The Transpersonal in Psychotherapy and Counselling

By John Rowan

What is the transpersonal? I would like to start off by saying some things that it is and some things that it is not. Then I would like to talk a bit about how this all applies to psychotherapy and counselling, and end with some more general remarks.

One basic distinction which has to be made is between the prepersonal, the personal and the transpersonal. These represent regions we can go through or settle down in, in our process of development. At the prepersonal stage we have not yet acquired the idea of being a separate person. We are a member of a family, a member of a tribe, a member of a peer group, a group of some kind, and we identify with that. We have no choice, because we are still immature. The idea of leaving that home and being separate is actually quite scary. But normally we go on to the stage of the personal, where we acquire a personality and an identity of our own. As time goes on, we learn how to relate to other people in an individual way, person to person. At first this is mainly in a role-playing way, but as time goes on again, we learn how to be intimate, because we can be close, and open, and affectionate. We can let the other person be who they are, and let ourselves be ourselves, seeing through our own eyes, rather than the eyes of others. We are now ready for the transpersonal, which means being prepared to lose our boundaries and question our separateness. This kind of merging is unlike the merging of the prepersonal, because it is chosen, and because it goes beyond the personal. It not only goes beyond the ego, it also goes beyond the separate self.

One of the best short definitions I know of transpersonal experiences are that they are those experiences which involve an expansion or extension of consciousness beyond the usual ego boundaries and beyond the limitations of time and/or space. Like all definitions, that does not tell us very much. If we look at an example that might help more. Here is one which seems very expressive:

I was walking across a field turning my head to admire the Western sky and looking at a line of pine trees appearing as black velvet against a pink backdrop, turning to duck egg blue/green overhead, as the sun set. Then it happened. It was as if a switch marked ‘ego’ was suddenly switched off. Consciousness expanded to include, be, the previously observed. “I” was the sunset and there was no “I” experiencing ‘it’. No more observer and observed. At the same time – eternity was ‘born’. There was no past, no future, just an eternal now … then I returned completely to normal consciousness finding myself still walking across the field, in time, with a memory.

That is a good example of what is usually known as a peak experience, and a peak experience is almost always transpersonal. It can take us into the realm of Being, which is the transpersonal realm. In that sense such experiences are also “peek” experiences, where we get a peek or glimpse of the world of soul or spirit. We can then either ignore them or make much of them, take them as meaningful or meaningless, be proud or ashamed of them, treat them in any way we wish. But they are hard to forget.

Some recent research found that the most common reasons why people often did not report or even refer to their own peak experiences were: that they were special, intimate and personal experiences which they wanted to keep for themselves; that they might be devalued or put down by other people who might not understand or be sympathetic; and that they were too difficult to describe in words.

There is a lot more that could be said about peak experiences, but they are not the only experiences of the transpersonal which are common. Another important one is creativity. There are many different types of creativity, but one of them is specifically transpersonal. This is the type of creativity where we seem to be contacted by some other realm or dimension. Something is, as it were, given to us. We do not feel responsible for creating it, nor could we give an account of how it came to us. Just suddenly it is there, and we do not know where it came from or how it got there. In this kind of creativity we do not get part of something, we get it whole.

A quite similar area is intuition. Again there are many different types of intuition, but the transpersonal type is that where some knowledge seems to come to us from outside, without our interference. And it always seems to have to do with some important purpose, not just something trivial or petty. We can deliberately tune in to this kind of intuition, but we cannot control it, because it seems to some from something much bigger than us.

A fourth area where we find transpersonal phenomena is our inner voices. Inner voices are not uncommon, and many of them are nothing to do with the transpersonal. It seems to be those occasions when the inner voice seems to give us guidance as to what to do, or how to be, or how to see things, that have most to do with the transpersonal.

The fifth and final area I would like to mention as a common experience is the imaginal world. Whenever we use imagery or visualization we open up the possibility of moving into the transpersonal. Only the possibility, because imagery itself can be prepersonal, personal or transpersonal. Images arc important in the prepersonal, because we have not yet learned to use words with the greatest facility, and images are simpler. Images at the personal stage are rather suspect, as not being as good as words for being really specific and true. But images at the transpersonal stage go beyond words, and say more because they are more complex and subtle. The use of imagery is extremely important in psychotherapy, and there is a great deal to be said about this.

What It Is Not

Having seen some of the common areas where we might have come across the transpersonal, I would now like to say something about what it is not.

First of all, the transpersonal is not the extrapersonal. If you will look at Table 1, you will see that the extrapersonal has to do with parapsychology, and the sort of things that fakirs do, which are remarkable in themselves but do not necessarily have anything to do with spirituality. The transpersonal does I think have something to do with the spiritual and the divine, and that connection is very important if we want to understand the spiritual dimension of life.

Secondly, the transpersonal is not the right brain. There is a lot of interest these days in the two halves of the brain, and it is often said that our civilization neglects the right brain and overstresses the left brain. Book after book comes out attributing more and more marvellous characteristics to the right brain, and we are told that we have to cultivate the right brain more if we are to be whole people.

