The writing of a learning journal on the four existential givens requires the student to evidence knowledge and self-examination and serves as a useful reflective tool.
Over the first half of this unit, students will keep a learning journal examining in turn each of the four existential givens:
2. existential aloneness,
3. free will and responsibility, and
4. the search for meaning.
Existential counselling is a philosophical method which challenges the conflicts and paradoxes of the basic existence of humans. It is more like a way of thinking instead of a hard core philosophical model or technique. It is based on the fact that people make their own choices and have to own the repercussions of the same, even if they are negative ( Yalom, 2002) stated that existential psychotherapy is a dynamic therapeutic approach which emphasize on the relevance of our very core existence. The author went on to say that there are four givens relevant to psychotherapy: the inevitability of death, freedom to make of our lives, ultimate aloneness and the meaninglessness of life.
It is inevitable, rightly said by many people. Death can be defined as the cessation or end of vital functions of a living being. I feel that fear of death resides within us every moment we encounter any precarious situation. In perhaps every uncertain situation, I can feel the deep down fear if something deadly or near fatal may happen in future. These premonitions can actually twist heart to the core. However, the mere realization of this ultimate truth can motivate us to pursue a happy life as well. The fear of death has a crucial role in our life; the mere thought of it can haunt us more than anything else. It can be equated to the unsettling existence at the external periphery of consciousness (Yalom, 1980). I can certainly relate to this feeling when I met with a nearly fatal accident and could feel my life going away with every painful second. Echoing the same sentiments, Josselson (2008) shared that the very awareness about the ultimate truth of death can be really difficult to death with. Nevertheless, Yalom (2008) claimed that the anxiety surrounding death surfaces and hides across various stages of the life cycle. I agree with this when I observed a young child playing with a match stick. It can be dangerous for human life but for the child, it was mere an object of amusement, wonder and nothing else. As we grow up in life, we start seeing things from a different perspective altogether. This is probably why I have seen so many of my teenage friends driving their cars at such a high speed. It’s possibly the excitement to flirt with the notion of death that drags them to conduct themselves so recklessly. But once people enter adulthood, career and then marriage responsibilities overpower anxiety. After some decades when children grow up and leave them, the mid-life crisis brings back the same death anxiety once again (Yalom, 2008). I feel that people should confront life and death as the ultimate truths of life, but in practical situations, we tend to forget the truth and get driven towards material things. In the same vein, existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger (1962) claimed that though physicality of death finishes us off, the concept of death helps us finding peace. I felt the same after the accident I had when struck with the thought of death, I felt the need to add more value to my life by avoiding the trivial issues around and instead embrace the truth. The fear of death is in fact a reminder of life and one must make the most of their time on earth. In some cases, I feel it’s the reluctance to accept the ultimate truths of life that people feel conflicted within themselves. The real cause of conflict lies between the recognition of the certainty of death and the irrepressible desire to continue living (Spinoza in Elwes, 2008). It’s the fear of death that we tend to create illusions around ourselves in the form of defence. But then this façade will fall down sooner or later. Instead of chasing the trivialities of life, I feel the fundamentals about the way of living must be explored. Becker (1973) added that people are consciously alert of the real human condition but they continue living with partial consciousness and hence they indulge in petty social games and play psychological tricks to stay away from the truth of death (Becker, 1973). For instance, consuming drugs and gambling are all deteriorating acts of life, but that is how some people tend to act in their attempt to run away from the realities of life. I have had my good and bad days but what I have come to realize the real value of life and certainty of death.
