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Existential Psychology East-WestExistential Psychology East-West
By Louis Hoffman, Mark Yang, Francis J. Kaklauskas, and Albert Chan (Eds.)
Colorado Springs, CO: University of the Rockies Press, 2009. 409 pp.
ISBN 978-0-9764638-6-3 $34.95

Reviewed by Paul T. P. Wong

I have a profound admiration for the editors of Existential Psychology East-West (EPEW) for their courage and vision of embarking on this ambitious international project. I have done something similar before and know firsthand the difficulties involved. I also know the risk of having such international projects reviewed. A reviewer dismissed my edited volume (Wong & Wong, 2005) as the worst edited book ever because the English and concepts of several indigenous contributors were difficult to understand. Having learned that painful lesson, I have vowed to advocate the need for cross-cultural competency in academic psychology, especially in peer review.

The editors of EPEW realize that the English written by some native contributors maybe less than perfect, with their awkward expressions and different academic styles. I give the editors credit for trying to maintain the original voice and writing style of the indigenous contributors. Some of the grammatical errors and the dropping of “the” could make Western academics feeling uncomfortable, but such “cringe” factor should not cause a reviewer to dismiss a book by ignoring the substantial merits of its content. I hope that my review of EPEW measures up to my ideal of cross-cultural competencies.

While pondering how to craft this book review, Rudyard Kipling’s (1865-1936) most famous and controversial line kept on popping up in my mind: “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” Kipling has been attacked as a racist and an imperialist for this opening line of his Ballad of East and West, which refers to the vast cultural barriers between India and England of the 19th century. Interestingly, even today, the fundamental differences between East and West in terms of attitudes, values and belief systems remain largely unaltered.

From an existential perspective, two nations can never meet in the sense that two individuals can never fully know understand each other. The meeting of the mind between two nations is made even more difficult because of layers of contextual and cultural differences. For example, the unique history of China has created such a huge divide between East and West that it cannot be bridged by meetings, no matter how frequent. I even question whether a prolonged period of close interactions can penetrate the inscrutable Chinese psyche with all its contradictions and complexities.

That being said, we need to remember that the third and fourth lines of Kipling’s ballad are equally significant: “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!” Here Kipling recognizes that at the deepest level we are family, no matter where we are from. The important truth is that what unites us is more important than what divides us. Our common humanity and shared universal givens are more important than our unique cultural characteristics. These thoughts need to be kept in mind as we review EPEW or any other international project.

Towards an International Existential Psychology

Cross-cultural psychology needs to pay equal attention to both universal principles (etic) and culture-specific (emic) aspects. The assumption of universality in the constructs and assessments in mainstream psychology has long been questioned. Triandis (1972) called this approach “pseudo-etic” rather than etic because it imposes the categories and constructs of western culture on other cultures. True international psychology calls for equal partnership from conceptualization to implementation.

EPEW falls short of this ideal, in spite of the best intentions of its editors. This edited volume was based on a project of dialogue between East and West around the topic of existential psychology. However, it was rooted in Euro-American existential psychology as the frame of reference for Asian existential thoughts. Thus, the editors of EPEW exhibit the same ethnocentric bias as the common practice of translating instruments developed in America as a way to study cross-cultural psychology. In an excellent introductory chapter, Hoffman Yalom’s (1980) four existential givens and presents five core tenets of existential psychological theory: Death, Freedom, Relationship, Meaning and Embodiment. He proposes that East and West differ primarily in how they react to these existential givens. But the cultural differences go deeper and broader than that: the same constructs may not mean the same thing. For example, in Western existential thought, “Freedom cannot be properly understood without responsibility; one necessitates the others” (Hoffman, p.13). But in the Chinese feudal systems, personal responsibility is not predicated on freedom; individuals are held responsible for performing socially prescribed duties within their assigned roles and there is no much wriggle room for personal choice. Under a ruthless authoritarian regime, citizens risk imprisonment for standing up for their beliefs and publicly criticizing the government. I wonder how many of these citizens really perceive freedom as terrible curse, from which they want to escape. For those who dare to say, “Give me liberty or give me death”, their yearning for freedom is clearly much greater than their existential anxiety about the exercise of freedom.

The editors of EPEW affirm the universality of the core tenets of Western existential thoughts: “It is our belief, however, that the core elements of existential psychology are culturally adaptable. We do not believe that there is a need to sacrifice any core principles of existential thought to be applied cross-culturally, but many may need some re-envisioning” (Hoffman, Yang, Kaklaukas, & Chan, p. xv). True enough. But is it possible that by adopting Euro-American existentialism as a template, we may be close off existential thoughts from other cultures? I propose that some Chinese cultural beliefs about the human condition (Wong, 2009a) may not fit in a Euro-American mold of existential psychology. Here are some examples:

Duality of Human Existence

This is one of the profound insights of Lao Tze symbolized by Yin Yang. This belief recognizes the co-existence of good and evil, happiness and suffering, strength and weakness. The two opposites complement each other and make the existence of each other possible. When the negative and positive are seen as an integrated whole, problems and stress are reduced. Belief in duality is the key to understanding how the Chinese people adapt to the harsh conditions of life. Such a view will lead to tolerance and accommodation of the contradictions and vicissitudes of the human condition. It enables people to embrace all of life, both negative and positive. It favors the middle path, integration and holistic thinking rather than the either-or kind of linear dichotomous thinking. Duality is the key to understanding the seemingly contradictory beliefs and behaviors of Chinese people, who are both fatalistic and fiercely independent entrepreneurs.

