The transpersonal (beyond self) study of human psychology and most spiritual and even religious practices, are guided by similar intentions. In a very broad sense the study of human psychology — transpersonal psychology in particular — and spiritual/religious practice, are both concerned with the realization of our highest potential as human beings. To become aware of and better understand the consciousness, behaviors, experiences, beliefs, values and practices which may encourage a personal transformation towards one’s highest potential. To become a fully-realized self-actualized person and ultimately to even transcend the self and connect with something more, something greater than one’s limit self, bounded ego or physical existence. Ever since psychology expanded past its earlier foundations in psycho-sexual dynamics/dysfunction (Freud) and predicting behavior (Watson & Skinner), and took on a more humanistic approach around the middle of the last century (what makes us happy, what leads to well-being and flourishing), psychology and spirituality were destined to merge.
This article will present a rough timeline and pathway along which the evolution of psychology and the growing interest in and engagement with, spiritual practices and non-ordinary states of consciousness have merged into what is called the Fourth Force of psychology — transpersonal (spiritual) psychology.
What Is Spirituality?
Some people may define spirituality as going to church and believing in a monotheistic God out there somewhere. Others may define spirituality in there and along the lines of one of the many Eastern non-theistic traditions such as Buddhism, Taoism or Hinduism. Others still, may define spirituality as becoming a kinder or more compassionate person, sitting in quiet reflection, meditating or going for a walk in the woods. However you define spirituality, the vast majority of people in the world either believe there is something more which goes beyond their immediate experience of the world, or at the very least are seeking some way to grow as a person and to become the best, the most or the happiest they can become in their careers, hobbies, relationships or sense of self. Studies have shown that higher levels of spirituality or religiosity are also strongly associated with a greater sense of meaning in life as well as higher levels of psychological and emotional well-being. In other words, people who hold a belief in some form of higher power, something more than who and what they are – whether defined as “God”, “Brahma”, “Energy”, “Source”, “Collective Consciousness” or “Spirit” – tend to be happier, healthier and even live longer.
Although overall belief in God, church attendance and traditional (theistic) religious affiliations have been declining steadily for years, there has been a corresponding increase in people seeking out non-traditional, non-theistic, New Age or alternative paths to personal and spiritual growth. Whether it’s yoga, Tai Chi, shamanic practices, meditation, mindfulness, energy practices, dance, music, art, the use of entheogens (ayahuasca retreats etc) or even psychedelics, people are increasingly being drawn to various avenues of spirituality, consciousness exploration and self-development. What all of these practices share in common from a psychological standpoint is that people are motivated to seek meaning and value in their lives and to transform themselves into the best person they wish to become and attain their highest potential as a human being.
Although definitions for spirituality have evolved over time, we can think of it as a personal motivation— often outside of traditional religious systems — towards finding meaning in life, a connection to something bigger than ourselves and an ultimate experience of the sacred or transcendent aspects of life and consciousness.
The Evolution of Psychology — Dysfunction, Behavior, Well-Being to Self-Transcendence
Psychology in the first half of the last century was mostly about psycho-sexual/dynamic drives and dysfunction (Freud) and predicting behavior (Watson and Skinner) — often referred to as the First and Second Forces of psychology respectively. Around the middle of the last century and partly in response to the limitations of either the dysfunction-based or behavior-prediction based approaches to human psychology, the humanistic psychology movement took hold — considered the Third Force of psychology. Humanistic psychology is about personal growth, reaching our highest potential and self-actualizing. What makes us happy, what are the conditions which lead to or detract from flourishing in our emotional, psychological, professional lives, relationships and overall well-being.
Humanistic — and later positive psychology — expanded our perspective on what it means to be a fully realized human being, offering a more holistic view beyond merely dysfunction or predicting behavior. By recognizing and embracing these more positive aspects of the human mind and behavior, as well as our drive towards reaching our highest potential of self-actualization, humanistic psychology ultimately paved the way for the study of the elevated and non-ordinary states of consciousness associated with religious/spiritual states, psychedelics and self-transcendence.
