The existential approach to psychotherapy played a major role in shaping the way I have enacted myself as a psychotherapist. Consequently, in the midst of my work, I was wont to pepper my speech with the term existence. I appreciate, however, that the term was possibly daunting and had only a vague meaning for most of the people I worked with. Perhaps not vague so much as mystifying, ambiguous, or even confusing—people were just not sure of what the special implied emphasis was that I had in mind when I would use the term. Or, for that matter, what that special emphasis still is, when I reference existence in the context of discussing the project of psychotherapy. This seems particularly so because people are more generally accustomed to the appearance of the terms life and living in those contexts in which I tend to use the term existence.
Having had a vital interest in philosophy since my youth, I’m aware of how an explanation of existential philosophy or existential psychiatry, even a reasonably succinct and cogent one, can quickly become abstruse to the uninitiated, whether listener or reader. I offer the following, in the hopes of clearing the matter up—well, at least, somewhat:
I have come to understand that, in our American culture, life (with a lowercase ‘l’) is a socially-constructed, concept-laden term. It most often represents a proprietary situation—that is, a reference to one’s own small and particular participation in Life (with an uppercase ‘l’). It’s a kind of participation which typically imposes an outlook and style that assumes an ideal of engineering a maximal number of agreeable outcomes. By contrast, existence is a term dense with fact and devoid of concept—it references the reality that lies outside of human minds. As a term, existence points to the Big Is. The chief thing to understand is that we tend not to experience existence—inhabit it, fully occupy it—until that moment in which we open to the way things are instead of the way that we want them to be, or even feel that they must be for us. And we typically do not come to know existence until we are overtaken by so many things in our lives that are not the way we want them to be, or that are so oppressive or incomprehensible that they do not fit with the implicit concept we maintain of our lives. When, at last, we find ourselves surrounded by so much that is not what we are sure we would have arranged for ourselves, it pushes us to an awareness that the condition of our being has nothing to do with the way we want things to be. If we are fortunate to open in this way to all that does not feel of our choosing, we create a possibility for ourselves to emerge from the confines of our conceived life and enter the unbounded experience of the reality of our lived existence.
A common therapeutic factor of generally effective psychotherapies is that they employ methods that result in returning individuals to critical aspects of their selfhood with which they have lost clear and consistent contact, for one reason or another. Existential psychotherapy aligns with this psychotherapeutic dynamic but in an enhanced version of it that is essentially educational in nature. A key objective of the existential psychotherapist is to either awaken or return individuals to a keen awareness of the reality that they are, in fact, in possession of an existence, something far greater than just the life that they imagine, desire, and strive to construct for themselves. This awareness encompasses an understanding that that our existence is but one infinitesimal element in the existence of all that is. The ultimate educational purpose of existential psychotherapy is to promote such awareness in order to help galvanize individuals into moving beyond the shallow and false consumerist notions disseminated in popular culture and ad media of what an ideal life is—another commodity, really—in order to lay claim to an existence that is unbounded, consciously accepted, fully occupied, and affirmed without precondition.