Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Amazing May 24

In the last chapter of this little classic The Discovery of Being, Rollo May spends some time on therapeutic technique which he is quick to point out does rate among the highest concerns for existential analysts or therapists. Existential therapy is always a way of understanding human existence first and foremost and hence it is a little low on techniques. Yes, they do use some techniques, but they are always secondary to the primacy of the lived experience of and the lived encounter with the patient. Anyway, most of the other types of therapies make up for this lack. For the existential therapist, technique must always follow understanding, and hence no technique is used just for its own sake. However, May does make some points with respect to techniques, though once again his philosophy keeps breaking in. Therefore, what follows is not very practical on the one hand; however, it is infinitely wise on the other. What we need to do is to reflect on, meditate on and contemplate the following points. If we do so we shall indeed be more whole as individuals, truer and more authentic human beings who truly own our own existence in a committed and decisive manner –and all of this is central to the existential project we call life.


(i) There is a wide variability among existential therapists with respect to technique used. However, once again, May is at pains to insist that existential therapists have a definite reason for using any particular technique with a given patient. Therefore, existential therapy is distinguished by a sense of reality and concreteness.

(ii) Psychological dynamisms always take their meaning from the existential situation of the patient’s own immediate life. In this regard, he mentions the methods of such therapists as van den Berg, Frankl, Boss, and especially the work of one of my favourite psychiatrists R.J. Laing. May also reminds us that the existential therapist will always have in mind the question: What keeps the patient from accepting in freedom his potentialities? Hence whatever technique or approach used will be very much secondary to that.

(iii) Also existential therapists see such dynamisms as transference, resistance and repression very much as ontological concerns. The person in front of the therapist is a human being with all that this entails.

(iv) A big emphasis that May points out in existential therapy is that of Presence. This is an interesting word for this writer here. Having been involved in education now for some thirty years I have always found that a good teacher is one who has real presence in a class. Likewise, I have found the same with my experience of nurses, doctors and psychiatrist. The really good ones have a presence. I’m not so sure whether this is the same presence that May refers to here. However, he does go on to describe what he means by presence with respect to existential therapy: “By this we mean the relationship of the therapist and patient is taken as a real one, the therapist being not merely a shadowy reflector but an alive human being who happens, at that hour, to be concerned not with his own problems, but with understanding and experiencing as far as possible the being of the patient.”(Op. cit., p. 157). On reflection, I believe that the presence I referred to immediately above corresponds quite well to what May has in mind. Truth for the existentialist is always about relationship and it is the therapeutic relationship that counts. He paraphrases Jaspers who bemoans the missed opportunities and missed understanding on the part of a therapist who is lacking a “full human presence.” (Quoted ibid.,157)

(v) Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, according to May, always used to say, “The patient needs an experience, not an explanation.” Once again, this is essentially about Presence.

(vi) Rolla May makes an interesting point about Carl Rogers and states that the latter in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua wrote what approximates to a very existential document. This is not surprising as there are some existential elements in the Rogerian approach where he puts the central emphasis on the relationship between the therapist and patient. There are essential differences between the two approaches with the Rogerian being far shorter in duration than the existential approach. This distinction seems clear to this writer as the existential approach is a depth psychology approach and all depth approaches need time to unravel at least some of the unconscious material. May, who is a thorough existentialist, finds fault with Rogers as being “at times naively optimistic” while the existential approach must, of its very nature, be oriented more to the tragic crises of life. However, he is at one with Rogers in much of what he writes, viz., the basic idea that therapy is “a process of becoming” for the patient.

(vii) However, May points out very importantly that while techniques or methods are always secondary to the lived encounter with the patient that a therapist’s training must be thorough and exacting as he does need to be an expert in his field.

(viii) May argues that the existential therapist does the same thing with the structure of human existence as Freud did with the structure of the unconscious. The human being in Alexander Pope’s famous phrase is “the proper study of man.” It is in this broad sense that human existence has to become a subject of scientific concern.

(ix) May’s philosophical background is broad, and it is no wonder that he sees the existential therapist’s job as being a “midwife” in the Socratic sense in “bringing to birth” the being of the patient or client before him.

(x) The therapist must always be alert to whatever in him might block bringing forth full presence as we have described above. (This is common to all mainline therapies!)

(xi) The goal of the therapeutic process is that the patient experiences his existence as real. “The therapist’s function is to be there (with the entire connotation of Dasein), present in the relationship, while the patient finds and learns to live out his own Eigenwelt.” (Ibid., p.163)

(xii) May also has some insights into the idea or even obsession (my term) with curing in the modern world. I have heard it said quite often in spiritual workshops that there is no such thing as curing per se and that a more holistic term to use is that of healing. Indeed many more rounded spiritual therapists emphasize this fact, that one might not be cured physically, but one may certainly be healed spiritually. Personally, I believe this is a point that modern people need very much to take on board. May says that therapy is way more fundamental that bringing about a cure. Rather it is about getting under all the surface issues and going further and further down to help the person experience his existence in itself. To cure in the sense of the distraught patient coming in search of one is, in May’s existential philosophy, a denial of Dasein, a denial of reality, a denial of existence as experienced by the patient. There is a lot in this last sentence to reflect upon, to meditate upon and to contemplate, but it is worth it because May’s approach offers not alone great peace of mind, but a depth of truth that is liberating to our very soul or being.

(xiii) And so we come to other existential concerns which provide a background, even much of the foundation to existential therapy – concepts of being an authentic being, experiencing one’s existence as real, fulfilling one’s inner potential, doing one’s truth in action (Kierkegaard) being enabled to decide to take action, finding freedom in that action. In this sense, decision is a deeper thing than just a regular old daily choice. In fact, it is very much more – it is truly a decisive attitude towards existence. Interestingly, and I have found this true several times in my own life, that my dreams have confirmed what I did in action or in decisive moments already in waking life. May confirms this fact here in this little book. And so here is what he says: “When a person lacks commitment, for example, his dreams may be staid, flat, impoverished. But when he does assume a decisive orientation towards himself and his life, his dreams often takes over the creative process of exploring, molding (sic), forming himself in relation to the future...” (Ibid., 167)

(xiv) The importance of Death: May argues, and it is so true, that death in any of its aspects makes of the present hour something of absolute value. He quotes a student who said to him once: “I know only two things – one, that I will be dead someday, two, that I am not dead now. The only question is what I shall do between these two points.” (Quoted ibid., p.169)

And so, my friends, we have come to an end of our reflections on this book. Future posts will happen when I’ve either been inspired by another book or have decided to blog my more casual thoughts upon my everyday living. Until then, ponder some of the foregoing truths.


Above a picture I took of my sandalled feet today sulla spiaggia di San Andrea degli Apostoli qui in Calabria dove sono in vancanza ed anche dove scrivo questi piccoli posti!  These are my pilgrim feet!!

No comments: