Love and Death

Opinions - September 19th, 2003
David Tharp

by David Tharp

People often ask me what a psychotherapist does to deal with his or her own problems. Fortunately, I was trained in a system which required seeing my own therapist weekly for five years. I had coffee with him last week in London at an outdoor cafe in Russell Square near the British Museum. We have become friends over the years, and it is still good to bounce ideas and feelings off him to get his perspective.

He told me that a few weeks ago, one of the psychotherapy professors who had trained me committed suicide. No note was left behind to explain why. During my training, one of my fellow trainees went home one weekend and took an overdose of barbiturates that killed him. My trainee group took a long time to recover from that. Perhaps it is the constant realiza­tion of the shortcomings of life that get to some psychiatrists or psychotherapists, and they decide it’s too much of a burden to carry.

Many drop out of this pro­fession. From my training group, I know of two who are running bed-and-breakfast places in Devon and Cornwall. Another decided to open a lesbian bar, others in Sicily teaching yoga, and yet another is running a hotel on a Greek island.

Their motto is “The Simple Life,” and that includes not wanting to know anything more complicated now than reading the tides to go windsurfing. They have traded in a psychothera­pist’s perspective for a quiet life sipping Ouzo or coffee and watching fishing boats putter through the waves between Greek islands.

Last month I did my own version of that by spending a week in a French farmhouse which has been converted into a seminar retreat center. I went with some other therapists to learn how to use non­verbal psychotherapy tech­niques in water.

The farmhouse has a swimming pool heated to body temperature, and we spent 6-8 hours a day in the pool doing transformational and rebirthing exercises, or what the instructor called “personal ren­aissance” training.

Some exercises were quite simple but had a profound effect on the mind and emotions – for example being cradled in the water by a partner who held my head just enough out of the water so my face wouldn’t sink, and my legs ever so gently I had the sensation of floating free. We did this for 10 minutes each way and it was like taking a trip back to my mother’s womb. But there were many other exercises, which included the whole group helping just one person to float, for example.

In between these sessions, we would retire to the dining room for some good French vegetarian cooking and some red wine, and then sunbathe for an hour or so, or go for walks in the Van Gogh-like, sunflower-filled fields around the farmhouse.

At night the group, com­posed of French, Belgian, Dutch, Italian and British therapists, would put out blan­kets in the garden, and we looked up at the star-filled sky as our entertainment, since there were no TVs, computers or telephones.

After six days of this renais­sance training in the pool and the simple pleasures of the farm­house, a profound sense of peace, empathy, compassion and acceptance pervaded everything the group did. In spite of all the languages represented there, everyone had developed an almost clairvoyant way of under­standing the needs and feelings of the others. This cut across cul­tural and language problems. I began to wish I could have brought all my friends into that uncannily peaceful space.

It was difficult to return to the city-in this case Paris-after that. I had this mystic desire to communicate with people with­out words. Would an experience such as this have saved the psy­chotherapy professor or my for­mer colleague? Maybe. Certainly it wouldn’t have hurt. Then after returning to the even more intense bustle of London, I had fantasies of taking the whole population of that city down to a heated pool. Then of course came my return to Tokyo—I’d like to turn the whole city into an onsen. I think that would help to cure a lot of stress and strain.

A few days after returning, I met a Japanese friend who decided to drop the whole Tokyo lifestyle and move to the moun­tains in southern Izu. He bought some land there, cleared it him­self by hand and built a comfort­able log cabin. The amazing thing is that his wife, a formerly addicted Ginza shopper, agreed to move into the cabin lifestyle with him. I’ve never seen him happier. A heart problem he had prior to this lifestyle change has completely disappeared.

I know that I can’t take everyone with me to France for the six-day water experience, but there are ways of achieving that transformation experience here in Tokyo as well. It starts with taking every moment and bathing it in as much love, empa­thy and acceptance of others as we possibly can. Life is short, and we need to become a living, walking example of personal renaissance for oneself and tak­ing that into our relationships with others, especially the ones who are closest to us.