What is Transpersonal Psychology?

transpersonal psychology

Coming of age during the turbulent sixties, a new field in psychology paralleled the cultural conversations and movements taking place -those concerning human rights, self-expression and the evolution of human consciousness.

Young adults were exploring consciousness and transcendence in various – and alternative – ways, and two Harvard psychologists, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, followed this unconventional curiosity. Heavily into psychedelics, the two professors began groundbreaking, mind-expanding research conducted with the drug psilocybin.

Their research led to the field of Transpersonal Psychology. ‘Trans’ in Latin means ‘beyond’. ‘Personal’ refers to the consciousness level of personality. A transpersonal level of consciousness is any level beyond where the normal personality operates.

This new field probed formerly unknown, unexplored levels of consciousness – a discovery that shook the foundation of psychological theory and caused psychologists to question the efficacy of standard therapy. Both men were dismissed from Harvard, but not before they had opened the doors to new understandings of the transpersonal mind.

Alpert eventually went to India where he studied with Neem Karoli Baba, took the name ‘Ram Dass and continued his exploration of the transpersonal realm using ancient techniques such as meditation, yoga, chanting, and other methods found in the Eastern traditions. Leary continued his work with hallucinogens, writing books and speaking publicly in between brushes with the law.

Transpersonal psychology continued to evolve – without the use of psychedelic drugs – and is now a field integrating the study of spiritual and transpersonal experience with traditional psychology. It has opened up new frontiers in the science of the mind, stimulating innovative cognitive research along with highly effective therapies that help patients resolve deep personal issues.

Transpersonal psychology is the scientific study of experiences of altered consciousness that traditionally were classified as mere fantasies or psychotic episodes. It also places religious experiences within these alternative ways to experience consciousness.

More specifically, transpersonal psychology legitimizes the existence of human experience that is beyond the physical. It is a sound, holistic platform that focuses on positive elements of human faith and spirit as they affect moral motivation, behavior, self-identity, states of higher consciousness, and the concerns of the human soul.

Treatments and Therapies

Transpersonal therapy employs the full range of standard psychological evaluative methodologies and treatments. The success of the transpersonal approach, however, depends on the patient’s interaction with the transpersonal realm. Supporting the psychological work of a spiritually active patient requires a therapist to believe – without judgment – that what the patient is experiencing is possible.

The transpersonal therapist also understands and is prepared to work with a variety of spiritual concepts from shamanism and indigenous beliefs to less common constructs such as eco-feminism, paganism, belief systems based in quantum physics, and even atheism. Many of these traditions have their own methods of transcendence that the therapist may induce and use to help the patient gain personal insight.

The following are a few of the therapeutic tools with which the therapist helps patients heal the rifts within themselves, deal with mental and spiritual crises, and proceed with a process of self-actualization.

Ordinary and Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness

The value of states of non-ordinary consciousness is in the therapeutic release they provide from the confines of personality. Taking patients beyond their personal, self-limiting beliefs and egos often opens up new dimensions in their minds. The process allows them to gain insights, new perspectives, a greater sense of potential, or attain heightened states of spirituality.

The transpersonal therapist understands that individuals access this alternative realm through meditation, prayer, hypnosis, guided imagery, dance, chanting, drumming, sweat lodges, shamanic journeying, martial arts, or other rituals. Patients often find it helpful to study or practice methods of mindfulness that lead to these states so they can regularly access their transpersonal consciousness in order to work on particular issues.

Transcendent experiences often provide the patient with a great sense of joy or profound peace. The ability to access these states is a life-changing tool that often becomes part of the patient’s daily regimen. The regular use of meditation, a martial art form such as Tai Chi or a spiritual ritual such as drumming – or any of the other methods used to access heightened consciousness – often reduces neurosis, bringing greater calmness and stability.


