“The renaissance of interest in Eastern spiritual philosophies, various mystical traditions, meditation, ancient and aboriginal wisdom, as well as the widespread psychedelic experimentation during the stormy 1960s, made it absolutely clear that a comprehensive and cross-culturally valid psychology had to include observations from such areas as mystical states; cosmic consciousness; psychedelic experiences; trance phenomena; creativity; and religious, artistic, and scientific inspiration.” (Stanislav Grof)
“Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos.” (The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, New York, 1971, p. 269.)
- Spirituality, Happiness & Well-Being are in Vogue.
- Demand for Integrative Medicine is Growing.
- Consciousness is Everywhere.
- Science and Spirituality are Merging
- Explosive Growth of Interest in Psychedelics.
This article will attempt to argue why interest in transpersonal psychology continues to grow and why the transpersonal approach is uniquely and fortunately situated at the right time and the right place to become a leading force in the areas of spirituality, consciousness, integrative/holistic healing, psychedelics, life coaching and the merging of science and spirituality. Before I begin, it may be useful to settle on both a description and a definition for transpersonal psychology. In a retrospective review of the definitions in the scientific literature going back 35 years, Hartelius, Caplan and Rardin (2009) were able to identify three primary themes which encapsulate the main areas of focus and research, within transpersonal psychology.
- Beyond-ego psychology
- Integrative/holistic psychology
- Psychology of transformation
Integrating these three main themes (and underlying sub-themes), Hartelius, Caplan and Rardin (2009) offer us the following summary definition of transpersonal psychology:
“ An approach to psychology that 1) studies phenomena beyond the ego as context for 2) an integrative/holistic psychology; this provides a framework for 3) understanding and cultivating human transformation. “ (p. 11)
(1) SPIRITUALITY, HAPPINESS & WELL-BEING ARE IN VOGUE!
Spiritual But Not Religious!
Beginning around the end of the 20th century, there were signs of a growing trend into the scientific study of religion and spirituality and how these practices impacted mental health, happiness and well-being (Weaver, Pargament, Flannelly & Openheimer, 2006). What now appears to be accepted science, is that both religion and spirituality contribute to one’s self-reported levels of subjective well-being (Lun & Bond, 2013) and overall health (Fehring et al. 1997). Along with this growing trend of investigations into the science and psychology behind the role of religion and spirituality on well-being, a study by Weaver, Pargament, Flannelly & Openheimer (2006) discovered an imbalance between the numbers of articles published around spirituality compared to the number of articles published on religion. What these researchers found was that between the years 1965 and 2000, although there had been a dramatic increase in the overall number of studies looking into religion, spirituality and health “the resurgence of interest is almost entirely attributable to the attention devoted to the construct of spirituality” (p. 211), as can be seen in Figure 1.
This growing trend in the number of articles published around spirituality and health up to the year 2000 has not only continued well into the 21st century (Lun & Bond, 2013), but a more recent Pew Research poll also found that fewer people were identifying themselves as “religious”, but with a corresponding increase in people who identified as “spiritual but not religious” (Lipka & Cecewicz, 2017). One has to look no further than the “bible” of mental disorders — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — for confirmation of the important role that spirituality and religion are thought to play in mental health. In 1994 the DSV-IV included a new section for “religious or spiritual problems” (DSM). Even the business world has enthusiastically embraced the important role of spirituality as a tool to foster employee health. Employees and managers alike are seeking out “meaning, personal and professional growth, and even spiritual growth” in their corporate environments (Tischler, 1999. P. 273).
And when it comes to the practices typically associated with mental-health, the trend seems ubiquitous and almost universal. Whether it’s medicine (Roberti, 2007), psychiatry (Baetz, Griffin, Bowen & Marcoux, 2004; Tadmor, 2019), psychotherapy (Post, 2009), counselling (Plumb, 2011) or life coaching (Williams, 2012, Stork, 2018, Dangeli, n.d), the concept and practices of spirituality are increasingly being recognized as important, if not necessary, aspects of mental health and wellbeing. The message here seems clear. In spite of the uneasy, sometimes even competitive relationship between religion/spirituality and psychotherapy during the last century — both vying for a means to explain or heal the soul/psyche — the important role of religion/spirituality in mental health and well-being now appears to be accepted wisdom. Thereby establishing the field of transpersonal psychology at the very forefront of this new post-materialist integration of science, psychology and spirituality (Taylor, 2018).
“ We are witnessing a spiritual awakening unprecedented in modern times, according to scholars in American religious thought.” (Taylor, 1994).
Happiness & Well-Being
Happiness and well-being research has been going on since around the early 60’s when the humanistic and positive psychology movements helped to shift a focus from merely treating pathology and reducing symptoms of mental-illness, towards fostering the more positive aspects of happiness, well-being and flourishing. Concurrent with the trends investigating the role of spirituality on health and wellness and the increase in the numbers of people who identify as “spiritual but not religious (Lipka & Cecewicz, 2017), the science and psychology behind the concept of “well-being” has also increased steadily over the past few decades (Diener, Suh, Lucas & Smith, 1999; Cloninger, 2008). As of 2017, the World Happiness Database — which tracks happiness/well-being research — indicated over 12000 articles to date and the exponential rise in in publications continues to this day as can be seen in figure 2 below.
Well-Being and Public Policy
Along with the growing interest around the science behind and interest in, spirituality, happiness and well-being as they relate to mental-health, there also appears to be evidence of a growing political trend towards the implementation of “happiness” or “well-being” factors in setting public policy. In 2008 the small country of Bhutan implemented an economic and social policy index which they titled “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) — as opposed to Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The GNH index would take into account the overall wellbeing of its citizens when assessing the country’s welfare. The implementation of the GNH in Bhutan implied that sustainable development is best defined by a more holistic approach where equal importance is given to the happiness and well-being of its citizens as a measure of progress, along with the economic and material-good’s scale of the GDP.
