On Training Psychotherapists

by Paul McDermott


(A condensed 2,000 word version of this article was a feature article in The Psychotherapist magazine 2008/2009.)


The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law or precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself.



Do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do; neither let your effort be shortened by fear of failure, nor your confession silenced by fear of shame … out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole (46).”

John Ruskin, On Art and Life




Psychotherapy trainings: this is a subject, it seems to me, that branches out into significant areas, for to do justice to it we must discuss Nature, art, and service, that is, the function of man-in-the-world. Yet when faced with this vast and complex subject area, it is impossible to resist the impression that any psychotherapy training will, directly or indirectly, deliberately or unconsciously, impress upon their students a certain ‘style’ or ‘approach’. In modern parlance we call this a ‘brand’. It is the brand that distinguishes one school from another, and so it is the branding that will attract the psychotherapy student to one school for their training, rather than to another. 


A little research shows us that each brand is based on the particular view of ‘reality’, a view endorsed by the training school. We are then forced to concede that it is the student’s new perception of ‘reality’, their adoption of the brand, that is the true accomplishment of their training. Much the same could be said of the family who have the child perceive ‘reality’ in accord with their parents’ perception; or the citizen coming to perceive reality in the way most convenient to the state, rather than becoming an autonomous agent within that society. 


Thus the voice of the ‘trained’ student is something quite different from the therapist whose voice carries within it the whole weight of their own experience of life, however young they may be. Such a student is not searching for someone else’s philosophy, but is gradually and steadily uncovering, through listening to themselves forensically, what Jane Kramer calls “the voice that you can’t quite hear … that, with any luck, will eventually start to sound like you (2).”  


In order to become a psychotherapist you must first learn how to listen, to yourself and others, and not only to the words that come into your ears, but to everything that comes into your body. For it is in your body and the body of your experience that you will find the ability to distinguish which notes ring true and which do not. Yet in over ten years of being trained as a psychologist and then a psychotherapist, I did not receive a single lecture, seminar, or workshop on listening. It took no blinding insight to realise my trainings were not quite as they should be. And in over 13 years of training psychotherapists and counsellors, I found that the ability to listen was the one thing the student will happily and arbitrarily determine they possess, and the very thing they most often did not. Without the ability to listen one has no faculty of discernment, insight, empathy, or even basic connection. My trainings did not create the moments I needed in which I could attend to myself uninfluenced from outside, for I was required to perceive the moment from ‘outside’, as it were, and in accord with the brand.


A person who can listen, can hold up a mirror to the other and to the moment by, in a sense, creating a warm and accurate copy of them. But the psychotherapist is doing more than that. They are also, just as the patient is, creating a moment of real life in itself, and it is these moments that may reach out to the patient and enable him to attend to himself and to the moment and to his own perception of himself in that moment, and thus come to know, and eventually become, who he is.In contrast to this, trainings create a sort of false-listening. By this I mean nothing more than a certified brand of dual storytelling: the patient tells his story from a point of view taken to be their own but, as argued above, this is not necessarily the case; the psychotherapist tells the patient’s story back to him in accord with the brand, which the psychotherapist takes to be their own view; in so doing the psychotherapist imbues the patient’s story with new meaning and passes this whole procedure off as some sort of product upgrade of the patient’s story. The difficulty with such ‘re-interpreting’ is that it can overlook, indeed override, the patient’s experience - whether dream, memory, or fantasy. And this is the crucial issue because the patient’s experience is something which, in Coleridge’s words, “contains in itself the reasons why it is so and not otherwise (4).”


Rather than listening to the patient for clues and opportunities to use and so self-endorse the brand, the psychotherapist needs to attend in the way one attends to a poem, with their own ears as it were, noticing what moves them and how and where, and noticing what does not. The former is like reading a review of a film before seeing it, and using the review to govern and determine how you experience the film; the latter is to see the film naked, as it were, and perhaps read reviews afterwards to learn something of the reviewer and the culture, but not about the film. The object of psychotherapy is not primarily the sorting out of truth from illusion and delusion, yet at the same time the psychotherapist must listen discerningly without listening clinically. The renowned literary critic Al Alvarez says one must attend in the way “practised by masters like Coleridge and T. S. Eliot, (coming) without much theoretical baggage and with little to prove. In order to find out what’s going on in a work of art, the critic must let go of his own sensibility and immerse himself in that of another … without theories and without preconceptions (5).” 


The psychotherapist in search of their own voice, and their own ears as it were, and the artist in search of their own voice are basically dealing with similar problems, and in doing so both must needs move towards the intuitive over a period of years. This is why for both the traditionally requisite 10,000 hours of hard graft must be put in. And this intrinsic requirement of the arts stands in sharp relief against current educational background where long years of difficulty and struggle and trial and error are dismissed in the interest of the homogenised society where everyone is special and so no one is, where speed is all and patience is criticised as indecisive, where measurement and tabulation rules at the expense of intuition and insight, where immaturity reigns and popularity the goal. That training in an art such as psychotherapy has fallen to this common collective standard of mediocrity is shameful.


For in order to find his own voice, the therapist has to grow up. Nothing in Nature that grows healthily does so quickly – unless one could say a virus exhibits healthy growth. When I entered my apprenticeship into the martial arts I did not choose my master, Shifu Huang Ping, she chose me. She told me I “must come” to her, and when and where. To do so I had to rearrange my psychotherapy practice, which I did because her command that I follow her entered my body without hindrance and sat in my gut like a perfect meal – the sort of gut feeling human beings used to rely on. Huang Ping was born in Yunnan Province in China. She was first introduced to Wushu (Martial Arts) at the age of eight, taking her first steps into an art that was to become her passion, and eventually career. Even as a child Huang Ping excelled in the art of Wushu to the extent that she caught the eye of the Yunnan Provincial Wushu team coach. She joined the team at the age of ten, where competition was extremely fierce. Training would begin at 6:30am and run until 6pm, but could go on after that. Huang Ping competed in her first senior All China National competition at the age of 13, specialising in Long Fist, Sword, Spear and Double Hooked Swords. Huang Ping did so well she was chosen to join the prestigious China Wushu Team, which consisted of twenty team members out of a country of a billion people. Later Huang Ping became a provincial coach and a Top Judge for National Competitions. 


This was not like a Western training, where you ask a lot of questions and get a lot of answers. Huang Ping addressed me when she saw that I needed her help, which was not necessarily when I thought I needed her help. She let me go through the frustrations I would benefit from going through, while trying (until you stop trying) to learn the T’ai Chi forms. If she wanted me to ask questions, she told me to ask he. As is written in the ancient Chinese book the Tao Te Ching, “The world is ruled by letting things take their course. /It cannot be ruled by interfering (6).”T’ai Chi is based on the Taoist principle of The Way, or Path – that each person/psychotherapist/patient has their own Way or Path in life, and although governed by cosmic laws, each persons’ path is unique to them. She told the class not to ask her any questions, but just to follow her example – the form was the cosmic law, and our experience of learning the form was The Way for each of us. This was a traditional training. Over the first years of apprenticeship, years in which I practised diligently, there were long periods where I felt humiliated and angry and useless. Master Ping told me that was how I should be feeling; things were going well. When I asked her how I was doing, she just told me it would take 10 years before I got “the feeling”. Because I understood what it was to follow, I took Master Ping on her word and followed. Practice 3 hours and day and in ten years you have done the 10,000 hours.


A second requirement for healthy growth and development is that it is not restricted to only one aspect of a person. If a tree’s branches grow, but the roots and trunk do not, the tree soon collapses. If the roots grow and nothing else does, what is the point? It is the same with a human being, and it is the same with a psychotherapist. So how can therapy trainings justify ignoring the development of the whole person – mind, body, soul, and heart?  It would be like a psychotherapist only addressing the patient’s ‘problems’, and not their life style and work life and diet and exercise and relationship with God.If the psychotherapist in training does not grow, they will try to sound like they think they should sound, and will develop a self-conscious approach or style. This is nothing more than a defence against being aware that they do not know who they are or what they are doing, but are merely a cipher, a photocopy. As Kierkegaard put it so long ago:


“The worldly point of view always clings closely to the difference between man and man … by being altogether finitized, by instead of being a self, having become a cipher, one more person, one more repetition of this perpetual Einerlei (one-and-the-same) ... while one kind of despair steers blindly in the infinite and loses itself, another kind of despair allows itself to be, so to speak, cheated of itself by ‘the others’. By seeing the multitude of people around it, by being busied with all sorts of worldly affairs, by being wise to the ways of the world, such a person forgets himself, in a divine sense forgets his own name, dares not believe in himself, finds being himself too risky, finds it much easier and safer to be like the others, to become a copy, a number, along with the crowd. 


"Now this form of despair goes practically unnoticed in the world. Precisely by losing himself in this way, such a person gains all that is required for a flawless performance in everyday life (6b)."


Even if your own voice is not what you may have hoped for, it will be better than the language of psychotherapy which has become dominated by what Ivan Illich calls “waste products from technical word-factories (which) are akin to pollution. Just as the unintended by-products of industry have penetrated, reshaped, and degraded most everything that we see, touch, breathe, or eat, so have these waste products of terminologies affected ordinary language. Most of this terminological waste merely generates noise in (therapeutic) conversation and can be compared with the dull expanse of cement that economic growth has produced … The prudent individual who wishes to make sense is often forced to declare a moratorium on their use”. By using such language, and basing our therapeutic position on texts, we miss what Plato described as the narrative that unfolds not out of rules and knowledge, but out of divine enthusiasm and deep emotion. As Karl Kraus wrote, “My language is the universal whore whom I have to make into a virgin (7).”


