Buber and Marcel on spirituality

As I have noted, Buber and Marcel have a “remarkable parallelism” and “commonality” between “the basic direction” of their thought and its implications for fashioning a “flourishing” life. In particular, “both thinkers were interested in the question of wholeness, the wholeness of one’s own being and one’s relation to the wholeness of what is” (Wood, 1999, p. 83).23 In Buber, this wholeness refers to the I-Thou relation, an entryway to the eternal Thou. For Marcel, the question of wholeness takes the form of centering on what he calls the “ontological mystery,” an “ontological exigence,” that is, an impulse or urge that is the “bedrock” of the human condition, an irrepressible need, even a “demand” for the presence of being, to say Thou (Marcus, 2013a, p. 66). For Buber and Marcel, wholeness thus suggests a relatively “seamless integration of body, mind and spirit” (Kramer & Gawlick, 2003, p. 99). Marcel clearly defines “thou” as “that which I can involve rather than that which I judge to be able to answer me” (Marcel, 2001, p. 48). Thou is a kind of invocation; it pleads “Be with me” (Gallagher, 1962, p. 25). For both Buber and Marcel, the term transcendence, at least in the full metaphysical sense, designates an otherness, even an absolute otherness.

Spirituality is a very difficult term to define, and there is no agreed-upon definition among scholars that I am aware of. In fact, most definitions of spirituality are only acceptable to their authors.24 My working definition draws from Buber and Marcel, whose definitions are not exactly the same but point in a certain direction, or spiritual sensibility, that I will develop throughout the book, as I use this optic to critically evaluate and enhance contemporary psychoanalysis conceived as a spiritual discipline.

Briefly, for Buber, “spirit” relates to the wholeness of the person; it “is man’s totality that has become consciousness, the totality which comprises and integrates all man’s capacities,powers, qualities,and urges. Spiritual life is nothing but the existence of man, in so far as he possesses that true human conscious totality” (1948, p. 175). However, the mature Buber emphasizes that human wholeness is always merged with the real relationship to other living entities. In I and Thou, for example, Buber notes that spirit in its human expression is “a response of man to his 77îow” (the Other) (1958, p. 39). Thus, wholeness and relation are inextricably connected for Buber (Friedman, 2002, p. 106). Spirit is thus “the word [the relationship to the world] ... the Between binding man to the Other and opening out as a relation to Transcendence” (Wood, 1969, p. 74). “The man of spirit,” says Buber, “is one whom the spirit invades and seizes, whom the spirit uses as its garment, not one who contains the spirt. Spirit is an event, something which happens to man. The storm of the spirit sweeps man where it will then storm on into the world” (Buber, 1957, p. 187).

While never formally defining spirituality, Marcel seems to mean a “spiritual attitude” (Anderson,2006,p. 20),a way ofbeing in the world that is passionately devoted to the intellectual and moral virtues, to Beauty, Truth, Goodness, and Justice, while at the same time being aware of the often conflicted, ambiguous, and ambivalent nature of such a way of being. As Marcel noted,“I wonder if we can define the whole spiritual life as the sum of activities by which we try to reduce in ourselves the part played by non-disposability [indisponibilité, roughly being emotionally unavailable and existentially disengaged]” (1965, p. 69). And again, “I think, that many enjoyments do not satisfy the whole of our being, that is to say our spiritual nature. They only satisfy us on condition that we have already put a great part of ourselves to sleep” (Marcel, 1952, p. 207). Finally, Marcel says that the spiritual attitude is “a spiritual dynamism of a completely different kind whose ground and main driving force is to be found in transcendence” (1964, p. 221).

Thus, Buber and Marcel believe that something like a “spiritual core” is the deepest center of the person (perhaps calling to mind Winnicott’s “sacred core of the personality, the incommunicado self,” Eigen’s “living center” or “spiritual center” (Eigen, 1998, pp. 15, 58, 125) and Loewald’s “ego core” (1962, p. 498)). It is in this domain that the person is open to the transcendental dimension; it is here that the person experiences ultimate reality.This includes the discovery of that core, the dynamics of its development, and its journey to the ultimate goal, however defined (the great religions and spiritualities of the world have magnificently detailed all of this). For a believer, it can focus on prayer and other inspiring rituals, but in whatever form this core takes, it pertains to spiritual direction (more this than a substance or endpoint), the various roadmaps of the spiritual journey, and the methods of progression in the spiritual ascent (Cousins, 1996, p. xii). For Buber and Marcel, all of this is encompassed in their dialectically and poetically expressed dialogical existentialism. They both shunned systematizing their philosophies, while they believed that the spiritual core or interior was the standard and criterion of reality and the external social world—what mattered most—was how this inner truth was enacted in real life, whether the other was honored and affirmed as a unique person (i.e., with openness, reverence and presence).

