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Introduction to transpersonal psychology

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Transpersonal Psychology: Integral · Esoteric · Meditation

Transpersonal psychology is a school of psychology that studies the transcendent, or spiritual dimensions of humanity. Among these factors we find such issues as self-development, peak experiences, mystical experiences and the possibility of development beyond traditional ego-boundaries. Thus the interest in human experiences which apparently are 'trans-personal,'or 'trans-egoic'. A short definition from the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology suggests that transpersonal psychology is concerned with the study of humanity’s highest potential, and with the recognition, understanding, and realization of unitive, spiritual, and transcendent states of consciousness (Lajoie and Shapiro, 1992:91).

The field is considered by proponents to be the "fourth force"' in the field of psychology, the three other fields being psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and humanistic psychology. According to transpersonal theory, these other schools of psychology have failed to give weight to transpersonal or "transegoic" elements of human existence, such as religious conversion, altered states of consciousness, trance and spirituality, in their academic reflection. Thus, transpersonal psychology strives to combine insights from modern psychology with insights from the world's contemplative traditions, both East and West. The transpersonal and spiritual dimensions of the psyche have traditionally not been a focus of interest for Western psychology, which has mainly focused on the prepersonal and personal aspects of the human psyche (Cowley & Derezotes, 1994; Miller, 1998).

Definitions of Transpersonal Psychology

Lajoie and Shapiro (1992) reviewed forty definitions of transpersonal psychology that had appeared in literature over the period 1969 to 1991. They found that five key themes in particular featured prominently in these definitions: states of consciousness, higher or ultimate potential, beyond the ego or personal self, transcendence and the spiritual. Walsh and Vaughan (1993) have criticised many definitions of transpersonal psychology, for carrying implicit ontological or methodological assumptions. They also challenge definitions that link transpersonal psychology to healthy states only, or to the Perennial Philosophy. These authors define transpersonal psychology as being the branch of psychology that is concerned with transpersonal experiences and related phenomena, noting that "These phenomena include the causes, effects and correlates of transpersonal experiences, as well as the disciplines and practices inspired by them" (Walsh & Vaughan, 1993, p203).

The development of the field

Among the thinkers who are considered to have set the stage for transpersonal studies are William James, Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, and Roberto Assagioli (Cowley & Derezotes, 1994; Miller, 1998; Davis, 2003). Research by Vich (1988) suggests that earliest usage of the term "transpersonal" can be found in lecture notes which William James had prepared for a semester at Harvard University in 1905-6. A major motivating factor behind the initiative to establish this school of psychology was Abraham Maslow's already published work regarding human peak experiences. Maslow's work grew out of the humanistic movement of the 1960's, and gradually the term "transpersonal" was associated with a distinct school of psychology within the humanistic movement.

In 1969, Abraham Maslow, Stanislav Grof and Anthony Sutich were the initiators behind the publication of the first issue of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, the leading academic journal in the field. This was soon to be followed by the founding of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology (ATP) in 1972. Past presidents of the association include Alyce Green, James Fadiman, Frances Vaughan, Arthur Hastings, Daniel Goleman, Robert Frager, Ronald Jue, Jeanne Achterberg and Dwight Judy. In the 1980s and 90s the field developed through the works of such authors as Jean Houston, Stanislav Grof, Ken Wilber, Michael Washburn, Frances Vaughan, Roger Walsh, Stanley Krippner, Michael Murphy, Charles Tart, David Lukoff and Stuart Sovatsky. While Wilber has been considered an influential writer and theoretician in the field, he has since personally dissociated himself from the movement in favor of what he calls an integral approach.

Today transpersonal psychology also includes approaches to health, social sciences and practical arts. Transpersonal perspectives are also being applied to such diverse fields as psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, sociology, pharmacology, cross-cultural studies (Scotton, Chinen and Battista, 1996; Davis, 2003) and social work (Cowley & Derezotes, 1994). Currently, transpersonal psychology, especially the schools of Jungian and Archetypal psychology, is integrated, at least to some extent, into many psychology departments in American and European Universities. Transpersonal therapies are also included in many therapeutic practices.

Institutions of higher learning that have adopted insights from transpersonal psychology include The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (US), California Institute of Integral Studies (US), John F. Kennedy University (US), Burlington College (US) and the University of Northampton (UK). There is also a strong connection between the transpersonal and the humanistic perspective. This is not surprising since transpersonal psychology started off within humanistic psychology (Aanstoos, Serlin & Greening, 2000).

