Existentialism and psychotherapy

Although I studied a variety of therapies in my preparation for a career as a psychotherapist, I never identified exclusively with one approach – gestalt, client-centered, behavioral, psychodynamic – as a descriptor of my style of therapy. I was an eclectic practitioner, but have always considered my therapeutic orientation to be existential.

I respect that there are therapists whose work has a religious foundation, but mine was a secular practice. I validated faith in God and prayer as best I could, with clients who found meaning in their religious beliefs; but if clients asked me to pray with them, I declined. Although I was raised as a Christian, and most of my values are rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic, I’m an agnostic of the kind that’s very comfortable with saying “I don’t know” when asked about specific religious beliefs. I think that it’s just as arrogant for an atheist to assert sure knowledge that there is no God as it is for a religious person to assert that I’m in error for not believing what they believe. Define God, then we can talk.

I don’t believe that I have the authority to definitively answer questions about religion and am tolerant of  those who claim to “know” that their beliefs are true, as long as they do no harm as a result of religious beliefs. Of course, there’s considerable room for debate about what constitutes harm. (I personally consider any form of indoctrination to be harmful.)  I consider myself an existentialist because existentialism directly addresses morality and personal responsibility, without the excess baggage of sin and redemption and pleasing God. I’ll briefly summarize some of the basic principles of existentialism, as I understand them.

First, existentialism asserts that there’s no universal Meaning “out there” that all right-thinking people can apprehend – as opposed to religions, which assert that there is, i.e. “God’s plan.” To existentialists, concepts like Sin and Redemption and Divine Intercession are constructs based on religious doctrine. They don’t exist in any objective sense. Meaning only exists in the eye of the beholder. Life is absurd, as illustrated by Albert Camus in “The Myth of Sisyphus.”  Sisyphus continues to push the boulder up the hill, despite knowing that it will just roll back down. He persists, despite the absurdity of his efforts, because the act has meaning for him.

Because there are no absolute rules, or Divine rewards or punishments in an afterlife, we are each free to do whatever we want. But the other side of the coin of freedom is responsibility. We’re absolutely responsible for whatever we choose to do, and can choose to behave morally even if we don’t believe in Heaven and Hell. We can choose to live in good faith with others, because of our moral responsibility for all of our actions. Although we can find joy and meaning in authentic relationships, we’re all essentially alone in our lives. (A song sung by Country singer Bill Monroe expresses this as well as anything I’ve read on the subject; “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley,/ You’ve got to walk it by yourself,/ ‘Cause nobody else can walk it for you./ You’ve got to walk it by yourself.”) We each have to deal with Angst (anxiety) and dread that comes from the knowledge that we will someday cease to exist. Existentialists don’t rely on the comfort of religious promises of eternal life for the faithful, to come to terms with our mortality.

To say that there’s no objective Meaning to existence “out there” isn’t to say that meaning is unimportant. As an existentialist I’m free (like Sisyphus) to find, or create, my own meaning. One of the best-known existential therapists, Viktor Frankl, named his school of psychotherapy logotherapy – from the Greek “logos”: meaning, or reason. (I’ve written about Frankl in previous posts. I’ve recommended his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, to more clients over the years than any other book.) Although I didn’t practice logotherapy, per se, I’ve worked with many therapy clients to help them find or create meaning in their lives. It can be a life-or-death matter with people who are suicidal.

I initially saw existentialism as grim and forbidding: if there’s no extrinsic Meaning to existence, then all we can do is to sweat along with Sisyphus, acting as if there was meaning to our lives. But now I see the richness of choice, where I once saw austerity. Existentialism gave me a philosophical context for the I-Thou encounters of psychotherapy. We all have a need for our lives to mean something; but we needn’t rely on “God’s plan,” as taught by this or that religion, or on promises of eternal life, to find meaning in our lives.

If you want to learn more about existentialism and the colorful characters (Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, as well as Camus, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty) who formulated its principles, I recommend Sarah Bakewell’s highly-readable At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. I’d never have guessed that phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty was good at dancing the Jitterbug.

