Saturday, December 05, 2009

Existential Psychotherapy 4

I would like to continue talking about psychotherapy, and especially about its existential variety. Therapy has long, and indeed widely, been practised and advocated in the United States of America, while we here in Europe, and especially in Ireland, laughed at the thoughts of it. This showed our childishness, of course, and our immaturity. We were a young nation just finding its feet and rattling our adolescent-macho sabre.

Of recent years we have come of age as a nation. We have left our adolescence behind in the wake of (i) our financial crisis caused by both the international recession and our own more culpable domestic recession caused by the sheer greed of ruthless investors, builders and speculators who were in league with corrupt politicians and bankers, (ii) the fall of the Roman Catholic Church - the hierarchical model - in the wake of the child abuse revelations of some members of its clerical caste and the obvious cover-ups of the same by its hierarchy and (iii) that corruption and cover-ups are also prevalent in the medical, legal and other professions. The ideals which all these sectors of society professed and proclaimed and continue to profess and proclaim are all too ideal and very far away from the daily morality or immorality of some of their members. Please note that I have said "some", and this qualification is important because we don't want to paint everyone with the same brush. There are many morally upright people in all walks of life. However, the growing minority of corrupt members in any sector of our society must be ruthlessly excised.

So, we have come of age, and that is good. Coming of age means the opposite to covering up; the very opposite to being squeaky clean for public appearance only. It means an openness to self-appraisal, a willingness to see the bad as well as the good in ourselves and others with the intention of improving the lot of everyone in society. There is no better way to come of age than to go into therapy. I have studied psychotherapy for some years, have also been in counselling and therapy and continue to read much and reflect deeply on the area. Now, one does not necessarily have to go into paid therapy to improve oneself - one can engage in what I call "soul-work" by engaging in many authentic and self-making activities like composing and playing music, writing poems and stories, drawing, sketching, painting, sports of all kinds, helping others, travelling, and the list goes on and on. What's needed is an openness to face the abyss of the self.

Now, let me return to the latest book of the great contemporary psychiatrist and existential psychotherapist Dr Irvin D. Yalom, namely Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the terror of Death (Jossey-Bass, 2008, 2009). Let me begin by referring to his use of some of the ideas of Schopenhauer - Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) was a German philosopher known for his atheistic pessimism and philosophical clarity. At age 25, he published his doctoral dissertation, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which examined the fundamental question of whether reason alone can unlock answers about the world. Now, Yalom refers to what he terms "a triplet of essays" by our man Schopenhauer. The insights of these essays are wise with respect to the human animal's desire to amass possessions through power and success. How many of us have been lost in the overwhelming desire to amass possessions, and how many of us still know so many equally lost to these base desires? Yalom proposes that the insights of Schopenhauer can liberate us from these desires. Let me quote the learned psychiatrist's words here:
Basically the essays emphasize that it is only what a person is that counts; neither wealth nor material goods nor social status nor a good reputation results in happiness. (Op. cit., 112)
Essay 1: We are not what we have, though a lot of us swallow that lie. Material things are a "will-o'-the-wisp" and are like "sea water" - the more we drink, the thirstier we become. In the end we don't possess our goods - they possess us.

Essay 2 Reputation. This is another lie that many of us swallow wholesale. Think once again of all the cover-ups and down-right lies to which I alluded in the first few paragraphs of this post. The people who covered up and who lied bought into reputation hook, line and sinker to use a cliché. Reputation is as evanescent or as illusory as material wealth. Like material wealth we cannot take it with us when we die, as my late father used always say. Yalom quotes Schopenhauer's words here:
Half our worries and anxieties have arisen from our concern about the opinions of others.... We must extract this thorn from our flesh.
Why do we care about what others think? Why? Because we buy into the lie of Reputation. You only have to read the papers, listen to the radio, surf the net or look at the television and you will see the many, many followers of the religion of reputation. In this, all these people are made slaves to what other people think, or what they appear to think - for we can never, as Yalom wisely says, know for certain what they actually think.

Essay 3. What we are. It is only what or who we really are that counts. A good conscience, Schopenhauer says, means more than a good reputation. An old lady in my mother's nursing home, Eileen says that she sleeps well every night become she has a clear conscience, as indeed I'm sure she has as she is a lovely old thing. Another thing this old lady says every night I meet her is "Your health is your wealth. Sure, that's all that counts in the end." Our greatest goal should be good health and intellectual wealth, which lead to an inexhaustible supply of ideas, insights and wisdom and a good solid moral life.

Our Interpretation of Things: An interesting insight from Schopenhauer's third essay as reported by Yalom is the statement that "it is not things that disturb us, but our interpretations of things. To conclude this post, let me return to the summary words of Yalom on the insights of our man Schopenhauer:
This last idea - that the quality of life is determined by how we interpret our experiences, not by the experiences themselves - is an important therapeutic doctrine dating back to antiquity. A central tenet in the school of Stoicism, it passed through Zeno, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, to become a fundamental concept in both dynamic and cognitive-behavioral therapy. ( ibid., 113 -114)
Above, the stern and wrinkled face of Arthur Schopenhauer.

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