Why some people have abandoned it

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative 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 this transition.

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 collapse.

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 Hillman's influence.)

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 personified soul.

Copyright 1997 by Creative Loafing | Published 1997

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