I was surprised and intrigued when my teacher, Dr. Ming Wu, a Tai Chi Master and a doctor of Chinese medicine, asked me if I would see one of his students for marital therapy. In class he emphasizes “heavy on the bottom, light on the top … simple but not easy.” Western psychotherapy seemed such a different approach. Why would he want me to see a student? He was as interested in explaining it to me as I was in learning.

He began explaining that every case is different. “You must identify the root cause.” If you don’t find the root cause, maybe you fix the physical problem only to have it return or become chronic. He was more interested in getting to the heart of the matter. “Sometimes you approach the mind through the body,” but to my surprise, he added that it was not always the most efficient route. This was beginning to sound much more similar to how I approach people in my psychotherapy work. Every case is different. That is why I still find the work so interesting after all these years.

When I asked him how he decided which is which, he excused himself for a moment. He came back with a little teapot. At first, he held it right up in front of his nose. For him, I could see that this created a distorted view of the pot. For me, it created a distorted view of him. He couldn’t see me too clearly either. When you are too close, he explained, it is hard to see something for what it is. You must put it down which he proceeded to do with the little pot. “Now you can really see it, [from] different angles.” And, he added with emphasis, “You can see the center.”

I use different language when I work with couples, but I could tell that we were saying the same thing. I often note that the biggest fights grow from erroneous assumptions that seem obvious to the one doing the assuming but don’t accurately reflect what the partner is feeling. Some grain of truth convinces the viewer that the distortion is grounded in reality and the other person is usually doing something that makes the projection plausible. However, once the distorted view takes hold as accurate, it is not easy to shake loose. People hold to them like a drowning person holds a life raft. I work in therapy to help people see the small distortions that compound into large ones over time feeling ever more accurate as they grow. Often the understanding follows seeing how they are rooted in the past and in the defenses that were put in place to deal with the past.

Dr. Wu said yes, that was it! When you are attached you can only see one angle and you believe you are seeing the whole thing. When you detach from the problem you can become grounded and can see all the angles effortlessly, no longer distorted by your fragmentary point of view. Tai Chi and Qigong can help do this. However, if the distortions are strong and deeply rooted in the past they become hard to see, like the teapot too close to the nose. In that situation, he says, that person may need a coach, a therapist, to help them realize that there are other ways of seeing. Sometimes it is possible to calm your “monkey mind” through the Tai Chi and the Qigong practices alone, he says, but you must be both diligent and patient. There is an art in knowing what to recommend in what situation. I came away with a deeper understanding of how Dr. Wu thinks but also of what I do.

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