An ecological perspective to psychotherapy must view the person as a living system of inter-related parts - psyche and soma – living in the context of a network of relationships with which she or he is intimately involved and connected. It must also be recognised that this social system is part of a whole culture and environment that is the context for the individual’s life and the issues she or he faces therein.
This systemic approach to psychotherapy has been the province of family therapists whose awareness of the need to see the individual in context led them to work with family systems and to the realisation that the individual’s difficulties play a part in both maintaining the family system and in drawing attention to the needs of that system for change. Families may be desperate about the symptoms an individual presents but, as we equally know to be true with individuals, change can be even more threatening than the present pain which at least has the virtue of being familiar.
Humanistic psychology is essentially systemic in orientation in that, as Stanislaus Grof puts it, “The humanistic approach is holistic; it studies individuals as unified organisms, rather than as merely a sum total of separate parts.” (1) Grof describes the development of humanistic psychology as a reaction to “the reductionist orientation of American psychology and psychotherapy” in which psychotherapy was dominated by “two influential theories, psychoanalysis and behaviourism.” Humanistic psychology and, later, transpersonal approaches counteracted the reductionist view that was dominating psychology at the time. Both behaviourism and classical psychoanalysis share a difficulty that limits their usefulness as systems of psychotherapy today. I emphasise limits, because it does not exclude, and in fact the wisdom of both should be integrated into any comprehensive framework for psychotherapy. The difficulty is that both are using a scientific paradigm based on Cartesian-Newtonian physics which does not allow for the changes that have taken place in the new physics of this century. As Fritjof Capra says, “The systems view of living organisms is difficult to grasp from the perspective of classical science because it requires significant modifications of many classical concepts and ideas.” (2) I have seen the real communication dilemma which can occur when analyst with a causative linear framework are trying to entertain what in their view appears to be the woolly concepts of the Jungian Analytical Psychologists who are using a much more complementary and systemic (although not usually acknowledged as such) framework.
Behaviourists claim that psychotherapy can only be scientifically based when it stems from research of observable behaviour with sufficient control of the variables involved. The trouble with this view is that in order to get sufficient control of the variables one really needs to study human beings as nearly as possible in laboratory conditions. By the time these conditions are established it is arguable as to whether one is still studying the behaviour one set out to research because it seldom if ever takes place in those kind of circumstances ordinarily and so many of the variables excluded may be an essential part of the behaviour under research. So it is questionable how meaningful the results really are. It is very much an approach that studies a part rather than makes any attempt to look at the whole.
Behaviourists study human beings by observing their behaviour. Medicine studies human beings from a biological perspective, concentrating on their physiology. An ecological view must place both these perspectives in the context of human consciousness and the relation of the individual to both social systems and their environment.
Humanistic psychologists consider that any objective study of human beings which fails to take account of the subjective stance of the investigator and the subject is ultimately doomed to failure. Such studies will give us valuable information and should not be ignored, but their limitations must always be recognised and the information garnered by such research should never be regarded as conclusive or as portraying more than a small part of the truth.
Challenging the World View
At times humanistic psychology has been criticised for being short on theory. In fact is it not short on theory, but in the past its practitioners placed more emphasis on process and learning by experience than on discussing theory. This was, and is, hard for others to understand. In the truest sense of the phrase, it was counter-cultural. Humanistic psychology was not only not preoccupied with presenting itself as scientific, when other psychologies were urgently seeking scientific validation, but it was implicitly challenging the world view that pertained at the time. It challenges the whole notion of objectivity as the exclusive path to knowledge. It comes closer to social psychology in arguing that people’s behaviour has to be understood in context. ”What is more, most of the natural sciences try to represent the results of their investigations as though these had come into existence without man’s intervention, in such a way that the collaboration of the psyche – an indispensible factor – remains invisible. (An exception to this is modern physics which recognises that the observed is not independent of the observer.)” C.J.Jung. (3)
Humanistic psychology practitioners were busy exploring the world of experience, from the innate wisdom of the body through followers of Wilhelm Reich, to the healing experiences of the here and now through Gestalt therapy. The discoveries emphasising knowledge from experience and counter-balancing the over-emphasis on intellect and objectivity were summed up by Fritz Perls (co-founder of Gestalt therapy) in the extreme statement, “Lose your head and come into your senses.” While humanistic psychologists were not always as interested as they could have been in communicating their understandings to other psychologists, it is equally true that on the other side, their ideas were not always welcome however well they were communicated. Whilst Carl Rogers’ views of psychotherapy became widely accepted and taught on psychology courses, when he was interviewed on RTE television in 1986 and asked why, having consistently researched his practice and demonstrated beyond possible doubt that his ideas about therapy and education were effective, they were so little used, he replied that he had somewhat reluctantly come to the conclusion that they were too threatening and that too many people had too much of a stake in keeping things the way they are. People do not want to facilitate learning in a holistic way, they prefer to impart information. It enhances their own ego and does not threaten the status quo in the way it could be threatened if people were really to become interested in self-actualisation and thinking truly for themselves.
The Unified Whole
Humanistic psychology views the human organism as a unified whole. It is the only approach that manages to take the physical aspects of the psyche into account. For this we are indebted to Wilhelm Reich, Otto Rank, Alexander Lowen and many others:
“Reich’s speculations, although unconventional and at times undisciplined, are in their essence frequently compatible with modern developments in science. In his understanding of nature, he came close to the world view suggested by quantum- relativistic physics, emphasising the underlying unity, focusing on process and movement rather than substance and solid structure, and acknowledging the active role of the observer.” Grof (4) ‘This ability to focus on process and movement rather than on substance and solid structure is a particular strength of the humanistic therapies through which many experiential approaches have been developed which can facilitate the process of Therapy.
No discussion of humanistic therapy would be complete without mentioning the extensive work that has been done in relation to peri-natal experiences. Following on Rank, Arthur Janov, Frank Lake and Stanislaus Grof have done extensive work on the perinatal realms of the unconscious. Grof, in particular, has developed a cartography of the psyche (which, with Jung, he takes to include both the personal and the collective unconscious) based on four peri-natal matrices relating unconscious material to four stages of life in the womb; before, during and after birth. Perhaps he would see his work as going beyond the field of humanistic psychology, he is certainly a transpersonal psychologist of immense stature. However his theories offer a framework that transcends the traditional boundaries between therapies in that he suggests the appropriateness of different psychologies for understanding different stages of human development.
Integrative means much more than acknowledging that other theories have also something to offer. Real integration is part of the individuation process. It means humanistic psychotherapy finding more of itself – learning from other approaches, not being afraid to keep an open mind, integrating that which fits to form a new synthesis and discarding that which is superfluous.
Humanistic psychotherapy recognises the innate tendency for the human organism to move towards wholeness and the aim is to facilitate self-healing “for individual growth or self-actualisation rather than adjustment.” (5) The individual organism is part of an ecosystem – a network of social relationships. However an ecological perspective must also recognise that the journey to wholeness is an inner journey – a journey to the centre of one’s self. And that, paradoxically, it is on reaching the centre – the world of the individuated self, rooted and grounded in the body, that the universe is discovered. It is through the self that we become aware of ourselves as part of the pattern that connects.Notes (1) Stanislaus Grof, “Beyond the Brain”, 1985, State University of New York Press. (2) Fritjoj Capra, “The Turning Point” (3) C.J. Jung, “The Undiscovered Self”. (4) Grof op. cit. (5) Ibid.