We do not usually do philosophy in therapy or in counseling. It is not needed for most people, as there are specific techniques to solve most problems. But sometimes, when dealing with difficult clients, often highly intelligent or educated… or personality disorders that seek meaning in life… we need to access philosophical aspects.
Personally, the aspect I’m going to discuss in this article was of utmost importance for me, and I couldn’t move on until my attitude was clarified and decided. The entire process took me many years and discussing this philosophical aspect could have helped me to spare a lot of time spent searching in vain but… that’s how life is… Now, I share this aspect with my readers, so as to prevent them from losing precious years of their lives moving back and forth between attitudes that exclude each other.
First, I’ll give you my background. I was raised in the Christian Orthodox church, without excessive emphasis on the social aspect of faith, but I prayed to God each evening until some years ago. This was the start in my life and I take it as it is. Then, I started my psychiatric training in a heavily atheistic environment. God believers were openly despised. Psychiatry is essentially Medicine, and Medicine is Science. And Science excludes Divine forces. Then followed my psychotherapy training, which really helped me in my life; it was at that moment that I really started to live and give value to life, something that I continue to do, to my best, until this very day. But, my psychotherapy training was essentially done following an existentialist (essentially atheist) approach. I didn’t really understand the differences between my spiritualist background and my atheist training until years after my psy training came to an end. It was only during the last supervision training (which probably was really my last one) that our trainer explained to us something that gave me the much-desired key to understanding the conflicts causing havoc inside me. So, let me explain what is all about.
There are 2 main concepts: Existence (that is, this Life that you’re living) and Essence (that is, your spirit, or consciousness, or personality, or whatever you call it You, Yourself). Roughly, people are divided into 2 main categories: those who believe Existence precedes Essence (among them the Existentialists) and those who believe Essence precedes Existence (Spiritualists of any kind). I said “those who believe“. I emphasize: believe, as the relationship with the spiritual realm or God is created through believing, not through knowing. And let me explain: as long as you can’t prove that God exists or the spirits exist or any of these exist, you can believe in them but you can’t know about them. Knowing means proofs and there aren’t any. For this very reason, those who search for proofs of God’s existence are essentially non-believers. Belief is simple: you either have it or not. You do not need proofs. You just believe. It’s emotional, not rational.
What are the implications of these 2 positions? Huge!
If Existence precedes Essence, this means the following:
– we only get one life; nothing existed before and nothing follows after;
– we die… and that is final; there is no afterlife;
– life (existence) has no meaning and no value, and it is our task to create/generate them, along with our identity, by using our consciousness (we create essence);
– death generates an increasing angst (fear) in us and this must be assumed and accepted;
– a moral code is not excluded, but it is decided by the individual, on an individual basis;
– aspects like Time, Freedom of choice, Responsibility, Isolation, Death, are in high regard;
– anxiety is stronger and can be easily used therapeutically, as nothing is postponed for the afterlife or for a future lifetime or reincarnation cycle.
If Essence precedes Existence, this means the following:
– we may or may not have several lives, but certainly there is something before the current life and maybe there is something after;
– death is relative… it is often seen as a passage towards something else;
– life has value (either punishment, opportunity or gift, but surely has some sort of value, but you do not decide this) and meaning (you’re here for something, regardless of the fact that you are aware of your mission or not); your task is to fulfill your destiny… or not… and your identity is more or less important (you’re often an element from something bigger);
– death generates less anxiety, as it’s merely a passage, and life has a weak value if we compare it with the eternity of the spiritual realm;
– a moral code is often incorporated in some sort of religion and the individual is often expected to obey some rules decided by others (often saints or divine messengers) or sacred books;
– the aspects of Time, Freedom, Responsibility, Isolation or Death are simply jokes; Time doesn’t matter and there is no Death, Freedom is either inexistent or significantly limited, Responsibility too, and Isolation is seen as an illusion or maya;
– anxiety is hard to use for change, as suffering or misfortunes are explained and acknowledged as normal using concepts like sin or karmic law/causality (for instance, you suffer now because you did something wrong in a previous lifetime).
Now, one must choose what one feels to be true. In the absence of proofs, the education, the implicit memory, the personality, the preferred judging functions of feeling or thinking – all these and many more aspects – shape our position. Both positions are equally valid. And moreover, the psychotherapy process is designed in a different way for each position, bringing extra difficulty for someone who has to work with the opposite paradigm. For instance, since my position remains the one of a spiritualist, it is hard for me to work with a client who says something like “life is absurd”. It is absurd for him, but not for me. However, I must use his own material and own attitude, and not mine.
At the same time, there are moments in one’s life when the chosen attitude is heavily tested. An absurd situation occurring in my life will cause a struggle in me to generate meaning (attempt to see the apparently absurd event as some sort of lesson from the Universe/God/Superior Self). By contrast, an atheist will struggle with the enormous void created by his position that life has no meaning, and will have to face existential anxiety, which is not easy.