Saturday, June 12, 2010

Amazing May 2

Bases of Psychotherapy

This heading above is the title of chapter 1 of May's book The Discovery of Being.  What May to my mind is attempting here is to get back to the basics, back to first principles, or if you like to clarify what the axioms of existential psychotherapy are in the first place. He points out that this form of therapy had become popular on the continent of Europe from the early forties and did not take root in the USA until the early sixties.  However, he does note that there were certain affinities with this approach in the foundational work of the great Americam psychologist William James who spoke about the importance of the immediacy of experience, the unity of thought and action, and the importance of decision and commitment.  These were all existential concerns, but the language of the latter movement was then obviously unknown.

Rooted in the Immediacy of Experience

In existential psychotherapy its the lived "nowness" of the experience of the patient/client that counts.  Techniques are very much in the background, and they provide limited guidlines which are always secondary to the human experience of client and therapist.  May leaves us in no doubt as he launches almost immediately into a personal experience of suffering from which most of his sensitivities for this approach grew.  He tells us how, while he was languishing in a TB sanitorium somewhere in the US, he was writing his book The Meaning of Anxiety.

Centrality of Anxiety/Angst in the Existential Tradition

He mentions scholars and therapists from whom he learnt much as a young psychologist and psychoanalyst, viz Soren Kierkegaard and Sigmund Freud.  It was the first of these two scholars who penetrated through to the very reality of anxiety by defining it as "the struggle of the living being against nonbeing" which he as a sick young Doctor could experience in his own life as the very struggle with death.  Kierkegaard was giving words to the very experiences May and his fellow patients were going through in their sanitorium.  This is essentially (if the reader will pardon the inapproriate and singularly inapt  adverb here from a philosophical point of view) what exitential psychotherapy is all about.

Freud 's Approach was different

Freud was essentially a scientist and liked to argue again and again that psychoanalysis was/is a science.  I have discussed his contentions on this matter elsewhere in these posts.  Freud had studied neurology under Charcot in Paris, was indeed a brilliant clinician and had a really clear rational mind.  At school he had been known to be quite a scholar, even a genius.  May points out that Freud was writing on a technical level where his genius was supreme.  Freud knew much about anxiety and could discuss its qualities ad infinitum in a scholarly manner.  However, he had not known what real anxiety was in his own life as such.  What Kierkegaard did was to describe his own ontological anxiety, that is his deep anxiety as he experienced it at the heart of his own being which he felt could be extinguished at any time.  While Freud knew about anxiety, Kierkegaard knew anxiety.

Integration versus Disintegration

Disintegration is a big theme in psychotherapy and in psychiatry.  I have wrtten about this theme at length in these pages before.  Dr Anthony Storr, as we have seen, looked upon psychotherapy as a process to "integrate" or even "re-integrate" the separated parts or fragments of the psyche of the mentally sick patient.  May argues cogently and strongly in this introductory chapter that modern man has repressed "the sense of being, the ontological sense." (Op. cit., p. 15)  This sense of being is nothing less that the human being's unified sense of self (my terms, and my understanding of what May is getting at here!)  Let us listen to May's simple but profound words here:

One consequence of this repression of the sense of being is that modern man's image of himself, his experience of himself as a responsible individual, his experience of his own humanity have likewise disintegrated. (Ibid., p. 15)
The terms Being and Nonbeing, May goes on to argue, have been dismissed as hopelessly vague and useless scientific terms by some modern psychologists, but such dismissivemness our author argues is cavalier in the extreme.  It is cavalier because it dismisses the profound ontological nature of what it actually means to be a thinking, feeling and willing human being or human unity.  These thoughts once again are mine, though I feel I am interpreting May's concerns accurately here.

To be continued.

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