At first glance, Bradford Keeney’s work seems deeply rooted in the past. After all, he is one of the world’s foremost proponents and practitioners of “shaking medicine,” which he calls the oldest form of healing medicine on Earth.
John Gottman, on the other hand, has earned widespread acclaim in part for his ability to look into the future — accurately predicting, after briefly observing their interactions, whether a couple will stay married or get divorced.
But American Counseling Association President Brian Canfield believes both men, despite their radically different research styles and approaches to therapy, have words of wisdom to share that are equally important for the present-day practice of counseling.
“Brad Keeney is one of the most creative and insightful minds influencing the field of counseling,” Canfield says. “His work has focused on the fact that all human cultures have ‘healers’ and ‘helpers’ and that, in many ways, counseling is a western cultural manifestation of this ageless human tradition. Brad’s presentation style is engaging and thought-provoking, and I believe his ideas and perspectives will help shape the practice of counseling.”
“Dr. Gottman is one of the few theorists and clinicians in the field whose work is based on empirical research,” Canfield continues. “His insights into the dynamics of marital relationships have advanced our knowledge, differentiating between essential and critical factors and those factors that are merely incidental to marital satisfaction. His research continues to inform and refine the practice of marriage counseling.”
Keeney and Gottman will each offer a keynote address at the ACA Annual Conference & Exposition in Honolulu in March 2008.
“Counselors are the folks I want to hang out with because I think counseling is where all the therapeutic arts are for the most part,” Bradford Keeney says. “This is where the creativity still is. Many of the other professions have turned to simply dispensing pills.”
With that statement, you quickly understand that Keeney doesn’t necessarily believe in practicing by the book. Mentored by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, cybernetic scientist Heinz von Foerster and experiential psychotherapist Carl Whitaker, Keeney has originated several psychotherapy techniques, including improvisational therapy and resource-focused therapy. He has worked at a variety of respected psychotherapy institutes, including the Ackerman Institute, the Karl Menninger Center and the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, he has written numerous books, including Aesthetics of Change, Mind in Therapy and Improvisational Therapy. He has also served as the director of several doctoral programs in family therapy.
But to quote from Keeney’s shakingmedicine.com website, at the height of his career, he “made the radical decision to abandon public work in order to devote himself to absorbing and recording the fast-disappearing wisdom and practices of the world’s traditional healing cultures. For over a decade, he traveled the globe, dancing, listening and living with spiritual teachers, shamans, healers and medicine people who trusted him to share their teachings.”
As he explained to Counseling Today in an interview, “I left it all to go back to school, in villages from the Amazon to Africa. And I don’t know that I’ve graduated yet.” Perhaps not, but today he is accepted as an elder in numerous cultures around the world and considered a spokesperson for their practices of ecstatic shamanism. Keeney’s travels of immersion resulted in an 11-volume encyclopedia of the world’s healing practices, Profiles of Healing, that is acknowledged as one of the broadest and most intense field studies of healing and shamanism ever conducted. He is also the subject of American Shaman: An Odyssey of Global Healing Traditions, written by ACA members Jeffrey Kottler and Jon Carlson, which won a Best Spiritual Book Award from Spirituality & Health magazine in 2005.
Currently the clinical director of the Center for Children and Families in Monroe, La., Keeney says he wants to introduce shaking medicine and the wisdom of the elders to “those people interested in the widest definition of the healing arts, and I think that includes a lot of people in the counseling profession.” He adds that he would “invite counselors to consider how young a profession we are and how young the culture is that fosters the profession. We need to put our work in a global and cultural context and remind ourselves that other cultures, such as the Kalahari Bushmen, have been practicing healing arts for 60,000 years. We’re barely out of the womb as a profession, but we exude, sometimes without realizing it, an attitude of knowing it all.”
Keeney also cautions against what he calls an overenthusiasm for scientific models of therapy. He views counseling as being more closely related to the performing and transformative arts, which he believes offer more humanistic ways of responding to life’s burdens and struggles. He notes that depression and existential dilemmas are still absent in some world cultures — and yet these cultures don’t rely solely on talk therapy. Instead, members of these cultures often use singing, dancing or some form of shaking medicine, which Keeney describes as “wild moments that express ecstatic joy,” to heal themselves and maintain balance. “How do other cultures practice healing? How do they think it?” Keeney asks. “When we say that the only legitimized methods (of therapeutic healing) have to be scientifically proven, we’re potentially being culturally insensitive and invalidating how others do it. I’m not crying for us to assume an anti-science position. I’m just saying science is only one voice in a very large chorus.”
