Some Thoughts on Transpersonal Psychology, Ken Wilber and an Alternative Transpersonal Vision

by Barry Herridge

“A meaningful life is not a purposeful life. On the contrary, in order to discover the meaningful one has to die to all that which is merely purposeful including even the intellectual search for the meaningful. A life filled exclusively with purposeful activity is a tragic mistake, for it does not bring fulfillment”

– Robert Powell

Many of us are either knowingly or unknowingly undergoing a search for meaning in our lives and transpersonal psychology and psychotherapy can potentially play an important part in this search. There are many definitions of transpersonal psychology and Richard Tarnas’s definition is perhaps one of the more useful definitions for the therapist who incorporates the transpersonal in his or her work. Tarnas has urged us to recall the wider, original Latin meaning of ‘trans’ and he describes transpersonal psychology as not only “beyond but also across, through, pervading; so as to change, transform; occurring by way of” [italics original] (Tarnas, 2002, xv).

This particular definition avoids introducing the misconception that the transpersonal psychotherapist works solely at the transpersonal levels and neglects the mind-body, relationships and consensus reality. Transpersonal Psychology is a broad discipline which envisions the self as including but also as more than what Alan Watts called the ‘skin-encapsulated ego’ or that understands like William James famously said

“our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness” (1960).

Transpersonal Psychology is regarded as the fourth force in Psychology (along with behaviourism, psychoanalysis and humanistic psychology, which comprise the first three respectively). It arose as a formal discipline in the 1960s through the pioneering work of a group of people including Abraham Maslow, Anthony Sutich and Stan Grof but its roots stretch back much further to the original publication of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1902. Despite these early roots, the field is still considered to be emerging from its infancy and as with any relatively new field, numerous misconceptions abound. Such misconceptions include the fact that transpersonal psychology is often confused with “uncritical or fervent practice” of transpersonal beliefs (Scotten, Chinen and Battista, 1996:13) or is confused with a ‘New Age’ lack of discrimination (Rowan, 2005). Although there are similarities between the fields, transpersonal psychology should not be confused with parapsychology. It is also worth noting that despite links with Eastern religions and philosophies, it does not necessarily demand adherence to any religious belief or spiritual tradition. Many choose to describe it as embracing the spiritual but in my own opinion the word ‘spirituality’ has rather unfortunately become a way of introducing religion via the back door. Many criticisms have been levelled at transpersonal psychology by respected figures such as Albert Ellis (Ellis and Yeager 1989) and Rollo May (cited in Scotten, Chinen and Battista 1996). Some of these criticisms were based on misconceptions such as those mentioned above. Other criticisms were entirely justified and have been addressed in more recent times, such as inattention to the issue of evil or the ‘shadow’ and a lack of adherence to scientific methodology and academic rigour (e.g. Rowan 2005, Daniels 2005). Many other criticisms directed at transpersonal psychology could more accurately be said to be criticisms of Ken Wilber’s theories, theories that are often incorrectly assumed to represent to the entire field of transpersonal psychology.

Before proceeding any further, no article on transpersonal psychology would be complete without discussing this most well known and controversial of figures. Since the 1970s Ken Wilber has arguably done more to advance the cause of transpersonal psychology more than any other person. It is ironic that Wilber is the figure most readily identified with transpersonal psychology since he stopped using the word ‘transpersonal’ to define his work over twenty years ago (Wilber 2000), more recently favouring the word ‘integral’. Wilber’s work is undoubtedly controversial, criticised and sometimes deeply misunderstood. Much misunderstanding arises from having read only one or two of Wilber’s earlier books. One of his most widely read books remains No Boundary (1979), based on the more academic The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977) but Wilber has largely abandoned the ideas presented in these first two books. His paper ‘The Pre/Trans Fallacy’ originally published in 1980 (and later reprinted in Wilber, 1996) lead to a radical revision of his theories. This paper has been rightly described by Michael Washburn as a “landmark piece for transpersonal theory” (Washburn 1998, p66) and it set the scene for Wilber’s work up to the present day. The ‘pre/trans fallacy’ represented a turning point for Wilber. All transpersonal theorists generally acknowledge that development occurs from prepersonal to personal and then to transpersonal but since 1980 Wilber has maintained that non-egoic structures are divided into pre-egoic (prepersonal) and trans-egoic (transpersonal).

