James Bugental on Existential-Humanistic Psychotherapy

James Bugental on Existential-Humanistic Psychotherapy

by Victor Yalom
The late existential-humanistic psychotherapist James Bugental reflects on his life and work. His insistence on therapist and client presence predated the current interest in mindfulness and psychotherapy.
In This Interview…


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The Interview

Victor Yalom: I'll get this started with the question you always ask: are we live or are we on tape?
James Bugental: Good question. Now, can we edit the interview?
VY: I'll have someone type this up, and then I'll e-mail it to you, and then you can look through and see if there's anything that you don't like or things you want to change, and I'll honor whatever requests or deletions you have. It will be a joint project.
JB: And this is not on video, so I can be as sloppy as I'd like.
VY: Sure. And thanks for reminding me I want to get a couple of candid photos of us to put on the website, before we stop. I recall when we made the videotape of you, "Existential-Humanistic Psychotherapy in Action." In the introduction you started off by pointing out the actual reality of the situation—that even though you were doing a real session with a client, you wanted to acknowledge that there were other people in the room influencing the situation, the videographer, and the sound crew, the lighting, etc. It reminded me of your maxim "Everything is Everything,"—that is, we must take into account the real context of any situation.
JB: It's astonishing to me even now how often people join in a conspiracy to deny that there's a camera or a camera crew—that it doesn't count.
VY: The reason I mentioned this is I wanted to acknowledge the context of our interview, and recall that that video project was the genesis of Psychotherapy.net, which we're just launching; and I've invited you to be the first featured therapist of the month. For that reason, and also because you've had such a profound impact on my life personally and professionally, I thought it was suitable that you be the premier therapist of the month.
JB: I feel that with real appreciation.
VY: So you wrote a new book, another book, this one called Psychotherapy Isn't What You Think. Tell me about that title.
JB: What do you think it is?
VY: What do I think the title is?
JB: Yes, or what do you think psychotherapy is, either way you like.
VY: What do I think?
JB: Uh-huh.
VY: I'd like to hear from you about that title.
JB: Well, I think—see how that word just pops up over and over. What's that word doing in there? Why do I put it in? Well, I think I put it in, see, that's the way, sort of crossing your fingers, saying: Don't hold me to it too tightly; I'm tentative; I want to see what I say, how it sounds and whether I want to stand behind it. And so much in our personal intercommunications is of that order.

VY: Hedging our bets?
JB: Yeah, by not putting all our chips on it. And so much of our lives we live that way: I had my fingers crossed, it didn't count. Think of all the different ways in which we say we're living tentatively for the moment.
VY: What do you think you're getting at with that title, Psychotherapy Isn't What You Think?
JB: See, that's what I was just answering when I took you on this little side trip about thinking and so on. What we do is tentative, we don't want to be held to it too tightly, and particularly in the therapist's office we need to be free to sort of speculate, to think, but not commit. But also we need to know there is a difference. Psychotherapy isn't what I think. It's what I live, when it's the best—when it's the psychotherapy you really want to believe in.
VY: In this book and in your previous one, you attack a lot of the fundamental, the traditional thinking about kind of a logical, or as you say a "detective" or problem-solving approach to psychotherapy.
JB: The whodunit school of psychotherapy.
VY: Then what should psychotherapy be?
JB: It's the pursuit, it's the process of always leading somewhere beyond to somewhere fresh.
VY: And making that process fresh?
JB: Yeah. Well, you, I'm sure, like me, sometimes you get into a rut with a patient; if you listen for some time you realize you're stuck in a familiar pattern, and that pattern is what you think, not what you live. That's why it's so important to feel alive in the therapeutic hour, to be aware of what we're living in the actual moment.
VY: When you look back in your life, what are the things that have really helped you become more alive?
JB: That's a tough question.
VY: Well, the reason I ask is that the thing that most impresses people about you when you're talking about or demonstrating psychotherapy, is not just the concepts you espouse about being alive and being present, but how you put these principles into action, how you embody them. So I'm wondering....
JB: How did I get there?
VY: Sure, maybe how you got there. What do you think helped you with that?
JB: That's an intriguing question. Let me chew on it a minute. Well, I'll tell you some of the things that come to mind. I don't know whether they're a complete answer. My parents were for some time very into Christian Science, Unity viewpoint, all those sorts of things, quasi-religious I guess you'd call them. Very well-intended and not without merit, but for me it seemed that we were just saying the words. I'm sure this happens in any religious system. You say the words in the absence of genuine presence to the words. I don't want to just indict Christian Science. It has many good things, and other things have similar sets of words, all of which is often very benign, even useful. But somehow the magic, the dynamic has slid away from the living experience of the person, and become words.
VY: Which for you weren't truly alive?
JB: Well, for me, and I think for many others. But I don't even want to make that sharp a distinction between saying the words and what is truly alive. I think it's a gradient.
VY: But you started upon this topic in explaining how you got to be more alive.
JB: Good point, thank you. Now right there is an example of what I teach about psychotherapy: by bringing attention to my process, you helped me stay with what's more alive right now.
VY: I've learned a few things from you.
JB: Thank you, that moves me. It's so hard as a human being in an interaction with other humans to be open, to receive and give communication without some of the communication replacing the living. Does that say it? You know what I mean.
VY: Yes, yes.
JB: I think being alive involves constantly finding a balance for being in and out of relationship. Being in front of an audience, boy! it's easy to get sucked totally out of full aliveness. You complimented me a minute ago that I often can be alive, but I have to be wary because, once I step away from myself and realize "Hey, I'm doing it now," then I'm already not doing it. It's a very slippery slope.
VY: But sometimes you can revel right in the moment, being self-aware, and at the same time appreciate what is happening.
JB: That's right, and that's the best countermove. You know, when I step out of myself to comment on it, that can be losing my footing or regaining it.
VY: I'm going to ask you the third time, Jim. Can you think of what are some things that have helped you personally to become more alive, more embodied?
JB: My experience with the quasi-religious sects that my parents were in and....
VY: S-e-c-t-s?
JB: S-e-c-t-s (laughter). Well, let's play with that for a minute because I think in sex you have the same thing, in physical, bodily sex—that if you're feeling very sexy, if you start trying to talk about it, and describe it, there is one point at which it augments the excitement, and then another point at which it dampens the excitement. That's really an intriguing thought, isn't it?
VY: Are you avoiding talking more about yourself personally, or do you just keep getting sidetracked?
JB: I feel these were very personal things I just said.
VY: No.
JB: No?
VY: Oh, they are, but not in terms of my original question of what do you think helped you to become more alive or embodied. You mentioned Christian Science. Are you implying you reacted against this, and were propelled to find another way?
JB: Rather I would say, the various kinds of religious, quasi-religious, semi-religious experiences I have been exposed to have helped me tremendously to experience the difference between the word, the information, and the living experience.
VY: So early on in life this is something you were very aware of, this distinction?
JB: No, not very early on. I would say about high school. By that time I was beginning to be aware of it. It wasn't a sudden boom; it was a very gradual process. I suspect it's still going on in a way. I don't suspect, I know that's so, now that I say it.
VY: You've focused so relentlessly on this topic of presence and the importance of the human subjective experience for the last 40 years or so.
JB: If you don't have presence, what have you got? What are you working with?
VY: You're preaching to the choir, of course. I'm convinced that this is important, but I'm wondering if you have some sense of why this particular topic held such a grip on you.
JB: Well, I think that goes back to things like the quasi-religions. I don't know why I keep insisting on putting "quasi." They are religious groups.
VY: What's held your interest and fascination with presence for all these years?
JB: My reaction when you ask that is: Without that, what have we got? I'm surprised how can you ask that question. Without that it's all mumbo-jumbo, or - what comes into my mind - you know when you get a package, it's got these little plastic things that fill it in so the contents won't break.
VY: Styrofoam peanuts?
JB: Yes. Without that we're reduced to Styrofoam peanuts to subsist on.
VY: I can see in your facial expression that presence is just as important to you right now as it has been for the last 40 years.
