The Observing Self

The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy
Arthur J Deikman M.D. 1982

With this latest read I hope that it is apparent that I have moved into a strange and eclectic realm of my 2011 book challenge. I’m currently reading a few things on my shelf that I never thought I’d get around to reading but couldn’t bear to part with because some part of my former self felt that these books were worth hanging onto.  I recall picking up The Observing Self at a used bookstore around 10 years ago during a low period of my life when I was searching for something to fill a spiritual void with some answers I knew not the answer to.  The title seemed curious enough to peak my interest and on my shelf it went, but as life and my reading pursuits would have it, purchasing the book was the only effort I put towards Deikman’s work until most recently.

Deikman has put together a concise and thorough evaluation of the mystical tradition with a psychoanalytic edge.  Part of his theory/argument/teaching is that prior to the development of psychotherapy as a tool for improving mental health the mystical tradition served the people as an outlet for exploring their emotional/spiritual needs.  As the modern age has changed the way that people live we have become less trusting in the mystical tradition in favor or the scientifically “proven” techniques of psychotherapy.  However, these two practices need not be divorced in our minds as they so often are for psychotherapy is far less “scientific” than we would like to presume and mystical practices do promote a process of learning and development that is far more scientific in practice that we could imagine.

Although Deikman does lean heavily upon “Eastern” mystical traditions such as Buddhism to express his teaching, to be clear, for Deikman, mysticism does not equate religion.  No single religion offers the perfect path to spiritual purity and Deikman generously includes plenty of references to Christianity, Judaism, and Sufism in his explication of the mystical tradition.  Mysticism is a practice outside of religion that aims to seek a state of purity with awareness that “the pure state is temporary, but the one who has known it can expand his comprehension of life and undergo a personality transformation.” (35) Those outside the mystical tradition are unable to achieve the benefits of this state of purity because “most people are ‘asleep’ because their consciousness is taken up with automatic responses in the service of greed and fear” (39)

The theories of emotional, social, and moral development are used by psychotherapists to assess, diagnose, and treat their patients, however these tools are better serviced through an alignment with the above mentioned concepts of spiritual awareness with the theories of human development studied by the likes of Piaget, Erickson, and Kohlberg.  In my opinion Deikman is at his best in his ability to align the concepts of the transition from childhood to adult development with mystical awareness of self.  Deikman explains that in early development the individual is self-centered and less aware of the Self’s relation to others because the self is focused on survival and “survival requires manipulation of the objects needed for survival” (72) and thereby is more oriented to that which pleasures the self, such as physicality.  “Initially the object self is necessary for psychological as well as physical survival.  Indeed, failure to establish a sense of one’s own boundaries leads to retarded development and psychosis.” (71)  However, psychoses can also develop if the individual fails to move beyond a physical-oriented awareness because “it is reasonable to assume that our actual experience of the world changes as we grow older because we attend to different aspects of it; different dimensions of reality occupy our attention.” (76).

In my reading I found myself becoming more aware and forgiving during my nursing practice with patients that are anxiety-prone, or demanding because I feel that I have become more aware of the limitations of others sense of self-awareness.  Such an awareness has provided me with an ability to be more patient and capable of asking questions of my patients that better address the root of their anxiety or concerns rather than address the symptoms of that anxiety.  Well, at least I like to tell myself as such.

Anyhow, the following quote from Deikman’s book  best describes my ever-developing perception of spiritual connectedness and for this quote alone I am glad to have read The Observing Self:

“Mystics insist that there is a Self, unmasked by ordinary consciousness, unbound by space and time, that can be both individual and universal – as with the wave that exists and then merges completely with the ocean from which it has never been separated and whose substance is its own.” (65)


About hardlyregistered

The meandering observations of a 30 something guy.
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One Response to The Observing Self

  1. Pingback: It is Finished | HardlyWritten

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