The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Sunday, March 3, 2013
Current Affairs ... Psychology ...

I am lucky in that I had parents who cared and managed to do a pretty good job of bringing me up. They certainly had their problems; being their child was not always a sunny-day picnic. But they were the kind of parents whose ultimate loyalty could be taken for granted, all the way thru to adulthood. Only later on in life did I find out what a luxury that was.

I was also lucky in that I never experienced a really bad trauma, like being sexually abused by a priest as a child, or being on a battlefield or witnessing a murder. (And I hope that trend continues into the final decades of my life). As such, I never felt the need to see a professional therapist. I’ve been able to deal with most of my emotional problems by talking with others and thinking things through on my own. (I enjoy questioning myself sometimes, questioning my reasons and motives and behaviors as though I were someone else.). I feel as though my own behavior is under my own control (most of the time, anyway). Thus, I couldn’t imagine investing my time and money into a series of therapeutic discussions with a trained counselor. I can always find better things to do with my limited bank account.

Nonetheless, psychological therapy is still a popular practice amongst college-educated suburban Americans like myself. So I wondered what it was like (although I have read stories about therapy, and have heard descriptions of it from various people that I knew who have patronized professional therapists). Within the past few years I have become an active Zen practitioner, and Zen practice recommends regular mini-conferences with a dharma teacher, as a way to progress along the Zen path (or path of no-path, as the teachers might like to say). And the reality is, at least in the corner of the world where I live, that many Zen teachers are shrinks by profession. Thus, I have had some 10 or 15 minute talks with Zen shrinks, and much of the time the discussions are abstract and philosophical. But sometimes these talks wander off into personal and emotional grounds, and when that happens — it’s hard to avoid getting a taste of client-therapist relationship.

I’ve had this happen maybe 5 or 6 times now. So, what are my impressions regarding the experience (mini-experience in my case) of being in therapy? Hmmm. At first it seems quite impressive. The therapist says insightful things that make you think “wow, I never realized that about myself!” It appears that new doors and new possibilities are being opened before your eyes by some wizard. If you really want to get through those new doors and possibilities, you will have to make a commitment and give the wizard her or his due (maybe $100 an hour — and not even for a full 60 minutes!). If you want to pursue this, you have to pay the freight. At first, the price seems worth the freedom that suddenly comes into view.

But I try to be careful with my time and money, so I wanted to think some more about what the Zen-master shrinks in question seemed to offer. And after a while it hit me. They all have their textbooks, their professional training, and most important, their own lives by which to look at and evaluate others. Despite their commitment to objectivity, they are ultimately very subjective. It became clear to me that my own talk of certain fears and problems were being transcribed and interpreted by the Zen teacher / analysts in light of their own life-experiences. They were willing to give me some time and attention, willing to talk about me. But was it really me that they were talking about?

I really got the feeling after a while that these good, well-intentioned people were talking about someone else. What they said at first seemed insightful and challenging. After a while, it just seemed off-the-mark. Instead of taking time to get to know me, they were shooting from the hip, telling me about my “true” self based upon some sketchy impressions gained from a couple of hours of conversation with me.

In those hours, did they find out where I came from? Who my parents were, what they were like? Where I grew up, who were my friends (and nemeses) in school? What makes me happy and sad? What makes me smile and cringe? What do I hope for, what are my values in life? Unless they are incredible mind-readers, I cannot see how they could know all of this from but a few hours of talk, always held on their own turf. (That is another problem I have with shrinks — it’s always on their turf. How can they really know my world without seeing my living quarters, my street, my office, my interactions with the various places and communities that make up my day-to-day life?).

Unfortunately, this is one the things that also bothers me about Buddhism. I.e., the doctrine of “no self”. The notion that we’re not really all that real. “WHO ARE YOU”, the voice says in the PBS special on Buddhism. It’s not a friendly voice that truly wants to know who I am. It’s a demanding and accusing voice that wants me to admit that I’m not special; the “I” in me is not to be taken seriously. That notion plays well with what I’ve seen of modern psychotherapy. I.e., no need to take a lot of time to get to know and appreciate each person; we’re not fundamentally different. There’s not much individualism in our identity as individuals, despite our delusions of subjectivity and specialness. One size fits all.

