Meaning-Focused Therapy

Transpersonal Psychology and Spiritual Wisdom Traditions

John Davis
John Davis, Ph.D.
Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado, U.S.A.

This article is adapted from Davis, John V. (2003, Spring). An overview of transpersonal psychology(pdf). The Humanistic Psychologist, 31 (2-3), 6-21.

Some thirty years after its birth as a field of study, transpersonal psychology is moving into a new level of maturity and possibility. Its central interests are becoming both more well-defined and more broad-ranging. Its applications in clinical and counseling psychology, health care, social services, education, business settings, and community development are growing in number and depth. Its research base is more substantial and mature, contributing not only research findings, but useful assessment tools and research approaches. The work of Ken Wilber on integral psychology and critiques to his work have given transpersonal psychology a stronger and more substantial theory base. However, transpersonal psychology is also a field ripe for more growth, integration, and contribution to the world. Those involved with transpersonal psychology can feel both accomplishment and challenge to do more. Those new to transpersonal psychology and those skeptical about it might want to take a closer look at its contributions and potential. The overlap of psychology and the spiritual wisdom traditions is both a central focus of transpersonal psychology and an area ripe for further development.

A Definition

Transpersonal psychology is the field of psychology which integrates psychological concepts, theories, and methods with the subject matter and practices of the spiritual disciplines. It uses both quantitative and qualitative methods; its central concepts are nonduality, self-transcendence, and optimal human development and mental health; and its core practices include meditation and ritual. Transpersonal psychologists’ interests include the assessment, characteristics, antecedents, and consequences of spiritual and self-transcendent experiences, mystical states of consciousness, mindfulness and meditative practices, and shamanic states. Transpersonal psychologists are also very much interested in the embodiment and integration of these states into everyday life, as well as in the overlap of spiritual experiences with disturbed states such as psychosis and depression, the assessment and promotion of transpersonal characteristics in individuals, and the transpersonal dimensions of interpersonal relationships, community, service, and encounters with the natural world.

Psychology and Wisdom

There are several possibilities for the role of transpersonal psychology in relation to psychology and spiritual wisdom traditions, and they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Transpersonal psychology can be considered an area of psychology. The definition above makes it sound so; the same approach that defines other areas of psychology can be used with transpersonal psychology. Just as health psychology applies psychology to medical and health care concerns or school psychology applies psychology to school settings, transpersonal psychology applies psychology to a specific range of concerns, e.g., spirituality, optimal mental health, nonduality, and the qualities of nonreactive presence and awareness. Each of these interfaces brings new questions and generates new approaches, but they still fall within the broad outlines of psychology. I see the work of William James, Carl Jung, and Abraham Maslow as examples of this approach to transpersonal psychology. In each case, these far-sighted psychologists brought together the concerns of psychology and the spiritual wisdom traditions while identifying their work as primarily psychological. On the other hand, is transpersonal psychology closer to spirituality than psychology? If so, it may be in a position to use modern psychology as a paradigm for translating the substance of the spiritual wisdom traditions into the contemporary culture. As previous forms of spiritual expression dissipate or evolve, our deep hunger for spiritual depth expresses itself in new ways. Since our culture is so psychologically-oriented, transpersonal psychology could be an avenue for reintroducing spiritual insights and practices as well as for developing new ones. Similar arenas for such a bridging include education, medicine, and environmental issues.

Transpersonal psychology is not a spiritual system, per se. However, is it possible that it is a step toward a uniquely contemporary spirituality? Psychology has provided many insights which can support spiritual development (even though virtually all mainstream psychological approaches have either ignored or explicitly denied spirituality). There is wisdom in the psychoanalytic, behavioral, cognitive, humanistic, and systems perspectives that is useful to those exploring spirituality. Deep psychological experience, supported by any of these approaches, can unfold into the transpersonal. We can move from using psychology as a tool for self-regulation and self-exploration to using it for self-transcendence and liberation. In this view, transpersonal psychology could emerge as the flowering of 100 years of psychology and a vehicle for the emergence of a new, multi-faceted world wisdom tradition. In remains for transpersonal psychologists to pursue this task. What are the dangers of seeing transpersonal psychology as a conduit for bringing spiritual wisdom into our time and place or as the beginnings of a new wisdom tradition? What are the possibilities?

For more information on transpersonal psychology, see: