Existential psychology as a psychology of engagement
One can describe existential psychology as a psychology of liberation – indeed, Schneider and May described it in this manner frequently, and Van Kaam’s work on the ethics of therapy takes a very similar stance. I will not seek to contradict this stance here. Underlying freedom, however, might it be that we will find engagement?
Take for example Lu Xun’s example of people sleeping in iron houses. There is no way out for them. Shall we wake the people to their plight, or let them sleep on in ignorance of it? Lu Xun decided it would be kinder to let them sleep, but that he would be compelled to wake them. Although there is no way out, for wakeful people they might work together to discover a way.
When we are asleep in our iron houses, we are disengaged from our problems. We are not encountering our suffering but turning off from it. Maybe we drink or watch television or fight with our spouses or use the credit card, anything to avoid thinking about the plights in which we find ourselves.
To find a way out, we must first and foremost engage with the problem.
We can find this idea in almost every kind of therapy. Our first job is to engage with our client. Yalom, who I refer to as the Reluctant Existentialist, is really an interpersonalist. Healing is derived from relating to the client and helping them engage with the therapist. Problems between people cause distress and can only be dealt with by engaging people. Emotion-focused therapy helps the person engage with their emotions. Emotions not encountered directly can become problematic (or even daimonic, if I may borrow language from yet another style of therapy). Engaging with emotions brings one to terms with them, makes them fruitful. Gendlin’s work on focusing and the felt sense engages a person with their body. Orthodox psychoanalysis engages a person with their history. CBT with their thoughts as language. Bowenian therapy with one’s family.
Is existential thought explicit about these relationships? In recent years there has been more of a focus on existentialism as a basis for thoughtfully integrated practice (see Schneider’s Existential Integrative Psychoptherapy, e.g., or Elkins’ numerous works on contextual factors). Schneider, for example, talks about liberation at various levels, from physiological to environmental, cognitive, psychosexual, interpersonal and finally existential. This looks very much like our recent discussion in the preceding paragraph. And, in order to be liberated at each of these levels, must we not first be engaged with each of these levels?
It is easy to imagine what engagement would look like for most of these levels. Engaged physiologically means in contact with one’s own body. One can feel, is aware of (or mindful of) tactile sensations, tastes and flavors, the rich data of other senses, one’s own heartbeat, how one breathes, the gestures one uses, one’s body state. Engaged environmentally means one knows one’s surroundings and interacts with them. Rather than sitting in contemplation in an imaginary world, one instead paces off the limits of one’s confines, builds a mental map, manipulates the environment.
For existential engagement, engagement must necessarily be more of an abstraction. Schneider’s levels move, after all, from the concrete to the abstract. I would posit that engagement with the five former levels is necessary but not sufficient for engagement with existence. This next level requires also engagement with limitation and comfort with ambiguity.
Here I mean that life is temporary and arbitrary. We can contemplate the limitlessness of the universe, perhaps precisely because we are so limited in size and time. We can know that our own deaths are inevitable and even imminent, on a cosmic scale, and this can drive us to either engage or to disengage more fully. We want a life that is meaningful but are cast, without our permission, into this world that is utterly banal.
Engaging with being means, at least in part, engaging with these unframed and unanswerable questions. It means living with an openness to experience and, for some, a growing naiveté. It is this engagement that produces the liberation we seek, just as it is the engagement of rebel forces with loyalists that produces political liberation.
-- Jason Dias