Symposium Highlight

The Tribe Gathers

Symposium 2010 Starts a New Kind of Conversation

Magazine Issue
May/June 2010
The Tribe Gathers

By now, more than three decades since it began, the Networker Symposium has become an annual rite of spring for the several thousand therapists who regularly attend it—a combination overpopulated family reunion, Mardi Gras, and four-day cram course in psychotherapy’s latest developments. Like any annual event, it’s also become an occasion to mark time’s passage, an opportunity for therapists to reflect on the shifting tides in their profession, the ripple effects from the wider world on our field, and—for those who keep being drawn back year after year—the twists and turns in the smaller-scale sagas of their own lives.

The last time the Symposium convened—in spring 2009, a few months after Barack Obama’s inauguration—a mood of unqualified euphoria prevailed among attendees, unquestionably a core Obama constituency—perhaps one of the last surviving groups of unreconstructed, old-fashioned liberals left in the electorate. Many therapists saw Obama not only as a new president, but as a professional role model: a kind of psychotherapist-in-chief, a true grown-up, a wise, compassionate, reflective man comfortable with the feel-good therapeutic language of “hope” and “change.” Even if therapists around the country weren’t sure exactly what supersized interventions the new president might use, many of them dared to believe that he had both the political flair and the clinical savvy to save us from ourselves.

The prolonged economic downturn and the legislative turmoil of the last year, along with the steady litany of grim news spiced with unanticipated catastrophes feverishly reported by the 24/7 media, has certainly shifted the hopeful mood of a year ago, even among the most ardent Obama supporters. We’ve had to face the sobering reality that there is no leader, no matter how visionary and heroic we imagine him to be, who has all the answers to the seemingly endless cascade of monumentally complex issues we face. It was this changed mood that Networker Editor Rich Simon acknowledged in his welcoming talk at this year’s Symposium, mixing acerbic political commentary with dollops of stand-up comedy and even a stab at channeling an aging rock star.

Paraphrasing a question much beloved of candidates hoping to displace a current office holder, he asked, “How many of you are more optimistic, more certain about progress and improved prospects for the economy, for world peace, for the environment, for the human race—not to mention the future of our noble, if beleaguered, profession—than you were a year ago?” Trying to sum up what had happened in the interval of fading euphoria since last year, Simon appeared to voice the thoughts of many in the audience when he continued, “Are you as astonished as I am by just how weird the world has gotten these days? It isn’t only that our elected leader so often doesn’t seem particularly in charge, it turns out nobody seems to be in charge—at least no grown-ups. Again and again, our elected representatives have resembled 5-year-olds with Oppositional Defiant Disorder . . . actually make that 5-year-olds with ODD, having a food fight!”

Comparing the disorienting everyday experience of 21st-century life to a supersonic version of a giant salad spinner set at warp speed, Simon declared, “Our so-called civilization has become far too big, too fast, too overwhelming, too technical, too busy—too complicated for our poor Stone Age brains to handle.” The issue facing us, he proposed, is nothing less than “the need to find a new way to live our lives.” Then in a moment of mock grandiosity, he went on to say, “We guarantee that this year’s Networker Symposium will give you The Answer, solve the most taxing problems of 21st-century life—and give you a year’s worth of CE credits to boot!”

So what exactly was the “answer” that the Symposium offered? For some, no doubt, answers came in the traditional form of the addresses delivered by the Symposium headliners. But, as therapists well know, the realm of ideas and cognitive understanding represents only the tip of the iceberg of human experience. As much as the content of their talks, it was what different speakers embodied for the audience that accounted for much of their impact.

