I learned several valuable exercises from the late Harry Sloan when I took from him a 10-day course in psychosynthesis. (The 10 days were a part of a two-year intensive I took in mediation from Gary Friedman.) For those of you not acquainted with psychosynthesis, I highly recommend the book What We May Be; or books by Roberto Assagioli, founder of psychosynthesis: The Act of Will and Psychosynthesis. (For other books on psychosynthesis, see below; click for past posts related to psychosynthesis here, here, and here.)
One of the exercises learned from Harry which I will describe in a minute may seem simple, silly, and maybe not worth your time. That was my first reaction until I participated; our group spent a half day digging into this process! You don't need to spend hours, but I think you might benefit with even a few minutes. Since learning it in the '80s, I have used the cartoon process a number of times over the years, both myself and in workshops.
As explained below, this process (and the whole of psychosynthesis) can help conflict professionals to feel at ease with ambiguity and contradictory points of view. (That is, of course, one of the main reasons we took 10 days of psychosynthesis in our mediation intensive.)
Below is the process as I recall it from memory and my notes, and is probably just a bit different from how Harry presented it.
Here are each of the steps of the Cartoon Counsel process—my name, I can't recall what Harry called this exercise. (As you will see, it could also be spelled Cartoon Council.)
In preparation, for a week or more, collect cartoons that you find especially funny. Choose one of
As an example to help explain the steps, I will use a Far Side cartoon. In it, six clowns are sitting on couches facing each other. One clown is smiling and saying, “Gee, am I the only one here who’s laughing on the outside and the inside?” The other clowns are looking at him with serious expressions. The caption under the cartoon reads: "Clown Therapy Sessions."
I will illustrate some of the steps with responses of a hypothetical person I'll call Ruby to show how it is done.
A. Step into the cartoon and identify with a central focus.
Ruby identified with the smiling clown who has spoken. As him, she said, "I am feeling a little weird here. I seem to be different. The others are not even smiling. It is five against one. Maybe I don’t belong in this group."
B. Step into the cartoon again and identify with another aspect of the cartoon which is antithetical to the first.
All the clowns are antithetical to the first so Ruby chose one she found extremely serious and who looks most disapproving. As him, she said to the first clown, "What is your problem, Buster? We are here with awful problems to discuss and all you can say is you are smiling on both the inside and the outside? That is not a problem, you joker. Are you making fun of us? Get that smile off your face. Unless you have a dreadful problem, leave us now."
Note: The aspects do not have to talk with each other if talking does not seem to fit with your two. You can identify with each in whatever way seems most fitting or comfortable.
C. Bring attention back to the first aspect.
"I think my smile is gone now. You guys don’t have to be so mean. I wouldn't be here if I didn’t feel I had a problem. Whenever I am around you clowns, I feel as if I am different and that hurts."
D. Attention to the second aspect.
"See you are now more like us. That is good. We would not want to share with someone who was telling us how different she was, how happy. Especially not someone who smiles! Happiness is quite unusual and I doubt that you really are. How do you know you are happy? What does it feel like anyway?"
E. Continue on with the dialogue between the two aspects for several minutes.
Note: I recommend that you write your dialogue down.
F. What issue in your life is being discussed by the dialoging aspects? This is going to be one of the reasons you found the cartoon funny.
An issue Ruby has often dealt with is feeling the focus of scrutiny and that she was being judged for being different from those doing the judging.
G. How do you experience yourself in that issue?
She had gotten much stronger and more able to catch herself when feeling judged, but it was still something that could be triggered in the right circumstances.
H. Who or what in your environment puts you into the issue.
Note: I think you can follow the rest of the instructions without need of further example. They are easy to understand.
I. Assume the issue will never change. How does that make you feel?
J. Focus on that voice that reinforces this assumption that the issue will never change. What does it say?
K. Become that voice and say more.
L. If you buy what that voice has to say, where does that leave you?
M. Imagine how the two aspects might help you change the issue.
Kay Brownfield mentioned this exercise in her tribute to Harry, written after he died at the age of 47, much too young to leave. She wrote:
He had the best collection of insightful, funny cartoons I have ever seen, and they provided the foundational piece to his teaching about subpersonalities. He taught us to tolerate, even welcome, "two antithetical thoughts or feelings in the same moment without creating closure," thus helping us learn how to tolerate dissonance-as a practice.
I was reminded of Cartoon Counsel when reading the new book Understanding Language through Humor. An excerpt:
[I]n our interpretations of jokes, cartoons, and comedic bits, we often assume that laughter springs from incongruity (or from similar notions such as ambiguity or contradiction): in other words, a joke (or cartoon or comedic bit) typically combines two or more incongruous meanings into a single sound, word, expression, or situation.
Click to read more of an excerpt from the book.
One of the most useful benefits psychosynthesis provides conflict professionals is enhanced ability to sit with seemingly contradictory points of view, either within oneself or between the parties to a dispute. Cartoon Counsel can help those professionals to achieve higher comfort and facility with that ambiguity and contradiction. When I have presented this exercise to mediators, I have each time been astounded by its richness. Let me know your experience with your cartoon(s)!
Note: Two more books that I recommend on psychosynthesis are
- A Psychotherapy of Love: Psychosynthesis in Practice - (Don't let what could seem a sentimental title dissuade you from giving it a read)
- Unfolding Self: The Practice of Psychosynthesis