by John Rowan
Some articles and chapters have been coming out recently in the field of counselling and psychotherapy which refer to religion, and keep on assuming that they are talking about spirituality as well. However, it seems worth pointing out that these two things are by no means the same. Both religion and spirituality touch on the ways in which the human and the divine come into contact with one another. But religion is based on books, buildings, rituals, observances, hierarchies and historical narratives . Spirituality is not. Spirituality is about the direct experience of the divine, the numinous, the sacred, the holy.
Of course there are many different definitions of spirituality. Ken Wilber’s extensive research (1983) has shown that five of them have been important:
(1 ) Spirituality involves peak experiences or altered states, which can occur as glimpses of advanced spirituality at almost any stage and any age; this is possibly the most popular definition today, particularly with those who have been influenced by New Age thinking. Such states can be reached through the appropriate use of drugs, of the types now known as entheogens (Huston Smith, 2000):
(2) Spirituality involves the highest levels in any seriously pursued realm of development, such as science, art, philosophy, sport, etc.; this is a philosophical definition, which is also quite widespread and widely studied. It is saying that the transpersonal realm is the only true spirituality, because it rises above and critiques anything less adequate or complete:
(3) Spirituality is a separate developmental line itself, pursued through meditation, prayer, ritual, contemplation and so forth; this is the most popular definition amongst religious people, who very often want to say that their own approach is the only true one, and that others are misleading and even dangerous. But it does not have to be like this: Paul Tillich (1952) has shown that we can talk about ultimate concern in a meaningful but non-exclusive way. In any case this definition allows us to say that there can be prepersonal, personal and transpersonal forms of spirituality: The research of James Fowler (1981) is relevant here.
(4) Spirituality is the sum total of the highest levels of all the developmental lines; this is the most sophisticated definition, and also the most demanding in that few people would exhibit spirituality under this definition. We would be saying here that nothing would count as spirituality unless it were fully and completely transpersonal:
(5) Spirituality is an attitude (such as openness, trust, or love) that we may or may not have at any stage; this is the most ecumenical of all the definitions, and also the vaguest and least easy to specify in detail. It is very warm and welcoming. There is a good discussion of these issues in Rothberg and Kelly (1998).
However, in psychology we have preferred to use a more dearly defined term, the transpersonal, instead of spirituality, because it is better stated and more widely researched: for example, there is a well refereed journal in the field, the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. It is for this reason that the Section of the British Psychological Society dealing with these matters more particularly, the Transpersonal Psychology Section, is so named. The clearest map-maker in this realm is undoubtedly Ken Wilber. and his statement of the matter has received a wide measure of agreement.
Wilber (2000) has researched very widely in the Eastern and Western literature, and presents no less than thirty-five different charts showing that no matter who goes into the matter, and no matter where or when they do it, the same set of levels and stages of psychospiritual development appear. Some of his sources are ancient and some modern; some Eastern and some Western, but there is a remarkable degree of unanimity about them. Even critics of Wilber such as John Heron are forced, when they come to describe their own model, to adopt something strikingly similar (Heron,1988). And what they say is that there are quite definable realms of spirituality which can be described with some accuracy.
This means that mysticism, instead of being a vague field (indeed for some people the very archetype of vagueness), can now be seen as the field where people demand to have spiritual experiences for themselves, instead of going by the teachings of others. It is a realm of personal discovery. And it turns out that people the world over discover the same things. This is remarkable, and Wilber (1998) has pointed out that what this means is that mysticism is like science. In the same way that science says – ‘If you doubt this, replicate the experiment and see if you get the same result or a different one’ – mysticism says – ‘If you doubt this, go through the same process and see if you get the same result or a different one’. Both are equally replicable, both are equally dependent on empirical results.
It turns out that this knowledge is particularly useful in psychotherapy. Many psychotherapists of all persuasions have noticed, for example, that they use intuition in their work, whether it formed part of their training or not. William West (2000) has noted that this is not only true of the Quaker therapists he interviewed, but is actually much more general. In my own work (2002) I have distinguished between six different levels of intuition and suggested that it is actually much more widespread than one thinks. Of course people do not talk about it easily, because our culture still tends to keep such matters out of public discourse for fear of not being counted as respectable.
But the right kind of respect-ability comes from solid work well carried out, and when this is done, remarkably interesting results emerge. The book by Mary Fukuyama and Todd Sevig (1999) contains a wealth of material on the way in which multicultural counselling can be illuminated by transpersonal research, and the chapter by Kate Maguire (2001) on working with survivors of torture and extreme experiences shows how a transpersonal consciousness can stand one in good stead when dealing with such phenomena.
A good overall conspectus of the work being done in the field of transpersonal psychotherapy is provided by Brant Cortright (1997) who gives descriptions and critiques of most of the distinct disciplines within the field. And some good examples of the work now being done are contained in the compendium edited by Seymour Boorstein (1996).
The mention of transpersonal research in the previous section brings us into the realm of another aspect of work at this level. The publication of such works as Braud & Anderson (1998) and Bentz & Shapiro (1998), and such brief summaries as my own chapter on the subject (1998) makes it clear that there are not only transpersonal insights into spirituality, not only transpersonal findings in the field of psychotherapy and counselling, but also transpersonal methods of working in the social sciences. The explosion in recent years of qualitative methodology in research makes the idea of transpersonal research much more acceptable and understandable. We can refer to things like integral inquiry, intuitive inquiry, phenomenological inquiry, organic research, transformational research and mindful inquiry without seeming weird or out of line.
