Understanding Transpersonal Psychology

In the middle of the twentieth century, American psychology was dominated by two major schools – behaviourism, and Freudian psychology. Increasing dissatisfaction with these two orientations as adequate approaches to the human psyche led to the development of humanistic psychology. The main spokesman and most articulate representative of this new field was the well-known American psychologist Abraham Maslow. He offered an incisive critique of the limitations of behaviorism and psychoanalysis, or the First and the Second Force in psychology as he called them, and formulated the principles of a new perspective in psychology.
Maslow’s main objection against behaviorism was that the study of animals, such as rats and pigeons, can only clarify those aspects of human functioning that we share with these animals. It thus has no relevance for the understanding of higher, specifically human qualities that are unique to human life, such as love, self-consciousness, self-determination, personal freedom, morality, art, philosophy, religion, and science. It is also largely useless in regard to some specifically human negative characteristics, such as greed, lust for power, cruelty, and tendency to “malignant aggression,”
He also criticized the behaviorists’ disregard for consciousness and introspection and their exclusive focus on the study of behavior.

By contrast, the primary interest of humanistic psychology, Maslow’s Third Force, was in human subjects, and this discipline honored the interest in consciousness and introspection as important complements to the objective approach to research. The behaviorists’ exclusive emphasis on determination by the environment, stimulus/response, and reward/punishment was replaced by emphasis of the capacity of human beings to be internally directed and motivated to achieve self-realization and fulfil their human potential.

Within a few years after Abraham Maslow and Anthony Sutich launched the Association for Humanistic Psychology (AHP) and its journal, the new movement became extremely popular among American mental health professionals and even in the general public. The multidimensional perspective of humanistic psychology and its emphasis on the whole person provided a broad umbrella for the development of a rich spectrum of new effective therapeutic approaches that greatly expanded the range of possibilities of dealing with emotional, psychosomatic, interpersonal, and psychosocial problems.
Among the important characteristics of these new therapies was a decisive shift from the exclusively verbal strategies of traditional psychotherapy to direct expression of emotions and from exploration of individual history and of unconscious motivation to the feelings and thought processes of the clients in the here and now. Another important aspect of this therapeutic revolution was the emphasis on the interconnectedness of the psyche and the body and overcoming of the taboo against touching, previously dominating the field of psychotherapy. Various forms of bodywork thus formed an integral part of the new treatment strategies; Fritz Perls’ Gestalt therapy, Alexander Lowen’s bioenergetics and other neo-Reichian approaches, encounter groups, and marathon sessions can be mentioned here as salient examples of humanistic therapies.

 In spite of the popularity of humanistic psychology, its founders Maslow and Sutich themselves grew dissatisfied with the conceptual framework they had originally created. They became increasingly aware that they had left out an extremely important element - the spiritual dimension of the human psyche. The renaissance of interest in Eastern spiritual philosophies, various mystical traditions, meditation, ancient and aboriginal wisdom, as well as the widespread psychedelic experimentation during the stormy 1960s made it absolutely clear that a comprehensive and cross-culturally valid psychology had to include observations from such areas as mystical states; cosmic consciousness; psychedelic experiences; trance phenomena; creativity; and religious, artistic, and scientific inspiration.

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... Soon afterwards, 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.

Transpersonal psychology, or the Fourth Force, addressed some major misconceptions of mainstream psychiatry and psychology concerning spirituality and religion. It also responded to important observations from modern consciousness research and several other fields for which the existing scientific paradigm had no adequate explanations. Michael Harner, American anthropologist with good academic credentials, who also experienced during his field work in the Amazon a powerful shamanic initiation, summed up the shortcomings of academic psychology very succinctly in the preface to his book The Way of the Shaman. He suggested that the understanding of the psyche in the industrial civilization is seriously biased in two important ways: it is ethnocentric and cognicentric.

It is ethnocentric in the sense that it has been formulated and promoted by Western materialistic scientists, who consider their own perspective to be superior to that of any other human groups at any time of history. According to them, matter is primary and life, consciousness, and intelligence are its more or less accidental side products. Spirituality of any form and level of sophistication reflects ignorance of scientific facts, superstition, child-like gullibility, self-deception, and primitive magical thinking. Direct spiritual experiences involving the collective unconscious or archetypal figures and realms are seen as pathological products of the brain.

