What Is Transpersonal Psychology? 9 Examples and Theories

Transpersonal PsychologyHave you ever had an experience of feeling connected to something larger than yourself, perhaps while in nature, listening to music, appreciating art, or during a meditation practice or religious ritual?

Transpersonal psychology investigates experiences that extend our awareness beyond (trans) our individual sense of embodied identity (personal). Such experiences can cause perceptual shifts in our worldview accompanied by emotions like awe, wonder, joy, and peace.

While positive psychology investigates the psychology of wellbeing, flourishing, and optimal experience, transpersonal psychology seeks to better understand non-ordinary states of consciousness and their role in psychological transformation, healing, and integration.

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What Is Transpersonal Psychology?

Transpersonal psychology investigates non-ordinary states of consciousness, such as those experienced during meditation, after ingesting psychedelics, or during peak performance such as optimal flow, as well as spiritual or religious experiences and mystical states (Hartelius, et al., 2013).

Transpersonal experiences are often characterized by a profound sense of interconnectedness with the world around us and sometimes a oneness with all beings. Most non-Western psychologies can be considered transpersonal, as their psychological healing practices involve the community, the natural environment, and appeals to the sacred (PsychiatryLectures, 2011).

Examples of non-Western psychologies with ancient roots include shamanic psychology (Hayden, 2003), Sri Lankan Buddhist Tovils or healing rites (Kapferer, 2005), and traditional Chinese medicine (Law, 2022).

In the West, transpersonal psychology emerged from developments in humanistic psychology and the human potential movement during the 1960s and 70s (Grof, 2013).

Contemporary Western transpersonal psychology seeks an understanding of the human mind in terms that complement the dynamic web of energy that characterizes the cosmological reality described in high-energy physics (PsychiatryLectures, 2011; Grof, 2013).

This might sound a bit whacky and even grandiose, so to put this into perspective, let’s look at the history of transpersonal psychology in the West.

A brief history

Western transpersonal psychology has historical roots in the work of William James (1902/1985) on the psychology of religious experience, Carl Jung’s (1959/1991) work on archetypes and the collective unconscious, and Abraham Maslow’s (1954) work on self-actualization and peak experiences, among others.

However, transpersonal psychology as a specific discipline took shape during the heady quest for personal liberation that characterized the late 1960s.

In 1967, a small working group including Abraham Maslow, Anthony Sutich, and Stanislav Grof met in Menlo Park, California, to discuss how psychology could meet the challenge of honoring the entire spectrum of human experience, including what Grof (2013) termed “non-ordinary states of consciousness.”

Grof suggested the term transpersonal psychology for this new school of thought. The radical Scottish psychiatrist and psychoanalyst R. D. Laing had coined the term “transpersonal” in some papers he published in 1966, which were republished in his bestselling book The Politics of Experience (Laing, 1967).

Both Grof and Laing were psychiatrists and psychoanalysts who experimented with LSD during the early 1960s before psychedelics became fashionable recreational drugs. Their LSD experiences resulted in deep perceptual shifts and a radical questioning of conventional psychiatry and psychology (Grof, 2013; Laing, 1997).

While Laing was deemed controversial by the conservative academic culture in the United Kingdom, Maslow, Sutich, and Grof were well received when they launched the Association of Transpersonal Psychology and the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology in the free-thinking Californian culture of 1969.

As Grof wrote (2008, p. 47):

“Transpersonal psychology, or the Fourth Force, addressed some major misconceptions of mainstream psychiatry and psychology concerning spirituality and religion. It also responded to important observations from modern consciousness research and several other fields for which the existing scientific paradigm had no adequate explanations.”

For a fascinating look at how transpersonal psychology emerged from the cross-fertilization of Eastern spirituality, indigenous medicine, Western psychology, and high-energy physics, watch this video: The Story of Transpersonal Psychology: Science of the Soul. Many of the cofounders are interviewed and describe how and why they got involved.

