Existential Therapy in the Baltic Countries

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Existential Therapy in the Baltic Countries

Author: Rimantas Kočiūnas

This section of the chapter addresses the development of existential therapy in the Baltic countries, but it mainly deals with emergence and development of existential therapy in Lithuania,  where a strong and rather influential school of this paradigm was formed. It is from there that existential therapy has spread to Latvia and Estonia, and also to Russia and Belarus.

Beginning

For many years, the evolution of psychotherapy in our region was restricted and barred from  its European and world context, firstly, by a rigorous ideological framework and the seclusion of the Soviet system which rejected everything that might be coming from the West, and secondly, by strict adherence to an extremely medicalized model of psychotherapy. Existential philosophy was considered anti-marxist, and books of its authors, as well as of most classics of Western psychotherapy, were stored in classified depositories, access to which was possible only upon a special permission available only to very few. Thus, the ideas of existentialism could not be publicly discussed or promoted.

In the Baltic countries opposition to the dogmas of Soviet ideology was always more pronounced as compared to other regions of the Soviet Union. This was determined by the historic circumstances: after being independent for more than 20 years, in 1940 the Baltic states were occupied and forcefully annexed to the Soviet Union; following the World War II, the Soviet government faced armed resistance in these countries for almost a decade, and the opposing attitudes of at least some part of the general public were always alive. This is why the context of the development of psychotherapy was a little more liberal. Therefore in 1978, at the peak of the stagnation of the Soviet system, and after much struggle with authorities, a psychotherapy seminar was hosted in Vilnius on the initiative of local psychotherapist Aleksandras Alekseičikas. This seminar quickly became an annual and highly popular event attracting crowds of interested psychologists and psychotherapists from all the Soviet Union. Its immediate appeal was that it presented a possibility to exchange ideas more or less freely, to learn more about Western psychotherapeutic paradigms, to try creatively various formats of psychotherapy. These seminars were always permeated with a distinct humanistic existential atmosphere.

The core events at these seminars were groups of Intensive Therapeutic Life (ITL) – the format developed and facilitated by Aleksandras Alekseičikas who pioneered in professional psychotherapy in Lithuania by starting the first psychotherapeutic clinic in a hospital. Their deeply existential nature was one of the major grounds from which existential therapy, in its present shape, stemmed and further developed. The main category of ITL is life and its intense and profound exploration within the context of the lives of the participants of a group. The dynamics of a group moves through certain life-related situations that are directed so that the healing powers of the life itself would have more space to unfold and would reveal possibilities, unnoticed so far, for freer and more realistic everyday life. Issues of freedom, responsibility, meaning, finiteness, time and other inescapable issues of everyday life always receive special attention in these groups. This model of group therapy provides space and context for thorough and strictly reality-based analysis of the values, meanings, worldviews of the participants. This analysis facilitates ‘knitting’ of the network of the therapeutic process which, in turn, allows both the growth of the group as an integral ‘organism’ and therapeutic changes in separate ‘cells‘ of this ‘organism’. The life of the group focuses lots of attention towards participants‘ understanding of the possibilities that may be found in the human nature or offered by life, or hidden in themselves, along with inevitable restrictions and limitations that are related to imperfection of any human being, or depend on the context of an individual life, while some are determined by the very nature of Being. This comprises one of the most important and most universal goals of existential therapy. ITL is practiced with small and big groups, and also as a model of therapeutic community in a psychotherapy division within a psychiatric hospital (Kočiūnas, 2000, 2008, 2015). The ideas of ITL found a great response among psychologists and psychotherapists not only in Lithuania, but also in Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Belarus. Besides, seminars of ITL are held annualy up to now and continue to be  popular among those who are imposed by the charismatic personality of Dr Alekseičikas and his incredible, impossible to emulate ability to create in these groups a unyieldingly tense atmosphere of exploration of spiritual values.

Another important source, also worth mentioning, was a long-term existential psychology seminar that started in Vilnius in 1984 and worked on monthly basis till the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. It was dedicated to discussion of the ideas of Carl Rogers, Victor Frankl, Rollo May, as some of their books could be obtained through the help of the Lithuanian emigrant communities in the West, and to exploration of existential issues in the context of personal and psychotherapeutic experience. It was not surprising that in 1991 active members of this seminar founded the Lithuanian Association for Humanistic Psychology – the first community of psychologists in Lithuania that had just regained independence, and the first organization of humanistic psychology in the realm of the former Soviet Union. Within the framework of this seminar, an annual intensive workshop under the title „Life and Psychotherapy“ was developed that became the basis for Existential Experience Groups – yet another model of group therapy (Kočiūnas, 2000, 2015). Compared to ITL, it greatly differs from the latter in the position of the therapist: in EEG, it may be defined as phenomenological, since the therapist is not a director, but much more of an assistant in the process of exploration of complex issues and problems in life.

