John Weir: Forgotten Pioneer in the Human Potential Movement

Throughout the past fifty years, the name of psychologist John Weir remains rather obscure compared to Maslow, Rogers and others. However, if you were to look at the January 13, 1958 issue of Life Magazine, in an article titled, Citizens Give Ideas In Crisis, you’ll find a photograph of John Weir alongside men who were already, or were soon to become famous, including: Physicist John A Wheeler, a young Dr. Henry A Kissinger, and Paul Nitze, former director of the State Department’s policy planning.

The gathering of these great minds was in response to the Soviet Union launching Sputnik in 1957. Although Sputnik only carried a radio transmitter sending out harmless signals, Americans realized the Soviets could have used their new capability to deliver a nuclear missile to the United States. The magazine article opens with a quote from New Deal Senator, Stuart Symington: ‘The American people are ahead of their government in realizing that, if they are to remain free, radical changes must be made in both our thinking and our efforts.” John Weir believed in this need for change. Throughout his professional career as a professor of Psychology at Caltech, a faculty member at NTL Institute, a clinician, and a leader in the human potential movement, he brought about radical changes. Maybe too radical. Perhaps that explains why his name has remained obscure all these years?

I was three-years-old when that article was published. Forty years later, I’d become a psychotherapist and had six years of private practice under my belt. I was feeling confident and self-assured when my practice philosophy was turned upside down as a result of meeting an elderly couple in the parking lot of Whole Foods in Santa Fe, New Mexico Had I known that the man, John Weir, was once featured in Life Magazine, and had been one of the pioneers in the human potential movement, I’m sure I would have been nervous to meet him. Little did I know that on that day my wife, Hannah, and I would decide to continue the evolution of the Weir’s work, and that it would become the focus of our professional and personal lives.

I watched the couple step down from their road-weary Winnebago. John first, looking like a gnome, then Joyce, looking delicate but feisty. At the time, they were both eighty-five-years old and still traveling around the country teaching their unique brand of personal development workshops. I knew little about them, except that a trusted client of mine, a very bright and highly successful man had said to me, “You have to meet John and Joyce Weir.” I’d been working with this client for a couple of years and I trusted and appreciated his judgment. He had an international reputation for the work he was doing in the world, and as he was entering the elder stage in his life, my client believed that we needed to find ways to preserve the legacy of elders who had made a unique contribution in their lifetimes. I was to find out later that the Weirs’contribution to psychology was described by a California radio talk show host as “equal to the contribution of Freud.”

David Elkins, professor emeritus of psychology at Pepperdine University and board member of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, wrote in 2009, “Maslow, Rogers, May, and so many others in that ‘first generation’ are now gone. Deterministic, mechanistic, and pathologizing models once again dominate clinical psychology–despite the fact that psychotherapy research clearly supports humanistic values and perspectives.”[1]

John Weir, a friend of Carl Rogers, was part of that ‘first generation’ of pioneering psychologists. Although the contributions John and Joyce Weir made to the field of psychology haven’t been fully recognized, in 2006, the Weirs’ work was acknowledged in The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. Philip Mix, wrote, “No human development theorist-practitioner from the 1960s to the present has created as radical and powerful an instrument of personal authenticity, accountability, and self-empowerment as the Weirs’ percept language. Moreover, underscoring the Weirs’ unique role in validating the foundational principles of humanistic psychology, no theorist-practitioner has placed personal responsibility for one’s own development so firmly at the core of their personal growth work as did the Weirs.”[2]The primary contribution the Weirs made, which Mix refers to as “percept language,” was a new way for people to communicate, but it was also more than that; it was a new way to construct reality. Their linguistic model has gone through several evolutions since the early 1960s. Over the years it has been called, “transference language,” “ownership language,” “responsibility language,” and, for many years, it was known as “percept language.”

Will Schutz, another pioneer of the human potential movement, and faculty member at Esalen Institute, provides some historical perspective on the Weirs. “In 1947, several students of psychologist Kurt Lewin organized the first laboratory training centered on T-Groups, the ‘T’ standing for ‘training.’  . . . This innovation led to a special advanced workshop at Bethel [Maine], in 1963, designed to focus on personal growth and creative expression. The staff of that workshop included Robert Tannenbaum, Charles Seashore, Herbert Shepard, and myself.