Modern mainstream psychiatrists interpret visionary experiences of the founders of great religions, saints, and prophets as manifestations of serious mental diseases, although they lack adequate medical explanations and the laboratory data supporting this position. In their contemptuous dismissal of ritual and spiritual life, they do not distinguish between primitive folk beliefs or the fundamentalists' literal interpretations of scriptures and sophisticated mystical traditions and Eastern spiritual philosophies based on centuries of systematic introspective exploration of the psyche.

Psychiatric literature contains numerous articles and books that discuss what would be the most appropriate clinical diagnoses for many of the great figures of spiritual history. St. Anthony has been called schizophrenic, St. John of the Cross labeled “hereditary degenerate,” St. Teresa of Avila has been dismissed as a severe hysterical psychotic, and Mohammed's mystical experiences have been attributed to epilepsy. Many other religious and spiritual personages, such as the Buddha, Jesus, Ramakrishna, and Sri Ramana Maharshi have been seen as suffering from psychoses, because of their visionary experiences and “delusions.” Similarly, some traditionally trained anthropologists have argued whether shamans should be diagnosed as schizophrenics, ambulant psychotics, epileptics, or hysterics. The famous psychoanalyst Franz Alexander, known as one of the founders of psychosomatic medicine, wrote a paper in which even Buddhist meditation is described in psychopathological terms and referred to as “artificial catatonia”.

While Western psychology and psychiatry describe the ritual and spiritual life of ancient and native cultures in pathological terms, dangerous excesses of the industrial civilization potentially endangering life on the planet have become such integral parts of our life that they seldom attract specific attention of clinicians and researchers and do not receive pathological labels.

We witness on a daily basis manifestations of insatiable greed and malignant aggression - plundering of non-renewable resources and turning them into industrial pollution, defiling of natural environment critical for survival by nuclear fallout, toxic chemicals, and massive oil spills, abuse of scientific discoveries in physics, chemistry, and biology for development of weapons of mass destruction, invasion of other countries leading to massacres of civilians and genocide, and designing military operations that would kill millions of people.

The main engineers and protagonists of such detrimental strategies and doomsday scenarios not only walk freely, but are rich and famous, hold powerful positions in society, and receive various honors. By the same token, people who have potentially life-transforming mystical states, episodes of psychospiritual death and rebirth, or past-life experiences end up hospitalized with stigmatizing diagnoses and suppressive psychopharmacological medication. This is what Michael Harner referred to as the ethnocentric bias in judging what is normal and what is pathological.

According to Michael Harner, Western psychiatry and psychology also show a strong cognicentric bias. By this he means that these disciplines formulated their theories on the basis of experiences and observations from ordinary states of consciousness and have systematically avoided or misinterpreted the evidence from non-ordinary states, such as observations from psychedelic therapy, powerful experiential psychotherapies, work with individuals in psychospiritual crises, meditation research, field anthropological studies, or thanatology. The paradigm-breaking data from these areas of research have been either systematically ignored or misjudged and misinterpreted because of their fundamental incompatibility with the leading paradigm.

Transpersonal psychology is interested in a significant subgroup of these states that have heuristic, healing, transformative and even evolutionary potential. This includes experiences of shamans and their clients, those of initiates in native rites of passage and ancient mysteries of death and rebirth, of spiritual practitioners and mystics of all ages, and individuals in psychospiritual crisis.

Transpersonal psychology has made a significant headway toward correcting the ethnocentric and cognicentric bias of mainstream psychiatry and psychology, particularly by its recognition of the genuine nature of transpersonal experiences and their value. In the light of modern consciousness research, the current conceited dismissal and pathologization of spirituality characteristic of monistic materialism appears untenable. In holotropic states, the spiritual dimensions of reality can be directly experienced in a way that is as convincing as our daily experience of the material world, if not more so.
Careful study of transpersonal experiences shows that they cannot be explained as products of pathological processes in the brain, but are ontologically real.

To distinguish transpersonal experiences from imaginary products of individual fantasy, Jungian psychologists refer to this domain as imaginal. The imaginal world possesses extension and dimensions, forms and colors, but these are not perceptible to our senses as they would be when they are properties of physical objects. However, this realm is in every respect as fully ontologically real and susceptible to consensual validation by other people as the material world perceived Spiritual experiences appear in two different forms.

