Written by Ralph Metzner

Anything goes?

Review by Gunnel Minett

I once met a very conventional psychiatrist (his words) who told the story of how he had come to use exorcism in his work. One of his patients, who was very difficult to help, had told him that he was possessed by demons who he needed to expel. When the patient asked the psychiatrist for help with this, he agreed, albeit after some hesitation, and started to follow the ‘instructions’ his patient gave him. To his surprised it worked. Having spent years trying to reach this patient in various ways, he suddenly made substantial progress without even knowing what he had done. So he concluded that, even if he had no idea what he was doing or how it worked, it had had a positive effect. So, the psychiatrist realized that there might be other ways of working successfully with patients than the conventional methods he once had been taught.

I certainly agree that such an open-minded approach is good, in particular when it comes to understanding and working with the human psyche. The psychiatrist in this case was willing to accept being outside, both his comfort zone and conventional knowledge. He simply chose to be pragmatic. With sufficient caution, perhaps that is the best way forward.

In this book, Metzner gives an account of how he works as a transpersonal psychotherapist. He uses a spiritual approach, combined with unorthodox methods such as exorcism, shamanic rituals, dreamwork, past life, yogic life-fire exercises, visualization and meditation etc.. Metzner, who worked with Tim Leary and Richard Alpert in their famous psychedelic research at Harvard University in the 1960’s, also works with psychedelic, mind-expanding substances.

This book is mainly an account of how these various techniques can work and how they are explained by the indigenous people who developed them. The book describes colourful concepts such as how to find inner stillness, the Soul’s journey to a Human birth, family reconciliation, conversation with deceased ancestors and the Healing Wisdom of the Serpent.

To use such unorthodox methods is to get very close to religious, faith-based practices, which often serve as the starting point for cults. But, as with the psychiatrist who accepted exorcism, as long as it is recognised that this goes against conventional knowledge, this might still be just open-minded and creative. But unfortunately this book is a bit too far over the line in one-sidedly stating indigenous ‘facts’. It fails to recognise that such practices can be highly questionable for mainstream psychotherapy and therefore require a more scientific ‘western’ explanation.

It should be said that in the introduction, Metzner, identifies the difference between his work and mainstream psychotherapy. But when he later makes statements about God and the eternal soul etc., he does not recognise that these are not indisputable facts according to the modern, science- based knowledge, which most people in the West regard as our most reliable source of knowledge.

It is not surprising perhaps that Metzner regards his views as so obvious and so generally accepted that he does not need to explain them further. He was after all involved in creating what has later been called the New Age movement. And undoubtably the work that he, Tim Leary and Richard Alpert were involved in during the 1960’s meant a great shift in and widening of our understanding of the human psyche. But we must also remember that, although the properly controlled work with psychedelic drugs in Harvard’s research laboratories was very exciting, it also opened up for a culture of drug abuse that caused a lot of harm for a lot of people. And along similar lines, many of the indigenous philosophies that were adopted by New Age groups, were often not properly understood. Consequently, they were corrupted into ideas which charlatans used to develop their own New Age schools and teachings, aimed more at boosting egos and making people rich than at helping people in need of healing.

Of course, it can also be argued that Metzner simply is describing his line of work and therefore does not need to explain why others may find it unorthodox. But that kind of attitude sadly tends to add to the rather deep divide between established theories and New Age attitudes. This is a pity: It’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Just as it’s arrogant for New Age gurus to claim unquestionable knowledge and dismiss scientific evidence, the same applies in the opposite direction. There is always room for cross-pollination of ideas and practices. And also, from the client’s perspective, a balanced approach that looks as much at understanding ancient traditions as modern knowledge of the human psyche. Such an eclectic approach can offer a more comprehensive approach to healing. Even if it involves admitting that we simply don’t know enough to be able to speak with full certainty. From that perspective this book offers a detailed insight into the use of transpersonal psychotherapy and the positive use of mind-altering drugs.