The following year, 1964, Californians John and Joyce Weir, led the first Personal Growth Laboratory at Bethel. They had a profound effect on NTL by introducing nonverbal techniques in the laboratory design.”[3]

It was Carl Rogers who hailed these early encounter groups as, “the most rapidly spreading social invention of the century, and probably the most potent.”[4] Rogers went on to explain,I believe it is a hunger for something the person does not find in his work environment, in his church, certainly not in his school or college, and sadly enough, not even in modern family life. It is a hunger for relationships which are close and real; in which feelings and emotions can be spontaneously expressed without first being carefully censored or bottled up; where deep experiences–disappointments and joy–can be shared; where new ways of behaving can be risked and tried out.”[5]

Although the Weirs’ work was born in the 1960’s, a time when encounter groups encouraged catharsis, John Weir thought that was insufficient. He explained some of his ideas about group work in one of his very few written documents. “We also insist that self-discipline is a necessary aspect of spontaneity and freedom of expression. Contrary to what has sometimes been said, the kind of personal growth training being described here is not an orgy, or a training program for the expression of hostile impulses, or an excuse for licentiousness. We discourage hostile physical contact. We forbid participants to injure themselves or others.”

It is important to note that John always gave credit to his wife, Joyce. In using the word we, he is acknowledging that Joyce was an important and essential partner in the workshops they designed and conducted. Working as a team, they combined Joyce’s background in expressive dance, Yoga, dance therapy, group psychotherapy, and fine arts, with John’s background as a psychologist and experiential educator.

He went on to explain, “The aim of sensory exploration, physical contact, and expressive movement is to reacquaint the participant with his body and its processes. The conscious management of these processes demands a high degree of control and a type of self-discipline that approaches a form of asceticism. One will no longer permit the abuse, neglect, or denial of his newly understood, respected, and prized self. Participants frequently assess this acquisition of self-control as one of the most valuable achievements of their lab experience. It gives added reality and a sense of permanence to their experience of autonomy, ownership, personal responsibility, and self-management.”[6]

John Weir believed that the results from group work occurred faster and were more significant than the results occurring in individual counseling. While teaching psychology at Caltech, he saw some private clients, but within a few years after he and Joyce began running their “personal growth laboratory,” he stopped seeing clients privately and focused exclusively on enhancing the design and delivery of group retreats.

Fast forward to 1998 when my wife, Hannah, and I met the Weirs; by then the Weirs had touched the lives of over eight thousand people. Although they were in their mid-eighties, they were vibrant, present, passionate, and we intoxicated ourselves spending time with them. They both had the rare quality of intently listening without interrupting, and expressing themselves in ways unlike any other people we’d ever met. We experienced exactly what Carl Rogers spoke about, “ . . . relationships which are close and real; in which feelings and emotions can be spontaneously expressed without first being carefully censored or bottled up; where deep experiences–disappointments and joy–can be shared; where new ways of behaving can be risked and tried out.”[7]

Within hours of meeting these two strangers, a deep bond formed. We talked about life, work, sex, pets, and careers. After Hannah expressed her interest in early retirement and gardening, Joyce said, “There’s nothing wrong with that, but how are you going to grow? And how will you grow as a couple?” That question changed the trajectory of our lives.

A few weeks later we immersed ourselves in the last “personal growth laboratory” they ever taught. In Calistoga, California, at a small hot springs motel—with the Weirs’ help—we discovered a new vision of how to live, have fun, grow older, and make a contribution to the world. The days were long and full of experiential activities—activities designed to help us shift our understanding of “reality” indelibly—so that we never saw the world in the same way again. Surface illusions we had about other participants faded away as we came to realize that we weren’t seeing these other people, we were seeing our projections of them.

