The Snake in the Clinic: Psychotherapy’s Role in Medicine and Healing, by Guy Dargert

Symptom as symbol: the metaphors of the soul’s true story

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Many psychotherapists and general medical practitioners subscribe to the popular understanding that psychotherapy is a treatment for those suffering from mental health problems. They earnestly believe that psychotherapy might offer some relief and insight to those patients who are suffering from problems that do not respond well to mainstream biologically based medical treatments. They value the fact that its effectiveness can be demonstrated by an evidence base, and consider it to be an important addition to the repertoire of mainstream medicine.


“the symptoms of illness, and indeed death itself form an inevitable part of that whole which makes up a fully lived life”

However, when we look a little deeper into the terminology we use when we discuss these issues we discover that these popular views widely miss the mark. Etymologically speaking we discover that psychotherapy is not at all an approach to mental health. To do “psychotherapy” is to “attend to the soul” which is something that is quite different to the “mind”. Similarly when we take an etymological look at the word “health” we discover that it means “wholeness”. We are then faced with the challenging idea that illness, the symptoms of illness, and indeed death itself form an inevitable part of that whole which makes up a fully lived life. Wholeness or health is not necessarily about feeling good. If our evidence base demonstrates our capacity to lessen, avoid, and delay unpleasant and disagreeable realities how can we claim to be working to promote wholeness or health?

If, on the contrary, we were to embrace the concept that we are working with that mysterious intangible force or entity know as soul we might then find ourselves in the company of those healers of old to whom some modern medics even today swear an oath of allegiance. I am speaking of course of Hypocrites and of the old Greek god of medicine known as Asklepios. In this case illness and its symptoms are regarded as a voice of the soul. The Asklepian serpent, which has been adopted as a symbol of modern medicine, harks back to a time when healing and renewing forces were thought to arise serpent-like from the dark underworld. Illness equally demanded self-inquiry as it did practical physical treatments. The healing sanctuaries of ancient Greece attended to spiritual and emotional needs as much as they did to the physical needs of its patients.

10 Asklepios, the God of Healing (1)

Asklepios, the God of Healing

The ultimate healing act was a night spent on a couch known as a kliné, from which we derive the modern word “clinic”. Here the god Asklepios was thought to offer a treatment through the medium of a dream to be interpreted by the doctor or priest. It has taken nearly two millennia for this couch of the healing dream and all that it represents to be begin to reappear in mainstream medicine. Sigmund Freud’s analytic couch opened the way for the long neglected dark and mysterious underworld forces of pathology to begin to be valued for their healing potential.

In The Snake in the Clinic: Psychotherapy’s Role in Medicine and Healing we look at how modern scientific research is beginning to add extra credence to the idea that the ultimately irresistible powers of illness and pathology contain the potential to heal or to make whole if they are worked with in a skillful way. We can see them more as allies on the path of personal development than as enemies to be vanquished and defeated. Writers and researchers such as  John Sarno, Candace Pert, and Gabor Maté attest to the power of predominantly psychological work to offer relief to manifestly physical conditions. At the same time research into placebo and nocebo effects shows that imagination has a demonstrably profound effect on both illness and wellbeing.

Capture8-Machig Labdron, orginator of the Chöd practice (1)

Machig Labdron, orginator of the Chöd practice

We explore too how exotic spiritual and medical treatments such as the Tibetan Buddhist Chöd practice and the Sri Lankan “Yakun Natima” ceremony approach illness making full use of the imagination in order to lead the patient to greater awareness and relief. These practices recognise that illness is a phenomenon that has its roots not just in the individual who carries the symptoms but also in the community of which he or she is a part. We consider and explore the idea that to work with pathology in depth is to see beyond the individual. In psychotherapy we have begun to explore these dynamics in family and group therapy and increasingly in the emerging field of eco-therapy. We are beginning to consider the possibility that the roots of illness, both psychological and physical, may extend beyond the individual and his or her familial and social network into the environment itself. When we look at illness in this way we can see that it may contain the seeds of a kind of “vocation” or calling of the individual to address a problem that is not exclusively of his or her own making

dargert.inddIn The Snake in the Clinic these ideas are explored and related to the psychotherapeutic casework work of well-known practitioners and to my own work in the course of my thirty-five year career as a practitioner.

Guy Dargert is an American-born psychotherapist with thirty-five years’ experience of practice who now lives and works in Cornwall. Over his career he has practiced psychotherapy in a wide variety of medical and educational settings as well as in private practice. He has taught on numerous university level training courses. He is currently an Honorary Fellow of Exeter University and teaches courses in medical humanities to students at the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry. His latest book,  The Snake in the Clinic: Psychotherapy’s Role in Medicine and Healing, is published this week by Karnac.

