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February 27, 2012


Bronwen Rees

In my practice as core process psychotherapist, I am always aware of the unfolded potential of to put it loosely, 'the spiritual' within the room. For me, this is where true healing takes place. I am also aware that the spiritual can arise at any time and at any place, where there is openness.Thus, it can be found in the village, in the anchorites cellar. By its nature this is beyond categorisation, which by its nature, fixes things. Spirit cannot be fixed, and at the beginning of the church, this was true too. Only the priests attempted to appropriate this into patriarchal hierarchies. God forbid we return to that!

Tracing psychotherapy back to its origins in the university academy of Freud and Jung, it has come a long way, and its present evolution into loosely linked secular humanitarian approaches is perhaps a natural trajectory for a society that has become pathological in its social, economic and religious trends. it is an expression, as other commentators have noted of a need for something that has been shut out by those secular priests - the scientists. So i don't think a self-view of oneself as a priest is helpful - it would imply a return to another set of hierarchical thinking and projection, both on behalf of client and therapist, but what I do think is the need to take into account something 'other'.

Therapist as shaman, healer, priestess, prophet, doctor, combining the rational with the emotional, spiritual and clinical understandings, and their intersections - a real point of contemporary inquiry.

The findings of new physics combined with the profundity of ancient wisdom that crosses time/space boundaries.

Or simply a willingness to listen?

hugh knopf

Dear Alain,

you have opened a very interesting debate here you may have noticed!

We should remind ourselves that have always sought secular means to understanding the problematics of living but it is true that the power that the church once held in seeking answers to many of the more bewildering aspects of our existence has almost vanished. You mention anxiety about mortality and this perhaps is one important key in unlocking what matters in this discussion. We should aslo remind ourselves that not all 'religious' thinking is dogmatic and not all aetheistic or scientific thinking is open-minded!

Now that God is dead it might appear that we have conveniently forgotten that we are going to die ourselves and no longer seek the preparation of the soul for the after-life that you refer to. We seek instead to understand why we suffer now and what we can do to alleviate this suffering and are surrounded by all sorts of advice about how to do this. Instead of giving authority on our lives over to the priest as the one who can guide us through the demands on how we live in seeking entry to Paradise, we give ourselves over instead to those who have identified strategies for living that accord with what they believe brings contentment and happiness(or Paradise)now in life before death.
You are not of course the first to describe the psychotherapist as the modern priest.
You are not the first to criticise those who in an effort to guide us in our life and living allow their enthusiasm to fossilise into a prescriptive and narrow formula for living. We must remain skeptical about all those forms of thought that proclaim to have found the truth of living and look instead to our philosophical traditions and the spirit of enquiry. You have been invited to visit the New School of Psychotherapy and Emmy Van Deurzen. Her work and the work of many others in this sphere is the very embodiment of this spirit of enquiry and I am sure that as a philosopher you would have much to gain by making a few enquiries yourself, Good luck with the book launch


This seems to apply especially well to existential psychotherapy ...


I agree with so much of what is written here. Yes, therapy is woefully under valued and unsupported by the NHS; for reasons of finance or otherwise, patients are fobbed off with behavioural approaches which have failure/success built into expectations of both practitioner and client. It is only the relatively well off that can afford to shop around and find themselves the luxury of a relational professional, able and willing to work with them on becoming whole and integrated – for as long as it takes.

I’m very enthused by the idea of a society where therapy is afforded the same significance as a hair cut or gym membership, I suspect every therapist is, and yes, regulation needs to be a part of attaining this ideal. I do balk however at the correlation of and priests and therapists. My experience of what the client finds beneficial is in large part a chance to air shameful feelings and thoughts without fear of judgement. Does the priesthood with it’s emphasis on commandments, confession and censure suggest this kind of safe space? Were those priests of olden times really providing a friendly ear or supporting the status quo from the pulpit? As therapists we walk with our clients on their journey to who they are; without preconceived ideas of who this is, or how they should fit into society as a result. I’m all for increasing the role of therapy, but not to plug the gap left by priests, rather, to offer something better.

Sasha Smith

This article sums up very nicely my feelings about therapeutic work in general.

It is for these exact reasons that I started my existential coaching practice and am studying towards my MA in Existential Coaching (at the New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling, London).

It is true that psychotherapy still has a stigma attached to it particularly in the UK with contrast to the USA. Coaching, however, does not (although often I find that my clients are a little cautious about who they share this with).

An earlier poster made a suggestion that this article was really about life coaching rather than psychotherapy; I wish it were this simple. What I have found in my practice is that the majority of life coaches stay well away from these 'deeper' issues, sticking to more structured methods that require a more practical basis. In fact, clients themselves are hesitant to openly explore such issues, often asking me if this is an appropriate topic for life coaching or whether is too psychotherapeutic to be discussed. This is what leads me to existential coaching as an emerging alternative to psychotherapy.


I'm psychologically in love with Alain de Botton.

Sam Jahara

It is refreshing to read this article after having attended a cognitive analytic therapy introductory workshop offered by my local NHS Trust. One of the trainers in her ignorance suggested that "long term therapy encourages dependency and is uncontaining". These people are a big part of the problem of how psychotherapy is seen and devalued nowadays. They don't see that their 'method', despite its validity, is restricted to the type of client that chooses or might benefit from short-term therapy (although I believe that because the public does not have access to free psychotherapy they will simply make use of whatever is offered in the NHS). Sad to say that Cognitive Analytic Therapists call themselves psychotherapists (despite having had only 2 years of training and short term personal therapy!). It is very disheartening for those who fund their psychotherapy training which entails 5 years of hard work, 40 hours of personal therapy a year for the duration of the training, plus all the clinical work...Yes, what makes a great therapist is often the person, with a good training under their belt!

