Existential-Humanistic Therapy & the Middle Path

Existential psychology represents a middle path in psychology. In many ways, this becomes one of the defining strengths of existential thought. What is curious, though, is that this middle path is often seen as radical in the world of Western psychology which too often is focused on extremes. This brief essay will explore the value and changes of this middle path reflected in existentialism.

Where Existentialism Deviates from Humanism, Positive Psychology, and Transpersonal Psychology

As argued elsewhere on this web site, existential therapy shares a great deal with humanistic psychology, positive psychology, and transpersonal psychology. However, it also stands strongly against many of the trends seen with these fields of thought.

Each of these three similar traditions brings ideas that strengthen existential thought. Existentialists generally share with the humanists the valuing of people and being human. It also shares the quest for what it means to be human or to exist. Existentialists share with positive psychology concerns about the field of psychology’s excessive focus on diagnosing what is wrong and focusing on the problems with human existence. Many existentialists share with the transpersonalists interest in the spiritual and metaphysical realms, though some existential thinkers about the metaphysical references.

Humanistic psychology, positive psychology, and transpersonal psychology share with the existentialists a desire to bring these neglected aspects of existence into the light and forefront of psychological thought and inquiry. However, the existentialists often voice concern about the extremes in these trends. For example, the focus on the good in humans can bring with it neglect of the potential for evil. The focus on the positive aspects of being human can potentially involve the neglect of suffering, particularly the value of suffering. The focus on the spiritual and metaphysical aspects can lead to the neglect of the material and what it means to being-in-the-world.

Existentialism brings balance to each of these three fields. If they offered more attention to the existential realms, each theory would become stronger. One example of this can be seen in Daniels (2005) critique of transpersonal psychology’s lack of discussion about evil. As a transpersonal psychologist, Daniels sees this as an important weakness requiring urgent attention. While Daniels does not cite existential thought as the impetus for his critique, the homage to existential themes is evident. A more intentional dialogue about differences would beneficial.

Buddhism and the Middle Path

The choice of including “the middle path” in this essay was very intentional in its reference to Buddhism. It is not to suggest that existentialism is a Buddhist psychology. However, it is not a coincidence that frequently students taking existential courses comment, “That sounds a lot like Buddhism.” Nor is it a coincidence that existentialists such as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are commonly referenced in Buddhist-Western dialogues (see Abe 1990; Altizer, 1990).

The similarities beg the question: “Is existential thought Eastern or Western?” The answer to this question deserves much more time and debate than will be allotted in this essay. However, allow me to point to important questions and historical context relevant to this question.

Postmodern thought has helped contemporary thinkers to recognize that even constructions such as Eastern Thought and Western Thought are social constructions largely dependent upon culture. While there is evidence that influences from India may have influenced some philosophical and religious thought in the West as early as the late common era (B.C.E.), it is not likely that these are a primary cause of the similarities of existentialism with some Eastern and Buddhist ideas.

Kierkegaard, who is generally acknowledged as the father of existential thought, shares some similarities with Buddhism particularly in the valuing of the subjective experience. However, Kierkegaard was certainly more Western than Eastern. As existential thought continued to develop in the writing of Nietzsche, Tillich, Sartre, and others, it became fiercely individualistic at times. The individualistic tone of much of existential thought does not fit well with the more collectivist approach common in Eastern thought.

It was not until existentialism because a psychology that it began to address the problems with the strong individualistic tone of many existential writers. Rollo May, the father of American existential psychology, began to address this issue indirectly, but really the writings of Bugental and Schneider bring it to more completion. While these writers still focus on the individual, their valuing of the relational process and understanding of systems move existential thought away from being excessively individualistic. It could be maintained that contemporary existential thought provides a middle road between individualism and collectivism.

The influences of a pluralistic world make it highly likely that these developments in existential thought have included influences from Buddhism and other Eastern approaches to thought. The values and positions of existential thought fashioned it to be an ideal Western theory to be in dialogue with Buddhism. However, I think it is also evident that existential thought took a different path to get to its current similarities with Buddhism.

Existentialism’s Extremism

Arguing that existentialism is simply a middle road or some type of compromise would ignore the radicalness that is apparent in existential thought. Two ideas can reconcile this apparent contradiction between existentialism’s middle path and this radical side of existentialism.

First, existentialism often emphasizes paradox. In this sense, it is not a compromise, but a balancing of tensions. A compromise symbolizes a letting go while paradox symbolizes a balance of tensions.

A weakness of the paradox analogy is that it frequently will illicit a polar or dualistic conception. However, given the postmodern critique, it may be better to think of this paradox in multidimensional terms. Let me build this analogy in two stages. First, imagine expanding the polar conception of paradox into a spider web. The spider web illustrates the importance of tension pulling in different directions. A break in any line ob the web threatens the stability of the whole spider web.

Next, take this analogy one step further and imagine a three-dimensional spider web. When the spider web looses the quality of flatness, the tensions now come from many more directions creating a spherical-shaped web. This three-dimensional quality does not diminish the necessity of each tension, but does increase the number of tensions involved in the paradox.

Passion becomes the second part of the radical side of existentialism. As discussed elsewhere on this web site, existential thought is known for its passion as a distinguishing factor. This passion is one thing that still draws many people to existential thought. It is driven by the tensions identified above along with the strong commitment to character and integrity seen in existential thinkers (Note: this is often more lived than written or talked about). Finally, the boldness that emerges from this character creates the freedom and ability to be radical. In summary, passion emerges from paradox, character, and boldness giving existentialism its radical feel.


A strength of existential thought is its adaptability and openness. As Yalom (1980) points out, existentialism is often not a stand alone psychology. It is at its best when it is being integrated with other theories as long as the values remain internally consistent. In the more extremist views in psychology, it provides temperance while offering opportunities for growth. However, existential thought remains radical in its own way through the passionate challenging of the status quo and the easy answers about human existence.

In the end, it is the middle road of existential thought that provides some of the great opportunities for this theory to shape and fashion the future of psychology. Psychologists and philosophers alike do not have to agree with the whole of existential thought to be challenged and grow from this powerful theory. It is this middle path that opens so many doors for these transformative conversations.

Additional References

Abe, M. (1990). Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata. In J. Cobb & C. Ives (Eds.), The emptying God: A Buddhist-Christian conversation (pp. 3-65). Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

Altizer, T. J. J. (1990). Buddhist emptiness and the crucifixion of God. In J. Cobb & C. Ives (Eds.), The emptying God: A Buddhist-Christian conversation (pp. 69-78). Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock.

Originally added May, 2006; Never been updated.