Existential Therapy Is About…You

One of my areas of expertise is existential psychotherapy, which is a clunky name for something quite elegant. People often ask what existential therapy is and how it can help them. It’s a complex subject, but I’m going to give a shot at a simple answer. Existential therapy is essentially about YOU and what it’s like being you right here in the middle of your life.

It’s about understanding all the different ways human beings get tripped up and struggle. There are certain experiences or concerns that people face that generate anxiety, agitation, or dread. These “givens” of existence are universal, meaning every single one of us on this planet, no matter how powerful or weak, rich or poor, will freak out on some level as we grapple with them. 

The givens of existence include: death, meaninglessness, isolation, and freedom. This means that each one of us will struggle to make sense of death and change, find meaning and purpose in life, manage feelings of isolation and disconnection from others, and understand the awesome responsibility that comes with being a person with free will. 

Of course, not everyone suffers in the same way. Some people have rich family lives and rarely feel alone or disconnected, but perhaps are sensitive to change and become anxious when life throws them a curveball. Others may be living a life full of purpose, but feel alone and apart from others. It all depends. Sooner or later, we all run into these unavoidable aspects of human life and become anxious or overwhelmed by them. Existential therapy can then help to make sense of this disruption.

As an existential therapist, I look for where each of my clients is caught up in fear or hopelessness and begin to work right there at the source of the issue. I’ve found that clients enjoy talking about these deep issues. It helps them make sense of their humanity and their world. Our culture tends to push these topics aside and, in doing so, it robs people of the opportunity to learn and grow from examining what scares them the most.

Existentialism and existential therapy often get a bad wrap for being too negative, but actually the opposite is true. Existential therapy seeks to help people become much more accepting of change and death, live lives full of loving relationships, seek out and create sources of meaning and purpose, and use one’s freedom to craft a life of deep fulfillment. It’s as if each of the existential fears were a demon guarding a great treasure within. Existential therapy asks us to find the courage to discover the outrageous, vibrant, joyful life at the very heart of the shadow places inside us.

The School of Sovereignty and Love

My wife and I have been looking at preschool programs for our young son. A family friend told us of a new, home-based preschool called the Sovereignty School of Love. I really love the name of this school. It encapsulates so much. In one respect, perfecting our understanding of sovereignty and love is what life is all about. Certainly, these are the main aims of both psychotherapy and spiritual practice. So let’s explore.

Sovereignty. At first blush, it is tempting to imagine that sovereignty is about dominion or control over property, animals, other people, etc. It’s a big word with a lot of baggage. However, attaining one’s sovereignty, from a psychological perspective means taking ownership of one’s space while taking responsibility for one’s actions and one’s work in the world. To take over your space, means to take the sovereign’s seat inside yourself. You must become the king or queen of your own world and not abdicate the throne to another. It’s a very simple idea, but one that is easy to overlook or take for granted. As the royal sovereign of your life, you must learn how to attend to your own kingdom, not do the work of another. You tend your own garden. This is a kind of existential freedom and responsibility that breeds a sense of empowerment and strength.

People often come to therapy with boundary issues. They don’t know how to set limits with other people. They have lost the ability to clearly state what they need and want in their relationships. They no longer know how to care for themselves or where to even start. They don’t know what their work is in the world. They feel disempowered in their interactions with others. They are easily fatigued, anxious, irritable, and depleted. So their work is to learn to say “no” to others and build themselves up again so they can “source life from its presence” and feel the dignity and grace of the sovereign’s position.

Alongside the work of regaining sovereignty, runs a river of love. In a very basic way, you must work to improve your capacity to love another and receive love yourself. This means improving your relationships by improving your communication and being kinder to yourself and others. It might mean forgiving someone or burying the hatchet in order to take down an energetic wall of protection that stops the flow of lovingkindness. At the heart of the matter is the desire to become a softer, more accepting person who learns to become a truly friendly to self and other.

At the spiritual level, the work expands even more. Claiming one’s sovereignty is about finding pride and dignity in one’s true nature, in the Absolute or divine dimension of one’s being. It’s standing in the deathless, immutable, diamond-like perfection at the heart of each being; recognizing and living from one’s Buddha nature. At this level, Love expands in all directions and becomes unconditional. It’s just like the sun. The sun warms and enlightens the earth, never asking for thanks or compensation. In just this way, the heart expands and perfect, impersonal love flows in and through oneself, one’s activities and environment, and out to all beings regardless of category or group affiliation. Even those we hate or dislike, we see they are at core people who suffer just like we do and who are caught in a web of misapprehension, fear, and limited perception. We all make mistakes and we all want to be free and happy.

Sovereignty and love go hand in hand like a king and queen. As we grow in psychological and spiritual understanding, and as our actions clear up and become kinder, we delight in having met the real purpose of life. We are able to stand in the everyday sanity of being human and extend ourselves to others. Our relationships improve and we have a clearer idea of why we exist on this strange planet. We learn to be more intuitive and make positive choices. We learn to delight in living. We become joy.

The Potential of Modern Psychotherapy

I have come to believe that the best therapy is shamanic in nature. It is active, energetic, integrative, cooperative, holotropic. Psychotherapy facilitates something in the client: a growth or development toward wholeness and completeness. Often clients come to therapy at an impasse within themselves. Often their way of seeing and being in the world must shift in order to make room for something new to occur. 

I see the path of therapy as unfolding in three stages, though not necessarily one after the other. First, therapy is about increasing awareness across a broad range of human spheres: assumptions about who we are, the roles we inhabit, and our place in the world; our mental and emotional functioning; our true intentions and desires (What we want out of life); our beliefs about others; etc.

The second role of therapy is to understand, question, and improve relationships. How we relate is the core issue here. In our relationships, are we open or closed? Loving or fearful? Generous or stingy? At this stage we not only work to identify our primary relationship style and the defenses we employ to protect ourselves from feeling too vulnerable, we also question the outcomes of the way we relate and determine our level of satisfaction. We come to understand the responsibility we have in cleaning up our act and building better relationships. Here we consider all levels of relationship: to our thoughts, our emotions, our self-concept, our loved ones, co-workers, other human beings, the environment, the cosmos, and even our worldview.

The third level of therapy is grounded in the understanding that each person is an energetic being whose very nature is love and straightforward goodness. Its aim is to awaken the client’s natural capacity to live an ecstatic life, to recapture a delight in being often lost after childhood. The idea here is not to become mentally happy with life by thinking that everything is just hunky dory as it is. It’s not concerned with changing your belief system. Instead its aim is to help each client begin to feel deeply comfortable in their own skin and in the world; to begin to feel vibrancy and joy in the body, all the way to the cells, so that happiness and deep connection to life unfolds in the individual’s experience from the inside out. In this way our lived experience flows out from us and we dance ecstatically through life. We stop feeling at the mercy of circumstances beyond our control. We cease the cycle of acting and reacting to forces in a world we've mistakenly come to believe is uncaring and dangerous. At root, our view changes and we begin to truly live. 

Psychotherapy is a profoundly spiritual practice when viewed from this perspective. It is an activity that strives to know the self and life with heartfelt intimacy. This view of psychotherapy roughly correlates with the path of spiritual enlightenment. How the two, psychotherapy and spiritual practice, are alike or different is one of the main themes of this blog. Are they the same thing? If not, can they be? Can they be mutually supportive? Where does one end and the other begin? For me, these are essential questions because I believe both may contribute to removing painful, limiting patterns while restoring a sense of ease and delight to the body and mind. It may be that in our modern age, we cannot engage in one without employing the other to help us maintain balance in our search for a well-lived and blissful (yes, blissful) life.