by David Brazier
I would like to begin with a quotation from Hamlet. Hamlet is very suitable for our purpose. The play is full of existential questions, including, of course, that most fundamental one "To be or not to be". Hamlet comes up against a circumstance which is very much not of his choosing, namely the murder of his father, and he must decide how or indeed whether to act authentically in this unsought situation. I could have chosen many passages and have settled for this one from Act 2, scene 2:
Hamlet:..Let me question more in particular: what have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?
Guildenstern: Prison, my lord!
Hamlet: Denmark's a prison.
Rosencrantz: Then is the world one.
Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o' the worst.
Rosencrantz: We think not so, my lord.
Hamlet: Why then 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.
Rosencrantz: Why then your ambition makes it one; 'tis too narrow for your mind.
This paper is concerned with the existential roots of our and our clients' feelings of liberation and imprisonment, genuineness and inauthenticity. Life is given to us and we may take it or we may shun it. If we take it, we must make something of it. The basic existential questions, therefore, concern not whether we make a palace or a prison but whether we choose life or let it go by default.
Let us begin with some definitions.
Existentialism is the study of the manner of our being in the world. It concerns the way in which we come to terms with existential issues such as birth, death, limitation, uncertainty, and guilt.
Phenomenology is the study of the way our lives are shaped by the process of perception. Phenomenological method is the attempt to clear away (bracket) bias and preconception, as far as possible, in order to see the world more clearly.
Eigenwelt and gegenwelt are terms coined by the existential analyst Ludwig Binswanger for two modes of experiencing the world. They have a rough correspondence to "subjective" and "objective" or to "self" and "other" but really they do not speak about entities but about modes of perception.
Eigenwelt is everything that I perceive and experience as "my world". It contains everything that I identify with.
Gegenwelt is everything that I perceive and experience as "outside". It is the world I come up against.
Clearly, what is or is not within my eigenwelt may vary from time to time. It certainly varies from person to person. Think, for instance of the way in which we view our homes. For one person there is a sense of being at one with the house of residence, it has become an extension of self. For another person, the house is outside, alien, they have nothing of themselves invested in it. This is a frequent source of misunderstanding in families. And it is not just houses and cars which may or may not become extensions of self. Louis XIV's "L'Etat, c'est moi", lies near one extreme. At the other, we may sometimes not even see our own bodies as our own, especially when, as in illness, they start to misbehave. So the boundary between eigenwelt and gegenwelt is a variable one.
A SPECTRUM OF EXPERIENCING
If I experience everything as eigenwelt and nothing as gegenwelt, then I am in a state of total communion with the universe. This would be a mystical state. Some say it is the state of the newborn infant, but this is disputed. It has something in common with what Rolland called "oceanic feeling" and Melanie Klein calls the "good breast".
If I experience everything as gegenwelt and nothing as eigenwelt, then I am in a state of total alienation with no sense of my own resources. Everything is against me and I feel helpless. This would be despair, the "bad breast".
Subjectively we exist between these poles. "Existence" comes from Greek word meaning to depart from or to change one's position or to be astonished (Heaton 1990, p2). Existence is that which stands out, that which forms a distinct gestalt. The term phenomenon similarly comes from the Greek word for "shine". To have existence in the phenomenal world is to stand out in some way, neither merging with the universe (at the all-eigenwelt pole) nor being annihilated by it (at the all-gegenwelt pole).
EXISTENCE REQUIRES COURAGE
To exist, therefore, means to stand out. It means to stand for something, to be something, not just to merge. According to existential thinking, we can be aware of our existence or we can try to hide from it. Being aware of it involves suffering. Hiding from it can never be totally successful and so also leads to suffering. This is the existential dilemma.
To exist in a state of awareness is called authenticity. It leads to suffering because, insofar as I stand out against the world, I incur a debt of guilt. As soon as I dare to be something, I create a disjuncture between my world and the worlds of others. The suffering involved in existing authentically is called "angst".
