W. Hunter Roberts
Transformative Arts


A New Model for Psycho-Healing
by W. Hunter Roberts, M.S. W., M. Div.

Recently a family member with little experience in such matters consulted me in his search for a good therapist. He wanted to interview prospective counselors to find a qualified person who was a good "fit," but he did not know what to ask the practitioners he interviewed. I suggested three questions:

  1. What is your model and standard of mental health?
  2. What is it that you understand yourself to be doing?
  3. What is your method of practice?

Much to my dismay, questions one and two stumped most of the therapists he interviewed. Most of them seemed not to have given these questions much thought. Yet the answers we have for these questions form the ground for our practice, whether we think about them consciously or not. Our answers to these questions are formed by something more basic and more in the background than our psychodynamic theory. They are formed by our basic ideas about the universe and the place of humans in it. This is what I am referring to as the psycho-ontology of psychotheraputic practice.

Psycho-ontology is the ground of psychological theory which is the ground for practice. Many people in counseling practice can articulate the psychological theory out of which they work (psychosynthesis, object relations, family systems). Few, however, are able to articulate their psycho-ontology. This is not because they do not have one. It is because they take it for granted, as a fish takes for granted the water in which it swims its entire life. The water is not distinguised as water. Nor is it critiqued, analyzed, or broken down into parts of hydrogen and oxygen. Because water provides a context for everything the fish does, , the water is not even noticed, as such. It is simply "the way it is,"or "reality," in the "normal" world of fish. Yet life in the fish's world would be defined and created completely differently in the context of air, rather than water. So differently, in fact, that it would not be what it is---a fish! It is this background element, usually taken for granted, that defines and limits what can grow there.

Like water, our psycho-ontology is a given, part of the unnoticed background of our practice. We, like the fish, are born into a world assumed to be "normal' or "the way it is," complete with a view of reality and being. Our world view is given automatically by our culture and the way in which knowledge is defined and acquired in it. Likewise our model and standards of mental, spiritual, and emotional health are defined by the background of what our culture defines as the nature of reality and the place of humans in it. This is not irrelevent philosphical speculation; it is fundamental to healing the human soul. For we cannot heal a soul without having some idea of what that is. Conversely, the way in which we understand what that is points us in the direction of deciding what we must do to heal it.

Until quite recently mental health standards and values came filtered through a psychological theory which was grounded in a philosophical period called Positivism. Positivism said the world was made up of completely separate, separable, and autonomous parts. The way to understand anything, according to Positivism, is to isolate it from its surroundings, then take it apart even further, breaking it down into its smallest component pieces. Positivism says the whole is equal to the sum of its parts. This notion is the basis of what is commonly called the mechanical model of the world.

In psychology, Positivism translates to a view of human beings as fundamentally separate and unrelated: separate from one another, and unrelated to the world around us. In this model of human life, we are a raging mass of programmed impulses and drives set against an inanimate world. In the framework of this ontology the psychotheraputic project is to find, define, nurture, and protect a precious substance or essence called the self.

This self is a thing that we are all supposed to have. It is something we are either born with or develop in early infancy, and it is either nutured or damaged by our parenting and education. If it is damaged, and it frequently is, we wind up in a therapist's office to have it rebuilt. Even humanistic and transpersonal psychologies by and large follow this model, although they may adopt a wider range of repair procedures and a more transcendent notion of the essential self to be repaired. Thus the goals and standards of much transpersonal and humanistic psychology remain rooted in the same psycho-ontology as traditional psychoanalysis and psychiatry: a world view which sees the world as "stuff, "humans as separate from it, and the self as a "thing" which can be known, broken, and repaired.