As a therapist I was aware of the theories of projection and transference, but never before had I been invited to acknowledge and own every one of my projections. I was also aware of the value of being present, but never before had I been shown how to use language as a tool toward this end. The Weirs showed me how to do both of these by changing my language. As I changed the way I spoke with other participants—and especially with Hannah—all conflict disappeared, people’s defenses melted away, and when we collectively stopped distracting ourselves with our projections, we all began to reveal ourselves more honestly and maturely. In one week I experienced more healing, more internal acceptance, and a deeper connection with Hannah than I had as a result of years of therapy.

This transformation was one of John Weir’s goals. He had been concerned that the field of psychotherapy was going in the wrong direction—with too much emphasis on pathology and not enough on healing. He believed the answer required changing the way we use language. Some of that was accomplished by focusing on a person’s health and resources more than focusing on their problems and pathology. In recent years, this has become more common, and some in our profession talk about having a “solution focus” or “outcome orientation,” and not concentrating solely on “the problems.”

But John Weir was aiming at something much deeper than what therapists talk about with clients; what’s more influential is how we use words to talk about the issues they bring to us. John explained to me that in most cultures people speak as if there is one reality out there, and that reality acts upon us. When people speak about the world or their lives in this way, they unknowingly put themselves in the role of the victim. This triggers certain neural responses that produce a defense physiology. A defense physiology will orient people to try and create safety, rather than promote personal growth. Therefore, we need to alter the way we use words so we don’t stimulate a defense physiology in our clients, or in ourselves.

John Weir shaped his powerful ideas, in part, from his study of physics, incorporating and translating them into simple and useful ways to alter our speech patterns. He was specifically interested in the work of John Wheeler, an American physicist, also featured in the Life Magazine article, born two years before Weir, who famously said, “There is no out there out there.” When Wheeler tried to explain this comment, he said it is necessary to distinguish what he called “it from bit”. He said that what we perceive as reality—out there—is just information: bits. We then take that information and create a reality, which we refer to as “it.”

One of the subtlest aspects of  John Weir’s work is that he discouraged the use of the impersonal pronoun “it” and, when appropriate, replaced “it” with the personal pronouns “I” or “myself.” For example, “It scares me,” becomes “I scare myself.” And “I can’t bear it,” becomes “I can’t bear myself.” This elegantly simple shift reflected John Weir’s understanding of what John Wheeler was pointing out—a universal truth—there is no single version of reality. We take information that has no inherent meaning and we imbue that information with meaning that is entirely subjective. Then, we act as if the meaning we make is objective and factual. Often, this leads us to argue about who’s right and wrong—at times, even going to war over “it.”

John Weir’s linguistic model made clear that we are talking only about our perceptions of reality, not reality itself. When I use this new way of speaking, I take complete responsibility for myself, stay in the present, stop blaming or praising other people, and stop telling them about themselves. During one of the summer programs at the NTL Institute, John Weir interrupted Carl Rogers when Rogers was teaching a group how to give constructive feedback. John said, “I think it’s better not to lead us to believe we’re giving feedback about someone else, because what I’m really doing—even when I think I’m giving feedback about you—is talking about myself, my perceptions.”

We saw John and Joyce model this idea when we attended their personal growth laboratory in Calistoga, California. Not once, for the entire week, did anyone tell us anything about us. That alone was a remarkable experience. And as we adopted this new way of speaking, Hannah and I forever changed the way we relate to one another. By adopting a few simple guidelines—and continuously practicing— we changed our lives. For example, by eliminating the use of praise and blame we stopped putting our nervous systems in each other’s hands. We took back the locus of control for our emotional wellbeing. By talking mostly in the present tense—talking about what’s happening right now—we stopped rehashing the past, trying to make one another wrong. All of our petty arguments about who said what or who did what ceased. And we began to see each other as individuals, appreciating our differences, instead of being threatened by them.

I also changed the way I work with clients and that resulted in a change in my clientele over time. As I modeled a different way of speaking for my clients—no longer unintentionally validating them as victims—and taught them how to speak in a new way, they stopped victimizing themselves and self-justifying their inappropriate behaviors. The reason this was so effective was that they were hearing themselves in a new way. Changing their language created a new perceptual position, which was followed by a new degree of self-awareness and insights.

