To What Extent is a Transpersonal Orientation in Therapy Necessary for Conscious Development?
A few years ago, a client of mine (who was in therapy with me at the time) phoned me in distress. She explained that she had had an alarming experience, where she had left her body, and in her words, “gone to the other side”. Unknown to my client, I had held an interest in near-death and out-of-body experiences for some years, and once all ethical considerations had been addressed, we explored her experience. It was at that point I started to question what the client’s therapeutic experience would have been had I not have had a transpersonal orientated therapy practice.
The aim of this paper is to consider to what extent a transpersonal orientation is necessary in therapy for conscious development. Consideration will first be given to definitions of ‘transpersonal orientation’ and ‘conscious development’, followed by arguments for and against traditional behaviourist, psychodynamic and transpersonal approaches with a view to address the assignment question. Before concluding, consideration will also be given to the importance of scientific world view and how it impacts the term ‘conscious development’.
The terms ‘transpersonal orientation’ and ‘conscious development’ are open to being interpreted in several ways. For example, based on the definition that transpersonal is that which goes beyond the individual or the personal, it could be argued that all therapists are in some way transpersonal in their orientation (A Transpersonal Orientation, n.d.). For this assignment however, the following definition will be used to define transpersonal orientation:
The word transpersonal literally means: beyond (or through) the personal. It refers to experiences, processes or events in which our normal limiting sense of self is transcended and in which there is a feeling of connection to a larger, more meaningful reality. For many people, religious or spiritual experience is seen as central to the transpersonal agenda, although the transpersonal can also be about extending concern for (or our sense of identification with) other people, human kind in general, life, the planet or nature (Daniels, 2005, p.11).
Regarding the term, ‘conscious development’, Barrett (2016) outlines seven stages of psychological development, which have been built upon Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These stages include: surviving, conforming, differentiating, individuating, self-actualizing, integrating and serving. In personal opinion, these stages encapsulate a spectrum of ‘conscious development’, and hence represent an adequate definition for the term.
The middle of the twentieth century saw psychology dominated by two major schools, behaviourism and Freudian Psychology (Grof, n.d.). Both Pavlov’s notion of classical conditioning (Pavlov, 1927), and Skinner’s concept of operant conditioning (Skinner, 1953) have provided blueprints for evidence based applications in behaviourism. Behaviourism has since proven effective in therapeutic setting; for example, in the diagnosis of patients with mental disorders by operationalizing the acquisition of new behaviour (Barrett & Lindsley, 1962), and in improving item-recall in dementia patients (Dixon et al., 2011).
In clinical psychology behaviourists theory is typically complimented with cognitive theory to produce more effective results (Feltham & Horton, 2006); for example, cognitive behaviour therapy has been shown to be particularly effective for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Schnurr, 2007). Additionally, a review of 16 meta-analyses supported the efficacy of CBT in many disorders (Butler et al., 2006).
Freudian psychology, which has given rise to the psychodynamic approach has also shown benefits in a therapeutic setting. For example, Shedler (2011) highlights that empirical evidence does support the efficacy of psychodynamic psychotherapy, with patients continuing to improve after therapy ends. Additionally, there is also evidence that long-term psychodynamic psychotherapy is an effective treatment for complex mental disorders (Leichsenring & Rabung, 2008).
Although contemporary psychological and behaviour approaches have undergone considerable change and have clearly made a valuable contribution to therapy, Cortright (1997) points out that, “all genius is a product of its time” (p.34), meaning that the scientific outlook (Newtonian-Cartesian worldview) of the early 1900s is embedded in both Freud’s psychology and behaviourist approaches. This, in personal opinion, is an important consideration, and will be addressed later on.
Despite success such as that outlined above, both behaviour and psychodynamic approaches drew criticism in the 1950s and 1960s. Humanistic psychology was developed as a result of a dissatisfaction with the two major schools of psychology, which were considered to be increasingly inadequate approaches to the human psyche (Buskist et al., 2010; Grof, n.d). The primary objection against behaviourism was that the study of animals could only help with aspects of human functioning which were shared with these animals, and hence could offer no relevance in understanding higher human functions, such as love and morality (Grof, n.d.). It was also argued that human nature extends beyond environmental influences, and that Freudian psychology was preoccupied with psychopathology, ignoring positive phenomena such as happiness and satisfaction. Humanistic psychology therefore was an approach that studied human behaviour, placing emphasis on human experience, choice, creativity, self-realization and positive growth (Buskist et al., 2010).
