Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
Bringing Awe-Based Consciousness to Psychotherapy
by Kirk J. Schneider
My resonance with tikkun olam relates to what I call "awe-based" psychology. By awe-based psychology I mean those theories and practices that reflect the humility and wonder or, in short, adventure of living. I also mean those theories and practices that prize the gift of living as well as its mysteries and conundrums. As elaborated by such thinkers as Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Buber, awe-based psychology proceeds from an embodied experience of life, as distinct from an intellectual or behavioral analysis of life. While it does not exclude calculative or analytical views, it attempts to understand them in the context of our relation to existence as a whole, not merely in the context of our thoughts, behaviors, or physiology. Hence, for example, when a cognitive psychologist identifies a technique to foster happiness, I always wish to know how and to what extent that technique relates to the entirety of a person's life.
In his germinal book The Essence of Judaism, the philosopher Leo Baeck spoke of the appreciation of mystery (being, creation) as the precursor of Jewish commandment. Without the appreciation of mystery, Beck concludes, ethics lack sanctity, and without sanctity, no enduring ethics can be forged. This view very closely parallels my own understanding of awe-based psychology. Without awe, psychology encompasses only a fragmentary view of life, a life that's recorded on paper-and-pencil tests, but not a life that breathes and touches the tenderest truths.
For the past thirty years, I have been trying to bring an awe-based consciousness to the practice of psychotherapy. How does this work? Take the case of Joe, who came to me initially for depression resulting from a demotion at work. Instead of approaching Joe with techniques to change his thoughts or behaviors, I sat with him in attentive silence. I attempted to feel what Joe felt and to "meet" him where he was. As we continued on this path of concerted presence, Joe's concern about his demotion gradually transformed into a much deeper concern about his sense of being demoted by life, of not really mattering in life. With time and over many trying periods, Joe began to realize that his definitions of significance were all external, such as his stature at work, and that they completely overlooked the wonders of his life. These wonders included his capacity to feel, think, and imagine; his relationships with friends; and the radiance of leaves on his tree-lined walks. By the end of therapy, Joe realized that it was not this or that possession, but life itself that was his buoy and that brought him ever-replenishing solace.
Although diversely exhibited, "awe-based awakening" seems to embrace three common threads: 1) an intense yearning to connect with the mysterious beyond; 2) a disillusionment with beyonds that are absolutist and polarizing; and 3) the embrace of a humanistic spirituality that shortchanges neither our mortality nor our creativity. Spiritual progressives will, I hope, be distinguished from the kind of narrowly policy-oriented progressives who dominate so much of contemporary politics with their insistence that public education and community institutions validate these awe-based principles. A progressive movement that is explicitly concerned with fostering an awe-based consciousness will be far more likely to be perceived as understanding one of the most basic needs of contemporary humanity than will a social change movement that appears blind to that concern.
Kirk J. Schneider, Ph.D., is a leading spokesman for contemporary humanistic psychology. He is the current editor of The Journal of Humanistic Psychology and author of Awakening to Awe. See kirkjschneider.com for more information.
Source Citation: Schneider, Kirk J. 2011. Bringing Awe-Based Consciousness to Psychotherapy. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.