Claudio Naranjo

Claudio Naranjo

Claudio Naranjo is a Chilean psychiatrist who is considered a pioneer in integrating psychotherapy and the spiritual traditions. He is one of the three successors named by Fritz Perls (founder of Gestalt Therapy), and a developer of the Enneagram of Personality and founder of the Seekerss After Truth Institute. He is also an elder statesman of the U.S. and Global Human Potential Movement and the spiritual renaissance of the late 20th century. He is the author of various books.

In this article, Claudio Naranjo refers to the relevance of including a human approach to all levels of edcuation, from primary to higher education worldwide.

1. What is the main thing that the new generations need to learn in order to contribute to a more sustainable and, thus, more equitable and compassionate world?

They need to learn to be human. We need education that will teach us to be human again, because we are currently undergoing a process of increasing dehumanisation. People are being replaced with numbers, and education is becoming an information-transmission process in which people work like robots.

We are neglecting the human factor when that is precisely what we should be emphasising and conveying. People won’t learn maths, languages or anything else if there isn’t a teacher to relate to, someone to love. As a result, we have all sorts of problems, ranging from attention deficit disorders to dyslexia, learning disabilities and a general lack of interest in studying, all of which can be traced back to the inhuman way people want to teach.

It has been said—UNESCO has put it quite well—that people need to learn to be, learn to learn and learn to live together. However, when it comes to sustainability, we seem to think that we need something specific to it. We fail to see that sustainability requires exactly the same thing that education, humanity or the world at large needs to solve its problems.

I am interested in James DeMeo’s Saharasia theory, because I find it quite compelling. According to this theory, the first conditions conducive to agriculture arose during the Ice Age in a matristic culture in the region spanning from the Sahara to present-day Ukraine by way of the Middle East. It was thus women who invented agriculture and, with it, human society. DeMeo explains that these conditions lasted only a couple of thousand years, and when the Earth began to warm up, humans were forced to return to their earlier nomadic way of life. However, the new nomadism was predatory and violent, practised by people who were driven by hunger to steal food from whomever they encountered along the way and, especially, from those societies that had sprung up near rivers, the civilised societies of the Nile and Babylon. Those societies felt the full force of a barbarism that not only posed a temporary threat to the people being attacked but also directly influenced them, making them more barbaric, too.

2. You have often advocated using instinctive emotional education as a counterbalance to excessive rationality. How do you propose that this type of education be introduced in the context of universities, of higher education, which is the most specialised kind, the kind most clearly oriented towards careers and towards helping people fit into society as we know it?

Higher education is responsible for training teachers, especially those teachers who will go on to teach in the vital sphere of secondary education. What do we need to give these future teachers to increase their ability to educate at these instinctive, emotional levels? For one thing, everything I say about the ‘emancipatory aspect’ must apply not only to the freedom to express one’s ideas but also to the freedom to develop what I call ‘organismic wisdom’, which is closely related to spontaneous desires and psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy acknowledges all unacknowledged, repressed desires and helps people acknowledge and, ultimately, accept them. This is what we need to do with the things inside us that we have not yet seen. In this regard, much of the spirit of psychotherapy lies in heeding our desires. Personally, I think that love and freedom should be two key components of education. Education has been overrun by what the American semanticist George Lakoff has called the ‘strict father’ model. There are two ways to deal with a problem: you can take a hard-line approach, sending anyone who commits a crime straight to gaol, or you can try to be understanding, that is, try to understand the problem by approaching the person who has it in an understanding and affectionate manner.

In this sense, education is patriarchal and, like the law, heavily influenced by the strict father model. It has been built by men even though the vocation of teaching is a female one, one that attracts women, because it appeals to people who want to serve and help others. Education is a specialised form of mothering, but the people who answer this call find themselves operating within a system created by committees of male experts somewhere in the world who know little about teaching or human relations but quite a lot about content and who thus tend to think about things in the abstract.

In any event, if we want to teach tomorrow’s educators specific techniques, future programmes should incorporate the basic priorities of Gestalt therapy. For example, in the 1960s Esalen ran a remarkable programme, with funding from the Ford Foundation, consisting in introducing educators to Gestalt therapy, with promising results in terms of the communication skills that participants developed over the course. Gestalt teaches people to express themselves in the first person, to speak from experience. In a way, it is a very flexible synthesis of the entire history of therapy, one that is not at all intellectual but rather helps people act based on what they feel.

3. Is it possible that today’s technological civilisation, with the emphasis and predominance it gives to technical and, therefore, mediated language, prevents people—in this case, students of any age—from being receptive to this call for self-knowledge, self-awareness and detachment, as you were saying at yesterday’s talk? They are such divergent paths. What do you think?

It is absolutely true that some things would have to be unlearnt in order to learn others, which is why the sooner those other things can be introduced, the better. Education is a form of brainwashing, a way of seeing things, and once you have an established way of seeing things, it is hard to change it.

