Inside Branden's Intensive
What goes on during those 40-hour weekends?
Many of REASON's readers have had an interest in the work of psychologist Dr. Nathaniel Branden. Aside from his innovative psychological techniques and his powerful theories concerning the nature and dysfunctions of human psychology, he has been an active supporter of the fight for liberty in this country during the last 25 years. Some of our readers may not know this because Dr. Branden has lately confined the bulk of his work to psychotherapy proper, with only occasional appearances at political gatherings and scholarly conferences. For those who are not aware of it, he was once an associate of Ayn Rand, was founder of the Nathaniel Branden Institute and cofounder of The Objectivist, and authored The Psychology of Self-Esteem, Breaking Free, and The Disowned Self.
We think some of the techniques Dr. Branden employs in his present practice will interest our readers, especially in the light of the plethora of psychologically oriented therapy and educational movements that vie for our participation. We have known Dr. Branden and have found his work worthy of our attention in the past (see REASON interviews, October 1971 and May 1973). A report about what his therapeutic work involves would, we believe, help our readers consider more intelligently whether they might benefit from his or other individuals' and organizations' self-improvement techniques.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are not as happy as you could be. And suppose that even after taking account of the metaphysical problems of existence, the evils of society, the irrationalities of other people, the errors made by your parents, and the frustrations created by your friends—not to mention your enemies—suppose that even taking all these into account, you suspect that you could be a lot happier than you are. Most of us have surmised that life has more to offer than we've got. We may want to be more creative or successful in our work; perhaps our romantic relationships or our family relationships or our friendships are not all we want them to be. We may want to feel less tension, less loneliness, less guilt, less boredom, or less fear. We may feel that our capacities and our time could be used more fully, more richly—if only we knew how.
One way to explore the yet undiscovered possibilities of life is to take an unusual vacation: into ourselves. Personal-growth experiences are the latest luxury of our culture—a luxury possible only in a civilization so advanced that it values individual fulfillment—and more and more people, including me, are taking advantage of the many new possibilities offered for psychological self-exploration and self-development. While this feels deliciously like self-indulgence, it represents a recognition that the liberation and expansion of one's own potentials requires the same devotion of time, thought, and energy to ourselves that we give to the pursuit of external values. In my most recent indulgence-investment, I took three and a half days and an expert guide on what the literature described as "a voyage into inner space": Nathaniel Branden's 40-hour personal-growth intensive called "Self-Esteem and the Art of Being."
The promises in the brochure were intriguingly extravagant. They held out even more than enhanced self-awareness or greater self-assertion; they offered a far more fundamental kind of growth: "The Intensive is designed to raise the level of the participant's self-esteem…to achieve a breakthrough…in the individual sense of the possibilities of life." How that could be accomplished in 40 hours, I wanted to see.
Intriguing as this was, however, one does not commit oneself—at least this one does not—to 40 hours of intense self-exploration without some degree of anxiety. Who knows what one may find?
The first night of the intensive I sat with 180 other people who were obviously wondering the same thing. The room was full of excitement—Dr. Branden was radiantly happy, and his exuberance overflowed. But we also felt curiosity and tension and fear. We were a remarkably varied group: ages ranged from late teenage to late sixties; there were people from all professions; and their experience with psychological growth processes ranged widely—some had no previous experience with psychology, some had considerable time in psychotherapy, and some were psychologists themselves. How, I wondered, could all of these people take the same trip and arrive where they wanted to go?
That was one of the questions to which Branden addressed himself the first evening. It was arranged as a lecture, which made me feel impatient that we were not beginning to work immediately—but also relieved that we didn't have to start yet. He prepared us, gently, almost imperceptibly, launching us on our journey. As he discussed the goals and ground rules of the intensive, he created through his own attitudes and behavior an atmosphere of a very special kind: an atmosphere of benevolence, enthusiasm, and wonder. He projects these, and they're catching; it wasn't 30 minutes before people were smiling at each other as if sharing the beginning of an adventure.
An important part of what we felt was that we were being treated with great respect. When, for instance, he explained the reasons for what otherwise might seem arbitrary rules, he shared his own distaste for rules in a way that made any tendency to rebel seem not only appropriate but admirable—and thus disarmed us of the need for rebellion. He identified the difficulty that he could not tell us exactly what would happen in the processes we would be asked to engage in—after all, in the nature of an adventure into inner space is that each adventure is private, uniquely one's own.
How do you persuade people to trust enough to do something the end of which is not in sight? By asking openly, and by stressing an idea that was to be the controlling theme of the next three days: we were not being asked to achieve anything in particular; we were not being asked to change; all we were being asked to do was to participate in the processes and to watch what happened, to observe, to notice, to be open to whatever there was to see. The purpose of an adventure is to have it and to see how it feels.