To avoid angst, people almost invariably adopt some degree of self-deception, that is, they choose to live inauthentically. Sartre calls this "bad faith". Inauthenticity can manifest in any aspect of life. Sartre give examples of the way people deceive themselves in the early stages of relationships, when they pretend that they are not really giving the other person enticing signals. In a more poetic way, "The story is told (by Kierkegaard) of the absent-minded man so abstracted from his own life that he hardly knows he exists until, one fine morning, he wakes up to find himself dead" (Barrett 1964, p3)
CHOICE AND COMMITMENT
Authenticity, therefore, is to accept that one is the author of one's own story. We would all prefer to have some certainties to have recourse to so that we can know whether we are "doing the right thing" or not but the comfort of certainty rules out freedom of choice. "Authenticity requires us to acknowledge this freedom of choice in our experience of the world. But if we do so we are led, inevitably, to a number of initially unsuspected and disagreeable conclusions. If we are free to interpret our experience of the world, then we can no longer presuppose any definitive or ultimate interpretation; we can no longer be certain" (Spinelli 1989, p112). When we hang onto certainty we unwittingly give up the ability to play a part of our own in life and become instead a series of "counterparts" (Fayek 1981) to others, a course which annihilates the soul.
Consider this passage from Milan Kundera's wonderful novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" (page 6-7):
"I have been thinking about Tomas for many years.. I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking across the courtyard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do.
"He had first met Tereza about three weeks earlier in a small Czech town. They had spent scarcely an hour together. She had accompanied him to the station and waited with him until he boarded the train. Ten days later she paid him a visit. They made love the day she arrived. That night she came down with a fever and stayed a whole week in his flat with the flu.
"He had come to feel an inexplicable love for this all but complete stranger; she seemed a child to him, a child someone had put in a bullrush basket daubed with pitch and sent downstream for Tomas to fetch at the riverbank of his bed.
"She stayed with him a week, until she was well again, then went back to her town, some hundred and twenty-five miles from Prague. And then came the time I have just spoken of and see as the key to his life: Standing by the window, he looked out over the courtyard at the walls opposite him and deliberated.
"Should he call her back to Prague for good? He feared the responsibility. If he invited her to come, then come she would, and offer him up her life.
"Or should he refrain from approaching her? Then she would remain a waitress in a hotel restaurant of a provincial town and he would never see her again.
"Did he want her to come or did he not?
"He looked out over the courtyard at the opposite walls seeking an answer."
Tomas looks at the walls opposite (gegen) him, hoping they will yield up an answer, an answer that could only really come from within. Yet any answer that did come from within would involve risk and responsibility. How often do our clients, and we ourselves, look at the walls opposite us and hope that they will relieve us of the necessity to choose. This motif is so like the situation of the meditator in the zen monastery who conjures up his koan, his basic problem with life, by sitting gazing at a whitewashed wall.
Authenticity is about not hiding from oneself. Often enough we make decisions by default. Many people live the greater part of their lives in this way. And then wonder why they feel unreal. Tomas, in the story, does not ask Tereza to Prague but she comes anyway. His life become totally entwined with her, yet he does not know whether he has decided to be with her or not. He is surprised at himself when he fetches her possessions to his flat.
"Again it occurred to him that Tereza was a child put in a pitch-daubed bulrush basket and sent downstream. He couldn't very well let a basket with a child in it float down a stormy river! If the Pharoah's daughter hadn't snatched the basket carrying little Moses from the waves, there would have been no Old Testament, no civilization as we now know it! How many ancient myths begin with the rescue of an abandoned child! If Polybus hadn't taken in the young Oedipus, Sophocles wouldn't have written his most beautiful tragedy!
"Tomas did not realize at the time that metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with. A single metaphor can give birth to love."
- ibid, pp.10-11
I have talked to so many clients who do not know whether they chose their lives or not.
THE UNIVERSAL PROBLEM
From an existential perspective, therefore, the universal problem is whether one has the courage to exist in an authentic way. Can one accept the responsibility, guilt and angst involved in taking any action? This is the challenge facing both clients and therapists.
INAUTHENTICITY AS THERAPY
From this analysis, we can see that there is a difficulty for therapists, since short term symptomatic treatment may actually be a move toward inauthenticity. To help a client to deny responsibility may well, in the short run, produce symptomatic relief. We live inauthentically because, in the short run at least, it is more comfortable. Many clients, perhaps most, will invite the therapist to collude in some strategy of this kind.
If I am on the point of doing something inauthentic, irresponsible or harmful, I will feel much better about it if my therapist lets me believe I have no choice, or that my selfishness is necessary for my mental stability. I will certainly make such a therapist feel he or she is doing a good job. But the therapist who does not collude with me will certainly not get my favour! So how is the therapist to proceed to win the client to authenticity?
THERAPY AS INAUTHENTICITY
Similarly, there is a second dilemma in the fact that therapy is an "artificial" relationship. Being paid to care has a false ring to it. I listen to my client and am moved deeply by his/her life tragedy, then I go and have my tea. How authentic are we being?
In this respect, we might remember Simmel's analysis of different forms of relationship, according to which the alliance formed in therapy has more in common with a special form of acquaintanceship than it has with intimacy. The therapist is, after all, in the great majority of cases, a servant of the client rather than a life companion (Simmel 1950; Doubt 1990).
John Heaton talks about what he calls philosophical therapy, contrasting it with the techniques of "psychological therapies". He writes:
"Psychological therapies are techniques which depend on a theory of the mind, they aim to increase knowledge. So the sort of life the psychological therapist leads does not matter as far as his/her effectiveness as a therapist is concerned and as long as new knowledge is produced..
"Philosophical therapy rises out of the philosopher's life; thus the Greeks and Romans were very interested in how the philosopher lived his life and how he died. For the mark of a philosopher was that he was not a slave to pleasure and pain and he had overcome irrational fears of death. It would have struck them as absurd to go to someone for therapy who was ambitious, greedy or envious; for these are diseases of the soul and if the therapist is not cured of them how could he hope to cure others? (Heaton 1990, p.5).
Heaton believes, it seems, that modern psychotherapy has lost something in its espousal of "technique" and he attributes this development to Freud, though it is by no means clear that Freud thought the character of the analyst of no account nor that he was the first to use "techniques" in therapy. Heaton suggests that what a therapist may need is not so much a training as "a philosophical apprenticeship" (ibid).
The basic question he is rightly highlighting is, of course, that of the extent to which our therapeutic activity is or is not all-of-a-piece with the rest of our life. Does it enhance or disguise our existence? And if we ourselves are not authentic in our being in the counselling situation, can we hope to really help our clients? This is, as we know, also a concern in much person-centred literature, from Rogers'(1957) establishment of "congruence" as one of the core conditions of his theory to Lietaer's (1991) recent address on authenticity at this year's Stirling Conference. Simmel's analysis suggests that we can only remain authentic in our "paid to care" role so long as we remember our status as servants. Only in this capacity can we remain honourably within the most intimate corners of the client's world on a temporary contract basis.
In terms of eigenwelt and gegenwelt, from the client's perspective, therapy presents a striking paradox. The therapist is allowed "in" often to a degree not permitted to anyone else. Yet the therapist also remains part of the gegenwelt and the therapeutic relationship remains an encounter with the unknown.
LIMITS AND BOUNDARIES
The distinction between eigenwelt and gegenwelt is the manufacture of a boundary for the self. Boundaries are a function of existing. It looks as if it is the other way round. Ask a child to draw a house and the child will draw the outline, as though it was the outline which defined the object. Actually the outline is not the house. The outline does not exist. The house exists and so there arises the notion of an edge to its existence which the child then tries to represent on paper. Consciousness of existence brings boundary-consciousness but the boundary does not exist in its own right nor do boundaries create existence for us. If we rely upon boundaries to create our existence for us, we will inevitable live inauthentically. Hence Sartre's comment (about his time in the French resistance) "it was when we were most oppressed that we were most free". When the oppression was greatest, people were willing to risk themselves every day, they went beyond their habitual limits. Nothing was anymore taken for granted. A client of mine was afflicted by a severe depression and sense of anomie until, one day, the community in which she lived was afflicted by disaster. Suddenly she came to life and became one of the most active citizens in the struggle, organizing her neighbours and achieving results which benefitted many local people. Six months earlier she could not even look after herself satisfactorily.
In more peaceful times we settle into the conventional bounds and let them live our life for us. But when we do so, we feel less real. Another of my clients said: "Othello is my favourite reading except when it is the set book. As soon as it is defined as 'work' I lose interest in it". I think most of us can recognize this. We allow ourselves to be defined by others.
