“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.”
― almost said by the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Two of my friends are encouraged by Dr. Gabor Maté’s presentations on the mind-body connection (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7V5qn9dkzIU) based on Candice Pert’s psychoneuroimmunology research from the 1990s.
Pert’s work, presented in her 1997 book Molecules of Emotion—since rebroadcast by public figures like Bruce Lipton—points to the connection between emotion, the endocrine system, and physical health. Gabor Maté takes this in a psychotherapeutic direction by asserting that most physical illness is the result of childhood trauma.
He might be right, but it’s not clear what childhood trauma is, or how it can be addressed. Most trauma is thought of as being acute, but what’s referred to here is common and chronic. So common, in fact, that the only person who recognizes it as traumatic is the child who receives it. That is, we’re talking about perceived injuries that are incremental, and not obvious or immediately identifiable injuries.
The problem with this theory is that there is no “normal” as everyone is traumatized in these ways. How does anyone know what healthy is if there is no model of what health is? There is no doubt that chronic trauma does injury, the question is how to deal with it. Does one try to stop it before, during, or after? Is chronic trauma the source or the symptom of the problem?
It’s not much help to focus on something that can’t be seen or understood. While it sounds plausible, there is no clear definition of what Gabor Maté is talking about. He’s endorsing an approach for which there is little measure and few tools.
These ideas are not new, they’re based on many of the same observations as put forward by Sigmund Freud before he repudiated the idea and invented psychoanalysis. It was to Freud’s ultimate discredit that he reversed his opinion, but that’s another story.
Gabor Maté is a firebrand. He likes to instigate change and be the center of attention. That’s fine, I’m all for it, but, as an observer, you have to understand what’s going on. You have to understand that celebrity is the foundation of psychotherapy. It has been from the beginning. The alternative is institutional knowledge, which is not a source of innovation in psychology.
Looking at Gabor’s other work, you’ll find that he asserts ADD/ADHD to be a disorder of developmental delay, but that is not the case. He has not done enough research. Actually, his position is imprecise and I think he’d be glad to endorse mine, but he misses the essential point which is that what is diagnosed as ADD/ADHD does not exist.
In over 75% of diagnosed cases of ADD/ADHD the symptoms disappear when the person diagnosed with the illness chooses to remove them. In these cases, ADD/ADHD is an act of insurrection pathologized to protect institutional initiatives. The diagnosis is justified by confounding this behavior with a learning disorder. There is no question of this. If you want to learn more, read my 2014 piece “ADHD as Emergent Institutional Exploitation” in The Journal of Mind and Behavior.
If this claim of medical malfeasance surprises you, then you’re not paying attention to what’s happening in front of our noses, right now, regarding the treatment of COVID-19. We are currently experiencing massive distortions of information and institutional failure. Read “The War on ‘Misinformation’ Claims Two Victims. Truth. And the Right to Treatment,” at https://trialsitenews.com/.
After experiencing the effects of the indigenous psychedelic preparation called ayahuasca, Gabor became an advocate of an early version of psychedelic assisted psychotherapy. He only vaguely described what he was advocating, focusing more personal reports than collected data.
It’s to his credit that he jumped at the chance to advocate ayahuasca’s use. However, he didn’t study the substance or train in its administration. He had no background in the chemical or the indigenous culture. He was not seeing the whole picture.
I am also an advocate of psychedelic psychotherapy and of ayahuasca in particular. I am also a critic of how poorly it is understood and how casually it is recommended. I have observed its effect on hundreds of people some of whom I’ve followed for more than 20 years. I seem to have more experience than he does in the use, preparation, and culture at the foundation of ayahuasca.
Maté brought Amazonian shaman to Vancouver to deliver the substance and conduct the ceremonies. I also spent many years with these shamans, as well as with neoshamans from our own culture. I’ve acted in the role of leader, participant, assistant, and witness. I’ve spent years learning with the plants and brewing the mixture from the original and analogous ingredients. I’ve lived with the cultures, the plants, and the brew, witnessed many mistakes, and done some of my own. Ayahuasca should not be seen in black and white terms.
