Is There a Fundamental Psychotherapy for the World?

Theory and Method on Hold

Keynote address World congress for psychotherapy VIENNA 2002


This presentation is very personal. I am risking my own ideas on order to demonstrate that psychotherapy exists within my ‘self’, within my being. I believe psychotherapy is not theory, it is not method and it is misplaced in modalities. If this sounds as though I am ignoring the magnificent history of psychotherapeutic endeavour, bear with me while I explain.

I live in a country where authentic existence is highly sensitive to the way the universe moves. We are never far from the ocean, none of us lives far from dense bush and the mountains are so powerful they are named as sacred. When my being moves it cannot predict the way in which land, sea, and sky will challenge my intentions and affect my desires. The close proximity of a pulsing universe challenges every psychological paradigm I have ever known. Each moment of existence is so unexpected, so new, that it cannot be described using theory or psychodynamic formulations. As soon as you place me in a paradigm I will have moved to another sphere. It is impossible to confine me in theory.

I am proposing there may be a psychotherapy for the world if it is conceived as a momentary interconnection of thought, feeling and somatic experience. My definition of psychotherapy is: ‘a professional relationship with another person or persons which highlights cultural, social, personal and transpersonal meanings.’ The definition may or may not suffice for psychoanlaysis, depending on one’s point of view. It does not describe psychiatry nor does it cover cognitive behavioural interventions.

If psychotherapy is about making the unconscious conscious the emphasis is on the word making rather than the elements within the conscious or the unconscious. Psychotherapy is made when two people meet in relationship. It can therefore, exist around the world in moments of time instead of being frozen in theoretical formulations. Psychotherapy is born in relationships existing outside theory and method. It has a short life in heightened moments as it is practised around the globe. I will return to this premise in time. In the meantime, what is the place of theory and method?

Theory and method

Theory stimulates imagination. It triggers creative pathways in the mind and new ideas emerge. The new life of the mind is expanded as therapists feed from premises first created by another colleague. The ability to abstract possibilities from the certainties of others is an important quality in creative therapists.

The problem has always been which theory to choose and which to apply. Stanislav Grof (1985) challenges psychotherapeutic theorists to expand their limited concepts: “Even a cursory look at Western psychology reveals fundamental disagreements and controversies of enormous proportions concerning the basic dynamics of the human mind….The situation gets even more complicated when we take into consideration the psychological systems developed by the major spiritual traditions in both East and West such as various forms of yoga, Zen Buddhism, Vipassana, Vajrayana, Taosim, Sufism, alchemy, or Kabbalah. There is an abysmal gap between most Western schools of psychotherapy and these refined and sophisticated theories of mind based on centuries of a deep study of consciousness.” (i)

Grof makes a powerful case for an expansion of theoretical constructs and I believe the more research we build into theory the more we will widen therapists’ visions. My argument however, is that theory is for the therapist to study and becomes dangerous when used to analyse the client. Theory is best explored away from the client relationship. Its value lies in making it part of the person of the therapist instead of an intrusion into client process. Diagnostic formulations which lead to theory have value if they are used to stimulate creativity in the therapist outside the therapy room. If theory is applied to client situations, the therapist is in control and the client becomes a channel rather than a person whose potential is the paramount consideration. Put simply, pre designed theory is intrusive and perhaps abusive if it is applied.

Those who read theory and allow it to stimulate their own imagination are following a basic tenet in psychotherapy which is that profound relationships are built from highly personalised perceptions and not from borrowed ideas. It is unfortunate that many authors of books and papers on therapeutic process are made into cult figures whose imaginative ideas are copied by therapists. I am sure most creative theorists do not expect readers to claim their unique formulations as their own; rather they would expect the developing professional to ponder further, savour possibilities and fashion their own ideas. If therapists use the wealth of accumulated theory to expand their own use of imagination in the therapy room then theory is being used safely.

Volumes of psychotherapeutic theory do not touch my daily existence and they do not touch my clients. They meet my need for explanation, they lead me down the corridors of someone else’s mind and tempt me to believe in analytical complexities and new categories for ‘diseases’ of the mind. The best psychotherapy books are those which paint pictures of people allowing me to contemplate the paintings without explanation. They suggest I can establish my own truth. I have very strong reactions when a psychotherapist constructs a theory about the personality of another person. I want to ask, “How can you know that you know?” Theories are constructed so that people can be ‘treated’. Those who train and assess psychotherapists insist that therapists needs ‘diagnostic formulations’ in order to apply appropriate psychotherapy. The client has sometimes been listened to only for one or two hours before a theory is selected, a treatment modality chosen and a definitive diagnosis made.

