Transpersonal Psychology: A Brief Explanation & History

Transpersonal Psychology: A Brief Explanation & History


I began meditating fifteen years ago, when I was twenty-one. I can remember my first experiences of breath-centered focus quite clearly. While it had gone largely unnoticed, I had lived my life, up until that point, thought-to-thought.

In other words, I perceived my world through the nearly constant commentary occurring in my mind. It told me how I viewed others, whether or not I could accomplish a task, and what kind of food I enjoyed. It essentially told the story of myself, to myself.

Then there was a moment of following my breath that drastically altered this unchecked mental label making. After several minutes of attempting to follow my breath only to have thoughts of every kind continue to win over my attention, the thoughts ceased. The story of Christopher had not been forgotten. It was not a foggy, distorted situation. Bodily processes continued, as did my awareness of them.

Yet, in that short period, all that I identified with as “me” dissipated. The stage play of my “self” had not merely seen an intermission, the entire theater had vanished and I was left with an undeniable proof that the person I considered my “self” to be was not the entire performance.

meditation and transpersonal psychology

The field of Western psychology has revolved through various interests and goals. From the isolation and biological “curing” of insanity, to the maintenance of mental illness through pharmaceuticals, to the resolving of a damaged, or fragile sense of identity. Although the field has seen countless pursuits, to be psychologically healthy—to have a wholesome sense of self—seems to be its greatest notion of achievement. In this case, a wholesome sense of self would refer to self-acceptance and intrapersonal friendliness; and an integration of personal impulses with interpersonal relationships and society as a whole.

The once president of the American Psychological Association, Abraham Maslow, pivotal to the rise of Transpersonal Psychology, refers to this level of intervention as “low-ceiling” psychology (Maslow, 1954, p. 292). In other words, a psychology only concerned with the healing of ailments defined by society or functionality. From this perspective, when the person has reached a balanced sense of self, and is high functioning (can hold a job, maintain intimate relationships, etc.); the job is finished.

Psychology Finds Spirituality

Interestingly, despite many attempts to keep the field as empirically sound as possible by studying only overt behaviors and conditioning, major players in the Western psychology field have always kept a curious eye on the nature of mind—both conscious and unconscious. Moreover, all across the world, for thousands of years, mystics, philosophers, theologians, and spiritual practitioners of all kinds have been interested in an aspect of the mind that progresses beyond healthy functioning. These scientists of a different breed have proposed an additional step—the step beyond the self. And it is this noble undertaking that distinguishes the branch of transpersonal psychology from traditional Western psychology.

To comprehend why transpersonal psychologists focus so passionately on this undertaking, we first need to understand a little about this notion of a “self,” especially as seen through the transpersonal lens. Most traditional Western developmental psychology (post-Freud) claims that babies are born without a sense of self (tabula rasa) and that they develop it over time by internalizing aspects of their upbringing through what they call object relations (Wilber, 1979).

This basically means that the person’s sense of self is made of a composite of internalized images which come as messages from their environment. If the child receives the proper type of affection (message of being worthy of love) and positive reinforcement (message of being competent), the child develops a healthy sense of self based on these images. This is a very helpful outlook for raising a child, or undertaking therapy (yes, even and perhaps especially somatic therapy) with an adult who did not receive the necessary messages during their upbringing. This directs the therapist’s focus to the needs of the client that were overlooked by important caregivers in their developmental process of building a positive self-image. But once we achieve a healthy self-image, there is little more this outlook can accomplish.

Shamans, Mystics, and Healers . . .

Now, to understand what other aspects of the self might exist—what else there is to accomplish—we must understand that those who are consensually considered modern psychologists (the word psychologist was not officially used until 1879 by Wilhelm Wundt) were not the first to inquire into the nature of mind or self. Many religious mystics, shamanic healers, and spiritual practitioners have been probing this territory for thousands of years. Their explorations have been well documented and are well worth exploring for three reasons.

First, because they exist. The mere notion that countless human beings have dedicated their lives to such a pursuit for such a length of human history should be curious to anyone who already finds themselves immersed in psychology. They have left us with plenty of maps to review. And if nothing else, these maps should interest us in a colorful-magazines-left-in-our-incomplete-knowledge-waiting-room type of way.

Secondly, because we have the ability to study these maps and come to conceptually understand their message. In the modern age of light-speed information and global communication, these findings are not out of our reach.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we should take interest because we can experience what they experience. My initial meditation experience was my first glimpse, and countless first glimpses brought on through countless means have compelled others to look further.

What is our “self”?