There may be something in this, and I don’t want to pour cold water on the whole idea, but it is important to make the point that to locate the transpersonal in the right brain is a mistake. It is a mistake because it necessarily lumps the transpersonal with the prepersonal.

Everyone who writes about the two hemispheres of the brain seems to agree that the left brain is the one to do with the categories of formal thought, logic, linear thinking, mathematical reasoning and so forth. This means that everything else has to be located in the right brain. But as we have seen, this puts in one place two things which are very different – the prepersonal (which has not got to the position of formal logic, or which finds it too hard and denies it), and the transpersonal (which goes beyond the ordinary categories of thought and finds them insufficient or inappropriate for its work). To confuse these two things seems misleading and unhelpful.

Another thing which the transpersonal is not is the New Age. There is a good deal of interest these days in the New Age, and I have even contributed to it in my work on the Seeker’s Guide. In my travels I have seen whole sections of bookshops, and even whole bookshops, devoted to it. But the general attitude of the New Age seems to be undiscriminating, and even to be against the whole idea of discrimination. As I look over the shelves of the New Age section in the bookshop, the only thing I can find in common between the books and equipment on show is that they are all suitable for gullible people.

If there is anything else in common, it seems to be devotion to the positive at all costs. One must believe anything, accept anything, not question or deny anything. There is even a book which says in its title that we cannot afford the luxury of even one negative thought. This is to take a one-sided position which I don’t think can be justified, and which is certainly nothing to do with the transpersonal, or with spirituality in any genuine sense.

The other thing I want to say about the transpersonal is that it is not religion. The most general use of the word “religion” is to mean an organization of some kind. We speak of the Christian religion, and mean the churches and chapels which publish the holy books and promulgate the holy doctrines. We speak of the Muslim religion, and mean the whole organization ranging from the most simplistic fundamentalism to the most sublime Sufism, expressed again in books, art works, rituals, pilgrimages and so forth. We speak of Judaism, and mean the whole way in which this is expressed in society, whether fundamen­talist, orthodox, liberal, Hasidic or whatever. But the transpersonal is to do with personal experience, which may or may not be expressed in religious terminol­ogy. And if it expressed in some religious way, it is just as likely to be some little-known religion such as paganism, animism, polytheism or pantheism, as one of the better-known and better-organized religions. In other words, the transpersonal is a realm of personal discovery, not something which one joins.

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What About Therapy?

Now how does all this apply to psychotherapy and counselling? How is it actually used in practice?

First of all there is active imagination. This is an approach used by Jung and some of his followers, and developed a great deal over the past few years. It basically consists in taking seriously the various entities we may become aware of through dreams or visions, personifying them and having dialogues with them. The first example I have come across of this is a manuscript coming from Egypt in about 2200 BCE – a dialogue between a suicidal man and his soul. The study of active imagination has led to the postulation of an imaginal world – a transpersonal field created between the therapist and the client, which both have produced and both share. This has now been discovered independently by about I dozen different investigators, who knew nothing of each other’s work. This study of the imaginal world has led to a much greater respect for the soul as the centre of what the person is all about. Working in the transpersonal area means working at the level of the soul, rather than the level of the ego or the real self.

The second way in which transpersonal ideas are used in therapy is through the idea of personal mythology. At this level myths, symbols, fairy stories, images, legends, archetypes are all very important and valuable sources of inspiration. We are deep into the area of the mythopoetic – that is, the region of the mind which continually produces fantasies of a meaningful kind, and actually creates myth. The word ‘myth’ here is not used in a pejorative, putting-down kind of a way, but more as an acknowledgement that we do not function just at a personal level, but also at a transpersonal level, and that this involves a real understanding of how myth works in our lives. It turns out that most of us have a myth which explains why we are as we are: this is our story. But we also have a countermyth: this is the story of what we did to compensate for, or cure, or come to terms with our original myth or story. And we can then see that it is possibly to go on to a third myth, which does justice to both the myth and the countermyth, but goes creatively beyond both to bring about something new and fruitful.

The third way of applying transpersonal discoveries to therapy is through visualisation. People often misunderstand this, and think they have failed to visualise something if they don’t get a nice clear picture before their minds. For this reason it is often better in practice to use the word “imagine” rather than “visualise”. But the ability to visualise or imagine appropriate scenes can help a great deal in guiding the person towards a particular focus which may be valuable for them.

The fourth way of using the transpersonal is through guided fantasy, or as it has also been called, directed daydream or symboldrama. Guided fantasy is where the therapist or other leader suggests a scene, and the person who is to explore this scene gives a running commentary on what is happening in this scene. If this is done in a group, the running commentary may have to be silent, or it may be carried out in partners who later change over. This can be a very powerful way of working, taking the person into just the situation which they may most need to explore. It can also be used very insensitively and badly, and a common mistake is to make the instructions too elaborate, so that they tell the person now only what to see, but also what to feel and what to think. This is of course quite oppressive in a gentle sort of way, and has been called soft fascism by those who dislike it very much. But used well and appropriately, guided fantasy can be liberating rather than oppressive, and this of course is one of the aims of therapy.

