Friday, September 18, 2009

Existential Psychotherapy 1

Existential psychotherapy originated in the work of four psychiatrists: Karl Jaspers in Germany, (1951, 1964), Ludwig Binswanger (1946, 1963) and Medard Boss (1957, 1962, 1979) in Switzerland, and Victor Frankl in Austria. Existential psychotherapy was introduced into the UK by Ronald Laing, but it fell to Emmy van Deurzen to create the Society of Existential Analysis, and the first training programme in existential psychotherapy in the UK, at Antioch University's London branch. Existential psychotherapy, as developed in the UK, is particularly appropriate to focal therapy and, with the shift from long-term to more focussed therapy in recent years, it has grown into a significant psychotherapy modality . Existential approaches to couples therapy, to the therapy of developmental disorders, and to group psychotherapy have been developed.

What has put all this in my mind? Well, I’m a teacher of children who suffer from Autism Spectrum Disorders. I spent over twenty minutes today talking to a parent of one such boy who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and also from a deep-rooted anxiety. For the latter, he is being treated by a psychiatrist who has rightly prescribed medication, because the boy’s anxiety is preventing his from living a reasonably calm and fulfilled life. The sheer anxiety evoked in the boy through the very act of living is almost intolerable. The mother informed me that anxiety and depression run in her family. Also Daniel’s comments on my post below , which can be viewed here Comment, provoked me into writing a little about another father of existentialism, viz., Soren Kierkegaard. Unfortunately, it is such a long time since I read he latter that my memory of his philosophy in depth is greatly clouded. Also, I have no primary texts at hand and am relying here on various general introductions to the subject, i.e., secondary sources. They will have to suffice for my purposes here.

The Basics of Existentialism:

1. This approach to philosophy is not interested in mere abstractions unrelated to lived experience. In fact, this branch of the subject is all about what it means to be a human being in the here and now, and then there follows a deep reflection on that experience. In philosophy-speak we say that “existence precedes essence.” In other words the human person is a feeling and thinking subject, and is not an object that has to be predicted or manipulated. The object is the essence of the thing while the subject is the existing feeling and thinking actor as it were. What does it mean to be a subject? What does it mean to be a conscious being? “Existentialism says I am nothing else but my own conscious existence.” (From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest, T.Z. Lavine, Bantam Books, 1984, 330)

2. The theme of anxiety was at the very heart of existentialism from its very origins. This is a sense of anguish which can be defined as a sense of dread of the nothingness of human existence. When I first started work as a young teacher of 22 many years ago I recall vividly one morning a colleague asking me the following question: “What’s it all about, anyway?” I replied immediately with something like, “What do you mean?” to which he responded “What’s life all about?” I started my teaching career as a teacher of Religious Studies, and Ger obviously presumed that I had some answers. I hasten to admit that I had not any answers then and I still have not now. I moved on from there to teach Languages and Life Skills and finally into Resource teaching for ASD children and those with other educational needs. I have re-defined and re-designed myself several times since, thankfully. But Ger’s deep existential question still remains with me as vividly as if I were still in that room. I was to find out a few years later that poor Gerard had a congenital heart disease from which he would soon die. Hence his question. This theme goes back as far as Kierkegaard in existentialism and way back further into ancient philosophy, too. In fact, anxiety as a theme pervades this philosopher’s work.

Soren Kierkegaard lived his relatively short life (1813-1855) in Denmark. The meaninglessness of his existence filled him with anxiety and despair and a sense of hopelessness and deep depression. At base his anxiety was a deep despair at the very nothingness of human existence. In the great universal scheme of things we are mere miniscule ants on a miniscule anthill called earth lost in the infinity of space. How do I cope with the fact that I as a thinking and feeling subject will come to nothing in the end… nothing, nothing, nothing? Let’s hear Kierkegaard’s words:

I stick my finger into existence – it smells of nothing. Where am I? What is this thing called the world? Who is it that has lured me into the thing, and now leaves me here? Who am I? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted? (Quoted op. cit., 322)

This is the very heart of existentialism, then, the fear of the very nothingness of existence. This fear, Kierkegaard tells us can never be objective at all, because effectively it is a subjective anxiety that everything that I hold dear, including myself, will in the end, sooner or later and we don’t know when, crumble into nothingness. And the very uncertainty of when death (which ironically is very certain) will occur only adds to our anxiety or angst.

Above a caricature of Soren Kierkegaard.

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