“Healing and Wholeness: Transpersonal Psychology”

Frances Vaughan, PhD

pp. 160-165 - Excerpted from: Paths Beyond Ego: The Transpersonal Vision.  Roger Walsh, MD, PhD, and Frances Vaughan, PhD.  Jeremy P. Tarcher, NY, 1993.


Transpersonal psychotherapy is a healing endeavor that aims at the integration of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of well-being.  Its goals include the classic ones of normal healthy functioning.  The healing potential of transpersonal experiences is affirmed, and spiritual issues are explored from a psychological perspective. Some transpersonal therapists consider caring for the soul to be a major task of psychotherapy.

A transpersonal therapist may employ traditional therapeutic techniques as well as methods derived from spiritual disciplines, such as meditation and mind training.  The client may be encouraged to attend to mind-body processes and explore the inner life of the psyche in depth, leading to the discovery of a wealth of inner resources and an innate capacity for self-healing.

In transpersonal therapy, consciousness is both the instrument and the object of change.  The work aims not only at changing behavior and the contents of consciousness, but also at developing awareness of consciousness itself as the context of experience.  Ideally, a transpersonal approach aims at awakening from the consensus trance that perpetuates illusion.  Since consciousness is often constricted by egocentric identifications, questions of identity and self-concept may also be explored.  Finally, the relationship of the person to society and the natural environment is viewed as an integral part of psychological maturation.

A useful distinction can be made between the context of therapy established by the beliefs and values of the therapist; the content of therapy, consisting of the client’s experience; and the process in which both therapist and client participate and through which healing occurs.

A transpersonal context in psychotherapy is established by the therapist who affirms the importance of spiritual issues for psychological health.  A therapist who has personally explored the transpersonal domain, experientially as well as intellectually, will therefore be better equipped to assist others who are exploring transpersonal frontiers.  Hence, in addition to modeling authenticity as any good therapist may be expected to do, the transpersonal therapist must be willing to attend to his or her own inner work and spiritual practice.

A transpersonal orientation does not invalidate other approaches, any of which may be relevant to different people at different times.  It does, however, call for a more expanded context than is usually constructed by conventional approaches.  It allows a more inclusive vision of possibility in which a person can let go of the past and live more fully in the present.  In light of the perennial wisdom of spiritual teachings, it affirms the possibility of living in harmony with others and the environment, less driven by fear and greed, and motivated by compassion and a sense of purpose.

A transpersonal context implies that the therapist is aware of the centrality of consciousness and perception in determining the outcome of therapy.  For example, the healing potential of the therapeutic relationship maybe enhanced when the client is perceived by the therapist as potentially creative rather than simply reactive to external circumstances.   As the client gradually shifts from being self-identified as a victim to taking a more responsible and creative stance that is based on a realization of personal freedom, the work may focus increasingly on transpersonal issues.

Transpersonal psychotherapy does not focus exclusively on problem solving per se.  Like the fisherman who teaches the hungry person how to fish rather than simply providing a fish, the therapist encourages the client to develop a variety of inner resources and problem-solving skills.  The therapist also recognizes that there is no one method or technique that will necessarily result in healing for everyone.

The content of transpersonal therapy is the life experience of the client. Since clients with spiritual concerns tend to seek out transpersonal therapists, some of the content may be mythical, archetypal, personal, or transpersonal.  When the content is explicitly transpersonal, i.e., when the client is attempting to make sense out of transpersonal experiences, the transpersonal therapist affirms the healing potential of such experiences and does not pathologize, or discount, or invalidate them.  Conventional approaches that tend to devalue such experiences can contribute to their repression and to subsequent disturbances. This is one reason why it is helpful for transpersonal therapists to be identified in the community.

Carl Jung was one of the first psychotherapists to recognize the value of transpersonal experience.  He said, “The fact is that the approach to the numinous is the real therapy and inasmuch as you attain to the numinous experience you are released from the curse of pathology. ” He also wrote, in a letter to Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, that the “craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness.”  Recovery from addiction is therefore facilitated by religious experiences or “a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism.

Although transpersonal experiences are potentially healing, their effects are often temporary unless an effort is made to stabilize the insights gained.  The task of psychotherapy therefore goes beyond the induction of such experiences to the task of integrating them effectively into everyday life.  As behaviors, values, and attitudes begin to change, dramatic breakthroughs may evolve into awareness that transforms the quality of subjective experience and personal relationships.
From a transpersonal perspective, wholeness implies a harmonious integration of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of well-being as well as social responsibility.  While other therapies address physical, emotional, mental, and social concerns, the spiritual dimensions tends to be over looked.

Following is a brief summary of some methods commonly associated with transpersonal therapy that may be applied at any level of development.  They can all be used to assist clients to open to inner experiences and to develop inner resources.

Physical health.  In addition to cultivating awareness of how psychological health is affected by habit of diet and exercise, transpersonal psycho-therapy may include bodywork such as bioenergetics, hatha yoga, t’ai chi ch’uan, aikido, biofeedback, sensory awareness, and movement therapy, to name a few.  These disciplines train awareness by focusing attention on subtle physical sensations, and some focus specifically on mind-body integration and self-mastery.  Some of them release emotional blocks and habitual patterns of tension, enabling a person to feel more relaxed and free.

Emotional catharsis.  The release of emotional blocks, whatever the method, is essential for healing the wounds of the past and freeing a person to live fully in the present.  Transpersonal exploration through various methods such as breathwork, guided imagery, and dreams can have a powerful effect on emotional healing.  One of the most effective methods for emotional catharsis in a transpersonal context is holotropic breathing, developed by Stanislav and Christina Grof.

