The mimosa in spring outside the window
of Anthony Stadlen’s consulting room at his home,
The original tree was uprooted by the storm of 23 December 2013
but a new mimosa has been reborn from a shoot
and is already flowering in February 2016
‘Family therapy’ means attentively helping family members disentangle and demystify their relationships with one another.
‘Existential’ refers to the nature of human existence, which cannot ultimately be grasped by any system or science. ‘Existence’ is related etymologically to ‘ecstasy’. The human being is not a fixed entity of the kind which can be adequately studied by the natural sciences of statics, kinematics or dynamics, or even biology or psychology. Rather, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger put it, the human being is ‘ecstatic’, in the sense that its being is in question for itself. The study of human reality has to be a kind of ‘ec-statics’.
‘Daseinsanalysis’ is existential psychotherapy grounded in this understanding of the ecstatic nature of human existence or ‘Da-sein (to be here)’: a term meant to convey the immediacy of our being-in-the-world with fellow human beings, living creatures and things. Authentic Daseinsanalysis, then, incorporates the phenomenological, experiential insights of psychoanalysis (founded by Sigmund Freud) and of analytical psychology (founded by C. G. Jung), but rejects the reductive ‘theory’ and pseudo-scientific jargon in which practitioners of those disciplines too often tend to frame their findings.
Human beings, traditionally thought of as ‘made in the image’ of the Ineffable, are therefore themselves ineffable. And so psychotherapy, too, is ultimately ineffable. Any attempt to describe what happens in Daseinsanalysis, existential psychotherapy or existential family therapy is surely best made in everyday, down-to-earth prose or even poetry.
And the people best qualified to attempt a description are clients, not therapists.
I have devoted decades not only to practising psychotherapy but also to researching historically the people and families described in the classic case studies of the great psychotherapists. I have come to trust, far more than these case studies, the reports of the clients themselves.
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With great affection.
Problems arise when one ignores the call of his inner voice. When this happens the meaning is automatically destroyed and the person is left with a void. We ignore our inner voice because we were told that we are bad and unacceptable. This blends in with the very essence of our existence.
If we accept that we are nothing more than the product of genetic evolution then we are left with a paradox: who is, or rather, what is the entity that performs these thoughts? If we accept that we are nothing more than a soup of molecules structured and orientated to perform a certain role then what’s left to us? What is the essence of “I”? If this question is left unanswered or untreated it equals to moral death. The body is still alive, it still performs its bodily actions however the existence has, in a way, ceased. A person simply cannot exist if it doesn’t believe in something. The paradox is that, as it seems, our moral existence requires the presence of something which is not tangible, presumably what is called soul. Soul has to exist as a logical consequence. However logic also verifies that divinity cannot exist. Therefore soul has to be a biological feature with has no material existence. There is no reason why this could not be happening. We can exist without god and still have “soul”.
The essence of existence, the most liberating experience, is unconditional love. It’s the only thing that can overshadows the fear let it be fear of death, fear of life, fear of madness, fear of existence, fear of uncertainty, wrongdoing or the fear of the fact that life is meaningless. Love, with the broad sense of the term, can be the universal meaning.
The first time I started therapy I was just too desperate. I was massively depressed to the point that that couldn’t often stand still. I remember times where I had to physically move in order to ease the pain of depression settling in like a massive weight in my shoulders. I was trying to slide past it before it crushes me.