The Story of Transpersonal Psychology: Science of the Soul

5 Examples of Transpersonal Psychology

Transpersonal psychology has no defined conceptual framework but combines spiritual and holistic perspectives with a range of experiential techniques. Transpersonal psychotherapy positions the therapist as a facilitator of the client’s self-healing process. The transpersonal therapist uses a range of interventions to support a client’s attunement to their inner wisdom in support of their psychological healing and integration.

In this section, we will look at five examples of transpersonal psychology interventions before examining criticisms of the approach.

1. Social prescribing

Social prescribing is a growing trend in mental health care, community psychology, and psychotherapy. It involves referring individual clients or patients to a range of community resources that contribute to mental health, “in accordance with an ethno biopsychosocial human rights model for educating community psychologists and psychotherapists” (Law, 2022, p. 5).

Law (2022) argues that social prescribing that seeks to reconnect socially isolated, marginalized individuals with their ethnic, religious, and other social identities is transpersonal, in the sense that the client’s mental health needs are considered holistically in a context that includes their cultural background, environment, spiritual values, and community.

2. Psychedelic assisted psychotherapy (PAP)

Schenberg (2018) detailed developments in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy that use psychoactive substances like ketamine, MDMA, ayahuasca, psilocybin, and LSD to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness (NSCs).

These approaches are used to assist in the holistic treatment of psychological injuries caused by trauma and adverse childhood experiences that are at the root of many mental health problems, such as addiction, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic anxiety, and treatment-resistant depression.

PAP was originally informed by the early research experiments of psychiatrists Stanislav Grof (1971) and Sidney Cohen (1972) into the therapeutic benefits of LSD.

Today, PAP is offered by a qualified practitioner in a set of stages, including preparatory psychotherapy, followed by therapeutic sessions using psychedelic substances, then integrative psychotherapy sessions after the psychedelic experience.

Advocates of these approaches argue that the experience of NSCs can result in a deeper sense of meaning that fosters greater resilience in the face of life challenges (Grof, 2013).

They also argue that PAP can help integrate previous adverse experiences into a wider, transpersonal frame of reference (Schenberg, 2018) that facilitates healing without years of dependence on medication or other services.

3. Buddhist psychotherapy

Simply put, Buddhist psychotherapy is offered from an explicitly Buddhist perspective that conceptualizes mental health in terms of a transpersonal Buddhist cosmology.

Examples include Core Process Psychotherapy, Other-Centered Therapy, and a wide range of mindfulness and compassion-based interventions with roots in the Buddhist philosophy of mind (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

4. Soul midwifery and end-of-life care

Soul midwives are nonmedical holistic companions who assist clients and their families during the dying process using a range of interventions to alleviate suffering and ensure a peaceful death.

Interventions include using sacred oils in massage and aromatherapy, music therapy, prayer and meditation, and therapeutic touch. The soul midwife’s work is transpersonal because it involves working with a client’s spiritual beliefs and values during the dying process (Warner, 2013). It can also include psychopomp work to assist the soul to make a peaceful transition to the afterlife if the client requests it (Warner, 2013).

5. Expressive arts

Transpersonal therapists often use expressive arts to facilitate therapeutic attunement and assist a client’s alignment with an inner creative impulse using paint, clay, dance, photography, poetry, or music.

This inner creativity is often understood as the source of inner wisdom, God, or guidance from a higher self, which is accessed through what Jung called active imagination (Kossak, 2009).

Kossak (2009, p. 17) explains, “this tuning-in process can prove useful for new growth and change to occur.”

This is a tiny sample of many transpersonal psychology interventions available. Given that they are mostly experiential, this has posed problems with establishing their scientific legitimacy.

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Is Transpersonal Psychology Legitimate?

Transpersonal interventions often deal with areas of inner experience that cannot be studied objectively using conventional scientific methods. This problem is due to what is termed “the hard problem” in consciousness studies (Nash, 2002) because consciousness cannot be observed objectively like matter can.

However, transpersonal theorists like Harald Walach (2013) have argued for an expansion and updating of the scientific model that could be used to establish a science and culture of consciousness.

Walach (2013) suggests a model of complementarity based on the quantum theory of Niels Bohr (1937), which positions consciousness as complementary to matter and dynamically “entangled” with it. This could help explain how meditation as a conscious activity changes the structure of the brain, for example.