JB: I'm not sure if I can quantify it like that.
VY: In either case, it's still very important.
JB: Very important, oh, yeah. What have you got if you don't have presence?
VY: Styrofoam peanuts?
JB: Exactly, and too many therapeutic interviews are filled with Styrofoam peanuts. Don't you think?
VY: Yes.
JB: But sometimes you do depend on those peanuts. I wouldn't get rid of them.
VY: I've often had the impression that for you living through the Depression profoundly impacted your life.
JB: True, absolutely right.
VY: Anything more about that?
JB: It's such a broad question, I don't know. Let me think just a minute. See, so many of my formative years as one approaching adulthood...
VY: How old were you...
JB: I was just trying to think of that.
VY: ...during the Depression?
JB: Well, 1929 was the crash. In 1929 I was what... 13, 14 but we didn't feel it totally for several years. Let's see, when was my brother born? I don't remember. He's nine years younger, so he was born by that time but was very small. And for a while my dad couldn't support us, so we went to live with my mother's mother.
VY: Where was that?
JB: In a small town in southern Michigan, Niles, Michigan. That was important, first not having Dad there. Dad's a whole other chapter, a whole other story. But, second, because it was a small town. Mother gave piano lessons and that brought us a little income, and then she got a job playing in the movie theater.
VY: Playing the piano or organ?
JB: Playing piano, and also she took organ lessons and played organ for the Catholic Church I think when their organist was ill, and that brought in some money. I always remember that the movie theater where she played most, once in a while I could slip in and sit on the bench with her while she played, and that was fun, you know. And she just improvised as she watched it. Sometimes it came with suggestions for the pianist.
VY: She'd improvise to the movie?
JB: Yes (laughter). And I'm not sure this is true - you know how some memories you're not sure about - but that was the movie that also had—oh the name just slipped past me, "Flaming Youth," or something like that. It had scenes about bad young people who danced and pulled their skirts up and things. It was sexy in a very cautious way, but you might even see the girls' thighs or something. But I never got to go sit on the bench when that was playing, although I was always trying to. Frustrating. Maybe Mom wouldn't have let me. Those were times, perhaps because my grandmother was such a dear lady, who pitched in and supported us for a while but who was a very staunch Methodist or Baptist or Presbyterian, one of those, in a way that my family was not. And she was amazingly progressive about my not going to Sunday school every Sunday. I went a lot of times, though.
VY: How do you think the Depression impacted you—then and later on in your life?
JB: Oh, God, so many ways. The splitting up of the family, the whole family for a while, and then when we finally were able to get back together, that was such a wonderful thing. Not without its problems, though. When we first went back, you know, we went by train, of course, in the coach in the cheapest way, and it was three days and two nights, or something.
VY: That's from Chicago?
JB: No, we went to Chicago and then out to California. Dad had come out here to L.A., and so Mom packed food in a basket and we ate sandwiches and whatever she'd put in the basket. When the train was in station, she ran off and got some more supplies, and then we were sleeping in our seats, of course, and it was a big adventure. Also in the car with us were a couple of advance men, I guess they were, for the L. G. Barnes' Circus, and I got acquainted with them and they were young, and I don't remember much detail except they were very friendly to me. I think of those times with sadness and with joy. There was lots of both, and I think what it did, thinking more in terms of your question, I think those times demanded that I grow up in some way, not be so dependent as I might otherwise have been. Dad wasn't there, Mom had her hands full trying to earn some money and take care of my brother, who was much smaller, and be there for me as well.
VY: Just the two of you?
JB: The two boys, uh-huh.
VY: No girls?
JB: No girls. But what it did was—I never thought of it quite this way—it demanded I be a separate person, more than if the family had been intact and in an intact home. One thing that helped very much was Boy Scouts, after we came to California. Let's see, you had to be 12 in those days to join, and I was born in 1915, so that would be 1927, actually 1928. And I had read novels about Boy Scouts and studied about them, and, oh, I was so eager for that. Now, what was so big about that same time was doing papers. I sold papers on the street corner.
VY: Where?
