144 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56
© 2017 by the American Counseling Association. All rights reserved.
Recovering the Original
Phenomenological Research Method:
An Exploration of Husserl, Yoga,
Buddhism, and New Frontiers
in Humanistic Counseling
Fred J. Hanna, Brett D. Wilkinson,
and Joel Givens
✦ ✦ ✦
Phenomenology has been widely misunderstood since it transitioned from philosophy into
counseling. Phenomenology is the study of consciousness to achieve knowledge and insight
using Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological reduction. Transcendental aspects of this method
are better understood by comparisons to Asian mindfulness practices. The phenomenological
reduction should become a distinct counseling research methodology.
Keywords: phenomenology, research methods, mindfulness, Buddhism, yoga
✦ ✦ ✦
The term phenomenology is relatively common in the behavioral sciences
(Hays & Wood, 2011; Matheson & Rosen, 2012; Stanghellini & Lysaker,
2007). Phenomenology appears in the disciplines of counseling, psychology,
psychiatry, social work, and couple and family therapy, and yet the
meaning and use of the term are virtually unrecognizable when compared
with its original meaning in philosophy. Edmund Husserl’s (1913/1931,
1964a) original intention as the founder of phenomenology was to break
free of the perennial limits of subjectivity and so arrive at the common,
universal ground of human experience. Whereas the qualitative method of
phenomenological inquiry in counseling research seeks to highlight general
patterns and broad variations across individual interpretations of particular
subjective experiences, Husserl had a far more profound purpose in mind:
the fundamental understanding of human consciousness itself.
Fred J. Hanna, Department of Counselor Education and Supervision, Adler University; Brett D.
Wilkinson, Department of Professional Studies, Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne;
Joel Givens, Department of Counselor Education, Adams State University. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Brett D. Wilkinson, Department of Professional Studies, Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne, 2101 East Coliseum Boulevard, Neff Hall Room 250M, Fort Wayne, IN 46805 (e-mail: email@example.com).
Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56 145
Husserlian phenomenology is an attempt to develop a researcher’s ability
to attain a level of seeing that penetrates the curtain of everyday appearances,
known as the natural attitude, so as to arrive at things as they are
in themselves (Zahavi, 2005). Husserl (1913/1982) believed that he had
developed a methodology—the phenomenological reduction—designed to
bypass the obstacles that keep one from “pure seeing” (Husserl, 1964b)
of phenomena (see also Heidegger, 1972). The application of this method
allows phenomenologists to view virtually anything with a refined state
of consciousness that results in more clear, unbiased perception. The
“phenomenon” in this context could be a physical object, concept, mental
image, being, entity, process, or relationship. Phenomenology is thus
meant to illuminate the foundations of human experience by providing
a research method for exploring how human consciousness engages the
world (Zahavi, 2005). In a striking parallel, yoga and Buddhism are characterized by their
methods and means for attaining intuitive knowledge through the application
of consciousness, leading beyond language and beyond subject or object distinctions. Of course, yoga in this context does not refer to the currently popular physical practice of assuming various postures
(i.e., hatha yoga) but actually has to do with specific mental practices designed to increase and enhance consciousness and awareness. Contrary to popular thought, yoga is a primary source of psychospiritual practices for Hindu beliefs in general. It is also widely accepted that the Buddha practiced yoga and then incorporated it into Buddhism after his enlightenment, along with additional practices that he himself designed, such as mindfulness (Rahula, 1978).
Yogic and Buddhist methods have much in common with phenomenology and have many parallels with the phenomenological method (Hanna, 1993a, 1993b, 1995; Puligandla, 1970; Sinari, 1965). All are dedicated to the acquisition of knowledge, including intuitive, transcendental knowledge. Husserl’s chief interpreter, Eugen Fink (see Spiegelberg, 1982), once remarked to Cairns (1976) that Buddhist meditative practice is much the same as the phases of the phenomenological reduction. An example of this could be the Buddha’s teaching that there is no such thing as a self. The Buddha attained great certainty on this point (Pandita, 1991; Rahula, 1978), and it is quite possible that he did something similar to Husserl’s reduction in arriving at this conclusion. In this article, we intend to show the value of phenomenology as a means of attaining knowledge of the self, world, and consciousness. Its universality and multicultural relevance are evidenced through its alignment with the goals and methods of yoga and Buddhism, two respected Asian disciplines of knowledge acquisition and psychospiritual insight. We present the practice of phenomenology as a path to personal growth and transformation that might also prove to be of particular significance to humanistic counseling 146 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56
professionals and researchers. Finally, we suggest that Husserl’s original methodology, the phenomenological reduction, be integrated as a valid form of qualitative research in counseling and the behavioral sciences, which, to our knowledge, has not been previously suggested.
