Does Psychotherapy Meet Basic Human Need?

A Perspective From Aotearoa, New Zealand

World congress for psychotherapy – Symposium address – Vienna 2002

Kia ora, Tena koutou katoa. Greetings to you all. Whenever I address an audience in my own country or overseas my greeting is bi-lingual. The reason for saying hello to you in both languages is that people in Aotearoa New Zealand have started on a long journey. The journey is toward a time and place when indigenous Maori and those who speak English can use each other’s languages and coexist with shared opportunities and shared responsibilities. The journey is long for historical reasons and there is still prejudice and misunderstanding.

One of the misunderstandings has been the assumption made by psychotherapists in New Zealand that psychotherapeutic method and theory imported from overseas would suit the New Zealand environment. When I began to think about the theme of this symposium I amended the question so it became, “Does psychotherapy answer basic human need in Aotearoa, New Zealand?”

The more I learn from our cultural partners in my country the more I realise that psychotherapy can only answer basic human need if it is expansive as well as reflective.

Psychotherapists in my country have, in the main, viewed human need through a psychodynamic lens. We have taught and practised psychotherapies which ignore the power of the universe. If psychotherapy is to meet basic human need in a land where some call the earth ‘mother’ and the sky ‘father’ it must take account of inexplicable forces which have only been described in myth, legend, and oral histories. Psychotherapy has for too long been focusing on the internal life of the individual. There is no separation between the inner life and forces on the outside in the primary culture in New Zealand and this points to the need for a psychotherapy which makes sense of every aspect of human life. If the essence of human beings is seen to be alive in nature, if humanity is part of the totality of the universe then psychotherapy must address this wide perspective.

There are modalities in New Zealand which acknowledge influences external to the individual. They assume clients will be affected by environmental forces and forces beyond those which are personal. They begin, however, with psychological paradigms which encourage people to look inward. Each time our perception of the mysterious universe is linked to confused emotions, embedded thoughts or conditioned responses we become self focused and external mystery is ignored. Traditional psychotherapy sets up an expectation for the client that mystery can be fathomed only from within.

Weaving images

The image in front of you is a drawing by John Bevan Ford, Maori artist and carver. (i) It depicts a cloak (kahu). One way of perceiving the image is to see the cloak as being over the landscape. The cloak represents mana, it protects the people of the land, and it connects the spiritual world with the material landscape that sustains us. The cloak is, however, worn by a person. Now we perceive its meaning as connecting the individual to spirit, to mystery and to infinity. “The cloak is used to warm us in a physical sense but the patterns and the fineness of the cloak proclaim the sacredness of the wearer.” (ii)
As one wears this finely woven garment it is possible to draw it close as a complete covering or to leave it open for a glimpse of the personality of the wearer.
The cloak draws attention to a significant need. The need to find an importance, which exists over and above the duties which tether us to daily living.

It is a fundamental need which finds expression in every world religion and when we define it in psychodynamic terms the cloak disappears from sight. It disappears from sight because psychodynamics explain only internal patterns. They fascinate us because they are underneath the fabric of the cloak and they can be explored endlessly without really knowing whether they are there or not. While a psychotherapist is studying the underlying forces the view from the outside is fading from sight. What this complicated drawing symbolises is the cultural view that life forces cannot be explored using a model which separates one area of life from another. Every time a psychotherapist suggests that human need is based on internal dynamics alone the message is that the individual can be in control. In many cultures this selection of the individual as an entity in charge of his or her own destiny is often seen as a denial of a foundation principle that each person is connected to a personal, social and environmental history stretching back to the beginning of time. There is personal control and there is cultural and environmental control. The point is that the control systems work together in time, there is no delay between one affect and another. Cultures such as those in the East and in the Pacific have taught us that when we touch the psyche we touch every aspect of life in present, past and future time.

There is another feature in the cloak. It is the taniko pattern, which sits like a border along the outer limits. Taniko borders are themes and symbols woven together. Nothing is static in this woven symbolism. There is no beginning, no end. As soon as one finds a pattern it is immediately obvious that it copies itself into infinity. This imagery challenges the limited view of boundaries that exist in many psychotherapies. We speak of the therapeutic relationship as having limits. We terminate our relationships with clients and place limits on the therapist’s vulnerability. When we place borders around therapeutic relationships we mirror a confined world. The cloak is not bordered in order to limit possibility it is bordered to depict continuous movement and the history of a people with ancestors who keep on living. There is another important theme captured by the taniko border. Elements thread through patterns, which move in and out of sight. Focus on one element and there is a challenge to notice another element, which is competing for attention. It is this feature which sends a strong message to psychotherapy. The profession is unlikely to continue well in New Zealand if it continues to separate patterns which exist inside and outside clients. We separate personality patterns, emotional and physical behaviours and functions of the mind. We select a focus to ‘treat’ the client. What we are ‘treating’ is a thread in the taniko pattern as if it has no connection with any other pathway within or without the person. It is surprising that therapists continue to treat selectively when most agree that a basic human need is integration and unity.