JB: In Lansing.
VY: Michigan?
JB: Uh-huh. And that was good. I earned practically nothing, I know now...
VY: How much would you make?
JB: Well, they were daily papers so we sold them every day, and my guess is I might make 50 cents, but that's only a guess. It wasn't any big money. After we came to California I had a paper route, bigger stuff, regular. Had to have a bicycle, which I loved. Oh, I loved my bike.
VY: Did you have enough to eat?
JB: Yeah. Sometimes it was scrimping, and I vaguely knew in the back of my mind that my mom wasn't taking as much, that she was shorting herself some. Hard times. Dad always had such grand plans, and they mostly didn't pan out, you know. But I learned from him optimism because he'd bounce back wonderfully. The only thing, sometimes he'd go off on a binge and get drunk, and he wasn't mean but he was unavailable.
VY: Do you think the deprivation or fear of the Depression lingered with you and impacted you later in adulthood?
JB: I'm sure it did, yeah.
VY: How so?
JB: Well, to always be concerned about income, and my earnings from my paper route sometimes helped us tie over. Both of my parents felt bad about that, and Dad went back to Chicago, didn't come to Michigan because he and Grandmother didn't get along very well. But he gradually was able to earn more, send us some money, until we finally could come to California. That wasn't the end of the money worries, though. There were federal projects, you know. I can't remember the details now. He did some things on a work project, and Mom did some teaching on a federal project. It's so amazing looking back how kids can know and not know so much of what's going on with the adults.
VY: Despite that economic uncertainty, you chose to go into psychology, which I imagine was by no means a guaranteed income in those days.
JB: Well, actually, it was pretty good. Now, we came to California about 1931, and 1932, I guess, was the Olympics in Los Angeles, and I got a job as an usher, and that was neat.
VY: Do you remember anything from those Olympics?
JB: Oh, yes.
VY: What stands out?
JB: Well, the first thing to pop up was not really because of the Olympics. There used to be, every year - I guess it was called the Electrical Parade. All the major movie studios would have floats, and there were marching bands from USC and UCLA. And I guess PG&E, maybe, and some other industries would have floats. The thing I remember most about that [laughter] was that the studios, the big movie studios often had floats with maybe a Grecian scene, or something, with starlets or would-be starlets with very little clothing on them.
VY: You keep getting back to that.
JB: Yeah, keep getting back to that. I always loved that. And the ushers would always get people seated, and then when the parade came and when those floats came in, we all got down in the boxes and looked up [laughter].
VY: So you'd get the good view?
JB: So we would get the good view.
VY: Those seem to be the memorable moments in your life?
JB: That's one of the memorable moments (laughter). And also I guess there was a flood. I think it was in the La Crescenta, Cucamunga area, and I went up there with a group of boys and we helped people dig out or helped them in various ways, and I was beginning to feel some authority because as an older boy they reported to me, and I worked with the officials. That's a little more grandiose than it was. I might have said "Hey, Kid, have you got anybody that can run an errand?" and so on.
VY: Do you remember the first client you saw?
JB: Oh, you're jumping way ahead. Am I taking too long?
VY: That's okay.
JB: Don't hesitate to tell me. I'm enjoying reminiscing. Let's see. Got through junior college, worked some, I can't remember doing just what now. Oh, I worked for the Bank of America Trust and Savings Association, which we called Bank of America Mistrust and Slaving Society. That taught me I didn't want to stay in the banking business. And then in the meantime, I'd say about 1935, I got married. No, it would be later than that, early 1940s. I got married to a girl I'd been going steady with since junior college. In the meantime, we both graduated from junior college and she went to UCLA. Her family had more money so they could do that. I worked, and now I can't unwind it all, too many strands all mixed in. Anyway, she was from Texas, that was it, and at some point her family invited us to come back there, and a distant cousin was the Registrar at Western State Teachers' College. He said "We can get you in here." My grades were not good enough to get a scholarship, I'm sure, but somehow or other I got in and finished up my last two years of college in one calendar year, by taking extra courses and so on. And then I did well enough to get a scholarship to Peabody—do you know Peabody?