THE RELEVANCE OF PHENOMENOLOGY FOR HUMANISTIC COUNSELORS
Humanistic counseling was heavily informed by philosophical thought at its origin, drawing as it did from the continental philosophies of phenomenology and existentialism (Hansen, 2012). There are indeed important differences between phenomenology and humanistic counseling, particularly related to their methods. Whereas the phenomenological method seeks to examine the structures of human consciousness (Zahavi, 2005), humanistic counseling methods are used to reinforce the inherent value and rights of human beings (Brady-Amoon, 2011; Ratts, 2009). However, such methodological distinctions should not needlessly obscure their ideological similarities.
Husserl (1936/1970) was deeply concerned with preserving the tenets of humanism and believed that the phenomenological method should be used so as not to lose sight of the humanistic aspects of science. In some ways, the guiding impulse of humanistic counselors to value clients and to work toward expanding client self-awareness and presence might be said to reflect Husserl’s notion of transcending the natural attitude. Yet a basic misunderstanding of phenomenology in counseling circles persists. Although this may be in some part attributable to the density or inaccessibility of many philosophical texts and concepts, it is also quite reasonable to suggest that the term phenomenology has been unduly equivocated with subjectivism in the behavioral sciences. Arguably, it has been oversimplified to such an extent that few counselors would see any real need to study the philosophy further. We suggest that this problem arises directly from the manner in which humanistic psychology misappropriated the term phenomenology by mistaking the study of structures of conscious experience for the study of particular individual subjective experiences. As suggested by Giorgi (2009), “simply trying to understand the world of the other would not be sufficient in and of itself to warrant the label ‘phenomenological.’ How that world is studied matters” (p. 173).
In shifting away from psychoanalytic and behaviorist frames of reference, humanistic psychology sought to revive the value and importance of subjective human experience (Hansen, 2012). Carl Rogers took his phenomenological perspective from the works of Snygg and Combs (1949) into phenomenal field theory, which defines the self in terms of individual subjective experience. Rogers (1961/2012) thus held that the phenomenological perspective corresponds with the “client’s frame of reference” (p. 125), and his psychological interpretation of phenomenology highlights the inner, subjective experience of the individual. However, Snygg and Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56 147 Combs (1959) later replaced the term phenomenological with perceptual, a decision that reflects the important distinction between the mere study of how individuals experience or understand the world and the rigors of Husserl’s phenomenological method (Giorgi, 2009). So there is both a serious methodological difference and a notable similarity of purpose between phenomenology and humanistic counseling. The
same could be said about the relationship between mindfulness practices
and humanistic counseling. There is ample room in the evolving counseling
dialectic to bring Husserlian phenomenology into the fold, just as
Asian mindfulness practices have been. There is also reason to believe that
humanistic counseling can benefit from an apt reintroduction to phenomenological
thought. With this in mind, we seek not only to describe how
phenomenology can inform counseling research, but also to clearly show
how seemingly intractable philosophies such as phenomenology, yoga,
and Buddhism are akin in their practices and in alignment with humanistic
principles. We now turn to a review of the methods and interconnected
practices of Husserlian phenomenology, yoga, and Buddhism.
THE VALUE OF PURE SEEING IN PHENOMENOLOGY,
YOGA, AND BUDDHISM
Husserl’s first writing on the subject of phenomenology (Husserl, 1964a)
presented it as a method based on what he later called “the principle of
principles” (Husserl, 1913/1931, p. 51), specifically, that pure consciousness
could provide rigorous, reliable, intuitive understanding at an ontological
level. Reliably attaining such a level of pure consciousness required the
development of a methodology that would lead phenomenological practitioners
beyond the natural attitude, which consists of subjective preconceptions
and assumptions imposed on individuals by such dynamic forces as education, culture, family, and beliefs, thereby coloring and influencing
all that they experience. Husserl also referred to the natural attitude as the
psychomundane attitude, claiming that individuals are entrenched by it and
within it. Husserl’s phenomenological method is thus a set of practices for
the refinement of consciousness into a pure seeing that can take one beyond
the natural or psychomundane attitude.
It is common knowledge in philosophy that Husserl’s work exerted
a profound influence on continental philosophy in the 20th century,
and existentialism in particular (Collins, 1952). In Being and Time (Heidegger,
1927/1962), one of the most influential texts in 20th-century
philosophy, Heidegger acknowledged phenomenology as his method
of research into metaphysics and the nature of being (Heidegger, 1972).
In his essay “My Way to Phenomenology,” Heidegger (1972) also acknowledged
Husserl while referring to his own research approach as
“phenomenological seeing” (p. 78). In addition, Heidegger claimed that
the phenomenological approach to knowledge could lead to the “end of
148 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56
philosophy” (p. 71)
insofar as phenomenological seeing has the potential
to take researchers beyond the limits of mere calculative or deductive
reasoning by means of intuitive, nonrational (as opposed to irrational),
contemplative thought processes.
