The embodied frameworks through which we integrate

The following is a point of view written by Serge Prengel. 

I am fascinated by how different therapists, may have different takes on the same situation. Imagine a whole bunch of us seeing the same client at the same time, in a fantasy scenario where we could do so without affecting the outcome, and afterward talking to each other about how we see this client and how this relates to our theoretical framework and experiences.

It’s not a very realistic scenario. But a proxy for this would be to share how we relate to a given situation. I’d like to suggest that we do this based on the “downhill skier” metaphor suggested by psychologist Kjell Rudestam. I am going to quote some of what Kjell wrote:

Picture two skiers standing on top of a difficult, black diamond ski run. When asked how he/she plans to get down the mountain, the novice says, “very carefully,” and offers details such as avoiding a particular mogul, seeking a relatively flat area, and so on. When asked the same question, the expert skier replies, “Beats me, see you at the bottom!” and then is able to reconstruct what he/she did after getting down the mountain.”

I’d like to share with you the strands of experience and theory that the situation evokes for me.

First, the contrast between the left-brain oriented novice and the right-brain oriented expert evokes for me the notion of learning in Zen-inspired martial arts: you practice a lot, in a mindful way as opposed to rote, so that the movements become second nature and you can be in the flow of the action.

How does this fit with my theoretical perspectives? It fits beautifully with my integration of two approaches, the felt sense (Gene Gendlin, Focusing) and the Polyvagal Theory.

At the top of the ski run, the expert relies on his/her self sense. That is a global sense of the situation as a whole, as opposed to an analysis of its various components. This felt sense reflects the expert skier’s experience: looking at the slope does not show any unusual patterns, so he/she has a sense that it is manageable.

Now, a piece of integration between two theories: as the felt sense indicates that the slope is manageable, the self-state is one of mindful engagement (the “social engagement” mode of the polyvagal theory).

As the novice looks at the slope, his/her felt sense reflects the neuroception of danger. If this were an extremely difficult slope or a very scared skier, the self-state might be one where the sympathetic is engaged in flight or even the parasympathetic into collapse. But, as the novice is not perceiving this as an extreme threat, he/she is in mindful engagement mode, albeit less trusting than the expert, and wisely planning.

The expert does not need to plan the run, because he/she has a sense of the slope as something that he/she can handle moment by moment. Because of his/her level of trust, there is more letting go of the conscious mind, and more of a sense of being in a dance with the terrain. This is a mindful dance, hence the capacity of the expert skier to tell you afterward what they did, moment by moment.

Both skiers, in this case, are in a self-state of mindful engagement. Not the same kind of mindful engagement: this mode allows room for a very broad range of states. Their felt sense of the situation is going to be very different, reflecting the level of trust that corresponds to their respective level of experience with skiing.

An after-the-fact comment on this essay. It’s interesting to think of it in light of Suzuki’s concept of “beginner’s mind:” In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.

I describe the two skiers as “novice” and “expert.” But there is a paradox in the story. The “expert” demonstrates what Suzuki called “beginner’s mind,” being open to all possibilities and to a moment-by-moment felt sense of the situation. In contrast, the novice is trying to act like an “expert” in defining a specific path before engaging with the slope.

In my first draft for this piece, I contrasted “novice skier” with “experienced” skier. However, I also wanted to use the term “experience” to refer to the experiential aspect of going down the slope. I felt it would be confusing to use the word “experience” for both. Hence the word “expert” and the irony of role reversals.

Written by Serge Prengel