Tag Archives: Existential

Existential Spirituality

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An impromtu word search of the existential theory chapter for the 3rd edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice revealed 17 appearances of the word “spirituality.” That’s nice. Seventeen is a prime number. Seventeen is also one of my favorite spiritual numbers. Back in 2nd grade in Sunday school in a synagogue in Portland, my teacher asked us to guess a number from 1 to 20. The winner had the honor of taking a special Bible story book home for the week. My guess was a perfect 17. I got the book for the week. Obviously, the number 17 is a spiritual force in my life.

More important is the sublime integration of spirituality into existential theory. Or not. It seems to go one way or another. Either existential theorists are deeply spiritual/religious or they’re atheist/agnostic. There is no middle ground. Or maybe there is? [More on this conundrum below]

What follows are several short excerpts from the Existential Theory chapter. These excerpts culminate with the short section on Existential Spirituality.

Soren Kierkegaard

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) lived nearly his entire life in Copenhagen. Kierkegaard was devoutly religious. He was shaken when he discovered, at age 22, that his father had not only cursed God, but also seduced his mother prior to marriage. Subsequently, Kierkegaard’s writings focused primarily on religious faith and the meaning of Christianity. Eventually he concluded that religious faith was irrational and attainable only via a subjective experiential “leap of faith.” For Kierkegaard, virtuous traits such as responsibility, honesty, and commitment are subjective choices—often in response to a subjective religious conversion. Kierkegaard did not describe himself as an existentialist, but his work is a precursor to the existential philosophical movement, which formally began some 70 years following his death.

Friedrich Nietzsche

In contrast to Kierkegaard who began from a position of religious faith, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) had negative feelings about Christianity. It was he who, in his book Thus Spake Zarathustra, wrote, “God is dead.” Although he may have been referring to societal emptiness, he also claimed that religion used fear and resentment to pressure individuals into moral behavior. Instead of following a religion, he believed, individuals should channel their passions into creative, joyful activities. Irvin Yalom offers a fascinating view of Nietzsche’s psychological suffering in a historical fiction piece titled When Nietzsche Wept. In this novel, Yalom (1992) weaves existential principles into a fictional therapeutic encounter between Breuer, Freud, and Nietzsche.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche represent an interesting paradox or dialectic in existential thinking. A dialectic is a process where learning is stimulated from the integration of opposites. On the one hand, some existentialists embrace deep religious faith, whereas others are staunchly atheistic. Still others claim an agnostic middle ground. These differences in fundamental beliefs represent a wide sweep of human intellectual diversity and provide for fascinating philosophical exploration. You will glimpse existential dialectics intermittently in this chapter.

Four Existential Ways of Being

There are four primary existential ways of being-in-the-world. They include:

  1. Umwelt: Being-with-nature or the physical world.
  2. Mitwelt: Being-with-others or the social world.
  3. Eigenwelt: Being-with-oneself or the world of the self.
  4. Uberwelt: Being-with-the-spiritual or over world.

Boss (1963), Binswanger (1963), and May et al. (1958) described the first three of these existential ways of being. van Deurzen (1988) added the fourth.

These dimensions of existence are ubiquitous and simultaneous. Some people focus more on one dimension than others or shift from one to another depending on particular intentions or situations. For example, while on a hike up the Stillwater gorge in Montana, it’s easy to experience being-with-nature as water powerfully cascades around you. However, depending on other factors, this experience can take people inward toward eigenwelt, toward an uberwelt spiritual experience, or stimulate a deep mitwelt (albeit a nonverbal one). In most cases, the direction your being-ness moves within a given situation is likely a combination of several factors, such as: awareness, anxiety, previous experiences, intention, and/or your spiritual predisposition.

The Daimonic

According to Rollo May, “The daimonic is any natural function which has the power to take over the whole person” (1969, p. 123). Historically, Daimon possession was used to explain psychotic episodes and is popularly referred to as demonic possession. However, May repeatedly emphasized that daimonic and demonic are not the same concept: “I never use the word demonic, except to say that this is not what I mean” (May, 1982, p. 11).

The daimonic is an elemental force, energy, or urge residing within all persons that functions as the source of constructive and destructive impulses. May wrote, “The daimonic is the urge in every being to affirm itself, assert itself, perpetuate and increase itself .… [The reverse side] of the same affirmation is what empowers our creativity” (May, 1969, p. 123).

Similar to C. G. Jung, May considered harnessing and integrating the daimonic as a central psychotherapy task. He viewed psychotherapy as an activity that plumbs the depths of an individual’s most basic impulses … the purpose of which is to acknowledge, embrace, and integrate every bit of being and energy into the whole person. May commented specifically about the danger of leaving the daimonic unintegrated:

If the daimonic urge is integrated into the personality (which is, to my mind, the purpose of psychotherapy) it results in creativity, that is, it is constructive. If the daimonic is not integrated, it can take over the total personality, as it does in violent rage or collective paranoia in time of war or compulsive sex or oppressive behavior. Destructive activity is then the result. (May, 1982, p. 11)

The goal is to integrate natural daimonic urges and energies in ways that maximize constructive and creative behavior.