When I meet with a client there is only one principle I hold with certainty. It is that this person before me is unique. If I construct a theory in order to treat I am taking a unique story and surrounding it with generalisations. The special story is altered to fit a common story. What has happened to my relationship with my client? We have parted company. The client continues to believe I am following his creative association patterns while I design treatment theories in my mind. If I then ‘try the theory out’ on my client his story is now my story. Once the theoretical formulation is in my mind I am in treatment mode and my client will be guided by me and not by himself.


The psychotherapy world is not only built around theory it is centred around modalities. Modalities propose defined ways to approach clients. They are fashioned with good intent, they begin as summaries of good practice which have worked well for some clients and are then built into definitive paradigms for practitioners to use. Each modality chooses an aspect of human development to highlight. Some highlight an aspect of mind, others emotions, and the body is, of course, another choice. Many offer behavioural formulations.

The fascinating array includes methods based on historical figures and others centre around living legends whose work is copied by practitioners. The anomaly is that these separatist paradigms exist in a profession that purports to be focused on the whole person in a connected universe
surrounded by multiple cultures, belief systems, and values. The profession has divided itself into communities which adhere to different premises. While each modality offers extensive research to support its world view it manufactures a single method and suggests applicability across the spectrum of emotional dis-ease, cultures, and the variety of human systems. All the information we have advises us that human beings function as total systems. The body does not act on the mind it acts with the mind. Emotions do not exist as separate entities which can be persuaded to alter thought patterns or heal physical symptoms. There is, in fact, no separation within a person. The idea that there is a mind which is separate from the body and separate entities called emotions is an historical idea which has been accepted in psychotherapy almost without question. The longer we believe psychotherapy should encourage separate modalities the longer we perpetuate the myth that people are disconnected within themselves.When constructing modalities or methods our profession has often made assumptions. One assumption is that because the method works for the founder of the modality in his or her cultural setting it can then be transported around the world. The premise is that humans are the same anywhere.

Elizabeth McCormick, (2000) writes: “In terms of the secular therapeutic relationship the healing experience can come from the disappearance of one’s presenting symptoms and from being offered a place where one may begin to be in alignment with one’s ‘self’…The primary use of the human relationship is for the experience and integration of wholeness. This wholeness, projected onto the therapist…is experienced and taken in by the patient in the service of their own individuation process.” (ii) McCormick has made the assumption that many therapists, including myself, have been trained to make, namely that psychotherapy is about individuation. It is an example of the way in which we assume a modality built in one culture will have relevance in others.

In New Zealand, Maori traditionally use the first person pronoun to refer to either the individual or tribe. Patterson (iii) reminds us that “…A traditional Maori view of the self is quite radically non-individualistic, to the point where what we would think of as an individual is identified with the kinship group.” In cultures where the individual is the tribe, or the society, a method which encourages belief that internal exploration of psychic material is the path to healing misses the point of existence for people. Modalities constructed in one culture do, of course, enjoy success in other cultures but it is worth wondering to what extent the transportation of a modality into another country can be seen as therapeutic colonisation.

Aotearoa New Zealand

In Aotearoa, New Zealand, the Association of psychotherapists functions as an umbrella organisation over a variety of modalities. It is a mini version of this World Congress. Practitioners dialogue with each other looking for common understandings while remaining loyal to their own singular belief systems. These singular belief systems perpetuate the myth that client persons can be successfully approached using a premise first and relationship as a secondary consideration. In New Zealand this separatist process sits uneasily alongside the indigenous culture which, as I have said previously, has the notion of interconnection as its fundamental premise. Nothing stands alone in Maoritanga, no one part of the person can exist without every aspect of existence cooperating to provide impetus for the life force. While the mind (hinengaro), the body (tinana) and the spirit (wairua) are named separately one cannot be highlighted or studied without reference to the other two.

