How did you get into the therapy business, Nick? Does it go all the way back into your childhood?
I suspect it does for all of us – the wish to sort out our families, and our parents in particular, always figures somewhere. And, like many other therapists-to-be, I always found that people wanted to talk to me about their life problems. As an adult, though, like a number of practitioners of my generation, I got into therapy through politics. I spent the first half of the 70s in London, involved with several flavours of radical politics. Once it finally sank in that most people didn’t want the revolution I was passionate about, I wanted to understand why – and that led me to therapy, via Wilhelm Reich. I had known Reich’s theoretical work for years, and he still seems to me to offer the best account of how people are kept malleable and under control. When I moved from London to Yorkshire in 1980 there was a flyer on the kitchen wall of the cottage I moved into advertising a Reichian therapy weekend. I had somehow never thought of this as something one could actually do! This led eventually to my training in post-Reichian therapy. My central motivation as a therapist, apart from the commitment to honing one’s skill that keeps one involved in any activity, remains the same: how can therapy help create social justice?
I think you’ve done some psychoanalytic as well as Reichian training. How well or otherwise do these fit together for you?
I haven’t actually done any analytic training. I did an MA in psychoanalytic studies, but that was entirely theoretical. It was very good, though, and helped me realise that Reich was not – as he is usually presented – a humanistic, growth work practitioner but that his work is based directly in psychoanalysis. Reich always insisted, I think rightly, that he was more true to Freud than the Freudians were. It was only after he got chucked out of the International Psychoanalytic Association (because he actively opposed the Nazis, whom analysts were trying not to provoke) that Reich became seen as humanistic; he never saw himself that way, any more than he advocated promiscuity or masturbated his patients. I must say that I have never encountered anything other than warm interest in Reichian work when moving in analytic circles; there is an increasing desire to reconnect psychoanalysis with figures like Reich, Ferenczi and Groddeck who got airbrushed out of history for many years. But of course very few analysts would dream of using physical touch in their work – which I think is about personality types as much as anything else.
It looks as if you’ve moved wholly into body therapy and wild therapy or ecotherapy, but perhaps this is a misconception. Can you say what your therapeutic beliefs and practices are today?
I’ve always been a body psychotherapist since my original Reichian training. It’s a slightly unfortunate label, though, because it can sound as though it privileges the physical over the verbal. In reality, body psychotherapy is verbal therapy plus – we do all the things other therapists do, and work directly with embodiment as well. For a few years now I’ve been focused, like many other therapists, on relationality. I’m currently writing a book called Embodied Relating: the ground of psychotherapy. The argument is that embodied relationship as a direct experience is fundamental to all therapy practice, whether consciously or not. Relationality is also central to my version of ecopsychology, wild therapy. Disconnection from the other-than-human, what we traditionally call ‘nature’, is a symptom of wounded relationality.
You co-founded the Independent Practitioners Network (IPN) as a radical alternative to professional bodies in our field. Can you give a nutshell version of IPN’s core values, how they differ from BACP, BPS, UKCP and others, and IPN’s standing today?
The core of IPN is its choice of horizontal, peer-to-peer validation rather than top-down accreditation by a hierarchical organisation. IPN is a network of peer groups whose members stand by each other’s work, and each full member group is linked with two others that stand by its process. We have encountered serious problems in making this work well – but they are only different problems from the enormous drawbacks of top-down approaches, certainly not worse ones, and probably more interesting and creative!
Where do you see the statutory regulation debate going from here? Are you still fighting moves like membership of the Health and Care Professions Council and the Professional Standards Authority, or similar?
I think my contribution to this battle is over, certainly for now. It’s vitally important but also draining of time, energy and humanity. Unless another generation of therapists is willing to defend the pass, we will eventually face state regulation – the state has an inherent tendency to regulate everything it can get its hands on, and it is much better resourced than its opponents. It’s like fighting supermarkets in small towns – they just keep coming back and coming back. But I think I helped preserve a relatively free space for a few years.
You’ve been highly active in writing about political aspects of therapy. Can you summarise the major ingredients of your politics in relation to therapy?
I take seriously some of the core values of therapy like self-regulation, an inherent tendency to growth and the centrality of the unconscious. These days I tend to conceive all of this in ecosystemic-Taoist-anarchist language. This is a bit of a mouthful, I suppose, but what I mean is simply the realisation that no one is in charge – of the cosmos, of human affairs or of the individual (imaginary) self. Things just happen of their own accord, and this works best if we get out of the way and try not to interfere. At most, we notice what is trying to happen and gently encourage it. Hence I am completely out of sympathy with the current tendency towards monitoring, interference in and attempted control of every aspect of life, particularly within the therapy world. As I have said elsewhere, this amounts to a project of abolishing the unconscious. So that is the direction of my political activism as a therapist, but equally it shapes my political stance within the therapy room, which is to be very aware of and explicit about power relations and to attempt all the time to deconstruct the shoulds and oughts that arise – notions of achieving goals and fixing things. On every level of reality, nothing is broke and nothing needs fixing. This is a political as well as a spiritual position.