As Keats said, “If poetry [psychotherapy] comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all (8).” The taking on of other people’s approach is the process of addition, where every day a new term of phrase or theory is added. In contrast, the process of becoming yourself as a psychotherapist is one of subtraction, where every day something untrue to your being is let go. This is in accord with the Taoist position (9), “In pursuit of learning, / Every day something is acquired. / In pursuit of the Tao, /Every day something is dropped.” But how can the psychotherapist in training even begin to approach such a refined, artistic place? The tradition in the arts had always been, until very recently, to serve a long, arduous apprenticeship as an artisan to an established master. This was true equally in all of the arts, and remains today in the Oriental martial arts. This tradition of apprenticeship no longer exists for the psychotherapist, in the way it did in our predecessors – the shamans and witch doctors - and modern psychotherapy is all the poorer for it.


A psychotherapist in training may at first try on other people’s styles, people they admire, and in a sense fall in love with their place. I, rather promiscuously, have fallen in love with Jung, Perls, Adler, Laing, and Freud, in the way a budding painter might fall in love with Rembrandt, Michelangelo, van Gogh, Picasso, leaping from one to the next as if on the rebound from a recently and happily ended relationship. In traditional arts trainings lineage is regarded as central to the student’s development. The passing on of the lineage meant studying your master’s work until you could reproduce it. But we are not talking here of the rote memorization and mimicking so in vogue today. For the disciple of the master artist was then encouraged to hit upon his own way, using what he had learned as his foundation and his connection. Again, this find your own way is not at all the same as the modern American cult of the individual, nor the incorporation of other people’s places into your own, but a reconnection to the lineage. It can be likened the handing down of myths, where the story is passed down through the generations by word of mouth, and through the mouths and the hearts of the myth tellers all that is false is gradually filtered out, until you are left only with what applies to everyman. I am talking about the capacity to be connected to what is true in what has gone before, and still become yourself as a psychotherapist.As Alvarez puts it, it is only when a “long apprenticeship is over and the technical skills are so perfected that they have become instinctive, a strange transformation takes place: the artist becomes absorbed in the practical details of his craft, his personality recedes and the work cuts itself free of its maker, acquiring a separate life of its own (10).” Coleridge’s word for this was “aloofness”; it is the “evenly suspended attention” Freud spoke of, the non-attachment of the Buddhists.


What I am saying is that there are two factors missing in modern trainings and so are missing in the New Psychotherapist – apprenticeship and a holistic approach. I was a student of psychology and psychotherapy for over ten years, and a staff member of a training body for thirteen years. Having experienced things from both ends, and seeing how hopelessly unprepared and out of touch with themselves graduates were by the end of their trainings. As part of the antidote to this, I created a  psychotherapy training for practising therapists and students, founded on their experience of undergoing a short (2 years) T’ai Chi training under the guidance of Master Hunag Ping. Thus the course was based on the participants’ experience, rather than being taught or theory based, and the Taiji training was followed by an open discussion group with me. The purpose of the open group was, through the experience of struggling with the T’ai Chi form, for the individual to become aware of the enormous advantages of focusing  on what they were picking up in their body from others and how this reflects the other’s psyche, emotions, and thoughts. A useful metaphor may be the wind blowing over the lake, disturbing the surface of the water – you do not see the wind, but you know it must be there because your senses tell you it is. What often appears as blinding insight or a synthesizing simplicity is the therapist using their body as a simple, reliable, honest instrument in the session. 


As was the case with T’ai Chi, the group was an opportunity to continue the dynamic meditation through movement and stillness; correct position and relaxation; strength without force; emptiness without weakness; co-ordination and harmony; emphasising fluidity, continuity, & tranquillity of movement. It was an opportunity to use this experience not only in working with each other in the group, but as a basis for their psychotherapy work. In accord with a dream, the first open group session was held in silence.The name of the course comes directly from the hexagram I received when I consulted the I Ching regarding creating this course: Zhong Fu, which translates as Inner Truth. Zhong Fu is the name of China’s most beloved teacher of philosophy, Zhong-Fu-tse, Romanised into the popular Western spelling of Confucius. The hexagram Zhong Fu is also the root of Kung Fu and all other arts and sciences based on ‘seeing into a fellow-being, and acting in accord with their intent. 


The hexagram illustrates a yielding inner strength, the core of the Taoist philosophy and of the martial arts. One yields through strength, having no intent but to respond to the intent of the other and the Tao. Thus one must be open in the centre. This indicates a heart free of prejudices and therefore open to truth. The whole secret of success depends on finding the right way of approach. One must rid oneself of prejudice (styles and approaches) and divisive egotism (the cult of the individual and of the personality) in order to let the psyche of the other person act on one without restraint. Then one will establish contact with them and come to see into them.Alvarez (11) points out that Auden divided writers into two types: “The difference between formal and free verse may be likened to the difference between carving and modelling; the formal poet, that is to say, thinks of the poem he is writing as something already latent in the language which he has to reveal, while the free verse poet thinks of language as a plastic passive medium upon which he imposes his artistic conception (12).” 


