A Recent Tribute to Morton Herskowitz, D.O.
by Michael J. Gelb**
On the recommendation of a friend whose advice I heeded due to the searing accuracy of her critical feedback, I went to see a psychotherapist. This was a stretch since, having been raised by a therapist, going to therapy as a child, and studying psychology for years both academically and practically, I was skeptical, and probably arrogant, about the prospect of finding someone I’d respect.
The minute I walked into Dr. Mort Herskowitz’s office, my skepticism and arrogance vanished. There was something about his penetrating gaze, purity of attention, and ease within himself that made it clear, as soon as he looked at me, that I couldn’t fool him, and I soon discovered that in his presence I couldn’t fool myself. He wasn’t interested in anything that wasn’t authentic. Mort was an uncompromising mirror of the self.
An osteopathic physician and psychiatrist, Mort trained for nine years with Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), the legendary pioneer of depth psychology. I had studied Reich’s theory of character armor, the idea that our stresses and traumas stay locked in our muscles and viscera, but believed I had sorted all that out through years of various mind and body practices. Wrong!
I worked with Mort for the better part of the next twenty years, during which time he helped me surface and fully experience the anxiety, fear, shame, and anger that I didn’t even know I had. Where did all this originate? Perhaps it was inherited? Or maybe it came from unresolved childhood frustrations? I don’t know. The work with Mort didn’t focus on analyzing or understanding the causes; rather, it was about releasing the armor and experiencing more openness and aliveness. As difficult as this was — and it’s probably the most difficult work I’ve ever done — it was liberating.
As I learned to breathe through the armoring, energy began moving through me in a new way, like water flowing through a fire hose when the kinks are removed. Although I experienced emotions that were far from pleasant, I invariably left Mort’s office with a sense of greater connectedness to myself, the people in my life, and all of creation. The leaves of the trees on his Philadelphia street corner always looked greener and the light outside always seemed brighter when I left his office. And when the dark and frightening feelings were brought to light, they subsided and were replaced by waves of joy, gratitude, and appreciation. I started seeing Mort in the days before cell phones and email, but on the corner opposite his office was a pay phone. After each session I’d find myself picking up that phone and calling someone in my life to say, “I love you.” This wasn’t the expression of a superficial sentimentality, but rather an experience, at the core of my being, that loving connection is the underpinning of life.
Wilhelm Reich, Mort’s teacher, wrote, “The armored, mechanistically rigid person thinks mechanistically, produces mechanistic tools, and forms a mechanistic conception of nature.” In our complex and often crazy world we may feel the need to armor ourselves against the onslaught of noxious stimuli. The danger is that, as Reich warned, the armoring becomes our default setting, blocking our ability to connect with ourselves and others in a genuine way.
Working with Mort, I discovered a profound paradox. When I released my armoring and felt most open and accessible, I discovered the source of inner confidence and connection. Vulnerability is power, because being open and accessible makes real connection possible. You can work on this in therapy for decades or practice it in your everyday interactions.
*Excerpted from the book The Art of Connection: 7 Relationship-Building Skills Every Leader Needs Now. Copyright ©2017 by Michael J. Gelb. Printed with permission from New World Library
**Michael J. Gelb is the author of The Art of Connection and has pioneered the fields of creative thinking, accelerated learning, and innovative leadership. He leads seminars for organizations such as DuPont, Merck, Microsoft, Nike, Raytheon, and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He is the coauthor of Brain Power and author of How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci and several other bestsellers. His website is www.MichaelGelb.com.