Can psychoanalysis be called transpersonal?

Sigmund FreudIn classic Freudian therapy,  psychological ill health emerges when the balance between the id, ego and super ego is distorted. “Patients” will present for counselling in an egodystonic state – when thoughts and behaviours are in conflict, or dissonant, with the needs and goals of the ego, or, further, in conflict with a person’s ideal self-image or when defences have failed them.

Another way of looking at this would be when the mental defences do not achieve any secondary gain, but are experienced as wholly unpleasureable.

For Freud, in order for psychosexual development to be seamless, the superego should facilitate the successful resolution of the Oedipal crisis. Rivalry that is well managed by the parents can lead to the child’s sense of fairness and a pursuit of justice

Psychoanalysis has contributed some very useful tools to integrative counselling and psychotherapy such as working with the transference, free association, dream analysis, observing slips of the tongue, projective identification, projection and boundary (frame) management. The psychoanalytic approach can be seen in the thinking and practices of many counsellors and therapists who call themselves ‘integrative’. For example, there is a strong psychoanalytic interest in Transactional Analysis, and most Person-Centred counsellors and Existential Therapists not only embrace, but actively work with the idea of transference. Indeed, a major part of assessing a new client is to take a thorough inventory of early history and seek to build a narrative about the quality and robustness of early bonds.

Freud’s project was to demonstrate a quasi-scientific objectivity of the unconscious that could be replicated across cultures.  However, Freud was not privy to advances in neuroscientific research and insightful tools such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) scanning which help us understand the workings of the brain. Dr Susan Greenfield has more recently claimed that the subconscious is a mere add-on to the debate about what constitutes consciousness as opposed to unconsciousness. For Greenfield, in science (and Freud was seeking a science of the mind), is to obtain impartial third person access to an event or a phenomenon – something that you can measure and it is very hard to measure an interaction.  Psychoanalysis involves an interaction between the practitioner and the patient, whereas what happens in science is completely impartial. Greenfield questions whether one psychoanalyst and another would yield exactly the same outcome.

So, can psychoanalysis be termed transpersonal? Ken Wilber says that to have an oedipal problem simply means that this transition has largely failed. It could also be argued that in the free floating attention required of the analyst in long term analysis, when the analyst engages in deep unconscious to unconscious relationship with the patient, there is a deep spiritual connection in the room.  Furthermore, neo Freudian Michael Eigen  could be viewed as exploring similar ground to transpersonal following his writings on mysticism. Whilst Eigen could not be called a transpersonal therapist, his analytical writings, nevertheless, demonstrate a degree of symmetry with transpersonal material when working with the unconscious and in using symbols. The primary orientation of his approach might not be the pursuit of a client’s soul journey but there is active engagement with visualisations, altered states of consciousness and symbolism.



Ken Wilber and Integral Theory

Ken Wilber

Last week we had the first of two lectures on the transpersonal ideas of Ken Wilber, author of the Spectrum of Consciousness.  This week we heard all about his integral theories of consciousness.

To recap, for Wilber there are three stages of development.

Pre personal

This is the primitive (unconscious) stage, before we know who we are.


There is a sense of self.  We work through our own personal material to get a better idea of our real nature.  We are not just an extension of our parents but we begin to have our own sense of being.


We go beyond the limited sense of being and we start to get experience of connection.

For Wilber there is the risk of the Pre trans fallacy: Children do not have a conscious relationship with spirit. If we are only dealing with two categories and all we have is the personal and the transpersonal then the mistake is to see everything that is not personal as transpersonal.

There is also a risk of spiritual by-pass if you fail to adequately deal with your messy personal material.  You need to have developed a healthy ego in order to be able to transcend it.

In the development of his philosophy Wilber borrowed the concept of the holon from Arthur Koestler. The idea of a holon is that everything is not only a whole, but also part of a larger whole, so a “part/whole” or “hol-on”. That is true for atoms, molecules, organisms, human being, but also for letters in a word, words in a sentence, sentences on a page, pages in a book, etc. — as the familiar holistic sequence goes.

For example, love can be an earthly love in the romantic sense but also be love in the spiritual way. Everything is connected to everything else, nothing is in isolation.  Wilber was very much into ecology

Wilber outlines “twenty tenets” of holons that are common to evolving or growing systems wherever we find them.  The 20 tenets of holon theory is of course, only one part of:the practice of emrgnc.

Reality consists of helons, nothing exists in isolation.

The four fundamental capacities of helons:

1 Self preservation: Every holon wants to survive.

2. Self adaption: Every holon adapts itself in order to survive (evolution).

3. Self transcendence: Every holon wants to be the best it can be  (evolution).

4. Self disillusion: Once it has realised itself then it is done.

Holons emerge.  We can’t make them happen.  It is an organic process. Albert Einstein once said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. In therapy, how many times do we hear clients fail to take action or to change behaviour?

Each emergent holon transcends and includes its predecessor.  Like in therapy we are not jettisoning our inner child.  We can become playful with our inner child but we are not living from that place anymore. We have transcended and included the previous evolutionary steps. The lower sets the possibilities for the higher. In therapy this is where a client learns to build a healthy ego before more advanced spiritual work can take place.

