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founded by S. N. Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin






Humanistic Psychology and Vipassana

-By Dr. Kishore Chandirimani


The humanistic approach to healing was developed as a scientific field in the early 1960's as a protest against the dominant theories of Psychoanalysis and Behavior Therapy. Both these approaches view man in a very mechanical and reductionistic manner and miss out the essential aspects of being human. Psychoanalysis views the basic nature of man as destructive and dangerous, to be kept in check by repression and psychological defenses. Behaviorists, on the other hand, view man as a passive helpless thing not responsible for its own behavior, and that a person is nothing but responses to stimuli and a mere collection of conditioned habits.

Humanistic Psychology views man in a positive and holistic manner. It has brought together ideas from many different cultures, times and traditions into the scientific framework and has enriched it. Most humanistic psychologists recognize the potential contribution of Lord Buddha to their theories and practice. Several authors including Jung1, Wilber2, and Suzuki3 have interpreted the Buddhist thoughts in the modern scientific context.

This article is an attempt to study the theoretical assumptions and postulates of Vipassana, and to examine their apparent similarities with the basic concepts of humanistic psychology.

Humanistic Principles and Vipassana

The following are some of the themes and principles of the humanistic approach that I feel are held in common with Vipassana.

  • Each individual has inner tendencies toward development of his potential and to achieve wholeness, which is described in humanistic terms as self-actualization.
  • Behavior abnormalities are manifestations of blocking or distortion of personal growth. This is generally the result of distortions of reality through use of psychological defenses. Psychological interventions are a matter of removing these obstacles in the way of normal growth.
  • Consciousness is the unifying force. Each individual is unique, whole and cannot be understood in parts using the laws of physics or medicine as is the case in psychoanalysis and behaviorism.
  • It is natural for a pure mind to exhibit an innate capacity for love, compassion and altruism. These are blocked by certain emotional satisfactions that a person seeks out of ignorance.
  • We live in a limited subset of our full potential. We are often unmindful of our embodied and feeling nature. We will live better if our present sensitivity in our ongoing experiencing is increased, i.e., if our awareness increases.
  • For the Humanists, understanding of human behavior is best achieved through focusing upon the subjective experience of persons rather than the objective evaluation of behavior. Vipassana goes even further at the experiential level, with objective observation of bodily sensations.
  • General critical dilemmas of life are not solved by intellectual exploration of the facts nor of the laws of thinking about them. Their resolutions emerge through conflicts and tumults, anxieties, agonies and the adventures of faith into unknown territories. Vipassana involves using suffering as a tool, by observing suffering objectively.
  • Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Individuals create their own meaning and are the makers of themselves and their destiny.
  • There should be an emphasis on here and now. Whatever is important to a person emerges in his present experience. There is no need to analyze the past of a person in minute detail.

Transpersonal Aspects and Vipassana

Transcendent Dimensions: That what is seen is not all there is. Transcendence involves processes connecting individual consciousness to a larger spiritual ocean in which they participate. A harmonious contact with this "unseen world" and adjustment to it is beneficial.

Direct Insight: Intellect is merely an instrument to analyze and interpret the personal experience. The "direct insight", which lies outside the realm of intellect is obtained by watching rather than thinking; by looking inside oneself; by observation.

The ego or individualized self is not the ground of human awareness. What a person thinks he is, is a belief to be undone. The concept of self is an illusion.

Understanding Human Conditions

Freedom - Freedom is innate. The limitations and restrictions that a person feels in experiencing his or her freedom are often self imposed4. In Vipassana freedom is understood at two levels i.e. a) freedom of mind from defilements and b) total liberation.

Choice - Most people have little or no conscious awareness of their own role in the process of choosing. Availability of choice is a special distinguishing feature of human beings even though we virtually never utilize that opportunity for free choice.

Though at an abstract level we are totally responsible and free to make choices; at a given moment while introspecting, the choice is between "yes" and "no". Either we surrender to the inner force or we don't. What is offered for observation is beyond our control. Saying "no" to one's mechanical behavior during the critical moments is an important feature of humanistic psychology5. It is not intellectual because it is a moment of will.