Mindfulness is the goal of many of these meditative techniques for accessing non-ordinary states of consciousness. It is the process of self-observation that allows patients to gently stop their minds from processing distractions and brings them back into the present moment. The ability of patients to self-observe is diagnostically helpful, allowing them to discover their own cognitive habits and traps – or disruptive thoughts that contribute to unconscious and dysfunctional motivations.

Meditation & Prayer

Meditation and prayer are mindfulness spiritual practices. For over 2000 years, Eastern philosophies and religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Zen have used meditative techniques to control the mind and reach transcendent states. In the West, meditation is becoming a more accepted method of therapy. The process of sitting quietly for an extended period of uninterrupted time – focused on clearing and quieting the mind – distances the patient from the pressures of life, providing a new perspective, and diminishing stress.

Prayer connotes Western practices – although it is certainly present in Eastern religions as well. As a general methodology in both the East and West, it is more active – chanting or a perceived communication – with intentions that vary from changing vibrational states to speaking with divine beings.

Mind-body therapy

Mind-body healing is foundational to a sense of wholeness. Creating a harmonious connection between the calmness of the mind and the activity of the body has had remarkable results on human physical performance. As a process, mind-body therapy has been widely adopted by professional and Olympic athletes.

The blending of a calm, focused mind with the movement of the body helps to create an optimal experience and is foundational to most martial arts. Visualization of the activity in a meditative state has been shown to initiate the same neural activity as the actual experience, reinforcing neural pathways as if the activity had been actually practiced. This technique is regularly used before each game by the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team.

Peak Experiences

Many people report having peak experiences. These are elevated states of consciousness achieved when a person is so absorbed in an activity that he or she looses track of time. It doesn’t seem to matter what the activity is – writing, running, working a crossword puzzle, playing a musical instrument, working at a hobby, staring through a telescope, or even figuring out a physics problem.

Typically during peak experiences, the sense of self is expanded beyond ordinary definitions and the person has insights or episodes of increased awareness. While the experience is typically not
”other worldly,” it is a non-ordinary state of consciousness that gives the patient clues about fulfilling experiences. The pleasing sensation – the feeling of connectedness or the sense of being in “the flow” – is encouraging and sustaining. And while peak experiences are fairly common and help psychologists as they counsel patients toward new careers, they are also positive mental health indicators that the patient is moving toward self-actualization.

The Goal of Transpersonal Psychology

Transpersonal therapy considers self-actualization as an ongoing process of self-fulfillment. Renown consciousness researcher and Psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “what a man can be, he must be…it is the desire to become more than one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.” Each person’s capability is different.

The characteristics of a self-actualized person, according to Maslow, seem simple but are elusive. Self-actualized people have realistic perceptions of who they are. They understand the dynamics of the world they live in, but are not reactive. Because their survival needs are met, they are able to focus their efforts on helping to solve problems in their communities. They are respectful of convention, but are often positively unconventional in their behavior and attitudes.

Self-actualized people find joy in the simplest experiences. They view the world with continual awe and appreciation. They enjoy people but need great amounts of time to themselves for self-balancing. Maslow also tells us that these people often experience peak moments, finding intense satisfaction, joy or peace that gives them the strength and inspiration they need to continue growing.

Carl Rogers, one of the most eminent forces in humanistic and transpersonal psychology, and a Nobel nominee, described self-actualization as the primary “curative force in psychology.” The human organism’s urge to self-actualize – that is – become a better “self” was defined by Rogers in his “19 Propositions“ and provided a way to scientifically assess the progress of a patient’s therapy, confirming the viability of therapeutic work in the transpersonal realm.

To define transpersonal psychology as the study of humanity’s highest potential implies the conscious integration of all of man’s various aspects – body, mind, and soul – with the unrelenting challenges of everyday life. In real terms, it means that by learning how to function everyday as an increasingly integrated being, a person becomes an empowered participant in forming his or her world – rather than just someone to whom the world is happening. On one one level, this is the epicenter of self-actualization. On another – a reasonable definition of good mental health.

