn’t know about much else, but I knew a lot about trance. Erickson was the first person I met who could clearly run circles around me in terms of hypnotic skills. Somehow I knew immediately that I had met my teacher.

Even more significantly than his hypnotic skills was the way in which he was using them. He was embodying the healing aspects of trance, not just the dissociative aspects. I had only known how to use trance to get away from things-pain, trauma, family, life itself-whereas Milton was using trance with himself and others to reconnect with the world. An extraordinary difference that I continue to appreciate some 25 years later. It’s actually the basis of the hypnotic work-how to use what people have employed to move away from the world to help them return to the world in a centered, effective way.

3. How were you introduced to Milton Erickson?

Gregory Bateson and Milton Erickson had been buddies since 1932, when Bateson and Mead went to Bali to study trance rituals. Before going, they consulted about trance process with young Milton Erickson, who was then a psychiatrist in Detroit. From that encounter, Erickson developed life long relationships with both Mead and with Bateson.

Bateson lived on the same property with Bandler and Grinder in the Santa Cruz mountains. When he read their first book, The Structure of Magic I, he liked it so much that he said if they really wanted to know something about communication, they should visit the great Purple One (before Prince!) who was living in the Phoenix desert. They did and came back with tales that stirred something deep within me. When they returned several months later (in late 1974), they invited me along with them. At the end of this five-day meeting, I asked Erickson if I could come back and study with him. He agreed, and thus began a five-year process where I would periodically fly to Phoenix for 2-10 day stays. He often put me up at his house, and never charged me a cent, which was great since I was a penniless student during those years!

I was deeply moved by his generosity and asked a number of times how I could ever repay him. He said that if anything I learned from him was helpful, I could repay him by passing it on to others. What a bargain on both ends for me!

4. What were your first impressions of Milton Erickson?

He was an incredible wizard, an amazing healer, and a funny old man. His hypnotic presence was really very strong-like an old shaman. I was of course nervous around him, but this was easily resolved by going into a deep trance! That was pretty much standard procedure around Milton-if you were near him, you would go into trance!

5. What are your lasting impressions of Milton Erickson?

It has now been 25 years since I first met Milton Erickson. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t value something he passed on to me. But my relationship to him is quite different from when I started. I see him most as a very courageous, very outrageous, very kind, very creative human being. I think he was a true revolutionary in the field of psychotherapy. At the same time, I also see him now as a human being, with strengths as well as flaws. The latter is important, because my unwillingness to recognize his flaws led me for many years to not accept my own shortcomings. And without this humility, I don’t think much real growth is possible.

I think his most enduring gift was what he called the idea of utilization-that anything could be used for positive growth, no matter how sick, crazy, unaesthetic it might appear. For example, Erickson worked for his 20 professional years in locked wards of mental hospitals. One guy insisted he was Jesus Christ, despite the many efforts by staff to convince him otherwise. Erickson introduced himself to “Jesus”, let him know that there was a new ward being built on hospital grounds that needed some carpenters, and got “Jesus” to work as a carpenter. His work led him to become involved with other folks, which eventually led him back into common reality.

Another patient was a very depressed and suicidal woman who was convinced that no man would ever be attracted to her given the large gap between her front teeth. Erickson had her practice spitting water between her teeth until she could hit a target at twenty feet. He then got her to hide out near her office water cooler until a certain young man happened by. Per Erickson’s instructions, she jumped out, nailed him with a squirt of water, and then ran away. He caught up to her and asked her for a date. As in all good Erickson stories, they were married shortly thereafter and had 6 little water-squirters for children. So many examples like this illustrate this basic principle that Erickson contributed: find a way to accept and utilize whatever is there, especially that which continues to be there (that is, repeats itself).

6. How is Ericksonian Hypnosis different from conventional hypnosis?


You can read my first book, Therapeutic trances: The cooperation principle in Ericksonian hypnotherapy, for an extensive discussion of the differences. What I would emphasize here are two main differences. The first is that conventional hypnosis sees trance as an artifact stemming from hypnotic suggestions, whereas Ericksonian hypnosis sees trance as a natural psychobiological state that arises from life events. That is, traditional hypnosis sees trance as the result of the hypnotist’s suggestions, pure and simple. Thus, trance doesn’t occur until and unless there is a situation defined as “hypnosis” and someone called “the hypnotist” performs something called “hypnotic technique” with someone called “the subject”.

In contrast, Erickson emphasized that trance occurs with or without hypnotists. (It’s coming to get you, like it or not.) My best understanding is that trance is a special learning state that occurs whenever identity is threatened, disrupted, or needs to reorganize. This could happen in many situations-trauma, times of change in a person’s life (a birth, death, illness, graduation, marriage, divorce, etc.), contexts of uncertainty. At such times, a person’s normal identity is not equipped to respond adequately to the situation. For example, if you had an identity as a single person and then get married, your old identity can’t quite meet the new challenge. So some process is needed for letting go of your old identity and moving into a state where a new identity can be generated, Trance is the natural resource state that accesses at precisely those times. Hypnosis is one of the social traditions that can provide a ritual space and process to receive and positively guide the trance process in helpful ways. So you see, an Ericksonian hypnotist is looking for how and where the trance is already occurring, rather than creating one artificially.

The second difference, related to the first, is that traditional hypnosis generally thinks of trance in the singular, whereas Ericksonian hypnosis always emphasizes it in the plural. All trances are not created equal. Erickson emphasized how each person is radically unique, something that really becomes apparent in trance. I like to emphasize to my clients (with an Irish twinkle) my “diagnosis” that they are incurable deviants, and it’s just getting worse by the day!! That is, the way they do it, know it, experience it, and express it is unlike anything the world has ever seen. Their attempts to fit into someone else’s definition of “success” or “normalcy” or whatever have failed miserably, and rightfully so!! (Again, this is said only when the Irish twinkle or its equivalent has been established.)

This uniqueness is so apparent in trance experience-everybody experiences it differently. For example, it is very common that a person comes out of trance in my office and says something like, “Wow! The most incredible thing just happened.” They will then describe what happened and usually ask, “Does that happen to everybody in trance?”. I am usually forced to say that in my 25 years of working with trance, I have never heard anyone else having that experience. To me, it ‘s one of the great values of trance-you’re setting aside the conscious mind that is basically a conservative social construction and exploring the experiential/archetypal mind, which is much more artistic and unique.

