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Nonduality and Transpersonal Psychology


(Reprinted from Noumenon:Newsletter for the Nondual Perspective

We take classes in it, promote it, get and grant degrees in it, practise it, and teach it, but we keep asking ourselves, ‘What is transpersonal psychology, anyway?’ This article examines transpersonal psychology and its applications in psychotherapy, counselling, and education. Its purpose is to spur critical thinking, contemplation, and dialogue as well as to help clarify my own understanding. Rather than attempting to fix a definition of transpersonal psychology, I have raised some questions and identified some themes and issues in the field. I have also included some of my own thoughts about transpersonal psychology. I hope you will take them in the spirit of dialogue, too. I have not provided references here, but I would be glad to give them to you. This paper offers more questions than answers. I hope it will be helpful in your examinations of transpersonal psychology.

If transpersonal psychology integrates psychology and spirituality, how well does it reflect their mutual contributions? What is TP’s contribution to both?

A recent definition from two leading writers in the field: Transpersonal psychology (TP) is the field which focuses on experiences, states of consciousness, and ways of being in which the sense of identity extends beyond the individual or personal to include wider aspects of humankind, nature, or cosmos (Walsh & Vaughan, 1993). I find it useful to think of the term ‘transpersonal’ as suggesting not only experiences beyond the personal, but also experiences beyond the persona or mask.

A briefer definition: TP is the overlap and integration of psychology and the world wisdom traditions (spiritual systems). Thus, spiritual views and practices are incorporated into psychology, and psychological concepts and methods are applied to spirituality. I count nonduality as its most central insight. Ultimately and fundamentally, each part is part of the whole, and the whole is nondualistic. From this come two other central insights: the intrinsic health and basic goodness of the whole and its parts, and the validity of development and experiences ‘beyond the mask’ of the conditional and conditioned personality. The various other themes of TP (for instance, Walsh and Vaughan, Wittine, and recent articles in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology) seem to spring from these three central insights: nonduality, intrinsic health, and experiences beyond the mask

This briefer definition suggests a mutual benefit to psychology and the spiritual traditions. Through TP, psychology is deeper and richer, providing a fuller picture of health and human potential. Spiritual systems can gain a better understanding of the nature of ego, psychological development, and obstacles to optimal mental health. Examples include a better understanding of resistance to surrender in deep spiritual work, and unresolved issues with childhood trauma which may surface during meditation. Some overlap has been present in both psychology (e.g., William James, Jung, Maslow) and in the spiritual traditions (which have very rich psychologies). TP can further these mutual contributions.

What is TP’s place and contribution? How does TP reflect the influences of both psychology and spiritual wisdom?

This is a more theoretical look at the question of the relationship of psychology and spiritual systems and the place of TP. There are several possibilities for the role of TP vis--vis psychology and spiritual traditions, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

TP as an area of psychology
TP can be considered an area of psychology. The brief definition above makes it sound so; the same algorithm that defines other areas of psychology can be used with TP. Just as health psychology applies psychology to medical and health care concerns or industrial-organisational psychology applies psychology to work settings, TP applies psychology to a specific range of concerns, i.e., spirituality, optimal mental health, the quality of presence. If mainstream acceptance is important to TP, this approach is useful. Many transpersonal psychologists are concerned with APA approval and acceptance by health care providers. Indeed, much of the current writing in TP sounds like an effort to get transpersonal content and methods back into psychology. This might account for some of the difficult reading in the field. Books and articles which start off defending TP seem to have trouble getting back on track.

Even its name suggests that TP is a variety of psychology. Many of psychology’s roots are transpersonal—William James, Mary Calkins, even Fechner and Wundt. However, the mystical and introspective aspects of early psychology were marginalised in the efforts to move psychology away from philosophy and toward the hard sciences (where there was more power, prestige, and money). This marginalisation included the rejection of qualitative and phenomenological methods as well as the rejection of experiences which were not measurable or replicable in laboratory studies. TP offers psychology both an expanded view of human potential and an expanded view of psychological research methods.

On the other hand, TP may be more free to develop without mainstream acceptance. Widespread cultural acceptance is generally not a goal of wisdom traditions. Such acceptance may even be actively resisted by esoteric schools. There is always the possibility that TP would lose its heart and soul in efforts to gain acceptance, much as psychology did in the beginning of the century.

