Tapio Malinen, tapio.malinentathata.fi, Sundintie 26, FI 06650 Hamari, Finland

 

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In: Hoyt, M.: The Present is a Gift. Mo´Better Stories from the Word of Brief Therapy. iUniversity, Inc. NY, 2004.

Burn In, Not Out!—A Conversation with Michael Hoyt about Truth and Beauty in Brief Therapy

Tapio Malinen

 

Multitheoretical thinking and integrative brief therapy practices, creative teaching and lecturing, participatory interview-projects with leading experts, and writing widely on brief therapy and related topics are some of the activities near to Michael Hoyt’s heart. His knowledge and experience is so extensive that he deserves to be called a Renaissance Man in the brief therapy field. He works as a senior staff psychologist at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Rafael, California, and is also a member of the clinical faculty of the University of California School of Medicine in San Francisco.

The following conversation took place in Helsinki, Finland, on March 9, 2001. Michael had just finished teaching a charming two-day workshop on ”Integrative Brief Therapy” (sponsored by the Finnish Family Therapy Association).

 

Tapio Malinen: You told the workshop audience that you have a wonderful ritual in your family. When you are together having Sunday night dinner, you take the time for everyone to say what was good this week and what each person enjoyed the most. I would like to start this conversation by asking you to imagine that you are back in California with your family, sitting Sunday night at your dinner table and it comes your turn to tell what was the most exciting or sparkling moment during your Finland visit…So, what would you tell them?

Michael Hoyt: What was the most sparkling moment? There have been so many of them…but right now I´m thinking about two things. One was being in the sauna and going swimming in the sea in the ice-water. Seeing the color of the water and the color of the ice, as I climbed down the ladder and went into the very frigid water, was very invigorating and wonderful. Wow! That whole experience of going from sauna to the water and back and forth was very special and beautiful.

Another moment was at the end of the one-day conference I gave for the A-Clinic on supervision earlier this week. Ritva Saarelainen persuaded me to sing a song. I´ve never sung publicly before. And I sung the song, ”The Rose.” The lines at the end -- ” beneath the bitter snows lies the seed that with the sun´s love in the Spring becomes the rose”-- touch me very much. They remind me that even when conditions are hard and cold, wonderful things can still come through—sometimes particularly with a therapist´s support or love, you might call it. And even when it´s hard times, we shouldn´t give up, because there´s always hope. And there are some lines in the song about ’those who won’t take a chance never learn to dance.’ And as I started to sing, I became self-conscious; for a moment I was going to stop, but I realized what the song was telling me and I listened to myself and that was my solution. It was O.K. to ’take a chance and learn to dance.’ And there I was.

I also have had many other wonderful moments; some very interesting exchanges at the conference and wonderful discussions with people, who have been so warm and kind; dinner that first night at the Lapp Restaurant; spending the day with Ritva and her friends at artist studios and visiting the lovely town of Porvoo (where I understand you live); looking at the Gallen-Kallela painting ”The Myth of Aino” at the Atheneum; and others. But right now, the sauna and that song are at the top of the list.

TM: During these two days that I´ve listened to you at the workshop, I´ve got some glimpses of what the title of your (2000) book Some Stories Are Better than Others might mean. But could you specify that a little bit more--why are some stories better than others?

MH: Some stories are better than others because they are more enlivening and encouraging, and help people get more of what they want. They carry wisdom and hope. They open people’s hearts and touch their feelings. They speak to the person´s truth or their dream. The person feels free and invigorated in those moments and I think that’s what really makes some stories better than others. They touch us and they move us. Louis Armstrong, the jazz musician, said that there are two kinds of music: good music and bad music. Any music that makes you tap your foot is good music. And to me stories that are good stories are stories that make me tap my foot, that quicken my pulse, that make me lean into life and make me feel more alive, richer and more involved. The theory has to do with narrative construction and building a worldview through the stories we tell ourselves. For other people good stories might mean something else, but I think for most people ”better stories” are the stories that bring them more of whatever it is that makes them feel good.

TM: I get the image from this tapping your foot, that that´s the moment when you are somehow more in contact with yourself or with your life-energy and your personal rhythm of life.

