Over the course of the past seven months, I have been asked countless times by loved ones, friends, co-workers and strangers, “So what have you learned?” (by moving to the Bay Area).
While most may be expecting some concrete answers on theories and concepts of therapy, and useful therapeutic skills or tools, I find that my answer is often abstract, but more far-reaching. Perhaps what Schneider and Krug (2010) described as existential humanism, the “process of becoming and knowing oneself,” (p. 5) is the closest representation of what I have gained in this journey. And I did not learn them from just reading the required texts or attending classes as part of the EHI course. Rather, it was through living and embracing the experience, and allowing the living moment to unfold (Schneider & Krug, 2010), whether through the EHI experiential sessions, volunteering with AgeSong, learning from the E-H experts, or just soaking in the experience of living in the Bay Area.
According to Rollo May (1975, as cited in Schneider & Krug, 2010), the “lived experience is the basis on which one forms or creates a sense of self” (p. 20). If that is indeed true, the experience of living in the Bay Area has definitely helped me create my sense of self. And the net result? “An expanded sense of self, specifically an enhanced capacity for intimacy, meaning, and spiritual connection in one’s life” (Bugental, 1978; May, 1981, as cited in Schneider & Krug, 2010, p.16). I couldn’t have said it any better.
Through this experience, I learned to accept that there is no certainty in life. That life is not black or white. And it is not all or nothing. One’s experience is neither purely constricted nor expanded. Rather, life’s experiences exist on a continuum, as one shifts in one’s being. Just as we could only understand darkness when there is light, night when there is day, and death when there is life, one could not fully experience one end of spectrum without embracing the limitations of the other, perhaps less, desirable end. This capacity of moving back and forth along the continuum can be freeing yet limiting (Schneider, 2008, as cited in Schneider & Krug, 2010). It is through encountering the paradoxical nature of the givens of life that gives life meaning.
If I were to describe my experience during this period, the weather in Bay Area would probably be a good analogy. When I first came in August, the hills looked barren and dead, which was pretty much how I felt then. But seven months later, after a good amount of rain and sunshine, the hills were green and full of life again. It’s just like how I felt after working through what I’ve suppressed for so long, allowing what was within me to grow and flourish. Even then, some days could still be foggy, wet and cold. But it could just as easily be all sunny and bright the next day. To survive the cold and enjoy the warmth, I need to be prepared with my layers and know when to put them on and take them off. This is similar to knowing when some ways of being could still serve me and when they do not, and knowing when to let the protection go to embrace the new possibilities.
And how will all these affect me as a E-H therapist-to-be? For one, I believe this journey of mine mirrors that of a client’s therapeutic journey towards becoming more present with an authentic self, and living an authentic life. Through my own experience, I am able to better understand and empathize with what clients may experience, and correspondingly, my role in that process. I can now appreciate that just as in experiencing one’s life, a genuine therapeutic encounter requires one to experience being with oneself and the other, rather than just focusing on one’s doing. I recognize now how my previous mode of problem solving and helping rather than understanding, accepting, and experiencing the other individual would be of no use as it was more to curb my anxiety than to help the client.
Naturally, moving from my “doing” mode to “being” mode was and still is very unsettling. But by letting go of this protection and allowing myself to be fully present with the other, I am able to build more intimate relationships, inside and outside therapy. In allowing myself to risk being authentic in relating to another, I provide opportunity for the relationship to move to a deeper level. At the same time, when we allow ourselves to be authentic in any relationship, we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to being triggered by the other. This increases one’s ability to understand not only what is happening within the client, but within oneself, and between client and self. That is perhaps the best tool a therapist can ever ask for. And it comes not from merely acquiring knowledge of theories and tools, but one’s courage and will to seek within.
Many who have heard of my decision to pursue this path have commented about my courage. Truthfully, I’ve never really felt that way. I saw it as something that I needed to do to avoid living with regrets, wishing that I could have done something with my life. But perhaps there is indeed courage in choosing to do that—the courage to be awakened and seek an authentic life, even when I do not have all the answers. And I am grateful to have been blessed with people and resources to support me along the way. I am uncertain what it would look like for me at the end, but I know that I am experiencing peace along the process of moving, of growing. For it is not in knowing who I will become that matters, but rather the ability to be aware of the possibility of a different way of being and ultimately be free to make that choice. As Bugental (1976) beautifully puts it, “If I am to be fully alive, I need to discover—create with my inner sense an intention and go someplace…in my life. And the whole trip is in the going more than in the arriving” (p. 139).
(Note: The first four chapters were written while I was in the Bay Area, before my return to Malaysia.)
…to be continued…
Bugental. J. (1976). The search for existential identity. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Schneider, K., & Krug, O. (2010). Existential-humanistic therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Press.
— JoAnn Loo
Today’s guest contributor, JoAnn Loo, is a therapist-in-training from Malaysia. Inspired by the great existentialist psychologists including Yalom, Bugental, and May, she came to the U.S. a year ago to learn the workings of existential therapy through the Existential-Humanistic Institute in San Francisco, CA, and has been consciously practicing her new-found way of being ever since.