7. What is Deep Trance Identification and how did you learn to do it?


Deep trance identification is a hypnotic process wherein a person develops a deep trance, goes into a safe place, sets aside their regular personality, and assumes another personality for 30 minutes or so. The identification personality could be a person you know-your mate, a client, a mentor-or someone you don’t know-a famous person or a historical figure, for example. At my last workshop, some of the characters selected included Milton Erickson, the Buddha, a famous poet, a classical piano player, and a person’s wife. Once you enter into the identification trance, you can interact and talk with others in the ritual space as that character.

Some of the effects can be pretty amazing. A first is the freedom that one can achieve by letting go of your normal identity-the habitual, unconscious ways we think, hold our body, talk, react, etc. When you step out of your normal identity, your whole sense of self can drop to a much deeper level, one not so cluttered by idiosyncratic identity content. I think it allows a whole other level of identity consciousness, where what Bateson called “learning level III”-learning to learn to learn-is now a variable.

A second effect regards the identification character you step into. You can model from both an interior and exterior space, and perhaps even a deeper dimension, something I call “field-based modeling”. You can sense patterns with a different way of sensing patterns, if that makes any sense. It’s a pretty amazing experience.

I learned deep trance identification while initially studying with Erickson. It was during my Bandler-Grinder days, and we were trying all sorts of far-out experiments in consciousness. We read about these experiments conducted by a fellow named Raikov in Russia, who was having hypnotized subjects do deep trance identification with painters such as Rembrandt, then do some painting. When rated by judges, the identification subjects did much better work than those not hypnotized and those merely hypnotized (without the identification process). We thought it might be interesting for me to try it with Erickson. Interestingly, Bateson walked in the first time I was doing it. As I said, he was a good friend of Erickson; he was also my teacher. It turns out that while I was talking with him as “Erickson”, I shared with some information that really kind of spooked him. Something that he said was private between him and Erickson. I don’t know what to make of it, but I can say the process is an interesting and rewarding one.

These days I used identification processes when I feel really stuck with a client or with a personal relationship. It finally becomes clear to me that I don’t have a deep understanding of the other person’s space, so I do an identification process when I’m alone. Entering into that person’s space and experiencing their way of knowing, it becomes easier to find ways to connect.

8. You used Deep Trance Identification to model Milton Erickson. What was it like?

When I first opened my eyes while identifying as “Erickson”, it was a pretty profound experience. Somehow I could feel so strongly that everybody in the room had an unconscious mind and everyone was longing to connect with it, and therefore everyone was just a moment away from trance. It was not a matter of some great technique on my part, but a willingness to touch the place in them that was longing for self-connection. I think in that state I was so connected to the unconscious that I could feel its presence not only within me but also within others with equal ease. From that space, the words just seemed to flow out on their own. Something more basic than words was absorbing me-it’s hard to say what it was, a basic rhythm or beat of something. It was so clear that each person could and would develop a trance, and reality bore that out. Pretty amazing experience. Somehow it was a process where my ego was out of the way-it wasn’t me doing something to them, but rather a deeper connection to the spirit of life. That may sound a little vague, but that’s kind of how I experienced it. It really changed my perception of how to do trance.

9. What advice would you offer someone who wants to become fluent in Ericksonian Hypnosis?

Learn to locate your mind within your body and within the living field of relational connection. Trust that you have multiple brains-not just the one in your head, but also your whole body as well as your heart and your gut. Embodied relationality, I call it. Unfortunately, most of us are trained very early to disconnect our mind from our body and from the world around us. We therefore associate our mind with our disembodied intellectual self. Not a good place to do hypnosis from. Ericksonian hypnosis involves being willing and able to accept and work with whatever is in the present moment. The problem is the solution, we say: Whatever a person is struggling with is what will allow them not only to go into trance but also develop new ways of knowing and acting. This is the basic Ericksonian principle: welcome whatever is in each moment, harmonize your bodymind with it, and become curious as to how it will continue to unfold in a positive way. To do that, you must move your mind into the field of the present moment.

Gregory Bateson referred to this shift when he was discussing Erickson in an interview with Brad Keeney, one of his students. The interview took place in 1976, when Erickson’s work was just getting known to a wider audience. Erickson’s name came up during the interview, and Keeney asked if Bateson had been in touch with him recently. Bateson said he hadn’t, only through some of the many students that Bateson had sent to Erickson. Keeney asked what he thought of the books that were coming out about Erickson, and Bateson harrumphed his archetypal British aristocratic harrumph. He said he hated the work, regretted sending people to Erickson, and would do it no more. When Keeney asked him to elaborate, Bateson said that Erickson had a way of entering a system so thoroughly before he acted that he was not an ego separate from the system but part of the “weave of the total complex”. Therefore his techniques arose from within the weave and harmonized with them.

Bateson said that people were studying Erickson with the traditional Western epistemological of the outside observer operating on a system. They were thus “seeing” Erickson’s work in terms of an ego applying a bag of tricks onto a system from the outside. This created a sort of power game and misunderstanding of the work that Bateson loathed. I tend to agree with Bateson’s somewhat severe assessment. This is why in the workshops we spend a lot of time working with how to reorganize attention into what I call field-based identity-something that allows one to perceive from within a field that is bigger than the first position of the “I” or the second position of the “you”. For example, we work to develop skillfulness in five principles of attention: dropping it down (into your center), softening (relaxing the body), widening (expanding your perceptual field), connecting (letting your mind feel a connection with other minds), and erasing (clearing out any fixed images, thoughts, submodalities in your field of consciousness). When you can do that, you’re ready for creative “field-based” responsiveness.

10. Naturally your own work has moved on from where Erickson’s left off. We live in a different social world now. Can you describe your current work?

About 8 years ago, my dad died and my daughter was born. This produced a major death-and-rebirth process in me. Suddenly I was no one’s son and some one’s father. I figured it was time for me to let go of using Erickson as kind surrogate father. It was time to start speaking in my own voice, and not blame everything on him! So the last 8 years I have been what I call the self-relations approach. It is described in my latest book, The courage to love: Principles and practices of self-relations psychotherapy.