As the humanistic psychology movement was developing in the 50’s and 60’s, a growing counter-culture movement was also underway in the West which encouraged alternative life-styles, the rise of the hippie culture, a growing acceptance of Eastern spiritual practices such as meditation and experimentation with psychedelics to alter or expand one’s consciousness. There was also growing scientific interest into the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics which unfortunately was cut-short in 1970 when Richard Nixon declared LSD and psilocybin Class-1 drugs (highly addictive and no medical use). Which effectively halted most research into their potential medical, therapeutic or transformational value (until the recent renaissance into psychedelic research).
By the time these counter-culture movements were under way in the 50’s and 60’s and many in the West had begun exploring alternative forms of Eastern contemplative spirituality and altered states of consciousness, the pioneers of the humanistic movement (Abraham Maslow, Anthony Sutich, Carl Rogers etc) began to realize that something was still missing from this expanded approach to psychology. Although the humanistic approach clearly evolved the study of human psychology beyond psychoanalysis, dysfunction and behavior to include self-actualization and the conditions which contribute to well-being, the various forms of altered states of consciousness arising from meditation, psychedelics, Near Death and Out Of Body Experiences as well as spiritual practices, were still missing from the study of human psychology. Most of these missing aspects of psychology — states of consciousness associated with Eastern spiritual practices, meditation, extreme states such as Near Death and Out of Body experiences as well as psychedelics — have something in common, the transcendence of self. A state of mind where the familiar boundaries of the ego or self appear to dissolve and expand both interpersonally to encompass all persons, all life, even the cosmos, as well as intrapersonally where one’s deepest values, personal philosophies and an Ultimate (interconnected) Self are realized.
“Self-transcendence is a personality trait that involves the expansion of personal boundaries, including, potentially, experiencing spiritual ideas such as considering oneself an integral part of the universe.” (Wikipedia)
Transpersonal (Spiritual) Psychology
Enter the Fourth Force of psychology, the trans (beyond self) personal. In response to the growing sense that humanistic psychology was incomplete and needed to include the more “spiritual” aspects of human consciousness, the pioneers of the field (Maslow, Sutich) along with Stanislav Grof, James Fadiman, Miles Vich and Sonya Margulies established transpersonal psychology in Menlo California in 1967. Since transpersonal psychology evolved through an effort to integrate and understand the self-transcendent states of non-ordinary consciousness often linked to extreme states, psychedelics and Eastern spiritual practices, it is often referred to as “Spiritual Psychology” or the “Psychology of Spirituality”.
“Transpersonal psychology, or the Fourth Force, addressed some major misconceptions of mainstream psychiatry and psychology concerning spirituality and religion. It also responded to important observations from modern consciousness research and several other fields for which the existing scientific paradigm had no adequate explanations.” (Grof, 2008, p. 3)
It is important to note that each of these “Forces” of psychology are not distinct areas competing against each other, but rather each adds a new and complementary piece of the puzzle towards our understanding of the human mind and behavior. As psychology expanded through Freudian psychoanalysis, behaviorism, humanism and currently the transpersonal, our understanding of the human mind and consciousness now includes the highest (and sometimes controversial) states of non-ordinary consciousness and human experience — that which extends beyond (trans) the individual self. And although definitions for transpersonal psychology have evolved over the years, the field concerns itself (more or less) with three primary areas of study:
(1) Beyond (trans) Ego Psychology
Activities, practices or substances (psychedelics, entheogens) which contribute to the expansion of self beyond the bounded ego, the development of compassion, altruism and our highest potential.
(2) Holistic/Integrative Psychology
Recognition that well-being and optimal health requires a balance of nurturing the body, mind, heart and spirit.
(3) Psychology of Transformation
Personal and spiritual growth is about transformation of the self, the person, towards higher and more optimal ways of experiencing, perceiving and living in, the world.
In short, transpersonal psychology is concerned with the study and cultivation of our highest potential which often leads to profound psychological transformations, higher or expanded states of consciousness and transcendence of self which encompasses all persons, all life and even the cosmos (trans-personal). Transpersonal psychology is the study of spiritual states, psychological transformation and awakening to these expanded states of self and consciousness.
