Dec 09 2014

A Review: Clearing the Path: Opening the Spiritual Frontier by Dr. Robert Mark

Summary: Dr. Mark gets an A+ for writing an interesting narrative of his personal and professional development. However, a diminished grade for encouraging people to dispense with their critical thinking to entertain the possibility of higher powers and alternative realities. Discouraging a belief in science is a surprising part of this book and therapists especially should not take this advice seriously, lest they begin to practice unethically.
My acknowledgement: I was involved in Dr. Mark’s men’s program and have insights about him and his work. Perhaps there is no good ending in a relationship with people or organizations. This was true for me, so any negative views I express may be colored by my ending experiences.

I was very curious about this book when I learned it had been written and recently had a chance to read it. I surprisingly enjoyed it, as an autobiographical account of the author’s development as a human being and professional therapist. In person, Dr. Mark is both impressive and charismatic.

As the depth of his book demonstrates, he’s intelligent and highly skilled as a therapist. You can tell he has an ease and comfort with traditional forms of therapy and having seen him in action, I can confirm he is an exceptional agent of change in people’s lives.

His book is a timeline of his own evolutionary process and offers an interesting reflection of what was happening in the psychotherapy field along the way. Trained as a traditional psychologist, he describes his movements outside his own and his professional field’s comfort zone, into a more shamanic practice. Dr. Mark effectively describes his use of the I-Ching, Tai Chi, hypnosis, imagery, drumming, altered states due to tequila and/or imagery in his own personal work and work with his clients. No doubt, his own personal shamanic work is the most fascinating part of his book.

As Dr. Mark suggests, shamans have been an organic part of every community since the beginning of civilization and have used most of these methods, herbs and whatever healing substances they could find. There was really nothing else. Between shamans and our ancient grandmothers, kindness, warmth, holding, and magic were the only options.

Dr. Mark taught Tai Chi at one of his men’s retreats at which I attended. He taught us to flow and release, bringing energy from within and letting it out in the world. It was the eternal healing method of accessing internal energy and externalizing it, providing some relief from our human suffering. He wasn’t too serious about all of it either and allowed for a lot of humor to mix in with the seriousness of the powerfully subtle movements. It was a brief exercise in an intense, potentially life-changing weekend experience. This was a highlight of the weekend and Dr. Mark an excellent teacher. I was in awe of him, mesmerized like many others at this experience.
Dr. Mark takes us along on his life journey, finding meaning in the unknown, and ways to anticipate and predict what may happen in the future. For him, throwing coins, reading palms and analyzing handwriting are all elements of exploring alternative realities and powers.  His book demonstrates his belief about how powerful and effective it was for him and his clients. In a sense, it demonstrates the faith part of change.  He doesn’t try to convince his readers about any contemporary religious ideas, but rather encourages the suspension of doubt so the possibility of a “higher power, power within, or god” might be experienced.

He tells the story of his friend Doug who seemed stuck in an ordinary, superficial way of viewing the world. Dr. Mark says,
“…I asked him if he could suspend his rational mind and his judgments and hold out the possibility that some “God”, spirit, a power greater than he and unknown to him, actually existed. And, I asked, ‘If it did, what would that mean to you personally?”
Dr. Mark goes on to describe how his friend is moved by this idea that some things in life may be beyond his control and his efforts to control them were a source of distress.

It’s a great lesson Doug learns, and the theme is the possibility that God exists, some power greater than ourselves being the source of change in the world.
This belief in a higher power was surprising to me about Dr. Mark. I realize I never got to know him well even though I spent a lot of time in meetings and workshops. I don’t remember him ever speaking about this deeply held belief about spirit in the world. There is certainly some relief to the idea that “things happen for a reason, or TANA, as he describes in the book. If some things happen for a reason, then we humans don’t have to blame ourselves for something we hate about ourselves or shame we have felt about life’s unfortunate events.

However, there is something else science tells us about non-scientific beliefs. Namely, humans have a tendency to incorrectly believe in the spirit world, god, prayer, our ability to influence people and events around us, or what is called in the experimental research world as “magical thinking.”

Regarding an extensive research project by the University of Oxford, the website Science Daily reports,

“The £1.9 million project involved 57 researchers who conducted over 40 separate studies in 20 countries representing a diverse range of cultures. The studies (both analytical and empirical) conclude that humans are predisposed to believe in gods and an afterlife, and that both theology and atheism are reasoned responses to what is a basic impulse of the human mind.”

So, as humans we are predisposed to a belief in gods and an afterlife, so religion, and interestingly, atheism both respond to that innate human need. The researchers did not try to answer the question as to whether god or the spirit world exists or not. Their project focused on a cross-cultural study of whether notions of god or afterlife are taught or part of our essential humanness.

Dr. Mark’s book presents his own personal beliefs about god and spirit. His alternative methods are based on the idea that there is a spirit world and he is able to find insight, knowledge and power through his ability to connect with the spirit world. His message is an invitation for the reader to believe in the energy available from the spirit world.

In his chapter, “Answering the questions of youth”, Dr. Mark offers many interesting answers to questions he has been asked most often by clients and ones he imagines we readers may ask.  His answer to whether it’s possible for someone who does not believe in god to “still believe in miracles, powers greater than myself, energy or what you call spirit?”

Dr. Mark answers,

“Why not? All of what I have discussed would lead one to see that if there is spirit or energy beyond our 5 sense perceptual abilities, then no one belief or non-belief system has the corner on the ‘miracle’ market…and never forget that spirit resides everywhere…that means within each of us.” (Mark, 2010, pp. 152-153)

Researchers have given a name to what Dr. Mark is inviting his readers to believe. It’s called “magical thinking.”  Researchers at Harvard have been able to prove that educated adults can be led to believe they had the power to influence events completely beyond their control. (Pronin, Wegner, McCArthy, & Rodgriguez, 2006) It’s provocative research suggesting there is something very human in our desire to believe we can have some influence over seemingly uncontrollable human events.  Many of us can probably remember a time when we were forced to pray about something over which we knew nothing else might help, like a loved one in surgery. What else could we do?

So, the magical thinking we could have an influence over people and life events is common and scientific research helps us understand that although we might believe or want to believe we are have some power to change the course of human events, we do not. Why Dr. Mark would spend the enormous effort to write and publish his book asking us to forgo our critical minds and accept the fact he has some magical powers to read palms, tell the future, and alter the course of his clients’ lives is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of his book.  At one time, I think I would have believed him; now I do not. As well, he is not asking his readers to believe him, simply to dispense with their critical mind and give the notion of some higher power a chance.

Dr. Mark invites us to lessen the grip of our internal “doubter”, the part preventing us from knowing other states of reality. This is not a book about scientific research. In fact, therapists working in these times should never seriously consider most of the methods presented in this book.  There is “magic” in the therapeutic process, but it’s in the authenticity of the relationship between therapist and client.

Therapists do not create magic to change their clients; they experience it right along with their clients. Together, the magic of the therapeutic relationship unfolds, changing both the client and the therapist for the better.

Dr. Mark’s book is a revelation about one man’s journey into the unknown, searching for his deeper truth.  For this message, it is well worth the read.

Bibliography:
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Pronin, E., Wegner, D. M., McCArthy, K., & Rodgriguez, S. A. (2006). Everday magical powers: The role of apparent mental causation in the overestimate of personal influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 91, No.2, 218-231.
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University of Oxford. (2015, May 12). Humans ‘predisposed’ to believe in gods and the afterlife. Retrieved from Science Daily: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110714103828.htm

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