By common consent, the following branches are considered to be transpersonal psychological schools: Jungian psychology, depth psychology (more recently rephrased as the Archetypal psychology of James Hillman), the spiritual psychology of Robert Sardello, (2001), psychosynthesis founded by Roberto Assagioli, and the theories of Abraham Maslow, Stanislav Grof, Ken Wilber, Michael Washburn and Charles Tart.

Transpersonal psychology is sometimes confused with parapsychology, a mistake made due to the overlapping and unconventional research interests of both fields; parapsychology would however tend to focus more in its subject matter on the "psychic" and transpersonal psychology the "spiritual" (relatively crude though these categorizations are, it is still a useful distinction in this context). While parapsychology leans more towards traditional scientific epistemology (laboratory experiments, statistics, research on cognitive states), transpersonal psychology tends to be more closely related to the epistemology of the humanities and the hermeneutic disciplines (humanism, existentialism, phenomenology, anthropology), although it has always included contributions involving experimental and statistical research.

Transpersonal psychology is also sometimes confused with the New Age. Although the transpersonal perspective grew out of the human potential movement, a movement that many commentators associate with a broad conception of the New Age, it is still problematic to place transpersonal psychology within such a framework. Transpersonal psychology is an academic discipline, not a religious or spiritual movement, and many of the field's leading authors, among those Sovatsky (1998) and Rowan (1993), have addressed problematic aspects of New Age hermeneutics. Associations between transpersonal psychology and the New Age have probably contributed to the failures in the United States of America to get transpersonal psychology more formally recognised within the professional body, the American Psychological Association (APA). A significant breakthrough in this context was the successful establishment of a Transpersonal Psychology Section within the British Psychological Society (the UK professional body equivalent to the APA) in 1996, co-founded by David Fontana, Ingrid Slack and Martin Treacy, "the first Section of its kind in a Western scientific society" according to Fontana (Fontana et. al, 2005, p.5).

Research interests

The transpersonal perspective spans many research interests. The following list is adapted from Scotton, Chinen and Battista (1996) and includes:

Contributions to the academic field

Although all models of human development are understood to be intellectual abstractions of reality, transpersonal psychology has made significant contributions to the understanding of human development and consciousness. One of the demarcations in transpersonal theory is between authors who present a fairly linear and hierarchical model of human development, such as Ken Wilber, and authors who present pluralistic or non-linear models of human development, such as Michael Washburn and Ralph Metzner.

Wilber's primary contribution to the field is the theory of a spectrum of consciousness consisting of three broad categories: the prepersonal or pre-egoic, the personal or egoic, and the transpersonal or trans-egoic (Miller, 1998). A more detailed version of this spectrum theory includes nine different levels of development, in which levels 1-3 are pre-personal levels, levels 4-6 are personal levels and levels 7-9 are transpersonal levels (Cowley & Derezotes, 1994).

Wilber has portrayed the development of consciousness as a hierarchical ladderlike conceptual model, with higher levels superior to lower levels, and consciousness progressing from lower levels to higher levels. Each new level integrates the preceding level while demonstrating new properties associated only with the higher level (Kasprow & Scotton, 1999). Each level is also understood to include a particular type of personality structure, and a possible vulnerability to certain pathologies belonging to that particular level (Cowley & Derezotes, 1994). Building upon the work of Wilber, transpersonal psychologists have also made arguments in favor of a possible differentiation between pre-rational psychiatric problems and authentic transpersonal problems. The confusion of these two categories is said to lead to what transpersonal theory calls a "pre/trans fallacy", the mistaking of transpersonal states for pre-rational states (Cowley & Derezotes, 1994; Lukoff, 1998).

In contrast to Wilber, Ralph Metzner and Michael Wasburn present models of human development that are not hierarchical or linear. Metzner opts for a model that is pluralistic, and rejects the idea of linear development. Washburn presents a model that is inspired by Jungian and psychoanalytic thinking, and which might be characterized as a spiral. According to Washburn the person emerges from the preconscious depths of the psyche. Later on, in the first half of life, development reaches the stage of normal egoic functioning. In the second half of life, if development goes well, the person might get the opportunity to return to, and reintegrate, the primordial depths of the psyche. Within the frames of Washburn's theory this reintegration might be said to take place at a higher, trans-egoic, level (Kasprow & Scotton, 1999).

