This FAQ aims to explain the meaning, nature and significance of transpersonal studies for a general educated audience. It answers commonly asked questions about spiritual belief and practice and offers guidance on academic and professional study of the transpersonal.
The term ‘transpersonal’ literally means ‘beyond (or through) the personal’. It refers to experiences, processes and events in which our normal limiting sense of self is transcended and in which there is a feeling of connection to a larger, more meaningful reality.
Transpersonal experiences include: deep love and connection with other people, moments of highest happiness and serenity, the sense of sacredness or awe, mystical unions with nature or with the Divine, memories of previous lives, out-of-body and near-death experiences, psychedelic states, awareness of subtle energies or supernatural intelligences, creative inspiration, meditative and contemplative experiences.
Transpersonal processes include: spiritual healing, profound psychological transformations, transpersonal psychotherapy, spiritual discipline and training, vision quests, spiritual crises and emergencies, kundalini awakenings, possession, mediumship and channelling.
Transpersonal events include: religious and magical rituals, raves, religious festivals and other collective manifestations of spiritual participation.
By definition, psychic and paranormal experiences are transpersonal if they result in a greater or more profound understanding of ourselves, of others, or of the nature of reality. Psychic or paranormal experiences are NOT transpersonal if they are simply entertaining diversions, or they do not transform our sense of self or our understanding of reality, or if they are used to reinforce and promote the egoic self.
Not all transpersonal phenomena (e.g., psychedelic experience, creative inspiration) necessarily require a spiritual or religious interpretation. The transpersonal is therefore a more inclusive term than either spiritual or religious. However, most transpersonal phenomena can be understood as various expressions of human spirituality, including both the religious and non-religious.
Many (but not all) transpersonal researchers have their own religious beliefs and practices. However, transpersonal research is essentially a scientific undertaking that aims to examine and interpret the evidence for transpersonal phenomena in an objective way that does not require the acceptance of religious beliefs or metaphysical assumptions.
Transpersonal researchers come from many different religious traditions (and none). These include: Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), Eastern religions (e.g., Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism), indigenous religions (e.g., shamanism, folk religion), as well as new religious movements (e.g., neopaganism, Eckankar, Bahá'í) and quasi-religious philosophies (e.g., Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Gurdjieff).
Historically, transpersonal research and theory has been most strongly influenced by ideas and concepts from the teachings of Eastern religions, especially Buddhism and Hinduism.
Yes, although almost all share a commitment to a belief in a ‘spiritual’ or moral impulse in human nature. Some researchers, however, seek natural or physiological explanations for transpersonal phenomena.
Transpersonal research aims to answer some of the most fundamental and significant questions about human existence, such as:
Transpersonal research and theory has a number of major applications, especially in the following areas:
Transpersonal psychology investigates scientifically the psychological aspects and implications of transpersonal experiences, processes and events.
Transpersonal psychology was the first self-declared ‘transpersonal’ academic discipline to emerge (in the late 1960s and early 1970s). It built upon earlier psychological foundations, especially studies into the psychology of religion and mysticism (e.g., William James), psychodynamic theories (especially Jung and Assagioli), and humanistic psychology (notably Maslow) to develop an approach aimed specifically at exploring the ‘farther’ or ‘higher’ reaches of human nature and experience.
At the present time, transpersonal psychology is not formally recognised by the American Psychological Association (although areas of study within transpersonal psychology are incorporated in other Divisions of the APA). However, in 1996, the British Psychological Society formally recognised the establishment of a Transpersonal Psychology Section.
Although not formally recognised by professional bodies, other transpersonal disciplines are emerging that represent their own distinctive perspectives and approaches to transpersonal research and its applications. These include, for example:
As an academic discipline, parapsychology is mainly concerned with examining scientifically the evidence for the existence of paranormal phenomena. Unlike transpersonal studies, parapsychology is not primarily concerned with exploring the personal and social meanings and consequences of paranormal experiences.
However paranormal experiences and phenomena sometimes result in profound transformations in people’s spiritual and psychological understanding. To this extent, transpersonal research can include study of the paranormal.
Because of the different research focus of the two disciplines, they tend to attract rather different people.
Consciousness studies is primarily concerned with understanding the nature of mind and consciousness (including states of consciousness), and the relation of mental experience to physical and physiological processes.
These areas are also of interest to transpersonal researchers who, however, are mainly interested in the implications and applications of such understanding for psychological and spiritual development, rather than in the ‘pure’, often abstract, philosophical and scientific speculation that characterises consciousness studies.
In principle, there is much potential overlap between consciousness studies and transpersonal studies although, in practice, the two disciplines tend to attract different types of people.
