Existential Therapy for the Digital Age
The cultivation of awe vs. the quick fix
Posted January 27, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
Over the past 60 years, I've had the privilege to witness many poignant transformations. As a practicing psychologist, I've witnessed them in state hospitals, in psychiatric emergency clinics, in drug and alcohol agencies, and in private practice; as a youth, I experienced them in my own intensive psychotherapies. There is little "pretty" about these ordeals, but when they succeed, they are profoundly gratifying, life-changing.
Poignant transformations emerge from the depths of despair, but they result, if one is fortunate, in the heights of renewal. Certainly, this was true for me, and many of the people I've known or worked with. What could be more precious than the gift of liberation from crippling despair, of being freed to pursue what deeply matters? What could be more critical than participating in—really grappling with—the rescue of one's soul?
Yet what I'm seeing today throughout our culture is an increasing tendency to skip over this grappling part of the equation and to shift abruptly to the transformational part. This is the quick-fix, instant-result phenomenon that is associated with addictions (including addictions to social media), with the overuse of medications, and with the predominance of short-term, symptom-focused psychotherapies. While these therapies can be helpful for some at various stages of struggle, they are woefully inadequate for others who cite inadequate care as a major barrier to improvement.
Today, existential therapy is a perspective, not just a one-on-one practice. The existential perspective pertains to many aspects of our lives alongside and beyond the consulting room. The existential orientation is now impacting people's concerns with the environment, child-rearing, education, the work setting, the religious and spiritual setting, and the social and moral direction of our society.
The existential approach encompasses "life and death" matters, big-picture thinking, and the relationship of our lives to meaning and spiritual purpose. To the extent we ignore these bigger issues, we overlook the systems—political, cultural, and religious—that significantly contribute to our well-being or, on the contrasting side, some of the key aspects of our suffering. This is why existential therapy is not only timely for many individuals today but also for the social structures within which individuals function.
Just consider, for example, an existential critique of our use of social media as an alternative to an increasing replacement for face-to-face, "live" engagement with others. Or the existential support for more person-to-person dialogues—particularly as forms of conflict mediation; for experiential encounters with nature and for stimulating conversations over topics of profound moral import, such as the increasing political polarization in our country (and world), climate change, the widening gap between rich and poor, the increasing ethnic tensions, and so on. The second major existential appeal here is how are we going to respond to these intensifying dilemmas? What actions, creativity, and willpower will we put into addressing these dilemmas?
The overarching existential challenge, then, is for the cultivation of whole-bodied presence, both to ourselves and others, and on the basis of that alignment, a more attuned and awe-inspired civilization.
Schneider, K. (2019, November). The awe of being alive. Aeon. https://aeon.co/essays/to-feel-the-awe-of-living-learn-to-live-with-terror-and-wonder
Schneider, K. (2019). The spirituality of awe: Challenges to the robotic revolution (Revised). Colorado Springs, CO: University Professors Press.http://universityprofessorspress.com/product/spirituality-of-awe-revised-edition/