Constant pain and falling into the abyss, hitting on the walls during the descent, bleeding, but unable to do anything. A martyrdom without ending. A dark place full of dense fear. A thick glass wall between me and the rest of the world. Feeling numb, seeing without seeing, tasting without tasting. Objects with colours that you couldn’t see, life in black and white. Void and constant problems of perception and definition. A sickening situation, a form of death. Your own death to which you are a spectator. You are there and you can see yourself rotting away, deprived of feelings of any kind. You are hand in hand with the pure fear of madness. The sheer dread of absolute loneliness. You are constantly choking, you gasp for air but you know that you are at the bottom of the sea. There is no air to breathe and you wait to die but you just can’t die. It’s a torture of unimaginable extent. Sometimes you have a few seconds or hours where for some reason you feel infinitesimally better. And you are full of hope that it will go away. But it never goes away. You wake up the next morning and in a matter of a few minutes you are back to the desert. No external influence can have an effect. Nothing, absolutely nothing can get you out of this state. You can’t shake yourself out of the nightmare. You can’t pull yourself together. The meaning of things has been demised. Your whole world has collapsed. You are not there any longer you simply don’t exist so it feels like you don’t have any part in what is happening around you and inside you. You have given up on yourself. You go to bed at night, you wake up in the morning and you feel that you didn’t sleep at all. You are constantly tired, you have no energy to get up the stairs or move your carcass around (…)
Therapy is, at first, a place where you can do all your confessions and dump your uncertainties. It’s a place where you can say anything you have to say without fear or remorse. The more truthful you are the better. People sometimes say that they have friends to whom they can say absolutely everything. Yes we might say everything to them but the darkest and most perverse and distorted thoughts, that we all have, we keep them well hidden. And not just from others but even from ourselves. Therapy is there for us to enable us to open the lid of the “sewage” of our souls. It’s the one place where we can talk about everything and everyone including the therapist himself. In that sense we “put everything in one place” and this alone is a relief (….)
Then we start slowly rediscovering that we always knew or we thought we knew. We start realising things that we were aware but never really conscious of. We also learn new things but the sense of apocalypse happens mostly when we get a new viewing angle on an old issue. And it’s usually nothing elaborate nothing complicated, it’s just a simple thing, a simple suggestion that we never thought of. Because we never allowed ourselves to do so. We can spent hours thinking digging into something just to realise that we have drawn no conclusion at all. Why? How can this be possible? We know we are not stupid, we are quite intelligent and capable of performing complicated thoughts and solving complicated issues, so surely a bit of extra thinking will get us there. Still intellect is a double edged sword. Quite often we indulge in the process of thinking just to mask fear and our inability to follow what we really want (…)
I have been in therapy for 7 years now. It’s too weird when I think about it. It took 7 years to bring myself to a point where I am not depressed and I can think positively of the future. I think that I have been depressed for a long time. There is a good chance that I was depressed for the greatest part of my life. Obviously I was evidently depressed during the final years of highschool, but even then I didn’t know what depression is. So depression had to take the place of something that I knew at the time, like the irrational fear of getting sick or something similar, external but still related to me. I hadn’t really realised what depression really is until a few years ago when I came across a book which described it for what it is. It was an evening of July 2002 when I was walking in the South Bank, depressed as usual, and thinking about my endless misery. I was already in therapy for three years and I was with my second therapist for the last 2 years. Walking around I eventually found myself in the bookstore of the Royal Festival Hall. There I found a book describing depression through the eyes of a therapist who had been herself depressed. When I read the book I realised that I wasn’t mentally ill or crazy as I thought I was. My problem had a name and a description: I was depressed.
After some time I went to my therapist and told her that I thought that I was depressed. She said something along the lines that “I thought that you knew this”. After this conversation what I knew for sure is that I had to find another therapist.
Therapy seems to be delicate game of balance. The therapist is at first a human, secondly an artist and thirdly a professional. He has to be of high intellect and be also well educated. Nevertheless education in this case should not be confused with simple accumulation of knowledge. Passing an exam at University won’t make someone a therapist. It seems almost incomprehensible that there are so many therapists. Only a relative few should be allowed to do this delicate job.
One of first words when we started five years ago was a warning that I will use my intellect to destroy any argument. Then in the following years the sum of the words heard in the room, that wasn’t mine, could probably hardly fill a 90 or even 60 min tape. And this was indeed very wise, professional and ingenious. Had we engaged in long conversations I would have destroyed everything in a few days. There wouldn’t be any point using strong and valid arguments I would ruthlessly ignore them, distort them, denounce them or even fight them and try to turn them over and why not, even invalidate them. And that would have been disastrous. It took time to realise that therapy is not an intellectual fight (…)
It’s now Monday night, the 25th of June.