On Mysticism

First, a few words about what mysticism is not. Calling the Marvel Comics character Doctor Strange “Master of the Mystic Arts” is inaccurate; he should actually be called “Master of the Magical Arts.” There’s nothing magical or supernatural about mysticism, as I understand it. Since mysticism is about union with God, this may seem counter-intuitive or paradoxical. I suggested in my last post that the potential for mystical experience seems to be hard-wired in our brains, and elicited by certain identifiable stimuli. That means it’s natural, not supernatural. I’m an agnostic and, to me, the  question of whether there “is” or “is not” a God is a matter of definition. If you say that God is love, then I believe in God. If you say that God has a gender or a preferred name, I don’t. I believe that if there’s a God, it’s beyond human comprehension.

Mystics are people who seek, or experience, union with the Divine. Some religious people who have a mystical experience might call it a religious experience and, for them, it is. (I don’t have the philosophical authority to label or judge other peoples’ anomalous experiences.) But I’ve read accounts of atheists who remained atheists after having an experience of Divine union. The existence of mystical experience isn’t proof of the existence of any given deity. Not everyone is going to have a mystical  experience in their lifetime. Many people – even atheists – have reported having an experience of the Divine while under the influence of psychedelic substances such as LSD, psilocybin or mescaline. Back in my hippie days, a common question asked of people who had just  come down from a psychedelic trip was, “Did you see God?” It was a popular jest.

Accounts of mystical experiences have been recorded in cultures all around the world,  throughout history. Triggers include physical agony or ecstasy, asceticism/sensory deprivation, continuous prayer and fasting, deep meditation, and the ingestion of high doses of psychedelic substances. Indeed, mystical experiences are so common on psychedelic drugs that some people refer to them as entheogens – “God-inducing” substances. I’ve had mystical experiences, and don’t think of them as proof that there “is” a God that has a name. Like psychedelic consciousness, mystical experiences are ineffable: words can’t do justice to them. My experiences haven’t involved identifiable deities from any religion, but rather a profound feeling of one-ness with the universe, or being in the presence of something holy, that’s impossible to put into words.

One of the great Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth-century Dominican friar, taught that we can – if we do the requisite preparation – experience God directly, within ourselves. The Roman Catholic establishment of the day considered the teaching heretical. However, Saint Francis of Assisi had written something similar: “What you are looking for is what is looking.” Centuries later, philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche had a darker metaphor for this idea, writing “When you gaze into the Abyss, the Abyss gazes back at you.”

The key to union with the Divine, according to Meister Eckhart, was letting go of all worldly things, all desires and preconceptions – even one’s conception of God. Paradoxically, in order to know God directly, one must first un-know everything one thinks about God. The Divine is unknowable in the usual sense of knowledge. He wrote, “We should learn not to give God any name, for God is above names and ineffable,” warning that “if you think of anything he might be, he is not that.” He also  wrote, “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing,” and “the eye by which I see God is the same eye by which God sees me.” Among the things a seeker must abandon is his or her conception of self. Meister Eckhart taught that from this emptiness, this silence, one’s soul could be re-born in the direct experience of the Divine.

This message is echoed in the mystical teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, Vedanta Hinduism, Jewish Cabalism, Sufism, and other spiritual traditions. Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki called Meister Eckhart “the one Zen thinker of the West.” In modern terms, the direct experience of the Divine requires the annihilation of the ego. One seeker wrote, “At my worst, I see myself being at the center of the universe; at my best, I see myself as one cell in the body of the Divine.”

The poetry of Sufi mystics such as Rumi and Hafiz reflects this point of view over and over in its metaphors.  Rumi likens himself to a hollow reed made into a flute by the breath of God. He wrote, “We are like lutes once held by the Beloved. Being away from his divine body fully explains all yearning.” Hafiz wrote, “I have learned so much from God/that I can no longer call myself/ a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew. . . .Love has befriended Hafiz so completely/it has turned to ash and freed me/of every concept and image/my mind has ever known.”

In my last post I wrote about the Vedanta Hindu concept of Brahman: there is nothing that is not God. It is expressed in the Sanskrit affirmation tat twam asi – “thou art That.” (i.e. You are one with the Divine.) I’ll close on a light note, with a short verse I’ve attributed to my alter ego writer and philosopher, Philbo T. Woldercan:

You want the key to the Mystery?                                                                                                       The Holy Grail?                                                                                                                                      The essence of the Buddha?                                                                                                                 You’ve known it all along, Bozo!                                                                                                         (tag) You’re IT.