However, the truth is that the scientific validity of transpersonal psychology remains difficult to establish given NSCs are not objectively observable.

How Does It Work? 4 Theories

How does Transpersonal Psychology workThere are many theoretical perspectives in transpersonal psychology. I have chosen four perspectives that are frequently referenced.

Given the brevity of this article, these are only snapshots, but there are linked talks for you to dive deeper if you want to.

1. Carl Jung’s depth psychology

Carl Jung broke away from Freud over his dismissal of spiritual and religious experience as a variant of psychopathology. In contrast, Jung regarded such experiences as optimal for mental health, especially during midlife and old age as we approach the end of life.

Jung’s (1959/1991) depth psychology rests on his theory of the collective unconscious, based on his cross-cultural studies of myths, spiritual and religious practices, the arts, and the language of dreams. Jung’s analytic approach distilled the symbolism behind these human creations into psychic energy patterns he called archetypes.

While archetypes are expressed differently in different cultures at different points in history, they remain fairly constant in terms of collective unconscious meaning-making over time.

Each conscious archetype also has an unconscious shadow polarity, which can be a source of inner and outer conflict that is both creative and destructive. For Jungians, shadow work is key to psychological healing and integration at both an individual and societal level (Vaughan, 2013).

Below is a video explaining Jung’s theory from the Archetypes of Awakening series, which applies a Jungian perspective to understanding our collective shadow polarities, evidenced by unprecedented levels of mental health crises, among other social problems.

Introducing Archetypes and the Shadow Polarities

2. Roberto Assagioli’s psychosynthesis

The founder of psychosynthesis, Dr. Roberto Assagioli, was a contemporary of Freud and Jung and a trained psychoanalyst. He described psychosynthesis as a psychology of the self in its most holistic transpersonal sense.

Psychosynthesis aims at the full integration of the human being in line with their personal values, including spiritual matters of soul and spirit, alongside physical and emotional experiences, thoughts, and mental processes.

According to the Institute of Psychosynthesis (2020, para. 2), “it is the action of attending to this more integral sense of self – that includes both the uniquely personal and the transpersonal – that lies at the heart of psychosynthesis practice.”

This short video by the founder of the institute explains the approach in a nutshell.

An Introduction to Psychosynthesis

3. Stan Grof’s holotropic theory

We have already mentioned Stan Grof above. Following his early research experiments using LSD, Grof (2013) developed a new theory of human development that focused on an important subgroup of NSCs he called holotropic experiences, meaning experiences that move us toward wholeness.

Grof proposed that each of us struggles to integrate the trauma of the birth process, which although isn’t remembered consciously, is imprinted in our nervous system unconsciously. He discovered these experiences during his LSD research, and following the drug scheduling laws of the 1960s, developed a method for accessing them drug-free using holotropic breathwork.

His approach has ancient roots in Vedic self-inquiry, shamanic healing, and traditional Chinese energy medicine. He calls these “technologies of the sacred” that induce a psychospiritual death and rebirth (Grof, 2000) during holotropic breathwork sessions.

Grof (2000) proposed that studying holotropic experiences systematically could provide us with a new map of the human psyche that would radically shift our understanding of consciousness to complement the cosmological theory of high-energy physics.

You can find out more in this video of his 50-minute lecture on the subject delivered at the Science and Nonduality Conference in 2013.

Stanislav Grof: Revision and Re-Enchantment of Psychology

4. Ken Wilber’s integral theory

Ken Wilber is a controversial philosopher who spent years laboring alone outside academia to produce his integral theory: a historically grounded, evolutionary, grand theory of everything that has as many passionate adherents as it has rigorous critics (Cortright, 2013).

Wilber proposes we are on the edge of the next revolution in human consciousness and moving toward an integral society that includes all previous forms of human organization, from the mythic/religious to the agrarian, scientific, and postmodern, respecting each yet superseding them all (Combs, 2013).

Transpersonal psychology aligns with this view. For example, many transpersonal psychologists train in ancient healing modalities characteristic of mythic/religious societies (e.g., meditation), while also embracing modern science (e.g., neuroscientific research investigating meditation) and postmodern values (teaching meditation techniques across national and ethnic divides using mobile phone apps).