In his opening keynote, Dan Goleman, author of the groundbreaking Emotional Intelligence, led off by addressing what he referred to as “the ultimate bummer,” the prospect of continuing global warming and the destruction of the planet. He walked the fine line between sounding like a grim prophet of impending doom and a reassuring voice of empowerment, encouraging therapists to find their role in leading a consumer movement to break through mass denial and usher in a new era of corporate environmentalism. In a wry put-down of the Positive Psychology movement, celebrated journalist Barbara Erhrenreich underscored the danger of parochial therapeutic fashions that emphasize self-absorbed “personal growth,” blinding people to the impact of the larger social and political forces shaping our collective lives. “It’s not positive thinking but courage that changes things,” she proclaimed. In a strikingly different tone, Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach evoked the healing mission of the therapist in a world in which so many people feel alienated, bereft, alone, and cut off from both nature and the human community. And in what many considered the conference highlight, psychiatrist Dan Siegel quoted Albert Einstein in describing how the burgeoning study of interpersonal neurobiology can move us beyond a preoccupation with the bounded self to “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

But as much as it’s a festival of ideas, at its heart, the Symposium is a tribal experience of collective self-discovery and a search for common purpose. The secret of what draws so many regulars back to the Symposium year after year is its special alchemy, its ability to mix festivity with carefully footnoted professional debate, to throw its audience off-balance, to get attendees to check their constricted everyday professional demeanor at the door, to actually bring to life what we as therapists are supposed to know about relationship, creativity, community, and the liberating fluidity of identity. Coming to the Symposium for many is a rite of renewal, a chance to rediscover why they became therapists in the first place, a time to recapture a sense of professional vision and solidarity so often lacking in our work settings today.

That note of communal identity and the rekindling of the creative was ignited in the first moments of Thursday’s kickoff, when Afro-Caribbean dancer Richard Gonzalez led an exultant, hip-swaying, call-and-response that brought 1,500 therapists to their feet. Revved and emboldened, they then embarked upon a day of adventure outside the well-grooved pathways of their appointment schedules and to-do lists, choosing from a richly varied menu of experiential workshops on everything from singing, dancing, improv, and writing to meditation, feng shui, yoga, and even the zen-ish pleasures of the Internet. Throughout, the always palpable sense of community offered the container in which everything else took place, whether it was the collective sugar rush of the early-morning feast of coffee and carbs, the serendipitous encounters with new friends on the legendary Symposium bathroom lines, vagrant Woodstock flashbacks engendered by free spirits camped on the floor of the ornate Shoreham lobby casually munching a sandwich with their shoes off, slam-dancing alongside a featured speaker at the riotous Friday night soiree, or strolling blissfully through the bazaar-like alleyways of the Symposium Exhibit Hall. In a society devoted to the scheduled life and the endless hard sell, the Symposium is a respite, a world apart in which the overriding purpose isn’t bottom-line commerce or professional advancement but communal connection.

The breakthrough promised by this year’s Symposium title had less to do with individual illumination than with the recognition that, at a time when so many feel like anonymous cogs in an enormous, soulless mega-corporation, it’s clearer and clearer that humans are hardwired for the small, intimate collective of the tribe. Hundreds and hundreds of studies have established that being in smaller groups of people with whom we share common interests and worldviews and purposes makes us feel healthier and friendlier. The scientific verdict is in: sociable tribes are better than lonely crowds any day of the week.

Underscoring the conference theme of “Breaking Through,” the Networker proclaimed its own breakthrough in making sure that the high-spirited Brigadoon of the four-day Symposium didn’t vanish from the attendees’ nervous systems once they returned home. Instead, harnessing the new communication technologies of the social media, it unveiled a host of possibilities for maintaining a year-round conversation of learning and connection through Networker Plugged-In (see page 36), a cutting-edge, online smorgasbord of live interviews, interactive forums, clinical resources, CE courses, and free events offered at the Networker website— In what was described as an “end run around the Laws of Time and Space and Physics,” Networker Plugged-In was presented as a chance for therapists everywhere to get first-rate training, stimulating conversation, and supportive connection no matter where they work or live. To illustrate the power of the new technology, the Networker website hosted a range of video and social media features during the conference itself, designed to add a new dimension of information and interaction to the Symposium experience—including a community blog that offered everyone, not only the keynote speakers, the opportunity to address the wider group, a program addition Simon referred to as “our version of American Idol.”

In closing, Simon told about a veteran Symposium attendee who experienced the meeting as deeply nourishing each year, only to find that the conference “high” lasted a few weeks until the feeling of camaraderie and connection faded again. This year, Simon urged, “there’s no need to let what you’ve discovered here fade. Take us up on our invitation to build a year-round professional community that will enable all of us to experience the collective wisdom of this formidable band of professional brothers and sisters throughout the year.”


Garry Cooper

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