MH: It´s a metaphor and kind of hard to talk about specifically, but many people—including myself–do have an experience of sometimes being ’on’ or being ’in rhythm’ or being connected to the ’flow’ or something. ”Stories” or ”narratives” can lead me there and describe it afterwards, but it is also important to remember that stories are not Life. In my best moments I´m so involved that I forget about myself and I´m not separate from the experience.

TM: And during those moments you somehow break the limits between you and everything that´s around you. There´s no clear boundary.

MH: Yeah.

TM: Let’s come back to this after a moment. I know that you have done a number of interviews with some of the remarkable people in our field, for example, with Steve de Shazer, Michael White, John Weakland, Bill O´Hanlon, Kenneth Gergen, Paul Watzlawick and Karl Tomm. What kind of moments have these been for you? How have they affected you? What have you learned from those moments--about the therapy world and about the human being?

MH: There is the personal pleasure of meeting very bright people, who are all very articulate and brilliant in what they do. They’re also all very decent, nice people. If one loved golf, it would be nice to play a round with Tiger Woods, or if you were into basketball, to shoot some hoops with Michael Jordan. So, being able to talk solution-focus with Steve de Shazer or narrative with Michael White or MRI strategies with Paul Watzlawick or social construction of reality with Ken Gergen or possibility therapy with Bill O´Hanlon is very exciting to me. Doing the interviews, I noticed how very thoughtful and articulate all of my different colleagues have been and how very carefully and precisely they use words to say things. Sometimes they even wanted to edit what they said, not to change it, but to make it clearer and to be really sure that they conveyed what they wanted to express.

I was moved greatly during the conversation with Michael White and Gene Combs that we did several years ago (Hoyt & Combs, 1996/2001).. We were talking about creating the path as we go. That we are making our world, making our reality with our choices and what we do. When we were talking about it, something very magical happened for me. Suddenly I realized how much I have choice in how I look at my life and how I experience it. And it has stayed with me--many times I have thought about how I have this freedom. I also became much more aware that what is, is. This may sound a bit like California psycho-babble, but only what we are attending to and talking about is happening and is real--everything else could be a possibility, but we are making our lives and our worlds as we go, together. That´s been an interesting effect for me.

I also saw--and that reinforced in me--the value of hard work and preparation. My colleagues are very hardworkers and very smart and I take that as an inspiration. By the way, all these interviews are going to be together in a new book called Interviews with Brief Therapy Experts to be published in May 2001.

TM: When I read your books and found so many interviews, I started to think that it´s probably your preferred method to work, to explore things by having dialogues with your colleagues.

MH: The ”conversation” or ”interview” format allows a nice give-and-take that is congenial for talking about ”talking therapy.” The way I would do the interviews – and I hope to do more – is that I would approach someone and ask if we could come together and have an interview and then I would read most everything they have written. I would also attend their workshops and/or look at a couple of videotapes, and then would also read what people have said about them and ask some of my colleagues (including other interviewees), ”What question would you like to ask this therapist or what would be interesting to explore?” I would prepare myself to get inside their thinking and attempt to grasp and understand what they were saying as well how they were seen by others. So I would sort of develop these different ”internalized others” in my head. When we would do the interview, I would have some questions ready to ask and a few back-up questions. I might also have some quotations where someone said something critical from a different angle. After the interview I would go through the transcript and add footnotes from my reading to give some scholarly information and background to what we were saying, and would also invite my co-interviewees to make whatever additions they felt like making.

TM: So your interviews are just the tops of the icebergs. There have been lot of preparations before you meet your colleagues.

MH: Yes. You are Finnish, so you probably know more about icebergs that I do. But sometimes when I go back and look, I can see lots of levels of reading when I go into particular questions. A lot of it has come out of the conversation and I give credit to the people I interview, of course. But sometimes it´s hard to know where ideas come from. They really bubble up from the interaction. Did I say it? Did they say it? Even when I said it, I said it in response to the context of the situation. So they are really very bipersonal or relational or collaborative or systemic. Together we are co-creating inter-views. (My friend Don Meichenbaum once suggested calling them ”inter-muses.”) It´s not just one person interviewing the other.

