More on Psychotherapy
200 calls later, some questions need answering

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, 1997)

This week's column is a follow-up to a recent column.

With the exception of a story I wrote in the late '70s for the old Sunday Magazine of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, I don't recall ever receiving as much personal feedback as I did to a column of a few weeks ago. The column, about "Why Some of Us Have Left Psychotherapy," provoked nearly 200 phone calls. A few, predictably, were from angry psychologists, but the vast majority were from mental health professionals and clients who have become similarly disenchanted with the field.

At the risk of a self-interview, here are answers to the most common questions I received:

Are you saying that all psychotherapy is useless?

Not at all. I'm saying that once a person has explored biography and its ties to present thinking and feeling, traditional psychotherapy doesn't offer much besides a container in which to vent. The usual experience of this, though, is that the therapist is carrying the prejudices and agendas of developmental psychology. Thus, for example, your present-time relationships necessarily recapitulate your relationship with a parent. The idea is that you see this, you complete your work with your parent, you create new self-parenting skills and you will be liberated from so-called dysfunctional relationships. It's a lovely idea that rarely works.

And how is the movement toward soul work or psychopoetics different?

Because we are always asking what is being expressed in the relationship with the parent and with the present day mate in terms of our destiny and the meaning we are in the world to discover. We learn to see our suffering in terms of our life path. This is a Buddhist approach in some ways. Life cannot be without suffering; it never has been. But it is a very recent fantasy that childhood should be an idealized state of innocent pleasure. The pain of my own childhood drove me into my imagination, my destiny. Developmental psychology tells me I should demonize the pain. It took me years to confront the pain of my childhood and then it took me far longer to confront the way psychology was entrapping me in the constant review of my traumas. Soulwork tells me the pain of my childhood amplifies my destiny.

Aren't you just talking about a different approach to psychotherapy?

No! Psychotherapy has great uses in helping people through crises and it has value for people with diagnosed psychiatric disorders. As a tool of personal growth, though, it no longer works well. Uncovering destiny, learning the perceptual function of the heart, raising the aesthetic function and increasing the imaginal skills -- none of these are part of training for psychology.

Is this really new?

Not at all. The forerunners of modern psychology -- from the Homeric mythmakers to the Rennaissance pupils of the Florentine Academy and the neo-Platonic Sufis -- all understood this well. The modern heirs to those traditions -- from Adler to Jung and Reich -- were forced to the periphery and the modern academy still holds them in contempt. The result, unfortunately, is the grim literalizations of the New Age -- a compensatory expression of the academy's rejection of psychology that lacks readily material demonstrability. This goes all the way back to Aristotle, actually. He didn't reject the notion of the soul, for example, but felt compelled as a scientist to "invent" its substance, the astral body, the material of the stars.

What about psychiatry?

Psychiatry has an abysmal record of abuse of human beings. In electroschock therapy, for example, it hasn't come that far from the days when suffering people were tied up and dunked in ice-cold water. While many medications today are effective in treating a broad range of disorders, they are quite ineffective for many people too. If you actually read the studies, they're not that impressive. The anti-depressants, for example, just don't work for many people. And why should they? Again, depression, like any symptom, has to be situated in a broader context than that of the individual life. We live in a manic society that overvalues productivity. Anyone whose destiny does not accommodate that myth, and it is a myth, is likely to end up depressed. Thirty years ago, countless women were taking Valium to medicate themselves against the pain of exclusion. How come they're taking Prozac today? Anxiety and depression do not just arise in the indvidual's experience and chemistry. They are symptomatic expresssions of anima mundi, the psyche of the world. Peter Kramer writes about this in Listening to Prozac.

Speaking of the New Age, aren't you talking about introducing spirituality into psychotherapy?

Not necessarily. Besides, that has already been done in transpersonal psychology. Buddhism, millenia ago, developed a psychology that anticipates what I am talking about. So, the line between sprituality and psychology as a field of study and practice was not firm until the turn of this century. People forget that Freud was a professed atheist and regarded religion as regressive fantasy. So modern psychology's development is rooted in the split between religion, the numinous, and science. This is in the "field," in the air, so to speak, no matter what a therapist says. That is the tradition out of which therapists come.

Shouldn't it be?

It is one thing to say that religious experience is not scientific. It's another thing to say that it is without meaning other than a pathological one. Science describes how things happen. Religion, however, often describes our lived experience of phenomena. Science is literal in many ways; religion is not...or shouldn't be. The problem is that, as with the New Age, the wholesale rejection of religion's value to people insures its literalization and dogmatization. This is the curse of modern life. It is also why, for another example, poetry has made such a comeback. People thirst for images, for metaphor and symbol, for numinous experience. The more science denies it, the more it will demand expression. It's the return of the repressed...again.

If that's true, how did Freud deal with it in his own life?

Freud, interestingly, came around -- or partly so. He ended up describing himself more as a writer and artist than as a scientist. In an interview in 1934, he said that psychoanalysis was better understood by creative people than scientists. He literally called his case histories "fictions." They are, indeed, beautifully written, fictionalized stories. He says quite baldly in this particular interview that earning money required he work as a scientist but that his heart was in producing art. Jung, on the other hand, was lucky to marry a rich woman and was less troubled by the need to earn a living and confine himself to empirical study.

What is the difference between the soul and the spirit?

Neither can be well defined. The soul, or psyche, is that aspect of existence which demands meaning in life. It isn't transcendent, like the spirit. The soul wants to achieve its destiny, to realize meaning in existence. Its primary form of expression is images. It readily personifies itself and will speak quite clearly if given permission. It will also mediate between the personality and the spiritual, but it will not tolerate gross spiritualization any more than ignoring it. In either case, it will produce a symptom -- frequently in the form of insatiable appetites.

Can you recommend some books that discuss these subjects?

Anything by James Hillman, Thomas Moore, Patricia Berry, Henry Corbin, Alan Guggenbuhl, Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig, Robert Sardello, Gaston Bachelard, Robert Romanyshyn, Mary Watkins, Michael Ventura and Lionel Corbett. The primary journal is "Spring" which, along with a catalog of books, can be ordered from Spring Publications (860-974-3428).

Copyright 1997 by Creative Loafing | Published 1997

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