Marla Estes, M.A., teacher, workshop facilitator and writer, is the founder of The School of the Examined Life. Her overarching mission is to help students allow the unconscious to become conscious, working with the Shadow, “the long black bag we drag behind us,” those dark aspects of ourselves that we hide, repress or disown. She believes that until we integrate all parts of ourselves we will never be authentically whole. A unique aspect of Marla’s work is her use of film as an avenue to understanding ourselves which has made her classes a popular event that students return to again and again. Marla received her degree from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology located in Palo Alto, CA. Marla’s classes take place primarily in small groups in an intimate setting, offering a safe place for inner exploration. Through film, inquiry exercises, relevant readings and group discussion, students begin the journey inward, inviting all parts of themselves to be seen and heard. Eventually the satisfaction of living more and more from one’s depths becomes its own reward. Students’ feelings about themselves tend to improve as well as their relationships with others. At The School of the Examined Life, this life changing passage is taken seriously, yet humor and laughter inevitably become a part of the process. Although she is not a therapist and her classes aren’t meant as group therapy, students often find the experience therapeutic. Attentively and with empathy, Marla invites students to experience their own unfolding at their own pace. The connections within the group provide an additional web of support for this process. With her experience and expertise, she provides a safe space for others to explore what is true for them. By modeling her own vulnerability, Marla allows her students the freedom to truly become themselves. Marla, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. Please tell us more about your background and practice.
I came to my career in mid-life, although looking back I can see that my desire to understand myself and others started early, in my early teens. I ended up getting my bachelor’s degree in Accounting, a practical choice. Had I had more confidence back then, I would have pursued a psychology degree, but as it was, I got to do that in 2002, at age 45, when I returned to school to get my Masters. In the decades between my first degree and my second, I lived near Paris, France and had three sons. We moved to Ashland in 2001.
I find it very interesting that you are using film as a medium for exploring personal growth. Can you tell us more about how this works and how you first developed your process?
After I got my Masters in 2005, I had no idea what I was going to do. While working on my thesis, one of my advisors kept linking films with my ideas. I have always been a film lover; this also ties back into my adolescence when I would go to the movies as often as 3 times a week, often alone, and often to foreign, art or independent films. This led to the idea to teach at SOU Extension, using film and psychology. I didn’t know if I could teach or not, but I was pretty sure I could pick good films! My first class had four students and my classes progressed slowly but surely from that point on. What I found was that watching films provided a powerful tool for growth and self-awareness, and a gentle way to look at ourselves. Gentle because there is some distance between the watcher and what’s happening on the screen. The movie can act as a mirror. We can see ourselves in the characters. We can feel what they are feeling (or what we imagine they are feeling, or what we felt under the same circumstances). Whatever we say about the film says more about us than the movie (i.e., what the filmmaker was trying to get at). And that is the way I use movies as an entry point to seeing more deeply into ourselves.
Every year you offer a series of different topics. Can you share what these topics are and then give us some examples of how each topic is addressed?
I am offering a wide variety of classes and workshops this upcoming school year. Usually my class titles start with “Exploring..” That’s because my approach is one of allowing space for each student to find out what is true for them about our subject. There are basically two ways that I structure my classes. One is ongoing groups which meet once a month for 8 or 9 months. Under that format there will be three separate classes: Mothers & Daughters, Fathers & Sons, and Fathers & Daughters (Mothers & Sons coming in the future!). All those relationships hold keys to the roots of a great deal of our psychological material. By watching films that bring up different variations of these dyadic relationships, we can often see what is still alive and operating in us, frequently unconscious. I’m also going to be doing an ongoing class with narrative therapist Greg Jemsek called, Split Screen: Using Film to Move Beyond Black & White Thinking. We’ll look at morality, ethics, points of view and paradox, among other things. The second way is one-time workshops. I’ll be doing Finding Your Voice with Heather Hutton of Unified Voice-Works; Death Café with Laurel Miller (normalizing the topic of death); Nurture & Nourish with Sarah Swales (incorporating yoga, food and film); Women & Money, also with Sarah; and Exploring Soul with art therapist Delaine Due. I love working with other facilitators who have different strengths than mine: in the arts, working with the body, and their other areas of expertise. Another way my classes are created is when someone comes to me with a particular interest or topic and I can put something together for them. An upcoming event I’m really excited about is a fundraiser for the Ashland Independent Film Festival on Wednesday, October 16th. We will be screening a film about the Empty Nest. Afterwards, I will facilitate a conversation about this poignant topic, and ideas about how to navigate this tender passage of life.
One of the questions you address is how we can live more fully embodied experiences even with the existence of unpleasant emotions.
I am really curious about what it means to be a fully feeling human being and what challenges and obstacles we face in living that way. We end up putting our emotions into categories of good or bad, positive or negative. I prefer to use the terms pleasant and unpleasant; they seem less value-loaded to me. Carl Jung said he’d rather be whole than good…and we don’t allow ourselves to be whole when we reject or try to cut out parts of ourselves. Part of this process, I believe, is normalizing these emotions, in ways that our upbringing hasn’t. To that end, I offer an Emotion through Film series. Each day and a half workshop can be taken separately: Loneliness, Guilt, Envy, Betrayal, Hatred, Shame and Anger. Anger will be taught with an art component with artist Isabelle Alzado co-facilitating. Often people believe the goal is to “get rid” of unpleasant feelings. My own personal acknowledgment of and explorations with such emotions have led to healing old wounds, becoming more authentic, living more deeply, learning skills in self-expression and becoming more empowered. Some of us believe if we feel these emotions, like anger or hatred, we will end up out of control or doing something destructive. But there are messages in our emotions. Plus, just because we have them, doesn’t mean we have to act on them. When we are suppressing them, there is a lot more chance of doing damage, as they have a tendency to leak out sideways, in passive-aggressive behavior for example.