Do you agree that the therapy world is much more comfortable discussing and incorporating spiritual or transpersonal topics (such as re-enchantment) than political issues like capitalist realism?
Yes, on the whole that’s true. However, as I have already said, I don’t accept the opposition between the spiritual and the political. For a whole human being each implies the other, and therapy has always seemed to me exciting partly because it is both a political and a spiritual practice. I recently collected a number of articles and book chapters into a volume called Not A Tame Lion (PCCS Books, 2012), and in there I have written about therapy as an enlightenment practice, as a completely new way of approaching the radical dissolution of anxiety that is offered by Zen or Sufism, for example. This involves the dissolving of illusions about individual consistency and continuity – which is also a direct political challenge to the fixed categories employed by the state – its insistence that each of us stays in our place in every sense of the phrase.
You haven’t worked in the university system and I imagine that’s a very deliberate choice. How do you feel about the influence of universities and colleges on the psychological therapies?
In a word: disastrous. Academia is not an appropriate home for therapy training. To briefly name just three issues – first, colleges are primarily aimed at people in their teens and 20s, which for almost everyone (there are some exceptions) is too young to start training. Second, there is increasingly an unwillingness to turn people down for college courses, or to fail them once they are on the course. I believe that only a fairly small number of people are equipped for this rather peculiar job and a lot more than that number are being trained. And third, contrary to what is widely assumed, one does not need academic skills in order to be a good therapist. Being able to write well-referenced essays is in no way a predictor of therapeutic skills! In fact I am starting to realise that therapists seem to be more likely than the average to be ‘dyslexic’: every time I work with a group of practitioners, two or three people turn out to have been diagnosed at some point.
One article on your work suggests you’ve promoted three main elements: the body, relationality and politics, and that you’ve challenged the parve or passionless, inauthentic tendencies in the therapy world. Can you say a bit about these?
Yes, I certainly hope this is true. Increasingly I don’t see those three elements – embodiment, relationality and politics – as separate but as wholly entwined with each other. Perhaps what I have said already helps to fill that out. Putting together Not a Tame Lion, I was pleasantly struck by the consistency of what I have been saying over the years, whether writing about embodiment, relationality, politics or any combination of these.
Given your immersion in life-transforming therapy and activist politics, how optimistic are you about the possibilities for change when we are confronted with serious climate change problems, economic instability and inequalities, ongoing international tensions and so on?
It always comes back to Gramsci’s slogan: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. My reason can see very little grounds for hope – if environmental collapse doesn’t get us, war or total surveillance will – but I also recognise my own limited perspective, and believe that the totally unexpected is virtually inevitable. When one is drowning, along with everything in the world one cares about, there is no point whatsoever in giving up; the organism keeps fighting. You never know.
There is the huge question about the kind of world we’re living in and the direction it’s heading, which seems to be ever more capitalist, technical-rational, destructive and which a minority want to see revolutionised or ‘re-enchanted’.
Yes, absolutely, and it’s increasingly difficult to chart any plausible route from where we are now towards a better world – although Tony Negri and Michael Hardt make a good attempt in Multitude (Penguin, 2004), with a degree of arm-waving to fill in the gaps. But I still like what I said in my book Wild Therapy, after summarising the direction in which things are heading: ‘Knowing all this, it is very hard to map an effective way forward. Luckily, though, we also know that things will happen of their own accord, as newly emergent features of the complex web of being, not following any intention or plan. This may not be enough; but we can relax in the knowledge that it will be as good as it is possible for it to be.’
What are you working on now and what are your plans for the future?
I’m starting to ease off, having moved to Cornwall and qualified for my pension. Most of my work now is supervision, often by phone or Skype. I’m still doing a lot of workshops, though, which means too much travelling. I know I’ll have to cut that back, but I can’t bear to, I’ll miss it so much! And I have three more books (that I know of) to write: Freud’s Nose and Other Mythograms, All Mixed Up: dialogues with dualism, and Sailing to Bohemia, linking the hippy movement back into bohemianism and all its earlier ancestors since the Paleolithic. Apart from all that, I plan to keep gardening and enjoy a gradual decline.