top of page
The Therapeutic Tense

German philosopher Martin Heidegger stated animals and plants do not ‘exist’, they simply ‘are’ because having a present which contains the past, and is pointing towards a future, is an ability, it is ex-sistere (stand out) which is not shared by other beings. (Cohn, 2002: 66) From this statement we understand existential problems emerge with the capability of understanding time. Therefore it is very necessary to examine the problems of being with the concept of time as Heidegger did. Heidegger suggested an inseparable relationship between being and time, he said: “Time must be brought to light – and genuinely conceived – as the horizon for all understanding of being and for any way of interpreting it”. (Heidegger, 1978: 39)

Discovering the relationship between time and being as a part of existential discussions in 20th century, presented and contributed an inspirational aspect to understand human beings and their experiences in psychotherapy. The concepts of ‘Time-consciousness’ and ‘subjective time’ (internal time), which are introduced by Edmund Husserl, the founder of Phenomenology and Heidegger’s teacher, had enormous influence on both the therapeutic relationship and skills. It was a new internalized relationship with time which compelled psychotherapists to reconsider the human experience.

I chose this as the subject matter for this essay because I want to untie this vicious circle; the past comes in many influential forms like a shadow which dominates; the future tries to reorganize and change us. The present moment becomes ephemeral while being influenced by these two, the only way to untie it is to understand time better. I feel this will open a door to understanding consciousness. Therefore this essay will defend the statement that time is everywhere in the intentional life of consciousness. Additionally it will discuss why it is crucial to take cognizance of influences of time in therapeutic process and to reorganize the style of therapeutic treatments.

External Time

General time understanding today is a typical example of Western thinking; time is part of the measurement system. (It is one of the seven fundamental physical quantities in the international system of units. Others are length, mass, electric current, thermodynamic temperature, luminous intensity, amount of substance). To measure and to control it, time is divided into equal, abstract, discrete pieces. All of these sequences are objectively identical making it measurable. We can measure time, but it doesn’t mean we can understand it, as Heidegger suggests; measuring time tells us nothing about time itself, except that is measurable. (Cohn, 2002:63)

The Western understanding of time is linear, consequently creating an understanding of experience as linear. It is chronological and time-lined, therefore timetabled. There is a linear move from the past via the present towards the future. Objective timeconsciousness and causality are associated, as there is causality principle behind objective time understanding. Determinism is to believe that everything that happens in the universe has a cause. (Hospers, 1997: 147) Causality (as Determinism is often called) is essentially linear understanding, which makes the past understandable and the future expectable.

The source of Determinism is in Greek philosophy; Western metaphysics. From then Determinism has taken many historical forms; fatalist, theological, physical or scientific, psychological and logical, but the main principle has been the same behind it and all forms have been considered as a threat for free will. Platonic idealism, Aristotelian substantiality and Descartian certainty have sprung not from a genuine perception of being but from a forgetting of being, a taking for granted of the central existential mystery. (Steiner, 1992: 28-69)

There seems be a strong link between existential mystery and free will. Regarding determinism and free will discussions; these questions need to be answered: 1) Is it up to us to choose one from alternative possibilities? 2) Is the origin of our choices in us or in anyone or anything (god, laws, upbringing, fate, other humans), which we don’t have control? (Kane, 2002: 3-6)

External Time and Being Stuck In The Past

Classical Psychoanalysis considered that our choices from among alternative possibilities are determined by unconscious motives and other psychological springs of action of which we are unaware. This suggests all events were determined by a sequence of causes in the past and nothing happened by accident.

For Classical psychoanalysis, the past was a causal determinant of current states of both order and disorder in the client’s intra-psychic life. (Spinelli, 2006: 99) It is obvious the past is understood as fixed and linearly causal to our current circumstances; therefore Freud dedicated himself to decode the language of unconscious within free association, dreams and fantasies. Freud saw the personality as an archeological site and himself an archeologist who excavated layers of ego that was full of past events and figures in order to understand current circumstances.

The main problem of this analysis of psychological disturbance is a fixation to particular periods in the patient’s past, meaning the patient is not free from it and therefore can’t engage with the present circumstances.

