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Whispers from the EastReview - Whispers from the East
Applying the Principles of Eastern Healing to Psychotherapy
by Frances E. Steinberg and Richard G. Whiteside
Zeig Tucker & Co., 1998
Review by Kelly Lemmon-Kishi, MSW, CTW
Dec 1st 1999 (Volume 3, Issue 48)

Ambitious but …
Whispers from the East: Applying the Principles of Eastern Healing to Psychotherapy attempts to answer a fascinating and far reaching question - what can therapists trained in traditional (Western) psychotherapy learn from ancient "Eastern" methods of healing.  It is intended as a wake up call to those who are losing their focus on healing in the midst of  the bureaucratization of mental health service provision. By looking at the familiar (psychotherapy) in a new and unexpected way (through the lens of traditional Chinese medicine), the authors hope to refresh, reinvigorate, and stimulate the curiosity of readers.

The book has a lot going for it - it is engaging, well written, and beautifully printed; the authors are enthusiastic and knowledgeable; the topic is both important and unusual.   However it is far too short to be satisfying; just when the authors have finished introducing the reader to the basic concepts and we start to see how the ideas apply to our work, the book ends!

Parts I and IV (the introduction and concluding thoughts) are short  but good.   Reading these sections alone may achieve the authors' main goal: "to rekindle the … healing drive" of experienced therapists who have found their work becoming routine.  They remind us of that "Everything is part of the web …. A systemic approach is inevitable, whether the context is intrapersonal or interpersonal."  They advise therapists to remember, respect, and use the power of intent because it "can compensate for the poorest technique or worst choice of intervention."  They urge us  to make our purpose not just  helping clients survive a crisis but  rather building up their "antipathogenic qi" (Chinese medicine lingo for the energy that fuels inner strength and resilience) and boldly propose that "diagnoses should be working hypotheses, intent transformed into a plan" - a dynamic verb not a static noun.  Each element can enhance therapists' appreciation of the art and transformative power of therapy.  The ideas are not new but are presented in an effective way.

The 120 pages in between provide a thorough introduction to the basic principles and vocabulary of Chinese medicine.  Readers will understand the Eight Principles (Yin/Yang, Internal/External, Heat/Cold, Excess/Deficiency) and the Five Elements (Earth, Metal/Air, Water, Wood, Fire) and have an overview of how they interact.  This is one of the clearest explanations of these concepts that I have read.   These chapters are liberally graced by dozens of case studies to help the reader make the transition from theory to life (note that I did NOT say from theory to practice).   They help keep the explanatory text lively and relevant but often raise as many questions as they answer - such as "would ancient Chinese healers really have recommended strategic family therapy interventions?" and "so, how can I use this?".  It is helpful to keep in mind that the authors are NOT trying to teach you an alternative way to do therapy as much as alternative ways of understanding the effects of familiar psychotherapeutic strategies (particularly strategic family therapy and brief solution focused therapy models).

In the end, this limited goal is one of the books largest flaws.  While it is true that no book could possibly prepare anyone to really use any new model, particular one as complex as Chinese medicine, I was disappointed with the book.  Whispers from the East is interesting and informative, but ultimately  unsatisfying.   Therapists who have lost their creative spark may find it too much effort to get it rekindled here (this book begs for multiple readings - the first time to learn the vocabulary, the second time to understand the connections the authors are making). Those who have kept their creativity alive will have to decide whether they want to spend their valuable free time reading a book about psychotherapy with few clinical applications.

The book's other major flaw is its flagrant orientalism.  If you are familiar with Edward Said's work on orientalism, you will find the author's vague yet glowing appreciation for "the East" to be irritating, at best.  "The Orient" is a figment of "the Occident's" imagination - a necessary "other" to stand in contrast to the western male "I".  "The East" - particularly the mysterious unfathomable versions promulgated by admirers from Marco Polo to Puccini - has a potent myth but does not exist in reality.  China, Japan, and Korea are as different as Britain, France, and Germany.  The authors do acknowledge from time to time that these traditions are from China, but their frequent invocation of the allure of  the "ancient East" is troubling and detracts from the effectiveness of the book.

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