Nietzsche and Psychotherapy

It looks like the 21st century will become one of philosophical therapy.

Philosophy has moved out of the ivory tower and back into the public sphere from where it began. At times, this trend enhances the public debate and, at others, only populates philosophy to make it more marketable. The latter is often disguised self-help literature.

Another, more important reason for the awakening of philosophy is that many of today’s illness cannot be graphed using psychology. Stress, burnout, borderline, and depression can no longer be regarded as individual diagnoses. Rather, they are symptoms of a sick society. Among the philosophers who are often used in philosophical therapy, is the late Wittgenstein and his mantra “meaning is use,” or existentialist, especially when they are dealing with a pallet of powerful concepts, such as false belief, anxiety, authenticity, responsibility, freedom, and perhaps most popular, stoicism, which some used to overcome their vulnerabilities and attain peace of mind. For example, the stoic tries to eliminate the passions that cause a person to suffer. Stoicism is closely related to religious or spiritual thinkers in that they operate based on a kind of salvation, a stage in which they no longer suffer from pain or loss.

Then, there is Nietzsche.

Psychotherapist Manu Bazzano has written Nietzsche and Psychotherapy. Unlike the stoic, Nietzsche saw suffering and loss as a part of what makes a life worth living. A full and flourishing life has something at stake. For example, my love for my wife and our children makes me vulnerable because I could lose them.

Nietzsche and Psychotherapy can be read as a Nietzschean experiment that brings some of the German thinker’s concept, including joy, becoming, will to power, etc., into psychotherapy.

Bazzano shows how radical and powerful a thinker Nietzsche is, as well as how psychotherapists can learn or be inspired by his thoughts.

 For example, he tries to compare the life-affirming and life-denying approach by taking what works from psychotherapy and adding a dose of Nietzsche where these practices do not work. “In person-centered therapy it is assumed—rightly, I think—that the person receiving therapy is in a states of incongruence… It is also generally assumed—wrongly, I think—that ‘successful’ therapy means the coming together of organism and self-concept” (p. 31).

The first is right, according to the author, because those who suffer from a crisis indirectly are inviting creative experimentation into their lives. However, they do not do so to find themselves but to overcome. The self is not found; rather, it is achieved or created.

According to Nietzsche, philosophy starts in fear. For example, fear in today’s performance or achievement society has reduced education and therapy into punishment. Here, Bazzano tries to liberate psychotherapy so it becomes more creative and less judgmental. “Therapeia means, after all, healing…The nihilistic, life-denying influence of our culture has made sure that psychotherapy replicates these principles, thus functioning as a mouthpiece for a pervasive ideology of resentment” (p. 134). Instead of a passive nihilistic approach to life, Bazzano suggests the adoption of an “active nihilism” that turns therapy into a kind of entertainment, a term that originally means  “holding together” (p. 150).

Holding what together, we might ask. A myriad of interpretations of what it is that actually is holding life together (or potentially might hold it together), and how intense it is doing so, etc. The approach related to Nietzsche goes against a mechanical, teleological or strictly normative approach; instead it opens for a more intuitive, poetic and liberating relationship to and with life. “Where you can guess, there you hate to deduce,” Nietzsche is quoted for saying. Bazzano call it “therapy without prejudice” (p. 82).

In a psychotherapeutic setting it “means that the criteria of true and false no longer have primacy and are superseded by new criteria of high and low, noble and mean. What begins to matter more is the sense and value of what one thinks, feels and says” (p. 165). In his book on Nietzsche, the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze said something like that we have the thoughts and feeling we have due to our form of life.

Reading Nietzsche and Psychotherapy, you instantly notice that Bazzano is a man with an agenda. He exemplifies Nietzsche, where the German said: “Every talent must unfold itself in fighting” (p. 50).

The book is not a critical inquiry into Nietzsche, but one using Nietzsche to conduct a critical inquiry into psychotherapy, yet always trying to do so in an affirmative way. I would not recommend the book to readers with no knowledge of either Nietzsche or psychotherapy. However, if the reader has some experience in these areas, the book is inspiring. Furthermore, the book is full of illuminating quotes by Nietzsche and Deleuze, which actually make it archaeological.

