Joan Poelvoorde

Psychotherapy & Healing Arts

Magic, Mystery, and Authority in Therapy and Healing

In September 2006 I attended a conference at which Irvin Yalom gave a paper. He had just completed a book that was still in need of a title. That book has now been released as Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death.

Yalom spoke about our ultimate concerns: death, meaninglessness, isolation, angst, and freedom. He named several ways we avoid facing these issues: Religions, by positing a rescuer god, can assuage our "mortal wound," as can merging with a loved one, or the search for power and prestige.

Death anxiety, as an issue, is often not recognized in therapy practice. Does death enter into the therapeutic dialogue? Are we willing to create the space for it? Yalom states that most chronic anxiety is death anxiety in disguise.

As healers we can collude with our clients in avoiding the great questions. We do this by cultivating what Yalom names "magic, mystery, and authority." This results directly from the training many of us have received. Yalom asks us to dispense with the last vestiges of the medical model in psychotherapy, which serve only to disempower those with whom we work. While many of us have made conscious efforts to move away from that model, the vestiges of it show themselves in those moments when we pretend to know what we don't know; when we hide behind the role of therapist/healer.

Yalom suggests that through the agency of the therapist's authenticity and responsible transparency, the therapist and the client become fellow travelers, fellow sufferers.

In shamanic work, magic, mystery, and authority are easily evoked in both client and shamanic worker. The client, often hoping for a magical cure, may see the shaman as his last hope. The shaman can be seduced by this projection, using it to feed her narcissistic inflation. The shaman becomes the authority, the dispenser of magic, a figure of mystery.

Shamans, in indigenous cultures, live side by side with the people they heal. They eat, work, play, and pray with them. The shaman does not stand above the community in which he lives, helps, and heals. She is not in a privileged position. The shaman is, indeed, a fellow traveler.

How, as responsible practitioners, can we begin to follow the model Yalom sets out for us? As my shamanic work has evolved through the years, I have found what I think is the beginning of an answer. That is, to give over the magic, mystery, and authority to the client and his/her work. As a shamanic practitioner, I hold the map of the Three Worlds, while most of the images and actions of the journey arise from the client. I want to be as invisible as possible in the process. At the end of the work the victory belongs solely to the client.

Joan Poelvoorde, a professional psychotherapist in Manhattan (NY) offering relationship, personal growth, anger management, creativity, shamanistic & Imago Relationship Therapy