Friday, October 21, 2011


Becoming more available to one’s intelligent responsivity

Threads:                        Context, Learning

Relevant recent posts:     2/14/2011     Unconscious Learning
All of a sudden I found this thing... the ability to play off of things and work with other people and create....
                  — actor Robin Williams, describing his early improv studies
A physician friend told me of a recent experience (here freely paraphrased): He was interacting with a patient and found himself not only listening to her words, but also watching her movements, hearing the changes in voice tone and noticing the movement of breathing. When she asked a question, he found himself responding. He didn’t know what he was going to say even as he continued to say it, it all just flowed between them. When there was no more to be said, no more to be heard, she thanked him and left. 

After telling me this, with raised eyebrows and a shrug he said, “How do you teach spontaneity?” His question worked on me for the next couple days. 

What is spontaneity?
Spontaneity is an athlete or performer in the zone; it is two friends riffing verbally—jokes and great puns of the moment; it is being available to your own intelligent responsivity without having to consciously manage it. It flows.

Study, practice, and experience support the arising of spontaneity
In many domains—athlete, musician, painter, therapist, actor—the ability to be unself-consciously responsive in the moment doesn’t just happen. It arises from years of study, practice, and experience. Robin Williams has described years of acting in school plays and with improv groups; formal study at Julliard; studying movement, facial expression, masks, accents, animal movement and behavior, and more… it all provides support for his prodigious in-the-moment responsivity.

Although I am writing in the context of the clinician/patient interaction, all of this applies to other areas of living as well.

Learning to become more available to spontaneity
I don’t think you can teach spontaneity. I think a more useful question is something like, “How does one become more available to one’s own spontaneous responsivity on behalf of generating a therapeutic outcome for one’s patients?”

Useful frame: Assume you have an unconscious
Here’s a frame I find useful: Assume that you have an unconscious. Not instead of, but in addition to your conscious knowledge and abilities, your unconscious consists of all the competences and sensitivities and coordinations (with self and other) that function intelligently and resourcefully without requiring your conscious management. This includes your competence for spontaneity.

This frame isn’t about parking your conscious mind in idle and letting your unconscious do the driving; this is about including more aspects of your responsivity and intelligence in therapeutic interaction with your patients.

Making the assumption that you have an unconscious is a useful because you can ask it to help you learn and do things you consciously believe you can’t otherwise learn or do. You can engage abilities within yourself that normally function out of conscious awareness.

Invite your unconscious to assist
At the start of each block of appointments, in addition to being available to your normal knowledge and competencies, invite your unconscious to:

1)     “bring to my notice what will evoke within me a therapeutic response
to my patient;
2)     “assist me in interacting with my patients in a way that evokes within
        them what will promote a therapeutic outcome; and

3)    “assist me in being available to my intelligent, spontaneous
        responsivity on behalf of promoting a therapeutic outcome for this
There’s overlap in these intentions, but that’s okay; the weave supports the desired outcome.

Make a deal with your unconscious that supports your learning
Consider making the following deal with your unconscious: If, during your session with a patient, it occurs to you three times to do or say something, no matter how weird, out-of-left-field, outrageous, or seemingly inappropriate it seems to your conscious mind, you agree to do or say it. And that you consciously understand what occurs to you three times during a session is a direct message from your unconscious to do it.

Part of the deal: Go at a pace you can keep up with
If you decide to make this deal, include this piece—it’s important: Ask your unconscious to present only those “3x” messages to you that it knows your conscious mind has the capacity and willingness to enact.

Deepening of conscious/unconscious coordination
All this will support gradual deepening of the coordination between your conscious mind and unconscious mind as you become more confident in the therapeutic efficacy of enacting these messages from your unconscious—even if sometimes it seems at odds with whatever conscious framework you might be holding.

The learning gradually becomes integrated
After a while, you’ll no longer need the “training wheel” construct of a message occurring three times. You will naturally come to rely on your unconscious and include spontaneous responses in your interactions with your patients—without having to know why you are saying or doing something before you are willing to say or do it. You just say or do it: Spontaneously.

Another way to go about this
I have practiced what I just described for years and it has been effective. Part of my training as a hypnotherapist has also included participating in hypnotically facilitated groups lasting several days in which all agreed to explore learning to be more available to the intelligence of our spontaneity. The collective resources of the group supported each member in their own unconscious learning process.

Comments welcome

Comments--particularly stories of your experience of the unanticipated and surprising intelligence of your own spontaneity--are welcome. 

In 2001, Robin Williams gave a 2+ hour interview and teaching class as part of the Inside the Actor’s Studio TV series. It is a tremendous video: he’s with student actors, he cares about them, he has no script, he’s responsive to the people and things around him, and he threads improv throughout. 

See the entire interview starting at Robin WIlliams, Inside the Actor's Studio. For a few minutes of world class spontaneity go to part 6 of the interview starting at 1:31.


Anonymous said...

Excellent piece about spontaneity, John. In my work with birthing mothers I often flow into a place where something takes over. In this place I know exactly what to say, where to touch, what is happening and what will happen next. I have called it instinct, and more recently have given the credit to God and the universe. This makes sense to me and I have learned to pay attention to what I call "the voice" especially when it comes to me over and over. I am getting good at paying attention and acting on it. I would say 98% of the time, the voice is right.

Nick said...

Wow, Thanks! Very well presented. The relationship of consciousness, the unconscious, intuition, spontaneity, etc. is a subject that I've been interested in for my entire adult life. I love your approach with the 3x messages and invitation statements. Definitely going to do this and see how my personal reality responds.