Whenever human development is discussed the focus is on weaving threads together. Almost without exception the symbols in Maori art and carvings are based on ideas woven together, there is no stark separation of body mind and spirit and no separation of the individual from community or history. One cannot be a psychotherapist in this cultural setting and work towards health by focusing on parts of the personality or by using separate concepts such as behavioural change, emotional catharsis or body centred therapy.

Psychotherapy in New Zealand is on the threshold of a new era. Change will be slow but voices are emerging calling the profession to acknowledge the important history of separate methods, realise there is little future in making modalities more complicated and begin to focus on connections. We cannot continue to work with an overall model promoting the idea that human beings have separate parts which function independently. I am not suggesting we abandon research into the human brain, the body or emotional chemistry. Nor am I suggesting we abandon theoretical paradigms. I am suggesting we redefine psychotherapy as a process which reflects the totality of human knowledge. The knowledge we are privileged to own in this millennium highlights the point that meaning and health are embedded in connections that may be unexplored and perhaps inexplicable. Psychotherapy modalities choose defined portions of human systems and expect adherence to methods which begin at focus points in the life and being of the individual. To move away from definition and structured premise is to move into uncertainty. An un-certain approach leads to creativity and challenges therapists to work without an agenda.


Partialisation is the process that singles out a starting point for therapeutic intervention. The therapist is convinced that a change in thought patterns can heal emotions, the body and the spirit, or that a change in the body can heal emotions and the mind. The aim is to teach the client that if they concentrate on one symptom, other symptoms will disappear. The inevitable occurs, the client notices change in every part of the system. The reason for the apparent success is that each part of the system is inextricably linked. Healing is present for a while because interconnections have shifted in relation to each other. Partialisation has induced temporary relief and may have profoundly affected parts of the person. The method is seen as a success because it has changed an aspect and shifted internal relationships. Each time pain is experienced in life the client believes there is one main pathway to healing. The mind is secondary to emotions, emotions take precedence over the body or the body is in control of the whole person. The anomaly is that methods or modalities which work with partialisation believe in wholeness. If the focus were on the whole system the only reasonable starting point would be that highlighted by the client. The point in the system which is glowing red is where the client is experiencing disconnection. The red light may be signalling cultural disconnection. Unless we have a developed cultural sensitivity we may miss the point. Often the temptation is for the therapist to intervene with an agenda designed to shift the focus and that is an abuse of client process. If a client focus is accepted and the therapist is waiting to suggest there might be a more useful focus, treatment and method takes precedence over relationship. The system proposed by a modality is preferred over the client system leaving the client feeling powerless.

Most of us would agree that clients teach us an enormous amount. Most of us wait in anticipation for exciting moments when client insight surprises and delights us. The anomaly is that by applying method we are supporting the view that the person who constructed the modality is wiser than the client in their cultural, personal and social setting with a particular trauma. The method being applied is often one based on a premise preferred by a theorist who lived decades ago in another country. A more important feature is that the theorist is not even in the room. How then, can we claim that psychotherapy is about relationship when those who designed the elements of the relationship are not present?

My foundation training was in Rogerian therapy so I will quote Carl Rogers: “Every individual exists in a continually changing world of experience of which he (sic) is the center.” (iv) This statement is not valid in many places in New Zealand and it would certainly be culturally offensive to apply the principle that each individual is the centre of their world. It is not wise to take Roger’s method into the room with many of my clients, not because his method doesn’t work for them but because he is a man of his time and culture. Why do therapists need to rely on someone else’s guide book in order to meet human beings in close relationship? As soon as method is controlling therapists’ thought patterns the client’s being is filtered, manipulated and analysed.

The globalisation of meaning

Another result of relying on method is the implication that each client’s story has been lived before by the people whose case studies were used to structure a modality. In order to build a method one needs to find similarities in client experiences. We rely on common themes to suggest common solutions. We point to the way grief works, the results of trauma, the etiology of depression. Clients are imprisoned when therapists attempt to explain their story using premises that explain other people, other lives. How can a person believe they are unique and accepted for who they are if we imply through explanation that their journey is similar to others who exist within other cultures?