Remember that Wilber is a Zen Buddhist and, therefore, claims a science of spiritual growth. There is increasing telos as we achieve more alignment with our divine selves.

Integral World

Integral theory is a philosophy promoted by Wilber that seeks a synthesis of the best of pre-modern, modern and postmodern reality. Integral theory initially started as a theoretical transpersonal psychology that attempted to synthesize Western and non-Western understandings of consciousness with notions of biological, mental, and divine evolution.

As Wilber has demonstrated in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, human consciousness can be seen as a holon, with four aspects or quadrants:

1. inner-individual (upper left): introspective consciousness. What is going on in me?

2. outer-individual (Upper right): observable behaviour, the outer individual. What am I doing in the world?

3. inner-collective (lower left): our cultural beliefs, how does this affect the community I am a part of. This relates to Jung’s collective unconscious. Witness the ecology movement.

4. outer-collective (Lower right): the society we live in.  This is what broadly is studied by sociology.

Each quadrant consists of nine levels/stages. Combining quadrants with levels gives the “all quadrants, all levels” approach of Integral Philosophy. It is not enough to have awareness, we need to make a difference in the world.  Have you ever sat in a therapy room and listened to a client talk endlessly about themselves with great insight but their world never changes? For Wilber, we need to take action.

According  to Springer in “Transpersonal Psychology” Wilber has since distanced himself from transpersonal psychology.   As Sean Esbjörn-Hargens says in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, Integral Theory has turned into an emerging field of academic discourse and research focused on the complex interactions of ontology, epistemology, and methodology. However, there is on-going discussion surrounding its standing in academia. The Theory is relatively new as the first interdisciplinary academic conference on Integral Theory took place in 2008.

Overall, I see the usefulness of Wilber’s ideas as a template for long term psychotherapeutic work.  I like his metaphor of Chinese boxes in how we can move through stages of consciousness, one stage fits into the next.  Wilber brings an academic dimension to the transpersonal world of psychotherapy and is certainly worth a read.



The transpersonal ideas of Ken Wilber

The transpersonal ideas of Ken WilberThis week we started the first of two lectures on the transpersonal ideas of Ken Wilber, American author of the Spectrum of Consciousness and an integral theorist. Wilber was not, and is not, a therapist but a theorist and his ideas are often criticised for being hierarchical, masculine focused and representing a ladder like course of prescribed development. However, he has always been a regular meditator.

Wilber is currently unwell and recently stated that he has a debilitating illness called RNase Enzyme Deficiency.  He is now  64 years old but when he was 23 he asked a very important question in psychotherapy circles.  He wondered whether all schools of psychotherapy all had the truth.  The idea of integrative training in psychotherapy had not existed before then. Integrative training will now typically take from a rich variety of approaches to suit the presenting issues and will encompass psychoanalytical ideas for early life issues, existential therapy for later life issues and transpersonal therapy for spiritual crisis.

In the Spectrum of Consciousness Wilber argues that in spiritual growth we progress along different levels of consciousness and encounter difficulties in the transition from one to another.  As we move through each level we let go of previous identities of ourselves. When we move between these levels we encounter pain and that’s when we resist change.

Persona Level (Supportive counselling, befriending, simple counselling)

The therapeutic task is the integration of the shadow (psychological aspects) and bringing that material into self awareness. A healthy ego arrives from integration of persona and shadow so that ego is not preoccupied with fighting in unnecessary conflicts.

Ego level (Psychoanalysis, Psychodrama, Transactional Analysis, Reality Therapy, ego Psychology)

The therapeutic task is the integration of the body. The body mind split is where the work is in therapy. How can we integrate the split? The body has seven levels of consciousness (the chakras) and I will have more on this in future posts. When working with the body one can ask the client if there is an image or memory that resonates with the feeling that is causing anxiety.

Obsessive gym attenders can often be in denial when the person is actually defending against emotionality. There is an unconscious relationship with the body in that instance. We need a healthy mental, emotional and physical relationship with our bodies in order to move on to the next level, the Centaur level.

Total Organism (or the Centaur) (Bioenergetic Analysis, Rogerian Therapy, Gestalt Therapy, Existential Therapy, Logotherapy, Humanistic Psychology)

The therapeutic task is the integration of mind and body and if you achieve this in therapy then it is job done.  This encompasses many forms of therapy. This level of consciousness is often the goal of therapy. What is our hearts desire? Are you working in a job that sits with your heart’s desire and where you are fulfilling your potential? This level of consciousness can also include the approach of the existential school which can act as a bridge to the transpersonal bands.

The unconscious resides in the environment. This is where we start to blame the ills of society on hoodies or immigrants.  We need to look at our own personal environment and address our own issues.

Unity Consciousness (Taoism, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, Vendanta Hinduism, Esoteric Islam, Esoteric Christianity, Esoteric Judaism)

This is the embrace and recognition of inter connectedness. This is the transpersonal territory of Jung, Maslow, Progroff and Psychosynthesis. Most of us will never get even close to this level of consciousness. Great spiritual teachers might get close as soul nature and emotional nature lines up. There is less conflict in their lives.  They are not at war with the neighbours. Soul is here for its own journey but body can’t live without soul.  The mind, too, can function independent of the body.

