The Ultimate Psychotherapy (#708)

Over the past few days, I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with Dr. Robert Holden, the UK’s preeminent happiness psychologist and a regular guest on the Oprah Winfrey show.

During the course of our conversations, which have covered everything from positive psychology to wine tasting and from the true meaning of enlightenment to the secrets of playing “happy golf”, he said one thing which has been sitting in my mind ever since.

“In many ways,” said Robert, just before driving a golf ball 240 yards down the center of the fairway, “the ultimate psychotherapy is simply to relax about things.”

While it was just a passing comment, the reason it has been humming along inside my mind ever since is that it so directly mirrors the experience I have with my own clients. The moment they relax about what it is going on in their heads or in their lives, things start to change for the better.  Their mood lifts, they begin to enjoy themselves and their work and their friends and their partners more, and before long they begin having a stream of insights into whatever it was that was bothering them in the first place.

It’s almost as though the more weight and gravitas we bring to bear on something, the harder it is for us to hear our own wisdom in relation to it.  The more lightness of touch we are willing to allow, the more easily and naturally that thing begins to shift, seemingly all by itself.

One of the most profound examples of that in my own life came when I was dealing with the suicidal thoughts that filled my head throughout my teens and on into my university years.  I had fallen afoul of a bizarre paradox of university policy which insisted that as I had “confessed” to suicidal thoughts I had to have mandatory psychotherapy to stay enrolled in the school, but if I actually spoke about having suicidal thoughts during that therapy they were duty bound to report me to the powers that be and I would be automatically expelled.

This led to an awful lot of time talking about nothing and getting wound up tighter and tighter as we danced around what was going on without ever once going to the heart of the matter.  I worked my way through the school’s team of psychotherapists one by one (in fairness, I wasn’t very nice to them) until one doctor actually did something bizarrely effective.

She told me that to her ears, I sounded absolutely fine, and that it was quite normal for people to think about suicide from time to time.  She pointed out to me that there was a huge distinction between thinking about suicide and actually wanting to kill myself – and for the first time in nearly six years I began to relax about the whole thing.

Up until that point, everyone (including me) had been so frightened about the content of my thinking that none of us had noticed that the only problem I actually had in my life at that point was my thinking.  A few days later, I had an insight which confirmed that distinction in an extremely visceral way, and as I wrote in You Can Have What You Want:

 

From that day forward, rather than continuing to treat the “suicide thought” as a problem to be solved, I recognized it for what it was: just a thought, no more significant than “chicken or beef”, “plaid or stripes”, or “I wonder what she’s wearing under that?” (Hey, I was 19!)

 

On reflection, I can see that I had benefited from the ultimate psychotherapy. I had been given permission to just relax about my problems instead of driving myself crazy trying to solve them.  And as is so often the case, the moment I allowed myself to relax, my wisdom bubbled up to the surface and the problem dis-solved in the light of my own insight.

One of my favorite analogies for this phenomenon comes from the amazing Dr. George Pransky, whom Colin Wilson once described as “(a) modern psychologist who seems to me as important as William James, Abraham Maslow, and Howard Miller.”

He describes our wisdom as being like a flute that is constantly playing in the background of our lives.  The reason we can’t hear it is that we tend to have a brass band playing full volume inside our heads.  In order for us to hear and be guided by wisdom, we need only allow the brass band to quiet from time to time and we will hear the flute almost immediately.

And while relaxing into a quiet mind may seem like a difficult thing to do in the midst of a challenging time in your life, it becomes exponentially easier the moment you begin to see that the solution to our most difficult problems nearly always shows up the moment we stop looking for it. Worst case, you get to take a bit of time off from your problems and enjoy your life a bit more. Best case, you create the space for insight, laughter, and miracles.

Have fun, learn heaps, and enjoy your day!

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