The Inevitable Suffering of Life

While Euro-American existential psychologists are preoccupied with ontologically based anxieties, such as freedom, alienation, meaninglessness, and death (Yalom, 1980), Chinese existential thinkers are more concerned with suffering everyday living—the real suffering that comes from the painful blows from life—tragedies, poverty, losses, oppression, and physical conditions. The Buddhist First Noble Truth of Suffering (Dikkha) acknowledges that life is full of suffering, not just from pain, but from mental vexation, frustrations, disappointments, and worries that come from greed, ignorance and attachments to worldly possession.

Whatever the sources or interpretations, suffering constitutes a big part of human existence. The average person is more concerned about abuse, violence, brutality, hunger, terminal illness and natural disaster more than ontological concerns of being. Hoffman correctly observes: “While humanistic psychology focuses primarily on human potential, existential psychology responds stating that it is also imperative that we recognize the potential for evil and human limitation” (p. 19).

Schneider and Tong also note that “There is also a commensurately greater stress on the tragic dimension of life within the existential purview. From this standpoint, tragedy is viewed as an integral part of living well—richly, fully—not just living” (p. 167). An international existential psychology needs to recognize the prevalence of suffering and the importance of having this tragic sense of life.

Fatalism

It is the belief that spiritual and cosmic forces are deciding the fate of individuals and their daily affairs. Since the world is uncontrollable and unpredictable from the perspective of individuals, belief in fatalism seems to be inevitable. Divining and fortune telling remain popular among Chinese people since the ancient days of I-Ching.

One benefit of belief in fatalism is that it makes adversities more bearable. When one attributes misfortunes to karma, fate or bad luck beyond one’s control, then one is liberated from shame, guilt, or anger. Even relationships, both good and bad, are frequently attributed to Yuan, which has the connotations of providence and fate. Fatalism leads to the strengths of acceptance, faith and transcendence. It recognizes that the rationality has its limitations and acknowledges the significant role of myths and religious beliefs in coping with the unexplainable problems of human existence.

Collectivism and Relationship

Over crowdedness and the enormity of life’s problems make it necessary for the Chinese people to learn how to get along with each other and how to work together to find solutions. Thousands of years of authoritarian dynastic rule has also convinced ordinary people trying to fit in the social system has a better chance of survivor that pursuing one’s own dreams. Confucianism has also instilled into the Chinese mindset the imperative of collectivist beliefs as a way of maintain social order and achieving world peace. Belief in collectivism is largely responsibility for the longevity of the Chinese civilization.

Chinese collectivism has deeper and broader implications than the Western concept of relationship. Collectivism is more concerned with harmony than ontological loneliness. It extends from intrapersonal harmony to harmony with God and the Cosmos. The Chinese reference to Sky is more like our reference to a personal God.

Chan correctly recognizes that “One must find a union with oneself and sky nature. This is the essence of harmony. Chinese culture and collectivism has been built upon this foundation. Perhaps only through the notions of harmony and being in collective can humans survive. Striving for this harmony is a pragmatic journey, as it supports the individual but also the timeless Chinese collectivist values and institutions of family structure, social order, and survival” (Chan, p. 311). In the Chinese literature and folk beliefs, Sky symbolizes the Higher Power, Providence or fate, which affects every aspects of life.

In sum, the Chinese collectivism is the key to survival and flourishing for both the individual and humanity. It places the individuals on a global stage with the responsibility to world peace—an essential step in developing international existential psychology. Yet, the relational imperative of American existentialism is yet to incorporate the expanded Chinese construct of collectivism.

Utility of Efforts and Endurance

The cultural belief in the utility of effort and endurance rescues the individual from being a victim to all the external forces threatening his or her psychological and physical integrity. It helps maintain a sense of efficacy and personal responsibility even when life is largely controlled by external factors. This cultural belief may be an illusion, but it leads to conscientiousness, persistence and a tragic sense of optimism (Wong, 2009b).
May’s (1981) concept of destiny incorporates the Chinese notions of fatalism and endurance. This construct captures two existence givens—both the need to accept our limitations and the responsibility to make something of our lives in spite of these limitations. “Destiny, then, entails an acceptance of our determinism, to a degree, but also the ability to be aware and accept requisite responsibility in the face of it” (Hoffman et al., p.14). Fatalism conveys the idea of the lack of individual freedom, but how we respond to our determinism can range from passive acceptance to a defiant fight spirit as “man can overcome Heaven”.

Chinese people tend to hold a long view regarding the utility of efforts and endurance. When people are repeatedly kicked and stepped on by powerful and corrupt officials without the ability to fight back, how could they do to survive? Bowing to the oppressors and absorbing the punishment may be an effective survival strategy. In introducing Lu Xun as a spiritual warrior in search of meaning, Wang points out that “Lu Xun chose to expose the rotten roots of the Chinese national character, such as servility, passivity, compromising attitude, and fear of change…This degradation of living status under the endless of feudal oppression has left a deep-rooted sense of insecurity in the Chinese psyche and passivity in Chinese character” (Wang, p.156).

Lu Xun’s allegory of the Iron House is most revealing of the loneliness and frustration of Chinese scholars and writers. He observed with sadness that people were sound asleep in the Iron House without windows. He really wanted to shout out and wake them up and warn them about their impending death from suffocation. But awakening them only makes them suffer the agony of realizing the irrevocable death, because there is no hope of breaking out of the iron house. Thus, the existential dilemma is the people either die in ignorant stupor or die with agony with awareness of the futility of trying to be free. Lu Xun chose the path of authenticity by shouting outside the gate of the Iron House.

This story partially explains why Chinese people silently endure suffering and oppression with servitude and passivity. They are realist and they have learned from history the futility and hopelessness of fighting against the powerful and oppressive feudal system. Their endurance is a useful survival strategy, but there is another side to their endurance: they do not give up hope for a better future in some distant future. They may even try to make their lives better even within the confines of the iron house.

Wang’s chapter on a survival philosophy of Shi Tie-Shenng provides some insight of how Chinese people cope with unrelenting suffering. Shi’s story entitled Life is Like a String of Qin (a zither-like plucked instrument) tells about a blind person who believes that he will regain his sight after breaking a thousand strings of qin through performance. This life goal gives him hope and meaning for playing qin. Even after discovering that reaching this goal fails to cure his blindness, he continues to prescribe the same cure for his blind students. This tale shows that people are able to endure and survive because of a life goal, even if it is a myth, an illusion. This tale provides Shi’s solution to human suffering. “Regardless of whether the purpose originated with the self or with others, individuals who can dedicate themselves to a mission will always find hope in the midst of hopelessness” (Wang, p. 250).

Goal persistence represents a major existential theme in Chinese literature and psychology. This happens to be a major area of my own research (Wong, 1995). Given the constant gap between ideal and reality and the multiple external and internal obstacles to our life goals, the utility of efforts and endurance is an existential given relevant to all culture.

I am wondering whether greater Chinese input to the EPEW project may have resulted in a more balanced integration between East and West with respect to the core tenets of existential psychology. Equal partnership is essential to developing a truly international existential psychology. According to the list of contributors to EPEW, there is a clear imbalance between East and West in terms of scholarly and clinical accomplishments in existential psychology. A causal glance of Michael Bond’s Handbook of Chinese Psychology (1996, 2010) alone reveals that a great deal of relevant research has been done by Chinese psychologists. I do hope that future East-West dialogue in existential psychology will correct this imbalance.

An Existential Vision of the Good Life

Existential psychology is inherently international, because it is about the universal story of human struggle for survival and happiness in spite of hardships and impending death. This human struggle goes on in different cultural contexts. I have argued that a truly international positive psychology (PP) needs to have an existential perspective (Wong, 2009c), because existential PP is rooted in the inevitability of suffering and the innate human capacity to achieve something positive in the worse of circumstances. If we minimize or deny human limitations and the dark side of the human condition, we will see evil and injustice abound. The reality of death poses a constant threat and terror, but at the same time challenges us to live fully and authentically. Is it even possible to conceptualize life satisfaction without factoring in death anxiety and death acceptance?

Life is biology. Life is chemistry. Life is physics. But ultimately, life is the psychology of human existence—the arts and science of human struggles for survival and flourishing against incredible odds. Such struggles involve the entire human being and the human species. It is not existence, but affirmation of existence that makes existence meaningful. Existential PP challenges our assumptions, enlightens our minds, stimulates our imagination, but we have to translate these ideas into practice and research.

EPEW represents a rich source of materials for the existential vision of the good life. Hoffman (p. 21) provides a clear a distinction of this vision:

What most of psychology calls “negative emotions” are in fact integral parts of being a human being and possessing the potential of both good and evil. Tragedy is part and parcel of human life … Maybe the greatest distinction between existential psychology and most of the rest of psychology is its view of “the good life. Throughout most of the field of psychotherapy, it has become so implicit that the good life is one that seeks pleasure and the avoidance of discomfort.

Chinese positive psychology is basically existential (Wong, 2009b). Taoism teaches contentment as a natural way of life. It teaches us not only how to be free from worries, but also how to achieve happiness even when the problems are pervasive, chronic and beyond one’s control. Following the natural way of life also means learning the wisdom of “do nothing” (Craig, p. 111-148).

Dow provides a Buddhist perspective which is oriented to the immediacy of being as a way of living with awareness, authenticity, and acceptance:

On top of the pain of existence we heap the suffering of resisting that pain: wishing, hoping, and otherwise pretending that life could be without limitation, pain, and disappointment. There are other possibilities, however. It is probably axiomatic that nothing inspires one to live life fully more than accepting the reality of death, which will come sooner than we think. (p. 234)

We are at a critical juncture of human history. All the progress in science and technology, and all the research in psychology, have not found a solution to the dark side of human existence—the insatiable greed, the blatant dishonesty, the disastrous corruption, the cold-blooded violence … We seem to be at the end of our rope, watching hopelessly as the leaders make a horrific mess of our lives and steer the society towards the precipice. Intelligence and technology have amplified exponentially the destructive human power. It is high time that we consider an existential vision of the good life that emerges from the converging of East and West.