In terms of Asian philosophy, Husserl (1989) was not only aware of
Buddhism but also characterized it as a transcendental practice similar to
his own phenomenology as a means of seeing. In this context, Buddhist
mindfulness meditation practice bears much resemblance to phenomenological
seeing (Felder, Aten, Neudeck, Shiomi-Chen, & Robbins, 2014; Hanna,
1993a). Indeed, mindfulness practice is much the same as the practice of
the phenomenological reduction, including the necessary step of moving
back or detaching from the phenomenon under study (Hanna, 1993a). The
active ingredient here is consciousness in the form of confronting an issue
(see Hanna, 2002). With regard to counseling, it has been long recognized
that numerous trademark therapeutic techniques such as systematic desensitization,
thought stopping, and changing beliefs have been used by
Buddhist monks for 2,500 years (DeSilva, 1984, 1985; Mikulas, 1978, 1981).
As Puligandla (1970) and Sinari (1965) pointed out, the phenomenological
method also has much in common with the yoga meditation practice
known as samyama. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the major source on yoga
psychology (see Aranya, 1983; Feuerstein, 1989), samyama is extensively
used to bring about existential and psychospiritual changes through the
application of pure consciousness. It is essentially a three-stage method of
meditation consisting of dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, roughly translated as
concentration, contemplation, and realization. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali
presented samyama as being used not only for the acquisition of knowledge
but also as an application for achieving self-development and liberation
of the mind and spirit. Part of the yogic approach to freedom and liberation
was its dedication to helping its practitioners refine consciousness
by outlining a highly phenomenological conception of psychopathology
that can be alleviated through yogic practices that reduce certain flaws of
character through meditation (Hanna, 2011a, 2011b).
CLARIFYING THE PURPOSE AND PRACTICE
OF THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL METHOD
As previously noted, when phenomenology transitioned into behavioral
sciences research, it became synonymous with subjectivity. Although
this was the precise condition that Husserl was seeking to move beyond,
phenomenology thus became confined to the very meaning that it was
seeking to escape. In the context of Husserl’s phenomenological method,
research is done by a phenomenologist within the field of his or her own
consciousness and experience. It was never meant to be done in its current
form, by an interviewer consulting with a group of individuals for the
purpose of examining their experience; seeking themes across particular
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events, relationships, or types of experience; and trying to find subjective
commonalities. The Husserlian conception of phenomenological research
is radically different from qualitative phenomenological research in its current
form (see Hanna & Shank, 1995; Moustakas, 1994; Polkinghorne, 1989).
For Husserl, research was done by the researcher into phenomena themselves.
In fact, Husserl’s (2000) motto, “back to the things themselves” (p.
168), was a call for philosophers to conduct research into the phenomena
of the world, mind, and social contexts. This was to be done in the context
of consciousness and the principle of principles: that the intuition
generated by the application of pure consciousness is a reliable source of
knowledge and understanding. Husserl (1910/1965, 1936/1970) went to
great lengths to show how this approach was well within the context and
domain of science. For example, Husserl used his method to study time
as a phenomenon unto itself, and how it manifests in human experience.
As a report of his research, he published The Phenomenology of Internal Time
Consciousness (Husserl, 1964b), in which he provided extraordinary insights
into how people experience the phenomenon of time.
In an important treatise on phenomenology in the behavioral sciences,
Jennings (1986) outlined how phenomenology in philosophy is distinctly
different from the meaning assigned to it in the behavioral sciences. Whereas
phenomenology in philosophy involves exploring the nature of consciousness
and essential knowledge, the behavioral sciences view phenomenology as
the study of subjectivity and therefore regard it as empirically unreliable.
This reductionistic viewpoint is a consequence of a pervasive naturalistic
interpretation, that is, that all phenomena are subject to the laws of nature
and should be studied using experimental methods (Jennings, 1986). The
behavioral sciences thus depict consciousness as a neurobiological phenomenon
that obeys the natural laws of the physical world and should
only be studied by empirical means.
Phenomenology, on the other hand, regards consciousness as both a kind
of being that is distinct from the natural laws of the physical world, and the
medium through which essences are made manifest. Husserl (1929/1977)
specifically said that consciousness is “not a piece of the world” (p. 26).
Phenomenology takes the perspective that if there is no consciousness then
there is no knowledge of the existence of any world, empirical or otherwise.
In a sense, the world begins with consciousness and it is thus necessary to
study it, especially when conducting empirical research (Husserl, 1936/1970).
Insofar as the behavioral sciences tend to mistake conceptual interpretations
for acts of consciousness, the phenomenological method can instead
be used to expose the fundamental nature of psychological concepts before
empirical studies are conducted (Jennings, 1986).
If the radical reinterpretation of phenomenology as a form of subjective
inquiry were an improvement, perhaps there would be less reason
for concern. But in the process of overlooking the true meaning and
intention of phenomenology, much was lost in the way of knowledge
150 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56
and phenomenological access to knowledge that might otherwise be
quite valuable to counseling and other behavioral sciences (e.g., see
Hanna, 1991; Puhakka & Hanna, 1988). As we show by exploring the
phenomenological method in detail, the subjectivist interpretation of
Husserlian phenomenology is an oversimplification (Jennings, 1986;
McCall, 1983). Once the method itself has been explicated, we will return
our attention to defining how phenomenology, yoga, and Buddhism all
serve as refined practices of focused consciousness and mindfulness.
