Interview by Bill Zirinsky | Photography by Joni Strickfaden
César Valdez, 43, is a local psychotherapist doing cutting edge work with Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, EMDR, trauma and grief work, and with transpersonal approaches to personal development. Trained at U-M’s School of Social Work, he’s been practicing in Ann Arbor for 15 years. I sat down with Valdez a few months back to get a sense of what he’s up to. Handsome, sincere, forthright, dedicated to his work, it’s apparent that he is solidly grounded in his psychotherapy practice while at the same time ever evolving and fiercely open to new modalities and new psychodynamic and spiritual frontiers.
Bill Zirinsky: Cesar, you mentioned to me that at this point in your therapy practice, that you are "using psychotherapy to get to the divine essence in all of us." You are a social worker and therapist, but your own spiritual journey has caused your practice to become more of a transpersonal one. That's intriguing, please tell us more.
Cesar Valdez: Sure. It’s really about uncovering untapped dimensions of ourselves that aid our healing and allow our fullest potential to emerge and flourish. Daniel Siegel, a neuroscience researcher, describes eight levels of neurobiological integration. They range from things like the integration of consciousness, to that of memory and of narrative. But he says that as we achieve new levels of integration across the eight domains, a ninth level emerges in which we begin to feel a different sense of connection to both ourselves and the world around us. This new identity goes beyond our previously skin-defined sense of self and toward an expanded awareness. He calls this expanded state, “transpirational integration.” These neuroscience findings affirm what I’ve learned in both my psychotherapy practice and in my spiritual exploration: that there is a wisdom and intelligence in each of us beyond that of our own mind. We might call this the Higher Self, the Essential Self, or our Divine Essence. Mindfulness-based therapies like EMDR and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy rely on this wisdom. I love using psychotherapy as a platform for cultivating a deeper relationship with that power and potential that lies beyond the limits of the personality. Not only does it have tremendous power to heal, but also to expand our sense of connection to a larger whole, beyond our personal lives, and beyond any sense of isolation we might perceive. In this state, our Essential Self emerges, thrives, and reveals its many gifts.
Bill Zirinsky: What is the nature of your spiritual practice? Do you have a particular spiritual teacher? Are there any books about your specific practice that you could recommend to our readers?
Cesar Valdez: Seven years ago, I began studying with a spiritual teacher, Atum O’Kane, who brought his two-year foundation course to Ann Arbor. At the time, I had done quite a bit of work in psychotherapy but no spiritual exploration. The field of psychology has traditionally kept its distance from spirituality, so while I found my own work in therapy deeply beneficial and transformative, I felt a pull to explore other dimensions of the world and of myself. Atum’s work combines Jungian psychology with Sufism, Christian Mysticism, Judaism, and other wisdom traditions. His courses offer ways to explore spirituality and psychology, not so much through theory as through deeply lived experience. Here, I began exploring such things as prayer as a state of being, discerning the call of the soul, developing an intentional God image. His teachings have greatly influenced my life and affirmed and enhanced my practice of psychotherapy.
Bill Zirinsky: You have a lot of experience in trauma work with clients. Tell us what trauma work has taught you.
Cesar Valdez: Borrowing again from Atum’s teachings on the essential archetypes of spiritual guidance, my journey as a psychotherapist has taught me how to hold a sacred space for sharing; to listen for the cries from deep within; to offer seeds of wisdom; to advocate for and affirm the emergence of the Essential Self; to guide others through many dimensions of an inner journey; and to celebrate the joy of liberation through transformation and healing. I learned to recognize these aspects of relational healing from him, as he was the one to put them into words and teach me to consciously engage them, but it was all my years as a trauma therapist that taught me how to really live out these principles in real, healing relationships. As my years of working primarily with trauma come to completion, I’m deeply grateful for the ways it has prepared me for what I’m now exploring in my practice.
Bill Zirinsky: “Listening for the cries from deep within." Please say more.
Cesar Valdez: All of us in helping professions are listening for the cries of our clients. This is just one of the archetypes of spiritual/psychological guidance. The excitement lies in developing enough attunement to hear not only what’s being reported but also the deeper cries of disowned parts not speaking in words. All good, effective psychotherapy is, in some way, concerned with deep listening. Often, the soul is crying out, needing healing, or longing for expression. But in today’s world, many of us are anesthetized to our inner life. There are also, of course, the exuberant cries of joy and healing!
BZ: How is the trauma work different from your current transpersonal emphasis?
Valdez: Both are beautiful, deep, and meaningful work. Each has the same essence and ingredients for healing. But trauma work comes first. If parts of the personality remain stuck in survival mode, then those parts can’t relax enough to achieve higher states of expanded awareness. Clients with extensive trauma histories need first to establish a somatic sense of safety.
BZ: You're working with Induced After Death Communication (IADC), developed by Al Botkin, which you told me is derived from EMDR. Please tell us about it.
Valdez: You know that deep sense of comfort that comes when we have a felt sense of a deceased loved one’s presence? This is at the heart of IADC therapy. Many EMDR therapists have witnessed clients spontaneously perceive the presence of a deceased loved one during grief-focused therapy sessions. In fact, last fall I presented at the EMDR International Association conference in Denver, and well over half of the more than 250 participants said that their clients had had this experience during therapy without intentionally trying for it. Back in the 90s, Al Botkin, while working at the VA hospital in Chicago, had six clients who experienced this within a discrete three-week period. He went back and studied his notes to find out what alterations he was making to EMDR that might account for this phenomenon. He eventually developed his own protocol that can reliably induce, in most clients, the psychological state in which a sense of presence of a deceased person occurs, usually through one or more of the five senses. My interest in this work is actually not the perception of communication with the deceased; rather, what I love about it is its capacity to dramatically transform feelings of loss and separation and to move one into expanded awareness. I’m now training other EMDR therapists in the method.
BZ: Who is Irene Siegel and how does she fit into this?
Valdez: I’ve been following Irene Siegel’s work for a few years, and I had the opportunity to hear her speak at the EMDRIA conference in September. She is also using EMDR as a path to expanded awareness. Her work involves using health issues as a doorway into healing psychological wounds. I’ve been integrating more of this into my practice, which has been very gratifying. By strategically tuning in and reaching an expanded state of consciousness, clients are able to identify the function of illnesses, and they often link to specific wounds from their past. As they heal emotionally and psychologically, their health issues often improve, quite dramatically in some cases.
BZ: What is the mission of Partners in Healing, and who are your partners in that?
Valdez: Carrie Hatcher-Kay, Sharon Gold-Steinberg, and I offer training opportunities to other psychotherapists. Our work blends teachings from the field of interpersonal neurobiology with more traditional modalities. We have great fun collaborating together, and I’m very fortunate to work with partners I respect and admire so much.
BZ: Where were you raised, Cesar? You mentioned to me that you grew up in a family that was not curious about people's inner world. How did you come to be a therapist?
Valdez: I grew up in Texas in a border town along the Rio Grande. As in many Mexican-American families, the world of psychotherapy was nonexistent, but I was always desperately curious about my own and others’ inner lives, about relationships and dynamics. When I got to college, I began taking psychology and English courses. They offered opportunities to begin exploring this part of me that had been yearning for expression and longing to unfold. It was as though these atrophied muscles were finally strengthening. When I later discovered the world of psychotherapy, I immediately felt at home in it. This vital part of me had finally found a place to be in the world, and to be productive and creative within it. On a deep soul level, I identify as a facilitator of healing. Our current society happens to offer that opportunity in the form of psychotherapy, but even if I’d been around long before the advent of psychology, I’m sure I’d have been in some kind of healing profession.
BZ: You worked at Maxey Boys Training School. What was that like, and what was its gift for you, in the development of your therapeutic skills?
Valdez: This was my first internship in social work, and it was baptism by fire, but in a good way. It was my first introduction to the deleterious effects of trauma and to trauma treatment. It was also my first introduction to EMDR. Some of the staff had recently trained in EMDR, and I got to watch demonstrations with other volunteer staff. In retrospect, I’m so grateful to have witnessed the power of that kind of tuning in, at the core of EMDR, so early in my career. It obviously left an imprint because it’s still at the heart of what I do today.
BZ: Later you worked at a foster care agency in Detroit. You were exposed there to a significant level of disturbance within families. Specifically, what kind of work did you do there? Did you like it? What did that work mean for you?