The writer ends, “We go on digging. The conversation is infinite.”

Review published in Metapsychology, Volume 23, Issue 24

Philosophical Leadership

Today, the concept of happiness has been so popularised that it has almost become a burden, perhaps even a cliché. There is a booming happiness industry of self-help books and programmes that rarely serve as more than a plaster on a sick and stressed culture. Companies hire ‘chief happiness officers’ in a valiant attempt to measure, weigh and quantify happiness, as if a person were just ‘another brick in the wall’.

The importance of balance

According to Greek philosopher Aristotle, happiness is rather less tangible than the happy pop lyrics of today. To him, happiness was leading a life worth living. Such a life is able to stay in balance despite the changing winds of time.

Even the art of balancing depends on our abilities and general life circumstances. But what seems to be crucial is independence from the time restraints and stress of our surroundings. It is good for our well-being to be extravagant with time every once in a while. Aristotle spoke of the golden mean as the way to a life worth living: neither too much nor too little. This is not as easy as it sounds, which many young people experience in their initial encounters with carousels, candy or alcohol. Buddha also spoke of the Middle Path between austerity and indulgence.

Kill your idols

This balanced path is found or even created as you gradually investigate life’s opportunities. Yet, unlike many contemporary self-help programmes that advocate a one-size-fits-all approach, the philosophical path to a happier life is paved with innumerable exits.

A happier life is never more than a side effect of leading a life worth living, a meaningful life.

It requires an understanding that the world’s so-called ideologies are never more than fleeting ideas disguised as incontestable and unalterable truths. Even Buddha said, ‘If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him.’ Meaning: kill the idealised concept that inhibits a critical examination of your own mind.

Explore, experiment, try things out.

Philosophical love

Instead of focusing on happiness, I suggest concentrating on creating a meaningful existence through cultivating a more caring and loving relationship with all aspects of life: family, friends, work, nature, etc.

I am not, therefore, referring to obsessive narcissistic self-love, nor the romantic love of the nuclear family. Rather, I try to propose a worldlier, more politically or socially transformative love. A love that does not discriminate but embraces life in its multiplicity.

The challenge for a philosophical leader is to step back and make room for love, that is, to relinquish one’s need to control, one’s desire to polish one’s ego.

Only through a more honest and humble approach can we establish meaningful relationships. Only this way can love’s multifaceted revelations become manifest.

Philosophical leadership is about protecting life’s various energies, not one’s own ego. Therein also lies the potential for creating a future without domination; one of trust, respect, care and equality for all.

First published at the TBS blog

Philosophical Counseling

Some years ago, I was teaching a course in Philosophical Counseling. To my surprise, all that the students wanted to know was “What is the right thing to do?” Having that knowledge, they assumed, would make life easier. “Perhaps,” I said, “but not better or more interesting.”

Their request is part of the obsessive achievement eagerness of today’s society to perform well according to fixed ideals. It creates dullness when it comes to mental exercises. The unfortunate norm is the faster the better. I told them that philosophy is about developing problems, not delivering solutions. It’s a slow practice. It’s for life. My answer made them fidget with impatience. To philosophize, I emphasized, is to dwell on the fundamental questions, and these questions are developed in problems, just as the problems are enveloped in fundamental questions.

Yet, my students insisted: “So, what is the right question?”

I told them that this particular question was related to the problem embedded in the question. For example, how do you draw a clear distinction between right and wrong?

The ones who weren’t paying attention looked up from their screens.

In sports, where the rules are given, I said, it is rather obvious to tell whether a player is “doing it wrong.” Similarly, in business, where profit seems to guide every decision, knowing what is right and wrong may be easier. Life, however, is neither a game nor a business, although there is a tendency to classify people into winners and loser as if life were that simple. Such labeling is part of today’s achievement society. Everyone’s performance is measured according to an ideal–and ideal that is often related to the staus, prestige, power, and, of course, money that is associated with being a winner.

They went silent, so I went on. Of course, there are things in life that are rather obvious. For instance, no one needs philosophy to tell you that it is wrong to kill, discriminate against, or repress other people. Instead, philosophy begins when we start to questioning the obvious. Could I live another life? What is also possible? How may I also live?

A part of philosophy is to accept that some problems remain without solution; some questions can’t be answered once and for all.