More recently, New Zealand announced that it was moving away from traditional bottom-line factors like economic growth and productivity as measures of the country’s overall health. Instead, New Zealand will place a heavy emphasis on community, cultural connection and equity factors through increased spending on mental-health supports, addressing domestic violence, child poverty and homelessness (Young-Powell, 2019). Apparently in a bid to not to be outdone by New Zealand, the former head of civil services and spending in the UK also announced that “personal wellbeing rather than economic growth should be the primary aim of government spending” (Partington, 2019).
These announcements from multiple countries have demonstrated that well-being and happiness are increasingly being recognized as important, even critical factors in establishing public policy and determining the overall health of a country and its citizens ( Alkire, S. (2013). It would appear that happiness and well-being are becoming the new GDP (Stratton, 2010). Once again, establishing the significant role for transpersonal psychology and the application of transpersonal principles, in an ever-widening scope of mental-health, wellness and even political arenas.
Taken as a whole, the steady growth of interest into the science of spirituality, well-being and happiness, along with the increasing number of people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” (Lipka & Cecewicz, 2017), the expanding interest into bridging the science and spirituality divide (Taylor, 2018) and now the spread of well-being factors to public policy, the demand for and value of transpersonal psychology would appear to be poised for significant growth.
(2) DEMAND FOR INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE IS GROWING
Over the past few decades, and especially during the last few years, there has also been an explosive growth in the science behind and awareness of, the many physical, psychological and wellness benefits of holistic or integrative forms of medicine — treating the person (as a whole) and not just the illness or symptoms. Whether you call it holistic medicine, patient-centered care or integrative healthcare, the demand for health and wellness practices which treat the entire body and mind as an integrated whole, has increased steadily over the years (Coulter, 2007).
“ Integrative Medicine (IM) is healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle. It emphasizes the therapeutic relationship between practitioner and patient, is informed by evidence, and makes use of all appropriate therapies.” (Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine)
All across the globe, the practice of medicine is undergoing a radical shift towards treating the totality of the person and not just the symptoms of illness or treating the pathology in isolation from the rest of the body, or the state of mind of the patient. Doctors, hospitals and medical centers are embracing the “self-healing capacities” of the human body and using approaches to healing which facilitate a “reawakening of the individual potentialities” of each person (Roberti, 2007, p.45). And according to Stephanie Romanoff, communications director for the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, even though integrative medicine is not receiving the same level of funding that traditional pharmaceuticals get, the significant increase in consumer demand for these holistic or integrative approaches, compounded by an increased interested from academia and governments, has led to a significant increase in the scientific research which is validating the efficacy of these integrated approaches to medicine. (Thompson, 2016). In 2015, upwards of 50 major medical institutions in the United States had the word “integrative” in their name at places like Stanford, Duke, Harvard and the Mayo Clinic where most were offering various holistic approaches like acupuncture, nutrition counselling, meditation in combination with traditional approaches (Gritz, 2015).
Recall from the introduction to this article the following description of the three main themes which underlie the field of transpersonal psychology research and related practices. The description was provided by Hartelius, Caplan and Rardin (2009), which clearly identifies the significant role, or theme, of integrative and holistic practices within the field of transpersonal psychology:
- Beyond-ego psychology
- Integrative/holistic psychology
- Psychology of transformation
Although the acceptance of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and integrative medicine has seen a steady but slow growth over the decades (McMillen, 2011), these relatively recent trends embracing the underlying holistic or integrative nature of many of these approaches suggests an important shift in healing philosophy is underway in the field of medicine. When we have a growing number of doctors who are referring to treating a patient’s “body, mind, and spirit” (Gritz, 2015), the integrative/holistic component inherent in the definition and practice of transpersonal psychology, seems once again to be in the right time and the right place in history.
(3) CONSCIOUSNESS IS EVERYWHERE!
West vs East
For much of the history behind man’s interest into the nature and form of consciousness, there have been two distinct categories of theories. One view of consciousness, typically associated with Western “scientific” views, is that consciousness is merely a byproduct of the complex arrangements of neurons in the brain. This is the view which elevates physical matter as the only “reality” there is and even though there may be things which clearly appear to be non-physical — consciousness for example — they are actually physical in origin. This is known as a materialist or reductionist view of consciousness. And even though we may not be able to explain all aspects of the non-physical sense of consciousness or the “qualia” of experience through neurological and biological mechanisms yet, materialist science WILL eventual since consciousness is believed to be 100% reducible to functions of the brain, and NOTHING more. Consciousness arises from the brain and nothing else. Under this materialist and reductionist view, consciousness, mind and the content of consciousness (knowledge for instance) are all pretty much equated simply as “consciousness”. “Mind” and “consciousness” are often used interchangeable as synonyms for each other.
Another category of models of consciousness comes to us from ancient Eastern traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism. These traditions hold that consciousness is a fundamental property of the Universe and that sentience is everywhere and each person’s experience of personal consciousness is a temporary manifestation of that Universal Consciousness. This is a radically different view of consciousness compared to the Western “materialist” view which asserts that the brain is the sole source of consciousness. In Eastern perspectives “mind” and “consciousness are not identical. The “mind” arises from sensory experiences evoking the familiar sense of self, thinking, the mind. In Eastern models, this phenomenology or experience of consciousness — the “mind” — is distinct from a transcendent or “pure” Universal Consciousness. This “pure” consciousness transcends the senses — the mind — and is a transcendent reality. The brain is seen as something like a receiver, an instrument through which consciousness is manifested (Vikas, 2015). The belief in some form of “energy”, “consciousness” or “spirit force” which pervades all life, matter and the cosmos is one of the oldest and most pervasive belief’s we know of. In his latest book “Spiritual Science” Steve Taylor (2018) describes it this way:
“ The idea that the essence of reality is a non-material, spiritual quality is one of the oldest and most common cross-cultural concepts in the history of the world. It’s an idea that almost every one of the world’s indigenous cultures has developed independently, and one that each of the world’s mystical or spiritual traditions has also independently incorporated.” (p. 31)
One particular form of universal consciousness is called panpsychism (literally “all mind”) has been gaining a great deal of traction in the philosophical, scientific and consciousness communities as of late. The notion that consciousness is something that permeate all of reality, all matter, and may not be a localized entirely in the brain may sound a bit like woo woo and easily dismissed. But given the failure of materialist science to solve what is called the “Hard Problem” (Chalmers, 1995) of consciousness — how does non-physical consciousness arise from the physical brain? — the notion of an all-pervasive and universal form of consciousness is gaining in popularity. Pansychism in particular is “increasingly being taken up as a serious option, both for explaining consciousness and for providing a satisfactory account of the natural world” (Goff, 2017) and is being considered very seriously now by some of the most credible scientists, philosophers, neuroscientists and even the physicist Roger Penrose (Holdhill, 2018). The neuroscientist Kristof Koch considers panpsychism to be the “most elegant and parsimonious explanation for the universe and the nature of consciousness” (Koch, 2014).
