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Practicing Existentialism in a Modern World

“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” Joseph Campbell, the author of those words, was a historian and later explored comparative mythology.  He was the author of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, an exploration into the journey of the archetypal hero aka “The Hero’s Journey” for which he was best…

August 18, 2020

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“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”

Joseph Campbell, the author of those words, was a historian and later explored comparative mythology.  He was the author of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, an exploration into the journey of the archetypal hero aka “The Hero’s Journey” for which he was best known for. The essence of the aforementioned quote is an eloquent correlation between existential psychotherapy and the exploration of our inner selves.

While we all speak different languages, all identify ourselves with something different, or possibly from a different perspective, we all share the abyss of the unknown. This is something that unites us, even if we address it differently; some look into this abyss to be inspired, others turn away from it, but the abyss remains. Humanity and social systems have made a wonderful distraction in not wanting us to identify the abyss at all. Yet, we are all still guided by values and trying to understand the basic meaning of our lives; this undeniably connects us even more towards what we refer to as life.

Existentialism will not suit all walks of life, just as any other modality shall not be ideal to all our clients. It requires the narrator to question the meaning of life and all of its important follow-up questions i.e. where did we come from. It is no easy task to answer these questions, but in a nut-shell, all the great minds Frankl, Jung, Kiergaard, Nietsche, etc. all agreed that life’s meaning should never be summed up to a single point, but rather they collectively agreed that the meaning of life lies in one’s cumulative experience of this world. Effectively, each individual on this planet will have a different answer to this question, as we all walk a different path in life. This is where existentialism in psychotherapy starts.

To practice existentialism, I principally use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). While I do not want to delve too much into this, it contains various elements of behavioral therapies, mindfulness and existentialism among others.  Each sub-category is important for ACT to work well; I have noticed that many of my clients have expressed interest and have reacted more positively by focusing on and enhancing ACT’s values (loosely referred to existentialism). My clients have been reporting progressive change and motivation to set goals, after they have identified their own deep-set values.

There also seems to be a correlation between focusing on values and the ability to make sense of the world when discussing and explaining the concepts and the significance of “meaning” of the self and life itself. I have found this to be most notable with first responders affected by Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is usually within these sessions where I further explain the struggles of life from an existential viewpoint. While I have received some client critiques when bringing up the subject, I find this part almost insurmountably helpful for the client.

In the Western hemisphere, and arguably many parts of the Eastern world, people have become so outwardly disillusioned with the world that we distract ourselves with constant euphoric, ‘make me happy’ illusive beliefs. The most glaring example of this is social media; the constant fads that require so much of our attention. Companies as well as societies are fully aware of this phenomenon, taking advantage of it. You can’t miss it in commercials during your favorite TV shows, or influencer’s feeds, you need product X to feel that you are alive or to make you happy. The only people who are not cognizant of this is well, all of us, the consumers. In my humble opinion, Existentialism can and should be utilized by more of us to help make sense of the chaotic world that we must endure.

As therapists wanting to integrate more existentialism, we should concentrate on Yalom’s (1931) four ultimate cornerstones of Existentialism; Death, Freedom, Isolation and Meaninglessness. While it is beyond the scope of this article to go through each stage, we would primarily concentrate on Freedom and Meaninglessness, especially during the state of the world we live in and the COVID-19 pandemic. With the pandemic only seeming to rage on, and world politics being misaligned, the majority, if not all my clients are experiencing their loss of freedom and meaning to some extent.  

When discussing freedom in the context of Yalom (1931)[i], we are speaking of not only freedom, but freedom, responsibility, and the will. It is within us to engage and command our life’s direction even when we begin to suffer from our choices in life. This can be a big piece to swallow for many of us, and can certainly appear invalidating. That is why our clients see us in the first place, to begin their journey of sailing away from self-doubt, anxiety and the misconceptions that this world/society offers.

The quote that started this article sums up the individualization process. We as humans must come to terms with our limitations regardless of the socio-political and pandemic storms that we experience and pay particular interest to our fears, never letting them dominate us, but rather embrace, understand, utilize, and accept. As in this place is where we are going to find our treasure, seek strength and endure.

In closing, when I discuss existentialism with my clients I always add that I do not know how many times we are going to be living this life, is it a one-time go, is it going to be a Groundhog Day movie fiasco; coming back over and over again until we get it right, or we are all going to end up on a cloud playing harps and eating Philadelphia cream cheese sandwiches, the answer is I don’t know. But the one thing I do know, is that we are here in the now, make this count…make this meaningful.

Oliver Vertes

Registered Psychotherapist with the CRPO, and a Member of the OAMHP

[i] Yalom, I. D. (1931). Existential Psychotherapy. BasicBooks

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