Live the Life You Want to Live

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Does your life bring you joy or sorrow?
Have you ever thought, “Why does this stuff always happen to me?”
Have you ever wondered why you attract certain types of people?

Much of the way life goes is in your control…

Martin Heidegger talks about “thrownness” in Being and Time. He explains that all people are “enmeshed in a particular context” (Guignon, 1993, pg. 225). In other words, human beings are “thrown” into a particular context, and automatically engage in that context (Heidegger, 1927/1962). When you were born, the world you entered was storied. You entered this world facing certain rules and/or principles – familial expectations, religious affiliations, certain belief systems about values, etc. The world you entered immediately connected to you – you and the world are inextricably linked. In essence, being does not exist; there is only a being-in-the-world. You are continuously there inside the world and in your conditions of existence. You are being there at all times. This being there concept is what Heidegger calls Dasein, which literally means there-being (Edger & Meyer, 2010).

Dasein is constructed in a particular way as it exists-there-in-the-world, and the part of Dasein I want to focus on here is Dasein’s position of being-toward. What this means is that Dasein is always projected into the future. Everything that you do contributes to making you who you are. Because your thoughts and actions construct who you are as a person, the way that you relate to others is affected by this construction of self. Let me give you an example…

As a mental health counselor, I relate to the people I see in my practice in a particular way, which entails “a commitment toward the future” (Guignon, 1993, pg. 225). Because I construct who I am in a certain way – care-taker, empathic listener, challenger, cheer-leader – I become that person for the people I see. I am viewed in a certain way because of my thoughts and behaviors about what is appropriate. The relationships I build form to this ideal. As long as I keep engaging in this way, I become a certain type of person, and my clients expect certain things of me. The relationship is literally formed by my values, beliefs, and behaviors.
We ARE our values, our stories, our beliefs, our engagements with others. “We … become the kind of people we are – people who, for example, care about children and believe in justice – there is now no way to drop these commitments without ceasing to be who we are” (Guignon, 1993, pg. 233). We are, therefore, imbedded and indebted to our surroundings and a shared culture, we share universal values with others around us. Heidegger calls this kind of sharing and being authentic historicity (Heidegger, 1927/1962). We shape ourselves through how we live our lives. In turn, our surroundings shape who we are. It is truly a circle of life. How you engage with others MAKES you who you are. How powerful! If you are dissatisfied with the life you are living, think about how you engage with others. What do others expect from you? How do they view who you are as a person? Does this make your life a good one? If not, it is time to reassess who you are – Dasein – how are you being-there?

 

References

Edger, K. & Meyer, E. (2010). Considerations for Teaching Existential-Phenomenological Counseling Theory. ACES Spectrum, 71(1), 17-29.

Guignon, C. B. (1993). Authenticity, moral values, and psychotherapy. In. C. Guignon (Ed.).The Cambridge companion to Heidegger (pp. 215-239). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time. New York: Harper & Row

The Meaning of Life

ImageThe meaning of life starts with the notion of The Absurd. Hang on here and take the philosophical journey with me. It will be well worth it…

Albert Camus talks about the Absurd in his work, The Myth of Sisyphus and notes that the concept of Absurdity is not original to him. What is original to his philosophy is that he considers the Absurd to be the beginning of his philosophy (rather than the end, as in most other philosophies). Also, even though the concept of the Absurd is an idea that is accepted among French philosophers, Camus does not bother to go into an argument about proving it exists. For him, as well as other scholars, it is quite evident that it does. So what is “The Absurd” anyway?

For Camus, the way of the world is not absurd. Camus defines the absurd as the relationship that people have with the world. He believes this relationship is absurd because the world puts out questions in the relationship that have no answers. He states that the absurd relationship between human beings and the world “is that divorce between the mind that desires and the world that disappoints, my nostalgia for unity, this fragmented universe and the contradiction that binds them together” (pg. 37). What he means is that human beings receive a bunch of empty replies from the world about the nature of their existence. He gives the example of people trying to find order in the world and not being able to find any order at all. No answers are provided to us. We ask how to solve the problem of evil in the world, and we find out that goodness in the world isn’t even guaranteed (Denton, 1967). It is in this frustrating relationship that we have with nature that forces us to be tense and, in that, confrontation is a constant theme.