And yet, there are limits which we cannot overturn. Emmy Deurzen-Smith talks about "limit situations", a term taken from Jaspers: " humans will inevitably come up against situations, experiences and events which will, as it were, cut them back down to size and put them back into their place as mere mortals. Death, chance, guilt and the uncertainty of the world imply that we will suffer sooner or later. This suffering and the poignancy of our limitations are what keeps us real and alive. When we try to deny our vulnerability and our fateful failure and helplessness, we block the process of transformation which we are part of... people are inclined to hide and obscure these truths to themselves - and thus drift away from self-knowledge and into pathology" (Deurzen-Smith 1990, p10).
The most impressive limit is death. We all live in some sort of knowledge of the fact of our inevitable death. And death can come at any time. How will I feel about my life at that moment. Many of our clients, perhaps some of us, suffer essentially from a sense of waste. Like the man in Kierkegaard's story, will we wake up before we find ourselves dead? And is not that sense of waste, that guilt toward ourselves, the very inner voice that could awaken us? Therapies which aim to take away our guilt may be misguided.
Is guilt all bad? How many clients say "I couldn't do what I want to do because I would feel guilty". And how many therapists say, in effect, "You don't need to feel guilty"? The therapeutic process often involves a subtle negotiation about guilt. And this is really a negotiation about authenticity. We want that our clients become authentic and we want that our client cease to suffer and these two aims may be incompatible. We are caught on the horns of a dilemma.
If each person is to live their own truth, must they not also pay their own bills? And are we not all in debt? In the Japanese therapy called Naikan (Reynold 1980), the prime emphasis is to ask the client to reflect upon the extent of his or her debt, first to mother and then to all those who have kept one alive so long. In our present day society, we have learned to think in terms of rights rather than debts and to raise this point seems rather old-fashioned. I suspect, however, that the soul is not so fashion-conscious and that it is the sense of debt that may be a surer guide to inner truth than the clamour for unconditional absolution. If therapy simply absolves us will we not simply be left with that "unbearable lightness of being"? Passion and comfort are infrequent companions.
PASSION, CREATIVITY AND SPONANEITY
Moreno, the inventor of psychodrama, was strongly influenced by existential thought (Brazier 1991). He lamented the fact that, as he saw it, in modern mass society people lose the ability to be spontaneous, to stand out in any way. The whole method of psychodrama is designed to explore how a person can stand out from his/her "cultural conserve", how an authentic eigenwelt can arise amidst the stulifying gegenwelt in which the client is often found drowning.
More recent existential therapists are similarly concerned to help people get in touch with their passion and to create themselves in the midst of and in active engagement with the world they encounter. The meeting of eigenwelt and gegenwelt is captured by the word "encounter" and encounter "can be ecstasy or anguish" (Estrada 1982, p4). The idea of encounter, in the psychotherapeutic usage of the term, began with Moreno and has since been an important concept in a wide range of humanistic-existential therapies, particularly the applied phenomenology of Carl Rogers.
Existence is both given and created. On the one hand we first find that we exist: "the wonder of wonders: that there is in fact something rather than nothing. This is undoubtedly the essence of philosophy: to be in wonder and stop taking existence for granted. Assisting clients in rediscovering this source of life and curiosity underneath all the everyday complexities and complication must be one of the aims" (Deurzen-Smith 1990, p9).
One of them, yes indeed. But creating our existence is not just to stand in awe before the other (gegen). It is also to create something private (eigen), something of one's own. Without privacy life becomes a wasteland, a concentration camp, like the childhood situation from which Tereza fled in Kundera's novel. "Almost from childhood, she knew that a concentration camp was nothing exceptional or startling but something very basic, a given into which we are born and from which we can escape only with the greatest of efforts" (Ibid, p137).
The therapist is simultaneously within the private world of the client and on the outside. If one is going to escape from a prison, be it Hamlet's Denmark or Tereza's mother's home, it helps to have an ally on each side of the fence.
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REYNOLDS D.K. 1980, The Quiet Therapies, Univ of Hawaii Press, Honolulu
ROGERS C.R. 1957, "The Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Therapeutic Personality Change", Jl of Consulting Psychology, 21, pp.97-103
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Originally an address given in November 1991
at the Eigenwelt Centre for Phenomenological Psychotherapy
First published in the Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis 1992
This edition printed and published by
International Zen Therapy Institute (ITZI)
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