In a superbly written essay on Kafka, Mendelowitz allows us to have a glimpse of precarious human condition: “Kafka, explorer of a vast new space of a world on the lam and the mortified mind, sheds light on dark truths that science itself does not adequately broach” (p. 330). The black hole of human existence is beyond the reach of the current scientific methodology in psychology. Furthermore, science can no more prescribe happiness than it can prescribe world peace. A scientific vision of the good life is as sterile as Walden II, the behaviorist Utopia envisioned by B. F. Skinner (1948). Strength-focused and happiness-enhancing activities may indeed lead to an increase in self-rating scores of subjective life satisfaction by tallying up affirmative answer to a set of simple questions such as “Are you satisfied with your life?”

It seems both unrealistic and superficial to conceptualize the good life as an existence with maximum of happiness and minimum of pain. I am wondering such prescribed exercises can change people at the existential and experiential level. A more fundamental question I have is whether the scientific vision of the good life may actually have adverse effects, such as (a) ignoring the deep-rooted personal issues that need to be resolved, (b) ignoring the oppressive and abusive condition which is the main source of unhappiness, (c) ignoring the pain and suffering one is going through because of accident, illness or tragic loss of a loved one, (d) ignoring the negative existential givens just lurking around, and (e) ignoring the negative thoughts and feelings that crop up from time to time to give us warming.

An alternative existential vision of the good life recognizes that negative feelings, experiences, and weaknesses are a necessary and healthy part of the good life. Learning how to embrace negative emotions and existential givens is part of the process of reaching emotional maturity. From this perspective, the tapestry of fulfilling life is made of many threads of different colors—from black to red. A holistic view of good life need to be measured in diverse ways—from authenticity, acceptance, to meaning and life satisfaction.

The quest for meaning is both a search for happiness and significance and a quest for answers to all the frustrating and painful events that have happened to us. For many people living in dire poverty, all they ever ask is to be able to feed themselves and care for their loved ones. They don’t dream of something great. They want to be free from hunger and interference. They want to be left alone to live with their love ones free from hunger and oppression. Their meaning system is simple—consisting of freedom, ability to support themselves, and caring relationships.

The quest for meaning can be either framed as the striving to fill a void of meaninglessness—a void that can never be filled. Alternatively, it can also be framed positively as a yearning to fulfill a dream, a gift and potential. The Eastern way always place meaning on a larger collective context.

Meaning needs to be lived and embraced rather than prescribed and imposed. To sacrifice one’s own life for others—for family or a loved one—may make sense to the Eastern mind, but seems irrational to a individualistic society. What is a truly meaningful indeed depends on one’s cultural beliefs and values. But there the seven source of meaning (Wong, 1998) have been confirmed in various Asian samples.

A Meaning-Centered Approach to Existential Psychotherapy

“The purpose of psychotherapy is to set people free” (May, 1981, p.19). But free from what? Yalom (1989) emphasizes that “the primal stuff of psychotherapy is always existence pain … basic anxiety emerges from a person’s endeavors, conscious and unconscious, to cope with the harsh facts of life, the ‘givens’ of existence” (pp. 4-5). But existence pain is broader than existential anxiety. Why is every presenting problem framed in terms of a basic anxiety about existential givens? How about the raw experience of pain, both physical and psychic pain? How about the pain of shame and loss so prevalent in the Chinese culture?

I propose that from an international existential perspective, the purpose of psychotherapy is to equip clients with the tools to cope with their predicaments and live a meaningful life in spite of suffering and obstacles. In other words, I propose a psycho-educational approach that places a premium on skills and techniques that could be taught with a reasonable time frame. Limited-time therapy and manualized approach to training better meet the cultural needs of Chinese people. “Instructions using a cognitive-behavioral training approach within a psychosocial educational intervention may generate better outcomes within a traditional Chinese population” (Dyer et al., p. 106).

Therefore, it strikes me as odd that throughout EPEW, there is a recurrent emphasis that “the idea of techniques, and even structure, is often viewed as antithetical to existential therapy” (p. 23). The process of psychotherapy is considered a fluid, dynamic process—a journey full of uncertainties and risks. It is a difficult and painful journey of self-discovery. Therefore, Hoffman reiterates: “Existential therapy stands firm against mechanized, linear, reductionistic, and manualized approaches to therapy … The therapist is not so much applying something to the client (i.e., objectifying them), but rather trying to relate to her or him in a particular manner” (p. 26).

While agreeing with the Hoffman’s characterization of the nature of existential psychotherapy, I want to make the case skills and techniques are important tools in both the training and practice of existential psychotherapy. Hoffman seems very apologetic and defensive even about described clinical skills unique to existential psychotherapy. Yet, in spite of his severe reservation, he finds it necessary to identify them for instructional purposes. For example, Hoffman (p. 31) has demonstrated the different types of reflective listening: “Reflective listening can include reflecting the moment, reflecting the process, and reflecting the person in context” (p. 31). Such inconsistency is evident throughout EPEW.

The Need for Skills and Techniques

I propose that we need to train students how to relate to clients and how to move the process forward to a satisfactory end. Sensitivity and compassion without techniques and skills will not qualify them as therapists. How to listen and how to show empathy require skills. Yes, even personal development—growing into a empathetic person—requires guidelines and techniques. The ability to understand and properly relate to complex relational processes requires skills, such as how to work with transference and resistance.