As he ponders the nature of the Absurd, Camus has one question – how do we live within this absurd relationship we have with the world? Once a person becomes aware that this absurd relationship exists, he or she is faced with the quandary – is life worth living? At some point, according to Camus, a person will wake up from day to day life and realize the world provides no answers to the questions he or she has for it. Innocent people continue to suffer. Prayers go unanswered. Except for the present moment, the world guarantees nothing. As people begin to realize this reality, they begin to wonder whether they should live or die. Once they realize they must make a decision about living or dying, people will feel many things – sadness, scorn, and even joy, but most of all, they will feel futility. However, within this quandary, most people will realize that their lives are their own, and they will choose to continue life. When they make this conscious choice, a passion for life will ensue, and the way they experience the world will be richer. For Camus, the most important and enduring emotion from this decision will be joy!

The ultimate point about this realization of the absurd is responsibility, what Camus calls Rebellion. In essence, because people are trapped in this absurd relationship with the world without the desire to escape (die), they must realize that they are called to change the world. In consciously choosing to live life (and, in this realization, living it fully), people have a calling to make life worth living. That’s quite a responsibility, but it makes sense! What is the point of living if you never make a difference? The meaning of life is changing our relationship with the world. So what legacy does your life leave when you are gone? If you choose to live, how will you make it a purposeful life?

 

Resources

Camus, A. (1956). The rebel: An essay on man in revolt. New York: Random House.

Camus, A. (1959). The myth of Sisyphus. New York: Random House.

Camus, A. (1960). Resistance, rebellion, and death. New York: Random House.

Denton, D. E. (1967). The philosophy of Albert Camus: A critical analysis. Boston, MA: Prime Publishers.

Levoy, G. (1997). Callings: Finding and following an authentic life path. New York: Three Rivers Press.

 

Living and Dying

ImageIn Ethics, Spinoza said that, “a free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is not a meditation upon death but upon life.” He felt that people should not meditate on death if they are truly free because it is inconsequential. God prevents the loss of anything possessing a real existence. Death has no reality and so people should focus on eternal things. Yes, makes sense! By focusing on the eternal, a still confidence embraces us. We are at rest. We are self-assured. We are at one with the eternal. Yes, this kind of diversion of death makes sense as it pushes away the fear of death. The fear of death mirrors the fear of life. People who are scared to live fully are also fearful of death. For existentialists, however, fearing death is not the emphasis. It is important to focus on death rather than fear it. Death brings us into the present moment and the focus on death helps us appreciate fleeting moments. Death is not a negative concept at all. Quite the contrary. The awareness of death gives significance to living.

When my daughter was born, people said, “Enjoy every moment because they grow up so fast!” As a first time mother, I remembered this advice intensely. Death. My newborn will soon die and become a baby, and then my baby will die and become a toddler, and so on. When I took my daughter home from the hospital, she cried most of the day and much of the night. If she was not sleeping or eating, she was crying hysterically. I was tired, achy, cranky, hungry, and lonely. In this time of my life, it was easy to think about the future when this awful phase would be over. It was easy to just press through it, to survive it in hopes of future better cheerier baby times. I didn’t. I remembered the death of this time and that I would never again have these moments with her again. This time when she was only 6 pounds. This time when she had that beautiful newborn face. This time when she was completely defenseless. This time when nothing fit her because she was so tiny. These precious moments would be gone soon enough. Death would come. So I cherished every moment. When she slept, I stared at her tiny little face and marveled at this beautiful little girl I created. When she nursed, I enjoyed the closeness of her on my body. I smelled the top of her tiny head and enjoyed the scent of her. Every minute, I soaked it in. When she cried, I was thankful that I had a healthy baby with strong lungs. Then, 4 months later, it was all gone. I had a new baby. I had a baby that gained some independence as she spent time in her crib amusing herself. A baby that cooed and smiled at me when I changed her. A baby that was interested in the world around her. My newborn was gone and a new stage began.

