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.

Esalen and the human potential movement

In previous posts I’ve written about humanistic psychology, which has been called the Third Force in modern psychology, after Freudian psychodynamic psychology and Behaviorism. The founders – including Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Rollo May – seeing that psychology was primarily focused on psychopathology, wanted it to also focus on psychological health and personal growth. Esalen Institute, an isolated  retreat on the Pacific coast near Big Sur, California, is considered by many to be the birthplace of humanistic psychology. I’ve wanted to visit Esalen, a retreat center for growth and learning, since my graduate education in a humanistic psychology program. I’ve just returned home from a writing retreat at Esalen, and it felt like a weekend on holy ground.

Esalen Institute was founded by Michael Murphy and Richard Price in 1963. The land on which Esalen is located was owned  by Michael’s family for generations, and the two of them had a vision of a center for holistic learning. The place is called Esalen because for thousands of years the area was the home of the indigenous Esselen people. Accordingly, Esalen is considered sacred land, and is treated with reverence by residents and visitors. It’s isolated, far from any town, and doesn’t have cell phone service or television. There are hot springs down by the rocky shore, and everyone knows that clothing is optional at the baths. When I soaked, naked, in a pool, looking out at the Pacific sunset, I had the sense of participating in an ancient cleansing ritual.

Humanistic psychology has also been called the human potential movement. The only required course in my psychology Masters program was “Human Growth and Potential” – known by the students as “Gro and Po.” Although most of my coursework involved psychotherapy and psychological testing, I could understand why Gro and Po was required. Psychology had to be about more than psychopathology and the remediation of symptoms. Indeed, our equivalent of an “Abnormal Psychology” course was “Unconventional Modes of Experience,” lest there be any stigma regarding “abnormal.”

While psychanalytic theory and Behaviorism were dogmatic and monolithic, humanistic psychology was more like a tree, with many roots and branches. It was holistic in its orientation to the study of human behavior, focusing on mind and body as a unity, and exploring the factors that enhance creativity and enable self-actualization. It was holistic in studying both Eastern and Western philosophies and practices, recognizing the benefits of things such as yoga and Buddhist meditation, long before they became popular. Existentialism and phenomenology also influenced the human potential movement.

From the beginning of the movement, Esalen has been its Mecca. Fritz Perls did a five year residency in the late sixties, leading gestalt therapy seminars. Other eminent persons who influenced the development of humanistic psychology and had Esalen residencies were Gregory Bateson, Joseph Campbell, Ida Rolf, Virginia Satir, Rollo May, and Alan Watts. Today people go there to study massage and body work, wellness and alternative medicine, psychotherapy, meditation, and a variety of other subjects. I went there to work on being a better writer, and came home with my spiritual batteries re-charged.

A lot of what was new and esoteric back in the sixties and seventies has gone mainstream. Among the extra-curricular classes available to students in the psychology graduate program at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) were massage, hatha yoga, zen meditation, clowning, tai kwan do, and vegetarian cooking. The program was allied with the Philosophy Department, and there were opportunities to study existentialism and phenomenology. In my therapy courses, I learned about psychoanalytic theory, behavior modification, client-centered therapy, gestalt therapy, transactional analysis, sex therapy, and trance work. Once I was a working psychotherapist, my therapeutic orientation was existential, and I was very eclectic in terms of therapeutic style and techniques. I consider myself very fortunate to have attended the West Georgia College psychology Masters program.

Contemporary concepts like emotional intelligence and positive psychology couldn’t have emerged from Freudian psychodynamic theory or Behaviorism. The humanistic psychology movement created a new paradigm for human growth and potential as a legitimate area of study within the science of psychology. I think that the regard for Freud’s contribution to psychology and psychotherapy will diminish over time, relative to the contributions of humanistic pioneers like Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, and Milton Erickson.

The concept of emotional intelligence suggests that there are other kinds of intelligence than cognitive intelligence. Accurate empathy and compassion are important factors in human relating, and are deserving of scientific study by students of human behavior. I had initial objections to the whole notion of positive psychology, thinking, “psychology is neither positive nor negative.” But then I came to realize that it’s an outgrowth of the impulses that inspired humanistic psychology. The study of psychological wellness and peak performance, of thriving, of human creativity and the process of self-actualizing, is a legitimate pursuit within the field. Psychodynamic theory and Behaviorism will always have their place in psychology, but they need to be viewed in the context of the psychology of growth and human transformation.

