Footsteps at the Great Sand Dunes. Lori Heintzelman photo.

People Are Fundamentally Sane and Healthy

In 2007, Naropa University held a Contemplative Psychotherapy conference that brought together hundreds of psychology practitioners from around the world. The conference created such perspective and inspiration around how transformative Contemplative Psychotherapy had become since its inception in the mid-1970s, that some of the visionary organizers at Naropa decided to create a book. A number of conference presenters were invited to submit papers that would become chapters in that book, and I was invited to write a paper on the Windhorse Approach.

Brilliant Sanity (University Of The Rockies Press) was the resulting effort, and this week’s Journal entry is an excerpt from the paper on which the Windhorse chapter was based. This paper was also published in a somewhat different form in the book Religion And Spirituality In Psychiatry (Cambridge University Press)… Shortly after Brilliant Sanity was published, it was reviewed in an unqualified positive way by the American Psychological Association, with the chapter on Windhorse receiving special mention as:

“a comprehensive treatment approach that integrates particular treatments for a variety of mental health conditions into a larger framework for helping clients cultivate mindfulness and self-compassion.”

This Journal entry touches briefly on the origins of the Windhorse Approach, what a team actually looks like in the community, and some of the underlying principles on which our work is based. It serves as an introduction to the next Journal entry, which is a podcast discussing the foundational principle that people are fundamental sane. We will include more of this paper over time, and we encourage you to pick up a copy of Brilliant Sanity in order to explore a bit of the breadth of what Contemplative Psychotherapy has to offer: for the clients, families, professionals, and anyone who wishes to be engaged in compassionate care for those suffering with confused states of mind.

The Windhorse Therapeutic Approach: Creating Environments That Rouse the Energy of Health and Sanity

Charles Knapp M.A.

Pond sunrise. Photo by Lori Heintzelman

The Windhorse Approach is a multilayered and comprehensive therapeutic process for people with a wide variety of mental health recovery needs. In this approach, for every client we create an individually tailored therapeutic environment, addressing their needs in a whole person manner. This approach also includes, whenever possible, the voice and needs of the client’s family.
The Windhorse Approach is based on ancient understandings of the fundamental nature of human health and the energy it takes to recover from mental and life disturbances. With this as its foundation, it incorporates a combination of ordinary common sense, distinctive learnings gained from decades of clinical experience applying this process, and the application of appropriate psychological therapy or therapies.
The term “windhorse” refers to an energy that is naturally positive, confident, uplifted, and, according to the Buddhist tradition, fundamental to human beings. Our individual connection to this energy can wax and wane depending on what’s happening in our environment and inside ourselves. Also, windhorse energy can be deliberately roused and cultivated. When this energy is strong, we feel confident that our life is workable. Windhorse was chosen as the name of this type of therapy because it is the energy, according to Chogyam Trungpa, that is essential for people to discover in order to recover from mental illness and difficult life problems.

Historical Roots
The Windhorse Project, as it was originally called, arose out of the powerful environment of the early 1980’s at Naropa Institute (now, Naropa University), and the atmosphere and teachings of Chogyam Trungpa. At that time, many outstanding and accomplished people had been drawn to him, and his influence invariably had the effect of helping experts to see their respective disciplines in a new light and larger context. Buddhist scholars, poets, dancers, musicians, and many involved with psychology found these experiences not just enlivening, but revolutionary in the way they now saw their activities. The late Dr. Edward Podvoll, who had had a distinguished career as director of psychiatry at the highly respected inpatient psychiatric hospital Chestnut Lodge, was one of these people. Through years of inpatient psychiatric work, Podvoll knew about the benefits and deficits of the inpatient environment. That knowledge, coupled with his developing contemplative perspective, showed him that there were other ways one could work with people in extreme mental states. In 1981, with the help of Trungpa and a group of committed students, Podvoll founded the Windhorse Project.