Health Canada threatened Maté with legal action in 2011 if he didn’t cease his unauthorized administration of hallucinogens as a treatment for addiction. Since 2015, has backed away from publicly advocating the psychotherapeutic use of ayahuasca. While still active in the move to study psychedelics, his efforts are now toward raising awareness of trauma.
In his 2018 presentation to therapists at the Mind-Body-Spirit Psychotherapy Conference, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7V5qn9dkzIU), Maté endorses the exploration of psychological causes for physiological illness. This is lacking in treatment specifics and it’s not particularly new. His intention was to direct the psychotherapeutic herd toward the frontier of mind-body therapy.
This leads me to wonder what’s actually being advocated. I see that Gabor’s is on the “faculty” of Daybreak Therapy (www.daybreaktherapy.ca), the organizer of the conference and one of many small organizations that sell training to psychotherapists.
His presentation was selling their training, and that was partly his intention. Their training is hypnotherapy and I know hypnotherapy well. There is no well-defined hypnotherapeutic treatment for trauma and there is no organized approach to mind-body therapy. There are many people taking a variety of approaches. I feel that what he was advertising was either vapor-ware, or a proprietary, untested, program that’s being sold for profit.
This is not a bad thing. It’s high time that someone created some momentum for mind-body therapy. I am trying to do this myself with my own books and presentations. I also provide a lot of free material aimed at educating professionals and empowering people. It’s worth explaining this a little further.
The Field of Psychotherapy
Unlike the process for becoming a medical doctor, there is no well-defined course of instruction for psychotherapists. There is no one body of material or point of view that’s commonly shared by all programs or all therapists. But that doesn’t fully reflect just how disorganized the field is.
Psychotherapy is not a science, it’s a tradecraft, public service, and, to a surprising extent, a lot of nonsense. There is an academic route, but there is a larger industry of home-spun, weakly accredited schools offering master’s level training that leads to certification as a therapist. There is a whole industry built around various thought-leaders in business and psychology.
Some of these schools are well established, like the Kelowna College of Professional Counselling (https://www.counsellortraining.com/) and Clearmind International (https://clearmind.com/). Both of these offer degrees leading to counselor certification. I considered enrolling in Clearmind three years ago. It was advertised as “transpersonal psychology” but I didn’t think it was. I was repelled by their program after attending one of their $900 weekend workshops. Instead, I enrolled in the program offered by Kelowna “College.”
These organizations are not fully accredited, but they encourage you to think that by blurring the boundaries. Many are accredited as specialty schools, and others are not accredited at all. Some offer degrees, but most offer diplomas or certificates that lead toward some kind of registration through an independent body, but these independent registration organizations are themselves unaccredited and unsupervised!
Offering programs of this sort requires little authority or resources. All of the schools in the field of hypnosis are self-authorized. Many have no teachers at all and offer everything through prerecorded video material. Technical schools of this sort are legion.
Once certified, registered, degreed, or licensed, there is an absolute blizzard of minor institutes offering “advanced” training, certificates, and professional credits. Many work with a stable of celebrities, such as the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (https://www.nicabm.com/), Omega Institute (https://www.eomega.org/), Kripalu (https://kripalu.org/), and Hollyhock (https://hollyhock.ca/).
Other organizations create marketing engines built on a single individual, such as is offered by Peter Levine at https://traumahealing.org/, Stan Grof at http://www.holotropic.com/, and the Milton Erickson Foundation at https://www.erickson-foundation.org/.
There are also those with a cheap or sketchy background, such as the Rudin brothers who offer “Havening” at https://www.havening.org/. And for those looking for therapy without a therapist there is Justin Sterling’s Sterling Institute of Relationship (https://www.sterling-institute.com/), Schucman and Thetford’s Course in Miracles (https://acourseinmiraclesnow.com/), and L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology. Whether they’re on the light side or the dark side, they’re all based on a marriage of therapy, celebrity, promises, and profit.