Though I cannot tell you, of course, exactly how it would feel to you, I can describe what we did during those 40 hours and some of the things we felt.
The intensive consists of specific activities or exercises designed to lead to increased self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, and self-assertion. The particulars of the processes vary from one intensive to the next but consist of a variety of kinds of personal-growth work. Some of it is exclusively individual: guided fantasies to increase awareness of assumptions and feelings that may not be fully conscious; physical exercises to increase awareness of the relationships between our psychological and bodily states; exercises exploring new ways to use our senses in contacting the world.
Some activities were two-person processes, in which we moved from one person to the next, looking at each person and often repeating a sentence Branden had given us. (One first night sentence, for instance, was "I am [your name], and I am enough"—a small, seemingly simple sentence, but one few of us had ever thought of saying and many of us found difficult to say. Saying such a sentence to another person and noticing how we felt saying it—sometimes unreal, sometimes sad, sometimes anxious, sometimes embarrassed, sometimes happy, sometimes serene—gave us vivid experiences of what we felt about our own persons.)
Other exercises were done in small groups of four or five people; most of these were sentence-completion processes, in which Branden begins a sentence and participants finish it for themselves with whatever comes to mind. (In an exploration of the ways we determine our relationships with other people, for example, one sentence began, "One way I make it difficult for others to get close to me is…," and each of us finished the sentence with several different endings.) Each group of sentence completions is designed to explore some specific psychological territory or issue; they are carefully sequenced and are varied enough so that if one sentence does not elicit some meaningful awareness, another will. The result is characteristically that each person experiences a series of small (sometimes large) revelations about himself. Finally, we often came together as a large group for questions, for sharing our experiences, and for some lecturing on the intensive's themes.
CROWDS AND LECTURES
I had been especially skeptical of two aspects of the intensive. One was the size of the group: I did not know if my individual needs could be met in activities designed to accommodate so many people. In fact, it turned out to be an intensely individual experience. Most processes were individual or small-group exercises. Further, our focus was constantly directed toward our inner experience and our own awareness. Crucial, however, is that in almost every case, the particular issues dealt with touched issues fundamental in all of our lives—our feelings about ourselves, our relationships with other people, our experiences of childhood, our desires and frustrations about our work. Not everyone benefitted equally from every process; but each of us was making discoveries and integrating them along the way. The size of the group, rather than interfering, turned out to be a tremendous advantage. For each of us had an opportunity to meet and interact with a remarkable variety of people in a context of openness and benevolence. For many of us, this was our first seeing of other people simply as other human beings. An important experience was the admiration we came to have for the courage of others to be honest, the affection we came to share, and our delight at seeing how interesting people can be when they let themselves be seen.
My second concern had been that the intensives include lecturing. No little part of my life has been spent listening to lectures, including Nathaniel Branden lectures, and I did not want this to be a strictly intellectual experience. To my relief, the "lectures" of the intensive were very rarely only theoretical; they were concrete, useful discussions of the issues we were exploring, discussions based on his and his clients' experiences. Furthermore, the opportunity the lectures provided for cognitive integration of our new learnings was extremely valuable. Much personal-growth work today, having come out of the humanistic psychology movement, tends to be anti-intellectual; the lack of attention to cognitive integration leaves the experiences diffuse and therefore less solid and lasting than they otherwise might be. A great advantage to Dr. Branden's approach to personal growth is that he addresses himself to the whole person, so that our body work, our emotional work, and our cognitive learning were consistently being integrated.
The activities of the intensive varied during the day; each process was oriented toward the overall themes, and each built on previous experiences. The interweaving and repetition of themes felt less like an ordered sequence of steps than like a musical arrangement of repeating and varying motifs. In retrospect, however, it is clear that for most of us, each day represented a new level of growth that I can describe only as a deepened sense of ourselves, of our own solidity and fullness and autonomy.
During the first two days we were learning to take ourselves seriously, to pay attention to ourselves, to identify and acknowledge our feelings, and to be aware of the barriers we create to our own fulfillment—learning, as Branden said, to see the obvious. We explored the ways we hide from ourselves and others the truth of our perceptions and experience—and learned the clarity and freedom that we feel when we begin to acknowledge and assert the truth.
UNCOVERING THE PAST
The third day was the most intense, partly because we were more open to experiencing now and mainly because the activities of that day involved reexperiencing and completing "unfinished business" from our past. We were learning that growth requires accepting all of the feelings and attitudes within us, including those of the child we used to be.
Most people carry within them a great deal of buried childhood pain, and understanding the child within means confronting and experiencing that pain. Through an unusual and deeply moving fantasy, we met that child and began to learn how life looked and felt to us long ago, when we formed many of our adult attitudes and behaviors. The focus of this work, however, was not simply on becoming aware of our childhood feelings but on taking responsibility for our own growth and redevelopment. We began to learn to be the parent to ourselves that we needed and need—to foster our own growth by treating ourselves with gentleness and respect and love.