Transference: Past In The Present

Transference happens when patient transfers his/her past-unsolved conflicts to the analyst or to the relationship with analyst. Before this ‘false connection’, was considered an obstacle, as in the case between the patient Anna O. and analyst Joseph Breuer. He stopped treating her after she claimed that she was pregnant with his baby, but later in 1909 Freud realized that transference could play a positive, therapeutic role.

Transference transcends the barriers of the passed time. It makes past conflict more possible to be observed in the present time. It makes it possible for the analyst to experience them at first hand. It enables the patient to bring past experiences and unsolved conflicts to the present moment under safe therapeutic conditions giving patient the possibility to make himself free from repeating past patterns.

Melanie Klein confirmed that: the reference to the analyst then has to come later – on other occasions the analyst might feel that, whatever the patient is speaking about, the whole emotional emphasis lies on this relation to the analyst. (Klein 1975, IV: 19)

Reconstructing The Past

In later life Freud felt more free from the idea of a fixed past, he published a paper called ‘Constructions in Analysis’ (Freud, 1937). He suggested in it that if an analyst is not successful in assembling a patient’s past, he should offer the patient a new construction of the past as the analyst sees it, this would have same benefit as the actual recollection. (Yalom, 1980: 347). Here we see it can be conceived that the process of current construction is important, not the actual content itself. As Ernesto Spinelli states, in doing so, Freud opened the way for us to understand our notions of the past as being essentially interpretive, rather than historically fixed or real. It is not past events which have imposed this stance on me, rather it is my stance about who I believe myself to be which imposes a fixed memory of the event. (Spinelli, 2006: 103-108)

External Time: Being Stuck In The Future

In opposition to psychoanalysis, Abraham Maslow developed Humanistic Psychology. In it he emphasized the positive qualities of humanity such as health, The capacity which exists in every human to reach his/her high point and self-actualize. Though his ideas have been very important for a new type of understanding in psychology, he failed to confront with the everyday reality of humanity. What Maslow highlighted was not the everyday person or what they are, more what they ‘should’ be.

This approach is a kind of perfectionism or idealism. Although it doesn’t rely on the past, it is still a type of causality, showing to the patient an ideal personality as an aim. It is determinant and stuck in a future time with an unreal, dreamed pattern. Irvin Yalom suggests, “The future is no less than the past, a powerful determinant of behavior and the concept of future determinism is fully definable. The ‘not yet’ influences our behavior in many formidable ways. Within one, at both conscious an unconscious levels, a series of goals for which one strives, an awareness of destiny and ultimate death. These constructs all stretch into the future, yet they powerfully influence inner experience and behavior”. (Yalom, 1980: 346)

Internal Time

When St. Augustine asked and honestly confessed (Confessions, Book 11, AD 397-398) he was still ignorant to what time was, he clearly put forward that he was aware of a kind of subjective time: “I know that I am speaking all these things in time, and that I have already spoken of time a long time, and that ‘very long’ is not long, except when measured by the duration of time. How, then, do I know this, when I do not know what time is? Or, is it possible that I do not know how I can express what I do know?”.

St. Augustine mentioned here a more ‘poetic’ sense of time, he clearly made a difference between measured and experienced time, showing that experienced time can be sensed more differently than objective time. In it he preempts much of the discussion of about time which occupied Western society one and a half millennia later – the ongoing confusion and shifting between the different time consciousnesses.

There are of course different time understandings in different cultures. According to a recent discovery in Amazon, the people of the Amondawa tribe do not refer to their ages, but rather assume different names in different stages of their lives or as they achieve different status within the community.(1) Their method becomes a representation of their experience, not a chronological number that can be considered objectively by everyone in Western Society.

Similarly, from a phenomenological point of view there is no linear move from the past, via the present to the future, as every present still contains the past it left behind while already pointing towards a future. Time is as Cohn said, is not a thread but a web, which refers simultaneously to what is, what has been and what is to be. (Cohn, 2002: 64). Our past experiences are continually modifying our present moment and our present moment modifies our future. However the arrangement is not always that way, it is also possible the present modifies the past. These 3 dimensions are always related. This has been the new addition of phenomenological approach to the discussion.

