The world is an endless sea
Full of pain
With nothing to gain
Her eyes empty of meaning
No one there to hear her screaming
Standing in an open field
Wishing she were a shield
So she’d be protected
From all that’s connected
She wanted to know
Where she would go
Why she is here So very near…
And if it’s only the beginning
Or is it never ending?”
The poem above was written by a client of mine. A very caring, hard working, capable and inspired young woman. Nonetheless she finds herself at times feeling alone in her pain among a community of people. Her emotional emptiness somehow reflecting a lack of meaning.
Feeling vulnerable and open with others has at some point in her development become something to be afraid of. She gets caught in a biopsychosocial defense system that keeps her a safe distance from her own desires and anyone that might help her makes sense of the disconnection between her brain, self, and relationships. So, she finds herself in a psychotherapist’s office asking, “Where do I go?” “Why am I here” “When will the pain stop?”. Where does this type of pain come from? How do we get it to stop? What are the causes and effects that make a difference in psychotherapy? Who is to blame? Who gets credit if things get better?
Victor Frankl (26 March 1905 – 2 September 1997) was a holocaust survivor, neurologist, and psychiatrist who developed an existential psychotherapy founded on the principle that we innately search for meaning in our lives and that this is vital for our survival and well being. He combined his first person experience of surviving a most brutal context of living in a concentration camp with his knowledge of the brain, self, and social relationships to develop his ideas. He noticed in the studying the lives of people who survived the Holocaust that their survival was seemingly due to having meaningful endeavors to return to should they be liberated from the camps. His integration of objective scientific perspectives and subjective awareness led him to appreciate that we can thrive in light of our past when we stay connected to what has meaning and purpose to us.
One of my all time favorite Broadway musical soundtracks is from “West Side Story”. I grew up listening to the record endlessly with my family. I know all of the words and can’t help singing all the parts, even Natalie Wood’s! I especially like tunes that allow you to take on a funny voice, as when the “Jets” impersonate a judge, psychiatrist, and social worker in “Gee Officer Krupke”. They are portraying the struggle between the personal and collective response to the stress involved in finding ways to help each other out of pain and suffering.
Who’s responsible? Who can truly help? How can we be certain we know what we are doing? It’s all so complicated. Are all of these experts just idiots? Are all of these kids just a lost cause?
I must admit when I was younger I was on the search for the true psychotherapy approach. The one that would “do the most good”. I thought in terms of some grand approach that would explain everything and make everything better. The Weltanschauung of psychotherapy. At some point I realized most approaches were “on to something” and that none of them would take pain and suffering out of life. Psychotherapists often find themselves being “eclectic” because each approach over history has focused on an aspect of human experience that is true but none will ever make life free of pain or problems. Then something quite unexpected happened. I discovered Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR).
I remembered hearing about it in graduate school (1993) and at the time it was still being vetted by the professional community. I needed a parsimonious treatment approach that would help a variety of adolescents in a short term school based mental health program I was developing. So, I looked it up. This was somewhere around 2000. There was already plenty of research supporting it’s use for PTSD. It was also used to help kids, like those portrayed by the Jets, who had trauma based behavioral problems, an area of research that was picking up speed fast!
I remember early on saying to a colleague, “I think I’ve found it!”. An approach that integrated some of what is good and true about all of the major schools of psychotherapy. Little did I know, there were thousands of clinicians having similar experiences around the world. What I would come to realize later was that I was caught up in a tidal wave of scientific and culture advancements that this psychotherapy had an angle on in a big way.
Enter Francine Shapiro, the founder of EMDR. You can read all about her amazing journey in developing EMDR here. The funny thing is I’ve learned a great deal from her approach to her approach not just her theories. Not unlike her “Adpative Information Processing Model (AIP)”, there is something universal that doesn’t belong to or begin with Francine in her approach, but something she gives voice to. There is an innate healing system that will process disturbing experiences all on it’s own given the appropriate biopsychosocial environment. While Francine hasn’t claimed EMDR is a Weltanschauung of a perspective she has observed that it is an integrative approach that includes all aspects of human experience with an emphasis on the profound role autobiographical memory has on our lives and has had throughout human history.
Francine recognized that she did not create the healing system that is responsible for the repair of unprocessed memory and that we are all moving forward in a collective understanding of the important role that psychological trauma has played in human development since the beginning of the human brain. She and the cadre of trainers that grew up around EMDR were taking the lead from the brains/minds of their clients and themselves in advancing the method. Francine created a climate that allowed for integration and collaboration. Like no other guru of psychotherapy I’m aware of, she even invited scholars of other orientations to contribute to a book she edited about EMDR (photo left).
She asked the “competition” to tell her why they thought EMDR worked, because it clearly did and yet there were still many details to work out as to why. Who does this? Who invites the opposition to weigh in when you could claim to have found the end all approach? I think this is a reflection of a more feminine approach to science and clinical work that reflects the type of reparative social environment necessary to support clients and therapists in the healing process.
Albert Einstein is also someone who had a strong sense of curiosity and openness to how things work who followed his subjective experience in organizing his science. He wanted to know what would happen if he traveled along with light at he same speed. Born out of a mix of science and first person perspective was the “theory of general relativity”. He suggested that gravity could be explained by a relative relationship between spacetime and objects. Planets move through the universe shaping spacetime and spacetime likewise shapes the trajectory of the planets. Planets slide along the spacetime continuum and things move due to the shape of the their relationship. There is no direct, local force necessary.
