Recovering the Original Phenomenological Research Method

Recovering the Original Phenomenological Research Method 144 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56 © 2017 by the American Counseling Association. All rights reserved.
Received 08/26/16 Revised 12/07/16 Accepted 12/09/16 DOI: 10.1002/johc.12049

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

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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

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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:
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.


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.


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).


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 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56 149 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.


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 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56 151 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.


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 Journal of HUMANISTIC COUNSELING ◆ July 2017 ◆ Volume 56 153 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.


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 discursive thought.


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.


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 investigation.

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 phenomenological process.

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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