Self-relations work is different from Erickson’s legacy in at least 3 ways. The first is the incorporation of what we call the “Erickson function” within the client. Erickson used to say that the unconscious is very intelligent, but he never explained why a person was acting so stupidly before Erickson came onto the scene. It seems that Erickson committed the typical Western error of not including the observer (himself) in the observed: that is, it wasn’t so much the “client’s unconscious alone” that was intelligent, it was “the client’s unconscious in relation to Erickson” that was the winning ticket. If that was indeed the case, the question is whether whatever Erickson was doing-what we might call the “Erickson function”–could be learned by others, especially by the client himself. That is, couldn’t the client learn to relate with his “unconscious” the same way that Erickson did? And if so, whose voice do you want running around with you in your head-some dead guy’s or your own? With all due respect to Milton (and much is due), it’s nice to know that a person can locate and develop the Erickson function within themselves. We try to do this formally in self-relations.

A second difference is the embodiment of the unconscious. In Erickson’s work, the unconscious sounds a bit ethereal at times. It just kind of hangs around in the air. Self-relations explicitly emphasizes life as a performance art, and looks at how performance artists-dancers, athletes, artists-experience and organize their “creative unconscious”. We see how important embodiment is, and so emphasize the somatic experience in relation to the unconscious much more than Erickson did. For example, in examining states of well being that we hope to reproduce in other contexts, we ask, “When you experience that sense of well-being and effectiveness, where in your body do you sense your center of self?” We then examine how reconnecting with that center can be accomplished in challenging situations.

Elatedly, in exploring problems a basic question we ask in self-relations is, “When you experience the problem, where do you feel the center of disturbance in your body?” Most people point to their heart, solar plexus, or belly. We work with, discovering how tuning to it reveal the creative unconscious in action. It just needs what we call a little “sponsorship” to reveal its positive contribution.

A third difference has to do with the creative field. In Erickson’s work, people go into a trance that is generally away from the world. That is, you have to close your eyes, not move, and zone out. A lot of interesting and helpful things can happen in that state, but it has limitations in terms of performance. That is, it’s not a very helpful resource when you have to respond quickly in a challenging social situation-for example, someone attacking you or criticizing you, or asking you to solve some problem immediately. So we’ve moved trance from a field away from the here and now to a field that is here and now.

A lot of this comes from aikido training, which I’m very much into. In aikido, if you go into accessing cues, or close your eyes, or otherwise think while you’re being attacked, you end up on the floor. You’ve just gotten whacked! So instead of going inside, you allow your mind to spread into the field that holds both you and your partner, as well as many other presences. People know this field when they’re experiencing deep well-being-just think of experiences when you feel most connected to yourself and note where your self “ends” in such experiences. Self-relations looks to train folks to access and work within this field. In a sense, it’s the place where Erickson worked-he didn’t go into trance, he came “out into trance”, wider and wider awake, as we say. We really emphasize this in self-relations in a way that I don’t think Erickson really did.

11. You have kindly agreed to lead a 5 day training seminar in Ericksonian Hypnosis in Sydney in august for health care professionals and NLP practitioners. From both a professional and personal development point of view, what would you like participants to walk away with at the end of the 5 days?

Well, I hope that what I’ve said so far gives a flavor for what the work is up to. I would hope that folks can tune into how creative death and rebirth is going on all the time in the field of consciousness. And how it needs human presence to “sponsor it”, to bring awareness to it, so it can awaken into an even more profound state. The work in Ericksonian hypnosis and self-relations are methods for how to do that.

I will be asking folks to come in with specific goal states in mind. Places that they really would like to make improvement in-both personally and professionally. Stuff that will really provide a test of the ideas and practices of the approach. So that when you leave you have a sense that as a theory this may or may not be interesting, but as a practice it really is something.

My intention is that people walk away from the course with some practical ways to deal creatively with difficult situations. Some workable ways to transform the negative experiences in their lives. Some effective methods for approaching challenging new situations.

To make it work, we will work on how to make the learning environment both safe and passionate. Safe enough to let go and passionate enough to touch and awaken the soul. Each condition is equally important: one without the other is useless.

Most of all, I hope we can have some good fun in the process.

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Touching the Tender Center:

An Interview with Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.

By Charles Holton CCSW

CH: It seems there are so many factions of psychotherapists, each claiming paradigm shifts and unique perspectives, and attacking other positions as philosophically untenable or clinically ineffective. Since Self-relations work is both very open-ended in terms of how technique is directed but also clear about ideas of healthy functioning, I’m wondering if you’ve had occasion to respond to criticisms from pathology-focused clinicians who might find your approach not specific or detailed enough, or from the utterly different position that a clinician bringing any agenda to therapy is an oppressive abuse of power?

SG: The question as I understand it is twofold. One is do I, in fact, favor a generalist position, and, secondly, how would I respond to critical comments from two different wings of psychotherapy – what we might call the right wing of psychopathology and the left wing of narrative approaches. On the first point of whether I favor a generalist position I’d say emphatically yes, partly as a student of Milton Erickson. I was really influenced by his premise that each person is unique, and so each person is their own theory. While it’s a general ideal to strive for, it doesn’t mean that you don’t need a coherent theory. I think you need some coherent principles that generally don’t specify a single text about why people get the way they do or how they get better. You need multiple texts. Everybody’s got a piece of the pie. Different pieces of that pie might be helpful to one client or another. At this point I don’t think I’m out of the mainstream. I think the general surveys have shown that the majority — something like two-thirds — of therapists define themselves as eclectic. Then there’s the question of whether the eclectic practice has a coherent theoretical position. I think that’s possible, and that’s what Self-relations is trying to do.

On the question of how I would respond to a psychopathology point of view, I think that psychopathology makes some helpful contributions, particularly in talking about how people try to protect what I call the tender soft spot: how they get hurt, and how they try to protect that hurt, and develop a whole lifestyle out of protecting and defending that hurt place, and how that leads to a problem-defined identity. At the same time, our greatest resource as therapists is to hold and convey the truth to the person that they are more than their pathology. So effective psychotherapy should be based on a person’s human-ness or personhood rather than any single aspect of their life. In that regard, I would emphasize that a diagnostic language is distinct from a language about how to develop solutions, a point that Steve deShazer has made very well. And while pathologists, starting with Freud in particular, were able to articulate a language of how problems develop, they were not very good at developing language where solutions develop, about how we get out of these pickles, if you will. So it needs to be bigger than the pathology point of view.

