You don't know just how much you're capable of. Or how good you could make your life. This idea has roots in the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who analysed life in terms of potential: the potency, or power within everything to grow into something greater. He likened us to plants, which begin as a seed and become a tree. Our potential is hidden within, waiting for the right conditions to spring forth.
As a counsellor I draw on philosophy. But how can that help you, compared to a psychological approach? I will reflect on why, and how, philosophy enters into my counselling, and how that can benefit you.
“To give birth to the ancient in a new time is creation.” -Carl Jung
I recently watched Jordan Peterson’s lecture series on The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories, and I have to say, it was brilliant. Let's lay aside his involvement in the culture wars, and let's ignore questions of literal truth about religion, for this reflection. When Peterson speaks of problems as "religious" in this series, he is expressing an insight best articulated by the philosopher Wittgenstein: that our perspectives, and the the things we then believe and say, reflect basic outlooks which precede evidence and argument. This is why your lived perspective is so important. It is the basis from which you think, feel, and act. And it creates a world within you and around you, it has great causal force in your life. It is your religion. But things go deeper than that, and reach beyond the personal, even within us. This is where Peterson connects with Jung, and with the deeper structures that move or drive our lives.
I'm a big fan of Terrence Malick, whose films touch on profound existential issues. In his film The Thin Red Line, a dead Japanese soldier speaks silently to an American: “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness and truth?”
Malick gets at the heart of one of our greatest challenges in life. What will being good do for us? Why should be remain decent when the world takes advantage of us? Why should be stand on principle when others seem merely to calculate? These questions can be easy to answer when life is good, but what about when it turns to pain? When we are harmed intentionally, or even unintentionally, by others? Or harmed simply by natural processes in the world as though we do not matter?
The getting of wisdom is a three-stage process, according to many Buddhists: “Before my Zen training I thought that rivers were rivers. When I advanced in the training I came to see that rivers were not rivers. Now that I have realised enlightenment, I see that rivers are rivers.” This is a classic picture of how insight develops which is repeated in many wisdom traditions.
For years my friends and I were critical of any notion which claimed that "we should be good mainly because of the consequences." There were various reasons we thought this was wrong. The central one was our conviction that you should be good simply because goodness (along with truth) is the highest value. It is the most profound value that we live, and should not be subordinated to others, such as prudence.
In the film Donny Darko we are presented with a self-help guru with a simple-minded solution to life's problems.
After months of planning, the Life Direction & Purpose program is launching in January 2018!
One way of understanding what we are doing in philosophical counselling or coaching is that we living the life of philosophy. I do not mean theoretical reflection, I mean taking an honest and searching look at ourselves. Philosophy, an ancient Greek word, means "love of wisdom." To live philosophically is to commit yourself to living as wisely as you can.
What is the difference between seeing a counsellor versus a clinical psychologist? People are often confused about how the professions differ from one another, and which is best for them.
A positive upward spiral is an idea in positive psychology. In essence, it is the opposite of a negative downward spiral.
What do you do when you seem to make no progress? Here is a nuts and bolts answer, based on drawing on what is best in you.
People can feel that life is meaningless because they do not matter to the “big picture.” I remember a debate about this in first year philosophy: your life is meaningless, because what matters to you will not matter to people a thousand years from now. An objection was immediately offered by the lecturer: if what matters to you is unimportant to them because of that thousand years, then what is important to them is unimportant to you - so it shouldn't matter to you that you don't matter to them, for the logic cuts both ways. That is a good point, but a logical argument like that may not sink deeply enough. There are more important things to say.
Eric Greitens tells of a man he once knew, who was the coach for one of the heavy-weight boxing champions of the world. This coach received a call one day from the champion, who was in an anxious state and asking for a favour. He said there was a man in the other room and he needed the coach to talk to that man on the phone. The coach was confused, until it emerged that the other person was the boxer's gardener, who was overcharging for his services. The coach suddenly realised that this heavyweight boxing champion of the world was afraid to confront the gardener on his own.
Here is a situation that every counsellor has experienced. A person may come to talk about being stuck in their life. Eventually they say in frustration, “I come here every week and nothing ever changes.” They talk and analyse and speculate and…nothing shifts. Counsellors often get together to discuss challenging cases in group supervision, to nut out the sophisticated interventions that might help a client move forward. But often nobody looks squarely at the most obvious question for this person.
Many people lack a sense of direction or purpose in life. There are social and historical reasons for this, but those are out of your hands. What is in your hands is your own life. You can stop drifting and take control of your life through gaining clear direction and purpose, and enacting it every day. As I have said elsewhere, one of your best means for doing that is your strengths and values. So you need to clarify and exercise these too. Today we will focus on values.
I have observed an all-too common ingredient in despair. It is the belief that you know everything. We usually define despair as the opposite of hope, which is correct, but there is also delusion in it. I have noticed that quite a number (but not all) of those who suffer despair are given to thinking that they know how everything is, and how everything will turn out. True hope, on the contrary, may not know in particular what it hopes for. The truly hopeful person waits for things to reveal themselves in time. Deep hope requires patience and endurance.
We live in an age of unprecedented wealth, safety, and ease. In a sense, we in the first world have it all. And yet a lot of people lack purpose. They live in fear, or confusion, or boredom, or depression, or retreat into distractions. At a cultural level it is said that our values are ever more banal and narcissistic. This is the world your children will be shaped by. Many aspects of this problem are out of your control, but it is significant what you can do in your own life, and for the lives of those your love, and for those with whom you rub shoulders. If it is so bad (and to be honest I think things are generally better than people realise) well, in your case things don't have to be this way, they can be much better, if you only take an active stance toward your life, in outlook, and in action.
James had recently left the fundamentalist religion of his childhood and now felt lost. He had grown up thinking that outside his religion there was only materialism, but he needed something more. Over time he became dispirited, for without a greater purpose in life he could not see the point in pursuing anything. When he no longer found motivation to complete his university assignments his partner pushed him to see a doctor. The GP referred him to a psychologist.
I take a strengths and values approach to helping people. It is through these that we can create a what, how, and why for your life. That is, it is how we create direction and purpose. But why should you focus on strengths, rather than problems and weaknesses? Doesn’t that mean ignoring problems, and won’t that lead to more issues up ahead?
I have been doing this work for a decade now, since I switched from academic philosophy to counselling and coaching. I see about twenty five people per week for one-on-one work. My typical counselling clients are both male and female, and in their mid-twenties to late thirties. Their problems regard relationships, career, or emotional struggles, but behind the details is a lack an adequate sense of direction or purpose in life or a need to build personal strengths.
I described here how I came to counselling and later coaching from a background in philosophy. Today I want to:
What if psychology stopped always focusing on what goes wrong with life, and also researched what goes right? What if it put happiness, flourishing, resilience, and character to the test of science? And what if the outcomes were applied through counselling and coaching? Well in the late 1990s some leading psychologists asked such questions, and positive psychology was born.
Many people have everything – the partner, the career, the money – but they are not happy. And yet we are lead to view happiness as an entitlement. Our sciences, industries, and services focus on providing it. We work so hard to achieve it. What, then, has gone wrong? Research shows that the pursuit of happiness can backfire: we lose it when we pursue it. And we gain it by pursuing certain other things. This is the topic of today.