Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Hundred Years of Psychotherapy

The Industrial Revolution blew the lid off Pandora’s Box, releasing a poisonous whirlwind of evils into the world.  Millions of rural people were herded into vast, filthy, disease-ridden cities to live among hordes of strangers, perform miserable work, and die young.  It was pure hell, and many people snapped.  Insane asylums began popping up like mushrooms, and the psychotherapy industry was born. 
In Vienna, Freud kept busy treating hysterical Austrians, and Jung worked with “schizy” inmates at a Zürich asylum.  They launched an insurgency against European Puritanism, a mindset that drove many out of their minds — desire was bad, and punctual, robotic conformity to a system of pleasure-free maximum productivity was the compulsory objective.
So, the first wave of psychotherapy was radical and rebellious, but a second wave that emerged in the ‘50s has been regressive.  The new mode purported that newborns were pure, innocent, blank slates.  Once born, the beautiful, helpless “inner child” was vulnerable to abuse from others that could knock it off balance, sometimes permanently. 
In the therapy room, attention was focused on the patient’s past — a hunt for abuse that may have happened decades ago.  Mental illness was usually the result of a screwed up childhood, and it was believed to reside within the patient.  The endless bombardment of dark influences from the surrounding insane society was off the radar.  The goal of mainstream therapy was helping wounded patients adapt to living in an insane society.  Mainstream therapists now practice everywhere in America.
James Hillman (1926-2011) was a student of Jung, and once served as the director of the C. G. Jung Institute.  Over the years, he became a vocal critic of modern psychotherapy.  In his opinion, newborns were not blank slates, and they were not born whole and perfect — they were unique acorns with a calling and a destiny, tuned into the voices of their ancestors.  
He thought that mainstream therapy was turning the educated middle class into docile plebes, trained to “cope (and not protest), to adapt (and not rebel) to… make it work for you (rather than refuse the unacceptable).”  He strongly believed that the therapy room should become a cell of revolution.  Patients needed to become involved in the insane world, and transform it into a healthier place for all life.  Aim at the core of the problem, not the side effects.
Michael Ventura (born 1945) was a popular journalist for the trendy L.A. Weekly.  He had abundant experience as a consumer of therapy.  Mental illness was a significant theme in his family history.  Most of the people he knew were either in therapy, practicing therapists, or both.  At the same time, he saw that most marriages and relationships around him were dysfunctional to varying degrees.  How could this be, at the zenith of human progress?
In 1990, he interviewed Hillman, and the article generated abundant buzz.  This inspired them to do a book: We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy — And the World’s Getting Worse.  It’s a scrapbook of interviews, conversations, and written correspondence, an informal jam session of passionate ideas.  Their two minds soar and play, and the result is a stimulating duet.  The book was published prior to the Prozac Revolution.
According to Jung, “individuation” was the ideal destination — the lifelong process of becoming more and more who you are.  (He also said: “The most terrifying thing is to know yourself.”)  Individuation involved throwing overboard the stuff that was not who you are.  This shifted us from a realm of comfortable habits to unfamiliar territory, where growth was more likely to happen.  When we strayed onto a path where we didn’t belong, our inner life force sent us clear warning messages, “symptoms” (anxiety, depression, etc.).  Hillman said, “Only the unconscious can save us: in your pathology is your salvation.” 
It’s wacky to help people adjust to living in an insane society, to stifle their healthy resistance, and encourage their submission.  Hillman denounced “therapeutic Puritanism,” with its psychic numbing and sensual numbing.  America had been anaesthetized by the Puritan mindset.  “Just look at our land — this continent’s astonishing beauty — and then look at what we immigrants, Bibles in hand, priests and preachers in tow, have done to it.”
The authors linked the rise of mental illness to the rise of individualism and its shadows, alienation and oppression.  For them, the psyche did not live inside the individual, the individual dwelled within the vast timeless collective psyche, like a fish in the ocean.  In the good old days, life was tribal and communal.  Spirituality embraced all sacred beings, animate and inanimate.  Both feet were firmly planted in a stable sense of time and place.  Life was rich with meaning, power, and beauty.  Ventura suspected that “the quality of wholeness is not located in the individual but in a community that includes the environment.”
Christianism blindsided the ancient balance with its new concept of individual salvation.  Suddenly, the creator of the entire universe was paying around-the-clock attention to ME — watching everything I did, continuously reading my mind, and remembering all of my errors.
Following Columbus, the disintegration of ancient balance went into warp drive.  Europeans, their slaves, and the people they conquered were uprooted and scattered across the planet.  The social glue of ancient cultures dissolved.  “Nothing needed to be permanent anymore.”
In the last hundred years, life has gone totally crazy.  Our sense of time and place has vaporized.  Ventura called it “the avalanche.”  We lived in an era of “simultaneous, massive changes on every level of life everywhere, that have built up unstoppable momentum as they speed us toward God knows where.”  Obviously, we’re heading for disaster.  “You can’t negotiate with an avalanche.  Nothing, nothing, nothing is going to stop the shipwreck of this civilization.”
Understand that the world is not ending, just this pathological civilization.  We should not regret its passing, but honor its death with song.  The good news here is that “I” am not sick, my society is.  The good news is that the sick society is busy dying, setting the stage for rebirth and renewal.  Hillman: “Any major change requires a breakdown.”  The next century or two may be rough, but it won’t last forever.  “The only solution can come when the world is reanimated, when we recognize how alive everything is, and how desirable.”
What should we do?  In a nutshell, two things are essential.  (1) We cannot move toward healing without the power of imagination.  Imagination allows us to break out of ruts, overcome barriers, and see farther, with greater clarity.  It strengthens our ability to envision a healthier future.  (2) Individualism is a toxic ball and chain, and we need to leave it behind, in the rubble of the past.  We must remember community living and rejoin the family of life.
Ventura said it like this: “You don’t %@&# around.  You don’t waste your life trying to find a secure place in the avalanche, ‘cause there ain’t no such animal.  You do the work of the soul.”  He told his son, “If you wanted to volunteer for fascinating, dangerous, necessary work, this would be a great job to volunteer for — trying to be a wide-awake human during a Dark Age and keeping alive what you think is beautiful and important.”