The other point of view is exceedingly disingenuous and/or naïve, which says that it’s possible to be neutral in a therapeutic conversation, if indeed that’s what they say. My criticism of narrative stuff is that it’s basically a communist point of view. It’s not entirely bad, it’s a piece of the pie, but it’s a partial truth. The communist point of view basically emphasizes the communal or collective or social aspect of life experience. If you read Ken Wilber’s recent writing, he proposes an interesting model in which he suggests that experience exists in four quadrants simultaneously. One quadrant is an individual interior point of view, which psychopathology emphasizes. Another point of view is an individual exterior, which behaviorism emphasizes. Another quadrant is the interior collective, which refers to Jung’s collective unconscious and culture and things like that. The fourth quadrant refers to what might be called the exterior collective point of view; communism emphasizes the exterior communal or collective life and it tends to invalidate or deny the interior world as completely irrelevant. I think it’s very, very dangerous to do that. Everybody has their biases. Hopefully you realize that you’re biased, and you open your heart and encourage people to find their own biases.

CH: I think you deconstructed deconstruction.

SG: I worry that deconstruction embraces two dangerous trends: the cynicism of our generation, and the commercialism that is the understructure of American life. Basically commercialism gets you so involved with what James Joyce called kinetic art, which is this fast-paced, moving-image, always-changing sort of art, that you can’t feel through to any interior world or any quiet world. It’s a constructed world. And you get the feeling that for the deconstructionists, all they know is the constructed world. I think, again, it’s a helpful contribution, but there are parts of life that are not constructed by what people say. And that’s another piece of the pie.

CH: I like how you view the usefulness of each of those perspectives. You don’t have to contradict their points, but place them in a broader perspective. Self-relations seems to have that overarching quality that doesn’t replace other models but provides a structure in which other points of view can be understood.

SG: I think probably one of the great questions of our time is how we deal with difference.

CH: Mostly it’s dealt with with violence.

SG: Right, and this is escalating. Part of it is we’re having such a convergence of different possibilities, different truths, different cultures, different ways of knowing and being – and acknowledging that multiplicity is one of the things postmodernism does well. So you have this question of how you deal with that. Self-relations suggests that there are three basic positions one might take. You can lapse into fundamentalism – “my way is the only way” – which is a recipe for violence because it involves ultimately eradicating the other. Fundamentalism can arise within any approach, including among therapists. Anyone who says “My theory, my approach is the only way” is into the violence of fundamentalism. Secondly, you can deal with differences by just ignoring them or by going into commercialism or consumerism, in which you really don’t find a place to hold the differences. Third is what I would call love, or the skill of love, the practice of love, which is kind of a funny word because it’s been so misused. But it really has to do with the mature skill of being able to hold differences, and being able to allow some relational self, that connects the differences, to occur. Obviously, if as therapists and healers, if we can’t do it among ourselves, it’s going to be hard to encourage the larger community to develop non-violent approaches to dealing with their differences.

CH: It makes it even more important for us to do that with our theoretical and clinical disagreements. It sounds like the fundamentalist holds too tightly or rigidly to a position, where the descent into consumerism involves a lack of holding a position, but just numbing and shifting.

SG: It’s what we call the Errol Flynn Principle. When the great movie actor was asked, “How do you hold a sword?” he would answer that he always imagined holding a bird when he was holding a sword. If he held too tight, the bird would die; if he held too loose the bird would fly away. The basic relational idea was, “Not too tight, not too loose.” This notion, how do you attend, what kind of attention involves non-violent reconciliation, is really crucial to self-relations psychotherapy. And particularly, it’s based on the observation that Western approaches are big on theory but generally not so good on practices. So it really tries to articulate practices as equal to, if not more crucial than, theory. And so if you’re talking about practices, whether it be art or the practice of raising a child or doing therapy, the whole question of attentiveness — how to attend in a way that not only makes room for somebody else’s reality, but also engages them at the same time — is really important.

CH: I find that I become more and more aware of and interested in the quality of the relationship in the therapy setting, and less focused on particular kinds of interventions or techniques. I’m wondering what kind of a personal balance you have found between those two aspects of therapy. Do you teach specific techniques like three-point attention to help clients try out a different position for dealing with difference in their lives?

SG: I think one of major traps we get into as therapists is the delusion that the healing comes from us. It doesn’t come from the client either, for that matter. It comes from life. There is a healing principle present in life. It’s trying to help the person. Life is alive and it’s trying to help a person develop and grow. So the first position is how the therapist can try to open up to that, feel that and sense that at a more immediate level. And then how to invite a person’s attention to note that in their own experience. And that’s a skill. It’s a skill that needs to be learned. I think the therapist, in acknowledging that the healing principle is in life rather than in the therapist, also acknowledges that you receive it through skillfully being able to do things like develop receptivity and centering to stabilize your attention, to be able to listen to how life flows through you. A therapist needs to have some expertise in how that happens. There are many, many, many different traditions. They’re practices, they’re not dogmas. It’s like, “Here, try this.” As in training an artist, the art here is how to listen and receive and express life moving through you. Then, obviously, there are some things that make it difficult for a person to do that. So the second type of expertise is the ability to see where life is not flowing through the person. And to have not only some practices but some specific therapy procedures that will allow experience to process through. The EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) model is one clear example of describing how this might happen. EMDR is very similar to meditation and hypnosis in that it emphasizes that life flows through you, and hopefully, you can just let it happen in some attentive, responsive way. It also emphasizes that certain events occur that may be so overwhelming or traumatic that the nervous system shuts down in its processing of them. EMDR has been helpful in emphasizing that for life to move from an experience to a learning it has to move through multiple levels of processing in the nervous system. At any point that processing or metabolizing can get blocked. And then it just remains there until either the person relaxes, at which point it begins to process through again, which makes it very scary for the person to relax, or whenever some of the cues of the original situation are presented, and then it starts activating again. So a therapist has to have some of these skills of being able to help a person process experience. I try to look for where people shut down and then see what’s happening and how I can help life flow through them once again. On the one hand, you realize that you’re serving life, trying to humbly sense and support the healing principle. On the other hand, you know that there are specific practices that really facilitate that process.

