Adam Blatner, M.D., TEP
First February 10, then May, redone in June, 1, 2012 See a further development of this theme on Action Explorations 2.
I’ve become aware that psychodrama and its related methods belongs within a larger field of related endeavors that I had lumped with “applied drama” or “applied theatre,”—but now want to give it the name, “Action Exploration” because it is more different than similar to either drama (as most people think of it) or theatre. This re-naming is a re-branding of sorts, a re-thinking of the wider applications of psychodrama, beyond the medical model, along with process drama in education, role play and improv in business and organizations, and other approaches. For those interested in history, Jacob. L. Moreno, M.D. (1889-1974), who also invented the method of psychodrama, coined another term, “sociatry,” that envisioned the application of his methods to the wider challenges of promoting an integration of the best insights of sociology, psychology, and social psychology—and the best methods— into the mainstream of human culture.
– – –
Action Exploration is my term for the use of psychodramatic and other expressive arts methods as a vehicle for moving a step beyond the confines of ordinary discussion. Discussion is good, better than fighting or stifling, but there is another approach which allows for more integration of mind and body, thinking and acting, reason and emotions, and other dualities that tend not to be included in ordinary discussion. The use of the metaphor of drama—life as a series of scenes played by various actors—allows for an expansion of the quality of discussion so that non-rational elements can be brought in. More, action explorations bring into more explicit consciousness and the interpersonal field thoughts and feelings that had generally remained un-disclosed.
This field doesn’t simply include that which people think but, for discretion’s sake, prefer not to say; rather, it includes thoughts and feelings that barely register in consciousness but then are pushed away. This is the pre-conscious realm, and it is much broader, deeper, richer in content than ordinary consciousness. Perhaps more psychologically-minded, introspective, and sensitive people are a bit more aware of these depths, but the point here is that using action techniques, more people can become more insightful and more holistically communicative.
The problem lies in the heritage of simplistic thinking, which suggests that we all should believe that “what you sees is what you gets.” We collectively have agreed (in the past) that:
– people will tell you the truth (and as a corollary, they tell themselves the truth)
– it’s not playing fair and a matter of failure of will to be sincere that accounts for hypocrisy.
The problem is that this has been a world-view, an assumption that people are honest with themselves, if they want to be. But that’s not the way it works. Just as there was profound ignorance of human anatomy five hundred years ago, there is widespread ignorance of human psychology even today. The culture has known about psychoanalysis for a century, but that approach has been so problematic—its focus on sexuality being a major stumbling-block—, that the most basic and valid insight has been too easily discounted: Hey, folks, people fool themselves. Yeah, they lie on occasion, and fib more often, but almost always there are layers of self-deception that have remained opaque to the common consensus. It’s as if we all are co-dependently agreeing that if you don’t point out how much I fool myself, I won’t note how obvious it is that you are fooling yourself too.
It’s time we recognized the depth of non-rationality in our life, and took steps to begin to counter this power, at least in part. (It may be impossible to go far in this direction, but even if we reduce the power of irrationality by 20% that would still be a huge expansion of our authenticity!)
Action exploration fosters this increased capacity for self awareness, and these techniques also foster an increased ability to communicate to others the sheer range of our mixed feelings. First, we need to develop some gradually increased trust that we can do this with certain groups of people. At present (in the early 21st century), let’s recognize frankly that we cannot do this kind open communication with the majority of people. They just wouldn’t get it.
You sort of need to know the game that’s being played: In action explorations, there is a conscious agreement to explore the pre-conscious realm, the parts of the mind that protest, whine, fume, cringe, and behave in a less mature, more childish fashion. It turns out that half of what these parts say are transparently immature and unrealistic; but the other half often contain important information that needs to be woven back into the discourse, concerns, valid feelings, acknowledgment of limitations, areas of true misunderstanding, etc. This realm constitutes the proverbial baby that should not be thrown out with the bathwater, the potential for redemption of disowned parts of oneself, the need for a more nuanced type of discernment.
An Era of Repression
Let’s recognize more vividly that we are beginning—only beginning—to emerge from a culture in which distasteful elements, rebellious or questioning elements, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings were generally stifled, buried. Most folks forgot that they even harbored such feelings. They went along. The mind can do this and feel little or no great stress. When the consequences of non-thinking pile up, sometimes this becomes neurosis, oppression, or experiences of crashing, hitting bottom, and awakening.
