Dr John Rowan in conversation with Shirley Ward

April 2013

Shirley: John, it is a great privilege to be talking to you on behalf of Inside Out and IAHIP.

John: Nice to talk with you.

Shirley: You are one of the early pioneers of Humanistic Psychology and Integrative Psychotherapy and I really look forward to hearing your story.

John: I discovered humanistic psychology in 1970 and have never looked back!

Shirley: I interviewed Susan Lindsay in January of this year and she spoke of your involvement in the Creative Counselling Centre in Ireland and then, of course, you were the speaker at the first formal AGM of IAHIP in 1992.

John: Yes, it was a very encouraging occasion, and it was good to be there.

Shirley: Am I allowed to mention your age at this point?

John: Yes, I was eighty-eight on 31st March this year.

Shirley: I remember you telling me some years back that you completed your PhD at the age of eighty-one? How do you do it? What is your secret? That was a great achievement and gives hope to some of us in our active retirement years!

John: I always wanted a PhD so that I could work in America sometimes – they seem to recognise nothing less – but I could not find out how to do it. Eventually I discovered that there was a thing called ‘PhD by Public Works’ which I could do, and which was quite respectable.

Shirley: At eighty-eight, what are you doing with your life at present? Are you giving workshops, travelling or writing?

John: Yes to all – I have just done two workshops in London, and plan to do conferences in Romania and Moldova this year. I wrote several chapters last year, one of which – on working at relational depth – has now been published. Also various papers, one published in Therapy Today just recently.

Shirley: Many of our readers will have read articles by you in Inside Out and also your books referenced in their training courses – and your prolific writings on Humanistic Psychology.

John: Yes, I have written about twenty books, depending on how you reckon it.

Shirley: What brought you into Humanistic Psychology in the late 1960s?

John: For me, it all started with going to see a play called Paradise Now in June 1969. An extraordinary play, partly scripted and partly improvised, which involved the audience a great deal. It was highly political, but also had a spiritual aspect to it mainly based on the Kabbalah and Tantra. One of the lines in the play was “Form a cell” – so we thought we would! We formed a group called ‘B NOW’, in my loft and the B stood for “Best Society humanly possible”.

This was my first experience of group work and because it was my house we met in I was a co-leader right from the start. Some of those experiences I had in that group stay with me today, and some of them were turned into poems, and it was an emotionally shaking thing to go through. The exercises we did often stirred up early traumas and were quite cathartic on occasion!

My wife and family, who lived downstairs, hated the group because of the strange noises like people crying, shouting, groaning and screaming and so on coming from the group. It may have been because of this beginning that my first wife always disliked my involvement with group work and therapy!

Shirley: I understand fully! It was always difficult for us to find suitable places for Amethyst to be and why we ended up living halfway up a mountain! I know you have a particular interest in group work and in 1986 Amethyst invited you over to Ireland to lead what was a very successful workshop.

John: Yes. Our group petered out after about six months and I really got interested in groups at this point – what made groups live and die – how did groups work exactly – what really happened in groups? So I started going to groups: I went to encounter groups, gestalt groups, psychodrama groups, Tavistock groups, Psychosynthesis groups, T- groups, Bioenergetics groups, movement groups – you name it – I did it! I read about groups, I studied groups. As a social psychologist, I was supposed to have read all the literature on groups, but I found I hardly knew anything, and in fact some of the best books on groups had not been written by then.

Shirley: You also became very involved in the AHP both in the UK and USA. What attracted you to these organisations?

John: In the process I came across the Association for Humanistic Psychology in England. This organisation had only been created in England in 1969 though it had originated in the United States in the early sixties. It existed to put across the theory and practice of just the kinds of groups I had been going to, at growth centres and elsewhere. The whole idea of a growth centre, I discovered, had come from humanistic psychology, as had the whole idea of having direct methods of developing human potential. I found it very congenial, invited myself to a committee meeting and became Chair of AHP within two years!

Shirley: I believe you really loved Gestalt Therapy?

John: Yes. In the growth movement there was a great emphasis on autonomy – on moving from other support to self-support. Gestalt Therapy was particularly strong on this and yes, I really loved Gestalt therapy. Fritz Perls, the creator of Gestalt Therapy, was the great facilitator of autonomy. I was brilliant on autonomy and I leapt at this and loved it! For me autonomy was another name for freedom!