EXPLORING THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL REDUCTION:
HUSSERL’S RESEARCH METHOD
Husserl (1913/1931) was adamant that “transcendental phenomenology is
not a theory” (p. 13) but instead the practice of a research method called the
phenomenological reduction. The phenomenological reduction is so central
to Husserl’s philosophy that he asserted that if one does not understand
the reduction, then one does not understand phenomenology (Spiegelberg,
1982). As described by Husserl (1913/1931, 1913/1982), the phenomenological
research method involves a series of three steps, usually outlined as (a)
the epoché, (b) the eidetic reduction, and (c) the transcendental reduction
(Kockelmans, 1967). In each case, sustained and focused awareness directed
on the experience of consciousness is the primary means by which research
is conducted. To understand Husserlian phenomenology, it is necessary to
grasp how Husserl was exploring consciousness itself.
The term reduction is not used in the sense of reductionism but rather in
the sense of stripping away extraneous or tangential characteristics of the
object of the reduction—within the natural attitude—to discover its true
nature or essence. With regard to the reduction as a research method, Husserl
(1964a) stated, “Every intellectual process and indeed every mental process
whatever, while being enacted, can be made the object of a pure ‘seeing’ and
understanding” (p. 24, italics in original). In that same work, Husserl noted
that a successful phenomenological reduction involves “as little interpretation
as possible, but as pure an intuition as possible” (p. 50). Heidegger
(1972) described the process differently, claiming that phenomenology
allows the concealed truth of a phenomenon to reveal itself, calling this
aletheia, or “the unconcealedness of what is present” (p. 79). Although
Heidegger believed the reality of things are hidden behind appearances,
such appearances likely constitute the natural attitude.
In the epoché, a “bracketing” is done on the everyday phenomena of the
world known as the natural or psychomundane attitude. This step is crucial
and yet, in our experience, requires an extraordinary degree of discipline
and training. Bracketing can be understood in the context of suspending,
or stepping back from, without invalidating one’s cultural, familial, and
educational preconceptions and assumptions about a phenomenon. These
preconceptions and assumptions make up the natural attitude of the
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everyday world, concealing or distorting the true nature of both the object
of the reduction and the world in general. As described by Heidegger
(1971), “Everything that might interpose itself between the thing and us in
apprehending and talking about it must be set aside. Only then do we yield
ourselves to the undisguised presence of the thing” (p. 25). Phenomenological
researchers must dedicate time and energy to appropriately perform the
epoché, as this is the vital first step toward attaining pure seeing.
The eidetic reduction takes place as consciousness penetrates to the essence
of an object, being, or phenomenon. This is often quite difficult to describe,
as this essence is usually beyond the capacity for descriptive language to
capture, grasp, and contain. For example, in doing the reduction on the
phenomenon of love, it may be that language cannot fully convey the
feeling of love that one holds for another, be it a lover, child, or friend. Yet
it may be possible to arrive at its essence, even if beyond words, by the
continuous application of focused awareness on the phenomenon of love
itself. As William James (1890/1981) noted long ago, experience is prior
to language. Of course, if someone is intensely focused on a loved one but
is unacquainted with phenomenology, he or she may arrive at the same
point of insight without any formal use of the reduction. In this sense, the
reduction can be quite a natural process.
The eidetic reduction is also achievable with basic phenomena such as
objects, but it is more difficult to do so. This is because the process involves
empathy, and Husserl (1913/1931) occasionally used the term empathy to
describe the process involved in the use of his method. Husserl served as
teacher and dissertation chair for the philosopher Edith Stein (1989), who
was intrigued by Husserl’s ideas on empathy in the phenomenological context
and completed her dissertation on this phenomenon. An early feminist,
Stein’s dissertation is believed to be one of the first treatises ever written
on empathy. Along these same lines, Alfred Adler (1956) also believed that
empathy can be experienced toward a wide range of phenomena, including
both inanimate objects and animals (see also, Hanna, 1996a).
Finally, the transcendental reduction could be called the full escape from
subjectivity into the radical realm of the intersubjective beyond categories of
subjective or objective. If there is little that words can capture in terms of the
eidetic reduction, language is even less useful in this nearly ineffable realm.
This is not to say, however, that efforts toward accurate description should
be abandoned entirely, of course. Husserl believed that phenomenological
researchers should make every effort to accurately describe their intuitive
encounters with the world and then compare notes with each other (see
Bartlett, 1986, 1989). This requires staying outside the natural attitude with
a minimum of interpretation, staying as close to description as possible.