We are born with a brain forged over millions of years of development that is inclined to become embedded in social relationships to process our past. The die was cast long ago. Each of us carry what is universal to our species, the DNA that allows us to collaboratively process our own history, in real time, so we can be present with what is, imagine a better future, and let that inform what we do with our body now. This is how we move. How we roll. It is the shape of things. Our brain, self, and relationships are moving in that direction without any requirement of an external or internal force.
When we experience overwhelming events and things get stuck, our nervous system needs to get unstuck. If we remain stuck and adapt to avoiding the past, we develop phobic responses to human bonding despite the constant tendency toward it. Like the tension of constantly resisting gravity would produce were a planet to resist co-creating it’s path with spacetime. When we resist our birthright to engage in processing our past we take on misanthropic attitudes as a way to resist this constant pull toward connection. Our own coming into being is traded in for cynical rationalizations for why we are too good to collaborate with others or why it doesn’t matter. This happens because our own unique contributions are indelibly linked to a process of integrating our history with the ongoing demands of life in the present.
The shape of the relationship between the evolution of our brain and it’s interactions with the social environment through time immortal is what I call the Geometry of Love. A way I have come to understand the causal properties of EMDR. We are bent towards connection. The flow of energy and information between the brain, self, and relationships is what animates our lives in a human way. It is a source of creativity, innovation, and change. This is a way to think of how the therapeutic relationship contributes to change in psychotherapy. The approach represents the forceful aspect of therapeutic change. Intentional, strategic and forceful interventions, (including the use of medication) help along the way. However, if the client and therapist are open to connecting and both overcome their misanthropic tendencies, things tend to come together.
We can see non-clinical examples of the Geometry of Love throughout history. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had no formal training in psychology that I’m aware of, however, his psychological savvy comes to light in his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”. He takes us inside the mind of both the oppressor and the oppressed and lays bare very practical ideas for getting past our past and moving forward in the direction of connection that transcends a racially misanthropic denial of the past. Look closely at his words and you will see how profoundly human he saw the tendency to connect is and how destructive hateful images of humans are to the natural movement toward bonding. He was articulating a message for his time but also expressing wisdom that preceded his historical moment and continues to extend to a variety of contexts today.
Martin’s non-violent approach to solving problems and achieving goals was not just smart political activism. Our ability to remain connected to our body/mind and remain in a state that allows us to tolerate riding the wave that the Geometry of Love has set in motion, is all about dealing with the stress of collaboration without violence. Our history of resorting to force and defense to manage life is what makes an appreciation for oppression through the ages a practical matter.
Our way out of biological, psychological, and sociological suffering is through finding meaningful work together. It is the same dance between spacetime and matter. Spacetime says, “where do you want to go?” and matter replies by being what it is. Matter endlessly asks of spacetime, “Who are you?” and spacetime replies by revealing a little more. Unlike lifeless matter and more like Martin, we can dream and imagine a better world when we are collaborating in the present to address everyday problems that need attention now.
In recent years my favorite example of the application of the Geometry of Love principle is found in the work of “Lumos”, a non-profit organization that was imagined by author J.K. Rowling after she contemplated the state of children being housed in orphanages and other institutions. Lumos is responding to what science and our first person perspective tells us about where children ought to grow up. Children need to grow up in loving, connected families where they receive the kind of human connection that allows there brain/body/mind to develop optimally.
As their logo suggests, they are “protecting children & providing solutions”. Not unlike Martin’s non-violent approach to addressing civil rights issues, Georgette Mulheir (CEO of Lumos) is bringing children, social service workers/administrators, and government officials together to collaboratively solve problems and achieve goals that may have previously seemed out of reach. While it matters a great deal what particular policies and practices are applied, the underlying source of progress is not merely in the strategies George and her collaborators utilize. Like an EMDR therapist and client, the approach matters but what moved the pioneers of EMDR from using it with simple PTSD to helping clients with a wide range of issues was belief in the innate healing system that has always been there, available to tap into.
In 2015 Lumos helped 2,376 children move out of institutions and prevented 3,176 from going to them in central and eastern Europe. Since 2009 they have trained more than 27,000 people including politicians, policy makers, and child care workers to support the children being served. You can check their annual report here. The bottom line is that the use of force, removing children and closing down institutions, is coupled with strengthening relationships between all of the stakeholders in government, social services, and individual members of the community. There are creative, innovative ways to be present for these children when our body/minds are not preoccupied with defending against troubles of the past that fuel cynicism and helplessness.
In our brief time in the universe we have collectively endured the negative effects of social environments that have relied heavily on the use of force to make the world a more certain place. This approach usually turns out to reveal one despot or another behind the prevailing winds of a science and culture that refuses to yield to the progress and change at hand that we do not control. An unprocessed history of deprivation of one stripe or another can make going with the flow of connection frightening. Whether we are a head of a household, head of the next major approach to psychotherapy, head of a not-for profit, or head of state, we can easily be lulled into pursuing more and more power and control in lieu of ways to collaborate with others. When we confront our past and band together to stay true to the goals of the present, the truth continues to reveal that things are never just as they seem and that’s where a little more light shines through to guide the way.
“I know that the spades are the swords of a soldier,
I know that clubs are weapons of war,
I know that diamonds mean money for this art,
But that’s not the shape of my heart.”