Such a question is Which life is worth living?

Of course, one of my students then asked me: “Which life is worth living?”

This is how A Philosophy of Mindfulness – A Journey with Deleuze begins.

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A Philosophy of Mindfulness

 A Philosophy of Mindfulness is out!

Cover

In this book, I argue that we need a “new” philosophy because we—many of us, at least—are blind. We see rather little of that which surrounds us.

By mixing mindfulness with the affirmative philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, I unfold a philosophy of mindfulness. A philosophy that makes us less blind but also ethically responsible in relation to what we experience. Hereby, I move mindfulness from the sphere of psychology into philosophy, or from being primarily an inward-turned practice to an out-turned one.

A Philosophy of Mindfulness puts emphasis on experience, experiment, and actualization or affirmation. Each experience matters; life is the experience of making contact or being connected with what is in the midst of becoming—that is, life—and then passing it on to the next generations.

Wittgenstein and therapy

Psychotherapist John M. Heaton has written an interesting book about practical philosophy and the use of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s thoughts on psychology. The book is called Wittgenstein and Psychotherapy. From Paradox to Wonder. In a way, it moves from the paradoxes of the early Wittgenstein to the wonder of the latter, although the book addresses the paradoxes of many theories in psychology.

The aim of the book is to move psychotherapy away from its particularly Freudian doctrines and dogmatic norms toward the therapist acting “like a mirror.” An eventual cure, Heaton points out, doesn’t only depend on theories and techniques, but much more on the relationship between therapist and patient.

The therapist, therefore, doesn’t guide the patient toward what the therapist believes to be an accurate picture of reality; rather, he or she pays attention, and then mirrors how the patient makes sense (or fails to make sense). Therapy becomes a way of allowing the patient to see and hear what he or she is saying. Encourage the patient to express him or herself. Heaton is pleading for a more humble and curious approach. The author uses his practical experience to emphasize how the therapist will achieve a better result if one has a better understanding of language (e.g., how language can produce false appearances that may separate the patient from the world).

The book is scattered with illuminating quotes from Wittgenstein, just as it raises a serious and severe critique toward Freudian so-called scientific psychoanalysis. “A philosophical problem has the form: “I don’t know my way around,” says Wittgenstein.

The paradoxes in psychoanalysis are that a too rigid theory leads to less acceptable suggestions. Our relationship with life becomes limited. For example, “We tend to picture thought as representation that reality must fit or fail to fit. . . . It is assumed that what the analyst thinks must be true.” However, sometimes our capacity to use language is sufficiently limited. And yet, just because we can’t articulate it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. This experience can lead to wonder and how to make sense of these.

Unfortunately, “Our disease is one of wanting to explain,” Wittgenstein is quoted for saying. Therefore, the therapist’s ear and vision is clouded by the theoretical ideals. How does one open his or her senses?

“To recognize something as true,” Heaton writes, “is to make a judgment and this involves making sense.” Make sense of sense, that is. How? Heaton, in continuation of Wittgenstein, suggests that in order to understand people, we must be able to read and understand the context because then, we can better understand their intention of saying or doing what they do. His approach is based on compassion for the others’ form of life. For this reason, the relationship between therapist and patient is crucial, not the theoretical armor that a therapist hides behind. It’s the relationship that facilitates the possibility of living in the world with the patient.

A happy person lives in a happy world because of his or her form of life. Similarly, an unhappy person lives in a different world–so it seems, although the world is the same, due to his or her form of life.

The book is for everyone who is interested in psychology or practical philosophy (including therapists, students, and the many consultants who implement Wittgenstein’s teachings). Heaton encourages the reader to unfold the process of sense-making–that is, to see it as a process without an ultimate reference. If one can do that then the patient will be free to find or create the form of his or her life.

The book is a well-composed mixture of theory and practice with a slant in favor of theory. It doesn’t require knowledge of Wittgenstein, but it helps if the reader is familiar with Freudian theory and practice in order to qualify the critique that Heaton raises. It’s a highly welcome approach that challenges a growing tendency–perhaps due to a growing insecurity–to see psychological experts as infallible.

This review was first published in MetapsychologyVolume 19, Issue 47, 2015.