"Beware, lest in your anxiety to avoid war, you obtain a master."
-Demosthenes, 2500 years ago.
Life is dangerous. And trying to live in a richer, fuller way, whether it be through achievement, love, or simply drenching oneself in experience, makes life even more dangerous. To be alive, to exist as a human being, provokes anxiety. Philosophers call this existential anxiety. Psychological techniques cannot solve existential anxiety, because life is not a problem to be solved. It is a challenge to be faced. But does this mean we must be mere slaves of our anxiety, unable to do anything more than tolerate it?
“Nothing happens while you live. The scenery changes, people come in and go out, that's all. There are no beginnings. Days are tacked on to days without rhyme or reason, an interminable, monotonous addition.”
-Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
“The most glorious moments in your life are not the so-called days of success, but rather those days when out of dejection and despair you feel rise in you a challenge to life.”
Here is a memory that will never leave me. One morning during a very bad time in my early 20s, I looked into the mirror while shaving and was suddenly overcome. I seemed to stare into an endless repetition of that moment, stretched out as a meaningless series, my whole life nothing more than this. The weight of facing such monotony was agonising. I wanted to kill myself.
Grief is more than bereavement after a death. It is about significant loss, of any kind. And not only the loud losses, but also the subtle shadows that are cast over our lives. These shadows shape who we are. It is tempting to push our griefs away because, of course, they are discomforting or painful, and because they can be addictive and we rightly fear that. However in pushing them away we are pushing away parts of ourselves, which need attention if we are to bring in more light than shadow. Furthermore we lose sight of what grief is teaching us.
This article is so important that I have simply copied and pasted it as a blog post, in the event that it should ever disappear from the net. I will follow up soon with my own reflection. The research reported in this article shows that suicide risk assessments are unreliable, and that they can even increase the risk of suicide. I worked for five years in suicide crisis intervention, talking people back from bridges and so on, and then a further five years in bereavement-after-suicide, and my experience not only aligns with the research, but with my own sense that typical suicide risk assessments often alienate people, which increases their risk of suicide. What is needed is connection, and frank honesty, and the stuff of good therapy. Here is the orginal article. What follows is the text of that article. NB that the scenario and initial guidelines that it describes, refers to the American context.
This essay sets out the framework for an original and yet very simple model of philosophical counselling. This form of philosophical counselling has the benefit of being evidence-based: of being proven to work. I build my picture of this model through a response to the assumption that counselling is, and must be, psychological. Hence, I start by defining psychology, and then counselling, and then I explore how the core of effective counselling is not psychological. By contrast, I define the core of effective counselling as "the common factors," with reference to the research which uses that term. By reducing counselling to these common factors, I make the case that they can be blended with philosophy. If you have not read my previous post on common factors theory then I suggest you do so first. In other essays I will unpack philosophical counselling in more detail.
There are many approaches to - or models of - counselling and psychotherapy, and many tribal wars about which is superior. This can be confusing for the public as they sift through the many offerings. The assumption throughout the history of counselling and psychotherapy is that it is the models, and the techniques based on them, which make theray effective. This assumption makes sense, given the emergence of therapy from medicine, wherein there is a disease with a cause, and technologies which assess and treat the disease. However, most of our personal struggles in life are not diseases, and this technocratic model is proving increasingly wrong for our needs. Meta-analytical research has now shown that most approaches to therapy are equally effective, but that what makes them effective is not the approach - the model and its techniques - but rather certain "common factors." This post is a summary of these factors. My goal in this essay is to report on the common factors theory, on how counselling in its effective essence is not the application of a medical or scientific model, but rather is a very honed way of doing something which is age-old. This will clear the ground for my next essay, in which I will argue that counselling is not inherently psychological, but rather that it is these common factors which do not rise to the specificity of any such discipline, which I will suggest can be blended with philosophical reflection to create philosophical counselling.
At first glance Stoicism and bereavement might seem to be strange bedfellows. Stoicism may be one of the wisest philosophies of the ancient world, but it is precisely with regard to grief that it seems most un-wise. The love of rationality and suppression of emotions renders the philosophy tone-deaf and callous in the face of such loss. However, grief is not all flooding emotions, even if it often feels like that. I spent five years providing bereavement counselling after suicide, three days a week. I witness how grief goes to extremes, from a kind of emotional madness, to a need to quietly reflect on existential questions, and everything in between. There are aspects that are out of people's control, which at best can be simply accepted (rather than fought against). There are also aspects that are in people's control, especially over time as the madness wanes. Below are some stoic principles, with a discussion of how they can guide us in bereavement over the long term.
The existential philosophy of the 20th century is rooted in the lebensphilosophie or life philosophy of the 19th century. It is philosophy as "thinking which comes out of living." Accordingly, an existential therapy focuses on challenges in living. This is in contrast to, say, a clinical therapy which focuses on problems as mental disorders. Existential therapy helps people deal with their challenges using the resources contained within their own humanity: their intellect, their will, their loves and desires, their values and motivations, their context and relatonships, and so forth. It is not surprise, then, that an existential therapeutic understanding and response to depression is quite different that of a clinical mental health service. This essay gives expression to just a few aspects of how depression is conceptualised and responded to in existential therapy.
Following on from my last reflection, Ernesto Spinelli is a British existential therapist and philosopher whose work provides an interesting contrast to that of Emmy van Deurzen. The title for Existential Therapy is almost short-hand: more fully, it is Existential-Phenomenological Therapy. While drawing very much on both, most existential therapists work in a way that is either somehwhat more existential (overtly philosophical) than phenomenological, or more phenomenological than existential. To me, van Deurzen represents the former, while Spinelli represents the latter. I too am somewhat more existential than phenomenological, however phenomenology forms the basis of my approach as it does for most existential therapists. In my view Spinelli is the leader in thinking about phenomenology in Existential Therapy.
If I had to list my greatest influences as a therapist, they would include Emmy van Deurzen, Viktor Frankl, Irvin Yalom, Ernesto Spinelli and Carl Rogers, among others. Van Deurzen has probably helped me most when it comes to developing the details of my therapeutic approach, especially in terms of her discussions of polarities. Van Deurzen is a key founder of "the British School" of Existential Therapy, and has developed her own very pragmatic approach to a philosophical form of counselling, which is primarily focused on helping clients face the challenges of everyday life. Van Deurzen argues that life is often hard and unfair, and we are constantly caught up in irresolvable dilemmas, tensions, and paradoxes. She believes that individuals experience anxiety in the face of these challenges, and in an attempt to dispel this anxiety they resort to self-deception about themselves and the possibility of an easy life. The aim of Existential Therapy according to van Deurzen is to help clients face up to the reality of their situation and wake up from self-deception. Clients are encouraged to creatively grapple with life's problems and come to terms with its contradictions. In the reflection which follows I will summarise some key themes regarding Emmy van Deurzen's Existential Therapy