This month’s article traces my own experience as the subject of two therapeutic strategies in the course of my own healing journey. My intention is to provide clear examples of these altered state experiences and how they affected my work on myself in psychotherapy. I hope that doing so will help flesh out my first two articles on experiential self-acceptance and the Inner Source in ways that will make those “tools” more easily understood and more accessible to my readers. This is the first of two installments on this subject.
In thinking about this article, I realized that my process has been to extract my favorite “tools” from my own experience as both a therapist and a client of psychotherapy. In deciding to use “memoir” as a way of better illustrating experiential self-acceptance and the Inner Source, I am opening the door to the history of my own quest for self-knowledge and healing. So in my next two articles, I will be working chronologically from my own experience to reveal my learning process while working in altered states. The psychotherapeutic journey is about getting to know oneself. The tools of transformation are the means by which we can come both to know who we really are, and to heal the wounds that we have incurred throughout the course of our lives.
My first two “Tools of Transformation” articles raised questions for some of you. Although a number of people liked the articles, I received some feedback indicating that not all of you were sure if you understood the tools well enough from reading my articles to make successful use of them. My editor Kimberly Nichols and I concluded that I needed to provide more concrete examples and anecdotes to illustrate these processes. So what follows is a memoir of my own journey as I moved deeply into my own healing. I plan to present four vignettes that recount major turning points in that process. These altered state experiences were precipitated by four different therapeutic modalities: being confronted with my first therapist’s vision of me as I interacted with my first therapy group; being guided in a visualization based on a dream fragment by Gestalt therapist Joseph Zinker; experiencing hypnotic trance induced in the context of experiential self-acceptance by my mentor, Dick Olney; and an inner source experience facilitated by my consultant, Lani Granum. I hope that my description of these experiences in this issue and the next will clarify the nature of altered state work, and will impart a better sense of how you might use these tools and techniques to facilitate your own healing work.
Vignette #1: Through the Looking Glass
In the winter of 1968/69 I began my transition from jail chaplain to psychotherapist. I became involved with a community mental health project that was attempting to reach out to adolescents and young adults who had come to Chicago in the late 1960’s. This project teamed psychotherapists with “street workers,” who would attempt to form therapy groups with this population. My partner Alan Jacobs and I were the only team to form an actual group. The project was abandoned by its organizers, but Alan and I decided that we were onto something good and decided to create our own organization. Over the course of a few months, we organized the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, which went on to run free therapy groups for people in the Lincoln Park and Lakeview neighborhoods in Chicago for the next fifteen years. In our first year, most of the therapists who created this program decided to go into group therapy together. My first altered state experience occurred in one of these groups.
In my fourth session, my group turned its attention to me. The group was analytic in style in that the therapist, Mark Skinner, would observe the group interaction for some time before intervening. The members of the group were trying to get to know me and to discover what I was going to work on. I remember feeling uncomfortable with their questions, but I tried to answer them by reflecting on my understanding of myself. I didn’t think that I had many problems, but I wanted to become a good therapist. I thought that anyone who was going to practice psychotherapy should have the experience of being a client in therapy. The group members were not happy with my answers. They felt that I was being defensive and looking back, I am sure that they were right. Then however, I was baffled at their response to me, since I thought I was doing my best to let them know what I thought.
At this moment, Mark spoke directly to me. “I have a vision of you, Tom. Would you like me to tell you about it?” I said I was interested. Here is what he said. “In my vision, you are walking in some kind of peace march. You are surrounded by people that are expressing an interest in you, but you are not really paying attention to them. It seems that they really want to get to know you, but you are looking up adoringly at a statue that you are carrying. I believe that it’s a statue of your Mother.” Mark’s words stunned me. I felt shocked and transfixed. I could not find words or feelings. Since I had no previous experience like this to refer to, I didn’t realize that I had gone into an altered state. What I did know was that his vision was right on. My mother, whom I adored, had died when I was thirteen. I had not grieved her death. Instead, I was unwittingly carrying her with me in an idealized state. My unconscious focus was on being with her. Actually, in my adult life, I was carrying on a vigilant search to find her in the women that I dated and tried to form relationships with. I did not realize this at the time.
After the session, I found myself heading directly to my girlfriend’s apartment. She was home and invited me in. She took one look at me and asked what was wrong. I told her of my experience in my therapy group, and I became aware that I was still in the experience that began in the group. Thoughts were coming to me very quickly. Words tumbled out of my mouth as I tried to keep up with them. I told her of my mother’s death and of my Aunt Daisy’s death two years before, when I was eleven. I recalled that I had this great idea when my aunt died, that she would not want us to feel sad, that she would want us to be happy and go on with our lives. I remembered that I was responding to my grandmother being devastated by the loss of her daughter, and by my parents being unable to console her. Everyone, including my grandmother thought my idea was a good one. We didn’t need to grieve. We could go on with our lives and be happy, because Daisy would want us to be happy.