A relatively new version of universal consciousness — also with roots in many indigenous cultures — has been proposed by the transpersonal psychologist Steve Taylor, which he calls panspiritism. The main difference between panpsychism (all “mind”) and panspiritism (all “spirit”), is that panspiritism proposes not just that all matter contains some level of primitive “mind” or “individuated consciousness” (“mind” in everything), but rather that “spirit” or “universal consciousness” is both in everything and everywhere (Taylor, 2019). The panspiritist view holds that we are both “pervaded with” and “immersed in” this “dynamic field” or “spirit” which is even more fundamental than gravity, space or time. (Taylor, 2019). However, although Taylor’s panspiritism does suggest that spirit force pervades everything, it does not necessarily “imbue [matter] with an inner life” (Taylor, 2019, p 32).
Quantum theory is currently our best model for explaining the physical world at its most fundamental level of atoms and quantum particles. Yet, the results of quantum experiments seem to depend on whether or not anyone is looking! This strange behavior has been puzzling scientists for decades since it completely destroys the very basic assumption of science itself! That there is a completely independent reality “out there”, irrespective of us. This “observer effect” in quantum physics suggests at some level there appears to be a connection, a link, between human consciousness and matter since “the mere act of observation affects the experimental findings” (Weizmann Institute Of Science, 1998).
We may have left the Decade of The Brain behind us at the end of the 20th century, but given the incredible growth of interest during the past decade into all aspects of ordinary, non-ordinary and altered states of consciousness, transpersonal psychology may be leading the way towards a new Century of Consciousness.
(4) SCIENCE AND SPIRITUALITY ARE MERGING!
A brief, and limited, history of science will be useful in order to lay the foundation for this section.
During the Middle Ages in Europe (5th to 15th century), there was no concept of “science” and much of what was considered known about the natural world and the cosmos dated back to the early teachings of the Romans and Greeks. Even centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire these ancient and often mistaken ideas and accepted “wisdom” about the universe persisted — what was called at the time “Natural Philosophy” (from the Latin philosophia naturalis or philosophy of nature). The persistence of Natural Philosophy was likely due to the sweeping influence of the Catholic Church — the primary social and political body responsible for the indoctrination of western society at the time — which had accepted many of these ancient “truths” (Nguyen, 2017).
During the 15th to 17th century (roughly) there was an explosion of philosophical, artistic, cultural, political and economic evolution driven by some of the greatest thinkers, “scientists”, authors and artists in the history of mankind (Renaissance, 2018) — a period in history known as the Renaissance. It was during the Renaissance when we find the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Milton, Dante, Hobbs, Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes and many others.
The Renaissance — a period of renewed interest in literature, arts, philosophy — ushered in a cultural shift towards more independent thinking which began to break down the Church’s hegemony over the masses. Martin Luther’s outspoken criticisms of the Catholic Church’s reforms at the time — widely disseminated in his “95 Theses” — only served to increase the growing distrust in the Church’s authority and alignment with theories of the cosmos and natural world which could only be called “pseudoscience” (Nguyen, 2017).
The Scientific Revolution
During the late 17th and 18th century, rapid advances in mathematics, astronomy, physics, biology and chemistry began to transformed our views of the natural world laying the foundations for the “modern science” we know today. A period in history known as the Scientific Revolution which some have labeled the “Copernican Revolution” due the profound and paradigm-shifting (Kuhn, 1962) discoveries of Nicholas Copernicus which began to shift the long-standing (Church supported) geocentric view (Earth at the center of the Universe), to the heliocentric science we accept today (Earth and planets revolve around the sun).
Science & Materialism
The Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th century ushered in a radical shift of worldview’s from the religious-oriented “Natural Philosophy” which lasted for nearly 2000 years, much of which was based on faith — to the more secular and “scientific” worldview’s built around observations, reason and critical thinking. This period in history represents a fundamental epistemological change where our principle sources of wisdom and knowledge shifted from faith and belief in miracles and superstitions, to an epistemology based on reason and rational thinking. A period knows as the Enlightenment.
During this same period in history, the inductive approach to acquiring knowledge — premises provide some of the evidence for the truth of a conclusion — laid the foundation for the practice of science — the Scientific Method. These scientific “methods” were defined by observable, repeatable, experiential and testable experimentation, also known as Empiricism. Since “science” was now being defined as a process involving “empirical” observations of the physical world alone, all facts, knowledge and “science” were/are believed to be causally dependent and reducible to, physical/material processes — stuff. The world, the universe, everything that exists — including the mind and consciousness — was/is believed to be entirely a result of first-causes and processes reducible to physical properties — stuff. Even if you dig down deeper and deeper to smaller and smaller particles of stuff — cells, molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles etc — the only thing you will find at the very bottom are “tiny billiard balls (atoms, bosons, or some such) with predictable trajectories upon which all else supervenes” (Baruss, 2010, p. 4), ie; reductionist materialism.
