How the TV show Northern Exposure can teach us why some therapists aren’t good sources of spiritual wisdom.
This is a follow-up to “The ACLU and Religious Freedom Part 2,” where I began discussing the problems which ensue when spiritual seekers are exposed to bad therapy. Such problems include Guru Alienation Syndrome — a condition similar to Parental Alienation Syndrome, but often caused by a therapist or ex-cult support group.
I grew up watching movies like Ordinary People, and thinking of therapists as being like the Judd Hirsch character: sympathetic, caring, always reaching out a helping hand to people in crisis, and never doing any harm. I still want to believe that’s true of many or even most therapists. It came as a shock to me to learn that some therapists are motivated by politics, ideology, and an inflated sense of their own infallibility. They claim to be experts in things they’ve never actually studied, and practice fringe therapies which may actually harm their clients. What I’m saying might be described as a “contrarian narrative;” but to recognize some truth in it is to gain insight into many phenomena which undergird our modern world and modern conflicts.
Tana Dineen is a psychologist herself, but one who is critical of what she calls the “Psychology Industry.” Her presentation “Are We Manufacturing Victims?” is helpful in understanding psychology from a contrarian point of view. Taking in her broad analysis, it becomes easier to process the information I’ve shared concerning anti-cult therapists who condition their clients to view themselves as “cult victims.” Dineen writes:
As a society, we have become accustomed to seeking psychological explanations for every part of life and to relying on experts or specialists to give guidance, direction or approval. Who questions the notion that psychologists can see inside people’s heads and hearts, know their thoughts, intentions, motives? Who questions what the experts have to say about our lives from birth to death? Who questions that psychologists know best how to parent, make marriages work, combat violence, resolve conflicts, and grieve? [or interpret spiritual experiences?]
Dineen includes this snappy quote from Noam Chomsky: “One waits in vain for psychologists to state the limits of their knowledge.” When psychologists overstep their bounds and begin dictating what spiritual seekers are allowed to believe and practice, they’re usurping the role of spiritual teachers and replacing spiritual beliefs with secular rationalist ones. This raises problems of set theory and argumentum ad verecundiam.
Psychologists are not typically experts in religion, nor does the set of things known by psychologists encompass the set of things known by priests, nuns, ministers, rabbis, imams, yogis, lamas, mystics, gurus, or shamans, whose training is quite different. It would seem to be an example of extreme hubris (or perhaps charlatanism is a better word) when psychologists claim to be able to tell spiritual seekers what groups they should or should not join. Such advice is usually conformist in nature, and tends to steer the would-be seeker toward making fairly mainstream secular choices (or “spirituality lite”). Yet, psychologists do not have a lock on human wisdom, and people who are suffering have a right to decide what modalities they find helpful in dealing with accumulated pain.
On the one hand, many psychologists are compassionate healers; on the other hand, their training inclines them to be secular rationalists. This sets up a potential dissonance between the needs of a client who by nature is religious or spiritual, and a therapist who by training is not. The spiritual seeker may adopt a humble stance of “not-knowing,” while the therapist may evince a certitude in Dawkinslike assumptions about the “God delusion.” What could possibly go wrong?
Since therapy includes a large component of mentoring, the danger for the spiritual seeker who becomes involved in therapy — especially anti-cult therapy — is that the influence of the therapist-as-mentor will be to quash any nascent feelings of spirituality in the client, and substitute a secular rationalist model of the universe based on critical thinking and (paradoxically) conformism.
In short, the client may walk in a spiritual seeker, and walk out a “cult victim” owing to techniques and methods I’ve described elsewhere. This also applies to ex-cult support groups themed on abuse, and based on the same underlying premise that the former spiritual seeker is really a “cult victim.”
How do psychologists manage to so massively influence the way that people come to interpret (or reinterpret) past experiences? According to Tana Dineen, “The illusion of power is maintained through the mystique of science and the symbols of professionalism.” In a significant (if turgid) passage, Ole Jacob Madsen (also a psychologist) writes:
Unfortunately, the ability to set boundaries is wanting [in psychologists] and the result becomes instead a boundless expansion of a therapeutic logic because the professional ethos entails a lack of understanding for other values, systems of meaning and principles besides the purely therapeutic, attributable to the belief that one serves only the cause of the good, in that everything is actually psychology.
