This brings me back years to when I was first studying philosophy in Mater Dei Institute here in Dublin. It was my first introduction to ontology or the philosophy of being. However, as a young man of eighteen years plus, it was really all over my head. Like all young scholars, one learned it all off by heart for one’s essays and exams. I was, of course, familiar with Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy which he puts in Hamlet’s mouth, viz., “To be or not to be, // That is the question// Whether it is nobler in mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune etc.” With our teacher, Mr Michael McLoughlin, we ploughed through that wonderful speech and savoured the richness of Elizabethan English at its best. That this fine speech was Hamlet ‘s contemplating whether or not he would take his own life was an eye-opener for me back then as suicide was not an issue then openly discussed. The erudite and wise teacher, informed us that anyone of us was capable of so doing, and also, like Hamlet, capable of murdering another human being. We were young and innocent back then at school when, in Ireland, we were not subject to the age of information being blasted at us from all sides. Much has changed since then. Youngsters in Ireland are now as well educated, as street wise, as open to the multi-faceted influences from all angles through the internet and other mass media as their counterparts anywhere in the modern world.
To Be and not To Be
This is May’s title for chapter 6 of his book The Discovery of Being. However, the conjunction “and” instead of “or” is very significant because, unlike Shakespeare we are not contemplating the choice of whether to take one’s life or not. Rather, we are about to contemplate the healthy tension between Being and its counterpart Non-Being in any ontology worth its salt.
Encountering the Other
This is where May starts. He begins his philosophical contemplation by rooting his ontology in a practical therapeutic encounter with another human being. What does it mean to so encounter another? I hasten to add that we can take any real encounter outside the therapeutic process as our kick-off point as that is just as valid an encounter as the former in virtue of its being real. Here, we are involved in a one-to-one real encounter of one being with another being where each of us is Dasein – meaning the being literally placed or “thrown” there in front of the other. The nature of such an existential encounter means that in the case of the therapist he/she has to take the human person in front of him/her as an authentic and real human being, having no prior judgements or prejudices in his/her own mind.
I have already referred before to the fact that such encounters were practised early in psychiatry by the likes of Dr. Ronnie Laing and other great psychiatrists. They took the patient in front of them as human beings worth encountering, rather than as cases who exhibited such and such a combination of symptoms. Here May opines that “The data we learned about the patient may have been accurate and well worth learning. But the point rather is that the grasping of the being of the other person occurs on a different level from our knowledge of the specific things about him.” (Op.cit., p.92, May’s italics)
In line, then, with existential psychotherapy, or indeed, I should imagine all good psychotherapeutic approaches that the knowledge a counsellor or therapist has about a client must always be subordinated to the overarching fact of his actual existence. May also refers to the Greek and Hebrew understandings of the verb “to know” which in both languages has a close etymological relationship with the verb “to love.” Ludwig Binswanger calls such a deep knowing the “dual mode” of encountering the other.
A real encounter with another human being can be awe-inspiring or anxiety-provoking or elevating or ground-shaking. In can be any of these things if and only if it is real. Obviously, it will be none of these things if it is not real or if it is merely superficial. Sartre says that another human being can never be reduced to a bundle of “original data.” I think we would all agree with that, unless we are total materialists.
Our Obsession with Measuring and Counting
Ever since I read the great Scottish philosopher, David Hume, I have been quite taken with his empiricism, that is, if something is actual or real it has to be measured on the senses somehow. Admittedly, I only read the learned gentleman in college book summaries etc. However, our lecturers were good, and most had wrestled with his works for many years. Today’s insights from physics, and especially from quantum physics would suggest that not everything is precisely measurable and that even the observer interferes with the data. However, here we want to refer to things in their wholeness as it were. I am at one with May in the following observations:
It is interesting that the term mystic is used in this derogatory sense to mean anything that we cannot segmentize or counted. The odd belief prevails in our culture that a thing or experience is not real if we cannot make it mathematical, and somehow it must be real if we can reduce it to numbers. But this means making an abstraction of it – mathematics is the abstraction par excellence, which is indeed its glory and the reason for its great usefulness. Modern Western man thus finds himself in a strange situation, after reducing something to an abstraction, of having then to persuade himself that it is real. This has much to do with the sense of isolation and loneliness which is endemic in modern Western world; for the only experience we let ourselves believe in as real is that which precisely is not. Thus we deny the reality of our own experience. The term mystic in this disparaging sense, is generally used in the sense of obscurantism; certainly avoiding an issue by derogation is only to obscure it. (Ibid., p.94-95)
Apologies for quoting such a long passage, but I believe it is so brilliantly put and so well expressed and sums up a lot about what the existential approach to psychotherapy is not and cannot be. The existential approach takes all human experiences as legitimate experiences of the real human being there in front of one – the Dasein – and treats the other as real, authentic and total in itself. This is the being of the other, irreducible to facts, figures or symptoms, though these will of course be important data to aid diagnosis and hopefully recovery.
As regards mysticism per se, it is interesting to point out that it was always treated with suspicion by the institutional churches because it meant a type of primacy of experience by which the ordinary being could commune with his/her maker. Obviously, this type of thing would be suspect as it took control out of the hands of the church which felt, and probably still feels, that it has the authority and power to dispense God’s bounties to the ordinary souls. As I grow older I now realise that churches, no matter of what denomination, are all about power and control over their members rather than liberating them to engage with the ground of their own being whether that be God, or gods, or N0-God or an impersonal principle of life. I would look upon myself as an agnostic who loves meditating and all things related to such activity from Buddhist to Christian to agnostic approaches. If it helps, I use it.
What May is at here, to my mind, is disabusing the minds of his readers of the contemporary obsession with measuring, counting, dissecting and reacquainting us with a more holistic way of encountering others, and indeed reality per se as a unity, as a whole or as a totality in itself. Perhaps for a believer, that can be boiled down (or even up) to a reality called God for him or her; for a non-believer, perhaps such an encounter with reality can be represented as an encounter with the impersonal force behind the universe. For the other sitting in front of us that encounter is a real meeting with another human being in his/her entirety or wholeness or totality of being as an authentic and real other. It is also an encounter with the real Self, with one’s very soul.
By way of conclusion, I should like to state that when human beings first became self-conscious and began to live in communities from which all great cultures grew, their primacy of experience or of encounter with reality was the most important experience anyone could have. That primacy of experience is what Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about all his life, both in his prose and in his poetry. It was essentially what he referred to when as a young boy his father brought him out along the country lanes and fields at night to observe the night sky. The older man referred to how as a young boy his mind had “become habituated to the vast.” Whether that is the vast in the macro-world of ever-expanding space beyond us or the vast in the ever-expanding space within us as we go ever deeper in depth psychology. Maybe quantum physics could link these two vasts within and without? Who knows?
Mysticism, I believe, is all about the primacy of our experiences over analysis. It certainly is never about denying such analysis. True mysticism will use figures and analyses to bolster up its primacy and give the facts soul as it were. Facts from the Dickensian Gradgrind School, uncoupled from more edifying real encounters with mystery, will only end up dehumanizing us and in the end driving us insane.
To be continued.