Esalen and the human potential movement

In previous posts I’ve written about humanistic psychology, which has been called the Third Force in modern psychology, after Freudian psychodynamic psychology and Behaviorism. The founders – including Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Rollo May – seeing that psychology was primarily focused on psychopathology, wanted it to also focus on psychological health and personal growth. Esalen Institute, an isolated  retreat on the Pacific coast near Big Sur, California, is considered by many to be the birthplace of humanistic psychology. I’ve wanted to visit Esalen, a retreat center for growth and learning, since my graduate education in a humanistic psychology program. I’ve just returned home from a writing retreat at Esalen, and it felt like a weekend on holy ground.

Esalen Institute was founded by Michael Murphy and Richard Price in 1963. The land on which Esalen is located was owned  by Michael’s family for generations, and the two of them had a vision of a center for holistic learning. The place is called Esalen because for thousands of years the area was the home of the indigenous Esselen people. Accordingly, Esalen is considered sacred land, and is treated with reverence by residents and visitors. It’s isolated, far from any town, and doesn’t have cell phone service or television. There are hot springs down by the rocky shore, and everyone knows that clothing is optional at the baths. When I soaked, naked, in a pool, looking out at the Pacific sunset, I had the sense of participating in an ancient cleansing ritual.

Humanistic psychology has also been called the human potential movement. The only required course in my psychology Masters program was “Human Growth and Potential” – known by the students as “Gro and Po.” Although most of my coursework involved psychotherapy and psychological testing, I could understand why Gro and Po was required. Psychology had to be about more than psychopathology and the remediation of symptoms. Indeed, our equivalent of an “Abnormal Psychology” course was “Unconventional Modes of Experience,” lest there be any stigma regarding “abnormal.”

While psychanalytic theory and Behaviorism were dogmatic and monolithic, humanistic psychology was more like a tree, with many roots and branches. It was holistic in its orientation to the study of human behavior, focusing on mind and body as a unity, and exploring the factors that enhance creativity and enable self-actualization. It was holistic in studying both Eastern and Western philosophies and practices, recognizing the benefits of things such as yoga and Buddhist meditation, long before they became popular. Existentialism and phenomenology also influenced the human potential movement.

From the beginning of the movement, Esalen has been its Mecca. Fritz Perls did a five year residency in the late sixties, leading gestalt therapy seminars. Other eminent persons who influenced the development of humanistic psychology and had Esalen residencies were Gregory Bateson, Joseph Campbell, Ida Rolf, Virginia Satir, Rollo May, and Alan Watts. Today people go there to study massage and body work, wellness and alternative medicine, psychotherapy, meditation, and a variety of other subjects. I went there to work on being a better writer, and came home with my spiritual batteries re-charged.

A lot of what was new and esoteric back in the sixties and seventies has gone mainstream. Among the extra-curricular classes available to students in the psychology graduate program at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) were massage, hatha yoga, zen meditation, clowning, tai kwan do, and vegetarian cooking. The program was allied with the Philosophy Department, and there were opportunities to study existentialism and phenomenology. In my therapy courses, I learned about psychoanalytic theory, behavior modification, client-centered therapy, gestalt therapy, transactional analysis, sex therapy, and trance work. Once I was a working psychotherapist, my therapeutic orientation was existential, and I was very eclectic in terms of therapeutic style and techniques. I consider myself very fortunate to have attended the West Georgia College psychology Masters program.

Contemporary concepts like emotional intelligence and positive psychology couldn’t have emerged from Freudian psychodynamic theory or Behaviorism. The humanistic psychology movement created a new paradigm for human growth and potential as a legitimate area of study within the science of psychology. I think that the regard for Freud’s contribution to psychology and psychotherapy will diminish over time, relative to the contributions of humanistic pioneers like Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Milton Erickson.

The concept of emotional intelligence suggests that there are other kinds of intelligence than cognitive intelligence. Accurate empathy and compassion are important factors in human relating, and are deserving of scientific study by students of human behavior. I had initial objections to the whole notion of positive psychology, thinking, “psychology is neither positive nor negative.” But then I came to realize that it’s an outgrowth of the impulses that inspired humanistic psychology. The study of psychological wellness and peak performance, of thriving, of human creativity and the process of self-actualizing, is a legitimate pursuit within the field. Psychodynamic theory and Behaviorism will always have their place in psychology, but they need to be viewed in the context of the psychology of growth and human transformation.

