Towards a Modern View of the Transpersonal in Psychotherapy and Counselling

by Barry Herridge

Abstract. This article discusses the nature of transpersonal psychotherapy and counselling. It deals in more depth with some of the issues raised towards the end of the article ‘Some Thoughts on Transpersonal Psychology, Ken Wilber and an Alternative Transpersonal Vision’ published in the Spring 2007 edition of ‘Inside Out’. Some of the basic theoretical concepts of transpersonal psychology are explained more fully there and I would direct the reader in need of any clarification to that article. This article also appears in the members section of the Irish Association of Transpersonal Psychology

Transpersonal psychotherapy and counselling1 mirrors the lack of a single commonly accepted definition of transpersonal psychology but it also has its own unique difficulties of definition by virtue of the fact that it lacks the central theoretical framework and standard method of practice of other types of psychotherapy such as gestalt therapy, cognitive-behavioural therapy, psychoanalysis etc. There is perhaps agreement on only one single issue in transpersonal psychotherapy, namely that an individual has the capacity to transcend the ‘skin encapsulated ego’. Transpersonal psychotherapy is commonly linked with humanistic psychotherapy and while it is true that the field evolved out of the humanistic tradition, it must be acknowledged that it has since spread to practitioners of other schools of therapy such as the likes of Brant Cortright (1997) who practices from a psychoanalytic perspective. It is thus no longer the preserve of humanistic psychotherapists even if its popularity remains more prevalent amongst them. There is also the important issue of the identification of transpersonal psychotherapy with certain techniques. In the past the field tended to be linked with specific techniques and while this view is quite prevalent there is a move amongst some theorists away from this idea e.g. Cortright (ibid). These changes are perhaps mirrored in the changing views of John Rowan from the first edition of The Transpersonal (1993) to the revised edition (2005). In the first edition Rowan largely identified transpersonal psychotherapy with techniques such as visualisation and meditation while in the latter edition Rowan reversed his earlier position and he has suggested that one could remove all techniques from transpersonal psychotherapy and it would remain intact.

The diverse nature of definitions illustrates the fact that for many psychotherapists transpersonal psychotherapy is heavily influenced by their own prior training, skills and methodology. It is also important to remember that the vast majority of psychotherapy takes place at ego levels3 of functioning (see Firman and Gila 1997, 2002). Don (1996) also warns that  “It is a serious error to attempt therapy exclusively on a transpersonal basis……” The dangers of “spiritual bypassing” (Cortright, 1997) and “spiritual narcissism”(Trungpa, 1973) are particularly relevant to Don’s warning. Therapy that fails to pay sufficient attention to ego level issues has the potential of leading to a fragile sense of ego inflation or becoming a way to escapefrom trauma or worldly matters. Such problems may arise without any conscious intent by the client or the therapist (see Cortright, ibid).

It has been suggested that transpersonal therapy is distinguished by the fact that in such therapy the therapist is not the agent of change. It is certainly true that the meeting, encounter and intimacy of the therapeutic relationship can sometimes be a transpersonal experience itself and Rowan (2005) has explored this possibility. It is important to note that not all therapists would agree with this view and it seems unlikely that transpersonal therapists who practice a directive form of therapy completely change their methods when working with the transpersonal4. It is also important to remember that therapy in which the therapist is not the agent of change is not simply the preserve of transpersonal psychotherapy and has long been a fundamental feature of ‘Rogerian’ or ‘client-centred’ therapy and for therapists whose work focuses on the therapeutic relationship e.g. Mearns and Cooper (2005). However the therapist who is open to transcending normal-ego boundaries in relationship with a client can open up the possibility of new growth or healing for such a client (see Cortright, 1997 and Rowan, 2005).

One of the most recognisable applications of transpersonal psychotherapy is perhaps in the treatment of ‘mental illness’. David Lukoff (1985, 1988, Lukoff, Lu and Turner, 1998) has been particularly prominent in this area. There has been a move away from the romanticism of the ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s in favour of a more pragmatic approach (see Nelson, 1994). This is not to suggest that the views of the likes of R.D. Laing and John Weir Perry (e.g. 1974) are simply to be discarded but that they must be revised in light of modern neurological research, modern psychological theory and practice along with developments in transpersonal theory. Nelson (ibid) advocates a mature approach to transpersonal therapy by integrating the best of findings from neurology, biology, modern psychotherapy with an emphasis on a therapist that understands and accepts (in as much as is possible) the heights, depths and range of a client’s experience. Nelson dispels the appealing notion that transpersonal experiences can easily be separated from psychoses and on occasion suggests medication for what are clearly “spiritual emergencies” (Grof and Grof 1989,1990) when such experiences become unmanageable and harmful to a client. Nelson (2007) has suggested that certain sections of his book are now outdated (the 1st edition was published in 1990) however he still provides an approach from which transpersonal therapists today have much to learn.

