Nigel Wellings. 2002.
Many of our Jungian and analytic colleagues remain unfamiliar with the term “transpersonal psychotherapy” and enquire what it means when they first hear it. My own fantasy is that, to the outsider, it can sound quite provocative as its seems a nonsense that anything as profoundly personal as psychotherapy could have an interest with that which is concerned with what is beyond the personal. Similarly, many transpersonal psychotherapists find it difficult to imagine how soul healing can really arise from a psychoanalytical perspective and view this way of working with suspicion. So here I would like to review Transpersonal Psychology’s history and say something of my own contemplative/analytic approach.
As we know the term is a relatively recent one and first appears in the work of William James, at the turn of the nineteenth century, where he speaks of “Trans-personal, as when my object is also your object;” thereby defining it as a category of shared or collective experience, which by definition, can no longer be personal alone. A little later, in 1917, C.G.Jung wrote the text that finally emerged retitled in the English translation as “The Psychology of the Unconscious” in which we find the chapter heading, “The Personal and Collective (or Transpersonal) Unconscious”. Here the term is used synonymously with the words “collective” and “impersonal”. Although these first usages have now been further differentiated, James and Jung have left a profound mark on transpersonal psychology and psychotherapy in that it continues to be concerned with both the scientific enquiry into non-ordinary states of consciousness and also how the spiritual dimension of the individuals life is not only non-reducible to a species of psychopathology but also that it may well be essential for the deepest healing.
However it was not until the heady and revolutionary days of the 1960’s that transpersonal psychology finally emerged as a discrete discipline from the discussions of a group of mainly young psychoanalysts, psychiatrists and psychologists who collectively had come to believe that the relatively new Humanistic psychology, along with those already established, was failing to recognise, investigate and value various states of consciousness that America at that time was becoming generally more aware of. States of consciousness generated not only spontaneously but also inducible through various natural and drug initiated methods. Amongst this group are the principle names of Antony Sutich, founding editor of the Journal of Humanistic psychology, (Who was so disabled he contributed while laying on his back and looking into a mirror). Michael Murphy, co-founder of the Esalan Institute, Abraham Maslow, Stanislav Grof and Viktor Frankl. Indeed it was these last three who finally came up with the tag “Transpersonal Psychology” after rejecting other formulations and also named Transpersonal Psychology the “fourth force” to distinguish it from the three principle psychologies (psychoanalysis, behaviourism and humanistic) that it had grown from. All this activity finally manifested itself in 1969, when along with Woodstock and the first man on the moon, the first Journal of Transpersonal Psychology was published.
Perhaps unfortunately the enthusiasm of these early Hippy days has passed and Transpersonal Psychology has matured and acquired some gravitas. In England, as well as the Centre for Transpersonal Psychology, there are other transpersonally orientated training organisations within the UKCP, a Transpersonal Psychology Section in the BPS and John Moores University offers Transpersonal Psychology up to Doctorial level. Early criticisms have been answered, principally that it fails to recognise fully the implications of the shadow side of human nature and that its scientific methodology is flawed. Also, Transpersonal Psychology has broadly come to acknowledge that there are “transpersonalists”, who are distinct from transpersonal psychologists and psychotherapists, that have brought the discipline into deserved disrepute by their often naive and deluded beliefs that would turn transpersonal psychology into a new age religion. However there also continues a healthy internal debate that guarantees a plurality of tested views beneath a single roof.
My own acquaintance came relatively recently when I joined Elizabeth McCormick to help administer the Centre for Transpersonal Psychology immediately after it had become an accrediting organisation within the UKCP. From a background of analytical psychotherapy and then the classical school of Jungian psychology, I initially, (and wrongly), thought that transpersonal psychology was a heart felt but less academically demanding form of the latter. That the Jungian and the transpersonal perspectives are connected has already been touched upon in that Jung could describe the archetypal dimension of the person as transpersonal. Further more Jung’s influence is found in a developmental model that includes higher levels of consciousness beyond simply becoming a mature adult and which continues throughout life. Also that each individual has the potential for greater consciousness and this is realised by a process of dialogue with the unconscious that can not be grasped by rational reduction alone. And finally, Jung’s passionate engagement with the wisdom traditions of other cultures, which he came to value and be influenced by, has been passed on and is seen today not only in Transpersonal Psychology but also right across contemporary culture generally. In practice the classical Jungian methods have also been incorporated into transpersonal psychotherapy, so along with the reflective therapeutic dialogue are the techniques of active imagination, (sometimes extended into guided visualisations), and all forms of creative expression.
