How do we make meaning out of being alive? Interview with Myrtle Heery, Part I

The following is the first of a four-part interview with Myrtle Heery, Ph.D., Director of International Institute of Humanistic Studies, I.I.H.S., ( located in Petaluma, California. 

The Institute provides trainings in the Existential-Humanistic model of psychology and psychotherapy, based on the teachings of James F. T. Bugental, Ph.D., author and professor emeritus to I. I. H. S. 

Interviewer: First, can you give a brief layman’s definition of what Existential-Humanistic psychology is all about?

Myrtle Heery: In a layman’s language, Existential-Humanistic psychology is an individual’s search for meaning and potential in being.

The existential part of Existential-Humanistic psychology refers to our existence, being alive and what we do to make meaning out of being alive. Existential psychotherapy comes with the clear understanding that there living has a limitation which is death.

This fact of carrying the potential of death in our living is the only model of psychology that confronts this fact as part of psychotherapy. It used to be known as the ‘death’ psychology because it so boldly dealt with death. The opposite of death is the potential of living—what we each do with our living.

I: It is almost in the Buddhist tradition of living each day as though you are going to die?

MH: Yes, it is very similar to Buddhism in that respect. But different from Buddhism in that it does not incorporate reincarnation in its model.

The Humanistic part refers to the potential of all the possibilities that one can have while one is living. This form of psychotherapy focuses on making choices, facing relinquishments, and making commitments for our living with our unique lives that we each hold.

I hope that is clear to a layman. I think the word Existential can be frightening. It can stir up heady philosophy out of the European philosophers of existentialism.

Certainly, the foundation of the theory has roots in these various philosophies. But the application of Existential-Humanistic psychology is more of how you live everyday and how you hold the fact that you will die one day.

I: How does Existential-Humanistic psychology differ from other approaches such as Gestalt or Mindfulness Psychology?

MH: The major difference is that it does deals with death, straight on. Mindfulness Meditation there is certainly the awareness of death, particularly in the immediate rise and fall of thoughts, a type of death in the moment. This therapy could at times be akin to a verbal mindfulness.

In Gestalt therapy we overlap in terms of focusing on the present tense, but I would say there are a lot of ‘buts’. This therapy is very different from the Gestalt model in that we accept where someone is, that they have chosen to be there. Then we explore and search with them the meaning of being exactly where they are in Relation to the therapist in the moment.

Gestalt focuses on different techniques such as empty chair or role playing. Existential-humanistic psychotherapy focuses on the here and now relationship without techniques.

I: What is the Existential-Humanistic stance on religion, for example, Christian or Buddhist?

MH: The Existential-Humanistic model is that what you are doing right here and now is your religion, is your spirituality. Many of the hard-core existentialists are atheists. They do not hold a belief in an afterlife but rather focuses on this life through the client therapist relationship.

There are certainly existential philosophies that include spirituality such as Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich and other such as Rollo May and Irv Yalom who do not refer to spirituality..

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