Issue 9/2016 summary

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Issue 9/2016 summary

Elita Kreislere (Latvia) Can we speak of the Birštonas school of existential therapy?

The core of Birštonas school of existential therapy is the Institute of Humanistic and Existential Psychology (HEPI) in Birštonas, Lithuania. The Institute was established in 1996, and a community of existential therapists from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Belorussia, Ukraine and other countries in the region was formed and continues to live. The founder and director of the Institute is Rimantas Kočiūnas. Many of the people who studied existential therapy at the HEPI participated in founding the Eastern European Association for Existential Therapy.

The experience of meeting representatives of different schools of existential therapy leads one to assume that there is the Birštonas school of existential therapy.

This assumption and the tendency in the global community of existential therapy to define their professional identity stimulated research into the peculiarities of the practice of existential therapists, with respondents chosen from the therapists who have completed their psychotherapeutic education at the HEPI.

An overview of theoretical underpinnings during the studies means reading the works of psychologists and philosophers, who are important in existential therapy: Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Buber, Levinas, Binswanger, Boss, Frankl, Tillich, May, Bugental, Laing, van Deurzen, Spinelli. The aspiring existential therapists make their first acquaintance with the existential paradigm through the books of Yalom and Bugental.

Interest in and respect for the diversity and multiplicity of facets is reflected in the choices made by the guests of the Association’s autumn conference. Repeated visits by the leading representatives of the British school of existential therapy Emmy van Deurzen and Ernesto Spinelli, the accessibility and popularity of their books as well as fruitful and varied professional cooperation with Simon du Plock naturally left strong impression of the British school on the formation of the characteristic features of the Birštonas school of existential therapy.

Likewise, we may discern certain influence of American existentialism. Here, the understanding of ethologist and philosopher Paul Tillich concerning the distinction between existential and neurotic anxiety and the subsequent development of these ideas in the works of Rollo May are essential.

Among the authors who are widely read and cited by therapists of the Birštonas school of existential therapy three authors must be mentioned, whose ideas naturally develop from their truly profound understanding of Judaism. These are Martin Buber, Emanuel Levinas and Viktor Frankl. Their understanding of the relations between a person and other people and their attitude towards human existentence as such have influenced many therapists of the Birštonas school.

An important factor that influenced the understanding of existential therapy in Birshtonas is the method of Intensive Therapeutic Life (ITL) by Aleksandras Alekseičikas.

Core points of the work by the therapists of the Birštonas school were studied both from the theoretical angle described above and from another angle, i.e., as ‘embodied’ practical work of particular existential therapists.

Several factors were set for selecting participants of this study:

  • the therapists must have completed psychotherapeutic education and have licence to practice independently as existential therapists;
  • the participants should have complete psychotherapeutic education only in existential therapy;
  • they must be graduates or teachers at the HEPI;
  • they must have at least ten years of experience working as consultants and psychotherapists.

All ten respondents meet the above criteria.

To examine the work of existential therapists, the method of thematic analysis has been selected. This qualitative research method is described by Virginia Brown and Victoria Clarke.

To obtain primary data, ten expert interviews were conducted; all of these interviews took the form characteristic of deep interviews, that of a free private one-to-one conversation for about sixty minutes on a predetermined topic.

This theoretical and practical study enables us to speak of the existence of an idiosyncratic Birštonas school of existential psychology among others in a wide range of different existential practices. If we provisionally position the Birštonas school alongside other currents of existential therapy known to us, this position can be presently defined as being somewhere within the square delineated by the following points: Intense Therapeutic Life by Alekseičikas; Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy; the American existential-humanistic school and its founder Rollo May; the British school of existential psychology – Ernesto Spinelli and Emmy van Deurzen.

Thus, the core and principal result of the study is constituted by 16 issues revealing three dimensions of therapeutic work at the Birštonas school of existential therapy:

–            therapeutic relations;

–           therapeutic interaction;

–           theoretical concepts of therapy.

Basing on the obtained results, it is possible to suggest that the core points for the methodology of the Birštonas school of existential therapy are:

  • phenomenological and existential traditions of philosophy;
  • the main common methods of therapists’ work are phenomenological study and hermeneutic understanding of the client’s life;
  • the central focus of the therapists’ attention is human life as a whole in all of its manifestations;
  • the principal content of their work is related to explaining the complicated interconnection of possibilities and limitations on human life and the interconnectedness between a person and Others;
  • the essential foundation of successful existential therapy is mutual, trusting and free relationship between the therapist and the client;
  • therapists associate healing of a person with the client’s openness to the world of his or her life and with the development in understanding oneself, others and the world as a whole;
  • relations with Another provide the necessary environment for the transformation of the client’s understanding of him- or herself;
  • in every unique therapeutic situation, therapists freely choose the means of therapeutic interaction;
  • therapists are not inclined to use ready-made techniques of therapeutic assistance in their work;
  • therapists are research-oriented rather than clinically or educationally oriented in their work.

The present theoretical consideration and practical research provides the foundation for the future critical rethinking of the situation of existential therapy in Europe, particularly in the Eastern European area. Because theoretical constructs created only at the desk cannot always communicate the essence of existential therapy, it would be desirable to obtain further research into ‘embodied’ methodology of existential therapy, that is, a study of the practice of particular existential therapists/ It would include the practice of the therapist of the Birštonas school of existential therapy.

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