In this light, much of psychotherapy wasn’t dealing with mental illness as we’ve come to recognize its nature—that is, the major mental illnesses of manic-depressive or schizophrenic disorder—but rather the pervasive patterns of self-deception and the consequences of this activity. That is to say, in the long run, much self-deception leads to maladaptive behavior, actions that compound the stress on the individual or others who are in relation to the individual. (Sometimes it is the others—family members, minorities, others who suffer!)
I think we are moving into an era of psychological-mindedness in a way that is analogous to the way a century ago we moved into an era of science-mindedness. Popular books on science and bringing science into the mainstream of education have all happened increasingly since the early 20th century. Psychology has followed 70 – 120 years later. (It’s a blurry cultural current.) Although there are numerous books and programs of self-help, my impression is that the essential realities of psychology have only penetrated about 15% into the mainstream—not 50% or more. So it’s still a bit weird and magical in the minds of many. “Don’t mess with my mind” is felt if not said openly to anyone who seeks to explore the nature of a conflict at a deeper level.
Psychoanalysis: A Mixed Bag
The entrance of psychological-mindedness—just being truly curious about the way we think—into the mainstream has been both boosted and delayed by the fashion of psychoanalysis in the mid-20th century. It dominated the field and most people still think of any inquiry into what’s going on under the surface as a kind of “analysis.” Cartoons about the bearded shrink sitting behind the odd patient on the couch still are the primary representation of this process.
The positive spin-off is that psychoanalysis promoted some systematic analysis of the ways people fool themselves. Theories about repression and the defense mechanisms have been especially useful, and some other theories, also. The negative spin-off is that most of the major theories over-emphasized issues that were in fact peripheral to most people’s actual problems, and the conceit of the field blocked the fullest incorporation of many developments that extended from or emerged parallel to it—themes such as cognitive psychology, seeking to find a more user-friendly language, positive psychology, transpersonal psychology, and so forth. In Europe and South America there has been a bit more expansion into the integration of action methods, group methods, psychodrama, and so forth, but the conservative elements have held back the overall development.
Another mis-step of psychoanalysis has been the medicalization of the method and the effort to address and explain the major mental illnesses—and to treat them. This is complicated by the fact that people with major mental illnesses almost always have some psycho-social aspects operating in their condition—but then again, this is true of patients with major physical illness, trauma, strokes, heart disease, and other conditions. Often what’s needed includes physical therapy, occupational counseling, pastoral counseling, vocational rehabilitation and other approaches. The family and other community members need to be included in some sessions. The point here is that psychoanalysis and other forms of psychotherapy may not be any more the key elements in the treatment of the major forms of mental illness than these other approaches!
On the other hand, what is included in the official APA diagnostic manual as minor disorders are so widespread as to suggest that perhaps they should not be viewed as medical problems at all. Treatment for these is, if you think about it, more a matter of education, learning ways to more realistically manage oneself in a changing world. Perhaps an educational model fits better! And of course this is supported by the fact that most psychotherapists since the mid-1970s are no longer medical practitioners, physicians.
The point to be made here, though, is that while psychoanalysis rose in part on the coat-tails of the advance in status, income, and actual progress of medicine in the mid-20th century, and in turn this protected the emergence of psychotherapy as a field in the later parts of that era, the intrinsic weaknesses, jargon, and stereotypes of the Freudian method may well have also inhibited the acceptance into the mainstream of the basic idea that we now have many fields developing that illuminate the processes not only of self-deception, but also social and cultural patterns of deception, interpersonal manipulation, pathogenic family dynamics, misleading advertising, political propaganda, and (dare I say) even many religious doctrines—all of which deserve to be illuminated by individual and collective consciousness-raising.
An Inter-Disciplinary Endeavor
This approach is a bit radical in many ways. It partakes a bit of many fields:
– postmodernist philosophy (while also challenging many who consciously ally with that approach)
– current re-thinking of general philosophies of technology, science, and progress
– the history of communications and a projection into the future of further trends
– current and future trends in psychology and its opening to and fusing with social psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other fields
– and so forth.
Action exploration recognizes the profound and extensive influence of the non-rational, and it works with these currents rather than discounting them. It continues a few Freudian ideas, such as the overall benefit of helping that which is unconscious move towards consciousness. It also weaves in a recognition of the artistic, aesthetic, poetic, mythic, and other dimensions that are not irrational so much as trans-rational. They are not supposed to be reduced to language or rationality. These elements should be subject to the test of being at least compatible with notions of rationality and ethics, but other than that, many things—such as finding our children cute—cannot and should not be expected to be fully explained in rational terms.
