Why some people have abandoned it
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of
Loafing, Atlanta, 1997)
Touchy, touchy, touchy! That's what psychologists
can be. I was quite surprised by the number of angry calls I received from
professionals after a recent interview in which I criticized the profession
of psychotherapy. I am among many who, having been trained and educated as
a therapist, decided to take my knowledge in a new direction -- to the new
field of "soulwork" or "psychopoetics." What follows is my own story about
My work is inspired primarily by the work of James Hillman. The title of
one of his books (co-authored with Michael Ventura), We've Had a Hundred
Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, well expresses
my own attitude toward contemporary psychotherapy.
My disenchantment with psychotherapy is personal, clinical, political and
intellectual. I was a client in mainstream psychotherapy -- from talk therapy
to the humanistic experiential therapies -- more than 20 years. Although
I experienced relief during periods of crisis, my years in therapy seemed
to make little difference in my experience of day-to-day life.
Psychotherapy has come almost entirely under the influence of the developmental
model, which maintains, essentially, that our adult experience is conditioned
by our childhood experience. Even if this is true -- and there is plenty
of evidence to suggest that it is less true than John Bradshaw tells you
-- therapy offers little relief from the trap of history it describes. Talking
about and expressing the feelings arising from unresolved, often unconscious
conflicts from childhood can be illuminating and cathartic. But the perennial
complaint of many therapy clients is that actual change doesn't necessarily
follow this illumination.
Thus, many therapy clients get stuck in a long pattern of re-visiting (and
"re-patterning") their childhoods. This in turn contributes to an often insidious
"victim mentality" that, in Hillman's view, has completely permeated contemporary
society. In the therapy room and in the culture at large, Hillman argues,
we have become players in a fantasy peculiar to our time: that we are largely
powerless over the childhoods (and, by extension, the society) our parents
"created" for us.
This formulaic, developmental approach to psychotherapy has become standardized.
It is the usual approach taught in graduate schools and, lest the prospective
therapist consider a different path, regulatory boards now require education
and practice in the developmental model.
Moreover, insurance companies -- particularly managed care -- now stress
symptom relief through pharmaceutical intervention or behavioral and cognitive
modalities (many of which can be learned from self-help books). These efforts
to further control and standardize the practice of therapy have a deeper
meaning than the obvious economic and philosophical ones: They bear witness
to the gross cultural dissatisfaction with therapy and probably presage its
My own journey away from classic psychotherapy and toward real improvement
began with my discovery of transpersonal psychology and the 12-step recovery
movement, along with Buddhism and meditation. These discoveries added a spiritual
dimension that broadened the context in which I saw my childhood injuries.
This in turn inspired me to pursue graduate-level studies in psychology at
West Georgia College, where the faculty then taught a number of transpersonal
and humanistic classses. By the time I finished that program, I had also
acquired over two years of supervised practical training.
Unfortunately, I also discovered during this time the political upheaval
in the therapy industry. After taking nearly four years (instead of the required
18 months) to complete a Master's degree in order to give myself thorough
training, I found myself subject to new, vague laws that imposed a new set
of educational and training requirements. These requirements, not unexpectedly,
promote the medical and developmental model of psychotherapy.
At the same time the field was becoming more conservative, I found myself
suspecting that the transpersonal and 12-step movements were not radical
enough to accomplish the changes I sought. They tend to spiritualize all
problems and often encourage withdrawal from activism, leaving unanswered,
even unasked, a primary question of human experience: "How much of our
'pathology' is influenced, beyond our parents, by the culture at large and
what kind of responsibility do we have to change society?" (I am grateful
for finding the Shambhala Meditation Program, which teaches meditation in
the context of creating an enlightened society.)
It was not until I encountered the soul-based work of Hillman's "archetypal
psychology" that I began to imagine a radical departure from psychotherapy.
I began experimenting with 11-week workshops called "Greeting the Muse."
These, operating on a completely different set of assumptions from psychotherapy,
allowed me to work directly with the imagination. (The work differs from
psychotherapy by presuming, for example, the existence of the soul. The client
and I interact directly with it.) To my surprise, I found participants in
this work often making much more rapid progress than the clients with "personal
growth issues" I'd seen as a supervised therapist.
Soon enough, I learned I was not alone in this discovery: The January 1997
issue of the Utne Reader featured a cover story on Hillman and the movement
away from psychotherapy toward this new field of "soulwork." (By this time,
too, I had enrolled as a doctoral student in the depth psychology program
at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara. The school is heavily under
In soulwork the individual psyche (which means "soul" in the original Greek)
is viewed in relationship to the anima mundi ("soul of the world"). Thus,
the symptoms we bear are in part symptoms of the world soul, implying partly
too that salvational fantasies about individual perfection are pointless.
Indeed, the urealized hope of perfection give rise to its shadow: the
consumerist, manic culture in which we live. Soulwork, unlike psychotherapy,
is, as Moore says, not about curing and fixing (and is therefore inappropriate
as a treatment for psychological disorders.)
The object of soulwork instead is to bring depth to life, even when it means
honoring our suffering (our pathology). It requires, in Hillman's terms,
"growing down" into life. In soulwork, the central question usually pertains
to the individual's "calling" or purpose: "Am I living according to my purpose?"
The primary "organ" of inquiry is the imagination (for thousands of years
envisioned as the perceptual function of the heart), rather than the
intellectual, spiritual or the feeling functions. The body's role is essential,
however. A sense of soul that is not fully felt remains a concept.
Through the imagination we learn to see our problems as expressions of our
calling, our character, our destiny -- something far deeper than as the
consequences of "abuse" and "dysfunction." We learn to imagine our history
and our present circumstances as mythopoetic images of our soul's journey
in the world. We de-literalize our lives and free ourselves from the tedious
trap of developmental psychology which hangs like stale smoke in every corner
of the culture.
Because the imagination is so central in soulwork, the aesthetic response
matters greatly. In fact, I have borrowed a phrase from Renaissance psychologist
Marsilio Ficino as my own credo: "Creation is a more excellent act than
illumination." Whatever we make of our lives -- hopefully something soulful
-- matters more than our bare understanding and illumination.
Soulwork assumes that the soul naturally craves beauty. By "beauty," I mean
that quality of images Aristotle described as "arresting motion." The beautiful
makes us pause and enter contemplation and it increases our imagination.
Thus, the beautiful is not what is necessarily "pretty," but what is authentic
and resonant, "heart-grabbing." In our manic culture, we find this hard to
remember -- that beauty and truth are one. The heart craves it and can only
find it in stillness and silence.
So, in soulwork, our task is to imagine our way to truth, our calling in
the world. The work does not require artistry, only the willingness to engage
in the imaginal. The psyche naturally communicates metaphorically and in
images (thus the work is often called "psychopoetics"). The imagination places
us in the realm of "the invisibles," to use Hillman's term, or in mundus
imaginalis, to use Henry Corbin's term. This is the place where our destiny
reveals itself -- between the literal and the wholly imaginary. In this place,
so unfamiliar to most people in our society -- and even scorned by much
psychology -- life speaks clearly to us through the autonomous voice of
Copyright 1997 by Creative Loafing | Published
Archetypal Advice |