TP as a bridge between psychology and wisdom traditions
Is TP a separate field, neither psychology nor spirituality, which draws from both? As a separate field, it may be in a position to use modern psychology as a ‘language’ for translating the substance of the world wisdom traditions into the contemporary culture. As previous forms of spiritual expression weaken, our deep hunger for the spiritual expresses itself in other ways. Since our culture is so psychologically-oriented, TP could be an avenue for re-introducing spiritual insights and practices. Other arenas for such a bridging include medicine (e.g., holistic health) and the environmental movement (e.g., deep ecology).

TP as an emerging wisdom tradition
Certainly, at this point, TP is not a wisdom tradition. However, is it possible that it is a step toward a uniquely contemporary, postmodern spirituality? Setting aside for a moment its limitations, psychology has provided many insights which can support spiritual development. There is wisdom in the psychoanalytic, behavioral, cognitive, humanistic, and systems perspectives. Deep psychological experience, supported by any of these approaches, can unfold into the transpersonal. We can move from using psychology as a tool for self-regulation and self-exploration to using it for self-liberation. In this view, TP is the flowering of 100 years of psychology and a container for the emergence of a new world wisdom tradition.

Such an emergence must flow from the same source as all genuine spirituality but with a new expression appropriate to our particular time, place, and conditions. Such an emergence could be seen as spirit using what is available to it, unfolding through the wisdom of the spiritual traditions, psychological knowledge, and our current forms of suffering, danger, and hope. What are the dangers of seeing TP as a conduit for bringing spiritual wisdom into our time and place or as the beginnings of a new wisdom tradition? What are the possibilities?

Where will TP fit in relation to postmodernism and its successors? Is TP a science; should it be? Is TP research adequate to the task and faithful to the nature of transpersonal phenomena?

TP and postmodernism
Many psychologists are promoting a shift away from psychology as a natural science and toward psychology’s roots in philosophy. In social psychology, developmental psychology, personality theory, and to a lesser extent in clinical psychology, this shift is being tagged ‘postmodern’. Meanwhile, a major focus in philosophy, literature, art, and the other humanities is a shift from modernism to postmodernism. The modern and postmodern movements are complex, multi-dimensional, and difficult to define. They appear different in different fields. For example, postmodern architecture may end up having little to do with postmodern philosophy. Nevertheless, we can identify some general characteristics as they apply to psychology.

Modernism is based on materialism, positivism, quantification, utilitarianism, and reductionism. Its goal is progress through technology, control, and manipulation, and its mechanistic underpinnings lead to a disenchantment of nature. In this view, nature is a machine made up of discrete entities which interact according to cause-and-effect laws. Therefore nature has no intrinsic value, subjectivity, awareness, or consciousness; it is lifeless, isolated, and impersonal. There is no place for the sacred or the mysterious. Since we are part of nature, we are also without intrinsic value, consciousness (except as an epiphenomenon), essential life, mystery, or enchantment. Modernism and its mechanistic, technological project is at the root of the desacralization of the modern world.

Postmodernism is a sharp contrast to this description of modernism. There are (at least) two very different versions of postmodernism. Deconstructive postmodernism seeks to undo all claims toward ultimate knowledge and truth. All worldviews, it contends, are constructed through social interactions, usually by power groups to maintain their positions. Allegiance to a worldview (system, philosophy, tradition, religion, or metapsychology) depends on how well it serves one’s purposes. Deconstructive postmodernism is deeply critical of all religious and spiritual traditions.

Reconstructive postmodernism, on the other hand, is optimistic, creative, and forward-looking. It recognizes and values multiple realities, multiple levels of reality, and the non-rational influences on reality, experience, and action (e.g., paradigms, culture, class, gender, power dynamics). Reality is ‘soft’, dynamic, and unfolding. Consciousness is primary, and the world is alive with meaning, magic, and mystery. Such a postmodern psychology is relational, holistic, and nondualistic. Context and meaning are central, and the emphasis shifts away from individuals to processes, from ‘what’ to ‘how’. Postmodernism puts enchantment and mystery back into psychology.

