What is Transpersonal Psychology & Can it Change The World?
Transpersonal psychology offers a wholistic & evidence-based view of human flourishing based on our capacity to transform the heart, consciousness & spirit.
Transpersonal (beyond-ego/self) psychology — also known as the Fourth Force of psychology — has been around formally for over 50 years and has its 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 been linked to increased altruism, compassion and other pro-social behaviours, begging the question “can transpersonal psychology save the world?” In this article I will present a snapshot of the history behind the development of transpersonal psychology (mentioning only the key figures) and present a very simple, but logically consistent argument for the role which transpersonal psychology might play in changing the world for the better.
History of Transpersonal Psychology
Freudian psychology and behaviorism — sometimes called the First and Second Force’s in psychology respectively — were the two dominant branches of psychology in America around the middle of the twentieth century. During this time, criticism was also growing around the limitations of psychoanalysis or behaviorism to adequately explain the breadth of human experiences and behaviors. Pioneers like Abraham Maslow felt that many of the uniquely human qualities such as love, morality, religion, spirituality, art or extreme and non-ordinary states of consciousness could not be adequately explained by either psychoanalysis or behaviorism. And, other important and defining uniquely human experiences like self-consciousness and introspection were completely ignored (Grof, 2008). Maslow felt that these uniquely human conditions which define many of our meaningful experiences in life, were left out of the two dominant schools of psychology at the time.
Maslow’s (and Anthony Sutich’s) solution during the early 1950’s, was the creation of the “Third Force” of psychology better known as humanistic psychology. Humanistic psychology honored and embraced consciousness, introspection and the other uniquely human qualities which were left out of psychoanalysis and behaviorism. This new holistic and multi-modal approach to psychology also shifted the emphasis from the dysfunction-based models of psychoanalysis, and the animal-research basis of behaviorism, to an approach focused on growth, wellness, human potential, self-actualization and the interdependence of mind and body (Grof, 2008). Humanistic psychology with its more integrated, multi-modal and holistic (whole-person) approach which celebrated these more positive aspects of the human experience, soon became the dominant model of psychology in North America. Another well-known humanist at the same time embracing these positive aspects of human psychology was Carl Rogers who defined his self-actualization model around what he termed the fully functioning person. Roger’s theories around self-actualization and the fully functioning person, later formed the basis of his Client-Centred Therapy approach to psychotherapy. (Rogers, 1959).
During the 1960’s and into the 1970’s — a period when the humanistic theories of Maslow and Rogers were popular — there was an explosion of interest into Eastern philosophies, psychedelics, shamanism, meditation, mystical states and other ancient wisdom practices. This renaissance of interest into spiritual, ritualistic and transcendent human states drew attention to the fact that even the new holistic and humanistic psychology was still missing a number of critical human characteristics and states of non-ordinary consciousness which often had deeply significant and even transformational effects. Both Sutich and Maslow grew dissatisfied with the framework they had created for humanistic psychology and felt that what was still missing in their holistic approach to psychology, were these spiritual and transcendent aspects of consciousness and human experience (Sutich, 1976). Maslow and Sutich felt that any comprehensive approach to psychology “had to include observations from such areas as mystical states, cosmic consciousness, psychedelic experiences, trance phenomena, creativity, and religious, artistic, and scientific inspiration” (Grof, 2008, p. 47).
In 1967, a working-group consisting of Abraham Maslow, Anthony Sutich, Stanislav Grof, James Fadiman, Miles Vich and Sonya Margulies met in California with the goal of defining and creating a new Fourth Force of psychology (transpersonal) which would embrace the full spectrum of human experience, including the non-ordinary, self-transcendent states of consciousness which had been shown to play such a significant role in exceptional states, psychedelics, contemplative practices and thousands of years of ancient wisdom traditions (Grof, 2008). The psychological significance of these exceptional, non-ordinary and transpersonal states of consciousness which spurred the creation of a Fourth Force in psychology, is further apparent when we consider that Maslow revised his most familiar and popular model of human motivation and needs — the Hierarchy of Needs pyramid — to include self-transcendence (Mark & Koltko-Rivera, (2006).