Many dimensions

Another powerful work by John Bevan Ford (iii) has images in different dimensions set in the same work. While the central feature is Mana Island and the Whitireia headland the entrance to Wellington harbour appears underneath. Mana is a word from indigenous Maori culture and even though it cannot be adequately translated in English we might explain it as meaning authority, prestige or psychic force. People have mana only if they have earned it. Mana Island is embued with personal qualities by Maori. The island watches, it guards, it waits, and it gives strength. This land form rising up from the sea has a psyche, a soul. There are other natural forms, which have human features. Mountains give birth, the sea nurtures, the land is mother earth. The cloak (kahu) has become a migratory bird (Amokura) and taniko patterns remain in the landscape. The effect is connection in different dimensions. The historical story is being told by associating one dimension with another, past journeys with a permanent landscape and a watchful island called Mana in the centre.

The adult artist has, unintentionally, organised the work in the way a child would construct a drawing. The ground (the taniko pattern) is at the foot of the work, then a line to support the sea. Another base line supports the islands and yet another the sky. It is the staircased view of the small child looking upwards. The work is multi-ethnic. It begins with the distinctive Maori taniko, then there is a British ship entering Wellington complete with compass. A Maori compass symbol appears in the sky. All inhabitants, Maori, Pacific Island, European and Asian arrive initially by ship or waka. The top of the work is brilliant sunset with suggestions of the Pacific and a Chinese rainbow appearing in the distance. Indigenous peoples of the world contribute a spirituality and a heart-centred belief system which is beyond definition and cannot be captured by scientific explanation. This is their contribution which has significance when permitted to influence the views of those from other lands. If we ignore the contribution of any group of people around the world the heart of the universe will be impotent. The colours in the drawing move within each other, there is no real definition, even the child-like foundations merge into each other. The Amokura bird keeps flying after the journey seems to be over and settlers come and go. The land forms and the sea remain and the stories continue to be told. This is the way this generation sees it, the next generation will need to understand without wishing to possess the powerful meanings.

Traditional psychotherapy tends to see a one-dimensional drawing. It sees the landscape as one dimensional in order to analyse clients and work out how each client fits a picture. The one-dimensional view will be logical and sequential. It will provide an explanation for the drawing which makes sense in psychodynamic terms and at the same time it will limit possibility. Once the therapist has decided what the painting is about and perhaps explained that perception to the client, the scenery is not alive any more. It is divided into parts which cannot interact because analysis always defines by introducing boundaries. The boundaries prevent one facet of human experience from merging with another.

Divided by modalities

Therapists set definitive boundaries when they work from a modality. Modalities select starting points for therapy. These starting points are seen as places to enter the individual psyche or family systems or group dynamics. The history of psychotherapeutic theory is a search for the best way into the psyche or the best way into the system. The assumption is that human beings have physical emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs separate, one from the other. Therapists in New Zealand advertise to the public that they are body centred or interested in programming the mind or available to assist in the release of feelings. Some say they focus on depression, abuse, relationships or trauma. The variety of method supports the view that human need is divided into categories, aspects of the system or categories for relationships. It also supports the view that a person damaged by abuse, disease or an experience of rejection should be treated emotionally, physically or mentally. This divisive approach to human need encourages the belief that therapeutic surgery will heal the psyche. It is the antithesis of the belief system inherent in many cultural understandings. If the life force has been sustaining people from the beginning of time without interruption, if my ancestors are still alive in my psyche affecting my moods and tendencies, if the time of the year or the day when I gather food is crucial for my continued health, how can I believe that it is possible to heal my soul by focusing on one aspect of my existence?

Therapists who adhere to modalities and apply method do so because they are searching for causes which, they hope, will lead to solutions. The idea that emotional disturbance is the result of past experiences has provided the stuff of psychotherapy for generations. It is, of course, obvious that past trauma and relationships haunt individuals into adulthood. The difficulty with the formula most modalities present is the focus on a search for a single cause.

Those who are sensitive to cultural messages in the Pacific find it difficult to understand the psychotherapeutic preference for a singular cause and effect paradigm. The therapy world teaches that the isolated action of one person (for example a parent) can damage the life of another person and the damaged person finds healing by contemplating the relationship with the parent. This is the ‘single cause and single solution’ paradigm in action.

Connection replaces causality

When I listen to cultural meanings I hear a call for a different vision. A call for psychotherapists to establish a psychotherapy that works with connections rather than causes.
If we take the road to connections rather than causes it is non-productive to focus on one event, one relationship. Modalities which highlight the body, mind or emotions as separate entities become historically important but have a limited future in many Pacific cultures. The future needs to be built around the view that trauma, emotional dis-ease, disturbed thoughts and damaged relationships have a multitude of causes, no time frames and no beginnings. Individual pain of any kind is now contextual to the extent that relationships and meanings which seem immediate and causative can in fact be traced back in time and around time.