For six years after we participated in the personal growth laboratory at Calistoga, Hannah and I privately studied with the Weirs and eventually became stewards of their work. Like Joyce, Hannah decided she wanted to be involved in how we would bring this work to the world. And like Joyce, she became instrumental, partnering with me to demonstrate the transformational power of this paradigm. Both women also brought a feminine perspective to the work, as well as ways to balance the body and mind. After seeing Hannah and I work together for the first time, Joyce Weir said to us, “You’re like us. Jake represents the mind, which was John’s role, and Hannah represents the body, which was my role. And they have to work together.”

Part of the immediacy and depth of my connection with John had to do with my training as a therapist. I was taught to focus more on the structure and less on the content. I pay more attention to how a client communicates rather than what they are saying. Focusing on structure includes noticing things such as whether a client moves toward what they want or away from what they don’t want; whether they associate or dissociate with their emotions; and where the locus of control is in their lives. When the locus of control is external, people tend to victimize themselves. When it is internal, people tend to empower themselves. The brilliance of the language structure that John Weir created is that when clients speak in this way, they immediately shift the locus of control to being internal. They empower themselves.

And although this way of speaking was unique at the time the Weirs introduced it, there was a precedent. The language that the Buddha spoke during his lifetime, Pali, was a “verbing” language. It allowed one to stay in process, not fixing oneself or clinging to a static or permanent state, but rather being in motion, continuously unfolding—which is a foundational premise of Buddhism. For example, Buddhism’s goal of practice, Nirvana, would not be a noun but a verb—Nivana-ing ourselves—(actively) putting out our fires of greed, hatred, and delusion, rather than reaching a state of nirvana. Instead of the Buddha finding a path of enlightenment (a static state), he would be saying that he found a path for enlightening ourselves—an active, continuous process.

Significant numbers of followers of Buddhism were waking up in the time of the Buddha because the language-ing was so radically different. The ideas and words were based upon “verbing” oneself, which helped people recognize that “self” was a process, dependent upon conditions arising and passing away.

John Weir expressed to me his interest and appreciation for Buddhism, but I cannot say to what degree he based his linguistic model on the Pali language. There are similarities, but several differences as well. The Weirs’ work consisted of more than a new way of speaking; and understanding this way of speaking will provide individuals with the essence of their work, as well as tools that can be implemented in working with clients.

To gain a better understanding of how to apply the Weirs’ model, the therapist can begin by modeling and then teaching the following guidelines to clients:

1) Return to Now

As much as possible, talk about what’s happening right now.  This applies to one’s internal dialogue as well as the conversations you have with other people.

Many people in the human potential movement, as well as spiritual teachers, advocate the value of being in the present moment. The value of doing so is propelling the popularity of mindfulness practices. While there are many mindfulness techniques being taught, mostly related to meditation, the Weirs developed a way for people to bring themselves into the present every time they speak.

When we apply the guideline ‘Return to Now,’ we redirect the conversation by asking questions such as, “What do you want to do right now? What do you need from your partner now? What do you want to express about what’s happening right now, at this very moment?”

There is very little value in arguing about what one or the other said previously. This is especially true in partnerships. If we believe the other person is honest, why do we challenge them when they tell us how they remember a prior event or prior conversation? If we don’t believe the other person is fundamentally honest, why are we in partnership with them?

It can be very effective to apply this rule when a couple is arguing about who was right or wrong in a situation that happened in the past. When a couple is arguing, the therapist might say, “I perceive what you’re doing as a waste of time. If you’re here because you want to be closer, spending your time disparaging each other isn’t going to help. So, instead of arguing about what happened, I want to encourage you to talk about the present because this is when change occurs, right here and now. I’d like you to talk about what you want right now, at this moment.”

Bringing people into the present moment is a remarkably effective way to alter behavior and communication dynamics. It may not always be the appropriate intervention, there are times when the past needs attention, but when you want to help people be present, invite them to talk about what’s happening now. One of the key phrases I use to accomplish this is, “Ask for what you want instead of complaining about what you didn’t get.”

2) Re-source Your Feelings

John Weir pointed out the obvious, which is that our feelings come from within us. We are the source of all of our feelings, yet, often we ascribe our feelings to other people, and many therapists inadvertently support this misconception.