Speaking of guided visualisations; here there must be a, (brief and inadequate), word on Roberto Assagioli, Italian Psychiatrist and one of the members of the initial group of transpersonal psychotherapists and also a big influence on the majority of CTP’s history. Though he and Jung shared many ideas, his methods differ in that he does not share the same fear of unduly influencing the unconscious psyche. Consequently he happily developed many specific imaginal techniques for both investigating what is consciously unknown and as means to transform what is developmentally arrested and these continue to be used in many transpersonal psychotherapists practices. Sadly, much of this seems baroque and even dangerous to many Jungians and certainly is plain odd from an analytical perspective and so this school of transpersonal psychology, now very popular and known as Psychosynthesis, can be marginalised and dismissed by more orthodox and conventional practitioners. However transpersonal psychology is a broad church and while the important and beneficial influence of Analytical Psychology and Psychosynthesis is significant, particularly in England, in America, psychoanalysis and Buddhism have also been amongst its primary inspirations.
For me this is presently the most exciting area. Perhaps as a Jungian I simply overdosed on unadulterated meaning and individuation. To find a Transpersonal/Buddhist/contemplative influenced psychology that was intellectually and clinically legitimate, that emphasised life as meaning free rather than meaningful and which valued being present with our experience in the moment as well as excavations of the past and the possibilities of the future, was a find. In this area of Transpersonal Psychology the big voice in theory is Ken Wilber, (whom I will name but not attempt to summarise), and amongst the many clinicians I would like to mention are Jack Engler, a psychiatrist from Harvard and mindfulness meditation teacher, Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist and “Buddhist” psychotherapist who has written extensively for The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology and finally, John Welwood, initially an existential psychotherapist, the present Editor of The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology and a writer.
Both Engler and Epstein first intrigued me because they had emerged from the supposedly atheistic Freudian world and yet found no conflict between their analytic work and a transpersonal perspective. This is because, unlike Jung’s Analytical Psychology, their basic object relations position had no pretensions to be a spiritual path and so when this theory met Buddhism, their primary “transpersonal” influence, they simply found that Buddhism augmented and continued where their psychological theory ended. Mark Epstein actually identifies Freud, rather than James or Jung, as the Grandfather of Transpersonal Psychology because, despite his misreading of spirituality, he none the less made a lifelong pursuit of its significance and meaning thus making it a legitimate area of study and research.
Epstein explores areas where he feels Freud has deeply influenced European and American transpersonal psychology. He suggests that Freud’s theoretical contribution that the frustration of the pleasure principle causes suffering and this, acting as the engine of sublimation, causes the emergence of the reality principle, echoes the Buddha’s first three Noble Truths. That all life is suffering, that the cause of this suffering is attachment and that the ending of attachment is the release from suffering. Another area concerns Freud’s practical advice to would be analysts to develop “evenly suspended” attention. This ability to suspend judgement and attend to all the patients utterances equally, to both Epstein and Engler, seems like an intimation of the enormously important and quintessential Buddhist meditative discipline of bare attention or mindfulness. (Or what Ken Wilber calls the “transpersonal witness”). Mindfulness is the ability to be totally present in each successive moment with our experience, just as it is, without judgement or any desire to change it. (Though this is not to renege on the responsibility to act in the world when appropriate). Training to do this usually starts with watching the breath and extends to mindfulness of our entire body, feelings and finally consciousness itself. Transpersonal Psychology recognises that in doing this we achieve a way of being with the whole of our experience without the need to either repress unacceptable elements nor identify with and act out parts that would consume us. I have called this, to emphasise its difference from a defensive schizoid transcendence, intimate engagement and Engler says it is exactly this type of attention in the patient that makes, (although here I am not convinced ), free association possible.
