When you think of the word ‘miracle’, it seems like something to be overjoyed about – something to laugh and dance and sing from the rooftops about. But when you think of something that modern western medicine has achieved, like eradicating smallpox, there doesn’t seem anything miraculous in the long, iterative, methodical strides it took to that end. The smallpox vaccination saved lives as a matter of fact and the calm and efficient way medical practitioners went about inoculating people from the once dreaded disease seems positively prosaic. And yet it was an amazing advance for humankind, allowing untold millions of people to go on living ordinary, everyday lives.
Part of what constitutes scientific thinking is curiosity about phenomena in reality, continually observing and asking questions about events, space, time, objects and living things; exploring and searching for explanations. There has to be something quite dispassionate about the process and one must be very clear at all times about the difference between what is before the eyes and what is inside the mind.
Of course when you get to the study of the human mind, psychology, looking at this dark enigmatic sun behind the eyes in a dispassionate way becomes a whole lot more problematic. Mental illness is a shape-shifter: it flies from place to place, it is unseen, the boundaries between reality and imagination porous or tightly intertwined. We may not know why we feel sad, or where our furious rages come from. We may not even know to what depths of despair that we have fallen, until it is too late.
Today, advances in medication and counselling have vastly improved the lives of many people. They can work and live relatively normal lives that the spectres of their mental illnesses would otherwise have utterly blighted.
On the other hand, treatments for mental illness have had a long and tortured history and it is not surprising that there is a fear and suspicion of medical personnel in white coats, of incarceration in hospitals and little pills with possible ugly side effects like tardive dyskinesia.
It is these suspicions that at least since the 1970s have spawned a whole lot of alternative therapies purporting to treat conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome and the like. In Australia, almost anyone can set themselves up as a mountebank therapist with a ‘qualification’ from any old New Age college. The therapists often use esoteric language heavily borrowed from Eastern religions and philosophies and curiously back their claims with snippets of the kind of scientific concepts they supposedly reject.
Who are the kind of people who think like this, who embrace the green fields and flowers of this alternative ideal? While idly surfing the Internet one night, I came across two women I knew at school many years ago now.
Ursula was a friend of mine, a cheerful and bouncing bohemian with English rose skin, an untamed mane of brown curly hair and merry, blue-green eyes. She was always enthusiastically gushing about some place in Europe she’d been to, or something she was into and had wanted to be an archaeologist. But these days, still cheerful and bouncing, she lives in Europe and is a senior practitioner of an alternative therapy called AcuEnergetics.
AcuEnergetics, according to its website, is a healing modality that treats a wide range of physical and mental ailments including frozen shoulder, back and neck pain, fertility problems, migraine, depression, chronic fatigue, thyroid problems, trauma and grief.
How does this all work?
‘…practitioners work with energy centres, pranic fields, meridians and other energetic channels. Using their hands they feel blockages and imbalances in the energetic system and can clear them using various energetic techniques. Most of the techniques are done off the body without even touching the client. Some are done with hands gently touching the client.’
But this sounds a lot like Reiki therapy, which according to Quackwatch is nonsense.
Simone was in the year above me. She was beautiful, slim with dark shoulder length hair and dark, doe eyes. She was good at school, popular and a champion swimmer as well. She had everything and did everything seemingly effortlessly. Today, she makes a living as a naturopath and also offers alternative psychological therapy.
As a naturopath, Simone espouses the holistic mind/body approach and offers a kind of alternative psychological therapy devised and promoted by an American woman who stares out from her web-page with suicide blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and a ferocious smile. This is called ‘The Journey’ and the charismatic woman behind it is Brandon Bays.
Brandon Bays, also a naturopath, apparently had cancer but says she healed herself. She went on to develop a kind of transformational therapy not only for people with depression, fear, anxiety and chronic physical problems but also those of you who are:
‘Passionate about discovering your life’s purpose, your true potential. Generally happy with your life, but knowing that with a little more energy/technique/application you would be able to live life to the fullest.’
