Psychobiography of James Bugental

By Linda Holt Ayriss (Antioch Seattle)

James Bugental refined the meaning and practice of humanistic psychology to the very essence of living in the moment.   He was known as one of the founders of Existential Humanistic Psychology, also referred to as Third Force Psychology, which provided an alternative to traditional psychoanalytic and behaviorist theories. Simply put, James Bugental lived his approach to therapy. He stated, (1999), ”Psychotherapy is not what you think; it is about how you live with yourself right now” (p. 1).

Developmental History

Bugental was born in 1915 in Indiana. The Depression affected his family who, like so many others, experienced joblessness. For a time, his family lived with his grandmother while his father looked for work in Chicago. In an interview with Victor Yalom later on in life, he described this childhood as forcing him to be more independent than he might have otherwise been.  Bugental reflected that those hard years without an intact family or home demanded that he become a separate person.

He earned a degree at West Texas Teachers College in 1940, winning a fellowship at George Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee. There he graduated with a M.A. in Sociology and began his studies for a Ph.D.  As World War II ramped up, an opportunity became available for a full-time assistant as a professor of psychology and the acting director of the Veterans Guidance Center at Georgia School of Technology.  Drafted into the army in 1945, Bugental was assigned to Lawson Army General Hospital in Atlanta as a psychologist. At the same time he read Carl Roger’s book Counseling and Psychotherapy, which had a profound influence on his future ideas about “person-centered” psychology.

After the war, he received a Ph.D. from Ohio State University, and went on to become a teacher and a researcher in the field of psychological interviewing at UCLA. Between 1953 and 1969 he was a founding partner in Psychological Services Associates, a private clinical practice located in Los Angeles. This private practice offered not only professional support but also an opportunity to compare notes with his colleagues. According to Bugental, there was so little literature available that “all the books on psychotherapy, including psychoanalysis, could fit onto one bookshelf” (Yalom, p. 13). To further the dialogue and education between professionals Bugental and his partners started the Los Angeles Society of Clinical Psychologists in Private Practice.

He went on to serve as the first President of the Association of Humanistic Psychology, the California State Psychological Association, and was a founding member of the Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center.

During the 1960’s through the 1970’s, Bugental was a spokesman for and a teacher of humanistic psychology, and was especially active in local, state and APA professional and academic activities. He published extensively to promote his view of the value of inner awareness. A sample of his best known titles include The Search for Authenticity, Psychotherapy and Process, The Art of the Psychotherapist, and his final book, Psychotherapy Isn’t What You Think. 

James Bugental suffered a stoke five years before his death, which cost him much of his memory, including some of his cognitive abilities. Ironically, his condition embodied his message. “ Without the content of a past or the mental ability to construct a purposeful future to orient him, he was forced–blessed– to find his bearings in the process of the passing present moment” (Bradford & Sterling, 2009, p. 317).  He continued to live and teach his message of being present in the moment with kindness and humor until his death in 2008.

The Practice of Presence in Therapy

James Bugental promoted a humanistic existential psychology that stood for human dignity and continual capacity for growth. His approach to psychotherapy incorporated the humanness of both counselor and client. Introducing the idea of the psychotherapist’s subjectivity or presence, he practiced actively being aware of the moment in an experiential way.  As stated in Psychotherapy Isn’t What You Think (Bugental, 1999):

From Freud on we have been governed by the myth of historic determinism. This implied emphasis on the need to discover what happened in the past has brought us to todays information centered approach. In so much of our work as therapists we tend to get caught up in collecting and disbursing information about the client… What is advanced here is that therapists need to give greater attention to what is, in fact, actual. This means the subjective experience of the client in the moment (p. 258).

Before, and especially after Bugental’s stroke, his personal presence, attentiveness, and concern were vital to his work. When reviewing some of his video clips, what comes across is his humility in the face of his client’s journey.  In assessing the scope of James Bugental’s work, it’s hard to separate the charisma of the man from the therapy offered.

The Search for Authenticity

James Bugental believed the search for authenticity is an ongoing process for the construction of identity. Awareness through psychotherapy involves choice, or “mindfulness.”  Bugental identified the process as a fight for life, as the courage to be true to oneself.  Bradford (2009) described it as follows:

To let go of the habitual moorings of a diminished or inflated or despised self is not always easy, even for those of us desperate to change. To seek authenticity is nothing less than to prepare to die to who we have heretofore taken ourselves to be (p. 321).

Two fundamentally opposite statements drive Bugental’s theory of existentially based psychology. The first is that we are complete as we are, that we have all we need within us to reach our potential. The second is that we are also incomplete as we are, if we block those potentialities. The energy between those two paradoxical points of view creates the opportunity and momentum for change.

Simply said, he takes these opposites and at the point they meet, it becomes the catalyst for self-awareness.

Contemporary Influences

James Bugental was greatly influenced by the writings of Carl Rodgers while serving as a psychologist in the army. Rodgers approach to therapy (Olsen, Hergenhahn, 2011) “involved empathy, unconditional regard, and genuineness are the necessary ingredients for personal growth” (p.457).  Bugental identified with this humanistic psychology and its concern with creating conditions that allow humans to reach their full potential.

It was Rollo May with both his friendship and writings that influenced James Bugental the most. He admired May enough that he submitted at least two of his books to him for criticism. He commented in his own writings on May’s thoughts on intentionality, choice, will, and responsibility. Bugental openly pointed out the similarities between his I-process and May’s concept of centeredness.

