What Is Insight? In The Long Run [book review]

Written by Jason Dias

Our resident existentialist, psychotherapist and essayist Jason Dias takes a long look at Jacqueline Simon Gunn’s “In The Long Run” and asks: What is insight?

aNewDomain — Ever since Sigmund Freud first started psychoanalyzing people, making the unconscious conscious has held a privileged position in the ranks of mental cures.  These days, those who practice talking cures find we are on the outside of a medical care system that unduly favors medical interventions – drugs, mostly – to solve human problems of anxiety, grief, existence-pain.

The idea that insight can lead to personal change is much older than Sigmund Freud, of course, and has decades of empirical validation behind it.  But just as drugs are not the only possible way to treat what ails us, neither is pure reasoned intellect.  Insight can take many forms.

in-the-long-run-review-jason-diasMany kinds of psychotherapy do not involve an explicit search for consciousness put into words.  Therapy can take place through the strength of the relationship, for example, or through re-parenting, or using transference reactions.  We can use our presence to change the power balance of a family, forcing them out of their old patterns and helping them take on new ones.  Insight we can talk about is prized but not really necessary.

Interestingly, we seem to think with our bodies to a limited degree.  Eugene Gendlin broke ground in the seventies with his method of focusing oriented psychotherapy.  He asked us to do little more than guide the therapy-goer through an examination of and appreciation for their body state.  Knowledge of the body state, through the experience rather than words for the experience, brought up emotions and memories.  Comfort with those emotions and memories, even while they were difficult, lead to change.

Additionally, the more we study yoga, the more we find the claims of its practitioners verified by experiment.  Yoga seems to be beneficial for depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress ().  It may be as good for your heart as cardio fitness exercises like ellipticals or running.  Spiritual claims are always difficult to study scientifically, but serious practitioners of yoga claim to be fulfilled, happy and at peace, generally.

This leads us to In The Long Run

  This is a provocative book by Jacqueline Simon Gunn.  Provocative because of a central thesis: that spiritual growth can be found out on the road, in the sound of one’s footfalls on the pavement, in the sweat that trickles down the runner’s back.  In miles, in testing one’s self and passing.  Perhaps most importantly, in the experience of pain and limitation, and setting the pain aside in the cause of going beyond the limitation.

For full disclosure, Dr. Gunn is a friend of mine (although we’ve only met through Facebook).  She wrote the foreword for my own forthcoming title, Values of Pain, which has a similar thesis. 

Gunn’s book is at some level a treatise on insight.  How do we know about ourselves?  How do we grow in maturity, in compassion, in spirit?  How do we refine our sense of determination, our will to power?

For her, these truths are out on the road.  Now I’m too fat and asthmatic to run anymore; my punishment for trying is swift, painful, and lengthy.  But I used to run and run far, miles at a time, pushing through the discomfort into a place where there was still pain, still effort, and those things still mattered – but I was superordinate to them.  My will manifested into the world as this performance, this covering of distance.  With this experience, I can understand Gunn’s thesis as a metaphor: we all have pavement to pound in whatever way we encounter it.

This is a book for runners, if they want to read something that helps them know their experience is shared, or to find greater insight in something they already do.  It is also a book for the rest of us, who can see the journey in ourselves even though the blacktop is not our particular church.  In matters of the spirit and its triumph, just how we suffer and grow is less relevant than that we do so.

A conceit in amateur circles of other-help is that you have to have gone through just my troubles to help me with them.  In psychotherapy we find this is not true.  All that is required is empathy and compassion, belief in and skill with our methods.  I need not have been an addict to help people overcome addiction, or to have survived abuse to help others become survivors rather than victims.  And being a runner is not necessary to understand the essential truths of In The Long Run. 

Rollo May broke new ground too, in the 1950’s.  He was the first American psychologist to write popular and well-received work on the value of emotions we would as soon annihilate – like anxiety and despair.  When I write about pain having value and despair being necessary for hope, I stand on the shoulders of Rollo May without much hope of seeing any farther.  When Gunn writes about the view from the road, she, too, is writing from this place of existential valuing.

Here we have existential truths tied up with the laces of athletic shoes, and the Tao in everything.

No drugs here, no manipulation of neurotransmitters that leaves our worldly problems unattended.  And no talking cures because explicit insight is not needed.  All that is required is courage: the courage to encounter discomfort and stay with it long enough to be changed by it, strengthened.

For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.