Since its original publication in 1997, my book, There Are No Accidents:  Synchronicity and the Stories of our Lives, has continued to stimulate interest here in the US and around the world in Jung’s notion of synchronicity and how the meaningful coincidences in the stories of lives work to make us who we are.

From the beginning of my research for that original book, I have had in mind a second book, as there were many stories I had gathered at the time around synchronistic events that had occurred specifically with regard to families and familial relationships that didn’t have a natural place in the first, more general and comprehensive look at synchronicity I was taking in “There are No Accidents.”

So, as of 2016, I’ve begun writing what I’m calling as a working title “Common Bonds: Synchronicity and the Stories of Our Families” which will focus specifically on the psychological nature of our experience of family as disclosed by the amazing, unexpected, and even at times unwanted but fortuitous coincidences among and between family members that function to bring us to consciousness about who we are and where we belong in the world.

In particular, I’m interested in showing here how “family” is not just a biological given but is rather actually a very complex and multi-dimensional psychological construction of experience, in part conscious and chosen, in part unconscious and random–what Jung calls an archetype–which precisely is what the meaningfulness of synchronistic experiences make clear about the true nature of “family.”

I’d like to hear from you, if you have had synchronistic experiences around:

–how you met your spouse
–meaningful coincidences that have occurred between you and your children, parents, siblings or other relatives
–surprising and transformative similarities you may have discovered between yourself and relatives from whom you were long separated or even long-deceased ancestors you never even knew
–synchronistic events that occurred for you in the course of your pregnancy or the birth of your children or that happened in the course of a family member’s death
–telepathic, telekinetic or otherwise psychic experiences between family members
–specific images or symbols that have acquired significance for your family, immediate or extended, for which there is no explanation other than pure chance.

While contacting me here through Facebook is always possible, it is best to send me an email at rob@symbolics.org if you’d like to share a story with me for possible inclusion in the eventual book.

Thanks in advance and, as I have written for many years on many copies of “There Are No Accidents”: may your life continue to be enlightened by chance!

Rob

Freud famously said that the mental health was the capacity to love and to work, but my impression is that most people imagine we Marriage and Family Therapists talk primarily with our clients about the “love” part of that equation—getting together, breaking up, happiness and unhappiness in one’s relationships, sexuality. However, in a month that begins with the Labor Day holiday, as most of us come back from summer vacation to get busy again at work or school or around the home, it seems right to talk some about how large people’s work lives looms in the therapy that I do with them.

I would say that no less than half of the people that come to see me have significant issues with regard to their work lives, and really, in my experience, that has always been the case. During my internship at an agency affiliated with the University of California, graduate and undergraduate students often needed help to find a way to transition from the safe structure of school to the real, true autonomy of adulthood while negotiating the long process of finding that first job. In recent years, with an economic downturn and even less help from parents and institutions, that process has only gotten more difficult and more drawn out and has created what looks to be a generation where underemployment, insufficient income, and living at home with their parents is becoming the “new normal.” The stress of not being able to find one’s place in the work world, not having the security and satisfaction of knowing one can support oneself, and the more chronic, psychological disappointment of feeling unfulfilled creatively and vocationally makes up a huge part of what I talk about with my clients under the age of forty these days: How do I adjust my expectations? How do I support myself outwardly and inwardly as I continue to look for work? How can I open my creativity, imagination and my personal courage to think outside of the box and put together for myself, not just a job, but an actual vocation and career?

Another large portion of my therapy work with clients is also related to the difficult economic situation of the past decade, as even stable employment situations turn into essentially hostile work environments, psychologically speaking: repeated layoffs, cutbacks forcing individuals to do two or three jobs with no increase in pay or acknowledgment, insufficient or poorly trained management creating dysfunctional organizations where problematic situations or people are not effectively handled, financial pressures on the company forcing a change in mission, focus or goals that leave employees feeling alienated from the reasons they originally loved working there. I have been surprised to find an even increasing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) quality to my work with some fully employed individuals who have found themselves in this situation, suffering from anxiety and depression along with various physical stress-related illnesses as well. When one’s livelihood and capacity to support oneself and one’s family is threatened by these workplace dynamics, it is no exaggeration to call what is happening “traumatic” and to get some professional help in coping with the ongoing uncertainties and fears.