Some people work to substantiate their claims, like Francine Shapiro’s EMDR technique (https://www.emdria.org/), and the HeartMath Institute (https://www.heartmath.com/), while others, like Gary Craig’s Emotional Freedom Technique (https://www.emofree.com/), don’t even try. There is a continuous gradation from science to mysticism. Whether it’s Carl Jung, Sri Yogananda, or John Kabat Zin, they all foster a cult following and a group mindset.
There are thousands of these independent experts whose authority is determined by the size of their mailing list. I’ve taken courses from many of them, or from the followers whom they’ve authorized to sell their training. It’s fascinating to study the genesis of each of these schools and the people behind them, but when you realize that almost every one of them seems to be driven by a kind of megalomania it’s almost sickening. This is the standard method by which people learn in the field of therapy and counseling.
This is both good and bad. It’s good because it’s dynamic and creative, but it’s bad for many reasons. One reason it’s bad is that it works against collective knowledge and a foundation of understanding. Everyone is selling their own wares, trying to distinguish themselves from everyone else, and trying to convince you that their way is the right way. This is the way religions evolve, and it’s just as lacking in discernment and independent thought. The idea that the practice of therapy is built on scientific principles is a fiction.
Many of these programs are poorly designed, copy from other programs, or are based on flawed knowledge. Psychology lacks standards as there is no fundamental theory. Practitioners can be licensed with only minimal real training or experience. This is the case regardless of the level of one’s degree. As a result, people clump together in insular groups, espouse their own limited understanding, follow charismatic figures, and enforce exclusive institutional affiliations.
Practitioners are aware of these weaknesses to some extent, and some programs are much better than others. Governments are trying to raise standards by imposing licensure, but this has not worked. All of these programs impose arbitrary standards and collective thinking. Licensure does not raise the bar
I have seen this many, many times. I experienced this in my training to become a neurofeedback therapist, a hypnotherapist, and a psychotherapist. You’ll find this in stock market investing, and business coaching; think of one hundred Tim Robbins knock-offs.
You won’t be surprised at the indeterminate quality of training in shamanism. You can attend Michael Harner’s school at https://www.shamanism.org/, or the International School of Shamanism (http://www.shamanic-path.com/), The Paths of Power (https://thepowerpath.com/welcome/), or any of the other one million, six hundred thousand hits that come up on Google when searching for “schools of shamanism.”
University training is of famously poor quality. Frank Lloyd Wright, a notorious diva who ran his own school of architecture, addressed the faculty and students of the University of California School of Architecture and said, “You’ll learn more about architecture by taking an axe and going off into the woods, than you’ll ever learn here!”
Neither of the three developers of modern architecture—Wright, Le Corbusier, or Mies van der Rohe—had any formal training in architecture. They learned through apprenticeship. One can also say that no academically trained architect played a central role in modern architecture’s development. I spent time at six universities and four colleges and I cannot recommend any of them.
The issue is exploring ideas and encouraging growth, and this is not a thing or a place, it’s a process. I cannot fault Gabor Maté any more than I can fault Frank Lloyd Wright. They might spout truth or they might spout nonsense, but what’s important is what comes of it. Most of what’s offered doesn’t deliver what it promises nor does it inform, but it might suggest.
I appreciate Maté’s advertising ayahuasca for addiction, but I suspect it was not as effective as he claimed. I appreciate his rebuttal of the ADD/ADHD diagnosis, but I don’t believe he was correct. I support his contention that trauma lies at the root of much somatic dysfunction, but I think he should tell us what to do about it.
What Frank Lloyd Wright did for architecture, and what Gabor Maté is doing for psychology is getting a lot of people heading in a new direction. That’s a process of catalyzing change.
In my next piece I’ll talk about how I approach these issues, and why I think my approach is more creative.
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