Ken Wilber


A few weeks ago, one of my posts received a comment that was worth a whole post:

I am also a therapist (though I’m still in training). I’m wondering if you would be willing/able to recommend some family therapy books you’ve found helpful. My program is very focused on the individual and I’m trying to fill in some gaps and find your perspective on therapy to be very resonant with my own.

I’d love to recommend some family therapy books! My program was extremely family-systems focused, which I’ve been grateful for since leaving school. If you want to see an exhaustive reading list (I can’t remember having been assigned a real dud), you can see reverse-order lists of everything I read in my first year here and my second year here.

I’ll try to create a bare-bones list for you here—much more useful for you and a good exercise for me. I should warn you before I begin that I am super nerdy when it comes to family therapy reading and I can imagine many in my cohort rolling their eyes at my “must-read” list. If you are nerdy like me, though, here goes:

Pragmatics of Human Communication: A classic and profound book by Bateson’s MRI team, the first and probably still the best attempt to apply system theory to human relationships.

Susan Johnson’s books The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy and Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy for Trauma Survivors. Johnson combines system-thinking, Rogers-style experiential therapy, and attachment theory, creating one of my most-used therapy models.

John Gottman’s books, especially The Marriage Clinic and The Science of Trust. Gottman has taken up the project started with Pragmatics, largely abandoned by family therapy, and is doing it in fine style, with solid science.

Metaframeworks: This book presents my favorite meta-model of family therapy, combining the best parts of the many family therapy models.

A major work by each family therapy model-builder is also important reading: Haley, Madanes, Satir, Whitaker, Minuchin, Bowen, Selvini-Palazolli/Milan group, Weakland/Fisch/MRI group, deShazer/Insoo-Berg, Epson/White, and Hubble/Duncan/Miller. Keep in mind that their books are presentations of informed opinion, not science. Every one of these folks have got some things right and some wrong. They have also advanced the field significantly, and are the largest part the conversation on how to think about families.

Finally, a couple things that I was not assigned in school, but I found extremely helpful in making sense of the flood of information. First, a grounding in systems/complexity theory: Family therapists think of themselves as system-theory experts and throw around a lot of lingo that they may or may not really understand. It’s easy to get confused in this situation. The best introduction to modern system thinking is still Capra’s The Web of Life (though we’re overdue for an update). Also, check out Bateson’s books Steps to an Ecology of Mind and Mind and Nature. Second, familiarity with Wilber’s integral theory really helped me navigate the heated arguments about modernism vs. post-modernism and intervention at the level of individuals vs. family systems vs. larger systems. Check out Integral Psychology or A Theory of Everything.

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Not Back to School Camp comes right before my birthday, so I often use our closing intention circles to make public goals for my personal new year. In 2010, I announced that I would sit and meditate for 30 minutes each day, every day, all year. I chose this goal for two reasons, one completely practical, and one speculative.

The practical reason was diligent self-care during my last year of grad school. I knew I would be working long hours, and wanted to remain as clear-headed and stress-free as possible, so that I could learn, write, and support my clients at the best of my ability. There is a sizable body of evidence that a regular mindfulness meditation practice could help. I also imagined that succeeding at this goal would help make this kind of self-care a permanent part of my lifestyle.

The more speculative reason came from reading meditation advocates like Ken Wilber, who claim that a mindfulness practice can be an engine of personal development. They conceptualize growing up as a process of continually refining one’s sense of self, becoming less egocentric and more compassionate. While practicing a mindfulness meditation you are learning to make objects of observation out of the contents of your consciousness that you normally inhabit with your identity. The sensations, emotions, and thoughts that you are become objects that you notice, distinct from your self. You can move, for example, from being anger about a certain injustice to having and observing that anger. This increase in perspective should be extremely helpful for family therapists like me–we need to be able to see all sides of the story: How does each person’s perspective on this problem make sense?

The only way I can present the results of my year-long experience in a clear-cut fashion is by the numbers, and in that way I failed in my goal. I meditated 30 minutes on 254 out of 365 days in that year. That’s 111 days of not meditating. Most of those days were during the summer that Reanna moved in with me. I found it hard to prioritize alone-time after two years of a long distance relationship.