For example, in a therapy session, a client may relay to the therapist something along the lines of, “My partner makes me feel totally inadequate.” Typical responses from a therapist might be:

“I can imagine that it’s difficult for you to feel inadequate.”

“I remember you telling me that your father made you feel this way in the past.”

“Do you want to connect with your partner when he makes you feel inadequate?”

The concern John Weir would have with the above responses is that they validate the idea that one person makes the other feel the way she feels.

John Weir’s response would be, “Your partner isn’t responsible for how you feel. You are. If you feel inadequate then say, ‘I make myself feel inadequate.’ He would have said something similar to a client who blames someone else for making them feel bad. For example, he would coach such a client to say, ‘I make myself feel bad.’”

Typically, the best way I’ve found to convey this idea to my clients is to model it for them. For example, I might say, “I’m frustrating myself with this conversation. I want you to notice that I’m not saying you’re frustrating me; I’m doing this to myself.”

In many cases, John Weir advocated turning nouns and adjectives into verbs as a way to help people re-source their feelings, such as:

“I am delighted” becomes “I delight myself.”

“I am scared“ becomes “I scare myself.”

“You frustrate me” becomes “I frustrate myself.”

“You make me angry” becomes “I anger myself.

Of course, some grammarians may find this challenging. If so, John Weir would say, “You challenge yourself.”

The purpose of this change in linguistic structure is shifting the locus of control from external to internal, and removing the static and permanent quality that is implied when we say things like, “I am disappointed.” This is very different than saying, “I disappoint myself,” which implies activity, motion, and doing. If I am doing something to myself, such as making myself feel a certain way, then it is possible to stop doing what I’m doing or do something different.

Understanding this shift, that we are responsible for how we feel, is more easily adopted when clients also adopt the third guideline.

3) Remove Praise and Blame

By removing praise and blame we eliminate any judgment that may go along with taking responsibility for how we make ourselves feel. A client will not help herself by saying, “I am rejecting myself with my partner,” (instead of saying, “My partner is rejecting me.”) if she then blames or judges herself for doing this. Therefore, to accept that we create our own emotional states we help ourselves greatly to remove all praise and blame, which are two sides of the same coin.

In addition to using praise and blame to judge others or ourselves, we often use them as ways to control other people. We use praise and blame excessively with children and frequently with other adults. When a person is praised, they feel as if the person doing the praising is making them feel good. When a person is blamed, they feel as if the person doing the blaming is making them feel bad. The praiser and blamer become responsible for how the other person feels.

John and Joyce Weir eliminated the use of both praise and blame. They replaced them with the following linguistic structures:

Instead of blame, use the expression, “I disappoint myself when __________.”

Instead of praise, use the expression, “I appreciate __________.”

With this simple change in speech patterns, the speaker is making it clear that he or she is talking about their own experience.

So, for example, when my 13-year-old grandson tells me he’ll clean up his mess in the dining room before dinner, and then he doesn’t, I can either blame him for not doing what he said he would do, or I can let him know that I disappoint myself when he doesn’t do what I thought he agreed to do. When I blame him he is likely to get defensive and feel bad about himself. When I express that I am disappointing myself, I am giving him information about me. When I speak to my grandson in this way, he doesn’t fear being judged by me. John Weir believed that no other person ever judges us because they are never telling us about us; they are telling us about themselves—about their way of making sense of whatever is going on for them.

Some people are concerned that if we don’t blame other people for their unacceptable behaviors, they won’t change those behaviors. But there is another way to think about this. If I care about another person, when that person tells me that they are making themselves feel bad in response to my behaviors, I am highly motivated to change my behaviors, and I do so as an act of free will, not coercion or manipulation.

The fourth guideline is based in large part upon projection theory. The idea is that unacceptable aspects of our personality are likely to be projected onto other people. To eliminate this tendency, it is necessary to clearly differentiate whether I am speaking about another person or my projection of that other person.

4) Recognize the difference between “you” and “you-in-me.”

