Transpersonal psychology is a whole-person (holistic) psychology which embraces the important role of self-transcendent states, mystical states, psychedelic experiences and other forms of non-ordinary states of consciousness. Of particular interest is the role of these self-transcendent states in fostering personal transformation, well-being and human flourishing. The application of these transpersonal principles can provide coaches with additional tools for supporting their clients towards personal growth and transformation.
Throughout history, human beings have described profoundly transformational and psychological experiences, both within and outside of a spiritual or religious context. These powerful and transformational experiences have been given many names or metaphors. Some of these include enlightenment, illumination, spiritual/religious/mystical experience, Nirvana, Satori, Moksha or awakening (Metzner (1980). These experiences, regardless of tradition or context, appear to share many characteristics, with self-transcendence as the most frequently cited (Taylor, 2015). In most cases these experiences are brief, lasting from only a few minutes to possibly a few days. However, as transpersonal coaches our goal should be to assist and encourage our clients through a process which leads to more permanent transformations of self. The Transpersonal Coach Jevon Dangeli describes this as “…transcending our normal sense of separateness and thereby cultivating a sense of interconnection is one of the key features of transformation, provided that the new state and perspective becomes an enduring one” (Dangeli, 2017).
Following a few sections where definitions of transpersonal psychology, transformation, awakening and self-transcendence are provided, I will outline two potential models of transpersonal coaching which may be suitable for creating permanent, transformative changes in client’s characterized by self-transcendence. The first to be discussed is the Modified GROW model by Law, Lancaster & DiGiovanni, (2010) and the second is the Integral Coaching Model (ICM) developed by Laura Divine and Joanne Hunt (Hunt, 2015). In the final section I will outline a few potential challenges faced by the transpersonal coach when dealing with this particular client population. Those who have had or are seeking transformative awakening experiences characterize by a permanent transcendence of self.
“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
What is Transpersonal Psychology?
Transpersonal (beyond-ego/self) psychology — also known as the Fourth Force of psychology — has been around formally for over 50 years and has roots in the humanistic psychology movement of the 50’s and 60’s. Although the field was formally established around 1967, the term “transpersonal” was first used in print by William James in 1905 and the role of spiritual, self-transcendent and exceptional states of consciousness in human psychology and wellness, date back even further.
Transpersonal psychology — sometimes called “spiritual psychology” or the “psychology of spirituality” — is the evolution of the humanistic and person-centered psychology movement popularized by Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers in the middle of the 20th Century. Walsh & Vaugh, (1993) define the transpersonal as “experiences in which the sense of self extends beyond (trans) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos” (p. 203). After reviewing over 200 citations in the literature, Lajoi & Shaprio (1992) defined transpersonal psychology as being “concerned with the study of humanity’s highest potential, and with the recognition, understanding, and realization of unitive, spiritual, and transcendent states of consciousness” (p. 91).
Transpersonal psychology is also a whole-person (holistic) psychology which embraces the important role of self-transcendent states, mystical states, psychedelic experiences and other forms of non-ordinary and exceptional states of consciousness in fostering personal transformation, well-being and optimal human flourishing. These exceptional and self-transcendent or awakening states have also been linked to increased altruism, compassion and other pro-social behaviours, begging the question, can transpersonal psychology save the world?
Awakening & Transformation
Most religious/spiritual traditions have one or more terms or metaphors used to describe a subjective, transcendent and transformational experience (Metzner, 1980) which alters one’s perception, awareness, consciousness and is thought to represent our “ultimate nature” (Welwood, 2002). As mentioned in the introduction, a few examples of terms used to describe these experiences include Nirvana, Buddha Mind, Satori and Moksha. When these experiences occur in a religious, spiritual or mystical context they may be labeled respectively as a religious experience, spiritual experience or mystical experience. In order to avoid definitional challenges with words like “spiritual”, “religious” or “mystical”, or the implied religious connection to an experience which has been found to occur more often outside a religious/spiritual context (Taylor, 2012), the more generic term “awakening experience” is used to describe these experiences both within and outside a religious/spiritual context.
