Why Psychotherapy Alone Doesn’t Really Work.

Via Yogi Michael Boyle
on Apr 2, 2011
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Photo: mas abie

“Understanding is the booby prize of the universe.” – Dharmanidhi Sarasvati, creator of Sauhu

“Talking about it” can only take us so far. When our dis-ease is developed to the point of inwardly experienced and outwardly expressed symptoms then our “problems” are embodied. At this point, changes in the mental landscape alone are insufficient to empower transformation of these hardened patterns. Body-oriented action is required. We must work our “issues” at the level of the nitty-gritty details of life: food, sleep, sex, habits, work, exercise, rest, lack of rest, etc. Truly effective therapy must enable us to engage reality. Our body is the most tangibly real access point we have to working with our actual situation. Then, when combined with specific action-oriented “treatments” that are expertly designed to work our embodied reality, talking about the obstacles that arise to living our ideals can be a useful aspect of the process.

Photo: brian_blogger

Scientifically, doctors Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon in their book, “A General Theory of Love,” explain to us the neurological reasons why talk is cheap. In summary, we have different parts of our brain that are responsible for different aspects of our lives. The limbic brain is responsible for our emotional world. The neocortical brain is where our logic, reason and understanding takes place. We learn about our world of emotions through what is called “implicit” memory, which is imprinted in our limbic brain. Though we think we are mostly molded by either the major emotional traumas of our lives, or the significant “highs”, we are almost entirely conditioned by the subtle, ongoing, un-noticeable and incomprehensible emotional matrix that we inhabit.

Thus, our emotional experience of life is dependent on “implicit” memory, which is NOT AVAILABLE to conscious recollection (neocortical brain) except in the most extraordinary situations. The part of our brain that is active when we are trying to understand why is actually not relevant in our quest for emotional stability and peace.

Occasionally, an “a-ha” understanding will create enough of an energetically powerful response that we are able to tap into the limbic brain patterns that cause us to suffer emotionally. Thus, when our “stuff” is really “up” in talk therapy there is an opportunity to make real change. But, this is a rare occasion. Most often when we do succeed in finding some potent energy via talk and understanding we end up trying to make more meaning out of the energy rather than using its power to launch us deeper into the aspects of ourselves that really drive us. We mistake the means for the fruit and try to continue in the process of further “understanding” as a way to liberate us from our particular pains.

At this “a-ha” point there are countless methods (see future articles) for going deeper into this energy, thereby circumventing the neocortical process and accessing limbic patterns. But, even the psychology theories that are good at getting us acting more than talking are very young in their development compared to the tried and true hoary wisdom of yoga and ayurveda – including asana, diet according to element balance, routine changes, meditation, mantra, pranayama, bandhas, kriya, etc.

Photo: e-magic

Because the problem is not at the level of understanding knowing “why” won’t help. There is something off-balance in our deeper recesses. To repeat, using the “energy of mind” that can sometimes be inspired via intellectual understanding is the only reason why tracing a cause might be useful. Thus, psychotherapy can theoretically create an environment for occasional awakenings that actually last.

But, true change requires accessing the problem at the level where it is. In my opinion psychotherapy arrives in this dimension mostly by chance. There are instances where the intentional skill of an exceptionally excellent analyst can lead us to change that is deeper than the temporary ideational fix. But more often the change people experience in therapy is simply due to normal maturation because they are in it for so long.

For my time and money I would rather go straight into the type of inner work that is intentionally adept at finding these patterns in our present day, actual, lives. More than that, I want a view that has the methods to work with these energy patterns directly, rather than skimming the surface of understanding their particular manifestations.

View informs method which creates fruit.  The view that we need only “understand” our emotions in order to be free from the suffering they cause leads to the method of talk and trying to “figure it out.” The fruit of this method, if successful, is the temporary satisfaction of “getting” a particular problem and its supposed cause. But, practically speaking, the deeper pattern has not transformed or dissolved and we will be suffering over it again, perhaps in a different form, at some point soon. From the perspective of natural wisdom we call this “horizontal change” as opposed to “vertical change.”  Vertical change occurs when one “octaves” to another level of being, completely digesting the pattern that is never to be repeated in any form. We are happy to see that the scientists are beginning to agree.

“A General Theory of Love”:
“Turning psychotherapy into a treasure hunt for the explicit past is misguided. Exposure to a style of relatedness (implicit memory) imprints a person with its grammar and syntax. The perceptive observer can find the stamp of that knowledge everywhere: in dreams, work, relationships, in the way he loves his wife, his children, and his dog today… Everyday the patient parades the jewels of memory that the therapist seeks; they are woven inextricably into the tapestry of his life… But, people rely on intelligence to solve problems, and they are naturally baffled when comprehension proves impotent to effect emotional change. To the neocortical brain, rich in the power of abstractions, understanding makes all the difference, but it doesn’t count for much in the neural systems that evolved before understanding existed… The dogged implicitness of emotional knowledge, its relentless unreasoning force, prevents logic from granting salvation.” (emphasis mine)

It's Primal - Yogi's son Rudi doing yoga at 7 months

Even the skilled psychotherapist, who is perceptive in picking up these patterns in our daily lives, is most often without the tools to do anything about it. This is where there is brilliance in combining astute psychological sensitivity with the ways and means of ancient spiritual wisdom that is a proper balance of technical science and intuitive art. Yoga and meditation have been refined for millennia to enable us, among other things, to access the “deeper” aspects of our neurology. Yoga is programmed into the core of who we are. It is primal, innate. It is even now commonly proven amongst scientists that seasoned meditators are able to exhibit different brain frequencies than the rest of us while still remaining conscious.  This is what allows for true transformation. These practices can place one directly in touch with the patterns that are stored in the limbic brain of our emotions and even the reptilian brain of our survival instincts.