But beyond these more recent, recession-related issues, therapy has always been a place, in my experience, where people can come to consider other options for their work lives. Most often this happens in midlife, when previous choices in career seem not as satisfying or fitting or when family obligations finally lessen to make some time and space for new possibilities of training, education or work in another field. Midlife is also a time, I’ve discovered, when someone may finally feel secure enough in their own abilities and resources to launch off from the sometimes confining security of working for someone else and start their own business to pursue their own personal dreams and visions, which can be a simultaneously thrilling and scary process.

In all these cases, psychotherapy can be the place where a consistent and objective perspective on these dynamics can be provided and where one’s own growing edges can be explored and pushed. Fulfilling work and a “right livelihood” is definitely a significant part of our lives and our happiness.

It’s an election year, so as usual there is a lot of rhetoric about marriage and the family from both sides of the political spectrum. Those of us within the profession of marriage and family therapy have, I would daresay, a fairly up-close and personal view of the state of marriage and family in the contemporary U.S. and I have to say that a lot of times the rhetoric I hear does not actually match the reality that I see. In short, after sitting in my therapist chair for 30-some years and seeing hundreds of people who have come for help, I can state pretty positively that there are all kinds of marriages and all kinds of families. It’s really the diversity of these two institutions that “reads” for me, given what I do, day to day.

As with so many things human, behind the variegated, complicated and sometimes messy reality, there lies a particular ideal we have in our heads, a specific picture or form, what Jung called an “archetype.” We have our own personal mother or father, with all their quirks, virtues and vices and then behind them stands the archetype of Mother—capital M—or Father—capital F–the ideal of Fatherness or Motherness, if you will. And as Jung always noted, the real human being always falls short of incarnating the completeness of the disembodied ideal—of course!

So, too, with Marriage and Family. These are, in my mind, archetypal concepts, forms of relationship between people that perhaps have had a certain broad outline or shape in human cultures, historically, but which the reality of human individuality then refracts into a kaleidoscope of infinite variations, all of which have their own specific shape and reason for being. I think that is what often gets lost in the rhetoric, this amazing variety of marriages and families, and a large part of what I feel called to do as a marriage and family therapist is to acknowledge, understand and even affirm this variety.

I have yet to see a single family that perfectly conforms to the archetypal ideal. Death and illness often have created a certain shape—a missing parent, a child who has been lost, an extended family that isn’t there. Monogamy, for all the cultural weight that stands behind as a form of relationship, is nevertheless not the monolithic reality of many, maybe even most, marriages, if you believe the research that consistently shows a high proportion of married people–in the 60%-70% range– engaged in intimate relationships outside of their marriage. And the issues raised by these extramarital relationships are most certainly high on the list of what brings our clients into couples or individual therapy. Divorce, therefore, itself a 50% phenomenon as well noted these days, and the subsequent state of singlehood or remarriage has itself a distinct impact on a specific family: children with an experience of sometimes many more than just two parents, adults with multiple familial relationships that expand and grow over time. Gay and lesbian individuals bring yet another set of colors to this kaleidoscope, sometimes with children and partners from a previous heterosexual marriage, or nowadays very often intentionally creating families of their own within a wider circle of partners. And of course families expand and contract over time throughout the cycle of life, as children have children and as the natural process of age shifts relationships and priorities.

In other words, there is no standard marriage or family, not that I have seen, and certainly no “perfect” one of either sort. Every family has its own unique history, and I think we might do well to stop comparing ourselves and our own families—for good or for ill—against an ideal. Much better, in my opinion, to spend time reflecting less on “what” and more on “how”—how did we learn to relate to others through the family we grew up in? How is our primary relationship (or relationships, plural) shaped by what we knew as a child, adolescent and young adult? How does our family now satisfy our natural human desire for connection, love and security—or not? And why?

I believe, once one gets past the rhetoric about marriage and family, such questions as these are far, far more interesting to explore and have a greater potential of yielding some insight into a more satisfying life for each of us. The archetypal ideal is like a cookie-cutter, cold potential, just the outline. Within the twists and turns of our actual marriages and our actual families lies the warmth of real human experience, the living truth of our lives. We do well to let it be conscious, considered and most of all, felt and affirmed, for what it was and what it is.

It’s hard to overestimate how healing the experience of silence can be.  In silence we have the space to reflect on our experiences, to consider what has happened to us in the past days or weeks, and to come to an appreciation of what it has all meant.  In silence we have the space to return to an awareness of our bodies, to check in with how things have felt, really literally felt, in our muscles, in our guts, on our skin, in our bones where we are holding on, where we are letting go.  In silence we have the occasion to rest, to let the outer quiet slowly seep inside, to let that thick, oh so active tangle of words and images we carry around in our heads slowly dissolve into an interior peace, a inward zone of relaxation and refreshment.

