By Kumkum Bhandari
Nossrat Peseschkian, the Persian-born founder of positive psychotherapy makes good use of Oriental stories, parables and myths as a tool in the therapeutic process
Nossrat Peseschkian tells stories. He told me one within five minutes of meeting him. But he is no ordinary storyteller, nor is his audience generally made up of wide-eyed children who inch closer to ask ‘what happened next?’
The stories are no doubt simple enough to be told to kids. They are parables, myths, and pictures in language drawn from folklore or classical Persian literature. Simple stories: but there is a tale behind the telling of each.
They are a sad lot, the listeners. Among them are people often in conflict: with themselves, with their bodies, with their innermost needs. Jostle among them and you find people who know anxiety, dejection, despair, rejection, isolation, and alienation. People who can do a quick mop-up job and sweep the mess into the backyards of consciousness. They are people like you and me, living and coping as best we can, in complex modern times. Many of us could do with some new ways of getting by, of self-help, of therapy.
But don’t make me lie down on the analyst’s couch and tell me that the conflicts of my personality are a result of the desires of the biological, impulsive id versus the inhibitions of a harsh superego. Or that I’m an intuitive type who needs to work on my inferior sensation function (like Carl Jung prescribed)—jargon that probably tells you more about my problem than I learnt. Tell me something that will help me sort myself out. A story? Will that help?
Yes, says the storyteller who is really a physician and a psychotherapist. Persian-born Peseschkian, founder of Positive Psychotherapy, blends the wisdom of the East and the psychotherapeutic methods of the West. In India to test out the possibility of setting up an Indian branch of his Center for Positive Psychotherapy, which has centers in 16 countries, Peseschkian has visited over 65 countries and made a study of 22 different cultures.
Trans-cultural differences, he points out, have a bearing on the conflicts that we deal with in and around us. The East and West are no longer separated—look within: we have both aspects within us, though possibly in varying and often conflicting proportions from others.
Born of a Muslim and a Christian parent, 60-year-old Peseschkian, who has lived most of his adult life in West Germany, is no stranger to the ‘trans-cultural situation’. He can draw an easy laugh out of you by telling you of the varied ways in which different cultures deal with the same situation: and how an ignorance of another’s cultural viewpoint can cause critical judgments and conflicts.
Positive Psychotherapy helps the patient use discriminative analysis to focus not just on the conflict, illness or critical behavior, but also on the actual capabilities present in the individual. This has a rejuvenating effect on his capacity for self-help and his ability to deal with conflict.
Our excessive and emotional reactions to a critical situation, our tendency to overemphasize just one or other capability that we value and our tendency, to make generalizations, takes away our ability to deal constructively with a situation. If a mother constantly complains to the child: ‘How many times have I told you to keep your room tidy? You are good-for-nothing’, neither mother nor child will benefit from this interaction. In fact, the small emotional injuries can just reinforce the undesirable pattern of behavior, which is being criticized.
Positive Psychotherapy, writes Peseschkian in Psychotherapy of Everyday Life, helps the patient in his ‘attempt to make differentiation, to look into the cause of the anger, to give the problem the weight it deserves, and to find new possibilities’.
When we are angry with a person, we often lose the capacity to view him as a unique person with many capabilities. He or she simply becomes the opinionated, egoistic boor we are unable to deal with. Peseschkian’s five-step psychotherapeutic treatment helps individuals deal constructively with such conflicts. All conflicts stem from a certain content area, though we often fail to see the links. Certain capabilities, which have been emphasized by families, culture, and upbringing, are important to us. When our expectations woven around the capacities are not fulfilled, they become the source for conflict.
Peseschkian has compiled a Differentiation Analysis Inventory (DAI), which you can use to work through conflicts. He explains that instead of saying: ‘My husband is a monster who doesn’t care for me’, the patient is encouraged to reason: ‘Today I am upset with my husband because, as always, he kept me waiting and didn’t apologize. I was taught the importance of politeness and courtesy; he doesn’t find it important.’ This helps you to view the situation rationally and analytically.
Peseschkian uses stories in therapy to draw a parallel between the individual’s experience and that of the protagonist of the story. The stories, adapted from classical eastern literature, present possible solutions as they deal with personal, interpersonal or social conflict. He notes in psychotherapy of everyday Life: ‘They (the stories) are consciously positioned in the framework of the five-phase treatment and require on the part of the therapist sensitivity and insights into the patient’s needs and his own motives. They also need the courage to enter into fantasy and the world of intuition.’
The stories help the patient confront his own experiences in an indirect way, and give him time to assimilate them in his own experience. They generally make him laugh, put him at ease and offer room for expanded thought.