The question to ask is, “How will this help each person in therapy?” or, “Is there any boundary to psychotherapy and does it have a purpose which is different from other interventions such as religion or cultural ritual or education?”

Psychotherapy in New Zealand has a unique opportunity to meet human need. Every other intervention which meets human need does so by dividing the individual and proposing a defined path to health. Religion highlights spirit and contemplation of external meanings. Traditional medicine selects a body part and applies specific medication or surgery. Alternative therapies focus on the body and the mind and remedy individual physical ailments. Behavioural methodologies instruct the mind to change behaviour and encourage individualised responses to life. Cultural rituals have a group focus with belonging as the healing element. Education, the original hope for a holistic view is, of course divided and competitive.

Psychotherapy is not designed to persuade or proselytise. It can intervene without being divisive. It has another value, which is probably the sole preserve of psychotherapy. It addresses the soul without wishing to capture it, allowing each person their own destiny according to their own creative insights.
To meet basic human need psychotherapy will need considerable expansion. When a psychotherapist meets with a client in New Zealand there must be multiple lenses focused on infinite possibilities. In place of therapeutic enquiry to assess the person in the moment I am suggesting the creation of space to listen for ancestors, imagine the pulse of the universe and stay with the thought there may be no beginning to trauma, pain or disturbance. It means viewing the client as if there were many mirrors reflecting the present, the past and the future. Basic human need in my country is one of connection. The therapist becomes the conduit for connections to be established. Traditional psychotherapeutic theory, which places the client in the centre of the picture, does not help in this cultural environment. This is a significant departure from the way most of us were trained. The challenge is to imagine each person moving within cultural scenery made up of legendary figures. In addition, the challenge is to work with spiritual forces which are both internal and external determinants.

It is my belief that psychotherapy is art and we make psychotherapy by describing rather than defining. Imagine the therapist viewing the complete scene, moving around the scenery with the client and highlighting facets which depict movement, symbolism and hope.

Once I see it as an art form I don’t have to define what need I am meeting. I can live with the challenge that therapy acts within humanity rather than acting upon it.

If the therapist is an artist many of us in New Zealand must question our definitive training. The New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists expects therapists to have diagnostic skills. Case studies produced for membership must contain diagnostic formulations. The diagnosis is of the client. An artistic approach to diagnosis would be one which diagnoses the intention of the artist. Therapist and artist give birth to drawings. The artist draws what he sees, the therapist draws attention to what she or he observes. The artist is often willing to participate in a diagnosis of the way in which he went about the work and leaves the drawing to speak for itself. I have asked John Ford to tell me about the imagery in this work and his explanations are never definitive, they always leave the door open for me to make interpretations that have very little to do with the original thoughts in the artist’s mind. Perhaps we could move to an expectation that artistic intent is primary for therapists rather than attempts to explain the complex world of the client. The only diagnosis required is one which examines the therapist as he or she prepares to make psychotherapy with the client. If psychotherapy is to meet basic human need the therapist cannot be an analyst unless the analysis is for the benefit of the therapist. The therapist as artist draws attention to connections rather than fixed perceptions. Images, which exist in the mind of the client, are important to explore without definition.

Ford says this of his work: “If the work is to have real, deep quality then it’s not only going to have to reflect the immediate moment, the immediate families and their immediate, you might say, ancestors, but the whole of the cultural ethic and the received ethic that makes a people what they are; that makes in the finish a Maori race different from a Japanese race, makes Japanese different from a Mongolian race…and yet, at the same time, is playing with the common human faculties as well.” (iv)

He also says; “Now whakapapa (family history) is not just a line of ancestors but goes beyond ancestors to what Europeans would call the gods, then beyond the gods to conditions of mind, states of abstract thought and into deeper abstract qualities. So it contains in itself, as it were, the origins of the world and the origins of its peoples.” (v)

The world in one human being

The idea that each person is carrying the origins of the world demands a psychotherapy that keeps asking expansive questions. The suggestion is that each person carries a relationship with creative forces and ancestors who have long since died yet continue to live. This is not linear ancestry. It is, rather, the continuous existence of life moving in and out of the past present and future. If psychotherapy is the instrument to meet basic human need it must probe the foundations of being and point to the power of an interactive universe. It will be a process of enquiry searching for events and people in a circle of meanings. It will not be limited by searching for beginnings and endings, sudden interruptions or narrowly defined relationships.