I cannot help but be struck by how difficult it is in our modern life to create a zone of substantial quiet, outside and inside—electronics of every sort buzzing, ringing and playing music, transportation roaring, grinding and squeaking, and of course people everywhere, our families, our kids, our co-workers, our neighbors, on the radio, on the TV, on the Internet, streaming live, chattering away, vociferating into cell phones, opining to each other, mumbling to ourselves, conversing with anyone and everyone, talk talk talking all the time.  In this light, it is a bit ironic that psychotherapy is sometimes called “talk therapy.”

It is therapeutic to talk to someone else about what is happening, of course—no arguing that–but almost as important as the talk in psychotherapy, I would say, has been my experience of the healing power of the silences that occur in the room.  Those with a natural introversion to their personalities who come to see me very naturally use our sessions to create, I might even say, reclaim a measure of quiet for themselves.  There are sometimes long silences, spontaneous and comfortable, in which we take time to reflect or appreciate or just plain rest.  I have had more than one client over the years actually use our session to sleep, because that is what he or she needed at the time, a safe place to literally rest and recover from exhaustion and burnout while someone accompanied them and watched over them.

With many other clients, maybe even most of other clients, who understandably feel as if they need to get their money’s worth by filling up the room with words and more words—we live in a culture that prizes extraversion after all–it has been more my role to lead the way toward a calmer way of being, to deliberately take my time and very intentionally create that place of quiet reflection that can renew and provide some distance and perspective.  That can be a big change for someone—to let me slow the process down, to have me “drop” the conversation and instead let a silence ripen so we can think and feel our way into what has been said, to begin to safe in really letting an interior awareness dawn.  Once again, it is one of the ways that psychotherapy can be a bit countercultural, and my hope of course is that this knack for silence that we grow together becomes the kind of inner peace that will ground and strengthen someone regardless of the challenges they face throughout their week.  Yes, silence can be very healing. 

One of the things that my clients often remark upon and that people outside the profession often ask about it is:  how do you remember everything that all these different people tell you?  All the names, places, times, situations, what they said, what someone else said, the feelings, the reaction, the consequences.  I can see how, from the outside, when you think about, it seems perhaps a little amazing, given the complexities of any given individual’s life story, and then multiplied by a number of different people every week.  And frankly, I sometimes surprise myself that I can remember some of the things I remember from a client’s story, and yet, I do.

I don’t know if it takes an especially acute memory for these kinds of personal detail to be a psychotherapist, it certainly doesn’t hurt, but the fact is that I don’t really believe it has to do with the natural gift of a particularly good memory.  What I believe—and so, therefore, what I say when asked—is that it has to do with actually listening.

What I find myself amazed about it, as I walk through my life, is actually how rarely people take the time to truly listen to one another.  I see a lot of what looks like conversational engagement at meetings, in the coffee shop, at the gym, on TV.  There is a lot of head bobbing, some rushed, perfunctory responses, and of course, a LOT a LOT a LOT of words—eek!  But most times there is not a lot of listening. His eyes are darting everywhere but at the person they are supposedly talking with.  It’s clear that before the other person has even finished what she is saying, he is planning his own response based on his own opinion formed from his own experience, and then once he has succeeded in delivering his monologue, he doesn’t even wait to hear the reaction to what he himself just said.

That’s what I love about my work.  In the psychotherapy office, all of that gets cleared away.  The reason I remember what you have said is because I am actually listening to you.  That’s why I am here.  And beyond just listening to what you are saying, the words, the details, I am paying attention, because beyond the words there is your fidgeting or your relaxed way of unfolding yourself on the couch, your little secret smile or your nervous Kleenex-clenching.  It’s frequently said that therapy is a highly unusual relationship, and that is true, it is, but I don’t know why it has to be so unusual really.  Once you get into the habit of putting your own responses on pause and making the space and time to simply listen fully to what the other person is telling you, it comes pretty easily really.  And the benefit, of course, is that you actually hear what they have said, which is what makes it easy to remember.

Next week: Reflections on Silence

I am always aware in my work as a therapist of the essential riskiness of someone trusting their deeper self to lead them forward in their life.  There are so many pressures from the outside on each of us to be someone that our society finds valuable or attractive, someone that our family is more comfortable and familiar with, someone that our life partner or friends enjoy and admire.  But often, if we let ourself be shaped by such extrinsic factors, we end up being someone who in a way resembles us but who, in the end, actually is not who we really are. 