Gestalt is a way of organising perception, not just an act of perceiving. Teachers will always face a major challenge, because they have to retrain people to help them change ingrained habits.

Developing students’ perception, or taking a perceptual approach, would thus have to be a basic part of any course of study, right? The desired social change and new worldview would be achieved by changing people’s perception.

We don’t need a full-fledged study of perception to show that this is true. What matters is for us to understand certain things that are simply human before it’s too late. It shouldn’t be hard. At yesterday’s talk, I spoke about things in a way that most people can easily grasp. However, when I speak to educators, they don’t understand this language that other people relate to. That is because educators are no longer seeking anything; they simply teach what it took them so much time and effort to learn themselves. Even primary education is increasingly being treated like secondary education now, as if kids needed to pass an interview just to get into kindergarten.

4. If you could design a new university from scratch, what blueprint would you follow for the basic structure?

Not a school, but a university? I’ve honestly never thought about it, but let’s see. It would have to have a science department and a mathematics department, which I would create separately, regardless of the link to science and physics. I would split the so-called humanities into literature, culture and art, with sociology, political science and anthropology as approaches.

However, I would not put education with the humanities or in any of the other departments. Here’s why. It used to be that when you wanted to be a psychoanalyst, you had to be psychoanalysed; it was thought that you could not psychoanalyse someone if you had not undergone psychoanalysis yourself. Likewise, the concept of education should be that you cannot teach without first having been taught, although not in an academic sense. You should not be able to teach the humanities without first having received a humanising education, and a humanising education should not be confused with simply learning about psychology or the humanities.

Humanism failed when it was decided that you could become wise by reading the classics. You have to be pretty wise already just to understand the classics! In this sense, perhaps we should place all aspects of human development at the centre of all professions, a core human development through which we learn to be people, learn to develop the three levels of instinct liberation: the transformation of lower emotions and base instincts, the variants of love, and then the transformation of the instrumental practical mind so characteristic of our civilised society into one that is able to understand higher things, such as what is meant by wisdom.

In my view, this is a major problem with academic education: it assumes that people are competent to practise a profession simply because they have attended a course and passed the exams. This may be true for engineers. However, in the world of psychotherapy in which I have spent much of my career, you are not assumed to be a trained psychotherapist just because you’ve attended a course and passed the exam or passed a given number of courses. You have to show that you can cure others and, thus, have to have been cured yourself, have to have achieved an adequate level of mental health. Some people are emotionally crippled; some are too heavy-handed when it comes to personal relationships. They will not make good therapists. Yet universities train them to become therapists, because that’s how the system works: all you need to do is take the course and pass the exams.

University education is not experiential, and tests at university are based on written responses and the transmission of content. Students are not judged the way a pianist might be in a competition or by some equivalent means for a good educator. In other words, they are not asked to prove they can educate not only because it is an academic skill that they have acquired, but also because they have successfully undergone an analysis of why they do what they do and do it well. In this regard, training therapists or educators is a delicate matter.

But shouldn’t engineers be taught to have this awareness, too?

I believe that all professions should make the person a core focus. My first job in medical school in Chile was in a department founded right when I came in. It was in a physiology institute that had been created on a whim by its founder, who was then quite renowned, when he retired and was made a professor emeritus. It was devoted to medical anthropology. I’d barely earned my medical licence when he invited me to help him introduce a human element into medical studies. The idea was that when you study medicine, you begin with cadavers and test tubes. Thus, by the time you start seeing actual patients, you want to treat them like cadavers or pure chemistry, too. Otherwise you don’t feel comfortable. I was a victim of that myself. One of my first patients in medical school told the professor, ‘This doctor understands my disease very well, but he does not listen to what I’m saying.’ He did not feel a connection with me and was already suffering the impact of the dehumanised nature of the four years of medical studies I’d completed before dealing with patients.

A transformation is currently taking place in today’s so-called transitional universities, which, in addition to modifying the academic curricula, understand that the campus and how the departments are structured must also be transformed with a view to serving as a model of society. In other words, they aim to make educational communities the foundation of their programmes. Is that something that could be done in this new university, in addition to making human education the core focus? Could the university itself be turned into a community, a place that would encourage personal relationships and the co-existence of students and others, obviously in an open social context? That would be somewhat similar to what you are saying.

Sure. It’s not something I’ve really considered, as I haven’t had the necessary involvement in the world of universities since I renounced academia upon leaving Chile. I left Chile for the California of Esalen, where people talked about the non-verbal humanities, and I adopted a different position with relatively little regard for the world of academics. As a result, I haven’t thought about it. I’ve been asked to think about education issues, but I’ve never been pressed to expand on the concept of universities per se. Nevertheless, the idea that part of university life should be based on community strikes me as a very good one.

5. How would you assess the Seekers After Truth (SAT) programme? How many years has it been since it was launched?

It has undergone several metamorphoses. It was first launched in 1971. We were a group of seekers, and I felt like someone who had finally found the other shore, reached the other side, seen the light. I told people that if they simply did what I had done, they would get to where I was, and I was quite convinced of it. I kept my activities secret for several reasons. In part, it was because they had been taught to me as secrets—for example, the enneagram was for internal use and was never intended to enter the broader culture, and certain Tibetan teachings were secret, too—but also I wanted to experiment with secrets.