CH: Are there particular practices that you’re thinking about?

SG: Yeah. They’re particular to my sensibilities and training. I think it’s inevitable and great that different therapists will have different ones. I use hypnotic work, EMDR work, I use meditation with people, I use a lot of the Self-relations work that looks to address what we call the sponsorship of the fressen energy that moves in the body.

CH: Fressen?

SG: There are two German words for eating. Fressen means to eat like an animal, and essen means to eat like a person. You watch a kid, and it’s amazing how long it takes for them to cultivate essen skills. You can generalize that as we do in Self-relations and say that fressen energy is all the stuff that is uncultivated by human presence. It’s feelings that flow through you, it’s basic processes like eating, emotional responses. Some of them are unpleasant to be in the presence of, some of them are incredible to be in the presence of. The spontaneity and innocence of a child is fressen energy. The point is, in order for them to enter into human beings, they need something else, some mature human presence to be able to touch them, to see them, to bless them, to hold them, to cultivate them. And you could say that until fressen energy is touched by human presence it will seem to have no human value. So we see that kids don’t know how to name their experience, they don’t know how to hold it. One of the things we do as caregivers for kids is we help them learn how to sponsor their experiences. And that’s a long process. You might say that learning any art is learning how to sponsor these particular spirits that move through you. A writer is visited, if you will, by certain characters in a story. And a writer first has to receive these characters, hold them, express them, and touch them with human presence so as to cultivate them into what we might way is the essen form, which is a good story.

There again, there are three general relationships one can take to fressen energy. The first is you can dominate it, beat the shit out of it, and completely control it, and we see that a lot. That’s more the fundamentalist approach. We see it in clients trying to use will-power, trying to use control with themselves or with other people. On the other hand, you can just let it run rampant, and it’s out of control or wild, and we see that a lot. We see a lot of kids who are not getting proper sponsorship these days. Or you can take this middle position of what effective sponsorship might mean, which is how to bring human attentiveness and love to something in a way that allows its form to change into what might be called essen forms, but in a way that preserves and, indeed, encourages its fressen energy. So from that point of view, we can say that any symptom is fressen energy without essen forms. It’s unsponsored experience. When it’s present, the feeling is that it has no place in the world. It feels like it has no human value. Both to the person experiencing or expressing it, and also to anybody in the vicinity, including therapists. So our general attitude is, we have to get rid of it.

CH: Take a violent, fundamentalist position toward it.

SG: Exactly. So we try in Self-relations to take more of Erickson’s position, or the position of aikido, which is how to be able to blend with it while not being overwhelmed by it. This is part of what we would call the mature skill of love.

CH: I saw an interview with Scott Turow talking about how whenever he writes a novel, there’s always one character that wants to take it over; that sounds like his particular description of what you’re calling fressen energy.

SG: The whole notion of a relational self from that point of view is not one in which you have parts over which you have some executive, controlling function. But it’s an interesting sort of relationship between each part of the human system – what I would call the cognitive self, on the one hand, and the somatic self, from which feelings and archetypes and spirits and ancestors and all sorts of interesting “others” come from. I would say a creative life, whether it’s in a formal art or in the art of becoming a person, is about some sort of relational connection between those two basic psyches. And I think that is a mature skill. It’s what growing up is about.

To get back to the question you asked about what specifically I do with clients, the basic position is life is coming through you, and it’s bringing you everything you need in order to become a human being. What people need to learn are some skills about how to listen to it, how to sense it, how to stay with it, how to be guided by it, while also giving it some form. It’s a major way to think about therapy. Is it the only way? Of course not. Is it the “right” way? No. I’m perfectly fine with other therapists saying, “Well, no, you should think about it this way.” I don’t think that Self-relations work is going to be around in fifty years. And if people read it in a hundred years, they’ll probably think, “My God, what a bunch of crazy crap!” But that’s the nature of the work: we’re generating temporary art forms. Or essen forms to try to humanize this fressen energy that is coming straight from life.

CH: Well, you certainly model a peaceful and non-violent attitude toward other therapy approaches as well as a comfort with the ephemeral nature of the work we’re all doing.

SG: One of my major aikido senseis is fond of going around during a practice and simply saying to people, “You’re working against yourself.” I think we really work against ourselves when we’re getting into these criticisms about “my model is better than your model.” It’s not to me what the work is about.

CH: There are so many ways the idea of sponsorship plays out in therapy. I’ve been noticing the past couple of months a surprising level of peacefulness and calm in folks I work with when I use the image of calming a child frightened by a monster under the bed. It’s such a common experience, and almost everybody has the experience of knowing how to do that successfully. They get the immediate sense, “Oh, I know how to do sponsorship!” It seems to generate a lot of confidence in their ability to stay with and hold uncomfortable experience.

SG: I really agree with that. It’s really amazing that from the time a person has had to abandon their soul, or shut down their awareness to this tender soft spot that’s indestructibly at their core, and they have gone out of the garden, if you will, and into the desert, that they have developed these extraordinary skills of nurturing and sponsoring other people.

One of the ideas in Self-relations is this notion of a relational self. One of the examples is re-connecting, or connecting sometimes for the first time, what we call the problem-defined, or neglected self, of the person with the cognitive self, or what we might call the competency-based self of the person. As we said earlier, traditionally therapy emphasizes the deficits or pathologies or problems. I think that’s very important. That’s a person’s woundedness, or regressive sense of self. What Self-relations says is that these aspects of a person seem to have no positive value because they’re not being sponsored by human presence. It then asks the question, “who is the best sponsor?” For a grown-up person, the response is clearly, the person themself. The recent approaches that challenge pathology such as the solution-focused, and Ericksonian work, and narrative work, are really helpful about bringing attention to the competency-based, resource-based aspects of a person’s life. What Self-relations tries to do is, at a feeling level, to connect those two aspects of a person. And it makes the observation that usually they are mutually exclusive. Most of the time the person is not in their problem-self. They walk around, better or worse, they’re okay, they’re in a normal frame of mind. When the problem occurs, they go into a very different type of experience. When that problem occurs their competent self leaves. And when they get the competent self back, they neglect these wounded parts of themselves. So this notion of sponsorship means that we carry the idea from hypnosis – namely, that “there are two of you” – into a more general frame of mind, and say that every person is a relationship between two very different orders of being.

