Psychotherapy as a politial act: first thoughts

Among Sartre’s publications one that stands out as a political tract is the small but profound work, Anti-semite and Jew. His analysis of the roots of prejudice, and his understanding of how the process of persecution arises, makes a valuable and insightful contribution to understanding a contemporary western world that is currently living in the wake of the near collapse of finance capitalism. A world characterised by constant subjection to the fear of the stranger, epitomised by rising anti-immigrant fervour; an increasing persecution internationally of minorities such as gays and bi-sexuals; and the rolling back of female emancipation. We live in a world increasingly characterised by an apprehension of difference.

The issues that bring patients to therapy are rooted in concerns derived from relations with the ‘other’, whether (as is usually the case) other people, or the ‘other’ in terms of social, cultural or physical environments. When the ‘other’ is not known sufficiently it leads to existential uncertainty. Such uncertainty generates anxiety, which if unresolved or too strong to be held, turns the subject towards what Sartre describes as irrational responses, often projections of blame, anger or guilt onto the ‘stranger’ (or the ‘strange phenomenon’), because not to do so would generate a sense of self that is not acceptable, would undermine this ephemeral sense of identity. These are not responses grasped from nowhere, but often poorly rationalised and emotional responses to experiences of perceived or real suffering.

The individual may equally project that (initially) pre-reflective sense of non-acceptance inwards, and interiorise the experience, (a more common occurrence I suggest for those who come to therapy), a process that undermines (or in some particularly difficult cases overdetermines) the ephemeral sense of self that we all seek. I would add, however, notwithstanding the interiorisation of such alienation, a dialectic process ensures that there is a response in which the individual’s interactions with society are reinforced. She may also respond to the possibility of group activity (a process of exteriorisation), and adhere to collective manifestations of prejudice, or hostility towards the ‘stranger’, such that the dialectic engenders a self-reinforcing process of non-acceptance towards the ‘other’.

As Sartre argues, we are free because we choose within our context, and in making choices we create the opportunity to express our subjectivity in our interactions with our world. So, too, does the ‘other’. To deny our own freedom is to deny our subjectivity and is the ultimate deception. From this notion of ‘freedom and authenticity’, it is possible to conceive of an ethical framework and a political agenda.

Any discussion of the political nature of psychotherapy, pre-supposes an ethical perspective. This is captured by the potential for reciprocity that exists in our relations with the ‘other’. This notion essentially forms the bedrock of ‘good’ as opposed to ‘bad faith’. Sartre had argued in his early work that being-for-others involved ultimately either surrendering subjectivity in order to capture the other through submission, or objectifying and subordinating the other to ones’ own subjectivity. He described this as denying one’s own freedom or that of the ‘other’, through either voluntary or wilful submission of subjectivity. Freedom is an expression of the subjective. To deny one’s freedom is to be in ‘bad faith’. It is possible, within this rubric, to assert the possibility of a mutuality of interest, or reciprocity of knowing, in human relationships. If we are able to meet the other not as an object, with the implicit threat described in the ‘look’, but as a subject to be affirmed and accepted then the possibility of reciprocity (and intimacy) is present. As suggested by Sartre’s later writings, we are free to choose, while accepting the freedom of the other to do likewise.

Existentialist thought in part arose through the rejection of the conception of Man as merely mechanistically determined. As a conscious being she is set apart from both inanimate objects and other animals and plants. This debate is even more intense today, although the voices against this fundamentalist view of science are unfortunately a minority. The question remains: are we totally determined beings, both physiologically and concomitantly psychologically, or is there some point where we are able to break out of past conditioning and act as free and conscious agents? The message of B&N emphasised the latter: ‘being-for-itself’, effectively consciousness, was always free to choose. Even in passivity we inexorably choose who we are. The notion of praxis highlighted in the Critique reinforces the possibilities created by conscious choice, even though in this later work Sartre was to clarify the limitations of choice, and recognise the weight of conditioning, especially of the early, formative years. There remained, however, a window for freedom, for choice, for without that window how can we be held responsible for our actions; how can history not become formulaic? The starting point for an existential ethics remains the concept of existential freedom. I suggest that the underlying philosophical framework that Sartre elucidated, shows the practice of psychotherapy to be a political act, one that is orientated towards both freedom and authenticity in the manner in which the individual (or singular universal) expresses her dialectical interaction with the world.