That was the first incarnation of SAT, but it only lasted about three years. After that, I left, because I had been flying high, and then, suddenly, I came crashing back down to Earth. I began my descent from the legendary Mount Sinai and entered a desert. I suffered through a long dry period of lost inspiration, no longer in contact with my inner guide. I had been warned that this would happen by Oscar Ichazo, the person who first showed me the way, who sent me on the desert retreat in northern Chile that was to be my awakening. He’d told me, ‘You will lose this some day, and you will have to win it back on your own.’

And so it was. Little by little, I won it back, and by the time I was finally able to function at what I now call a charismatic level—a level of inspiration on a par with what I’d had at the start—albeit this time with more experience, I had emerged from the dark night. I accepted an invitation to train therapists in Almería, Spain, and that is where the modern-day SAT began. It later spread to other countries: Brazil, Italy, in short, many other places. Since then, SAT has been refined. At first, it was based on a single month-long retreat each year. A month-long retreat is a long time. It is like taking a trip on an ocean liner: there is nowhere to go, so you have no choice but to deepen your personal relationships. As a result, it was an intense experience for a lot of people. I would say that it has since been pared down, shortened, that we have a clearer understanding now of how to do things better.

The final stage was what inspired me to apply the programme to education. The defining moment was an invitation to a conference in Argentina in 2000 held in a sports hall in Catamarca. It was organised by a man named Diamante and attended by about 2,000 people. The renowned Basque philosopher Fernando Savater gave the inaugural talk, but there were many other luminaries in attendance, too. I felt as if I were speaking to a single human organism that was breathing with me as one. That was a new experience for me. It was like being in one of those black Baptist churches in the United States where they use a call-and-response format to elicit a massive communal response. I began to wonder what I was doing teaching therapists. Granted, these therapists are now quite successful—they help certain circles and have all gone on to found schools of their own that work quite well—but if these teachings were to be applied to ordinary schools, wouldn’t they ultimately affect the world at large?

Everyone goes to school, so the key was to reach educators. Why couldn’t I do with them what I knew I could do with therapists? That was where the experiment of using the programme with educators began. However, I hadn’t yet realised that it was one thing to create groups of educators and quite another to change the institution itself, to be accepted by it, by education at large. I have been formally recognised—the SAT programme is recognised as an official trainer-training programme in Barcelona, in Catalonia, as well as in many parts of Italy. However, it has not been made part of the overall curriculum, nor is it used at universities or schools.

There is also the financial aspect, the question of funding. I tried asking for money. Indeed, that is why I created this foundation: to receive money. What I did not know was that, while you can legally set up a foundation with relatively little money, you cannot operate on donations alone, because the donations are always partial. The European parliament or government gives you 75%, and it is assumed that you can easily make up the rest out of the foundation’s assets. Only my foundation doesn’t have any assets; it can barely afford a secretary, a telephone and rent. Consequently, I haven’t been able to undertake any large projects. A few years ago, I went to speak to an important millionaire here in Spain, the man behind the Planeta publishing house. He liked some of the things I said, but I hadn’t gone to see him to get a book deal; I’d gone to ask him for money. He told me that, given the current state of the economy, it wasn’t a good time. In short, he said no. A lot of people give to education, but not so many give to change it. You can’t just go up to the Bill Gateses of the world and ask for money to introduce wisdom into education, to introduce freedom and other slippery concepts like that. On the other hand, if you ask for money to buy more computers, they’ll make a major donation, because that’s where they think the future lies. In theory, more education will save the world, but there is no way to convince them that this does not mean more of the same kind of education we already have, that more of that kind of education will simply keep the world as it is.

Have you seen any significant changes in educators since you launched the programme?

Yes. Mr Renom, the evaluator and leading expert at the University of Barcelona, told me that he had never seen such results with any other educational programme. He claimed that the scores were so high he had to include other, low-scoring variables such as food, beds, rooms, etc., simply to ensure greater variety and thus allow the high scores to shine. Otherwise, he was afraid it would look like they had been doctored.

Today the foundation is based in Barcelona. Its current plans are thus to secure funding in order to continue…

In order to carry out projects. Let me put it this way: it’s like trying to explain what chocolate tastes like to someone who has never tried it. How do you convince educators that it would be in their best interest to complete a ten-day module on self-awareness, meditation, spontaneous movement and all sorts of other things they have never seen on the market? The only way to do it is to hand out free samples, free chocolate bars. In other words, if you open the door for me, I can arrange a programme for your faculty to attend, and, when it is done, we can then see whether they wish to continue and whether you can find the necessary funding for it. But who pays for that initial programme, that chocolate bar? That’s the money I was asking for. That difference that the foundation is supposed to make up from its own funds could be requested from a bank.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government