Log in

Religion, Spirituality, Transpersonal

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).

The Transpersonal

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 

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

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).

Research Methodology

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.

Spiritual Experience

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

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 

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.


Anthony, D. and Ecker, B. (1987) ‘The Anthony typology: A framework for assessing 
spiritual and consciousness groups’ in D. Anthony, B. Ecker and K. Wilber (eds) Spiritual
 Choices: The problem of recognising authentic paths to inner transformation. New York: 
Paragon House.

Argyle, M. (2002) ‘Religion’ The Psychologist 15/1 22-26.

Bentz, V. M. and Shapiro, J. J. (1998) Mindful inquiry in social research. Thousand Oaks:

Boorstein, S. (ed) (1996) Transpersonal Psychotherapy (2nd edition). Albany: SUNY

Braud, W. and Anderson, R. (1998) Transpersonal research methods for the social 
sciences. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Cortright, B. (1997) Psychotherapy and Spirit: Theory and practice in transpersonal
 psychotherapy. Albany: SUNY Press.

Fowler, J. (1981) Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for
 meaning San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Fukuyama, M.A. and Sevig, T.D. (1999) Integrating spirituality into multicultural
 counselling, Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Hardy, A. (1979) The spiritual nature of man. London: Oxford University Press.

Hay, D. (1990) Religious experience today. London: Mowbray.

Heron, J. (1988) Cosmic psychology. London: Endymion Press.

Home, J. (1978) Beyond mysticism. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Huston, S. (2000) Cleansing the doors of perception: The religious significance of
 entheogenic plants and chemicals. New York: Putnam/Tarcher.

Maguire, K. (2001) ‘Working with survivors of torture and extreme experiences’  in S. King-
Spooner and C. Newnes (eds) (1996) Spirituality and psychotherapy. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS 

Maslow, A. H. (1973) The farther reaches of human nature. London: Penguin.

Rothberg, D. and Kelly, S. (eds) (1998) Ken Wilber in Dialogue. Wheaton: Quest.

Rowan, J. (1993) The Transpersonal: Psychotherapy and Counselling. London:

Rowan, J. (1998) ‘Transformational research’ in P. Clarkson (ed) Counselling psychology:
Integrating theory, research and supervised practice. London: Routledge.

Tillich, P. (1952) The courage to be. London: Yale University Press.

West, W. (2000) Psychology and Spirituality. London: Sage.

Wilber, K. (1983) A Sociable God. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wilber, K. (1997) ‘An integral theory of consciousness’ Journal of Consciousness Studies 
4/1 71-92.

Wilber, K. (1998) The Marriage of Sense and Soul. New York: Random House.

Wilber, K. (2000) Integral Psychology: Consciousness, Spirit, Psychology, Therapy.
 Boston: Shambhala.

The Irish Association of Humanistic
& Integrative Psychotherapy (IAHIP) CLG.

Cumann na hÉireann um Shíciteiripe Dhaonnachaíoch agus Chomhtháiteach

9.00am - 5.30pm Mon - Fri
+353 (0) 1 284 1665

email: admin@iahip.org

Copyright © IAHIP CLG. All Rights Reserved
Privacy Policy