As I implied earlier, the central notion of the “transcendent” is much debated and hard to pin down. For example, Marcel was committed to what he called the “authentic, vertical transcendent,” that is, “the transcendence, holiness, and sanctity of Christ and the martyrs” (Heffernan, 2017, p. 17). For Buber, it was “spiritual transcendence” with which we can genuinely reside in relationship, that is, there was a concealed power, spiritual in nature, which manifests itself in human life (Atterton et al., 2004, p. 9). Moreover,Judaisms “spiritual vocation” was less a legalistic project, as the ancient rabbis thought, than one mainly defined by a continuing quest to epitomize the ideal human community, that is, to be a “light unto the nations” (Mendes-Flohr, 2019, p. 115). The “nonbeliever” Albert Camus was committed to what has been called “horizontal transcendence” as manifested by charity, humanity, and solidarity (and these valuative attachments were of great concern to Marcel and most “believers”). Thus, for Marcel and Buber, transcendence is rooted in divinity, while for Camus it is rooted in history (Heffernan, 2017, pp. 20,16). Transcendence and spirituality can thus be lodged in a religious or secular framework and sensibility, since for some individuals it is human society and the human being that are the ultimate transcending principle, the “ultimate concerns” (Van Deurzen,

2012, p. 172). The point is that one of the transformative goals of transcendence is to feel and act purposely in relation to what is judged as sacred and, thereby, meaningfully and soulfully rise above the triteness, sham, drudgery, and broken dreams of our everyday lives (ibid., p. 178).25 As I shall point out throughout this book, transcendence is accessed through particular ethically animated valuative attachments in relation to the self, others, nature, life, and for that matter, anything one judges to “really matter” (Elkins et al., 1988, p. 10). The goal of psychoanalysis as I conceive it, at least in part, is to develop in the analysand the will and ability to transform his character so that he can transcend the worst of his outlook and behavior, his way of being-in-the-world, and be and do “better” as he construes it. Such an existential development is correlated with greater autonomy, integration, and humanity'.26

While there are of course exceptions (Eigen, 2012), in general, psychoanalysis has given short shrift to the notion of spirituality per se, especially within the Judeo-Christian tradition (there has been more written on religion, admittedly in ambiguous if not conflated terms). However, Eastern religion/spirituality has been more frequently correlated and occasionally integrated into psychoanalysis, though this still takes in a small number of mainstream analysts who have a serious interest in spirituality (Vaidyanathan & Kripal, 2002, Hinduism; Molino, 2013, Buddhism). And while the Jungian analyst Lionel Corbett noted that “spirituality is no longer taboo among psychotherapists, and the importance of spiritual experience is increasingly discussed in psychoanlaytic writers such as Michael Eigen” (2018, p. 51), I believe it is a reasonable generalization that mainstream psychoanalysis has too frequently provided a superficial rendering of the homo viator and how his spiritual mode of comportment plays out in real life. For example, Stephen A. Mitchell (2002) notes in his book on love that “spirituality has certainly made something of comeback, in the broad spectrum of activities, from yoga to New Age crystals, from meditation to family genealogies,” what he calls “popular spirituality” (p. 25). He does, however, note that these activities “point beyond everyday, mundane reality to something deeper, something transcendent,” but that is all Mitchell has to say about the subject (p. 98). In two recent clinically focused introductory books on relational theory (Aron, Grand, & Slochower, 2018; Charles, 2018), there are no index entries on religion and spirituality, except the aforementioned two-page one on Jung (mainly about the numinous and mysticism) by Corbett in Charles’s anthology'. It should be mentioned that Buber seriously criticized Jung (and Freud) for his psychologism, using a strictly psychological frame and filter for making judgments and evaluations, including about the cosmic. Most importantly, psychologism left out the ontological dimension, the “superpsychic reality” (e.g., God), that “psychic statements ... correspond” (Agassi, 1999, p. 69). Marcel, too, believed that the strictly psychological (and atheistic) observer has no special ability to judge the truthfulness of the theist’s noumenal experiences, that is, he has no epistemic superiority over the other (Hernandez, 2011, p. 45). Moreover, both Buber (Zank, 2006, p. 64) and Marcel (Sweetman,

2008, p. 58) were critical of mysticism (or at least certain forms of mysticism) for a variety of reasons (as was Levinas).