Toward Wholeness – the Relevance of Transpersonal Experiences in Psychotherapy

By Mary Stefanazzi

In a lecture, Fritjof Capra once used an effective example from everyday life to illustrate the absurdity of the symptomatic orientation in therapy. He asked the audience to imagine a driver who responded to the red light on the dashboard of his car, indicating a critical oil shortage, by disconnecting the cables leading to the warning signal system. Satisfied that he had adequately handled the problem, he would then continue to drive the car.

Modern consciousness research has provided a basis for therapists to go beyond the symptomatic orientation in therapy and to facilitate emotional and psychosomatic healing as a movement toward wholeness, thus enabling us to pursue a more rewarding life strategy including the philosophical spiritual quest.

The two complementary aspects of human nature are connected exponen­tially with two different modes of consciousness. The first can be referred to as hylotropic consciousness, or matter-orientated consciousness. This is the state of mind we experience in everyday life and the one which Western psychiatry considers as the only one that is normal and legitimate; the one that correctly reflects the objective reality of the world. In contrast with the narrow and restricted hylotropic mode, the holotropic mode involves the experience of oneself as a potentially unlimited field of consciousness that has access to all aspects of reality without the mediation of the senses. Holotropic literally translates as aiming for totality or moving toward wholeness.

Psychopathological problems result from a clash of the two modes when neither of them is experienced in pure form nor integrated with the other into an experience of a higher order. Simply to experience fully a suspended and unresolved trauma is not the whole of therapy. Constricted patterns of living, attitudes and behaviours, do not automatically disappear because the original traumatic experience has been fully resolved. Experiential work, then, can never be considered as more than part of therapy and must always be undertaken in the context of a trusting therapeutic relationship.

Emotional, psychosomatic and interpersonal problems can be associated with any of three categories of experience: biographical, perinatal and transpersonal. Biographical experiences relate to postnatal traumatic events from one’s life.

Perinatal experiences revolve primarily around two issues: dying and being born. They seem to be deeply connected with the trauma of biological birth. On the perinatal level, birth and death are very intimately interwoven, which seems to reflect the fact that birth is a difficult and potentially life-threatening event. When the material from the perinatal level of the unconscious emerges into consciousness, the individuals concerned may become preoccupied or overwhelmed with a fear of death. The perinatal level of the unconscious represents the interface between the individual and the collective unconscious. However, the ego death that precedes rebirth is the death of our old concepts of who we are and what the world is like, forged by the traumatic imprint of birth. As frightening as this process is, it is actually very healing and transforming.

Transpersonal experiences reach far beyond the limits of ordinary human experience, and transpersonal states challenge the disease model by their remarkable healing and transformative potential. Many emotional and psycho­somatic disorders seem to have as their source, beside biographical memories and perinatal material, transpersonal constellations that lie close to the surface. When such unconscious contents emerge fully into consciousness, they lose their disruptive influence on everyday life. This can result in dramatic healing of various emotional and even physical problems. Transpersonal experiences associated with positive emotions, such as feelings of oneness with humanity and nature, states of cosmic unity, encounters with blissful deities and with God, have a special role in the healing and transformative process. While various painful and difficult experiences cleanse the psyche and open the way to more pleasant ones, the ecstatic and unitive states represent the very essence of true healing.

Yet the advice of Carl Jung cannot be ignored: “Only the wounded physician heals”. The therapist must understand not only the client; it is equally important that he should understand himself. For that reason the sine qua non is the healing of the healer. In addition, every therapist ought to have a control by some third person, so that he remains open to another point of view. Even the Pope has a confessor!


Grof, Stanislav, Beyond the Brain, 1985, SUNY Press, USA.

Browne, Ivor, Psychological Trauma or Unexperienced Experience, 1990.

Grof, Stanislav and Christina, The Stormy Search for the Self, 1991, Mandala.

Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams and Reflections, (Flamingo Ed. 1983)

Mary Stefanazzi is a third year student with the Dublin Counselling and Therapy Centre.