Wednesday, January 27, 2016

There's no place like home*

I’ve been wondering if all the shopworn psychology – the pop psych-corrupted “disorder” names and symptoms, all the therapy assumptions and techniques – could be eliminated in favor of an existential approach.  I don’t mean Viktor Frankl’s or Irvin Yalom’s existentialism, which lives in the realm of clinician’s philosophy and client’s intellect.  Rather, a therapy based simply on the question, “Who am I?”, with answers emanating from the oceanic inclusions of the person.

Both people in the room would have to eschew psych thinking, and the client, erasing everything he believes he knows, would sink into the question miles deep, in head silence, before letting a response emerge.  This is because we can read the pieces of our real self – all the elusive and quiddity truths of it – by presenting the body with open-ended questions.  “Who am I?”  “How is my life going right now?”  “What do I care about?”  “What does ‘care’ mean to me?”  The body knows – because it owns – the infinitude of historical feelings that make the facts, far more than our idea-generating, safe-guessing head knows what’s ultimately real.

As we read the body’s archives, we are knowing our psychology, are one with it.  We are knowing physical-emotional history-sensations that are as complexly related to the word “depression” or “love” or “self” or “codependency” as a catalog of chemicals, temperatures, energies and unknowns is to the word “sun.”  When we find feelings of confusion and hurt – that actually did hurt our throat or stomach or eyes – at age six; when we feel in our chest the bleak ’til-Kingdom-come boredom of being under-parented at age four or eight; when we feel love that wants to reach to someone and shame that kills it at age ten; when we feel the emptiness between our eyes of moving away from our unique childhood into awkward and frightening adolescence, and now feel those forces creating the foundation and horizon of our present self; when we see that sensations, with time, have become conclusions – anchors or agitators of attitude and energy – then we become the explanations of ourselves, with no "disorder" labels at all.  We also become the potential solutions to ourselves, because pain found wants and drives its outletting.

If this idea isn’t clear, see its contrast with Yalom's existential approach:

Imagine this scene: three to four hundred people, strangers to each other, are told to pair up and ask their partner one single question: “What do you want?” over and over and over again.
Could anything be simpler?  One innocent question and its answer.  And yet, time after time, I have seen this group exercise evoke unexpectedly powerful feelings.  Often, within minutes, the room rocks with emotion.  Men and women – and these are by no means desperate or needy but successful, well-functioning, well-dressed people who glitter as they walk – are stirred to their depths.  They call out to those who are forever lost – dead or absent parents, spouses, children, friends: “I want to see you again.”  “I want your love.”  “I want to know you’re proud of me.”  “I want you to know I love you and how sorry I am I never told you.”  . . .  “I want the childhood I never had.”  “I want to be healthy – to be young again.”  . . . “I want my life to mean something.”
. . . . “So much wanting.  So much longing.  And so much pain, so close to the surface, only minutes deep.  Destiny pain.  Existence pain.  Pain that is always there, whirring continuously just beneath the membrane of life.”**
I believe that Yalom is wrong, very wrong.  These people, so plaintive and profound, are not crying from “existence” or destiny pain, but from actual, deep, unhealed injuries, probably with labyrinthine roots reaching to their childhood.  Imagine if this were not a ripened adult but a fourteen- or seventeen-year-old boy grieving, “I want to know you’re proud of me.”  Contrary to Yalom’s wise philosophizing, no therapist should abandon the young man on a cushion of resignation or contemplation, as if it were right that he should have to be worthy of their pride.  Within his supplication, in the body’s vault is the imprint of his father’s icy rage when he brought home a grade report that was imperfect.  Within his grievance pool is the sudden gutting of his self-value and its replacement by fear of abandonment; fear of shame, death of a bond, a giving of love that evaporates, sense of impossibility, questioning of love, a new dark energy that replaces the happy one, an akathisia-like pushing for success to banish failure.  And later in his life, a sense of meaninglessness or of running nowhere, of covert aloneness that can’t be described to anyone.

In this body continent is found the truth as it was lived, and as it is being lived: answers that come from all time, telescoped.  You can feel the currents shift, your earth move, the past instantly awaken, the answers summoned to the surface when you ask your inner feeling the cosmic questions.  Who, in that deeply rooted home, would want to escape back to the hackneyed labels and explanations of psychology?  Psychology is the personal self that, like love, must be touched to know it.  A session that stays in that touching place, then, can be quiet yet travel very far.

And so today I asked a 19-year-old to fall into the question: “Who am I?”

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* See the related post, Rabbit Hole, at 

** Irvin D. Yalom, Love’s Executioner and other tales of psychotherapy, Basic Books, 1989.  Prologue, p. xi.

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.