Existential Spirituality

A spiritual-oriented client was engaging in guided imagery with an existential therapist. The client “discovered” a locked door in the basement of his “self.”

“What’s behind the door?” the therapist asked.

“It’s darkness,” he said. With shivers of fear, he added, “There’s dread. It’s the dread of being unacceptable. . . of being unacceptable to God. Even worse, it’s my dread of being unforgiveable.”

“Shall we go in?” asked the therapist.

Silence followed.

The therapist noticed his client’s reluctance and said, “Let’s wait a moment and breathe. I’m wondering if you can even get in the door. I’m wondering if you want to get in. There’s no rush. We know where the door is. We can wait. Or we can create a key and try to get in. Or we can leave the door shut. But first let’s wait here and breathe before deciding anything.”

For two minutes, client and therapist sat breathing together. The paralyzing fear diminished and the client said, “I have a key. Let’s look inside.”

“Yes. Let’s look inside.”

The key opened the lock. The door creaked open. In the dreaded darkness, there was light. A dialogue with the dread and unforgiveable ensued and the client found a broad sense of love and acceptance. There were tears of relief. His spiritual load was lightened. His basement demons were exorcised.

In this chapter we’ve discussed the deep and profound quality of existential psychotherapy. Schneider (2010) called it the “Rediscovery of Awe.” Frankl and Wong referred to it as the pursuit of meaning. In existential therapy, meaning and awe are individualized, as is spirituality. There’s great potential in combining the existential and the spiritual in psychotherapy, but clients should be forewarned and informed: combining the spiritual and existential isn’t about formulaic or surface explanations; it requires a commitment to go deep and explore doubts, uncertainties, and core vulnerabilities.

Here’s a link to the new Theories 3rd edition cover: https://www.amazon.com/Counseling-Psychotherapy-Theories-Context-Practice/dp/1119279127/ref=dp_ob_title_bk

 

 

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Fun with Existential Theory

I think existentialists have gotten a bad rap over the years. They don’t deserve their depressive reputation. If you’re not sure about this claim, invite a bunch of existentialists over for a party. They know how to have a good time. Just think of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I’m sure they did some table-dancing (among other things) in their time.

Why are they so much fun? Well, in addition to their tendency to go on and on about death and meaninglessness, existentialists were some of the original embracers of carpe diem. They believe in seizing the day (or moment)–regardless of whether they’re playing Pokemon Go or working with you in counseling or psychotherapy.

Below I’ve included a short excerpt from the upcoming 3rd edition of Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice. One of the reasons I’m posting this is because one of the reviewers of the 2nd edition noted that we were trying too hard to to be “cute” . . . so I thought I’d see if any of you blog-readers think that’s the case. This particular excerpt is as cute as we get in this chapter. What do you think?? Overboard? Just right? Or should we try to be more like Stephen Colbert. You be the judge in this moment in time.

Theoretical Principles

As noted previously, there’s no single theorist or theory of existential psychotherapy. Consequently, although we focus on key existential philosophical and phenomenological principles, other existential writers and theorists may emphasize principles slightly different from the following.

The I-Am Experience

The I-am experience is the experience of being, of existing (R. May et al., 1958). The experience of being is often referred to as ontological experience (ontos means “to be” and logical means “the science of”). Literally, then, a major focus of existential therapy consists of exploring immediate human experience. You might think of it as suddenly waking up and being completely tuned into what it’s like to exist and be here and now in this particular moment in time.

Existentialists like to use hyphens to capture the interconnectedness of phenomenological experience. For example, in contrast to May’s I-am experience, Boss (1963) and Binswanger (1933) used Dasein (which is translated to being-in-the-world) to describe the sense-of-existence. Also, the phrase, “Dasein choosing,” which is translated to the-person-who-is-responsible-for-his-existence choosing is used. We should note that this practice is in no way related to our own hyphenated last names, although it has inspired John to consider adding a hyphenated middle name so he can refer to himself in the third person as, “John-who-is-responsible-for-his-existence-Sommers-Flanagan,” which he thinks sort of rolls right off the tongue.

It follows, as-if-anything-really-follows-from-the-preceding, that existential therapy is almost always in the service of self-awareness or self-discovery. However, unlike psychoanalysts, existentialists seek to expand client self-awareness rather than interpreting client unconscious processes. This is because existentialists believe the entirety of an individual’s human experience is accessible to consciousness. It’s not so much a matter of uncovering an elusive unconscious as it is a matter of elucidating the conscious and deepening the relational.

Four Existential Ways of Being

There are four primary existential ways of being-in-the-world. They include:

  1. Umwelt: Being-with-nature or the physical world.
  2. Mitwelt: Being-with-others or the social world.
  3. Eigenwelt: Being-with-oneself or the world of the self.
  4. Uberwelt: Being-with-the-spiritual or over world.