One of the primary relationships between the cognitive or competent self to the somatic self is that of sponsorship. So often the person has those skills, but often they haven’t connected them up to themselves.

CH: What do you hope the folks who attend the workshop will take away with them?

SG: The workshop generally operates at a couple different levels. As the Buddhists like to say, in order to cultivate some presence in the world, such as love, you need at least a couple different things. You need an awareness of the Buddha-hood, which is this awakened self that exists within each person at their core. So the work is really trying to touch upon the tender soft spot, and have people be aware of that as a non-pathological center of their being. It also needs what they call a dharma, which is a description about how things work. There are multiple dharmas, but you need one that is coherent and consistent. So the workshop will emphasize a set of principles for understanding how experience is constructed, how problems may develop, and how problems may be resolved. The other things that are needed, on a more specific level, are the ethics about and the practices for generating some sense of wakefulness, as well as some therapy methods that really work to identify where a person is stuck, and methods that will help a person get unstuck. So there are these three interlocking levels of specifics in terms of the relational ethics, the relational practices, and the therapy interventions. Finally, the Buddhists emphasize that for this to work you need a sangha or community of folks who support each other in learning this. Hopefully the workshop will allow an opportunity for managed-care-weary therapists to find a little shelter from the storm, and to re-connect with why they got into this business in the first place. You want to sign up?

CH: Yeah, I think I’ll be there. Steve, thanks so much for doing this. I look forward to seeing you in March.

SG: Likewise.

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Interview with Stephen Gilligan, Ph.D.,

by Astrid Krueger,

in Dusseldorf, Germany, Sept 2001.

1. You are referring to your own therapy form as the “self-relations therapy”. Does this mean you are seeing the cause of psychological problems in disturbed self relations?

Yes. Let me briefly explain. We emphasize that there are two very different intelligences that operate within each person-a cognitive-social intelligence that tends to live in the head, and a somatic-archetypal-emotional intelligence that lives lower down in the body. When these intelligences are working together, good things tend to happen. When they are opposed or disconnected, bad things tend to happen.

We see examples of somatic intelligence in mammals such as horses, dogs, and cats-e.g., the intuitive relatedness, the need for belonging and nurturance, the sensitivity to subtle cues, and so forth. This same somatic intelligence can be seen in humans, especially in children, artists, athletes, exceptional performers, and the like. In humans, this somatic intelligence is joined by cognitive intelligence, as seen in culture, social systems, intellectual and symbolic languages, and so forth. It provides narratives, ethics, meanings, and values.

What we look at is how a person has come to relate these two intelligences. You could have an antagonistic relationship, where the intellect tries dominate or suppress the somatic intelligence; or a dissociative one, where the intellect is unaware of its somatic base. Or you could have an enmeshment or undifferentiated relationship, where mindfulness or self-awareness isn’t possible, such that a person just acts out whatever they’re feeling. These are some of the imbalanced relationships that lead to symptoms and sustained suffering. What we try to do in self-relations is identify these two systems, identify the relationships between them, and see how a person can connect with each simultaneously, thereby allowing a mutually helpful connection between them. It is the balanced, reciprocal connection between them that awakens what we call the relational self.

2. In self-relations you say ” the problem is the solution” or “the symptom is the gift”. What do you mean by this?

Self-relations emphasizes the positive potential of problems and symptoms. It sees such disturbances of the “normal order” as evidence that “something is waking up” in the life of a person or community. Such disturbances are double-edged crises. On the one side, they are (often hidden) opportunities for major growth on one the one side. (Most of us can recall negative events-a death, divorce, illness, or addiction-that led to significant positive change in our lives.) On the other side, such disturbances can very destructive-we can get lost in depression, acting out, or other problematic behaviors. Self-relations suggests that the difference is in whether a disturbance can be “sponsored” by a skillful human presence. When they are sponsored, the problem becomes a solution.

The principle and practices of sponsorship are the cornerstone of self-relations. The word “sponsorship” comes from the Latin “spons”, meaning, “to pledge solemnly”. So sponsorship is a vow to help a person (including one’s self) to use each and every event and experience to awaken to the goodness and gifts of the self, the world, and the connections between the two. Self-relations suggests that experiences that come into a person’s life are not yet fully human; they have no human value until a person is able to “sponsor them”.

For example, a man was very depressed and suicidal after his young son drowned in the backyard jacuzzi tub. It had happened while the man was working in the yard, so he felt especially guilty and responsible. He was hospitalized after one suicide attempt, and was on “suicide watch” on the ward. Attempts to reach him didn’t work. The attending psychiatrist, a student of mine, tried a different approach. He allowed himself to sit with the man in deep silence, welcoming the “depression” into a safe place within his being. This compassionate “holding” of the “problem” allowed him to sense the “depression” as an important and valid feeling of the father’s sense that he had died, too. After a while of this sponsorship process, the psychiatrist found himself saying gently to the man, “There’s another death that hasn’t been acknowledged.” The man became very absorbed and burst into tears as the psychiatrist continued to gently acknowledge both the death of the son and the “psychological death” of the father. This acknowledgement included different aspects of sponsorship-receiving a negative experience, holding it in a sanctuary, properly naming it, touching it with kindness and human presence, and so forth-that allowed the man to stop fighting the “problem.” Instead, the man began a grieving process that gradually brought him out of the depression. He became quite active in helping others to deal with the loss of their children.

Another client was a woman who had been sexually abused as a young girl by the next door neighbor. As a young adult, she joined the Marines and became a demolitions expert. She had access to very small and very powerful bombs. She began to fantasize using the weapons to go home and “blow up” the sexual perpetrator. Her therapist, a student of mine, was frightened by the fantasies and tried unsuccessfully to introduce relaxation techniques. I had her bring the woman into our consulting group. The client arrived, looking shy but interested. As we talked, I casually noted that I heard she wanted to “blow some motherfucker out of the water”. She looked surprised, giggling before turning away in self-consciousness. I continued to gently repeat the idea, and she became very absorbed in my communications. I suggested that there was “a presence within” that was filled with rage, and that was a real sign of integrity and healing. I elaborated how that “inner presence” needed a safe place, a validation, a deep listening to, a recognition of her value. We began a process of learning how she could safely sponsor this “inner presence filled with rage,” gradually sensing what external actions she could take that would allow her healing to occur.