A major purpose of phenomenology in Husserl’s view was for phenomenologists
to attain the transcendental reduction—beyond the limits of
mere subjectivity—and then share and compare intuitions brought back
from the experience. Not surprisingly, the transcendental has remained a
152 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56
mystery even to dedicated phenomenologists, as Husserl believed it was
impossible to describe the transcendental reduction to those who had not
performed it (Spiegelberg, 1982). Unfortunately, with the probable exception
of Heidegger in his own way, phenomenologists mostly parted ways with
Husserl at the transcendental turn (Spiegelberg, 1982). It is somewhat ironic
that Husserl (1936/1970) often noted that the transcendental reduction was
the ultimate source of all knowledge—subjective and objective—bringing
the so-called objective world “back into the absolute sphere of being” (p.
189) in which it ultimately exists. As such, the prospective value of this
method for self-development and research should not be dismissed.
THE NATURE OF SELF: CONNECTING THE
PHENOMENOLOGICAL REDUCTION TO MINDFULNESS
Husserl and the Buddha both had remarkable and unique views of the
nature of the self. To grasp the depth of this connection, it is helpful to
understand the nature of mindfulness and its similarities to the phenomenological
reduction. It is reasonable to suppose that their respective views
of the self were formed from the application of their respective methods.
For the Buddha, it was the application of mindfulness, presumably done
under the legendary Bodhi tree where he achieved enlightenment. It was
there, according to the legend, that the Buddha realized the extraordinary
insights that would become the fundamentals of Buddhism. For Husserl,
it was the application of the phenomenological reduction, which has been
established as remarkably similar to mindfulness (Hanna, 1993a, 1993b).
In another context, a powerful ingredient of therapeutic change that has
much in common with mindfulness is called confronting the problem (Hanna,
1996b, 2002; Hanna & Puhakka, 1991). In the use of all such methods, a
concentrated, steadfast, deliberate focusing of attention on a phenomenon
reveals insights into its true nature.
A fundamental doctrine in Buddhism is that there is no self. In the original
Pali language (a variation of Sanskrit), this is called anatta. An important
step in understanding Buddhism, especially the original Buddhism of
Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka, is to see that the self is an illusion with
no basis in fact (Rahula, 1978). The philosopher David Hume (1738/1978)
came to much the same conclusion in his explorations. Of course, the mind
is filled with many thoughts, feelings, habits, and opinions, but the Buddha
proclaimed that there is no actual self to be found therein. However,
he also claimed that the knowledge of anatta must come from meditative
experience (mindfulness) rather than accepting the doctrine through faith
or the study of texts alone. The Buddha clearly encouraged mindfulness
as a source of self-knowledge.
With regard to the self in phenomenology, Husserl was dedicated to
the exploration of consciousness and came to discover what he called the
transcendental ego. However, he made it clear that this is not the ego or self
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that has been taught in psychology but rather transcendental consciousness.
Husserl (1929/1977) declared, like the Buddha did, that “There is no
psychological ego” (p. 26). He also made it clear that the psychological
ego or self has no ontological foundation. In other words, it is not real.
Similar to a Buddhist perspective, Husserl (1913/1982) reported that the
transcendental ego is “completely empty of essence-components, has no
explicatable content, is undescribable in and for itself: it is pure Ego and
nothing more” (p. 191). Husserl (1913/1931) also held that the pure ego is
so transcendent that “no reduction can get any grip on it” (p. 214). Husserl
and the Buddha appear to have both arrived at the same level of experience,
but after emerging from this rarified realm, they described their observations
using different terms grounded in their respective cultural worldviews.
For Husserl, his examination of consciousness was so thorough and relentless
that at the core of consciousness he discovered not an individual,
but other people. He called this transcendental intersubjectivity, an important
part of his philosophy (see also Hanna, 1996a). For Husserl (1936/1970),
it is not just that people are all connected, but that “souls themselves are
external to one another [only] in terms of their embodiment” (p. 228).
Husserl (1936/1970) came to experience “a sole psychic framework, a total
framework of all souls, which are united not externally but internally . . .
through the intentional interpenetration which is the communalization of
their lives” (p. 155). Transcendental intersubjectivity is not a theory. It is a
realization due to the practice of the phenomenological method.
The Buddha would have had little to say about phenomenological intersubjectivity,
as he refrained from engaging in any sort of metaphysical
speculations (Murti, 2003). His concern was not cataloging knowledge,
but liberation and the end of suffering (Pandita, 1991; Silananda, 1990).
Metaphysical speculations are mostly associated with later schools of Buddhism
that are considered part of the Mahayana tradition. The Vijnanavada
school (also called Yogacara), for example, held that there is nothing other
than consciousness (Shun’ei, 2009). Such metaphysical speculations clearly
align with Husserlian phenomenology. However, the basic methodological
processes at work within the phenomenological reduction remain fundamentally
akin to those mindfulness practices cultivated by the Buddha,
despite terminological variations.
PHENOMENOLOGY, YOGA, AND BUDDHISM AS
PATHS TO TRANSCENDENTAL INSIGHT
A reasonable question arises as to whether it is possible to understand what
Husserl was trying to accomplish in regard to the transcendental reduction.