John Weir suggested that we make clear when we are talking about another person versus when we are talking about our projection of that other person. We do this linguistically, by using “you” or “you-in-me.” The latter is what I use when I want to express that I am talking about my projection of a person, not the actual person.

This is not something most people will use as part of their normal day-to-day conversations, but as a therapeutic intervention, it is extremely illuminating. It can also be taught to couples who are in therapy as a tool they can use during times of conflict or misunderstanding.

The point is to be explicit as to when I am talking about the other person, and when I am talking about my perception/projection of that person.

For example, if someone walks into the room and I think he looks sad, I might say, “When you walked into the room, I thought that you-in-me looked kind of sad.” I use the pronoun “you” when I reference him walking into the room because that is an observable event, not open to interpretation. But whether he is sad or not is open to interpretation, so in this case, I use the expression “you-in-me.” Actually, I’m not talking about him at all, I’m telling him about me and my perception of him.

Again, this may sound a bit awkward when someone is initially exposed to it. But, during times of stress or conflict, or as a therapeutic intervention, helping our clients slow down and be very explicit as to whether they are talking about the other person or talking about their perception of the other person is remarkably clarifying and eliminates a great deal of confusion.

John Weir was perhaps ahead of his time, but the application of his ideas is timeless. So, why were his ideas not widely accepted, say for example, in comparison to Rogers and Maslow? I speculate that the lack of wider adoption of John Weir’s ideas is because they involve asking people to take full responsibility for themselves, to own all aspects of themselves.

It is easy to understand why the therapies developed at the same time John Weir was developing his theory were widely accepted in that the responsibility was on the therapist to understand and appreciate their client’s perspective. What client wouldn’t value this? Whereas John Weir’s model encourages the therapist to remind the client that what the client is sharing is just a perspective, not the truth, not reality, but a perspective—or what John Weir liked to call a “percept.” He was not saying the things people talked about —a memory or trauma, an argument or falling in love—were made up; it’s the meaning of these things that’s made up. For some clients, and in certain situations, this may not be helpful. But for those clients and therapists who were ready to step into this high level of personal responsibility, as well as freedom, the Weirs’ model was and continues to be as “radical and powerful an instrument of personal authenticity, accountability, and self-empowerment,”[8] as I’ve ever used.

Today, Hannah’s interest in retiring so that she could garden has been replaced with a new vision. The two of us now work together teaching personal growth labs very similar to what the Weirs did for forty years. Working with the same intent, which is to foster personal responsibility and celebration of everyone’s uniqueness, has become the passion and focus of our lives. Like the Weirs, Hannah and I have taught many people to create more freedom in their lives by taking responsibility for themselves. And like the Weirs, we are blessed with a desire to offer this radical and powerful gift to as many people as we can in our lifetimes, and we are grateful to John and Joyce Weir for their generosity and trust in us.

John Weir was included in Life Magazine, along with some of the most brilliant minds of the time because he had a brilliant mind and he used it to transform the lives of anyone lucky enough to have discovered the work he and Joyce created.

 

 

 

[1] Humanistic Psychology: A clinical Manifesto. A Critique of Clinical Psychology and the Need for Progressive Alternatives. David Elkins, 2009, page 85

[2] A Monumental Legacy, The Unique and Unheralded Contributions of John and Joyce Weir to the Human Development Field. Philip J. Mix, The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 42, no. 3, September 2006 276-299

[3] Elements of Encounter, William Schutz, 1973, page 3

[4] The Monumental Legacy: The unique and Unheralded Contributions of John and Joyce Weir to the Human Development Field, Philip J. Mix, The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 42 No 3, September 2006, page 279

[5] (pp. 182)  Rober Ewen (1988) (Personality: A Topical Approach – Theories, Research, Major Controversies and Emerging Finds)

[6] The Laboratory Method of Changing and Learning: Theory and Application. K. Benne, L.P. Bardod, J.R. Gibb, R.D. Lippit, 1975

[7] (pp. 10-11)  Carl Rogers (1970) (Encounter Groups)

[8] A Monumental Legacy, “The Unique and Unheralded Contributions of John and Joyce Weir to the Human Development Field”. Philip J. Mix, The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 42, no. 3, September 2006 276-299

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