The Small in the Big and the Big in the Small

“ should try to show the small in the big, and the big in the small, and provide for the real in the unreal and for the unreal in the real…”

Shen Fu (1763-1810) from ‘Six Records of a Floating Life’

Thursday, February 4, 2010

We Teach What We Need To Learn

As a psychologist in clinical practice, I find myself providing clients with bits of ‘psycho-education’. That is, I ‘suggest’ what might help. I am careful never to tell anyone what to do. At the same time, the implication is clear…’this could help’. The approach is highly humanistic, right? Therapists never intend to tell people what to do. “Advice” is couched in suggestion and/or facilitated such that clients ‘discover’ answers for themselves. Discover what? The implication is that they discover what the therapist thinks is good, important and helpful. David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz describe it this way, from their brilliant article, “The Neuroscience of Leadership”.

…the humanistic approach leads to an emphasis on persuasion. The implicit goal is to “get people on board” by establishing trust and rapport and then to convince them of the value of a change…. The power of changing behaviour by asking questions goes back to Socrates, but even the Socratic method can backfire when it is wielded by someone in authority who is trying to convince others of a particular solution or answer….When someone tries to politely tell people what they are doing wrong and phrases the criticism as a question (even one as seemingly innocuous as, “What made you think that would work?”), subconscious alarm bells ring. People can detect the difference between authentic inquiry and an effort to persuade them.
A friend has asked me whether or not, as a practicing psychologist, I do what I tell others to do. In other words, do I walk my talk? Do I exercise daily, meditate, eat broccoli, speak
for myself and not others and reframe my negative self-beliefs to enhance my own self-esteem? My answer was, in brief, “we teach what we need to learn”. I believe this wholeheartedly, no matter what your vocation, or avocation. Our drive to engage in any activity is always motivated by our soul’s longing for fulfillment. We are curious beings seeking meaning. That’s the big picture. The ‘small’ in this is: We pursue what ‘interests us’. And what do we find interesting? What we are lacking, needing and seeking. Particularly in the “helping professions”, we helpers are essentially attempting to help ourselves. We look for our own answers and healing in our efforts to teach and, thereby, help others find their own answers and healing.

“To teach is to learn twice.”
~Joseph Joubert, Pensées, 1842

So what do I need to learn and why am I teaching it over and over again? I am a seeker. Like many, I am looking for answers in my own experience and in others’. And, like most of us, I want to feel safe, secure, understood and valued. I am on a quest for connections and understanding.

The Small in the Big
We are our experiences and our choices — most of which seem quite insignificant. Paradoxically, each ‘insignificant’ present moment is the gift of our existence. William James, considered the father of modern psychology and a thinker way ahead of his time said, “All of life is but a mass of small choices – practical, emotional and intellectual – systematically organized for our greatness or grief.”

The Big in the Small
In therapeutic conversations we share a common mystery and we reach for transcendence – in the transpersonal experience that emerges when two people get honest and real and work to figure things out.

William James also said, “…we must never forget that it’s not only our big dreams that shape reality. … it’s the small choices that bear us irresistibly toward our destiny.”

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