Symposium Report, Return to Brigadoon: Savoring Psychotherapy's Annual Tribal Rite of Renewal

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SYMPOSIUM REPORT BY GARRY COOPER

Return to Brigadoon Savoring psychotherapy's annual tribal rite of renewal

In this Age of the Almighty Internet, there are fewer and fewer reasons for physically attending a professional conference anymore. Rather than putting up with the hassles and indignities of travel, it's much easier and more convenient--not to mention cheaper--to go online to get your CE credits. After all, you can take courses on the web (from Networker U, for example), or order CDs of workshops and conferences, while sitting at your own computer in your own comfy chair at home. Why spend good money and precious time actually going to a meeting, when you can have the virtual conference come to you?

But for all its advantages and conveniences, technology has yet to replace the ancient pleasures (and, many neurologists insist, the biological imperatives) of face-to-face human interaction--of being part of a large, rustling, gossiping, unapologetically communal assemblage of your own special tribe. There's no substitute for the altered state that comes from spending a few days among that peculiar species of Homo sapiens like yourself, who understand the travails of managed care, the fascination with the latest "miracle" intervention (Does it work? Do you need to learn it?), the vagaries of private practice and the therapeutic marketplace, and the exquisite ordeal of figuring out what to do next with that particularly difficult client with whom you've tried everything.

All of which only begins to explain why, after nearly 30 years, more than 3,000 therapists still make the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., for the Psychotherapy Networker's annual Symposium. Certainly part of the Symposium's appeal has to do with bringing together a distinguished 150-person faculty of the leaders in the field and offering the opportunity for a four-day guided tour of the latest debates, trends, and clinical innovations shaping the profession. But coming to the Symposium doesn't just provide an advice-fest or a chance to browse the most intellectually challenging developments animating the field. Like any gathering of people who share a common cultural history, common survival needs, and a common destiny, the Symposium taps into a deep, almost visceral, hunger for a sense of our collective identity and mutual connection--particularly in a calling that can at times be lonely and isolating.

Despite so many people and such a variety of presentations each year, the Symposium, with its familiar surroundings (more than 20 years at Washington's Omni Shoreham Hotel), rituals, and cast of characters, somehow feels like the reunion of a very, very large extended family, complete with new members who arrive each year. Besides the large plenary keynote sessions, the luncheons and dinners, the 150 workshops, and the full-throttle Friday-night dance party, there are the myriad opportunities for individual connections: the daily yoga and meditation sessions, the casual schmoozing in the nooks and crannies of the Omni, the forays into scenic Rock Creek Park, the exploration of nearby restaurants with a few Symposium chums to chew over the highlights of the day. As much as anything, people come to the conference to break out of the routine of their day-to-day grind and catch glimpses of lives different from the ones they're used to living in their own overscheduled, 21st-century cubbyholes at home. The Symposium is a kind of Brigadoon (complete with CE credits), in which other doors open and unexplored pathways beckon, promising new ways of being and thinking.

The Miracle of Communality

Possibly no speaker on the planet can better evoke the sense of mysterious "otherness" and the unlived lives that rest, untapped, within us all than opening Symposium keynoter John O'Donohue, a poet and philosopher, who lives a decidedly un-21st-century life in a remote village in the west of Ireland. "Humans are essentially unknown and substantially unknowable, but I'd treat that as a fecund creative and sacramental potential. …