The other way I failed by the numbers was that I did not sit for 125 of those 254 days. When I said I would sit and meditate every day, I meant it. Pretty soon, though, I had a day when I was so tired that I really, really did not want to sit up. I decided that on the rare days like these, I would lay down and do a relaxation-meditation called yoga nidra that my friend Guyatri Janine had recorded. It turned out that days like that were not rare at all. (When I did sit, by the way,  I sat Vipassana as taught by S. N. Goenka from my birthday in September to the new year (42 days), and then zazen (79 days) as taught by my friend Debra Seido).

The third failure is that I have not continued meditating after my year was over–less than 30 times in the last four months. It’s easy to imagine this says something about the results I experienced from meditating. I apparently did not value what I got from meditating enough to continue prioritizing it when I had my fiance’s attention available, starting last summer, and even less after my official commitment to meditating was up in September.

But what I got from my meditation practice is by far the most difficult thing to be clear about. I can say that without exception I felt better afterwards than I did before I sat down to meditate. Sometimes it also seemed like I was “getting better” at meditating, that I was indeed training my mind at this very difficult task. I can’t say, though, how much it lowered my stress or changed my ego-centrism or compassion levels. I have no control group to compare myself to. I can say that I was fairly stressed out in grad school and that I did a good job with it–the writing, the learning, and serving my clients. I think I can also say that I am more compassionate than I was before that year, but more I’m inclined to credit the connections I made with my clients than my meditation practice.

The problem with evaluating this kind of program is more than just not having a personal control group. It’s also that the program advocated by Wilber and meditation teachers is very long term. “Don’t just sit a year and expect to know what’s going on,” I imagine them saying. “Try 20 years. That’s more like it.”

The skeptic in me replies, “That’s a very convenient way to make testing all this out extremely expensive.” The researcher in me says, “Well, let’s get to it! This could be important. Who’s going to design a huge longitudinal experiment, fund it, and run it? You can still get it done before I die!” The idealist in me says, “20 years, huh? I am strongly considering it.”

I am on staff at Not Back to School Camp for my 13th year, this year, from mid-August to early October. These are the roles I’m filling:

Advisor: Each session I meet daily with a group of about 10 campers each morning for an emotional and physical well-being check-in. We practice listening to each other and get to know each other quite well during the session, so that by the end we feel close, like a little family unit at camp.

Project leader: At the second Oregon session this year I led two projects. In the Music Project, we had camper musicians of all skill levels, playing violin, banjo, melodica, harp, ukulele, electric and several acoustic guitars. In six hours over the course of three days, we learned to play together as a band, wrote a song, and then performed it for the camp. In a project called On Becoming a Man, I led a group of six young men in a two-day discussion of the difference between being a boy and being a man, how each of us related to those roles, and what we thought would be the ideal elements of a ritual induction into manhood for each of us.

Workshop leader: I am leading five workshops at each session of camp. They are hour-long presentations open to anyone who is interested. In “On Trauma and Healing” I present the modern understanding of psychological trauma and what it takes to heal. In “A Theory of Everything,” I present an overview of Ken Wilber’s integral philosophy. In “Family Maps” I teach campers how to make what family therapists call a genogram, showing their entire family and the relationships between each member. In “Partner Dancing,” I teach the basics of how to dance with another person, regardless of the music being played. In “The Human Bowel Movement,” I teach the physiology of bowel movements, complete with a tour of the digestive tract, using a full-length, stretched-out drawing of one, and diagrams of each stage of the bowel movement.

Staff therapist: I am available as a therapist to any of the campers who are looking for that kind of support. I use a humanistic, strengths-based, systemic approach, emphasizing relationships, self-care, and the power of honest communication.

I’m taking a couples assessment class this summer, and right now I’m reading about a tension between family therapy models that Sciarra and Simon (in Handbook of Multicultural Assessment) call either idiographic or nomothetic.

Nomothetic models say that families have problems because they get out of whack in ways that families do. That is, each nomothetic model has its own list of ways that families can get out of whack and a therapist using that model is to keep a sharp lookout for those things. Structural therapists look for dysfunctional boundaries, for example. Strategic therapists look for incongruous hierarchies. Bowenians look for emotional reactivity. Emotionally-focused therapists look for maladaptive attachment styles. Each nomothetic model says that the therapist needs to assess for these underlying problems, treat them, and therapy should be successful.