TM: I just started to think: Just now we are doing an interview about the interviews!

MH: It´s wheels within wheels, mirrors within mirrors.

TM: You mentioned words and how precisely your colleagues talk. As I talk with you, I also can experience how precise your way of using words is. I would like to ask you what´s the difference in your dictionary between the words eclectic and integrative?

MH: The word eclectic generally means pulling or drawing from different areas. Eclectic to me sounds more like a collection, but the pieces are not necessarely organized synergistically or working together. I think lots of therapists who say they are eclectic may have a lot of techniques and ideas that sometimes contradict one another. It´s very difficult, for example, to be doing solution-focused work but then also be questioning the client’s underlying assumptions, the way they are viewing the world, be it via the making of psychodynamic interpretations or the cognitive-behavioral editing or correcting of the person’s reasoning. If you are also trying to tell them that their logic is valid and real, how can you also be challenging it´s validity at the same time? I tend to prefer the term multitheoretical because in English eclectic sounds like a cross between electric and chaotic!

I think integrative has the implication that the pieces fit together and together they are more than the sum of the parts. They’re multiplicative. So it´s easier for me to integrate, say, ideas from Ericksonian and solution-focused and narrative therapy, because they all are based on ideas of competency and utilization of resources. Those are much easier to integrate than disparate ideas from traditions that are much different.

TM: Could one say that real integration, as you put it, would be one of the roads for the development of psychotherapy? Something that is somehow emerging from these innovative and synergistic approaches?

MH: In the United States there is an organization called the Society for Psychotherapy Integration. They hold conferences and they try to look for ”common factors” or what´s similar in different therapies. What are the real factors that seem to make it work? Scott Miller and his colleagues (Miller et al., 1997) have talked about that at some length, about the big importance of the client’s contributions relative to the therapist’s contributions and the role of placebo effects.

The difficulty, I think, with how to integrate different approaches in practice is that sometimes we wind up with mush; different approaches are not doing what they do well with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. I think the concepts of social construction and narrative construction and the languaging of reality are ways for how to think about integration. It´s interesting: the wheels within the wheels. We’re trying to find a way to talk about talking, a language for languaging about languaging. In physics there are various forces and we go into a unified field-theory, some kind of concept that pulls it all together. For me that´s what social construction does. It´s the idea of building stories and language games and solution construction.

TM: Physicists are nowadays seeking for the so-called Big Theory.

MH: In brief therapy The Big Theory now is Social Construction. They used to think the Big Theory was The Unconscious; then, for awhile, it was Structure and Communication. This is an interesting question: if anything is ”The Unconscious,” how is it useful to think about it and how is it not useful to think about it? It´s a concept and it may be a helpful concept, but everything we think about, every way we approach something, opens certain possibilities and closes certain others. So I am not necessarily for or against something as much as I´m asking, what do we gain or what do we lose by thinking in a certain way? Every model or theory opens doors and closes doors. What I gain by solution-focused approaches--whether it is specifically solution-focused therapy or some other variant (e.g., solution-oriented or possibility therapy or some other competence-based ideas or even some of the language system ideas)--is a sense of freedom. The client and the therapist are building something rather than tearing something down.
As I mentioned in the seminar, I´m interested in the aesthetics of therapy; is it attractive and interesting? I´m interested in the ethics; is it respectful, does it enlarge the person? And I´m interested in the effects; does it work, is it helpful? From what I have understood so far about competency-oriented and language-based approaches, they satisfy all three of these more than any other schools or theories I have met.

TM: There are two things I´m thinking about right now. First, Steve de Shazer (2001) has said that there´s no theory in solution-focused therapy. Theories don´t explain reality, they rather organize our brains. Wouldn’t it be nice if we would have a Theory with big T, so we would be legitimized. But if we would have that Theory, all our minds would be clouded. The Big Theory would cloud that which is as it is.

MH: Yeah—we’d be theorists rather than therapists, more interested in our ”lenses” than our clients. Bill O’Hanlon and Jim Wilk (1987, p. ix) have a funny line in their book where they quote a famous Irish scientist and wit who was reported to have remarked, ”Well, it works in practice OK…but does it work in theory?”!

