Peak Psychotherapy

SUBHEAD: If we can spend as much time in the community garden as we do on the couch, then perhaps it will serve us to have a shrink. Do we need a shrink as the world ends? Image above: From By Carolyn Baker on 16 November 2009 in Speaking Truth To Power

This past week I read with fascination the posts by Sally Erickson on “The Culture of Pretend: How Psychotherapy Keeps our Communities Sick” and Kathy McMahon’s response “Bozos On The Couch: What Is ‘Good Therapy’ In A Time of Collapse?” As I’ve pondered these posts, I’m compelled to respond to several incongruities and offer missing pieces that I believe must be added to the discourse.

I was a psychotherapist in private practice for 17 years, and 12 years ago, I felt compelled to leave the profession. At the time, I wasn’t clearly aware of why, but today, I realize that some part of me knew that not only was the profession about to disintegrate, but that my talents and skills could be more effectively engaged elsewhere.

I currently live in Boulder, Colorado where I am developing a Transition Counseling and Spiritual Direction practice to reach out to individuals who may be experiencing unemployment, foreclosure, bankruptcy, loss of benefits, loss of retirement, and other crises resulting from the collapse of industrial civilization.

I’m also exploring options for working with people by phone as well as in person. As I interact with people hurting from a variety of economic, emotional, physical, and spiritual devastation, I notice that few of them have to be reminded that something is horribly wrong with the culture in which they live. They feel unspeakably betrayed and shattered as a result of the faith they invested in the American dream, and they are now experiencing the nightmare it has become in their personal lives.

Up until perhaps 2008, it might have been useful to bemoan the culture in which we live in an effort to teach our fellow humans that it is killing them and all other earthlings. Today, I find that even if people maintain a persona that we’re simply passing through a “rough patch” and that things will get back to normal because after all, this is America, and we will bounce back—just beneath the surface of that particular mask is a profoundly disturbing awareness that we are in dire and unprecedented territory and that a “return to normal” is a tragic chimera.

Because few people are solidly convinced of what this pathetic culture can actually deliver, I’m finding it unnecessary and even counterproductive to keep whining about that reality. What people want and need is a sense that they’re not alone, that they’re not crazy, that there are many things they can do to enhance their personal empowerment in the context of an unraveling civilization, and very importantly, that there is work for them to do in their neighborhood and community—that they can invest their life force energy there and work with others to prepare for a deepening collapse. Curiously, I’m finding that the latter option is perhaps the most important of all.

I am currently working with Transition Colorado and networking with other Transition groups around the nation and world, but Transition is only one of many venues for involvement with one’s community in preparation for the Long Emergency. The opportunities for doing preparatory work with others locally are infinite.

While I believe it is crucial to understand how we have all incorporated the toxicity of the culture on myriad levels, and while it is equally important to buy out of the dominant system, it is extremely important to engage with other awake individuals in preparing for collapse by doing that work together.

The time of focusing exclusively on individual childhood wounding, individualistic self-empowerment, coping skills, and personal self-esteem is over. I’m not dismissing these as irrelevant, but humanity has now reached an evolutionary threshold in which we must grow up and evolve together or become extinct.

Evolving together means working together. Incessant navel contemplation and “woundology” enhanced by sitting in groups and attempting to create intimacy is not only narcissistic, but is in some sense, a crime against the earth community because it compartmentalizes humans from their inherent membership in the human and more-than-human families. It fosters a sense of “us and them” and propagates an odious arrogance that “our little group” is better than, wiser than, more evolved than, and more likely to survive than those others hoodwinked by the dominant culture. I’m not sure that at this point in the collapse process that we can engage in this kind of work without inadvertently perpetuating the culture of empire that we proclaim to abhor.

Perhaps even more counterproductive is isolation and an abdication of our human responsibility to serve the earth community. While it may be useful to sit in conversation groups with likeminded folks, it is, in my opinion, our moral obligation to serve the world in which we live, and as stated above, the opportunities for doing so are endless. This is tricky because it means we must create and maintain good boundaries. It means serving but also keeping some distance from the prevailing paradigm.

Engaging in service does not mean wallowing in the system, but it does mean affirming that we are part of the earth community, not better than—that we are equally vulnerable, equally fallible, and that by serving, we are joining with our fellow earth inhabitants to carry the vision of a new paradigm, whether that paradigm ever prevails or not.

In her>“Lessons From The Edge”, Sharon Astyk reminds us of why it’s important to carry the vision:

"…at the end of the night the sense is this – that though the odds are increasingly small and the abyss below us increasingly vast, what matters most is that we live our lives as though we can succeed, because every bit of harm we prevent and every blow softened matters, and in the end, how you lived matters as much as the winning. Most of what we do may not work, in the sense of preserving it all, but ought to preserve some -and some is a great deal when measured in human lives and happiness."

You see, it isn’t about “preventing” collapse or the triumph of a new paradigm, but rather about minimizing the suffering.

Some individuals believe that the ideal model for transcending the culture of empire is the ecovillage or intentional community. There may be a time, in my opinion, when this option is truly viable, but at this stage of collapse, I think not. People who do live in intentional communities usually report that because of the emotional baggage people bring to the community, it is necessary to spend hours daily “processing” these issues in order to resolve conflicts.

