Symposium Highlight

Symposium Watch 2008

3,600 therapists gather to experience the power of relationship

Magazine Issue
May/June 2008
Symposium Watch 2008

The theme of this year’s Networker Symposium was “The Power of Relationship: From Isolation to Connection.” Of course, with its impossible four syllables, relationship is an abstract mouthful of a word. Still, no better term has replaced it when discussing . . . well, relationships. The same can be said of isolation and connection. But that’s the trouble with big, important-sounding conference titles—they often remain an abstraction, lacking a lived meaning.

So the job of a good conference, particularly one with a grandiose title, is to recapture the sense of vibrant meaning in a collection of overused words. At its best, a memorable professional gathering offers its attendees a rollercoaster of emotion: exhilaration, momentary boredom, intellectual absorption, and exhaustion, along with conversations that soar and quiet spur-of-the-moment insights. When they work, conferences induce an altered, trancelike state that may just be an enlarged version of the therapeutic enterprise itself. After all, therapy is drama, the coalescing of character and conversation in what—at times—can become a sacred space. In fact, these were the elements of the drama developed by the ancient Greeks, who came together to watch the play of men under the canopy of the heavens. Now, a few millennia later, in huge hotel ballrooms that seat thousands, the drama of a good conference can be both theatrically epic and therapeutically intimate.

This year’s Symposium opened with the first public performance of the 80-member Symposium Tabernacle Choir and Marching Band, a ragtag assemblage of volunteers recruited at the last minute to welcome the multitude of 3,600 therapists during the opening ceremonies with a rendition of “Old Friends,” a hymn to enduring relationship composed by Stephen Sondheim. The production number was marked by its utter rank-and-file amateurism, along with balloons, kazoos, and red-Styrofoam noses. The implicit message: it’s good not to take yourself too seriously. What therapist (or modest human being) doesn’t know this? Yet this is an awareness that can be forgotten in the stiff professionalism of too many therapist gatherings. From its opening moments, the Symposium brought home to its participants a simple, visceral insight: play softens the world.

But all was not fun and games. The gathered clinicians had many opportunities to listen to impassioned talks, like the one by Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Relationship Therapy, who waxed on exuberantly about the need for people to honor the “space between I-and-Thou,” so they can truly meet and attend to each other. In a keynote speech, they heard Jean Houston, a veteran of the human-potential movement, urge them to become “social artists” while they participate in building a grand planetary culture. Hers is an ecstatic, utopian vision, and therapists might have some trouble applying it in their daily work. Still, the legacy of the human-potential movement isn’t its ideas but its generosity—its expansive view of human possibility. I think that’s why Houston made the audience feel so good: she challenged therapists to reach outside themselves, not just as professionals who extend themselves for a living, but as human beings who live in the moment.

In his keynote about facing death, the distinguished psychiatrist and author Irving Yalom evoked no feel-good visions or grand rhetoric about vast planetary outreach. Here was a man who’s applied existentialism to contemporary psychotherapy and come to a stark conclusion: it’s best to live and die without illusions.

As mature adults confronting the reality of death, what we should hope to be able to do, as therapists, is simply to bring up the matter with clients (like everybody else, therapists are scared of the subject). To die with dignity, and to know that something good and wholesome is left in the wake—that’s what Yalom thinks is the best vision we can offer our clients, our families, and ourselves. His pronouncements may not have been as beguiling as some New Age nostrums, but his humility and integrity were deeply moving.

If the Symposium is, in fact, a highly evolved form of communal theater, Richard Schwartz’s final keynote, discussing the diversity of our inner selfhood, offered a perfect conclusion. For Schwartz, our inner lives—with our internal lions and gladiators, perpetrators and victims regularly doing battle—are the psychic colosseums out of which much of the world’s struggles and tragic dramas emerge. But, he proposed, if we can learn to honor and listen to the parts of ourselves we’ve exiled and refused to acknowledge, perhaps we can bring peace and compassion to this most tumultuous of arenas.

One of the great things about being among therapists is the sense that no matter where you turn, whether you’re in a workshop or on a lobby couch, there’s a good chance you’ll have an authentic encounter. For instance, during a break between sessions, I remarked on a cross one woman was wearing and heard a tale about the meaning of spirituality in her life that surprised and inspired me. In another 10-minute chat, a ­cognitive therapist told me that the key to dealing with automatic, core thoughts isn’t to harangue them, but to gently remind yourself there’s another, countervailing story. Such insinuating insights again underscored the theme of the Symposium: even casual encounters can break the isolation of the moment and have a lingering and potentially profound impact.

One final story: I carry a cane to help balance myself—I don’t always need it, but it’s become a crutch, in more ways than one. At the noisy, hyperkinetic Symposium dance party on Friday evening, I was reluctantly dragged out from the edges, where I’d been hovering. My partner was an Imago therapist from Texas. Soon I was dancing, without the cane, for the first time in many years. I was then commandeered by another Imago therapist, this time from Denmark. Even in the midst of a raucous dance, apparently you can experience the sacred “space between” and the sudden expansion of life’s possibilities that Harville Hendrix was talking about.

My blessings go out to those therapists who practiced their therapy in their dancing that night. I want to thank them for getting me out on the dance floor and offering me that joyous moment of illumination in movement. They gave me the gift of a small piece of Symposium theater that’s reverberated with me ever since. Until next year, my Imago comrades!

Richard Handler

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