In each of these cases, the “problem” or “symptom”-the “depression” or ‘homicidal rage”-is seen as a positive resource that is trying to help a person to heal. Under proper conditions of sponsorship, such seemingly negative experiences can be realized as positive contributions to a person’s life. Of course, this is a dangerous process anyway you approach it, so we are not speaking flippantly or acting carelessly. On the contrary, we are emphasizing the serious nature of creating proper ritual space that can receive, hold, and transform extremely difficult experiences that life has given a person. But as they say in homeopathy, that which doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.

3. Is it, in your opinion, possible to assess the effectiveness of the self-relations therapy?

Of course. Simply stated, it can be assessed by seeing how well it performs in terms of symptom relief and therapy satisfaction by clients. We have at this point many anecdotal reports of therapists, in terms of how helpful this approach has been. We look forward to further validation of its effectiveness.

4. There are initial attempts of a virtual psychotherapy. Can you imagine a self-relations therapy via computer?

Not really. While there may be a limited place for such activities, self-relations is based on both the therapist and client developing and maintaining a connection with a “felt sense” of what’s being talked about. A basic idea is that if this felt sense is lost, the conversation tends to be just words being impotently thrown about. So it requires presence in the moment, connection to the body, and connection within a relationship. It’s like a performance art, in that way. And just like it is difficult to think of doing a vital artistic performance in virtual reality, it is similar with SR.

You know, in part SR is a response to the growing disconnection of thinking and communication from the natural world. It sees the dangers of a “television-computer” consciousness to emotional well-being and community happiness, and tries to return consciousness to its natural roots. It is wary of the postmodern consciousness that ignores its somatic and natural roots.

5. What, in your opinion, was essential in establishing self-relations therapy as another therapy form?

I initially started, some 25 years ago, as a student of Milton Erickson, the legendary psychiatrist who pioneered new approaches to hypnosis and mind-body healing. I learned from him the value of creative trance states, how to trust an intelligence other than the intellect, how to welcome and worth with symptoms and problems as “gifts” to be realized. Along the way, I also began studying the martial art of aikido and some Buddhism. They showed some alternate ways of doing these things that Erickson could do so beautifully-how to sense love as a skill to be used in the face of adversity, how to find a calm center within oneself, how to be at peace with one’s self.

At some point, my challenge was to grow beyond Erickson’s influence. One of the things that being married and becoming a father taught me was that I couldn’t just go into a trance to deal with problems-I had to learn to stay connected in relationship, to work more skillfully with my emotional states, to stay present with others even as I centered within myself. So self-relations took Erickson’s approach and made it more embodied, more relational, and more spiritual.

6. In your book “The courage to love: Principles and Practices of Self-Relations Psychotherapy” you are describing the loss of patients “felt sense”.

This term was introduced by Gendlin in 1981 when finding out during his psychotherapeutical studies, that the best indication of a successful therapy is, when a client had a “felt sense” – a perceptible understanding – of his problem in his or her body.

The loss of this “felt sense” leads to a state where clients feel trapped in a way of thinking that is both painful and unsatisfactory to them. In which different ways can this “loss of balance (center)” be noticed?

Two ways. The first has to do with being too much “in the head”-overintellectualizing, being lost in ideology, overcontrolled in thinking, obsessive, not able to calm down or slow down, needing to be “right” all the time, and so forth. The second has to do with being overwhelmed by somatic experience-lost in depression, frozen by anxiety, preoccupied with insecurity, overwhelmed by rage or resentments, numb with lifelessness, and so forth. The point is that human consciousness is an emergent property when these two systems-somatic and cognitive intelligence-are mutually supporting each other. When you tilt for any length of time toward one or the other, you’ve lost the centerpoint of balance that allows “felt sense” to be present and helpful.

7. How would I have to imagine my personal balance (center)?

Well, an important thing to realize is that it is not an imagined state; on the contrary, you must let go of the imaginary world and re-enter the real world. In martial arts, for example, if you are dealing with an attacker bearing down on you, you better wake up and get out of your imaginative mind and feel what’s really there! If you’re driving down the autobahn and need to respond quickly and correctly to road conditions, you better not be imagining the road, you had better be sensing it instead!!

One of the major ways to sense one’s center is to practice some form of mindfulness. To engage in what the Chinese call “wu-wei”, or “active non-doing”, so you can relax deeply, let go of compulsive reactivity, and enter into a receptive silent mode. Without this receptive calmness, centering (or any direct sensing of the somatic self) is impossible.

Of course, a centering practice is not supported by the dominant approaches to consciousness in our culture. On the one hand, you have commercialism and consumerism, which says that you have no center and that the way to satisfy that empty aching in your body is to consume-sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, big cars, computers, etc. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this stuff, but if we use it in hopes of gaining the spiritual well-being that comes from centering, we’re in a lot of trouble! On the other hand, you have fundamentalism and authoritarianism, which says that the truth comes from above, from the text, and so you better not reference your own inner wisdom. So the support for sensing and cultivating one’s center is a bit dim in mainstream circles.

8. In which ways can both therapist and client come closer to the center (personal balance) of a client?

We think of two major paths- (1) natural states of well-being and (2) symptoms (or states of ill-being). For example, you might ask a person, when do you most feel like yourself? Or, what do you do to get “back to” yourself? Answers might include things like taking a walk, or taking a bath, listening to or playing music, meditating or breathing, reading, talking with friends, and so forth. These are what we call natural states of well-being. When you ask a person to sense that state of well-being, and to sense and touch where in their body they most feel the core or center of that state, most people touch their belly, solar plexus, or heart. These are places where one can locate one’s center-in the traditional chakra states that Eastern philosophy talks about. Interestingly, we now have Western science showing that there are brains in the belly and heart, in support of chakra theory.