Hillman, James and Ventura, Michael, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy — And the World’s Getting Worse, Harper Collins, New York, 1992.  http://www.michaelventura.org/


Suzanne Duarte said...

Hi Richard, Thanks so much for your colorful and sharply etched account of 'a hundred years of therapy and the world's getting worse.' This is reassuring: "We must remember community living and rejoin the family of life.
Ventura said it like this: “You don’t %@&# around. You don’t waste your life trying to find a secure place in the avalanche, ‘cause their ain’t no such animal. You do the work of the soul.” He told his son, “If you wanted to volunteer for fascinating, dangerous, necessary work, this would be a great job to volunteer for — trying to be a wide-awake human during a Dark Age and keeping alive what you think is beautiful and important.”

Yeah! That's my volunteer job description. Thanks, Suzanne

What Is Sustainable said...

Suzanne, many books fade from my memory within a few years or months. This book made a lasting imprint. I like original thinkers.

Doing the work of the soul pays very well, and these two guys were lucky enough to be able to make a living at it.

Ivy Mike said...

RE: Individualism

Both Boehm and Service use the exact individualistic terminology—"autonomous and sovereign"—to describe egalitarian Non-state band and tribal lifeways.

Individualism is toxic only when concentrated into hierarchical mass society (civilization,) because humans are evolutionarily adapted to egalitarianism, not hierarchy (some Lording-It-Over others.)

Boehm, Christopher. (2001) Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Service, Elman. (1975) Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution. New York, NY: Norton.

What Is Sustainable said...

Ivy Mike, from the anthropology I've read, some tribes had problems with "big heads" who became a nuisance because of self-importance. They were teased, mocked, belittled to humble them.

On the other hand, Axtel celebrates "pride and independence" as healthy.

Words are a hard way to communicate. Thanks!

What Is Sustainable said...

This colorful and interesting book by Hillman and Ventura is now available as a free download. Click Here.

What Is Sustainable said...

It's now 2019, and the free download disappeared, along with the extinct website.