If we accept that the artist/psychotherapist should not impose himself upon the passive medium/patient, and that what is to become is already latent in the passive medium/patient, while still accepting artist/therapist and medium/patient are nevertheless creating a moment together, there is yet a third position that Auden does not touch on. It is a position expressed by the master potter Bernard Leach (13), and intrinsic to the Japanese approach to art. Namely, that it is not the artist or psychotherapist that reveals what is latent in the passive medium/patient, but that what is latent reveals itself. For the word ‘patient’ means to wait with equanimity while matters unfold as they were destined to. The patient and therapist watch what is latent become. The psychotherapist then be just as much patient as the patient is. Pathology, the food of the hungry ghost psychotherapist, then becomes what it should always have been: a narrative device in the biography of the patient, and nothing more, however painful. Pathology is not there to be cured, as such, for the cure is itself latent in the pathology. To be in such a position, that is to say, to be without a position, is in the end a question of what Freud refers to as moral courage. For free floating attention requires of the psychotherapist a forensic scrupulousness with themselves, the old-fashioned conscience, and an acceptance that the way ahead is relentless. Only then can one approach that which “manifests itself in what Existentialists used to call ‘authenticity’ – a sense of the weight of a whole person behind the words (14).” And from this there comes naturally and without effort the intimacy required for the talking cure, an intimacy that extends patiently, precisely and gently to the seemingly insignificant factors and aspects of the patient’s life. For it is the seemingly inconsequential or hidden aspects that are held by the person with “care, passion and persistence as if one’s life depended on them … there we find what is called ‘living’ (15).”


Here we are talking of, as Alvarez puts it, “the craftsman’s obsession with detail – obsession in its least pathological form – and in poetry, as in all the arts, that is where the fascination lies … with simply getting it right – where ‘it’ is a work with a life of its own, wholly independent of the artist and indifferent to him (16).” The craftsman gets it right because he has necessarily put in his 10,000 hours, and gets it right simply by not getting it wrong. The average guitarist may practise until they can play a particular piece of music well, but the master of his craft will practise until he is unable to play it badly. This is craftsmanship: be he guitarist or painter or writer or psychotherapist or cabinet-maker, he can no longer be an obstacle to what is right. And to not be an obstacle one must, as Ghandi exemplified, learn how to become nothing. One could not be further now from the cult of the individual or the burden of theory.One can not take it that anyone who puts in the 10,000 hours will master their craft, for you can no more train someone who is not intrinsically a psychotherapist into being one, than you can train a musician to have perfect pitch. It is ultimately a question of an intuitive ear. As Coleridge put it regarding the young Shakespeare:


The man that hath not music in his soul can indeed never be a genuine poet. [Technical skills] may all by incessant effort be acquired as a trade, by a man of talent and much reading, who … has mistaken an intense desire of poetic reputation for a natural poetic genius … But the sense of musical delight, with the power of producing it, is a gift of imagination … [It] may be cultivated and improved, but can never be learned (17).


For in the art and craft of psychotherapy one must listen with one’s own mind and heart and body and soul, all at the same time, without separation. One must listen as if listening to poetry or music, rather than as if one were listening to a metronome. The psychotherapist thinks through his heart, and feels through his mind. Such is the way Albert Einstein described how ideas came to him as a physicist:Words or language, as they are written or spoke, do not seem to play any role in my mechanisms of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements of thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be ‘voluntarily’ reproduced and combined … The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a second stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will (18). 


The art and craft of psychotherapy is a physical process, “visual and … muscular.” Alvarez (19) quotes Donne in this regard, from three centuries before Einstein:  


      we understood

Her by her sight; her pure and eloquent blood

Spoke in her cheeks, and so distinctly wrought,

That one might almost say, her body thought.


Well, I am saying it, and it has been said for thousands of years and only recently ignored: Our bodies think. The division of idea from form, and these from response, is unnatural and inhuman. One might as well say that a van Gogh is an idea of sunflowers and a canvas and some paint – that once you have these you have a van Gogh. No, it has something to it that ‘moves’ us. It has, as Alvarez puts it regarding poetry, “a bodily dimension, a kind of muscular depth that moves both the poet [patient] and the reader [psychotherapist] in ways they are not quite aware of (20).” The trained psychotherapeutic technician will not be moved to this degree; no matter he puts in 100,000 hours. For if the person was not born with psychotherapy in his soul, then little will “shimmer through the veil of order”, to use the words of Novalis (21). 


Psychotherapy is fundamentally about appropriate response, and to be appropriate the response must emanate from the whole being of the psychotherapist. It is simply not enough to respond from a learned technical ability, or from the pretence Sartre refers to as “bad faith” (22) – that one is purely a psychotherapist’s mind and nothing else.


