An avalanche of criticism 

Psychology takes yet another turn

It's been about 15 years since I burned out on a full-time career in media and went back to school to get a master's degree in psychology.

Three things inspired my decision. First, I'd watched many friends die of AIDS in near-poverty, unable to afford any kind of counseling. Second, I had participated in a three-week program in California that employed principles of transpersonal psychology, which addresses the spiritual as well as the strictly psychological. Those three weeks brought me to a degree of self-awareness that a lifetime of more conventional therapy had not. Third, I had taken up a Buddhist form of meditation, which likewise taught me practical skills therapy never had.

I did my master's degree at the University of West Georgia, which was once among the nation's hotbeds of humanistic, phenomenological and transpersonal psychology. It still somewhat retained a radical flavor when I was a student there, but the question of whether to offer a conventional clinical program or to continue to stress an almost philosophical, exploratory orientation had embroiled the psychology department in chaotic infighting.

The first class I took at West Georgia was in Buddhist psychology with Kaisa Puhakka, who later became my adviser. When I first met Kaisa, who was thoroughly trained as a clinician, she remarked that she believed a strong spiritual practice was likely as effective as psychotherapy for many people.

Although there was a good bit of writing about psychology and Buddhism at the time, their hybridization was generally considered kooky by the profession, which was becoming increasingly obsessed with a "scientific" approach to psychotherapy (thanks in no small degree to the rise of managed care). This meant a movement toward cognitive-behavioral therapy and an even bigger movement toward pharmaceuticals. New licensure laws regulating education and practice of therapists helped standardize the profession. A class like Buddhist psychology would be considered an irrelevant elective under the new laws.

Now, 15 years later, the field is in the middle of a kind of backlash, and Buddhist-style meditation and "mindfulness" training are in vogue as psychological practices. This is primarily for exactly the reason I found them so helpful: They teach you how to observe your own mental process without becoming overwhelmed by habitual thinking and feelings. They also engage the body in a way most psychotherapy does not.

The current issues of Psychotherapy Networker and Buddhadharma are both devoted to this subject. And there have been countless articles elsewhere about brain imaging and the positive effects of meditation.

So a class in Buddhist psychology would now have great practical value, although the regulatory laws would not recognize that.

Meanwhile, too, there's a long-overdue backlash to the excessive use of pharmaceuticals and the so-called positive psychology movement, both of which exploit the very American belief that we are all meant to be happy all the time. Salon.com published a lengthy review Jan. 29 of the latest books on the subject, including titles such as Let Them Eat Prozac, Artificial Happiness: The Dark Side of the New Happy Class and Against Happiness.

Even the issue of Psychotherapy Networker that stresses meditation training also contains an article titled "Pathologizing for Dollars." It's about the way boundaries between ordinary behavior and mental-health disorders, particularly ADHD, have been erased by Big Pharma and doctors. The author, pediatrician Lawrence Diller, argues that therapy culture's emphasis on mood has made medicating the simply distracted and the mildly sad a profitable industry. Patients themselves now demand psychoactive drugs to make life rosier.

This avalanche of criticism – and much of it now is self-criticism by therapists themselves – is indicative of how rudimentary psychology's practical application remains. My own Ph.D., following five years of supervised practice, was in part inspired by the question of why therapy is so ineffective for so many people.

I'm really glad to see so many others asking this question, too. The answer will require a significant redefinition of psychotherapy, if not its outright abolition or pursuit of alternative means of psychological inquiry. The latter has been my own path, and it's the only reason I haven't joined many of my former classmates in losing interest in psychology's application altogether.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.

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