Wednesday, August 22, 2007

California in August; Humanistic Therapy Conference

Entry for 21 August 2007:

California in August. Although the cross-quarter has passed and we are more than half-way to the autumnal equinox, the August sun is still intense in California. The air is dry; it has been months since the last rain, and the hills are a golden brown. The blue jays screech; the hawks circle the hills, riding the thermals in the late afternoon. The crops – peach, apricot, tomato, watermelon, almond, walnut, grape (all of which have to be watered by great irrigation systems) ripen, one after another, as the late summer advances.

Growing up in the Central Valley of Northern California, I hated the hot, slow summers, and longed for the crisp mornings of Fall and the return of the green. Only when school started in September did I begin to feel alive again, and I always felt as though I was awakening from a long nap. Murray Creek, where my parents moved after I had gone away to university, at least is redeemed by the beauty of the little valley, with its California live oaks, manzanita, black-berry bushes overrunning the banks of the creek, and other foothill vegetation.

Millbrae. After our brief weekend at Murray Creek, we drove back to Pleasanton, a suburban community in the East San Francisco Bay Area. After stopping for just a few minutes at Diane's mother's house, Diane dropped me off at the BART station so I could take the train into San Francisco and beyond, just south of San Francisco Airport. There, the first Humanist Therapy Conference was to take place, sponsored by APA’s Division of Humanistic Psychology and master-minded by David Cain. Just to prove that I could do it, I took the train to the end of the line, Millbrae, and walked the last half mile, over Highway 101 and along the mud flats of the bay at low tide, until I reached the hotel. It was Kenneth who had noted that Millbrae is a Scottish place name, out of place in the midst of all the Spanish names: Palo Alto (where I was born while my dad was in law school at Stanford), Los Altos, San Jose, etc. According to the Wikipedia (, the name refers to the rolling hills owned by the Mills family. (Apparently, we are not the first to have seen a connection between Scotland and the California Coast Range.)

Old and new friends. Les was waiting for me, had been waiting for me for quite a while owing to a confusion over arrival times, so we immediately left for dinner with David Cain, Ernesto Spinelli, David Rennie, Maurice Friedman, and others. Les and I hadn’t seen each other in a year, and so we failed to fully engage with the others as we tried to quickly catch up with each other. How is Scotland?, he wanted to know. What’s happening at York University (the Canadian one)?, I asked. The meal, at a fake English restaurant, was forgettable, but we had fun figuring out how to share our meals in order to have the widest variety of food.

Process-Experiential Therapy Workshop. The next morning was my big presentation: a three-hour workshop on Process-Experiential/Emotion-Focused Therapy, for which I had rashly promised to do a live demonstration for an unknown audience (“You’re crazy!”, Les had said, when he heard this). I was relieved that David Cain had scheduled Les at the same time as my presentation, because I figured that that would decrease the size of the audience. In the end, about 30 people turned up, a really nice size for a session like this.

I discovered 10 minutes before the session that the sound for my video example would not play through the PA system. (iTunes played, but not the sound for my digitized QuickTime video, even though it played just fine on my speakers. Hm…) Improvising quickly, I pulled up the transcript for the example, and enacted it for the audience, as I had done a couple of times before. When I said something about being a heretic from the Person-centred approach, Natalie Rogers (Carl’s daughter and the developer of an expressive arts approach to PCA), chided me to worrying about such things, and proclaimed my practice to be absolutely person-centred.

We did the live demonstration in the middle of the room for a change, so everyone could hear. The demonstration, a PE two-chair process for a decisional split, went very nicely, and the client and I were able to immerse ourselves in her experience and help her move a bit in the direction of some resolution (a level 4 I would say). It always amazes me how a kind of bubble develops around the client and me when I do one of these demonstrations. It also always amazes me that the person in the client role gets something out of these artificial, spotlighted demonstrations. But in my experience they almost always do!

The three hours seemed to fly by, but I was exhausted at the end of it. And I was very pleased with the appreciative feedback form the audience, including Art Bohart, who said that he was glad that he had been able to see me work, found it really different from Les, and really liked it.

A personal view of the rest of the humanistic therapy conference. The rest of the conference was great: Almost everyone either presented video or did a live demonstation (or both). There were representatives from most of the tribes there: classical person-centred, existential, focused-oriented, transpersonal, expressive arts, gestalt, and lots of process-experiential/emotion-focused. There were great discussions, comparing and contrasting our approaches, but ideology was minimized or put in its place by the constant reversion to actual practice. That’s how I like it! Show me what you actually do; then we can talk about theory!

Les, Jeanne, Rhonda and I had far-ranging discussions about where we think PE-EFT is going, in relation to the domination of CBT. At times, we are tempted to despair, but Jeanne and I in particular found ourselves expressing hope and optimism based on what we’ve all been able to accomplish so far. For a long time, Les has really tried to have a big influence in the larger field of psychotherapy, a very difficult goal, in which I believe he has largely succeeded, even though it is difficult to see the larger picture when you are down in the trenches. Compared to Les, Jeanne and I have had a much smaller goal: really just to be heard and to have a place in the unfolding development of psychotherapy in general and humanistic therapy in particular. This all emerged gradually over several long heart-to-heart discussions, in which Les expressed amazement at our optimism. I guess you could say that our optimism is a victory for low expectations!

This was the first humanistic therapy conference. Without too much promotion, there were still 165 attendees, and for those if us who were there, it was a brilliant success. According to the organizers, the conference did well enough to justify doing it again, maybe even next year. We are looking forward to it. We’ll tell our friends, too!

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