Psychology•January 12, 2023
There are higher levels of human development than traditional psychology envisioned.
This is the bold claim made by transpersonal psychologists. They believe that the human experience can extend beyond the ego, reach the transcendental, and imbue our lives with love, compassion, and meaning.
Transpersonal psychology is a branch of psychology focused on studying the spiritual and transcendental aspects of the human experience. It is an approach that seeks to understand how the connection between the self and our higher consciousness can lead to growth and self-development.
In this article, we will explore how transpersonal psychology offers a new approach to studying the psyche and what self-actualization means. We will look at how the expansion of consciousness leads to personal growth and how the mystical experience is both similar to psychosis and very different.
According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the ultimate goal of human development is self-actualization. This process refers to becoming the best version of yourself, reaching your fullest potential, and fulfilling your life’s purpose.¹
Traditional views of self-actualization emphasize attaining certain psychological characteristics such as positive self-esteem, self-reliance, and autonomy. The transpersonal perspective on self-actualization goes beyond the ego and focuses on the connection to a higher self or consciousness.
Ken Wilber, a philosopher and a major contemporary transpersonal theorist, believed that reality and the psyche are organized into levels. He presented this idea in his book Transformations of Consciousness and revealed a model including ten stages of human development. In his model, he incorporates elements from Eastern ideas, such as the chakra system and tantric yoga. He grouped these stages into three levels: pre-personal, personal, and transpersonal.²
Pre-personal functioning is characterized by following instinctual desires and is shaped by basic needs. Personal functioning is oriented toward and mediated by the ego. Transpersonal functioning emerges when people identify less with their individual concerns and connect with reality beyond personal identity. In transpersonal states, the ego’s boundaries tend to dissolve, and subject/object relationships alter or collapse. This gives rise to the possibility of profound experiences of connectedness.
Stanislav Grof, a noted psychiatrist, LSD researcher, and pioneer in the field of transpersonal psychology, also speaks about the importance of self-transcendence in the process of self-actualization. He believes self-actualization is not just about reaching one’s potential but also about overcoming the limitations of the ego and connecting with the source of all being. Individuals can achieve this connection through various spiritual practices like meditation, prayer, or breathing, enabling them to attain higher states of consciousness and delve into deeper parts of their psyche.
With the help of his wife, Grof developed a breathwork method that allows one to transcend the limits of the ego and enter into a state of altered consciousness (ASC). This method, called holotropic breathwork, uses evocative music, hyperventilation, perinatal experiences, and archetypal imprinting to access repressed memories. The repressed input that is explored through holotropic breathing, once integrated with the help of a therapist, can lead to personal growth, healing, and self-actualization.³
Transpersonal psychology provides a variety of approaches to self-actualization, including meditation and mindfulness practices, spiritual practices, exploration of altered states of consciousness, and therapeutic approaches such as transpersonal psychotherapy. Transpersonal psychotherapy may include techniques such as dream work, prayer, and guided imagery on top of traditional talk therapy.
Meditation and mindfulness practices are significant parts of the transpersonal approach to self-actualization. These practices calm the mind and help an individual focus on the present moment, which allows for a deeper connection with the self and the transcendental. Studies have shown that meditation can improve mental health and increase feelings of empathy and compassion.
Spiritual practices are also an important part of transpersonal psychology. Spiritual traditions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism provide a way to connect with something greater than yourself, which can increase people's feelings of purpose and meaning in life.
The exploration of altered states of consciousness is another transpersonal approach toward self-actualization. These states, such as near-death experiences, psychedelic experiences, and mystical experiences, can provide profound insights regarding the nature of the human experience. For example, Grof’s holotropic breathing can facilitate an altered state of consciousness useful to the transpersonal therapeutic process.
Altered states of consciousness can also be induced using psychedelic plants and compounds. Psychedelic-assisted therapy has been shown in a meta-analysis of 9 randomized clinical studies to be beneficial for mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety.
All approaches to transpersonal psychotherapy incorporate elements inspired by spiritual traditions to help the individual go beyond the limitations of the ego, access the deeper parts of the psyche, and achieve greater self-awareness and self-actualization.
Transpersonal psychology provides a different perspective on mental health and well-being than is portrayed by traditional psychology, emphasizing the importance of the spiritual and transcendental. It recognizes that the ultimate goal of mental health is not only achieving emotional and psychological stability but also cultivating the spiritual and transcendent aspects of the self.
