This month’s blog article kicks off the beginning of my seventh year of blogging for Contemplations. Interestingly enough, I believe it has taken me seven years to fully formulate how I conceptualize my practice. Over the last several months I have written several blog articles that deal with the theme of means and ends. (They can be found here and here.) Additionally, I also have written some blogs on meaning making and the good life. My practice, Contemplations, began as one offering an existential approach to counseling. As such, rather than operating off the medical model, my practice sought to engage clients along the lines of philosophical thought. The aim of my practice is to utilize philosophical ideas brought to the nitty-gritty of living life day-to-day, rather than some academic conversations around philosophical topics. Philosophical counseling became for me an idea that I wanted to explore.
The Search for Meaning and Purpose
The philosophical counseling movement began and took root nearly three decades ago. Although I was drawn to such a form of counseling, I had some concerns about how a private practice around the notion of philosophical counseling might operate. As an approach to counseling, it sounds more like what many people designate as coaching. The idea of being a professional coach did not appeal to me. Philosophical counseling as an inchoate idea began for me several decades ago when I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I knew I wanted to shape my practice around people’s search for meaning, but I didn’t know to call it philosophical counseling. As such, I envisioned my practice as involving a place where people can come to explore what their lives are all about. Rather than a technical practice, utilizing specific interventions for diagnostic matters, I established Contemplations as a place for people to take a step back, slow down their pace, and embrace some time to reflect on matters that were important to them. My practice, then, would entail the primary work of exploration. Since I opened Contemplations, I have spoken with numerous clients who wanted to explore the idea of a meaningful and purposeful life. Whether their exploration focused on career, finances, relationships, or family, they wanted a time and place to formulate their thoughts. Carving out a meaningful existence is important to people. A counseling practice can focus on such a search.
Encountering Life Difficulties and Obstacles
There is the reality that people enter counseling because they face difficulties in life that they are not sure how to navigate. Such difficulties come in all variations. Individuals may experience obstacles to the goals they set for themselves. Some difficulties entail simply the normal stuff that life throws at us. Other difficulties may entail huge barriers we bump against that we weren’t expecting. They become formal foes about which we don’t know what to do. Although philosophical counseling can most definitely help people problem-solve so as to navigate barriers that life places along our paths, another angle to this approach helps clients reflect on what such problems in life mean, how they deal with these problems, and what they learn about themselves as they seek to navigate the difficulties they encounter. Philosophical counseling then focuses on process as much or more than it does on content. In so doing, it doesn’t obviate problem solving, but it does help prioritize clients’ understanding of matters before too quickly delving into problem solving. This approach to counseling can help clients reflect on how they deal with setbacks, illnesses, losses, and failures that occur as they pursue their life goals.
Life transitions (see here, here, and here) have been a focus of the work I engage in my practice. Transitions cover the gamut of human experience. Such changes in life as graduating from college and entering the job market, changing jobs, moving to a new city, marriage and starting a family, divorce and ending relationships, and retirement can produce upheaval and anxieties in people’s lives. Counseling can help individuals navigate these transitions as life brings them on. In such transitions, the search for meaning never fades away. The manner in which we take on these transitions will say a lot about the way we view life and the principles by which we live. Philosophical counseling can help individuals shape their thoughts around such concerns.
Life Goals: Means, Ends, and Valuation
Individuals set goals for themselves. They enter counseling for various reasons regarding the goals they hope to achieve. They may not be certain as to what their goals actually are. They may have originally thought that they had certain ends they set for themselves, but have come to question whether or not their desired ends are truly ones they desire. If they are clear as to the ends they set for themselves, then they may want to enter counseling to discuss the best pathways to their ends. Such pathways I call means. Means and ends entail a process that people can embrace to obtain ideas as to the best ways to accomplish their ends. Discussing means to ends also helps individuals clarify their ends. Anytime we discuss ends in counseling, we are also discussing evaluation. Values exploration has become an important part of the work I want to do in counseling. Although people may have an idea as to what their core values are, as they explore those they may come to realize that many of their values they have inculcated without personally reflecting upon the question as to whether such designated values are truly ones they embrace. Again, a philosophical approach to counseling can aid people in these explorations.
If counseling entails clients clarifying their values and searching out their goals, then it may very well entail some exploration into a client’s spirituality or spiritual beliefs. Contemplations is a practice where clients’ spiritual beliefs are welcome. Many individuals embrace some form of spirituality to navigate their lives. Their spirituality informs them as to their values and the principles by which they live. Likewise, individuals can enter therapy when they encounter difficulties with and doubts about their spiritual beliefs. The counseling room is a place where such explorations can take place. Moreover, spirituality can, and most likely will, inform all the areas of focus that have been delineated in this blog article. People draw on their core spiritual beliefs to work through life difficulties, transitions, and goals, and especially in their search for meaning and purpose. As such, exploration of one’s spirituality involves discussions that are personal, meaningful, and philosophical.
I’ve been asked by several people over the years about why I chose this path for my practice rather than working with populations where people experience severe depression, debilitating anxiety, or life-altering psychotic disorders. First, I am glad that there are people who want to work in mental health clinics and mental health hospital settings. The work done in those settings is highly needed and rewarding, I’ve done a little of that work along the way, but I decided it was not the type of work on which I wanted to fully focus. Second, sometimes the search for meaning and purpose can leave people feeling highly anxious and deeply depressed. I’ve worked with such clients on more than several occasions. It is not as though these concerns do not emerge in the kind of work I do. Third, and I think this addresses the premise behind some of the questions relating to setting, the work I do is just as important as the work done in mental health clinics and hospitals. The people searching out this work encounter struggles in life that counseling can help them navigate just like anyone else. I also believe that those who experience severe depression and debilitating anxiety also experience crises in meaning. Although the work involved may include more clinical interventions before such clients can face existential issues, their existential crises are real. Philosophical counseling is an approach that counselors can embrace to pursue and obtain a fulfilling practice. The human condition places all of us before the vagaries of life whereby we deal with time, meaning, and fulfillment. Human beings are meaning makers. Why wouldn’t therapists seek to work with clients who search for a life that is fulfilling?
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/August 14th, 2019