The whole idea of the real self promised even more autonomy. It was only later that I discovered that there is a pathology of autonomy the same as there is a pathology of dependence, and I had been feeding my pathology as much as doing genuinely good work in self-development. Autonomy is good, but emotional nourishment is important too. With real intimacy I could get both of these things in a proper balance but this realisation took a long time to dawn.

Shirley: How did you begin to integrate Humanistic Psychology with Psychotherapy?

John: All the work I had done on myself led me to an increasing interest in psychotherapy although I still saw this as best done through group work. I was very suspicious of one-to-one therapy, and saw it as an expensive, middle-class and establishment sort of thing. I wrote a series of thirty-eight poems based on a particular group experience which later became most of one chapter in my book, The Power of the Group, in 1976. This group, it seemed to me, was all about reinforcing power of authority to put people down and keep them where they are. What really interested me was the process of change and how do people change?

Shirley: I have heard you speak about Radical Psychology – was it this that gave you some of the answers you were looking for?

John: My intellectual interests had expanded – I still pursued Humanistic Psychology which was my positive path, so to speak, but I then started taking a parallel negative path with Radical Psychology. We were very critical of the way in which academic psychology misled and demeaned people, reducing them to inanimate objects in order to study them and it was not the way that human psychology could be developed. I then read a book by Charles Hampden-Turner entitled Radical Man which gave an account of what personal growth was and how it took place, right within the boundaries of humanistic psychology and how I understood it. The book made it clear that authenticity in the existential sense, which is a combination of self-respect and self- enactment, was the major factor in any real self-development. It was the key to where one was going and also the key to getting there. It brought together the two paths of the positive path of personal growth and the negative path of radical psychology in a way I found very satisfying.

Shirley: You certainly had enormous experience to write. When did you begin to write?

John: My first paper came out in 1956, in Penguin Science News. My first book was The Science of You in 1973.

Shirley: Were you involved in the early humanistic training courses?

John: This was an extremely painful time for me as the political group I had been working with fell apart and I broke up with the woman I had been with and went back to my wife. The whole story unfolded in my book, The Horned God, in 1981. I started to take a much more intense interest in group work. I started leading groups just following the methods I had picked up bit by bit, as we all did in those days because there were no training courses.

The first humanistic training course I came across was organised by John Andrew Miller, based on Antioch University in the States. It grew from strength to strength and is the very successful Regent’s College training course still in progress.

One important course is the Metanoia Institute founded by Petruska Clarkson and Sue Fish, both of these pioneers have died but their legacy lives on in the flourishing organisation they founded. The Minster centre came on the scene in 1978, originally in the house of Helen Davis. She has retired but her work still continues. My first paid workshop was in Kaleidoscope in 1972 and was specifically on Creativity. I still regard this as one of the central issues in all growth and self-development.

I need to say here that I regarded then, and still do now, personal growth, counselling, coaching and psychotherapy as all really under the same thing with different labels. They are all based on the twin ideas of unhindering and unfolding. I see unhindering as being about removing blocks which people have put up in the way of contacting their own centre, and unfolding about encouraging people to allow that centre to take over and to follow their own process of self-development with confidence and trust.

Shirley: You travelled to AHP Conferences in Canada and USA – often meeting pioneers in the different fields of work who would influence your work. Who did you actually meet?

John: Yes. One of the most exciting events I attended was the AHP Annual Meeting in 1973 in Montreal. I met people I had been reading about and admiring and here they were in action! I also went to an international workshop on co-counselling where I met Harvey Jackins and again learnt a lot about myself. I was really getting in amongst a stimulating crowd and later went to other AHP Conferences in the States and met people like Rollo May, Will Schutz, Al Mahrer, Jean Houston, Carl Rogers and Al Huang and so on.

Shirley: Such great pioneers in so much of our field of work. Your book Ordinary Ecstasy published in 1976 is a real classic. Did you write it from your own experiences too?