Much of our work with our past involved our relationships with our parents and other important people in our lives, and this too evoked great emotional intensity. For many of us, this work led to profound understandings not only of "why we are as we are" but also of ways we can be different. The emotional drama of these experiences was initially frightening for some people, but the focus on "accepting whatever is" allowed many of us to experience a much wider capacity for intense emotion, without fear, than we had known we possessed.
Beyond the drama lay other important lessons for us: we were guided into processes through which we discovered how much of our lives since childhood had been self-directed, how our successes and our failures, our achievements and our inhibitions, were our own responsibility. Knowing that in the abstract is very different from having an opportunity to see concretely how we managed our own victories and our own defeats. There is a marvelous sense of liberation, a tremendous sense of power over one's destiny, in the recognition that one is not a helpless victim but an active creator of one's fate.
These days were so full of activities that there were times when I felt rushed and overwhelmed by fragments of new awareness—bits and pieces of new understanding that every once in a while would suddenly arrange themselves in some meaningful pattern. But they came too fast to sort out or even hold onto. I felt considerable frustration at times at the difficulty of self-discovery, and then frustration at not having time to think discoveries through. In the course of a few hours I would feel pain, sadness, depression, boredom, amusement, fascination, pride, and delight. There was also a good deal surging around somewhere out of reach of my awareness.
By nine o'clock at night, when we finished for the day, I was exhausted. I also generally felt agitated; others felt elated; some, meditative. Not a few of us spent at least one night awake. Yet we were learning a new kind of self-acceptance, so that whatever we were feeling, beyond the agitation was a special kind of peace; and each morning I found myself full of energy and eager for more.
It must be stressed, especially for those familiar with "sensitivity" groups or EST or other relatively brutal forms of psychological work, that activities during "Self-Esteem and the Art of Being" are consistently conducted in an atmosphere of gentleness, rationality, and respect. The world of the intensive is supportive and safe. Though most of us experienced some painful self-confrontations, we experienced them as moments that could be felt, acknowledged, and worked through. There was absolutely no suggestion of pressure, no hint of condemnation—and no oversolicitous response, either. Feedback from others was received only when solicited, and great respect was shown for individual differences in mood and response. We learned that even pain and sadness and anger and fear, once faced, can be let go. But the focus of the work was never on feeling these emotions; the overwhelming mood was one of affirmation. Many processes were designed explicitly to give us experiences of our own inner strength, our own energy, our own fundamental impulses for life and growth.
It was not until the last day that we began to have a firm sense of what had been happening to us. The day was spent consolidating our new knowledge. What we had been learning to do was to see ourselves and our lives and our worlds in a new way, and not only to see them differently but to feel about them differently and to treat them differently. Simply by seeing, acknowledging, accepting, and asserting the obvious, we were learning how to change our state of consciousness.
Everyone knows what it feels like to "be in a really good place;" we know how clear the world looks, how well we act for ourselves, how much we like ourselves, how manageable our problems seem, when we feel fundamentally right with the world. What this intensive had been teaching us was how to get to that place, how to feel that sense of fundamental well-being, more and more of the time. What it requires, we had been learning, is a willingness and an effort to be in the cleanest contact with reality we can achieve in any particular moment. The intensive had given all of us new tools for that in some ways so complicated, in some ways so simple, task. And it had given us, many times over the four days, the experience of being there. Changing fundamentally meant changing the quality of our awareness in such a way that other changes would inevitably follow.
Our last day was spent experiencing our new recognitions and learning how to carry and keep these new learnings into the lives to which we were all returning. Most of us were ready to go, full of the sense that what we now knew would have many implications for us in the days ahead, and curious to discover what these would be. The people in the room on Sunday evening were very different from the people who had begun there the previous Thursday. They looked tired, for one thing. Most also looked open, relaxed, and simply happy. Many exhibited a quiet dignity and a serenity unusual to see in so many people in one place.
LIMITATIONS AND SUCCESSES
Though there must be some people who have attended these intensives and been unhappy with them, I have found none. This is not to say that "Self-Esteem and the Art of Being" is without problems. For some people very experienced with psychological processes, much of the weekend lagged—especially during large group sessions in which individuals talked personally about their experiences, which were not always relevant to one's own. Too, I felt considerable frustration that there was not more time to pursue and develop some discoveries that came up for me. Of course the intensive is not psychotherapy, and the kind of concentrated personal working through that goes on in therapy was not appropriate here. Branden said from the first that his intention was to plant a lot of material that would sprout during the next few months. Despite his claim that nothing really important would be lost, however, I felt a need for much more consolidation.