In order to justify this statement I will define a political act as a purposive intervention that impacts, in some way, on the totality of relationships that constitute a social context; and one that is premised on an ethical perspective. I understand that within the therapeutic context the individual has a perspective, of a varying degree of concreteness, of themselves that is based on a dialectical relationship between the world as she perceives it, and the felt sense of self described by her fundamental project. From within that process emerge the manifestations of anxiety that are her way of responding to her world. I suggest that in the context of psychological trauma, of whatever degree, there is a response that is a denial of freedom in some form, a loss of authenticity in her relations with the world, either through negation of her own freedom or that of the ‘other’. The role of psychotherapy is to enable the individual to draw down the blinds of ‘fear and loathing’; to achieve a heightened awareness of her transient self; and to know and accept her own subjectivity as well as the subjectivity of others.

Acceptance of the freedom of the ‘other’ is a quintessential part of this. Acceptance of one’s own freedom also implies acceptance of responsibility: we choose our freedom and concomitantly accept responsibility for that choice. But in doing so we recognise and accept the freedom of the ‘other’, since such acceptance is the premise upon which one’s own freedom is based. As Sartre emphasises:

I am obliged to will the freedom of others at the same time as I will my own. I cannot set my own freedom as a goal without also setting the freedom of others as a goal

As outlined above, developments of Sartre’s work suggest that relationships (of whatever form) are not stable unless based on reciprocal acceptance, and that the achievement of the latter is the experience of freedom. It is a psychological liberation. Such an act of liberation, because we are social animals, because our praxis can and does change the world, even in an infinitesimal way, is a political act. The dialectical processes, which are an unalienable consequence of our touching of the world, engender a response and counter-response to our praxis (or hexis).

And it contributes to a progressive politics, since where there is mutual acceptance there is no space for a hierarchy of needs, and the concomitant aggrandisement and exploitation; or the exaggeration of difference and rejection of the stranger that characterises the politics of fear and hate. Rather it is a politics that recognises the mutual interdependence of social relationships, one premised on egalitarian values. It is the politics of freedom and liberation, a cause that Sartre promoted for much of his life.

Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

A Brief Note on the Self, Western Existentialism and Psychotherapy

If we trace western thinking on the ‘self’ back to Socrates and Plato, that tradition sought to find the ‘real’ nature of things through a process of reason such that thought, or the knowledge that it produced, might lead to an understanding of such a reality, and that what is observed is just a representation of some real or transcendent property that is only accessible through attainment of a ‘higher’ knowledge. There is thus a separation between what is observed and what ‘is’, or the appearance of ‘things’ and their true nature. This duality governed western thinking for many centuries, and was systematically framed by Descartes who saw the mind (or the subject) as something eternal and separate from the body. The ‘self’ in this view would be an approximation towards, and something separate from, a reality, or a ‘true’ nature. There was something essential and fixed about this true nature that could be objectified and observed through knowledge (or religious practice).

Although the work of Kierkegaard and (separately) Nietzsche were significant antecedents, it was the work of Husserl, perhaps, that brought about a radical departure within the western philosophical tradition, bringing the quest for ‘what is real’ to within a description of what is observed, and away from theological or scientific speculation and the pursuit of ‘knowledge’. From the perspective of phenomenology, perspectives on ‘self’ were placed squarely within the framework of subjectivity. Students that gathered around him included Heidegger, Levinas and Gadamer, a group of thinkers that are still very influential today in some psychological traditions.

While the importance of Husserl’s pioneering work is generally recognised, the ‘problem’ of the ‘self’ remained in so far it was now subsumed within an all-encompassing subjectivity (the transcendent subject), or perhaps transformed into the objective ontological entity of ‘being’ aka Heidegger. Ironically, the reification (and arguably objectification) of ‘being’ by Heidegger, was instrumental in the post-modern or post-structural dead-end of deconstruction that finally demolished the subject altogether. Sartre too was initially profoundly influenced by Husserl and phenomenology, and one of his first publications was a critique of the ‘transcendent subject’ that he encountered in Husserl’s work.