The fifth way of using the transpersonal approach is with dreams. There are many different ways of tackling dreams, and one of the contributions of the transpersonal approach has been to show that dreams can be prospective as well as retrospective: in other words they can be about where we are going as much as about where we have been or where we are now. They can be about spiritual realities just as much as about everyday life. And they can be about the soul, simply in and for itself. In other words, dreams can not only be envelopes containing messages we can use in everyday life, they can also be deepening in their own right, like an envelope which has been used by an artist to express something not expressible in words. So we have to be very careful in working with dreams not to reduce them to something less than they are.

The sixth and final way of using the transpersonal in therapy which I want to look at is meditation. We have to be careful here, because in a way meditation is a part of therapy, and in a way it is not. We have to be clear that there is more than one thing called meditation, and that some of them arc very different from others. In general, to cut a long story short, the type of meditation which is most compatible with therapy is mindfulness meditation. This is where we pay attention to what is, rather than concentrating on what should be. Such meditation can be very helpful to therapy, giving a sense of having a centre, a solidity which makes the pain of therapy easier to bear, and easier to leave behind when the time is ripe.

Some Final Remarks

One of the underlying assumptions of transpersonal psychotherapy is that each human being has impulses toward spiritual growth, the capacity for growing and learning throughout life, and that this process can be facilitated and enhanced by psychotherapy. In this respect, it has much in common with growth-oriented humanistic approaches such as client-centred therapy, but goes beyond them in affirming the potentiality for self-transcendence beyond selfactualization. This is not so much a question of doing anything different, but more a question of extending one’s horizons.

Helping the client to differentiate between the true inner teacher or transpersonal self and the many distracting solicitations of false teachers, both inner and outer, is one of the principal tasks of the therapist. Here the task is a continuing one of being alert to distractions and uncovering self-deceptions, insofar as possible. The concept of the transpersonal self as that centre of pure awareness which simultaneously transcends and observes conflicts at the level of ego and personality is useful here in giving a point of reference for the newly awakened sense of self. The continuing search for inner truth requires a sincere commitment to this transpersonal self and calls for the deepest level of self-awareness that can be attained.

But it is a serious error to attempt therapy exclusively on a transpersonal basis. The energies, feelings, images and thoughts so activated must be brought down and grounded in the life of the person. If this grounding does not occur, then one has a spiritual person whose life still does not work. Grounding must ultimately be in the body and its vitality. This leads, ideally, to contactfulness in all areas of life.

Yet there must not be too much emphasis on grounding. We need wings as well as roots, in this business. If we are too hard on inflation, how are we ever to take off?

In my own work, developed with Jocelyn Chaplin at the Serpent Institute, I have found that the concept of Goddess spirituality has a great deal to offer. We respect the principle of rhythm as the dance of life energies interweaves in or out of opposites and polarities throughout nature and human life. Sometimes this is called the feminine principle, but we also stress the importance of the male polarity and of male sexuality as an essential part of goddess spirituality. I have a lot of use in my own life for the Horned God and the Green Man.

This rhythmic and fundamentally erotic model of life is contrasted with patriarchal relationships based on dominance and submission. It celebrates difference and interconnectedness through dance and sometimes struggle It is not rigidly hierarchical and is in a constant state of change. It represents both male and female inner powerfulness rather than ‘power-over’. The emphasis is on partnership, social equality and justice as well as individual well-being.

One of the major symbols which we discovered was the labyrinth. As therapists we are privileged witnesses to other people’s stories and can help them follow their threads through their own journeys in and out of the labyrinths of self discovery. This then seems a rich source of imagery for the whole process of psychotherapy and counselling .

But it is important that the therapist not be identified with a particular belief system in such a way as to interfere with the right and the responsibility of his/her clients to choose freely their own paths to transpersonal development. The therapist docs not have to be a superbeing of any kind, but simply has to take seriously their own process and their own development. This is something which the humanistic practitioner has always recognised, and all this does is to take it one step further. But this means that there is no end to the process of development. There is no point at which the transpersonal therapist has got there finally, and has to learn no more. It is possible for therapist and client to break new ground together if both are willing to learn from each other as companions on the journey of self-discovery.

In other words, the therapist can learn from the client. And in fact my own experience is that we learn most from our most difficult clients. It is the clients who press us beyond our existing limits who force us to learn new things, about them and about ourselves, and about the whole process of psychotherapy.


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Ferrucci, P (1982) What We May Be. Turnstone

Glouberman, D (1989) Life Choices & Life Changes Through Imagework. Mandala, London

Goldberg, P (1983) The Intuitive Edge. Tarcher L.A.

Grof. S (1992) The Holotropic Mind. Harper, San Francisco

 Hay. D (1990) Religious Experience Today. Mowbray, London

 Hillman. J (1990) A Blue Eire. Routledge, London

 Johnson. R (1986) Inner Work. Harper San Francisco

LeShan, L (1989) How To Meditate. Crucible, London

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 Sjoo, M (1992) New Age & Armageddon. Women’s Press, London

Wilber, K (1980) The Atman Project. Quest, Wheaton

John Rowan in a therapist in the humanistic and transpersonal area. He is the author of many books on the subject.