Looking Inward: Psychotherapy and Mysticism

by Tomás Agosin

Traditional psychology and mysticism often find themselves at odds and in different camps, with people committed to one or the other as opposite ends of a continuum of ways to understand and approach life. Often mental health practitioners criticize and degrade mysticism as being a regressive way of looking at the world. Meanwhile, mystics complain that the psychological approach is limited, narrow and futile in solving human needs.

Fortunately, there have always been thinkers like William James, Carl Jung, and Roberto Assagioli who attempted to bridge these two traditions. In the last few years, our culture has been experiencing a reawakening of spiritual needs and interest, and new thinkers are trying to make connections between mysticism and psychology. One of these is Arthur Deikman, who approaches the relationship between these two modes of understanding life in The Observing Self.

Deikman states that the central difference between psychology and mystical science is that psychology concerns itself with studying the contents of consciousness, while mysticism deals with consciousness itself. The contents of consciousness are our thoughts, feelings, memories, perceptions, and actions. Thus, we have a thinking self—all the thoughts in our mind; an emotional self—the emotions and desires of our being; a functional self—our capacity to act in the world. But that is not all. There is a more primary aspect to us, the observing self—awareness itself. The “I” that exists before one thinks, feels, or acts. Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.” Deikman says, “I am aware, therefore I am.”

For Deikman, this “observing self” is particularly important because it is the only realm of our existence that cannot be objectified. Everything else can be objectified, and thus, everything else is limited. The observing self has no limit—it can never be objectified. It has no boundaries. It has no beginning and no end. It cannot be located. It cannot be seen. The observing self is featureless. But it undeniably exists as our experience demands we acknowledge. And it is knowable. When we empty our consciousness of all content, we penetrate into that realm—the realm of pure awareness—the realm upon which all mystical traditions have focused.

Psychology has been so concerned with understanding the mechanisms, dynamics and features of the contents of consciousness that, until recently, it has not dealt with awareness itself. To some extent psychotherapy attempts to develop the observing ego, which is awareness of the contents of consciousness; thus it attempts to create some distance between content and consciousness itself, but it hasn’t developed a science of the awareness function. Mystical paths have. They use techniques to increase the observing self: meditation, story telling, prayer, etc. These practices and techniques are ways of moving away from rational thinking and opening new forms of perceiving reality.

This concern with awareness itself is very important because it is the aspect of life that brings meaning to the person. The need for meaning is central to the human being, and there have been some (e.g., Viktor Frankl) who feel that the search for meaning can be seen as central to human existence. Since the contents of our mind—thoughts and feelings—are limited and ever-changing, they cannot bring lasting meaning to the person. But the observing self, in its limitless, timeless present helps the individual establish a profound relationship to all of life. It therefore helps the person discover a different realm of life: the mystical reality.

We have been so involved with the contents of awareness (our thoughts, feelings, memories, desires, roles), the “trance of ordinary life” as Deikman calls it, that we have lost the capacity to develop our mystical life. All we have to do is to disidentify from the contents of our experience and open ourselves to a new possibility. Deikman’s Observing Self can be the focus for a new bridge between psychology and mysticism, and thus the beginning of mystical psychology.

This article is one of a number of papers written by Dr. Tomás Agosin, a psychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and a founding member of Cafh in New York.  Dr. Agosin died in 1991.

Deikman, Arthur J. The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy. Beacon Press, 1982.