If we understand ourselves to be separate and unrelated, the goals and standards deriving from this understanding would be the ones that most Western mental health professionals take to be "normal": autonomy, self sufficiency, controlled aggression, consistent sense of self, ego strength, ability to compete for power over resources, ability to negotiate relationship without losing the self, and good defenses and boundaries (ones which do not interfere with social success or competativeness), to keep our precious self intact. These are the primary qualities which allow an individual to survive in a world to which s/he is fundamentally unrelated. Our well being in this model depends largely upon our ability to navigate the dangerous waters of life without getting too battered or influenced by all the other separate selves out there fighting for survival. (Is it any surprise that this model arose out of the same philosophical ground as early Darwinsim?) Relationships are viewed as adversarial, dominated by the struggle ,or, at best, the negotiation, for power. Keeping others out of our space and our decisions is paramount, if we are to maintain our separate self. Odysseus is the archtypal hero. Saying "no" frequently and effectively becomes a key survival skill. The standard for a healthy relationship becomes, ironically: can we have a connection in which we do not let the needs of the other impede on us or our sense of who we are? In other words, independence and stability are the logical core values, or standards, of a psycho-ontology grounded in Positivism, a philosophy that understands us apart from our relationhips.

Now let us consider the psycho-ontology which undergirds the recent developments of eco-psychology. Eco-psychology implies a radically different vantage point for examining human life in the world, based in the developments of modern relativity physics and deep ecology. The more we probe the make-up of our universe, the more it seems that we live in a world in which patterns of relationship are primary. In fact, it seems that nothing exists apart from these patterns of relationships, which are constantly in motion, forming and transforming themselves in an ever evolving variety of ways. Deep ecology points to the biologically obvious tenet that human beings are neither outside nor above the world, but derivative of it, living in relationship to every other living thing.We are interdependent with the natural world, eating and being eaten, breathing and transforming oxygen into carbon dioxide, all as part of the food chain. If we understand the universe to be a process rather than a thing, it follows that the self is not a fixed thing either.The implications of both of these disciplines point to the stunning possibility that we may not "have" separate selves at all. We may be interdependent parts of a whole which is far more than the sum of its parts. Our so-called selves may be evolving patterns in the dance of forming and transforming the universe, related to and interrelated with everything around us.

This is a dangerously different notion of the self, one which radically alters the manner in which we view and treat people who come to us for healing. We begin to view them not as static things that are broken in need of fixing, but as whole and unique patterns of relationship: fluid, related, transforming, and embodied. If we are to take this world view seriously, it implies the adoption of a whole new model and set of standards for mental health in the coming century. Perhaps it is time to replace our old standards of stability and independence with new standards of openness, (the ability to take in or open our boundaries), integrity (containing and integrating what we take into our wholeness), and sharing (putting what we have transformed out again in a new form).These are the qualities required to thrive in and contribute to an interdependent world. Instead of autonomy and fixed boundaries, relatedness and flexibility move to the fore. A transforming, moving sense of self, the ability to change shape while maintaining integrity, replaces the old stable self we could fully know. (How can we ever fully know what is always in process?) Being fully related, constantly forming and transforming, and whole, become our measures of health. Where previously our model came out of an ontology that placed human nature at odds with nature itself, eco psychology allows us to find ourselves in the ebbs and flows of the living universe. We discover that we dance the same dance. We look to the basic movements of life for guidence: the urge to form, and the urge to transform. Surely there is a new possibility of health, harmony, and vitality in this discovery.

How does this new model of mental and emotional health affect our understanding and practice of our work in the counseling or healing of souls?

The psycho-ontology of static self in a fixed universe implies the sort of practice which fits well with what is often referred to as the medical model of psychotherapy. This model is derivative of the era and philosophy referred to earlier as the mechanical model of the world and the human being. The human psyche is seen to be like an engine, which is supposed to function in a particular way. It is not supposed to be altered or transformed by its interractions with, say, the weather, or the fuel put in it. Should it, in spite of all that is there to protect it, be affected by these external factors, its is the mechanic's job to fix it, or put it back to the way it was. The healer in the mechanical model is like a mechanic with a bedside mannner.

The healer in this new model is a soul worker, who walks beside the client as a trail-guide, medicine person, and fluid embodiment of whatever the person most needs. Does the client need mothering to open to love and trust? The therapist becomes motherly.Does the client need grounding? The therapist holds ground and teaches techniques of grounding, Does the client need to stiffen his spine and stop being a victim? The therapist embodies tough love. The therapist is not just a therapist, but a coach, spiritual counselor, teacher, witness, and fellow traveler on the road of evolving Be-ing, in which we all are at once whole and evolving into ever new levels of wholeness, always in flux, and moving toward oneness with ourselves, the evolving universe, and others.