The Institute of Humanistic and Existential Psychology

All these initiatives and active efforts to employ novel activities and practices called for more thorough theoretical concepts in the field of existential therapy. This, along with lively interest towards such activities in Lithuania and other neighbouring countries, was the reason behind founding the Institute of Humanistic and Existential Psychology (HEPI) in 1995 (its founding members were Rimvydas Budrys, Leonas Judelevičius and Rimantas Kočiūnas), which became the most important event in the development of existential therapy not only in Lithuania and other Baltic countries, but also in Russia. The latter country, inspite of its political perturbations, was and still is quite important due to many ties and contacts. They started in the 80‘s with our considerable professional activity in the Russian part of the Soviet Union where we were often invited to give workshops and therapeutic groups. A fair part of academics and practitioners there were impressed by our work based on the existential worldview – this was quite novel and daring in that space. Already first existential therapy training groups gathered many colleagues from Russia, and they as well make up a significant portion among students now. Also quite a few teachers and trainers of the Institute are invited to teach existential therapy at many places in Russia.

Besides, the Institute was the first independent institution offering training in psychotherapy in the Baltic countries. In 1996, HEPI started a programme in existential therapy in Birštonas, a small health resort in the southern part of Lithuania. It proved to be a firm base on which eventually a strong and independent centre of existential therapy emerged in Eastern Europe that now both actively promotes existential therapy and trains its professionals. Since its start, its students‘ body has always included therapists from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine. In such an atmosphere, a unique multicultural context of existential therapy was born and continues to flourish. Thus during the last 20 years Biršonas has become a distinctive „capital“ of existential therapy in the vast post-Soviet space.

In its training programmes, from the very beginning HEPI sought to integrate a very wide and diverse spectrum of ideas in existential therapy. Its programmes encompass comprehensive studies of all major schools and their concepts, including Dasein-analysis (Ludwig Binswanger, Medard Boss, Alice Holzhey-Kunz), logotherapy and existential analysis (Viktor Frankl, Alfried Lӓngle), American humanistic existential therapy (Rollo May, James Bugental, Kirk Schneider), the British school (Ronald Laing, Hans Cohn, Emmy van Deurzen, Ernesto Spinelli). The main point in understanding existential therapy, which the training is based on, is the notion that existential therapy is a process of phenomenological exploration of a person‘s life world focused on its especially sensitive and problematic areas and their significant contexts. Difficulties of people seeking help are explored basing on the principle of relatedness along with considerations of possibilities and restrictions posed by life. The client‘s values and his/her relation to existential givens in the context of his/her difficulties are seen as most essential. On the therapist side, the crucial point is his/her position in the process of development of therapeutic relation and his/her inner attitudes. It is of utmost importance that the therapist‘s position remains descriptive as opposed to analytic or explanatory, that he/she, while maintaining an „un-knowing“ stance, attempts to understand, what happens in the client‘s life, in therapeutic relation, and shares his/her understanding with the client instead of trying to explain or give advice. In therapeutic relations, the therapist‘s openness, genuineness, emotional resonance, respect are especially valued and encouraged.

The training in Existential Therapy programme consists of two stages or levels – initial and professional. The duration of each is 2 years. The curriculum includes existential philosophy and theory of existential therapy, students have an intensive group therapy experience of over 100 hours, while every student has to undergo not less than 110 hours of personal therapy. Also individual and group supervisions are given great significance and attention. Upon successful completion of their studies, students are awarded the Diploma in Psychotherapy (Existential Therapy). Graduates with extensive therapeutic practice may continue studies in the Existential Therapy Supervision programme that takes 2 more years, after which they are eligible to join the team of the supervisors of the Institute.

At present the staff of the Institute includes 40 teachers, trainers, therapists and supervisors from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Russia. In the course of almost two decades, the Diploma was awarded to almost two hundred practicioners from a number of different countries – Lithuania, Latvia, Estona, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan. Since 2000, initial training in existential therapy is occasionally offered also in Russia. During the last 15 years 5 groups were organized in various regions of Russia, from Moscow to Siberia. At present a training group in Saint Petersburg is being planned.

In 2015, HEPI was audited by the experts of the European Association for Psychotherapy. They acknowledged that the training programmes of the Institute conformed to the standards of the EAP, and it was granted the status of a European Accredited Psychotherapy Training Institute. This means that graduates with the Diploma in psychotherapy studies of the Institute are eligible to receive also the European Certificate of Psychotherapist.

