What is Therapy

The Wing Chun of Psychotherapy

This weekend, sitting at the foot of the Drakensburg, I decided to start re-reading “Maps of Narrative Practice”, by Michael White.  The book was a gift from one of my dearest friends and colleagues when I left Johannesburg.  As i started to read it, this time around I was struck by the correlations one could make between the life long study of Psychotherapy and my more recent commitment to practicing Kung Fu.

Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre, Durban.
Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre, Durban.

Because of Michael White’s teachings, I have never had much of an affinity for overly structured therapy.  Michael was adamant that you could never determine your responses to people’s expressions of their troubles ahead of these expressions and that each person’s story is entirely unique.  Therefore, each therapeutic conversation should be treated as new territory.  However, in the introduction he speaks of the value of certain guiding ideas or “therapeutic maps” for navigating these new territories.  Michael White writes:

When new territories of therapeutic conversation are being entered into, it can take considerable time to become familiar with such territories and to become proficient in the skills associated with these explorations. The key is practice, practice, and more practice.

Interestingly, it is this rigorous practice that enables spontaneity – the expressions of life that seem most spontaneous to us are those that we have had the most practice in. As in the case for musicians who perform skilful improvisation, good improvisation in the context of therapeutic conversations is founded  on meticulous attention to the development of therapeutic skills. And the possibility for the further development of our skills is never-ending.

I view my own practice as an apprenticeship without end, knowing that I will never arrive at a place where I will be wholly satisfied with my contribution to effective therapeutic conversations.

I cannot help but find correlations here between Psychotherapy and Kung Fu.  Albeit somewhat ironic correlations as Kung Fu is largely about combat and Psychotherapy about healing.  But, even in rare times when a therapist could feel “attacked” by their client, these are times when there is even more reason to rely on well practiced therapeutic basics to allow for spontaneous responses that open up the conversation for change.

Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre, Durban. Kung Fu demonstration - 2014
Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre, Durban. Kung Fu demonstration – 2014


Kung Fu is teaching me to revisit the basics of a firm foundation, staying centred in this foundation, focused on what is happening in the moment and keeping my mind alive to responding in spontaneous ways.  In Kung Fu, the aim of my response might be disablement (when I eventually get it right), whereas in Psychotherapy it is more likely a goal of enablement.   But, I will have to rely on some basic principles (structure) in both disciplines, always reflect on how I am utilising these basics and why, and most of all – be prepared for life long practice.

For me, taking a journey into the unknown with a map in hand always fills me with anticipation. – Michael White.

Jason Ross is a Counselling Psychologist with a fervent interest in the use of LANGUAGE and TEXT. His areas of practice include: injury and illness psychology, sexual health, relationships and addiction.

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