She's a Mess:
To Myss or not to Myss

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

A reader writes: "I am quite surprised you have said nothing about the upcoming visit of Caroline Myss. I would have thought you would have a lot in common, since you are often critical of psychotherapy's emphasis on wounds and the past." - Mark, Atlanta

Indeed, I have been offered several opportunities over the last few years to interview Myss. Her books, Anatomy of the Spirit and Why People Don't Heal, have been the top new-age and self-help sellers. But, this month, as in times past, I found my hand not quite having the sufficient energy to pick up the phone and call her publicist to arrange an interview.

A large part of the reason relates to my having heard her interviewed three or four times before. Each time, I was quite amazed by the way she talked nonstop, rendering the interviewer a kind of nodding, smiling bystander, stripped of any critical faculty. Then I saw one of her appearances on PBS and was struck by the way she comported herself. Although charismatic, she seemed rigid and authoritative to me, quite contrary to what one expects from someone who writes passionately about spirit and the body's wisdom. In other words, I really wonder if she listens to people

This suspicion is aggravated by the fact that I read a lesser known book by her in the late 80s. Co-authored by her associate, C. Norman Shealy, AIDS: Passageway to Transformation is one of those books, like Louise Hay's, that I think did far more wounding than healing for people struggling with AIDS before the advent of some of today's effective medical treatments. In the absence of any medical hope at the time, writers like Hays and Myss spiritualized and psychologized AIDS to an offensive degree. Myss even claimed in the book to help a man "recover" from AIDS, which was never officially diagnosed (as I recall), through a regimen of saltwater-foot baths and self-esteem exercises gleaned during trance.

What this tells me is that Myss, like John Bradshaw before her, is principally an opportunist, exploiting what is most vulnerable in the culture. Bradshaw led us into the wounds of shame and addiction, helping to popularize the 12-step recovery movement and the cult of the inner child. The keyword of that movement was "pain."

Myss now seeks to lead us out of what she calls this "woundology." The keywords here are "move on." Note that both Bradshaw and Myss are primarily theological thinkers, not psychological ones. Theology tends to sort phenomena into black-and-white values. Myss speaks with the same kind of preachy voice that Bradshaw did and, indeed, that Dr. Laura does. Their content may be different but they all depend on our wish to be told what to do.

Myss, who published New Age books at one point in her career, has of course synthesized a number of systems popular among New Agers into one meta-system. With a recent Ph.D. in energy medicine, she does have interesting things to say about the body and energetic healing. Her work began as a medical intuitive with an apparently strong gift for diagnosis and I think she is most interesting when she is riffing on the body. Still, I can't help wondering how deep her understanding is. Certainly, I know her treatment of Jung's analytical psychology is embarassingly superficial despite her effort to incorporate archetypal principles into her meta-system.

This I suppose is the heart of my criticism. Does she lead us into depth? In my own view it is only by an appreciation of one's psychic depths that one can maintain a fascinated life. Myss's books, like Bradshaw's, will soon enough be piling up in used book stores, as the latest psychological fixer-upper emerges to touch the issues of the moment. For me the simple question is always the same: What does psyche, soul, want? Does it want complexity and richness, beauty and darkness, or does it want a self-help guide to make it all better?

Myss' workshop will be held 7-10 p.m.Friday and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Mar. 26 and 27, at the Omni Hotel. Cost is $225 at the door. Be warned. Myss, like a revivalist, attracts crowds of as many as a thousand or more. I would love to hear comments from readers who attend.

Follow-up commentary

Two weeks ago, in a column critical of Carolyn Myss, I asked for comments from those attending her workshop in Atlanta. I received several phone calls and emails. Most gave Myss mixed reviews. Rachel Fogg's email was typical:

"My husband, a massage therapist, my friend, a nursing instructor, and I, an accountant, all went this weekend.

"We were disappointed that Carol Myss had so little to say about archetypes; she spent only about an hour and a half of a 10-hour seminar with the title of "Archetypes and Sacred Contracts" talking about them. None of us were quite sure of her definition of a sacred contract. We felt that she was somehow out of her depth, but that eventually she will "get it" and come out with a strong piece of philosophy.

"We see Carol as a very positive influence in our lives. To us, it is a pleasure to hear from a theologian and philosopher that we can change our lives if we look to the source of our power losses. We can do this ourselves without years of analysis and without blaming everyone in our past for our problems. Our society has been harmed by our collective acceptance of "woundology."

"To understand how we lose sight of our inner being, which causes our power losses, Carol attempted to give us the technique of archetypal analysis. She contends that these archetypes are universal and timeless. Perhaps she is even implying they are hard wired genetically. We of the western world, definitely share many archetypes as part of our collective nature. Unfortunately, Carol does not have a grasp on the various archetypes and she cannot guide us in how to use them, yet.

"I had a problem in Carol's harping on Chronos time and Kairos time, throughout the lecture. I think she was over-simplifying the concept of the physical plane (Chronos time) and the other planes, Astral and above, (Kairos time). She was trying to create her own explanation of what the Indian Mystics have been explaining to us Americans for the past 30 years. She kept saying we develop our higher chakras through the use of Kairos time. However, how we do this, was ill-defined.

"I heard a true spiritual teacher and great writer, Kirpal Singh, back in the 70s. Carol Myss is not a spiritual teacher and I do not believe that she envisions herself as such. She is acting as an interpreter of the spirtual greats. However, I think a direct read of Kirpal and Sai Baba would be more spiritually uplifting."

You are entirely correct, Rachael. Myss' understanding of Jung's archetypes is superficial and she is undoubtedly attracted to the idea because it acknowledges that our experience is influenced by far more than personal biography. However, to come into intimate contact with an archetypal force - as an embodied reality rather than as an abstracted concept - is to encounter something far more unsettling than the upwelling of a repressed memory of mommy.

People need guidance and assistance in an encounter with the numinous forces of the archetypal. The archetypal works us. We don't so much work it. Myss' psychology ultimately keeps people from their depths in my opinion and her tirades against "woundology," although rhetorically attractive, become rationalisms for avoiding the core suffering that is at the heart of every one of us. What could be more ironic than spending your money and time to avoid "woundology"? Obviously, if you are thus preoccupied, you are still very much directed by your wounds - archetypal or biographical.

Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing

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