Existential-Humanistic Psychology, Mindfulness and Global Change

Praveen K. Chopra, M.A., Ph.D. Candidate
Existential-Humanistic Psychology and Mindfulness

Existential-Humanistic psychology has played an important role in the treatment of psychopathologies by looking at individuals as a whole person and living in a socially interconnected and holistic world. In order to appreciate how this came about it is important to get an overview of the development of humanistic psychology from a historical, social, and geopolitical perspective. On December 11, 1940 Carl Rogers, at the age of 38, spoke to the Psi Chi chapter of the University of Minnesota - his speech was titled "Newer Concepts in Psychotherapy". This was the origin of humanistic psychotherapies (Cain, 2002). Cain also wrote that this speech received a lot of excitement and also criticism. Carl Rogers would later identify the date of the Minnesota speech as the birth of client-centered therapy. This talk led Carl Rogers to write a book, Counseling and Psychotherapy, which eventually become a landmark in the history and development of humanistic psychology (Rogers & Russell, 2002). These new concepts of humanistic psychology emerged as an alternative to the present day behavioral therapies and psychodynamic processes. The humanists believed that the behaviorists and the psychodynamic therapies did not integrate the goals and aspirations of the clients being treated. This movement was called the "third force" following psychoanalysis as the first force and behaviorism as the second force. Three major strands of humanistic therapy evolved during this process: client-centered therapy (CCT), Gestalt therapy, and existential therapy (Elliott, 2002). Carl Rogers (1902-1987) developed CCT, currently called person-centered therapy (PCT) while Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) developed the human motivational theories that led to self-actualization. Friedrich Perls (1893-1970) and Paul Goodman (1911-1972) were responsible for the development of Gestalt therapy (Strumpfel & Goldman, 2002), while Rollo May (1909-1994) popularized and advanced the existential movement in the United States (Bugental, 1996). All of these therapies focused on helping the individual self-discover the healing process, leading eventually to improved self-esteem. High self-esteem has many positive social benefits: individual happiness (Shackelford, 2001), academic achievement (Schmidt & Padilla, 2003), and supportive social behavior (Schimel, Arndt, Banko, & Cook, 2004).

Core Beliefs of Existential-Humanistic Psychology

Several authors have identified common and unique characteristics of humanistic psychology (Shaffer, 1978; Greenberg & Rice, 1997; Cain, 2002). The five core beliefs that emerge from these authors are: a phenomenological approach; a tendency for a person to attain self-actualization; a holistic perspective and integrated view of a person; that each person has the ability to determine for them what is good and bad; and for the therapist to respect the subjective experience of a person unconditionally. These five major characteristics of humanistic psychology are interrelated and interdependent (Shaffer, 1978).

Phenomenology is the most important core belief of existential-humanistic psychology and psychotherapy. The founders of phenomenology were from Germany: Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). Using this concept, humanism focuses on the unique conscious experience of each human being. So in order to understand the person one needs to understand their perception of reality (Kendler, 2005). It is very important to understand a person's subjective or conscious experience without any judgment, bias, expectation, or comparison. It is only then that a humanistic therapist can assist a person in dealing with his or her own issues.

According to Abraham Maslow self-actualization implies that a person is experiencing reality with all of their faculties and feeling a sense of connection with the rest of humanity and their (Maslow, 1971). The question is: Who or what is the entity that is going through this experience? It is the self. The construct of self, also called self-concept, plays a very important role for all humanistic psychotherapists. The self is constantly evolving and changing from childhood and eventually it incorporates the self-image into one whole self. Humanists believe that a person has the capacity to change their behavior and have the internal mechanism to heal and grow as individuals. Each person is viewed as an indivisible whole - a gestalt. Humanistic psychology is monistic in its approach and does not believe in the dualism of the body and mind. The person is interconnected and integrated.

Each individual has the capacity to choose and to determine a course of action. There are a number of steps that can reinforce the confidence factor in one's making choices and improving their self-esteem. According to Carl Roger (1965) the client first starts to believe in their abilities to induce a change. Then they develop the confidence in making decisions that will change their behavior and at the same time create the foundation of living a socially dependent life. Choices and will play an important part for a person to function. All humanistic therapies view each person's reality as unique. It cannot be categorized nor can it be compared to someone else's. The therapist must show genuine concern and respect towards the client's subjective experience.

