James F. T. Bugental Tribute

I first met Jim Bugental in the fall of 2004, after he has suffered a serious stroke that greatly impacted his memory. I was participating in the Unearthing the Moment training designed by Jim and Myrtle Heery. After arriving at the old farmhouse where the training was to occur, Myrtle told me the news of Jim’s stroke. I remember feeling great disappointment thinking I missed my opportunity to meet “the real Jim.” If I only knew what I was about to learn…

My route to existentialism was an unconventional one. I discovered existential psychology late in my graduate school experience and it just fit. It did not seem like I was reading about another dry theory, but about a way of being and a way of living that I was already pursuing. But I didn’t know of a single existential therapist anywhere! There were a few professors in my school who had dabbled in it, but no one that could guide me on this journey. So I read, and read, and read some more. I started with Frankl, May, and Schneider, then eventually found Jim Bugental.

All the reading excited me, including Jim’s books, but finding the videos of Jim doing therapy opened up a whole new level of inspiration. He embodied the theory; it was evident that it was a part of who he was. When I learned of the opportunity to go to the Unearthing training led by Jim, I knew I could not pass up the opportunity. Many of us at the Unearthing were drawn to the training to meet this great man.

Although early on I was drawn to the spirit of existential thought, my introduction was through the intellect and theories. When I learned of Jim’s stroke, I felt a sense of loss that I may not be able to have the “deep discussion” with him that I had fantasized about. That first weekend Jim taught me something about the nature of existential therapy, and, in doing so, he guided me to the next level of my existential education.

I met Jim shortly after hearing the news about his stroke. After 30 minutes, he could not remember my name, and he could not remember many aspects of the great works that he produced, but he demonstrated that was not what it is all about. Jim was not compassionate, he was the embodiment of compassion. Jim was not present, he was the embodiment of presence. Jim was not an existentialist, he was existential. To borrow from the title of Carl Rogers’s book, Jim entire “way of being” was existential. Although I still wish I would have had the opportunity to have had a “deep discussion” with Jim about theory, I may have missed the deeper lesson if I got my wish. And I quickly learned that I still met “the real” Jim Bugental.

Jim pushed me to move to the experiential level of existential psychology. At first, this was not always comfortable, especially when compared to the abstractness of the ideas that originally drew me to existential thought. I sat behind the ideas, often avoiding delving into the experience. I learned one of the great paradoxes of existential therapy: the safety and inviting presence of the therapist does not always comfort; instead, it invites vulnerability and with it the accompanying anxiety and fear.

One experience that weekend particularly stood out to me. Jim was doing a therapy demonstration and I was fortunate to be a little behind the person who volunteered to work with Jim. From where I was sitting I could see Jim almost as if I was the one he was working with. Intently, I watched Jim face, listened to his voice, and paid attention to his non-verbals. I had taught about these aspects of therapy before, but never had I seen them demonstrated with such intensity and purposefulness. After the demonstration I commented that Jim did more therapy with his non-verbals than most therapist do with everything they bring to the therapy process. Jim demonstrated the art of therapy.

This was Jim’s great contribution. Although he was a great writer and had a great intellect, he was no Rollo May. But Jim was a master therapist. In my mind, Jim was likely the greatest therapist the world has been blessed with. His training videos, along with the legacy of the many who trained under Jim, are his greatest contributions. A presence like his could never be contained in words or a book; it was lived.

Let me talk a little about Jim, the person. One of the first qualities that you noticed in Jim was his intense curiosity and genuine fascination with people. He wanted to know you; he seemed to want to know everyone he came into contact with. This curiosity was combined with deep compassion. He was profoundly impacted by the stories of the people who shared with him and not ashamed to show it. This did not change from the therapy demonstrations to the dinner table. It was just Jim.

Jim easily traveled from the depths of sorrow and suffering to the lightness of laughter. I remember him crying with all of us for the loss of his memory. Then, not much later, Jim would share a hearty laugh as he said that all his life he had been talking about the here-and-now and that now that was all he was living his life’s work. But whether laughing or crying, you always knew it was not a show; it was Jim.

Existential and humanistic psychologists are fond of talking about the idea of presence, but no one could demonstrate this as well as Jim did by the way he lived his life. Presence is not something you can fake, that you can work to achieve, or that you can put on when it is called for. Presence is a way of being. It is more about taking down your guard and being vulnerable to who you truly are. This type of vulnerability is not about sharing intimate details, but about being vulnerable with your very spirit. I can truly say that in my life I have never experienced such fullness of presence as what I did with Jim.

I miss Jim. That will get easier with time, but I don’t expect that will ever go away and I don’t want it to. I’m okay missing him because that was part of the opportunity to know him. To stop missing him would dishonor the memory of Jim. Existential psychology encourages us to embrace our experience – the good and the bad – openly. Suffering is never so terrible as when we resist it and pain is never so bad when we allow ourselves to truly embrace it. I aspire to laugh with the fullness that Jim laughed and cry with the beautiful honesty with which Jim cried.

In the end, I cannot say that I knew Jim well, but I can say that I will always treasure the time I spent with him as one of the greatest blessings of my life. His beauty and the way he lived his life has inspired me with an inspiration that will live on long after the final goodbyes and the grieving. The gift of Jim will continue to live on in the lives of many of us.

The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called ‘truth.’

— Dan Rather