Within this essay, I argue for the added value of transpersonal psychotherapies that are rooted in spiritual traditions, and I also consider the importance of psychotherapy and counselling for individuals engaging in contemporary spiritual practices outside of spiritual traditions. I draw on examples of transpersonal therapies that are based on practices found especially within Eastern spiritual traditions, which I propose support a balanced approach to whole person development. I base my understanding on the premise that transpersonal psychotherapy aligns with the beliefs of mystical and spiritual traditions, and consists of the common goal of moving towards wholeness or a higher Self. I discuss how transpersonal psychotherapy, which is rooted in spiritual traditions, may provide a framework for those who face spiritual or transpersonal experiences outside of a particular tradition, and how this approach may avoid the limitations found within the traditional model of psychotherapy.
Transpersonal psychotherapy is based on the paradigm of transpersonal psychology, which has progressed from the earlier cognitive-behavioural and humanistic approaches, and which is often referred to as a “fourth force” in psychology (Leuger & Sheikh, 1989). The transpersonal paradigm emphasizes the study of transformation in addition to acknowledging the beyond ego, transcendent and spiritual domains of human experience. It is argued that these dimensions are often ignored by mainstream psychotherapy, which tends to focus on the personal and goal driven dimension of being (Firman & Vargiu, 1996). Our understanding of the personal or “ego” level of self is based on scientistim, which assumes that knowledge gained through natural science is the only valid knowledge that is available. This scientistic paradigm has been criticised and described as ethnocentric and cognicentric (Harner, 1980).
Research on shamanism conducted by the late anthropologist, Michael Harner, suggests that those who experience mystical or transpersonal states—states going beyond the mere personal—are sometimes stigmatised with psychosis because of an ethnocentric bias which determines our judgement of what is normal or pathological. This often results in mainstream psychotherapy ignoring the spiritual dimensions, instead focusing predominantly on the ego-based struggles faced by individuals in our contemporary society. These personal levels of self should not be ignored. However, transpersonal psychotherapy is valuable as it can embrace the personal while also acknowledging and integrating the transpersonal aspects. “The personal and the transpersonal dimensions are distinct but not separate. Both are natural to human unfoldment,” assert Firman & Vargiu (1996, p. 119).
In comparison to the mainstream approach of psychotherapy or counselling, development within spiritual or mystical traditions places more emphasis on the transpersonal, beyond-ego part of being. John Welwood (2014) a psychologist who integrates psychological and spiritual concepts, argues that an overemphasis on the development of the personal or transpersonal levels of self can result in an imbalance within the person. He suggests there are three key areas of development which include the suprapersonal, the personal, and the interpersonal.
The suprapersonal is understood as the beyond ego spiritual dimension of one’s being. Welwood (2014) discusses the concept of spiritual bypassing, where some individuals who seek out spirituality and spiritual practices may overly focus on suprapersonal development as a way of avoiding or denying their personal and interpersonal struggles. This may lead to an imbalance within the person. “Living in the world often brings up unresolved psychological issues that spiritual practice is not designed to address,” writes Welwood, (2014, p. 215).
Spiritual bypassing appears to be a dominant issue in contemporary society. For example, individuals attending spiritual retreats or engaging in condensed periods of spiritual practices where they may hide away from social interaction or engagements for a period of time is beneficial for spiritual and personal development. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean what is learned within those particular environments can be integrated and applied into day-to-day life.
I have recognised this within my own spiritual path whereby I have been strongly drawn towards the knowledge and practices held within Eastern traditions such Buddhist philosophy, meditation, and yoga. In retrospect, I can perceive how, in the beginning, certain parts of my engagement in spiritual practices were brought about as a rejection of my human experience and the struggles that come with it. Yet, it is largely through my spiritual practices such as Buddhist meditation and yoga retreats, which I now attend on a yearly basis, that I have discovered the importance of finding a balance between the transpersonal, personal, and interpersonal levels of my being. I don’t perceive these levels of development as separate, but rather as interconnected, and I have experienced the development on one level of my being, leading to the necessity of addressing the development on other levels, as well.
It has been my own experience that spending time in retreats and engaging in spiritual practices provides space in which to question and re-evaluate our personal and interpersonal relationships, and therefore such experiences are valuable in giving us perspective on our “conditioned mind,” and in shifting our habits, beliefs, and values. I have found in practice that the learning within the environment of a spiritual retreat can be applied and integrated into daily life. However, it is my experience that this is more readily done with the continued support of a teacher, coach, therapist, or counsellor. I think this type of support can also be supplied through a community which recognizes such transpersonal aspects of being.
Other theories argue that if the personal self is not strongly developed, overly focusing on the transpersonal dimension, it may result in the personal self not being able to deal with the energies that come from spiritual practices. This is especially problematic when these experiences occur without a framework in which to place them, or without a teacher or therapist who recognises the transpersonal dimensions. This further reinforces the value of psychotherapy which is rooted in spiritual traditions and can acknowledge the personal and transpersonal dimension within a particular framework and wealth of knowledge that has been taken from the spiritual tradition and practices.
Italian psychiatrist and transpersonal pioneer, Roberto Assagioli (1888–1974) described different levels of being. In addition to the ‘I’ self, he included the superconscious and transpersonal Self (in Firman & Gila, 2002). The superconscious refers to the spiritual or transcendent aspect of human consciousness. Assagioli suggested development must not only involve detaching from the “I” and becoming an observer of the self, but an individual must also be able to move beyond the superconscious. He insisted there is a danger of becoming attached to the experiences of the superconscious which may result in ego inflation, or if the “I” is not strongly developed, there may be a loss of the ego or “I” which results in difficulties. Assagioli, therefore, offered that through the process of psychosynthesis (which integrates the spiritual component of experience), both the personal and transpersonal self can be developed successfully to achieve wholeness. To move towards the Self, we need to experience the “I” and to know what is not the Self by way of negation through a fully formed “I”.
As John Welwood (2014) describes, simply denying the existence of the ego may be counterproductive. A desire to escape from personal and interpersonal issues may result in an over-striving towards the transpersonal, and in a misunderstanding of what it means to move beyond the ego. This is one of the paradoxes of spiritual development in which the striving itself becomes counterproductive, and again, this appears to be a more prevalent issue with the rise of secular spiritual practices outside of the context of tradition. Within a secular context, there is a risk of the teachings being misunderstood, diluted, or changed, and this can be particularly problematic when only a particular aspect of a spiritual practice is being applied.
One example of this imbalance can be found within the secular mindfulness movement. Vishvapani (2012) identifies this issue and argues that the Insight Meditation Movement (IMM) is a stripped-down approach that doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the “sangha” or community—nor the rituals and ethics that come with the Buddhist teachings—as a holistic approach to living. He emphasises how secular mindfulness practices focus on stress reduction, which doesn’t necessarily mean that individuals are integrating these practices into their day-to-day life or using their mindfulness practices for spiritual or transpersonal developments of their being.
I perceive mindfulness practice as only a part of what would constitute as whole-person development, which brings into question how we develop ethics, morals, and values in society if we are only applying certain practices outside of their traditions. I think there is value in the freedom of forming our own morals and values outside of the traditions, and I relate strongly to the perennial philosophy (Huxley, 1985). This philosophy sees the same metaphysical truth being expressed through different religions, languages and labels, and enables a secular approach to spiritual practices. The perennial philosophy is also linked to the integration of contemporary spiritual practices and transpersonal therapies in a secular context.
In addition, transpersonal psychotherapy that is rooted in spiritual traditions is valuable as there is often confusion surrounding spiritual awakening or transformations within a Western context, whereby these experiences are often pathologized. Stanislav Grof and the late Christina Grof, who researched non-ordinary states of consciousness, coined the terms “spiritual emergence” and “spiritual emergency.” Spiritual emergence can be defined as a gradual transformation of the psyche, and a spiritual emergency may be “an intense and dramatic experience that disturbs the normal stable structure of the mind” (Grof, 2000). Correct diagnosis and understanding of a spiritual dimension and the process of spiritual emergence or awakenings is essential.
As the researchers Mark Kasprow and Bruce Scotton (1999) submit, the outcome of such experiences can be perceived as either positive or destructive depending on the ego’s readiness for such experiences, and how meaning is applied to these experiences is essential. Paul Maiteny (2017b) emphasises the distinction between experience and meaning in which the experience itself is not inherently meaningful, therefore implying the importance of guidance through such experiences in which individuals can apply meaning. With the rise of spiritual practices taking place in a secular context, without a specific guide or framework in which to place these experiences, an individual may not be able to fully understand and integrate their experiences successfully. Therefore, transpersonal psychotherapy, which applies knowledge from spiritual traditions, can be helpful in understanding and embodying these experiences, as opposed to rejecting or pathologizing them.
A commonly reported example of an unexpected spiritual experience is that of kundalini awakening within the body. The yoga and tantric traditions describe kundalini as an energy that lies coiled and dormant at the base of the spine in the form of a “seed,” and which, when awakened, travels up the sushumna, the main energy channel of the body. One reaches spiritual awakening when the energy reaches and is successfully settled in the seventh chakra. It has been documented that kundalini awakening may be problematic and extremely distressing for individuals (Greyson, 1993). Awakened kundalini energy can be so overwhelming that it disturbs the balance of one’s physical and mental state, creating difficulty with its integration. This is especially the case if the body is not prepared and the energy is not guided correctly (Sovatsky, 1999).
I argue that a transpersonal approach, which recognises the spiritual dimension while also recognising the importance of the physical, human, and egoic aspect of ourselves, is essential. In regards to this, I have resonated with the work of Process Oriented Therapy, which is not concerned with change, but rather with awareness, and which is rooted in the spiritual tradition of Taoism. “Process work is about noticing the signals that point to the river, and unfolding the meaning embedded in them” notes Siver (2005, p. 2). This approach, developed by Arnold Mindell who formerly called it “dream body work,” collaborates with the exploration of experiences within the body, synchronicities, dreams, and other altered states of consciousness (Siver, 2005). The idea behind the dream body is that somatic experiences and symptoms reveal information that needs to be addressed by an individual (Mindell, 1982). This type of process work supports therapists in looking beyond illness or pathology and views the meaning behind each individual’s current situation, behaviours, and thought processes. Within this approach, the therapist is facilitating awareness within the client, and thus is not acting to solve or change anything.
Process work shows similarities to Vipassana meditation, in which awareness is the crucial element in development. Meditation is also a common example in which spiritual practices are being increasingly integrated into contemporary therapy. The goal of psychotherapy is for our unconscious processes to become conscious, which aligns with the Buddhist approaches of Vipassana meditation. However, the use of meditation as a tool without correct guidance has been cautioned in some cases because of potential dangers when an individual has pre-existing issues with their sense of self. For example, the practice of Vipassana meditation, which brings awareness to the body, may also bring up previous traumas (Kasprow and Scotton, 1999). I argue that the rise in meditation and mindfulness practice is beneficial and a positive movement within contemporary society. However, it is even more beneficial to have the correct support and guidance through such practices if they are being used beyond the purpose of stress reduction, as the practice can potentially lead to more intense experiences and emotions which arise from the unconscious.
Other therapies which have integrated spiritual methodologies with Western transpersonal therapy include the work of the aforementioned Stanislav Grof (2000). Grof’s work focuses on the healing potential of non-ordinary states of consciousness, which he labels as “holotropic” states, meaning “moving in the direction of wholeness” (Grof, 2000, p. 2). These states can be reached through holotropic breathwork, and may include chanting, breathing, drumming, or rhythmic dancing. Holotropic states allow for information that is not normally accessible in our normal state of consciousness to be reached. This might include unconscious emotional difficulties, specific images or visions, and interpersonal problems which otherwise lay in our unconscious.
Holotropic states like Grof and Grof (1989) devised through their specific breathwork method might also be accessed through well-known spiritual practices, including yogic breath work, Vipassana meditation, and other methods found within mystical and spiritual traditions. I have taken part in a form of holotropic breathwork, and during the session, I experienced bodily sensations, the movement of energy within my body, and a deep emotional release. I found the overall experience to be therapeutic, healing, and impactful. This was also because it included working with a partner and it was in a group environment in which I witnessed and shared the healing process with others. However, there was no formal follow-up to process the experiences, which I believe would be beneficial and should be a consideration for transpersonal therapies using such methods for the correct guidance and integration of the experiences. Again, this relates to the importance of how meaning is applied to the experiences and can be supported through continued transpersonal therapy or counselling.
To summarise, I have argued how transpersonal psychotherapy and counselling that is rooted in practices stemming from spiritual traditions can be particularly beneficial for individuals whose belief systems include that of the transpersonal dimension. In particular, I consider these practices to be supportive for individuals who have spiritual or transpersonal experiences as they may not be properly acknowledged through mainstream psychotherapy or counselling.
I have also highlighted the benefits of transpersonal therapy in providing guidance for individuals, and this can be essential to how people apply meaning to their spiritual awakening experiences. Transpersonal therapy or counselling is argued to be helpful for individuals to integrate the transpersonal into their personal and interpersonal levels of being. I have discussed some methodologies which are rooted within spiritual traditions and which I believe to be beneficial as they account for the subtle body, awareness of somatic symptoms, and because they use altered states of consciousness in which to address the subconscious and transpersonal dimensions in a whole-person approach to development. I believe that further integration of the Eastern methodologies within Western psychotherapy would be beneficial in helping individuals to integrate spiritual experiences and practices into their day-to-day life.
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Jules DeVitto, MA, MSc
Jules completed her MSc in Consciousness, Spirituality & Transpersonal Psychology through AlefTrust. She is certified as a Transpersonal Coach and is also an experienced and qualified teacher with additional qualifications in youth counselling. When teaching internationally in Shanghai, China she shared and taught mindfulness practices to the children in her classroom. She now offers transpersonal coaching and complementary healing including Reiki and sound healing through one-one sessions and group workshops. She has drawn on knowledge from various spiritual traditions and Psychology in which to form her unique approach to transformation and growth. She is passionate about helping individuals navigate the difficulties associated with life transitions and approaches an individual’s recovery from stress, anxiety or other mental health difficulties from a transpersonal perspective. You can learn more about Julie through her website at www.julesdevitto.com.