There is also the important issue of therapists’ spiritual beliefs and their own transpersonal ‘experiences’.  Rowan (2005) using Wilber’s transpersonal stages of ‘psychic’, ‘subtle’ and ‘causal’ suggests that therapists may only work effectively at the level to which they themselves have personally experienced. Others (e.g. Cortright, 1997) suggest that a therapist’s own development is crucial and that the level of a therapist’s openness to the transpersonal is a fundamental feature of effective transpersonal psychotherapy. Whether the therapist needs to have had similar experiences or must be working in the same spiritual traditions is open to debate. The ‘client-centred’ psychotherapist Dave Mearns (2003:51) suggests that “You do not need to be an expert on the client group or issue to work expertly with the client” and he instead suggests that openness and empathy to the range and depth of one’s own experience and to that of one’s clients is more important. This could be applied to working with the transpersonal although this is debateable and there is also the question of whether Mearns’s claim applies to practitioners from other schools of therapy. There seems to be more of a consensus on the general importance of therapists attention to their own personal growth. Rowan (2005) describes it as possibly the most important issue for the transpersonal therapist and he believes that it is important for therapists to examine their own metaphysical views and spiritual beliefs. This is also true of those therapists who adhere to a ‘Wilberian’ version of the perennial philosophy of which the ‘all-inclusiveness’ has recently been challenged by the likes of Ferrer (2002) and Daniels (2005). Les Lancaster (2002) has meanwhile questioned the suggestion that Buddhism makes no metaphysical assumptions and therapists who advocate a Buddhist flavoured approach to therapy may well wish to consider his argument. Therapists who hold a personal belief that a client’s goal is to recognise the truth of the Buddhist idea of ‘no-self’ may run into ethical problems and other issues of therapeutic effectiveness when working with a client who holds a conflicting spiritual belief. Issues of projection, transference and counter-transference arising as a result of such problems are well documented across various schools of psychotherapy.

The diverse nature of transpersonal psychotherapy is not an excuse for sloppiness in either theory or practice. As mentioned previously the vast majority of therapy takes place at ‘ego’ levels of existence so transpersonal therapists must be as well equipped as any other therapist to work across the full spectrum of human experience. However those who define themselves as transpersonal psychotherapists are obliged to undertake some form of study of transpersonal theory and pay attention to relevant academic literature and research. It is expected that other types of therapists are educated and knowledgeable about their own schools of therapy and transpersonal therapists are by no means exempt from such obligations. Excuses about the lack of academic programmes and other training programmes are no longer valid and there is a wealth of published material on the subject. There are also issues such as evil and the personal and “transpersonal shadow” (Vaughan, 1995) which were neglected by many transpersonal psychotherapists in the past but have now begun to be more thoroughly dealt with (see Cortright, 1997 and Daniels, 2005). The ‘pre/trans’ issue5 is also particularly pertinent for anyone working in the field. Transpersonal psychotherapy is likely to continue to face many challenges and difficulties as it emerges from its infancy but the broad nature of the field allows it to cross many different schools of therapy and this places it in the enviable position of advocating a truly holistic approach to psychotherapy.

Appendix:

1. Following the ‘Rogerian’ or ‘client-centred’ tradition, I am using the words ‘psychotherapy’ or ‘therapy’ in this text to refer to both psychotherapy and counselling.

2. The validity of psychotherapy without techniques might be questioned by some and is only relevant to some schools of therapy. There is extensive writing on this subject albeit from a non-transpersonal perspective particularly from ‘Rogerian’ or ‘client-centred’ psychotherapists e.g. Mearns and Thorne (1999) and (2000).

3. I am following Washburn (2003) in his use of the term ‘ego’ who stated that it is not accurate to speak of any stage of life as ‘pre-egoic’ since, contrary to more traditional psychoanalytic thought, some elements of the ‘ego’ self are present from the beginning of life. The word ‘prepersonal’ presents a similar difficulty but is difficult to avoid due to its common usage. See note 5.

4. The intricate nature of what constitutes directivity and its place in psychotherapy is beyond the scope of this article.

5. The ‘pre/trans’ issue was first raised by Ken Wilber in his 1980 article ‘The Pre/Trans Fallacy’ (reprinted in Wilber, 2001b). Essentially Wilber illuminated the problem of confusing prepersonal structures with transpersonal structures e.g. confusing a personal lack of boundaries with a transcendence of boundaries or confusing pre-rational with trans-rational. It is easy for the inexperienced therapist to confuse ‘pre’ and ‘trans’ since, for example, pre-rational and trans-rational forms of expression are both non-rational. Wilber has suggested that many therapists mistakenly reduce some or all transpersonal experience to prepersonal infantile regression. On the other hand he also suggests that many therapists romantically ‘elevate’ some or all prepersonal experiences to transpersonal. It is important to note Wilber does not imply that spiritual experiences are impossible in childhood and he is referring to ‘structures’ rather than ‘levels of development’. For a fuller description of Wilber’s ideas on this subject see Wilber (2000, 2001a, 2001b, 2006) and Visser (2003). While there is general acceptance amongst transpersonal psychotherapists of the need to distinguish between ‘pre’ and ‘trans’, not all academics and practitioners are in agreement with Wilber’s theoretical formulation of the ‘pre/trans fallacy’. Michael Washburn (1998a, 2003) had suggested that Wilber is being unparsimonious in his splitting of non-egoic structures into ‘pre’ and ‘trans’. Washburn (ibid) takes a neo-Jungian position and instead suggests that it is the ego’s interaction with the ‘dynamic ground’ (or non-egoic structures) that distinguishes prepersonal from transpersonal. It would be easy to oversimplify and thus misrepresent Washburn’s position and since he has devoted his most recent book (Washburn, 2003) to this subject I would direct the interested reader there. Anyone interested in the debates between Washburn and Wilber on this subject can also consult (Washburn 1998a, 1998b) and Wilber (1998a, 1998b).

Barry Herridge is a pre-accredited member of IAHIP and is working in private practice in Dublin.

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