Transformation & Transcendence of Self
From a psychological perspective these awakening experiences are so powerful and disruptive that they tend to induce a shift, a transformation of the person’s way of thinking. Value systems tend to be revised and even how they perceive the world and their place in it (Taylor, 2017). In many cases, their personality is changed (Neuman, 1964). But what exactly is changing in the person to produce such profound and pervasive changes? The common thread, the core experience running through descriptions in spiritual texts or self-reports from those who have had such experiences, is unmistakably one of self-transcendence and union (Metzner, 1980; Oyserman, 2012; Taylor, 2017; Weldwood, 2002). A powerful and transformational experience of self-transcendence where one’s self-concept moves beyond separateness and into connection or union with, a universal essence or Universal Self. The common experience of separation and individuation of self dissolves and a sense of unity or interconnectedness is felt. Oyserman (2012) describes the typical awakening experience as one where our sense of self expands from an “individualist self” towards a “collectivist self” when we realize our similarities with others, or in the case of an awakening experience, our fundamental interconnectedness with others.
The significance of the transformation and transcendence of self in human psychological development and motivation is also evident when Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) modified his Hierarchy of Needs pyramid in his later years. Maslow added “self-transcendence as a motivational step beyond self-actualization” (Koltko-Rivera, 2006. p. 302) to reflect what he believed was the highest state of human consciousness which is characterized by a shift in motivation towards higher goals and purpose outside of or beyond, our selves.
“Transpersonal psychologists attempt to integrate timeless wisdom with modern Western psychology and translate spiritual principles into scientifically grounded, contemporary language. Transpersonal psychology addresses the full spectrum of human psychospiritual development—from our deepest wounds and needs to the existential crisis of the human being, to the most transcendent capacities of our consciousness.” ~ Mariana Caplan
Coaching Models for Awakening & Transformation
Although transpersonal psychology (and now transpersonal coaching) continues to struggle with a definitional problem, I believe we can agree that at the very least, a transpersonal approach to coaching is going to begin with the assumption that the human self is capable of states which transcend beyond (trans) “normal” states of functioning and experiencing the world. Since we have already demonstrated that the very definition of awakening is a transcendence of self (Metzner, 1980; Welwood, 2002), we should be well-equipped foundationally and philosophically for developing a transpersonal coaching model for permanent awakening and self-transcendence. It is also important to note that awakening is not a destination or even a state, it is very much a process, a switch to a different road in life and to borrow an analogy from Taylor (2017), “… this road is higher up the side of the mountain; the view is more panoramic and the scenery is more beautiful and vivid” (Loc. 3494).
In order to keep this article relatively short, I will not attempt to explore in depth, every technique or model which could be utilized in a coaching process to help clients attain and then sustain, the self-transcendent state indicative of an awakening experience. But whether we use mindfulness or meditation (Law et al, 2010; Taylor, 2012, 2017; Vago & Silbergsweig, 2012), body-work techniques, guided imagery (Strohl, 1998), breath manipulation like holotropic breathwork (Grof & Grof, 1988) or peripheral awareness (Dangeli, 2015), all these models appear to produce only temporary awakening experiences. Therefore I have chosen to explore only a few coaching models which may be best suited to not only offer the client means through which they can experience temporary states of self-transcendence, but which may assist the client to better understand and integrate the experiences into their own sense of self which may lead to permanent awakening (Elmer, et al. 2012).
Modified GROW Model
The popular GROW coaching model developed by Whitmore (2009) is heavily influenced by Assagioli’s psychosynthesis (Law, Lancaster & DiGiovanni, 2010). Psychosynthesis (integration of multiple psychological states or components) is considered an early precursor to both humanistic and transpersonal psychology as it considers not only aspects of optimal human growth and self-actualization from an integral perspective, but also considers transpersonal aspects as well. Although this is a very basic outline, the GROW model represents a structured approach whereby the client is taken through four stages in the coaching process (Whitmore, 2009):
- Goal: What do you want?
- Reality: Where are you now?
- Options: What could you do? What are your skills?
- Will: What will you do? Actions and behaviors toward the goals.
With the intention of implementing more transpersonal methods into coaching, Law et al. (2010) propose extending Whitmore’s GROW model to include a “Pre-Goal Setting Stage” where the coach would encourage some mindfulness exercises to “increase self-awareness and state of readiness (pre-conscious) for building internal capacity and mindfulness about one’s responsibility” (p. 5). In the final phase of the GROW model (Will), the coach would evaluate and register the client’s “responsibility and commitment in relation to a wider context” beyond the client’s ego-self (Law et al., 2010. p. 5). Along with additions to the Reality and Options stages of the GROW model, taking into account aspects of the client’s self and identity beyond his/her-self, the revised GROW coaching process may help to facilitate a more permanent transformation of self through shifting the client’s leading edge of consciousness (Law et al., 2010).