Idiographic models call nomothetic models “cultural imperialism.” That means nomothetic therapists are just teaching (or tricking) their clients into thinking, feeling, and acting like them. Nomothetic therapists are forcing their culture on their clients. Calling someone a cultural imperialist is about as close to an accusation of pure evil as a post-modernist will make. Further, idiographic models say that culture (any culture) is oppressive of individuals, and that this oppression is the only reason families seek therapy. The ideographic therapist’s job (Sciarra & Simon list language-systems, solution-focused, and narrative therapies as idiographic) is to have a conversation with families about the ways they are being oppressed by their culture.

There are a couple of funny things going on here, but to understand it, first you need to know that nomothetic models are mostly “old-school” models that emerged in the 1950s and 60s, while ideographic models are newer, postmodern, all the rage, and emerged as a consequence of this nomothetic/ideographic conversation. In the 1980s, postmodern family therapists started saying that family therapy was arrogant and hierarchical and created the idiographic schools.

The first funny thing is that the old-school, nomothetic family therapy models emerged in much the same way, as a reaction to the arrogant and hierarchical field of psychiatry. The founders of family therapy said to psychiatry, “Human problems exist in the context of families. Your pathologizing medical model is not appropriate here.” Now the ideographic models are saying to the nomothetic founders, “Human problems exist in the context of cultures. Your pathologizing medical model is not appropriate here.”

Who is right? Well, that depends on your epistemology. So far, the nomothetic models have more experimental evidence to support them, and they are undeniably effective. To be fair, they have had more time to collect evidence, so in time things may go either way. And to be extra-fair, real post-modern idiographs can reject experimental evidence on philosophical grounds; experiments are so modern, so medical-model. What value system produced your research questions, anyway? That’s funny thing number two.

Funny thing number three is that, as Ken Wilber says, everyone may be right. Perhaps problems happen at every level of complexity, from our bodies to our minds to our families to our larger social systems, and nomothetic models just specialize in the family level, while idiographic models specialize in cultures. It’s a neat idea, possibly too neat, and difficult to tease out. I’ve written a little about it here.

The fourth funny thing is that the idiographic models, while broadening the scope of consideration in some ways, put the focus back on the individual in therapy. They say that culture is intrinsically dehumanizing, and that dehumanization is what an idiographic therapist talks about, but the other parties in the process are not part of the conversation. If I’m a narrative therapist and you send your depressed son to me, we will talk a lot about that depression. We will externalize it, maybe give it a name like “Mr. Funky,” talk about how Mr. Funky speaks with the voice of oppressive culture, talk about times when your son was able to overcome Mr. Funky’s influence and work on ways of increasing that ability. In the end, if I’m a good therapist, we have probably helped your son, but we’ve also focused on how your son thinks, feels, and behaves, where a nomothetic therapist would have been focusing on the whole family–how do they interact? Do the parents get along? How might this symptom of depression make sense in your son’s immediate system of relationships? Who all has a stake in this behavior and can we get them in the room too? And so on. There is a way that by ostensibly moving the location of pathology out of the family to the larger culture, ideographic models have brought the clinical focus back to individuals, which may seem like regression to the founders of family therapy.

This video makes me want to get an EEG machine. It’s of Ken Wilber narrating footage of himself moving through a few different meditative states while hooked up to an EEG machine. (EEG machines show you a picture of the electrical activity from your brain from electrodes on your scalp.) He says what each state feels like, too. Pretty neat.

(Minor correction: He makes it sound like dreaming sleep is mostly associated with theta waves, which is not quite true. Dreaming sleep does have some theta activity, but it’s mostly beta or “beta-like” waves. Theta is strongly associated with stage 1 sleep, that 5 or 10 minute transition between waking and sleep. It’s a minor point, but I so rarely find corrections to make in his work, I thought I’d take this chance.)

On Friday I had my first Wellness & Spirituality Throughout the Life Cycle class in my couples and family therapy program. We had an open discussion of the meaning of spirituality that got pretty tense. I admit that I was pretty confused about what was making things tense–I was not in the clearest of minds, as I’d just taken comps the day before. It did get me thinking about Ken Wilber’s essay in Integral Spirituality about the four meanings of the word spirituality. In it, he says that there are at least four very common ways that people mean that word, and that if the specific meaning is not made clear it can lead to confusing and confused arguments. Here’s my paraphrase of his four common meanings:

1) Any human intelligence, skill, or ability taken to the highest level. Think Einstein’s intellect, Carl Rogers’ empathizing. In Kosmic Consciousness, Wilber mentions Michael Jordan playing basketball as an example of this meaning of spiritual.

2) Spirituality as its own kind of human intelligence, as in James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Wilber cites Fowler’s stages  as just one example: Humans have a capacity for faith that can progress throughout their lives, from an “undifferentiated faith” at infancy through stages like “mythic-literal faith” and eventually, possibly, to “universalizing faith” as his furthest potential.

3) Spirituality as a state of consciousness, as in meditative states or other meaningful altered states. Also peak experiences.

4) Spirituality as a facet of personality or personality type. People who are very compassionate or loving, for example, might be described as spiritual.

This post is a mess but I’m not going to revise it. I think it captures my day.

I’m feeling happy about politics for the first time I can remember. I don’t know the outcome of the presidential election yet, but it’s looking good. I feel differently about this election than I have about any other I’ve participated in. It’s just dawning on me. It may be that the way I’ve treated past elections has been pre-conformity masquerading as post-conformity—the pre-trans fallacy for Ken Wilber folks—meaning it’s possible that the reason I’ve never voted for a winning candidate (without a vote-trade, at least) has as much to do with my sense of being disenfranchised as with any sense of investment in the government of my country; I have always voted with consideration and integrity, and there’s always been that sense of “fuck you, you clueless idiots” towards mainstream political culture.

I’ve avoided watching any news about the campaigns. One of my professors, at the end of an evening lecture said he hoped he could get home in time to catch some of the debates and I joked, “Oh, you haven’t decided who to vote for yet?” His eyes bugged a little before he assured me he knew who he was going to vote for. That’s been my attitude toward the campaign: I already know who I’m going to vote for, so watching TV about the campaigns is just entertainment, except that it just makes me feel anxious, so it’s not even good entertainment. If I had time to devote, I’d rather volunteer.

I did go hear Obama speak on campus last spring. My family, especially my brother Ely, had gotten really excited about Obama, so I decided to go out. It was great. He was great. I didn’t get into the arena so I stood outside in the cold on the Astroturf with a bunch of other Eugene folks, crying, listening to the speech piped out. This is what I said into my journal that night: “He was a good speaker…he actually moved me. Partly it was just because I became…it just hit me how bad it’s been for the last eight years—it’s been really terrible! It’s so creepy, what’s going on. It would be better to have anybody else in there. And Obama said some stuff that I really liked, like it’s time for a Manhattan–project style sustainable energy project…and a lot more stuff that now I’m forgetting. I wish I had brought this recorder. He sounded pretty right on, for a major party candidate. He’s saying things that people could not say and get elected even four years ago.” I remember thinking ‘This guy is saying this stuff and is probably going to be the president.”

I’ve felt plenty of frustration in past elections, but never anxiety and never hope. I spent today working at the Lane County election office, mostly in the sorting room, watching thousands of ballots move through. It’s fun. There is a nice team spirit and such care taken with the process. I have no criticisms of the way votes are handled here. (Some criticisms of the voters, though. I saw some strange interpretations of the ballot, like the person who did not vote for Obama but wrote him in.) Most of the time I was a ‘runner,’ moving boxes of ballots to the sorting teams, but for a while I was sorting myself. The first box I went through was from the city I live in, Springfield, and I surreptitiously counted the votes for president. They came out three to two for McCain. I started feeling anxious. “Who are these people?” Later, at school, a professor got a call from his mother during his lecture. He took it and the news was Obama had won Pennsylvania, which had been in question. Riding home I started feeling happy and hopeful and that’s when I realized that this is a new thing for me. Maybe my attitude towards America and national politics is so embarrassed and preemptively pessimistic because I’ve never had anyone in there representing me who I liked, much less someone I could be proud of.

And I’m wanting to say something hipper. I’m feeling guilty about this. I’m so apathetic, politically. I didn’t volunteer this year, and a lot of my friends did. I don’t pay much attention to local politics—I usually just take the advice of our local progressive newspaper when it comes to the local and state races and ballot initiatives. And I suspect that paying attention to presidential races is like going to watch some Christians get eaten by lions while Rome falls—more like the heavyweight championships than…. WOOHOO! I just got the news that Obama won, from a friend calling. I feel happy. I’m smiling. I feel relieved. I’m crying. Yeah! I’m going to go hug someone. America, seven generations after the Civil War, is not racist enough to keep Barack Obama from being president! Hooray! I’m actually feeling proud… I’m proud to be associated with that man. I can, right now, imagine an America I wouldn’t be primarily ashamed or embarrassed to be part of.