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Drawing from a deeper well: contemplative Asian sources of radical existential thought.

Introducing Existential thought to American psychologists in 1958, Rollo May explained, 'Existentialism, in short, is the endeavor to understand man by cutting below the cleavage between subject and object which has bedeviled Western thought and science since shortly after the Renaissance' (p 11). In these words, May alluded to a non-dualistic view which informs the radical epistemology of Existential-Phenomenology. Almost a quarter century later he was compelled to admit, 'In our crisis of thought and religion in the West, the wisdom of the East emerges as a corrective. This wisdom recalls us to truths in our own mystic tradition that we had forgotten, such as contemplation' (1981, p 164). It is one thing to have a theoretical view of human nature not based on an object/subject split, but another thing entirely to be able to put that undivided vision into practice. May came to appreciate that while the West may be able to intellectually understand (theoria) a holistic approach to being in the world, it lacks the meditative capability (praxis) for realizing non-dualistic knowing.

Prior to May's declaration of the value of Eastern wisdom for the West, Martin Buber and Martin Heidegger, among other akin philosophers at the time, shared a similar concern, immersing themselves in the study of Eastern 'mystic' traditions. This immersion, occurring at the beginning of the 20th century, is a largely unacknowledged source of some of the most radical--in the sense of non-dualistic--insights which have come to be identified as 'Existential' thought.

As it stands, Existential Therapy (ET) is commonly understood to be, and understands itself to be, a decidedly Western form of thought and practice, sourcing itself exclusively from European philosophical and psychoanalytic traditions, with a minor influence coming from American psychology. But even the pragmatic American contributions, typically emphasizing humanistic priorities such as self-expression and self-determination, such as are reflected in individual development, person-centered psychology and experience-near therapeutic applications (For instance, Bugental, 1981; Gendlin, 1978; Maslow, 1968; Moustakas, 1969; Rogers, 1951), are well within the European intellectual tradition.

In the following pages, I will introduce the contemplative Asian sources that inform the thought of Heidegger and Buber. By so doing, I wish to 1) challenge the Euro-centrism of Existential thought as it is currently identified, and 2) empower the reach and range of ET by highlighting its radical, non-dualistic potentiality. That is, in conjunction with broadening the range of the field of ET by dialoguing with and incorporating the contemplative knowledge of Asian traditions proper to Existential thought, there is the challenge of deepening the therapeutic skillful means of its reach by recognizing that contemplative practice is essential to deeper self-inquiry, self-understanding and self-liberation. These concerns are nothing new, as they have been of interest to depth psychotherapists for sometime.

Western Psychology looks East

Following Buber and Heidegger, but apparently unaware of their earlier studies, Medard Boss (1965) published a remarkable account of his encounters with Indian spiritual masters, entitled, A Psychiatrist Discovers India. This title is indicative both in the sense of what he discovered and how he approached what he discovered. What he discovered was the Indic wisdom traditions of Buddhism and Vedanta (Hinduism). How he approached these psycho-philos-spiritual traditions was through the lens of a Western psychotherapist. Strangely, his unique text is little referenced, even though it is both a serviceable introduction to radical Indic thought and an illuminating dialogue contrasting the dualistic presuppositions of Western science and philosophy with the non-dualistic sensibilities of Eastern traditions. In addition, it is written in the readable manner of a personal memoir, with the East/West contrast occurring in the conversational style of a Socratic dialogue.

A notable contingent of other psychologists, also disenchanted with the materialism of Western science, were likewise drawn to wisdom traditions of Indo-China in the middle of the 20th century. (For instance, Benoit, 1955/ 1951; Goleman, 1977; Naranjo & Ornstein, 1971; Fromm, Suzuki & De Martino, 1960; Welwood, 1979.) These psychologists and psychiatrists understood that Western empiricism, predicated on a split privileging perceived objects and objectivity over the perceiving subject and subjectivity, is indelibly handicapped in inquiring into the phenomenology of subjective experience. Not only is human science research handicapped by Cartesian empiricism (Boss, 1982/1963 &1965; Giorgi, 1970), this worldview fortifies the separation of self from world, mind from body, and me (I) from you (Thou), leading to anxieties of alienation, estrangement and exacerbation of a consciousness divided against itself (Politzer, 1994/1928). Transfixed by this severe dualistic vision, Western Psychology inevitably developed views of a disjunct subject and its 'object relations,' proliferating and cataloging a vast array of 'disordered' insanities that are symptomatic of a divided mind. Remarkably, conventional Psychology has no understanding of the nature of an undivided mind, and no clear understanding of the nature of sanity itself (Bradford, 2013).

Rather than premising a fundamental split between subject and object, non-dualistic traditions premise a fundamental inter-relatedness. A key term for this in Buddhist phenomenology is pratitysamutpada: inter-dependent co-origination. In addition, Eastern traditions have a range of skillful means by which to access, nourish and embody our inherently undivided, 'true' nature. It is not surprising that Westerners with an interest in psychic wholeness and well-being, finding few and feeble sources in the West, would be drawn to the emancipatory disciplines of Asia. Eastern sciences of mind can claim more than 25 centuries of ontologically attuned, epistemologically robust, and in the case of Buddhism at least, psychologically sophisticated research into the nature of consciousness, dwarfing anything comparable in the West.

Significantly, psychologists in the late 20th century encountering Asia's contemplative traditions did so with a good deal of intellectual sophistication. Unlike hippies, spiritual tourists, cultural refugees or other ill-prepared Westerners seeking some kind of escape or release from the suffering, lostness and confusion of Euro-American materialism, professional psychologists approached Eastern thought with a high capacity for critical thinking. In general, they understood the superficiality of religious dogma, East or West, and armed with healthy skepticism combined with an inquiring mind, cut through the thick smoke of exotic Asian religious rigmarole, and zeroed-in on the essential teachings. Psychologists during this period overwhelmingly gravitated to the more advanced, non-dualistic streams of Asian thought, such as Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Advaita Vedanta (advaita means nondual). This is in contrast to Psychology's Eastward turn today, which focuses on more preliminary approaches, such as mindfulness and physical yoga. Since psychologists in most cases encountered the East with their Western philosophical views already fully formed, Asian studies tended to became an 'add on' to their pre-existing reference system. While this intellectual foundation protected them from getting absorbed by the exotica of Asia, these constructs also tended to insulate them from more fully absorbing, putting into practice and realizing the radical teachings of the East.

This seems to have been the case for C.G. Jung, who opened the door for psychologists 'discovering' Indo-China. In the 1920s & 30s, he was conversant enough with Asian traditions to write both a Foreward to D.T. Suzuki's groundbreaking text, Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1974/1925), as well as to contribute a major Commentary to Richard Wilhelm's translation of the Taoist text, The Secret of the Golden Flower (1975/1931). It was Jung who set the tone of caution in regard to Eastern wisdom traditions, which, although eroding, continues to this today. He warned,
   original Buddhist writings themselves contain views and ideas which
   are more or less unassimilable by the average Western
   understanding. [Admitting,] I do not know ... just what spiritual
   background or preparation is necessary before one can [understand
   Buddhist or Taoist thought].

To his credit, Jung understood that psycho-spiritual preparation was indeed necessary, even if he was not sure what this might entail. Continuing,
   It should not be too difficult for the Western mind to grasp
   what a mystic understands by 'enlightenment', ... [the] strange
   perception called Satori ... Satori, however, depicts an art and a
   way of enlightenment which is practically impossible for an
   European to appreciate
   (1974/1925,p 9)

However, Jung's limitation apparently did not pertain to Existential philosophers, who were well able to absorb the wisdom of the East. Both Buber and Heidegger seriously studied Taoism and Buddhism early in the 20th century. Unlike the psychologists, these philosophers did not encounter the East after their views were fully formed, but in conjunction with the formation of their unique philosophical perspectives. Early in their careers, these Existential luminaries encountered nondual Asian thought in ways that had an undeniable formative influence on their maturing thought.

Buber and Taoism

It seems not to be widely known that Martin Buber was so involved in the study of Taoism as to have published a German translation of and commentary on Chuang-Tzu's Taoist classic, 'Inner Chapters,' in 1910 (Buber, 1991/1910). According to Walter Kaufmann, Buber's translator, this serious study began prior to the rough outlining of his landmark work, I and Thou (Buber, 1970/1937: pp 49&50). His immersion in Taoist parables, philosophy and poetry continued during these early years, including the draft of a commentary on Lao Tzu's, Tao Te Ching in 1924 (Cited in Herman, 1996: p xi). Buber was forthright and appreciative about the formative influence Taoism had on his thought and practice of dialogical exchange. For instance, in a Preface to the 1951 edition of his Chuang-Tzu translation, he referenced 'the Taoist teaching, to which I am indebted for a great deal' (p 15). His involvement with Taoism was no passing fancy, but a source he found himself drawing upon throughout his life.