People who have had virtually no experience with Branden or with psychological work have expressed their desire to be better prepared for specific exercises, especially emotionally intense ones. More discussion of the ways participants can profitably interact with one another and more encouragement of participants to speak out when they are dissatisfied would clear the air sooner; problems that do arise are quickly enough taken care of, but many could be obviated in advance.
Finally, some people are inevitably frustrated by the fact that the intensive provides relatively little opportunity for personal work with Branden; almost any person who asks is given personal attention, but the size of the group makes it impossible to give every person all the attention he wants. Still, this is hardly a criticism of the intensive, which is not claimed to provide extensive personal therapy; and insofar as his personal contact with participants is concerned, he is almost always warmly responsive.
There is a great fear with all positive change that it won't last, and a crucial question is whether the experience of the intensive leads to any sort of lasting growth. I have followed the experiences of several people over eight months and several others, including me, over seven, and all have reported that they are still on their journey. Each person has reported to me feeling in general much better about himself, better about other people, happier, more relaxed and confident about making whatever changes he wants to make. Immediate changes are sometimes small, sometimes large. Many people report behavioral changes like eating less, being more creative, asking for that raise they've deserved for two years, telling Mom the truth—doing things with ease that had seemed impossible several weeks before. Others reported doing difficult things that they still found difficult—but did anyway. Several people told me that during and after the intensive they made friends for the first time in their lives. Others reported making important changes in their careers. For others, the most significant changes came in their relationships with their families. Many friends, lovers, and family members took the intensive together; many of them told me that their relationships had significantly deepened or become more honest. Sometimes the recognitions people faced were painful, sometimes changes difficult, but I have met no one unhappy that the intensive led him to that point.
COMMITMENT TO LIFE
It is almost impossible to go through this and not emerge with a heightened sense of self-esteem. Simply working through the processes gave me a more solid sense of myself. It's not magic, of course, and the people who get the most are the people who are willing to give most to the experience. Some people who returned to a second intensive—many come back for more—returned saying they felt they had "let a lot of things slide." But they were back.
Why does it work? It is not simply the intensive nature of the experience nor even the specific processes, but the particular focus and integration distinctive to Nathaniel Branden's work: his ability to create a world in which people feel it's right to be at their best; his focus on the fundamentals of our experience as human beings—our sense of ourselves and our desire to get the most out of life; his integration of our physical, emotional, and intellectual selves—his knowledge that we grow by experiencing but that we need understanding of our experience in order for it to be clear and to last; and the example he provides by the intensity of his own commitment to life.
I have heard him say that psychotherapy even at its best is an impractical profession—that people can develop problems much faster than there are therapists to deal with them and that what we need is a culture in which people learn healthy ways of being psychologically. Thus he has allied himself with the humanistic psychology movement, a movement that views therapy less as a cure for the sick than as a way to foster continuing personal growth. This notion has always been very important to me, because I used to feel that even if I could "work out all of my problems," which seemed hopelessly unlikely, even then I would just be back to zero. I came out of the intensive with a deeper experience of the fact that what "solving problems" is all about is growing and that growing is a continuing achievement.
While everyone's experience at the intensive is unique, one person told me a story that seemed to capture what it was like for many of us. When I asked her if she had gotten anything out of it, she said: "Suppose you'd known for a long time that you were a weed. When you were just a little sprout, before anyone had told you you were a weed, you'd known something of what flowers feel like; and as you grew, you felt you'd like it better if you were a flower. But you learned to be satisfied living as a weed nonetheless—most of the time. You learned to bend a little so as not to take up too much sun, and to eat and drink and breathe not quite so much so as not to take up too much nourishment from the flowers around you. It's only in spring, when the flowers start to bloom, that it's hard to be weedlike; then, when the warm breeze comes, you feel a stirring, a hope, a wish for just a taste of blooming. But you can't, of course; you're a weed.
"Now suppose that one day a lovely creature walks into your field looking for flowers. And suppose she walks straight up to you and says: "What a strange and lovely flower this is hidden from the light!' For a moment you would not believe her. But oh, you would want to. So you might begin softly to look and feel around yourself. And what if you discovered that this had all been a silly mistake—that you were not a weed, but a flower after all.
"Well," she said, "that's what it feels like. A little sad that I spent so much time as a weed when I didn't have to. A little in shock. A little exposed. Excited, in a quiet way, to discover what I'm all about. I don't know much about being a flower, yet. But it's me, and I love it, and I'm giving it all I've got."
The focus of Nathaniel Branden's psychological work has always been on liberating the capacities of people for achievement and enjoyment of their existence. "Self-Esteem and the Art of Being" is above all an experience of such liberation.
With a Ph.D. in English and American literature, Ms. Adrian has taught at various colleges and has recently been studying, writing, and editing in the field of psychology. She has now resigned her teaching positions to devote full time to those activities and to conducting writing workshops in Los Angeles. Under the name Cheri Kent, she has contributed to REASON and to several collections of essays.