This led to Wilber formulating a structural-hierarchical perspective or ‘ladderlike’ model of development (Wilber 1980). With the publication of Transformations of Consciousness (1986) with Jack Engler and Daniel Brown, Wilber refined this structural-hierarchical model into nine fulcrums (or levels) of development (F1-F9) beginning in the first year of post-natal life and proceeding into the transpersonal realms. The first three fulcrums are pre-personal, the next three are personal and the final three are transpersonal and Wilber has stated emphatically that any similarities between prepersonal and transpersonal structures are merely superficial. In 1995 he added the idea of lines of development (Wilber, 1995) indicating that a person could be at a pre-personal level of development in one line but be at a personal or transpersonal level in another e.g. the enlightened ‘guru’ may be at a transpersonal level of spiritual development but be at a pre-personal level of social development. Wilber added the idea of four quadrants representing

  • the interior-individual (‘I’) such as emotions
  • the exterior-individual (‘It’) such as neurological processes,
  • the interior-collective (‘We’) such as levels of development
  • the exterior-collective (‘Its’) such as nationalities or the cosmos

Wilber has argued convincingly that many of the fallacies within psychology and other sciences have occurred through attempting to understand a particular issue belonging to one quadrant, through another. An example of this might be attempting to understand emotion (interior-individual) solely through application of ‘systems theory’ (exterior-collective). Wilber calls this model ‘AQAL’ which basically means All Quadrants, All Levels (but also all lines and all states). Before leaving Wilber aside for the moment, one crucial factor worth mentioning is Wilber’s adherence to Aldous Huxley’s ‘philosophia perennis’ or perennial philosophy. The perennial philosophy refers to a belief that all genuine religions share a common core and Wilber’s model is based on the theory that all authentic spirituality ultimately converges at non-duality.

Some Alternative Views

In his ‘Spiral-Dynamic’ model Michael Washburn (1995) provides an alternative to Wilber’s model in which non-egoic structures are not divided into pre-egoic and trans-egoic. He instead suggests that transpersonal development occurs as a result of the ego’s interaction with non-egoic structures and that the transpersonal is a different expression of these non-egoic potentials. His model has much to commend it and he has frequently engaged in debate with Wilber on their differences (e.g. Washburn 1998).

One of the most promising advances in formulating an alternative transpersonal model comes from the Spanish psychologist Jorge Ferrer (2002). Ferrer has been scathing in his criticism of Wilber and positions a ‘participatory vision’ of the transpersonal that has received much support from peers (e.g. Daniels 2005) who find Ferrer’s model to be more consistent with their own experience. Ferrer presents a pluralistic approach to the transpersonal and he suggests that perennialists are often ‘bewitched’ by what he terms ‘The Myth of The Given’ i.e. belief in a fixed spiritual reality. His approach allows for the possibility that there are many spiritual truths which may contradict each other. Unlike others such as Wilber, he does not attempt to fit all transpersonal experiences and spiritual traditions within a single framework. Ferrer is also particularly critical of transpersonal theories that either intentionally or unintentionally encourage excessive self-centredness, egocentrism or what Chogyam Trungpa referred to as ‘spiritual narcissism’ (Trungpa 1973) and he has suggested that adherence to Wilber’s model can encourage this. Ferrer suggests looking beyond experientialism and states;

what has been regarded as a transpersonal experience is now better understood as the participation of an individual consciousness in a transpersonal event (2002:126)

He allows a balanced view between what Daniels (2005) refers to as ‘ascending and descending currents’ in transpersonal psychology and he has similarly highlighted how transpersonal frameworks become effectively useless if they ‘merely become new “theories” for the Cartesian ego’ (Ferrer p.126). His theory provides a comprehensive model that avoids the accusations of patriarchy that have been made against Wilber’s model and he states that the transpersonal cannot simply be about a personal spiritual goal but must emphasise ‘intimate dialogue and communion with other beings and the world’ (Ferrer 2002:190). Ferrer is also rather modest about his theory and suggests that he will be first to leave it behind if a better alternative is found.

Stan Grof’s Holotropic model (e.g. Grof 2000) is probably the most widely known, so for that reason I will not say too much about it here. Grof’s theories are based on over thirty years of clinical research into non-ordinary states of consciousness through the use of psychedelics and Holotropic BreathworkTM. He places particular emphasis on what he terms the four “Basic Peri-Natal Matrices” (BPMs) which correspond to the stages prior to, during and after the birthing process. Grof has written widely about the transpersonal but perhaps what distinguishes him most from contemporaries such as Wilber, is the importance he places on the BPMs, not just in terms of potential development of ego-level pathologies but in the belief that BPMs can potentially affect later transpersonal experiences. Grof has been criticised for this idea by Wilber but he is widely commended for the fact that his theories are based on direct clinical research.