2. Existential Isolation
Isolation means staying physically away from other human beings and the world as a whole (Yalom, 1980). It is noted that departure from others and the world, the feeling of being lonely, is the intrinsic state of the human condition that includes intrapsychic, interpersonal and existential isolation. There could be many reasons for embracing isolation. People have the tendency to increase distance from others to stay alone but this makes them feel compelled to engage with others with more intensity (Yalom, 1980). There are some naturally secludes, but at some level, there is a need felt across to talk to the people. I feel isolation is not meant for all. It all depends on the mental strength of an individual to cut off from others. Yalom (1980) stated that the real disagreement lies between absolute isolation and the desire to become a part of something tangible. Becoming an individual in itself includes embracing an absolute loneliness (Kaiser, 1965). Nevertheless, I have never considered it this way as I am surrounded by my family and friends most of the time. They were with me in my moments of glory and in failures, especially when I did not score well in my graduation. However, there are some moments of loneliness, but they are usually filed with other material activities. That is where the major task of existentialism comes into play to give insight into the inner conflict between fusion and isolation. Interpersonal and existential isolation are way stations for each other. Yalom (1980) stated that irrespective of the closeness or attachment individuals feel for each other, there is some unbridgeable gap remaining, and every individual has to enter and exit that on his or her own. The existential conflict lies between the awareness of absolute isolation and the desire to become a part of bigger whole (Yalom, 1980). There are plenty of distractions which lure people into its ultimate comfort choking the voice of ultimate isolation. However, the voice does not die as it bursts out in deep sleep waking up to come to the real terms. Josselson (2008) stated that a lot of people deeply feel the fear of existential isolation when the thought of them being forgotten by one and all struck them at the core. It is scary but then it justifies Yalom’s (1980) statement that absolute isolation helps us achieve completeness. Instead of running away from isolation into the solace of material possessions and other social activities, I feel people must find some time for them to acknowledge the vastness of existential loneliness. People want others with them during the time of death but by no means, one can deny the truth of solitary death from any individual (Yalom, 2000). Due to isolation, anxiety emerges when an individual accepts the loneliness of death and life. However, reaction may differ for people with different mental strength. I have heard cases of people in trauma who feel trapped in their internal world of psychological and physical pain and hence tend to behave in a manner to avoid any close possibility of trauma due to external factors. That is where counselling is required to bring forth the concept of existential isolation. Yalom (1980) stated that people burn ego boundaries in their attempt to achieve interpersonal fusion to make cherished life, but people know little that they are using the other person for instant happiness. The ultimate solution relies on the attempt to encounter the aloneness which allows engaging on a deeper level with others (Yalom, 1980). In a clinical setting, it would be seen as a sign of emotional distress and has to be treated with complete attention. Similarly, Yalom (2008) has expressed the need to be transparent with the patients during counselling. Krug (2007), whilst backing Yalom’s stand on the same, applauded the contribution made by Yalom in the field of psychotherapy, especially the suggestion to develop a healthy interpersonal relationship with patients using the here-and-now method.
3. Existential Freedom: Free will and responsibility
Free well or freedom is desired by all, albeit in different forms. However, Yalom (1980) stated that freedom involves no fixed structure in life that makes every individual responsible for his or her own choices and the subsequent actions. The author added that there is no solid ground beneath the very existence of human beings. I realized the same power of freedom when I was to choose my career. Be it my family or friends, everyone had their own suggestions to influence my choice but the ultimate decision resided within me. The very feeling of free will to decide for your life is an exhilarating experience. Freedom lets people define and design their own destiny and hence the future course of actions. The need to be responsible for the coming life at a very deep level gives a sense of identity and existence in the world. It comes when we start making independent decisions and start accepting its repercussions, good and bad both. As per existential thinkers, every individual owns up the responsibility of creating his or her own destiny, problems, choices, emotions, sufferings and actions (Yalom, 1980). However, its is ironical that human beings blame others for any mis-happening or when something does not go as expected (May, 1999). Even though human being cannot be held responsible for their genetic composition, their origin, family and many other inherent characteristics, their present actions are very much in their own hands. Human beings are solely accountable for the way their life shapes up (Tillich, 1952). Every step taken against the law of nature brings some unwanted result, and this becomes the ultimate cause of pain and suffering. Every action against our very core nature results in negative repercussions such as misery, pain, or any illness in the end (Maslow, 1958). For instance, I have made many hasty decisions in life without weighing down the other options suggested by peers and my family. For instance, selecting the courses for the graduation was solely my decision which I made without thinking over my real competencies. In the end, it was me who borne the loss and happens to have lost many good job opportunities. Hopelessness occurs when people are reluctant to be ourselves and instead get carried away in the vicious cycle of mindless decision making which only ends at debacles (Kierkegaard, 1954).
