Interview with Jim Bugental

by Bob Edelstein on February 1, 2003

James F. T. Bugental, Ph.D., is a renowned existential-humanistic psychotherapist. At 87, he is an esteemed elder. He is the author of numerous books, including The Search for Authenticity, The Search for Existential Identity, and The Art of the Psychotherapist. He served as the first President of the Association for Humanistic Psychology, in 1962. Bob Edelstein is an Existential-Humanistic psychotherapist based in Portland, Oregon. He has studied with Jim since 1991.


Bob: I’d like to start by asking what’s present for you in your life now.

Jim: I am very aware of the change. I’m not active professionally very much. Occasionally I do a talk or write a short piece, but mostly I’m quite inactive. In fact I’ve been telling myself lately I need to get more active. I don’t want my brain to dry up. And the short-term memory is just shot to hell. I haven’t got a lot of inner motivation, that impulse to do, that for so long was strong in me. I don’t feel bad about it, but I feel sorry that it’s so. But not very sorry. If I were more sorry I’d do it. And yet, I feel like I am letting somebody down, maybe just myself.

Bob: I’m interested in your reflections on the aging process, for yourself, and any kind of awareness in general about it.

Jim: I don’t know about the aging process in general. I’ve done relatively little work, except my own. I’ve been surprised. For years I’ve said if only I had time I would do this or that and now I have more time and I don’t do that or this. I’m a little disappointed. I’m surprised that I’m not using my time … and a faint sense of “I should”. But not very much, I’m not disturbed by it.

Bob: Is there a letting go process?

Jim: Very much. A letting go. What do I do with my time? Christ. The end of the day comes and I say account for yourself. I do seem able to sleep endlessly.

Bob: Do you look at the letting go process in relation to death and dying?

Jim: If so, it’s not at a conscious level. Maybe in the background. But which way, getting ready to die, or resisting dying, or both? It makes sense that it could be either or both, but it’s not a conscious process. For years I was very frightened of the whole notion of dying. Really would wake-up with the panic.

Bob: It’s different now?

Jim: Yeah, sort of a resignation. A fair amount of curiosity. I hope dying doesn’t mean just blank out. I hope it’s interesting.

Bob: It feels as if you are looking at dying in the same way that you’ve lived your life – with engaged curiosity. I wonder if you see it that way.

Jim: That makes sense. I feel pleased when you say that. But where’s my engaged curiosity now? It’s asleep. If it’s not dead. I hope to hell it’s not dead. Talking with you makes me feel stirrings. Maybe as a result I will wake up a little more.

Bob: Would you describe your philosophy and your passion for the existential-humanistic perspective?

Jim: What I’m thinking now is I want to think about it freshly. Not recall what I’ve written. Existential. Existence. Now I exist. Someday I won’t exist, at least in the form I am now. And I’ll probably always exist in some form. The “I” in that sentence is consciousness, awareness, self-awareness. And there is a little voice chiding me, you’re just talking about yourself, you’re not thinking about others and what you tried to teach, and so on. So be it.

Bob: What strikes me is the importance of staying with what is happening right now. Why is that so important to you?

Jim: Well, the first answer that comes to me is that it’s the only reality of which we can be assured. Abstractions, theories, promises, or recollections all are under some measure of suspicion. Suspicion that the present tense may contaminate them or distort them, or bend them to now’s purpose. Now is where we live. We don’t live in tomorrow. We don’t live in yesterday.

Bob: You have certainly contributed a lot and achieved a lot, but it seems to me that you don’t hang on to the achievements or the contributions.

Jim: It’s more of the same thing. All I have of it now is my memory of it. What is actual is now.

Bob: Is there something in the now that is sufficient?

Jim: I’m not sure if that matters. In a certain sense we have no choice but to be in the now. What I may anticipate of this afternoon or tomorrow is hypothetical in some measure. What I remember from this morning before you got here, or yesterday, if not hypothetical, is incomplete in every case. I never quite thought of it this way before. The experience of the now is by it’s very nature transitory. Fleeting. Inalterable. Gone. I have just now made a choice to say what I’ve just said. Its fleeting, it’s way past. The thought that I put in words now is always partial. The thought was this big, but I can’t say this much. I can grab this much, and say it. When I reflect back on it, I don’t get back to this, but I get a slanting. But to go back and tell you what was the thought I was trying to say a few minutes ago… Well, it’s all mixed in with the one that was before and what’s followed since. I don’t know that I could.

Bob: You seem to have a level of comfort about that. I know for myself there are times when that’s very anxiety provoking.

Jim: I can believe that. Our circumstance right now is benign. I’m not aware of any threat in this moment. When you speak of anxiety, some part of my mind flicks back to other years when the thought of death, oblivion, would seize me in my stomach. I would have to get out of bed, wander around, go read something to change it. I think I have not so much transcended that, but I have become skillful at not going there. Well, it’s some of both. In fact, that I can say it as comfortably as I just did says I have made a little gain that way. But I don’t want to press my limits. Oblivion is probably the most horrendous concept I can think of. Even hell, old-fashioned hell, was better than oblivion.

Bob: At least you are engaging with something.

