Here’s how I see it:
We live in a world of drastic change, for better and for worse. Over the millennia, centuries, decades, the pace of change has been accelerating. “Every generation throws a hero up the pop chart,” Paul Simon wrote, and a generation, in popular music, is now only about 5 years. It seems no coincidence to me that psychotherapy as we know it, the “talking cure,” began to develop just before World War I, when the pace of change leapt from production and transportation by animal to engine, the world became electrified, and the political map of empires and nations began to be rapidly (in historical time) redrawn in ways that are still working out.
Most people, throughout most of human history, lived in relatively small villages or groups in which they knew and were known by everyone, in which their relationships and ways of making a living were more or less the same throughout life. Today, it’s a very different world, and it’s becoming an even more difficult one. How we understand ourselves and others, how we understand and communicate our needs and experiences, how we make and keep (or don’t keep) relationships, how we find our economic way, how we understand the meaning of our lives and how we seek to achieve our purposes, are all profoundly influenced by this world.
Yet we are also creatures of our biology; both the biology of our species and the biology of our individual bodies. We emerge into this world out of the long trek of human evolution, each of us with our own distinctive temperament and dispositional tendencies. As neuroscientist Gerald Edelman said, “Every brain is unique in the history of the universe.” To which I would add, “At every moment!”
Creativity, adaptability, compassion, love, the motivation to know and achieve; the instincts (not always well developed) for truth and justice; resilience, the ability to rebound, reinvent, start over; and the potential to learn through awareness of our inner selves, of others, and of life around us, are among the resources we can draw on. Being stuck in habit patterns of thinking, feeling, perceiving, reacting, believing what we’ve been told instead of what is true, trying to relate and communicate but not succeeding, trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s tools; these are what bring us to impasses in our lives, from which we seek psychological help.
Sometimes the stresses of our lives produce symptoms like anxiety, depression, unstable moods, inability to relax, inability to self-regulate our emotions, personality problems, all the categories of the DSM-5. Eating disorders, sleeping disorders, thought disorders (psychotic episodes), addictions of various kinds, all kinds of mental suffering and misery, can result. In many cases, we can learn to improve or resolve these disorders with our own mental resources and talk therapy, without necessarily needing medication. In other cases, medication can be an important part of getting better, and might be a necessary part of staying better.
Each person is unique, each situation needs to be understood and treated in its own terms, and there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all therapy.
Conversation, relationship in the process of reflection, and psychological skills training are what I have to offer. The conversation about the impasse(s) that brought the client to therapy involves micro focusing on the client’s life, and also seeing that life in the context of the human community. Just knowing that our experience is understood by the person with whom we’re talking can lift depression, inspire hope, and reconnect us with our resources for living more effectively. Increasing our awareness of self and others (today the catchword is “mindfulness”) is the basis for improving our ability to manage our lives. But it’s not always smooth or easy going. My song, “I Must Be Getting Better ‘Cause I Think I’m Getting Worse,” refers to this.
And, in all this, there is something that keeps calling, pulling us “up,” in our individual lives and in the evolution of humanity as a whole. It has to do with being honest, with how we treat ourselves and others, and with being of service as we somehow recollect and do the work of integrating the scattered pieces of ourselves. When they have experiences of “something higher,” people interpret it according to how they already think; so one person has an experience of “the universe,” another of “God,” another of “nature,” another of “Buddha mind.” I just call it the “higher whatever,” and prefer, if I have to use a term, to use “divinity,” which just means, something concealed that we have to try to discover, and toward which we have a worshipful attitude. Of course, everyone worships something, and the objects of our worship can themselves become part of the problem of life, but that’s another column!
In any case, our psychological health depends in some ways on our being in harmony with this higher being or process, however we perceive it; and with what we might describe, so to speak, as its “intentions” for us, what we are called to do. Which must include that we do our work on ourselves in this rapidly changing world while being fully part of the human community.