A Transpersonal Training

By Brian Burrows

The training I’m going to write about, at the Centre for Counselling and Psychotherapy Education, London, has been accredited by the British Association for Counselling, and the Centre is a member of the UK Standing Conference on Psychotherapy. The four-year, part-time Diploma course is designedly integrative and draws on the insights of humanistic as well as analytical and existential approaches and skills training, but for the purposes of this brief article I will leave these aside, and focus on the transpersonal aspect. The course makes no sharp distinction between personal and spiritual growth and ideally offers a spiritual perspective on every phase of development.

The training makes a number of assumptions: that there is unity throughout Creation; that the perception of ourselves as separate individuals is a limited perspective only; that the human being is best seen holistically and partial theories based on sexuality, childhood, life scripts, arc most valuable when reconnected to the whole; that our inner and outer lives are connected in a meaningful way. But perhaps the most obviously “transpersonal” assumption is that our body, emotions, mind – the “personality” – are the expression of, and are potentially in a dynamic relationship with, an underlying essence, core or spirit having a unique path or purpose.

Nothing very new so far, I imagine, but at this point a number of esoteric insights enter the theory. First, the suggestion that we enter life as a soul, bringing a divine inheritance, an angelic nature. With the body we receive a genetic and then social inheritance, an instinctive, “animal” nature. Both natures are important and each can enlighten the other. (I am personally a little worried by the term “animal” which might seem derogatory of the body and senses, but that was not at all the emphasis of the course.) If one nature predominates and represses the other, it may take a life crisis to open the individual up, either a crisis of grounding or awakening to the spiritual dimension of life. This can precede a breakthrough to another plane of consciousness, beyond ego: the transpersonal, “angelic” plane of “heart awareness”, characterised by greater empathy for others, less sense of separation, a movement towards unconditional love. Of course, not all break-downs lead to break-through. Who knows whether a client is breaking down to break through, or just breaking down? The answer may be: the client, at the unconscious level. The advice of Barbara Somers of the Centre for Transpersonal Psychology, was to “dialogue” via imagery “with the symptoms”.

The training I’m describing is unusually informative about planes of consciousness, another esoteric area. It suggests that there is an innate hierarchical order in our being related to the “chakra” or subtle energy centre system. The planes are seen as reflecting the divine potential and providing the spiritual perspective on and purpose of our life. In brief, the planes are:

7.            The Om (Logos)
6.            Pure consciousness, the Logos
5.            Abstract (qualities)
4.            Love (the angelic)
3.            Astral (dreams, intuition, subtle feelings)
2.            Mental (thoughts, less subtle feelings)
1.            Physical

This material raises the question, what place in therapy does esoteric knowledge have? I feel a bit vulnerable here, but the course suggests that we exist on all planes at the same time and that something of the qualities of each plane are found in each person. This would be borne out by my own experience, especially of dream-work.

The training has its own personality theory which describes our essential nature in terms of the Elements: Air, Fire, Water and Earth, corresponding to thinking, energy and intuition, feeling and the concrete, grounded orientations of personality. Each of the four temperaments can characteristically express itself in Active, Balanced or Receptive ways, known as the “Three Paths” and there are therefore twelve (4×3) types in all: for example, “Active Air” or “Balanced Water”. Each person is seen as having a predominant Element, sometimes two, and therefore the challenge is to develop others which are latent or suppressed, to become more whole.

The model is dynamic because it presupposes ongoing change, or formation, and has precise links to the “outside” world because it is often “outer” life problems and crises which challenge us to change. Moreover each individual path is seen as unique with qualities unfolding in a natural order like the root, trunk, branch and leaves of a tree. As a general rule, people need to balance the Element they are strongest in before developing another. The model is a “conflict” model, because there arc tensions between the types, particularly between Fire – Water, but also Air – Earth, one more rarefied, the other more grounded.

The overall emphasis of the training is on a “heart-centred”, intuitive approach, “sensitive, loving, firm, confronting” as the Director, Nigel Hamilton, put it. “Heart-centred” is not just a phrase here, because in the theory of this course, the “heart is the transformer”, the facilitator of change. One example of this is that the client’s capacity for self-acceptance is often affected by the quality of our acceptance of him or her.

These are the bare bones of the training. I’m conscious that there are gaps in the account – not much on depression or anger or on the experiential side of the training, for example. Perhaps some of the new elements in this therapy may become commonplace in future. It seems clear that the old, scientific, mechanistic view of the Universe is breaking up, opening the way to a less materialistic understanding of life and to changes in our attitude to personality.

Brian Burrows trained in “Formative Spirituality” (Master’s Degree, Spirituality, Psychology and Counselling) at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, USA and in Counselling and Psychotherapy (Dip) at the Centre for Counselling and Psychotherapy Education, London, where he was on the staff. Recently he has come to live and work in Dublin.