Similarly a phenomenological approach is also against objective reality, that objects in the world exist independent of our conscious knowledge and our awareness. It concerns only the appearance of things as they present or show themselves to our experience. This means, similar to time perception, the meaning of things can change for us from time to time.

1 (accessed: 20th May 2011)

Phenomenological Therapy

After the 2nd world war (1940s & 50s), humanism evolved in opposition to ‘essence of man’, ‘image of man’ and universal moral qualities (full humanity). The conclusion was not an ideal state of humanity to be recovered (classical humanism) or a final stage (social humanism). Life didn’t have a priori meaning, human choice and commitment (engagement) made it meaningful. The ideal of man was considered something to practically achieve. These practical values were reality rather than ‘truth’; for example ‘beautiful’ rather than ‘beauty’, ‘good’ rather than ‘goodness’.

It was at this time existential and phenomenological approaches appeared. These approaches reconsidered the question of human choice in terms of subjectivity and flexibility. As Hans Cohn stated, Existential approaches focus on the experience that while givens are unchangeable, our responses are not fixed. (Cohn, 2002: 69). Therefore the role of therapists is to release clients from their traps of their givens, which prevent them from making a free response.

For Phenomenological therapy practice, making free response is mainly based on the ability of living in here and now. Instead of teaching to a client theoretical, manipulative knowledge, it is essential to leave assumptions and to enter into clients inner life. “The therapy places strong emphasis on the immediate, here-and-now experience of both the client and the therapist”. (Spinelli, 1989: 130). This therapy makes emphases on descriptive questions, ‘what’ and ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ questions. Because ‘why’ questions lead clients to concern about past causes, which have speculative and inflexible drives.

The Phenomenological method requires the therapist to stay as close as possible to the clients experience. It means the therapist should be in the ‘here and now’ too. One of the three main components of this therapy is ‘bracketing’, which means suspending assumptions and beliefs (for the therapist) in order to see phenomena. Without disregarding a human being’s intention to make meanings from their former experiences (prejudices or stereotypes etc) it is essential for the therapist to ask the right questions to understand the client’s world, rather than making judgmental statements based on fixed thoughts acquired from the therapist’s own past experiences. To be able to see the actual phenomena and describe it to the client, the therapist should be utilize all senses (seeing, listening, olfactory etc), to understand what is obvious.

Gestalt Therapy and The Present Moment

Phenomenology managed to bring together the parts of human experience which had been separated by objectivity. Gestalt Therapy brought this one step further with ‘The Holistic Idea’, this means being in contact and connected with everything else as a person. People cannot be understood disconnected from their environment, bodily and mental activities also cannot be considered separately.

Field Theory is the source of this holistic view, it states that one’s context influences one’s experience. The relationship between figure (experience) / ground (context) is crucial for Gestalt Therapy, because psychosis is considered a result of disturbed figure / ground formation and healthiness is possible with a healthy figure / ground formation.

The holistic view unifies all these parts in the present moment. Gestalt Therapy states whatever actual ‘is’, it is in the present, whatever happened in the past was actual then, whatever occurs in the future will be actual at that time. The client, therefore only needs to be aware of the first principle; the present moment.

Gestalt therapy however doesn’t refute that remembering and anticipating are actual experiences, but it is important to see that they occur in the present, the past is recaptured in the present, and the future is foreseen in the present. (Perls, 1979: 57-59). The patient should be aware that these past experiences still present a problem to be attended to and solved, otherwise they would remain as an excuse to escape from it.

Awareness: Time as an action, time for action

In Freudian free association the patient was expected to relax and not censor, Fritz Perls claims that this is precisely what the patient cannot do. That is why Gestalt Therapy focuses on our unawareness of what is being repressed and how it is repressed. (Perls, 1979: 17-18). 

Rather than trying to solve problems and curing them, the aim is to shift the ‘inner conflict’ between impulse and the counter-attacking resistances (blankness, counteremotions and other behavioural difficulties), into an open, aware conflict. So the more honestly we feel and express to ourselves our feelings of desire, disgust, boredom etc, the more inner conflicts will be realized. (Perls, 1979: 89-90).

For Gestalt Therapy, contacting with flesh-and-blood without overemphasizing intellectualism is part of awareness. In therapy someone is observed in action, ultimately as action. (Perls, 1979: 27). It’s aim is sharpening the awareness of client to heighten their feeling of what is ‘actual’. These basic questions are asked: What is your actuality? Can you genuinely feel it? Can you feel that it is yours? (Perls, 1979: 63). The awareness is not a thought about the problem, but itself a creative integration of the problem. For Gestalt Therapy what is being experienced, said, done, remembered etc is not so important, more important is how what is being remembered is remembered, how what is said is said, with what facial expression, what tone of voice, what syntax etc, because the important thing is to heighten the contact, to brighten awareness, to energize the behavior. (Perls, 1979: 277-279).


Psychotherapy today should be a 4-dimensional process. The idea of 4-dimensions presents the unity of space and time. Since the last century, the relationship between these two changed the way we understand and apply psychotherapy as well as physics, mathematics, the arts etc. As a result of this discussion we understand that time equals our consciousness. As Einstein said: “The only reason for time is that everything doesn’t happen at once”. Time is nothing but our consciousness in action (moving, extending, tightening, growing, decreasing…).

Irvin Yalom states, that the ‘here-and-now’ is the major source of therapeutic power. He states two reasons for it: 1) The importance of interpersonal relationships, and 2) The idea of therapy as a social microcosm. (Yalom, 2002, 46-47). I believe there should be a third reason, which is the ‘here-and-now’ that brings the missing time-consciousness as part of the solution for the patient. In other words, it helps the patient to remember who she/he is and how she/he is.

The acquisition of this understanding that time is not a thread but a web, helps us to understand that our consciousness is a web too. What makes this different from a thread is that changing part of it changes the whole structure and the changed structure modifies all other parts. If we understand this complexity we can reorganize it. ‘Why’ questions help us only to change the causes in order to change effects, but as Perls suggested, only the question ‘how’ helps us investigate the structure, Fritz Perls named this unconscious system of psychological patterns, ‘our lifescript’.

When writing this essay, the process was similar; I added or deleted sentences, some of them in the middle of the process; as a result the whole meaning of the essay sometimes changed. This obliged me to go to the beginning and rewrite it. I had to reorganize my aims within my new ideas. I stayed loyal to my title and my first intentions, but the structure and meaning changed many times. It was interesting to see forgotten ideas were later remembered and surprisingly filled in missing parts of the structure that were needed.

Essay written at Foundation Course in Psychotherapy & Counselling, Regents College in 2011

Bateman Anthony& Holmes Jeremy, Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Routledge; 1995
Cohn Hans W., Heidegger and the roots of Existential Therapy, Continuum; 2002
Dryden Windy, Dryden’s Handbook of Individual Therapy, Sage, 2010
Freud Sigmund, The Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud 1937-1939, Hogard Press, 1964
Heidegger Martin, Being and Time, Wiley-Blackwell; New edition 12 Oct 1978
Hospers John, An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, Routledge; 4th edition 1997 Husserl Edmund, On the Phenomenology of The Consciousness Of Internal Time, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990
Kane Robert (Editor), The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, OUP USA; 2002
Klein Melanie, Love, Guilt and Reparation and Other Works, 1921-1945, Delacorte Press/S. Lawrence; 1975
M. C. Lemon, The Philosophy Of History, Routledge, 2003
Perls Fritz, Hefferline, Goodman, Gestalt Therapy Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, 1979
Perls Fritz, The Gestalt Approach Eye Witness to Therapy, Acience and Behaviour Books; 1989
Royce Joseph R, Humanistic Psychology: Concepts& Critism, Plenum Press, 1981
Spinelli Ernesto, Demystifying Therapy, PCCS Books; Reprinted edition; 2006
Spinelli, Interpreted World, Sage, 1989St Augustine, The Confessions, Oxford Paperbacks; 2008
Steiner George, Heidegger, Fontana Press; 2nd edition; 1992
Yalom Irvin, Existential Psychotherapy, Basic Books; 1980Yalom Irvin, The Gift Of Therapy, Piatkus Books, 2002
bottom of page