We engage and encounter the client in the moment both as a fellow sojourner and as a professional psychologist with knowledge and skills to facilitate client’s struggle to cope with overwhelming problems and create a preferred future.

What qualifies someone as a professional guide to travel through dangerous terrains or scale risky mountains? Why do people pay for the services of a professional guide? They need people with the competence, knowledge and skills to help navigate the unexpected problems and uncharted territories. By the same token, when clients pay fees to consult an existential psychotherapist, they expect certain professional standards of knowledge and skills.

What qualifies someone as master pianist or violinist? What makes concert performers different from musical students? The main difference is that professional musicians have mastered their basic skills to the level when techniques become their second nature—they can freely and totally immerse themselves in the moment-to-moment creative process of music making without giving any thought as to what skills they are going to employ. I propose that the same is true with existential psychotherapy. Precisely because existential psychotherapy is as fluid and risky as concert performance, we need to be able to drill students in basic skills until they are able to master them. From an educational point of view, every clinical skill can be clearly described and manualized for training purposes. None of the contributors of EPEW has convinced me otherwise. Why can existential psychotherapists learn something from Egen (2009) who has taught basic helping skills to generations of counselling students?

The Advantage of a Meaning-Centered Psychotherapy

Given the historical linguistic and philosophical baggage of existential psychotherapy as evident in EPEW, I propose that a meaning-centered counselling and therapy MCCT (Wong, 1998, 2009) may get around such barriers. The motto of MCCT is meaning is all we need, relationship all we have. By focusing on meaning and relationship as the main pillars of existential therapy, we can better integrate East and West.

The Centrality of Meaning

Hoffman has made the most eloquent statement about the centrality of meaning in existential psychology and psychotherapy:

The instillation of meaning is a primary component of all existential approaches to psychotherapy. The deepest forms of meaning can be experienced on the various realms of biological, behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal; in other words, it is a holistic meaning…the attainment of meaning is one of the most central aspects of human existence and necessary to address in existential therapy. (p. 45)

Thus, existential psychotherapy is necessarily is holistic to the extent that meaning is individually construed but socially and culturally constructed. The problem with the current practice of existential therapy is that it focuses on the depth of subjective personal experiences with little regard to the “world”—the cultural social context in which these experiences are shaped. By directly focusing on meaning, MCCT automatically delves into the cultural context which imparts and sustains meaning for the client. Culturally based myths play a big part in meaning-seeking and meaning making. Hoffman (pp. 259-260) has eloquently elaborated on role of meaning in psychotherapy.

“Myth is at the core of Rollo May’s (1961, 1991, 1999a, 1999b) conception of meaning. Meaning, in return, is the central element in the existential perspective of mental health … Meaning provides a stabilizing and centering effect in a world that often is dizzying and disorienting. From an existential perspective, meaning is the ultimate “coping mechanism,” but it is also so much more; meaning is a basic human need. Meaning, too, is a central motivating factor that stands behind many behaviors, both constructive and problematic. In one stance, meaning drives us to the most humanistic of ideals; it inspires us to seek great personal change, to serve the greater social good, and to have compassion for the less fortunate..”

In view of the above, existential psychotherapy needs to focus on the pursuit and discovery of sustainable meaning rather than on the anxiety about ultimate meaninglessness. “As the client and clinician review a client’s experiences, new meanings and new ways of being emerge. While valuing symptom reduction, both clinician and client must go beyond in search of meaning and purposeful action. (Kaklauskas & Olson, p.359)
The importance of relationship is emphasized throughout the book. From the perspective of MCCT, the presence of the therapist is more important than the interpersonal transaction. MCCT maintains that the therapist is the therapy. The therapist’s presence makes all the difference. Hoffman recognizes the importance of presence:

Presence bears similarity to Rogers’ (1980) idea of a way of being. Essentially, Rogers argued that the craft of therapy was largely about developing a way of being that was healing, or growth facilitating. Most of us have experienced people in our lives whom simply by being in their presence created the impulse to want to growl, heal, or be a better person. This is a type of presence. (p. 30)

However, Hoffman blurs the important distinction between being and relating. Presence refers to the presence of a therapeutic and uplifting person, while relating refers to the interaction and encounter between two person. The Asian approach emphasizes the importance of the therapist as a person—the person who commands respect and attention by virtue of his/her power of the presence and competence.

The Importance of Meaning Research

Existential psychologists seem so enthralled with the power of philosophical ideas and the beauty of words that they are afraid that the magic of language may be destroyed by cold-headed scientific research. Hoffman’s introduction chapter set the tone—it reiterates existential psychology’s traditional bias against rationalistic, scientific research as the basis for psychotherapy. But why can’t we move from something to be vaguely grasped intuitively to something that can be rationally understood and researched? When shouldn’t we conceptually dissect and empirically investigate the key constructs and themes of existential psychology?