Jim: At least I am something.

Bob: I have seen you get choked up when you talk about your deep faith in human beings. Knowing that about you, I want to explore how the existential-humanistic perspective can offer humanity a different way of relating. I think it’s so relevant in the context of 9/11, homeland security, and the possibility of bombing Iraq. It seems all of these events are based on a fear and mistrust of humanity, not faith and deep trust. I’m wondering how that is resonating with you.

Jim: When you bring in September 11th, you call on us to think in a larger scope than the safety of our individual one-on-one work. From that one-on-one work, we can draw a kind of reassurance. Most of the people I’ve worked with are basically well-intentioned. They want to be good. They want to be loving. I’ve had some truly self-serving people, who have done shitty things, but even those instances were not the whole picture by any means. It was the way they handle certain life experiences; it was the way they survived something. And so there is an ultimate trust in human nature. In many ways I see our job as helping to let that loose. It’s blocked, handicapped, imprisoned. I have a lot of confidence in the ultimate, but benign quality of human nature. Which is not to deny the terrible things that humans do. Hitler is a way of saying an ultimately evil person. But if I had him in individual therapy, I could challenge him, that if he would hang in and work with me, I think that we would get down to it — to a lot of hurt and fear. And a lot of ingenuity. We would find ways of warding off all this hurt. Hitler was a terrible man! Absolutely terrible. But part of the measure of that terribleness was his creativity. I hate it! I want creativity to be only on my side. The good side. But that’s not so. And the same thing can be said for Osama bin Laden. If you or I were handed a gun, there lies Osama bin Laden and your job is to kill him, can you do it?

Bob: my first reaction is to say no. Could you?

Jim: Yes, I think so. I couldn’t do it but one time. But I think I could. It would cost a lot, emotionally. Yeah, I could. And that’s not a boast, but a confession.

Bob: The confession is saying what?

Jim: Saying I allow, I choose the factual at times over the ideal value, over values I might otherwise insist were ultimate. The practical, the realistic, can put its claim on me in a way that I regret at times. It’s not the act, but the fact that I could turn away from a value position. And I asked myself is that good that I have changed so that I could do that, or is that regrettable? Or is it both? So many questions today I find both/and rather than either/or.

Bob: Well that hasn’t changed, has it? You’ve always, as I’ve known you, powerfully reinforced inclusion, not amputation.

Jim: I think that, though I feel like life has taught it to me over and over in different contexts. Again and again.

Bob: In The Search for Existential Identity, you say the central facet of being human is being alive, and that there is always the search for more aliveness within the life-death struggle that goes on in us all the time. I’m wondering how this view resonates with you now, and if you can expand on what you mean by it.

Jim: I don’t know if I can expand because I don’t know what I said before. But I can use it and say what I think about it now. The life-death struggle. As we’ve talked, we’ve both made reference, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, to things we’re not going to take up today or things we will take up today. That’s a life-death struggle. We look for things. I look for things when we’re talking that I hope would be interesting to you, useful to you. I also want to experience the digging into what I am saying, playing with it, pulling things out of it. That’s enlivening. And when I’m only repeating things I’ve written or said or something that you know already, that’s more deadly, it’s more squelching. But in a way one could say that goes on in each moment. Each moment I’m choosing to give life to what I’m saying right now rather than something else I could have been saying. I might have gone off on a theoretical thing, or citing something Rollo May said. You know those aren’t wrong, but they’re not the ones I’m investing my life in now. I’m investing my life in talking about the life-death struggle, as you’ve just quoted it back to me. And that’s every moment. This moment we have now as you and I talk this afternoon will never come again. Maybe by the next time we might do it one of us will no longer be here.

Bob: I’m thinking that in the life-death struggle in every moment I’m relinquishing something in order to live what I’m living right now. It’s not an easy decision to give up something you love.

Jim: And when you give that something up, you’re also giving life to something else.

Bob: And sometimes I don’t know what that is.

Jim: Yeah. I was just thinking when we don’t know what it is we’re choosing, sometimes that’s exciting and sometimes it’s frightening.

Bob: There is something about how I identify existentialism, which is this incredible burden and joy, both. It’s empowering, in that I have life-death choices to make in every moment. But to me that’s not the whole picture. I believe there is also a level where it’s not all on me, which I’ve heard you call the life force. I want to understand more how that works. When I’m in touch with that life force there is an ease that comes, which I don’t have when I’m feeling separate from that life force.

Jim: You’re one step removed. I understand your question and I share the question. I’m not sure I have any more than superficial answers to it. The life force. It’s feeling the unrelenting pull of the next moment. It won’t stop. It just keeps on. I’ve got to say something or I’ve got to… The hell with the whole thing, it’s unrelenting. I’ve still got to do it. And if I say this or that, the life force is still pulling me on. And then … I’ve done that with clients sometimes. And then …

Bob: Unrelenting. That’s not a soft word.

Jim: I think its quite the contrary to soft. Its the harshest of existential realities. And then … And now … And now … And now … It’s cruel and unusual punishment. But it’s also exciting. What will I do?

Bob: You get choked up. The excitement of the something more?