Wilber has argued that a postmodern psychology is also ‘post-ego’. Therefore, TP could be at the forefront of this movement. I also smile at the irony that there is much ancient wisdom in such a ‘postmodern’ view. There are, needless to say, many parallels between reconstructive postmodernism and wisdom traditions such as Buddhism and Vedanta. However, as Wilber also points out, the deconstructive version of postmodernism ardently denies the mystical and transcendent.

In many ways, postmodernism is a renewal of spiritual wisdom; in other ways, it brings points of view that are inconsistent with TP. TP stands close to these developments in philosophy and the humanities, and it exemplifies much of the best of reconstructive postmodernism. Wilber (in Paths Beyond Ego) states it more strongly: ‘For conventional academic concerns in the humanities, this [transpersonal developmental studies] will be the hotbed of theoretical action’. It is important that we clarify our relationship to what is happening in the humanities.

TP and science
When conventional psychology turned away from philosophy, it turned toward science. An editorial in a recent APA Monitor by APA’s CEO reinforces the need for psychology to remain true to its scientific principles. ‘Psychology had its roots in philosophy, but science became the foundation on which modern psychology—in all its complexity—was built .... Science remains at the heart of modern psychology’. I have no doubt that he refers to a paradigm of psychological science based on natural science, with its foundations in positivism (i.e., we should only study what we can be positive about, that which can be observed independently), reductionism, and quantification.

Yet, it is just this modernist view of science that rejects humanistic and transpersonal phenomena as unscientific. Fortunately, an alternative paradigm for psychological science is gaining credibility. Often called human science, it is based on holism and methodological pluralism, i.e., a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods. It acknowledges the centrality of intuition and the subjectivity of all research. Humanistic and transpersonal psychology are leading this development and are therefore at the forefront of a larger shift in the social sciences.

There is a great deal of scientific research in TP, both quantitative and qualitative. Meditation is the third most researched topic in clinical and counselling psychology (after behaviour modification and biofeedback). The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology has been publishing research reviews the past several years. Much of this research is simplistic and misses the heart of transpersonal topics. Nevertheless, some of it is of genuine value in expanding our understanding and helping to vindicate and validate TP.

Some argue that it is impossible to do research on spiritual experiences because the requirements of research (e.g., operationalizing variables, quantification, experimental control) are incompatible with transpersonal phenomena. If these are the requirements of scientific research, I agree, but I am convinced that there are other ways of doing good, systematic, rigorous scientific research. A combination of quantitative and qualitative methods allows us to study important aspects of transpersonal phenomena.

To be sure, after all this research is done, the mystery remains, shimmering, alive, and inviting. To my mind, good science only deepens our appreciation of the mystery. Ram Tirtha: ‘What can’t be said, can’t be said, and it can’t be whistled either’. It is a challenge to consider serious research in TP that honours both what can be said and what can’t.

I feel that including serious efforts at scientific research in the context of TP is a positive step. Such research will expand our understanding and capacity for compassionate and effective service. It can also help the acceptance of TP, broadening its influence. A more important reason, however, is that good research requires or calls forth, certain skills and qualities of mind that are important to one’s personal/transpersonal journey. A good scientist is careful, alert to the evidence at hand, intuitive, able to discriminate parts and perceive wholes, curious, sensitive to personal bias, humble (in the face of unsupported hypotheses), patient, and dedicated to the truth above all else. I think these are also the qualities of an effective counsellor and a sincere spiritual practitioner. I hope learning and applying research methods can be a part of developing these qualities in each of us.

What is TP doing to express and nourish its multicultural roots and opportunities? What more can we do? How would psychotherapy and transpersonal practices be different if we celebrated our differences more deeply and if we lived our unity more thoroughly?

Many of TP’s roots are in non-Eurocentric wisdom traditions. TP comes to us at least as much through Asian spiritual systems as through European psychological and philosophical traditions. Strong connections are emerging with various shamanic traditions, esoteric and gnostic European systems such as alchemy and Celtic mysticism, and Native American spirituality. From its origins, TP is strongly multicultural. As psychology (and the culture) wakes up to the reality of diversity and multiculturalism, TP has much to contribute.

