Don’t Block the Hearth Fire; Reclaiming the Soul of Therapy by Embracing the Awareness of Death

by | Apr 28, 2022 | 0 comments

Existential Therapy Irvin Yalom

Sammuel Bak Painting, Generation to Generation

In my house, like in most houses in America there is a fireplace. My wife and I do not often use our fireplace. In fact, I am not even sure if it works. Now that there are more efficient forms of heating installed in most homes there is really no need for fireplaces, but they continue to be built all the same. Any interior decorator or homemaker worth their salt will tell you that whether or not a fireplace works it cannot be blocked, and furniture must be placed so that people can gather around it. The style of houses that we build today are still based on the same basic floor plan of the ancient Roman style of architecture. In Rome, houses were built around a lares, or hearth fires, where penates, ancestral gods of the family, were revered and guarded the home.

Even though most Americans could not tell you why the hearth is afforded such significance, it is still agreed upon in western design language that the hearth is significant. The origin of the hearth idea in western architecture is one example of the many ways that the religious impulse indirectly recognizes a connection to our ancestors. As humans we long for transpersonal and trans-generational connectedness. Jungian oriented therapists help clients cultivate the transcendental and reflective skills that a well-developed spiritual dimension brings into our lives.

Inhale, exhale
Forward, back
Living, dying:
Arrows, let flown each to each
Meet midway and slice
The void in aimless flight
Thus I return to the source.

–Japanese Death Poem
Gesshu Soko, died January 10, 1696, at age 79:

Stephen Jenkins is a palliative care counselor and writer that I admire. In his writing, he makes the argument that western culture has an unhealthy avoidance of the reality of death. Jenkins writes that that the fear of death in our society has robbed us of a spiritual dimension and tools for everyday life that ancient civilizations have always had. Acceptance of one’s own mortality and acknowledging one’s ancestors are directly related concepts. Jenkins’ argument is that acceptance of death is what gives a culture the ability to make meaning and understand its own story. If we deny or disregard death as an important part of our human experience, then we can never make meaning of our own lives. We must embrace this important part of our humanity if we are to be able to make ourselves whole (Wilson, T 2009).

As a society we hide children from the dying, and often even from the elderly; not allowing young people to understand this important stage in the life journey. We do not value the wisdom of the aged; we simply treat their cultural experience as out of date. It is our general cultural practice to pretend that we are immortal. We hide from death and all the trappings of death until it is too late. We wait until we are at the end of our life journey and we have not developed any tools to help us understand how to die. This practice is to our own deficit and the deficit of our culture. Jenkins argues in his interviews that our culture needs to embrace death and the process of dying in order to reclaim the spirituality our culture has lost (Wilson, T 2009).

It’s your life. You don’t know how long it’s going to be but you know it’s got a bad ending.

–Don Draper
Mad Men; Season 2, Episode 9

Spirituality in most religions contains a meditative or contemplative component used to orient one’s priorities, clarify goals and values, and discover one’s own personal identity and agency within the world. Although spirituality is a vague concept that can mean many things to many people, most therapists agree on the importance of spirituality in the therapeutic process. One of the major benefits of spirituality in therapy is that spirituality assists clients in understanding their place in the world, and helps clients accept their own finitude and mortality. This is true whether a person’s spiritual tradition advocates belief in an afterlife, a multi-layered reality, or simply a scientific materialist understanding of the world. Regardless of an individual’s spiritual tradition, an active spiritual life will help a therapist engage an individual in important reflective personal questions.

Personal spirituality is different from organized religion. Developing one’s own personal spirituality distinct from the organized religion you participate in is important because it allows individuals to answer questions and face struggles unique to their own life. There is much diversity between different individuals’ life course trajectories. What works for one person may not work for another person. Developing one’s own personal spiritual dimension inside or outside of an organized religion increases an individual’s self-efficacy and individual human capacity for choice-making.

A robust spiritual dimension allows individuals to solve problems that arise in the life course in the best way for them, according to their own strengths and weaknesses. This self-efficacy is an important protective factor for individuals as they develop throughout the life course. This protective factor can help individuals avoid many problems as they traverse the various stages of life.

In the book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker puts forth a hypothesis that won him the Pulitzer Prize, and changed the way many cognitive theorists thought about therapy. Becker argued that human cognition is a defense mechanism against the knowledge that we must die. Many drives within humanity are attempts to make ourselves immortal and find ways of obtaining spiritual immortality. Becker put forward the idea that anxiety, depression, and even psychosis can be attributed to the breakdown in our immortality seeking processes. Becker argued that human beings long for secular and religious accomplishments because we believe that these will make us immortal. Becker argued that cognitive problems arise when our culture lacks the spiritual and numinous dimension that allows us to understand death and accept our finitude (Becker, E. 1973).

The part of Becker’s theory that is most applicable to therapy and social work practice is his idea of immortality. Becker’s idea of immortality is much more involved than simply an idea of an afterlife in popular culture and religion. In The Denial of Death immortality is the way that a person finds their significance, self-worth, and meaning in relation to the universe (Becker, E. 1973).

We attain spiritual immortality when we have a well-developed spiritual dimension that allows us to feel connected to the past, others in the present and to future generations. It is this connectedness that allows us to feel spiritually immortal and come to terms with our mortality. In the ancient world heroic deeds and religious traditions were an attempt to feel connectedness to a numinous reality larger than the time ancients lived within. Becker argues that nothing but spirituality of some kind can give humans the connectedness to the fabric of our world and provide us the spiritual immortality we long for.

One of the reasons that Becker’s theories were so successful is that they build on the basic assumption that all human beings know at a fundamental level that we will one day die. Because of this we are all in a sense already dead. This knowledge is an intrinsic part of our humanity that we must learn how to handle, or it will lead us to destroy ourselves. The reason that this is important to include in a discussion of spirituality in psychotherapy practice is that this theory of therapy makes spirituality an essential component in the therapeutic process. The problem of death in our own and in our clients’ lives must be solved in order to live a fulfilling life. This cannot be done without the transcendent quality of spiritual practice.

In my own life I find Becker’s spiritual immortality in what will be preserved of me in how I change the world for the better. I personally have no interest in the concept of the afterlife in my own religious tradition, but I do not need that to feel motivated and important. Sharing love that changes the lives of those around me and the lives of those they will touch is where I find immortality. What will be preserved of me is the impression that I leave on this world through how I live my life and affect the lives of others.

The presence of me will be preserved by people who likely do not recognize or understand what they are preserving. We are all released into the earth, and into the stuff of the heart, and the mind, the character of others, and the lives of everyone who antecedes us. A piece of the things that are part of me will become part of everyone whom I become a part of. The things that made me who I am did not come only from me; but also from those before me and how they shaped the world. The juice of ourselves was never ours, but something we borrowed from countless others. This is not something that would make sense to everyone, but it is what makes sense to me.

Life is chaotic and overwhelming to the best of us. To understand it we need a lens to view our world in a way that makes sense to us. When we develop our own spiritual dimension it can act as the lens that lets us understand our world. Our personal spirituality tells us why we are unique and special. It gives us the immortality that Becker describes in a way that we decide is important to us. A robust spiritual dimension can help us live life intentionally, mindfully and effectively.

Bibliography

Wilson, T., Clarke, A., Lorber HT Digital, Alive Mind Media, & National Film Board of Canada (2009). Griefwalker. United States: Alive Mind.

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Free Press.

Weil, A. (2005). Healthy aging: A lifelong guide to your physical and spiritual well-being. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

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