There’s much that I appreciate about Keith Witt—the combination of his wide-ranging intelligence with his empathic warmth; his extensive knowledge of developmental and evolutionary psychology and the insights these disciplines shine on the everyday issues of human relationships; and his skillful use of Integral theory to contextualize and expand on the implications of those insights— always in a fun, bright, and spontaneous way that makes a real human connection to whomever he’s with. (And he’s conducted an astonishing fifty-three thousand therapy sessions!)
I wanted to dialogue with Keith about the fundamental tension that underlies the whole premise of Beyond Awakening having to do with imperfect humans asking the big questions about how we can “be the change” that truly addresses our world crisis. Over the years, listeners have asked me serious, thoughtful questions on this theme: Don’t we need to first clean up our own acts? Isn’t self-change foundational to humanity’s transformational “sea change”?
Others point out that if we step aside to focus on ourselves, we risk abandoning the public sphere to people who lack the integrity to begin with the personal work. I often think of the song from the musical Hair with the lyrics: How can people be so heartless? How can people be so cruel? It’s easy to be hard, which is a reference to the archetype of the social activist who is a jerk.
And yet, if we cleave only to the therapeutic agenda, which is of necessity self-involved, we risk detracting from the energy available for relationship and civic engagement. I think that we need to do the personal work but not stop at the personal work. We also need to do the interpersonal work where we rise into a field of love and care together, but also press into the edges of what is possible and evolve the “We” field, so that we are actively being evolution in action in all the quadrants. That’s my agenda with this series, the “adjacent possible.”
Keith was ready to go right into this territory with me. Even though he works as a psychotherapist, he doesn’t expect that work to be the limits of how and what people engage in life. He pointed to the interface between public action and personal experience and growth, noting that we already have what we need for peace and prosperity on the planet. What’s missing, he observed, is the collective will and consciousness to enact those solutions. Integral theory implies that if you neglect your personal development on any developmental line (interpersonal, self, psycho-sexual), it will interfere with your ability to contribute your gifts to the world. In this way, psychotherapy is a crucial part of healing the world.
We also spoke about the function of shame, which I’ve explored in my own work and teaching, and the way in which it functions as the membrane of the repression barrier. Often the real shifts necessary for growth are outside of people’s consciousness because they are ashamed.
Keith says that regarding shame only in negative terms is part of the way that “we are the catastrophe.” It is one of our evolutionary drives, powered by the evolutionary impulse, and a necessary capacity for mammalian social transmission of knowledge and social structure. Keith quipped, “humans take all the drives, no matter what they are, and turn them into complex art.” The nervous system recoils from the physiological experience of shame, transmuting it into projection or denial. This can trigger acts of violence against ourselves, others, and the planet. But with awareness, shame can become a spiritual guide. Keith suggests that if you are feeling shame, it’s wise to try to find the value you’re violating; then, either refine the value or follow the implications of holding the value with integrity.
I resonated with what Keith had to say about the interface between public action and personal experience and growth, but thought it was important to bring in a challenge that has been directed at therapy in the past. I referred to the title of James Hillman’s book, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—and the World’s Getting Worse, and observed that there are systemic dynamics that are pretty retrogressive and may not be sufficiently addressed simply by one person/one heart at a time. Don’t we need to ponder these system dynamics and be active as an expression of our care, working with what we can most easily grok at the human scale; and at the same time be planetary citizens in a way that has a broader level of dynamism?
Keith agreed that the human and planetary concerns are not mutually exclusive. But he added that the more we grow and develop, the more we find ourselves wanting to contribute to these other things, and being curious about them, and about what is beautiful, good, and true.
I asked Keith to draw the big picture of what, in the end, is most important for all of us— imperfect, vulnerable human beings that we are, alive in a moment when we’re being asked a great deal, for a sea change, to turn a larger corner.
Keith’s big picture summary was “It’s all relationships, all the time.” To ourselves, to others and to the world — holarchies, all the way up and all the way down. Anytime we feel disconnected, it’s an illusion. Within that connection, we are either being true to our inner voices or not. If we’re not being true, we suffer and do violence. The more sensitive we become to these nuances of feeling – of violence, of compassion, of being true to our deepest voices, the more effective, engaged and clear we become.
Keith also shared some wonderful practices from his course “Loving Completely: Five Ways Relationships Work…or Don’t.” One practice relates to finding a romantic partner. Keith suggests that you train yourself to ask five questions whenever you feel the pull of “erotic polarity” toward someone (listen almost to the end of our interview and you’ll find out exactly what that means!)
1) Is there erotic polarity, a spark of attraction, between me and another person?
2) Does this person maintain their physical and psychological health?
3) If I was in relationship with this person and there was conflict, would he or she be able and willing to do what it takes to get back to love?
4) How does this person show up as a parent or family member?
5) Does this person have deep soul’s purpose, and would they appreciate what’s meaningful for me?
Keith says to pay attention to whether or not these are showing up in other people. After a while, you’ll start noticing whether or not they are showing up in you. And if your assessment of your prospective partner leads to positive answers, Keith says it’s likely a healthy match. Go for it!
Keith also offered a nuanced and practical attunement exercise in which you find your way to acceptance & caring intent towards your sensations, emotions, thoughts, judgments and desires. He also offered a simple but powerful shadow practice in which you mine your daydreams for information about what lies at the edge of awareness in shadow. I invite you to listen in!