I’d say that TP recognizes two responses to the question of diversity. From one perspective, we can recognize and honour the astounding variety in the manifestations of being. We identify a number of dimensions of diversity, including race, culture, gender, age, sexual preference, social class, and so on. Ecopsychologists point also to the diversity of species and ecosystems. Our task is to honour the differences and eliminate bias and oppression in any of these dimensions.

Diversity extends to definitions of mental health and healing practices. For example, from a Eurocentric point of view, many experiences in meditation or shamanic initiations (e.g., hallucinations, dissociations, body-image distortions) would be seen as pathological. However, from the perspective of meditative traditions or indigenous cultures, these are seen as normal, even healthy signs of development or indications of extraordinary mental health. Transpersonal views of the mind as space and body as energy or consciousness are also rooted in non-western psychologies as well as in some versions of postmodern science. While mainstream psychology focuses almost exclusively on the normal waking state of consciousness, TP values other states of consciousness, including dreams, shamanic states of consciousness, and non-egoic states of consciousness. Walsh and Vaughan call this a distinction between ‘monophasic’ and ‘polyphasic’ cultures.

TP also recognizes universal dimensions of being and the unity that underlies the variety of forms. From this perspective, differences shift to the background, and the fundamental oneness of the universe comes to the foreground. Nonduality, holism, and the interpenetration of being enter the psychological discourse.

TP has been criticised for emphasising the universal oneness at the expense of diversity, and this criticism should be heard. I find myself particularly drawn to the argument that unity is an easier position for those in power than for those who are marginalised. The shadow of ‘We are one’ may be blindness to subtle forms of discrimination and disempowerment. Nevertheless, unity is at the foundation of a transpersonal view.

Transpersonal psychology is strongly multicultural. It values the diversity of expressions of human experience while recognising the universality of its deeper dimensions. It actively seeks out and integrates insights on human nature and healing from a wide variety of cultures. It recognizes the role of the cultural context in the experience of individuals and groups. Transpersonal psychology requires us to challenge our culturally-defined views of mental health and psychotherapy and to draw cross-cultural insights into clinical psychology. We can and should do more in this area. It is incumbent on all transpersonal psychologists to actively work toward the goal of greater diversity in our professional practitioners, teachers, methods, and clients.

What perspectives, skills, knowledge, and experiences does it take to be an effective transpersonal counsellor? How can we better understand and manifest a transpersonal context for psychotherapy? What really helps?

Transpersonal psychology applies itself in many ways, including education, service to organisations, and earth work. Its most common application, though, is in clinical and counselling psychology. This section comments on some aspects of transpersonal psychotherapy.

Context, content, and process
A basic distinction in transpersonal psychotherapy: transpersonal content, process, and context (Vaughan). Examples of content include transpersonal and mystical experiences, spiritual emergencies, and archetypal dreams. Examples of transpersonal process include practices drawn from spiritual traditions—meditation, vision fasting, ritual, and shamanic inductions, for example. Context refers to the attitude of the counsellor and includes holding in view the client’s intrinsic health, being mindful and present-centered regardless of the particular content or processes, seeing psychotherapy as both an act of service and an act of work on oneself, and recognizing the ground of nonduality in the psychotherapeutic situation.

Relying on transpersonal context, transpersonal psychotherapy is an attitude and orientation applicable to any therapeutic situation and any of the predicaments which bring people to psychotherapy. It can also be done in any setting including individual private practice, agencies, and community development. A transpersonal context may not be evident to clients or observers. A student of mine pointed out that a transpersonal context may be held by the client and not the counsellor. Thus, she found herself working on personal relationship issues with her therapist, but fitting her work into what she (as a client) saw as her transpersonal journey.

Transpersonal psychotherapy can also have specific and beneficial applications to a variety of issues including spiritual emergency, recovery from trauma, psychosis, developmental disabilities, addictions, grief work, death and dying, and health psychology. Transpersonal content and process may be more or less obvious.

