Symposium Watch, Symposium 2008: 3,600 Therapists Gather to Experience the Power of Relationship

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Symposium Watch By Richard Handler

 Symposium 2008 3,600 therapists gather to experience the power of relationship 

The theme of this year's Networker Symposium was "The Power of Relationship: From Isolation to Connection." Of course, with its impossible four syllables, relationship is an abstract mouthful of a word. Still, no better term has replaced it when discussing . . . well, relationships. The same can be said of isolation and connection. But that's the trouble with big, important-sounding conference titles--they often remain an abstraction, lacking a lived meaning.

So the job of a good conference, particularly one with a grandiose title, is to recapture the sense of vibrant meaning in a collection of overused words. At its best, a memorable professional gathering offers its attendees a rollercoaster of emotion: exhilaration, momentary boredom, intellectual absorption, and exhaustion, along with conversations that soar and quiet spur-of-the-moment insights. When they work, conferences induce an altered, trancelike state that may just be an enlarged version of the therapeutic enterprise itself. After all, therapy is drama, the coalescing of character and conversation in what--at times--can become a sacred space. In fact, these were the elements of the drama developed by the ancient Greeks, who came together to watch the play of men under the canopy of the heavens. Now, a few millennia later, in huge hotel ballrooms that seat thousands, the drama of a good conference can be both theatrically epic and therapeutically intimate.

This year's Symposium opened with the first public performance of the 80-member Symposium Tabernacle Choir and Marching Band, a ragtag assemblage of volunteers recruited at the last minute to welcome the multitude of 3,600 therapists during the opening ceremonies with a rendition of "Old Friends," a hymn to enduring relationship composed by Stephen Sondheim. The production number was marked by its utter rank-and-file amateurism, along with balloons, kazoos, and red-Styrofoam noses. The implicit message: it's good not to take yourself too seriously. What therapist (or modest human being) doesn't know this? Yet this is an awareness that can be forgotten in the stiff professionalism of too many therapist gatherings. From its opening moments, the Symposium brought home to its participants a simple, visceral insight: play softens the world.

But all was not fun and games. The gathered clinicians had many opportunities to listen to impassioned talks, like the one by Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Relationship Therapy, who waxed on exuberantly about the need for people to honor the "space between I-and-Thou," so they can truly meet and attend to each other. In a keynote speech, they heard Jean Houston, a veteran of the human-potential movement, urge them to become "social artists" while they participate in building a grand planetary culture. Hers is an ecstatic, utopian vision, and therapists might have some trouble applying it in their daily work. Still, the legacy of the human-potential movement isn't its ideas but its generosity--its expansive view of human possibility. I think that's why Houston made the audience feel so good: she challenged therapists to reach outside themselves, not just as professionals who extend themselves for a living, but as human beings who live in the moment. …