TM: The other thing I was thinking about was what Ken Wilber (1998), one of the greatest philosophers in the field of transpersonal psychology, wrote in his book, The Marriage of Sense and Soul. He also talks about good, beautiful and true; ethics, aesthetics and knowledge; moral, art and science. He is arguing that the good thing in modernism was that it differentiated these three spheres from each other. They all have they different languages. In my mind your way to evaluate psychotherapy reminds me of his analysis.

MH: I´m wondering if I borrowed my three concepts of aesthetics, ethics and effects from Ken Wilber. I don´t know exactly when I read that book of his, but I did read it, at the suggestion of Cloe Madanes. I´m wondering if I´m having what is called cryptoamnesia, which means you picked something and don´t remember where it came from. I surely want to give him credit, if I borrowed it from him. Thank you, Ken!
He also said some other things in his book that had me concerned. He has a very strong argument in which he talks about the “nihilism and narcissism” of postmodernism. This whole topic has become a real bugaboo. The concept gets used so loosely nowadays; sometimes postmodern means nearly anything, that everything goes or everyone can have her own reality and there´s no reality that is better than any other. That might be true inside people’s heads, that everyone can have his or her own “Truth,” their heartfelt beliefs and “take” on reality. Truth is an elusive critter, but there is an external reality that science looks at, and if we ignore the objective reality outside of us, we are somewhere between autistic, ignorant, and psychotic.

TM: There´s a really interesting footnote in your Handbook of Constructive Therapies (Hoyt, 1998, p. 15) containing a list by Gail Shafarman of ”Thirteen Ways of Looking at How a Poet and a Therapist Are One.” She says that both the therapist and the poet recognize the beauty of the form--and the need to judiciously break it. Could you say something about what beautiful and aesthetics means to you in therapy?

MH: I know it when I see it. Sometimes it´s hard to explain, but beautiful in therapy means to me that it elegantly and eloquently captures the magic of the moment. It often has a certain simplicity or efficiency, there is nothing unnecessary, and in some lovely way it gets to the core, to the heart of whatever the topic is that is being discussed. I heard Robert Bly, a well-known American poet, once read a long, beautiful poem. And someone in the audience asked him, ”What does it mean?” And he said, ”If I knew what it meant, I would have written an essay, not a poem.” I think beauty, like poetry, is not linear. It´s not something where you say ”A+B+C = Beauty.” It’s something about the way the pieces come together. It´s hard to explain.

TM: Isadore Duncan also answered, when somebody asked her, what´s the meaning of her dance: ”If I knew that, I wouldn´t dance.”

MH: Isn´t that interesting! Maybe Bly borrowed from her. Beauty connotes for me that we are in a constructive (positive, creative, choice-making) process. There is an infinity of good and an infinity of bad we can focus on. What we choose doesn’t make all the difference, but it does make a big difference. I was reading an interesting book by Alex Kerr (1996) called Lost Japan. In one passage (p. 243) he describes being at a tea ceremony in which a participant accidentally spilled the whole tea container all over the tatami mat. Everyone was petrified, until the tea-master spoke: ”What is the appropriate thing to say at a time like this? You should say, ’Look how beautiful!’….You may never see this again in all your lives….Look, and admire!” I love that! Damn, I wish I could hold that consciousness.

Thinking about beauty evokes for me an aesthetic sensibility, the world of grace and proportion and creativity and appreciation, which I find very attractive. I love well-turned phrases and picturesque, compelling language, but beauty in therapy (or elsewhere) does not just mean that something is clever or pretty or happy. Beauty is not just skin-deep.

TM: I really like the way you move back and forth using personal experience and poetic imagery.

MH: Thanks. I know you have similar interests (Malinen, in press). So, let me ask you, Tapio, how do you think about beauty in therapy?

TM: I think beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So for me beauty in therapy is a way to see or a way to be in the world. If I as a therapist succeed to co-create together with my client an open space, where our truths (what is truthful for us, what makes sense and works for us) unfold in a respectful atmosphere and we can recognize once again who we are, our suchness, then I often experience that there are also certain aesthetic dimensions in this particular moment. It often kind of takes my breath away, takes time away, takes myself away, all at once. This mutual space has often the characteristics of flow, unpredictability, wholeness, uncontrol, serenity, participation and a kind of elegance. Often both the therapist and the client will be touched and nourished by the beauty of the moment.

To create this space you need to have some technical skills, but at its best the therapist meets his client as the wind meet the water. Then the technique and the encounter of the human beings are one. And that´s beautiful.

MH: Indeed—and well said! Hey, now ratkes!

TM: In your Handbook of Constructive Therapies (Hoyt, 1998) Ken Gergen has written the Foreword. And he talks about how the entire therapeutic venture is fundamentally an exercise in ethics. And he talks about the spirit of cooperation and the inspiration of the incomplete. And then one thing that personally interests me: the blurring of boundaries between professional and client. I have experienced many times as a brief therapist, that the roles of the client and the therapist are not the same as in the so-called ”modern” therapies. There is not so much hierarchy. As you said a couple of minutes ago, you create meanings together, you and your client collaborate. Many people talk about when they work, for example, solution focused, that from the therapist’s point of view it´s a hell of a lot lighter to focus on strengths and possibilities than on pathology and problems. You don´t experience your work to be so heavy and there is even an aspect of playfulness in what you are doing. It prevents burn-out. Do you agree with this, that brief therapy has some beneficial effects on the therapist?

MH: I think very much that in the kind of work we do, as in everything, how we look greatly influences what we see. And if we spend our day looking at pain, pathology, resistance and cruelty or failure, we´ll spend a very ugly day. And it has to have a negative feedback to the therapist (and the client). You feel that you have spent the whole day in the mud. It is encouraging to look more at strengths and positives. The issue of expertise is very complicated. Consider Anderson and Goolishian´s (1992) well-known phrase, ”the client is the expert.” We often talk about recognizing and respecting the validity and truthfulness of our clients and their perspective; we try to support that. The therapist´s expertise becomes largely, but not completely, a matter of how to evoke the client’s expertise. Much like a good movie director has to figure out how to get the best performance out of an actor or actress, we have to woo or coax the best out of the person. Sometimes it’s like seeing a spark and blowing gently on the embers.

Having said that, there are also many instances where as professional therapists we have knowledge or expertise that we should share with the client. For example—I’d rather not put anyone’s name on this—I watched someone working with a patient who I thought would benefit enormously from a certain kind of medication. But the therapist did not mention medication to the patient, even as an option. And when we later discussed it and I said, ”Why did you not bring up medicine?” he said: ”The patient didn´t mention it, so I didn´t want to bring it up, because I wanted to work with his resources and competencies.” I think, in addition to our expertise in bringing forth client resources, we do have some expert knowledge and I think it´s important to offer it in a respectful way. I was very concerned. Sometimes if we don´t do that, the client may be limited to developing solutions from their existing repertoire and not be able to borrow knowledge or skills from other people who have learned things they don´t know about yet. So I think it´s important that we don´t go so far in trying to support the client´s expertise that we forget that there are two experts in the room and that we can integrate their knowledge.

TM: One expert who knows how to direct an orchestra and another one who knows how to play his or her instrument?

MH: Yes. And the one who knows how to play the instrument sometimes could be taught some new songs that they may not already know.

TM: And maybe to tune his or her instrument in a little bit different way?

MH: And if the instrument is broken, it might be good to offer them some glue or a screwdriver or whatever is needed to fix the instrument. Sometimes there´s a role for medication. I have not heard many people talk about the use of medicine in a solution-focused frame. As a narrative constructivist I think of the appropriative use of medication as ”re-storing re-storying.” It´s re-storing the person’s capacity to continue constructing their story. But if they are too depressed or too confused or too scared, they may not be able to pull their thoughts together. So I think sometimes it may be helpful to consider medicine, although it´s a slippery slope--we don´t want to overmedicate or medicate prematurely.

TM: I have a personal experience of using anti-depression medication. And I really think it was a good experience for me and when I nowadays work with my clients it´s quite easy for me to somehow remember their rights on this. But I have also asked myself, what would be the solution-focused way to use medication?

MH: I have colleagues whom I respect greatly, but who are always battling against the pharmaceutical companies and acting as though patients taking medication is always some abuse of the patients. They act as if medication is always inappropriate. I have known many people, however, that have found it very helpful. Let me give an example of someone I knew. I had a patient--we did so-called ”brilliant” work…but nothing changed. It did not help the person. And then eventually, in desperation, I asked whether she would be willing to see a psychiatrist, to have some medication. A few weeks later she was feeling much better and beginning to make changes, and she said something that changed my outlook about medication. What she said was: ”Michael, the therapy we did was helpful. I thought I got a really good map. But when I took the medicine, I felt I had some gas in the tank of my car and now I can use the map and go somewhere.” Once I heard that, I began to think of particular people who were not moving their ”cars” very far--that maybe the problem wasn´t a lack of solutions, but it was a lack of energy. Invitation and information, not imposition, is a key.

TM: Concerning the energy of the therapist, there´s a lovely paper you have written together with David Nylund called ”The Joy of Narrative” (Hoyt & Nylund, 1997/2000). It reminds me of our previous comments about how brief therapy effects the therapist. There´s a nice exercise in it, too.

MH: Thank you. I very much appreciate how you have taken the time to read some of these things. As you know, being an editor and a writer yourself, we don´t make any money writing articles and professional books. We do it for the joy of doing it and to contribute back to the field, so it´s wonderful when someone actually takes the time to read and think about it. I remember one of the first times I published an article and a few months later I received a request from Japan for a reprint of the paper And it thrilled me, that some idea that I had had in my head had meant something to somebody on the other side of the world and we were now in communication. My world became smaller and friendlier as a result of that. It was—and still is--very exciting.

The exercise Dave Nylund and I developed in our article involves being interviewed as though you are your client and talking about how the therapy went from the client´s point of view. It uses an ”internalized other interview,” as Karl Tomm or David Epston might call it. And when we’ve used this exercise in many, many workshops both in the U.S. and other countries, it´s remarkable what people come up with. If they let themselves really get immersed in how they think their clients experienced them, they make interesting discoveries that have been very helpful.

TM: Now I want to direct this conversation to another issue. I have lots of thoughts about how the ancient wisdom traditions have a similar picture of the essence of the human being as the social constructionists have nowadays.

MH: How so? In what ways?

TM: In a way that somehow we have always already everything we need inside of us. Buddhism would say that we have the Buddhahood potentially always already in us. Wittgenstein would say that since everything lies open to view, there´s nothing to explain. What you have to do is just look. Nothing is hidden. But because of our different blinders we don´t see that, what´s always in front of us. That the fly-bottle is always open for the fly to escape. In your Constructive Therapies, Volume 2 there´s a nice paper by Robert Rosenbaum and John Dyckman (1996) called ”No Self? No Problem!” The authors are showing how the view of the human being in social constructionism and, for example, in Buddhism resemble one another. That, for example, there´s no such ”thing” as self, that everything exists only in relationship. Many postmodern writers also stress the inherent relational and contextual nature of self. Do you see any similarities between these ancient ways of thinking and the picture of a human being as it shows itself in the background theories of brief therapy, especially in social constructionism? Does this question have any personal meaning for you?

MH: That´s a big, wonderful question. I have some personal interest in this area, but I don´t know enough about ancient traditional teachings to say anything well-informed. I agree with what you were saying, that there´s a belief in people’s resourcefulness. Sometimes there’s a belief that ”liberation” or ”enlightenment” comes from realizing your true self that is different from your perception-making ego. There´s also often a belief that we are connected to something outside of ourselves and that we are part of the larger reality. I think we have become very atomistic, very cut off and separate; one from the other, us from our past, us from the environment.

TM: You from your client?

MH: We are separate people, and sometimes it’s good to have the space to work, but sometimes we talk about therapy as ”Person A treats Person B,” as though they were objects (not people) and that influence only flows in one direction. There are resonances and reverberations between people. Even without evoking ideas of spirituality or mystical states of mind, I’ve tried to articulate a few ideas about this in a recent paper called ”Connection: The Double-Edged Gift of Presence” (Hoyt, 2001b).

TM: Besides being a psychologist, I´m a tai-chi teacher. Maybe that’s why I find your paper ”A Golfer´s Guide to Brief Therapy” (Hoyt, 1996/2000) so living and personal for me—to think of golf or dance or martial arts as a metaphor of therapy. In your paper you wrote that a game plays itself through the player and that therapy plays itself through the therapist. What meaning does that have for you?

MH: I used to be Michael Hoyt doing therapy, then I was a therapist who was Michael Hoyt, and now I´m back (sometimes) to being Michael Hoyt doing therapy. I find that when I´m at my best during the day, all I´m doing is being myself and talking with people. People come in and we have a conversation--we make a language game together, do a dance together, or whatever you want to call it. And I disappear! ”How can we know the dancer from the dance?” as Yeats put it. I become part of the process. In Zen they would say: ”Burn clean and leave no ashes.” When I get fully involved, I don’t have an observing sense of myself; I’m not in the corner watching myself, saying ”Oh, this is good” or ”That’s the right technique” or ”I wonder what doctor so-and-so would think of this?” In the golf paper I quote someone who said that when you’re really playing, golf becomes a verb, not a noun. You are in golf, you are golf. I’m not an excellent golfer, but I have had moments when I was in the flow. I didn’t have to think—there was ”no-mind,” as they say in some Eastern traditions. You trust your unconscious and let it go and it is happening.

TM: In studies of so-called ”peak experiences” in sports, it has been reported that players somehow experience a kind of altered state of consciousness during those moments.

MH: Yes. Michael Murphy has talked about it in The Psychic Side of Sports (Murphy & White, 1978) and Golf in the Kingdom (1972).

TM: Yes. And in The Future of the Body (1992).

MH: He lives a couple of miles from my house and our sons at one time were in the same school and I knew who Michael was, because I had read his books. One day I took my son to the local park and his son was there, too, and they were playing and the two fathers, Murphy and I, were sitting on the bench and we had one of the most remarkable conversations I have ever had. Neither one of us said anything about our backgrounds or interests or identified our names. But I felt like I was hanging out at the park with Shivas Irons (the protagonist in Murphy’s Golf in the Kingdom) or with Don Juan from Castaneda´s books!

TM: That flow is something you have experienced in your therapy work, too. That you just do your work and somehow you forget the time and you are in kind of timeless space and everything is running very smoothly and you are doing an excellent job.

MH: Sometimes it lasts for a couple of hours. There have even been a couple of times when I have walked down the hallway between appointments and said jokingly to one of my colleagues: ”I´m hot, I´m hot! Quick, do you have any problems?” And we laughed. And the other side is true, too. There have been many moments, too many, where I was just stuck and couldn´t get it going. Maybe I could try to be competent in a general way, but I didn´t have any of that sort of magic.

TM: Suddenly I started to think that if it would be possible to learn to do therapy in that kind of mindful way, that would burn you more in than out. Especially in solution-focused therapy, you have the outer form that focuses on strengths and the good powers of life. Is it possible to think that it could kind of trigger in some therapists these altered states of conciousness or these flow-moments? And if so, how to use them ethically during the therapy process?

MH: I think that being in the positive mind-set that solution-focus encourages helps, as does having an active sense of humor. I also find it helpful to try to approach each client with love in my heart. We can all visit that ”on” place occasionally or rarely and some people, the masters, can hang out there longer. But I think it takes a lot of talent and skill and a lot of disciplined training. I cannot just pick up a musical instrument and perform as a professional can without spending years and years of learning. It´s important that we have a lot of discipline, and I´m saying this because I don´t want to suggest that whatever we do is ”therapy” or therapeutic. I think the ultimate test of it is, does it work? We have to look at, are the clients getting what the clients want? That´s the honest, accountable approach. And if what we are doing works for the person we are serving, then it´s good. But if what we are doing doesn´t work for them, we have to figure out the way it would work better for them…and not blame them. That´s what we are supposed to be doing.

TM: In your book, The First Session in Brief Therapy (Budman, Hoyt & Friedman, 1992, p. 81), you were asked how you became a brief therapist, and you answered: ”I was born to be a brief therapist. My mother, a loving and wonderful woman bless her soul, was a major-league worrier. I often consoled her, and soon learned to do it quickly.” If you think about your dearest and most influential people when you were a kid, for example, at five years old, who among them knew that some day you will become a brief therapist and how did they know that?

MH: I think my grandfather Ben Bernstein knew I would do something with language. He used to say how much he loved to listen to me. And I loved when he would come to our house. He was a salesman and he travelled a lot and he would spend hours telling stories about people he had met and things that had happened. I learned something about storytelling from him. My mother, who did worry a lot, also had the biggest heart I´ve ever known anyone to have. She loved to make friends and talk with all sorts of different people. My father was a salesman and at times also something of a strategic therapist in our family. He had a great intellectual interest in things and he also liked to tell stories. I don’t recall my parents ever telling me specifically that they wanted me to be a psychologist, but they were very happy when I did well in school.

I also had a friend when I was a teenager whose mother had been a social worker and she talked to me about how good it would be to become a social worker or a psychologist or somebody that would help people. The ear doctor I consulted during college when I was looking for medical excuses to avoid the Viet Nam war also steered me toward the clinical helping professions (and away from being a lawyer). Some of my college professors were also inspirational.

While all of these were influences, in some ways I think it was ”meant to be.” When I was a child I was always interested, from the beginning, in why people did what they did and how they talked about it. When my parents’ friends would come to visit, I would ask my parents afterwards questions like: ”When Mrs. Goldberg starts to talk about her daughter, why does Mr. Goldberg always get up and go outside to have a cigarette?” or: ”When Mr. Goodman wants to have a drink or say something, why is Mrs. Goodman always interrupting him?” I never had an interest in mechanical things or how cars work. I still don´t like computers. I can´t hook up my own stereo equipment very well. But I always had this interest in things like stories, comedy, sports, poetry, art and literature, anthropology, folklore, human relations. So when I said I was born to be a brief therapist, I didn´t just mean because I was born to my nervous mother, but I also meant that it seems to me an enormous wonderful thing, that we get to go into small rooms with people, talk to them and at the end of the day get paid for doing it. What a wonderful way to make a living!

TM: It´s a privilege.

MH: Yes. It´s a privilege to make a living in that way. I can hardly imagine anything more enjoyable than being with people and sharing stories.

TM: And being in a real context. For example, in business life the contexts are much more manipulative and more unauthentic than in the therapy world. Or are they?

MH: I know a businessman, who I respect, and he told me that he likes business because there are few rules and you keep score with money. I like therapy, because there are few rules and you keep score with happiness.

TM: If I would be a lucky man and we would meet somewhere, let’s say after eight years, and we would have a couple of beers and I would ask you: ”How are you, Michael?” and you would answer: ”I´m fine, thank you.” And something you have dreamed many times would have come true. And you would be 60 years old then and you would share your dream come true with me. So what would you tell me?

MH: When you asked the question, what came to my mind was that my son and my wife would be happy and healthy. That would make me very happy. And if that can be, everything else will be great!

TM: Yes. And as far as professional activities are concerned?

MH: I’m waiting for my next inspiration. I’m waiting to see what’s going to catch my interest. One thing that has been very exciting is this trip to Finland, and some contacts I have made with friends in Ireland and in the U.K. and in Japan. I’m realizing how narrow my American perspective has been and how much bigger it could be. I’m interested in learning more from people from other places. On the airplane coming here I was reading the book Smilla’s Sense of Snow by the Danish author, Peter Hoeg (1993). I’ve got it right here. I resonated with what he seemed to be saying when he wrote:

The moment you grasp what is foreign, you will lose the urge to explain it.To explain a phenomenon is to distance yourself from it….I feel a connection to the Inuits. That is because of their ability to know, without a shadow of a doubt, that life is meaningful.Because of the way, in their consciousness, they can live with the tension between irreconcilable contradictions, without sinking into despair and without looking for a simplified solution. Because of their short, short path to ecstasy. Because they can meet a fellow human being and see him for what he is, without judging, their clarity not weakened by prejudice. (p. 193) I want to live my life passionately and compassionately, with both truth and beauty. I´m hoping to have more of those opportunities in the next eight years.

TM: Thank you.

 

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