If you desire to help individuals with many of life’s challenges, including workplace stressors, family life, career decisions, relationship issues, and especially personal growth concerns, consider a career as transpersonal psychologist.

Transpersonal psychologists must have a PhD in most states to practice, and certain licensing requirements might also apply. Contact schools ror more information on psychology degrees and entering the field of Transpersonal Psychology.

BRAIN WAVES – Changing Your Brain

Brain function controls our lives. It affects attitude, mood, motivation, and our ability to connect with different levels of consciousness. Interestingly, we can learn to control our brain functions and even to control our state of mind.

At any given moment, the brain is generating several kinds of waves – which it must do in order to address situations where multiple activities require attention. The dominant “brain wave” reading sets the tone, but the balance can change quickly.

It’s possible to alter the levels of various brain waves in order to improve mental and physical health, and avoid getting “stuck” in one mind-set. Biofeedback, brain wave entrainment technology, and many of the therapeutic techniques used in psychotherapy are effective in helping one achieve greater facility in changing the frequency of one’s brain. Changing brain waves takes practice and, although this therapy is expensive and not well known, it can be effective.

What is a brain wave?

The brain is a vast complex of a 100 billion neurons or brain cells that transfer information via tiny electrochemical impulses. These impulses generate energy that is displayed on an electroencephalogram as a brain wave that measures frequency – the number of cycles per second (cps or hertz) – and the amplitude – or strength – of these waves. These measurements correlate to the five different brain states. From the slowest or least active to the highest and most active they are: delta, theta, alpha, beta and gamma.

1. Delta – Delta is the lowest of the frequencies, ranging from .5 to 4.0 cps (or Hz) and is normally associated with deep sleep. This frequency appears to be generated throughout the brain. Although it is the slowest of the brain waves, it is the level through which we access our unconscious mind.

The unconscious mind is not under our control. It’s the marvelous mechanism that runs our autonomic nervous system. It makes sure all those aspects of our body that are important – like our muscles contracting and our heart beating – actually happen. It’s also is a powerful data processor – constantly alert, observing, collecting, and processing data below the surface of our consciousness. As a result, psychologists often help patients enter the delta level in order to access the information in the unconscious mind.

2. Theta – With a frequency of 3.5 to 7.5 cps (Hz), theta is also a slow brain wave, but the dominance of theta waves in the brain opens a powerful portal to creativity. Predominantly a right brain experience, theta is the source of inspiration – the expansive, intuitive levels that ignite artists, writers, composers, and physicists with profound ideas and experiences. Also present in the dreaming sleep state, theta is visionary, providing spiritual experiences and deep meditation.

3. Alpha – The frequency of Alpha is between 8 and 12 cps (Hz), and is the “laid-back,” stress-free brain wave level. It’s associated with clear, creative thinking, problem-solving, and the “flow” state where we feel balanced. Alpha is a brain frequency that stimulates serotonin, a neurotransmitter that stimulates a positive mood. It’s also a bridge frequency between beta – the waking, active level – and the levels of theta and delta where other parts of the consciousness structure are accessed. The unconscious levels are normally not available to the beta state.

4. Beta – Beta is the fastest of the brain wave categories at 13 to 30 cps (Hz.). It is considered the normal, waking, active state. The presence of beta waves in the brain promotes high states of functioning – quick thinking, left-brain-analytical thought, focused alertness, social dominance, goal setting – all of the aspects we think of as success-oriented in our Western society.

5. Gamma – Gamma is a remarkable state that occurs above 30 cps (Hz) and is considered the optimal operating level of the brain. Gamma is associated with highly integrated thinking, increased mental and learning abilities, enhanced awareness of reality, and greater memory capabilities. Gamma waves occur strongly throughout the brain and are the binding mechanism that connects information, bringing greater perception and increased sensory acuity. Gamma also facilitates a flow of information from the unconscious levels to the conscious mind. It increases spiritual activity and compassion, and is found in very high quantities in advanced meditators.

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