That is why, from the beginning of my training in this work, I have always felt a deep fascination with our dreams.  Unlike Freud, who thought that dreams masked our true instinctual desires, I found my self agreeing rather with Jung who felt almost the opposite–that the spontaneous, natural, nightly, and completely unbidden imagery of our dreams instead reveals our real self in all its complexities, mystery and continuous unfolding.  From recent sleep research we know now that indeed all mammals dream, and, it turns out, we all dream rather species-specific survival behaviors.  Our dreaming, therefore, is a time when, away from the outside world and all its demands, our true self gets to express itself fully and completely, without psychological or social restriction, for sure, but also, quite wondrously, without even the restriction of time or space.

Sometimes, of course, what our dreams reveal about us can be shocking and disturbing–unacceptable sexual wishes, enormous rage and violence, memories of things that happened to us in the past that we have repressed or at least tried to forget about.  Sometimes, on the other hand–and I have consistently found this to be the case during times of difficulties or distress–our dreams can bring forward great beauty and inspiration, can remind us of people, places and things that are comforting and sweet, can be sources of hope.  It is a bit of a countercultural enterprise therefore, in a country that loves to make things work in a culture of materialistic values, to take the time each week in a process like psychotherapy and let ourselves mine the meaning of these intimate revelations, let ourselves sit and savor, reflect, enjoy and examine our dreams for what they are telling us about who we are and we are becoming.

I’ve always been delighted by the double meaning of the word itself, as we use it in common parlance, referring both to the literal dream in bed but also, and maybe even more frequently, to the larger aspirations we have as a person, as in President Obama’s “Dream Act,” or in the phrase I often use with clients myself, “So what is your dream in life?”  I feel simultaneously sad and privileged when so frequently in my time with someone it is clear that he or she has never actually given themselves permission to really answer that question for themselves, when, perhaps due to poverty or circumstance or instead due to inward inhibition and fears, the person before me has never really allowed themselves to have a dream for themselves, a dream of themselves–a fulfilling relationship, a satisfying and meaningful vocation, a rich social or creative life.  That is when I really love my work, when I am able to hold a space open for someone to dream–literally and imaginatively–and give a person a hand in mustering the courage and ingenuity and persistence and faithfulness it takes to make those dreams–and that unique self–come true in the world.

As a long-time Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice, the intimacy and individuality of my relationships with clients is a precious thing and one which we, of course, jealously protect by confidentiality.  Nevertheless, this work I do, this vocation I have, engenders every week at least, and almost every session, a host of reflections, insights, and conversations about aspects of the human experience which for want of a better term we call “psychological.”  I’m grateful to C. G. Jung for having taken this term “psyche” and restored it to its wider original meaning, something closer to “soul” and not merely “mind” or “personality.”  It is thus in this broader sense of psyche that I’m taking the time here and making space with this blog to jot down on a regular basis what my psychotherapy practice brings up for me and my clients, material that perhaps at first blush may not seem especially “psychological” but which in fact has a great deal of bearing on the growth and healing of my individual clients and by extension the culture and society at large.

Examples abound.  Working in Berkeley inevitably brings up issues around politics and social issues and yet, within the field, I have often been frustrated by the lack of attention or the simplistic, sometimes dismissive quality of the dialogue around the intersection of inner life and outer engagement.  Another somewhat surprising absence of reflection is likewise around what is so blithely termed “family” or “marriage,” terms which are in the very title of our licensure.    What constitutes a “family”–or not–and what the nature of a “marriage” is–or has been, or should be—seems at the very heart of my client work and yet, it feels to me like there is a very unsophisticated quality about our collective notions of these most important or all our relationships.   The life of body also figures greatly into my work with my clients, certainly with survivors of physical trauma or abuse, but really with all clients on some level, and the somewhat awesome mystery of that intersection of spirit and flesh, our material existence and our immaterial, more fundamental, nature, is an experience that is frequently at the heart of my work.  Sometimes on this point we meander down specific avenues–sexuality, food and weight, beauty, illness and health–but there is always behind each of these, for me at least, a delicious and a seemingly endless field of exploration.

So I look forward to availing myself of this 21st century medium to talk about some archetypal truths behind some very contemporary situations and issues.  Will it engender some thoughtful and smart conversations both with and within my readers?  I hope so.

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