Does psychotherapy work? The answer-if one has the patience to plow through the morass of often contradictory research-is a resounding "maybe." Ever since London psychiatrist H. J. Eysenck published his controversial study in 1957 purporting to show a negative correlation between psychotherapy and psychological healing (the more therapy one received the lower the recovery rate!) a debate has raged about how effective Freud's talking cure actually is.
The world of modern psychology, of course, has moved well beyond its founder's theories. The past century has witnessed an explosion of often contradictory forms of treatment: Jungian archetype work, Adlerian therapy, Reichian orgone boxes, behavior modification à la B.E Skinner, the Logotherapy of concentration camp survivor Viktor Franklto name just a few of the diverging branches of practice that have grown from the Freudian trunk. The cure rates reported for these varied approaches are mostly lackluster, and, surprisingly, they differ little from one therapeutic regimen to the other. Even more dismaying to the professional psychological community is the conclusion reached in a recent study by professors Andrew Christensen and Neil Jacobson that therapy delivered by untrained nonprofessionals-folks without big offices and fancy credentials tacked on to their names-is just as effective, if not more effective than the far pricier work performed by academically qualified psychiatrists and psychologists.
Given the less than inspiring success rates, the daunting length of treatment (often years, if not decades on the couch), and the prohibitive cost of traditional psychotherapy (at least when the insurance company is not footing the bill), many sufferers are now opting for alternative forms of treatmenteverything from self medication with herbal remedies, to encounter groups, to deep massage and therapeutic touchto help allay their anxieties and relieve their depression. I recently got a taste of the dazzling variety of new techniques that are out there at the annual conference of the Association for Spirituality and Psychotherapy in New York City, where I joined over two hundred working therapists as they wandered wide-eyed through a veritable bazaar of workshops, panel discussions, and shamanistic rites. There were past-life therapists, Yoruba ritualists, psychic healers, Course in Miracles gurus, and practitioners of recently developed technologies like psychosynthesis and neurolinguistic programming-all of them smiling effusively and proffering their wares with missionary zeal. I left the weekend extravaganza with head spinning, chakras throbbing, and mind opened to the exhilarating new vistas on psychology's Wild West frontier.
But I also left with some nagging questions about the efficacy of methods whose scientific virginity has not yet been violated by a double-blind study or statistical analysis. Will the new "spiritual" approaches be any more (or perhaps less) successful in relieving mental anguish than old-fashioned psychotherapy? Not that I am a skeptic, mind you. As a spiritual writer who spent several years chasing enlightenment in Hindu India and Buddhist Asia, I have experienced time and again how spiritual practice can open up the deepest layers of one's own psyche, the numinous realm which pre-moderns called "the soul." What remains to be demonstrated, however, is whether practices taken out of the context of the living traditions of which they are a part and applied more or less indiscriminately toward purposes they were never intended to serve will do the trick.
A dash of Yoruba ancestor worship and a dollop of Hindu kirtan to chase away an urbanite's midwinter blues? No more strange, I suppose, than lying prostrate on a leather couch and prattling on about one's toilet training, or free-associating about last night's dreams. And arguably no less "scientific" either, if by "scientific" we mean "consistently proven to be effective. …