Existentialism and the transpersonal: a rejoinder.
Subject: Existential psychology (Research)
Philosophy of mind (Research)
Transpersonal psychology (Research)
Author: Schneider, Kirk J.
Pub Date: 01/01/2012
Publication: Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616
Issue: Date: Jan, 2012 Source Volume: 23 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 310 Science & research
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 288874179
Full Text: John Rowan's article is a highly commendable attempt to bring transpersonal (or more properly in my view, transcendental) thinking to the fore within our existential-phenomenological sphere of inquiry. This is a highly laudable goal that I (and others) have advocated for many years (see Schneider, Bugental, & Pierson, 2001; Schneider, 2004). The problem with John's article, however, is that it restricts itself primarily to the works of Ken Wilber. The Subtle and Causal realms of consciousness are two examples of this restriction. Yet transpersonal or transcendental psychology cannot readily be reduced to so-called Subtle and Causal realms of consciousness as defined by Wilber. Despite what John says about their 'clarity,' these concepts are in actuality fraught with controversy (e.g., see the debates regarding them and related concepts in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology [1987-1989]). Moreover, transpersonal psychology cannot readily be reduced to the Buddhist-Hindu slant of Wilberian philosophy. While these views are certainly central to the transpersonal mosaic, they are far from comprehensive in my view, particularly for existentially oriented scholars concerned about spirituality. Consider, for example, how Wilber conceived the Causal level of consciousness in an interview with Quest journal in 1994:

Q: ... So what about the next level, the Causal?

[Wilber]: You 're sitting there, just witnessing everything that arises in the mind, or in your present experience ... It becomes obvious that you are absolutely one with this Fullness, which transcends all worlds and all planes and all time and all history. You are perfectly full, and therefore you are perfectly empty. 'It is all things and it is no things,' said the Christian mystic Boethius. Awe gives way to certainty. That's who you are, prior to all manifestation, prior to all worlds. In other words, it is seeing who or what you are timelessly, formlessly.

(Quest, Spring 1994; pp43-46)

Now, to be sure, the above passage, like much of Wilber's work as a whole, has some brilliant flourishes; but it also, in my view, has some disturbing presumptions. These presumptions are not trivial but go to the heart of what it means to be a human being. For example, not only does Wilber presume total self-dissolution in the above passage, he also casts away doubt, anxiety, and even awe. Further, he tacitly spurns an entire existential-phenomenological literature on spirituality in the above passage. This literature--from James (1902/1936) to Otto (1923/1958), Buber (1970) to Tillich (1957), and Becker (1973) to May (1981)--also addresses mystical experience but without the assumption of ultimacy. Far from presuming certainty about transcendental experience, these aforementioned thinkers marvel at its radical uncertainty, its ambiguity, and its breadth. Whereas for Wilber, expanded consciousness evokes contentedness, seamlessness and unity, for the aforementioned existential-spiritual thinkers it connotes a wild and wondrous trek. This difference doesn't make either perspective wrong (or clearly superior), but it does imply that both views have a place, particularly in any field that devotes itself to ontological inquiry (see Hoffman, Warren, Stewart, & Meek, 2009; Hoffman, Yang, Kaklauskas, & Chan, 2009; Schneider & Tong, 2009).

Therefore, I strongly recommend that we join John in his efforts to respiritualise existential psychology, but that we also include the rich and energising existential-spiritual (or existential-theological) tradition to which I have referred. This tradition provides an evolving and informative complement to the Wilberian paradigm that would benefit our field as a whole. As recent exchanges between Eastern and Western spiritual paradigms in existential psychology have already shown (see the special section of the Humanistic Psychologist, 39(3), 201,1 as well as papers by Bradford, 2007; Schneider, 2011; and Wang, 2011), the effort to combine resources in our field can be most rewarding. I hope this lesson is not lost on us as we plumb the ontological riddle.


Becker, E. (1973). Denial of Death. New York: Free Press.

Bradford, G.K. (2007). The play of unconditional presence in existential-integrative psychotherapy. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 39: 2347.

Buber, M. (1970). I and Thou. Trans. Kaufmann, W. New York: Scribner's.

Hoffman, L., Stewart, S., Warren, W., & Meek, L. (2009). Toward a sustainable myth of self: An existential response to the postmodern condition. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 49: 135-173.

James, W. (1902/1936). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Modern Library.

May, R. (1981). Freedom and Destiny. New York: Norton.

Otto, R. (1923/1958). The Idea of the Holy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schneider, K.J. (2004). Rediscovery of Awe: Splendor, Mystery, and the Fluid Center of Life. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.

Schneider, K.J. (2008). Existential-Integrative Psychotherapy: Guideposts to the Core of Practice. New York: Routledge.

Schneider, K.J. (2009). Awakening to Awe: Personal Stories of Profound Transformation. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.

Schneider, K.J. (2011). Awakening to an awe-based psychology. Humanistic Psychologist, 39: 247-252.

Schneider, K.J., Bugental, J.F.T., & Pierson, J.F. (eds.). (2001). The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology: Leading Edges in Theory, Research and Practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Schneider, K.J. & Tong, B. (2009). Existentialism, Taoism, and Buddhism: Two views. In Hoffman, L., Yang, M., Kaklauskas, F.J. & Chan, A. (eds). Existential Psychology East-West. Colorado Springs, CO: University of the Rockies Press.

Tillich, P. (1957). Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper & Row.

Wang, X. (2009). Spiritual warrior in search of meaning: An existential view of Lu Xun through his life incidences and analogies. In L. Hoffman, M. Yang, F.J. Kaklauskas, & Chan, A. (eds). Existential Psychology East-West. Colorado Springs, CO: University of the Rockies Press.

Kirk J Schneider Ph.D. is a leading spokesperson for contemporary existential-humanistic psychology. Dr. Schneider is current editor of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, and on the faculty of the Existential-Humanistic Institute (EHI), and Saybrook University.

Contact: 1738 Union St. San Francisco, California 94123, USA.

Email: kschneider@sfo.com
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