Existential-Humanistic Psychology Today

Based upon foundational principles of existential-humanistic psychology many diversified theories have emerged that directly or indirectly induce social change: existential therapies, transpersonal psychology, positive psychology, meditative therapies, and interpersonal psychodynamic therapy (American Psychological Association Division 32, Humanistic Psychology, 1999). Some recent advances in humanistic theory and therapeutic practice that increase self-esteem and that have a social impact include (see Greenberg & Goldman, 1988; Greenberg & Rice, 1997; Lampropoulos, 2000; Bohart & Greening, 2001; Cain, 2002; Seeman, 2002; Stiles, 2002; Goldfried, 2004): Client-centered therapy + Gestalt therapy = Experiential Therapy. The experiential therapies include: Focusing-Oriented Experiential Psychology (Eugene Gendlin, Laura N. Rice); Process-Experiential Therapy = CCT + Gestalt + Existentialism (Leslie Greenberg, Robert Elliot; Mahrer's Experiential Approach. Positive psychology (Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi). Perceptual field approach (Arthur W. Combs): people behave according to their perception of reality. The focus is on emotion and bodily experience.Family therapy (Virgina Satir) focusing on the whole family.

Many studies have confirmed the validity of humanistic psychotherapy and reinforced its position in treating the individual, helping their self-esteem, and making a significant contribution in diversified areas of social change (Norcross, et al., 2001; Asay & Lambert, 2002; Richert, 2003; Gazzola & Stalikas, 2004). Research is more limited concering the existential part of humanistic psychotherapy but the tenets of existential psychology is present in the emerging bodies of psychotherapy models.

Global Applications of Existential-Humanistic Psychology and Mindfulness

The social outcomes of existential-humanistic therapy very often results in improving the self-esteem of an individual. Self-esteem has been directly linked to happiness (Shackelford, 2001), academic achievement (Schmidt & Padilla, 2003), divorce (King & Raspin, 2004), social behavior (Schimel, Arndt, Banko, & Cook, 2004), social stigma (Lampropoulos, 2001), eating disorders (Safer, Lively, Telch, & Agras, 2002), and depression (Arndt & Goldenberg, 2002).

Academic achievement and retention are related to many variables, such as self-esteem, gender, social factors, alcohol consumption, and emotional health (Pritchard & Wilson, 2003). Pritchard and Wilson (2003) conducted a study to determine the correlation between emotional health of a student and the GPA. The same study also established the relationship of social health and GPA. The participants in this study consisted of 218 undergraduates from a Midwestern university. The following variables were measured using various scales and self-assessment questionnaires: emotional health, perfectionism, self-esteem, coping tactics, affective states, optimism, social health, and alcohol behaviors. The results of the study showed a positive correlation between the positive emotional health factors and academic success; also the study confirmed that individuals with negative attitudes and low self-esteem had lower retention rates.

According to a study conducted by Trautwein and Ludtke (2006) that students who achieve high grades improve their self-esteem. Similarly many other variables lead to greater self-esteem (love and encouragement by parents, respected by friends and family, achievement, correlation between hard work, success, and happiness). The social impact of having a positive self-esteem can have a multitude of benefits: obtaining a good job; job satisfaction; developing the desire to help others achieve the benefits of self-esteem; creating a happy family environment; contributing to society; and becoming aware of the interconnectedness of the global community.

Positive self-esteem has beneficial psychological and physiological aspects. In a similar manner negative self-esteem has many detrimental psychological and health behaviors. A research study by Galambos, Barker, and Krahn (2006) examined the effects of low self-esteem on with anger and depression. The participants for this study were emerging adults (ages 18 - 25) and were selected from a school-based community. The results of this study showed that when social support was lower, self-esteem was lower - both of these factors led to higher rates of anger and depression. The positive aspects of a good family and social support were shown to be critical for the development of self-esteem and to reach adulthood with confidence and self-assurance. The extrapolation of these facts to the existence of a healthy and safe local community is obvious. Healthy individuals (psychological and physiological) are positioned to help the community that they are part of. One can appreciate the value of humanistic psychology in assisting individuals develop confidence in themselves and improve their self-esteem.

