BOOK REVIEW: Psychotherapy: A Very Short Introduction by Tom Burns & Eva Burns-Lundgren

Psychotherapy: A Very Short IntroductionPsychotherapy: A Very Short Introduction by Tom Burns
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The word “psychotherapy” conjures images of a patient on a burgundy recamier-style couch, a psychoanalyst in a matching stuffed armchair, neither one looking at the other as the analyst uses terse questions and monosyllabic acknowledgements to coax out the patient’s problems through interrogation about his or her childhood. While that approach, Freudian psychoanalysis, stubbornly maintains a following, there have blossomed many other varieties of therapy using talk as a tool to ease maladies of the mind. This “Very Short Introduction,” put out by Oxford University Press as part of a large and diverse series with the same subtitle, presents an overview of the various approaches to psychotherapy and its less formal cousin, counselling.

The book consists of eight chapters, and begins with a preface. The preface covers various and sundry topics useful for the reader, but most importantly it takes a step back from psychotherapy to situate this therapeutic approach in a context of psychology and psychiatry, which are subjects often confused in the popular mindset.

Chapter one continues with the basics by defining psychotherapy and offering a thumbnail of the various approaches that will be expanded upon throughout the book. The second chapter pays homage to Freud and his psychoanalytic approach. The authors maintain a diplomatic approach to psychoanalysis though it has fallen on hard times for a number of reasons, both practical (e.g. it’s a huge drain on time, often involving five hours a week for months or even years) and theoretical (e.g. it places a great deal of emphasis on the past, whereas many currently popular approaches favor the present as the relevant time.)

Chapter three explores a number of post-Freudian psychotherapists including Jung, Adler, and Erik Erikson. Chapter four moves on to what is called “Time-Limited Therapy.” As suggested in the preceding paragraph, psychoanalysis placed huge demands on a patient’s [and therapist’s] time and could go on and on with no end in sight. Time-limited therapies focused more on finding a present-day solution for the current problem, and not so much ceaselessly trolling one’s distant past for traumas.

Chapter five is about counselling, which is very much related to psychotherapy in that it involves getting a person to talk out his or her problems. The difference is that it needn’t necessarily involve a therapist with extensive training, but rather someone briefed and / or sensitive enough to know how not to become sidetracked into dangerous territory. Chapter six discusses cognitive behavioral therapy, its principles, and its variations (such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT], which combines elements of Buddhist mindfulness with the cognitive behavioral therapy approach to form a popular and successful therapeutic approach.) Cognitive behavioral therapy is rooted in the premise that distorted thoughts cause emotional and behavioral problems, and that one must address the thought to change the outcome. It also famously requires “homework” to be done between sessions rather than the work being contained within sessions.

Chapter seven moves away from the one-on-one therapy discussed so far, and investigates the various ways in which therapy can be carried out in groups. Groups can be beneficial because they allow the patient to see that they aren’t unique in their woes, which people often believe themselves to be. Family therapy is also discussed as it all allows family members to chip away at their problems as a familial unit. Also, there are numerous interactive forms of therapy in which patients might use various art forms to work out their problems.

The last chapter looks at where psychotherapy stands, and where it appears to be going. One of the important considerations discussed is the influence the advance of neuroscience is having on therapy. For few decades since the famous decade of the brain (i.e. the 90’s,) neuroscience has dominated the discussion of the realm of the mind. There has been less-and-less thinking in psychological terms and more and more in physiological terms. However, there still seems to be a widespread belief that solutions need to combine a recognition of both areas.

Like other books in the series, this one employs a variety of graphics (cartoon, photographic, and diagrammatic), and it also presents brief references and further reading sections to help the reader continue his or her study through other works.

This book offers a solid overview of the various approaches to psychotherapy. I would recommend it for neophytes who need to start with a concise outline of the field.

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BOOK REVIEW: If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him! by Sheldon Kopp

If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him: The Pilgrimage Of Psychotherapy PatientsIf You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him: The Pilgrimage Of Psychotherapy Patients by Sheldon B. Kopp

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If Kopp’s title seems gratuitously bellicose and totally inappropriate for a book about psychotherapy, you may not recognize that it’s a quote from the 9th century Zen (Chán) Buddhist master, Linji Yixuan. In reality, the quote isn’t bellicose and is quite apropos of Kopp’s message. Linji was just saying that if one collects sacred cows, one is unlikely to be liberated from delusion and find a quiet mind. Kopp’s primary point is that patients tend to deify their therapists, thinking of therapists as people who can “fix them.” In reality, the therapist is a flawed human who can only help guide the patient on a personal pilgrimage. However, when patients find out that the therapist isn’t a sage who can make them feel better as if by magic without any real change on the patient’s part, they become disillusioned and the wheels can roll off any progress they may have made.