Rather than dominating our non-rational elements of our own minds, action exploration seeks to negotiate with them, integrate them, find creative syntheses that direct their energies—i.e., sublimation. This approach is by no means a surrender to the non-rational. Rather, it is a respect for the depth of the mind, its non-rational elements, and it expresses a willingness to creatively work with those elements in the direction of personal and collective integration and harmony.
This is a term that some psychologists use to describe thinking about the way we think. Others call it psychological-mindedness. I might dare even call it higher consciousness. It integrates the philosophy of science by asking, “But is it so?” I learned the term “reality-testing” during my training, when it was noted to be an activity that differentiated non-psychotics from psychotics. Later I realized that this activity, as applied to psychosis, only referred to the most flagrant and maladaptive forms; in fact, most people don’t “test reality” much of the time, if we include a wider range of common illusions, logical fallacies, uncritical acceptance of authority, etc.
So part of action exploration is the bringing to the wealth of complexes that are opened in this process some discipline and constraint of critical thinking. And yet even this modality can be overdone! There are some domains in which critical thinking interferes with inspiration, surrealistic ideation, modern art, music, drama, thinking outside the box. It’s important to learn to recognize when and how to loosen up, become open to dreams, symbols, poetic ideation, spiritual insight (e.g., love your enemies), etc. Play, fantasy, humor, imaginativeness, and the like also have functions in holistic integration, and knowing how to keep these sources of vitality operating in the system is also part of higher consciousness.
Lest I not be understood, I am indeed promoting both an upgrade of the skills inherent in critical thinking, and of the skills inherent in divergent and creative thinking, imagination, intuition, as well as when to use which set of skills. Nor is there a broad consensus as to what the boundaries should be, especially in arenas of ethics, philosophy, religion, social customs, courtesy, and so forth. However, we are only just emerging from an era in which even the asking of such questions was itself taboo. Common sense (of the majority of those in that country and era) ruled.
Advances in travel technology have brought together increasing numbers of people from diverse cultures, which in turn generates cross-cultural friction. This also operates among sub-cultures and regions, classes and political parties within a country. It’s time also to shift from the ethos of confrontation, aggression, and win/lose thinking to peacemaking, working out differences. This cannot be attained without a critical mass of people learning something like action exploration.
The application of methods such as psychodrama and creativity-oriented group work was envisioned by J. L. Moreno back in the late 1930s, at which time he used the term, “sociatry.” The suffix “-iatry” carried the idea of healing, beyond the strict medical model. Moreno knew these approaches went far beyond the context of helping those in the sick role. It was a period when whole nations and races were treating others in ways that would later be described as “inhuman,” and the oppressors hardly thought of themselves as sick. They thought they were righteous!
Out of these attitudes came yet another world war and several more localized conflicts, yet ones involving untold levels of suffering. Even today, “warrior thinking” dominates, and “love your enemies” is for many an empty platitude, mouthed in church but nowhere else.
How then to get to peacemaking? Sociatry, sociodrama, action explorations, helping people not only to address conflicts, but more, helping them to become familiar with and adept at using the techniques and principles in their everyday lives, with their family, in their communities, and as a growing ethos in government.
My hope in this endeavor is to bring together a variety of fields:
– Drama in education, and all efforts that use simulations, sociodrama, role playing, and the like
– Improvisation in business and related efforts of coaching, etc.
– Theatre Sports and other approaches that involve spontaneity training
– Drama Therapy and related endeavors, especially as their methods extend beyond treatment of those with diagnose-able psychiatric disorders. (I heartily respect this psychotherapeutic application, but I want to emphasize all the applications beyond the medical model!)
– Psychodrama and related methods, especially beyond therapy
– Bibliodrama and the use of action explorations in spiritual guidance
– Various other forms of applied theatre
….plus the use of action techniques by other people-helping professionals, teachers of parenting skills, and so forth.
I envision a journal—nowadays, probably an e-journal—not aimed at anything scholarly, but rather simply as a support for the aforementioned efforts. Articles in this journal would share in readable and use-able form what has worked, how it has been presented, what doesn’t work and why, relevant books that have been helpful (and why), and so forth.
In closing, I invite correspondence, sending me ideas, anecdotes, suggestions to adam (at) blatner.com If I find your comments publish-able, or perhaps with a little editing, with your consent I’ll add them to this webpage or create a supplementary webpage.
Source | ACTION EXPLORATION
Adam Blatner, M.D., TEP