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What is transpersonal psychology?
Transpersonal psychology is an integration of psychology and spirituality. It includes all realms of being human, including realms that go beyond words and perceptions. It includes the awareness that we are spiritual beings living in physical bodies. When salt and water are mixed the salt is not observable and no longer takes up space but can be tasted as part of the water. Such is the transpersonal experience, which expands beyond the boundaries and limitations of time and space. Transpersonal psychology recognizes the importance of our individual personalities, but it also includes mystical realms of experience which extend outside the limitations of intellectual understanding and material existence. Transpersonal psychology does not oppose or contradict other models of psychology. The transpersonal orientation is inclusive. It builds and expands upon traditional models for a more holistic realization of the human condition.
Transpersonal psychology is not about religion. Religion involves a belief system within an institutionalized structure, whereas spirituality simply involves experiential awareness of our more than physical existence. According to Teasdale (2001), “The term spirituality refers to an individual’s solitary search for and discovery of the absolute or the divine” (p. 10). It is my belief that many of the challenges that our society faces, both globally and as individuals, are the result of feeling separated from the true self, or the Divine. Looking at the interface between psychotherapy and spirit may help to integrate what I believe is true and important in the healing of humans and the evolution towards conscious compassionate living.
When I look at people in our culture I am struck by what appears to be deep discontent and lack of peacefulness. There is an experience of suffering that goes with not living authentically in one’s truth. I believe the constant searching to meet needs that never seem to be satisfied has been displaced onto money, social status, and material gains. Viewing psychotherapy from a spiritual perspective may facilitate the fulfillment of inner needs, which have been invalidated in our culture. According to the Gospel of St Thomas, Jesus said, The Kingdom of God is inside you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you become known, and you will realise that it is you who are the children of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, then you will dwell in poverty, and it is you who are that poverty. (in Hanh, 1995, p. xxiii)
I believe that inquiry into our inner world is crucial in order to meet the deep longing we have as humans to be united with the divine, as well as to live fully as humans. When we look inward in transpersonal psychotherapy we are accessing the true self. Traditional Western psychology, informed by psychoanalytic and behavioral approaches, is oriented towards what is perceived to be “wrong” with the client so interventions can be determined and implemented. The transpersonal approach recognizes the value of categorizing and understanding psychological symptoms, however it regards presenting issues as part of a much larger whole. Frances Vaughan (1993) states, “A transpersonal orientation does not invalidate other approaches, any of which may be relevant to different people at different times. It does, however, call for a more expanded context than is usually constructed by conventional approaches” (in Walsh and Vaughan, p. 161). This more inclusive vision emphasizes the growth process. Transpersonal psychology cultivates awareness of inherent wisdom and goodness in humans, which may be unacknowledged or blocked by learned behavioral patterns. Transpersonal therapies help facilitate natural movement towards healing and growth by helping to uncover and remove these blocks.
Many people deemed successful by the standards of Western culture find themselves deeply dissatisfied and unhappy despite material and social success. Our society reacts negatively to the slightest sign of “unhappiness” or depression, labeling it as something “wrong”. This cultural bias invalidates the spiritual seeking that often underlies these symptoms. From the transpersonal perspective, questioning and reflecting on unhappiness and depression may be the beginnings of a more expanded and holistic existence. The search for meaning beyond the material world opens the possibility to live in a new and more deeply satisfying way.
Transpersonal counselling focuses on present moment awareness and how experience is organized with less emphasis on intellectual discussion. There is a difference between directly experiencing something and intellectualizing about it. The transpersonal therapist may incorporate techniques such as journal writing and expressive arts, as well as cognitive behavioral techniques such as guided imagery and relaxation to access deeper meanings and an experiential rather than verbal understanding of the self. Transpersonal counselling focuses on inner development and relationship rather than emphasizing external activities and material concerns.
The transpersonal approach includes all aspects of being human and sees mind, body, and spirit as parts of an integrated whole. Rather than focusing on reducing symptoms, the goal of transpersonal therapy is to detach from identification with roles and behaviors and realize one’s true identity. There is less focus on problem solving and more on developing and opening inner resources and the experience of a unique authentic beingness.
[A transpersonal approach] allows a more inclusive vision of possibility in which a person can let go of the past and live more fully in the present. In light of perennial wisdom of spiritual teachings, it affirms the possibility of living in harmony with others and the environment, less driven by fear and greed, and motivated by compassion and a sense of purpose. (Vaughan, 1993, p. 161)
The transpersonal vision recognizes that letting go of the past allows us to live more fully in the present and ultimately facilitates access to deeper levels of wisdom, creativity, and potentiality.
Today like every other day
We wake up empty and scared.
Don’t open the door of your study
And begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel
And kiss the earth.
Hanh, T. N. (1995). Living Buddha, living Christ. New York: Riverhead Books.
Teasdale, W. (2001). The mystic heart: Discovering a universal spirituality in the world’s
religions. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Vaughan, F. (1993). Healing and wholeness: Transpersonal psychotherapy. In R. Walsh
& F. Vaughan, (Eds.) Paths beyond ego: The transpersonal vision (pp. 160-165).
New York: Tarcher/Putnam.
Walsh, R., & Vaughan, F. (Eds.). (1993). Paths beyond ego: The transpersonal vision.
New York: Tarcher/Putnam.
About the Author: Lana Marie Willie has a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Studies and is a Registered Clinical Counselor in Victoria, British Columbia. Please visit her website at Cook Street Counselling Victoria. She has trained extensively in the Hakomi Method of Body-Centered Psychotherapy and is currently studying the use of Sound Healing in psychotherapy. Lana teaches a course on the use of mindfulness in everyday life at the University of Victoria.