This introduction leads on to chapter two of May’s short book The Discovery of Being. In this chapter he presents us with a case study around which he focuses his contention that the centrality of the client is all important to the counselling or therapeutic process. He calls her Mrs Hutchens, though he does not inform us as to whether this is a pseudonym or not.
He starts by referring to the power which secrets can hold members of a family to ransom. I have discovered this in my own life with respect to a good friend and former partner for a brief time who was kept captive by the stranglehold of the mental health secrets of her family. The stranglehold was so great in May’s case of Mrs Hutchens that she suffered from perpetual hoarseness. She was literally in the stranglehold of her family not to divulge any secrets. Here we have the abuse of power, conscious and unconscious, by the patient’s family.
May argues his point well. Those who had treated Mrs Hutchens from the point of view of techniques and theories failed to help her. The only way he knew to help this poor woman was to treat her as a whole person living in the now, as an ontological reality or being, to put the case in existential terms. His own words are worth contemplating here, and I use that verb advisedly:
I propose, thus, that we take the one real datum we have in the therapeutic situation, namely the existing person sitting in the consulting room with the therapist. (The term “existing person” is my equivalent of the German Dasein, literally the being who is there.) Note that I do not say simply “individual” or “person”... (Op. Cit., p. 25)Because to do so, May would see as being tantamount to a reduction of that reality before him on the client’s chair. In other words, there is always a real being there who is an ontological whole which is the only locus for whatever theories or therapeutic approaches one takes (my words, not May’s, though I presume that I have faithfully interpreted his meaning).
Without discussing much more of Mrs Hutchens’s case I would like to summarise May’s conclusions which from his experience and study he applies generally to all cases. These are basic axioms, I believe:
1. First, Mrs Hutchens is as an existing person very much centred in herself, “and an attack on this centre is an attack on her existence itself.” (ibid., p. 26)
2. Every existing person has the character of self-affirmation, the need to preserve his centeredness. “The particular name we give this self-affirmation in human beings is courage. Paul Tillich’s writing on ‘the courage to be’ is very cogent and fertile for psychotherapy at this point.” (Ibid., p. 27)
3. All existing persons have the need and possibility of going out from their centeredness to participate in other beings. (see ibid., p. 27) This, needless to say, involves risk and courage.
4. The subjective side of centeredness is awareness. “The palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described brilliantly how this awareness is present in ascending degrees in all forms of life from amoeba to man.” (Ibid., p. 28) I take it from this that awareness has to do with basic survival, as otherwise we will be swallowed up by our natural enemies.
5. This fifth principle or axiom is that of self-consciousness. The unique human form of awareness is self-consciousness. May, to my mind, gives a wonderful description of the difference between awareness and self-consciousness: Awareness is merely awareness of threat from animate or inanimate others while “Consciousness in contrast, we define as not simply my awareness of threat from the world, but my capacity to know myself as the one being threatened, my experience of myself as the subject who has a world.” (Ibid., p. 31)
6. The sixth and last principle or axiom, or “ontological characteristic” as he calls it, that is, anxiety. Anxiety is the state of the human being in the struggle against what would destroy his being. (see ibid., p. 33)
Finally, with regard to number 5 above, namely consciousness it is important to note that Freud discovered early in his career as a therapist that the neurotic pattern in clients is characterized by repression and blocking off consciousness, hence, his definition of psychoanalysis as the making conscious of the unconscious.
Another point, which May makes, and an important and relevant one at that is the fact that “consciousness itself implies always the possibility of turning against oneself, denying oneself.” (Ibid., p. 33) In other words, consciousness includes within its ambit the possibility of suicide. This is where, as our author argues, true existentialism has to contend with the agonizing burden of freedom.