Acknowledging 100 years since Murray Bowen was born



I have been working on my book Create Your Mindful Compass:Navigating through the Social Jungle,  for the last several years.  This is a peek into the book which starts as it should with gratitude:

I am deeply grateful to Murray Bowen. He believed in me when I was struggling, gave me a hand up, accepted me into postgraduate training at the Georgetown Family Center despite my having only two years of college, and then allowed me to take photos in exchange for tuition to various symposiums. After four years of family systems theory training, he hired me to work at the Georgetown University Family Center as the audio visual (A/V) coordinator, saying it was easier to teach me the A/V role than teach an A/V  expert Bowen theory.


I quickly recognised that what Bowen said was so far from mainstream psychiatry that taping him and re-listening would be the only way to grasp this totally new way of thinking.  A/V coordinator was perfect for me. As a teacher Bowen was at times direct, and challenging.  Using metaphors, paradox, and even slights of hand as a Zen master might, he delivered his out- of-sync, interrupting messages. (Each of us has our way of seeing things, our perceptual blindness, our way of getting along with others, and our beliefs as to how the world is. How does anyone interrupt allowing others to think differently?)


Bowen once took my arm and, pointing to a couple, asked in his Socratic way: “What are these people doing? Who is in charge? How do you know?” The first time I heard him speak to an audience he peppered his talk with unanswerable questions: “How do you de-twitch people? How is what you do with people different from what you might do to calm animals down?  Do you know what you are up against in yourself, and in relating to your multigenerational family? How about the challenges with your friends and loved ones? Are you ready for the kiss of togetherness?”


Bowen challenged me to deal with tricks – his and others.  Like an imp he was watching, smiling, getting upset, and never explaining what he was up to. He explained himself in books, letters and videotapes. Writing about the role of a coach in being outside the emotional system, he explained how such a position allowed one to teach, give suggestions and tell personal stories, without forcing, preaching, or believing he knew the “right way.”


Demonstrating with his own life what it takes to be a lifelong participant-observer, he was quick to challenge and “jam people up.”  “Let’s see what you can do” seemed to be his mantra.  He was constantly putting others into some kind of an alliance, while separating himself out as different.  Bowen would say, “I am listening to you.”  Yes, listening to you but not agreeing with you.  Bowen made people uncomfortable unless they could stand alone and did not need approval for their ideas.  He was challenging people to rise up and stand alone to perhaps say what they would and would not do, to define more of a self.  Who knows what research questions were on his mind as he interacted with you.  But when his blue eyes were twinkling, and he was looking at you, you knew that questions and unusual, what I call “non-linked” behaviour responses, were about to be unleashed in your direction.  


An endlessly curious researcher of human behaviour, Bowen watched me and many others.  We were part of the human parade on a multigenerational train ride. Bowen rode alongside family after family, inserting a question here, a story there, just to see how people would react, if they would grow or get off the train.  Sometimes he might throw a pearl, and other times some coal.  Ready or not, “relationship stuff” was always coming your way.


Toward the end of his life I traveled with him because of his serious physical limitations. Perhaps my family position as an oldest daughter of brothers favored by grandparents, plus luck, allowed me to figure out how to relate well enough, especially to his wife and family. I appreciated this opportunity more than any words can convey.


Bowen would not approve of my explanation of Family Systems theory, of how I have managed myself, coached others or have written this book. Approval was at the bottom of his list as to what was important. Figuring out the right kind of challenge fascinated him, often leading to his noting the creative ways people developed to overcome or wiggle out of intense problems.


Overall watching reading and listening to Bowen I was struck with his ability to observe the human condition and take an action based on his theory to stay interested and connected while separating himself out from the others.  As with us all he had his own issues and peculiarities but his real gift was to point us in a direction to see what we had not seen about the human and the mechanisms of family life under pressure.  His lasting, jarring question, “How come you cannot see what is right in front of you?” is as important and as unanswered today as it was back then.


I designed this book in his memory to do for others what he did for me: To enable motivated individuals be more for Self, to a have a few systems ideas, to grasp a deeper understanding of our link with other social species and to really see how social systems function. The future is uncertain.  But what is certain is that we will always need to understand how to manage ourselves and to see the impact of our very social relationships on each other.


Introduction and Bowen Theory 101

This book is about becoming a more effective, principle-based, mature leader who is less subject to the whims and pressures of the social group. Any of us can become this kind of a leader—either by default or by desire—by designing a Mindful Compass to guide us as we develop and implement our goals. All of us are already equipped with an automatic compass that guides us in how to react to the emotional messages in the social group. Simply because of the way our brain has been built, to be overly sensitivities to changes in the environment, and clues from the social group, we react often without awareness much less thought.

Leaders can increase the ability to develop their own Mindful Compass and thereby lead by self-defined principle and when necessary identify and override their reactive thoughts, feelings and behaviors. A Mindful Compass requires a broad knowledge of  Bowen’s “Systems Thinking” to identify what is authentic and real about one’s Self and how to build up one’s emotional backbone and decrease the part of “self” that is mostly mired in automatic reactivity. There are many ways to grow one’s Self  up. One of them is by having a Mindful Compass,  which allows us to understand our actions in the light of our multigenerational family relationships. The emotional field that connects the generations has an unseen influence on us.  A systems viewpoint offers us a different way to understand and to then alter our sensitivity.  Our emotional backbone connects us to our evolutionary heritage and this grants us greater objectivity.  All of this intellectual work gives us a hand up in managing our reactive nature. Deep knowledge of our reactivity makes much the things that happens to us feel far less harmful and personal.  Objectivity increases our ability to rise above the reactivity and to then change and adapt well to situations.  If one can understand the reasons to decrease reactivity, and to define self to others, then one can take on the work involved. The goal is that,even when under pressure, one can be less reactive and less controlled by the surrounding relationship system, and therefore paradoxically be both separate from, and a real resource to, others in any social system.



  1. Thank you for the pictures and your reflections. A question that I have thought about is “how does a person grow a self?” I look forward to reading your book. Please let me know when it is available!

    Dave Galloway

  2. As a student of family systems, I am very excited for you and slightly envious. Bowen’s approach to working with families and systems has done more for my practice than I’d ever imagined. Good luck on the book.

    Jameson Mercier, LCSW

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s