Transpersonal psychology is a school of psychology that studies the spiritual and transpersonal dimensions of humanity, and the possibilty of development beyond traditional ego-boundaries. The transpersonal dimensions of human psychology are connected to such issues as self-development, peak experiences and mystical experiences. The field is considered - by proponents - to be the 'fourth force' in the field of psychology, the three other fields being psychoanalysis, behaviorism, and humanism.

According to its proponents, the traditional schools of psychology — behaviorism, psychoanalysis and humanism — have failed to include these 'transegoic' elements of human existence, such as religious conversion, altered states of consciousness and spirituality. Thus, transpersonal psychology strives to combine insights from modern psychology with insights from the worlds contemplative traditions, both east and west. The transpersonal and spiritual dimensions of the psyche has traditionally not been a focus of interest for Western psychology, which has mainly focused on the prepersonal and personal aspects of the human psyche (Miller, 1998).

The development of the field:

A major motivating factor behind the initiative to establish this school of psychology was Abraham Maslow's already published work regarding human peak experiences. The term "Transpersonal" had already been in use for a while but it was Grof who connected the term to a concrete school of psychology, refering to the psychological study of experiences which transcend the traditional boundaries of the ego (i.e. which are 'trans-personal,' or 'transegoic.') Among the thinkers who are considered to have set the stage for transpersonal studies we find such historical names as William James, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, and Roberto Assagioli (Miller, 1998).

Abraham Maslow, Stanislav Grof and Anthony Sutich were the initiators behind the publication of the first issue of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology in 1969, the leading academic journal in the field. This was soon to be followed by the founding of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology (ATP) in 1972. In the 1970's and the 1980's the field developed through the works of such authors as Stanislav Grof, Ken Wilber, Michael Washburn, Daniel Goleman and Frances Vaughan. While Wilber has been considered an influential writer and theoretician in the field, he has since personally dissociated himself from the movement in favor of what he calls an integral approach.

Today transpersonal psychology also includes approaches to health, social sciences and practical arts. Transpersonal perspectives are also being applied to such diverse fields as psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, sociology, pharmacology and cross-cultural studies (Scotton, Chinen and Battista, 1996). Currently, transpersonal psychology (especially archetypal psychology of Carl Jung and his followers) is integrated, at least to some extent, into many psychology departments in US and European Universities; also, transpersonal therapies are included in many therapeutic practices.

Among the institutions of higher learning that has adapted insights from Transpersonal Psychology we find California Institute of Integral Studies and Saybrook Institute in California and Naropa University in Colorado. The Transpersonal approach is also a part of such organizations as The Association for Humanistic Psychology and The British Psychological Society, who both maintains separate sections, or subdivisions, addressing the Transpersonal approach.

One must not confuse transpersonal psychology with Parapsychology, a mistake frequently made due to the overlapping and unconventional research interests of both fields. While Parapsychology leans more towards traditional scientific epistemology (laboratory experiments, statistics, research on cognitive states) Transpersonal Psychology are more related to the epistemology of the humanities and the hermeneutic disciplines (humanism, existentialism, phenomenology, anthropology). It is also important no to confuse Transpersonal Psychology with the New Age. Although the discipline grew out of the human potential movement, which many commentators associate with a broad conception of the New Age, it is still problematic to place it within this context. Transpersonal Psychology is an academic discipline, not a religious or spiritual movement, and many of the fields leading authors, among those Sovatsky (1998), have clearly adressed the problematical aspects of New Age hermeneutics.

Research Interests:

The transpersonal perspective includes such research interests as: psychology and psychotherapy, meditation, pharmacology, spiritual paths and practices, personal transformation and change, consciousness research, addiction and recovery, psychedelic and altered states of consciousness research, dying and near death experience (NDE), self-realization and higher values, and the mind-body connection (Rowan, 1993; Scotton, Chinen and Battista, 1996).

Although there are many disagreements with regard to transpersonal psychology, one could succinctly lay out a few basic traits of the field:

  1. transpersonal psychology extends its field of investigation to religious, philosophical, psychological and contemplative concepts expounded in: Buddhism, Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Sufism, Vedanta, Taoism, Shamanism Christian contemplative traditions, and Neoplatonism.
  2. by common consent, the following branches are considered to be transpersonal psychological schools: Jungian depth psychology (more recently rephrased as archetypal psychology by James Hillman), psychosynthesis founded by Roberto Assagioli, and the theories of Abraham Maslow, Stanislav Grof, Ken Wilber and Charles Tart.

Contributions to the academic field:

Although any model of consciousness can only be understood as an intellectual abstraction of reality, Transpersonal psychology has made significant contributions to the field of Consciousness Studies. While authors like Wilber and Battista tend to emphasize the understanding of consciousness in the form of levels, where each superior level includes and integrates its junior dimensions, theorists like Washburn and Grof tend to emphasize the regressive nature of consciousness. Regressive in the the sense that the individual has to integrate the deeper and prerational aspects of the psyche before it can re-enter the stream of development in a healthy fashion (Scotton, Chinen & Battista, 1996).

Transpersonal psychology has also made contributions to the field of mainstream psychiatry. Among these contributions we find the proposal for a new diagnostic category entitled "religious or spiritual problem" which was later included in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) under the heading "Other Conditions That May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention" (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). The inclusion is - according to Transpersonal theorists - part of the greater cultural sensitivity of the manual and could help promote enhanced understanding between the fields of psychiatry and religion and spirituality (Turner, Lukoff, Barnhouse & Lu, 1995; Sovatsky, 1998).

Criticisms of Transpersonal Psychology:

Criticisms of Transpersonal Psychology has come from several commentators, among those Ellis (1989) who has questioned Transpersonal Psychology scientific status and its relationship to religion and mysticism. This criticism has been answered by Wilber (1989) and Walsh (1989). Doctrines or ideas of many colorful personalities who were or are spiritual teachers in the Western world are often assimilated in the transpersonal psychology mainstream scene: Gurdjieff or Alice Bailey. This development is, generally, seen as detrimental to the aspiration of transpersonal psychologists to gain firm and respectable academic status.

It could be argued that most psychologists do not hold strictly to traditional schools of psychology; most psychologists take an eclectic approach. Furthermore, the transpersonal categories listed are considered by standard subdisciplines of psychology, religious conversion falling within the ambit of social psychology, altered states of consciousness within physiological psychology, and spiritual life within the psychology of religion. Transpersonal psychologists, however, disagree with the approach to such phenomena taken by traditional psychology, and claim that they have typically been dismissed either as signs of various kinds of mental illnesses or regression to infantile stages of psychosomatic development.