Epiphanies and peak experiences

In previous posts I’ve written about the mystery of consciousness and non-ordinary states of consciousness. In this post I’ll examine epiphanies – an ordinary, though not everyday, state of mind – and peak experiences.

As a retired psychotherapist, I think that some people are resistant to insight; but anyone who is capable of introspection will sometimes experience epiphanies. These are sudden bursts of new awareness, insight, or intuitive understanding of something in our lives, often in the form of “so that’s why I/you/he/she/it ________!” In an older sense, the word can also mean sudden awareness of the presence of a deity or some other supernatural entity; but there’s nothing supernatural about insight epiphanies. I’ve witnessed many moments of epiphany in therapy sessions, and I’ve had a few, myself. Epiphanies can lead to changes in attitude and behavior.

Peak experiences – a term coined by Abraham Maslow – transcend mere epiphanies. Like epiphanies they are generally spontaneous, unplanned experiences. Some, but not all, fall into the category of mystical experiences. Apparently, not all people have them. They can’t be reliably induced, like hypnotic or psychedelic states of consciousness, but certain conditions may trigger them or cultivate their likelihood. Athletes may experience them when they’re “in the zone” and performing at the peak of their abilities, and I imagine that Alex Honnold had one when he free climbed El Capitan, in Yosemite. When peak experiences occur, they can be quite profound and moving. They can be life-changing.

I’ll give some examples from my own life. My longest-lasting peak experience was a day in my youth when I solo hiked 25 miles of wilderness trails at Bandolier National Monument, in New Mexico. It was the most challenging hike of my life, but I’ve never felt more strong, confident, self-reliant and alive. The best way I can describe it is that I felt like I belonged in that wilderness, as surely as every rock and tree and rabbit that I saw. I got back to the campsite at twilight, rubber-legged with fatigue, but exhilarated.

Other peak experiences I’ve had involved a profound sense of oneness with the universe, or the sense of being in the presence of something “holy.” One occurred on a winter day when I was living on the second story of a Victorian-era house in Talladega, Alabama. There were deciduous trees in all directions surrounding the house, their branches now bare. I suddenly found myself serenaded by the sound of raucous  bird cries, and looking out a window, I saw all of the tree branches in sight covered with black birds. (I wasn’t a birder back then, so I can’t tell you what species.) I ran from window to window, discovering rows of black birds on every limb of the surrounding trees. I wept for joy, bathing in the sound and awed by the sights I saw, looking out each window – at one with what I was witnessing.

Another “mystical” peak experience occurred while I was working. I was employed as a mental health counselor in rural Alabama. An elementary school teacher of “homebound” disabled students asked me to accompany her to the home of one of her students, to evaluate her learning potential and see if I could make any recommendations. The girl was nine or ten, blind, spastic, and severely developmentally disabled.

The family was poor, and lived in a house in the woods – simply furnished but immaculately clean. The girl’s mother took us to the parlor, where the girl – dressed in pajamas as I recall – was strapped to a wooden armchair to prevent self-injury. Her unseeing eyes darted around in response to sounds; her head and limbs jerked spasmodically; her mouth was slack and her face expressionless. I felt inadequate to the task at hand, but watched intently as the teacher interacted with the child – holding her hands, stroking her cheek with a finger, and talking to her. I saw no signs of comprehension, and the girl’s facial expression remained blank.

Then the teacher produced a portable 45 rpm record player from her accessory bag and plugged it in. She placed a record on the turntable, turned it on, and placed the needle in the rotating groove. The song that played was “I’m a little teapot/short and stout./Here is my handle/here is my spout.” Clearly, the teacher had played this song many times before, because the girl’s face lit up in a smile and she made happy noises. And in that instant, I knew that I was in the presence of God.

I was, and remain, an agnostic. But I have no other words for what I felt – what I knew – at that moment. I can’t identify any changes in my philosophy or in my life that resulted from my epiphany (in the older sense of the word), but I’ll never forget the lesson I learned from that child. The best I can put it in words is, “if there’s a God, it’s EVERYTHING.” This is identical to the Hindu concept of Brahman: there is nothing that is not God.

When people ask me if I believe in God, and I have the time, I respond, “Define God.” To me, whether there “is” or “is not” a God is a matter of definition. If there is a God, I don’t believe It has a gender or a preferred name, but is beyond comprehension. If I were any kind of theist, I’d be a pantheist. Pantheists are always in a holy place.

More about mystical experiences in my next post.