Compare and contrast the language these two therapies employ. They both liberally use the word ‘healing’, which alternative therapists everywhere use, possibly to indemnify themselves against any suggestion that their treatment is a ‘cure’. And both claim to treat people with both mental and physical health problems as well as the worried well.
AcuEnergetics goes for a sober and muted tone. Armed with esoteric quotes from luminaries such as Buddha and Plato to give it an exotic frisson, it calls itself:
‘a modern healing modality, that integrates Chinese, Judaic, Indian and western healing traditions into an accurate energy medicine’.
Note the use of the words ‘modern’, ‘accurate’ and ‘effective’. It also uses scientific terms to give an impression of credibility. It even claims to be ‘the most clinically effective energetic healing modality available today‘, although it offers no evidence whatsoever for this claim apart from an array of testimonials.
On the other hand Brandon Bays does not hold back. According to her, a normal, mentally healthy state of mind is ‘passionate’, ‘amazing’, ‘true realization’, ‘potent’, ‘setting you free’ and ‘leaving you soaring’. One intensive eight day ‘No Ego’ workshop actually advertises that:
‘you’ll laugh like you’ve never laughed and cry like you’ve never cried. you’ll undergo life changing process work which will expose the lies, penetrate the traps and burn through the deeply-ingrained core fixation patterns that you’ve mistaken as your real self’.
The healthy state of mind according to Brandon Bays is really quite exhausting.
Yes I’ve heard it all before. While battling a serious mental illness when I was young, I read about a lot of psychological therapies that promised to make you feel better, to give your life that extra dimension. Nowadays I just manage it by taking medication and seeing a psychiatrist. If I didn’t, I’d start crying all the time, my inner life would turn into increasingly vivid realities and I would start spiralling downwards and be afraid of people again. Every hour of the day I would be in rough seas. Nothing else works.
In contrast to the silliness of the two therapies described, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is a kind of psychotherapy that really is proven in medical trials to be effective for a range of mental disorders and for managing some physical conditions like lower back pain. But there are no miracles, esoteric utterances or soaring life purposes here. Only plain, practical, modest goals and exercises that one must endeavour to apply over a period of time. According to Sane Australia, CBT:
‘helps people discover how their feelings, thoughts and behaviour can get stuck in unhelpful patterns. They are encouraged to try new, more positive ways of thinking and acting. Therapy usually includes tasks to try between sessions. CBT is a well-established treatment for depression and most anxiety disorders. It can also be an effective part of treatment for other conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia’.
And actually, CBT does have some ancient wisdom at its root. A good book on CBT – ‘Beating the Blues’ by Susan Tanner and Jillian Ball (there’s a copy in a library near you) – quotes the one time Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius:
‘If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee but thine own judgement about it…and it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now’.
The importance of seeking effective treatment for mental illness can be absolutely crucial, as this case of someone suffering from PTSD shows. The wrong therapy can make the illness worse and easily send a sufferer into a disastrous direction.
And I dispute that any psychotherapy should concern itself with a client’s ‘sense of purpose’. That puts it into the realm of religious or cult hocus pocus. People should be free to decide what sense of purpose they want in life for themselves. For instance I myself know very well the things I would like to do and achieve and that is strictly my own business. It’s the often negative way I feel and think about myself and what I do that is the problem and CBT could offer much in that regard.
And surely one should feel free to enjoy life and explore personal interests about the external world without having to constantly talk about this thing called ‘living life to the fullest’? The universe is changing all the time as does your state of mind. Feeling sad and out of it is just as valid an emotion as feeling happiness. For better or worse, nothing changes the fact of being alive.
So how did two intelligent, capable and well-meaning women like Ursula and Simone get themselves co-opted into practising and promoting such nonsense? Both of them could seriously make a much better and more honest living as life coaches. It might not sound quite so glamorous as Senior Practitioner of AcuEnergetics or Journey Practitioner, but at least they wouldn’t be faced with shunting the odd, disaffected customer out the door and having to pretend to themselves one more time that miracles actually exist.