Confusion and suffering can arise from working with transpersonal processes or content without a deeply transpersonal context. It may look like TP on the surface, but its deep structure is not. A simple example is a counsellor working with spirit guides, angels, or past-life regressions in a way that strengthens the client’s ego defences. I suspect we all accept (or know) energy or consciousness that is not embodied and sources of deep, clear wisdom that do not come from personal history. The notion of reincarnation is certainly well-accepted by many wisdom traditions. Yet, such experiences are easily taken in by the ego and used to thicken, rather than see through, personality structures. A transpersonal context reminds us to focus less on whether such phenomena are real or not and more on what the person is doing with them. Are we using them to open to a deeper experience of living or to retreat, constrict, and defend from the fullness and immediacy of life?

The nature of service
A transpersonal view points to authentic helping which is nondualistic, selfless, and oriented to process not outcome. ‘Inauthentic’ service, on the other hand, might be based on conditional love or be aimed at promoting some kind of idealised self-image. Transpersonal service is a natural reflexive response springing from awareness, love, openness, and understanding. Psychotherapy is sacred activism and, in professional counsellors, we expect love and activism to be informed by skilful means and elegant mind.

One of my favourite recent research studies examines this point. Carol Montgomery of CU’s School of Nursing found that the best caregivers (in her research, published in JTP, they were nurses) expressed a sense of transcendence, the experience of being part of a larger whole, and a spiritual base for their work (though they said this in many different ways). They were intimately involved with patients on emotional and spiritual levels, and as a result, they experienced helping as a source of energy rather than burnout. These nurses were not trained in TP, and Montgomery was not looking for these results. She writes that she was frustrated because she couldn’t find what these nurses were doing. She finally realized what set them apart from ordinary nurses was, instead, a way of being. Her research also challenges the conventional psychological wisdom that, to avoid burnout, we should not get too involved with our clients. Transpersonal context does matter.

How well are the roots of TP reflected in transpersonal education? How do we relate to contemplative and transpersonal practices in our own lives? What is our commitment to our own transpersonal paths; what are our blocks?

Transpersonal and mainstream education
Many conventional approaches to higher education are guided by Bloom’s Taxonomy of Education, a hierarchical arrangement of cognitive skills: memorisation, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Critical thinking, a ‘hot item’ in higher education these days, attempts to teach students to carry an argument from premise to conclusion, apply abstractions, and examine the evidence and assumptions behind arguments. Affective education is generally not included, and the cultivation of mindfulness, intuition, openness to immediate experience, and compassion are nowhere in these schemes.

These approaches rely entirely on rationality and intellect. From the point of view of TP, careful and powerful use of the intellect is desirable, but exclusive reliance on rationality is, at best, limited. Approaches to education and inquiry in general based solely on critical thinking and the rational mind are desacralized, disembodied, disenchanted, and arid.

A basic principle of critical thinking is to identify and question the assumptions behind an argument. Examining the assumption of rationality as the best (or only) means of arriving at knowledge, I find it lop-sided and biased. It is biased in the sense that it idealizes masculine, Eurocentric approaches to education— the linear, analytic, etc. When we look at other cultures, for instance, and especially to wisdom traditions, we find them prizing masters of intuition and contemplation more than scholars and pundits, the experts in critical thinking. Educational pluralism values learning styles beyond the linear, left-brained approach advocated by critical thinking, without devaluing elegant, curious, and creative thought.

Transpersonal education stands for an integration of critical and contemplative thinking. It is radically (‘at-the-root’) experiential, a blend of intuition and intellect, trans-rational, evoking enchantment and inspiration, and rooted in mystery and love. TP values not only clear, systematic analysis, but also wildness, chaos, and awakening. Transpersonal education brings to mind Heidegger’s term, ‘true thinking’, i.e., inner stillness, the understanding that is before ego-driven discursive thought. It promotes a dialogue with silence.

As teachers, we constantly face the challenges of blending contemplative and critical thinking, experience and theory, intuition and intellect. At its worst, teaching regresses into lists of impersonal facts and teachers become authorities and oppressors, tools of the regime of technology. The flip side of this, idealising experience at the expense of understanding and careful examination is not much better. When we are more clear, teaching integrates theory and experience. We move easily from experience to theory and back again, each balancing, supporting, and completing the other. In the moments when we are most clear, teaching reveals the nonduality of contemplation and thought. The mind, as a brilliant, luminous, crystal clear manifestation of Being, dissolves into Mind, and the moment unfolds. We feel intimate, vulnerable, graceful, alive, and blessed. Intellect becomes another expression of love and joy.