Enter a New POST-MATERIALISM World
Although I am not certain as to when this shift began to take place, but somewhere around the end of the 20th and the start of the 21st century, scientists, philosophers and especially those working and researching in the many brain and consciousness fields, began to grow more vocal in their proclamations that science — materialism — simply could not, and likely may never, answer many of the most pervasive and most important questions of our time, such as the nature of consciousness. Science, and the scientific method, are founded on principles of observation, replication, measurability and maintaining an open-mind and going where the data leads you. Unfortunately the reality of science is very different than those ideals would suggest, as a large segment of the “scientific” community are locked into dogmas, beliefs and assumptions which are largely untested, or unproveable — science has become “the enemy of what it should stand for” (Tudge, 2012).
“ Post-materialism holds that matter is not the primary reality of the universe, and that phenomena such as consciousness or life cannot be wholly explained in biological or neurological terms. Post-materialism holds that there is something more fundamental than matter, which might be variously termed mind, consciousness or spirit. “ (Taylor, 2019, p. 2).
One of the more outspoken and recognized proponents exposing the limitations of science and the failure of materialism to solve the problem of consciousness, is the biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake who caught the attention of the public with his ground-breaking and controversial book titled The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry. The “delusion”, according to Sheldrake, is basically the belief that science already fully understands the nature or reality and all that’s left to do is fill in a few remaining details (Sheldrake, 2012).
“I am all in favour of science and reason if they are scientific and reasonable. But I am against granting scientists and the materialist worldview an exemption from critical thinking and skeptical investigation. We need an enlightenment of the Enlightenment” (Sheldrake, 2012)
In the Science Delusion, Sheldrake excoriates 10 of the most fundamental and flawed assumptions underlying the 17th century-based scientific method. The first assumption — the one most obvious, pervasive, persistent and relative to this article — is the notion that the universe as a whole, all life, is mechanical and reducible to physical “stuff” — ie, materialism (Tudge, 2012).
But many scientists are not ready to give up the dogmatic and flawed assumptions underlying these 17th century materialist paradigms. Case in point was the huge public, media and intellectual hornets’ nest which was stirred up when Sheldrake’s 2013 TED talk on consciousness — which ran contrary to scientific orthodoxy by arguing that consciousness is non-local (may not be exclusively contained within the brain) — was pulled from YouTube and claimed to be “pseudoscience” (Pruett, 2017).
In a previous section I discussed some of forms of idealism like panpsychism (“mind” is everywhere) and the relatively new (at least the term) panspiritism (“spirit” is everywhere) put forth by Steve Taylor in his book Spiritual Science. Taylor (2019) describes some of the ways in which a metaphysic like panspiritism is “healthier for us” compared to materialism:
“ It goes without saying that panspiritism is a much healthier perspective than materialism. It’s healthier for us as individuals, for the human race as a species and for the whole of our planet. Whereas materialism stems from — and further encourages — anxiety and accumulation, the panspiritist perspective lends itself to ease and contentment. Whereas materialism encourages individualism and competitiveness, panspiritism leads to empathy and altruism. Whereas materialism promotes exploitation and domination of the natural world, panspiritism engenders respect and harmony. Whereas materialism can only lead to the devastation of our planet, and perhaps even to our extinction as a species, a panspiritist perspective is perfectly sustainable, and offers us a harmonious future. “ (p. 52).
With a Little Help from Quantum Physics
We simply cannot possibly expect to answer fundamental questions about the nature of consciousness or the origins of life if we remain stuck in 17th century thinking that everything is dead, material and inert “stuff”, inherently incapable of producing life. Scientists, philosophers and academics of all shapes and sizes have come out against the limits of materialist-based science, including many from the most respected and “materially & reductionist oriented” science we have, quantum physics. Physicists have been grappling with the mysterious and counter-intuitive properties and behaviors of particles in the quantum realm ever since the early parts of the 20th century when the new world of quantum physics discovered that the laws which govern the macroscopic level, do not function the same, or at all, at the quantum level. Quantum particles can exist in two places at the same time ( quantum superposition); light can act as both particles and waves ( wave particle duality); paired particles are linked in such a way that measurements on one, determines the quantum state of the other, regardless of distance, even BILLIONS of miles ( quantum entanglement, or what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance); the mere observation of a particle changes its properties and behavior ( observer effect, popularized by the thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s cat) (Jones, 2018).
Even Werner Heisenberg, considered one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, described history as being divided into periods based on what the common people and scientists of the time thought about the origins of matter. In the late 50’s Heisenberg published Physics and Philosophy where he argued that the discoveries of quantum physics have disrupted, if not refuted, the 17th century-based assumptions about the primacy of materialism — everything is “ stuff “ (Vernon, 2012). Writing on the limits of materialism revealed through the new science of quantum physics, Heisenberg (1958) argues:
“[This] frame was so narrow and rigid that it was difficult to find a place in it for many concepts of our language that had always belonged to its very substance, for instance, the concept of mind, of the human soul or of life. Mind could be introduced into the general picture only as a kind of mirror of the material world.” (pp. 24–25)
Another respected physicist, Amit Goswami (1993) argues that “the principles of quantum theory make it possible to discard the unwarranted assumptions of material realism” (p. 45). As much as we can give well-deserved credit to classical Newtonian physics — based on a mechanical and materialist paradigm — for delivering us out of the Dark Ages through the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution with mechanization, the Industrial Revolution, automobiles, modern medicine, air travel and the exploration of space, quantum mechanics have completely undermined those outdated assumptions which reduced all matter to material “stuff” (Vernon, 2012). Materialism is dead, we have entered a post-materialism paradigm. “Scientific materialism has run its course and no longer fits the empirical data about reality (Barušs, 2010, p.12). Which is not really a new idea as we see “intimations of this point of view” going back at least as far as Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) and Thomas Berry (1914–2009) — what is new is the growing use of the term “post-materialism” as the new science of the future (Vernon, 2012).