To support our findings we follow sound research principles knowing, however, that the population we have used is usually limited in terms of culture, belief systems and social conditions. There is a decision point on the horizon for psychotherapy theorists and method makers. Will we continue to globalise by assuming fundamentals we can apply across cultures or will we resurrect the belief system most of us began with which was that each person in their own culture is entitled to be different and entitled to unique considerations during the therapeutic hour? Have we globalised meanings through our attempts to colonise the world with applied method?’ Do we want to continue with our need to capture meanings in method or is there a chance we might be able to listen without summarising what we hear?

Why is our profession so attracted to paradigms that look for common themes in people rather than differences? The study of commonalities may help therapists gain confidence but they do not help clients to discover their special place in the world.


Whenever I attended a workshop and listened to fine details about a new therapeutic method my first reaction was to be excited and eager for more insights. Perhaps I had been missing opportunities to bring about fundamental change in clients. It dawned on me slowly that I could apply this new information only if I was prepared to do two things. One was to accept the idea that clients need treatment. Interventions were based on a treatment plan, a way of being, a manipulative schema. Then I had to accept that clients were not really capable of knowing themselves. They knew their limitations, they knew their pain but the designed techniques were there because clients did not know how to change. The impetus for change would come from the therapist who wa carefully trained in the method. I had to be a pupil. The training encouraged me to mime the intentions of my teachers. I seldom capture their essence so I kept returning to the teachers hoping I will be reborn in their image. Gradually I found myself copying someone else and taking on their persona. I had become a disciple, I was convinced this was the way to approach all my clients.

What had happened to my creativity, what had happened to my conviction that clients discover their own initiatives given a conducive environment?

At the beginning of this paper I proposed that ‘psychotherapy exists as a momentary interconnection of thought, feeling and somatic experience’.

Psychotherapy in the void

When I establish a relationship with a client that hovers around moments of possibility then psychotherapy is created in those moments. As I hold the sum total of who I am in my being and wait for my ‘self’ to be met by ‘the other’ we make psychotherapy for that spontaneous meeting. The psyche is merging with therapeutic process, the soul is surprised by relationship. Within that relationship moment every strand of knowledge I have absorbed, every conditioned aspect of my existence, every cultural icon and intangible spirit affects the foundation of my being. I dare not allow my mind to conjure a theory of personality or a therapeutic method. If I search for explanation or method I will stifle my own creativity, I will lose my ‘self’. Recall a theory and lose connection. Apply a method and the client is in prison.

The mechanic who repairs my vehicle must follow a manual because automotive engineering works with functions that are either right or wrong, there is no room for uncertainty or spontaneity. Relationships with clients are naturally spontaneous and full of creativity born from uncertainty. Relationship can function only if both people are being themselves in the moment. I keep returning to the word ‘moment’. It is the creative moment, the moment when two people trust themselves and the universe so well that old paradigms are reborn and ancient myths have new meanings. These moments cannot be crowded with an intervention schedule or managed treatment plans.

Therapy as an art form

It is time to foster a disconnection between theory and method and practice. The question arises; if we collapse the divisions in psychotherapy, if we confine theory and method to the therapist’s reading room, how will our profession survive? How can we retain focused research and build more knowledge? We can do it by studying and experiencing the world so well that we do not need to apply formulations. It is the application of theory and method that manipulates clients, not the theory itself. I am convinced therapy is art. The fine artist is one who can give expression to their soul. Of course they have accumulated knowledge and skills but as they dance, sing, or paint they do not copy the teacher or depend on structured theory. The goal is to contribute from within in order to create something new. The therapist and the artist are faced with a huge challenge. I draw your attention to a belief which is centuries old in the indigenous culture of Aotearoa New Zealand and in Greek mythology. “The Maori traditional belief is that the whole of creation is a dynamic movement I te kore, ki te poo, ki te ao maarama, ‘out of the nothingness, into the night, into the world of light”. (v) I was excited to find this description after years of searching for a way to describe the way I work. It is, perhaps, to focus on ‘the nothing and the not nothing’. I cannot manage or design this moment. If I do, it will disappear.