In terms of methodology, Hoffman claims that existential psychology favors a holistic and honest way of studying the totality of human experience, with an emphasis on the subjective, phenomenological experiences. But a holistic approach should include research based on positivist, experimental research. This idea is supported by Kaklauskas and Olson:

The incorporation of multiple data streams allows for the most accurate understanding. Quantitative outcome research should be respected and employed, but balanced against the importance of qualitative depth, an increased focus on process and ideographic research, findings in other fields, personal and mythic narratives, and an openness to new ideas. (p. 361)

Once we shift our focus away from existential anxiety to the pursuit of meaning, we will discover a wealth of research on the meaning of life and death (Tomer, Grafton, & Wong, 2008; Wong & Fry, 1998; Wong, in press). One obvious weakness of EPEW it that it has very little mention of research relevant to existential issues. I do hope that future dialogues between East and West will pay more attention to empirical research.

Conclusions

I hasten to add that my critique of EPEW is largely directed to existential psychology and psychotherapy as practiced in American more than EPEW per se. However, EPEW could have reflected a more critical self-examination of American existentialism as a result of the input from Chinese participants in Hong Kong and China.

The idea of this EPEW project was hatched in March, 2008 when five representatives from the Colorado School of Professional Psychology went to China. “The goal of the trip was to engage in culturally-sensitive dialogues with Chinese graduate students, professors, and psychotherapists regarding existential-integrative psychology” (Dyer et al., p. 99). A year later, EPEW was published. That is a remarkable achievement, given that it was the result of their first East-West dialogue and the speed of bringing it to print.

Given the origin of EPEW, it is understandable why it reads more like a conference proceeding than a well-thought out edited volume. The list of contributors appears to be a convenient sample rather than a carefully selected cast of the best scholars in Chinese psychology and philosophy. Although the main thrust of EPEW is on East and West perspective of existential psychology and psychotherapy, several chapters (7, 15, 16, 20) do not quite fit in the scheme of East-West integration. I wish that there were a concluding chapter which provides a synthesis of various chapters will create a better sense of unity and coherence in EPEW. However, in spite of its shortcomings, I still recommend this book as a helpful resource of both American existential psychotherapy and Chinese existential thoughts. Hoffman’s introductory chapter represents the clearest and most comprehensive statement of existential psychology I have seen; this chapter alone is worth the cost of purchasing a copy of EPEW.

I want to conclude this review by reflecting briefly on Kafka, the last existential writer covered in EPEW. Mendelowitz provides a very insightful analysis of Kafka. He wrote movingly and beautifully about Kafka’s search for meaning in “a world shorn of moorings and in alarming disarray, doggedly exposing the extreme states of anxiety and confusion” (p. 339). Mendelowitz fittingly characterizes Kafka writing this way: “It is a unique admixture of horror, grace and courage that allows Kafka to gaze unblinkingly into the Void while succumbing to neither System Replacement nor Nothingness” (p. 346).

This observation applies also to the contemporary Chinese scholars as they gaze into the Sky pondering on the future of human existence in the midst of breakdown of meanings. Kafka found a solution to his existential predicament through writing and searching for a new mysticism. Kafka reminds me of a Chinese writer Ha Jin who currently lives in America. In his recent novel entitled A Free Life, one of the characters discovers that the good life in a world of moral ambiguity and shallow materialism can only be attained through fearlessly pursuing his calling:

To be a free individual, he had to go his own way, had to endure loneliness and isolation, and had to give up the illusion of success in order to accept his diminished state as a new immigrant and as a learner of this alphabet. More than that, he had to take the risk of wasting his life without getting anywhere and of becoming a joke in other’s eyes. Finally, he had to be brave enough to devote himself not to making money but to writing poetry, willing to face failure. (Jin, 2007, p. 619)


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  14. Skinner, B. F. (1948). Walden Two. Indianapolis, IN: Hacket.
  15. Tomer, A., Grafton, E. & Wong, P. T. P.(Eds.) (2008). Death attitudes: Existential & spiritual issues. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  16. Triandis, H. C. (1972). The analysis of subjective culture. New York, NY: Wiley.
  17. Wong, P. T. P. (1995). A stage model of coping with frustrative stress. In R. Wong (Ed.), Biological perspectives on motivated activities (pp. 339-378). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
  18. Wong, P. T. P. (1998a). Meaning-centered counselling. In P. T. P. Wong, & P. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 395-435). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  19. Wong, P. T. P. (1998b). Implicit theories of meaningful life and the development of the Personal Meaning Profile (PMP). In P. T. P. Wong, & P. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 111-140). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  20. Wong, P. T. P. (2009a). Chinese positive psychology. In S. Lopez (Ed.), Encyclopedia of positive psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 148-156). Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
  21. Wong, P. T. P. (2009). Viktor Frankl: Prophet of hope for the 21st century. In A. Batthyany, & J. Levinson (Eds.), Existential psychotherapy of meaning: Handbook of logotherapy and existential analysis. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen. (Early version available here.)
  22. Wong, P. T. P. (2009c). Existential positive psychology. In S. Lopez (Ed.), Encyclopedia of positive psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 361-368). Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
  23. Wong, P. T. P., & Fry, P. S. (Eds.). (1998). The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  24. Wong, P. T. P., & Wong, L. C. J. (Eds.) (2005). Handbook of multicultural perspectives on stress and coping. New York, NY: Springer.
  25. Yalom, I. D. (1980). Existential Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  26. Yalom, I. D. (1989). Love’s executioner. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Draft version of Wong, P. T. P. (2009). An existential vision of the good life: Toward an international psychology and psychotherapy based on meaning [Review of the book Existential psychology east-westPsycCRITIQUES, 54(51). doi:10.1037/a0018290

For published version, click “Read More.”

I admire the editors of Existential Psychology East–West for their courage and vision in embarking on this ambitious international project. I have done something similar before and know firsthand the difficulties and the risks involved. The editors of this volume realize that the English written by some native contributors may not be up to the Western standard of academic writing. Some grammatical errors and the Chinese academic writing style might make Western readers feel uncomfortable, but such “cringe” factor should not overshadow the substantial merits of the content of Existential Psychology East–West.

Toward an International Existential Psychology

The assumption of the universality of mainstream psychology has long been questioned. Triandis (1972) called this approach pseudo-etic because it imposes the categories and constructs of American psychology on other cultures. True international psychology calls for equal partnership, from conceptualization to publication.

Existential Psychology East–West falls short of this ideal because it is based on Euro- American existential psychology as the frame of reference for Asian existential thoughts. The editors affirm the universality of the tenets of Western existential psychology and believe that “core elements of existential psychology are culturally adaptable. We do not believe that there is a need to sacrifice any core principles of existential thought to be applied cross-culturally, but many may need some re-envisioning” (p. xv).

However, adopting Euro-American existentialism as a template might close off existential principles from other cultures. I propose that some Chinese cultural beliefs about human existence (Wong, 2009a) may neatly fit the Euro-American mold of existential psychology.

For example, duality is one of the profound insights of Lao Tze. This belief recognizes the coexistence of good and evil, happiness and suffering, strength and weakness. When the negative and positive are seen as an integrated whole, problems and stress are reduced. Belief in duality leads to acceptance and accommodation of the contradictions and vicissitudes of the human condition.

Another discrepancy is that while Western existential psychologists are preoccupied with ontological anxieties, Chinese existential thinkers are concerned with real suffering in everyday living caused by, for example, poverty, hunger, oppression, and abuse. A truly international existential psychology will not frame all human problems in terms of existential anxieties. Human miseries caused by the evils of oppression and corruption are crying out for attention.

Overcrowdedness and the magnitude of life’s problems make it necessary for the Chinese people to learn how to get along with each other and how to work together. Confucianism has instilled into the Chinese mindset a collectivist belief as a way of maintaining social order and achieving world peace. Contemporary society in China also emphasizes the need to sacrifice self-interest for the common good. Existential psychology’s emphasis on individualism fails to recognize the deep-seated tension between freedom for self-realization and the responsibility to prioritize collective needs (see Chapter 3 by Dyer et al., p. 107). This existential issue is important for both authentic living and clinical practice in the Chinese context.

The Chinese belief in the utility of endurance may be an illusion, but it is adaptive. When individuals have no power to defend themselves against unrelenting abuse, what can they do to survive? Introducing Lu Xun as a spiritual warrior, Xuefu Wang points out that “Lu Xun chose to expose the rotten roots of the Chinese national character, such as servility, passivity, compromising attitude, and fear of change” (p. 156). Lu Xun’s tale of the Iron House reveals the existential dilemma of Chinese people: either die of suffocation in their sleep or die of suffocation and agony in their futile attempt to break out. Lu Xun devoted his life to awaken Chinese people from their stupor and servitude, even when there was no response to his call. But his mission endures, and his voice still resonates.

Wensheng Wang’s chapter on a survival philosophy of Shi Tie-Shenng provides some additional insight into Chinese endurance. Shi’s story titled “Life Is Like a String of Qin” (a zitherlike instrument) tells about a blind person who is told that he will regain his sight after breaking a thousand strings of qin through performing. This life goal gives him hope and meaning for playing qin. Even after discovering the falsehood of the promise, he continues to prescribe the same cure for his blind students. This tale provides an existential solution to unrelenting human suffering. Thus, to live is to endure suffering with hope. This existential thought of endurance is closer to Frankl’s tragic optimism (Wong, 2009c) than to American existential psychology.

I wonder whether greater Chinese input to the Existential Psychology East–West project might have resulted in a more balanced content with respect to East–West integration. This imbalance may be related to the composition of the contributors and editors of this book in terms of expertise in existential psychology and psychotherapy.

An Existential Vision of the Good Life

Existential psychology is inherently international, because it is about the universal story of human struggle for survival and happiness in spite of hardships and impending death. This perspective may be called existential positive psychology (EPP; Wong, 2009b) because it is rooted in the inevitability of suffering and the innate human capacity to achieve something positive in the worst of circumstances.

Existential Psychology East–West represents a rich source of materials for this existential vision of the good life. Hoffman (p. 21) correctly points out, “Maybe the greatest distinction between existential psychology and most of the rest of psychology is its view of the good life. Throughout most of the field of psychotherapy, it has become so implicit that the good life is one that seeks pleasure and the avoidance of discomfort.” For EPP, the good life is to embrace negative emotions and tragedies as an integral part of being human.

EPP appeals to those coming from the Chinese culture because of its dualistic view of nature and the belief that the good life has to spring from the soil of suffering. Taoism teaches us not only how to be free from worries but also how to achieve happiness, even when the problems are pervasive, chronic, and beyond one’s control (see Chapter 4 by Craig). The Buddhist perspective emphasizes immediacy as a way of living with awareness and acceptance: “It is probably axiomatic that nothing inspires one to live life fully more than accepting the reality of death, which will come sooner than we think” (Chapter 11 by Dow, p. 234).

The critical issue of EPP is not about how to fill a personal void that can never be filled but about how to make life worth living in a harsh world. The good life is about how to endure suffering and pursue what really matters, such as achievement, relationships, religious beliefs, and social justice (Wong, 1998a).

We are at a critical juncture of human history. Here is a depiction of the precarious human condition: “Kafka, explorer of a vast new space of a world on the lam and the mortified mind, sheds light on dark truths that science itself does not adequately broach” (Chapter 18 by Mendelowitz, p. 330). The black hole of human existence is beyond the reach of the scientific methodology in psychology. Furthermore, science alone can no more prescribe happiness than it can prescribe world peace. Therefore, it is high time to consider an existential vision of the good life as a framework for uplifting humanity.

A Meaning-Centered Approach to Existential Psychotherapy

“The purpose of psychotherapy is to set people free” (May, 1981, p. 19). But free to pursue what? This is an important question. I propose that the purpose of psychotherapy is to equip clients with the tools to cope with negativities and live a meaningful life despite suffering and obstacles. “Instructions using a cognitive-behavioral training approach within a psychosocial educational intervention may generate better outcomes within a traditional Chinese population” (Chapter 3 by Dyer et al., p. 106).

I am puzzled by the emphasis in Existential Psychology East–West that “the idea of techniques, and even structure, is often viewed as antithetical to existential therapy” (Chapter 1 by Hoffman, p. 23). What qualifies someone as a professional guide to travel through dangerous terrains or scale treacherous mountains? Professional skills matter. What qualifies someone as a master pianist or violinist? The main difference is that professional musicians have mastered their basic skills to the level where techniques become their second nature—they can totally immerse themselves in the moment-to-moment creative process of music making. The same is true with existential psychotherapists; they need to master techniques first.

A Meaning-Centered Psychotherapy

Given the historical linguistic and philosophical baggage of existential psychotherapy, I propose that a meaning-centered counseling and therapy (Wong, 1998b) may get around such cultural barriers. Hoffman writes eloquently about the centrality of meaning in existential psychology and psychotherapy:

The instillation of meaning is a primary component of all existential approaches to psychotherapy. The deepest forms of meaning can be experienced on the various realms of biological, behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal; in other words, it is a holistic meaning . . . the attainment of meaning is one of the most central aspects of human existence and necessary to address in existential therapy. (p. 45)

Meaning, too, is a central motivating factor that stands behind many behaviors, both constructive and problematic. In one stance, meaning drives us to the most humanistic of ideals; it inspires us to seek great personal change, to serve the greater social good, and to have compassion for the less fortunate. (p. 260)
Thus, meaning is rooted in biology, but it is also construed by the individual and constructed by culture. A meaning-centered approach is inherently integrative and cross-cultural.

The Importance of Meaning Research

Existential psychologists seem so enthralled with the power of words that they are afraid that the magic of language may be destroyed by cold-headed scientific research. Hoffman’s introduction reiterates existential psychology’s bias against scientific research. It is interesting that Hoffman also claims that existential psychology favors a holistic and honest way of studying the totality of human experience.

But a holistic approach should also include quantitative research. This idea is supported by Kaklauskas and Olson (p. 361): “The incorporation of multiple data streams allows for the most accurate understanding.” A meaning orientation will avoid the traditional antiresearch bias and lead to a rich gold mine of empirical findings on existential issues (Tomer, Grafton, & Wong, 2007; Wong & Fry, 1998).

Conclusions

My critique of Existential Psychology East–West is largely directed to existential psychology and psychotherapy as practiced in America more than to the book itself. However, the book could have taken a more critical self-examination of American existentialism as a result of the input from Chinese participants. I recommend Existential Psychology East–West as a helpful resource of both American existential psychotherapy and Chinese existential thoughts.

References

  1. May, R. (1981). Freedom and Destiny. New York, NY: Norton.
  2. Tomer, A., Grafton, E. & Wong, P. T. P.(Eds.) (2008). Death attitudes: Existential & spiritual issues. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  3. Triandis, H. C. (1972).  The analysis of subjective culture. New York, NY: Wiley.
  4. Wong, P. T. P. (1998a). Meaning-centered counselling. In P. T. P. Wong, & P. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 395-435). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  5. Wong, P. T. P. (1998b). Implicit theories of meaningful life and the development of the Personal Meaning Profile (PMP). In P. T. P. Wong, & P. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 111-140). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  6. Wong, P. T. P. (2009a). Chinese positive psychology. In S. Lopez (Ed.), Encyclopedia of positive psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 148-156). Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
  7. Wong, P. T. P. (2009b). Viktor Frankl: Prophet of hope for the 21st century. In A. Batthyany, & J. Levinson (Eds.), Existential psychotherapy of meaning: Handbook of logotherapy and existential analysis. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker & Theisen. (Early version available here.)
  8. Wong, P. T. P. (2009c). Existential positive psychology. In S. Lopez (Ed.), Encyclopedia of positive psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 361-368). Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
  9. Wong, P. T. P., & Fry, P. S. (Eds.). (1998). The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.