Cognitive reattribution.  By learning to think differently about experience and to shift perception of painful events, a person can learn to see difficulties as learning experiences and release shame, guilt, and anger associated with the past in order to experience greater freedom in the present.  Given the opportunity, the psyche can learn to see both self and world with compassion.

Existential questions.  At times of crisis, confronting existential questions of value, meaning, and choice can lead to transpersonal exploration.  Although some psychotherapists consider spirituality an illusory palliative for the painful realities of human existence, there is no doubt that the proximity of death raises spiritual issues that are beyond the scope of conventional clinical training.  The widespread denial of death in Western culture reflects an equally widespread denial of transpersonal realities.

Many people find themselves terrified of the dark and skeptical of the light. The task of the transpersonal therapist, then, is to assist clients in facing their fears and discovering a source of wisdom in themselves.

Imagery and dreamwork.  These methods include techniques such as dream analysis, active imagination, Gestalt dialogue, and the hypnotic induction of altered states. They may be used for building ego strength or exploring transpersonal dimensions of the psyche.  Transpersonal work does not depend on the technique, but on how it is used.
For example, if the therapist does not have a transpersonal orientation, the transpersonal potentials of dreamwork tend to be overlooked.  A traditional psychoanalyst, for instance, may overlook the fact that dreams can be more than the royal road to the personal unconscious, that they have been an important source of revelation and inspiration in the world’s religious traditions and can provide access to transpersonal realms.

Meditation. Meditation can enhance appreciation of the spiritual dimension of life and be a helpful adjunct to therapy.  Different types of meditation have different effects, but most tend to increase self-awareness and sensitivity to how the mind words.  Concentration practices that focus and calm the mind are sometimes useful in treating anxiety.  Insight practice, on the other hand, can be particularly useful for uncovering repressed memories and other unconscious material.

Disidentification.  By cutting through the contents of consciousness such as feelings, thoughts, and fantasies, meditation enables the practitioner to differentiate consciousness from its contents, thereby assisting the process of disidentification, which is central to transpersonal work.  Whereas the ego tends to be predominantly identified with emotions, roles, and relationships, transcendence of ego is facilitated by disidentifying from the personality and personal history.

When the client is ready for it, disidentification exercises (e.g., “I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts; I have emotions, but I am not my emotions; I have a body, but I am not my body”) affirm identification with pure awareness, and the capacity for directing and utilizing psychological processes without becoming exclusively identified with any one of them.

Confession.  The therapeutic relationship provides a contemporary version of the confessional for many people who have become alienated from formal religion.  Any trustworthy therapist can serve the function of confession by providing a safe place where the darkest secret places in the psyche may be explored.  Healing occurs when the rejected, disowned aspects of self are accepted and reintegrated into a larger vision of wholeness.

Altered states of consciousness.  The use of techniques such as music, fasting, drumming, chanting, dancing, or ingesting drugs to alter consciousness is as old as recorded history.  The use of altered states in hypnotherapy and deep relaxation is familiar to most clinicians.  The investigation of other nondrug methods for altering consciousness has been pioneered by transpersonal researchers such as Stanislav and Christina Grof (holotropic breathwork), Elmer and Alyce Green (biofeedback) and Michael Harner (shamanic drumming).  Their work indicates that some altered states can have powerful therapeutic effects.  Hence transpersonal therapists have sought to work with such states, as appropriate, in psychotherapy.
In practice, the transpersonal clinician may work with any number of different processes, depending on what is appropriate for a particular client.  Since many clients who seek transpersonal therapists are already on a spiritual path, practitioners are often called upon to deal with specifically spiritual issues. This makes it necessary for the therapist to distinguish healthy spirituality from spiritual practices that mask psychological problems.

Transpersonal psychotherapy is often presumed to be more suitable for relatively healthy, growth-oriented clients. According to Seymour Boorstein, a psychoanalytically trained transpersonal psychiatrist, transpersonal techniques can also be helpful in treating some severely disturbed individuals, since accessing the spiritual part of one’s nature can provide a source of inner nourishment.  He cautions, however, that sometimes individuals may come into therapy misusing certain practices such as meditation to avoid relationship or mask pathology.  In such cases the therapist may counsel against these practices.
A pitfall for therapists in general is the tendency to impose their own beliefs on their clients, either consciously or unconsciously.  Maintaining a detached attitude may be particularly challenging for a therapist who has recently discovered a rewarding spiritual practice. A commitment to assist the client to discover his or her own path rather than recommending a particular system is important.  If the goal is to become aware of transpersonal dimensions of consciousness, there is no conflict between the process of psychotherapy and the process of spiritual growth.

The words of the Budda in the Kalamas Sutra seem relevant for anyone working in this field:
Do not believe in what you have not heard; do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations; do not believe anything because it is rumored and spoken of by many; do not believe merely because the written statement of some old sage is produced; do not believe in conjectures; do not believe merely in the authority of your teachers and elders.  After observation and analysis, when it agrees with reason and it is conductive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

 

 

Groff, S. The adventure of self-discovery.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988.

Jung, C.G.  Letters.  Ed. G. Adler.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973.

The Bill W – Carl Jung Letters.  Re-Vision, 10, 2 (1987): 21

Fadiman, J. and Frager, R.  Personality and personal growth. 2nd ed.  New York: Harper and Row. 1984.

Boorstein, S. and Vaughan, F.  Transpersonal psychotherapy. In The newer therapies, ed. L. Abt and I. Stewart. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982, pp, 118-35.

Boorstein, S.  Transpersonal psychotherapy.  Palo Alto, Calif.: Science and Behavior Books, 1980.