(Or “Why I Chose a Transpersonal Theoretical Orientation“)
A Very Brief History of Transpersonal Psychology
Transpersonal psychology is a term coined by Abraham Maslow, Stan Grof, Victor Frankl, and others in the late 1960s. “It is the field of psychology that integrates psychological concepts, theories, and methods with the subject matter and practices of the spiritual disciplines” (Davis, 2003). The root of the term “transpersonal” – or “beyond the personal” derives from the Greek word “persona,” or the masks that Greek actors wore to portray characters, so transpersonal literally means “beyond the mask” (Davis, 2003). According to the California Institute for Integral Studies, “a transpersonal approach appreciates all that a conventional psychology brings, but also gives weight to lived experience, intuition, and exceptional human experiences such as those associated with mysticism and spirituality” (2018).
Basic Philosophical Assumptions of the Theory
The interests of transpersonal psychology “include spiritual experiences, mystical states of consciousness, mindfulness and meditative practices, shamanic states, ritual, the overlap of spiritual experiences with disturbed states such as psychosis and depression, interpersonal relationships, service, and encounters with the natural world” (Davis, 2003). Just as school psychology applies psychology in a school setting or health psychology applies psychology to medical or health care concerns, transpersonal psychology applies psychology to a specific range of concerns. It is not a religion or belief system, but rather, a field of scientific inquiry. “Overlaps between psychology and spirituality have been present in both psychology (e.g., William James, Jung, Maslow) and in the spiritual traditions (which have their own rich views of development, cognition, social interactions, emotional and behavioral suffering, and methods of healing)” (Davis, 2003).
A fundamental concept in transpersonal psychology is the idea of non-duality, or “the recognition that each part (e.g., each person) is fundamentally and ultimately a part of the whole (the cosmos)” (Davis, 2003); that the mind is larger than it appears from our normal vantagepoint. In fact, transpersonal theory reaches into existential anxiety by reaching out into a bigger concept of existence. It confronts the existential alone-ness of human existence and addresses creating new meaning out of life from a soul perspective.
“From this insight come two other central insights: the intrinsic health and basic goodness of the whole and each of its parts, and the validity of self-transcendence from the conditional and conditioned personality to a sense of identity which is deeper, broader, and more unified with the whole” (Davis, 2003). Lancaster expresses that “we gain something in our lives by recognizing that the larger dimension of mind extends beyond the personal” (Law, 2011). In other words, when we realize that we are part of something greater, or that we are connected to everything else, it changes our entire perspective of life and its meaning.
“The focus of transpersonal psychology really concerns self-transformation, working to achieve a more integrated and larger sense of self, and even a sense that it is not simply my Self that matters” (Lancaster, interview with Law, 2011).
The hallmark of transpersonal psychology is that it embraces the diversity of spiritual traditions around the world, like Buddhism and other Eastern religions, Jewish mysticism, shamanism and other indigenous practices – religions and spirituality that are considered the spiritual wisdom traditions. It is an inclusive approach that values both diversity and unity.
The Role of the Transpersonal Counselor
As with existential and humanistic therapies (since transpersonal therapy is considered to have evolved in large part from the humanistic work of American psychologist Abraham Maslow), the role of the counselor or therapist in transpersonal psychotherapy is to be genuine, congruent, and empathic, and to believe in the experiences and inner resources of the client. The counselor understands that the client is made of more than mind and body; that there exists another intangible part (that some might call a soul) that make up the whole person. The transpersonal counselor, then, is an expert in the treatment of the intangible part of the client. However, the transpersonal counselor sees counseling as both a service and an act of work on oneself. It is beneficial to the client, the counselor, and the whole of existence. A transpersonal counselor normally has a transcendent basis for professional service and is deeply caring and involved in the well-being of the client. There is very often a sense that their work is a contribution to the larger whole.
A transpersonal counselor or therapist may draw from a variety of different religions and spiritual practices for tools and methods that can help the client explore various levels of consciousness and help the client learn to use their spirituality (their connection to something greater than themselves) to guide them through troubled times. The counselor understands how to integrate traditional spiritual rituals into modern psychology.
Main Therapeutic Goals of Transpersonal Counseling
Like existential therapy, transpersonal therapy is an invitation to the client to live a fully authentic life and make choices based on their peak or transpersonal experiences that will help them become everything they are capable of being.
The extended sense of the mind beyond the self is a common experience for many people. Yet it is only recently that mainstream psychology has begun to accept multicultural views of wellness and has therefore considered a biopsychosocial-spiritual model of wellness. Transpersonal counseling seeks to integrate peak experiences, transpersonal and mystical experiences, and spiritual emergencies as part of normal human existence. “As psychology (and our culture) wakes up to the reality of diversity and multicultural perspectives, transpersonal psychology has much to contribute” (Davis, 2003).
Another goal of transpersonal counseling is to help the client find or restore meaning. Living a life of meaning is so important to people that they will go to almost any lengths to avoid a lack of meaning. It has been demonstrated that those who have a strong spiritual foundation seem to cope better with trauma than those who don’t have the comfort of such belief. The connection to something beyond the personal can help clients become more resilient and strong in the face of adversity.
Self-transformation is the ultimate goal of transpersonal counseling. It seems clear that “clients increasingly find value in embracing some sort of spirituality” (Lancaster, interview by Law, 2011). A transpersonal approach is complimentary and inclusive and can be utilized in a variety of settings. Since it is not a specific set of beliefs or a religion but rather an orientation, it is compatible with most educational and psychological approaches.
Balance of Mind, Body, and Spirit
Transpersonal counselors help the client explore the connection to the spiritual and transpersonal by using “meditation, guided visualization, hypnotherapy, dream work, art, music, journaling, mindfulness practices, and other techniques that can help the client create meaning in life” (Psychology Today, 2018). Other transpersonal techniques include shamanic healing, ritual/ceremony, gratitude practices, and immersion in the natural world. With the counselor’s guidance, the client can find inner strength and build upon it. Through these techniques and the helping relationship, the client is guided toward the expansion of inner strengths and resources to create a more balanced life, which in turn results in a healthier state of mind.
Transpersonal psychology seeks to draw from the wisdom of each of the great spiritual traditions to answer and even go beyond the existential questions that address the human boundary situations of alone-ness, meaninglessness, responsibility, and death. The transpersonal field delves into stages of development and states of consciousness that take us beyond the individual into a greater whole. Wisdom from the great spiritual traditions can help clients understand their connection to all of life and the universe; in effect, finding that the answers to those existential questions are to be found in the balance of mind, body, and spirit.
© 2019 – Cindy L. McGinley. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
California Institute of Integral Studies website (2018). Retrieved from https://www.ciis.edu/academics/graduate-programs/integral-and-transpersonal-psychology/about-the-program
Davis, J. V. (2003). An overview of transpersonal psychology. The Humanistic Psychologist, 31(2-3), 6-21.
Law, H. (2011). What are the striking parallels between cognitive neuroscience and spiritual traditions? Or why counseling psychologists should embrace transpersonal psychology. (An interview with Professor Les Lancaster.) Counseling Psychology Quarterly; Vol. 24, No. 4; December 2011, 331-339.
Psychology Today website (2018). Transpersonal therapy. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapy-types/transpersonal-therapy