And this means that we can escape from the strait jacket where we can only talk about spirituality by talking about religion. Religious research is highly limited and narrow. It does not excite us, still less does it enlighten us. Even psychologists who have made a study of religion say things like this ”Perhaps the best psychology can hope for is to study the causes, correlates and effects of religion, but may not be able to explain it” (Argyle, 2002). If that is so, perhaps it may be more profitable to study the transpersonal, and even to enter the transpersonal, in order to come to terms with it. The old idea that you had to stand outside something in order to study it is long gone – qualitative research taught us that the researcher is willy-nilly part of the field which is being researched. We may as well admit this, and carry on from there.
The innocent reader who has not read much about this before may wonder what is meant by the phrase ‘enter the transpersonal’. It means admitting that we are spiritual beings. There is a kind of analogy here, perhaps, with psychotherapy. Freud taught us that we are all neurotic. Klein taught us that we are all psychotic. Wilber teaches us that we are all mystics. Experience teaches. We have to go through Freudian therapy (or something similar) to accept that we are neurotic. We have to go through Kleinian therapy (or something similar) to accept that we are psychotic. And we have to go through our own spiritual experiences to accept that we are mystics. Luckily many of us – perhaps most of those who will read this – have had spiritual experiences. Aleister Hardy (1979) and David Hay (1990) have done much research on this, and have found that large numbers of the population have had peak experiences as described by Maslow (1973) in his extensive work and other intimations of the transpersonal. All that is required is that people ‘come out of the closet”, so to speak, and own up to their own experience. And today more and more people are doing just that. Such brief mystical experiences are of course no more than glimpses, but Dick Anthony and Bruce Ecker (1987) have argued that such glimpses are very important as giving us a taste of the real thing, which we can then follow up if we want to do so. James Horne (1978) in his careful set of distinctions between different mystical states, has suggested that Maslow’s peak experiences are of casual extraverted mysticism, which seems to place them nicely.
Many such experiences, of course, are latched on to by those who are influenced by that vague entity known as New Age thinking. What is wrong with New Age thinking is that it is uncritical. It does not know how to say ’No’! to any doctrine, no matter how absurd, so long as it sounds good. But transpersonal thinking, as can be seen in any copy of the Transpersonal Psychology Review, published by the British Psychological Society, is highly critical and has its feet on the ground. It is possible to have one’s feet on the ground and also to honour one’s spiritual experiences, and use them to expand one’s consciousness. ‘Roots and Wings’, as someone once said. This I believe is an effort worth making.
The Pre/Trans Fallacy
Mention of the term ‘consciousness’ reminds us that there has been in recent years a tremendous increase in the scientific study of consciousness as such. There is now a whole journal, the Journal of Consciousness Studies, and some enormous and exciting conferences, devoted to such study. Ken Wilber (1997) has again been in the forefront of such understanding, suggesting that there are at least twelve different approaches to understanding this question of consciousness itself, and that all of them are necessary to any adequate statement of what it is. The great enemy here is reductionism – the attempt to reduce consciousness to something lesser and more approachable, more measurable.
One of the simplest distinctions to make is the distinction between the prepersonal. which has not yet advanced to the discovery of science, mathematics, formal logic and so forth, and the transpersonal, which has been through all these things quite fully, and gone on to something further. Yet to confuse the prepersonal with the transpersonal is very common, and Wilber calls this the pre/trans fallacy. The late Michael Argyle (2002:23) fell into it headlong when he talked about the aspects of religion which hold people back into an unthinking conformity with the norms of the group, and did not distinguish these from the aspects of religion which offer a genuine mystical experience which goes beyond identification with a group. The pre/trans fallacy is the most common error of the critics of the transpersonal, as for example Albert Ellis, who accuses those who explore transpersonal consciousness of having “a strong tendency to promote, or at least excuse, violence, torture, terrorism, and wars directed against their dissenters and opponents” (Ellis and Yeager, 1989:62). This is so far from the truth as to be laughable, but it is typical of what can happen when the pre/trans fallacy is committed.
The transpersonal is actually more about understanding the world in a wider and more inclusive way than we can ordinarily do. Transpersonal thinking goes beyond the ego, while still including and respecting it. It is not restricted in the same way as is most common in our society. It takes us beyond the limits of our own skin. In religion, there are some important distinctions made – between the legitimate and the authentic, between the extrinsic and the intrinsic, between the exoteric and the esoteric. If we ignore these, as Argyle does, we are lumping together phenomena which are actually very different. The transpersonal has more connection with the authentic, the intrinsic and the esoteric than with the other poles of these contrasts, and to mix all this up under the broad rubric of ‘religion’ is to do a disservice to those intrepid souls who are brave enough to explore such regions.
All anyone has to do who is genuinely interested in these matters is to join the Transpersonal Section, or go to its conferences or read its Review.
John Rowan is an international figure in the field of humanistic and integrative psychotherapy. His publications are widely acclaimed. He continues to work in private practice together with his international consultancy work.
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