What it takes to be a psychotherapist

These are just my opinions, based on my thirty-plus years as a psychotherapist. I suspect that the first thing it takes to be an effective therapist is to feel a calling to the profession, as in a religious calling, or vocation.  I may be wrong in this belief, but I don’t think many people enter the profession with the goal of becoming wealthy or famous. (I think the same is true of the best teachers.) A basic qualification is that you’re a compassionate person by nature. I grew up thinking I was going to be a career Army officer, like my father and his father; but at the end of my service obligation I resigned my commission and decided to study psychology on the GI Bill. I knew I wanted to be a healer, not a soldier.

One factor in my calling to be a therapist was the gratitude I felt for having been raised by loving parents, in a loving family. I had a happy childhood, and the older I became, the more aware I was of my good fortune. My father felt called to lead men in combat; I felt called to help people who hadn’t been blessed as I had been, to heal and grow.

That’s not to say that a happy childhood is a prerequisite for being a good therapist. Sometimes the compassionate nature that’s a basic requirement for the profession comes from painful personal experience, and empathy for others. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a highly effective therapy for people diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, was the brainchild of Dr. Marsha Linehan. It was born from her own struggles with mental illness, and her own painful road to recovery. I’ve known a number of good therapists who were themselves in treatment for a mental illness.

Therapists are flawed human beings, like everyone else, and I’m not saying that your life has to be in anything-like-perfect order for you to be an effective therapist. But in order to be able to separate your own needs from those of your clients, you need to have the kind of self-awareness and insight that come from leading a balanced life, in which your own basic needs are being met. Any blind spots about your own personality and needs will be blind spots in your understanding of your clients’ personalities and needs. (In my opinion all therapists have blind spots; it’s a matter of how many and how big. That’s where good supervision – and an openness to being supervised – comes in.) If you  have significant unresolved conflicts in your own life, you probably need to be in therapy, yourself. Having the experience of being in therapy (some therapist training programs require it) will surely help you to be a better therapist.

You have to have the ability to be present and caring with many people who are in pain, without becoming functionally depressed. This is another reason why you’ll need to have your own psychic house in order, if you’re going to be able to help other people. In most clinical settings, being a psychotherapist carries a lot of responsibility with it. It’s a very stressful profession. If you work with clinically depressed people, you have to be prepared for the possibility that one of your clients may commit suicide. Especially if you work in the public sector, you may also have to work with violent people.

If you have a tendency to be judgmental, you can’t be a good therapist. You’re bound to encounter clients whose values are very different from your own. You have to accept the client as he is in order to help him change. Carl Rogers called this “unconditional positive regard,” and maintaining this radical acceptance may call for frequent attitude adjustments on your part. This requires self-awareness and emotional stability. It’s okay for a therapist to be a flawed human being, as long as you have some awareness of your flaws.

You need to enter the profession with an awareness of your limitations as a helping professional. You’re not there to fix people or to solve their problems. There are people entering therapy who are looking for a rescuer, because they think they need to be rescued and nobody in their social support network has been able to rescue them. (The “rescuer” is a role played by certain people in many dysfunctional families.) All you can do as a therapist is to try your best to establish a helpful relationship with your client(s) and to work with them in good faith on goals that were mutually agreed-upon. Among the appropriate roles you may play as a therapist are teacher, facilitator, coach, and even cheerleader. But you aren’t going to rescue anyone.

Sometimes you’ll fail to be helpful, despite your best efforts. Sometimes a client you thought you had a good relationship with, and were helping, will abruptly drop out of therapy; and you’ll never discover why. Sometimes you’ll feel “in over your head” with a client, not knowing what you should say or do next in your efforts to facilitate positive change. That’s when you need to appreciate the limits of your abilities to help alleviate suffering in a person you’ve come to care about. You may find that you’re not able to help someone you really, really want to help. These are humbling experiences. These are times when you need a good supervisor.