Transpersonal Psychotherapy

The issue of the transpersonal in psychotherapy is such a vast topic that really warrants separate discussion. I would suggest that anyone interested in the topic read John Rowan’s excellent 2nd edition of The Transpersonal published in 2005. However some of the major issues are worth addressing here. One of the most important concerns is the use of theories and models. As with all types of therapy it must be said that theories only play a part in the work of the transpersonal therapist. Stan Grof has had much to say about various theories and he notably said;

I would like to emphasize that forty years of research into NOSC [non-ordinary states of consciousness] have convinced me of the limitations and relativity of all models and theoretical constructs” (1998:114).

The most important issue for the therapist working with the transpersonal is his or her own depth of personal work. As Rowan has stated one can only work with a client to the depth that one has worked with oneself and a mere theoretical understanding of the transpersonal is not enough. However Rowan encourages therapists to be creative in understanding the transpersonal and sees seemingly ordinary experiences, such as dreams, as potential encounters with the transpersonal. For the client-centred practitioner empathy remains the key and indeed the deep level of empathy in which the boundaries between client and therapist are momentarily transcended can be considered to be a transpersonal experience. This deep level of empathy was practised and encouraged by Carl Rogers (Kirschenbaum and Henderson 1990) but is often misunderstood or mistrusted by those therapists who fail to grasp the range and depth of such empathy and mislabel it as ‘confluence’ or ‘projective identification’. This leads to the important issue of ‘reductionism’ and ‘elevationism’ as highlighted by Wilber and the ‘pre/trans fallacy’. This idea is particularly important to psychotherapy in which transcendence of boundaries is incorrectly identified by a therapist as a regression to infancy. Equally important is the problem of a therapist who ‘elevates’ an inability to recognise personal boundaries to the transpersonal. Anyone who has experienced both, either personally or in one’s practice, will appreciate that both experiences are qualitatively different although they can at times appear to be inextricably intertwined. Wilber also has some interesting ideas on psychopathology (Wilber 1980, 1986, 1999) and he has been damning of the prevailing culture and structures that support only brief psychotherapy and pharmacological interventions.

 “…things like trying to find out why you behave in such a fashion, or trying to find out the meaning of your existence, or the values that constitute the good life, are not covered by insurance policies, and so, in this culture, they basically do not exist” [italics original] (Wilber 2000).

Despite some important ideas, particularly the significant ‘pre-trans fallacy’, the overall contribution of Wilber’s psychological model to psychotherapy is much less useful. Brant Cortright has described Wilber’s model as “theoretically pleasing” but states that “it does not conform to clinical practice” (Cortright 1997:76). Stan Grof has similarly criticised Wilber for how he “fails to grasp the real parameters of the perinatal experience” (Grof 1998:93) and for his inattention to the pioneering work of Otto Rank. Even some of Wilber’s most ardent supporters such as John Rowan recognise the major problem of Wilber’s original omission of the pre- and peri-natal domain from his model. Wilber later added a new fulcrum (F0) representing the pre- and peri-natal, at the urging of Stan Grof (Wilber 1995) however this new fulcrum does not quite fit. Attempts by Rowan (2005) to reformulate the model to more comprehensively include the pre- and peri-natal does not really work since Wilber’s model is dependent on denying the richness and depth of life of the pre-nate and neonate that has been clearly demonstrated by the likes of Chamberlain (1989), Emerson (n.d.), Grof (e.g. 1985) and Lake (n.d.). Peggy Wright (1998) has raised similar issues to Daniels description of ‘ascending and descending currents’, in describing Wilber mode as ‘androcentric’. Others criticise the order of Wilber’s transpersonal fulcrums of development (from F7 – F9) while some even criticise the validity and rationality of the inclusion of some of the fulcrums of development. Finally, Wilber’s suggestion of different therapies for different levels of consciousness (fulcrums) seems unrealistic and it seems that Cortright has a point in describing Wilber’s account of the systems of psychotherapy as based on outdated 1960s ideas on psychology.

The therapist who works with the transpersonal needs to create a place of emptiness within himself or herself when meeting a client, and have previously clarified his or her own metaphysical views so as to ensure they do not consciously or unconsciously intrude on the client’s search for a personal truth, a truth that may change and evolve throughout the course of therapy. The therapist also needs to remain aware of the many difficulties that can occur when working with the transpersonal such as using spirituality as an escape from relationships, trauma and pain or to justify ‘individualism’. He or she must also be mindful of the potential of transpersonal experiences to lead to fragile ego-inflation, leaving a deeper lack of self-worth untouched. Despite these difficulties, the therapist who recognises and is willing to work with the transpersonal affords a client a unique opportunity for healing, growth and discovery. If humanistic psychology and humanistic psychotherapy truly deals with the highest human potential then transpersonal psychology and psychotherapy certainly continues this noble tradition.

Barry Herridge is a recent graduate of the Dublin Counselling and Therapy Centre, working in private practice in Dublin.


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