“It was too bad you didn’t really get to enjoy her when she was so little,” someone told me after I informed them about my colicky newborn experience. Ah, but I did. I can honestly say that enjoyed every precious moment with my beautiful newborn daughter. I enjoyed those beloved moments of stillness and awe because I knew they would be gone. I knew death would come, and so I lived fully at each moment, treasuring this amazing brand new little lady I created. I took nothing for granted.

As I move on with my life as a mother through each stage with my daughter, I remember death. It is my reminder to live fully in each moment. As my daughter grows from baby to toddler, I cherish each day. I cherish her laughs. I treasure the way she looks at me as if there is no one else on this planet she would rather be with. I treasure her amazement and curiosity of the world around her. I treasure it all. Among the teething, the cries, the lack of personal time, the longing for my husband, the lack of sleep, and the amount of time it takes me to get even the simplest tasks done…among all of that, I cherish these times. Because this is the current experience. This is what will soon be gone and I will never be able to get back. This is it.  I focus on death to fully live.

Existentialism

ImageExistentialists concentrate on the topic of human existence, and some of the primary existentialists are Jean-Paul Sartre, Viktor Frankl, and, of course, Søren Kierkegaard. Just as in phenomenology, existential thinkers have differing philosophies, and these variations are largely attributed to opposing personal world-views. Sartre stated that existentialism could be easily defined but problems would inevitably arise because of atheistic and Christian interpretations. This makes sense, and has definitely been the case in existential thought. However, despite these vast disagreements about faith, the fundamental ideas of existentialism remain constant.  In ALL existential inquiry, both atheistic and Christian thinkers believe “that existence precedes essence, or, if you prefer, that subjectivity must be the starting point” (Sartre, 1965/1993, p. 34).

Existentialism is broken down into specific themes:

self-awareness

existential anxiety

death and non-being

self-determination

personal responsibility

aloneness and relatedness

authenticity

meaning-making

As mentioned, variations of thought exist among all of these existential themes, but there are still universal agreements. For example, the existential theme of meaning-making varies from one philosopher to another – What is meaning? Is there meaning? How does one make meaning? One philosopher would say that meaning truly exists in life and can best be attained through human suffering (Frankl) while another would say that life is meaningless so we create our own meaning (Sartre). Despite these varying degrees of interpretation, both existentialists would agree with their fellow philosophers that all human beings search for meaning and personal identity in life.

Let me elaborate more on the theme of meaning and how philosophies differ in terms of faith and personal world-views. Let’s start with Jean-Paul Sartre, an atheist…

Sartre believed that human beings try to find meaning in a world that is void of meaning by creating various religions to support the belief of life beyond material existence.  In essence, according to Sartre, human beings create an artificial construct through self-serving illusions, and this created construct is not truly meaningful, since there is no “meaning” in any absolute sense. Sartre believed that it was meaning-less that we live and it is meaning-less that we die because all of life is meaningless. Therefore, people must make meaning by what they choose to do in life, through their intentions and interactions.

Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor and man of faith differed substantially from Sartre. He believed that human beings could find meaning through suffering and through life experiences.  By having a will to live through adversity, human beings found meaning in their lives.  Frankl stated that meaning was ever-present in the world and that the quest in life was to find meaning.  This journey required human beings to step outside of themselves – meaning-making, for Frankl, was not introspective; it was transcending.

Søren Kierkegaard was also a man of faith, a devout Christian. He also believed that individuals had to suffer despair throughout their inadequate humanity. However, he emphasized the necessity to move beyond this notion of a deficient human existence in order to find meaning in the world and with God.  Kierkegaard encouraged doubt. He believed that doubt was the rational part of a human being, and, in order for individuals to have faith, they also needed to have doubt because, without doubt, faith has no value.

