Not all that’s therapeutic is therapy.
That may seem obvious to you, or it may seem like I’m needlessly splitting hairs. Or perhaps it doesn’t make any sense at all, and you’re wishing I’d just get to the point already.
Before I do, though, I have to provide a bit more context. I’ve spoken at a number of Sudbury graduations over the years: at one, I observed that a particular young man’s example showed that, while they’re not in the therapy business, Sudbury schools can be very therapeutic. Without divulging too much, I can say that in this graduate’s time with us, he came out of a deep fog and funk to absolutely flourish. He went from barely interacting with anyone, early on, to leaving as an active, beloved member of the community, fully alive and awake to his passions.
I’ve seen variations on this theme time and again over the years: students coming into their own, coming to life, in a Sudbury environment. Our schools provided young people the space and respectful support needed to grapple with their issues, to learn to believe in themselves and start finding their way in the world. But if we at the schools make these things possible, the students are the ones who make them happen. And this gets at my distinction between therapy and therapeutic environments.
For me, therapy has connotations of fixing problems—focused, externally managed programs designed and centered on a particular person’s issues. Things that happen to be therapeutic, on the other hand, have beneficial effects, but in a more indirect or incidental manner. They don’t operate from a deficit perspective, don’t look for problems to be fixed; they simply allow people’s natural capacities to unfold.
More recently, I’ve seen a similar dynamic in my Zen practice. On one level, absolutely there are therapeutic benefits from regular meditation, from the support of a spiritual community and the guidance of teachers. As the head teacher at the Austin Zen Center has said more than once, many people come to practice because they want to find peace—obviously, and what’s wrong with that?
As I was saying, though, I think whether something is therapy, strictly speaking, as opposed to therapeutic, has to do with one’s perspective (problems vs. possibilities), as well as the focus of the environment (treating people vs. giving them space). My relatively limited experience of Zen is that—again, like Sudbury—it’s not about diagnosing and treating, but rather empowering people to do their own sifting of perceptions and beliefs, settle into themselves as they aspire to wake up to What Is.
Now all this is not in any way to deny or downplay the importance of actual therapy. Sometimes there are problems that have to be fixed. Clearly, all of us need various forms of support. So while communities and informal networks are a staple of healthy, fulfilling lives, there’s certainly a role for professionals as well.
What I’m saying is simply that when you allow individuals’ natural capacities and idiosyncrasies the widest reasonable latitude, when you don’t shame or restrict them (while expecting them to respect others’ boundaries) but instead offer respect and responsibility, you maximize their chances of growing toward health and wholeness. I think this is part of why I’m drawn to Zen, and I know it’s part of why I so passionately support Sudbury schooling.