Surrender - It is not the object but the act of surrender which is more important. The object could be anything i.e. teacher, path, nature or one's unconscious forces. The act of surrender helps the person give up his habitual ego-centric control over his life and thereby leads to release of potential from within.

Forgiveness - It comes with the realization that we are not perfect. It is described as a liberating experience in that it frees one from one's entanglement with the past6 and restores the order that had been previously violated7. It involves letting go of the sense of clinging to the hurt and anger which is essential for healing and growth. Forgiveness converts the "hurt" into a pain shared with other human beings. Forgiveness can be readily effective only when performed with full awareness of internal body sensations.

Inner/outer worlds - The person directs his attention first towards the inner world of internal body sensations and later towards the outer world of external objects. This is not a question of priorities, with the inner world being emphasized at the expense of the outer. It is simply a realization that what we discover outside ourselves must inevitably be conditioned by what is there inside. With practice it is possible to be aware of the both simultaneously i.e. inner sensations and outer objects.

Authenticity - means acting in a manner which is in keeping with the inner realities. The humanistic approach helps people become more authentic by keeping the person constantly in touch with his inner realities. It reduces the gap between what the person thinks he is and what he really is8. Thus a person could be considered authentic if he or she practices Vipassana and acts out of "insight mode" (Paññā) rather than "reacting mode".

Transcendence - The capacity to transcend, to throw off the burden of the past, is a unique characteristic of human existence. This is probably an element missing from most of psychology.

Volition - This has been described as a life-shaping force within the individual. The volition is influenced not only by the causative forces carried from the past but also by the goals a person seeks in future. This teleological (or goal oriented) view, as opposed to the deterministic view of psychoanalysis and behavior therapy, is central to most humanistic theories.

Meaning and Purpose in Life - After resolving the feeling of meaninglessness one achieves a sense of deep meaning in life. One feels a sense of responsibility to life, a calling to answer, a mission to accomplish.

Ultimately, however, one becomes indifferent to this meaning and gives up the search for meaning. This state should not be confused with meaninglessness as it is neither "meaningful" nor "meaningless".

Passion - Man is responsible for his passion; it should not be used as an excuse for making wrong choices, as it is not insurmountable.

Death - All human beings know that they will die. This is not the same as truly accepting it. Once death has been truly accepted, life is enhanced by appearing more vivid and precious.

God - Humanists do not exhaust themselves in demonstrations of the non-existence of God. Nothing will be changed if God does not exist. We discover the same norms of honesty, progress and humanity. The real problem is not of God's existence. Man should understand that a valid proof of the existence of God cannot save him4. Only he can save himself from himself. No doctrine can be more optimistic than this, since the destiny of man is placed with himself.


Humanistic Psychology makes it clear that life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to experience. This third force in psychology has thrown the doors of scientific psychology wide open. It has become an eclectic meeting ground for divergent influences like psychology of consciousness, existentialism, gestalt, client centred therapy, transpersonal, encounter groups etc., as they share certain core values and assumptions about human beings. It is hoped that the spiritual traditions of India will continue to enrich the modern scientific understanding of mankind.


  • Jung, C.G. (1978) "Psychology and the East," Princeton N.J. : Bollington Series.
  • Wilber, K. (1982) "Odyssey : A personal enquiry into the humanistic and transpersonal psychology," Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 22(1), 57-90.
  • Suzuki, D.T. (1970) "Essays in Zen Buddhism" (3 volumes) London, Rider.
  • Sartre, J.P. (1948) "Existentialism and Humanism" (English Edition) Butler and Tanner Ltd., Frome & London.
  • Mahrer, A.R. (1978)" Experiencing : A Humanistic theory of Psychology and Psychiatry," Brunner/Mazel Publishers, New York.
  • Martyn, D.W. (1977) "A Child and Adam : A Parable of Two Ages," Journal of Religion and Health, 16(4), 275-287.
  • Buber, M. (1951) "Guilt and Guilt Feelings," Psychiatry, 20, 114-129.
  • Rogers, C.R. (1959) "A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationship as developed in the client centred framework." "In Psychology : A Study of a Science, Vol. III." "Formulations of the Person and the Social Context," S. Koch (editor), p184, McGraw Hill, New York, 1959.