We believe it is indeed, and that light can be shed on this mystery by
exploring important connections between the transcendental reduction in
Husserl’s phenomenology and the practices of yoga and Buddhism. Each of
these disciplines has a long tradition in which their transcendental aspects
154 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56
are largely acknowledged, accepted, and explicated. Furthermore, each has
important counseling implications in terms of mindfulness practices and
therapeutic change (Hanna, 1993b, 2002). While phenomenology may not at
first appear to be in the business of self-development or therapeutic change,
quotes from Husserl indicate his belief that both Buddhism and phenomenology
can bring about significant personal growth and transformation.
In his short treatise on Buddhism, Husserl (1989) spoke of Buddhism
thus: “This manner of seeing the world means a great adventure” (p. 367).
In his preface to the first English edition of Ideas (Husserl, 1913/1931), he
spoke of phenomenology in much the same tone, saying that the practice
of phenomenology leads to “the trackless wilds of a new continent” (p.
15) and “infinite open country” (p. 21). He later wrote that the practice
of the reduction enhances one’s inner life and reveals “a possible selfexperience
that can be perfected and perhaps enriched, without limit”
(Husserl 1929/1977, p. 29). Additionally, Husserl maintained that practice
of the transcendental phenomenological method brings about “a complete
personal transformation” quite comparable to a “religious conversion”
(1936/1970, p. 137). “Every new piece of transcendental knowledge,” he
said, “is transformed by essential necessity, into an enrichment of the human
soul” (Husserl, 1936/1970, p. 264).
Considering the gravitas of these statements, one should not be surprised
by Husserl’s assertion that perhaps philosophy was originally intended
to explore these realms but never did. This is an important consideration
insofar as Husserl (1936/1970) noted that the practice of phenomenology
and any resulting shift to the transcendental standpoint lead to “the greatest
existential conversion that is expected of mankind” (p. 137). Elsewhere
he called this event a “Copernican reversal” (Husserl, 1913/1931, p. 22).
These are strong words, especially in comparing the impact of transcendental
phenomenology to that of no less a figure than Copernicus. It was
clear that Husserl meant this in the context of both a transformation in the
discipline of philosophy and its tremendous impact on the people who
practice transcendental phenomenology.
If, as it appears, the practices of yoga and Buddhist methods for achieving
knowledge and transformation are indeed similar to that of the practice
of transcendental phenomenology, then it is not surprising at all to find
them having similar effects. It is quite possible that transcendental phenomenology
might lead to mystical realizations. The mystical element of
phenomenology has been a scholarly topic for many years, although mostly
in regard to the philosophy of Heidegger (1927/1962). Caputo’s (1986)
The Mystical Element of Heidegger’s Thought is a comprehensive treatise on
Heidegger’s connection with Meister Eckhart, Taoism, Buddhism, and
Hinduism. However, contempt for mysticism in philosophical circles of
the early 20th century surely would have prevented Husserl from claiming
such a parallel. Many phenomenologists have resisted the comparison of
transcendental phenomenology to anything mystical (Spiegelberg, 1982).
Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56 155
Yet the mystical connection is not something to ignore or dismiss. Cairns
(1976) once heard Husserl claim that “whole pages” of the writings of the
renowned German mystic Meister Eckhart “could be taken over by him
unchanged” (p. 91). Unfortunately, Cairns did not provide any further details
on this intriguing statement. Husserl (1964a) himself once stated that
to understand the intuition of pure consciousness and how it is beyond
thought, one should “hark back to the speech of the mystics when they
describe the intellectual seeing which is supposed not to be a discursive
knowledge” (p. 50). The transcendental reduction bears a quite striking
resemblance to Asian methods that are also designed to move beyond
CLINICAL APPLICATION OF THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL
REDUCTION AND MINDFULNESS TO ANXIETY
We now turn to a very different type of example of the use of the phenomenological
reduction: making use of focused awareness or mindfulness
meditation. In so doing, we will address the commonly reported emotional
problem of anxiety (see American Psychiatric Association, 2013). In Western
culture, anxiety is usually regarded as distasteful, irritating, and disturbing.
It is a common reason for people to seek therapy. People often try to deal
with it by “drugging it,” either legally or illegally. Alternatively, people
may attempt to “cope” with it by getting involved in shopping, sporting
events, television, the Internet, or other diversions. The first author has
taught many people to deal with anxiety by directly meditating on it, staying
with it, and “riding out” threatening feelings and thoughts in order to
fully experience and observe them. This method involves sticking with the
technique in spite of typical feelings of falling apart, intense discomfort,
the urge to scream, and so forth.
Remarkably, when this technique is done over a period of hours (not
necessarily in one sitting), the anxiety begins to transform. Eventually, it
starts to lose its intensity, and if the process is continued it becomes boring.
If the process is continued from there, the anxiety is transformed into
feelings of peace, acceptance, and even serenity, with the anxiety no longer
present. The likely realization that accompanies this phenomenon is that the
anxiety is “empty” or that it is “just a feeling” that is subject to change like
so many other feelings. This application does not guarantee that one will
never again have anxiety, but we have found that after having completed
this technique one is unlikely to ever be intimidated by the feeling of anxiety
again. We venture to say that in this technique we see the convergence of
meditation with the phenomenological method.