I. A. Richards thought the same:


We must not think of [metre] as in the words themselves or in the thumping of a drum. It is not in the stimulation, it is in our response. Metre adds to all the variously fated expectancies which make up rhythm a definite temporal pattern and its effect is not due to our perceiving a pattern in something outside us, but to our becoming patterned ourselves. With every beat of the metre a tide of anticipation us turns and swings, setting up as it does so extraordinarily sympathetic reverberations … the pattern itself is a vast cyclic agitation spreading all over the body, a tide of excitement pouring through the channels of the mind (23). 


The frame of reference is not longer that of the patient’s relation to the theory, it is biological and biographical and historical for both patient and psychotherapist. It is everything that is present in the therapy room, for that presence “matters far more than having been present at whatever it is you are describing (24).” For its is precisely this that the 10,000 hours opens to the artist craftsman – the facility to be fully present in the workroom, in the moment, with the materials at hand, gripped by what will come out of it. 


The 10,000 hours that so few are worthy of, because so few are willing to put them in, are, in Alvarez’s words, a “laborious, unforgiving, sorry business – Beckett’s word for it was ‘balls-aching’ (25).” If you look into the lives of Freud and Jung and Laing, you see that they lived it and breathed it and (almost?) went mad with it. How far this is from the contemporary psychotherapy training. One can understand why Laing would only trust a psychiatrist who had had a breakdown – rather than a sign of weakness; it is a sign of commitment. 


This is not to say a psychotherapeutic training should turn its back on theory or order or symmetry or being objective, for this is not Romanticism versus Classicism, as this would only encourage individualism and a sort of self-indulgent mindlessness.  Nor is it the other way round, an abandonment of sensitivity or what is natural or what is free and untamed and subjective, because this would lead again to pure formulation and measurement. It is possible “‘to resist the growing division in modern culture between the sensibility of art and the more rational intelligence that has gone into social and philosophical thinking (26).’ In other words, it was possible to be shaken by a poem [patient], then think about why you were shaken and give your reasons, instead of … trying to upstage the thing [patient] with your own gaudy prose … (27).” To bastardise  William Empson: Psychotherapists as ‘barking dogs’ are of two sorts: those who merely relieve themselves against the flower of the patient’s psyche, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up (28).


To paraphrase a statement Alvarez made about the arts and what he calls the New Critics: The sin of the New Psychotherapists is to treat patients as second-class citizens whose function is merely to provide the raw material that the psychotherapist then dignifies with meaning and relevance. They behave, that is, as though the analysis is a work of art equal, if not superior, to the work that provoked it (29).


There is a lack of sincerity in such an ‘approach’, and as Alvarez points out, “the language of insincerity is cliché – the debased phrases and dead metaphors that come automatically, without thinking, without any personal input (30).” Such is the language of the New Psychotherapist, be it ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘aura’, ‘inner child’ or ‘paranoid-schizoid’, it is typical of what the Czech poet Miroslav Holub (31) referred to as “codified stupidity”, the sound-bites of the New Psychotherapist. 



Set against this is the traditional way of master and apprentice, of art and craft, of living every day in a meaningful and simple and serious manner, all founded on the lineage that preceded him. When the patient meets you at your door, they should feel that they are meeting a person who takes their life and calling seriously, someone who possesses and sticks up for “what the Ancient Greeks and Romans … called ‘virtue’ – courage, moral discrimination, intellectual probity, and good behaviour. And they did so not by moralizing, but by the self-effacing purity of their style (32).”


When you put in your 10,000 hours you end up with something called ‘judgement’. It used to be the case, and not so long ago, that judgement mattered. If you study and work at something long enough, and in enough detail, and with enough sincerity, your come to your own view and experience and perspective on the thing. You have developed judgement as a result of the course of your application. For the New Psychotherapist, the rules and guidelines and ethics and principles and perspectives are dished out during their 3 or 4 year part-time training, they sit there in front of ‘clients’ (from the Latin cluere, “to listen, follow, and obey”) without their own voice, and free of the faculty of judgment that can only be won through the 10,000 hours, and so are left with no alternative but to regurgitate the “codified stupidity”, the sound-bites they were given on their training.The knowledge and experience, the capacity for judgement, that comes naturally for the artist craftsman, is no longer in vogue. It has either been downgraded into a narcissistic philistinism, where the unconscious therapist acts out his infantilism in the name of ‘being authentic’, or hard earned judgement has been replaced by a semi-autistic ‘response’ to patients with a resultant emphasis on technique at the expense of basic human intimacy.


One can see the latter clearly in the appalling translations of Freud into the English language. An example is the following from Bruno Bettelheim: In 1905 Freud wrote in an article entitled “Treatment of the Soul” (although you won’t find it under that title in English): 


”Psyche” is a Greek word and its German translation is “soul” … Psychical treatment wishes to signify … treatment originating in the soul, treatment – of psychic or bodily disorders – by measures which influence above all and immediately the soul of man.”