Transpersonal Psychology has also brought clinical attention to a number of psychoreligious and psychospiritual problems. Cowley & Derezotes (1994) note that transpersonal theory has an understanding of spirituality that is integral to human nature and an essential aspect of being. This understanding is somewhat different from the popular understanding of spirituality as a statement of belief, or as a measure of church attendance; features that could rather be seen as indications of the psychoreligious dimension. Psychoreligious problems have to do with possible psychological conflict resulting from a person's involvement with the beliefs and practices of an organized religious institution. Among these problems are experiences related to changing denomination or conversion, intensification of religious belief or practice, loss of faith, and joining or leaving a new religious movement or cult.

Psychospiritual problems are experiences of a different category than religious problems. These problems have to do with a person's relationship to existential issues, or issues that transcend ordinary day-to-day reality. Many of these psychological difficulties are not ordinarily discussed by mainstream psychology. Among these problems are psychiatric complications related to loss of faith, near-death experience, mystical experience, Kundalini opening, Shamanistic Initiatory Crisis (also called shamanic illness), psychic opening, past lives, possession states, meditation-related problems, and separation from a spiritual teacher. Complications that are considered to present problems of a combined religious and spiritual nature are issues related to serious illness and terminal illness (Lukoff, 1998). Some meditation-related problems, for example, might have to do with the fact that the incorporation of Eastern contemplative systems into a Western setting has not always been sensitive to the socio-cultural context from which these systems originated (Turner, 1995; Lukoff, 1998), a detail that might leave Western practitioners with considerable hermeneutic (interpretive or explanatory) challenges.

The term "Spiritual Emergence" was coined by Stanislav and Christina Grof (1989) in order to describe a gradual unfoldment and appearance of psycho-spiritial categories in a persons life. In cases where this spiritual unfoldment is intensified beyond the control of the individual it might lead to a state of "Spiritual Emergency". A Spiritual Emergency might cause significant disruptions in psychological, social and occupational functioning, and many of the psychospiritual problems described above might be characterized as spiritual emergencies (Lukoff, 1998). Besides the psychospiritual categories mentioned by Turner (1995) and Lukoff (1998), Whitney (1998) has also made an argument in favor of understanding mania as a form of spiritual emergency.

Because of the nature of psychoreligious and psychospiritual problems, the transpersonal community made a proposal for a new diagnostic category entitled "religious or spiritual problem" at the beginning of the 1990s. This category was later included in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) under the heading "Other Conditions That May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention", Code V62.89 (American Psychiatric Association, 1994; Lu, 1997). According to transpersonal theorists, the inclusion is part of the greater cultural sensitivity of the manual and could help promote enhanced understanding between the fields of psychiatry and religion/spirituality (Turner, 1995; Sovatsky, 1998). The construct validity of the new category has been assessed by Milstein (2000).

Criticisms of transpersonal psychology

Criticisms of transpersonal psychology have come from several commentators. One of the earliest criticisms of the field was issued by the Humanistic psychologist Rollo May, who disputed the conceptual foundations of transpersonal psychology (Aanstos, Serling & Greening, 2000). May was particularly concerned about the low level of reflection on the dark side of human nature, and on human suffering, among the early transpersonal theorists. A similar critique was also put forward by Alexander (1980) who thought that Transpersonal Psychology, in light of the thinking of William James, represented a philosophy that failed to take evil adequately into account. This serious criticism has been absorbed by later Transpersonal theory, which has been more willing to reflect on these important dimensions of human existence (Scotton, Chinen and Battista, 1996; Daniels, 2005). Criticism has also come from the cognitive psychologist, and humanist, Albert Ellis (1989) who has questioned transpersonal psychology's scientific status and its relationship to religion and mysticism. This criticism has been answered by Wilber (1989) and Walsh (1989).

Friedman (2000) has criticized the field of Transpersonal psychology for being underdeveloped as a field of science, and he mentions a number of factors which he believe are anti-scientific beliefs prevalent in the field. He further differentiates between Transpersonal psychology as a field of scientific psychology, and the larger area of transpersonal studies which, according to the author, may include a number of unscientific approaches. Doctrines or ideas of many colorful personalities, who were or are spiritual teachers in the Western world, such as Gurdjieff or Alice Bailey, are often assimilated in the transpersonal psychology mainstream scene. This development is, generally, seen as detrimental to the aspiration of transpersonal psychologists to gain a firm and respectable academic status. However, Scotton, Chinen and Battista (1996) believe that much of this criticism can be nuanced if one differentiates between the field of Transpersonal Psychology on the one hand, and a popular mainstream scene that operates outside of an academic context, on the other.

It could also be argued that most psychologists do not hold strictly to traditional schools of psychology — most psychologists take an eclectic approach. This could mean that the transpersonal categories listed are considered by standard subdisciplines of psychology; religious conversion falling within the ambit of social psychology, altered states of consciousness within physiological psychology, and spiritual life within the psychology of religion. Transpersonal psychologists, however, disagree with the approach to such phenomena taken by traditional psychology, and claim that transpersonal categories have typically been dismissed either as signs of various kinds of mental illnesses, or as a regression to infantile stages of psychosomatic development. Thus, as illustrated by the pre/trans fallacy, religious and spiritual experiences have in the past been seen as either regressive or pathological and treated as such.

From the standpoint of Buddhism and Dzogchen, Elias Capriles (2000, 2006, 2007, 2008) has objected that transpersonal psychology fails to distinguish between the transpersonal condition of nirvana, which is inherently liberating, those transpersonal conditions which are within samsara and which as such are new forms of bondage (such as the four realms of the arupyadhatu or four arupa lokas of Buddhism, in which the figure-ground division dissolves but there is still a subject-object duality), and the neutral condition in which neither nirvana nor samsara are active that the Dzogchen teachings call kun gzhi (in which there is no subject-object duality but the true condition of all phenomena (dharmata) is not patent (and which includes all conditions involving nirodh or cessation, including nirodh samapatti, nirvikalpa samadhis and the samadhi or turiya that is the supreme realization of Patañjali’s Yoga darshana). In the process of elaborating what he calls a meta-transpersonal psychology, Capriles has carried out conscientious refutations of Wilber, Grof and Washburn, which according to Macdonald & Friedman (2006, p. ii) will have important repercusions on the future of transpersonal psychology.

See also

References and Bibliography

  • Aanstoos, C. Serlin, I., & Greening, T. (2000). History of Division 32 (Humanistic Psychology) of the American Psychological Association. In D. Dewsbury (Ed.), "Unification through Division: Histories of the divisions of the American Psychological Association", Vol. V. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Alexander, Gary T. (1980) William James, the Sick Soul, and the Negative Dimensions of Consciousness: A Partial Critique of Transpersonal Psychology. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, XLVIII(2):191-206
  • American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
  • Capriles, E. (2000). Beyond Mind: Steps to a Metatranspersonal Psychology. Honolulu, HI: The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 19:163-184.
  • Capriles, E. (2006). Beyond Mind II: Further Steps to a Metatranspersonal Philosophy and Psychology. San Francisco, CA: The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies[2], 24:5-44.
  • Capriles, E. (2007). Beyond Mind, Beyond Being, Beyond History: A Dzogchen-Founded Metatranspersonal Philosophy and Psychology. 3 vol.: Volumen I: Beyond Being: A Metaphenomenological Elucidation of the Phenomenon of Being, The Being of the Subject and the Being of Objects. Volumen II: Beyond Mind: A Metaphenomenological, Metaexistential Philosophy, and a Metatranspersonal Metapsychology. Volumen III: Beyond History: A Degenerative Philosophy of History Leading to a Genuine Postmodernity. Internet[3]: Mérida, Venezuela
  • Capriles, E. (in press). Beyond Mind III: Further Steps to a Metatranspersonal Philosophy and Psychology. Miami, FL: The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, special issue following vol. 25.
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  • Grof, Stanislav & Grof, Christina (eds) (1989) Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis (New Consciousness Reader) Los Angeles : J.P Tarcher
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  • Miller, John J. (1998) Book Review: Textbook of Transpersonal Psychiatry and Psychology. Psychiatric Services 49:541-542, April 1998. American Psychiatric Association
  • Milstein, Glen; Midlarsky, Elizabeth; Link, Bruce G.; Raue, Patrick J. & Bruce, Martha (2000) Assessing Problems with Religious Content: A Comparison of Rabbis and Psychologists. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease. 188(9):608-615, September
  • Rowan, John. (1993) The Transpersonal: Psychotherapy and Counselling. London: Routledge
  • Sardello, Robert J. (2001). Love and the World: A Guide to Conscious Soul Practice. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books.
  • Scotton, Bruce W, Chinen, Allan B. and John R. Battista, Eds. (1996) Textbook of Transpersonal Psychiatry and Psychology. New York: Basic Books
  • Sovatsky, Stuart (1998) Words from the Soul : Time, East/West Spirituality, and Psychotherapeutic Narrative. New York: State University of New York Press (SUNY Series in Transpersonal and Humanistic Psychology)
  • Turner, Robert P.; Lukoff, David; Barnhouse, Ruth Tiffany & Lu Francis G. (1995) Religious or spiritual problem. A culturally sensitive diagnostic category in the DSM-IV. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Jul;183(7):435-44.
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