However Epstein can not entirely construe Freud into a proto-Buddhist and Freud’s contribution to the understanding of transpersonal experiences, particularly mystical ones, is lamentable. From his correspondence with his friend, the French poet Romain Rolland, Freud was introduced to the now famous ineffable oceanic feeling that Rolland described as, “a sense of eternity, of feeling something limitless, unbounded”, perhaps a dissolving of the subject/object division of experience? Freud was fascinated by this and reasoned that since this type of unbounded state only occurred in our mothers arms then this was like a state of regression into primary narcissism and thus in several jumps had managed, perhaps while not intending to, to pathologise in the minds of later analysts what for many cultures had for thousands of years been the pinnacle of human psychological development. Freud’s problem was that he could find nothing like it within his own experience and this was hardly surprising since Rolland was a follower of the Hindu guru Ramakrishna and had achieved his experience as a result of his assiduous meditation practice – something Freud had not done.
Following on from here Engler finds links between object relations theory and Buddhism. He notes that they both share a similar understanding of the generation of the experience of “self”. (As in “myself”). That the self arises from a process of synthesis and adaption between the inner life and the outer world and the identity that is created seems to have the qualities of continuity and independence. However where objects relations theory simply observes this and values its outcome, Buddhism adds to this that this self under strict investigation reveals no innate quality of “self hood” and its experience of continuity of identity is thus revealed as false. Further more, while object relations theory identifies two principle areas of psychopathology, either the failure to develop object relations or the struggle of an established self against repressed material, Buddhism posits a more fundamental third, which; is the defence of a belief in the concrete reality of the very self that object relations identifies as desirable. Engler therefore asks, could it not be that these two really form a continuity? That the self concept that we first must bring into being has within it a potential for its own conscious and intentioned surrendering of boundaries and final dissolution? From this is born Englers well known sound bite: “First you have to be a somebody before you can be a nobody”.
From both these psychotherapists I take away a new appreciation of my work. In as much as I can allow myself to sit with my patients and allow their material to touch me within an attitude of bare attention, an attitude of both intimate engagement yet not identification, then so will they also begin to find the ability to neither push away experience out of fear nor be consumed by experiences that damage them. However, perhaps constitutionally, perhaps because of my own experience of analysis, I can find this a little too passive at times and this brings me to the work of John Welwood.
John Welwood started his professional life as a research student of Eugene Gendlin, an American psychologist. Briefly, Gendlin discovered that those who really are helped by psychotherapy have an innate ability to be aware of and take reference from what he called a “felt sense”, a combination of feeling (or emotion) and a body sensation. When asked how they were or what they felt, this group, instead of answering with predigested ideas, would pause and answer from the immediacy of their experience, informed by their body, and when this was allowed to be felt fully a “felt shift” possibly would occur. That is, a release of energy felt both emotionally and physically. Further more Gendlin discovered that this sensibility could be taught and thus the method of “focusing” was born. Welwood, again a practicing Buddhist, realised over time that this phenomenological method had some similarities to mindfulness meditation, in that it stayed with what is in each successive moment; this he called being “experience near”. By taking focusing and refining its method he came to distinguish two categories of felt shift, the horizontal and vertical. The first group seemed to pertain to personal experience while the second had a transpersonal element in that rather then giving access to a deeper understanding of ones personal situation, they opened out into a moment of unintentioned being. Thus Welwood had found a way to connect psychotherapy to the spiritual practice of mindfulness using the bridge of focusing. In practice this means more often than not following the usual process of a reflective dialogue in which the therapist helps the patient to come to an understanding of their situation, frequently drawing on the felt sense within their body. But also sometimes, perhaps only fleetingly and superficially, to have a small transpersonal experience of bare attention where consciousness is not solely identified with the contents of the personal self alone. An experience he describes as profoundly healing.
For me again this was all very satisfying. Welwood not only recognises the profoundest importance of a psychotherapy that enables the patient, rather than struggling to change their experience, to remain mindfully present with it, just as it is, knowing this to be the deeper healing. He also offers a specific means that enables the patient to do this so that both people in the therapeutic relationship are equally involved in the generation of the transpersonal witness. Together then, Epstein, Engler and Welwood, none coming from the more familiar Jungian tradition, all demonstrate a truly transpersonal psychotherapy that is also analytic in its origins. One that takes the personal self and deeply enquires into the nature of its being by developing the ability to be mindfully present both personally and transpersonally.