Despite humanistic psychology becoming increasingly popular, its founders Maslow and Sutich became dissatisfied with the original conceptual framework, feeling that they had left out the spiritual dimension of the psyche (Sutich, 1976). The widespread psychedelic experimentation during the 1960s, along with a growing interest in Eastern spiritual philosophies, meditation and various mystical traditions called for a more cross-cultural, comprehensive psychology, which led to the formation of “transpersonal psychology” in 1976 (Grof, n.d). Cortright (1997) has commented that it is difficult to understand how psychology, which has tried to explore the truth of human experience could have avoided the realm of spirituality so long, especially because it has been an aspect of human culture throughout history. There have since been a number of contributors to the field of transpersonal psychology, for example, Wilber. Although not a clinician, Wilber has made a significant contribution incorporating transpersonal stages of development derived from non-western traditions along with the western human stages of development (Wilber et al. 1986).
The emergence of humanistic and transpersonal psychology resulted in new effective therapeutic approaches which dealt with the whole person, and also placed emphasis on the interconnectedness of body and psyche (Grof, n.d.). Jung was arguably the first clinician to legitimise a spiritual approach to depth psychology, and suggested that psychological development should not stop at adult ego maturation, but rather should extend to include higher states of consciousness (Kasprow &Scotton, 1999). Additionally, the founder of pychosynthesis, Assagioli has argued that Freud did not give adequate consideration to the higher aspects of human personality, consequently recognising the need for a broader idea of the human being. Psychosynthesis therefore works to integrate both the higher and lower levels of the unconscious. It has also been stipulated that as we progress in life our sense of world meaning also grows, eventually leading us to a transpersonal dimension of growth (Firman &Vargiu, 1996).
Similarly, Hillman has argued that old psychology no longer works, and that too many people have been analysing their pasts and childhoods, recognising that it does not do enough (London, 1998). Hillman instead suggests that there is an individual soul, which is responsible for individual character, aspiration and achievement (Hillman, 1996).
In terms of research showing a connection between transpersonal elements and healing, Schwarz (2002) has found that when experiencing trauma, the experience of being connected to God is a powerful resource that has the ability to calm and regulate the affect. Koenig (2010) has reported that recent studies have found that spirituality may serve as a spiritual and social resource for coping with stress; and Goldman (2012) has found that there is a strong case for using meditation as a primary strategy in improving mental health.
Some disadvantages of a transpersonal orientation however, have also been highlighted. Wellwood (2016), for example, refers to ‘spiritual bypassing’, where spirituality is used to try and rise above a shaky foundation, therefore becoming another way of rejecting one’s experience. Additionally, Ajaya (n.d) highlights that spirituality is interested in that which transcends the complexities of a person, and consequently produces people who may have mastered a particular realm, but yet still struggle with psychological conflict.
As a transpersonally orientated psychotherapist, I too discovered early on in my practice that whist the transpersonal practices were highly relevant, there were clients that required more skill to be worked with. Hence, there came a point where I felt that I had to expand my skillset to understand more about how trauma effects the brain, essentially engaging in a Newtonain based science, and building upon my transpersonal orientation. Although referring to psychiatry, Kasprow & Scotton (1999) express my realization well, stating that, “the current ‘classical’ psychiatry is a subset of a larger system, the new transpersonal psychiatry” (p.12). I personally view a transpersonal orientation as an inclusive practice, building upon traditional western psychology.
So far, this paper has presented some evidence for and against both traditional and transpersonal approaches, highlighting that both approaches have a part to play in conscious development. From a personal perspective however, a key factor in ascertaining to what extent a transpersonal orientation is necessary for conscious development, is the way in which we personally define the term “conscious development”; which is ultimately dependent on our basic assumptions of reality. Cortright (1997) highlights that the level of theory includes philosophical worldviews and basic assumptions about human nature. Therefore, we must consider how scientific worldview has changed and whether it has informed our basic assumptions about human nature.
By the late 19th century, physicists were certain about their ideas about the nature of matter, with Newtonian physics being regarded as an absolute certainty. (McEnvoy &Zarate, 1996). The advances in Newtonian science encouraged psychologists to look for mental elements that combined to create complex experiences. (Atkinson, 2000). In other words, consciousness was considered an epiphenomenon of the brain (Goswami & Pattani, in prep). Additionally, behaviourism was also rooted in Newtonian physics (Atkinson, 2000). This started to change in the early part of the 20th century as quantum physics started to emerge, presenting a new theoretical framework at a subatomic level, questioning our previous assumptions about the nature of reality (Goswami, 1993).