I put down random thoughts without thinking much or without trying to make the text look nice or coherent. I would love to do that but I am being chased by time constantly. Or maybe I am chasing time. Either way tomorrow is the last day I will be seeing you. It’s unsettling in a way but by no means scary. It’s unsettling because you are now my vault of feeling and ideas. However I am not worried that I am going. This was probably another result of your, I believe, masterly approach. I didn’t end up being depended on you or the therapy. On the other maybe you didn’t adopt this approach specifically for me maybe this is your approach with everyone. I don’t know and I will never know. And it’s better this way. I probably always avoided to get to know. It’s been five years now that we have session every week and yet I never got to know who you are. I always avoided it and I always thought that this has to do with my difficulty to relate to others. But now I think that the main reason for this was that I didn’t want to destroy the myth that I had in my head. I probably didn’t want to reduce you into a “mortal” being. You had to be distant, you had to be a higher authority. So what I had in front of me was an intellectual stripped of his human nature. Someone you could always understand what I am talking about someone who was interested in what I had to say and who valued what I had to say. And here is the paradox: I know that this wasn’t the case, or at least it wasn’t always the case. However that didn’t matter and it still doesn’t matter. Your silence was golden. At the time I needed to learn how to have faith, how to let myself get carried away how to ride the clouds without being afraid in the knowledge that they are just water vapours. I had to learn how to believe again. The sharp truths of nihilism would only lead me to my own destruction. So I found fertile ground and let myself being carried away and being healed.
What true what’s false? What really happened in these five years, what was happening to that room? All I know is that intellect is not to be trusted blindly in situations like this.
I know now that I have to be real I have to open up to the magic of life. I have to look at fear in the face and keep dissolving it. I still have long way to go, this road never ends. However I now know that happiness exists. It’s there, it’s waiting to come out and reclaim its place. I am full of optimism now, even when I weaken.
I have to stop now. I could be writing for ever. I could be doing this for weeks and months. I feel the rush I am trying to squash everything in a few pages and my writing ends up being a silly scribbling.
This is then the end and a new beginning as it has always been.
I wish I could relate more to what I am going to say but still can’t or don’t want to. However, even from a technical point of view, my life was saved. And with emotion or not I know that I owe this to you, whether you were the reason for my change or simply the catalyst.
(This was a lecture at the Society of Psychotherapy, London, on Tuesday 23 October 2012, at 7 p.m. I provided the following programme note.)
Anthony Stadlen is an existential and psychoanalytic psychotherapist, supervisor, researcher, teacher, and convenor and principal conductor of the Inner Circle Seminars. Since 1979 he has undertaken historical research on some of the great canonical case studies of psychotherapy – Freudian, Jungian, daseinsanalytic and existential. His reason for devoting his life to this research was to find fundamental principles on which psychotherapists’ work, including his own, could be based. Einstein said that to understand and evaluate the work of physicists one should attend not to what they say but to what they do. Freud, independently, said the same for the work of psychoanalysts, specifying case studies, not theories, as the evidence which an enquirer should examine. Stadlen took Freud’s recommendation seriously, applying it to Freud’s own paradigmatic case studies as well as to those of Binswanger, Klein, Layard, Fordham, Boss, Laing and Esterson. In tonight’s talk, he will describe how his historical detective work – to trace the real subjects of these case studies, their families and social milieux – led him to unsettling findings. While some of these so-called ‘therapists’ appear to have helped some of their so-called ‘patients’, this was often despite rather than because of the therapist’s theories. In other cases, the therapist’s theories so distorted his or her perception of human reality as to offer a paradigm of how not to relate to a client. It became questionable whether there is – or ever could be – a body of ‘theory’ which psychotherapists can ‘apply’ to their own practice. Theory in the original (Greek) sense means contemplation of practice. Practice comes first. The writings, and even some of the theories, of the great psychotherapists can deepen one’s understanding, but can they, strictly speaking, be ‘applied’?