Keeney again points to the Kalahari Bushmen, who sometimes shake uncontrollably as part of their spiritual healing ritual. Despite living in harsh conditions, he says, the Bushmen have never declared war and do not threaten the biosphere. “Here’s a people who know how to work through ‘everydayness’ with a wisdom that escapes best-selling New Age authors,” Keeney says. “Those who suffer most have had to learn the most profound ways of surviving. And in the midst of suffering and a lack of everyday comforts, they possess a peace and a joy that the ‘haves’ are missing and desperately trying to find in a spa or a self-help book. Maybe there is something we can learn from them.”
Keeney is currently working with families in the Mississippi Delta region of northeastern Louisiana, an area that Time magazine called the “poorest place in America.” He says he is attempting to draw on the soulful resources of the people’s musical traditions and ancestral stories of survival to “bring forth renewal in the lives of troubled adolescents and families in despair.”
Keeney, the son and grandson of country preachers, says ecstatic spiritual expressions, such as shaking, shouting, jumping and “speaking in tongues,” have become taboo in society. In the process, he says, we have chopped off a vital part of the natural healing process. “There has been an overwhelming rush to the meditative practices,” he explains, “but that is only half of the healing equation. For the most part, we assume that healing takes place by calming things down, and there’s truth to that, but it’s only a half-truth. As you move in the other direction — to heightened arousal — there are also natural healing responses. The oldest custodians of healing know that both elements are important.”
Keeney points out that it takes most people a substantial amount of effort to suppress the urge to wiggle and fidget when they are trying to force themselves to relax or quiet their mind. But practitioners of shaking medicine first experience heightened arousal, he explains, exhausting themselves with ecstatic movement, and then collapse to the ground and enter a meditative state as part of the natural cycle. In this movement, Keeney describes shaking medicine as “both a shaking of our physical presence and a shaking of our thoughts, our mind.”
Exactly how this process works to heal the body and mind is still something of a mystery, Keeney says, but that doesn’t discount its legitimacy. In fact, he strongly encourages counselors to retain appreciation for mystery. “If we make mystery extinct in our profession, then we’re in big trouble,” he proclaims. “We become soulless. We’re dead. That’s what’s happened to psychiatry.”
Keeney says he will use part of his keynote at the ACA Conference to call for continued creativity in counseling. That means continually pursuing innovative ways to connect with clients and push them to take action.
Keeney refers to the current work he is doing with clients as creative action therapy. Instead of sitting in an hourlong talk session with clients, he explains, he may immediately tell them to go to the hardware store and bring back anything they want as long as it’s under $5. “Sometimes it’s important to get clients out of their chairs,” he says. “We need to move. It’s another way to shake things up. The idea that you’re going to help everyone get unstuck solely through the use of words is a very tricky house of mirrors. To try to hold back from action is another way of holding back ways we can be present. Therapy is either dead or alive, and you don’t need an education to see it.”
“I’m not looking to bring spirituality to counseling but rather to bring back spirited counseling,” Keeney says in closing. “Perhaps the gods have sent the clients to help wake up the counselors.”
As a young student at MIT, John Gottman assumed that he would spend his professional life focusing on the relationships between numbers, setting out to earn a degree in mathematics. That he instead has become one of the world’s foremost authorities on relationship dynamics at the human level is due in some small part to the fact that one of his roommates was studying psychology. “I found his books much more interesting than my own,” Gottman says.
He went on to earn a master of science degree from MIT in mathematics and psychology and a master of arts in clinical psychology and mathematics from the University of Wisconsin. He then obtained a doctorate in clinical psychology from Wisconsin. One of his professors at Wisconsin was Mavis Hetherington, a pioneer researcher in the field of family dynamics, a topic that grabbed Gottman’s attention. “I was very drawn to looking at interacting systems and really learned to favor observational approaches,” he recalls.
