What did happen to psychotherapy? The word alone can send unpleasant shivers down the spine of some and evoke images of state regulated symptom control in order to increase “evidenced based” productivity in the workforce and compliance with societal norms. It sounds sickening, but is true. We have created a narrow path of what is considered “good mental health” and in the process marginalized large numbers of people who do not fit the established criteria. Is psychotherapy supposed to be that? It is certainly not what I had in mind when I entered the field. And I would like to believe that the founders of modern psychotherapy from Freud to Jung, would be, maybe not surprised, but still abhorred by what psychotherapy has become nowadays, particular in institutional settings.
Psyche means soul and psychology is the science of the soul, while our word therapy derives from the Greek therapeia, which means healing. The Greek myth of Psyche talks about her suffering, not because she is “ill” but her suffering being an unavoidable “symptom” of her journey towards union with her love Eros and ultimately on her journey towards immortality. By learning to love and by enduring the pain associated with it we transcend our physical limitations.
Looked at from this perspective we are all in need of healing and guidance. It removes the prevalent and stigmatizing divide between the “healthy” and the “ill”. Our current definition of “mental health” causes more harm than help. It terrorizes the soul. The truth is we are all in the same boat. We may have different life stories and we may be at different stages of psychic development, but we all participate in the same divine drama of becoming conscious of who we are, which may be just another way of stating our movement towards immortality.
Therapists of the Jungian persuasion appreciate the soul. We are stewards for psyche. We cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve the collective and psyche at the same time. When Jung developed his idea of “individuation”, he understood that an individual following his true calling may be taken far from collective values and expectations. To walk one’s own path may at times take one even far from what is considered “good mental health”. If you have not ventured into the darkest recesses of your soul, no treasure shall ever be yours.
But we therapists must not fall into the deadly trap of believing that we facilitate a healing or that we have the capacity to guide a patient’s psyche. That would be a fatal inflation. What we can, in fact, what we must do is twofold. For one, we must provide a safe space, a container for the work to occur and we must develop eyes to see the energetic shifts and battles fought out in this space. We can hope, maybe even pray that the true guide of souls, Hermes, shows up and guides the work.
This necessary safe space is not unlike the alchemical vessel. It is both an actual physical location, as well as an imaginal space. It is the field created between therapist and patient. We can imagine this field as a crucible, an open vessel. This kind of soul work is not counceling. We do not give advice. On the imaginal level it is a relationship between two equals. The sparks and darts (transference) will fly back and forth. It will get heated. The imaginal vessel needs an opening for toxic vapors (emotions) to be released. A therapist will begin to “see” the circulating energy as old contents are broken down, bottomless despair is mutually suffered and only then, with grace, a new content in the form of an unexpected thought, an image, a dream will present itself.
At other times the vessel of soul work needs to be imagined as hermetically sealed. When new life needs to be protected. This could be when the therapist senses, “sees” the shimmer of a newly emerging attitude in the patient. Often before the patient has any awareness of it or is unwilling to imbue it with any energy. Just like a plant needs water and light, a barely present new psychic attitude needs to be watered with feeling and fed with the energy of intent.
All too often have the inner workings of the therapy vessel been forgotten. What has survived are the outer manifestations of confidentiality and the code of ethics to protect the patient. Both are crucial aspects of therapeutic work, but without an eye for the drama lived out in the imaginal space of therapeutic work, soul is abandoned one more time again. So you psychotherapists out there, in whose service are you?