VY: In Georgia?
JB: No, in Nashville, Tennessee. It's now affiliated with the Vanderbilt University School of Education. It had a long, excellent history, particularly in psychology. Names we don't hear much any more: Garrison and Boynton and so on. so think we were getting support from my wife's family, we must have been. Oh, by that time I had been in and out of the Army, that's right, so I had the G. I. Bill. I was only in the Army, God, I don't know - 11 months, 13 months, right around a year.
VY: Did they send you anywhere?
JB: Virginia. In the meantime we moved to Atlanta. I don't know just how that came about now, but I got to know the chief psychologist at the Army Hospital there, and so when I went through my training he requisitioned me. I went through basic and I was assigned there, and had the great fortune to be put with a Gray Engleton, who had been for many years a psychologist in the New York City schools. Gray, I remember him. He was such an encouraging, sponsoring, teacher. He opened up my whole vista on what a psychologist was and what they could do.
VY: You're getting emotional when you talk.
JB: Yes, I do.
VY: What's the feeling?
JB: It's hard to identify. It's sadness, great appreciation for him. He opened a door that I didn't even know existed within the practice of psychology, what it means to be a psychologist.
VY: You were in the Army then? If you hadn't met him, you might not have become a psychologist?
JB: No, I'd already taken my Master's in psychology, but I might not have taken the path that I did, I don't know. Someplace in there my second child, James, was born, and the war ended. Without trying to detail just the sequence, the thing was that with two children and having a year of service, I became eligible for discharge. I don't know, something about that—I don't think it was the discharge. It was the change in my life. In a relatively short space of time, five years - I'm just grabbing the number, it's not precise at all- my whole vision for myself, my whole vision of what was possible, what the world was going to be, radically changed. I began to think I wouldn't have to be a salesman like Dad, that I might be able to do something more. I always wanted to be an author, to write fiction. Well, I'm getting too caught up in details here.
VY: No, not at all.
JB: That's okay? And then I got discharged and went back to Georgia Tech to the counseling center; but in the meantime a former professor of mine at Peabody, had become the director of the counseling center, and with his encouragement I began casting around and looked for fellowships and scholarships or something. Ohio State accepted me, and I liked Carl Rogers, who was there, and it sounded like the place I should go, so, without worrying about the details, I accepted that, and we moved there.
VY: You entered the PhD program?
JB: Um-hmm, and we moved to Columbus, Ohio, even as Carl Rogers was moving to Chicago. So instead of studying with Carl Rogers as I intended, I found I was with George Kelly, and it was the luckiest break of my life. No, not the most, but one of them. George is not well known but he was a splendid teacher, encourager, and he'd brought Victor Raimey, another name you probably don't know, but Vic was one of Rogers' Ph.D.s and was at the University of Colorado. Vic was so encouraging. I was his first graduate student, his first doctoral candidate. Let's see, I passed all the tests the night before.... what? I don't remember - before something or other, maybe passing my orals, that was it, and I guess somehow we were in a celebratory mood and Victor came by my house and picked me up and we went out, and he got drunk and I had to take care of him (laughter). But I was his first candidate, and it was too much for him, I guess (laughter). Oh, he died too soon. Nifty guy. I had my basic degree by that time. New Ph.D.s in Clinical were very sought after and you could almost name your school, and name your price within reason, and UCLA meant coming home in a way, so I took UCLA. And the rest is history. Why did I go through this whole thing? What did you ask me that set me off?
VY: I asked you if you remember your first client.
JB: My first clients were counseling clients, some who we really did brief therapy with, though we didn't know it by that name then, but therapeutic counseling. I set up the counseling center at Georgia Tech—no, not Georgia Tech, but UCLA - I don't know. Anyway, I found I loved to do that.
VY: Despite that and your desire for economic security, you did the bold thing, quitting a tenured position at UCLA?
JB: That's right.
VY: To go into clinical practice, whatever that was.