‘Man,’ Peseschkian explains further, ‘does not think only in abstract or theoretical concepts. Rather, an understanding of his problems is determined by vivid and imaginary modes of thought, and by fantasy that is charged with emotion. This realization led me to include imagination and hence mythological stories and fables as aids to comprehension in the therapeutic process.’
By not foisting jargon on the patient and by helping him use both fantasy and analysis (right and left brain) in dealing with conflict areas, Peseschkian has managed to cut down on therapy time. While choosing stories relevant to various situations of psychotherapy, Peseschkian stays with four main areas of conflict: the relationship to one’s body, to achievement and career, to other people and groups, and to intuition, fantasy and future.
As I read through the stories in Peseschkian’s Oriental Stories as Tools in Psychotherapy, some of them made me spurt with laughter and then pause to think, Some reminded me of issues that I have to deal with, others offered insights into people around me. There is no saying how and when these stories may touch off a commonality of experience and mirror a reality that is yours-if, of course, you let them. Here is a sampling of some of the stories:
NO MASTER FALLS FROM THE SKY
A skilled magician had a sultan and an enthusiastic audience agog with a display of his art. The sultan exclaimed; ‘God help me, what a miracle, what a genie!’ But his vizier cautioned him; ‘Your highness, no master falls from the sky. The magician’s art is the result of his industriousness and his practice.’ The vizier’s disagreement spoiled the sultan’s enthusiasm. ‘You ungrateful man! Can such skill come from practice? Either you have talent or you don’t.’ He looked at the vizier contemptuously and shouted: ‘You have no talent. Off to the dungeons with you. Ponder over my words there. Take one of your kind with you; a calf will be your cell-mate.’ From his first day in the cell, the vizier practiced picking up the calf and carrying it up the steps of the dungeon tower. Months went by. The calf grew into a powerful steer; and, with each day of practice, the vizier’s strength grew. One day, the sultan remembered the man in the dungeon and summoned him. On seeing him, he exclaimed: ‘God help me, what a miracle, what a genie!’ The vizier carrying the steer on outstretched arms, answered with the same words as before: ‘Your highness, no master falls from the sky. In your mercy you gave me this animal. My strength is the result of my industriousness and my practice.’
Too many of us live in a black-and-white world of either-or (‘either you have talent of you don’t’), cutting off and limiting endless potential, exploration and growth. We buy other people’s image of us, so we never get down to working through the nitty-gritty of acquiring, developing or sustaining a talent.
Peseschkian mentions a 38-year-old patient who felt that he was less creative, and less capable than others of accomplishing anything. Though interested in art, he had never tried his hand at it. During therapy he enrolled himself in an art class, despite his wife’s advice: ‘You should leave painting to the professionals, You aren’t a genius.’ Six months later, during a therapy session, his wife who had replaced copies of Chagall and Picasso with her husband’s original works, remarked: ‘I had no idea of the talents that are in a person.’
A GOOD MODEL
A mullah wanted to protect his beautiful, young daughter. ‘My dear daughter’ he said, ‘remember what I tell you. All men want only one thing. Men are cunning. They set traps wherever they can. First the man swoons over your best features. Then he invites you to go out with him. Then as the two of you pass his house, he ‘remembers’ he wants his coat. He asks you if you would like to come in for a moment. Upstairs he invites you to have a seat, and offers you some tea. The two of you listen to music, and, when the time is right, he suddenly throws himself on you. In this way you are violated, our family is violated, and our good reputation is gone.’ The daughter took her father’s words to heart. A few days later she came up to her father and smiled proudly. ‘Dad, ‘ she asked, ‘are you a prophet? How did you know how everything happens? It was just as you described it. First he admired my beauty. Then he asked me out. As if by coincidence, we passed his house. There the poor fellow noticed he had forgotten his coat. Not wanting to leave me alone, he invited me to come into his apartment. As good manners require, he offered me tea and brightened the day with beautiful music. At that point, I thought of your words and knew exactly what would happen. But you see, I am worthy to be your daughter. When I felt the moment coming, I threw myself on him and violated him, his esteem, his family and their good reputation!’
Conflicts of the generation gap, authority issues, self-esteem and trans-cultural influences can be highly charged. Can we stem the cultural invasion? Reevaluate our own attitude towards sexuality? Snap a satellite link? Protect kids who are suddenly all grown-up? Move beyond the ambiguity of overprotective attitudes? Open-ended questions: individual, intense and uncomfortable.
50 YEARS OF POLITENESS
An elderly couple celebrated the golden anniversary of their marriage. While having breakfast together, the woman thought: ‘For 50 years I’ve always been considerate of my husband and have always given him the crusty top of the breakfast roll. Today I want finally to enjoy this delicacy for myself ‘ She spread the top part with butter and gave the rest to her husband. Contrary to her fears, he was very pleased, kissed her hand and said: ‘My darling, you’ve just given me the greatest joy of the day. For 50 years I haven’t eaten the bottom part of the roll, which is what I like best. I always thought you should have it because you like it so much.’