John: Yes, it was about Humanistic Psychology in action. I put a lot of what I had discovered in print, and it made a sort of milestone in my life so far. It put me on the map as a person seriously interested in the whole area of personal growth, counselling and psychotherapy and was republished in 1988 and also in 2001.

Shirley: What was Red Therapy and how did it help your own personal development?

John: It came out of a meeting organised by Quaesitor, which at that time was the largest growth centre in Europe. It was a very exciting meeting. A small group was formed, dedicated to the task of exploring the connections between therapy and politics. After a few meetings, this developed into a self-help leaderless therapy group, as explained in Chapter Two of my book, The Horned God.

Shirley: I know you are also very interested in research. What were you trying to achieve with your New Paradigm Research Group.

John: This was a very interesting group, which eventually produced a big book called Human Inquiry: A source book of New Paradigm Research (1981) which was a pioneering text on qualitative research. It stayed in print for a number of years, and was, I think, quite influential in putting qualitative research on the map.

Shirley: Our mutual interest over the years, John, has been Primal Integration Therapy. I remember running a workshop with Alison Hunter in Guildford at an AHP Conference in 1984, and you came to it with Sue. I couldn’t think what you would gain from us but you were interested in the work of Dr Frank Lake from whose school of thought Alison and I came.

John: Yes, it was a great source of regret for me that I never went to any of Frank Lake’s workshops, but I did read the entire tome from cover to cover!

Shirley: That was a major feat for you! Clinical Theology written in 1966 was over twelve hundred pages plus pages of intricate diagrams describing the roots of personalities and personality disorders from the pre- and perinatal period of life. But I believe you did your own training in Primal Integration with Bill Swartley?

John: Yes. It was in 1977 when I interviewed Bill Swartley for a special Primal Issue of Self and Society that an important turning point came for me. As a result of that meeting I learned he was just about to start a training course in Primal Integration in London. I promptly joined it and found it an absolutely extraordinary experience. It was a very intensive course with one weekend every two weeks, later to become residential which made them even more intense! On Friday there would be a lecture or seminar where theory would be looked at – and the Saturday and Sunday would be simply an experiential group where we would work spontaneously with whatever came up.

Shirley: Those were the days! Sounds very much like the weekends we were experiencing at Lingdale in Nottingham run by Frank Lake and Alison Hunter!

John: As well as seeing Swartley in action himself, plus guest leaders such as William Emerson, we worked with each other in small groups learning how to do it ourselves. I did some primal work which was very important to me. This training seemed to put together everything I knew and give it a coherent framework. I saw Primal Integration as a holistic approach which says that the four functions Jung speaks of; sensing, feeling, thinking and intuiting all have to be dealt with and done justice to in any therapy worthy of the name.

We all had to work in all four of these modes, learning how to use body work, cathartic work, analytic work and transpersonal work, all in their proper place at their proper time. I have written about it in a chapter in Innovative Therapy in Britain (1988).

The experiences I recalled one weekend allowed me to make connections all through my brain and body. When I came back from that weekend I found my relationship with Sue was much more meaningful. I could let her into my deepest places in a way I had not known before. I could experience intimacy with her.

Shirley: That is a wonderful feeling when such deep changes take place in our work. Did all this lead to your book on how to be a humanistic counsellor or psychotherapist?

John: Yes, my book, The Reality Game, was published in 1983 and did very well and went into a second edition in 1998, still with the excellent cover design by my daughter Peri. One of the main ways in which I learned more about psychotherapy was by teaching it, through seminars, group leadership and the supervision of trainees.

I had become a psychotherapist proper in November 1980, when the tenant downstairs moved out and I took over his room and turned it into a therapy room and I was in business! I began to see more people and regularly. It seems I was already regarded as a therapist by many people and the only question was, “What took you so long?”

Shirley: Did your work in groups help you to become an individual therapist?

John: Yes. As an individual therapist I did all the same things I had done in groups. In the kind of groups I was involved with, much of the work is done with one person at a time with the rest of the group looking on and sometimes participating in various ways. So there was no fundamental difference between working with one person in a group and working with one person on their own.

Shirley: Yes. I understand what you mean. I believe you were involved in the formation of AHPP in the UK in the late 1970s after the foundation of the British AHP?