Spiritual & Psychological Awakening
The self-transcendent states of consciousness often described or experienced in spiritual or meditative practices, extreme states such as Near Death and Out of Body experiences and even psychedelics, is also known by another name — awakening. In a spiritual or religious context these psychological states of awakening may be called Nirvana, Enlightenment, Buddha Consciousness, Moksha, Yoga Mind, Religious Experience, Mystical Experience, Spiritual Rebirth and so on. All of these spiritual, religious and New Age terms refer to the same expansive psychological state of self-transcendence which can be experienced by anyone and outside of a spiritual or religious context. Although when awakening does occur within a spiritual or religious context, it is often attributed to that practice or belief system.
Psychologically speaking, what happens when someone awakens to a transcendent state of consciousness and self? The state of awakening is characterized by a profound psychological shift in consciousness, values, perception of the world and ultimately, the self. These profound transformations of self often lead to equally profound shifts in personal values as well as behavior. Some of the core features of awakening include:
- Decreased concern for material possessions, fame or financial wealth
- Decreased sense of ethnic, national or group identity
- Decreased sense of separateness from all persons, all life, all matter (non-duality)
- Decreased psychological chatter, noise or turbulent emotional reactivity
- Decreased fear of death
- Increased concern for global or universal values
- Increased sense of union or interconnectedness with all persons, all life, all matter
- Increased compassion and altruism towards others
- Increased states of inner stillness, calm and well-being
- Increased appreciation, gratitude, for all life
In his book “The Leap — The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening”, Steve Taylor (2017) defines awakening as follows:
“In many ways, awakened individuals experience a higher-functioning state that makes life more fulfilling, exhilarating, and meaningful than it may appear in a normal state of being. As a result of this internal shift, they often make major changes to their lives. They begin new careers, hobbies, and relationships. They feel a strong impulse to make positive contributions to the world, to live in meaningful and purposeful ways, rather than simply trying to satisfy their own desires, enjoy themselves, or pass the time” (Taylor, 2017).
Changing The World With Transpersonal Psychology
We are living in challenging times where political interests, economic interests and ultimately self-interests are destroying the planet, our climate and creating division among individuals and nation states. This trend is not sustainable and may even pose an existential threat to our planet as we enter the Anthropocene — a period of geological and environmental change precipitated by human activity. Many of us are asking what can we do to halt or reverse this self-destructive trend? Could transpersonal psychology play a role?
Transpersonal psychology has revealed that our most elevated states of consciousness are very similar to if not identical with, the self-transcendent and awakened states described throughout thousands of years of spiritual and religious practices around the world. Transpersonal psychology has also revealed that when we experience these awakened states, we undergo a transformation of consciousness, personal values and self-transcendence which changes our perspective on the world. A state of self-transcendence, transformation and psychological awakening which often leads to behavioral changes and a “strong impulse to make positive contributions to the world, to live in meaningful and purposeful ways, rather than simply trying to satisfy their own desires, enjoy themselves, or pass the time” (Taylor, 2017).
As more people embrace a spiritual life and seek out personal growth and transformation—either through practice or psychedelics — the science of transpersonal or spiritual psychology may hold the key towards showing us how we can become the change we hope, and need, to see in this world.
Barber, N (2013). Do Religious People Really Live Longer? Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/jhPy3h
Diamond, S. (2013). The Psychology of Spirituality. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/kUwQQq
Grof, S. (2008) A Brief History of Transpersonal Psychology. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies. 27(1). 46–54.
Hartelius, G., Caplan, M., & Rardin, M. A. (2007). Transpersonal psychology: Defining the past, divining the future. The Humanistic Psychologist, 35(2), 135–160.
Routledge, C. (2016). Are Americans Really Becoming Less Religious? Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/wG2wNj
Stork, J. (2019). Spirituality, Happiness and Well-Being Are in Vogue. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@johnnystork/spirituality-happiness-are-in-vogue-811f3eb12e44
Stork, J. (2019). What is Transpersonal Psychology and Can It Change The World? Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/consciousness-spirituality-transpersonal-psycholog/what-is-transpersonal-psychology-can-it-save-the-world-dbcc1cf66946
Taylor, S. (2017). The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Taylor, S. (2015). Transpersonal Psychology: Exploring the Farther Reaches of Human Nature. Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/QkbhlR