— Ole Jacob Madsen, The Therapeutic Turn: How Psychology Altered Western Culture
What’s striking here is that Madsen says psychologists (who often complain that certain spiritual beliefs and practices are “totalistic”) actually pursue psychology in a totalistic manner. They’re seemingly incapable of recognizing that spiritual beliefs and principles might be a different system of meaning which lies outside their purview (unless they themselves choose to undergo spiritual training). It’s that same problem of hubris and set theory again: We’re psychologists, therefore we know everything because we analyze it using psychology. No! You only know psychology; you don’t know the set of things which are not knowable through psychology. Why do you pretend otherwise?
The difficulty which scientific rationalists have in perceiving (and making sense of) spiritual phenomena is dramatized in an episode of the 90s TV series Northern Exposure (Season 2, Episode 2). Joel Fleischman is a doctor from New York who, in order to pay off the loans for his medical education, has to serve as town physician in the mythical locale of Cicely, Alaska. Ed Chigliak is a half-Native Alaskan who was abandoned at birth, and as a young man is preoccupied with finding his parents. One night, Ed is visited by a spirit called “One-Who-Waits” who offers to help Ed in his search:
The reaction of Dr. Fleischman to being unable to see a spirit guide which Native people (including his own secretary, Marilyn Whirlwind) can see is to express concern about Ed’s mental health, mixed with a social control message: “I’m worried about you Ed, I really am. You’re not acting in a psychologically healthy way. … People who see things that don’t exist usually end up in Bellevue — it’s a special hospital for people with severe mental illness.” This is the familiar mixed message which many spiritual adherents report receiving when they’re targeted for some form of Strategic Intervention Therapy (or SIT) by exit counselors. Such adherents sometimes reply that they have their own therapy, which is Stay Home In Temple. (You can work out the acronym for yourself.) 😉
Therapists often lack “native intelligence,” are jealous of spiritual teachers (whom they view as competitors), and are dismissive of spiritual experiences, which they redefine negatively as “dissociative states” or similar jargon. I’ve seen many examples of spiritual seekers who were turned into third-rate conformists by bad therapy, and were consciously turned against their former spiritual teacher by a therapist who resented the teacher’s influence. As I discuss in “The ACLU and Religious Freedom Part 2”:
When someone studies with a spiritual teacher, the teacher becomes an important part of her life. Even if she ends her studies, her former teacher will usually be someone with whom she needs to live on comfortable terms. A healthy narrative truth emerging in therapy is one which doesn’t attempt to demonize the former teacher or alienate the former student. When therapists violate these principles, this may be seen as abusive, just as inducing Parental Alienation Syndrome is considered a form of parental abuse.
One of the universally recognized symptoms of PAS is lack of ambivalence. Quite simply, the parent from whom the child has been alienated is seen as completely bad and evil. Lack of ambivalence is unnatural behaviour in human beings. Rarely can someone of basic intelligence, maturity and emotional stability support the notion that one person is completely bad.
Yet, when people receive anti-cult counseling or participate in ex-cult support groups, they tend to undergo a pathological inversion of views. They are systematically alienated from their former spiritual teacher, to the point where they depict him/her as thoroughly bad and inhumanly evil. This may be described as Guru Alienation Syndrome, or GAS.
The reason such systematic alienation should be considered a form of abuse is that it effectively robs the former student of all the benefits of having a spiritual teacher, including the ability to interact positively with that teacher, and to enjoy loving memories of that teacher. Unambivalent hatred of the spiritual teacher doesn’t just harm the hated teacher, but also the former student.
Some psychologists can’t tell the difference between a voluntary spiritual community such as an ashram or sangha where people go to pray, meditate, read, and reflect, and a POW camp where people are held prisoner and subjected to physical brutality. These particular psychologists aren’t just hostile to spirituality in a general way, but indulge in specific pseudoscientific theories which foolishly treat spiritual seekers as if they were prisoners of war. This major category error then leads to civil rights abuses.
If you’ve had spiritual experiences, believe in them. Don’t let psychologists explain them away with jargonistic mumbo-jumbo. If you have faith in a spiritual teacher, treat that relationship with the sacredness it deserves. Don’t let anyone alienate you as part of some fad to embrace a new identity. Continue reading