This is how altered states work. When we leave the realm of our ordinary consciousness, we can gain access to “peak” experiences that changed the course of our life. Usually, these experiences are submerged beneath the surface of consciousness. In an altered state like the one I went into when my therapist mirrored his vision of me, and when the altered state is focused on the correct target, it allows us to recover the important details of that experience in ways that can help us make sense of what we have been playing out in our lives. I had employed the same strategy with my mother’s death that I had invented when my aunt died. I didn’t really grieve for my mother either. Instead, after her funeral I listened to the radio in my bedroom. Tony Bennett was singing, “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places, that this heart of mine embraces, all day through.” I decided to do that, to keep her with me, to continue to see her in my memory. When someone mirrors the deeper levels of our experience to us, as my therapist so accurately did with me, it may open an altered state experience in which we can recover a real sense of what is affecting us so profoundly.
Vignette #2: Thawing the Frozen Self / Opening the Flood Gates
Two years after my group experience, I attended a workshop led by Joseph Zinker, a highly regarded Gestalt therapist. Joseph’s workshop was entitled, “Keeping the Therapist Alive.” Several of us from the therapy collective decided to attend. I had continued to work on myself in my therapy group, while I continued to try to learn as much as I could about doing psychotherapy. Dr. Zinker was demonstrating the Gestalt approach to dream work in this workshop. He instructed us to bring a dream into the group to work on with him. On the last day of the three day workshop, I still had not worked on a dream. I had been unable to work because I was not remembering my dreams. A small fragment of a dream was all that I could remember. I told Joseph the fragment and asked if there was enough there to do some dream work. To my surprise, he said that there was plenty in the fragment to work with. The fragment was like a photograph of a gray, frozen landscape. Running through the center of the image was a frozen river. For some reason, my Grandmother, my mother’s mother, was standing on the other side of the river. That was all I had to work with.
I knew that the Gestalt approach to dreams was that every part of the dream is a part of you, so I wasn’t surprised when Joseph asked me to lie down on the floor and to imagine being the frozen river. I expected him to ask me to be the river and talk about myself, but instead he said, “Tom, I want you to let your body freeze. Imagine that like the river, you are frozen solid.” To my amazement I felt my body starting to get colder, and when he told me to let the cold spread from head to toe that is exactly what happened. Joseph then said, “There is a little beam of sunlight shining through that cloud filled sky, and that little beam of light is shining right on your heart. See if you can feel the little bit of warmth that is coming from that sunbeam.” When I told him that I could feel the warmth, he suggested that I could let it spread throughout my whole body.” As I let my body thaw, I started to physically convulse. Soon I was sobbing in a full blown catharsis of grief. When Joseph asked me what I was experiencing I told him I was enraged with God. “Tell Him,” he said. I found myself screaming, “Why did you take them from me? Why didn’t you take me too? Why? Why? Why?” My sobbing resumed full force and then abated over the next several minutes. My body was shaking, but I felt tremendously relieved. I had discharged the burden of grief, sadness and rage that I had been carrying in my body for fifteen years. I told Joseph that I felt cleansed and that I believed I was now finished with my therapy. He smiled and said warmly, “yes, Tom, after about three more years of individual therapy to integrate what we have done here.” Much laughter exploded in the group.
This experience is an example of how powerful altered state work can be. In this instance, the altered state was induced by focusing on my dream and on my body. The target of frozen grief was obvious to Dr. Zinker and the group, but not to me. All that was necessary was for me to be open to following Joseph’s guidance, and to go along with the imagery he was providing. Remember that imagery came from my dream fragment. He was only elaborating on what was already there and asking me to allow myself to experience it at the sensory level. My body did the rest in response to his suggestions to let my body freeze and then thaw out. In truth, I had chosen to freeze my grief, rather than experience it, in the time following my mother’s death. Without being fully conscious of it, I had invented a coping strategy that bottled my grief up in my musculature. Wilhelm Reich was right. The psyche’s defenses are best understood as chronic muscular tension. If we can relax the tension, the emotional floodgates can open.
I hope these examples begin to illustrate not only what altered state work is like, but also how we can get there in our healing work. Having a good therapist who can see us clearly and facilitate our getting in touch with what has formed us, and who can guide us in our healing process is a real blessing. If you have no experience working in this way, I highly recommend that you start your deep healing work with a knowledgeable guide. What my two guides did for me here is very instructive. Through keen observance and good listening they were able to reflect images of what I was experiencing that were meaningful and validating to me. Then they were able to utilize their observations and my imagery to guide me deeper into my own experience.
This is exactly what my first two tools of transformation do. Experiential self-acceptance creates a context in which I can be aware of what I am experiencing with my senses and I can then allow that experience to be whatever it is. My doing so leads me directly into an Inner Source experience of letting my perceived experience guide me onto the healing path. Our bodies and our unconscious minds know where we need to go and what we need to allow to happen once we get there. Once we’ve been guided through this kind of healing experience a few times, we can learn to use the tools that foster healing states. Gestalt theory tells us that our organism wants to heal itself. Altered state work helps us get our egos and our defenses out of the way, so that our intrinsic ability to heal can take over.
My next installment will detail two more of my personal experiences with altered states. The first is a self-acceptance approach to hypnotic trance work. The second is an Inner Source experience. My hope is that through understanding these various examples, the tools of transformation will become more understandable and accessible to you all.
Article written by Thomas Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.