HEPI continues to develop the existential group therapy model which is hinged on the idea that the dynamics of the group is based on building common life in the group along with its continuous reflection and solution of problems in relations emerging „here-and-now“ within the group. The group process is a fragment of life that is finite time-wise, but has no pre-set framework or defined content. It grows out of interactions of the participants and the therapist that revolve around their unique life stories and experiences, and around the situations born directly in the group. Thus the life of the group „materializes“ participants‘ ways of being-in-the-world and their problematic aspects (unrealistic attitudes, inadequacy to requirements of specific situations in life, lack of relatedness to others, incongruity of one‘s relation to existential givens and so on).

Since 2007, HEPI offers a training programme of group psychotherapy based on this existential model. The training is performed in a small group of 8-10 students. The programme consists of three stages: 1) students participate in therapeutic/training groups facilitated and supervised by experienced group therapists; experiences of each group are scrutinized in ‘live’ discussions and in written form, through participants’ and supervisors’ mandatory written analyses of the group and of the therapist’s work; 2) students in turn act as therapists in the same group, being supervised by experienced therapists; the work of student therapists is continuously discussed and analyzed in written, the same way as in the 1st stage; 3) on his own, each student has to organize and facilitate a real therapeutic group, which has to be supervised. This programme, inspite of being long-term and complicated, is quite popular. Along with the Existential Therapy programme, it attracts students from various countries.

The East European Association for Existential Therapy

A milestone in the development of existential therapy in the Baltic countries and also in Russia was the Eastern European Association for Existential Therapy (EEAET) founded in 2003 in Birštonas, Lithuania, by a group of 37 existential therapists. In 2015, this Association has over 300 members in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Belarus (these countries have their sections represented in the Board of the Association), Ukraine, Kazakhstan, USA, Canada, Australia, Spain, Serbia, Poland, Germany and Great Britain. The Honorary Members of the Association include Dr Aleksandras Alekseičikas (Lithuania), Prof Simon du Plock and Prof Ernesto Spinelli (UK), and Dr Kirk Schneider (USA). The EEAET is a member organization of the European Association for Psychotherapy.

The Association publishes the annual journal „Existentia: psychology and psychotherapy“ (in Russian and English). It contains theoretical papers, interviews with prominent psychotherapists, case analyses, discussions of therapeutic practice. Most authors, coming from various countries, belong to the existential therapy community of the Association. Some publications are translated from and in cooperation with the psychotherapy.net website. Dace Purena, the editor of Existentia, periodically initiates indirect discussions involving outstanding figures of existential therapy in our countries, Great Britain, the USA (their topics vary from money in psychotherapy to the image of a therapist to the experience of encounter in therapeutic relations, etc.).

The EEAET organizes and stimulates communication and cooperation between existential therapy professionals in Eastern Europe, hosts a biennial conference in Birštonas „The Existential Dimension in Counselling and Psychotherapy”, seminars and workshops of most prominent figures in the field of existential therapy. Prof Simon du Plock has been a frequent guest at events in Birštonas since 1997. Birštonas was visited not once by Prof Ernesto Spinelli, Dr Kirk Schneider, Prof Mick Cooper, Dr Greg Madison, Dr Alice Holzhey-Kunz. Seminars in Birštonas were given by Prof. Emmy van Deurzen, Prof Alfried Lӓngle and  Prof Bo Jacobsen, also by Dr Gerd Achenbach from Germany whose philosophical praxis in its attitude is akin to existential therapy. Such multifaceted collaboration with eminent representatives of various schools of existential therapy allows us to feel ourselves a part of international existential therapy community, encourages discussions within our own professional community, and ensures that more and more psychologists and psychotherapists get „infected“ by the existential „virus“.

Currently the Association takes part in the discussions about founding the European Existential Therapy Federation that commenced at the World Congress of Existential Therapy in London.

Conclusion

In the course of the 20 years of its existence, the centre of existential therapy training and studies in Birštonas, Lithuania (which one might reasonably call the Birštonas school of existential therapy) has become an important part of the world existential therapy community. It has had and continues to have a very significant influence upon  the development of existential therapy in the Baltics, as well as influences the dissemination of existential therapy in Russia and Belarus through offering training in existential therapy at various locations in those countries and short-term seminars on existential therapy theory and practice. Basing on its own distinctive roots, it continuously strives to be an integral part of a wider and extremely diverse field of ideas and notions of existential therapy.

References

     KOČIŪNAS R. (2000) Existential experience and group therapy. Journal of the Society for Existential Analysis, 11 (2), pp. 91-112.

KOČIŪNAS R. (Ed.) (2008) Gydyti gyvenimu: Aleksandro Alekseičiko Intensyvus terapinis gyvenimas. Vilnius: Humanistinės ir egzistencinės psichologijos institutas.

KOČIŪNAS R. (2015) The existential approach in group psychotherapy. International Journal of Psychotherapy, 19 (1), pp. 95-10.

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