JB: Al Lasco, do you know Al? He and Glen Holland and I were all teaching at UCLA, and we started a practice on the side, Psychological Services Association. Good academics that we were, we'd have regular staff meetings, and we'd study books together, sometimes bring people in to teach us. It was a very rich diet, out of which we all three eventually left UCLA and developed our practices.
VY: I've heard you say that at the time all the books on psychotherapy, including psychoanalysis, fit onto one bookshelf.
JB: Oh, yeah. Not even a full shelf. I can't remember them now, but there were a couple from the twenties that still had some currency, and of course Carl Rogers' books, a couple of those, and just one or two others. There just was hardly any literature in the field.
VY: Were you aware of being real pioneers?
JB: Yeah, to some extent, uh-huh.
VY: Exciting?
JB: Oh, yeah, yeah. And a lot of support, too. Not only the two people in practice with me, but at that time we were starting the Los Angeles Society of Clinical Psychologists in Private Practice. There was another group practice, three guys that we had very congenial swapping relations with, and then maybe a half dozen others in town in solo practice, most of them having some other connection, as private practice wasn't supporting them solely. But rapidly that changed and new people came in. LASCPIPP, that's it, Los Angeles Society of Clinical Psychologists in Private Practice, and it's still very much in existence. And there's the Southern California Psychological Association, which overlaps with them.
VY: Any memories that stand out of a particular client you'd like to share just as you were kind of learning how to do this thing called therapy?
JB: Also a guy I'd known in high school, we'd been in high school together, was a psychiatrist, and I think he was in training analysis, and we got together and I used his office some and he gave me sort of coaching. I don't know whether we ever had a formal supervisory relationship. I don't think so, but just sort of coaching and he taught me about some of my work and he'd tell me about some of the things that he was learning, and that was very helpful. My whole understanding of the phenomenon of resistance traces back to Jerry Saperstein. I'm moved now and I can't think quite why. We weren't big buddies or anything, we were just good friends, our paths only sort of bumped together for a while, but it was congenial.
VY: Are there some moments with clients that stand out when you look back and think: Here's where I learned some important things about therapy?
JB: There are a number of them. There was Mildred, who was an older woman, who—how would you characterize Mildred? Very needy. Looking back I know how much I fostered her need. I needed her to need me, and I think I did a lot to help her, but I didn't do much that was forward looking. I didn't know about that even. I gave her support. It taught me a very important lesson, not just to soak in positive transference, not just to feed it and feel that everything's going great.
VY: What about the therapy with her helped you learn that you needed to do more than support? Did you get to that point with her where you started to do more?
JB: Oh, yes, and she fought it, hated it, and then I'd slack off. I think the thing I learned most importantly was that it's not too hard to get a positive transference if you don't keep setting limits and having a formal sense of what you're doing. It doesn't have to be stiff and distant, but just yielding to the neediness of the client is not therapy, and I'm afraid that's a lesson many of us have to learn probably not just once. I struggled with that a lot.
VY: Therapy isn't what you think.
JB: You got it [laughter]. Now where do you want me to go from here?
VY: Before we move on, you said several came to mind that you thought of, clients who have helped you learn about what therapy is.
JB: I mentioned Jerry teaching analytic concepts and particularly about process as opposed to content, one of the most fundamental things I learned. Oh, someplace in there I went into analysis myself. That was a very important learning experience, five times a week.
VY: How so?
JB: Oh, the analyst I had, and I think many others too are very disciplined, very formal, and somehow in that respect very evocative. I know many new therapists are hesitant to be formal and disciplined and so on, feeling that they will drive the client out, but that formality, those limits, actually can encourage intensity. That was an important discovery.
VY: What did you learn about yourself in psychoanalysis?
JB: About myself? I think I learned my neediness, my emotional neediness, and how important it was to not suppress it but give it some structure.
VY: We all have a lot of neediness.
JB: Structure and ethics, because I think one of the most important things for a therapist to learn, and one that I worry that too many of our younger therapists don't get to understand, is the reciprocal relationship of affect and form.
VY: What do you mean, they don't understand? What don't they understand?
JB: That affect itself, the display and release of it....
VY: Catharsis?
