• lesley dougan

Breath of Life Theory: The Autonomy and Homonomy of Actualisation

Updated: Jun 28

Westernised humanistic theories of the development of 'the self' including notions of the ‘fully-functioning’ person, for example, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (1943) or Rogers' self-actualisation (1951), are frequently framed as an individual’s drive towards autonomy. Carl Rogers, in his 1961 book 'Becoming a Person' wrote,

"It is the client who knows what hurts, what direction to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried"

Autonomy, including self-determination, control, and choice is a fundamental tenet of the person-centred approach. However, what is often overlooked is the complementary drive towards homonomy. Emery (1977) described the four ideals of homonomy as:

"a sense of belonging, nurturance of other than the self such as people and the natural environment, humanity or humaneness, putting people above their institutions, and beauty"

When acknowledging the related tendencies of homonomy and autonomy, we must also consider the role and impact of culture; power, privilege, and oppression through the collide-scope lens of intersectionality.

Maslow, best known for his 'Hierarchy of Needs', spent time living alongside the Indigenous Siksika First Nation, an experience that profoundly influenced his ideas on actualisation (Michel, 2014). The Siksika First Nation way of life is informed by the non-hierarchical 'Breath of Life Theory' BOL manifesting through both cultural narrative and embodied history of the First Nation tribes, passing from one generation to the next (Blackstock, 2011; Cross, 2007). For the Siksika Tribe, 'Cultural perpetuity' transcends community actualisation, which in turn, transcends self-actualisation. But what does this mean for actualisation?

Wellbeing (actualisation) is both individual and collective; where interconnected dimensions of self, community and cultural perpetuity are in constant process, informed by the four interconnected relational worldview principles:

  • cognitive

  • spiritual

  • physical

  • emotional

These principles "overlay an interconnected reality with expansive concepts of time and multiple dimensions of reality. Diversity in human experience is accounted for as culture and context shape the manifestation of each principle" (Blackstock, 2011).

Cultural continuity (perpetuity) and the intergenerational transmission of our personal, familial and community stories, continue, even after death. Often, it is only through understanding our past, that we can make sense of the present. In turn, our present will inform future generations.

For me, there are striking parallels between the organismic orientation and roots of PC philosophy and BOL theory; the multidimensional, non-linear, non-hierarchical model of human experience built on interdependent principles. The theory resonated with me, a neurodivergent therapist, supervisor, and educator. I experienced a felt sense, that, at first, I struggled to articulate. Further exploration of Indigenous people's wisdom during Supervision Of Supervision tangentially led me to the song, 'Wind Beneath My Wings' from the film 'Beaches' (apologies if this is now an earworm) which then took me to an image of Condors, a species with massive significance for the Indigenous peoples of North America.

When condors soar without flapping their wings, they are using thermals or currents of warm air. This tangent led me to conceptualise supervisees as condors; and different aspects of supervision provided by me as the supervisor as 'thermals' which may serve as both supportive and restorative within the supervisory relationship (Page and Wosket, 2015). As Rud (2018) astutely notes:

"When we affirm that we are but interwoven, expressive knots in constant movement and transformation, we also affirm that when we face another in [supervision], we are being mutually constituted; there is an essential, reciprocal, inevitable mutuality in the encounter which I define as radical reciprocity." (ibid, p.21)


Blackstock (2011) The Emergence of The Breath of Life Theory Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics, Volume 8, Number 1 (2011)

Cross, T. (2007, September 20). Through indigenous eyes: Rethinking theory and practice. Paper presented at the 2007 Conference of the Secretariat of Aboriginal and Islander Child Care in Adelaide, Australia.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396.

Michel, K.L. (2014) Maslow's Hierarchy Connected to Blackfoot Beliefs. Online 3-10-19

Page, S. & Wosket, V. (2015) Supervising the counsellor and psychotherapist: a cyclical model. Third edition. London: Routledge.

Rogers, C.R. (1951) Client-Centered Therapy: Its Current Practice, Implications and Theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Rogers, C.R. (1961) On Becoming a Person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Rud, C. "The psychotherapeutic encounter as a political act of micro multitude" In M. Bazzano (2018) Ed. Re-Visioning Person-Centred Therapy. London: Taylor & Francis

Safir, S. (2020) "Before Maslow's Hierarchy: The Whitewashing of Indigenous Knowledge" Available at (Accessed 19th April 2022)

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