Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Action in Education, Psychotherapy, and Life

Originally posted on April 20, 2011

The emphasis here is on physical enactment, direct encounter, as a way of being more involved than just talking about a topic. Admittedly, talking about is better than stifling, avoiding talking, avoiding being conscious at all. But action extends the process, makes it more holistic. One feels oneself more present and involved.

Dr. Jacob L. Moreno, the psychiatrist who invented the method known as psychodrama, was right in the idea that there is act-hunger, a true need to do more than talk about things. In the earlier years this might find expression in more exaggerated movement—hitting a pillow, throwing a chair, collapsing in grief. And these more extravagant actions are indeed healing for some people. (They don’t have the same significance for people who are habitually histrionic—i.e., “drama queens.”)

Action can be subtle, though. It involves more than acting aggressively, or exaggerating vulnerability, or the more obvious behaviors in psychodrama. There is in the encounter a kind of stepping-up-to-the-plate, a presentation of self as vulnerable, that has not yet been mentioned to my knowledge. Moreno hinted at it in his poetic vision of the encounter, his histrionic tearing of eyes out so to exchange them. Rather, let’s explain by considering the body-mind.

Several streams converge here: One is the work of Wilhelm Reich, Alexander Lowen, and other body-workers who write about posture, muscle tension, “body armor,” and other whole-body-mind interactions, mainly from the viewpoint of the intra-psychic dynamics of the individual. A second stream is the growing awareness of the remarkably complex and dense volume of nonverbal communications of many types in the interpersonal field. (Moreno’s concept of tele and sociometric dynamics are included in this domain.) This is alluded to, for example, by Daniel Goleman’s 2005 book, Social Intelligence.

A third approach derives from advances in neuroscience and its support of whole-body-responses—including the endocrine—which overlaps with the first category of body muscle states.) A fourth approach draws on ideas from kundalini yoga and speculations about the subtle body energy field. The key point here is that we cannot directly will our optimal alignment, but rather need to bring ourselves to an un-blocked state of openness through which wiser spiritual operations are free to heal and realign. (There is no adequate theory behind this within the standard Western paradigm—it requires a leap into a metaphysical view that opens to the idea of “higher mind.” Although this view is unacceptable to rigorous thinkers in the 20th century, it is becoming more acceptable on its way to becoming mainline in the 21st century!) (There also may be other factors I haven’t thought of adding to this converging.)

The point is that action learning, experiential explorations, drama in therapy, and the like all may be understood more fully as involving the willed opening of the body as well as the mind to the flow of energy in an actual encounter. The presenting of oneself in direct one-to-one conversation adds a measure of vulnerability and spontaneity that should not be underestimated. In encounter one leads with one’s heart instead of one’s head. One meets rather than talks at or talks about. There is a willingness to be altered in the meeting, to learn something, to forgive, to apologize, to allow oneself to be forgiven, to give and accept kindness (if “love” is too sticky a word), and few people have this ideal experience. Psychodrama has the tools and concepts that can support more of these encounters happening.

There needs to be a sharper demotion of the process of catharsis—especially as imagined by the general process. (Catharsis, purging, was a major form of medical treatment for much of pre-modern history! Give the patient a strong laxative, an emetic (something to make him throw up), or something to produce salivation or sweating. These treatments probably made people weaker and sicker rather than helping—although there was a small fraction of people who were indeed constipated and a cathartic did offer a slight relief, although that may have been irrelevant to their actual illness. The feeling of emptying, however, generated an illusory sense of “getting the poisons out.”)

If we expand catharsis to be the purging of shame, fear, resentment, and other negative affects that burden and constrain the soul, and reintegrating the vulnerable parts with the guiding elements, then the energies that contract and stifle the self are purged, released, and there is what may be a subtle as well as gross process of catharsis.  More, the even more subtle process of catharsis of integration that should follow the catharsis of abreaction is better recognized for what it is: How may the individual find her own way to integrate the awarenesses brought to the surface of consciousness?

We need a theory that is predicated on the metaphysical appreciation of healing through positive imagery, through faith, through the entertaining of meaning-systems, and these elements operate in a benign fashion in the presence of opening, surrender, and positive expectation. It’s analogous to recognizing the innate healing tendencies of the living organism, the body. What must be present, though, is an environment—a social environment, especially—that is also healing. People who are aligned with higher values of forgiveness, a faith in the potential for positive potentials to come forth, a generosity of spirit, and leavened by a measure of play and humor—these are also fundamental ingredients.

Add to this a recognition of the therapeutic value of a bit of play: The nature of psychology is that it is idiosyncratic: People have a unique makeup as a result of their being a nexus of hundreds or thousands of fluctuating variables. Therefore, every person must create his or her own solution, and then re-work it, and re-work it again in light of changing circumstances. It’s an ongoing process of creativity. The point is that there are no fixed answers that can be known by others ahead of time, no “right” ways to do it, and therefore it doesn’t make sense to harbor fixed opinions about what others should be or do or think or experience. Play allows for wiggle room, allows therapists and other group members to lighten up about their tendencies to imagine what is good for another person. People surprise you, they come up with quirks that work for them—even if those quirks or creative responses might not work for you. Let it go and encourage them; celebrate their individuality and creativity—and laugh. What’s funny is the incongruity between what you might expect and what ends up being what the other does or chooses. Life is full of these surprises, and taken rightly, it can add a lot of enjoyment to our encounters.

Letting go of notions of right and wrong in fixed ways does not suggest that we become slack-jawed, amoral relativists whose response to value conflicts is “whatever.” There’s room for sustaining values, but what must be open to dialogue is the interpretation of the value. We must beware getting too stuck on this or that principle or ideal and ignoring the balancing of values that makes up the truth of human encounter.

This mini-essay is aimed at thickening the theoretical foundations of psychodrama, and especially thickening our understanding of the many dimensions of action. Talking “to” someone directly—even if only in an empty chair, in surplus reality—is far more authentic than talking about what we might say to someone, what we can’t say to someone, or what we should have said. Talking about is far from encounter because the whole body-mind is protected from the full energizing of presence. (That’s why we can enjoy dreams: Our bodies are so profoundly relaxed in REM-dreaming sleep that we don’t get into real trouble!)

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