Generally, if this processing is not done, the community falls apart. That, from my perspective, is because for the most part, non-tribal people are not yet in a situation where they need to create tribes. When they need to do so, they probably will. Until then, we will have isolated ecovillages held together by incessant psychological processing, and how, I ask, is this different from living in a gated community in suburbia?

As Kathy McMahon notes:

"Rather than learning to speak more honestly, (a skill I value, highly, by the way), I think that the true therapist encourages people to do more listening and do more real honest work with other people they live around. Meaningful work means local work that will heal and repair the world around you."

I believe that in addition to service, we must also address our own personal shadow. The shadow is a Jungian term that simply means all within us that we have disowned and said, “That’s not me.” It can be the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, and everything in between. It is more than just taking responsibility for “my part” in an event or an interaction.It is the willingness to explore how something we despise or loathe may actually be a part of us which we project outward onto other individuals and on the culture itself.

In other words, how do I act out empire on a daily basis? How do I abuse, exploit, plunder, pillage, manipulate, and use power and control to get what I think I need? How do I subtly or blatantly perpetuate Western civilization’s curse of entitlement and “specialness”? Of course, I wouldn’t do any of this consciously, because I’m too “enlightened”, right? Wrong. That’s why rigorous exploration of the shadow is so crucial.

Doing shadow work is very humbling and radically diminishes arrogance because it reveals our sameness and what we have in common with our fellow humans, as opposed to how we believe we are superior. And in fact, in the same way that within the dark recesses of the earth we sometimes find gold, within the most despised parts of ourselves, we find treasures that if “mined” and worked with, provide the compassion, creativity, patience, and humility that allow us to transform the “emperor within.”

One piece I found implicit but not explicit in both Erickson’s and McMahon’s articles is the importance of connecting with something greater than ourselves and other humans. I have attempted in Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse, to offer not only tools for emotional preparation for collapse, but options for enhancing our relationship with something greater.

Some people abhor the word “spiritual”, yet some of the most “spiritual” individuals I have ever met call themselves atheists and agnostics. Here again, the contamination of words with the semantics of empire challenges our definitions, but in my experience, I have met few people who aren’t “spiritual” in the sense that they are able to stand in awe of forces greater than the personal ego, such as nature, love, beauty, joy, and sorrow—to name only a few. For me, “spiritual” means little more than having a heart and a gut, and where emotion ends and “spiritual” begins, who can say?

Here in Boulder, and in several places around the country, people have started Sacred Demise study groups which simply means they are using the book as a springboard for exploring many other topics. What I know of these groups is that they are not intended to be venues for ongoing inner work or the creation of intimacy, yet in the process of coming together to work with the book’s contents, both seem to occur quite naturally. What I also notice is that folks in these groups are not isolated, but extensively involved in service in their neighborhoods and communities.

Much of the emotional work we may “think” we need to do at this stage of the transition—work that is still primarily optional, will pale by comparison to work that will need to be done as collapse accelerates. Some of the work we are doing now may seem almost irrelevant in the light of intensifying challenges down the road. But all of the work we do now or later will be informed and interpreted by the conditions around us and will only make sense in the light of them.

A very important question for those currently practicing psychotherapy is raised by McMahon:

"When our neighborhoods are defined by the five-to-ten miles around our homes, we’ll be forced to learn new skills, and being diplomatic will count a whole lot more than honesty all by itself. As therapists, we’d do well to encourage our clients to appreciate the qualities of human connections and interactions by doing thoughtful, tangible and useful things for others in our neighborhood, without an expectation of an immediate payoff. When we learn to be helpful and constructive to others, our oddness or emotional damage will become less important than the way we go about salvaging our humanity. We may well find ourselves in a time when it will be a rare person who has escaped true hardship. Right now, one of every six workers in the U.S. are unemployed or underemployed."

What will our job as psychotherapists be when that number grows to one in five or even one in three?

In the title of this article I have put the word “ends” in quotation marks because I do not believe that the world will end, but certainly the world as we have known it is ending. That includes the institution of psychotherapy which in its traditional form is collapsing as rapidly and as profoundly as every other institution of civilization. Two decades from now, it will bear little resemblance to its present form.

One reality of that transition will be that if therapists expect to get paid for their work, they should plan to accept payment in vegetables or chickens because money as we know it, eventually won’t exist. Regardless of what happens, however, it is only the work we do in the external world—in our particular places with real human beings, that gives meaning to the work we do in the inner world.

If we can spend as much time in the community garden as we do on the couch, then perhaps it will serve us to have a shrink as the world ends. Or perhaps as awake individuals strive to maintain this balance, less therapy will be needed and our roles as therapists as we know them will become obsolete. We will then discover other gifts to offer our communities.

I have written much about initiation, more recently an article entitled “Humanity’s Rite of Passage: A World Tended By Adults.” The initiated woman or man knows that the world is not a perfect place and that if it were, he or she would probably not be here because his/her gifts would not be needed here. Contempt for the culture serves no one, nor does insistence that our roles in relation to a collapsing empire must function in traditional ways. Collapse will show us where we are most needed and how we can best serve, yes the operative word is serve, our fellow creatures.

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