As contemporaries from the 1950’s to the 1980’s; James Bugental, Rollo Reese May, Carl Rodgers, George Kelly and Abraham Maslow all contributed to and influenced each other in the field of humanistic existential psychology. Proclaiming that they had (deCarvalho, 1996) defended these existential views long before they had heard European existential philosophy, nevertheless, Kierkengaard, Jean-Paul Sarte and Heidegger had a deepening effect (p.48).

The philosophy of Heidegger supports this. He introduced the term “Dasein”. Brittanica defines this as follows:

It isn’t simply a synonym for “consciousness”, he maintained, but indicates the vital fact that human beings—and only human beings—truly exist, in the fullest sense, only when being-there for-themselves. Properly understood, self-awareness leads to the authenticity of a life created out of nothing, in the face of dread, by reference only to one’s own deliberate purposes (para. 8).

This further refined Bugental’s philosophy that authenticity arrives in the transitory moment of awareness. As Jim put it, (Bradford, 2009) “The journey is the goal” (p.324).

Just as James Bugental had his influences, he was also largely shaped by his equal reactions. His views were in direct contrast to traditional Freudian psychoanalysis. Bugental did paid tribute to Freud for recognizing the role of unconscious motivation and the concept of resistance, but, like most of his colleagues (deCarvalho, 1996) questioned his concepts of the libido; the division of personality into id, ego, and superego; and the ideal of the therapist as a blank slate (p.47).

As a founding member of the Association of Humanistic Psychology, Bugental rebelled against the (deCarvelho, 1996) mechanistic image of human nature and the academic sterility of behaviorism (p.45).

He was particularly outspoken about Behaviorism; going so far as to say that (deCarvalho, 1996) “it carried the name of psychology by mere historical accident.“

Behaviorism (deCarvaalho, 1996) “chiefly served those who wanted to predict and control the behavior of other people for selfish purposes (p.46).  Bugental proposed a humanistic goal for society, one that would enable people to increase their ability to control and predict their own experiences and lives, including resistance to unwanted control” (p.46).  James Bugental championed self-directed control, consistently emphasizing the individual’s right to be trusted with action and choice.

Religious Influences

Bugental was raised with various religious influences ranging to traditional Protestant denominations, to more unorthodox Christian Science and Unity churches. He was quoted in an interview With Victor Yalom (Yalom, 2009) that “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”(p.19).

As a consequence, he found himself drawn to the ideas of Zen Buddhism, embracing this philosophy and incorporating into his practice the ideas of constant change, impermanence, and the practice of “mindfulness.“

History and Culture as Influence

The culture in America in the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s was nothing less than a revolution. As a nation we were examining our feelings about war, sexuality, women’s rights, prejudice, pollution and politics. We were caught between opposite viewpoints in almost every aspect of society. The possibility of a worldwide nuclear war coincided with the peace movement. Jim Crow laws were being enforced in the south while Martian Luther King gave his speech on equality and freedom. Everywhere the status quo was being questioned, and in the duality created, the search for inner awareness was being explored in every conceivable way.

James Bugental reacted to the culture of the 1970’s with nothing less than a manifesto to save humanity. Roy Jose de Carvahlo (1996) in his Portrait of a Humanistic Psychologist states:

Bugental linked the world’s macroproblems (such as threats of nuclear war, pollution, and depletion of natural recourses) to the behavioristic objectification of human beings and suggested the implementation of self-directed control as an alternative for survival and the creation of a synergic society. He believed that civilization was at a crucial juncture; we could destroy our world or set back the course of evolution by centuries (p.46).

In his view of human nature, Bugental believed that with self-directed control through inner awareness, mankind was capable of rescuing their environment and civilization from disaster.

California, where Bugental lived for most of his life, was on the forefront of everything alternative. Acupuncture, hypnosis, and herbal healing were influencing medicine just as he was influencing psychotherapy. The societal emphasis on searching within, living in the moment, and the search for personal expression clearly influenced his Humanistic practice of psychotherapy.

James Bugental was a man of his time.

Conclusion

As a founder of humanistic existentialist psychology, James Bugental reacted against traditional psychoanalysis to concentrate on the subjective experience of the living moment. He was not concerned with what was or what may be, but only with  “the client’s actual in-the-moment experiencing” (Bugental, 1999, p.19). This intense on-on-one relationship between therapist and client in the now was his greatest contribution.

While some of the research and writing were dense and hard to understand, I found some of his writing profoundly beautiful. The whole theory of existentialism is hard to grasp, fleeting at best, like chasing butterflies in the wind.

Pondering that, I realized I understood.

Life is not what you think. Life is.
Life is going on…now.
Life is impending even as I write
And you read. Life is experiencing, but not experience.
Life is not what you think…or what I think…
Life is.
(Bugental, 1999, p. 263)

References

Bradford, K. G. & Sterling M. M. (2009). The Journey is the Goal: The Legacy of JamesF. T. Bugental. Journal Of Humanistic Psychology, 49, 316-328.

Bugental, J., (1999). Psychotherapy Isn’t What you Think: Bringing the Psychotherapeutic Engagement Into the Living Moment. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig.

deCarvalho, R. J. (1996). James F. T. Bugental: Portrait of a Humanistic Psychologist.  Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 36, 42-57. Tucker & Co., Inc.

Heidegger. (n.d.).  In Britannica online encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://www.philosophypages.com/hy/7b.htm#dasein.

Yalom,V. (n.d.). James Bugental on Existentialist-Humanistic Psychotherapy. Retrieved from http://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/james-bugental

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