In the Standard Edition of Freud’s works, the above is rendered as:


“Psyche” is a Greek word which may be translated as “mind”. Thus “psychical treatment” means “Mental treatment” … “Psychical treatment” denotes … treatment taking its start in the mind, treatment (whether of mental or physical disorders) by measures which operate in the first instance and immediately upon the human mind. (33)


As Bettelheim points out, “There really was no reason – apart from a wish to interpret psychoanalysis as a medical specialty – for this corruption of Freud’s references to the soul (34).” 


Such a development is happening in all the arts, argues Alvarez, and it is “a process of artistic and intellectual downgrading not far removed from the philistinism of the Soviet cultural commissars (35),” combined with “what Zbigniew Herbert called ‘false warmth’ … The result is poetry as feel-good entertainment and, above all, the belief that any old confession or self revelation is intrinsically artistic because an artist is not someone who uses skill and insight to create a work of art with a life of its own; instead, he is a public personality, a performer whose primary work of art is himself and whose ambition it to make himself known (36).” Let us relate that to the New Psychotherapist: The result is psychotherapy as feel-good entertainment and, above all, the belief that any old intervention or self revelation is intrinsically therapeutic because a psychotherapist is not someone who uses craft and insight to relate to a patient who has a life of their own; instead, the psychotherapist is a personality, a performer whose primary work of art is himself and whose ambition it to make himself known. This is marketing a product, and nothing more, and can be recognised in those who aspire to the condition of pop star and make a cult of themselves (37).


Such people stand as stark warnings for the psychotherapist who is determined to develop his ‘personality’. One of the dangers of the waters the psychotherapist swims in is their very isolation, for their isolated and seemingly unchallengeable position makes their own delusions easier to believe. What Eliot said of poetry applies equally to psychotherapy: ‘it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape those things (38).”


The artist craftsman can hold on to their ability to form a judgement, because true “revelation can’t be willed or worked for; it is more like a blessing, something that might happen if you live right. Hence, Coleridge’s curiously passive image – in ‘Dejection: an Ode’ – of the poet as an Aeolian harp blown upon by forces beyond his control (39).” To be the “Aeolian harp” a psychotherapist does not need to fall in with the current training fantasy that having got his piece of paper – diploma, certificate, MA – he must have succeeded in ridding himself of all areas of neurosis. This is a point made by the psychoanalyst Hannah Segal regarding the parallels between the neurotic and the artist: “the neurotic is at the mercy of his neurosis, whereas the artist, however neurotic he may be outside his work, has in his capacity as an artist a highly realistic understanding both of his inner world and of the techniques of his art (40).” 


And so I come back to my argument that the psychotherapist in the making must face ordeals at every level, not just the intellectual. As Berryman once remarked in a Paris Review interview, “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business (41).”


Psychotherapy can never be done by “shoving together ready-made lumps of language – clichés – which is how it is done by politicians and pundits and all those people whose gift, said Karl Kraus, is ‘to know nothing and to be able to express it.’ (42)” The psychotherapist who has put in his 10,000 brings both a seriousness and a freshness to his work, because the work is his life, and so the psychotherapist exists not in the theory but in his wholeness – mental (in the Buddhist sense of mind and heart), physical and spiritual. Psychotherapy is an art and a craft, and as such it is “an intricate and subtle skill that requires self-awareness and self-denial – modesty, even – as well as a craftsman’s fascination with the work as something with a life of its own, independent of its maker and his noisy ego. And this is not an image of the artist that comes easily in an age of personalities, showbiz, and promotion, when people are less interested in ‘it’, the work, than what’s in it for them (43).”


Bad psychotherapy is with us to stay. “In the meantime, it is the business of [artists] to create as true a voice as they can – if only to show themselves that it can be done, and in the hope that someone out there is listening (44).”


So where does this leave us in terms of training psychotherapists? For we must have trainings, for the same reasons Freud argues that we must have civilization (45). But what might make Freud spin in his grave is the thousands of psychotherapists putting their patients onto couches merely because Freud did not like being stared at all day.


To answer this I again must turn back, and turn to the thoughts of John Ruskin. As I see it, trainings need to exhort the therapist to “do what you can, and confess frankly what you are unable to do; neither let your effort be shortened by fear of failure, nor your confession silenced by fear of shame … out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole (46).” Unfortunately the modern person requires perfection rather than an “unaccusable whole”, and “the demand for perfection is always a misunderstanding of the ends of art (47)”. And this quest for perfection tends to be solved by a lowering of standards so that more people can “enjoy the complacency of success (48)” rather than strive towards wholeness. This lowering of requirements and therefore efforts for the therapist in turn leads to the therapist restricting the efforts of their patients, where they “check, by severe requirement or narrow caution, efforts which might otherwise lead to a noble issue (49).”


Trainings “must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them … you must unhumanize them … On the other hand, if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool … out come all his roughness, all his dullness, all his incapability …: but out comes the whole majesty of him also (50).” Is it not this very thing we would want for our patients? Then why not for ourselves? It is surely a matter more than the simple logic I have put forward, but of an essential integrity towards the wholeness of the individual.