Are individuals with high self-esteem selfish and chronically focused on improving their lives at the expense of others? On the contrary, Individuals with high self-esteem strive to achieve goals that are beneficial not only to themselves but to others also (Sheldon, Arndt, & Houser-Marko, 2003). As self-concept and self-worth of an individual becomes wholesome they increase their self-esteem and start to look outside of themselves and appreciate the contributions of others to their well-being (Rafaeli-Mor & Steinberg, 2002). This process enables the individual to contribute to the community they are part of and feel it necessary to give something back. They realize that they could not have achieved internal and external success without the help of others. This realization that they were dependent upon others at various stages in their life leads to humbleness and kindness.

Existential-Humanistic theories have also led to the validation of a 2000 years old self-improvement technique called meditation. How does meditation help an individual develop higher self-esteem? The goals of existential-humanistic psychology and meditation share a core goal: increase an individual's self-awareness and enable them to get in touch with their thought processes. The major goal of meditation is to gain tranquility and awareness of oneself by cultivating focus and concentration through focused intentional attention (Brown & Ryan, 2004; Germer, Siegel, & Fulton, 2005). Mindfulness meditation has its roots in Buddhism, which is over 2500 years old. The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama (later called Buddha), was a prince. Through this attentiveness and awareness one achieves an understanding of the self and begins to comprehend the meaning and purpose of life. It is from these beginnings that variations of the original meditation took place. Some of the popular types of meditation in our present century are: (1) Mindfulness meditation (Vipassana), (2) Transcendental Meditation (TM), and (3) Zen Meditation.

Mindfulness has been associated with words such as awareness, spaciousness, concentration, insight, and focused attention. The two basic approaches are: (1) TM-type meditations, where the focus of attention is on a single object (samatha) or the repetition of mantra and (2) mindfulness mediation, where the key factor is to observe the continuous movement of thoughts (vipassana).

One of the most important extensions of mindfulness was the development of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) developed by Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center (Tacon, Caldera, & Randolph, 2003). In MBSR meditation the process recommended is to focus the attention on each breath as it passes through the nostrils going in and also follow it on the way out. During this course of action random thoughts will start to distract the focus of attention on the breathing - rather than avoiding them or blocking them it is recommended that one acknowledge these thoughts and treat them like unannounced guests, that will eventually go away if you ignore them. The goal is to bring back the focus of attention to the breathing and return to the present moment (Baer, 2003). This requires regular practice and there are no shortcuts to achieving long periods of undisturbed attention, spacious awareness, or quietness of the mind. With practice the continuous chattering in the brain starts to reduce. Eventually one experiences pure consciousness and awareness. The author has been practicing mindfulness mediation for over ten years now and can attest to the fact that in the beginning it is very difficult to even focus your thoughts for one minute. With patience, commitment, and determination one eventually can sustain a laser beam kind of focus for longer periods of time. Mindfulness can be practiced anywhere; it is independent of any religion and can be cultivated by anyone, regardless of the age, culture, or gender.

Mindfulness makes an individual aware of the origin of their thoughts. Awareness also helps in reducing the fragmentation of the self into a whole. This leads to a better appreciation of the self and creates higher self-esteem. Once an individual feels better about them then only are they able to make a positive contribution to society and the world that they are part of. The not only feel confident about them but also generate the desire and ability to help other achieve the same confidence and self-esteem.

The poem 'Guest-House' by Rumi (Barks & Moyne, 2004) beautifully captures the concept of mindfulness in welcoming difficult "guests" that knock on the doors of our consciousness.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,

still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be cleaning you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.

- Rumi

Existential-Humanistic psychology, through the development of higher self-esteem in an individual, helps to make social contributions to the community and society that they live in. Improving one's self-esteem can be achieved with the help of others (existential therapies, transpersonal psychology, positive psychology, or interpersonal psychodynamic therapy or by self reflection (mindfulness/meditation). Individuals with higher self-esteem are happier, have better academic performance, and are more aware of the interconnectedness of humans, societies, and countries. This awareness motivates them to make a contribution to others who are not that fortunate and to appreciate the gifts of kindness and compassion shown by others towards them. Life is truly an ever increasing spiral - the more you give the more you will feel better about yourself and improve your self-esteem. It is important to note that social change begins with the individual. From the individual it can extend to the immediate family and community, eventually leading to global change.


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