What is Transpersonal Psychotherapy?

Transpersonal psychotherapyOne of the dangers in trying to define transpersonal psychotherapy is that one can become overly analytical and miss the core essence of the approach. For transpersonal psychotherapists will maintain that the interaction with the client is heart felt, not theory driven. Unlike psychoanalysis there is no strict adherence to the rule of neutrality or non self disclosure. Various tools and techniques are employed where the practice may be defined as holistic and integrative. It could be argued that all tools and techniques are transpersonal, given a transpersonal framework.

Transpersonal academics view their approach as going beyond the person, as trans egoic, that is to say beyond the normal range of human perception or experience. Whilst this may sound extremely self important of transpersonalists the reasoning is that if we do not have a language to describe an inner experience it remains unfathomable and becomes lost to the unconscious side of our psyche. Hence, the term transpersonal experience refers to those perceptions and experiences that some people have (and most others don’t) which go beyond our normal experience. Cortright (1997) described transpersonal psychology as the scientific study of higher states of consciousness.  Boorstein (1997) saw transpersonal psychology as addressing the broadest conceptualisation possible of human psychological growth and was not bounded by any spiritual or religious system. Lajoie and Shapiro (1992) have also defined transpersonal psychology as concerned with the study of humanity’s highest potential. Human potential is, of course, a modern one, being defined by Maslow (1968) as one of the fundamental tenets of transpersonal psychology.

crossing into the world of the transpersonal when we speak about about the numinous, the sacred and the holy

Transpersonal therapists will often refer to their own journey of discovery, and reaching different levels of consciousness through active engagement with symbolism, creative imagination and meditation. Indeed, John Rowan points out that because of this self discovery, the transpersonal community (if one is allowed to be generalist) can often appear to be dogmatic and not open to debate – perhaps because they have discovered “the truth” for themselves through a phenomenological experience, and, therefore, it must be true! Rowan points out that there is often a lack of debate at transpersonal conferences and rarely a questions and answers session.  I can’t comment one way or the other as I have not yet attended one. What I am sure about, though, is that if there is one thing to be dogmatic about, it is the importance of not being dogmatic. Rowan (2010) also notes that so long as we are referring to ego states, subpersonalities, complexes and so forth we are not within psychospiritual territory.  We cross into the world of the transpersonal when we speak about the numinous, the sacred and the holy.This does not mean, however, that God needs to be seen as an external agency or divine.

It is alleged that the word “transpersonal” was first introduced into psychology by William James in a 1905 lecture. The word was also used in 1942 by Carl Jung as the German term, überpersonlich, which his English translators rendered as “transpersonal”. However, Jung would turn in his grave if he was labelled as part of any movement or approach. Indeed the word trans is derived from the latin for ‘across’ (to the other side). Only by looking to the spiritual dimension that includes and transcends heredity and environment can we discuss an adequate answer to the problem of human existence. Transpersonal psychotherapy could, therefore, be seen as an approach beyond the personal and seeking the sacred in the daily, ordinary life and consciousness in which people live. It is consciousness that heals and it is consciousness that frees us from our unconsciousness conditioning.

“You need to be a somebody before you can be a nobody”

Transpersonal psychotherapists share a great deal of common ground with therapists from other schools in the way they can reflect back material to the client, mirror to the client, engage in active listening, holding, containing and helping them to seek meaning and so on. But the defining difference in transpersonal psychotherapy, to that of the other approaches, is the active pursuit of the spiritual dimension. There is an old cliche in transpersonal circles “You need to be a somebody before you can be a nobody”. That is why it is essential that the tools and techniques from other modalities are employed to deal with the pre personal and personal material that is presented by the client. For more information on this, see my posts on Wilber and transformation of consciousness.

The core assumption of the transpersonal approach, especially the Sufi influenced CCPE model, is to view the essential nature of the client as spiritual and that there is a spiritual source which is the ground from which psychological structures arise. Unlike the Judeo Christian view, the soul has its own journey and remains innocent irrespective of the impressions it receives, however bad, in the material world.  (It is also different to the Buddhist tradition which does not see the soul journey).