We can connect a person to their center also by inquiring about their symptoms. For example, ask a person describing a problem to sense where in their body they most feel the center of disturbance, the most core place of ill-being. Interestingly, the centers of ill-being turn out to be the same as the centers of well-being! Based on this and other evidence, we suggest that the symptom is actually a state that is trying to awaken new energy from a person’s center. That is, it is archetypal energy entering a person’s somatic intelligence through their center, trying to come into their life to help them in some way. If the cognitive self turns away or otherwise negatively treats this energy, it seems to have no human value (which it doesn’t, because it hasn’t been valued YET by humans) and becomes a state of ill-being. Self-relations suggests that by having the cognitive self “sponsors” or forms a positive relationship to this negative energy, it transforms into a solution state of well-being. This can be a very challenging skill-I’m not saying it happens easily in all cases-but it is worth the effort, especially considering the alternatives.

9. You have been stating that the basis of a client’s persistent suffering is the rejection, ignorance, and denial of what his or her center is expressing. This is done even though the inner self is already guiding the client in a positive way. How can a process that is actually very positive in itself, become so negative?

Well, again, for the simple reason that the experience from the inner self is not realized as positive until it’s “sponsored” by the cognitive self. The New Agers have it right when they say that life gives you everything you’ll ever need; what they don’t mention is that the experiences aren’t “cooked” yet. In German, you have these two words for eating-essen and fressen. As I understand it, “fressen” means to eat like an animal, to “pig out”, so to speak; whereas “essen” is to eat like a human being. If we generalize that distinction, we say that the inner self starts in “fressen”, an important but uncultivated state of consciousness. It is the challenge of culture, family, and individual self to find ways to “sponsor” these “fressen energies”, and thereby transform them into “essen forms” that have positive human value. So we say that if a behavior or experience seems to have no human value-e.g., a symptom like a depression-it is an unconscious experience that has not yet been sponsored into its positive form.

10. You are writing that a reaction that is not integrated, repeats itself until it is integrated, and that a negative experience has to be made again and again until it is integrated with both, love and acceptance, by human perception. How do I have to picture this dynamism?

Think of it in the following way. Each of us is in an ongoing process of becoming more of a human being. Events occur that allow us to do just that, by requiring us to “grow” new resources/patterns. For example, a person starting in an intimate relationship needs to learn skills such as being visible with vulnerability, protecting boundaries, holding different truths simultaneously, giving/receiving, etc. In response to this need, life sends archetypal patterns to the person, but in “uncooked” or “half-human” forms. For example, a person needing to develop good boundaries may find themselves experiencing anger or even rage. In its primary form, this experience isn’t fully human or helpful; it needs to be received by the cognitive social self and worked with, so it assumes a helpful, healthy form. So a fully human, integrated experience goes through two steps: it is activated within the somatic self and then sponsored and integrated by the cognitive self. If the cognitive self does not sponsor it, it remains within the somatic self in unintegrated form. It reactivates whenever a person reenters to the same or similar situation, but also simply when a person relaxes, because relaxation is an evolutionary sign to the nervous system that “danger has passed and it’s now safe to integrate/heal any wounds. So the old experience of say, rage, returns, in search of a human presence that will receive it and transform it. If there is no sponsorship, it just waits and returns later. On this point nature is eternally patient and perhaps cruel: it lets you take as long as you need to integrate a human pattern. While you can let it come forward into your life and thereby transform it, you can’t send it back. So it’s stuck in the “neurosis” or “no-man’s land”, between non-existence and existence, just waiting to be integrated. We try to create the proper conditions so it can safely come forward and be integrated and transformed into its fully human form. So in the case of anger, that energy can turn into fierceness or clarity or good focus.

For example, a client of mine was married with a young son. He started an affair with his secretary and left his wife, while developing a gambling addiction. (This is all before he came to see me!) His new lover became rather dominant and angry, taking over all control for disciplining the boy (now 7), constantly cursed and berated him. She also often screamed at my client, escalating to the point where she started to physically hit him. He grew up in a violent family, so this accessed a lot for him-he ended up closing his eyes and “meditating,” a fancy way of saying he was numbing and dissociating.

When I asked him what fierceness looked like in his family of origin, he described a violent father and screaming mother. He remembered making a deep vow that he would never act like that-he would be a gentle person. So here you have a very “unsponsored” experience and understanding sense of fierceness-that it always comes out as violence. We worked quite a bit on the different forms of positive fierceness-assertiveness, centering, drawing boundaries, protecting one’s self. He learned to effectively challenge his girlfriend’s violence, and the two of them came to therapy together. Our major focus was transforming the archetypal energy of fierceness from its unsponsored negative forms to its sponsored positive forms. Of course, every couple faces the challenge of how to fight constructively; this pair has gradually learned how to do so.

11. What makes you so sure claiming that any person wants to recover?

I have never said that every person wants to recover. I maintain that each person has the capacity to transform their life. They may, for various reasons (most notably, ignorance or fear) think that it’s in their best interests to maintain the status quo. Part of our work is helping people sense the difference it makes to practice centering and sponsorship of negative experiences.

In therapy, one of your greatest allies is a person’s suffering. Without the intense suffering, most people wouldn’t want or need to change. So the suffering inherent in a symptom is life’s way of telling a person that they need to change. We try to help them deal positively and constructively with the symptom, by sponsoring it, so they both alleviate suffering and increase their happiness. Whether or not a person does it is ultimately up to them.

Most of us talk a good talk, but are actually very conservative-we only change when we need to. If you look back over your life to the times when you made major identity shifts, you will likely find that it involved some real suffering. So we try to have a positive attitude toward symptoms and suffering, recognizing them as giving birth, under proper conditions, to major identity change and growth.

When we look at when in a person’s life symptoms tend to occur, we find something very interesting-they are most likely to occur when a person is involved in major life transitions due to death, a birth, marriage or divorce, leaving home, changing jobs, retiring, illness, promotions, and so forth. We might say that each of these transitions means that your old identity must die and a new one must be reborn. For example, who you are as a single person-how you carry yourself in the world, how you think about yourself, how you express yourself-is very different from when you’re married. Or when a parent dies, no matter what your relationship is to them, your sense of yourself goes through some unexpected changes. In each such transition, you must move from an old identity to a new one. In traditional cultures, this transition is guided by rituals. In modern cultures who have lost touch with rituals, the identity transformation process still occurs, albeit without ritual containers. In this sense, symptoms are ritual processes that are happening without ritual containers. They are attempts for deep change that don’t have the appropriate ritual sponsorship to hold them and guide them. From this point of view, therapy can provide a ritual space and ritual means to allow this death-and-rebirth process to occur in a safe, effective way.

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