Once I am aware the whole world is contained within one individual I am bound to work artistically. I begin to look for colours in client stories rather than facts. I am likely to sit uneasily if the client wishes to accept total responsibility for their depression, their pain or their fantasies. Traditional psychological labels such as paranoia, projective identification and borderline personality cannot be contemplated in a client world that has meaning only when it is merged with kin and the natural world. I am seeing emotions float in and out of existence and I have no urge to suggest the client ‘hold’ an emotion to examine it. When specific traumatic events are mentioned I am alerted to the possibility that there are more people present in spirit than the client imagines. There are no causes to find, making it possible to reach beyond reason and work with imagination. As there is no need to work out what is occurring psychodynamically I experience freedom to break with tradition.

Tradition would have me focused only on the internal life of the client without realising the way the universe is functioning has an impact.
I am free to suggest we trace the links between an historical event and sudden physical pain. Free to talk about connections between trauma in a nation at war and in people who watch it happening. The significance of not knowing where pain is centred or why sadness seems extreme can be connected with the history of people in a land where colonisation runs like a continuous film on a screen. My own cultural experience when growing through childhood was filled with pictures in the mind as I coped with family tension. I am still surprised when well meaning colleagues see those mind pictures as explicable psychologically. I know the frightening creatures in day and night dreams were real. I know my mind helped me walk into the sea one day when I thought my mother was leaving. I know I felt my motorcycle crash in the middle of the night in a deep sleep. The reasons all these experiences took place had something but not everything to do with life in a tense family home. There were other forces at work, which gave rise to the images. Religious life had taught me that water would hold me, cleanse me or sustain me in death. Motorcycles were very much connected with heroes, risk to the point of death and attracting women. It is more the stuff of mythology and spiritual yearning than psychic affect. Place it firmly inside my conditioned response filing system and you have made it banal and functional. Allow me to ride with the fantasies, believe the pictures are real and connect them to the world of myth and legend and I find my own healing.

Fascination replaces analysis

If these words from Edward Wilson (vi) highlight a fundamental truth, then a psychotherapy which divides through analysis, is questionable. “Consciousness consists of the parallel processing of vast numbers of (such) coding networks. Many are linked by the synchronized firing of the nerve cells at forty cycles per second, allowing the simultaneous internal mapping of sensory impressions. Some of the impressions are real, fed by ongoing stimulation from outside the nervous system, while others are recalled from the memory banks of the cortex. All together they create scenarios that flow realistically back and forth through time. The scenarios are a virtual reality. They can either closely match pieces of the external world or depart indefinitely from it. They re-create the past and cast up alternative futures that serve as choices for future thought and bodily action. The scenarios comprise dense and finely differentiated patterns in the brain circuits. When fully open to input form the outside, they correspond well to all parts of the environment, including activity of the body parts, monitored by the sense organs.”

Apart from concluding that it is an affront to each individual to proceed with an analysis based only on psychodynamic paradigms I take from Wilson’s summary that psychotherapeutic assumptions are so selective they exclude vast arenas of human functioning. The old adage ‘the client knows best’ may need to be resurrected.

Psychotherapy is capable of meeting basic human need if it remains fascinated by the complexity of human life instead of trying to define it. This drawing of Mana is, in reality, the view from my lounge window. When I look out the window my past, present and future is symbolised in nature and in spaces around sea, land and sky. I look at the ocean and experience a range of emotions such as regret, grief and excitement. I see the island and I am afraid as well as challenged. The sky tells me my knowledge is limited and my imagination vast. If I was depressed enough the ocean is the place I would end my life. Out there is my dead father, a man who loved the sea. Out there is my mother, a tide I could never control. In the warm sunset are my wife and family with colours and promise forever.

The headlands are my stubborn self, not moving in the wind. Notice I have not given you details, you have not heard the stories behind the symbols. In order to be my therapist you don’t need the stories.
Just contemplate the drawing and wonder. I will unfold myself while you pay attention to me. You will have met my basic human need.

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


(i) Ford, John Bevan Drawing of a cloak (kahu) over the New Zealand Landscape
(ii) Nicholas, Darcy (1988-89) John Bevan Ford, Weaver of Lines, History and Genealogy Art New Zealand, (Jnl) No 49, p52
(iii) Ford, John Bevan (2001) Drawing depicting Mana Island
(iv) Ford, John Bevan (2001) in Making Connections, John Bevan Ford , Maori Artist J and P Smith, Gilt Edge Publishing, Lower Hutt, New Zealand
(v) Ford, John Bevan (1992) in Te Hono ki Zeelandia Nova Chris Maclean Exhibition Catalogue
(vi) Wilson, Edward (1998) Consilience, The Unity of Knowledge Abacus, London p120


Note: Translation from Maori into English cannot be exact and the meanings are not precise
Mana Integrity, Power and Standing, Psychic Force Whakapapa Genealogical Table
Te Kore Kore (In a sense, not to be translated) The Void, The Nothing and the Not Nothing
Taniko Embroided Border, Braid, Tapestry


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