The technique was actually described by Heidegger (1929/1975), who stated
that the process leads to transcendence. Several of us have tried this direct
concentration and mindfulness approach on anxiety and found ourselves
in agreement with Heidegger. We believe the technique to be altogether
156 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56
extraordinary in its results. And again, this technique has been taught to a
variety of people, nearly all of whom experienced the same results. However,
it is difficult to explain to people how or why this would work unless
they have done it for themselves—just as in the case of the transcendental
reduction. As an experiential process of sustained concentration on one’s
own consciousness, conducting the phenomenological reduction is not
only a challenging task but a difficult experience to explicate. However, we
maintain that through a combination of direct practice and collaborative
exploration, it is quite possible to use it in counseling.
RESEARCH APPLICATION OF THE
PHENOMENOLOGICAL REDUCTION ON EMPATHY
The methodological framework for applied research would require participation
from a number of coresearchers who are sufficiently trained in
the phenomenological method. Such training is highly experiential rather
than conceptual because the method itself requires ongoing practice. It
also requires that the coresearchers have the intuitive ability to clearly
articulate their own experiences using descriptive terms, as well as the
intellectual capacity to apply abductive reasoning, or logical inference
(Hanna & Shank, 1995). The ability to identify and “set aside” or compartmentalize
preconceptions and assumptions, to remain wholly focused on
the experiential elements of the phenomenon under investigation, and to
avoid the pursuit of categorical truths are all necessary attributes of the
trained phenomenological researcher. In terms of the process of assessing
coresearcher results, the lead researcher conducts individual interviews
in which distilled elements of the phenomenological investigation are
examined with intensive detail.
The phenomenological investigation would require choosing a particular
phenomenon to study and then having each coresearcher report his or her
experience of the epoché, eidetic reduction, and transcendental reduction
so as to compare notes, as intended by Husserl (see Bartlett, 1986). Take
empathy, for example. In researching the phenomenon of empathy, the first
step would be to identify one or more specific mental modes of experiencing.
Because empathy occurs in a variety of conditions or situations, the
researcher must define a single or even a set of situational conditions. For
instance, the researcher may choose to focus on empathic perceptions of a
client (i.e., empathic perception of the other), one’s own perceived empathic
experience of a client within oneself (i.e., empathic perception within the
self), or even one’s sense of how empathy influences the broader counseling
relationship (i.e., empathic perception of the self–other dyad).
Next, any number of methodological options exist for the researchers to
investigate the phenomenon. One controlled experimental method might
involve having all of the coresearchers observe portions of a counseling
session video in which a counselor clearly displays empathy for a client.
Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56 157
Another controlled method might involve priming empathy with a particular
clinical vignette or case study, and having the coresearchers evaluate one
or more sections to determine variations in empathic experience. Either of
these approaches could be completed independently by the coresearchers
before the results are evaluated, or during a group session at which time
all of the results are compiled simultaneously. However, the chosen approach
could also involve less controlled methods, such as using in vivo
experiences in which coresearchers examine their own empathic experiences
with clients within counseling sessions, or otherwise independently
observe audio or video in vitro after those counseling sessions. Creativity
may be the only limit in devising a workable approach to any given phenomenological
In the epoché, the particular situation or instance of empathic experience
includes tangential characteristics that must be bracketed. In pursuing empathic
perceptions of a client, for example, one must suspend extraneous
content of the immediate experience. This includes withholding all preconceptions
(e.g., the client is depressed), assumptions (e.g., the client feels
unheard), and judgments (e.g., the client must learn to not blame others). In
the eidetic reduction, the phenomenon of empathy subsequently emerges
as an isolated experience, free of conceptual and theoretical abstractions.
It might be described as an immediate cognitive insight into the actual
perceptual experience of the other, an extrapolation of imaginary scenes
drawn upon from the experience of the other, or a felt sense experience of
emotional understanding of the other. More likely, it could be something
far richer in substance or more profound in psychological insight. Movement
may also occur, back and forth, between epoché and eidetic reduction
as unessential characteristics emerge or are otherwise revealed in the
With regard to the transcendental reduction, there is no telling what
might arise. At this juncture, only broad speculations will suffice. Husserl’s
view on transcendental intersubjectivity might be affirmed insofar as the
outcome reveals that empathy is indeed a primordial characteristic of the
ontological interconnectedness of human beings. However, other possibilities
could arise instead, such as empathy is a transitory experience of
ontological connectedness that can be manifest at will, or that it is merely
a form of inductive reasoning used to support communication despite the
basic ontological disconnectedness of human beings. In any case, the eidetic
and transcendental reductions combine to provide a uniquely descriptive
account of phenomena under investigation. If a series of studies were to
confirm (see Stein, 1989) that empathy comprises the immediate intersubjective
“givenness” of others rather than being an inferential process derived
from subjective experience, then the implications for continued research
efforts and the training of humanistic counselors could be profound.