In Tibetan Buddhism, teachers typically taught orally. This was done to keep the information fresh and infused with the modern experience of the listeners. This transmission of experience continues to this day, and we in the scientific age have had our notions of the “self” supplemented by many spiritual teachers, religious leaders, and modern mystics who have taken the time to pass along their understanding.

When considering the information about the self which they have passed onto us, it will help to think in terms of our Western developmental notion of a “self” made of composite images. It is at this point, as Ken Wilber states, that a Buddhist would ask, “How can a real ‘self’ consist of images?” How can something comprised of nothing but borrowed ideas be who one really is? This manner of self-inquiry has long been used in Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, contemplative Christianity, and mystical Judaism and Islam. This line of thinking, in combination with all manner of practices designed to give us glimpses beyond this composite of images, has led countless individuals to conclude that the “self” is more than a collection of impressions. They have come to understand it in various ways, for example: as much more closely related to a vehicle we must use to travel from one place to another, but ultimately not who we are.

It was not until the late 19th century that modern psychologists began to truly take note of these broader views. Leading psychologists, such as William James and Carl Jung, began to explore a larger territory. James, who spent the majority of his life at Harvard University and is often regarded as the father of American psychology, is largely credited with spearheading the transpersonal movement and was the first to use the term in 1905 (Ryan, 2008).

With a little investigation, James found himself immersed in undeniable evidence of altered states of consciousness, psychic phenomena, and hypnosis. Eventually, a book called Varieties of Religious Experience would be comprised out of a set of lectures given by James just after the turn of the century, in which he strongly criticizes science for not paying ample attention to religious experience, which he points out as also being human experience. Or as he puts it, “Religious happiness is happiness. Religious trance is trance” (James, 1902, p. 22).

shamanic healing, spirituality, world religion, transpersonal psychology

This turning point did not crystallize into a formal branch of psychology until the forming of the Transpersonal Institute in 1968 (Ryan, 2008). At this point, the field was headed by the likes of Abraham Maslow and Stanislov Grof. Grof, who is known not only for his lifetime of dedication to the study non-ordinary states of consciousness, but also served as the founding president of the International Transpersonal Association, pointed to the fact that the time was right and the need was great for such a change in focus when he said:

“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.” (2008)

Transpersonal Psychology becomes Transpersonal Psychotherapy

It was these leading pioneers who made the claim that these areas are of great importance to our understanding of the human psyche. They were not only theoretically, but therapeutically, relevant. Renowned Swiss psychotherapist, and longterm friend and colleague of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, began to infuse his therapeutic endeavors with his growing understanding of human’s tendency to identify with archetypes—patterns of behavior inherited from humanity as a whole.

Grof utilized altered states of consciousness to explore the impact of pre- and perinatal experiences on the psyche of his adult patients. Sigmund Freud’s student, ,Wilhelm Reich, who is often credited with the origination of somatic psychotherapy, also began experimenting with transpersonal states in his later career toward, “a real emotional experience of the loss of your ego, of your whole spiritual self” (Turner, 2011, p.80).

In essence, this progressive new outlook to see beyond the traditional view of the “self” has led to a plethora of new therapeutic interventions. New interventions (pre/peri-natal inquiry, dream analysis, mindful breathing, etc.) were necessary as we came to realize that certain psychological ailments were rooted in causes outside of the traditional view. So, the courage which led transpersonal psychologists to face the impending implications of all manner of transpersonal experiences—to take the next necessary step—has led not only to a greater understanding of the mind itself, but a greater ability to treat mental illness and relieve suffering.

somatic therapy, spiritual counseling, meditation, spirituality

My experience with meditation and various other forms of transpersonal experience and study have been not only inspiring, but lifesaving. This drives me to desire to express the topic as fully and accurately as I know now. Nonetheless, due to the concise nature of this explanation, you may be brimming with more questions than answers.

Earlier, I used the phrase “not who we are,” to refer to the way many seekers and mind scientists have come to see the self. This of course leaves us with the question: then who are we? It is this ageless pondering that keeps transpersonal psychology alive and transpersonal psychotherapists employed. I have no idea if the answer can be found, but it can be inspiring, painful, and fulfilling to try.

Those who have gone before us have left us the tools—all manner of shovels and picks—and have asserted many times that we have the answer inside of us already. Here’s to digging.


Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality. London: Harper & Row Publishers

Welwood, J., & Wilber, K. (1979). On ego strength and egolessness. In the Meeting of the Ways (pp.35-47). New York: Schocken

Ryan, M. (2008). The transpersonal William James. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 40 (1) 20-40

Grof, S. (2008). A brief history of transpersonal studies. International Journal of Transpersonal

Studies 27, 1-21.

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