Gottman’s aptitude for observation has resulted in a treasure trove of information about relationship stability. While teaching at the University of Washington, Gottman founded what the media popularly referred to as the “Love Lab.” The lab was actually an apartment where couples were invited to talk about their day, discuss a cause of conflict between them and share a positive aspect of their relationship on different occasions. The interactions were videotaped and data were collected, including physiological factors (such as heart rate) and emotional interaction (using a coding system to categorize different emotions). “We wanted to find out what these couples were thinking and what they were feeling at different moments,” Gottman says.
By analyzing the data, Gottman, Robert Levenson and their colleagues discovered they could accurately predict whether couples would remain married several years down the road. (Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink features a chapter with an in-depth look at the system Gottman and his colleagues developed to make these predictions.) The appearance of any of what Gottman terms the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” — criticism, defensiveness, contempt or stonewalling — during conflict was a major predictor of relational instability.
Gottman and his team studied both heterosexual and same-sex couples for as long as 18 years. In many cases, Gottman’s observations spanned couples’ major life transitions, such as becoming parents, reaching midlife and even retirement. He conducted seven longitudinal studies before taking the next step — attempting to come up with a therapy model that would intervene and actually help people improve their relational functioning. What’s different about this therapy model, Gottman says, is that it’s very strongly grounded in affect and emotion. He describes the therapy as “starkly empirical. It’s really about creating a cookbook for relationships.”
Gottman and his wife, Julie Schwartz Gottman, describe the central processes that make relationships successful in “Gottman Method Couples’ Therapy,” a chapter they wrote for Alan Gurman’s book The Handbook of Couples Therapy. The five processes are:
Down-regulating negative affect during conflict. In this step of what the Gottmans call their “therapeutic recipe,” couples are taught how to avoid relying on the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse during conflict. Couples also must be steered away from the “express it, don’t repress it” theory of anger, Gottman says. “Simply expressing anger is not cathartic,” he says. “It needs to be constructive and gentle.”
Up-regulating positive affect during conflict and building positive affect during nonconflict. The Gottmans counsel couples to follow a four-step blueprint for meeting these two goals:
- Connect emotionally during everyday moments
- Engage in daily stress-reducing conversation
- Build affection, good sex, romance and passion
- Process failed bids for emotional connection
Bridging meta-emotion mismatches. “These are the emotions people have about emotions,” Gottman says. “The mismatches between partners are very critical there.” People in relationship can have very different reactions to specific emotions, he explains, whether they are experiencing that emotion themselves or that emotion is being expressed by a partner. “In this part of our therapy,” the Gottmans explain in their book chapter, “we create mechanisms for people to connect during times of emotional need. Emotion coaching is about viewing emotional moments as opportunities for intimacy, asking questions about feelings, putting words to emotional experience and understanding and validating one’s partner’s emotions before problem-solving. … Using these skills and awareness during these moments of need, emotion coaching becomes a source of connection rather than alienation.”
Creating and nurturing a shared meaning system. The Gottmans say there are two steps to building this shared meaning system:
- Making rituals of emotional connection (both formal and informal) intentional. As described by the Gottmans, “A ritual of connection is a way of turning toward one another that each person can count on.”
- Making goals and values intentional — talking about shared goals, missions and legacy.
In addition to conducting continuing research on marriage, relationships and parenting, John Gottman is a clinical psychologist who works almost exclusively with couples. He is the cofounder, with his wife, of the Gottman Institute, which trains mental health therapists. He is also the executive director of the nonprofit Relationship Research Institute, where he is currently examining interventions for the transition to parenthood. Among his books are The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work; The Relationship Cure: A 5-Step Guide for Building Better Connections With Family, Friends and Lovers’ The Mathematics of Marriage; and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting. He has shared his knowledge of relationships on TV programs such as Oprah, Dateline NBC, Primetime, 20/20 andToday.
The Gottmans, who most recently coauthored And Baby Makes Three, also hold relationship clinics for couples several times a year. The first day centers on friendship and intimacy, while the second day focuses on constructive conflict. Gottman says he and his wife always kick-start the session on conflict by openly discussing a real fight they have gone through recently. The renowned relationship expert laughs goodnaturedly and says humbly, “We’re never at a loss for something to talk about with the group that day. We’re in the soup too. We’re not above anyone else.”