Pilgrimage is the central metaphor of Kopp’s book. The psychologist uses an interesting approach, without which I doubt I would have read this book. He uses pilgrims of classic literature as models. The second, and by far the largest, part of the book lays out the various paradigms of pilgrim. The use of works like Gilgamesh, Macbeth, Don Quixote, Dante’s Inferno, Kafka’s The Castle, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness makes for a work of interest to more than just psychotherapists. Kopp skillfully employs the wisdom of both the Eastern and Western worlds, often in pithy stories that have been around for centuries.

In addition to all the well-known tales that Kopp relies upon, the latter part of the book has some interesting personal stories from when Kopp was working as a therapist in a prison.

I think this book offers some intriguing food for thought regardless of whether one is either a psychotherapist or a psychotherapy patient.

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BOOK REVIEW: How to Meditate by Lawrence LeShan

How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-DiscoveryHow to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery by Lawrence LeShan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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LeShan’s book offers a secular and scientific guide to meditation. By secular, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s devoid of mention of religion. On the contrary, How to Meditate delves into a wide variety of meditation styles that have roots in religion, and it quotes from spiritual teachers across a range of religions–including the mystic branches of Christianity and Islam. I mention the latter because the book seems tailored to bringing individuals into meditation that do not normally think meditation as being their bag, which could include atheists, secular humanists, or those whose religious practices don’t involve a mystical component. I just mean that the book is secular in that it doesn’t advocate a specific religion or suggest that one needs to hold any particular spiritual beliefs to benefit from meditation.

Also, by scientific I don’t mean to suggest that the book gets bogged down in the minutiae of EKG’s or the like. How to Meditate is readable to the general reader, except perhaps for chapter 11, which deals with using meditation in psychotherapy. [However, by the author’s own admission, one can skip that chapter with no great loss if you aren’t a therapist.] What I do mean to say is that LeShan takes an approach to meditation that is grounded in real-world, observable results. He tells the reader of the mental and physical benefits of meditation as they are discussed in the scientific literature.

In other words, if you think that meditation is only for hippie-types who believe in auras and astral planes, this book may convince you otherwise. On the other hand, if you’re one who believes in auras, astral planes, or the idea that only one true guru / path exists, you’ll probably be miffed by this book. There are a couple of chapters devoted to ideas that people believe that both have little evidence of grounding in reality and which detract from meditation. This includes ESP, auras, strange maps of reality, and guru-worship.

The core of the book is chapter 8, which explains how to do meditations of eleven different kinds. The book addresses single-point awareness, breath counting, thought watching, bodily awareness (specifically, Theravada Buddhist style meditation), word association (1,000-petaled lotus), mantra meditation, meditation on “I”, movement meditation (particularly Sufi-style), sensory awareness, safe harbor meditation, and unstructured meditation. The first ten are all types of structured meditation, and an earlier chapter is devoted to distinguishing structured from unstructured approaches to meditation. There is also an earlier chapter that discusses a broad taxonomy of meditation and sub-classes of meditation.

The book is logically arranged for the most part. It begins with a chapter on why one should meditate. This first chapter sets up two chapters that deal with the psychological and physiological effects of meditation. There is one oddity of organization. The core “how-to” chapter is bookended by a chapter on ESP and one on various pitfalls of spiritualism. It would seem these two chapters should go together as they both deal with things that detract from meditative practice, and not with the central chapter wedged between them.

The last couple chapters and the Afterword aren’t as beneficial for the general reader as the first 3/4ths of the book or so. One of those chapters is the aforementioned chapter for psychotherapists and the other deals with the social significance of meditation. The last chapter before those that I found superfluous, however, is one addressing the question of whether one needs a teacher to learn meditation. This pro and con discussion seems like a good way to end this book.

There is a long afterword by Edgar N. Jackson that adds a perspective on what we should take from LeShan’s book. I suspect that if page count were not a concern the book would have ended on the chapter that talks about decisions about a teacher. The last two chapters and the Afterword seem to have been added for the twin-fold purpose of hitting a target page count and to add a couple of niche audiences—namely students of psychology and fans of Edgar N. Jackson (i.e. Christians with an interest in mystical approaches to their religion.)

Overall, I’d recommend this book for those who are new to meditation, those who are seeking to expand their practice to new types of meditation, and those who are interested in the mind in general. As I mentioned, if you think of meditation as a route to see the glow of chakras or to commune with the dead, this probably isn’t the book for you—you’re likely to find its disregard for such otherworldly endeavors to be unappealing.

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