Irvin Yalom (1980) one of the first ‘existential therapists’ chose four big givens of existence which he called his ultimate concerns and for the purposes of this limited exploration we shall focus on these four and how they relate to therapy and counselling. These are, in no particular order; (although one may argue that death always has the final say!) freedom, death, isolation and meaningless.
Existentialist philosophy’s poster boy Jean Paul Sartre and his little known work, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology, is perhaps existentialism’s greatest and most profound extrapolation on the notion and meaning of personal freedom. A concept which he considered interchangeable with words like void, or nothingness.
He saw us, human beings, as being born as if we are a blank canvas, but unlike something like a chair, for example, we have the choice to be-come whatever it is we want to, within limitations of course. The thing, says Sartre, is that this freedom thing, (free will if you like), doesn’t seem like the great gift it is for many of us, in fact, it terrifies us mostly, “What, so we get to make our own decisions!?” The thought, understandably can be quite overwhelming when one then considers that with choice comes responsibility.
Understandable also that much of the time, the temptation to live a life defined by what other people have already decided is the sort of life you should be living, just because it is, really just easier to go with the flow, or to hold on to those beliefs we have become so accustomed to even though they no longer fit so well is well, tempting.
However, once the tightness of ill fitting beliefs become too uncomfortable to bear, or those sedimented systems which we have become so used to carrying around with us become too heavy, Sartre talks of the nausea that is created by the realization that we are, after-all, nothing. Nothing that is but the choices we have made and continue to make.
Freedom of choice is sickening, overwhelming, and often unbearable. No wonder we cling, for so long, to the walls that stop us from falling down into the dark, unknowable void in which nothing is known and certainly, nothing is certain.
As Van Deurzen explains, “terrific loss in involved in the process of letting go of the things that determine our identity.” Accepting freedom essentially means accepting that if nothing is holding you back, nor is it holding you up. And that, is a pretty frightening concept.
The concept of inauthenticity is a very big part of existential thought. It means you are living a life which is not of your own choosing, or making. Living a life which is more in tune with your own decisions, based on your own choosing, is considered authentic.
However, not all writers assume that authenticity is or should be the reward of freedom or goal. In-fact, one writer has said that, “… ‘authenticity’ is a simulacrum, a vacant totalitarian formula echoing the nostalgia for the power of a god that once was – before being slain at the altar of modernism and post-modernism” (Bazzano). Sartre thought, in-authenticity, or bad faith is viewed as a condition of existence and we are continually striving for or from or teetering on the edge of authenticity and in-authenticity as we move between birth and death. Because if nothing is certain, then neither is authenticity.
This brings us to the next existential given to examine, and that is death. Death is that unpleasant certainty that is forever in the back of our minds, even if we choose not to consciously think of it. Death and awareness of death can cause existential guilt and anxiety, a certain amount of which is healthy.
Existential guilt is brought on by a feeling of not having ‘done enough’, or of not having lived to your full potential. It is caused by an awareness, sometimes sudden or sometimes gradual, that one has been living their life at half-mast, so to speak. Or to use a more modern analogy, that they have been coasting along in second gear and that time, which once seemed infinite, is precisely not that. Existential guilt is that psychological rude awakening that keeps you awake at night, or disturbs you from your otherwise peaceful slumber so that you sit, bolt upright, anxious and sick with the realization of your own finiteness. Nausea once again ensues. In order to live authentically with the knowledge of death and the anxiety this produces takes “tremendous courage” says Hoffman, (2009). To live in denial of these ultimate truths is to limit your capacity for living, loving and experience life fully, because (perhaps overly) simply stated, “Living is dying” (Van Deurzen). The experience of existential guilt in therapy offers the client a positive opportunity to re-direct their life and reach a place of ‘reconciliation’ with the absolute unknown, which is death’s ultimate essence (Jacobson, 2007).
We humans are, if nothing else, walking paradoxes. The one existential dilemma that is perhaps the driving force behind countless romantic novels, movies and which has caused the online dating industry to become one of the fastest growing businesses of the post-modern, technological era is the existential anxiety which is prompted by the realization of our inherent isolation. Our aloneness. We are born into this world, as a single unit and we will exit the same way.However, we do not exist in complete isolation, but in relation to others. We could not exist without others. One of the dilemmas of living involves resolving the paradox of the question of resolving self and other. The question we all ask ourselves at one point or another is, How can I be my authentic self, whilst relating to others in a meaningful, fulfilling way? The ultimate reality of intimacy and love can bring up issues which can cause anxiety in an individual struggling with the paradox of their apparent isolation and the natural desire for intimacy. Learning to love others and yourself is one of life’s most demanding, yet rewarding balancing acts.
