Author: Alan Cohen, LCSW, LP
We are conscious beings. Our consciousness allows us to be aware of the world outside our skins, and our experience inside our skins. In Gestalt therapy terms, we are able to be in contact with the world that we live in, and are interdependent with. Our forebears were thus able to track and kill prey, so they could feed themselves and their families. They were able to discover what food source was available – be it fauna or flora – and to thus find sustenance. This was a world of both scarcity and possibilities; those who survived and even flourished were those who could become of aware of the conditions that existed in the immediate present, and who could act on that which became apparent.
As humans developed, we came to notice patterns (e.g. the seasons) and to create possibilities (e.g. raising farm animals rather than seeking and hunting them). We were able to minimize uncertainty and chance, making it more likely that we would have a consistent food source, shelter, and conditions necessary for our survival. We sought to minimize uncertainty and to maximize predictability and control. And, as a species, we became skilled at amassing a knowledge base and proficient at creating technology that would allow us to “master” our environment. So, certainty would be an antidote for the fear of that-which-would-not-sustain-life. We not only knew the progression of the seasons, but we knew how to construct a fire, a structure that would protect us from the elements, which plants were edible (or even medicinal), how our bodies functioned, etc.
Not only did the world become “more predictable”, but our experience of our self became more predictable as well. Rather than experiencing the moment to moment change in our experience, we identified ourselves through a cohesive narrative. We ourselves became more predictable. And likewise, the world outside us became, gradually, more predictable. And that which was not predictable or controllable was attributed to the control of gods, who controlled what we could not. And our control was to try to appease them.
So, this article itself is a narrative that seeks to make sense of the evolution of mankind and its orientation regarding a cohesive, predictable world, and a cohesive experience of self. It may bear some truth, but it likely leaves out tremendous elements of what was, and how social order developed. But that’s what we do – we create narratives which seek to explain what is, what was, what will likely be, and who we are. In this process we leave out a lot of information that we either don’t have, or don’t believe is relevant, or doesn’t support our thesis. And this gives us some sense of control, predictability, and safety. But what do we lose in this process?
What we learn to orient to – how we navigate – becomes more of an overlay of our narrative than an immediate experience of what is. We begin with our story and then look to see it. We do not see much of what we have not predicted, even if it is there. Or we see it in relation to our pre-fabrication, and assign significance or insignificance on that basis. When faced with an incongruity between our experience and our narrative, we generally favor our narrative. This is the basis of the theory of cognitive dissonance (ironically, another narrative that seeks to explain and predict experience). We (as a species and as individuals) have traded an immediate experience of actuality for a workable “plan”, a way to know enough to stave off the confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety of living in the world. We experience uncertainty as a danger, a problem to fix and be rid of. We lose a sense of curiosity, of discovery. We would prefer the solid ground of “already knowing”.
But the truth is, we don’t already know many things. The next moment has not yet happened, and our “knowing” keeps us from finding out. It also deprives us of the excitement and immediacy of that discovery.
So we see that in order to make cohesive sense of the world and ourselves, we accommodate to a repeatable set of ideas and predictions. We navigate according to a roadmap which, even if drawn accurately, is at best outdated. So, it leaves out possibilities which did not previously seem to exist. It leaves out aspects of ourselves which had not been acknowledged or had not yet developed. And it can’t account for the actual unpredictability of what has not yet happened.
The experience of holding these ideas of certainty “lightly”, while being open to what has not yet emerged is a heightened state. We haven’t seen this “movie”, so we don’t know how it ends. We are oriented to noticing, being affected, and possibly being surprised. We are left to trust our own capacity to respond to something that we are not necessarily prepared for.
As therapists, we tend to develop a cohesive picture of our patients. This is the stuff of diagnosis, whether or not it is a “formal” diagnosis. We predict how they will act in their lives, and we predict how they will act in the sessions. And this prediction is often somewhat accurate, since our patients are also orienting via their own narrative and fixed “roadmap”. But our predictions limit our ability to discover what may not already be known and expected. We may presume a response or a non-response in a way which makes that response more likely. We may not leave enough of a space for our patient to experience their own disorienting uncertainty. This is how therapy can become dull, or routinized, just as other relationships can become dull and lifeless. We unknowingly trade the possibility of novelty for the security of certainty and predictability. And yet, our theory holds growth as requiring “contact with the assimilable novelty”. Novelty is necessary to take us beyond what we already know, or how we already experience our self and our world. Yet, for novelty to emerge, we must let go of clinging to certainty and predictability. We must tolerate the openness to the not-yet-formed figure; the uncertainty of no-thing-ness, while waiting for the figure to emerge. Our being willing to tolerate the vulnerability of this stance can support and encourage our patient to join us, to notice an unanticipated feeling, thought, impulse, desire, or capacity. To surprise us and themselves.