Old Saybrook 2:
Can humanistic psychology survive itself?

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

On a November weekend in 1964, a group of scholars gathered at Old Saybrook, Conn., to forge a vision that has had enormous impact on the lives of Americans ever since.

Those attending included Abraham Maslow, Rollo May, Clark Moustakas, Carl Rogers and James Bugental. At the forefront of what was then called the "human potential movement," these were the leading thinkers of humanistic psychology. Their vision was to employ the insights of psychology, as a study grounded in the broad humanities, to enhance every individual's quality of life. This compared to the dominant medicalized agenda of only treating pathology.

Recently, there was an effort to reprise the spirit of that original meeting at the State University of West Georgia, whose psychology department became one of the nation's leading exponents of humanistic psychology under the longtime leadership of Mike Arons. The Old Saybrook 2 Conference brought together thinkers and practitioners to discuss the status and future of humanistic psychology.

I had a particular interest in attending, because I graduated from West Georgia's master's program in the mid-'90s. By the time of my enrollment, the psychology department had lost much of the radical edge that made it so famous 20 years earlier. Part of the reason, certainly, was the general loss of humanistic psychology's éclat in a society that is increasingly dominated by values we associate with economy: expediency, materialism, hierarchy, science, etc.

West Georgia continued nonetheless to promote the values of humanism and also took up the subject of transpersonal psychology. My first class there was in Buddhist psychology with Kaisa Puhaka. I looked forward to an experience of steeping myself in classes in creativity with Mike Arons, Lacanian thought with Kareen Malone, Jungian theory with the late Bob Masek. At the same time, I commuted to California to receive two years of training under the mentorship of Barbara Findeisen in her radical STAR program. Because of my work with Findeisen, my time at West Georgia was greatly expanded from the usual 18 months to almost four years.

As I approached the midpoint of my studies at West Georgia, I became one of the victims of the values that had begun to erode the psychology department's own radicalism. The state enacted a new licensure law that basically rendered all of West Georgia's classes (and my own extensive and expensive practicum training) useless for those wanting to practice psychotherapy. Like many others, I had to spurn the most attractive intellectual opportunities at West Georgia and enroll in traditional counseling classes, which, incidentally, turned out to be no more helpful in securing licensure. The question for many of us became whether we could retain our vision in a system that did everything it could to standardize practice, mainly as the treatment of pathology, effectively returning therapy to the medical fantasy from which humanistic psychology attempted to rescue it 30 years earlier.

Mike Arons, who stepped down as department chairman in an emerging battle partly between clinicians and thinkers, saw through the question immediately. He began articulating the need for radically new forms of psychological practice - a movement of which I became a part. Others, like Maureen O'Hara, of Saybrook Graduate School, have become important voices in the critique of the way the state imposes normative values on the practice of psychotherapy. Some of their writing on the subject can be found on the Saybrook Conference web site: www.sonoma.edu/projects/os2/.

The problem, which I encountered continually at the West Georgia conference, is a deep reluctance on the part of many people in humanistic psychology to question the ways in which their approach really may fail to address the situation of the contemporary individual. Puhaka and Malone, in one seminar, addressed this concern. For example, they noted that the valorization of the individual's autonomy - the "I'm Okay, You're Okay" model - might tend to discourage meaningful discourse, cutting it off at the point disagreement arises. Malone noted that her own attraction to the (almost ubiquitoiusly demonized) French postmodern thinkers was stimulated by their willingness to engage in discourse without the agenda of fixed resolution. This in turn caused at least one participant to term such an endeavor "mental masturbation."

Nostalgia seemed more pervasive than critique at the conference. There was an almost reflexive condemning of technology and cyberspace as examples of pathological diminishment of the body, whose presence is of course central to the humanistic paradigm. When I expressed my own view that the cyber body, including the erotic cyber body, is a new form of embodiment that not only can't be ignored but might be essential to human survival on a dying planet, I was criticized but not engaged in discourse. "I just don't want that!" a woman blurted at me.

Maslow's and May's emphasis on creativity - the idea that everyman is an artist in charge of carving out his godgiven self -- was repeatedly emphasized. And there was an almost relentless criticism that creativity has lost currency in American life. A few of us, though, noted on the contrary that creativity has migrated almost entirely to the business world and that, at the same time, there has been an explosion of books on the subject of personal creativity.

To my own mind, following James Hillman's critique, the problem isn't the diminishment of the creative impulse, but the repression of the aesthetic sense - a repression I would call as deadly as the erotic repression that was Freud's obsession. An example, visible from my window at this moment, is the architecture of downtown Atlanta. All manner of creative energy has gone into producing it, but it is soul-less, hideous, by and large, completely inhospitable to the relational human body.

So, in my view, the project of psychology is the reanimation of the aesthetic sense so that creativity recovers soul. This is not about the imposition of formal aesthetics but the broad recovery in our day-to-day lives of the embodied sense of awe that we now marginalize in museums and nature preserves.

Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing

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