Integral Coaching Model (ICM)
Ken Wilber is a well-known figure in the world of transpersonal psychology with his integral theory of consciousness (Wilber, 1997) which forms the basis of his AQAL (All Quadrants, All Levels) model. The AQAL model attempts to combine a dozen different perspectives on consciousness, including those from eastern and other contemplative traditions. The AQAL map (Wilber, 2005) yields a four quadrant model representing intentional, behavioral, cultural and social aspects of self, further divided into inside/outside, individual/collective and internal/external perspectives, producing an eight zoned model of methodologies or paradigms for understanding consciousness called Integral Methodological Pluralism or IMP (Wilber, 2006).
Through their review of popular coaching models Hunt (2015) found that most focused their efforts on only one or two of the four quadrants (intentional, behavioral, cultural and social) of Wilber’s AQAL map (Wilber, 2005). Hunt (2015) argues that for embodied change to occur in the client where the changes are deeply entrenched, sustained and more likely to become permanent, all four quadrants of the AQAL model should be satisfied in an interconnected manner (as opposed to treated as separate segments) in the coaching model.
In response to identifying the limitations of many current coaching models as they incompletely map to Wilber’s AQAL, Laura Divine and Joanne Hunt (founders of Integral Coaching Canada – ICC), developed their Integral Coaching Model (ICM) to more fully integrate Wilber’s AQAL and IMP into a “transcend and include” (Wilber, 1980, pp. 93-96) approach. The ICM model is driven by two concepts of “self”; the client’s Current Way of Being (CWOB) and their New Way of Being (NWOB). From the very start, the coaching process/goal is presented as a transcendence or transformation of a client’s current “self” to a new “self” (Frost, 2009). Hunt (2015) describes the ICM as follows;
“Integral Coaching Canada works with two concepts of “me” that exist simultaneously: a “current me” and a “future or new me.” Both of these identities have a way of being that includes: 1) a way of seeing, perceiving, and making sense of; 2) a way of going that includes actions, words, interactions, “doings”; and 3) a way of checking or gauging if the results or consequences of actions are a success or failure, a happy result or sad one, good or bad, and so on. Each of us has a CWOB and we all grow into NWOB in repeated and everwidening cycles over our developmental lifetime. Integral Coaching® builds the capacities and capabilities to grow into a NWOB while also working to integrate the healthy aspects of our CWOB as we transcend and include it.” (p. 12)
Further emphasis on self-transcendence in the ICM model is seen in Hunt’s application of Wilber’s “subject-object” theory of psychological growth and transformation from The Atman Project:
- A higher-order structure emerges in consciousness (with the help of symbolic forms);
- The self identifies its being with that higher structure;
- The next higher-order structure eventually emerges;
- The self dis-identifies with the lower structure and shifts its essential identity to the higher structure;
- Consciousness thereby transcends the lower structure;
- And becomes capable of operating on that lower structure from the higher-order level;
- Such that all preceding levels can then be integrated in consciousness. (Wilber, 1980, p. 94)
Through application of Wilbur’s (2005) AQAL model and subject-object theory (Wilber, 1980) to the coaching process, the coach works with metaphors to describe a client’s CWOB as it deals with language, perceptions, behavior and how they respond to stimuli or events. The coach would then work with the Goals outlined for the client (GROW Model) and develop a metaphor for a NWOB which would indicate the various shifts required in the client across language, perceptions, behaviors and their response patterns (Frost, 2009). “Through this structured, integral developmental process, the client progressively dis-identifies with their CWOB and shifts their essential identity to the NWOB” (Hunt, 2015. p. 13). By focusing on the belief structures thought to underlie human change within each of the Four Quadrants of the AQAL model, the coach can guide the client through a comprehensive approach touching on all aspects or domains thought to effect self, leading to the changes or shifts from CWOB to NWOB (transformation) which may sustain the changes for the client over time (Frost, 2009).
There are many challenges facing the transpersonal coach when working with clients who have had, or are seeking, a transformational and awakening experience through self-transcendence. What I have attempted here is an outline of some of the challenges which a transpersonal coach may face when working with this population and intended goal of self-transformation.
