A.J. Deikman: The Observing Self. Mysticism and Psychotherapy.

Reviewed by William Brochs-Haukedal 

This is a book from 1982, and is very well known among humanist and transpersonal psychologists. It presents a perspective on the human mind and mental problems based on mysticism. 

He starts by noting that the psychotherapy in the West is dominated by scientific materialism, which presents a narrow view on consciousness: «Western psychotherapy, in basing itself almost exclusively on the world view of scientific materialism, has impoverished its model of human consciousness and lost the meaning and significance of human life.» p.44. I would say that there have been some movements away from this narrow perspective during the forty years since the book’s publication, but the issue is still valid. The forward, for Deikman, was studying mysticism and look for alternative ways of knowing. The point of this exercise, as I understand it, is for opening up for a model of the self that radically departs from mainstream theories.

The book then delineates the distinction between “the object mode of self” and “the receptive mode of self”. The first of those belongs to Western science and psychology: The self is a viewed as a kind of object localized in the body, separated from all other objects. He further observes that this self serves important survival functions and self-preservation. However, since it is oriented towards controlling the environment it tends to also control consciousness as such. This, he argues, is unfortunate because “we are more than objects and have needs that this mode cannot fulfill.”

Those other needs are the task for “the receptive mode”, and has to do with receiving (as in listening) from the environment rather than operate on it. Here the boundaries established by the object self are counterproductive. Merging with the environment is what is needed, which is based on another kind of consciousness “less discrete, less prominent”. And further: “The separate self dissolves, permitting the experience of connection or merging into the environment. Awareness of awareness becomes possible” p. 71.

As for psychotherapy, Deikman argues the receptive self is of importance for the person’s satisfaction and ableness to enter into emphatic communication.

Deikman then argues that intellectual understanding is no substitute for actual first hand experience. He further points out that the “mystic sciences” have developed techniques for enhancing what he calls “the observing self” (which is the book’s title). This self is the very center of our experience, the core of our consciousness which is not thoughts, feelings, or the functional capacities. It is “behind” or “over” or “under” those, observing their contents and flow. It is the focus of many kinds of meditation and its acknowledgment is one of the goals of mysticism. It is our awareness, constantly monitoring what is going on in our mind. On the other hand, it is also often hidden because we fail to notice it, like fish not noticing the water they swim in.

What has this to do with psychotherapy? It is held that the more prominent the observing self becomes, the less compelling the turmoil of thoughts, feelings, and other cognitions become. Deikman points out that Western psychotherapy (behavior modification “possibly” excluded) actually serves to enhance this particular kind of self, but without acknowledging it. Therefore, it is not made use of in practice or in theory. He argues this important point in detail and makes a good case out of it. At the same time, there has been developments during the years after the book was written, along the lines presented by Deikman. Transpersonal psychology is on the rise, using concepts quite similar to the observing self and more. One of this is Psychosynthesis, which is based in some part on the same thinking as Deikman’s.

The book’s last part is about techniques for developing this “observing self”: Meditation, sufi stories (Deikman evidently was a practicing sufi himself) and other activities along this line.

The book is still interesting and useful reading for psychotherapists working along humanistic and transpersonal ideas, or are at least inclined towards this manner of thinking. 

Arthur J. Deikman: The observing self. Mysticism and psychotherapy. 1982. Boston, Mass. Beacon Press.

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