Re-visioning Existential Psychology Beyond the Consulting Room

In Judaism, there is a concept of social action called Tikkun Olam—repairing or healing the world. There are millions of large and small ways to do Tikkun Olam—from working in soup kitchens to volunteering in African refugee zones to recycling your trash. Two of my first tutors in existential psychotherapy in England, Mary Sullivan and Harriett Goldenberg (2003), wrote, “Some of us have chosen this particular mode of involving ourselves with the world of persons; we believe it to be the best for us to implement an intention to repair, and to ‘give something back.’ But what we’re about it more than that—what we attempt is…revolutionary activity, albeit on an individual scale” (pp. 152-153).

Last week, members of the New Existentialists presented aspects of their work at the eighth annual Society for Humanistic Psychology Conference (Division 32 of the American Psychological Association) in Palo Alto, CA. The focus was on Re-visioning Existential Psychology to bring it into the world at large. When I first studied existential psychology, it was about the philosophy—Heidegger, Husserl, Buber, Merleau-Ponty—and then it was about how to integrate that philosophy into the therapeutic space—Being-There, Being-With, dialogue, respect, creating a non-hierarchical relationship with the client.

But what we might now call the work of the New Existentialists has to encompass not only that foundation but also much much more. We have to take these ideas out the classroom and the consulting room and bring them into the world at large. Philosophers never just wrote about Being-in-the-Therapeutic-World, it was about Being-in-the-World—the Entire World, even if that turns out to encompass multiverses if you believe the latest astrophysicists.

Existence, relationship takes place both in and out of the consulting room. In the consulting room, in the therapeutic space, we use compassion, respectful listening, presence, and Being-With a client in his or her darkest moments as well as his or her highest highs to establish trust, build relationship, and create change.

These ideas can also be adapted to world at large. Kirk Schneider (2013), in his latest work, The Polarized Mind, talks about a Manhattan Project for Depth Psychology. This idea opens space for pilot research into psychotherapy programs for troubled youth in at-risk communities, integrating their families as well. It also involves bringing arts, humanities, and emotional intelligence curricula into schools and looking at how that impacts the development of children and their wisdom. Or bringing psychologically facilitated, mediated dialogue into political arenas—potentially the most highly charged of all.

Dana Klisanan (2014) speaks of the idea of “collaborative heroism.” She refers to the efforts of thousands who supported the relief work following Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines from thousands of miles away, and how those same kinds of efforts can be mobilized from afar—via new technologies—for the search and rescue efforts for the missing Malaysia airline flight. Thanks to new technologies, distance is no longer a hindrance to helping others.

When Heidegger (1927/1962) speaks in Being and Time of our obligation for Sorgen—Care—this is not a philosophical abstraction. Heidegger says that Care is a primordial structure—it comes before Being-There and Being-With and thus is completely inseparable from and essential to Being. “Being-in-the-World is essentially Care,” he wrote (§ 193). Furthermore, Care also always contains concern and solicitude (§ 194). Our Being-in-the-World requires that we show this Care for Others. And this care for Others cannot stop when we see our last client of the day or finish teaching our last student for the day.

How are we treating the person in the coffee shop from whom we buy our daily shot of caffeine? As a Thou or as an It?

How are we treating the person who nearly crashed into us with his or her shopping cart because they were texting? Did we stop to think that maybe there was a family emergency or did we assume the person was texting in his or her vote for Dancing With the Stars, or some such triviality, at the moment he or she almost crashed into us?

How are we treating the earth we live on when we are finished with our coffee? Did we take the time to compost or recycle where available or did we get lazy?

Last year, Richard Bargdill wrote a blog post for the New Existentialists about how he was going to participate in a local protest march in Richmond, Va., along with some of his students, as part of the larger nationwide March Against Monsanto, protesting the corporation’s GMO farming methods. However, it turned out that the local organizers in Richmond stepped down and the march was not going to happen. Rich wrote about contacting a local activist, putting together a committee, and gathering 350 marchers to stage that march in spite of the original organizers stepping down. Rich wrote that existential psychology is fundamentally about community building. And I would take that one step further—community building in support of building a more compassionate relationship with Others and our world. Rich did that by protesting against farming methods that have been creating “produce” of which we have no idea what the long-term effects are, and many of which could be potentially dangerous—we’ve already seen increases in anaphylactic food allergies linked to GMOs.

Who do you care about? What do you care about? How do you want to leave this world after you are gone? These issues—compassion, care, existence, finitude—are all existential but all are relevant not only for how clients create meaning in their worlds but also for how WE create meaning in our worlds.

Like all change, it takes courage, it takes time, and it takes baby steps. I offer up to you the following challenge—and mind you, this is not prescriptive, nor is it a moral imperative, as you are still free to reject the challenge. Do not let your compassion and presence end when you finish working with your last client, but extend it to something else in the world that needs your love and care—an underdog, a lost cause, a random act of kindness. Maybe it might be as small as picking up some litter and recycling it or giving your barista an extra smile or a thank you—that might be the first step towards your brave new life and a brave new world!

Bargdill, R. (2013). Existential activism.

Heidegger, M. (1927/1962). Being and time. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Klisanan, D. (2014). Collaborative heroism and you. Psychology Today.…

Schneider, K. J. (2013). The polarized mind. San Francisco, CA: University Professors Press.

Sullivan, M. M., & Goldenberg, H. (2003). Cradling the chrysalis: Teaching/learning psychotherapy. London, UK: Continuum.

A version of this was presented at the Society for Humanistic Psychology Conference on March 14, 2014.

— Sarah Kass

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