Marla, what tends to draw people to your classes and specifically to each particular topic?
I think most of my students would describe themselves as seekers. They want to understand themselves better. They are curious, wanting to take a deeper look at themselves. Often they are or have been in therapy of some sort. They usually have done some work around how the role of victim has played out in their lives and their defenses, and are wanting to move to a next level. Sometimes therapists recommend my classes to augment and support the work they do with their clients. People will be drawn to the topic that is relevant for them at a specific time in their lives. I try to offer an assortment of formats and themes so that a wide variety of people can be served. What’s very interesting is for people to hear differing perceptions. Like one person might remark: “Oh, the mother was so sad in that movie.” And another might say, “The mother was so mad…” The point is not to debate whether the mother was sad or mad, but to be curious about our own take on what was presented. We can begin to see that the way we perceive something is not the only way to view it, and then we can get curious about our particular filters and how they came to be.
Participants of your workshops not only enjoy themselves but also come to gain a lot of benefits. Can you please talk about benefits that may be experienced?
People enjoy being with like-minded people with a common intention (self-knowledge). In the ongoing classes, the group can serve as a “support” for the individual inner work that goes on, a safe container. And because we are not trying to get anywhere in particular ~ we’re simply exploring, not trying to “fix” anything ~ we tend to cultivate a normalizing, relaxing sense of OK-ness about where we each are, in the sense of self-acceptance. As Carl Rogers said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Hearing that others have the same feelings or concerns too, can help move us away from the belief “something is wrong with me.” In addition, engaging in this process tends to promote a life that is experienced as rich, as being lived from one’s depths, no matter what one’s issues are or what is going on in one’s life.
I would love for you to elaborate more on how you guide and lead your groups through specific topics. You have established some ground rules for providing a rich and safe experience for your participants. Can you tell us about a few of these rules?
Firstly, we are not there to analyze, judge or give our advice or opinions about others or their experiences. That is a primary ground rule. I ask people to stick to “I” statements, talking about their own experiences. The approach in general is non-invasive, and doesn’t put people on the spot.
Although your work dives deep into work that can be very personal for many, it is not therapy. Please explain.
Aside from film, the other main tool I use is self-inquiry. People explore certain relevant questions, or prompts, in dyads or triads. This allows each participant’s own process to lead the way, and to simply be witnessed and heard. I rarely make an intervention or give an interpretation. Although emotions do come up and people do get triggered at times, work on a more deeply personal level is more appropriate with a personal therapist. In terms of group therapy, since interactions between students have guidelines (as explained above), we are not working with people’s projections and transferences between one other.
Marla, in your own exploration of human growth and consciousness, what impresses you the most with the process of doing the work you do?
For most of my life, I’ve worked on my own personal growth with a kind of dogged, terrier-with-a-bone type energy. These days, my way of working with myself is to cultivate non-judgmental awareness of my patterns, reactivity and behaviors so that I can understand my “operating system” better. What I’m finding ~ and what I’m seeing in others ~ is the value of simple awareness of what I do, and how that starts a whole process of change, without trying to “do” anything, without trying to change. One of my teachers talks about the soul, or psyche, being like a sea anemone. It doesn’t open when it’s prodded; it contracts. Over and over again, I have seen students come to their own conclusions at their own pace, via an organic unfolding, without any prodding.
Are your classes available for both men and women?
Absolutely. Some classes are specifically for one gender or the other, but mostly I encourage mixed groups; I find often here in Ashland, women have been in “women’s groups” and men have been in “men’s groups,” and less often have they been in mixed groups. I find it a rich way for men and women to get to know one another outside of being ‘in relationship,’ and a lot of healing can be done between the genders as a side benefit. Also I welcome a wide age range of students, from 20 to 100! Gender and age mix can serve to really enrich a group, too.
How can our readers learn more about your work and upcoming classes?
Firstly, I am giving a free introductory talk at the Ashland Public Library on Wednesday, September 18th from 7 to 9pm. My co-facilitators will be there so that people can get a feel for us and ask any questions they might have. My website is www.marlaestes.com. On the home page there are links to sign up for my email newsletter, my facebook page and my blog, Making the Unconscious Conscious. I also periodically offer a one-day “Intro” workshop at a special price of $30. This is a really good way to find out what I do and how I do it. The next one is October 13th.
Finally, do you have any last comments you would like to share?
Rarely do we give ourselves time to truly attend to ourselves, to be with ourselves just as we are, to attune and commune with ourselves. In these classes, people have the opportunity to begin from where they are (rather than where they want to be or where they think they should be). These classes and workshops offer the spaciousness to explore one’s own experience and process at one’s own pace and in one’s own way.
Marla Estes, M.A.