My thinking is stimulated by the concept of Te Kore. Noi Pewhairangi (1992) of Ngati Porou writes: “I know there are a lot of Pakehas (non Maori) who would love to learn, not only the language, but the Maori heart. And it’s a thing one can never teach….there is so much tapu connected with the whole culture and I don’t think Pakehas (non Maori) can absorb it.” (vi) Out of respect for that message I am keeping to my principles by not borrowing the ideas or constructing them as a method. I have no real understanding of their cultural view of ‘the nothing and the not nothing’. What I am able to do is to keep the two words in my mind’s eye as I sit with a client. What is the nothing and the not nothing? I have been told by people who were willing to share this with me that it can be described as ‘the void’, ‘potential’, ‘energy’ in Maori understandings. It can evidently be ‘the void in which nothing is possessed’, ‘the void with nothing in union’, ‘the space without boundaries’. It can also be ‘the void in which nothing is felt’.

There are other cultures which contain similar imagery. Agathe Thornton (1999) compares Greek mythology with Maori and Pacific mythology. She writes of the “Theogony of Hesiod” and the notion of the chasm which, “…apart from night also contains ‘Day’ and ‘Day’ and ‘Night’ take turns in coming up to the surface of the ‘Earth’. Here also live ‘Sleep’ and ‘Death’.” Later Thornton refers to three accounts of Maori cosmogony written down by the Arawa chief Te Rangikaheke in 1849. She writes: “Like Hesiod’s Theogony ‘Ancestors, Tuupuna’ consists of genealogies and narrative and, like the Theogony it begins with primeval darkness (Te Po)….Next, Te Kore is mentioned, the ‘Nothing’, the Nothing, the first Nothing up to an ‘infinite number of Nothings. Again the numbers express intensity-complete and utter negation.” (vii)

My Pakeha proposal for myself as a therapist is that psychotherapy exists when two or more people are fully engaged in contemplating a void in which nothing is possessed, nothing is in union and there are no boundaries. Perhaps utter negation is where significant insight or creation begins. The moment has integrity without design. It has information without structure, it has potential without direction. The lack of definition is not a problem, space without boundaries is not an issue.


Immediately the question arises, “Is this a safe way to work?” Are there times when we should steer the client away from the void, away from not knowing? Client safety is paramount and there are times when we must take responsibility for client process. In those moments we are being professional advisers and psychotherapy is on hold. There are two intervention strategies which have significant contributions to make when safety is an issue; psychiatry and cognitive behavioural applications. Colleagues in these professions are crucial partners. It is inevitable that therapy which explores human behaviour without attempting to confine or structure it encourages thought patterns and emotional reactions that seem to be out of control. To follow a person along the path to original cultural formation and fundamental belonging is to access association patterns so complex they seem unlikely to unravel. In some instances this may be the point where therapy must cease and ritual or nurturing should begin. While therapists are charged with managing self exploration they must be aware of signs indicating a person may want their life to end and traditional protections may not suffice.


Now we can return to the therapeutic moment. Many years ago I had a colleague who took his life. I was his therapist and he was an out patient of a psychiatric clinic. He had repetitive thoughts about the huge chasm left by the death of his wife. In the same breath he would acknowledge his ‘angels’; his children who gave him intense pleasure. Each time he pointed to what I now know was ‘the nothing and the not nothing’ I made a therapeutic intervention. I drew on my knowledge of method and formulated an analysis in my head. As I sat there trying to work out what to say, trying to detect his problem, I was using my skills and carefully following the steps I had been taught to take. Consequently I missed the void, missed the potential, missed the point, that nothing needs to be possessed. He did not die because I ignored the void, he died without my entering ‘the nothing and the not nothing’.

The essence of psychotherapy has to be what happens as the world turns on a thought or an emotion. It is indeed a world wide phenomenon that where we came from, who and why we are, is unresolved. Today there are suggestions that there may be no starting point, new life might well arise from nothing and anxiety reigns because we postulate there must be something. Place these profound premises in the midst of the therapy relationship and we have the key to a psychotherapy which is renewed every time it is initiated.

If I am to concentrate on the moment in which psychotherapy is created rather than applied, I need to be vulnerable. There is no way in which therapeutic artistry can be achieved if I am recalling my training, relying on designed skills or taking measured steps. The slightest hint of trained intervention will signal to the client I am using my trained self rather than my self confidence. Self confidence involves the ability to risk fear, risk not knowing and stand on the precipice. When we are standing on the brink of understanding insight arrives and perception is clear. The client and I come face to face with the realisation that personal change is not necessarily the goal. There is often no need to change anything. The focus is on holding facets in the mind’s eye as if we were contemplating a diamond. As one insight appears another disappears only to emerge again seconds later. Another definition of psychotherapy could be ‘the contemplation of multiple insights’. These multiple insights are different in every place in the world. A single modality cannot propose a way to connect with the diversity of insight which is first formed within culture. Modalities assume insight is first formed emotionally, physically, intellectually or spiritually. Now that we have a global awareness the truth is that insight has to be grounded in culture.