I expect a proper Buber scholar, which I am not, could speak with greater authority about the influences Taoist thought, especially its literary style of story, parable, and pithy aphorisms, had on the development of his dialogical philosophy. Certainly, the inter-relational and non-self-centered priorities of Taoism can be seen prominently in the primacy of intersubjectivity running throughout his work. And while his prime focus was devoted to Hasidic knowledge in the service of a kind of a Judaic renaissance, especially after the holocaust, Buber remained a decidedly nondualistic mystic. He opened a door for Jewish, Christian, agnostic, atheist and non-theistic Westerners alike to a radical, unmediated encounter with nature, others, and through opening to otherness, with oneself. Like Taoism, he did not understand the self as an independent entity, but at all times as self-in-relation. His unique approach emphasizes non-conceptual presencing and a relational intimacy that upends the tendency to objectify other people, including oneself, as a disjunct other. His approach to human beings is essentially an approach based on the inter-being of human being (to borrow a translation of pratityasamutpada offered by Thich Nhat Hanh, 1967).

Unmediated, non-conceptual encounter is the essence of authentic, wholesome relationship for Buber. As he puts it in I and Thou,
   The relation to the You is unmediated. Nothing conceptual
   intervenes between I and You, no prior knowledge and no
   imagination; and memory itself is changed as it plunges from
   particularity into wholeness. No purpose intervenes between I
   and You, no greed and no anticipation; and longing itself is
   changed as it plunges from the dream into appearance. Every
   means is an obstacle. Only where all means have disintegrated
   encounters occur.
   (1970/1937, pp 62&63)

Conceptual constructs, including My ideas and opinions about You, based on my personal and socially-constructed biases, including my history, memories, imaginings and fantasies, impede a genuine exchange. For Buber, it is necessary to release all intentionality--including emotional and intellectual pre-dispositions--in the process of opening oneself to the other's otherness, in order to have an authentic exchange with the other as well as to be wholly present as oneself.

Buber's non-conceptual openness is in perfect accord with the core Taoist principle of non-action (wu wei). Non-action is neither an intentional expression of action nor of passive inaction, but arises spontaneously from the intrinsic intelligence of the within-ness, between-ness or inter-ness, of undivided presence. Buber understood that unconstructed and unconstructing awareness is the cognizant mode through which to be in attunement with the other, and ipso facto, with the Tao. In other words, unconditional co-presence is the living experience of what it means to be authentically in the world.

Elsewhere, Buber declares, 'Feelings one "has"; love occurs. Feelings dwell in man, but man dwells in his love. This is no metaphor but actuality: love does not cling to an I, as if the You were merely its 'content' or object; it's between I and You' (1970/1937, p 66). In these words, Buber points out the difference between a divided mind which might deploy a possessive kind of love, and a more basic, unmediated and uncalculating love, undistorted by self-centered hopes and fears. In observing that love is 'between' us, that 'it' is nothing, belonging to no one, Buber is again in alignment with the Taoist ethic of non-fixation, or unknowing, that enables non-action. He understood that the existential intelligence intrinsic to the Tao is not an intellectual knowing, but a knowing of the heart, having the nature of love implicit within it.

'Tao in itself is the unrecognizable, the unknowable. "The true Tao does not explain itself." [Lao Tzu says,] It cannot be represented: it cannot be thought, it has no image, no word, no measure.... Tao appears in the becoming of the world as the original undivided state, as the primal existence from which all elements sprang, as "mother of all beings".' (Buber, 1992: p 181). Usually translated as 'the Way,' Tao refers to the possibility of alignment with the wholesome way things are prior to being distorted through emotionally-charged mental constructions. It points to the essential inter-being of beings as well as to the potentiality of swimming in a holistic flow within a stream of spontaneous well-being. Or not.

We are free to either resist and stand apart from what is, or, to go with the flow in the great stream of being, in the fully-engaged manner of practicing a martial art such as Tai Chi or Chi Gung, for instance. To be 'in the Tao' is to be in attunement with the way things are, in accord with the thrust of being in its manifold appearances and disappearances, without getting lost in those appearances. This requires resting in the nature of openness, between-ness and no-thingness, which is never separate from "'the spirit of the valley" that bears everything. The spirit of the valley is deathless; it is called the deep feminine' (Buber, 1992: p 181). These phrases are pure Taoism. Tucking into this a bit deeper, the spirit of the valley is deathless because it is unborn, and being unborn, it cannot be found to exist as anything whatsoever. So, the practical question remains: will one recognize one's inseparability with the basic intelligence of existence--which is no thing--, or not?

The experiential challenge in Taoist and Buddhist practice is that of releasing one's projections, ideas and opinions about oneself and the world. This involves, in psychological language, the loosening of mental fabrications cohering the (imaginary) protective boundedness of one's limited and limiting self and worldviews. As a practice of non-doing, the essence of Taoist practice involves relaxing projections in order to be present with what is free of mediating constructs. This 'way' requires risking a non-conceptual, non-self-referential and so inevitably insecure, unknowing in the face of the immensity of existence. That is, it requires a decidedly contemplative engagement. Buber explains,
   what men call [objective] knowledge is no knowledge. In
   separation there is no knowledge. Only the undivided man knows;
   for only in him in whom there is no division is there no
   separation from the world, and only he who is not separated from
   the world can know it. Not in the dialectic of subject and object,
   but only in the unity with the all is knowledge possible.'
   (p 183)

Dualistic knowing that splits object from subject is the habit of forming projections and then taking them to be real, while remaining ignorant of the subject fabricating the projections. Only in uncontrived and uncontriving felt attunement with the Tao is unconfused perception and true knowledge possible. Without adopting a contemplative attitude, the most psychological science can do is 'measure its own measurements,' or, said in psychological terms, fulminate over its own projections.

It is essential to note that while Buber is widely recognized as the originator of 'dialogical' therapy, emphasizing dialectical exchange between partners, he clearly sees the limitations of dialectical inquiry for realizing full knowledge and genuine relational presence. He points to a way of being-with that, in being undivided, does not occur through a subject-object dichotomy. For Buber, such basic nonduality is the radical core of Existential thought and practice.

Heidegger, Tao and Zen

While May focused on the subject/object split 'bedeviling' the West since Descartes, Martin Heidegger addressed the more fundamental dualism structuring Western thought since its Greek inception. Beginning with Parmenides, Plato and Aristotle, and supercharged by Judeo-Christian theology, Heidegger (1959/1953 & 1969/1957) focused on the metaphysical split running throughout Western thought. Observing how Judeo-Christian moralism is overlaid on Platonic idealism, which itself serves as a foundation for Cartesian dualism, including the widespread malaise in our current disembodied 'age of anxiety.' David Levin writes,
   When we read Descartes, for example, it becomes quite evident
   that the epistemological and ontological dualism of 'body' and
   'mind' is, in the final analysis, a reflective manifestation of the
   dualism in our religious experience of good and evil: we have
   tended to see a radical split in our moral nature, which
   reverberates ... in every dimension of our being. The body is evil;
   it is a source of sin, moral weakness and limitation, ... the 'mind'
   is essentially unpolluted and free of evil. Nothing so noble, so
   'lofty' as thought could ever take place in the 'lower body'
   (1987, p 247)

Heidegger followed Nietzsche in attempting to bring 'an end to metaphysics,' of which Cartesian empiricism is but a particularly virulent strain. They both understood that metaphysics was not a mere aspect or add-on to Western thought, but was its very core. As Heidegger put it in 1935, 'In the seemingly unimportant distinction between being and thinking we must discern the fundamental position of the Western spirit, against which our central attack is directed' (quoted by Mehta, 1987: p 32). The 'fundamental position' needing to be 'attacked' is the dualistic habit of thinking that privileges reason (logos) over felt (pathos), embodied, holistic sensing.

Seeking inspiration and direction from fully acknowledged Western sources, including Phenomenology, the Pre-Socratics, poets and Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, as well as from the unacknowledged sources of Taoism and Zen Buddhism (May, 1996/1989), the nub of Heidegger's concern was to rediscover the lost sense of being. He saw 'forgetfulness of being' as core to Western estrangement, including the West's ever more self-destructive tendencies, both ecological and psychological.