While Frankl, Sartre, and Kierkegaard emerged from vastly different personal belief systems, all three philosophers represented this theme of meaning-making through their world views and personal beliefs systems. Yet all believed that every human being searches for meaning and personal identity in life. I hope that these descriptions also help illustrate how appropriate it is for counselors to first construct their personal understandings of human development before they can adequately use existential theory in the counseling relationship.

*Sartre, J. P. (1993).  Essays in existentialism.  New York: Carol Publishing Group.

Phenomenology

ImagePhenomenology is literally defined as the study of phenomena. Phenomenology is the study of things that appear in experience in a way that they appear as they truly are. In essence, phenomenology is directed at examining things in terms of their meanings. The primary phenomenological concepts are:

(a) intentionality or the “about-ness” of a thing

(b) intuition or knowledge not based on perception

(c) memory or introspection

(d) answering the meaning of “being” (Audi, 1995).         

 

Let’s backtrack a little and define what a phenomenon actually is. What is phenomenology studying exactly? What IS a phenomenon?

                Heidegger stated that a phenomenon is “that which shows itself from itself” (1927/1962, p. 51).  Phenomena are experienced and are independent of any theories and assumptions. For example, a person experiences a flower as the phenomenon of a flower rather than something that is composed of atoms and particles.  Even though physicists state that flowers are composed of atoms and particles and psychologists try to understand people in terms of their minds, neither atoms, particles, nor minds appear when a person walks through the park and sees a garden of flowers, right? Of course not. The experience of the flower is the phenomenon (Wrathall, 1993). 

                Now it gets more varied…

                Despite the core definitions of a phenomenon and of phenomenology, phenomenological scholars differ in the HOW. How does one make meaning of a phenomenon? Philosophers differ quite substantially on this topic. This does not mean that one scholar is correct while another is incorrect, however. There are multiple ways of finding meaning! You might say that one theory is not better than another but rather, it is the interpretation and usefulness of a theory that will speak to one thinker over another. An example of differing thoughts about a similar concept can be clarified through the philosophies of three primary phenomenological scholars: Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty.

1)      Husserl (1960), the Father of Phenomenology, focused on epistemological differences – what is the nature of knowledge?

2)      Heidegger, Husserl’s pupil, concentrated on ontological differences – what is the nature of being?

3)      Merleau-Ponty, whose philosophy, like Heidegger’s, was also ontological, diverged when he united Husserl’s and Heidegger’s theories and generated a philosophy of the lived body. He contended that all consciousness was created from a pre-reflective bodily existence. In essence, he believed that everything individuals knew of the world (even when that knowledge was based in science) was understood through their personal views and lived experiences (which are fundamentally founded in the body).

                 Again, all branched out to differing thoughts of the HOW of meaning, and all theories shaped the way these thinkers thought about the world and the people around them. Counselors and therapists do this as well. Look at Cognitive Behavioral Therapy when compared to Gestalt Therapy. They inherently differ, but neither is right or wrong. Rather, each theory is shaped by the individual who buys into that theory and helps create a format for helping others.  It is the map one clinician follows versus another – the destination is usually the same!

So…just like phenomenological thought differs among philosophers, so does existential thought.

Stay tuned!

 

Audi, R. (Ed.). (1995). The Cambridge dictionary of philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1962).  Being and time.  New York: Harper & Row.

Wrathall, M. (1993). How to read Heidegger.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Company.

Existential-Phenomenology

ImageExistential-Phenomenological Theory has been an important model in the field of counseling and therapy for quite some time, and it continues to increase in popularity with new counselors entering the field. The practice of Existential-Phenomenology is a blending of centuries-old wisdom applied to modern day problems. It is foundational to influential therapies used today – like Person-Centered and Gestalt therapies. The goal of an Existential-Phenomenological counselor is to help clients make-meaning of their lives, and so it is reasonable to assume that counselors using this theory must also do the same work. Existential-Phenomenological counselors MUST make their own meanings of this theory and how it applies to their own lives and to their practices so it is essential for counselors who are interested in using this model to learn the philosophical groundwork. Without a philosophical grounding, counselors are simply using techniques – and this is not a technique-heavy model in the least! The importance of this model is the philosophies that substantiate its practice.

