I Really Wrote This One In An Hour: What is Transpersonal Psychology?
This summer I took a class in transpersonal psychology. Transpersonal is a word that makes most people's eyes glaze over because they don't know what it means. Think the types of experiences people have on hallucinogenic drugs, like when they become the carpet or a bush, or become aware of the multitude of lives in which they have lived and see their current life as small and insignificant and oh-so-quick. Or they have an encounter with an other dimensional being. Or they are able to telepathically communicate with their best friend. These are all transpersonal experiences in which the personal, the consciousness one would typically consider as "I", is transcended for something larger. Transpersonal psychology can also be known simply as "spiritual psychology".
It arose in the 1960's (of course) when a few prominent psychologists became concerned that traditional psychology--Freudian analysis, behaviorism, and even humanistic psychology which is concerned with human potential, success, and personal development--was not addressing spirituality, and particularly not addressing these experiences where a sense of oneness is involved. You can imagine the motivation. This was a time when the Vietnam War was on everybody's mind and what better way to put an end to war and help facilitate peace than to get everybody to recognize the oneness of humanity, to have an experience of bliss and love.
The first transcendental psychologists took the existing models of psychology and tacked spiritual development on the top of them, like a pyramid. They believed that once a person reached a certain level of stability in the rest of their life, once they had their needs met for food and shelter, once they had sorted out career and family, and their childhood wounds were healed through therapy, they would naturally progress into spiritual development, and be more likely to experience transpersonal states, and be able to concern themselves with these greater spiritual values.
There is some truth to that, but it soon became obvious that a hierarchical or linear model wouldn't do. Because there were too many examples of people who were quite attuned to the spiritual, and yet completely dysfunctional in the realms psychology typically dealt with, for example, your Buddhist monk with a violent temper and bad drinking habit. It also didn't explain inborn spiritual awarenesses, like the kid who sees angels and auras. It became clear that the ability to access what we might call a state of spiritual Enlightenment/Nirvana/God Consciousness/Sahmadi/Oneness, had little to do with healthy functioning in the rest of life. So the transpersonal psychologists began to come up with models in which psychological development and spiritual development were two separate things. They could aid eachother. Your spiritual awareness could improve your personal relationships, or your psychological stability could make you a candidate for a transpersonal experience, but they were not the same.
Now, I had a hard time with this class because as a student I'm supposed to be open, and learning from the experts, but I don't believe in either of these models! Here is the thing: these models are based on the idea that the spiritual realm is this one thing, that is separate from the other realms. If you go to the grocery store, that is mundane. If you see ghosts there that is spiritual. If you fall off a swing and break your arm, that is mundane. If you have a healing dream and your cancer disappears that is spiritual. If you feel sad and depressed that is mundane. If you feel euphoria and ecstasy that is spiritual. But I don't see it that way. I see ALL development as spiritual development. I consider healing physical ailments, buying a car, obtaining a date, and exploring childhood trauma as spiritual endeavors. And I view the extent to which I am successful at those endeavors as markers of my spiritual progress.
These other models are based on the idea that "enlightenment" i.e. a specific state of non-dualistic consciousness is either a)the best or highest, or most developed psychological state, and the one which we are all developing toward or b)that enlightenment (spiritual development) and psychological development are both important but different. Whereas I argue that true "enlightenment" is not a specific state of consciousness that dead-ends in non-duality. Rather enlightenment is an ongoing task of expansion, of becoming more conscious. It happens any time you become "more light", when you take any step to raise your vibration, perfect your being, or bring your shadow into the light. It happens any time you learn something you haven't learned before. Leaving that abusive guy=enlightenment. Quitting that dead end job=enlightenment. Resolving your attachment issues=enlightenment. And yes, sometimes meditating and having a specific experience=enlightement too.
I think this way of thinking is good. It prevents spiritual bypassing, and makes life more fun rather than something to be rushed through or brushed aside for this one goal.
But speaking of rushing through things to achieve one goal, time's up! Thanks for reading!