Mental Health

Humanistic Psychology and the Crisis of Meaning

April 13, 2011

Multiple Pages
Humanistic Psychology and the Crisis of Meaning

A new study predicts that organized religion is heading toward extinction in nine nations. On some levels, this may be grounds for rejoicing: less fanaticism, fewer infringements of individual liberties, and no religious wars. But there will be a price to pay: the absence of a spiritual dimension, a growing disenchantment with purely material values, and a sense of ultimate meaninglessness.

These themes have loomed large since people began to question the positivists’ optimism about progress. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche wrestled with these ideas. Meaninglessness acquired new meaning after World War II and was given artistic form by writers such as Sartre and Camus and, more recently, Saul Bellow.

If anything, the sense of meaninglessness has grown—not in response to the horrors of the Holocaust, but rather to the humdrum nature of ordinary life.“

If anything, the sense of meaninglessness has grown—not in response to the horrors of the Holocaust, but rather to the humdrum nature of ordinary life.”

I have spent the last two and a half years studying clinical psychology and practicing therapy in San Francisco. Clinical psychology leaves one ill-prepared to engage with the sense of meaninglessness which bedevils more lives than one might imagine. Within clinical psychology, mental health is only defined negatively, as the absence of mental illness. This seems to be a part of our Western outlook where people grow up believing that humans reach their peak mental capacity in their late teens and that the most we can hope for is to maintain a plateau before the inevitable descent into mindless senility. That is a depressing view.

However, the field of humanistic psychology offers an alternative. It focuses on the concept of human potential and follows certain Eastern schools of thought in seeing mental health as something to be achieved and constantly improved rather than merely something to be lost.

Clinical psychology’s statistical methods do not really get at individual human experience in the raw, whereas humanistic psychologists are interested in, and conversant with, anthropology, art, literature, philosophy, mythology, religion, Eastern psychology, altered states of consciousness, mind-body medicine, shamanism, and parapsychology. Any field which sheds light on human experience is deemed worthy of serious inquiry.

Too often, clinical psychology postures itself as a hard science. But there are many observations which science is currently incapable of explaining. Most of the time, we attempt to circumvent these embarrassing observations by claiming that the methodology was flawed, or that the sources are not trustworthy, or that the results are not precisely replicable. But there comes a point at which it is more economical to admit that science as we know it may have its own blinkers rather than continuing to deny the possibility of scientifically inexplicable phenomena.

A recent Austrian documentary called In the Beginning There Was Light filmed people who live for years without eating food and, in some cases, without even drinking water. These people do not lose weight and appear to be very healthy. The filmmaker initially intended the film to be an exposé of their outlandish claims, but he ended up being convinced by what he saw.

The film’s most extreme example is Prahlad Jani (“Mataji”), an 82-year-old Indian man who hasn’t eaten or drank for 70 years. Mataji claims to absorb energy directly from the sun. During the film, he is kept under 24-hour surveillance in an Ahmedabad hospital for fifteen days. Doctors observe him constantly. At the end of fifteen days, they confess themselves utterly baffled by the fact that he didn’t eat or drink anything, and yet he left the hospital as healthy as he was when he entered. Doctors in Europe are equally baffled when the filmmaker shows them the footage. The only interviewees whose conceptual paradigm can comprehend the Mataji phenomenon are two physicists at CERN’s particle-physics laboratory.

In most cases, individuals who live without food or water do not develop this ability from one day to the next. It usually grows out of extensive spiritual or meditative practice. But clinical psychology is too clinical to ever understand such phenomena, whereas humanistic psychology provides a platform from which to begin studying human potential. In doing so, it may provide our best antidote for the looming crisis of meaning.


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