Monday, December 07, 2009

The Power of Connection: Existential Psychotherapy 6





There I was the other day viewing a talent show on RTE 1 which showed the inimitable and still youthful Dana - she of Eurovision fame - judging contestants from Ulster for some all-Ireland competition. I was not really interested in the contestants at all, but was quite taken by the quality of her judging. Several times she either complimented or criticized a contestant on their possession of or lack of what she termed "connection" with the audience. I felt her judgements were excellent, and her own "connection" with the contestants was superb.

Then, I recalled the phraseology of current political, social and economic pundits on the media. They invariably speak of what they term "a disconnect" between the Establishment and the people on the ground - the ordinary "Joe Soap" or punter in the street. Once again there is much sense and not a little wisdom in these criticisms.

Here is where I come to more existential insights into life as I continue to meditate and contemplate the words of Dr Irvin D Yalom, a wonderful contemporary psychiatrist and existential psychotherapist. Let's examine and explore what is meant by "connection."

As a teacher, I feel and believe that I truly understand what both Dana and Irvin D. Yalom are saying. When I was a young teacher, I can remember hearing a senior colleague refer to what he believed was the most important factor that went to make up a good teacher - he called that factor "presence." He'd say something like: "That young man/woman will make a good teacher: they have presence."

After some thirty years in the main-stream classrooms I am retraining as a Resource Teacher which means that I am now teaching boys with Asperger's Syndrome, Autism, ADHD, Dyspraxia, Dyslexia and Mild and Moderate General Learning Difficulties. Now, most of these classes are either one-to-one, groups of two or three or at most groups of six. To become a Resource Teacher one needs to be able to really connect with these pupils. It can never simply be a question of knowing one's subject. One needs a deep empathy with one's students, a real ability to connect with the student who most times will be struggling to understand whatever the curricular area being covered is. Indeed he or she may be struggle to "connect" with the world if they are autistic or in any other way disabled. How much greater the struggle would be if the teacher was unable to "connect."

Enough illustrations and examples. Let's get to the reflections on the nature of "connection" and "dis-connection." I will continue these reflections by following quite closely the musings of Irvin D. Yalom. Let's begin.

Human Connectedness:

Yalom avers that we human beings are, from our very conception, hardwired to connect with others of our species. In our very essence and in our existence we are creatures designed to connect. All psychological studies show convincingly, if indeed we did need to be convinced, that intimate relationships are a sine qua non for happiness. In other words the desire for "connection" or "connectedness" is at the heart of our very nature. However, that many in our modern world feel "cut off", isolated or disconnected goes without saying also. They feel that their very nature is thwarted, twisted and suffocated - use whatever metaphor you wish. We can call this the existential experience of alienation if we wish. In this regard we are very much an "unfinished" work of art.

Death: The Greatest Disconnect:

One cannot speak about existentialism without discussing the reality of death. Death is always an issue in any philosophical discussions, never mind existential ones. However, there is also the reality of dying to cope with, too. Indeed, very few of us mind death in the sense that if it is an eternal dreamless sleep, akin to our state of non-existence before our conception or birth, then it may indeed be quite attractive. Dying on the other hand we dread because it may be painful in many ways: physically, obviously and psychically as we let go our strong desire to live, our strong desire to reach out and connect. In short, dying is the breaking of connection - indeed the extinction of all connection or possibility thereof. I have long subscribed to the contemporary psychological truth that the real repression in modern life is not sex but rather death and indeed dying. Everywhere one looks life proclaims the power and beauty of living, the desire to live life to the full with all its endless possibilities. We drink all this in - along with the myth of possessions and power and success.

Yalom quotes another of my favourite authors on Buddhism - that is, Sogyal Rinpoche. This quotation is worth reflecting on here:
When we finally know we are dying, and all other sentient beings are dying with us, we start to have a burning, almost heartbreaking sense of the fragility and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, limitless compassion for all beings. (Quoted Yalom, p. 115)
And so when we comes to therapy, or indeed when we face any crisis in our lives, we are caught in a quandary which at its existential base, no matter what the crisis is, is a conflict between the desire to survive versus the threat of ultimate extinction. This is essentially what all existential literature and drama is about. The ways the ordinary soul deals with its mortality are as follows: Denial, Diversion, Displacement. Denial can be seen all around us: even when a person is faced with a terminal illness, almost the first reaction is that of denial: this cannot be happening to me! Displacement is where the person displaces death anxiety onto minor concerns - "Oh, I could not do that, it is too risky or dangerous," etc. Diversion is where the person gets involved in this, that or the other activity, and let's include all addictions here, to obliterate the thoughts of extinction.

Let me quote Yalom directly again:
Dying, however, is lonely, the loneliest event of life. Dying not only separates you from others, but also exposes you to a second, even more frightening form of loneliness: separation from the world itself. (Op.cit., 119)
Yalom goes on to declare that there are two kinds of loneliness linked with this contention: (i)everyday and (ii) existential loneliness. The first requires no elucidation here, while the second refers our being born into a world not one of us asked to see, being "thrown" out into it, and having to reach out from our own little world of self into that world shared with others. We also have to exit from that world alone, break the ties we have painfully made over the years of our earthly existence. Not alone that, but we each inhabit a private world known only to ourselves. All of this makes up existential loneliness. In short, following Kant and others, especially Freud, Jung and certainly Sartre, we very much make or create our own world, make our own meaning in it. And then, yes then, we observe it crumble away as we die. This is the very heart of existentialism.

To be continued.

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