Agnosticism and certainty, Part 2

In philosophy, ontology is the study of being or existence. A relevant subject of inquiry within this major branch of metaphysics is the meaning of life. Many philosophers have tackled the question of life’s meaning, under the assumption that life must mean something. Religions provide maps for life’s meaning: you’re here to obey and serve God – however defined by Holy Scripture. Those who aren’t traditionally religious have to look in other directions to discover life’s meaning(s).

One of the central tenets of existentialism suggests that every philosopher who has attempted to identify the meaning of life has been on a wild goose chase. Existentialism posits that there is no objective meaning “out there” for us to apprehend and comprehend. If we apprehend meaning in our lives, it’s a meaning that we’ve created and superimposed on an intrinsically meaningless and absurd world.

As a young man I studied both existentialism and zen Buddhism. I was drawn to both philosophies, as their study made me look at the world in new ways. But, having abandoned the comfort of religious certainty, I initially saw a bleakness in both philosophies. In a world without intrinsic meaning, you have to grit your teeth and, like Sisyphus, just keep on truckin’, as if  there were meaning in your persistence.

I no longer perceive the bleakness I once saw in existentialism and zen. Reading books – fiction and non-fiction – by Robert Anton Wilson (RAW) helped me to think my way through my existential dilemma. I eventually reasoned  that if you’re not wedded to a philosophy that provides meaning to your life, that frees you to find/create your own meanings. Play with it! This is my understanding of what guerrilla ontology means. My life is  an endless Grail Quest for knowledge, and that journey provides all of the meaning I need to keep on sweating with Sisyphus.

RAW introduced me to the principle :”The map is not the territory,” which I’ve written about in a previous post. Nobody’s mental map  (we all have them) is identical to what it depicts, and yet we often confuse the two. Wilson wrote that “all ideas are partly true, partly false, and partly meaningless – including this one.” He coined the term guerrilla ontology to describe “the basic technique of all my books. . . . an attempt to break down conditioned associations – to look at the world in a new way, with many models (maps) and no one model elevated to The Truth. . . . My goal is to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism – not agnosticism about God alone, but agnosticism about everything.” Sometimes he purposefully and effectively used words to create cognitive dissonance, knowing a little initial confusion (fnord) can provoke you to think in new ways.

Wilson also introduced me to the concept of reality tunnels, saying that we all live in one at any given time. Reality tunnels are our circumstance- and culture-bound , lived -in mental constructs (maps) of what the world is and how we should behave. Irish Catholic reality tunnels differ in some significant ways from Italian Catholic reality tunnels. There are Inuit  reality tunnels, gypsy reality tunnels, suburban family reality tunnels, Sumo wrestler reality tunnels, etc. One can switch reality tunnels one or more times in one’s lifetime, if one’s life circumstances change. An Amish boy raised in a rural Amish community, shunned because he was gay, is likely to live in a significantly different reality tunnel after a year of living in Greenwich Village. I grew up in a military reality tunnel, but at age 25 I moved to a post-hippie psychology graduate school reality tunnel, with totally different customs and rules. The point is that we are all co-creators of our respective realities.

RAW made fun of the whole notion of “normality.” The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) offered money to anyone who could prove e.s.p. or another psychic phenomenon. Wilson ridiculed them by establishing the Committee for the Surrealistic Investigation of Claims of the Normal (CSICON) and offering a reward to anyone who could establish the existence of a normal day, a normal dog, a normal sunset, etc.

Wilson was a friend of LSD guru Timothy Leary and a spiritual heir  to the legacy of the Merry Pranksters. His thinking was broad and deep; but he often used humor as a teaching tool and never took himself too seriously. He remains, through his writing, my primary role model for universal agnosticism. You can learn more about him at rawilson.com. (The site has some great links.) If you want to read something by him, there’s no better starting point than the Illuminatus! trilogy, which I still consider the ultimate conspiracy novel. I’ve read it at least three times, and plan to read it again sometime. If you want to check out his non-fiction, I recommend The Cosmic Trigger or Right Where You Are Sitting Now.