“The shift from materialistic science to post-materialistic science may be of vital importance to the evolution of human civilization. It may be even more pivotal than the transition from geocentrism to heliocentrism.” (Beauregard, et al. 2014, p. 274)
Where this shift in thinking and scientific paradigms — from a materialist view to a post-materialist view — may have the greatest impact and appears to be the most relevant and with the greatest potential for future ground-breaking discoveries, is in the field of consciousness studies. In a paper titled “Beyond Scientific Materialism: Toward a Transcendent Theory of Consciousness”, Barušs (2010) defines how a new post-materialist theory of consciousness might look like:
“It is time to move beyond scientific materialism and develop transcendent theories of consciousness. Such theories should minimally meet the following criteria: they should be based on all of the usual empirical data concerning consciousness, including altered states of consciousness; they should take into account data about anomalous phenomena and transcendent states of consciousness; they should address the issue of existential meaning and provide soteriological guidance; and they should be consistent with the most accurate theories of physical manifestation, such as relativistic quantum field theories.” (p. 2)
In his popular book titled The Universe in a Single Atom, even the Dalai Lama speaks out on the limits of materialist science to explain the non-physical phenomenon of consciousness:
“The view that all mental processes are necessarily physical processes is a metaphysical assumption, not a scientific fact. I feel that, in the spirit of scientific inquiry, it is critical that we allow the question to remain open, and not conflate our assumptions with empirical fact. (Lama, 2005, p. 128) The Merging of Science and Spirituality
If I have managed to keep your attention thus far, I will finally get to the point of this section. Which is the growing trend and evidence for, a sort of reconciliation from the historical, ideological and philosophical battle between science and spirituality — the merging of science and spirituality. At this point it might also be useful to be more specific as to what I mean by “The Merging of Science and Spirituality”. I don’t mean that “science” can or will “prove” the existence of any of the various anthropomorphized or literal “Gods”, “Angels” or “Deities” of organized and orthodox religion. Far from it and quoting from Deepak Chopra, I am referring to the merging of science with the “unorganized, personal aspect of spirituality as the subjective pursuit of value, reality, and understanding through individual experience or consciousness” (Chopra, 2014). And although “spirituality” can be defined many ways, the one aspect of most definitions for spirituality (excluding Chopra’s) which appears to be almost universal and represents the pinnacle of spiritual practice and even human motivation and flourishing, is that of “self-transcendence”. When the experience of the personal self dissolves and transcends beyond the embodied or personal “I” to encompass all that is around you, an experience of being “one with everything” (Ivtzan, 2016; Maslow, 1971). The phenomenon of self-transcendence is also one of the core features of what are called an “awakening experience” (Taylor, 2012).
Fortunately, much of the argument for the claim that science and spirituality are merging, has already been made in the sub-sections which preceded this one. I believe I have offered a reasonably accurate snap-shot of the history of science — taking the reader quickly through the 2000 or so years of the pre-materialist paradigm of natural philosophy originating with the early Greek’s and adopted by the Catholic Church. Up through the period known as the Renaissance through the 15th and 17th century, which began to shift world-views about the nature of the universe towards a secular and ultimately materialist and “scientific” world-view. An epistemological paradigm shift (Kuhn, 1962) in perspective on the nature of the universe and how to acquire knowledge, which occurred during the period known as the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th century. Following this time, there appear to have been few influential philosophical or intellectual challenges to this materialist paradigm until around the turn of the 20th century when the field of quantum physics began to tear down the metaphysical materialist assumptions which resulted from a string of bizarre and “spooky” phenomena and experimental results. Phenomena such as; quantum superposition (two particles can be in the same place and time); wave-particle duality (light can behave both as a wave and a particle); quantum entanglement (paired particles billions of miles apart respond simultaneously to measurement, suggesting some as-yet-unknown mode of interconnection — what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”); and finally, the observer effect, (particles change behavior and properties when being observed) — the one quantum physics mystery which raises compelling but difficult questions about a possible link between matter and consciousness.
When we consider the breakdown of the materialist paradigm brought about by the discoveries from quantum physics, with the rising trend in people identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (Lipka & Cecewicz, 2017), with the growth of scientific research into spirituality (Lun & Bond, 2013), and the explosive growth of research into the nature of consciousness and the apparent link between consciousness and matter (the observer effect), science, consciousness and spirituality all appear rapidly headed towards a new world order, a post-materialist era, of convergence, or at least respectful cooperation.
“Something is definitely happening in modern culture when the topic of religion penetrates scientific circles. At a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a symposium on religion and science drew standing-room-only crowds “ (Taylor, 1994)
If we re-label “science” as the field of inquiry aligned with the study of matter, the paleontologist-priest Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) seems to nail the commingling of science and spirituality with the quote, “there is neither spirit nor matter in the world. The stuff of the universe is spirit-matter. No other substance but this could have produced the human molecule”. The Dalai Lama in his wonderful book, The Universe in a Single Atom, also reminds us of the far reaching potential for what he also perceived was a merging of science and spirituality.
“Today, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, science and spirituality have the potential to be closer than ever, and to embark upon a collaborative endeavor that has far-reaching potential to help humanity meet the challenges before us.” (Lama, 2005, pp. 208–209)
It is likely the reader may already know exactly what I am going to say next. It should be obvious and logically consistent with the evidence I have provided up to this point. Transpersonal psychology — often called “the psychology of spirituality” or “spiritual psychology” — with its focus on beyond-ego states (self-transcendence), integrative/holistic psychology as well as transformation, appears to be in the right time and the right place in history to further advance the merging, the co-mingling, of science and spirituality.
(5) EXPLOSIVE GROWTH OF INTEREST IN PSYCHEDELICS!