Both religious studies and the psychology of religion are concerned with investigating religious experiences, practices and institutions, including their meaning and significance in the context of people’s lives. As such, these disciplines may be considered to be important components of transpersonal studies. Transpersonal studies, however, takes a wider perspective in also investigating a range of non-religious transpersonal phenomena.
Transpersonal researchers use a wide variety of methods, which are suited to different research questions. These methods include: case studies, phenomenological investigation, archive research, anthropological investigation, narrative analysis, intuitive inquiry, heuristic inquiry, participant observation, surveys, questionnaires and psychological tests, experimental methods, physiological measurement, and action research.
The term meditation refers to a variety of techniques of attentional training which aim to promote psychological well-being or contribute to spiritual development.
Important techniques of meditation involve (1) calming the mind through the focussing of awareness on a particular object or experience (e.g., the breath, a candle, flower, sacred sound, or religious image) or (2) the observation of mental processes as they arise spontaneously in awareness.
Research suggests that meditation practice can result in a number of positive benefits, including relaxation and stress reduction, states of contentment and bliss, lowering of elevated blood pressure, improvement in certain medical conditions, increased psychological health, and enhanced perception, memory and creativity.
For most people, meditation has largely beneficial effects. For a minority of people, however, there is evidence that meditation may sometimes lead to depression, social withdrawal, obsessional behaviour, or even psychosis.
There is an extraordinary range and variety of transpersonal practices (structured activities that aim to promote or support transpersonal experiences or the spiritual life). These include: study of scriptures and other spiritual teachings, ritual (religious or magical), oracular divination, visualization techniques and guided fantasy, creative work, body and energy work, fasting, prayer, compassionate action and service, worship and devotion, use of psychoactive substances, transpersonal psychotherapy and counselling, and spiritual direction.
In general, an integral practice aims to incorporate a regime of structured, disciplined work on all major aspects of human experience and development. These usually include:
It is possible (and perhaps advisable) for individuals and groups to develop their own tailored regimes of integral practice. However, guidance on integral practice, including recommendations on specific methods, can be found in the work of George Leonard and Michael Murphy (Integral Transformative Practice), Ken Wilber (Integral Life Practice), and The Quest.
Psychoactive drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, MDMA (Ecstasy) or ketamine can induce significant alterations in our perceptions, emotions, and cognitions and may, in certain circumstances, lead to experiences often considered of spiritual or transpersonal significance (e.g., out-of-body experiences, sense of oneness with others or the world, blissful awareness, apparent insights into the true nature of reality).
However, in most jurisdictions, possession and use of these substances is illegal. Also their effects are relatively unpredictable, and ingestion may often result in unpleasant experiences or other damaging consequences. Although the use of psychoactive substances for religious purposes is widespread in certain indigenous traditions, ingestion is normally carefully moderated and controlled through specific ritual preparations. No major world religion advocates the use of psychoactive drugs for spiritual purposes and most decry the attempt to directly induce spiritual experiences in this way.
Research suggests that the effects and consequences of psychoactive drugs depend upon (1) the specific drug used and its precise dosage, (2) the prior beliefs and expectations of the person, (3) the setting in which the drug is taken.
The term 'spiritual emergency" (or 'spiritual emergence') refers to disturbing and often overwhelming crises that may be indistinguishable from psychosis, but which represent a process of transformation and spiritual opportunity.
Spiritual emergencies may be triggered by a variety of factors, including, trauma, stress, illness, life changing events, spiritual practice, or drug use.
Advice and support for people undergoing spiritual emergencies is offered by the Grof Foundation.
Broadly speaking, transpersonal approaches to counselling and psychotherapy are those which recognise and address the spiritual aspects of human experience as these relate to issues brought by the client.
Transpersonal psychotherapists and counsellors differ widely in their approach to practice, which may be based on Jungian, person-centred, psychosynthesis, Buddhist, existential, holotropic, integrative or other training and experience.
Spiritual direction refers to a special form of friendship or mentoring between a spiritual director (guide, guru, confessor, advisor, tutor) and the person being directed. Sometimes spiritual co-counselling is offered, in which director and the person directed alternate roles.
Although spiritual direction may share many features with transpersonal psychotherapy and counselling, it generally involves more direct spiritual reflection and spiritual-religious interpretation. Also, the spiritual director and the person being directed usually share a common set of spiritual-religious beliefs and practices. Spiritual directors may or may not have professional training in psychotherapy or counselling.
Undergraduate modules in transpersonal psychology and related disciplines are taught at some universities, usually by tutors with a special interest in these areas.
Masters level programmes in transpersonal psychology and other transpersonal disciplines (including practitioner training) are offered by a few universities and other institutions, mainly in the USA and UK. Opportunities for PhD research may also be available to suitably qualified candidates.