I took a walk outside the other night, and there was an unexpected snowshower going on. The street lamps illuminated all the snowflakes fluttering down from the clouds above. It was too warm for them to survive on the ground, so they melted rather quickly. Their lives were short. It was tempting not to think of the individual snowflake, instead just focus on the overall field of flakes in the sky, like a room where someone has shaken out an old feather pillow. I decided to occasionally pick out just one snowflake coming past the street lamp, and try to follow it to the ground. What was more important, what was more poetic? The broad sky littered with twirling flakes, or the one flake dancing and weaving its way towards the ground?

Our modern interpretation of Buddhism, along with our popular notions of the science of the mind, seem to focus more upon the sky than on the flake. And ditto for the flake in the plural sense — i.e., the community of all flakes that make up the snowstorm, the social context of being a flake. Modern American manifestations of Buddhism and Zen certainly can be criticized for being too focused on the individual versus the group, on the needs of Zen and those who might seek out Zen, versus the needs of our social communities such as they are.

If modern psychology shares a lot of common presumptions with modern Zen and Buddhism, then what is said above could apply to psychotherapy. But how could it be different? Well, let’s keep pushing the weather analogy. As with psychology, weather analysis uses a lot of studies and abstract concepts. And both fields make their predictions, for both local conditions and more global situations. But unlike the meteorologists, those involved in the psychology trade seems to think that they can change what they study and analyze.

I feel that the ability of psycho-therapeutic counseling to change people’s live for the better is far more restricted than most shrinks believe. In situations involving exogenous trauma, I do believe that profession counselors can help victims to find and implement short-term coping strategies. But as to long term situations involving “storms within the mind”, I think that the effectiveness of professional therapy is much more limited.

Chaos theory has been found to have much application to analyzing the dynamics that create our daily weather; and more and more psychology researchers are suspecting that chaos theory can also apply to the complex dynamics of our emotional and social interactions. But chaos theory brings the realization of inherent limitations, of limited prediction horizons and degrees of uncertainty that cannot be eliminated. And the field of meteorology is mostly limited to predicting the weather, not making it. (One of the biggest potential fields for influencing the weather, i.e. “geo-engineered” responses to the expected impacts of global warming, are causing much consternation because of the appreciable possibility of their going astray and causing more harm than good).

I believe that the field of psychology, when it finally comes to grips with chaos and complex-systems theories, will have to face what might be an unpopular notion: that our therapists really can’t do too much more than “forecast” the psycho-emotional weather that any one person current experiences and will experience in the short-term. As to long-term forecasts and solutions to undesired “weather of the mind”, I believe that the analyst profession (a large and growing portion of the American workforce) will have to stop promising the possibility of everyone attaining a healthy, well-balance life of growth and fulfillment.

Perhaps the shrink industry will have to admit that some old-fashioned notions, e.g. that consulting friends and people that care are the best way to get through an emotional crisis. Instead of deep analysis of a patient’s past and present mind state, perhaps the analyst could best help the person see what kind of “storm” they might now be suffering from, and go over the options for finding shelter until such storm might dissipate. I understand that many people don’t have adequate supportive relationships and people to take care of them while in crisis; maybe society will have to find new ways to support such people using volunteers. Do you need an MSW or a PhD to be a volunteer friend to those who are upset with their lives? Sure, psychological professionals will still be needed in tough cases involving suicidal people and criminals and sociopaths and schizophrenics. But even some autistic and schizophrenic people could benefit from interaction with well-intentioned non-professionals who would be supported by a PhD or CSW.

Once upon a time, when communities were smaller and families were more closely knit, these kinds of “volunteer” support relationships just happened. In a world of more independence and isolation, their availability can no longer be taken for granted. The proliferation of psychotherapists (job growth forecasts for mental health counselors are “much faster than average” according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics) in some ways fills in this gap. But not always for the best. Zen Buddhism can harmlessly go on imagining that it possesses some esoteric, self-absorbed wisdom that is the key to adjustment and personal fulfillment (i.e., “enlightenment”). But professional psychotherapy needs to get real. It need to stop promising “cures”, and start working with old-fashioned communal structures, in order to help those who are troubled — to the degree that people who suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in this world can, in fact, be “cured”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:30 pm      

  1. Jim, On the one hand I agree with you. On the other hand, it’s not so much that I disagree with you, but I think that it would do well to consider things from another standpoint.

    First of all, I like very much your “snowflake” comparison. What a good idea to just look at one snowflake among all the rest and follow it to the ground! – an interesting comparison to one human among all the rest on the earth.

