Children are supposed to outlive their parents. No one says as much until the unspeakable happens—then everyone says it. At least that’s what Abagail found as people shuffled past the light blue, steel casket containing the body of her daughter, Lizzy. For 18 years, Abagail had devoted herself to not just taking care of Lizzy, but giving her a life. Her loss was devastating.
Shortly after her birth, it was clear something was wrong. Lizzy’s body would alternately stiffen, jerk, and go floppy. She didn’t eat right and was often impossible to soothe. As the months passed, she missed key developmental milestones. She couldn’t lift her head or roll over on her own. Seizures began, and eventually a grim diagnosis was made: severe cerebral palsy. Eventually Lizzy’s organs began to fail, and nothing her doctors did made any difference. Her death left Abagail with the kind of deep grief and sense of emptiness that one would expect in her circumstance. Still, her commitment to her daughter was indefatigable. She had no doubt that Lizzy’s spirit lived on, and her biggest worry was that no one was looking after her daughter now. “I took care of her for 18 years, and she had lots of needs,” Abagail said. “I wanted to know, needed to know where she was, if she was okay.”
When Abagail’s anxieties failed to lessen with time, she sought out a therapist. She’d seen one shortly after Lizzy’s birth. “That first time was quite helpful,” Abagail remembered. “She really listened to me, understood my situation. I got some helpful advice and appreciated the honesty and directness. I decided to go again.” But her experience this time, with a new counselor, couldn’t have been more different. “I stopped going after a few visits,” Abagail told us. “It was clear this person had no idea what to say to me. I’d be talking about what, for me, were minor things about Lizzy and her life. But the therapist would start tearing up, talking about how difficult it all must’ve been. It stopped me in my tracks. There was so much worse stuff I felt I couldn’t even share with her. I guess you could say that I felt like I had to take care of her.”
Even a visit with her parish priest failed to resolve Abagail’s concerns. She simply couldn’t muster the faith he counseled her to embrace. When it came to Lizzy’s welfare, she didn’t want to believe; she wanted to know. “I didn’t need someone to validate my feelings, help me ‘work through’ my grief, or tell me to trust in God,” she said stridently. “I wanted proof she was all right, that someone was there to help her.”
And proof Abagail received, except it didn’t come from science or religion, or their agents. It started with a referral from a friend to a “spiritual advisor,” a woman believed by many to possess a remarkable gift: the ability to communicate with the dead. Abagail recalled, “As soon as Madeline greeted me, she asked, ‘Are you here to talk about your daughter?’ I was floored. I’d shared nothing with her beforehand. Nothing at all. That’s when I knew I was in the right place. ‘Yes,’ I said.”
Abagail and Madeline then sat opposite one another, a small table to the side, not unlike in a therapist’s office. “‘Your daughter’s passed over,’ Madeline continued. ‘It’s been a hard time for you and your family. You have questions.’” Abagail had nodded, watching as the advisor’s face underwent a transformation. “It was a look of pure joy . . . connecting, seeing something,” she remembered, reliving the moment. “‘Lizzy is stepping forward,’ Madeline told me. What a rush. It was what I’d wanted, been waiting for! I can hardly describe it—happy, excited, scared. Then Madeline said, ‘She knows you’re worried and wants to reassure you. She’s alright. Yes, she’s OK.’”
“Looking back on it now,” Abagail said, tearing up, “that’s when I knew Lizzy was alright. Someone was there. She wasn’t alone. It was such a relief. I can’t tell you.”
A Bridge Too Far?
No matter what one makes of Abagail’s experience with Madeline, it’s hardly unusual. Accounts of consulting psychics and mediums date back thousands of years, as do attempts to communicate with the dead, seek divine guidance, or see into the future. According to the American Federation of Certified Psychics and Mediums, millions of people in the United States regularly seek counsel from advisors claiming special powers. The available industry data indicate more people attend and pay out of pocket for such services than see mental health practitioners. Indeed, while the rest of the US economy was reeling from the Great Recession, an independent analysis reported in Business Insider showed that use of psychic services grew annually by 3.4 percent, grossing more than two billion dollars between 2007 and 2012.
How could this be? How could psychics and mediums be flourishing at the same time the fortunes of mental health professionals—those trained and sanctioned to care for people burdened with emotional pain and suffering—are flagging? The facts are sobering. In its long history, the field has never had mass appeal, and doesn’t now. Epidemiological studies consistently show, for example, most people who could benefit from seeing a therapist don’t go to one. And nowadays, fewer people are turning to psychotherapy: 33 percent fewer than did 20 years ago, with most never returning after the first appointment. Not surprisingly, research gathered by the American Psychological Association documents that practitioner incomes have been in marked decline over the same period.
The field has long known the therapist’s personal presence is more important than whatever treatment is provided. A fundamental finding of our research on this topic is that superior performance isn’t a function of degrees earned, title, age, experience, or gender. One of the defining characteristics of supershrinks—a group qualitatively and quantitatively different from the rest—is that they establish effective relationships with a broader and more diverse clientele than their average counterparts, engendering strong feelings of being heard and understood, no matter who they meet with.
Gaining access to the mentalist community proved more difficult than we anticipated. It’s an exclusive, close-knit group, highly protective of each other and their methods. So we were pleased to learn, after much investigation, that one of the most respected members of this guild lived in Chicago, the same city as Scott. Eventually, with considerable persistence, we made contact and invited him to come and speak about his work with members of the ICCE, letting him know that we were interested in learning to “read minds,” too. He flatly refused to talk with our group, offering only to meet one on one—which is how the mentalist who’d become our mentor in this pursuit came to visit Scott at his home on a sunny Thursday afternoon.