You would have to have been living under a rock during the last few years to have not heard about or seen all the news around the explosion of interest in psychedelics — a class of drugs whose primary action is to trigger psychedelic experiences. Something of a renaissance is taking place where researchers around the world are once again investigating the medical, therapeutic, psychological and wellness benefits of these substances (Bell, 2017; Cooper, 2012). And in the words of many of these new researchers who are finding single-dose-treatment results using a psychedelic to assist with smoking cessation (80% abstinence after 6 months) or dealing with the existential trauma of terminal illness, the results are “unprecedented” (Pollan, 2015; Johnson, Garcia-Romeu, Cosimano, & Griffiths, 2014). So how did we get to this latest and VERY PROMISING phase of our very long fascination with consciousness-altering substances?
The First Wave (Ancient and Indigenous Use)
The earliest use of psychoactive substances by human’s goes back at least ten thousand years (Blaszczak-Boxe, 2015). Throughout human history indigenous cultures around the world have been using psychoactive plants for healing as well as spiritual and ritualistic practices. There is evidence that the early Greeks used psychedelics and throughout history the use of psychedelics for healing or spiritual (entheogenic) practices appears to be a global phenomenon (Guerra, 2014). This period in human history (early man until LSD was discovered in 1938 by the Swiss pharmacologist Albert Hoffman), is known as The First Wave of psychedelic use by humans.
The Second Wave (Counter-Culture Movement of the 50’s & 60’s)
The Second Wave of interest into the use pf psychedelics began when the chemist Albert Hofmann discovered lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in 1938 at Sandoz Labs (now Novartis) in Switzerland. In 1943 Hoffman inadvertently absorbed some LSD through his fingertips which released the substance’s powerful and psychedelic effects. Hofmann later documented the experience:
“… affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After about two hours this condition faded away” (Hofmann, 1980, p. 15)
Following the lab incident, Hofmann was understandably curious about this strange substance and the effect it had on him and so he performed an experiment using himself as the sole subject. On April 19th 1943, Hofmann ingested 250 micrograms of LSD (pretty decent dose) and due to limitations on car travel at the time imposed by wartime restrictions, went out for a ride on his peddle bike. Thereby becoming the first human to ever “trip” on acid (Tayag, 2017). A day in history now known and celebrated yearly by researchers and psychonauts alike, as “Bicycle Day”.
Hofmann’s discovery of the psychedelic properties of LSD in 1943 launched further investigations into the therapeutic use of various hallucinogens. In 1953 the novelist and philosopher Aldus Huxley — who was already experimenting personally with psychedelics — took four-tenths of a gram of mescaline under the supervision of a psychiatrist named Humphrey Osmond. Osmond was among a small group of American and Canadian psychiatrists in the early 50’s who were pioneering the use of LSD and other psychedelics like peyote and mescaline for the treatment of alcoholism and other mental health issues (Costandi, 2014). Aldous Huxley’s use of and curiosity into, the psychological effects of mescaline led to his popular and eminent book, “The Doors of Perception”. The musical group “The Doors” also took their name from Huxley’s book.
Another investigation into psychedelics around the same time was by the ethnomycologist Gordon Wasson, who headed to Mexico in the 1950’s to study the religious (entheogenic) use of mushrooms by the Mazatec people. Wasson’s research led to an article in Life Magazine in 1957 titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom”. It was actually a Life Magazine editor who coined the term “magic mushrooms” — Wasson preferred “sacred mushrooms” (“Seeking the Magic Mushroom”, n.d.). Wasson’s article with its catchy and enticing title about “Magic Mushrooms” quickly caught the attention of the growing counterculture and hippie movement of the 50’s and 60’s, leading many to travel to Mexico in search of this “magic” plant. Including a then-little-known Harvard clinical psychologist named Timothy Leary (Austin, 2016).
In 1960 Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (now known as Ram Dass) began work on “The Harvard Psilocybin Project”. The Psilocybin Project was founded at Harvard University by Leary, Alpert, Aldous Huxley, David McClelland (Leary & Alpert’s supervisor at Harvard), Frank Barron (pioneer in the psychology of personality and creativity), Ralph Metzner (pioneer in consciousness research and transpersonal psychology) and a couple of graduate students (“Harvard Psilocybin Project”, n.d.). Unfortunately the work of Leary and Alpert through The Psilocybin Project was soon marred by controversy due to their open use, distribution and support for LSD as a tool for expanding the mind. Leary and Alpert were eventually fired by Harvard but the cat was long out of the bag now with regards to the potentially therapeutic and mind-expanding properties of LSD. All of which occurred during the same time when there was a nascent counter-culture hippie movement underway in the United States.
Leary also popularized the phrase “turn on, tune in, drop out” but as much as he and Alpert helped to launch the counter-culture movement and bring awareness to the powerful healing and transformational effects of these substances during the 60’s, Leary’s growing popularity, cult-like following and the cultural upheaval he helped facilitate, drew the ire of the United States Government. In 1968 all hallucinogens were outlawed and classified as Schedule 1 Drugs — high potential for abuse, no medical value, considered harmful — driving both the recreational use and scientific research, underground. In 1970 President Richard Nixon even called Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America” (Bell, n.d). The Second Wave of interest in, and now research into psychedelics, had come to an abrupt end.
However, the early 80’s did see a short period of renewed interest into the therapeutic potential of psychedelics when the biochemist Alexander Shulgin discovered a better way to synthesize MDMA (ecstasy (E) or molly). MDMA was originally synthesized in 1912 by the German chemical company Merck as a potential medication to help control bleeding (“MDMA”, 2018). Although Merck already discovered that MDMA had psychoactive properties back in 1912 and may hold potential as a pharmaceutical, it was not until Shulgen found a new way to synthesize the substance in 1976 did the popularity of MDMA begin to grow (“MDMA”, 2018). The 80’s also saw an explosive growth in the recreational use of MDMA as a party and Rave drug, which once again led the United States to outlaw another class of psychedelics. MDMA become illegal when it was classified as a Schedule I Drug in 1985, once again putting an abrupt halt to scientific research into the therapeutic, psychological or transformational benefits of another psychedelic substance. The first glimmer of hope of a renewed interest into the therapeutic, psychological and transformational effects of psychedelics and the ushering in of a new Third Wave of psychedelic research, science and awareness, was stopped even before it could get off the ground.