A few years after that fateful meeting in 1967 with Maslow, Suttich, Grof and others, in 1969 the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology began publication and in 1971 the Association for Transpersonal Psychology was established, which recently celebrated it’s 50 Year Anniversary. Transpersonal psychology had finally arrived!
Revising Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Most people are familiar with Maslow’s original Hierarchy of Needs (HON) which defines a pyramidal model of human motivation beginning with the drive to meet our most basic Physiological and Safety needs. Once our basic physiological and safety needs are met, we can then focus on making connections with others (Love/Belonging) and meeting Esteem needs (accomplishments). At the very pinnacle of human motivation in Maslow’s original HON, is Self Actualization. Self Actualization, unlike the previous stages which are motivated to meet a particular need, is motivated by a desire to GROW, to achieve one’s full potential, to excel in one’s career, artistic expression, writing, music or other passions.
Maslow’s HON’s is one of the most recognized models of human motivation and continues to be standard reading for most undergraduate or college psychology programs. However, with the realization that higher and non-ordinary states of consciousness play a fundamental role in human flourishing and well-being, combined with the formal development of transpersonal psychology in the late 60’s, Abraham Maslow REVISED his original HON in the early 70’s. Maslow placed Self Transcendence above Self Actualization as the highest level of human motivation, needs and conscious experience (Mark & Koltko-Rivera, 2006).
It should be noted that the addition of Self Transcendence to Maslow’s HON was a RADICAL change from the original model. Each level of the original HON was defined by motivations and actions which represented fundamentally self-serving physical, safety, belonging and personal accomplishment needs. Self TRANSCENDENCE on the other hand, literally refers to states, motivations and actions which transcend (go beyond) the individual self.
Self-transcendent states are also one aspect of what are known as “awakening” experiences. Often misunderstood and historically attributed to religious or spiritual practices, these “awakening” experiences have recently been shown to occur most often outside a religious or spiritual context (Taylor, 2012). These “awakening” experiences are typically evoked by psychological trauma, contact with nature, spiritual/contemplative practices like meditation and even through engagement with spiritual literature (Taylor, 2012).
In his more recent research, Taylor (2017) also identified a number of common characteristics of the “awakening” experience such as a sense of harmony and meaning, dissolution of ego or self-transcendence, along with an increased sense of connection and unity. These increased perceptions of unity, connection and egolessness were also accompanied by an increase in pro-social behaviours like altruism, compassion and other activities associated with service to others.
Bringing us back to current times, the recent explosion of interest in meditation & mindfulness as well as psychedelics and the science behind their ability to trigger transpersonal states and self-transcendence, has only increased awareness of, and interest in, transpersonal psychology. Transpersonal principles are also spreading to other areas like psychotherapy, psychiatry, coaching, education, business etc. Today, awareness of transpersonal psychology as a branch/evolution of psychology continues to grow globally. New schools are popping up which offer courses along with undergraduate and graduate programs. Transpersonal methods and principles are also showing up in traditional psychology programs and courses around the world.
Can Transpersonal Psychology Change The World?
Although transpersonal psychology evolved out of the humanistic and positive psychology movements around the middle of the last last century, and represents the Fourth Force in the study of human psychology and behavior, it’s relevance and value today would seem to extend much further. For instance, in the past decade or more there has been an explosive growth of scientific investigations into the psychological nature of spirituality and the characteristics or states which contribute to human flourishing and thriving (Kor, Pirutinsky, Mikulincer, Shoshani & Miller, 2019). Transpersonal psychology — also called “spiritual” psychology or the “psychology of spirituality” — is at the forefront of this research and is leading the way in identifying the conditions and practices which may contribute to the non-ordinary, self-transcendent and awakening states which occur most often outside a religious or spiritual context, as well as within them (Taylor, 2017).