Crisis in transpersonal psychotherapy and training
Recently, I got a request from a researcher in a neighbouring counselling psychology programme to include students in the Transpersonal Counselling Psychology Department at The Naropa Institute—a very strong and well-respected counselling training programme—in a study of graduate student burnout. As I reviewed her measures of stress and burnout, it occurred to me that many of the indicators of burnout reflect the kind of journey we expected many transpersonal counselling psychology students to take during their graduate programmes. What to another programme might look like burnout and a problem to be fixed or avoided, looked to me like the necessary breaking down of preconceptions, defences, and habitual patterns. When I asked the researcher how she planned to handle this difference between programme philosophies, she paused and said she hadn’t considered it. Since it was not part of her educational paradigm, the questions had not occurred. She chose, for the time being, not to use Naropa’s students in her study.
This experience points to one of the defining characteristics of transpersonal psychotherapy. In therapy and counselling as well as education, TP sees crisis as an often necessary step in the process of opening. Some kinds of crisis are known as Positive Disintegration (Dembrowski), Spiritual Emergency (Grof and Grof), or initiations. They have been the subject of much research and theory.

One of my students recently did a qualitative research study of a broad sample of people who identified themselves as being on some kind of spiritual path. She was especially interested in what had prompted their searches. It turns out that each of the people she interviewed said that some kind of crisis, trauma, or difficulty had been a precipitating factor in their spiritual work. Perhaps it is not a requirement, but it seems that psychological crisis is a frequent accompaniment to transpersonal work. These crises may be relatively small and contained or major life disruptions, but they are well-known in spiritual and transpersonal development. TP can provide the understanding and support to help make these crises useful and positive. Furthermore, to the extent that therapists have explored their own crises, they will better be able to be present with and skilful with their clients’ crises.

Spiritual practice and transpersonal education
In transpersonal education, and particularly in training transpersonal counsellors and psychotherapists, we offer knowledge and experience in transpersonal content and we help students develop skills in the application of transpersonal processes. We also aim toward personal and transpersonal development of the student, a deeper realization of a transpersonal context. This brings personal contemplative practice into the discussion of transpersonal education. The key element in contemplative practices is that you are learning to be present with and work with your immediate experience, you are developing the capacity to be present in the here-and-now, and you are discovering ways of being that are not directed by discursive and evaluative thought or emotional reactivity. They include a variety of awareness and mindfulness practices such as insight meditation, Christian contemplative prayer, and the ancient art of walking as in Celtic mysticism.

Contemplative practices are important in students’ transpersonal development in general, and they are central in teaching students to be transpersonal psychotherapists. Beyond their function in training the basic elements of helping—attention, present-centredness, empathy, self-exploration—they provide the basis for the self-realization of the person in the role of therapist. This is the aspect of transpersonal psychotherapy, which most clearly sets it apart from other approaches to psychotherapy training.

I think ongoing contemplative development is essential in transpersonal education. The development and refinement of authentic being and the expansion of moment-to-moment awareness is the basis of TP. This is as true for teachers as it is for students. Transpersonal education calls us all to our practice. Understanding compassionate and effective means of supporting contemplative and spiritual practices also reminds us that coercion usually elicits resistance; this call is an invitation, not an obligation.

TP flows from an orientation to life, teaching, and service that is expansive, optimistic, appreciative, courageous, and compassionate. This orientation may not always be evident on the surface, but it cannot be dismissed. Without it, TP cuts itself off from its roots. Transpersonal education also comes with a challenge: to explore what is truly unique and beneficial about transpersonal psychology and the source of that uniqueness and benefit.

A more comprehensive, fully-referenced paper by Dr John Davis, An Introduction to Transpersonal Psychology, is available from Noumenon for a small donation to cover photocopying and postage.

DR JOHN DAVIS is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. He has taught at the Naropa Institute and he is also a certified teacher of A.H. Almaas’ Diamond Approach. His book The Diamond Approach: An Introduction to the Work of A.H. Almaas will be published in July 1999 by Shambhala Publications.

Noumenon:Newsletter for the Nondual Perspective

Nonduality: The Varieties of Expression Home

Jerry Katz
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