Some significant contributors in the development of existentialism and phenomenology include but are not limited to: Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, Viktor Frankl,  and, of course, Søren Kierkegaard. These philosophers explained principles from the earlier writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas to name a few. When learning about the philosophical underpinnings of Existential-Phenomenology, it is important to note that counselors  must first study existentialism apart from phenomenology  and gain an understanding of the backgrounds of contributing philosophers in each of these disciplines. Sounds like quite a feat, and it can seem daunting. However, in upcoming posts, I will break down phenomenology and existentialism in terms of what they mean and how to understand their principles. Stay tuned!

Death

ImageDeath is an inevitable part of being human. It is something we cannot escape yet this is precisely what we try to do on a consistent basis. According to many existential thinkers, the inevitability of death makes life meaningless. In order to find meaning in the “average everydayness” of life, people feel compelled to suppress the knowledge of their mortality. Anxiety is the reason for this – and also the symptom of truyl facing death. Anxiety is the state at which we realize the possibility of not being around anymore – of non-being. Anxiety IS the awareness of death. This is an unpleasant, uncomfortable, and difficult feeling in which to exist…so we actively flee it.

We protect our denial of death with religious views, philosophical opinions or meaningless conversations.  Any talk about death is objectified rather than personal, and in this way, we can delude ourselves into believing we are facing death while continuing to run away from it. And why not? Why should anyone be uncomfortable? For what purpose? Ah, well, here is why the realization and acknowledgement of the inevitability of death should be embraced:

Death-anxiety serves as motivation to live more fully.

Remember the book/movie, Fight Club? Edward Norton played the main character in the film, and his character was only able to feel truly alive when he attended support groups for individuals who were dying of chronic illnesses.  He said about attending the meetings, “Losing all hope was freedom. Every morning I died, and every morning I was born again, resurrected.”  When he listened to the stories of the group members who talked about their personal impending deaths and how they expressed their anxieties, he realized his death on a personal level. Through the realization of his own death, he felt the meaning of his life.  Of course, for him, it was only temporary because he returned to his everyday life filled with pointless chatter and ongoing small-talk relationships. His feelings of living fully disappeared because he went back to ignoring that he would, one day, cease to exist.  He only felt the true value and meaning of his life when he entered the meeting rooms again because this was the only time he really faced his death in a personal way.

The denial of death enables individuals to ignore what is important to them and to take life for granted, denying the responsibility of living more meaningful and truly authentic lives. The inevitability of death also reveals how, ultimately, every person is alone in the world because dying is an individual process.  In facing this essential aloneness, a person can accept his or her self-responsibility because it is up to the individual to choose how he or she will live this life.

Meaning

ImageMeaning-making is a powerful theme in existentialism and yet its definition varies from one philosopher to another. What all existentialists agree upon, however, is that all human beings search for meaning and personal identity in their lives.  Jean-Paul Sartre (1965/1993) described existentialism as a movement “to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him” (p. 36). He meant that all human beings try to find meaning in a world that is meaningless. They do this by creating various religions to support their beliefs about a potential life that exists beyond material existence.  Sartre, obviously, was an atheist. He believed that human beings create artificial concepts through self-serving illusions and that these created constructs are not truly meaningful because absolute “meaning” does not exist at all. For Sartre, life and death were both considered meaningless – it is meaning-less that we live and it is meaning-less that we die, and because of this daunting fact, people must make their own meaning by what they choose to do in life. This happens through the intentions and interactions they have in the world.

                Victor Frankl did not agree with Sartre’s interpretation about meaning-making at all. He believed that true meaning existed in life and that human beings could find meaning through suffering and through life experiences.  By having a will to live through adversity, human beings find meaning.  He truly believed that meaning was ever-present in the world and that the primary mission in life was to find meaning.  In finding meaning, a person needed to step outside of him or herself – what that meant for Frankl was that meaning-making was not introspective at all but transcending. 