Those are the human qualities I think you need in order to become a psychotherapist. In terms of academic requirements, generally you need to have a graduate degree in psychology, sociology/social work, nursing, counseling, or a related field. If you work in the public sector, you may be “credentialed” to deliver specified clinical services, without having to be licensed in your profession. If you want to work in the private sector or have your own private practice, you’ll have to be licensed.

Client-centered therapy and active listening

Dr. Carl Rogers’ client-centered therapy was one of the major therapies within the human potential movement. I had the good fortune to meet him briefly when he was the keynote speaker at a convocation of the Association for Humanistic Education, held at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) in 1976. I’d just listened to his address and then joined my ex-wife, Doris, who was selling her hand-crafted jewelry from a blanket on the lawn outside the education building. Dr. Rogers came out of the building and Doris’ display caught his eye. He was being escorted by a faculty member, but stopped to look. I can’t remember anything that was said between the three of us, but I was in awe of the man and couldn’t believe I was actually talking to him. He bought a piece of Doris’ jewelry as a gift, so I’ve subsequently made the claim that Carl Rogers helped put me through grad school.

Rogerian therapists don’t make analytic interpretations, or provoke authentic responses, or recommend goals to the client. Goals are established by the client, who does a lot more talking than listening in therapy sessions. A good Rogerian therapist is an active listener, who strives to understand the client’s sense of self, interpersonal boundaries, and experience of being-in-the-world by carefully listening to his words. The therapist might ask clarifying questions, but mostly listens. Actively.

After listening to a detailed account of a client’s issues with her dominating mother, the therapist doesn’t respond with an interpretation, but reflects on his understanding of her experience. “It sounds like every time you’re around your mother you end up feeling angry and worthless. I also heard you say that you keep having intrusive thoughts about your mother dying in an accident, and you feel terribly guilty about having these thoughts.” If the therapist has accurately and non-judgmentally reflected the essence of what the client was trying to express, this usually promotes increased trust and a fuller disclosure on the subject at hand. When the therapist is on the mark, the client knows that the therapist cares, listens carefully, doesn’t judge him, and seems to understand. If the therapist misses the mark, the client will usually let him know right away.

Often in everyday life we only give part of our attention to what others tell us, or are distracted by our own thoughts or reactions. Listening is often a passive act. Active listening means giving our full attention to what we’re being told, without allowing our thoughts to distract us. It’s a kind of mindfulness. In a different arena, music appreciation, certain kinds of music demand more of the listener than others. To fully appreciate chamber music, or a sitar raga, or jazz by Coltrane, you have to quiet your own thoughts and give your full attention to the music. In the interpersonal arena, sometimes we need someone who cares enough to listen actively when we have something important to say, whether that person is a therapist, a pastor, a spouse, a family member, or a trusted friend.

Active listening is a learnable skill. I started learning it in grad school. Even when I was working in a therapeutic mode other than client-centered therapy, I was an active listener. I’ve always believed that I owed it to each client to give them my full attention. Sometimes I’d do a brief meditation between clients, to clear my head. Like most things, you learn active listening by practicing it. You have to learn to suspend your own thoughts, and you do that by simply noticing any thought that intrudes on your active listening. Like a stray cat, if you don’t feed it, it goes away. Focus on listening without judging. You can practice listening actively to classical music or jazz, too. Learning to listen actively to complex music is its own reward. Active listening gets easier with practice.

When a parent would come in complaining that their child used to confide in them, but stopped, I’d coach them in active listening and non-judgmental reflection. When a child feels understood and validated, she develops higher levels of  trust and is more willing to talk about what’s important in her life. Learning to be an active listener will give you a tool that some therapists use to establish trust and encourage disclosure. It will make you a better parent, friend or spouse. When you listen carefully and reflect back what you’ve heard accurately and non-judgmentally, the person you’ve been listening to knows that (1) you care enough to (2) really hear them (3) without judging them and (4) you seem to understand and accept what they’re going through. Everyone (other than sociopaths) wants to be understood and validated, and you can help people you care about feel accepted as the unique person they are. In terms of personal growth, Carl Rogers  taught that self-acceptance is the fertile ground in which the seeds of growth can flourish.