Overview of Transpersonal Psychology
Transpersonal psychology is often closely associated with or considered a branch of humanistic psychology. Its origins can be traced back to Maslow, who is also considered the founder of humanistic psychology (Daniels, 2005). However, Maslow himself saw these as distinct theories referring to them as the 3rd and 4th forces of psychology respectively. While the associations are often more closely drawn between transpersonal and humanistic thought, many similarities also exist with existential psychology.
The word transpersonal refers to being beyond the personal. In other words, there is an implicit metaphysical assumption that there are realities of the human experience that go beyond the material and beyond the personal. Additionally, there is an implicit valuing of these experiences.
Some of the important transpersonal theorists include Abraham Maslow, Carl Jung, Ken Wilber, Stansilov Grof, Michael Washburn, and Stanley Krippner. Maslow, as mentioned above, is also considered the father of humanistic psychology. The inclusion of Jung as a transpersonal psychologist is less clear. It is maybe better to consider him as an important early influence on transpersonal psychology than a transpersonal psychologist.
Similarities to Existential Psychology
A primary similarity of existential and transpersonal psychology humanistic is the values base. Both theories share a belief in human potential and a commitment to human dignity. They are less likely than other therapy approaches to diagnose, more cautious about placing the therapist in an authoritative role, and more concerned with the individual client’s subjective experience.
The spiritual component of transpersonal psychology is obviously problematic for those existentialists who do not believe in a spiritual component of being human. For the purpose of this section, I will focus on those existentialists, including myself, who have an openness to a metaphysical spiritual reality. These existentialists tend to focus on spirituality as a mystery (see Schnieder, 2004). Similarly, most transpersonal psychologists hold off on committing to a specific metaphysical position and acknowledge the limitations in knowing about the spiritual realms of life. However, the transpersonal psychologists tend to have a greater optimism about our ability to build a descriptive psychology based upon these spiritual experiences.
In the therapy context, the outside observer may have difficulty detecting the difference between humanistic, existential, and transpersonal approaches to therapy. There are more within-group differences than between with these groups. The differences emerge more in the theory and nuances. However, there are also some significant potential differences which are discussed below.
Differences from Existential Psychology
Maybe the most important difference between existential and transpersonal theorists is the placement of the spiritual component. For the transpersonal psychologists, the seeking of the spiritual is implicit as a higher level of consciousness. This realm is necessarily beyond the personal (i.e., transpersonal). For existentialists, there is less of a definitive metaphysical commitment.
Transpersonalists tend to focus more unidirectionally toward the ‘height’ experiences associated with being human. These are often referred to as peak experiences, self-transcendence, or self-actualization. Many existentialists would share these beliefs to a degree, but they would be a less central focus and would be interpreted differently. Existentialists believe it is important to maintain greater balance in our attention to our limitations and our potentials. Humanistic psychology, positive psychology, and transpersonal psychology all tend to focus more on the potentials, often to the neglect the existential realities. The difference is not so much content as proportion or focus. However, existentialists will often interpret peak experiences or self-actualization differently. For example, existentialists are more prone to interpret these experiences as bodily instead of transcendent. Or, at the least, they interpret them as being more bodily and less transcendent.
In the therapy context, this can become more pronounced. With the moment to moment decisions of the therapist, the height-focused therapies (humanistic, positive psychology, and transpersonal) err to the side of focusing on potentials and health. While existentialists also often focus on these potentials, they feel it is also necessary to go into the limitations and painful existential realities. Where a transpersonal therapist may encourage a client to ‘let a painful experience go,’ an existentialist may encourage them to temporarily engage in the painful experience as part of the process of understanding or working through this reality.
Many transpersonal psychologists are more likely to engage in techniques or processes intended to facilitate spiritual growth and exploration. Many existential therapists will also function very similarly, while some avoid engaging in the more spiritually explicit processes in therapy. Existentialists typically are more cautious in allowing the client to lead the way into these processes and rely upon them less.
Limitations and Critique
I’ve often felt a mixed reaction toward transpersonal psychology. Many aspects of this theory have drawn me toward transpersonal thought. However, the discomforts have left me more comfortable with affiliating myself primarily as an existential therapist. These theories do share a great deal and can benefit greatly from continued dialogue. Despite this, it is a mistake to consider these theories as one.
As Daniels (2005) points out, the danger of transpersonal psychology is that it often neglects the shadow or darker sides of being human. Stated differently, transpersonal psychology does not adequately deal with the existential realities. While Daniels’s contributions to the field seek to rectify this, it remains a significant concern.
Two of the most influential existential psychologists, Rollo May and Kirk Schneider, engaged in critical dialogues with the transpersonal theorist. The concern most existentialists share can be expressed in several points, which are related to the differences noted above. First, there is concern about transpersonal approaches making a specific metaphysical commitment which may exclude some religious and/or spiritual belief systems (note: this share is shared by some transpersonal psychologists, such as Daniels, 2005). Second, there is often concern with the necessary inclusion of the spiritual. Existentialists tend to retain a more general approach to spiritual issues. Third, existentialists are concerned about the neglect of the more dark or painful aspects of the human experience by transpersonal psychologists.
While transpersonal psychology and existential psychology are certainly different, they are also closely related. The differences are significant and of importance. However, the two fields share much and both benefit greatly from being in dialogue with each other.
Page Added December 2005