Exploring the farther reaches of human nature.
Posted September 25, 2015 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
If I was forced to label myself, I would class myself as a "transpersonal psychologist." I certainly have strong connections to other areas—such as positive and humanistic psychology—but the transpersonal is where I feel most at home.
Transpersonal psychology is one of the lesser-known fields in psychology. It began in the late 1960s, as an attempt to establish a “fourth force” in psychology, following the psychodynamic, behaviourist, and humanistic approaches.
To a large extent, it was an outgrowth of humanistic psychology—in fact, one of the best known humanistic psychologists, Abraham Maslow, was a pioneer of the transpersonal approach.
Transpersonal psychology was strongly influenced by the "human potential" and counterculture movements of the 1960s, and the wave of psycho-experimentation it involved, through psychedelic substances, meditation, and other consciousness-changing practices.
You could see transpersonal psychology as an attempt to understand the different states of consciousness—and the different views of reality—which were revealed through this experimentation. At the same time, it was an attempt to integrate the ideas and insights of Western psychology with the insights of Eastern spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism and Hindu Vedanta and Yoga, particularly their examination of “higher” states of consciousness, and “higher” stages of human development. In Abraham Maslow’s words, the role of transpersonal psychology was to explore the “farther reaches of human nature.”
This is one of the reasons why transpersonal psychology appeals to me so strongly — because one of its central principles is that what we think of as a “normal” state of being is in some ways limited. It recognises that there are more expansive and more intense states of awareness which we can experience in certain circumstances. (I call these “awakening experiences.”)
It suggests that what other psychologists might view as “optimum” human psychological functioning—e.g. freedom from anxiety and irrational negative thought-patterns, an optimistic outlook, a strong sense of identity —is by no means the endpoint of our development. There are potentially higher functioning states in which our perception becomes intensified, we experience an increased sense of connection to nature and to other human beings, become more compassionate and altruistic, have a wider sense of perspective, live more authentically, and so on.
I have had many experiences of these states myself, and have examined many cases of them in other people. My book Waking From Sleep is a study of temporary awakening experiences, while my book Out of the Darkness is a study of people who have undergone a permanent shift into a higher-functioning “wakeful” state following periods of intense turmoil.
I think it’s important to view these states from a psychological perspective, rather than through the prism of Eastern spiritual traditions. I have found that by far the majority of these states occur outside the context of those traditions. They don’t often occur to people while they are meditating or doing yoga, or to people who would describe themselves as Buddhists or spiritual seekers. They most frequently occur in the midst of everyday life, while people are walking in the countryside, running or swimming, watching an arts performance, or while they are in the midst of stress and psychological turmoil. Most of the people I interviewed for my book Out of the Darkness had no background—or even any interest—in spiritual traditions or practices.
So rather than investigating spiritual traditions, or arguing about whether there is such a thing as a “perennial philosophy”—that is, a common mystical core underlying all different spiritual traditions—I believe it’s much more fruitful for transpersonal psychologists to look outside these traditions, at the awakening experiences which many people are having in a completely secular context.
Other psychological approaches touch on these states, but tend to deny their validity. For example, in Freudian psychology “awakening experiences” are treated as a form of regression, back to the state oneness and well-being which we experienced in our mother’s womb, or in early childhood. Psychiatrists and neuro-psychologists tend to see them as a kind of aberration, caused by unusual neurological functioning.
Transpersonal psychology is different in that it views these states not as aberrational but revelatory, not as sub-normal but super-normal, as a glimpse of a more intense reality rather than an illusory one. It believes that they bring significant insights into our true nature and into reality itself, and offer a glimpse of our potential as human beings.
While transpersonal psychology has been on the periphery for a long time, its significance may be increasing. There are many important contemporary trends in psychology—and science in general—which relate very strongly to transpersonal theory.
Mindfulness is certainly very closely connected to transpersonal psychology, as is contemporary interest in consciousness, and the recent renewal of research into the therapeutic properties of psychoactive substances. There are many areas of positive psychology that intersect with the concerns of transpersonal psychology too, such as the study of altruism, well-being and states of flow. Some time ago, it was easy to dismiss TP as too theoretical and "unscientific," but in recent years there has been an increased focus on research, both qualitative and quantitative. As a result, transpersonal psychology appears to be moving closer to the mainstream.
Although transpersonal psychology was formulated as an approach during the 1960s, its roots go back even further—as far back as the great pioneering psychologist William James, who laid out the principles of so many psychological approaches. Over hundred years ago, James expressed the essential insight and inspiration of transpersonal psychology in the following passage:
Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.
Certainly no account of human psychology can be complete if it disregards these states, or if it explains them away as aberrations. Transpersonal psychology’s importance lies in its recognition that we are not all that we could be, that the world as we perceive it does not necessarily represent the world as it is, and that our glimpses of a more expansive and higher-functioning state don't have to be temporary—they can become our permanent state.
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