The first of these, the experience of the immanent divine, is characterized by subtly, but profoundly transformed perception of the everyday reality... The second form of spiritual experience, that of the transcendent divine, involves manifestation of archetypal beings and realms of reality that are ordinarily transphenomenal, that is unavailable to perception in the everyday state of consciousness.

The study of holotropic states confirmed C. G. Jung's insight that the experiences originating on deeper levels of the psyche (in my own terminology “perinatal” and “transpersonal” experiences) have a certain quality that he called (after Rudolph Otto) numinosity. The term numinous is relatively neutral and thus preferable to other similar names, such as religious, mystical, magical, holy, or sacred, which have often been used in problematic contexts and are easily misleading. The sense of numinosity is based on direct apprehension of the fact that we are encountering a domain that belongs to a superior order of reality, one which is sacred and radically different from the material world.

Transpersonal psychology, as it was born in the late 1960s … represented such a radical departure from academic thinking in professional circles that it could not be reconciled… The problematic status of transpersonal psychology among “hard sciences” changed very radically during the first two decades of the existence of this fledgling discipline. As a result of revolutionary new concepts and discoveries in various scientific fields, the philosophy of traditional Western science, its basic assumptions, and its Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm were increasingly seriously challenged and undermined. Like many other theoreticians in the transpersonal field, I have followed this development with great interest and described it in the first part of my book Beyond the Brain as an effort to bridge the gap between the findings of my own research and the established scientific worldview.

At least two major intellectual attempts at integrating transpersonal psychology into a comprehensive new world view deserve to be mentioned in this context. The first of these pioneering ventures has been the work of Ken Wilber. Wilber has achieved a highly creative synthesis of data drawn from a vast variety of areas and disciplines, ranging from psychology, anthropology, sociology, mythology, and comparative religion, through linguistics, philosophy, and history, to cosmology, quantum-relativistic physics, biology, evolutionary theory, and systems theory. His knowledge of the literature is truly encyclopedic, his analytical mind systematic and incisive, and his ability to communicate clearly complex ideas is remarkable. The impressive scope, comprehensive nature, and intellectual rigor of Wilber's work have helped to make it a widely acclaimed and highly influential theory of transpersonal psychology.

The second pioneering attempt to integrate transpersonal psychology into a new comprehensive world view has been the work of Ervin Laszlo, the world’s foremost system theorist, interdisciplinary scientist, and philosopher of Hungarian origin, currently living in Italy. A multifaceted individual with a range of interests and talents reminiscent of great figures of the Renaissance, Laszlo achieved international fame as a child prodigy and concert pianist in his teens. A few years later, he turned to science and philosophy, beginning his lifetime search for understanding of the human nature and the nature of reality. Where Wilber outlined what an integral theory of everything should look like, Laszlo actually created one. In an intellectual tour de force and a series of books, Laszlo has explored a wide range of disciplines, including astrophysics, quantum-relativistic physics, biology, and psychology. He pointed out a wide range of phenomena, paradoxical observations, and paradigmatic challenges, for which these disciplines have no explanations. He then examined the attempts of various pioneers of new paradigm science to provide solutions for these conceptual challenges.
It has been very exciting to see that all the new revolutionary developments in science, while irreconcilable with the seventeenth century Newtonian-Cartesian thinking and monistic materialism, have been compatible with transpersonal psychology. As a result of these conceptual breakthroughs in a number of disciplines, it has become increasingly possible to imagine that transpersonal psychology will be in the future accepted by academic circles and become an integral part of a radically new scientific world view. As scientific progress continues to lift the spell of the outdated seventeenth century materialistic worldview, we can see the general outlines of an emerging radically new comprehensive understanding of ourselves, nature, and the universe we live in. This new paradigm should be able to reconcile science with experientially based spirituality of a non-denominational, universal, and all-embracing nature and bring about a synthesis of modern science and ancient wisdom.

About the author: 

Stanislav Grof’s professional career has covered a period of over 50 years in which his primary interest has been research of the heuristic and therapeutic potential of non-ordinary states of consciousness. The following is excerpted from a longer piece entitled ‘A Brief History of Transpersonal Psychology’ and is used with kind permission of Dr. Grof. For the full piece and much more information on Dr. Grof and his work please visit