But it was Sartre more than anyone else (through his association with de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty and others), who founded a tradition of thought that can be described as western existentialism, and attempted to retain a sense of the subject (or ‘self’), while accepting that when we look away the ‘thing itself’ still exists. His statement that ‘existence precedes essence’ is perhaps meant as a clarification of the phenomenological tradition that allows for the paradoxical nature of the space within which we exist. Paradoxical in the sense that it recognises the subjective lens through which we experience the world, and hence gather a sense of ‘self’; while at the same time acknowledging that the lens as well as the ‘self’ so gathered are constantly being re-created by the objective (though conditional and contingent) context in which this sense exists, while in turn impacting upon that world. That space occupied by the ‘self’ therefore, is neither subject nor object in this case, neither one nor the other, but between the two, or both in dialectical relation; that which Sartre in his later work described as the ‘universal singular’. This paradox, I believe, is of fundamental importance to psychotherapy, as is the rescuing of the subject from both the determinism of Freud and the ravages of post-modern philosophy. For without an acceptance of a space within which a subject can engage with the world, there can be no concept of freedom (or choice) and no purpose in therapeutic engagement. Similarly, the idea that therapy can be about the revelation of what one already is, rather than traversing this dialectical process of becoming, and the alternative possibilities of who one might choose to be, seems both limiting and therapeutically pointless.

Posted in Existential Psychotherapy | Leave a comment

Thoughts on Buddhist and Western concepts of attachment

Western conceptions of attachment theory, at first glance, seem very different to Buddhist notions of attachment but, I suggest, this is partly down to interpretations and use of the word, rather than necessarily a divergence of concept. In thinking about attachment and attachment theory, I will begin by outlining a framework within which both may sit in a way that makes sense of each.

I take as a starting point the premise that we are relational beings that seek through our relationships to give meaning to our lives. These relationships maybe with other humans (primarily), and other phenomena including our physical and social environments. We seek to give our lives purpose and value in a way that makes our lives meaningful. At the same time, the being that searches for meaning is both transient and contingent. Transient in the sense that our sense of ourselves is in a constant state of change, is never still or known entirely as we may perceive an object to be known; and contingent in so far as our perceptions and choices are always, to a degree, conditional on our current context and past experience, as well as the choices of others. The being that makes meaning, therefore, is continuously in a state of change, of becoming. If our lived experience (our pre-reflective awareness of phenomena) is such that it is consistent with this sense of becoming, then it is more possible for us to feel comfortable with ourselves, to feel “authentic”. Lived experience that causes us to be in conflict with our sense of becoming, or to render this process inaccessible, thwarted or uncomfortably uncertain, causes us emotional discomfort or pain and lie at the root of the many surface pathologies that are described in the proliferating literature on psychological ‘disorders’.

I going to assume that the idea of ‘lived experience’ broadly corresponds from a Buddhist perspective to Samskara, the psychological structure through which we experience Rupa or phenomena. How we experience phenomena reflects how comfortable we are with our transient and contingent nature, with our becoming. Too great a sense of vulnerability or insecurity in the face of this uncertain world will cause us to cling to phenomena, to attempt to use them for comfort by giving ourselves a greater sense of affirmation (by self or others) and solidity, a greater sense of identity. But the uncertainty of the world seems an inevitable and impossible circumstance. This uncertainty inevitably causes us to feel a sense of existential anxiety (experience Dukkha), and our clinging, becoming attached to phenomena reinforces our defence against uncertainty, because if we can construct an identity through these attachments we feel more solid, more defended against this anxiety.

From a Buddhist perspective attachment involves holding on to things, people or other phenomena, a response that can become self-reinforcing and cumulative as the underlying anxiety is not assuaged. Attachment can be viewed, therefore, as a self-defeating form of resistance to (defence against) this underlying existential anxiety. Buddhism suggests that this deep anxiety, this suffering is a natural and inevitable part of being human, but that we can work to reduce it (or even surpass it) through, firstly, seeing through the illusions that we create as part of our defences (Avidya), seeing beyond Rupa, and, secondly, through the way we live our lives. Mindfulness, it seems (to me), is about creating the foundation for these processes.