Transpersonal therapy is a form of counseling and psychotherapy that encourages the exploration of one’s inner wisdom by accessing a higher state of consciousness, spiritual exploration, and being in the present moment.
During a transpersonal therapy session, the therapist and client work together to create a safe and supportive environment to engage in self-exploration. The spiritual practices and techniques used by therapists trained in transpersonal psychology include meditation, mindfulness, guided imagery, and visualization to help clients access deeper parts of their psyche.
In the case of guided imagery, therapists play an active role in guiding patients through a sensory-rich experience to reveal and resolve psychological difficulties. Carl Jung believed that imagery is the language of intuition, and this exploration of imagery allows for a deeper contact with the emotional and intuitive processes than direct thought. The exploration of imagery, with the help of a therapist, can help a patient gain insight into their problems, which helps in the healing process.
A transpersonal approach should not completely replace traditional talk therapy. Instead, it should be integrated with conventional mental health treatments such as counseling and psychotherapy to provide a holistic approach to healing.
One contribution to the field of transpersonal psychology was the normalization of having a mystical experience and differentiating it from psychosis. A mystical experience implies having a feeling of connectedness and unity with the divine, and it is a common phenomenon present cross-culturally and in many major religions.
Even though psychosis can involve transcendent feelings and experiences, the consequence of psychosis is negative, whereas the mystical experience can lead to personal growth and self-transcendence. A transpersonal psychologist can evaluate whether clients are dealing with a mystical experience or psychosis by investigating their psychiatric history and symptoms and by assessing the nature of their spiritual experiences.
Transpersonal psychology provides a unique description of what self-actualization means and emphasizes that there are stages of development that go beyond what traditional psychology envisioned. It encourages people to reach their full potential and transcend the limitations of their ego, connecting with the divine.
Some critics consider the study of transpersonal psychology to be pseudoscience, but there are studies supporting transpersonal psychology that have shown transpersonal psychotherapy to be beneficial for mental health. ⁶⁻⁷
If we were to include the research supporting psychedelic-assisted therapy, which falls under the transpersonal psychology domain, there is a solid body of research supporting the professionally supervised exploration of altered states of consciousness for mental health.
Time will tell whether transpersonal psychology can gather enough evidence to be universally considered a reliable way to help people. Until then, it can be used as a complementary approach to traditional therapy.
If you are interested in learning more about transpersonal psychology and how it can be used to help people, consider checking out our Psychology Program Overview or speaking with Admissions Advisor to learn more about our psychology programs.
Transpersonal psychology is a legitimate branch of psychology that investigates the nature of human experience, spiritual development, and the connection between the self and a higher plane of existence.
The term “transpersonal” was popularized by the founders of the field of transpersonal psychology, Anthony Sutich, Abraham Maslow, and Stanislav Grof. This group also founded the first scientific journal dedicated to the study of transpersonal psychology.
The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology is a peer-reviewed journal in which studies related to this field have been published since 1970. A 2021 study on cancer patients found that it was an effective intervention for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. In another study wherein the participants suffered from breast cancer, transpersonal therapy was effective in reducing the symptoms associated with depression.⁶⁻⁷
Studies and meta-analyses also show that psychedelic-assisted therapy, and the professionally supervised exploration of altered states of consciousness, can benefit those suffering from depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
The transpersonal approach is a perspective within psychology that holistically explores human nature, incorporating the mind, body, and spirit into its investigation. Here are the three themes of the transpersonal approach:⁸
Transpersonal psychology is a branch of psychology that focuses on exploring human experiences that go beyond the individual’s ego or sense of self. It studies spiritual, mystical, and transcendent aspects of human life, aiming to understand the deeper meaning and purpose behind these experiences.
Transpersonal psychology incorporates ideas from various religious and cultural traditions and modern psychological theories to help individuals achieve personal growth, self-awareness, and well-being.
A simple metaphor to help understand transpersonal psychology is to think of the human experience as a vast ocean. Psychologists trained in the traditional frameworks might focus on the waves on the surface, analyzing their patterns and behaviors. In contrast, transpersonal psychologists aim to look deep beneath the surface and explore the depths of human consciousness, spirituality, and interconnectedness.