Open Book

The Art of the Practical

The Triumphs and Limits of Psychotherapy

Magazine Issue
May/June 2009
The Art of the Practical

By now, we’re used to huge numbers being thrown around in Washington, but, in the midst of today’s Great Financial Meltdown, to get 3,600 therapists to take their credit cards out of cold storage and troop to D.C. to attend a professional conference is no mean feat. Yet with therapy conference attendance around the country down from 30 to 50 percent and clinicians everywhere complaining of declining caseloads and cutbacks in public agency budgets, this year’s Psychotherapy Networker Symposium, held March 26-29 in Washington, D.C., not only set a new attendance record, but seemed to generate a communal electricity that one attendee described as a “jolt of joy.”

Of course, conferences are often little more than occasions to get CE credits and listen dutifully to the latest research findings recited from behind podiums as job hunters anxiously try to sniff out new positions and wide-eyed neophytes try to figure out where they fit in the professional pecking order. But after 32 years, the Symposium has established its own distinctive following with nearly 80 percent of its attendees returning year after year, some having attended regularly for more than two decades. As Networker editor Rich Simon observed in his opening address, “Many of you have been coming for so many years that, if you’re like me, you’ve begun to feel that you’re probably related to most everyone here. Somehow, somewhere back in time, our family trees all conjoined in a vast underground tangle of interlocking roots, juicy family gossip, and colorfully eccentric relatives.” He concluded, “So, in addition to everything else, the Symposium has come to feel like the world’s most overpopulated family reunion.”

As usual, the conference emphasized the value of cultivating clinical curiosity and an openness to new perspectives, while avoiding clinicians’ worst occupational hazard—becoming the kind of pompous, know-it-all talking head so often parodied in the movies and literature. In order to shake its audience up and engage them in the now-ness of the Symposium’s carnival spirit, the conference has in recent years launched itself with a musical production number. As befitting an event devoted to “Seizing the Day: Therapy and the Art of Engagement,” the opening ceremony featured editor Simon, backed up by the 20 members of the Symposium Tabernacle Choir and Marching Band recruited from participants in the Symposium’s initial Creativity Day. In this rousing number, he unveiled his best Mick Jagger strut to get the entire audience up on its feet to sing and dance along with a raucous rock tune called “You Got the Music in You” that climaxed in a tumultuous standing ovation.


Earlier he’d more somberly posed the underlying question facing the entire Symposium audience of working therapists, “What does it mean to be a steady, balanced healer when you’re subject to the same turmoil as everybody else?” As a partial answer, he cited the late student of mythology Joseph Campbell and his famous quote “I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are looking for the experience of being alive.” The Symposium itself is designed as a kind of collective experiential pilgrimage for attendees to find what engages their mind, body, and spirit among the 150 workshops and the dozens of other conference events highlighting the connection between the tough-minded science of behavioral change, the softer healing art of psychotherapy, and the quest for imaginative inspiration that’s the traditional province of the creative arts.


The Language of Discovery

For most attendees, the question of what it takes to be engaged was answered immediately once Simon handed over the microphone to the opening keynote speaker, Irish/English poet David Whyte. With his lilting accent and the slow, mesmerizing cadence of his delivery, Whyte began by reciting a Shakespeare sonnet and immediately showed that he understood how to enrapture an audience. He challenged the assembled therapists to ponder the difficult “questions that have no right to go away” and repeatedly posed queries that took a while to wrap your mind around, like “What does it mean to live a courageous, heart-felt life” in the “biggest context” that makes sense to you?

From his grab bag of elusive, penetrating metaphors, he asked us to think of Jesus befuddling his disciples by walking on water. We must all walk on water, Whyte declared, “We’ve all had enough of drowning.” As he drew the audience into his spell and into a heightened sense of life’s possibilities, he made his case that poetic vision isn’t just a luxury in today’s world, but a critical necessity. By later in the afternoon, with his keynote address and all-day workshop done, as a huge line snaked around the hotel where Whyte was signing books, it was clear that attendees had become at least temporary converts to the idea thatmeeting the challenge of the moment was intimately linked to the power of creativity, imagination, and moral courage, all aspects of what Whyte referred to as getting out of the trap of the familiar by exploring “language at the edge of revelation.”