Valdez: Upon graduating, I ended up working at Evergreen Children’s Services as a therapist for foster kids. There, I learned about the importance of stabilization prior to any kind of trauma processing. For these kids, this not only meant a stable placement but also helping them to regulate their understandable and sometimes difficult behavioral problems. By the time I left, I’d become quite confident and good at setting firm but compassionate behavioral limits—a skill that would be greatly tested upon having my own children! Mostly, however, I learned about resilience. It is popular to speak of resilience when one wants to sound like a good social worker, but I truly witnessed people’s enormous capacity to face extraordinary challenges, carry on, and heal. Throughout my career, that experience has given me deep and abiding faith in my clients’ abilities, and the confidence to greatly challenge them into more deeply healing work.
BZ: Please briefly describe Sensorimotor Psychotherapy?
Valdez: SP is a somatic psychotherapy that addresses trauma and developmental issues at the level of the body. Through SP interventions, I look at how body structure and movements participate in psychological, emotional, and relational experiences, and how the body can act as a primary vehicle for transformation and healing. I’ve completed Levels 1 and 2 of intensive training offered by the SP Institute and integrate it into all my work—at the level of intervention with many clients, and at the level of conceptualization with all clients.
BZ: Please share with us a few anecdotes from your work which illustrate the authenticity and power of the kind of experiential modalities you work with.
Valdez: Okay. Let me give you some examples which are composites, not actual clients. While it’s impossible to capture such complexity in a few sentences, these might give an idea of the kinds of experiences my clients might have in a session.
One example of a body-oriented intervention involves a man who, as a child, sought refuge in his closet from his physically abusive father. His body still held the frozenness—the attempt to achieve invisibility—that kept him safe in that closet, yet it had also become a way of life, affecting all his relationships and ability to move forward with goals. But a tiny movement in his legs bespoke an impulse to flee. Mindfully, we followed the guidance of his legs as they moved him toward the door and out into the hallway. He returned smiling and reported, “I thought I’d never stop, but as soon as I turned the corner, I was done, like my legs had just been waiting to tell me that this is all they needed to do.” Resolving the frozenness led to steady changes in his everyday experience and relationships.
An IADC client lost his wife to cancer. He sobbed heavily as we processed his deep sadness. A peaceful calm followed. Tuning in to his expanding peacefulness, a gentle smile emerged. He perceived a warm embrace from his wife and heard her voice reassuring him of her ongoing presence in his life. He left having deeply integrated a sense of loving connection with his wife, transforming his grief.
A woman presented with colitis. As a holistic thinker, she sensed there might be an underlying emotional problem affecting her medical issues. Using EMDR, she tuned into her illness and allowed information to arise in the form of body sensations, images, feelings, and eventually a corresponding memory. After processing the memory to resolution, we took the emerging positive beliefs and sense of connection to a greater cosmic whole and intentionally fortified her body with this flow of compassion and well-being. After several sessions with this kind of focus, her symptoms largely alleviated.
BZ: Is your practice people of all ages, individuals or families? You've told me that you love practicing psychotherapy. Please talk about the gift of it, for you.
Valdez: These days I only work with individual adults. How do I explain the gift of practicing psychotherapy? Consider the repeated experience of meditatively attuning to another in the resonant field of lovingkindness. I never imagined all the doors of the heart and mind it would open for me.
BZ: In addition to your association with Partners in Healing, have you done other work training psychotherapy professionals?
Valdez: I taught for three years at a psychotherapy training institute at the University of Michigan. I still enjoy offering consultation and supervision to therapists through my private practice.
BZ: Tell us briefly about your family. And do you live in Ann Arbor?
Valdez: I live in Ann Arbor with my wife and three kids. Thinking of them makes me smile.
BZ: What do you love about Ann Arbor in the spring?
Valdez: I love the return of color after months of gray skies and white earth. While that has its own beauty and serenity, it’s always so joyful to watch the world exuberantly burst back into vivid Technicolor. And I love the return of people’s faces and forms after being covered under so many layers—a different kind of beautiful blooming.
BZ: Thank you, Cesar.
Cesar Valdez, LMSW, is a Certified EMDR practitioner, a Level 2 graduate of the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute, and a Certified Trainer of IADC Therapy.
He can be reached at: email@example.com or at 734-929-6574. The website for Partners in Healing is: www.partnersinhealingpsychotherapy.com and the website for IADC Therapy is www.iadctherapy.com.