Wilber’s (1997) integral theory of consciousness is structured by four quadrants of reality constructed from “holons,” a series of levels, lines of development, and states of consciousness. His ideas draw heavily on the work of Arthur Koestler and Abraham Maslow’s work on self-actualization.

If you want to delve deeper, check out this video, which explains Wilber’s theory of integral reality.

Holons: The Building Blocks of the Universe - Integral Life

3 Fascinating Books on the Topic

There is a vast literature available, so I have chosen three of the most comprehensive and scientifically grounded books in the area for further reading.

1. Introduction to Transpersonal Psychology – Paul F. Cunningham

Introduction to Transpersonal Psychology

Paul F. Cunningham, PhD, is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Rivier University in Nashua, New Hampshire, and he has produced the first textbook in the area aimed primarily at psychology students.

For those who wish to delve deeper into this rapidly evolving area of psychological research, this book provides an accessible yet scientifically rigorous introduction to the field.

Find the book on Amazon.

2. The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology – Harris L. Friedman and Glenn Hartelius

The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Transpersonal Psychology

This is the most comprehensive collection of research papers and essays in the area.

It is a weighty tome of 686 pages divided into sections on transpersonal theory, research methods, experiences, healing modalities, and education.

It is essential reading for serious practitioners and researchers.

Find the book on Amazon.

3. Psychology of the Future: Lessons From Modern Consciousness Research – Stanislav Grof

Psychology of the Future

This textbook is an introduction and summary of Grof’s work in transpersonal psychology and consciousness studies.

It proposes a radical new cartography of the human psyche that complements the shift in worldview based on the findings of high-energy physics.

Grof proposes the integration of “technologies of the sacred” as transpersonal healing modalities into contemporary mental health care.

Find the book on Amazon.

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

Many articles from our blog touch on transpersonal psychology, including:

You can also download these three free worksheets to help cultivate an expanded sense of being and connection characteristic of transpersonal experiences.

Silent Connections worksheet

Silent Connections is a group exercise building nonverbal silent connections by exercising mindful awareness. This simple exercise demonstrates how to cultivate a transpersonal awareness of our environment and others without recourse to thought and language.

Nature Play worksheet

The Nature Play worksheet invites you to take a mindful walk in nature to cultivate a deeper sense of connection to the natural environment.

Loving Others, Better worksheet

Loving Others, Better helps build more positive relationships with others using appreciation, integrity, and forgiveness based on an expanded sense of self as deeply interconnected with the other.

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A Take-Home Message

Transpersonal psychology researchers continue to investigate non-ordinary human experiences in an effort to expand our understanding of human consciousness and the healing potential of meditation, psychedelic-assisted therapy, expressive arts therapies, dream work, and breathwork.

Given that experiential therapies are difficult to operationalize for rigorous scientific testing, transpersonal psychology is often deemed an eccentric fringe activity by more scientific psychologists.

However, developments in neuroscience that can measure changes in brain waves and other neuro-physiological indicators have provided evidence that activities like meditation create changes in brain structure and in other vital signs. The problem is that the mechanisms behind these changes remain a mystery. We can see something happening, but we don’t know how it happens.

Research in consciousness studies continues, and transpersonal approaches remain popular, perhaps because they help us make meaning out of difficult life experiences, which is a vital component of psychological healing.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

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What our readers think

  1. Ralph Beren

    I am still at a loss for a definition of what transpersonal psychology is. Perhaps it is just experiences? How does it differ from the third force? Or, does it just build on the third force?

    • Julia Poernbacher

      Hi Ralph,

      Transpersonal psychology is a branch of psychology that integrates the spiritual and transcendent aspects of the human experience with the framework of modern psychology. It is not limited to experiences alone but includes theories, practices, and research on the potentialities and experiences of human consciousness. Transpersonal psychology differs from the third force, which is typically associated with humanistic psychology, by its emphasis on spiritual aspects of the human experience.

      I hope this helps!

      Warm regards,
      Julia | Community Manager


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