The Third Wave (Renewed and EXPLODING Interest Beginning Around 2010)
Although underground and recreational use of psychedelics continued after LSD, mescaline, peyote and psilocybin became illegal in 1968, and MDMA in 1985, the use of psilocybin mushrooms in particular have seen a steady growth of use worldwide and as of 2010 there are an estimated 30 million psychedelic users in the United States alone (Krebs & Johansen, 2013). The 90’s and 00’s did not see any major or ground-breaking announcements from the world of psychedelic research, until the publication in 2011 of James Fadiman’s book about microdosing titled The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic and Sacred Journey’s. Microdosing is the act of taking small, sub-perceptual (no sensory effects) doses (10–15 micrograms) of a psychedelic like LSD or psilocybin on a semi-regular schedule. Anecdotal reports of increased attention, divergent thinking and creativity led to microdosing exploding into the public stream of consciousness and was soon picked up by Silicon Valley techies, the halls of higher education, and other professionals as a tool to boost productivity (Aikins, 2015).
James Fadiman (who also helped launch transpersonal psychology as a formal discipline in 1967) along with Robert Frager, also co-founded the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in 1975, which is now called Sofia University. Establishing James Fadiman not only as one of the pioneers of transpersonal psychology, but now as one of the key figures who have helped launch what is called the Third Wave of public interest and research into the therapeutic, psychological and transformational potential of psychedelics. According to Mark Haden, University of B.C. professor and the executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), “there is a wave of popular interest that is unprecedented in my lifetime” (Mann, 2018). What is so different about this new Third Wave of psychedelic use and research is that is defined “by the responsible and informed use of micro and moderate doses for creative and therapeutic purposes” (Austin, 2015).
Many of the previously anecdotal reports on the benefits of microdosing are now being confirmed by controlled studies. A recent study found that “both convergent and divergent thinking performance was improved” providing “quantitative support for the cognitive-enhancing properties of microdosing psychedelics” (Prochazkova, et al, 2018). In another controlled study of the effects of microdosing, Polito & Stevenson, found that “pre and post study measures revealed reductions in reported levels of depression and stress; lower levels of distractibility; increased absorption; and increased neuroticism” (2019, p.1).
Research into psychedelics has increased dramatically in the last decade (Nichols, Johnson & Nichols, 2016). And in other labs and research facilities around the world, psychedelics are demonstrating incredible, even unprecedented promise, in the treatment of depression (Suravi, 2016), addictive disorders (Rofoli & Araujo, 2016) and PTSD (Sessa, 2017). All across the world in clinical research settings, hospitals and laboratories, an explosion of renewed investigations are taking place into the therapeutic use of psychedelics for addiction, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Tupper, Wood, Yensen & Johnson, 2015) and dealing with the emotional and existential trauma (death anxiety) for those suffering from terminal illness (Grof, Goodman, Richards & Kurland, 2017; Kolp, Young, Friedman, Krupirsky & Jansen, 2007). Some very recent and promising research has also discovered that at least one of the mechanisms which may underlie these broad positive effects of psychedelics on the mind, may be due to the capacity for these substances to actually promote both structural and functional neural plasticity — psychedelics appear to GROW NEURAL CONNECTIONS (Ly, et al., 2018). Just imagine what this may mean for the many degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, dementia and other disorders linked to the decline of neural function and connections.
Among medical experts around the world now, support for renewed research into the potential benefits of psychedelics is widespread (Pollan, 2015). The Third Wave of public interest and research into the potential benefits of psychedelics is solidly underway. And just like the cascading effect which followed the legalization of cannabis for medical use and now it’s recreational use, we are witnessing a similar cascade of the decriminalization of psychedelics for recreational and therapeutic use. In May of 2019, Denver Colorado (who also led the cannabis legalization trend) passed a measure which decriminalized psilocybin, or magic mushrooms (Chavez & Prior, 2019). On June 4 thof 2019 Oakland California did the same thing and became the second major US city decriminalize magic mushrooms (Ashmelash & Ahmed, 2019). Other local and state governments are now looking to decriminalize psilocybin and in the nation’s capital, the popular Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y has filed new legislation to allow researchers to study the medical, therapeutic effects of psilocybin and other psychedelics (Leins, 2019).
Spirituality, Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychology
Along with the growing trend of research into concepts like “spirituality” (Lun & Bond, 2013) which was detailed in the first section, “spiritual” aspects are being discovered and researched in the psychedelic literature as well.
“ When administered under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences. The ability to occasion such experiences prospectively will allow rigorous scientific investigations of their causes and consequence “ (Griffiths, Richards, McCann & Jesse, 2006, p. 1)
There is also the ground-breaking research by Griffiths, Richards, McCann & Jesse (2006) into the spiritual and “mystical-type” experiences described by many who have taken psilocybin. The possibility that these substances may also facilitate transpersonal and transformational effects (spiritual effects) places them solidly, and obviously, entirely under the umbrella of all three categories or themes common to transpersonal psychology research and practice:
- Beyond-Ego Psychology
- Integrative/Holistic Psychology
- Transformational Psychology
Kenneth Tupper — director of implementation and partnerships at British Columbia Center on Substance Use (BCCSU), says that “psychedelics, under carefully controlled conditions, can create experiences of wonder and awe and a connection to a divine realm that leads to significant behavioral changes” (Banks, 2019). Further evidence of a possible link between the spiritual or mystical experiences reported by psychedelic users, and the spontaneous “spiritual awakening” experiences often induced by trauma, wilderness settings or meditation (Taylor, 2017), is that BOTH meditation (Taylor et al, 2012) and psychedelics (Palhano-Fontes, et al, 2015) have been found to operate through the brain’s default mode network (DMN).