If the therapist cannot be whole in their work, then there will be little pleasure for them in it. This in turn will lead to them looking for pleasure in the money or the prestige or the position, all of which is negative.


To seek for the wholeness of the student first, and have theory and dogma further down the scale, requires the training institute to “yield reverence (51)” to the inherent wholeness of the student as an adult human being. My experience of working in a training institute for 13 years was the ‘students’ were demoted to ignorant children (and were collusive in this) and the ‘staff’ were self-promoted to perfection (and the students colluded in this also). In actuality both ‘student’ and ‘staff’ are adults who have particular functions of student or staff for a few hours a week, and there is nothing more to it in reality than that. The relationship between them then should be both reasonable and loving, as this is the position of therapist to patient.


The great manufacturing plants that are our training institutes are in current danger of producing everything except whole people. We change their vocabulary, their voice tone, their mind sets, and often even their style of dress, but “to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages (52).” And “how wide the separation is between original and second-hand execution (53)”!


In the end we must choose what if for the betterment of mankind, for this is our work. We must choose whether we want to produce the perfect form, that is nothing but perfection of form, or whether we are there to help the student become a whole, with all of the inherent limitation and magnificence of their own unique design. And to answer this, we must refer to the function of the psychotherapist with their patients – is it to produce perfect form or a movement towards wholeness?


Beyond that is what we know of ourselves in life: that imperfection is essential to it, “it is the sign of life in a mortal body, that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect … the foxglove blossom, - a third part bud, a third part past, a third part in full bloom, - is a type of the life of this world (54).” It is the irregularities that bring the beauty and life to the work, and to the therapist and patient in the work, for they imply growth and change. Whereas to standardize, or homogenize, the student “is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyse vitality (55).” For perfection is a man-made fantasy, whereas our imperfections are “divinely appointed (56).”


I must also address the psychotherapy schools that seem to have made a moratorium on intellect and order and reason – “one of the foundation stones or morality (57).” You cannot have music without timing, verse without rhythm, just as you cannot have any true art without its order. Equally, art “does not say the same thing over and over again (58).” But set a standard without reason or order would be like desiring a world in which waves could appear suddenly out of nowhere and houses were roofless – the utter impractibility - just as to adhere only to rules or models would be like desiring a world in which the waves and houses were all identical– the lifeless monotony and repetition. 


Certainly there is repetition in therapy, and the patient will bring most of it, but the life is in the careful attention to the subtle changes in detail, in mood, in timbre; just as there is life in the therapist not allowing models of consistency “to interfere with the real use and value of what they did (59).” It is this affectionate observation of the minutia that shows us the wholeness of the psychotherapist, just as one might note in any tranquil and gentle person an affectionate observation of the subtle grace of nature “in foul weather as well as fair, and to rejoice in the leafless as well as in the shady forest (60).”  


In Chinese philosophy there is no hesitation in talking about what is superior and what is inferior – terms annexed by the juggernaut of fascist political correctness of our time. From the Chinese perspective one might argue that the superior person is ready to endure much on the way to becoming ‘right’ a psychotherapist, while the inferior person will not be willing to pay the price and so offer little to “the well-being of this world (61).” Such a person not only does no good, but will “gradually dulls the edge of change itself, and bring a shadow and weariness over the whole world from which there is no more escape (62)” – a brilliant description of the consequence of the new political correctness. 


The spoils of heaven and earth are only gotten through long and honest and resolute labour. The inferior student and training is “hoping in some way to cheat or abrogate this everlasting law of life, and to feed where they have not furrowed, and be warm where they have not woven … and in this effort they either fail of getting them, and remain ignorant and miserable, or they obtain them by making other men work for their benefit, and then they are tyrants and robbers (p.82).“  


So, if I am right, why are people not clambering over one another for this experience of life and psychotherapy in its wholeness? This is because there is a distinction between the person who in neediness craves the certainty of governing events through their models and rules, and the person who through receptiveness is able enough to gather events and respond to the uncertainties and limitations they bring with them (63). Should psychotherapy trainings be producing governors or gatherers? It is the inferior person who will seek to govern, while the superior one will gather the material that comes to him in his work, “and will endeavour to represent it as he sees it, with more or less accuracy according to the skill he possesses, and with much play of fancy, but with small respect for the law (64)” – this does not mean no respect for the law!  


Here we are happy to produce the therapist who is only a little less rough hewn and limited than his patients, and for whom the consciousness of this brings tenderness of gathering and of expression in his own rude natural hard-earned craftsmanship. If we make the psychotherapist ‘perfect’ according to some model, we take away his function, his usefulness. Ruskin presents rusting iron as an example (65). We want our iron to be rust free and gleaming and perfect, but in having it so we rob it of its function. Iron can fulfil its function when rusting, for its ability to rust is its virtue, as in rusting it comes alive, it literally breathes oxygen as we do but combines it with itself and in so doing rusts to make the earth and ground we live and feed from. Make it perfect and it is no longer fit for its greater purpose – not scissors or pans, but the very earth itself.