    Also I think you have an excellent point about all the (what’s the right word?) pseudo-psychological professionals that are “around”. The priest, minister, Sensei, Rabbi, etc., taking over the job of the psychological professionals tends to hark back, I think, to the days when there were few, psychologists or psychoanalysts and the job of “confession” went to the religious professional.

    Yet these days I think that too many of these “pseudo-psychologists” actually think they can do the job of professional psychologists, psychiatrists, or psychoanalysts. Most people (or at least a great many) have a need for some kind of spiritual or religious connection in their lives. When a problem comes up in their lives, the first one they turn to is their religious professional. Unfortunately, while these religious professionals may be very well educated and informed in their specific religious (or even philosophical) field, they are hardly informed in human psychological needs. They may *think* they are, but they are not.

    I should say here in the light of full disclosure: I have a masters degree in clinical psychology. I myself have made this exact mistake – that of seeking professional psychological help from a religious professional (and I’ve done it on more than one occasion). Sadly, I’ve come to realize what a serious mistake it is to seek out psychological help from a religious person attempting to give psychological help. They may be well meaning, but they are not equipped to do the job. I speak from experience here.

    Another place there are pseudo-psychological professionals is TV. With all due respect to Dr. Phil, he’s a very well known individual giving out pseudo-professional psychological help. Specifically: “Here’s your problem, and here’s your solution. Now just go home and do these things and you will be OK.” Little help there.

    It is true that what a lot of people need is someone to listen carefully and non-judgmentally and unconditionally to them, and then let the person find his/her own way to his/her own solution to the problems in life. The problem is that very often the “non-judgmental” and “unconditional” aspect of listening is thrown out and religious, philosophical, and even a particular individual’s own ideas (“buy my book”) are substituted. For a few people that may be enough help to solve their life’s problems. After all, we all muddle through life in our own ways.

    Yet, there are some cases where professional psychological help is needed; and it’s important to discriminate the kind of help that one may need or want. Some individuals may have serious mental health problems which require both pharmacological and psychological help. (I should say that when it comes to pharmacological help, one must be very careful. See on the “very careful” part of psychological pharmacology.) In these cases a psychiatrist or psychologist would be appropriate. Yet, here again, it is well known in the field that when one seeks a psychological professional, one must “shop around” (so to say) to get with a person with whom one “clicks”. Not every psychiatrist or psychologist will do for any one individual. One must “test out” the professional before sticking with that individual for help.

    Then too, if one wants to delve deeply into one’s subconscious and unconscious, then one needs a psychoanalyst. A lot of times licensed social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists also will work in the psychoanalytical field. Once again: One must get the “right” person to work with, not just “someone.”

    I am not sure I agree with your concept (if I read you correctly) of the psychological professional “forecasting” the “psycho-emotional weather” of an individual. First, I do not agree with the idea that the psychological professional can “forecast” anything about anybody; what is free will about if one can “forecast” what another will do. Nor do I agree with the comparison of one’s psychological (what’s the appropriate word here?) makeup can be compared to the weather. While I like the comparison of the snowflake/individual, I think the analogy ends there.

    The work of the psychological professional is to offer a safe place where the individual can express, share, reveal deep, hidden, unconscious aspects of him/herself and be received and accepted non-judgmentally and unconditionally as the person he/she is.

    Unfortunately, pseudo-psychological professionals do little of those things: They do not offer a safe place (specifically, TV is hardly a “safe place”), they do not offer non-judgmental attitudes toward the individual, nor do they accept the person unconditionally when one’s deepest emotions are brought to the surface. Too many times their reaction becomes: “You ask/did/think what??!!!” If that’s not judgmental and lacking in the unconditional, what is?

    I am sure that many psychological professionals will disagree with me, and perhaps you do too. But one of the things that has bothered me in my life time is just exactly what I think you’re trying to get at in this post, that there are too many poorly psychologically educated individuals who think that “anybody can do that” work, when they simply cannot.

    I do agree with you that often a close family member or a close friend can supply the careful, non-judgmental, and unconditional atmosphere that one needs to express some of one’s inner most feelings and thoughts. Often such a non-professional is sufficient to give the help that is needed. Then again, some people need more from full professionals who can offer the precise help they need. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — March 4, 2013 @ 7:33 pm

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