Empty willing: contemplative being-in-the-world in St. John of the Cross and Dogen

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Huston Smith


Religion, Philosophy

Subject Categories

Philosophy of Mind


This dissertation is an attempt to formulate a transcultural understanding of contemplative being-in-the-world based on the dynamics of human willing disclosed therein. Our 'test cases' are St. John of the Cross and Zen Master Dogen. Over half the dissertation is devoted to a gathering of data, that is, to a close textual study in support of our contention that John and Dogen (and, by the broadest kind of implication, all contemplatives) exhibit very similar psychotransformative strategies. We argue that the fundamental aspects of these strategies are variations of the interrelated will-dynamics of attention and intention. Upon this foundation, we proceed to build a theoretical superstructure. Its central question becomes: in what ways are these will-dynamics psychotransformatively potent? How do they achieve the apotheosis of meaning and fulfillment contemplative lives often display? Our first answer is an explanation of how the methodological practice of non-discursive attention (the core of the contemplative gesture) gradually liberates the psyche from bondage to the innumerable habit-reflexes, automatisms, fixations, and projections which haunt ordinary being-in-the-world. This answer also involves a defense of contemplative strategies in the face of the prevailing paradigms of depth psychology. We argue that gaining insight into the contents of the unconscious, a process quite foreign to religious contemplatives, is not a necessary condition for a 'depth' psychology. By the same token, we argue that the contemplative's chief tool, the will, is much more than a superficial and impotent reflex of the ego. Our second answer is that contemplative being-in-the-world offers a singularly profound harmonization of man's dual ontological motives: the self-assertive motive and the self-transcending motive. In independent works, Koestler (1978), working from the outposts of biology and physics, and Becker (1973), revisioning psychoanalysis through Rank and Kierkegaard, have mounted compelling arguments that these polar forces pulse not only at the heart of organismic life but through the whole energic continuum of the universe. Becker, especially, suggests that man cannot be whole, nor free, unless he finds a way of balancing these two fundamental motives or urges and that, indeed, one's authenticity depends upon the level at which this balance is struck. He suggests that the most profound level at which resolution can be achieved is that of non-idolatrous religious faith. We take Becker's argument a step further, proposing that contemplative being-in-the-world is the epitome of such faith, for the psychological discipline it demands is expressly directed to purifying faith of all 'idolatry', even unto the most inner altars of the mind. If there are indeed such dual ontological motives pulsing in man (as in mice and the Milky Way), then the contemplative mode of being-in-the-world provides the most salvific and profound response to those motives that a human being can achieve. We suggest that this balance is part of what it means to live in the Way--that life John calls union of the divine and human wills, and Dogen, the realization of Suchness.


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