We are so used to the habit of relying on what has grown to be the biggest part of our experience, the neocortical brain and its intellect, that we rarely access the grooves that really drive us.

Instead, how many of us are familiar with “spinning” or “looping” thoughts that we can’t seem to shake?

When we are ruminating over our problems in this way we are literally in an area of our brain where we can’t do anything to change – we just think, think, think, talk, talk, talk, blah, blah, blah. So many of us feel trapped in this mental vortex. We may even know, intellectually, that it is not serving us but we don’t know what to do.

Thus, in combination with the supremely capable science of yoga and meditation, we can also employ the principles and practices of ayurveda, which has the same view. And, so, in a very practical and embodied way we can work our diet, our daily habits, our herbal medicines, etc. into an effective means of getting into our bodies and out of our heads – accessing these deep patterns and transforming them for our benefit.

This is a new paradigm of therapy. By meeting us exactly where we are at – in the practical details of our lives – we can work our situation on all levels of our experience: body, energy and mind. Most psychotherapy only attempts to work the mind, and occasionally gets lucky by stumbling upon some energy that results in “vertical change” that is embodied and lasting. Psychological suffering is a huge aspect of the world we live in. Human beings are known for their ability to adapt to their current situation. We now need a “psychology” that employs a complete approach, leaving nothing out: body, mind, or spirit.


About Yogi Michael Boyle

Michael Boyle, also known as Yogi, is training to be a DHARMA INC Acarya as student of Dharma Bodhi (Adi Yoga). Yogi is a graduate of DHARMA INC's , seven year, “Tantrik Yoga Studies Program” as well as JFK’s masters psychology program. He is a certified Sauhu Therapy Counselor, Primal Ayuveda Health Advisor, Śakta-Śaiva Dharma Teacher and Adi-Yoga Teacher. In 2010, he founded Energy of Mind Holistic Counseling, which offers counseling through the lens of yoga, ayurveda, meditation, etc. all within the context of psychological insight and understanding.


35 Responses to “Why Psychotherapy Alone Doesn’t Really Work.”

  1. Brandi says:

    Great article! I have received psychotherapy services myself, and hope someday to be a therapist for others. I'm currently in a yoga teacher training program. I love your insight, and it seems like you have figured out how to beautifully combine yoga and counseling. Thank you for this bit of inspiration.

  2. Thank you, Brandi! Best of luck to you!

  3. Ryan Oelke says:

    Let's be clear that "psychotherapy" is not synonymous with "psychoanalysis", a very particular form and approach to psychotherapy, which is much more in line with the style of psychotherapy you describe. Most therapists are not only focused on why, and even some aren't even focused on that! Most do include action oriented, behaviorally based homework outside of therapy equally as much as they are diving into self-discovery with a client. To generalize psychotherapy as being only about "why" is grossly misunderstanding what psychotherapy is. In my training this was never a sole focus, and in fact we were even cautioned in approaching therapy in that manner (for good reasons).

    Now, I'm not saying there aren't a lot of therapists out there who do what you are describing. There are and I find that limiting in the ways you are describing, but I think it's important to be a bit more nuanced in describing what psychotherapy is and what it is not. Saying "psychotherapy alone doesn't really work" is quite a generalization, and missing the point. What does it mean "to really work". Honestly, no modality of therapeutic work or personal practice "really works" in the sense of being complete. I think when we look at everything – yoga, psychotherapy, meditation, etc etc – they all offer something that DOES work and each does what they do BETTER than the others, and together, with a more comprehensive collection of practices, we get a more full bodied growth. So, I think you were partially getting at that, which I strongly agree with.

  4. Kitty says:

    this makes me think of two things:

    1. Medication alone is not enough, and too commonly the path of psychology is heading that direction, and talk therapy is tossed.

    2. This is why my Psychotherapy practice will integrate expressive arts and experiential therapy.

    3.Psychotherapy can work much the way mediation does, making oneself more conscious of their own thoughts and patterns. The drive to constantly 'do' keeps us stuck. Awareness is key, no?

  5. Good points, Ryan. Thanks for sharing. -yogi

  6. […] a blog post on Elephant Journal earlier today that has me feeling very excited. The post was called Why Psychotherapy Alone Doesn’t Really Work by Yogi Michael Boyle. In this post, he claims that because our emotions and memories reside in our […]

  7. […] a blog post on Elephant Journal earlier today that has me feeling very excited. The post was called Why Psychotherapy Alone Doesn’t Really Work by Yogi Michael Boyle. In this post, he claims that because our emotions and memories reside in our […]

  8. Ben_Ralston says:

    Michael (Yogi),
    Writing as an experienced and avanced yoga teacher, as well as a highly successful therapist (I have a success rate with my clients of almost 100%), I believe you are missing something.
    You're absolutely right to say that the focus on understanding, and why, and … neo-cortex stuff is almost pointless. But the limbic system's emotional imprints (though more powerful than the neo-cortex) are still only half the picture. The cause of our problems is rarely rooted in the emotional center (heart). It is almost always in our R-complex (gut).
    The Taoists, with their emphasis on Tan-tien, had it right.
    Only when you heal something at the level of the gut (where it is almost always related to survival, safety, or sexuality / reproduction) can you heal it permanently. The good news though, is that healing it there is fast, easy, and (often) fun.

  9. Actually, Ben. I am completely aware that the base is not the "emotional heart"… but actually that emotions come from the 2nd chakra (or lower tan tien), as does self-image formation, etc. But, its different languaging that I was not prepared to get into in this article. I actually have an article all cued up and ready to go on the more yogic sided view of this topic – in a way this article was a primer for that so I kept it in more commonly familiar terms. Thanks for your input. -yogi

  10. Ben_Ralston says:

    Ok! Good, I did wonder if that was the case…
    I posted your article on the EJ facebook page for extra publicity, and I look forward to reading more of your work.

  11. renegadecd says:

    This has been my experience with homeopathy. Dis-ease starts in the spirit and then manifests emotionally, mentally and physically. Modalities that address a shift in spirit are what promote healing.

  12. linda buzogany says:

    Hi Yogi, I have enjoyed reading your articles and your intelligent comments around ele. I can tell you are very passionate about this paradigm shift. There are many others of us out there also working to bring this about in how we practice therapy, engage in therapy, teach our students, etc. Thanks for this.

  13. linda buzogany says:

    Hi Ben, I've heard you report this 100% success rate before. I'm wondering what you're measuring as 'success' and when do you measure it? Thanks.

  14. Ben_Ralston says:

    Hi Linda,
    The success I refer to is simply whether the client got what they wanted.
    A goal is set – what the client wants to achieve with the work we do together. I (and all RPT practitioners) always follow up with the client a week after the session. I check two things – is the client satisfied, and did we meet the goals set?
    And er, I said almost 100% 😉
    100% is impossible in this kind of work – as I'm sure you know.

  15. linda buzogany says:

    Thanks Ben..was just wondering. Therapy outcomes can be vague and difficult to measure.

  16. Very interesting article, which, not surprisingly, has generated a good discussion, too.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  17. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  18. TamingAuthor says:

    The problem with psychotherapy is its attachment to brain-mind equivalency. This assumption stands in direct contradiction to all spiritual practices, which recognize consciousness is not an emergent property of the brain but rather something that can be separated from the brain-body either before or after body death.

  19. linda buzogany says:

    All spiritual practices separate the brain's involvement in consciousness?? All psychotherapy equates the brain with consciousness??

  20. Thanks Linda… though I am not surprised, I am glad to know you are out and about, too! Best of luck to you and thanks for your comments. Best wishes, Yogi

  21. jaltucher says:

    Psychotherapy alone doesn't work in the same way that meditation alone or yoga alone doesn't work. Everything is a practice that needs to be infused into daily and hourly thinking and action. One of these days, with everything in the mix, I hope it all works for me.

  22. Ben_Ralston says:

    I'm not sure. I think that if you commit yourself (oneself) to something 100% – for example, yoga – then it can work. Certainly that's my experience.

  23. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  24. I have to agree with Ben on this one. I think the point that is lost in modernity is that yoga is a complete system. It actually can do, and in my opinion better, everything and more than psychology can do. Of course, when I say yoga I mean far more than physical asana practice. I also mean all the philisophy, mantra, meditation, visualizations, bandhas, etc. A complete yoga practice absolutely "takes care of the" psyche and then some.

  25. […] of a recent article on a similar dynamic written in more scientific/layperson’s terms – Why Psychotherapy Alone Doesn’t Really work. Yogi (Michael Boyle) is co-founder of Energy of Mind: A Sauhu Therapy, which offers counseling […]

  26. […] on natural wisdom isn’t always “fun” – it is real. That’s why many people want to go to shrinks who will indulge their fantastical dramas, take pills that will make them feel better instantly, or […]

  27. […] Why Psychotherapy Alone Doesn’t Really Work. […]

  28. […] weren’t for the trials and tribulations that caused heartache and suffering. So skip the online self-psychotherapy session (I am not denying psychological illness, as I highly respect the field of psychology). […]

  29. […] some form of mentorship to lead fulfilling lives… then, I fear it is up to the women and men of psychology to fill the role. Science can tell us much, but it doesn't know sqaut about the heart, mind […]

  30. […] limbic brain – responsible for our interdependent regulatory functions and the characteristic of our […]