Although the Windhorse approach was originally designed only for seriously disturbed individuals, we now work with people who have a wide variety of mental health recovery needs: from those whose lives are minimally disrupted to those who need 24-hour-per-day support. Teams range in size from two people, involving minimal expenses and perhaps meeting with the client only once per week, to those with up to 20 people and round-the-clock contact. The length of a typical Windhorse Team ranges from six months to two years, but some last much longer. Many teams are still conducted for people with acute and chronic mental disturbances. Though we typically do not focus on diagnostic terms or concepts, frequently we see people who would ordinarily be diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and major depression. However, this approach is also effective with milder forms of mood disorders, substance abuse and addictions, eating disorders, autism, and head injuries. Typically, our clients have difficult co-occurring combinations of a number of these issues. Most clients are adults, age 18 and older, but it is not uncommon on the young end of the continuum for us to work with teenagers as young as 14 years old. At the older end, Windhorse can work well with people on issues of normal aging, dementia, and mental health. In this elder work, it is common to accompany someone and their family through the process of death.

A simple snapshot of a Windhorse team looks like the following: a client lives in their own house with a housemate who is part of a treatment team. Their relationship resembles that of ordinary housemates. There may be a number of clinicians on the team who spend time with the client on a regular basis, creating a schedule of generally one “shift” per day or more. Within that contact, a wide variety of activities takes place, from keeping the house in order to helping the client get out and connect with their interests in the world. These activities are elements of an individually tailored environment to help the person live in an ordinary and healthy way, with good relationships and interesting activities. The client may work, see friends and family, and be part of the normal community in which they live. They may meet with a psychotherapist, usually twice per week, and with a psychiatrist if they use medications. There is a system of meetings that all members of the team, including the client and their family, participate in. These keep the activity of the therapy, household, and therapeutic team coordinated, up-to-date, and in step with the evolving recovery needs.

Horses on the Mountain. Lori Heintzelman photo.

Therapeutic Foundations
Windhorse treatments are based on four healing principles. The first, which is the foundation, is that all human beings are fundamentally sane and healthy. As Trungpa states,“Mental confusion exists and functions in a secondary position to that basic health.” Thus, mental confusion functions at a much less essential level than the client and their family may believe. This first principle is not about just adopting an optimistic attitude toward human beings. Confidence in basic sanity is a direct experience that results from the clinician’s exposure to contemplative discipline, which will be discussed later.

The second principle is: We are inseparable from our environment. Because of this, the creation of a sane environment rouses the fundamental healthiness of everyone involved. As stated by Trungpa: “The basic point is to evoke some gentleness, some kindness, some basic goodness, some contact. When we set-up an environment for people to be treated, it should be a wholesome environmental situation. A very disturbed or withdrawn patient might not respond right away—it might take a long time. But if a general sense of loving kindness is communicated, then eventually there can be a cracking of the cast-iron quality of neurosis: it can be worked with.” As we will see, creating tailored healing environments is the core therapeutic methodology of the Windhorse Therapy process.

The third principle is: Recovery is the path of discovering and synchronizing with one’s own health and sanity. This is about starting where you are. And though there may be people in your life serving as sane reference points, genuine recovery is not about becoming someone else’s version of you. As one enters this path, a progressive orientation to one’s health becomes more prominent, resulting in skills learned for their particular life needs, confidence, and independence as this discovery and synchronization takes place and stabilizes. Recovery is characterized by a significant, stable, and heartening increase in the client’s “windhorse” energy, genuinely becoming more “themselves,” in a relaxed and healthy way.

The fourth and last principle is this: No matter how disturbed a mind has become, recovery is possible.


Chuck Knapp, M.A., L.P.C., a student of Chogyam Trungpa and graduate of Naropa University, worked closely for many years with Dr. Ed Podvoll, originator of the Windhorse Approach. Chuck was a founding member and later director of Friendship House, which was a publically funded residential treatment home for people with extreme mental states. In 1990 he co-founded Windhorse Community Services in Boulder, Colorado, where he continues to serve as a Co-Director. Through his published writings, presentations at conferences, and as co-founder of the Windhorse Journal in 2018, Chuck continues to share his interest in exploring mindfulness-based therapeutic environments for both individual and social wellbeing.