Freedom is equivalent to being pushed into existence with the absence of human nature as an object of defining the essence of freedom (Sarte, 1949). The core conflict lies between the difficulty in accepting authentic choice and the irrepressible desire of embracing inauthenticity (Sartre, 1949). Echoing the belief of Yalom, Josselson (2008) stated that the universe has no specific design and thus every individual has to write his or her own lives in the way deemed fit whilst owing up the repercussions they may face due to the choices made. It means freedom or free will actually is a scary thing if human beings are left alone with their deeds. Thus, a key existential dynamic is the friction created between the desire to have a strong ground beneath and the actual groundlessness or nothingness of human life ( Yalom, 1980). There are many medical cases wherein patients have suffered from the feeling of groundlessness or existential suffering, and unfortunately, their coping mechanism which once worked fails in such situations (Bruce, Schreiber, Petrovskaya, & Boston, 2011). Often, the confrontation between freedom and responsibility results in serious health concerns surrounding the personality. Frankl (1977) confirmed that existential analysis brings out the fundamentals of human existence and the meaning of being human in terms of owning up the responsibility of actions.
4. The search for meaning
The ultimate question which every individual faces is the real or true meaning of life. An aimless or wandering life can be distressing at some or the other stage. Frankl (1977) asserted that the absence of meaning causes extreme existential stress. Bruce, Schreiber, Petrovskaya and Boston ( 2011) stated that existential distress can be defined as a state of morbid suffering in ailing people and includes issues related with disappointment, discontentment, futility, morose, death anxiety. When an individual is not satisfied with his or her own way of life, it can be very frustrating. This feeling can be very annoying and may cause extreme distress with no hope for a bright life left. Meaninglessness can be defined as the prolonged incapacity to have faith in the truth, relevance, benefit or real value entailed in any of the things an individual is occupied with (Maddi, 1970). Having no meaning to life can cause serious health concerns such as suicidal tendencies, low self-esteem, drugs, cynicism, depression and much more. One possible solution to come out of this dilemma is to develop a transcendental relationship with the divine self (Buber,1965). Cornett (1998) referring to Rollo May (1953) stated that many of the patients suffered from depression with a deep sense of meaninglessness, and that’s the reason he titled the 20th century as the “Age of Emptiness”. The primary trademark sign of depression is the strong belief that there is no meaning to life which in itself is an indication the perception of the self is not central to the life goals (Basch, 1980). By connecting with the higher self, people can search for their true purpose of their life and hence can leverage their efforts towards the direction of achieving the ultimate aim of the life.
Frankl (1969) defined meaning in three contexts: contribution towards creative field, experience gained, and stance or attitude against suffering and destiny. It basically entails a clear direction towards an objective destination, absence of which can put one into a confused state in life. As per Yalom(1980), there has been a meaning schema given by the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, which states that the world and human life are connected as per a divine plan. It means all the human beings are subjected to a specific purpose in this world and they are merely acting upon the will of the God. However, there are multiple interpretations to this belief as elaborated by many thinkers during the subsequent years. Szasz (1994) stated that religion has given a definition beyond the finite realm of meaning of life and such consolidated rejection may allow people to accept religious beliefs instead of the reality of death. Frankl (1977) like many other thinkers challenged the very foundation of religion to solve the existential challenges humans are embattled in. In contrast to the religious connotation, Yalom(1980) claimed that there is no predestined fate and life is germinated in result of random events and human beings have to look deeply into their behaviours to derive a meaningful schema for themselves. In the same lines, Cornett (1998) shared that spirituality is a huge concept and has often been kept at the rim of serious discussions. I feel there is lot of confusion between religion and spirituality and this is possibly the reason why spirituality is kept aside when discussing about clinical therapy. For those who are looking for meaning or purpose, they must engage in some meaning activities with complete devotion albeit without any deliberate attempt to find something magical.
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