Existential Philosophy and The Myths of Life
Existential philosophy offers a radically different perspective on who we are as individuals. Existential psychotherapy has been described ‘A tutorial in the art of living’. It celebrates our uniqueness and encourages us to look at our subjective experiences. By becoming clearer about our values, beliefs and recurring patterns, we are invited to re-appraise our choices and consider the consequences of changing and taking full responsibility for our part in creating what we experience. Existential psychotherapy enables the client to move from being an unconscious expert of their life to a conscious one – one who takes responsibility for their own life and who learns to live with the anxiety that meaningful living entails.
All philosophy attempts to understand that nature of who we are and what the purpose of being alive is. The search for identity and the nature of Self has occupied poets, theologians, philosophers, psychologists and individuals for centuries. There are many different perspectives on Identity and Self. Some focus on the Self in some sense fixed and definable from the selves of others. Others point to the interpersonal nature of individual identity or that we become who we are by seeing what others make of us.
Existential philosophy grew as a particular perspective in Continental Europe in the early part of the 20th century. The teachings are complex and often difficult to grasp and my desire to make it accessible to people’s personal lives and everyday experience resulted in me developing the Myths of Life Concepts, outlined in my book The Myths of Life and The Choices We Have (2005).
The Myths of Life concept is based on Existential-Phenomenological principles
The Existential-Phenomenological (E-P) perspective questions the assumption of fixed identity, instead, seeing Self as a focal point in relation, i.e. the-self-in-relation (to others, to itself) rather than a fixed or separate entity (Heidegger 1962, Boss 1963, Spinelli 1994). The Self is not a substance but a verb, a potentiality (May 1983). Thus, the Self is indefinable other than in a relational sense, i.e. a relational construct and the fixed notion of Self can be seen as a personally and culturally, sedimented belief. Sedimentation is the term used to describe how our values and beliefs are ‘sedimented’ into our psyche from birth. If you think of how sediment builds up gradually over many years in the bed of a river, so it is with how our values are gradually absorbed into our sense of self from our family, our peers and our community. Often this has happened so slowly and insidiously that we are not aware of the difference between values that have been sedimented within us and values that we have consciously chosen for ourselves.
Spinelli (2001) offers an alternative way of understanding the self and accounting for ‘unconscious’ phenomena. He distinguishes between individuals developing their own invented or constructed sense of self, and those who develop their sense of self from the actuality of their lived experiences. His arguments appear to complement those of Adler, that we tend to disown or dissociate from those experiences that do not fit in with the believed-in self, either now or in the future.
Instead of looking to the past to explain one’s current sense of identity, Spinelli suggests that the past is a function of how an individual views themselves in the present or how they imagine they would like to be or avoid being in the future. This perspective highlights the ‘construction of Self and others’ rather than conceptualising self as fixed and related to other fixed selves. Thus the individual ‘’becomes’’ through interdependent relationships i.e. we co-constitute each other. This implies choice and authentic or inauthentic modes of being. Authenticity, in Heideggerian terms, refers to a way of being which engages with its possibilities and chooses its own way of being. Thus, authenticity is not about being different from the crowd and rejecting social mores or conventions, it is about knowingly choosing who we are, against the backcloth of our temporal existence.
How can existential philosophy help someone live their life more meaningfully and enjoyably?
Existential philosophy invites us to experience and understand that we are not fixed entities but come to experience ourselves through ‘relating’. This means our relationship with ourselves, other people, the physical, social and spiritual worlds and the world of ideas. Thus, if we are not fixed, we have far greater choice of how to experience ourselves, others and the worlds of which we are part. It is by examining the existential concerns that are common to us all that we can come to understand our existence very differently. Common existential themes are freedom, choice, anxiety, responsibility, authenticity and ultimate concerns. These are words used in our everyday language but have different existential meanings. How can we grasp their existential meaning when the original writings are often so complex and therefore inaccessible?
Existential Philosophy and The Myths of Life
In the book The Myths of Life & The Choices We Have, these concepts are set out in a straightforward and accessible manner through the language of Myths. Through practical activities in the book, levelled at our individual everyday choices, we can explore our options, the implications of taking different paths and the anxiety that results from choosing. Anxiety often arises when we choose what to do or how to be – in that by choosing one options, we will never know what the outcome of taking others options would have been.
For many of us, the concept of Myths has mystical connotations and is understood in an allegorical, legendary or fabled manner. I offer Myths differently, as unquestioned assumptions that impinge on every aspect of our decision-making. Myths are therefore pervasive, fictitious, invented, make-believe or untrue.
Within our social and cultural world we are bombarded with expectations and pressures of how to dress, what to eat, what career to pursue or how to relate to other people. We are constantly told what to expect as we enter different life stages as if each of us were no more than members of a cloned group. We can, of course, choose how to respond to those expectations. We can conform, withdraw or act as individuals or institutions to bring about social change. However, those unquestioned assumptions are so pervasive that we may never stand back from their stronghold and consider our choices beyond a narrowly defined set of options. Our culture and socialisation inhibits us exploring the vast array of available options. As Rousseau said, ‘Man is born free but is everywhere in chains’.
The true existential meanings of choice, freedom, anxiety, responsibility and authenticity require interpretation at a level which makes sense in our everyday lives. This where the language of myths – unquestioned assumptions – can help us access these concepts in ways that are immediately understandable and applicable to own life experience. Here are the eight Myths I discuss in this book and the existential themes they suggest.
- Identity Myth – You should be someone other than the person you want to be
- Selfishness Myth – You are selfish if you put your needs before those of others
- Group Myth – It is better to be part of a group than to be an individual
- Commitment Myth – Certain things you can’t change once committed to them
- Certainty Myth – A time comes when you can be certain for all times in the rightness of your decisions
- Morality Myth – You should follow a moral code decreed by others
- Honesty Myth – It is preferable to be modify the truth rather than be honest
- Myth that you can’t change – Earlier choices negate current and future choices.
Each of these Myths, and many others, impinge on our everyday lives and limit our choices. It is important to remember that the purpose of existential exploration is so that we can take responsibility for our lives, stop blaming circumstances or others for what happens to us or the world and fully accept that we have the power the create a world which is worth living in. When we fully see this we realise that we are not ‘in the world’ but ‘we ARE the world’ and our actions, thoughts, aspirations, dreams all contribute to what we are experience
As a psychotherapist, I passionately believe that we are each the best judge of what is right for us. By examining the role of Myths in our lives, we can expand our options, reconnect with our choices and judge the rightness of them. I challenge you to develop a life of freedom and choice rather than one of duty and obligation!
But only if YOU want to…