Jim: Yep. And knowing there is always something, but that I can only partially control it. At my best, I can only do some control.

Bob: What it triggers in me is, in the times of my despair, I know there is something more. It’s not the whole story.

Jim: That’s a reassurance.

Bob: The other side of it is, in my ecstasy and joy there is always something more. I can’t hang on to that.

Jim: I know that. That is very much the human situation. I don’t think my lovely dog has to confront that. It’s the punishment for consciousness.

Bob: That we can’t stay in a permanent state of bliss?

Jim: Yeah.

Bob: And yet there’s that striving to, isn’t there?

Jim: Oh yes.

Bob: In Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy, Irv Yalom makes the point that in working with clients we are at times the slayer of truth. For example, we slay the illusion that says it is always going to be blissful.

Jim: We slay the actual, too. Moment by moment.

Bob: But we are also the giver – that there is always something more.

Jim: We are always incomplete.

Bob: We’re never going to get there.

Jim: Yeah. It’s easy to see how that has driven people to faith in the supernatural. A superpower, someone who is already there. The unrelenting, open question. Let’s have a god who takes care of it. Our daddy will take care of it. Or the president.

Bob: It makes me sad. I still have that wish that there is still something that will make it all okay.

Jim: Aaaaaah. I finally found it. The only thing you find out is that you can’t find out.

Bob: And yet there is a freedom in that.

Jim: Yes.

Bob: I’m curious about what you feel has been most impactful, in your professional contributions.

Jim: I don’t know what to tell you.

Bob: What would you like to be remembered by?

Jim: More legitimacy for the subjective life. At a time when I was most productive, I was always trying to storm the wall of “psychological science”.

Bob: I want to talk about the Association for Humanistic Psychology. You were the first president in 1962, and then you got the Pathfinder Award for your professional contributions over a life time. Could you share your memories of what it was like to form the AHP? What was it like to be the first president? How do you look at the organization and its values now?

Jim: Well, the first thing I realized as you asked the question is how out of touch I have become with it. I do get the Journal, and the Perspective. I skim them. I feel a kind of distant allegiance, but I haven’t gone to a meeting for I don’t know how many years. As for the Association itself, I wish it well. God speed.

Bob: I believe it was extraordinary that you were involved with a group of people – Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Anthony Sutich, and others – who established the re-emergence of humanistic psychology in the United States. I’m curious about the flavor of those times. Were you and the others aware that the AHP would be such a powerful organization for humanistic professionals, and that it would serve as a bridge between the professional community and people from all walks of life?

Jim: No! We were hoping it would survive, let alone have any impact. But that’s a little bit exaggerated because it was pretty clear was going to survive. We had been meeting in smaller groups on irregular schedules, so we knew there was a fair number, 25 to 50 people, who could be counted on to be active. In the earliest years there weren’t very many who would accept that label, “humanistic”. It wasn’t scientific enough for them. As first president, the main thing I was concerned with was to get a structure that would support us, that was a little more stable than the informal meetings that the groupings had been. And to find some way to overcome the width of the continent, because there were clusters – in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and in Boston, and Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri. Early on I wanted to try to get those clusters more involved with each other. And then it was not a difficult job. There was a lot of goodwill and support for it. And being organized made it easier to enlist others. Our big goal was simply to be recognized at that time. The American Psychological Association didn’t have a division of humanistic professionals, nothing like that. The journals were mostly interested in the science – statistics more than anecdote.

Bob: I believe the existential-humanistic values have entered the mainstream more. I still think it has a long way to go, but it has definitely come a long way since the AHP was started 40 years ago. I also believe there is competition for membership now among groups with similar values, such as the Association for Transpersonal Psychology and The Institute of Noetic Sciences. Do you have any thoughts or feelings about the need for the AHP at this point in time? What would be the best purpose for it now?

Jim: I don’t know. I’m not in an active enough role in psychology or in academia to feel I have a good sense of the pulse. I think it might be very powerful to the Association to mount an invitational conference. Not to try to get a huge number, maybe 20 people who influence opinion, to brainstorm those questions. Should we have a dignified funeral for the thing? It’s over, it served its purpose. Or should it be reborn in some other way? It’s important to know where the need is. Or get feedback from different populations, and from your membership, in terms of their needs.

Bob: Perhaps doing a questionnaire?

Jim: Yeah. Are there workshops and institutes now, like there used to be in the summer? This was very effective and met a need when I was active.

Bob: In recent years, there have been fewer of these conferences 1962 – 1996. But AHP is starting up its annual conference again this June at Cal State Northridge, with Stan Charnofsky, past president of AHP, coordinating it.

Jim: I’d also be interested to know what is going on in other organizations. What about psychiatrists, philosophers, cartographers? Is this perhaps something happening in professional organizations generally? Or is it unique to our group? Because the whole social setting has many more competitors for your money, your time, and your loyalty.

Bob: Is what is happening with the AHP reflective of society at large?

Jim: Exactly.

Bob: Well, this interview has been a pleasure, Jim.

Jim: Bob, it has been great.


(c) Bob Edelstein. This interview was published in the February-March 2003 issue of the AHP Perspective.