Feature

China 2010

Louis Hoffman and Kirk Schneider share their experiences at the First International Conference on Existential Psychology

By Kirk J. Schneider and Louis Hoffman, PhD

China Opening Keynote

First International Existential Psychology Conference
Nanjing, China
2 April, 2010
Awakening to an Awe-Based Psychology

Kirk J. Schneider, PhD

[Note: This paper, a slightly adapted version of my original talk, has not been released for general distribution]

It has been just over 100 years since a pioneering group of European psychoanalysts, led by Sigmund Freud, made a pilgrimage to Clark University in the United States to introduce their craft. The American reception was mixed at first—skeptical, hesitant; yet also profoundly intrigued about a new possible merger between two formerly distant psychological worldviews. In the ensuing years, the two worldviews, the American and the European, did indeed merge and combine with one another--and a new Western depth psychology—was forged.

This psychology, which combined American practicality with European introspectiveness, grew, and endured many highs and lows over the century it was developed. Sometimes it enjoyed wild popularity, as in the 1940s and '50s, when it seemed that everyone who was rich had weekly and sometimes daily appointments with their psychoanalysts! This was also a time when the Vienese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl (1959) and the American psychologist Rollo May (1958)—both former psychoanalysts--were developing an existentially oriented psychoanalysis. This psychoanalysis emphasized the present more than the past, a person's relationship to being, not merely his or her family or biological circumstances, and his or her quest for meaning not merely adaptation to life. By the 1970's and '80's, these depth psychologies suffered great blows, such as when short-term, cognitive-behavioral psychology arose like a great sea-serpent, and filled in the mental health needs of those who could not afford depth therapy or just as often rewarded those who simply wanted to profit from quick fixes and simple patch ups. Yet these psychologies did not necessarily help people address deeper questions about how to live a fulfilled and meaningful life. To this day, cognitive-behavioral therapy has largely overshadowed, and in many cases replaced the intimate, long-term journey that depth psychology promoted.

But despite all the ups and downs since the psychoanalysts landed on American shores, one point in my mind strikes clear: Today we are on the brink of a new depth psychology revolution, and a big part of that revolution is beginning right here, right now, in the heart of Nanjing. For today we have a new chance for an expanded existential depth psychology--a spiritually oriented, multicultural, and integrative existential depth psychology. This is a psychology informed not only by Freud and his followers but by those like Frankl and May who sought to address the larger questions of how to live a life of vitality, not merely a life of functionality or adjustment to the average. And for this revolution, this expansion, to fully flower, we need the East. We need to mark, right here and right now, not a renewed merger between America and Europe, but a new expansion between Western psychology and the East. While there have been hints of this exchange in the past—for example by existential philosophers such as Martin Heidegger (Craig, 2009) and Martin Buber (Friedman, 1991), it can now come into its full flowering.

What might this expansion look like? Allow me to outline some of the likely elements. First, as noted earlier, such an expansion will be integrative. In my own Existential-Integrative model (Schneider, 2008), this means openness to a variety of therapeutic approaches within an overarching existential or depth context. By existential or depth context, I mean a context that emphasizes presence—the holding and illuminating of significant themes that emerge both within a patient, and between a patient and therapist. Therefore, such an existential-integrative stance draws from a range of treatment modalities—from the medical to the cognitive-behavioral, and from the psychoanalytic to the interpersonal, but ever within a highly attentive relational context. This context helps therapists to clarify what is needed in the living moment with a client, not merely what is dictated from a formula or book. [I think here of the remarkable therapy described by my colleagues Mark Yang and Zheng Jia Ren (or "Jia Jia") at the recent earthquake site of Sichuan province. In this work, many treatments were tried but the ones that were effective associated with a highly attentive, that is, present, therapist, who could connect with victims in accord with their unique needs—which indeed, as I will describe later, fits strongly with the most recent research on therapy effectiveness].

The expanded East-West approach will also be multicultural, meaning that it will open to peoples' racial, ethnic, and environmental heritages, alongside their fundamental humanity. It will reach out to people within those heritages, attempt to learn from them, and incorporate that learning into its applications (Hoffman, 2009).

