Last week we opened the subject of psychology as offering a secular approach to meditation: finding god by finding ourselves
– Recognizing God as the agent of the upwelling of complexity in Cosmic evolution
– Becoming aware of this upwelling in our own personal evolution
– Finding God by finding our fundamental selves.
We saw how Freud was the first to address this undertaking in an objective, secular and empirical manner (as opposed to that of the intuitive and scriptural). We also saw how, while offering a magnificent array of new concepts, and working empirically, Freud’s psychology nontheless leads to a very negative understanding of our basic selves. Meditation, even via psychology, can be very dangerous indeed, since it shows our basic selves as highly unreliable, even untrustworthy.
This week we will address an opposite approach to psychology which emerged in America in the last century. This different approach, while also based on the empirical perspectives and methods of science, found a core of the human person completely orthogonal to Freud.
From Freud to Existentialism
(This topic is covered in much more detail in the Post of Feb 13, 2014, “Love from the Existential Perspective”, which is included in the Blog “The Phenomenon of Love”.)
As we saw in the previous post, Freud was successful in developing an integrated system of thought which objectively addressed the whole of human activity. He pioneered the understanding of the human in terms of inner energies, motivations, stimuli and even “economies” that determine his development from birth to death, and did this in a way which mirrored the objective approach of science. His treatment of human irrationality is unmatched. However, with his underlying materialism, misogyny and overall pessimism he was definitely pessimistic on the human person’s potential for satisfying relationships and personal maturity.
But we can find agreement between Freud and Teilhard on several things, such as the existence of a personal core of energy which underlies human growth and relationships, and understanding love as manifested in the reciprocal exchange of this energy between individual persons. They sharply disagree on the nature and source of this energy, and the role that this reciprocal exchange could have in positive growth, maturity, and even creation of the person involved in its exchange. The difference between these two schools of thought sharpens further when they are applied to human relationships at the social level.
As psychiatry and psychology continued to develop in Western science, many of the negative aspects of Freud’s thinking began to be reevaluated and modified as the increasing participation of Westerners in psychoanalysis created a large body of empirical data which could be analyzed to support or disprove the propositions which originally formed the basis for Freud’s thinking. The relation between the analyst and the analyzed evolved as well, with the increasing educational level of the middle class, the acceptability of psychology by religion, and the emergence of expectations on the part of those undergoing analysis.
The Pioneers of Existentialism
In the nineteen forties and fifties, several psychologists emerged with a distinctively different and positive understanding of the human person and the dynamics of his growth and relationships with others. This approach generally became known as “existential”. Their general methods became known as ‘counselling’, and adopted by religion, as “pastoral counselling”.
Rollo May understood the basic tenet of existential psychotherapy as “that which stands with scientific analysis as expressed in the genius of Freud”. However, the empirical data that science also brings into the picture unfolds the understanding of the human person on a deeper and broader level. This deeper understanding assumes that it is possible to have a ‘science of man’ which does not ‘fragmentize’ him (by breaking him down into Freud’s compartments) and thus destroy his humanity in the process of studying him. Unlike therapeutic interpretation as practiced in Freudian psychoanalysis (which consists of referring a person’s experience to a pre-established theoretical framework) ‘existential’ interpretation seeks to understand how the person himself subjectively experiences reality, then works with him toward actualizing his potential. Psychology was moving from analysis and diagnosis to guided inner search.
Psychology was emerging as assisted secular meditation.
Instead of focusing on psychopathology and what goes wrong with people, Abraham Maslow formulated a more positive account of human behavior which focused on what goes right. He was interested in human potential, and how it could be actualized. He believed that each person has a desire for self-fulfillment; namely, the tendency for him to “become actualized in what he is potentially”. As we have seen, this requires us to first find ourselves, and then cooperate with this primal force which rises within us.
Ashley Mongatu believed that as a consequence of humanity’s unique evolutionary history, which requires us to be highly cooperative, human drives are oriented in the direction of growth and development in love and cooperation. He believed that what we are born for is “to live as if to life and love were one”. Like Teilhard, he subscribed to the belief that evolution rises along an axis, and that we are located, both as individuals and society, on that axis.
These pioneers believed that the core of human personality is positive, and not irrational and capable of destruction as Freud believed. Their clinical experience led them to recognize that the innermost core of man’s nature, in the deepest layers of his personality, the base of his “animal nature” is actually positive, basically socialized, forward-moving, rational and realistic. They saw the goal of psychology as to help us find this inner self, then help us learn to cooperate with it.
In scientific circles, however, this was a difficult concept to accept. In psychology, Freud and his followers presented convincing arguments that the id, man’s basic and unconscious nature, is primarily made up of instincts which would, if permitted expression, result in incest, murder and other crimes.
In religion as well, especially in the Protestant Christian tradition, our culture has been permeated with the concept that man is basically sinful, and only by something approaching a miracle can his sinful nature be negated. The whole problem of therapy, as seen by this group, is how to hold these untamed forces in check in a wholesome and constructive manner, rather than in the costly fashion of the neurotic.
In contrast, the existentialists believed that the reason for this negative belief by many psychologists lay in the fact that since therapy uncovers hostile and anti-social feelings, it is easy to assume that this proves the deeper and therefore basic nature of man as unrelentingly negative. Only slowly has it become evident that these untamed and unsocial feelings are neither the deepest nor the strongest, and that the inner core of a man’s personality is the organism itself, which is, in addition to self-preserving, also social and capable of perfection.
The Next Post
This week we saw how the basic tenets of psychology began to evolve from seeing the personal core as ‘dangerous’ to seeing it as a positive and trustworthy basis for human personal growth. Next week we will look in more detail at how one of the most pivotal Existentialists applied this approach and the results he recorded.