After the briefest of introductions, the man, indistinguishable from anyone walking on any city street, asked Scott, “Do you believe in the paranormal?” When Scott replied no, the man reached into his coat pocket and produced a tarot deck. After shuffling the cards, he set them on the table and asked they be cut into four piles. From each, the top cards were removed and placed side by side in a row. “Ever had your cards read?” he asked. Once again, “No.” What the mentalist shared at this point, although we won’t go into the deeply personal content, contained a breadth and level of detail known only to Scott or his immediate family.
Returning to Our Roots
We spent the next few months, without success, putting considerable effort into extracting the “secret” doings behind the mentalist’s work. We read books and papers, interviewed our teacher over and over, even practiced reading tarot cards with his supervision. Despite significant investments of time and money, our own efforts to match or approximate his abilities remained amateurish at best.
One day, noting our frustration, he said, quoting Shakespeare, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” He continued, “Psychotherapy may have abandoned magick long ago, but people never have. At the deepest level, they believe . . . and want to believe.” With that, he looked at us expectantly, as though he’d just given us the keys to the kingdom.
Although we didn’t realize in the moment, he was right. Even the most perfunctory examination of the history of healing—across all cultures—reveals that it was once infused with wonder and mystery. Maladies of the body, heart, and soul were thought to result from the actions of otherworldly forces. Relief, recovery, and a return to health required the intercession of one who could move between the physical and supernatural realms. The success of the “treatments” depended on gaining access to powers inaccessible in the natural world. Ceremonies elaborated in songs, prayers, chanting, dancing, and awe-inspiring demonstrations of power were used to invite spirits, gain their permission and cooperation, and enlist their healing energies. All this occurred in a social context strongly supportive of the beliefs and related practices. The healer, the afflicted, and the community were engaged in a common purpose.
Ultimately, a leap of faith was required, and we took comfort in the fact we weren’t alone. We’d be connecting with a new, and larger, family of healers—a community around the world that never left magick behind, that remains deeply engaged in the beliefs of those they treat, and uses whatever means necessary, consistent with those beliefs, that result in change. There was no going back now. How could we return to a worldview that was neither advancing the practice of psychotherapy, nor reversing its decline? The facts are incontrovertible: outcomes are stagnant, and people aren’t buying what we’re selling. Simply put, what the field offers is unconvincing. As Abagail’s story attests, for many, psychotherapy doesn’t “sing to the soul.”
The Three Processes
At this stage in the evolution of our thinking, we’ve identified three distinct processes, each progressively more demanding, for reuniting psychotherapy with its true magickal roots: exploring, entering, and embodying. In some important ways, practitioners are already doing some of this work, but other aspects will undoubtedly prove more challenging, requiring a radical shift in the way psychotherapy is conceived and performed.
Exploration. Of the three processes, exploration will be the most familiar to practitioners. It’s what we do when we ask things like What brings you here? How is that a problem? Can you tell me about yourself? Surveys consistently show most people believe religion and spirituality are important and appropriate topics for psychotherapy. In fact, most clients welcome questions and want to discuss their beliefs, viewing them as an integral part of their treatment experience. When therapists are open to exploring clients’ religious and spiritual beliefs, good results follow. Meta-analytic studies show, for example, clients who perceive their therapist to be aware and respectful of their culture’s beliefs, values, and traditions are more satisfied, experience stronger therapeutic alliances, view the therapy as both more powerful and valuable, and have better outcomes.
Entering. Recalling Abagail’s multiple encounters with therapy, it’s clear that no matter how willing a clinician may be to explore a client’s worldview, for many it won’t be enough. With regard to the myriad aspects of human diversity—including spirituality, religion, and belief in the supernatural—we need to move beyond mere interest or acquaintance. Clinicians will need to enter—or be in—the client’s reality, actively working to increase the fit between their preferred way of working and the client’s belief system.
Of course, paying attention to client values and using them in the service of change will be familiar to many therapists. As far back as 1954, the celebrated psychiatrist Milton Erickson observed, “The purpose and procedures of psychotherapy should involve the acceptance of what the patient represents and presents. These should be utilized to give the patient impetus and momentum so as to make his present and future become absorbing, constructive, and satisfying.” In one famous case, Erickson worked with a person who was convinced he was Jesus Christ, and he made no attempt to persuade the man he was anyone other than the Messiah. Instead, Erickson put him to work as a carpenter. Reportedly, this longtime inmate of a psychiatric hospital improved dramatically, eventually gaining employment as a handyman.
Embodiment. The role of magick in physical and psychological healing is staging a comeback. A 2016 article by Benedict Carey in the New York Times reported that the governments of the world’s two most populous countries—India and China—were calling upon folk healers, herbalists, and spiritual guides to address the pressing mental health needs of their citizenry. Rather than being dismissed as unscientific and superstitious, or being told to wait until their methods can be tested in randomized controlled trials, these indigenous practitioners are encouraged to apply their arts, including invoking the intervention of helpful spirits, prescribing magic rituals and healing botanicals, and bringing messages from ancestors to the living. Popularity and satisfaction rates are high among users, and large numbers of people who’d otherwise go untreated are being served. Though still in its earliest stages, research is quite favorable, documenting improvement in conditions, such as schizophrenia, which would be labeled severe in these countries.
Understanding magick and the role it plays in the human experience opens the door to possibilities for healing far beyond what the current and popular schools of thought defining psychotherapy would ever allow. The only limitation is what we and our clients stand ready to believe and are prepared to do.
This blog is excerpted from "How Psychotherapy Lost Its Magick" by Scott Miller. The full version is available in the March/April 2017 issue, Round Hole, Square Peg: If It Doesn't Fit, Don't Force It.
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Illustration © Caren Loebel-Fried