The practice of mindfulness, a concept borrowed from Buddhism and incorporated in current existential practice offers something like an answer to the concern of isolation. The anxiety produced by the desire for intimacy, for close relation to another human be-ing for, let us call it by its universal name, love, is often founded on fear of its impending loss. For implicit in loving another human being is the loss of that relationship, whether through natural entropy, conflict or death.
There is an increasing convergence of Buddhism and existential thought and its’ application to therapy. Claessens (2009) talks of the ‘noble truths’ of Buddhism and relates them to existential dilemmas, such as the fear of isolation and intimacy, “We crave permanence, never-ending, never changing love, eternal youth, certainty and total safety and we recoil from confronting our decay and vulnerability and the passing of joy”. Seems, in isolation we shiver, so we crave the closeness and the warmth of another being yet fear of losing the comfort before we even experience it fully causes anxiety and pain. So if living involves dying to a degree, loving involves losing.
The fear of intimacy is also linked to the notion of identity. One fears losing themselves to another, especially if their sense of identity has been freshly, or painfully carved out.
But what if finding yourself involves losing yourself to a degree? Is it possible that in isolation, we are not truly able to be ourselves anyway, and that it is only in relation to others that we are able to distinguish our own unique silhouette?
An existential therapist may help their client to examine their relationships and question the types of relationships they have chosen so far, and if they are unhappy with them, to explore other ways of being with others. This is a very important aspect of life as relationships are among our most important sources of meaning in life. Without meaningful, authentic relationships, human beings are like plants without water and sun, we cease to meaningfully exist.
Which brings us to the dilemma of meaningless. If one clings to old ideals, beliefs, ways of being as if for dear life, then there must be a very good reason. Because the problem to be tackled, once the issue of meaningless surfaces lies not just in discarding no longer useful systems but in facing the inevitable question which arises which is, What now?
It is not simply enough to discard the old self, without, at least having some idea as to what this new self is going to be. However, this is not always possible and thus, a person can experience a period of time in which they must exist without the (some might say illusory) solidity of a definable set of values, beliefs, goals, meaning. What the existentialist Frankl called an existential vacuum (Corey, 2009).
So, it is not surprising that in counselling a person may resist facing making those choices which will eventually lead to the change they may intuitively seek. A counsellor may help their client, not by telling them what they ought to do, but by helping the client to face their own personal void or existential vacuum with strength, courage and purpose.
Interestingly, meaning as such is like the holy grail of existence. In that, as cited in Corey, meaning is quite often found by chance and not by direct pursuit. To pursue meaning as an end in itself is often a fruitless, frustrating and pointless endeavour. Two of existential therapy’s most influential minds,Frankl and Yalom agree that, “finding meaning in life is a by-product of engagement.”
Perhaps, as Claessens describes in her article, Mindfulness and Existential Therapy, the answer to the resolution of the dilemmas of existence and living within the existential givens as outlined above lies in what in Buddhist teaching is called the middle path. That is, not allowing either spectrum of the paradoxes we face to have undue influence but by consciously acknowledging their existence and proceeding, with mindfulness and compassion, anyway.
This middle path, whilst sounding quite mundane with its connotations to middle-of-the-roadness, is actually pretty helpful for “the middle path lies between the suppression and the venting of emotions”.
It offers acceptance and relief from the anxiety of the question of living with dying, of existing in isolation and in relation to others, of living with the self that you choose and the self that you shed, of accepting the freedom of living on the edge of the void and finally, finding meaning in living, loving and being.
Bazzano, M. (2010). A True Person of No Status. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis, 21(1), 51-62.
Claessens, M. (2009). Mindfulness and Existential Therapy. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis, 20(1), 109-119.
Claessens, M. (2010). Mindfulness Based-Third Wave CBT Therapies and Existential-Phenomenology. Friends or Foes?. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis, 21(2), 295-308.
Corey, G. (2009). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education.
Hoffman, L. (2009). Existential Therapy: A General Overview. Sourced from: http://www.existential-therapy.com/General_Overview.htm Retrieved 10.4.14.
Jacobsen, B. (2007). Authenticity and our basic existential dilemmas: Foundational concepts of existential psychology and therapy. Existential Analysis: Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis, 18(2), 288-296.
McGinley, P. (2011). The Question of the Self in Existential Thought. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis, 22(1), 2-15.
Nanda, J. (2010). Embodied Integration. Existential Analysis: Journal Of The Society For Existential Analysis, 21(2), 331-350.
Sartre J.P. (1984). Being and nothingness : a phenomenological essay on ontology. Translated and with an introduction by Hazel E. Barnes. New York London Washington Square Press, 1984
Van Deurzen, E. (2005). Philosophical background. In E. van Deurzen, & C. Arnold-Baker (Eds.), Existential perspectives on human issues: A handbook for therapeutic practice (pp. 3-14). Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential psychotherapy. New York: Basic Books