The Future of Existential Psychology: A Necessary Pause

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Each day, most of us awake to a cacophony of internal and external commotion. Thoughts race in our heads with a list of activities to be accomplished by day’s end, partnered by an acute awareness of the limits of time. Confronted by breaking news from breathless reporters, the pinging of urgent text messages, and claims of those with whom we live, we describe most of our mornings in terms of racing out the door, jumping into our vehicles, and rushing to our destinations. Bombarded by technological advances, we are never far or free from contact. We can be located anywhere and everywhere—at work, at play, in a restaurant, and at moments as sacred as a wedding, a funeral, or the birth of a baby. There is no red light, no stop sign, no pause button to indicate an alteration of time and movement, to herald the need for a shift in rhythm and perspective. No regular break between home and work, work and play, work and vacation. Nothing to remind us to shut off our “automatic pilot” and actually notice our current experience. Now more than ever, we appear to be continuous reactors to an over abundance of stimuli on a 24-7 basis.

Having recently taught a seminar on existential psychotherapy, I was again reminded of its central tenets and the striking contrast between being and the doing I have described above. Everywhere I look, it seems people are energetically interacting with their cell phones. I find myself a willing participant, magnetically drawn to mine, whenever I am free. This appears to be the ideal antidote to feeling bored, lonely, afraid, even depressed.

I am calling for a return to an emphasis on being that existential philosophy embraces and that so many of us have studied, speak about and seek to implement in our work. I think those grounded in existential principles are more aware of the concepts of being, relating, and the meaning of present existence. It is not that the past, or the future do not inform our perception of a moment in time, and that doing is unimportant. Rather, it is the exploration and knowing of our full experiencing of the now, and being off “automatic pilot,” that ultimately generates shifts and change in our way of being. But, in today’s world of technological stimuli, do we incorporate these significant knowings in our own lives?

I am proposing that we reconsider our existence in light of today’s fast paced culture. I think the price we pay for a doing existence is grave. We need to take a necessary pause, and investigate our own living. I believe this can be accomplished through a frequent and intentional practice of reflection.

I see reflection as a cognitive exploration of our experience. I define it as a pausing in time, holding still our experience, heightening awareness of each of our senses, contemplating our body in space, considering the information we receive through self-study in the moment, and the meaning we attribute to the emergent knowing.

We ask ourselves questions such as:

•    What am I experiencing right now?
•    What sensations are present in my body?
•    What am I thinking?
•    What emotions are present?
•    Is there anything else that stands out in this moment?

Utilizing a compassionate stance, these “What’s going on right now?” questions allow for self-knowing to come forward. The “emergent knowing” that I speak of above becomes the discovery of the meaning our experience holds. In gaining a sense of meaning, there is a natural shift in our awareness, our perceptions, and finally in our behavior.

Reflection expands our experience; it places it in “slow motion” so that it may be fully experienced in all of its features. It may be a point of rest, release of tension, resolution of concern, or an opening for a slight shift or change in our direction. It might be an affirmation that promotes confidence, competence, or elation. The potential response varies with each unique moment.

Since we seem to be so heavily engaged in a doing mode these days, most likely, reflection will require a degree of intentionality. We will have to develop stopping points in our formulaic style of living and tolerate the discomfort that comes with being instead of doing. We will have to disconnect from the accouterments to which we have become so attached and alter the focus from the outside to the inside of ourselves, so we can access individual and personal meaning, and hopefully, greater peace of mind.

There no longer seems to be a natural respite where we take stock of ourselves and foster change and growth; we keep too busy. And modern technology helps us maintain a level of continual reactivity until we actually fall into bed at night. We never have to resort to being—we can easily remain in a doing state. However, through the practice of reflection, the necessary pause, I believe our lives can be enriched.

— Diane Blau

Today’s guest contributor, Diane Blau, PhD, is president of the Michigan School of Professional Psychology.

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