In another landmark study looking psychedelics and the brain’s default-mode network, Carhart-Harris & Friston (2010) found that the largest drops in default-mode activity correlated with the subject’s reports of the phenomena of ego-dissolution. These studies, and others, suggest strongly that with the “ego temporarily out of commission, the boundaries between self and world, subject and object, all dissolve” (Pollan, 2015) — also hallmarks of mystical and “spiritual awakening” (Taylor, 2015) experiences. The supplementary use of psychedelics in psychotherapy and psychiatry is also expanding rapidly and studies have suggested that the break-down of the self (ego-dissolution) and the sense of connectedness which often results, may be one of the key mechanisms through which psychedelics are so effective (Carhart-Harris, Erritzoe, Haijen, Kaelen & Watts, 2017). Once again, one of the core features of the “mystical” or “spiritual awakening” experience is one of connectedness (Taylor, 2015). Psychedelics are also increasingly linked to states of well-being (Walsh, 1982) and even just a single dose of a psychedelic has been found to produce sustained — and most often positive — personality changes such as level of openness (one’s ability to appreciate new experiences) (Bouso, Dos Santos, Alcazar-Corcoles & Hallak, 2018). The growing interest into psychedelics and the body of research results linking “spiritual”, “mystical” or “self-transcendence” to the neurobiology of psychedelics (Pollan, 2015), demonstrates the fundamental and pervasive role that transpersonal psychology has had, and is likely to continue to have, well into the future of this Third Wave of psychedelic research.
And it should be obvious by now that the science of consciousness — particularly altered states such as those brought on by psychedelics — is literally the bread-and-butter of the field of transpersonal psychology. The many promising and now controlled and replicated studies on the therapeutic and psychological benefits of psychedelics are also contributing new understanding, and posing new questions, around the nature of consciousness (Cooper, 2012). There is even a theory (Stoned Ape) put forth by the ethnobotanist and psychonaut Terence McKenna in his 1993 book Food of the Gods, that when early Homo erectus encountered magic mushrooms and psilocybin, it kick-started the evolution of cognition and consciousness towards Homo sapiens. According to McKenna, the psilocybin in the magic mushrooms boosted the information processing systems of their primitive brains, which led to an evolution of cognition and consciousness which may account for the evidence of art, language and technology in the archeological record of Homo sapiens (Sloat, 2017). Although few academics have gotten behind McKenna on this one — it certainly has an appealing if not amusing ring to it — there has been growing interest into McKenna’s Stoned Ape Theory on the evolution of consciousness in humans (Sloat, 2017). Once again, transpersonal psychology and the discipline’s heavy focus on consciousness science, altered states, self-transcendence, spirituality and transformation, place it front-and-center on the surf board of public and scientific interest, we surf this Third Wave of psychedelic research.
Looking back, we find that the ties between the growing interest into the therapeutic, spiritual and transformational effects of psychedelics, and the field of transpersonal psychology, are long, multifaceted and like tentacles, reaches into every single aspect of consciousness science, spirituality, personal transformation and psychedelic research. I have already mentioned a few familiar names from transpersonal psychology who have either been instrumental in its foundation as a branch of psychology, and/or who are continuing to carry out research into psychedelics. Ralph Metzner (a pioneer in the areas of personality and consciousness research) was an original board member when the Harvard Psilocybin Project was launched in 1960. James Fadiman, one of the founders of the transpersonal psychology movement who helped establish the field as a formal branch of psychology in 1967 and helped launch the first school dedicated to the field in 1975 — The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology — is also attributed to helping launch the recent interest into psychedelics and microdosing when he published The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide in 2011. Another of the founding fathers of transpersonal psychology — Stanislav Grof — also used LSD extensively in his psychotherapy practice during the 1960’s, and is once again contributing widely to this renewed and Third Wave of psychedelic research (Pollan, 2015).
Ultimately the Third Wave of interest into psychedelics is about finding ways to integrate their recreational, therapeutic and transformational effects, into mainstream society. Transpersonal psychology has clearly played, and continues to play, a major role in the history, research and foundation for much of the psychological science into consciousness, spirituality and psychedelics.
There should be little doubt by now that the field of transpersonal psychology is coming into a period of increased interest, awareness, growth and relevance. The various cultural, political, philosophical, medical and scientific changes underway around the world have set a stage which may be dominated by transpersonal psychology in the future. If the field of transpersonal psychology was thought to be “vital and growing” in 2007 according to Hartelius, Caplan and Rardin (2007), then 12 years later in 2019 the field of transpersonal psychology may be poised to become one of the most dominant and relevant approaches to the study of well-being, flourishing and of course the therapeutic, spiritual and transformational potential of psychedelics. Our planet has been undergoing some drastic changes in climate, politics and the depletion of natural resources. These have not been positive or healthy changes in the best interest of our planet or species. With the growing interest in so many areas directly tied to transpersonal psychology, especially the renewed ( Third Wave) interest in psychedelics which appear to tease open the doors of perception allowing us to get a glimpse of the transcendent self on the other side, maybe, just maybe, we are also on the cusp of a global spiritual awakening which might put us back on track towards a sustainable future. Just maybe, the growing field of transpersonal psychology will play a small part in changing the world for the better through an increased understanding of the conditions, behaviors and practices which lead to increased compassion, altruism and self-less drives and behaviors we know are associated with states of self-transcendence. On that note, I leave the reader with an optimistic and encouraging quote from Steve Taylor.
“ Today’s spiritual awakening not only reveals the hidden interconnectedness of things, it prompts people to pledge themselves to a host of new causes, from saving the planet to helping the disenfranchised. Spiritual awakening leads to a new kind of selflessness and personal commitment to issues related to growth and health. “ (Taylor, 1994).
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