Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Power of Connection: Existential Psychotherapy 8

Here I continue with a brief summary of what Dr Irvin D. Yalom suggests as a way of therapy, and indeed a way of living, that overcomes the terror of death through what he terms connection. We have already discussed how through (i) the healing human touch, (ii) empathy and (iii) the power of presence in and through friendship connection may be made with the suffering and dying other. Such “connection”, Yalom argues, overcomes the inevitable gap of estrangement and sheer existential loneliness caused by the inevitability of death.

The Importance of Self-Disclosure:

Another intimate sharing between human beings that is therapeutic is the reality of self-disclosure. For the therapist, this could theoretically be seen as a useful technique that can be acquired and practised. However, such a technique must become more than a technique, it must be genuine and natural and totally unforced. Otherwise it is rendered useless. Let us return to the words of our learned psychiatrist once again:

Because many therapists have trained in traditions that stress the importance of opaqueness and neutrality, friends willing to reveal themselves to one another may, in this regard have an advantage over professional therapists…. Self-disclosure plays a crucial role in the development of intimacy. Generally relationships build by a process of reciprocal self-revelations… (Yalom, p. 131)

Our Values and Actions ripple on through Generations:

It has often been commented that religious people who see life as continuing in some form after this earthly existence are happier and more content souls. However, not having the consolation of religious beliefs need be no hindrance to one’s personal equanimity or sense of acceptance in approaching death as the appreciation and realisation of the on-going ripple effect of one’s actions in the world can lead to similar consolations. How often have we heard people aver that they hope to leave the world a better place than when we entered it? The effects of our good actions ripple out from us and transform to some extent the world in which we lived and moved and had our being. Admittedly, some people have the consolation of living on in their children. However, whether one is married or not, has children or not, real happiness and contentment are literally an inside job, my appreciation of my own meaning and significance in and of myself. If I have valued my real self much, I will also have valued the true and authentic self of every other human being. I will also have sent out positive ripples or vibes which will radiate out further, long after my demise.

Yalom refers to a medieval morality play called Everyman where the eponymous character sought a companion everywhere to accompany him on his lonely road through death and on into the next world. However, everyone turned him down until finally in desperation he found one person only who had the courage to go with him and that was a character called Good Deeds. Let me continue by using the words of our brilliant and inspiring psychiatrist:

… the Christian moral of this morality play: that you can take with you from this world nothing that you have received; you can only take what you have given. A secular interpretation of this drama suggests that rippling – that is the realization of your good deeds, of your virtuous influence on others that persists beyond yourself – may soften the pain and loneliness of the final journey.(Ibid., 134)

The Role of Gratitude to enhance Rippling:

Yalom then recounts an exercise often given by Martin Seligman, one of the leaders of the positive psychology movement, at his workshops. The exercise went something like this: “Think of someone still living to whom you are very thankful, and to whom you have never expressed this gratitude. Sit down and write a letter to that person for ten minutes. Then pair up with someone in the group and share your letter. The final step is that you must, as soon as you possibly can, pay a personal visit to that person.” (My paraphrase of Yalom’s recollection of Seligman’s instructions.)

Discover your own Wisdom:

Yalom rightly traces this advise back to Socrates. The role of the mentor, teacher, facilitator, counsellor or friend, following the Socratic method is to ask pertinent questions which force us to go deeper into ourselves and mine our very own wisdom. In this we must also learn to parent ourselves as we travel the road deathwards.

The Value of Regret:

I shall resist paraphrase here as Yalom’s words are pared to the bare essentials, and this better to quote the man in full:

I often counsel myself and my patients to imagine one or five years ahead and think of the new regrets that will have piled up in that period. Then I pose the question that has real therapeutic crunch: “How can you live now without building new regrets? What do you have to change in your life? (Ibid., pp. 145-146)

Savour the Awakening:

The awakening to which our learned and wise psychotherapist refers is the awakening of the soul to its mortality. The author encourages us to savour it, appreciate it, value it, take advantage of it. Such an awareness helps us to really value the importance of life, of living in the now, because we only live once. We can never repeat our one and only performance. What a pity to waste it!

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