- Since our approach is one of self or ego-transcendence, there is a recognition that before one can consider transcending “normal” ego/self-functions, the person must have an intact, healthy and of course flexible ego structure to begin with (Elmer et al. 2012). Individuals with underdeveloped or aberrantly developed egos are viewed as lacking the requisite personality structure to cope with, understand, and effectively or consistently utilize self-transcendence for the enhancement of health and well-being (Epstein, 1986).
- In order to determine if a client possesses an intact, healthy and flexible ego structure (Elmer, et al. 2012) prior to entering into the coaching process, a pre-screening tool such as Friedman’s (1983) Self-Expansiveness Level Form (SELF) may be utilized. The SELF is intended to be an objective measure of a person’s level of self-expansiveness beyond the boundaries of the here-and-now and a biologically oriented organism, towards a capacity to transcend any limitations in self or self-concept (Friedman & MacDonald, 1997). Those who score high on the SELF Transpersonal Scale may be more likely to see positive results from a transpersonal coaching approach to attaining the level of self-transcendence necessary for an awakening experience. Along with its value as an assessment tool, the SELF could also be used to measure progress when the stated goal is to increase the client’s level of self-transcendence (Friedman, 1997).
- The coaching process involves dialog with a client in order to understand their circumstances, goals, values and experience of self. Therefore the ineffable nature of such subjective experiences as self-transcendence may be difficult for the client, or the coach, to express. William James (1961) expressed this challenge in The Varieties of Religious Experience where he states these experiences “defy expression that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words” (p. 300).
- Whether the client has already had an awakening experience, or experiences one during the coaching process, the transpersonal coach should be aware of the possibility that the client may be having a more radical and disruptive form of awakening which Groff & Groff (1989) have labeled spiritual emergency. Since there is no clear delineation between the symptoms or characteristics of a psychotic experience and an awakening experience, distinguishing between a psychotic episode with awakening features, or an awakening experience with psychotic features, may not be clear (Lukoff, 1985; Neuman, 1964; Sinclair, 2016).
- One also can’t always assume the coach is operating at a higher level of transpersonal function than the client. In the case where the coach feels the client is operating at a higher level of consciousness and transpersonal awareness, it is expected that the coach refer to a practitioner who may be better equipped to facilitate higher growth in the client (Elmer et al. 2012).
- Many of the methods potentially deployed in the coaching process involve a potential for deep levels of personal exploration and self-transcendence which, in the presence of unknown or undisclosed mental illness, could result in harm to the client. Even the simple practice of meditation or mindfulness is not entirely benign and can both exacerbate and reinforce existing pathology (Epstein, 1986; Walsh & Vaughan, 1980).
This article described a profoundly transformational psychological phenomenon called an awakening experience, frequently studied in the field of transpersonal psychology. The hallmark of these awakening experiences is a transcendence or a “stepping out of one’s self, of joining with something beyond or outside one’s normal ego boundaries” (Kasprow, 1999. p. 12). Put another way, during an awakening experience “…the subjective sense of one’s self as an isolated entity can temporarily fade into an experience of unity with other people or one’s surroundings, involving the dissolution of boundaries between the sense of self and “other” (Yaden, Hood, Haidt, Vago & Newberg, 2017, p.1). This notion of self-transcendence during the awakening experience can be both temporary as well as permanent, leading to long-term changes in a person’s state of mind, well-being, interactions with others as well as how they perceive themselves in relation to the entire cosmos, ultimately leading to a healthier and higher-functioning state of consciousness (Taylor, 2017).
These awakening, non-ordinary and self-transcendent states studied by transpersonal psychology can also be supported through a suitable coaching process. These awakening experiences which are described in many religious and spiritual traditions, also appear to be strongly linked to pro-social behaviors which foster cooperation and harmony within a community (Kor et al, 2019; Taylor, 2017). Given the powerful transformational potential of these awakening experiences which often lead to both increased well-being and pro-social behaviours, there appear to be good reason for life coaches to implement transpersonal principles in their practices. And the transpersonal approach to coaching called the Integral Coaching Model (ICM) developed by Laura Divine and Joanne Hunt (2015), offers one coaching model where the explicit and foundational goal is indeed a permanent transformation of self for the client - an awakening experience.
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