Cheers, Mom and Dad. This story is for you and all the wonderful concern you showed for each other every morning on the breakfast table as I grew up. I still haven’t figured out who likes what.
This story also addresses questions of looking into your own needs, of not being plagued with self-doubts and guilt, of not being overly dependent on the approval of others, of having the ability to love yourself.
ON THE VIRTUE OF HAVING TWO WIVES
‘How wonderful it is to have two women, ‘ a man raved to one of his friends in a cafe. He waxed eloquent at the wondrous variety, the magnificence of experiencing two blossoms that smell so different. The friend’s eyes grew bigger and bigger. It sounds like paradise, he thought to himself. Why shouldn’t I also taste the honey of two women as my friend here probably does? Soon after he married a second woman. When he tried to get into bed with her on their wedding night, she rejected him. ‘Let me sleep, ‘ she snapped, ‘Go to your first wife. I don’t want to be a fifth wheel. Either her or me. ‘ Desolate, he went to his first wife. But when he tried to slip into bed next to her, she complained: ‘Not with me… If you have married another woman and I’m not good enough for you, just go back to her…’ He had to leave his own house and go to the nearby mosque to sleep there. When he tried to sleep in the praying position, he heard someone clearing his throat behind him. Astonished, he turned around. The other man was none other than his friend who had raved about the virtue of having two wives. ‘Why have you come here?’ he asked him. ‘My wives wouldn’t let me get near them. That’s been going on for several weeks.’ ‘But why did you tell me how great it is to live with two women?’ Ashamed, the friend answered: ‘1 felt so lonesome in this mosque and wanted to have a friend with me.’
Did you laugh in gay abandon as a friend of mine did? Or did you cry? Which really shows how open-ended these stories are and how uniquely they connect to individual experiences.
Peseschkian describes the case of a 41-year-old patient, an academician suffering from myriad physical symptoms, who came to him ‘crying and trembling’. It took him weeks to talk about the real cause of his problems. A happily married family man, he had become deeply involved with another woman. His wife had found out and told him to make a choice, which he found impossible. He was dangerously suicidal and depressed.
Peseschkian told him this story, not to give him ‘advice or show him a solution, but to lead him away from his intense and endless brooding’. It had the desired effect with the patient smiling, shaking his head and saying: ‘I used to think it would be fortunate to have two wives.’ This led to further discussion: why had he felt such a desire, what criteria had he used in selecting his wife, what characteristics did his girlfriend have? While telling the story brought no easy resolution to the conflict, it helped the patient relax, progress in his therapy and find his way to a final choice.
ONE FOR THE ROAD
Persian mysticism tells of a wanderer who trudged along on a seemingly endless road. He was weighed down with all sorts of burdens. A sack of sand hung on his back, a thick water-hose was draped around his body. In his right hand, he carried an oddly shaped stone, in the left hand a boulder. Around his neck an old millstone dangled on a frayed rope. Rusty chains, with which he dragged these weights through the dusty sand, wound around his ankles. On his head, the man was balancing a half-rotten pumpkin. With every step he took, the chains rattled. Moaning and groaning, he moved forward step by step, complaining of his fate, and the weariness that tormented him. A passerby asked him: ‘Oh tired wanderer, why do you load yourself down with this boulder?’ ‘How awfully dumb, ‘ replied the wanderer, ‘but I hadn’t noticed it before. ‘ He threw away the rock and felt much lighter. Again, after going a long way down the road, a farmer asked him: ‘Tell me, tired wanderer, why do you trouble yourself with the half-rotten pumpkin on your head, and why do you drag those heavy iron weights behind you?’ The wanderer answered: ‘I’m very glad you pointed it out to me. I didn’t realize what I was doing to myself.’ He took off the chains and smashed the pumpkin into a ditch. Again, he felt lighter. But the farther he went, the more he began to suffer again. Another farmer coming back from his field watched him in amazement and said: ‘Oh, good man, you are carrying sand in the sack, but what you see in the distance is more sand than you could ever carry. And your big water-hose is as if you planned to cross the Chewier Desert. Didn’t you notice that clear stream flowing alongside the road?’ Upon hearing this, the wanderer tore open the water-hose and emptied its brackish water onto the path. Then he filled a hole with the sand from his knapsack. He stood there pensively and looked at the setting sun. In the dimming light he looked at himself, saw the heavy millstone and suddenly realized it was the stone that was still causing him to walk with a stoop. He loosened it and threw it as far as he could into the stream. Freed from his burdens, he wandered on through the cool of the evening to find lodging.
As I come to the end of this article, 1 dedicate this last story to myself. And maybe to you. And to every effort we make to unravel our complexities and travel lighter.
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