John: Yes. When Anne Dickson was Chair of AHP(B) she and Alix Pirani called a meeting in 1979 to establish a strong, professional and responsible body. It became the AHPP which was the practitioners’ group of AHP. Many of the people are no longer practising but they were a very strong group of professionals.

Shirley: It is interesting over the years how AHPP influenced the BAC and UKCP!

John: Yes, I have always been a member of both of these since their inception, and think they are very valuable. Both the BAC and UKCP HIP section, when devising their criteria were actually influenced by AHPP members, including me! The AHPP is unique in the world as no other country has an umbrella organisation which covers the whole range of activities characteristic of humanistic psychology.

Shirley: John, I need to mention here your books on sub-personalities, which always interested me.

John: Yes – the more popular one, ‘Discover your Sub-Personalities’, is still selling well! Of course these books have been superseded now by my later book, ‘Personification’, which links all this to the theory of the Dialogical Self from Hubert Hermans and others. This makes it much stronger in terms of theory and research.

Shirley: Finally, and a massive topic for you, is your interest in your Transpersonal Journey in the 1980s. How did this add to your work or, in fact, change your own self as a person?

John: About 1981 I began to feel that I had done the full humanistic trip! I was self-actualised, I was a fully functioning person and I was in touch with my authenticity. And I began to wonder what came next. I explored the spiritual market but didn’t find anything that quite met my needs. I came across Ken Wilber’s work and it made a lot of sense to me. So I acquired from 1982 onwards a new sense of spirituality. I began to acknowledge myself as a spiritual being with a path to be followed. I started to meditate every morning, a practice which continues to this day. This has led to an increase in the extent to which I work in a transpersonal way, using symbols rather than words. In my recent work I have been going more into the transpersonal area, but I don’t regard that as in any sense an abandonment of the humanistic outlook. The British Psychological Society surprised us all by allowing a Transpersonal Psychology Section to be set up in 1995 which has since flourished and produced many papers and conferences of a high standard.

Shirley: The last twenty years have seen you running workshops, continuing your journey, writing and travelling. What of the future? Are you going to live to be a hundred?

John: I filled in a quiz in the 1970s which told me that I would live to be ninety-one. With the advances in medicine and diet and exercise that have happened since then, I think I may go a little further, but who knows? I still seem to be functioning pretty well at the moment, partly thanks to the wonderful attentions of my wife Sue.

Shirley: This article, John, will be read by near on one thousand people in Ireland and Inside Out journals are now on-line globally. Have you any words of wisdom you would like to relay to your readers?

John: Don’t ignore your spiritual resources would be my message, I think. The soul realm has been very helpful to me, and I am still fascinated by the Causal and Non-dual. In fact, I am shortly going to be doing an interview on the Non-dual which may appear on the Internet. There is already a more basic interview on transpersonal therapy which is at present available on the AHPB website.

Shirley: I thank you, John, for sharing so much of yourself and your life with us. I thank you for experiencing and writing about Humanistic Psychology and Psychotherapy and for being the great pioneer you are, leading the way for all those involved in the work, particularly our younger readers with their journeys ahead of them – and the more advanced in years who can look back and identify with your words and experiences and know that there is always a ‘next step’!

John: It is always a pleasure to chat with you Shirley. Thank you for having me!


I was born in Old Sarum, to an officer in the Royal Air Force. We travelled to a number of Air Force stations, and my brother was born in a taxi in Cairo. I went to a number of different schools, and was called up in 1943. I went to India, where I discovered the joys of philosophy, and had my sexual initiation. After the war, I could not find my metier, and in fact had no idea what it would be. Then I discovered Harold Walsby, who became my mentor for five years or so, until his death. He introduced me to Hegel and Marx. This eventually led to my taking a degree in philosophy and psychology and becoming a social psychologist, which I pursued for seventeen years, doing many kinds of research. During this time I married my first wife, and we had four children together. In 1978 we divorced, and I moved in with my second wife Sue. We are still happily together. All through the 1970s I was pursuing humanistic psychology in one way or another. In 1980, through a series of accidents, I became a therapist. The rest is history!

Dr John Rowan may be contacted on his email address: inforowan@aol.com. His website address is: <http://www.johnrowan.org.uk.>