Regarding the outcomes of the studies themselves, completion of the
phenomenological reduction brings one back to the naïve world of the
158 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56
psychomundane with a renewed sense of understanding and insight that
penetrate the natural attitude. Results will vary according to the level of
training of the phenomenological investigators, the particular identified
mental object of experiencing, and the chosen method of investigation.
As an abductive process, the phenomenological method is a qualitative
and exploratory approach that seeks to arrive at a posteriori hypotheses
rather than to confirm a priori suppositions. There is no way to determine
the outcome until the phenomenological method has been used and the
results have been compared. A pure description of phenomenological
seeing, without reference to abstractions or theoretical constructs, is the
ultimate objective. Counseling techniques might be derived from the process,
as might be new training techniques that reflect insights drawn from
the experience of exceptionally empathic coresearchers into the nebulous
phenomenon of empathy. In the end, we have come to believe that Husserl’s
method allows access to domains of human experience in a manner
that is not to be found in any other current method of research.
There are several limitations that arise when considering how the phenomenological
method might be introduced as a research method in humanistic
counseling and the behavioral sciences. The first is with regard to the
challenges inherent in using the phenomenological reduction itself. Going
well beyond current qualitative approaches that emphasize individual
or personal interpretations of subjective experiences using thematic and
textual analyses (Creswell, 2012), Husserl’s phenomenological reduction
requires extraordinary focus, continuous refinement through practice,
and a willingness to explore the underlying tenets of phenomenology.
The method is experiential rather than theoretical, meaning that the phenomenological
reduction is a methodological process vastly different from
discussing phenomenology in conceptual terms. It involves the inwardly
directed examination of preconceptual phenomena, a rigorous task not to
be taken lightly.
Second, results of the transcendental reduction are highly difficult to
describe, as the experience moves the researcher beyond language to a
level of experience that transcends subject–object distinctions. The degree
of ambiguity between psychological aspects of the eidetic reduction and
intersubjective aspects of the transcendental reduction means that their
distinctive features can only be delineated through immediate experience.
Phenomenological research, like the study of mathematics, may require skills
and understanding that are not possessed by just anyone who decides to
become a researcher. To become a legitimate, bona fide humanistic counselor,
having a master’s degree in counseling is a necessary, but not sufficient,
condition. The same premise applies to conducting the phenomenological
reduction. Having said that, however, there is evidence that descriptive
Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56 159
language of such subtle and ethereal experience need not be a daunting
problem if research is conducted rigorously enough (Yaden et al., 2016).
A third limitation relates to training methods. For researchers to do the
kind of investigation demanded by phenomenology, rigorous training in
executing the phenomenological method would need to be provided. A
formal procedure for such training would likely require the documentation
of various methods and skills necessary to do this kind of research.
One of our broader aspirations in writing this article is to draw attention
to, and so to spur interest in, the merits of the phenomenological method.
The development of a rigorous phenomenological training approach will
likely require the combined efforts of many researchers and practitioners,
each providing their unique perspective on the various challenges and
opportunities afforded by such a training process. While such a task may
appear daunting to some, we find the prospect exciting and hope other
humanistic counselors will as well.
In this article, we have attempted to show how the original meaning as well
as method of phenomenology deserves a renaissance. We have also tried to
show how phenomenology’s transition into the behavioral sciences resulted
in a loss of considerable magnitude, due to its being confused with and
relegated to subjectivism (Jennings, 1986). However, more was misplaced
than just the original meaning of phenomenology. The phenomenological
reduction, along with its attendant insights into the nature of consciousness,
was lost as well. Although phenomenological studies have become a valid
and accepted methodology in the array of research methods found under the
general heading of qualitative research (see, e.g., Creswell, 2012; Moustakas,
1994; Polkinghorne, 1989), this form or expression of phenomenology is but a
shadow of the original. We believe the phenomenological reduction deserves
a niche in the current array of qualitative methodologies insofar as it can
uniquely contribute to both the knowledge base of humanistic counseling
and the professional development of humanistic counselors and researchers.
The unique capacity for phenomenological methods to enhance personal
development should also be noted. Husserl designed the phenomenological
method to provide experiential knowledge and insights that are
not only informative but also transformative. In this respect, Husserlian
phenomenology aligns with the goal of heightened conscious awareness as
found in Asian philosophies such as yoga and Buddhism, as well as in the
humanistic work of Abraham Maslow (1968, 1971). Seldom in the history
of counseling and behavioral sciences has a research method aspired to
bring about personal transformations that are enriching or self-enhancing
and can result in existential conversions of great magnitude. Nonetheless,
in our experience, these claims seem to be quite accurate. The restoration of
Husserl’s phenomenological method has the potential to take counseling to
160 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56
new heights as a conduit for acquiring knowledge that enhances not only
one’s quality of understanding but one’s quality of being as well.
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