What is Transpersonal Psychology?

Transpersonal Psychology was formally founded as a distinct perspective in psychology by Abraham Maslow and Anthony Sutich in 1969 with the publication of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. This was followed by the founding of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology by Sutich, James Fadiman, Michael Murphy, and Miles Vich in 1972. 

These men saw a need for modern psychology to address issues arising from claims of mystical experience, the purported positive consequences of these experiences, and the lack of systematic evaluation of the claims and the methods put forward to facilitate these experiences.

Walsh & Vaughan (1993) present their own definition of transpersonal experiences that is deliberately constructed in such a way as to make as few disputable metaphysical assumptions as possible. Their definition is:

Transpersonal experiences may be defined as experiences in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (trans.) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos. " (p. 203)

The only ontological realities implied by this definition are human beings, life, psyche and cosmos. Furthermore the only other assumption is that it is possible to have experiences in which the sense of self can extend beyond the individual or personal realm - an assumption justified and very easily demonstrated from empirical evidence.

The antecedents of Transpersonal Psychology may be found in Eastern spiritual traditions, such as Buddhist, Sufi, Taoist, and Vedanta traditions; in spiritual practices of the monks and saints from the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religions; in the American Transcendentalist movement, represented by Emerson, Thoreau, and the religious democracy of the Quakers and other early American Protestant denominations; and in the pioneers of modern cross-cultural psychology and psychology of religion, Carl Jung and William James.

However, with the entry into the psychological realm transpersonal psychology now eschews the unfettered acceptance of ontological metaphysics and calls into question rather, the phenomenology that these metaphysics are usually based upon.  A clear example of this is the entry of mindfulness into the Cognitive Behavioural domain.  Mindfulness is, after all, what the Buddhists may describe as the beginner’s mind: a contemplative state that aspires to be free of attachment to external stimuli.  The phonemology of meditation is generally well accepted in psychological literature.  What transpersonal psychology aims to do is to extend this methodology into other states of consciousness.  These may include phenomena like near death experience, sleep and dreaming, out of body experiences, shamanic journeying, ‘subtle body’ experiences, intuition and inspiration, non-dual consciousness and the like.  There are numerous books written on this research.   Transpersonal Psychology makes no claims to the ontological status these phenomena, nor does it subscribe to or dispute the metaphysical constructs that have often been built around them.  What Transpersonal Psychology is interested in is the phenomology of these states and the scientific study and description of them.

The formative influence in transpersonal psychology is unquestionably Abraham Maslow.  Maslow's undergraduate training was primarily in the classical laboratory methods of animal research. While at Wisconsin, Maslow worked with Harry Harlow and together they wrote research papers on primate behaviour. After graduation, Maslow was briefly a research assistant to E.L. Thorndike at Columbia University before obtaining a teaching post at Brooklyn College. In 1951, Maslow moved to Brandeis University, where he remained until 1969, when he accepted a fellowship at the Laughlin Foundation in California. It was at Brooklyn College that Maslow's intellectually formative years were spent. While in New York, Maslow sought out and was influenced by a number of eminent psychologists, many of whom had fled to America from Nazism in Europe. These included Max Wertheimer, Alfred Adler, Erich Fromm, Karen Horney, Kurt Goldstein, and the anthropologist Ruth Benedict. Together they extended Maslow's intellectual horizons beyond the American traditions of behaviourism and functionalism, and introduced him to Gestalt and Freudian theories. Wertheimer encouraged the holistic approach that was to characterize Maslow's later research. Adler prompted Maslow's interest in dominance, while Fromm reinforced his humanism. It was from Horney, Goldstein and Benedict, respectively, that Maslow acquired the key terms real self, self-actualization, and synergy.  That Maslow never really structured a formal and coherent theory of these concepts is a great shame.  What he did leave was a significant body of work that addresses concepts such as self actualisation and his own thinking about people whom he perceived to be self-actualising.  Maslow brought into Transpersonal psychology the acquired wisdom of a considerable number of pre-eminent thinkers and writers in psychology.

There is no unified transpersonal therapeutic approach.  Rather, it is a philosophical position that the therapist may take: one that applies a curious and questioning ear to experiential phenomena without necessarily interpreting it or pathologising it.  There are methods that may be applied such as mediation, focussing, holotropic breathwork, for instance, but these are tools rather than interpretive methods.

If someone comes to a transpersonal therapist with an issue that may involve, for instance, a spiritual crisis, the therapist approaches this with an open mind and a degree of knowledge in his area, helping the person make sense of it within the context of their own narrative, not that of a particular theological system or a pathologising reductivism.

In Australia transpersonal psychology is still in its inceptive stages.  It is not taught formally in universities and there is not centralised board of regulation or control on those who claim themselves transpersonal therapists of one type or another.