(1) Transpersonal psychology is leading the way in the study of spirituality and the non-ordinary states of consciousness, awakening and self-transcendence linked to human flourishing and well-being.
Transpersonal psychology (and other supporting fields), have helped to validate the existence and psychological benefits of non-ordinary states of consciousness such as awakening and self-transcendence, previously dismissed and linked to spiritual or religious practices.
(2) Transpersonal psychology — through embracing and researching previously dismissed awakening, non-ordinary and self-transcendent states of consciousness — may bring us one step closer to bridging the historical divide between science and spirituality/religion.
The recent renaissance of interest into the medical, psychological and transformational benefits of psychedelics, has also increased public awareness of these awakening, self-transcendent and non-ordinary states of consciousness and their important role in fostering well-being and flourishing.
(3) Transpersonal psychology — literally “beyond-self” psychology — with its long history of embracing self-transcendence, awakening and other non-ordinary states of consciousness, is perfectly positioned to support further research into the use of psychedelics in therapeutic and coaching environments geared towards self-improvement, transformation, flourishing and well-being.
These awakening, non-ordinary and self-transcendent states embraced by transpersonal psychology, which can be induced by various psychedelic substances and 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).
(4) Therefore, transpersonal psychology in practice, and transpersonal principles applied in other fields, may help us to better understand how to foster individual well-being, flourishing and even the conditions for self-transcendence which have been linked to increased pro-social behaviors, potentially leading to increased social harmony and a better world.
Although (not yet) widely recognized by the public, or even consistently defined in the field, transpersonal psychology — the Fourth Force in psychology — with roots solidly in humanistic and positive psychology, has always been very much at the forefront of the science’s behind happiness, well-being and flourishing. Transpersonal psychology is literally defined by it’s embrace of and explorations into, the highest potentials of non-ordinary consciousness and self-transcendent states which have been linked to pro-social behaviors like altruism, compassion and service. The recent and explosive growth of interest in psychedelics has also increased public awareness of the wellness and transformational potential of the self-transcendent states they can evoke. When combined with the growing interest in reconciling ancient wisdom traditions, religion and spirituality with science, transpersonal psychology seems poised to become even more relevant in the future. Potentially even helping to create the paradigm shift which may be necessary in order to bridge the divide between science and spirituality/religion. One of the key figures in the history of transpersonal psychology, Stanislav Grof, put it this way:
“Western science is approaching a paradigm shift of unprecedented proportions, one that will change our concepts of reality and of human nature, bridge the gap between ancient wisdom and modern science, and reconcile the differences between Eastern spirituality and Western pragmatism.” (Grof, 1985. p 16)
So, can transpersonal psychology change the world for the better? It already has!
- Grof, S. (1985). Beyond the Brain: Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy. State University of New York, Albany.
- Grof, S. (2008). Brief History of Transpersonal Psychology. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 27(1), 46–54.
- Kor, A., Pirutinsky, S., Mikulincer, M., Shoshani, A. & Miller, L. (2019). A Longitudinal Study of Spirituality, Character Strengths, Subjective Well-Being, and Prosociality in Middle School Adolescents. Frontiers of Psychology.
- Mark, E. & Koltko-Rivera. (2006). Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research, and Unification. Review of General Psychology. 10(4). 302–316.
- Rogers, C. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill.
- Lajoie, D. H. & Shapiro, S. I. (1992). Definitions of transpersonal psychology: The first twenty-three years. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 24(1). 79–98.
- Sutich, A. (1976). The founding of humanistic and transpersonal psychology: A personal account. Doctoral dissertation, Humanistic Psychology Institute, San Francisco, California.
- Taylor, S. (2012). Spontaneous Awakening Experiences: Beyond Religion And Spiritual Practice. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. 44(1). 73–91.
- Taylor, S. (2017). Exploring Awakening Experiences: A Study of Awakening Experiences in Terms of Their Triggers, Characteristics, Duration And Aftereffects. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. 49(1). 45–65.
- Walsh, R. & Vaughan, F. (1993). On transpersonal definitions. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 25 (2), 125–182.