The facets of the diamond I contemplate with clients in New Zealand are flash points filled with cultural meanings. There are a number of cultural truths in our multi cultural society which capture insights. Insights are mirrored in ancient stories, rituals watched by children, experiences in peer groups, adolescent transitions, marriage and family observances. The multi faceted diamond which beckons in the moment of insight might be affected by ancient ancestors who Maori believe are actually living in the present. Imagine attempting to introduce a designed intervention method while an ancestor is speaking to the heart of the client. Clients in New Zealand often attribute almost human qualities to mountains, rivers, the sky, the land and the sea. These ‘people’ are speaking, acting, reminding and calling while the therapist joins clients in contemplation. Psychotherapy can be made out of a tradition stretching back to the beginning of time, to Te Kore, the void. In this cultural environment it is also possible that historical events are being replayed in the present. The abuse of land, women and children, a time when one social grouping offended another, ravages of war and colonisation which have never been forgotten. These memories cannot be attributed to individualised psychological dis-ease, they are more powerful than that.

A psychotherapy for the world

To make psychotherapy in moments when myth and legend are being relived is a process I cannot design and must not surround with theory. I can do something much more exciting. I can believe that there is a psychotherapy for the world when each therapist stops trying to define moments filled with multiple insights. The only definition we need is one which expects psychotherapists in different cultural settings around the globe to believe in their own creative ideas. These ideas will change as each client appreciates a therapeutic connection which comes from the therapist and not from a textbook.

The connection arises out of an appreciation of the moment, permission for the client to discover their own world of meanings and a willingness to work with the nothing and the not nothing. Psychotherapeutic formulations will always exist in world class libraries and teaching rooms. It is good to read them but it is important to close the door of the library before we meet our clients. Clients have a world wide web in their hearts and minds and pages filled with surprises which are worth downloading in the moment. They should never be saved to a file. A psychotherapy for the world will be based on description rather than analysis.

If cultural sensitivity is the key it is an abuse for the therapist to analyse. Once an analysis is made the cultural truths have been colonised. We have done little to investigate the therapeutic power of description. The descriptive therapist will be curious and reflective without pretending to understand. Attempts at understanding are born of the desire to capture and to possess. A world psychotherapy reflects the world it senses and describes what it observes. Imagine the power of allowing description to be sufficient. In this room I have the opportunity to meet with people from a variety of cultures. If each one of you allowed me to join you in a psychotherapeutic moment with no pre-designed parameters, no assumptions about who we each happen to be and no attempts to capture meanings, we might discover humanity.

A. Roy Bowden
Former President, NZ Association of Psychotherapists (1998-2000)
Head of School, Counselling, Alcohol and Drug Studies, Psychology
Wellington Institute of Technology, New Zealand


(i) Grof S (1985) The World of Psychotherapy: Towards an Integration of Approaches in Beyond the Brain State University of New York pp 138 &139
(ii) McCormick E W ( 2000) The Therapeutic Relationship in Transpersonal Psychotherapy Continuum, London pp20 &21
(iii) Patterson J (1992) Values and Virtues in Exploring Maori Values Dunmore Press, New Zealand. p 110
(iv) Rogers C R (1951) Client Centred Therapy Boston: Houghton Mifflin
(v) Shirres M P (1997) Maori Theology and Maori Knowledge in Te Tangata, The Human Person Accent Publications, Auckland, New Zealand, p16
(vi) Ngoi Pewhairangi, Ngati Porou (1992) Learning and Tapu in Te Ao Hurihuri, Aspects of Maoritanga Michael King (Ed) Reed Publishing, New Zealand p11
(vii) Agathe Thornton (1999) Cosmogony in Maori Oral Literature as Seen by a Classicist Huia Publishers, Wellington, New Zealand pp 25,28,32,34


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