What’s So Special about the Existential Humanistic Therapy?


There are so many trainings available to mental health professionals.  What makes the Existential Humanistic training by the EHI Institute different?

I was on a quest to find the answer to that question at the Existential Humanistic Institute’s 6th Annual Conference, held Friday and Saturday, November 16 and 17 at AgeSong’s  elder community in San Francisco near the corner of Hayes and Laguna.

I could not attend Friday’s sessions, but I have heard Nader Shabahangi present his brilliant views on working existentially with clients in the second half of life.  He focuses on how human beings are meaning makers at any age or stage, even those with dementia, or what is more in line with Shabahangi’s belief, “evolving memories”. Shabahangi notes, “The work of the existential, process-oriented therapist is to help, guide, and facilitate clients’ search for meaning, and thus, to share and alleviate suffering.”

Saturday’s opening speaker, Kirk Schneider, asked participants to define existentialism. Among the responses were flexibility, possibility, acceptance of reality, engagement, embracing discomfort and ambiguity, courage, presence, and inner freedom.  What came to my mind was the beauty of the sun streaming through AgeSong’s rooftop atrium where the conference was held and the dedication of the therapists to give up their Saturday to explore humanistic existentialism.

The speaker asserted, “Most of our troubles can be traced to one overall problem – our suspension in the groundlessness of existence.”  He continued, “What was routine yesterday is a cliff today.” Schneider noted that from “Mad Men” to Shakespeare and Hitchcock, artists, writers, and dramatists have addressed the concept of groundlessness, both scariness and fear of losing control, as well as endless freedom and liberation and even love. It sounded to me like the Chaos Theory, with which I was familiar in career development.  You can’t count on a job lasting for 30 years these days because things are changing so fast, so you need to be flexible and accept reality and have courage, and all the other existential attributes given above. The speaker brought up an additional element in existential humanistic therapy – valuing the endless capabilities and worth of each person -a concept that was further explored throughout the conference.

Participants learned that an existential humanistic approach can have many applications, even in politics.  According to Bob Edelstein, Schneider’s co-presenter, “The Horatio Alger myth, that everyone in the working class can go ‘from rags to riches,’  is a denial of our interconnectiveness.” On the other hand, he noted, “The Occupy Movement was an example of collaboration.” Edelstein emphasized the importance of moving toward a socialistic model that supports affordable health care.

From politics,  Ilene Serlin and Marcia Leventhal guided participants into existential humanism in dance, art, and music to bring out what is going on inside, waking up participants’ mind/body system, and exploring metaphor.  Leventhal discussed the value of metaphors, giving as an example the passive phrase “give up” as opposed to the active phrase “give up” (raising one’s hands up to both give and receive).

Louis Hoffman, a speaker and a poet, discussed how he writes poems from his experience with clients before he writes notes about the sessions. To digest client sessions and to fully understand each client’s situation, he often writes poems from the point of view of his clients.

According to Serlin, the next step would be to dance our poems. She noted that the body is an instrument, first to be tuned up, then to play with others, while being aware of one’s inner music.

Blumenthal, who worked with Moshe Feldenkrais, somatics pioneer, recalled that the great movement leader once said, “We only use 5% of our potential.”  From close observation and listening, I would guess that attendees at EHI’s 6th Annual Conference were using much more that 5% of their potential.

Throughout the conference, Orah Krug, Sonja Saltman, and Candice Hershman, EHI Board members, provided several opportunities for participants to experience the “you”, “me”, and “we” dimensions of the therapeutic encounter and to give feedback on what they would like to see in a more extensive certificate training program. Dance, music, art, collaborating in community, presence, relationships – I found many special qualities that make Existential Humanistic Therapy special and relevant to today’s chaotic environment.

To learn more about the Existential Humanistic Institute, view www.ehinstitute.org.

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