Finally, the expanded East-West approach will illuminate the emerging spiritual dimension of existential psychology. This spiritual dimension has been sadly neglected in my view, both by those who claim to know but are really quite ignorant of existential thought, and by those within existential thought who deny its value. Let me state this as clearly as I can. It is time to reawaken the spiritual dimension of existential thought. This dimension has a profound legacy through scholars as diverse as May, Frankl, Ernest Becker, Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, and William James. And correspondingly as I understand it, through Eastern scholars, from Guatama Buddha to LuXun and Lao Tzu to Chuang Tzu (Wang, 2009). For my own part, the cultivation of the sensibility of "awe" is a major task of contemporary existential-spiritual psychology (Schneider, 2004, 2009). For me, the sense of awe, which is the humility and wonder—amazement—toward existence, is a potential bridge, not only between Eastern and Western philosophies, but between peoples of all races and creeds throughout the world. This is because, put simply, the sense of awe appears to be a foundational human experience, that in large part, defines the human experience. I will go so far as to say that the sense of awe—which embraces a mixture of "puzzled apprehension" with profound "appreciative wonder," should be added to the traditional "givens" of the human condition. Now Irvin Yalom (1980), whom some of you know, has portrayed these givens as ultimate concerns and "inescapable parts" of the human experience. These givens are, according to Yalom, freedom, death, aloneness, and the challenge for meaning in a meaningless universe. But I would contend that, comprehensive as they are, there is something missing from this group, and that "something" is awe. Awe is as fundamental, it seems to me, as any of the other givens, and even brings a depth and richness of life experience not quite captured by the other givens. While you might question whether awe is already captured by the identification of meaning as a central given, I don't believe this is quite the case. "Meaning" implies a structural aspect to our experience—as in "this conference holds great meaning for me," or "my family is deeply meaningful"—but awe in some sense transcends structure and meaning—it is pre-conceptual and even goes beyond meaning as a sense of importance. Awe is more than a sense of importance; it is a sense of sacredness. Whereas meaning—and even meaninglessness--have a kind of cerebral quality, awe encompasses one's whole bodily experience. If we are going to speak about ultimate concerns, then we have to speak in the great 20th century theologian Paul Tillich's terms of a whole-bodied experience—a total experience—of life, and this is what awe brings more than the polarity of meaning and meaninglessness in my view. Indeed, the sense of awe would seem to be both a predecessor as well as successor to the polarity of meaning. At some level, this conference is meaningful precisely because it connects to the awesome dimensions of my and others lives; my family is meaningful to me precisely because it links with the puzzlements of space and time from which it emerged. A full-bodied experience of meaning is preceded by and leads to awe!

Note further that until existential psychology more explicitly embraces awe in its understanding of human experience, it will fail to grasp much of what drives both the secular and religious worlds. It will also fail to bring this sensibility to the assistance and healing of clients; for it is not just meaning that people so desperately seek in their secular and religious lives but intensity, embodiment, and thrill. It is the lift of participating in something much larger than themselves or even their language can express. And that participation is central to what I mean by awe. [Do you think, for example, that it is just meaning that brings people by the droves to temples and cultural ceremonies? Do you think that millions flocked to the recent film Avatar, or to your wondrous Olympic spectacle in 2008, just because it gave them more meaning? Think again. Or better yet, feel again!]