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Reviews and Endorsements

Every great story seems to begin with a snake”.  Medicine has a long association with the snake, not least because of its medical properties. Add psychotherapy into the mix to make a truly interesting subject. You will not be disappointed. Guy Dargert activates a nest of vipers within these pages to provide a truly mind-challenging publication. Within a framework of a wide variety of modalities, this publication is grounded in research findings and practical data which throw into question some of medicine’s conventional way of healing and our underlying assumptions about how we view and treat illness and dis-ease. This book is essential reading for all those working with those who present as unwell/ill whether in the psychotherapy consulting room or the medical practitioner’s clinic. This publication reminds us we still have much to learn, no matter which is our professional background, and The Snake in the Clinic provides us with much food for thought within both medicine and psychotherapy.’
Philippa Weitz, Commissioning Editor, UKCP Book Series and Director, PWT Academy for Online Counselling and Psychotherapy

snake-symbol‘Guy Dargert has written one of the most elegant, powerful and accessible books on psychotherapy that I have read. Soaked in the long tradition that stretches from ancient Greek healing to contemporary archetypal psychology, Dargert recognises that the psychotherapist’s job is to tend to symptom rather than to eradicate it. Symptom – best grasped metaphorically – offers both meaning and opportunity. This book is a breath of fresh air in a publishing world currently awash with empty self-help manuals – where Dargert properly treats psychotherapy as an essential cultural art form. Through lucid discourse and illustrative cases Dargert shows that psychotherapy is especially meaningful where medicine’s limits are reached. I thoroughly recommend this book not only to specialist professionals in healthcare or psychotherapy, but also as general reading to fire the imagination of the public.’
Professor Alan Bleakley, Emeritus Professor of Medical Education and Medical Humanities, Plymouth University Peninsula School of Medicine

‘In his fascinating book depth psychotherapist Dargert demonstrates how science supports the conclusion that imagination has profound physical effects toward good or ill health. Returning to the origins of our Western medical tradition as proposed by Hippocrates and his ancestor the legendary healer-god Asclepius, Dargert finds dream- and imagination-based medicine fundamental to triggering self-healing responses. Ritual, beauty, laughter, art, theater, faith and nature arouse the healing imagination and affect our bodies in salutary ways. These insights are being supported by neuroscience, placebo-research and fields like psychoneuroimmunology. This book will help physician and patient, nurse and psychotherapist and anyone who can sense that illness and mystery are siblings.’
Robert Bosnak, PsyA, Jungian psychoanalyst, author of Embodiment: Creative Imagination in Medicine, Art and Travel, and founding director of the Santa Barbara Healing Sanctuary for Asclepian medicine

ARABELLA-Kundalini-energy-2014-09-22‘This excellent book offers a breadth perspective and clinical knowledge about the healing process  that includes not only the scientific point of view but also a comprehensive understanding of the paradox of being ill. Drinking from the fountains of Greek medicine, Dargert shows us how illness can be a way for consciousness, for enhancing the individuation process, and that healing happens only through the education of the heart. This book also delivers a state of the art account of the complexities of the psychotherapy practice in twenty-first century. It should be a required reading for all professionals involved in the health field.’
Denise G. Ramos, PhD, Clinical Professor of the Center for Jungian Studies (PUCSP) and author of The Psyche of the Body: A Jungian Approach to Psychosomatics

‘Guy Dargert has taught medical students for many years and his book is in the spirit of our medical humanities programme – ranging widely across the subject of medicine and healing, thinking beyond the prevailing wisdom, and testing the opinions of his readers.  We are taken from healing practices in the ancient temples of Asclepius to the modern interpretation of dreams, with a critical look at some current medical practices such as the treatment of symptoms rather than the whole person and the uncritical use of therapeutic drugs.  This is a book that should be read not only by psychotherapists but by anyone claiming to engage in healing.’
Dr Robert Marshall, Associate Professor, University of Exeter Medical School

‘Guy interweaves ancient knowledge, which we have come perhaps to disregard too lightly, with modern belief systems around illness and wellness, in a readable and fascinating magical mystery tour encompassing what it means to be a human bearing pain. I wish all GP’s and patients could read and be enlightened by this book. To understand and accept gives some meaning and even relief to suffering in all its forms.’
Dr Jane Slater, General Practitioner

‘This book takes the reader into the wondrous and mysterious world of well-being and “health” while putting the soul back into psychotherapy along the way. It is a moving, thought provoking and inspiring book.’
Tom Warnecke, psychotherapist, artist and editor of The Psyche in the Modern World: Psychotherapy and Society

uroboros-escher-El Mundo de Escher- Ouroboros (1)‘If you have that irritating inkling that the present assurance of evidence-based, scientific remedies for our comfort and health is missing something vital, then this book is for you. It thrillingly redefines health and illness, urges us to embrace the energy behind symptoms of ill-health to release what we uniquely are. It seduces us to seek an embodied and equal relationship with all other beings. Guy unravels threads from history and ‘normal’ life – from our desire to stay safe, painless and healthy – and weaves them with new, rich and often chafing threads of feeling. The book is a wonderful invitation to consciously inter-play in the web of life and actively open up to the unknown. It has given me new energy in my work to reimagine an embodied human relationship with the microbial world, both inner and outer.’
Mary Murray, M. Pharm, PhD, artist, researcher, health activist and Embodied Imagination Practitioner; part of the global Reimagining Resistance Project

The Snake in the Clinic is a marvelous book.  It should be read by all psychotherapists; but, lucidly written and free of unnecessary jargon, it would be an especially wise companion for anyone starting out in the profession. If only members of the medical profession could be persuaded to read it as well, they might be reminded to pay closer attention to a patient’s illness and so discern beneath the apparent facts of a case history the metaphors of the soul’s true story.

Patrick Harpur, writer, novelist, author of Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld – from the Foreword


One thought on “The Snake in the Clinic: Psychotherapy’s Role in Medicine and Healing, by Guy Dargert

  1. Pingback: The Snake in the Clinic: Psychotherapy's Role in Medicine and Healing by Guy Dargert - IAJS - International Association for Jungian Studies

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