Not only has there been a new science emerging, but there have also been other findings in parapsychology, such as: veridical studies in near-death experiences, suggesting that some part of us moves on after physical death (Rivas et al., 2016); biocommunication with plants, which suggests that there is a universal interconnectedness (Backster, 2003); non-local communication in correlated brains, suggesting that if we meditate upon the intention, we can communicate with one another instantaneously (Grinberg-Zylberbaum et al., 1994); and the effects of remote prayer on bloodstream infection (Leibovici, 2001). All these findings suggest that quantum concepts such as non-locality are at play, and that perhaps consciousness is the ground of all being (Goswami & Pattani, in prep).
I believe that the more a person’s world-view begins to change, whether that be through, for example, new scientific discoveries, or through personal experiences such as that of my client at the beginning of the essay, a transpersonal orientation becomes essential for conscious development. Cortright (1997) states that “regular people with ordinary problems who are also on a spiritual path are seeking psychotherapy from transpersonally orientated practitioners” (p.13). This illustrates that a person’s notion of conscious development, and what they feel they require changes when their worldview includes a transpersonal element. Boorstein (1997) also comments on this from a therapeutic perspective, highlighting that he went from being a traditional psychotherapist therapist to a transpersonally orientated psychotherapist over a period of several years, during which time his world-view and values changed.
This does not however mean that a transpersonal orientation is necessary for conscious development all the time. The first three stages of Barrett’s seven stages of psychological development are centred around survival and safety, and apply to infant, child and teenage development. If however, the first three stages are not mastered, one’s ability to master the later stages, (in which “soul motivations” are considered), is significantly affected (Barrett, 2016), and cases of developmental trauma may lead to mental health issues (Linehan, 2015).
Working with individuals within these first three levels may not always require a transpersonal consideration. For example, the studies presented in the earlier part of this assignment highlighted how behaviour and psychodynamic approaches have been successful in treating some issues, indicating that a transpersonal approach is not necessary for conscious development. I have also worked with clients who are not open to a transpersonal orientation and yet we have made some good progress. In personal opinion however, I do feel that conscious development is limited without a transpersonal orientation, but this is a reflection of my own assumptions about reality.
At the beginning of this paper I presented a definition of transpersonal orientation from Daniels (2005). However, during the process of this writing, I realised that a transpersonal orientation is not just about the practice (for example, tools and techniques, or including a spiritual aspect in therapy), or the client’s beliefs; but is also about the therapist and how a therapist holds space. (Cortright, 1997) expresses this well: “transpersonal therapy lies not in what the therapist says or does, but in the silent frame that operates behind the therapist’s actions, informing and giving meaning to specific interventions (p.15).” Additionally, Goswami suggests that being in the presence of an individual who is consciously evolved, (such as a Maharishi), in itself can create a healing (Goswami & Pattani, in prep). I have worked with many cases of severe trauma where I feel that I have not applied transpersonal tools, yet I have become very aware that as a therapist, I am still transpersoanlly orientated through my presence. The question for me to consider then becomes, ‘what role is my transpersonal orientation playing in the background, and is it contributing to conscious development in any way?’ Additionally, I would be interested to explore whether or what role the therapist’s own belief has played in some of the behaviour and psychodynamic studies mentioned earlier.
In conclusion, the extent to which a transpersonal orientation is necessary for conscious development, has not been an easy question to answer. The main challenge being a lack of a standardised definition for both transpersonal orientation and conscious development. Also, consideration needs to be given to how a transpersonal orientation manifests. For example, there are tools and techniques, such as meditation, which may be considered as transpersonally orientated; but there is also the presence of the therapist that plays a part too.
In light of the evidence presented however, a transpersonal orientation is not always necessary for conscious development. This has been illustrated by the studies showing success with behaviour and psychodynamic approaches. However, I do feel that traditional western approaches cannot deal with the deeper questions about reality that one may have. A transpersonal orientation becomes essential, in my opinion, if an individual’s concept of conscious development includes transpersonal elements. Additionally, a transpersonal orientation may also be useful in cases where a client experiences phenomenon that cannot be explained or addressed by a classical reductionist worldview, rather like the example I shared at the start of this assignment. It should be noted however, that a transpersonal orientation in therapy needs to be considered carefully, being aware of manifestations such as spiritual bypassing. Finally, I suspect that a transpersonal orientation will become increasingly necessary as the modern science ushers in a new paradigm.
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Sunita is a psychotherapist and researcher based in London. She is particularly interested in how the quantum world-view informs psychotherapeutic practice, and currently specializes in using energy psychology to treat psychological trauma. Sunita is also conducting research in energy psychology. You can learn more about Sunita at www.sunitapattani.com.