Heidegger's philosophy was devoted to reorienting the 'calculative,' 'instrumental/technological' approach of Western, metaphysically-based thought, to a distinctly 'meditative' form of thinking (Heidegger, 1966/1959 & 1977/1944). He suggests there is a noble purpose for human being, which is to discover and heed what he refers to as 'the call of conscience,' so to be a 'shepherd of being' rather than a heedless instrument of a society fundamentally confused (das Man), bent on materialistic acquisition and the reckless deployment of technological power (Heidegger, 1962/1927 & 1977). It seems obvious that 'heeding the call of conscience' is remarkably akin to 'attuning to the Tao,' albeit with a Protestant moral imperative.

In promoting a non-calculating, 'authentic' relation of human beings with themselves, each other and the world, he explicitly seeks to reinvigorate a contemplative mode of cognizance (Heidegger, 1977/1944). This effort to rediscover a primary, inherently relational and non-conceptual rapport with existence is, it seems to me, a cornerstone of Existential Therapy. Ernesto Spinelli (2016), among others, advises that a holistic approach of 'inter-relatedness' is not merely a cornerstone, but the proper theoretical foundation for ET in its entirety. Certainly, existential psychology is above all grounded on what it means to be. As Spinelli puts it, "'being" (the being of Dasein) and "the world" are not separate entities but must be grasped together. In this sense, there is no divide between subject and object, nor between internal and external' (p 316). Nowhere are holistic sensibilities more robustly expressed than in the radical thought of Asia, and Heidegger was well aware of this.

There is now wide recognition of Heidegger's involvement with Eastern wisdom. Even a casual reader of his work is likely to notice a strong echo of Buddhist thought. More serious students of Heidegger recognize this similitude still more clearly. The question for Heidegger scholars is not if there is a correspondence between his work and Eastern thought, but the degree of correspondence, including the extent to which Asian thought has been an unacknowledged source of what we think of as 'Heideggerian' philosophy, and under his influence, more broadly as 'Existential thought.' This concern has been vital enough as to motivate the symposium, 'Heidegger and Eastern Thought' convened in 1969, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Endorsing this symposium, Heidegger wrote, 'Again and again it has seemed urgent to me that a dialogue take place with the thinkers of what is to us the Eastern world' (quoted in Parkes, 1987: p 7).

In writing, 'again and again [a dialogue with Eastern thought] has seemed urgent to me,' Heidegger was not merely coming to this conclusion in old age, he was expressing a longstanding conviction, vital at least since the 1920's (see May, 1996/1989), and antedating all of his published work, including his opus, Being and Time. In 1987, a major anthology, Heidegger and Asian Thought, edited by Graham Parkes appeared, including essays by twelve internationally esteemed Heidegger scholars. A number of these authors reference both Heidegger's longstanding interest in East Asian thought and cite numerous correspondences between his writings and those of Taoism, Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. However, Heidegger himself was ungracious to the point of secretive in acknowledging his intellectual debt to Asian wisdom. Erik Craig (2012) has noted that during the years of the legendary Zollikon Seminars, during which Boss invited Heidegger to teach and apply his philosophy to psychotherapists, he at times spoke to Heidegger about Asian wisdom, to which Heidegger listened, but admitted having no prior knowledge. This silence motivated Reinhard May (1996/1989) to publish an investigation he entitled, Heidegger's Hidden Sources, revealing the unmistakable influences of Eastern thought on his presumably Western philosophy.

As it turns out, Heidegger's interest in East Asian thought was not unique, but a source shared by his principal mentor, Edmund Husserl, whose involvement with Eastern thought is also little known. At the very least, Parkes (1996/1989, p 89) reports that Husserl was interested enough in Buddhist philosophy in the 1920's to invite a prominent Japanese scholar from Kyoto to deliver a lecture series on Buddhism. Hosting these talks in his own home, the young Heidegger would certainly have been in attendance. Again, at the very least, the authority of Asian wisdom was sought after by the pre-eminent Phenomenologist of the 20th century. The extent of influence Eastern thought had on Husserl's own later thinking is an intriguing question inviting further research. But its influence on Heidegger's thought appears to be indisputable.

As Parkes summarizes in the Hidden Sources volume, 'By 1927, then, Heidegger had engaged in philosophical dialogue with three of the greatest thinkers of 20th century Japan.... and had ample opportunity to learn about the Buddhist idea of nothingness, the affinity between Meister Eckhart and Zen, and the basic ideas of Taoist thought' (1996/1989, p 97). In 1930, he gave a lecture at a private home in Bremen on the question of intersubjectivity, which, as could be the case with a Heidegger lecture, was dense and difficult for the audience to follow. Realizing this, Heidegger asked the host for a copy of Buber's translation of Chuang-Tzu. Not only was Heidegger aware of this text, he was familiar enough with it to know exactly where to locate a specific aphorism with which to illustrate the point he was trying, apparently unsuccessfully, to make using only Western philosophy (Parkes, 1987: p 105).

In his effort to break the Western metaphysical fixation on the thingness of objects or people, including fixation on the static content of thought, in order to liberate the vitality of authentic presence and the dynamic process of thinking, he invoked Lao-Tzu.

The key word in Lao Tzu's poetic thinking is Tao, which 'properly speaking' means way. But because we are prone to think of 'way' superficially, as a stretch connecting two places, our word 'way' ... translated as reason, mind, meaning, logos, [is] ... unfit to name what Tao says .... Tao could be the way that gives all ways, the very source of our power to think what reason, mind, meaning, logos properly mean to say ... Perhaps the mystery of mysteries of thoughtful Saying conceals itself in the word 'way, ' Tao, if only we will let these names return to what they leave unspoken, if only we are capable of this

(quoted in Stambaugh, 1987: p 84)

As with Jung, Heidegger notes the need to acquire 'capability' to comprehend mystic wisdom. There is an undeniable challenge involved in overcoming the divided consciousness that informs our constructed sense of self and world. Gaining access to undivided presence, and being able to open to the way of openness, to the 'mystery of mysteries' of our true nature, requires an ability for sustaining undistracted attention (samadhi). It involves meditative skill that, as Heidegger notes (1966/1959), must 'be able to bide its time, to await as does a farmer, whether the seed will come up and ripen' (p 47).

In his later writings, Heidegger often spoke of the importance of 'craft,' such as an artisan has, which has been a favorite analogy used by Zen masters for over a millennium. Conceptual thinking alone will not suffice for the mastery of any craft, and especially a spontaneous interpersonal craft, or art, such as psychotherapy. Once again, since Western thought is so thoroughly dominated by calculative thinking, it is clearly advisable for therapists to privilege contemplative forms of cognizance such as have matured in the East.

Reporting on a conversation he overheard Heidegger having with a monk, Heinrich Petzet writes, 'that on hearing the Buddhist monk say that "nothingness is not 'nothing', but rather the completely other: fullness. No one can name it. But it--nothing and everything--is fulfillment", Heidegger responded with the words, "That is what I have been saying, my whole life long"' (quoted in May, 1996/1989: p 3). Indeed he had. Heidegger's signature concept of Dasein, which he employed to refer to the nature of a human being, is as central to his philosophy, and as difficult to translate, as tao is to Taoism and sunyata is to Buddhism. Sunyata is the key Buddhist word for the true nature of self and world, commonly translated as 'emptiness' or 'openness.' The resonance between these three terms is unmistakable. As Lao Tzu famously put it, 'the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao' (my translation). Even as emptiness, the Sanskrit root su of sunyata paradoxically means to swell, referring to a fullness of being. 'Nothing is not nothing,' says the monk, 'but ... fullness. No one can name it.' It is 'fulfillment.'

In other words, we could say no-thingness is being in attunement with the tao.

In the still other words of Existential thought, Dasein is variously articulated as 'there being,' 'being-in-the-world,' no-thingness, 'a clearing' in the sense of an open space, a luminating realm, basic openness and the capacity of presence, or simply being. The potential fruit of 'fulfillment' in being simply and fully present in the moment, speaks to a fruition beyond therapeutic relief that seeks to transform 'neurotic suffering into normal suffering,' which Freud understood to be the goal of psychoanalysis. This worthwhile psychological goal continues to be the overarching purpose of most psychotherapy, Existential included. But the fulfillment alluded to by the monk and philosopher does not refer to a psychological state, but to an ontological recognition that fulfillment is not some thing to be sought, as if it exists somewhere else, but is 'always already' intrinsic to the nature of being in the world as it is. Which raises a new question: Is one able to tune in and be in accord with this vital, paradoxical nature?

Contemplatively-keyed Existential Therapy

In his doubt about a Westerner's ability to 'assimilate' Eastern teachings without sufficient 'spiritual' preparation, Jung apparently did not see that the nondual orientation of Asian traditions are also quite daunting for an 'average,' unprepared Easterner. He seems not to have seen that the preparation necessary for accessing nondual wisdom has little or nothing to do with culture and the conceptual husks surrounding the teachings, but has everything to do with a person's capacity for being open-to and opened-by non-referential presence. To discover the truth of the way things actually are, one does well to prepare by peeling away the outer husks of the way one thinks they are, be those constructs social, theoretical or personal, opening oneself to the vulnerability of un-knowing. Developing one's contemplative capacity, as William Blake put it, is to 'cleanse the doors of perception' and, through bearing the clarity and lightness of being, 'to see reality as it is: infinite.' Other words for 'infinite' are 'groundless', 'emptiness' and 'open-ended'.

Self and world illusion

While May spoke to 200 years of the Cartesian split and Heidegger addressed 2,000 years of the metaphysical dualistic vision of Western civilization, wisdom traditions of the East address the dualistic thinking that characterizes the human condition since time immemorial. The subject/object split is not limited to the West and modern worldviews, but is endemic to the human species and the phenomenology of consciousness itself. Husserl understood that conscious intentionality involves both noema (object pole) and noesis (subject pole). And psychologically speaking, with consciousness, especially self-consciousness, comes unconsciousness. With selfhood comes otherness; with us comes them. As mystics of many stripes know, including Heidegger and Buber, conceptual thinking differentiates, separating this from that, analyzing wholes into constituent parts, and is vulnerable to making emotionally-charged, polarizing dichotomies, all the while forgetting that these distinctions do not exist in reality, but only within one's construction of reality.

Mistaking our mental constructs for reality itself, we become lost in our own projections. Complicating matters, our 'everyday' lostness is confirmed and reinforced by the shared projections of the consensus reality in which we dwell, and we become convinced we are not lost. In Buddhist psychology, not recognizing this dilemma is referred to as the fundamental ignorance (avidya) underlying all confusion and anxiety. Daring to face and recognize the lostness of our situation (Buddha's 1st noble truth) requires existential self-honesty, which is the courageous first step on a path of awakening.

While there are various steps and various paths in Buddhism, keyed to the varying capacities people have for facing the truth of existence, the foundation of all of them is self-reflection. The Zen master, Dogen (n.d.), notes this beginning purpose as, 'studying Zen in order to study the self.' On this level, Western psychotherapy has already made valuable contributions in the facilitation of self-examination. However, psychotherapy seems not to recognize that the depth of its inquiry only addresses relatively gross veils of self-deception and self-condemnation, and does not penetrate the more subtle veils of self-illusion, including the fundamental ignorance that shrouds one's true nature.

Having developed the ability to self-reflect, the next step is to see into the illusory nature of the self, discovering that 'I' am not a separate, self-existing being, but a sentient process of inter-being; a no-thingness in on-going relationship with everything. The impression of continuity we experience through time, which we defensively, if innocently, solidify into an enduring, independent island of selfhood, creates a temporary safe harbour of security, but at the cost of interminable anxiety. In the back of our minds we somehow sense that our apparently secure sense of self and world is tenuous, and we find ourselves plagued by doubt, hope and fear, which accompanies us as a niggling, perhaps vague, apprehension. So, we compulsively engage in a constant stream of self-narration, which functions to reassure ourselves that we exist and are in some measure of control of our world/thoughts. This kind of compulsive thinking becomes obvious very quickly once we sit down to meditate. The skill of contemplative attention seems to be critical for slowing down the speed of 24/7 discursive thinking, in order to discover how we are, often unconsciously, construing our world and misconstruing ourselves.

Authenticity and radical Existential thought

In Buddhist psychology, it is understood that along with the 'fundamental ignorance' of dualistic thought comes the potentiality of wholeness, basic sanity or 'fundamental wakefulness' (bodhi). Heidegger's understanding of authenticity resonates strongly with this, which is likewise in accord with the existential harmony implicit to the Tao. These all point to a basic, unconditioned, undivided and lucid presence. However, it is very rare that Existential therapists speak of authenticity in these terms; either in regard to or as a correlate of Buddhist enlightenment or attunement to the Tao. I suspect this is due to an unfamiliarity with the Buddhist sense of bodhi and Taoist sense of tao, as well as having only a vague sense of what Heidegger meant by authenticity.