The first three of these existential ways of being were described by Boss (1963), Binswanger (1963), and May et al. (1958). The fourth way of being was added by van Deurzen (1988).

These four dimensions of existence are ubiquitous and simultaneous. Some people focus more on one dimension than others or shift from one to another depending on particular intentions or situations. For example, while on a mountain hike up the Stillwater gorge in Montana, it’s difficult not to become profoundly into being-with-nature as water powerfully cascades around you, making all conversation (being-with-others) impossible. However, depending on other factors, this experience can take people inward toward eigenwelt, toward an uberwelt spiritual experience, or stimulate a deep mitwelt (albeit a nonverbal one). In most cases the direction that your being moves in a given situation is likely a combination of several factors, including, but not limited to: anxiety, previous experiences, intention, as well as your spiritual predisposition.

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A Short Existential Case Example from Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories . . .

Each chapter in Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice includes at least two case vignettes. These vignettes are brief, but designed to articulate how clinicians can use specific theories to formulate cases and engage in therapeutic interactions. The following case is excerpted from the Existential Theory and Therapy chapter.

This post is part of a series of free posts available to professors and students in counseling and psychology who are teaching and learning about theories of counseling and psychotherapy. It, as well as the recommended video clip at the end, can be used for discussion purposes and/or to supplement course content.

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Vignette II: Using Confrontation and Visualization to Increase Personal Responsibility and Explore Deeper Feelings

In this case, a Native American counselor-in-training is working with an 18-year-old Latina female. The client has agreed to attend counseling to work on her anger and disruptive behaviors within a residential vocational training setting. Her behaviors are progressively costing her freedom at the residential setting and contributing to the possibility of her being sent home. The client says she would like to stay in the program and complete her training, but her behaviors seem to say otherwise.

Client: Yeah, I got in trouble again yesterday. I was just walking on the grass and some “ho” told me to get on the sidewalk so I flipped her off and staff saw. So I got a ticket. That’s so bogus.

Counselor: You sound like you’re not happy about getting in trouble, but you also think the ticket was stupid.

Client: It was stupid. I was just being who I am. All the women in my family are like this. We just don’t take shit.

Counselor: We’ve talked about this before. You just don’t take shit.

Client: Right.

Counselor: Can I be straight with you right now? Can I give you a little shit?

Client: Yeah, I guess. In here it’s different.

Counselor: On the one hand you tell me and everybody that you want to stay here and graduate. On the other hand, you’re not even willing to follow the rules and walk on the sidewalk instead of the grass. What do you make of that?

Client: Like I’ve been saying, I do my own thing and don’t follow anyone’s orders.

Counselor: But you want to finish your vocational training. What is it for you to walk on the sidewalk? That’s not taking any shit. All you’re doing is giving yourself trouble.

Client: I know I get myself trouble. That’s why I need help. I do want to stay here.

Counselor: What would it be like for you then . . . to just walk on the sidewalk and follow the rules?

Client: That’s weak brown-nosing bullshit.

Counselor: Then will you explore that with me? Are you strong enough to look very hard right now with me at what this being weak shit is all about?

Client: Yeah. I’m strong enough. What do you want me to do?

Counselor: Okay then. Let’s really get serious about this. Relax in your chair and imagine yourself walking on the grass and someone asks you to get on the sidewalk and then you just see yourself smiling and saying, “Oh yeah, sure.” And then you see yourself apologize. You say, “Sorry about that. My bad. You’re right. Thanks.” What does that bring up for you.

Client: Goddamn it! It just makes me feel like shit. Like I’m f-ing weak. I hate that.

In this counseling scenario the client is conceptualized as using expansive and angry behaviors to compensate for inner feelings of weakness and vulnerability. The counselor uses the client’s language to gently confront the discrepancy between what the client wants and her behaviors. As you can see from the preceding dialogue, this confrontation (and the counselor’s use of an interpersonal challenge) gets the client to look seriously at what her discrepant behavior is all about. This cooperation wouldn’t be possible without the earlier development of a therapy alliance . . . an alliance that seemed deepened by the fact that the client saw the counselor as another Brown Woman. After the confrontation and cooperation, the counselor shifts into a visualization activity designed to focus and vivify the client’s feelings. This process enabled the young Latina woman to begin understanding in greater depth why cooperating with rules triggered intense feelings of weakness. In addition, the client was able to begin articulating the meaning of feeling “weak” and how that meaning permeated and impacted her life.

To check out a 4+ minute existential counseling video clip go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiirtIKcIeM

This clip is taken from our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories 2 DVD set. The 2 DVD set is available through Psychotherapy.net: http://www.psychotherapy.net/video/counseling-psychotherapy-theories and Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Counseling-Psychotherapy-Theories-Context-Practice/dp/1118402537/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8