Moving Forward by Returning to the Origin (Part Two of a Four-Part Series)

rumba - Moving Forward by Returning to the Origin (Part Two of a Four-Part Series)
Rumba steps illustration by Aaron O’Reilly.

After learning about Ving’s decision, my friend Evone pointed out to me the beautiful paradox in Ving’s decision to “move forward by returning to the past/origin.”

Exactly right, I thought to myself! This immediately reminded me of the vital importance of the basics and fundamentals when it comes to the practice of psychotherapy. In teaching how to conduct therapy informed by the humanistic-existential approach, I’m often faced with the question of what do I teach and demonstrate to students? When pondering this, I think back to a few things that my ballroom dance instructor taught me regarding how it was that the professional dancers that I admire so much were able to make something so beautiful but difficult look so easy. This was exactly what I observed as Ving was preparing my cup of Homey Latte. She worked quickly and efficiently while chatting with me. A cup of delicious latte materialized before me after three minutes of expert ministrations. It was so smooth that I took it for granted. And it was only later, as she was describing the me the importance of the various steps of brewing a good cup of coffee that I realized how each of Ving’s steps were over-learned the result of daily practice. More on that in the third section of this ongoing blog. Ving’s smooth and well-practiced motions reminded me of the popular Chinese aphorism: “Ten minutes on-stage, ten years off-stage.”

Furthermore, my ballroom dance teacher encouraged me to continue to work on the basics and the fundamentals of dance and not be so overly enamored with all the complicated dance steps. She told me that she, too, was astonished to see the world champions working daily on their basic fundamentals.

If world champions are working to improve their fundamentals, how about you?

For without the proper fundamentals, I will not be able to dance those beautiful steps. The best I could do was an ungainly imitation that my teacher did not have the heart to tell me was not pleasing to the eye. I finally confronted this sad reality when reviewing my own dance videos. Fantasy painfully dashed at the feet of cold reality. I did not tell my teacher at the time, but she probably knew anyway how “boring” the basic fundamentals were to me. I wanted to move on to the advanced steps because they looked more interesting and “beautiful.” I was not ready to appreciate the simplistic beauty inherent in the important subtleties to be found in each fundamental step. I was unable to appreciate the joys to be found in having the fundamental dance moves become a more natural inner part of my basic body movement. I have not learned what it was to dance from the inside out, rather than outside-in. It is a process I must go through, and even breakthrough, if I am fascinated enough with dance. I am still on that journey of discovery and experience.

The same is true of psychotherapy and life. The simple things are the most difficult. We must stick with it until the difficult once again become more simplistic. Ving and my dance teachers confirmed for me that the important aspects of therapy are really a way of life, not just confined to professional practice. They also helped to strengthen my conviction of teaching and demonstrating to my students the importance of learning and over-learning the basic “micro-skills” that are essential to facilitating therapeutic change. It reinforced for me that attentive listening, empathy, and authenticity are not the basics that we learn and move forward from, but critical fundamentals that we return to, over and over again.

Finally, all of this was illustrated to me in the following article about military training and discipline. It encouraged me to stay with the fundamentals for we must dance and practice psychotherapy from the inside out.

“I have been a Navy SEAL for 36 years. But it all began when I left the University of Texas for basic SEAL training in Coronado, Calif. Basic SEAL training is six months of long torturous runs in the soft sand, midnight swims in the cold water off San Diego, obstacles courses, unending calisthenics, days without sleep and always being cold, wet and miserable. It is six months of being constantly harassed by professionally trained warriors who seek to find the weak of mind and body and eliminate them from ever becoming a Navy SEAL. But the training also seeks to find those students who can lead in an environment of constant stress, chaos, failure and hardships. To me basic SEAL training was a lifetime of challenges crammed into six months.

“Every morning in basic SEAL training, my instructors, who at the time were all Vietnam veterans, would show up in my barracks room, and the first thing they would inspect was your bed.

“If you did it right, the corners would be square, the covers pulled tight, the pillow centered just under the headboard, and the extra blanket folded neatly at the foot of the rack. Rack—that’s Navy talk for bed. It was a simple task, mundane at best. But every morning we were required to make our beds to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that we were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs. But the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over. If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.

“If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right.

“And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”

— William McRaven, US Navy Admiral

— Mark Yang

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