JB: Yeah, catharsis unbridled is not psychotherapy. Catharsis bridled—the bridle is a good metaphor because you steer with it. Catharsis bridled is a powerful therapeutic vehicle. It's not therapy, it's a vehicle for therapy. Emotional discharge is incidental to therapy, not prerequisite for therapy, but without structure affect is counter-therapeutic actually.
VY: You don't really believe that affect is incidental? Don't you need to get to some point of strong affect?
JB: Oh, sure, but affect with structure. Affect provides the engine, but the engine doesn't know where to steer.
VY: I'd just to like shift for a final part to taking a look at where you are in your life now. A lot of the theoretical existential literature talks about death, death anxiety, and how it impacts one's life. You're getting old.
JB: I used to just have great terror around death.
VY: Yeah?
JB: Oh, yeah.
VY: When was that?
JB: At a guess, I'm saying the 1940s and '50s—that's a guess. Probably when I was in my thirties and forties. That's not very precise. Just god-awful. I couldn't breathe.
VY: You were worried about dying?
JB: Not about dying. About oblivion, nothingness.
VY: What do you think that was about, looking back?
JB: It was about oblivion and nothingness [laughter]. I think that's what it was about. It was about confronting how limited is our knowledge and our purview, about confronting that finally I had the Ph.D. and I'm a psychotherapist and I'm the president of this and something of that, and I don't know where the escape hatch is. I'm still going to die, and I still don't know what's happening to me. I think that's finally the existential reality coming home, and I didn't welcome it.
VY: And now?
JB: It's funny, no not funny, but in an odd kind of way those things are still true. The feeling I'm discovering even as we talk is very difficult to put in words. What comes to mind though, is a celebration of the not knowing. That's got too many overtones that I don't want, but it's something like that. It feels right that I don't know. I hate it that I don't know, all at the same time.
VY: It's not terror then?
JB: Not terror. But I can see terror back of it a ways, like it's waiting, it might come back. But there are other things in back, too, so I don't think I'll just be captive of it.
VY: You complain about your memory a lot.
JB: That's a pain in the ass. If you press me on what year was that, or where were you living at that time, or informational, factual, objective information, I just can't do it.
VY: But right at the moment you're still very lucid and present?
JB: Yeah, that's the saving grace.
VY: Maybe letting go of that helps you to be even more present?
JB: Oh, I think, yeah, very definitely. If I grapple with that, I'm not present. I'm off in a private wrestling match.
VY: Any awarenesses about life....
JB: Endless.
VY: ....that you could share with me that will save me a little pain?
JB: Nope. That's one important awareness!
VY: What are you going to do the rest of the day?
JB: Well, probably I'll alternate between trying to find my desk under all these things—I know it's there and I remember once I saw it. And who know, I may play with an idea for a new book.
VY: Good luck.
JB: Thank you
VY: I'll take a couple of photos.
JB: Okay. I haven't shaved or anything. Is that all right?

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James Bugental James F.T. Bugental, PhD (1915-2008) was a leading spokesman for existential-humanistic psychotherapy since the publication of his ground-breaking book The Search for Authenticity. He followed with classics such as Psychotherapy and Process, The Art of the Psychotherapist, and Psychotherapy Isn't What You Think. Recipient of numerous awards, and influential trainer to thousands of psychotherapists, he truly made a substantial and enduring contribution to the field of psychology.

See all James Bugental's videos.

Victor Yalom Victor Yalom, PhD is the founder and resident cartoonist of Psychotherapy.net. He maintained a busy private practice in San Francisco for over 25 years, but now sees only a few clients, devoting the bulk of his time to creating new training videos for Psychotherapy.net. He has produced over 100 videos, conducted workshops in existential-humanistic and group therapy in the US, Mexico, and China, and currently leads consultation groups for therapists.  More info on Victor and his artwork and sculpture at sfpsychologist.com.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Explain the importance of working with the present moment in therapy
  • Discuss the relationship between structure, limits and the exploration of affect in therapy
  • Explain how Bugental's formative life experiences influence his therapeutic work

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here