Of course, the question of authenticity is central to ET, and has been considered by several Existentialists, from Kierkegaard to Nietzsche to Heidegger to Sartre to Fromm to Bugental. In general, these thinkers focus on authenticity as daring to source oneself from within rather in conformity to social norms and mores. But, as Heidegger was aware, there is a range of potential authenticity, just as there is a range in Buddhism from glimpsing to fully realizing enlightenment. There is maturational difference in Buddhist thought between having an experience of awakening (satori), which affords a glimpse into the true nature of mind, and more fully embodying non-defensive openness. Without having a more sophisticated understanding of the range of proximal versus full authenticity, ET remains hampered in understanding this core concern.

Appreciating only culturally-contingent ideas of what might constitute authenticity, ET is left with only a general humanistic idea of what this means. For instance, 'to be authentic' is often taken to mean, 'be yourself.' But the question of the who that one is as 'oneself' is often not deeply considered. So, what is typically taken to be one's 'authentic self' winds up being merely one's opinions, emotions, memory and psycho-physical characteristics. There remains, behind these self-centered aspects, a holistic awareness which can be aware of each one. Certainly, acknowledging and taking responsibility for what one feels and thinks is a moral and psychological victory for anyone who has been estranged from him or herself. Carl Rogers termed this 'emotional congruence.' But as regards the potential for a more complete self-realization, psychological self-knowledge remains a rudimentary kind of authenticity. Without doubt, self-understanding and self-acceptance can cut through irrational fears and self-deception, perhaps relieving a crippling inner dividedness. But this psychological kind of self-acceptance is not yet a realization of full authenticity which dissolves the fundamental ignorance and discontent that comes with the illusion of divided selfhood.

For ontologically-robust inquiry that is curious about seeking full authenticity, it is helpful to have a frame(s) of reference able to guide and support the inquiry.


This essay makes two points. First, the field of Existential Therapy has underappreciated the extent to which some of its most fertile thought, particularly that of Buber and Heidegger, is inspired and informed by Asian wisdom traditions. This being the case, the wisdom streams of the East belong to the field of ET and what we think of as the Existential corpus. This presents Existentialists with a challenge of intellectual integrity. Will we acknowledge these Eastern wisdom lineages as legitimate sources proper to ET? Many Existential therapists, including leading authorities in the field, have been unaware of, or have decided to ignore, this vital legacy. ET is already an East/West Psychology, if only in embryonic form. Given the sourcing of Existential values from Asian contemplative traditions, it falls to Existentialists more than other subfields of Psychology to honor this heritage and harness it in the service of self-understanding and, with more far-reaching import, self-liberation such as the Buddha discovered. Which brings us to the second point.

Existential Psychotherapy is primarily a contemplative art and science. Optimally deployed, ET privileges meditative, inter-relational and non-dualistic awareness over calculative thinking and utilitarian interventions. While this orientation is respected in ET (as well as in forms of psychoanalysis and transpersonal psychology), it has not been empowered as much as it could be.

The disruptive insight and reassuring verve of philosophical thinkers who do not shy away from existential actualities, paradox and the dizzying mystery of being are lights illuminating the existential way. I surmise that the Asian roots of Existential thought have been disregarded and under-regarded not only due to the cultural-intellectual difficulties involved, as Jung observed, but because opening more deeply to the nondual wisdom of the East puts us face to face with the inherently insecure nature of self-existence. The search for truth, meaning and authenticity sound enticing all the way up until we confront what actually is, beyond our mere ideas about it, and find ourselves teetering on the lips of an abyss. It is at this point of 'being towards death,' as Heidegger poignantly put it, that authentic presence reveals itself. Contemplative wisdom traditions are devoted to strengthening one's capacity for unmediated attunement to existence as it is, and brilliant in pointing out that the terror and groundlessness of being is not other than the vitality of wonderment and well-being-as-such.

G. Kenneth Bradford, PhD is a clinical psychologist specializing in Contemplative-Existential Psychotherapy. Recent publications: The I of the Other: Mindfulness-Based Diagnosis and the Question of Sanity and Listening from the Heart of Silence: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy, Vol. 2. Contact:


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Author:Bradford, Ken
Publication:Existential Analysis
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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