Stepping into the Moment – Really!

The 2007 Symposium theme comes alive

Magazine Issue
May/June 2007
Stepping into the Moment – Really!

At 3:00 a.m. on the last night of the Psychotherapy Network’s 30th-Anniversary Symposium, fire alarms and flashing lights went off in every one of the Omni Shoreham’s 834 rooms, and the record number of attendees—nearly 3,600 of them—were ordered to evacuate. Many of the bleary-eyed throngs somnambulating through the Omni’s ornate lobby during what Networker President Rich Simon described the next morning as the “Symposium’s first pajama party” might ruefully have noted the irony of a symposium titled “Stepping into the Moment.”

The false alarm was the last of a series of events that added unexpected resonance to the Symposium’s theme. A spring ice and snow storm closed several East Coast airports, preventing some workshop presenters and Saturday dinner speaker Jerome Kagan from showing up. Saturday keynoter Daniel Goleman injured his leg and spent the day in an MRI tube instead of speaking on “Social Intelligence in the Consulting Room.” But if the universe kept throwing curve balls, the Symposium’s considerable bench strength met the challenge.

Pinch-hitting speakers like Daniel Siegel knocked the balls out of the park, while readings and book signings, nearly 150 workshops, free video screenings (including a tribute to Jay Haley), and other formal and informal events afforded plenty of opportunities for stimulation, new perspectives, and CE credits. By the end of the four days, the notion of stepping into the moment had opened into a richer awareness of what Simon called the “contingencies and blessings” of spontaneity and surprise.

The Symposium began with its traditional Thursday Creativity Day of 18 day-long workshops in which therapists were invited to write, chant, draw, meditate, play instruments, and generally delve into their untapped energies. Over the next four days, attendees experienced all the familiar parts of the conference: the 300 ubiquitous, red-hatted volunteers guiding people through the twists and turns of the elegant hotel, the audiovisual crews who never seem to miss a cue, Franco Richmond’s jazz piano showering musical notes over every event, the Friday night dance in which participants exhibited an enthusiastic capacity for fun, and the kinds of workshops and activities for CEs that remind people that professional development needn’t be drudgery.

On Friday morning, as the late-winter storm gathered on the East Coast, keynoters John and Julie Gottman presented an overview of their different approaches to working with couples. For years, John Gottman has put the interactions between couples under the laboratory microscope. He’s made thousands of videotapes of couples communicating, and then he and his team have broken down their interchanges into discrete parts and checked their physiological levels of stress as they talked. These long-term studies have helped him predict with more than 90-percent accuracy which couples will stay together. Alternating with what her husband said about the specifics of how successful and unsuccessful couples interact, Julie Gottman talked about how therapists can step more intuitively into the moment, helping couples listen to hear their own—and their partner’s—unrealized dreams beneath their conflicts. The Gottmans’ conclusion: listening and compromising won’t solve most conflicts, but it’ll help couples stay focused on the reasons they’ve chosen each other and keep going. “Marriage,” said John, “is a lot like irritable bowel syndrome. People don’t work through issues on their own; they just have them.”

Louis Pasteur once remarked that chance favors the prepared mind, and a century and a half later, neuropsychiatrist Daniel Siegel offered his own brand of support for the hypothesis. On less than a day’s notice, he put together a keynote speech inspired by Daniel Goleman’s topic, “Social Intelligence in the Consulting Room,” complete with slides. The brain, said Siegel, is a social organ that develops through connection with others. Therapists provide empathic connections, which the brain is hard-wired from birth to receive and respond to, and these connections help it develop more integrated neural networks. In fact, he added, therapy enhances seven of the nine characteristics of a well-integrated brain: regulation of the body, insight, empathy, emotional balance, the ability to modulate fear, attuned connection, and the capacity for flexible responses. The other two characteristics, morality and being in touch with intuition, are often by-products of good therapy and social connection, he noted.

Siegel’s informal, low-key intensity—built for endurance, not sprints—made him the perfect choice to pinch hit for Saturday morning’s keynoter and then, in a Symposium first, also close out the day with his already scheduled closing summary on “The Brain of the Mindful Therapist.” He was truly a model of creative integration for many at the conference.

After three days and evenings of socializing and learning, the Sunday morning keynote often finds therapists in a bit of a fog. But tell them they aren’t aware of what’s going on, and you’ve got their attention. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer vividly described the pervasive mindlessness that’s settled over our society. “Virtually all of us, virtually all of the time, aren’t there,” she said. As evidence, she asked people to recall in their mind’s eye watching cashiers dutifully match credit card signatures against drivers’ licenses without looking at either.

Langer urged her audience to counteract mindlessness by looking for the novel in the familiar and for the familiar in the novel, and to cultivate mindfulness by taking on new creative tasks. Using herself as an example, she showed slides of her own whimsical, childlike paintings, which bring startling insights and clarity to her dulled assumptions about the world. Her Greyhound bus, with greyhounds instead of passengers looking out the windows, brought the biggest laugh. But Langer’s message was serious. She cited research showing that when someone is mindfully present, children and even dolphins respond with more enthusiasm and alertness. By inviting everyone to step mindfully into the moment, Langer dissipated the Sunday morning fog, receiving a standing ovation.

By the end of the Symposium, the East Coast airports had opened and the advent of spring resumed. Therapists left the Omni Shoreham to reenter what Rich Simon called “our culture of disconnection and distraction,” with their mission and roadmap clearer: since we can’t get ahead of time, catch up to it, or control it, the only thing to do is to bring full awareness, flexibility, and capacity for connection to each moment.

Garry Cooper

Garry Cooper, LCSW, is a therapist in Oak Park, Illinois.