With last month’s blog, I explored my thoughts on what I call Philosophical Counseling. I want to continue that exploration this month and for a few blogs to follow in the future, returning to some themes that I have explored in the past on this blog. Beginning with last month’s blog, Philosophical Counseling, I am going to build on some thought about which I begin contemplating back in 2018 and before. The particular blog off which I will build is the one titled Game Plan, published on this blog on May 14th, 2018.
In that blog article I delineated several area of interests or themes that I wanted to explore, pertaining both to my work as a counselor, and also to the way in which I want to formulate how I approach living life. I have come to hold that what we believe informs how we live, whether or not we are aware of our beliefs. Much of life’s struggle is developing the awareness of what we actually believe. In so doing, then we can begin to explore and question how we are going about life. The areas of interests I delineated in Game Plan are: mind, meaning-making, thought/action, finitude/humility, and worldview. In addition to that blog, I published several others that touched on these themes specifically. They can be found on these particular blogs: Meaning-Makers, Thinking, Living, and Reading “Worldviewishly”, The Quest for Meaning: Part I, The Quest for Meaning: Part II, The Quest for Meaning: Part III, and Psychotherapy, Neuroscience, and Consilience. I would increase the five areas of interests to six, adding values exploration, or simply valuation. These six areas of interest form the foundation for launching my exploration into philosophical counseling that I described in an introductory fashion last month.
We live in an age of naturalism, materialism, and reductionism. Counter to these ideas come all sorts of New Age and postmodern formulations regarding the human makeup. As counselors, it seems to me that we have the responsibility to formulate our ideas about the human mind, at least to the degree that we can. Obviously, our worldviews will shape how we approach this question of research. Neuroscience is one of the cutting-edge fields today making inroads in defining and describing the human mind. Much of the thought from that direction is reductionist, equating the mind with the brain. Such discussions and debates around these formulations cannot help but highlight the clash of different worldviews. (For example, I’m a Christian and thereby not a reductionist.) Various worldviews will seek to uncover what I consider to be one of the mysteries of the human condition, the mind. How we think about the human mind cannot help but inform the way we work as counselors, as well as any other field of endeavor that deals with human experience. We appear to be trapped in this existence of having to turn the mind on itself so that we can comprehend it. We have to use our mind to study the mind.
I possess a strong conviction that human beings are meaning-makers, and for the most part they seek to make meaning of their lives and to carve out a meaningful existence. Another way to think about meaning-making entails the act of interpretation. We tend to interpret our experiences so as to make some sense of them. We want to understand the various experiences we encounter, both the good and the painful. We think in terms of good and bad or good and evil. We label experiences as pleasurable or painful. We talk about the meaning we garner from our work, or in many cases, the lack thereof. One of the things that many individuals fear the most is that they might come to regard their existence as a meaningless one. A wasted life is one of the most core fears we encounter. We try to ascertain the meaning of our various experiences such as the work we do, the careers on which we embark, the relationships we develop, and the explorations we search out around the world. We want to exit this life, holding that it was a meaningful one rather than one that totaled to a useless existence.
I hold the strong conviction that one of the most meaningful ways to live involves our awareness of the manner in which what we think aligns with how we live. We want that alignment to forge a strong bond that tells us that we live in conjunction with our convictions. If that alignment fails us then we feel like a phony, or we might view ourselves as hypocritical. We do not want to be viewed as someone who tells people we believe one thing while living out the exact opposite. From a counseling perspective, clients may desire to explore this bond between thought and action. Before forging such a bond, they may want to explore what it is they actually believe. Upon understanding their belief systems, then they can better comprehend how to navigate the world as they see it.
The notions that I have the one correct view of how the mind should be understood, or that I have no questions or concerns about how I make meaning of things, or that beyond a shadow of doubt my actions correspond to my beliefs, are simply supercilious notions. The mind is indeed a human mystery. Making meaning of life is a constant navigation, involving trial-and-error living. The same goes for thought and action. Our beliefs change over time. Experiences might even shatter some of the strong beliefs we held at one time in our lives. What we believe and how we live those beliefs out are never set once and for all without further deliberation, alteration, and possibly radical change. Finitude and humility simply mean that we approach life with the idea that what we don’t know is infinitely greater than what we do know. Moreover, even the things we have concluded, we may fail at. For various reasons I will on occasions not act in alignment with my beliefs. Such experiences are part of the human condition. Various spiritual traditions, for strong reasons, highlight the need for humility in our navigation of life.
One of my favorite Christian authors is James Sire. His work, The Universe Next Door, is a compendium of worldview comparisons and contrasts. In this work, he defines worldview as follows:
A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live, move, and have our being [p. 17].
In dealing with questions and explorations about mind, meaning, thought and action, and in recognizing our finitude and humility, our worldviews cannot help but come into play. That does not mean that worldviews are lost in a sea of relativity whereby they cannot be critiqued. We are – or should be – aware that our personal worldviews are the frame of references by which we critique our own and different worldviews. Such awareness can help us garner as much objectivity as possible. But in comprehending how we understand mind, how we go about making meaning, how we assess alignment between our beliefs and actions, and how we embrace our finitude and humility, we must utilize the worldview that we hold at the moment to comprehend human nature and the human condition. We can’t do otherwise. If we live carelessly, what we can do, as Sire points out, is live out our worldviews inconsistently or in a state of unawareness. The human struggle entails the hard work of becoming aware of what it is we actually believe that, in turn, guides how we live. The more we are aware of our worldview, the better clarity we have in evaluating it and other worldviews. Clients may enter counseling to clarify their worldviews. They quite often enter counseling when their worldviews are challenged by life experiences.
No doubt, clients enter counseling to explore and, what Nietzsche calls, to reevaluate their values. I recently authored a blog article titled, Counseling as the Science of Human Action, and one similar two years earlier titled, Human Action and Personal Journeys. In both those articles I discussed the importance of means and ends that human beings grasp to pursue their goals. An end is a valued goal. A goal that one wants to obtain speaks to a value that one holds. How one achieves those ends are the means one embraces to reach their desired goals. Clients can either lack clarity about their values, which will help them understand why the means they utilize might not be working in their lives, or they can embrace inculcated values in ways they have not truly thought out for themselves. They may not actually value what they claim to value. If one clarifies his values, he will have a clear picture of the means he needs to embrace to accomplish his valued ends. Hence, valuation, and particularly, value exploration is a sixth theme I’ve added to the five themes discussed above. I have worked with several clients who have done the work of value exploration. Our values inform and contribute to our meaning-making and our worldviews.
Following last month’s blog article about Philosophical Counseling, I have returned this month to these six themes discussed in this blog article. In pursuit of a practice that I would designate as philosophical counseling, building on these six themes is a necessity. Hence, each of themes will form an important discussion, in-and-of-themselves, moving forward as I put together the pieces of a philosophical counseling practice. My work will, and must, follow from a worldview that comprises my Christian beliefs. Although such a worldview is not a match for many of the clients that will walk into my office, I have a strong conviction that I can work with anyone, regardless of the worldview he or she holds. Clarifying values and worldview with the desired end of making meaning is a task that can and will, I believe, draw many to the counseling process.
I welcome and invite readers to join me and offer feedback and critique over the next few months and longer as I build on the six themes discussed here in putting together my thoughts and ideas on a philosophical counseling practice.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/ September 14th, 2019