An essential task of a transpersonal psychotherapist, therefore, is to recognise the client’s innate and unique nature and witness the soul and see its challenges in life. It does not mean that the client needs to believe in God. Indeed an atheist will not visual angels because they won’t believe in angels but can still access deeper levels of consciousness as to their own identity.

In the therapy there is a journey beyond the rational mind where archetypes, myths and symbolism can be explored. Transpersonal psychotherapy is realised through the consciousness of the therapist and is a lived experience, not merely a belief system.

understanding one’s soul attunement

The CCPE model offers a tri-partite approach to guide client work by using the CCPE Elements Model as a typological manual to investigate shadow material and to manifest qualities, the planes of consciousness and chakras to understand one’s soul attunement and alchemy to help guide a transformational process. The model is heavily influenced by Jung.

Jung and Symbolic LanguageWhere Freud was perhaps the psychological figurehead of the 20th Century it is possible that Jung could become to be seen as the figurehead of the 21st Century. The future orientation of Jungian therapy is what is exciting about this approach. For Jung, the unconscious fulfils a positive role, performing a therapeutic function by showing the conscious mind what needs to be done to dispel unease and unhappiness and to achieve fuller satisfaction in life.

The job of a transpersonal psychotherapist is to help clients decode the symbols or symptoms that are presenting and to understand the messages from the inner world that are manifesting in the physical world. Critics, such as Walter Benjamin, point out the dangers of therapists interpreting dreams and symbols for the client. Transpersonal therapists believe, however, that the waking dream technique can help guard against these dangers, as it is the client who is providing the narrative on the impact of their dream in their body, not the therapist.

Working with creative imagination is what defines transpersonal psychotherapy in practice. This is how clients are guided to access their real selves, their essence or their soul types and to engage with opposites, such as animus and anima. Post Jungians accept we all have both, that men have inner anima and women have inner animus.  Becoming conscious of these opposites through dreams and active imagination, by entering into dialogue with these through identification with sub personalities, for example, we can start the process of making these conscious and the work can lead towards integration. Rowan (2010) expands on this by talking about multiplicity and the important concept of I-Positions.

There are many transpersonal approaches in addition to Jungian symbolism including (and this is not mean’t to be an exhaustive list) Shemanic Therapy, Almaas’s Diamond Approach, Archetypal psychology of James Hillman, Robert Sardello’s Soul Practice, Psychosynthesis founded by Roberto Assagioli; Zen Transactional Psychotherapy created by Robert M. Anthony; and the theories of Otto Rank, Michael WashburnAbraham Maslow, Stanislav Grof and Ken Wilber (although Wilber is very fluid in what he identifies himself as, sometimes rejecting the transpersonal tag). Perhaps the most simple definition is to view the transpersonal as beyond personal. It is hard to understand how psychology, which sought to discover the truth of human existence, could have avoided the realm of spirituality for so long.

Rowan states that one of the most important facts about the transpersonal is that it has no basic texts, no centre and no founder. Rather, the transpersonal community is a number of people all trying to make sense of what Maslow called the farther reaches of human nature.

Somers and Gordon-Brown state that integrative transpersonal psychotherapy combines a number of different therapies and, therefore, interventions under the transpersonal umbrella, which includes the personal but also transcends it. To further understand the transpersonal approach it is worth noting what Sa’adi says “Every being is created for a purpose and the light of that purpose is already kindled in his soul”.

Ultimately, the transpersonal psychotherapist is a holistic and integrative practitioner and needs to be mindful of the special place of supervision, continuing professional development (CPD) and research, given the absence of specialisation in any one particular approach. Being integrative means being committed to the whole project of therapy, rather than to a particular approach. However, the ongoing challenge for practitioners is how to maintain appropriate boundaries with the client, if the therapy is truly heartfelt.