Therefore, I propose expanding the ultimate concern of the challenge for meaning in a meaningless universe to the challenge for meaning and awe in an unknown universe (because we don't know whether or not it is meaningless). I also propose that we add the element of awe to our exploration of therapeutic healing and to the emerging contextual factors that have been found to be helpful in therapeutic healing—among them, empathy, therapeutic alliance, and hope. To imbue a therapeutic encounter with a sense of awe means at least three things—being attuned to the passing nature of time and life and how that impacts one's present connection with a client; being open to the unknown and possibilities of discovery with your client—or put another way, approaching your client with a sense of surprise or wonder; and being attuned to the background of vastness within which you and your client are situated, both within yourselves (as in the many layers of memory and feeling that you possess) and surrounding yourselves (as in the vast ranges of existence that both dwarf and elevate you as participants). Consider, for example, what is happening right here and now, between us. Are we just sitting here having an ordinary conversation in an ordinary building? I think not: We're sitting here having an ordinary conversation in an ordinary building that rests on a gigantic ball that is whirling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour, which is situated in a galaxy that is hurtling through space at 1.3 million miles an hour, surging toward a destination completely unknown.

Hence, each of these existential or awe-based dimensions can help support the healing, the great fears and risks, that lead to an enlargement of consciousness. Each can help both therapist and client become more present to these fears and risks, and thereby the cosmic scale within which they are both situated.

Finally, let me close with some thoughts about what Eastern and Western worldviews can bring to a future awe-based inquiry. I believe, first of all, that both Eastern and Western existential approaches offer something distinctive to the contemporary psychological world—we both take being, or the self-cosmic relation seriously. So what does "taking being seriously" actually mean? Well, the first thing I think it means was put masterfully by your own Lao Tzu when he wrote that "the Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao" and the "name that can be named is not the eternal name" (Mitchell, 1988, Ch.1). Now this is very close to our own perspective, when philosophers such as Soren Kierkegaard (1843/1954) and Paul Tillich (1952) noted that the conceptual and finite are not the ultimate problems, but infinity or the groundlessness of being are. So the question for our respective traditions is not so much the area of our study, which we both agree is being, but how we approach that area, and here is where our conversation gets juicy! For example, whereas Western existentialism (as expressed, say, through Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) appears to stress the mystery of being, Eastern existentialism (as expressed through Buddhism and Taoism), appears to emphasize the harmony of being. Or to put this point slightly differently, whereas Western existentialism accents the struggle and adventure of expanding consciousness, Eastern existentialism accents the acceptance and equanimity of expanding consciousness (Schneider & Tong, 2009).

[I am reminded here of my recent venture into the Forbidden City in Beijing. What struck me immediately is that right there in the heart of China, so to speak, were a series of halls representing harmony. There was the "Hall of Complete Harmony," the "Hall of Supreme Harmony," the "Hall of Preserving Harmony," and the "Hall of Central Harmony"--all gathered as if to drive home one overarching point: "We take harmonization very seriously in China!"].

Hence, what then do these time-honored perspectives from both East and West imply for effective psychotherapy? What do they mean in terms of helping people address profound loss, or abrupt life-change? When and with what degree of press do we invite people to struggle with these issues, or to move toward some kind of easeful nonattachment? One anecdote that may give us insight into this question is the deathbed interview with the noted American anthropologist Ernest Becker. As Becker, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Denial of Death, lay dying of cancer at the tender age of 49, Sam Keen of Psychology Today magazine asked him a poignant question (Keen, 1974, p.78): "You have thought as hard about death as anybody I know. And now, as it were…you are doing your empirical research….And somehow I would like to ask you what you can add now that you are closer to [the] experience?" Becker paused for a moment and said, in effect: Well, I take solace in giving myself over when there is nothing left, to the tremendous creative energies of the universe, to be used for purposes we don't know—and to be used for such purposes, even if we feel misused at times, is one of the most fulfilling experiences that one can have.

Now I view this anecdote as a superb example of what the West can offer the East and the East can offer the West. Becker illustrates harmony when he speaks of "giving himself over," but he elucidates mystery and struggle, when he speaks of giving himself over "when there is nothing left," implying that he's not just letting himself be used but that he has also maximally used himself, drawn on his own powers, and grappled with his own questions. He implies equanimity when he speaks of cosmic unification, but equally, he implies thrill, drama, and adventure when he speaks of the ultimate inscrutability of that unification. Hence, it seems to me that Becker in some sense embraced the best of both worlds at his death—the one firmly planted in his earthly capacities, and the other trustingly appropriated to being.