                Like Frankl, Søren Kierkegaard also believed in suffering as a means to make meaning. He proposed that individuals had to suffer despair throughout their lives, but he emphasized the necessity to move beyond the idea of human existence, which he believed was deficient. Kierkegaard believed in faith, but he stressed that doubt was the rational part of a human being. For Kierkegaard, individuals needed to doubt to have faith because, without doubt, faith had no value. Faith in God would be meaningless without first having doubt about the existence of God. For him, we needed to doubt to have faith and faith to make meaning.

                While Frankl, Sartre, and Kierkegaard emerged from immensely different personal belief systems, all three of these philosophers represented existentialism through their world views and their personal beliefs. This just demonstrates  how appropriate and crucial it is for counselors to first construct a personal understanding of meaning and human development before using existential concepts in the counseling relationship.

*Sartre, J. P. (1993).  Essays in existentialism.  New York: Carol Publishing Group.

Personal Responsibility

personal responsibility - fault

The reality of life “is that it is without excuse” (as Jean-Paul Sartre would state). What does this mean? Well, people are constantly faced with the reality that they have to choose the kind of people they want to become, and this choosing never ends as long as they are alive. As human beings, we are “doomed to be free” – we have no choice but to choose. Even in not choosing, we choose to let the world around us direct us – that is a choice, after all. You might ask what this has to do with the existential theme of personal responsibility.

Because we are constantly faced with the reality that we have to choose the kind of people we want to become, we are inherently responsible for the way our lives develop. For instance, in choosing to have things done to us, we can easily become victims. Sartre would strongly argue that we choose to become victimized. However, this choice might not be on a conscious level. The choice may be subconscious. For example, maybe something is more comfortable or familiar so an individual steers in that direction. The consequences of that steering bring him or her to a place that is unhealthy. Who is responsible for this unhealthy situation that the individual is now in? The driver is.

By helping people realize that they are the drivers in their lives, whether they like it or not, is incredibly powerful. When individuals realize that they are “doomed to be free,” the excuses they may present about their lives fundamentally change. Existential angst is an essential part of decision-making, yes, and all people grapple with giving up other possibilities as they make choices. However, choice-making is an unavoidable part of life, leaving only us in the drivers’ seats – and personally responsible.

Authenticity

authenticity - marilyn monroeSimply stated, authenticity means being true to oneself, and while this is easily defined, explaining what it really means and getting there is a bit more difficult. How does one become authentic? What does being true to oneself really look like? How will one know when authenticity has been achieved? These are all common questions about the concept of authenticity.

Authenticity is about one’s relationship with self as well as one’s relationship with the world. To reach authenticity (to be true to oneself), an individual must balance the need to be true to self with the need to compromise and conform to others’ expectations. That is, along with fulfilling needs of self, a person also has to get along with others and manage the limitations that society imposes upon him or her.  Remember that compromises must always be made when making a decision since all people are inextricably linked to the consequences of the choices they make.

Counselors can play a unique role in helping clients to examine their freedom to choose, the limitation of those choices, and the consequences they bring.  Therapeutically, we want to know if individuals have struck enough of a balance between themselves and the limiting world to a point where they are at ease in their current circumstances. Are they at peace with what they are gaining and what they had to give up? Are they accepting the fact that they are limiting other possibilities when they make certain choices? Can they strike the right balance between what they want/need and what they have to give to others? If so, these people can be concretely identified as being positively adjusted in their situations and living more authentically.

In essence, we can say that a person has reached authenticity in a certain situation when he or she has the awareness about the compromises necessitated due to life’s limitations and can accept those limitations and move forward making decisions. We cannot, however say that a person has reached absolute authenticity, that he or she is authentic in every situation of his or her life. This is because authenticity is a process rather than an end result and is situation-specific rather than absolute.