I am struck by the impact of the unseen in our lives as human beings. I spend most of my time with clients talking about aspects of themselves or their lives that cannot be pointed to while we talk. Some of those phenomenon occur internally, some in the future, and some in the more spiritual/existential realm of human life. It really is amazing how much those three areas dictate our lives and yet our society only has us focusing on what we can see, measure, or touch. It’s not that we shouldn’t focus on what can be seen but that we should also be focusing on what cannot be seen. It is ultimately our fear of all three of these areas I’m choosing to focus on that keeps us from having a better relationship and understanding of the unseen in our lives. It’s easy for people to dismiss the unseen part of our lives from an intellectual standpoint, given the impact of the scientific method and our drastic pulling away from mystery and awe, but the important thing to “see” is that these unseen areas of our lives have great power and create much of our behavior without our own knowledge. So I would like to take some time to focus on the following areas of the unseen: internally, the future, and spiritual/existential. There are obviously more areas than that and some of these will intertwine but I find these to be three very large areas that bring people to therapy.Internally
Philosophers have been pointing to the greater questions of life via internal experience and thought for centuries. Many great thinkers have been helping us to explore and understand the internal landscape of human beings. Christ, the Buddha, Plato, Nietzsche, Einstein, and on goes the list. Freud also brought a huge advancement to this process by putting words and attention to the subconscious. Some people put lots of credence into the power of the subconscious while others do not. Regardless, there is a part or parts of ourselves that drive our behavior that is not always conscious. It is this area of our lives that we are so poorly equipped to navigate. This could definitely be taught in schools but it isn’t. I would love to see better preparation in this area implemented in the learning of young children!
There is so much information to who we are and why we move about the way we do in the more subtle energies, bodily sensations, and feelings we experience. Personally and societally, we have turned off our awareness to these parts. This is necessary to protect ourselves when in psychological danger but eventually becomes unhelpful. In many ways we are all walking around pretending this whole internal world doesn’t exist, and yet a client in therapy might come to the realization that they have been ignoring the fact that they are caretaking others in order to receive acceptance in return. They obviously were not consciously thinking, “I’m going to do something nice for this person so they accept me.” Nor do they tell that person, “hey, you know what, I just realized I helped you because I need your acceptance.” No, this whole process happens implicitly and internally. We have access to it but we must look.
How someone really feels about their job, retirement, or their self can actually be unseen. It is not unfelt, just unseen. Why someone responds to their spouse with such criticism is driven by more than their “assessment,” but many people don’t open themselves up that much to see for themselves what is really going on. It is this internal world of human beings that occurs out of our immediate awareness that needs a lot more attention. If the world was more aware of this part of themselves there would be less war, fighting, bickering, and acts of violence. People would be able to take more responsibility for their own internal processing instead of just projecting it onto the world. This would create a much more healthy environment within which to exist.
This is an area of life that has not occurred yet. I know that’s obvious but needs to be said. We obsess, worry, ruminate, and go crazy over what MIGHT happen in the future. Anxiety is ultimately a problem of too much future-thinking. It is a way to try and prepare oneself for hurt, disappointment, or success. This is not all bad of course. Having a sense of time – the past, present, and future – is something that makes us human and is part of living a full and healthy life. It is when it can become an obsession that it gets in our way of living in the moment. This has become a popular pop psychology and self help phenomenon because it is obviously something we need to do – live in the present that is.
Fear of the unknown is a way many describe their anxiety about the future. Another unseen realm of human life that can make us behave, feel, and relate to others in all sorts of ways we might not realize. All of us put our “attention” to different things and so not everyone puts their attention to the future all the time. As well, not everyone who puts their constant attention to the future focuses on the same aspects of their future-life. One person might always be worried about physical safety while someone else is worried about their finances crumbling. Another person might be focused on what others might think of them while someone else is focused on death. These focal points can be helpful to understanding more about yourself and the areas that can help with your own growth and healing. Think of it as you trying to get your attention to deal with unfinished business. It is not all bad just because you obsess about it.
The future can be a scary place for many people. For others it can be a place of excitement and opportunity. But most of the time it is a mixture of both and that is what helps to keep us moving as human beings – a healthy amount of anxiety and excitement. Although the future can be a scary place, it only ever exists in our heads in the present moment, which is usually not a scary place. Further, our obsessions/fears about the future usually do not come true. Sometimes they do, and when we live our life out of fear, we can often bring about the very things we are afraid of. Part of this is because we are putting our attention somewhere so constantly that we will find the thing we are afraid of. So stop searching for it. The other part of this is that when we live in fear about the future, we are not living from who we are in confidence, which tends to lead us away from ourselves instead of more in the direction we want to be going.
The unseen. The unknown. The mystery. The awe. As much as I am saying it is important to know how to explore the unseen, we also need to be more okay with mystery and the unseen aspects of life. Balance.
The spiritual/existential dimension is another area that often plagues clients/us without knowing it. Some realize they are up against a spiritual crisis or spiritual questions, but many do not realize that what they are ultimately dealing with is a bigger issue of what it means to be human – of what it means to be them as a human being.
I tend to use the two terms spiritual and existential interchangeably. They are different terms to some degree, but I am using them as being similar in that the larger questions of human existence lead one to spiritual/religious answers. Spirituality or existential contentment does not have to come from an organized religious belief system. For some, this is what they have found to make the most sense for them and to quell their anxiety, while others rest in other forms of a deeper connection to something outside of themselves. Either way, much of this is going on unseen, whether that is internally or externally.
These unseen areas are easy for us to ignore but they creep around the corner or bubble up from underneath our psyche if we continue to pretend they are questions and realities not worth our attention. If someone is dealing with intense anxiety, or even depression, they are in many ways dealing with what it means to be them (i.e. their pain, their passions, their personality) within the context of the larger world. While one of those states can often be based in the fear of death (anxiety) the other can often lead people to the choice of death (depression/suicide). That’s pretty profound if you ask me. These are not just results of negative or irrational thinking. Irrational thinking can be a part, but it does not help us see the greater context within which that human being is living – human existence on earth – and just thinking more positively will only bypass the issue.
I know a therapist who, when clients have discovered a ton of psychological insight yet still remain stuck, asks the question, “what about this isn’t a spiritual issue?” I think this can actually be quite a profound question for people. Sometimes we think we can answer everything with science or psychology, but sometimes we must enter another dimension of the unseen. Again, spirituality here does not need to mean organized religion, but should reflect the greater philosophical exploration of what it means to be human. This is why I find the blending of psychology and philosophy to be so necessary since the question is not just what does it mean to be human but what does it mean to be ME as a HUMAN.
I think it’s really important to work through much of one’s internal psychological pain before working on spiritual and existential questions. This is because the latter exploration can be quite muddied by old wounds ignored. There is a term, “spiritual bypassing”, that was coined by John Welwood in regards to the process of covering over psychological wounds with spirituality, which tends to ignore a whole internal reality.
Lastly, working through our internal wounds, the tension of the future, and our sense of personal human context, can often be very rewarding endeavors to move us out of stuckness and living with more freedom.