For Wilber, there are three complexes that need to be negotiated on the path to spiritual growth. Outlined below are very basic notes on what he has had to say.

1) Oedipal Complex

This is the body to mind transition. This is the separation from the pleasure principal. Active addictions can live here when we are caught up in the challenges in making a smooth transition from one level of consciousness to another.

2) Apollo Complex

This is rooted in the transition from ego identity to soul identity. St John of the Cross wrote about this in Dark Night of the Mind. This is the emergence of a new sense of self.

3) Visnew Complex

We let go of any sense of self. We surrender to spirit as was chronicled in  St John of the Cross’s The Dark Night of the Soul. The process entails moving from duality to unity consciousness when we become self realised.

For Wilber there are three stages of development.

1 Pre personal

This is the primitive (unconscious) stage, before we know who we are.

2 Personal

There is a sense of self.  We work through our own personal material to get a better idea of our real nature.  We are not just an extension of our parents but we begin to have our own sense of being.

3 Transpersonal

We go beyond the limited sense of being and we start to get experience of connection.

For Wilber there is the risk of the Pre trans fallacy:  This is where someone wanting to save the planet does not look after themselves. Perhaps there are unresolved issues in early life and rather than transforming these there is instead a focus on saving the world. There is also a risk of spiritual by-pass if you fail to adequately deal with your messy personal material.  You need to have developed a healthy ego in order to be able to  transcend it.

More next week on integral theory.



Transpersonal Psychotherapy – Jungian Approaches to Imaging and Symptoms as Symbols

Jung and Symbolic Language

We are now returning to the more transpersonal focused material on the course.  We had  a strong taster in the first year during a week of creative imagination, which I personally found very powerful and transformative. Perhaps that week, upon reflection, was the foundation of the whole course for we had learned the fundamentals about working with the imagination. 

I have enjoyed the psychoanalytical theory thus far on the course and the existentialist lectures that formed a bridge from psychoanalysis to the transpersonal.  Now we are about to embark on the work of transpersonal authors such as Ken Wilber, and work with the Chakras, the planes of consciousness and the alchemical journey.   But first,  we had a lecture on Jungian approaches to imaging and symptoms as symbols

Symbolic language is the language of the soul. Remember that the shadow is not always negative.  The shadow contains all that is unconscious and might contain a positive quality.  For instance, being able to receive and acknowledge praise from others could be in the shadow as that person might not be able to easily receive compliments.

What does an image stir in you?  This is where advertising agencies have traditionally been particularly clever in targeting consumers with advertisements to sell expensive goods and services. Once you become conscious and discover what the symbol is all about it then will leave your psyche. A repetitive dream means we are not getting the message which our unconscious is sending us. In that case the image or symbol will continue to bang on the door.

Symbols and images can lead us into active imagination. Active imagination is a massive landscape containing all collective unconscious, where archetypes live and it is where Maslow referred to peak experiences.  What defines transpersonal psychotherapy is the defining orientation of the therapist namely that the client is a spiritual being.  Transpersonal psychotherapists share a lot of common ground with therapists from other schools in the way they will reflect back material to the client, mirror to the client, engage in active listening, holding and containing and so on. But the defining difference in transpersonal psychotherapy is the active seeking for the spiritual dimension.

you should be guided by the client.

It is dangerous to interpret symbols and images particularly from dreams.  You should be guided by the client. What do the presenting images and symbols mean to the client? Our job, however, as therapist is to help decode the symbols and messages from the inner world that are manifesting in the physical world. How can I help a particular client secure meaning for a particular symbol or image at this particular stage of their life? Reading a dictionary of images might inform your knowledge on the subject but might also produce the risk that you jump to conclusions.

How to work with the active imagination?

We can explore initially through association and interpretation as clients need insight. We can explore what is happening in the body. The aim is to associate where energies are getting tied up with particular symbols. Can we help clients to reclaim energy that is stifled elsewhere?

Here is an exercise on working with the active imagination. Take some mindful steps to becoming receptive by deep breathing.

1. What is your current main stressors?

2. How does it affect your body?

3. It is like ……?

4. Is there a memory where you felt like this before?

5. If this symptom was a friend what might it say about your life?

Then work with the images that come up. This exercise might help to bypass the defences with a client. Obviously one needs to tread carefully here when dealing with clients who might be experiencing psychotic symptoms.

Additional resources:

Some interesting quotes from the lecture:

Seyyed Hossein Nasr Man does not make symbols, he is transformed by them.

Myth consists of symbols that have not been invented consciously, they have just happened.  Jung

Erich Fromm  All myths have one thing in common; they are all written in same language namely symbolic language.  Symbolic language is a language in which inner experiences, feelings, and thoughts are expressed as if they were sensory experiences. It is a language which has a different logic to the one we speak in the day time. It is a logic in which time and space are not the ruling categories but intensity and association are.