Nick Shillingford

Maybe the new "priests" are not therapists but teachers. God help us you might say, but they are more accessible than therapists. They preach to a congregation in the classroom or lecture hall, and are available for one-on-one pastoral care if required. But I agree, your "priest" could equally be someone who milks cows or a bloke down the pub. The wise come in many guises.

Alex Kennedy

Oh for fucks sake. Why do people have to make everything so complicated? So you have to have studied a particular brand of psychology or specialise in intricate philosophical ideologies. The wisest person I ever knew milked cows for a living. How about every 500 people get to elect the person they think gives the best advice & that person gets to oversee that little secular parish. In my experience have a certificate framed on a wall doesn't make you any better qualified in everyday life.


No one has ever been referred to this psychotherapy practice for "emotional confusion, loss of meaning, temptations of one kind or another" or "anxiety about mortality." I think you are perhaps being duped by those whom physicians have aptly termed the worried well. There is plenty for psychotherapists to do treating people who suffer from disabling and sometimes life-threatening conditions. Is superstition in such short supply that we must provide that too?

Oh, and this consulting room looks very nice, if I say so myself.

Alan August

This should be the role psychotherapists fill, yet in the present many are grossly unsuited to take on such a challenge (even though many think they are). It would require a redefinition of psychotherapist education, making their curriculum much more grounded in the humanities, and, recognizing it as a "priesthood," the bar should be set much higher for gaining permission to practice.

Perhaps the current problem with psychotherapy is that it is regarded as a "social science," and so practitioners spent too much of their training attempting research studies or attempting to interpret studies (many of these nebulous or redundant) and not enough time focusing on human wisdom.


Ok, so when Atheism fully takes on the model of a religion, what will be the new atheism? For those that don't want a temple or a thera-priest, I mean.

Austin Bambrook

I disagree that Psychologists are the prople to fulfill this role, but do agree that there is a role to be filled.

It would be wonderful if communities would get together to pay for such s role, but it is difficult to see how this could be acheived. I would love to be that person, but the nescessity to earn a living has always gotten in the way. The nearest I acheived was setting up a social enterprise and maintaining an atmosphere or mutual support, but the mission was very limited due to commercial considertations, and the pastoral care was only really available within the organisation.

I see church groups setting up all over the place, and the 'pastor' having grown a flock, can make a living fron the tithe. Fear of god seems to be a useful fund-raising tool. I thing there is a challenge to create a similar strong motivation to donate/contribute without resorting to fear and untruths.

Emmy Van Deurzen

So glad you are getting into the link between applied philosophy and psychotherapy. That is pretty much my life's work.

The trouble is that different schools of psychotherapy can be every bit as dogmatic and opposed to each other as different religions.

Lord Layard's contribution was to reduce therapy to evidence based therapy only, i.e. basically CBT and some other formulaic forms of very basic interpersonal work. I have written about all these issues, i.e. therapy replacing religion and the Layard school of thought, in my recent book: Psychotherapy and the Quest for Happiness.

I would be very interested in discussing these things further with you. At NSPC, where we train existential therapists, we also have a course in existential coaching (i.e. philosophical consultancy). A book coming out about this in May. See www.nspc.org.uk



Lord Layard has tried to introduce one particular form of therapy - Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is of course not the same as 'psychotherapy' per se. And this has been doen at the expense of other forms of psychotherapy (without any evidence for the therapeutic superiority of CBT being demonstrated)
Moreover, not the limiting force, but the driving force behind CBT has been economic - as one might expects from an Economist (Layard) - the driver is explicit and has been to get the unemployed back to work as cheaply as possible (with simple formula equating cost of CBT to benefits saved to number of work hours completed etc)
That particular use of therapy/therapists doesnt really seem like the work of priests to me

Monica Pini

According to me, the article is referring not so much to "psychotherapy" but to what is called "life coaching": a mixture of counselling and philosophical reflection for people who do not have a specific pathology, but rather 'life questions'. People who (mistakenly) use psychologists for something that is not a pathology are, for example, the xpats. Here in Brussels it's a well-known phenomenon: people who move to Belgium to work with the European Institutions and who 'suffer' from cultural disorientation, more elegantly called 'dépaysement', and all its effects. I resent the word "therapy" because I would prefer to get rid of the stigma and the medicalisation of emotions (see the latest discussion about grief as a form of depression in the Lancet). Young people would also profit from counselling that does not place labels on them.

L Buckland

From early medieval times there were Anchorites (men less usually than women) who were literally walled-up in a small room at the side of the church from where (through a small window facing the altar) they could adore the sacrament - but also respond tp villagers, passers-by, and pilgrims (often such churches were on a pilgrimage route) dispensing wisdom.
And there were famous women among them - some known through their own writings, and some recorded through the writings of external mentors whose correspondence shows the women's own contribution.

andrew wildman

Absolutely. We all need someone to talk to. And a facility for that that doesn't have an agenda is a very valuable thing.


Actually Julian of Norwich provided advice to the laity, and I suspect other nuns did too. So it's not quite true to say there were no women fulfilling that function of priesthood. And what about the village wise-woman?

I agree that it would be great if therapy was not so expensive and was regarded as a normal thing to do. Maybe those of us who are in therapy should come out of the closet about it.

However, there are ministers of non-creedal faiths (interfaith, Pagan, liberal Jewish, Quaker and Unitarian) who are trained as counsellors and therapists and would not expect you to sign up to their beliefs before offering to help.

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