The Play of Unconditioned Presence in Existential-Integrative Psychotherapy

By Bradford, G. Kenneth | Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Play of Unconditioned Presence in Existential-Integrative Psychotherapy


Bradford, G. Kenneth, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology


ABSTRACT: Psychology has been bedeviled by dualistic thought since its inception. Although Existential Philosophy is a principal intellectual inspiration of Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychologies, the challenge it poses of understanding human nature by undercutting the subjectobject split has yet to be fully taken to heart. This article reviews the principal elements of the Existential-Integrative approach to psychotherapy and sharpens its focus, informed by both Existential and Buddhist understanding, according to the nondual potentiality, or play, of emptyopenness (sunyata), the elusive heart of experientially-keyed psychotherapy. In this discussion, a distinction will be made between a threshold therapeutic presence of mindfulness and a more saturated, unconditioned presence.

Psychotherapy is not a learning to adjust; it is a facing of infinite un-adjustability.

-James F.T. Bugental

Going beyond thought is open to all of us in so far as the mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to experience.

-Alan Watts

In 1958, during first light of what was to be the dawn of Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychologies, Rollo May introduced the radical thought of Existential-Phenomenology to American psychology. He wrote, "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.[this has been called] the cancer of all psychology up to now the cancer of the doctrine of subject-object cleavage of the world" (p. 11, emphasis added in original). The "disease" of dualistic thought, bedeviling psychology since its inception, bedevils us still. The Buddha and mystics of many stripes join the Existentialists in identifying dualistic vision as the fundamental mental disease of all time, the basic misperception upon which all other confusion, anxieties and depressions depend.1 Within the corpus of Western philosophy, Existential thought succeeds most clearly in identifying this basic problem and in envisioning nondual alternatives.2 However, this radical thought has proved so foreign to the Western worldview and poses such a profound challenge to our modern idolatry of the self, that it has remained dormant at the edges of psychological thought these many decades, beckoning, but not taken to heart. It is high time we blow the dust off of this penetrating insight, take it seriously (which means experientially discovering if it is true), and fold it into therapeutic thought and practice.

A large part of the difficulty integrating a nondual existential sensibility into the art of psychotherapy lies with Existential Philosophy itself. As philosophy proper, it does not provide a way of putting its own profound thought into practice. Even though an enduring impetus of philosophy, as Aristotle suggested, is to rediscover an originary sense of wonder, when it is limited to conceptual theorizing alone, philosophy is not well able to induce a non-conceptual, felt experience of awe. At its most psychotherapeutic, philosophy promotes critical thinking in the direction advocated by Socrates: engaging in inquiry in order to better "know thyself." Applied philosophy is at its therapeutic best when it aims at self-knowledge practiced as reflection on the tacit assumptions of one's self and world constructs. The result of disciplined self-reflection is that one can come to recognize irrational, unconscious or self-limiting beliefs and so change that view to one more reasonable and inclusive. This kind of critical thinking is not to be underestimated, as it can have far-reaching effects for coming to a less confused/more conscious understanding of self and world. Still, as John Welwood (2000a) points out, conceptual self-reflection remains a function of dualistic thought and is not yet an awakening to non-conceptual wisdom (jnana) such as was taught by the Buddha. …

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