Thus it is precisely here, I believe, that the fertile terrain of Eastern and Western consciousness resides. It is precisely here that mystery and harmony, adventure and acceptance, dance with one another, play upon each other's possibilities for a rich and fulfilling life, and point the way to a healing partnership.

Let us celebrate that partnership then, right here in the heart of Nanjing, and bring depth psychology into a new era!

Report from the First International Conference on Existential Psychology

Louis Hoffman, PhD
University of the Rockies

April 1, 2010, existential psychology scholars from the United States, Canada, Ghana, the Bahamas, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and all across mainland China descended on Nanjing, China to engage in four intensive days of dialog and exchange on existential psychology. Attendees from the United States and the Society for Humanistic Psychology included Kirk Schneider, Ilene Serlin, Ed Mendelowitz, Erik Craig, Rich Bargdill, Susan Gordon, Jim Oraker, Jim Ungvarsky, Heatherlyn Cleare-Hoffman, Louis Hoffman, Elizabeth Saxon, Trent Claypool, Jason Dias, Michael Moats, Anthony Nkyi, and Nathan Lorentz. The conference was hosted by Xiaozhuang University in Nanjing with support from the Zhi Mian Institute of Psychology and the China Institute of Clinical Psychology.

The conference was surrounded by many events on existential psychology across China. Prior to the Nanjing big event, various attendees provided trainings in several locations across China. Kirk Schneider presented for 3-days at the China Institute of Clinical Psychology in Beijing. Louis Hoffman, Jim Ungvarsky, Jim Oraker, Heatherlyn Cleare-Hoffman and Mark Yang provided 3-days of training at Baptist University, Hong Kong with the support of Jason Dias, Trent Claypool, Michael Moats, and Anthony Nkyi serving as discussants. After this, Louis Hoffman, Mark Yang, and Heatherlyn Cleare-Hoffman provided a full-day training at Fudan University in Shanghai, one of China's top three ranked universities. At the same time, Jason Dias, Trent Claypool, and Michael Moats presented at Suzhou University. The day before the conference, Louis Hoffman gave a lecture at Xiaozhuang University and participated in a discussion group at the Zhi Mian Institute of Psychology with Ilene Serlin, Heatherlyn Cleare-Hoffman, and Mark Yang. Following the 4-day conference, Ilene presented on Dance Therapy at the Zhi Mian Institute in Nanjing and the China Institute of Clinical Psychology in Beijing. By the end of the 2-weeks, over 1,000 people from China participated in the various trainings, presentations, and other exchanges.

The first day of the conference, our gracious hosts treated us to the Nanjing Massacre Museum, the Nanjing Yunjin (Broidery Brocade) Museum, and a special showing of the Chinese Opera at the Kun Opera Theatre of Jiangsu Providence. Throughout the conference we were treated to many wonderful feasts and other cultural experiences that helped set the context for the intellectual exchanges.

History of the Conference

The idea for the conference was first conceived in April, 2008, two short years before it became a reality. Mark Yang, an American psychologist living in Hong Kong, invited me to do some presentations on existential psychology in China. Surprised by the excited reception, we began plotting the conference and our book, Existential Psychology East-West. Soon we were joined in the planning by Xuefu Wang, who developed an indigenous existential psychology in China called Zhi Mian (literally "face to face" or "facing life as it is").

In 2009, we traveled around China giving talks and engaging in dialogs about existential psychology to generate interest in the conference. During these exchanges we are able to begin identifying important themes and challenges that would be further explored in the 2010 conference. Everywhere we went we received a warm welcome and were invited back with an encouragement to stay longer. As I learned from Mark, in China the real test of your reception is the invitation to return. Many from the West come and receive a warm welcome, which is part of the culture, but most are not invited back.

The West has a long history of introducing approaches to psychology in a culturally insensitive manner in China. During our 2009 trip, we spend two days in Chengdu with the volunteers working from the Szechuan earthquake. The first night they presented to us and their experiences and what they worked in the year they had been volunteering. Jiajia Ren led off with a presentation titled, "Psychology as Dog Shit." Trained in Chinese medicine, he attended many presentations from Westerners who came for a few days, stayed in nice hotels, ate at nice restaurants, told the relief workers about what they should be doing without considering cultural factors, did not listen to the people doing the work, and returned home feeling good about themselves. This, Jiajia felt, was dog shit. With Mark's guidance and maintaining an existential approach of openness and exchange, we took a different approach and listened. Jiajia joined us for the rest of our travels to Nanjing and Shanghai. At the end of the trip, he paid us the highest compliment we received in China saying, "Existential therapy, I think, is not dog shit."

After leaving Chengdu, we presented for 3-days in Nanjing and in the lunches and evenings we engaged in exchange. Although we presented about Western existential psychology, our trip was just as much about discovering indigenous existential psychology rooted in Chinese thought, encouraging the scholars and practitioners from China to engage in cultural critique of Western approaches, and working together to discover how Western existential psychology would need to be adapted in China and other Eastern cultures. We learned as much, likely more, than we taught. But more than that, we worked to create something new together. It was this spirit that seemed to carry us forward and created the vision for the 2010 conference focusing on dialog and exchange.

Our hope for the 2010 First International Conference on Existential Psychology was to have an equal balance of Western and Eastern scholars, with an equal emphasis on indigenous Eastern existentialism as Western existentialism. Although we fell just short of this goal in the first conference, I am confident that by 2012 conference in Japan we will succeed in achieving this goal.

Existential Psychology in the East

As I have taught about existential psychology over the past 10-years, I have often heard students say, "that sounds very Eastern." In traveling to China over the past 2 ½ years, I have been heartened to hear that many in China also felt a natural resonance with existential thought. Certainly Taoism and Buddhism include existential sensitivities, but the connection is much deeper. Many people in China commented, "we know how to suffer" and discussed appreciating a psychology that allows people to find meaning in their suffering. They discussed an appreciation for the arts and the way in which the arts are deeply connected with how Chinese culture has dealt with their emotional suffering.

One of the most significant resonances was in the work being developed by Xuefu Wang, the leading scholar of indigenous Chinese existential psychology. He developed an approach to psychology that introduced and built upon the ideas of Lu Xun, an important scholar in the history of China. This approach, Zhi Mian, bears great similarity to Western existential psychology. Wang has now introduced Lu Xun to the United States through presentations and his chapter in Existential Psychology East West (Hoffman, Yang, Kaklauskas, & Chan, 2009, University of the Rockies Press). United States scholar, Ed Mendelowitz, upon hearing Wang's keynote address at the 2010 conference, referred to Wang's work on Lu Xun and Zhi Mian (embodied as they are in the man himself) as among the most important ideas to be introduced into existential psychology in many years.

There is an existential psychology that is growing with excitement in China, and not just from the introduction of Western existential psychology. It is a merger of Western and Eastern approaches to existential psychology. The dialog and exchange promises not only to greatly impact psychology in China, but also to help revitalize existential psychology in the West.

The Impact

Over the past several years I have taken students with me on the trip to China. The students did more than just come along for the ride; they participated, engaged, learned, and taught. They were an important part of creating what cumulated at the 2010 conference. Yet, I was always hearted that, like me, they felt this experience was life changing. As this year's conference came closer and many leading existential scholars planned to participate, I wondered about how they would respond. As the conference came to a close, it was evident that the many United States scholars had that same life changing experience. This is a testament to living existential psychology -- staying open to the unknown and allowing oneself to be impacted at the I-Thou level by others. We will be riding the waves of impact from this conference, for many years to come.

Processing of this event is far from over. We will be riding the waves of impact from this conference for many years to come. I believe it will have impact felt throughout the existential psychology world in the United States as each of us bring back our experiences and the wisdom we gained from our colleagues and friends in the East. Existential therapy is about encounter; the First International Conference on Existential psychology was an encounter that changed us and through us may help rejuvenate existential scholarship in the West.