Psychotherapy: Art or science? Medicine or shamanism?
It is my heart’s desire to re-member the practice of psychotherapy into its origins as an art combining the complex song of the human soul with the rhythm of body and its union with nature. Okay…I know you’re asking, “What the…is she talking about?” Is this some kind of New Age mumbo-jumbo and if it is, why doesn’t she move to Nevada City or Sedona, Ariz. and do it there?
Let’s start with a bit of etymology. The word “psychotherapy” comes from two Greek words. “Psyche” is the Greek goddess of soul whose beauty was so daunting nobody wanted to marry her. It was such beauty words could not describe it. Psyche’s journey was one of abandonment, love, loss, descent, death and reconciliation, a journey we mortals repeat in our lives over and over again as we descend into the throes of despair when we suffer loss of love in some form or other and then ascent into the heights of joy and passion in love and vocation. The word “psycho” literally means, “of Psyche.” The word, “therapy” comes from the Greek word “therapia,” which means, “to tend.” In entering into psychotherapy, if true to its meaning, one is “tending the soul.”
When the field of psychotherapy chose me, I imagined sitting with people and listening to their stories and offering a reflective mirror through which they might see aspects of themselves previously unavailable or hidden. Curiosity and love for the stories of others drew me into this work, but what I imagined it would be like is very different from the reality. Unfortunately, the field of psychotherapy has spent a great deal of energy seeking parity with the medical field in its 150 year-old life. But the work of tending the mercurial human soul evades the rigor of science and refuses to be captured in a laboratory.
A physical body, made up of visible matter, is still unpredictable and mysterious in how it expresses symptom. However, cause and effect relationships between symptom and disease have been a better fit for science than psychology. The human psyche has a language all its own and it defies efforts to define, literalize and know it in the same way we understand and know a physical body. The addiction to rigorous science as a measure of validation has damaged the delicate membranes of the human soul’s need for understanding and silent witnessing. To tend a soul in despair is often no more than moving closer to listen deeply to a language expressed often in dream, symptom and symbol; a language that does not like or want words.
So when I say that my heart’s desire is to “re-member” the practice of psychotherapy into its true body of art and philosophy, I am operating out of the assumption it has been “dis-membered.” The dismembering occurred when Western medicine lost its connection to spirituality, around the time of Descartes in the 16th century, its practitioners following the logic the non-material mind could not influence the material body. Since its inception, psychotherapy has suffered as a bastard child of Western medicine, reduced to a set of descriptors and diagnostic criteria that leave out the ineffable nature of the human soul through which nature speaks.
In my view, the art of psychotherapy has been relegated to an interrogation room with metal tables and uncomfortable chairs where the psyche, in her delicate and transparent clothing, shrinks from gods of managed care and longs for a safe place to lie down. We humans are separated only by the width of our thickened skin and scar tissue created by life’s wounds and trials. Our egos are the sentries that defend us against threat and often make it so we cannot move, bound and wrapped in cocoons of fear. We cannot hear what is spoken unless we slow down and listen to the quiet voice from within. The therapy room should be a place where we host the quiet voice.
” Kimball Pier is a practicing therapist and substance abuse counselor. She has an M.S. in marriage and family therapy. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.