It is the same with the natural psychotherapist who turns up for training – polish and straighten and armour him, and you undo him and rob him of his function and biography. From this position all he can do for his patients is twist them in the same way he has been twisted (66 Kierkegaard – see ‘robot’). “All art worthy of the name is the energy – neither of the human body alone, nor of the human soul alone, but of both united, one guiding the other: good craftsmanship and work of the fingers joined with good emotion and work of the heart … the highest art unites both in their intensest degrees: the action of the hand at its finest, with that of the heart at its fullest (67).” For no art is worthwhile that does bring out the distinctive qualities of that particular material the artist is faced with (68). Thus I am saying, the trainer must also an artist be. 


If a psychotherapy does not address the whole person, it is doing nothing other than further robbing the person of his wholeness. Whether we rob a man of his arm or his soul matter not a jot anatomically, but morally it is the same or worse. For in doing so we must have used “a form of torture of some sort to make him give up his property; we use, indeed, the man’s own anxieties, instead of the rack; and his immediate peril of starvation, instead of the pistol at the head (69).”




Copyright 2014 Paul McDermott


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  1. Keats, quoted in Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.13
  2. Jane Kramer, quoted in Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.9
  3. ibid, p.17
  4. S. T. Coleridge, Biographica Literaria, Everyman’s Library, J. H. Dent, London, 1952, p.150 - quoted in Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.17
  5. ibid, p.19
  6. Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, Ch. 48              6b.Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, Penguin Classics, translated by Alastair Hannay, 1898, First published in Danish as Sygdommen til Doden, Copenhagen, 1849, p.63-64
  7. Ivan Illich ,The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, p.35
  8. Keats, Letter to Taylor, 27 February 1818, in H. E. Rollins (ed.) Letters, 1958, vol.1.
  9. Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching, Ch. 48
  10. Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.20
  11.  ibid, p.39 
  12.  W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand, Faber & Faber, London, 1962, p.287
  13.  discussion with Anthony Lunt, 2002
  14.  Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.42
  15. Paul Vale/ry, quoted in ibid, p.45
  16. ibid, p.45
  17. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, p.153, quoted in Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.48-49
  18. Albert Einstein quoted by Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind, Vintage, London, 1990, p.548
  19. Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.56
  20. ibid, p.57
  21. ibid, p.57
  22. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Routledge, London, 1958, ch. 2, p.47-70 
  23. I. A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism, p.127, quoted in Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.5
  24.  ibid, p.6
  25.  ibid, p.7
  26.  William Phillips and Philip Rahv, eds., The New Partisan Reader, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1953, p.vi quoted in Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.81-82
  27. Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.82
  28. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, Chatto and Windus, London, 1949, p.9: “Critics as ‘barking dogs’ are of two sorts: those who merely relieve themselves against the flower of beauty, and those, less continent, who afterwards scratch it up.” quoted in Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.82
  29. Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.83: “The sin of the New Critics was to treat writers as second-class citizens whose function was merely to provide the raw material that the critic then dignified with meaning and relevance. They behaved, that is, as though the critical essay was a work of art equal, if not superior, to the work that provoked it.
  30.  ibid, p.87
  31. Miroslav Holub, “Poetry against Absurdity”, Poetry Review, Summer 1990, p.6, quoted in Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.88
  32. Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.89
  33. Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul, p.74
  34. ibid, p.76
  35. Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.10
  36. ibid, p.10
  37.  ibid, p.10
  38.  T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, Selected Essays, Faber, London, 1951, p.21 quoted in Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.11
  39.  Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.97
  40. Hannah Segal, “A Psychoanalytic Approach to Aesthetics”, The Work of Hannah Segal: A Kleinian Approach to Clinical Practice, J. Aronson, New York, 1981 quoted in Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.112-113
  41. John Berryman quoted by John Haffenden, The Life of John Berryman, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1982, p.382 quoted in Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.115
  42. Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice, Bloomsbury, 2006, p.119-120
  43. ibid, p.120-121
  44. ibid, p.121
  45. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XXI
  46. John Ruskin, On Art and Life, p.1
  47.  ibid, p.26
  48. ibid, p.1
  49. ibid, p.1
  50. ibid, p.17
  51. ibid, p.19
  52. ibid, p.19
  53. ibid, p.24 
  54. ibid, p.27
  55. ibid, p.27
  56. ibid, p.27
  57. ibid, p.29
  58. ibid, p.31
  59. ibid, p.36
  60. ibid, p.5
  61.  ibid, p.37
  62. ibid, p.36
  63. ibid, p.38
  64. ibid, p.42
  65. ibid, p.59
  66. Kierkegaard
  67. John Ruskin, On Art and Life, p.69
  68. ibid, p.70
  69. ibid, p.88