Balancing the soaring theme of creative engagement woven through the Symposium was the drumbeat of the importance of relational engagement and community as essential resources in difficult times. In his opening talk, Simon had proposed that the huge Symposium attendance this year was not so much in spite of as because of the manifold uncertainties of the moment. “When the world looks really screwed up,” he said, “the eternal illusion of self-reliance begins to evaporate along with our 401Ks. We revert to the ancient survival instinct to huddle together around the campfire to gain a sense of safety and security from the presence of each other as we try to tap into the collective wisdom.”




The Experience of Connection

In her Saturday keynote address, noted couples therapist and attachment theorist Susan Johnson showed a video of a couple dancing the tango, offering a powerfully insinuating metaphor for the level of deep connection of mind and body at the heart of a vibrant, intimate partnership. Her talk, which citied research findings on clinical effectiveness and studies plumbing the depths of what were once thought of as unresearchable variables like “love” and “emotional connection,” exemplified the Symposium’s dedication to highlighting the increasing rapprochement between the methods of hard science and the investigation of the “soft” variables that are typically the concern of clinicians.

For many, the emotional highlight of the meeting was the appearance of 87-year-old family therapy pioneer Salvador Minuchin. Presenting in an all-day workshop with a group of his former students, Minuchin struck a bittersweet note as he traced the development of the Structural Family Therapy over the past half-century, from its iconoclastic assault on psychoanalysis and the staid, laid-back therapeutic conventions of the day to its eventual acceptance as a mainstream treatment model and then the increasing marginalization of the family systems perspective within the mental health world of today.

Revered by the audience as a living legend, Minuchin playfully distanced himself from the “certainties” of his earlier self, emphasizing his continuing evolution as a clinician and insisting that today, “I no longer consider myself a Structural Family Therapist.”

In the evening, 600 therapists listened to him review the lessons, regrets, and accomplishments of his long career in a revealing interview. The event culminated with videoclips of two of Minuchin’s recent therapy sessions that highlighted his undiminished flair for seizing upon a detail everyone in a family may have seen a thousand times and then focusing attention on it in a way that allows new meanings and possibilities for action to emerge. Working with a family obsessed with a young girl’s seemingly compulsive lying, he deftly challenged the tone and focus of the family dynamic preoccupied with keeping the daughter under surveillance by asking the ever-vigilant father and mother, “Who between the two of you is the better detective?” Another session was recalled in which he recast an unmanageable teenage girl’s continual defiance as a backhanded way of taking care of—of mothering—her own mother. Or, as Minuchin head-spinningly put it, “Why would you want to be your own grandmother?”


With his career-long focus on clinical artistry, fascination with the nuance of human connection, and continuing dedication to the therapist’s craft (he recently volunteered to work pro bono with veterans at the Veterans Administration in Tampa, Florida), Minuchin in many ways epitomized the theme of this year’s Symposium. Or as editor Simon said in his introduction, “If therapy is the art of engagement, and it really can’t be anything else, then Sal is my nominee for the most artfully engaged therapist who’s ever lived. And, even beyond that, he’s continued to show us what human engagement truly means at every stage of the life cycle.”

For those who lack the instinct for engagement and connection of a master therapist, the question remains of how to keep the spirit of a gathering like the Symposium alive after returning to our often solitary offices? Like all good questions, this query has no pat answer, but contains the possibility of many answers. There was much discussion at the meeting of the new features of the Networker website ( that now makes possible all kinds of exchanges and continued learning year-round, complementing the face-to-face group energy generated at the Symposium. For those at this year’s meeting as well as those seeking further inspiration, support, and guidance in their practice, the order of the day will be to keep the conversation going, knowing that there’s a vast community of kindred spirits experiencing the same challenges just waiting to be mobilized.

Richard Handler

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada.