Flow and Taoist Psychotherapy

The building blocks of my holistic mental health practice were found in my studies in Eastern spirituality. Before deciding to pursue my social work degree in NYC, I had planned on moving back to Boulder, CO and studying for a master’s in Contemplative Psychotherapy from the Naropa Institute.

I ultimately chose social worker as a counterbalance for my deep study of Buddhism and Reiki. However, I longed for any place where the twain should meet and jumped of studying under Professor Zulema Suarez when she taught Spirituality in Social Work at Fordham University. It was in her class that I encountered, Grace Unfolding: Psychotherapy in the Spirit of Tao-Te Ching. All these years later, I still hold that it was the first book that helped ground my more independent spiritual studies with my professional social work skills.

This blog entry is an exploration of how authors Greg Johanson & Ronald S. Kurtz, interwove the Taoist concept of flow with the practice of psychotherapy.

Flow is a deceptive concept.  It seems to be a simple thing – how can just not resisting be difficult?  Somewhat ironically though, one must be very brave to step back and allow life to flow. This means embracing both the good and the bad, joy and fear.  The authors write that if one were skillful in this dance,

…life would be enjoyed as it continually changes and flowed from the tragic, to the mundane, to the hilarious.

I love that flow immediately evokes water, which is s both powerful and flexible, easy-going and fierce. The authors call on this metaphor as well, illustrating how water,

accommodates a rock in the stream, but is not frustrated in its destination.

As a student, I remember how much I longed for world without destination. I wished to be like the water that flowed determinedly but without force, with direction, but no rush. There were so many things vying for my attention (and this was pre-iPhone), so many perceived obstacles constantly testing my resolve.

For example, in my classes, it was common for the conversation to turn to the most feared work of a social work student: burn-out. This exploration of flow helped calm my nerves. It showed me a world wherein I could be a compassionate clinician and still practice non-attachment. I felt hope that I could share in the whole spectrum of human emotion and still have an open heart.

I came to learn that the spiritual work I was doing on the sidelines, was not peripheral or self-indulgent, but actually at the core of what could be my success as a clinician. My concept of holistic therapy was born from my desire for my own wholeness. All aspects of self needed to be cultivated, not just the mind that was absorbing and processing, but the heart that would have to grow if I wanted longevity in my career and my spirit that had to learn the careful dance of deep love caring and letting go.

My dedication to my own wholeness, would give my clients permission to develop their own, without impatience and without guilt.

…the basic work of health professionals and psychotherapists in particular is to become full human beings and to inspire full human-beingness in people..  

I remember wondering, if flow means doing nothing, why is it so hard? I know now that flow means sometimes painfully counteracting our impulse to feel right and to be in control.  Dar Williams’ song, What Do You Hear in These Sounds, described the kind of therapist I still long to be;

I say I hear a doubt, with the voice of true believing
And the promises to stay, and the footsteps that are leaving
And she says "Oh, " I say, "What?" she says, "Exactly, "
I say, "What, you think I'm angry
Does that mean you think I'm angry?"…

And she's so kind, I think she wants to tell me something,
But she knows that its much better if I get it for myself

The wisest healers are content to stay silent, allowing the other to come to their own truths. They know that arriving at this conclusion organically is a powerful proof that one can connect with one’s inner wisdom whenever they need. Knowing when to staying silent is one of the most difficult parts of my own practice.

The Tao perspective proposes a sort of effortless therapy, where one does not yield, does not push. One is present with the experience of the client. We aim to bear witness in order to allow for the client to be seen as they are, as they will be, to partner with them in courageous self-discovery.

The first law of social work is, “Meet the client where they’re at.” We don’t analyze, diagnose and dispense, we observe, we listen, we learn. This was so well illustrated in Grace Unfolding, in an oft repeated anecdote attributed to the great developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson,

When a patient in a hospital ward introduced himself as Jesus Christ, Erickson did not argue with him, but responded with, ‘Oh, I understand you have experience as a carpenter, yes?  Here, let me show you the shop…’…He accepted the person’s experience of reality, quieted the storm raging around him, and got him reconnected to the earth… 

To flow as clinicians, we need to let go of any attachment of outcome. We can only present different avenue, alternatives perspectives. We do this for ourselves and our client. We allow, without expectation, for the client to set their own pace.

The nature of life is change.  We need simply be aware of the changes and move creatively with them. 

Change is often vilified as “the devil we know vs. the devil we don’t know”, with stagnation being a safer alternative. Personal evolution is growing, expanding, not a zero sum game.

…we do not completely disown or leave behind old ways of relating to the world.  It is simply that new ways of relating are added to our repertoire, and a measure of awareness and choice is introduced where before we acted habitually and automatically.”

By far, the biggest challenge to flow, is to embrace our demons, to allow fear to lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, without judgment, attachment, or distraction;

We can enter deeper into its mystery and allow it to lead us to what is causing the fear, and ultimately, to what that fear requires to assure itself that self-expression can be both possible and useful.

Grace Unfolding was an important book that helped lay the framework of what ultimately became my holistic psychotherapy practice and what is simply an elegant guide to brave living.