Wednesday, September 11, 2019

New Age Therapy

It should not come as too much of a surprise. Therapists in major metropolitan hubs feel obliged to tune into their patients’ interests and concerns. Today’s patients often consult with astrologers, faith healers, Tarot card readers… and let’s not forget their crystals. 

It’s all a bunch of pagan idolatry, but, for many patients it seems to work. After all, if you think that Freud and Jung were into anything other than paganism, you missed the point.

So, therapists adapt to their patients’ interests. Sanam Yar reports for the The New York Times.

Alternative treatments, rituals and metaphysical organizing principles loom large in popular culture. Astrology and tarot cards have permeated apps and social media. Sound baths and other forms of “energy medicine” appear not only in “healing centers,” but also in hospitals.

“A lot of things in psychology were once considered edgy and alternative,” said Charlynn Ruan, a clinical psychologist and the founder of Thrive Psychology Group in California, who said she is learning about different alternative treatments and approaches. “I’m not teaching it, but I’m not saying you can’t bring this into the room. That would be disempowering and arrogant.”

People are putting their trust — and their money — into these practices, which they view as pathways to enlightenment. The wellness market, which encompasses fitness, skin care, travel and nutrition, was valued at $4.2 trillion in 2017, according to the Global Wellness Institute.

Pathways to enlightenment. Strange thought, that. I trust they are not talking about the Western European Enlightenments-- note that there were more than one-- that arrived in the eighteenth century. In truth, these New Age practitioners have no interest in Reason or science. They are attuned to the more spiritual side of human existence. 

But, they are not doing it through what has derisively been called organized religion, especially the more monotheistic kinds. Or through 12 Step programs, an adjunct to religion.

In truth, and ironically, the goals of the faith healers and New Age practitioners have more in common with therapy than most therapists would care to admit. Isn’t therapy about what the therapists call self-knowledge and personal growth? How much of a difference is there really between a therapist and a shaman. Aside from the fact that most therapists do not promise to cure cancer. For many of today’s enlightened residents of coastal radical enclaves, not very much:

What does that mean for therapists, the old standbys of self-knowledge and personal growth? Well, they’re hearing about some of these New Age treatments from patients, and it may have a lot to do with where they work.

In Los Angeles — likely the wellness capital of the world — plant medicine, shamans, astrology, reiki and sound baths come up frequently in sessions.

“In L.A., you’ve always said, ‘My therapist says’ — that’s not a weird thing to say,” said Kristie Holmes, a therapist with Thrive in Beverly Hills, Calif. “But now name-dropping a shaman is normal.”

In New York and Chicago, it’s ayahuasca, tarot readings, astrology and mediums. In Austin, Tex.: crystals, ayahuasca and mediums. In D.C. … well … it’s a little more along the straight and narrow.

Therapists have been adapting. After all, its just raw material:

When these topics do emerge, mental health professionals often see them as ripe for exploration.

“Am I looking up what a person’s sign is?” Dr. Ruan said. “No.” But she has scoured research journals for studies on ayahuasca and watched documentaries on kambo, a secretion from Amazonian tree frogs touted for its healing powers. She has connected with hypnotherapists and somatic healers when clients have raved about them, to better understand what they do, though she doesn’t refer patients to such practitioners.

Imagine the tragic consequences if the fires burning in the Amazon deprive us of our supply of kambo? Can you deal with that?

Whereas in the past modern patients used to share the contents of interpersonal communication, now they present the contents of their psychic readings. Is it the new form of diagnosis:

Occasionally, her open-mindedness has led to breakthroughs. She recalled a patient who played an hour-and-a-half-long recording of her psychic reading over the course of two sessions. “We listened to it together, and we talked about it,” Dr. Ruan said. “For her, it was really an opening and brought up grief about a lost loved one.”

“A client of mine went to a medium, and it ended up bringing up a past trauma for her that she had blocked out, a horrible event,” said William Schroeder, a counselor and co-owner of Just Mind in Austin.

We are entirely in favor of bring back past traumas, but the experience, however liberating it might feel-- and it used to be a standard plot device in movies-- does not tell you anything about how to conduct your life, how to make your way in the world, how to make good adult decisions. The more the therapists direct their patients out of their lives and into their minds, the less their patients will be able to make good adult decisions. And, we ought to show some doubt about these techniques, especially since recovered memories have often been shown to be less than truthful.

As with many of today’s therapists, the New Agers believe in the primacy of feelings:

“There are times when there are feelings that come out of nowhere, and I don’t know how to describe them,” said Abby Mahler, a 25-year-old in Los Angeles. During those moments in therapy sessions, she has found herself talking about tarot, as well as internet memes, to communicate.

Ms. Mahler said her therapists have realized that “when I bring up tarot or a meme, it’s because I don’t have the verbal ability to describe what I need to and this is just a tool to do it.”

So, before you go running out to have someone do your astrological chart, I would offer a wee bit of science, something that can shed some light on these practices. It does not involve a controlled scientific experiment, but it certainly counts as an experience, one that tends to demonstrate something important about astrological signs. 

Many years ago a local news channel here in New York decided to do an experiment. They sent a representative from IBM into an adult education class and told the class members, between 30 and 40 of them, that IBM had developed a new program that could do an astrological reading, and could accurately describe their personalities. So, the class members offered up their names and birth dates, along with the place and hour of their birth.

Fair enough.

A week later the IBM representative came back and distributed bound file reports that showed what the program had discovered about their personalities and their life experience.

The representative gave the students time to read through the reports. Then, he asked how many of them believed that the program had described them accurately. About 75% of the students raised their hands to affirm their confidence in the readings.

At that moment, the representative, or perhaps it was a local news reporter, announced that the students had all been reading precisely the same personality profile. It was an exercise in gullibility, nothing more or less.

And yet, the proposition was not a complete scam. IBM really had developed a program that could do astrological chart readings. In fact, the company had used its program to produce the profile that had been given out to all of the students, the profile that most of them believed described them.

As for whose profile it was, it was generated by using the information about a man named Charles Starkweather, a notorious serial killer who lived during the 1950s.

That tells us most of what we want to know about astrology.


David Foster said...

The followers of these pseudo-mystical practices probably include a lot of people with bumper stickers that say "Believe Science", or words to that effect.

trigger warning said...

Don't be so hard on the New Age types. A good friend of mine (when I lived in Boston in the 80's) was, and still is I guess, a "sound healer". Cool guy. Trust fund fueled entrepreneur. He often asked me to give a lecture for his "sound healing workshops" on acoustics. I always complied. The "workshop" attendees were virtually all single females. It was a goldmine gig. I recall a woman asking me (at a party he gave for his New Age pals) "You're a tourist here, aren't you?" Busted, I was.

Sam L. said...

Makes me happy to live in a small town, and happier to be moving to a rural area, way far away from those people.

UbuMaccabee said...

Killer last line.

Anonymous said...

"That tells us most of what we want to know about astrology."

Except, the placebo effect.