Before looking at western ideas of attachment, I want to point towards a single aspect of suffering, our defences against anxiety, and that is our relations with others. The way we engage with ‘the other’ (rather than ‘that which is other’) is a profound influence on our sense of becoming (sense of self). The more insecure or vulnerable we feel in the face of the ‘other’, the more we seek to concretise and make solid our sense of identity, or create a self that can be defended. From the buddhist perspective, therefore, our relations with others is a significant conditioning factor of the desire to attach to phenomena.

The Western conception of attachment stems from the work of Bowlby and Ainsworth, and can be viewed as a behavioural response to the deficiencies of psychoanalytic (particularly Kleinian) perspectives on development psychology. The initial approach emphasised the significance of early relationships with ‘significant others’, arguing that patterns of response or ways of relating to others later in life could be seen as stemming from the way that early carers (most commonly mothers) interacted with the baby and infant. Certain types of behaviour on the part of the carer would elicit corresponding patterns of engagement with others on the part of the child, patterns that are carried through into adulthood. The benchmark of this perspective is the creation, by the carer, of a secure base ((Ainsworth), whereby an environment of affirmation and reassurance (unconditional love?) is adequate for the infant to experience a sense of security (uncertainty is not overwhelming), but that (a) it is not so pronounced that it mitigates against any possibility of independent navigation of the world by the infant (dependence on the carer), or (b) not so lacking that the infant can only deal with the world through erecting defences against it. In essence the theory argues that an insecure base (as describe by (a) and (b)) can lead to a number of responses to ‘others’ depending on the nature of that insecurity, responses that can be grouped under the headings of ‘anxious’ (arising from (a) with subtypes) and ‘avoidant’ (arising from (b)). A third category would be some mixture of these two.

While a variety of responses may be observed within each of the two main categories, the main thrust of the argument runs that insecure attachments at this early stage of development lead to dysfunctional ways of relating to others. These can be reduced to an attempt to reinforce a sense of self or identity through clinging to an ‘other’, to seek identity through the existence of the other, or its opposite: the desire to find identity in spite of, or apart from the other. Often, it is argued, both manifestations of insecurity may be present in the same or in different contexts for the same individual. In any case, there is a response to insecurity that seeks to construct an object (an other) in the process of fashioning an identity to adhere to.

Of course, the theory is predicated on the idea of ‘good’ secure attachment and here it would seem that most commentators are less able to be so precise or to categorise this abstraction so successfully. Winnicott, although of a different theoretical persuasion, was broadly of the same era (and genre) as Bowlby and Ainsworth and spoke of a ‘good enough’ mother or significant carer. The term suggests not a phenomenon but a continuum, and there is a sense imparted in his work that suggests that the provision of a secure base (or ‘good enough parenting’) is a precise term that attempts to describe an imprecise but acceptable level of existential anxiety. Acceptable in so far as it is a level that renders it ‘manageable’ without excessive clinging (or rejection, another form of clinging) to objects (Rupa) in order to make the world seem more meaningful.

I am not trying to suggest that western attachment theory is not useful or insightful, I am sure it is both of these things. But I believe it to be only a partial and relatively superficial vehicle for explaining human behaviour. As a particular form of attachment (to other humans) it is often a fundamental form but, I would argue, its explanatory potential is greatly enhanced if it is understood within the broader perspective of an existential or Buddhist psychology. Although the use of the term ‘attachment’ in the two traditions is superficially very different, however, the deeper and broader perspective of an existential (eastern/western) interpretation provides a perspective that allows us to move beyond the narrow specificity of what has become known as attachment theory to one where we may understand it as part of the underlying problematic of ‘identity-creation’.

Posted in Existentialism East and West | Leave a comment

Introducing this blog

This blog is designed to explore ideas related to existential psychotherapy. Initially, I will focus on two related but distinct areas for discussion. The purpose of the first is to discuss the connections and distinctions between western existentialism (that is within the Sartrean tradition); and eastern existentialism (or Buddhist psychology). The second theme will consist of musings on the existential background to psychotherapy.

Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment