I don’t remember learning about transpersonal psychology in my clinical psych program. (With all that reading and lack of sleep, it’s also possible I just missed that lesson.) So I was intrigued when I recently came across the term, and decided to do some digging.
In the Foreword of The Textbook of Transpersonal Psychiatry and Psychology, writer Ken Wilber defines “transpersonal” as “personal plus.” He explains that transpersonal work integrates both personal psychology and psychiatry but then “adds those deeper or higher aspects of human experience that transcend the ordinary and the average—experiences that are, in other words, ‘transpersonal’ or ‘more than personal,’ personal plus.”
It turns out that transpersonal psychology focuses on the spiritual. Bruce W. Scotton, M.D., one of the editors of the book, describes “spiritual” as “the realm of the human spirit, that part of humanity that is not limited to bodily experience.”
The British Psychological Society also acknowledges the central emphasis on spirituality in transpersonal psychology:
Transpersonal Psychology might loosely be called the psychology of spirituality and of those areas of the human mind which search for higher meanings in life, and which move beyond the limited boundaries of the ego to access an enhanced capacity for wisdom, creativity, unconditional love and compassion. It honors the existence of transpersonal experiences, and is concerned with their meaning for the individual and with their effect upon behavior.
According to the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology (which is a private graduate school founded in 1975):
Traditional psychology is interested in a continuum of human experience and behavior ranging from severe dysfunction, mental and emotional illness at one end, to what is generally considered “normal”, healthy behavior at the other end and various degrees of normal and maladjustment in between. While an exact definition of Transpersonal Psychology is the subject of debate, Transpersonal Psychology is a full spectrum psychology that encompasses all of this and then goes beyond it by adding a serious scholarly interest in the immanent and transcendent dimensions of human experience: exceptional human functioning, experiences, performances and achievements, true genius, the nature and meaning of deep religious and mystical experiences, non-ordinary states of consciousness, and how we might foster the fulfillment of our highest potentials as human beings.
Transpersonal psychology combines a variety of approaches in psychology, including behaviorism, cognitive psychology and humanistic psychology, along with other disciplines, including Eastern and Western philosophy, mysticism, mindfulness and the world’s religions.
Below are six other facts about transpersonal psychology, from the therapist’s role in psychotherapy to transpersonal psychology’s history as a field.
1. Transpersonal psychology doesn’t have specific tools or methods.
“Transpersonal psychotherapy is rooted in an ideology and a basic humility that operates behind the scenes,” said psychotherapist, author and teacher Jeffrey Sumber. “It is less about a particular tool or methodology and more about an intention that motivates the intervention,” he said.
2. Relationships in transpersonal psychology are key.
According to Sumber, “Transpersonal Psychology is an approach to understanding the way our minds operate through our relationships with others, resting in the belief that there is something bigger and deeper in the space between which operates upon us.”
The relationship between client and therapist is just as important as the client’s other relationships. “… The space between therapist and client is as sacred and transformative as that space between the client and their issues, their families and friends, etc.,” he said.
And both people change as a result of this relationship. As Sumber writes on his website, “…in order for positive change to occur for the client, it must also occur for the therapist on some level, by and through the bonds of our relationship.”
3. The therapist isn’t viewed as the expert.
Rather, the therapist is “the facilitator [who] assist[s] the client in uncovering their own truth and their own process,” Sumber said. “The only room for expertise is the therapists’ ability to reflect the client’s own truth back to them with as little of the therapist’s own baggage as possible,” he added.
4. Transpersonal psychology doesn’t judge others’ experiences.
Sumber said that transpersonal psychology also is based on the belief that the “client and the therapist both have their own experiences and neither is right, wrong, correct or incorrect, healthy or unhealthy.”
“If a client brings an experience into therapy that makes me uncomfortable, I have the ability to look at my own discomfort and work on it and I can even disclose it to the client if that is appropriate.”
5. Various well-known psychologists pioneered transpersonal psychology.
According to The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, William James, Carl Jung and Abraham Maslow are just a few of the psychologists that played a role in pioneering transpersonal psychology. (Find out more about each psychologist here.)
In fact, William James was the first to use the term “transpersonal” in a 1905 lecture, according to The Textbook of Transpersonal Psychiatry and Psychology, and he’s referred to as the founder of modern transpersonal psychology and psychiatry. As psychologist Eugene Taylor, Ph.D, writes in the book:
He was the first to use the term transpersonal in an English-language context and the first to articulate a scientific study of consciousness within a framework of evolutionary biology. He experimented with psychoactive substances to observe their effects on his own consciousness and was a pioneer in founding the field that is now called parapsychology. He helped to cultivate modern interest in dissociated states, multiple personality, and theories of the subconscious. He explored the field of comparative religion and was probably the first American psychologist to establish relationships with or to influence a number of Asian meditation teachers. He also pioneered in writing about the psychology of mystical experience.
6. Transpersonal psychology emerged as a field in the late 1960s.
According to the article “Brief History of Transpersonal Psychology” written by one of transpersonal psychology’s founders, psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, in the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies:
In 1967, a small working group including Abraham Maslow, Anthony Sutich, Stanislav Grof, James Fadiman, Miles Vich, and Sonya Margulies met in Menlo Park, California, with the purpose of creating a new psychology that would honor the entire spectrum of human experience, including various non-ordinary states of consciousness. During these discussions, Maslow and Sutich accepted Grof’s suggestion and named the new discipline “transpersonal psychology.” This term replaced their own original name “transhumanistic,” or “reaching beyond humanistic concerns.” Soon after- wards, they launched the Association of Transpersonal Psychology (ATP), and started the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Several years later, in 1975, Robert Frager founded the (California) Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, which has remained at the cutting edge of transpersonal education, research, and therapy for more than three decades. The International Transpersonal Association was launched in 1978 by myself, as its founding president, and Michael Murphy and Richard Price, founders of Esalen Institute.
(You can find the full-text here, along with other pieces on transpersonal psychology written by Stanislav Grof.)
What do you know about transpersonal psychology? Please share below!