When Nietzsche proclaimed "God is dead", we might imagine that the world as we knew it had suddenly changed, and in some ways, it did. We can see the implications of this statement reflected broadly today, perhaps most in our own personal relationship (or lack of) with the spiritual and ethereal. In the modern world, our focus on rationalism as the sole mechanism of understanding the world has taken us away from the value of dreaming – the connection to our inner selves.
The virtues of modern technological and scientific development can come at a cost of emotional and spiritual nourishment. An overemphasis on one 'right' mechanism of viewing the world has turned into a pursuit of hyper-realism and quantified truth, and away from the value of the subjective self, and inner truth.
One place we can see a sharp disconnect from the realm of dream and spirit is in psychotherapy practice.
The flattened self
With the rise of scientific approaches to psychology, we saw much of the psycho-spiritual value of human experience left at the door. In fact, in the mid-1900s the behaviourism era recognised little value of human emotion, and rather focused on changing specific problematic behaviours (which were considered, and in many ways still are, as the most scientifically measurable components of the psyche).
Even today, the focus on emotion and spiritual experience is often left out of psychology practice, which tends to take a cognitive and behavioural approach first and foremost. Yet, this approach contributes to the incorrect viewpoint that the most important components of the human being, or at least those with which we can work, are at the very surface of our experience.
On the other hand, the development of transpersonal psychology as a discipline has given a glimpse into what a world might look like when we start to value and understand the psycho-spiritual elements of human experience. A psychology that incorporates spiritual practice immediately demonstrates that the nature of our deepest self is not something to trivialise or ignore.
In order to understand the difference between conventional therapy/psychology practice and the transpersonal approach — which foremost prioritises the psycho-spiritual material in our lives — we must retrace the historical context that underpins mental health practice in the modern era.
3 waves of transpersonal practice
For many years, psychology has been preoccupied with the scientist-practitioner model, which suggests that all good therapy is based in solid science. There's a problem with this approach though: effective counselling is based on radical openness to our fellow human beings, whilst effective science is grounded in careful, methodical examination that narrows to the best models we have to understand the human psyche.
For the common eye, this dichotomy seems non-existent. Yet, it's interesting to trace back the history of psychology and explore how the scientific practitioner attitude has evolved as a basis for human psychology, as well as its limitations.
William James and Abraham Maslow: William James, one of the fathers of modern psychology, believed that the purpose of psychological inquiry is foremost to explore the entire spectrum of mental states. In his own work, James was keen to examine the psycho-spiritual characteristics of consciousness, in addition to paranormal phenomena and other 'fringe' topics. As far as James was concerned, if these experiences form a meaningful impact on the human condition, they ought to be examined and understood by psychologists!
Abraham Maslow built on James' doctrine by considering the hierarchy of human needs, having placed the need for transcendence and self-integration at the top of his model (after one's needs for worldly accomplishment and success have been met). In many ways, it can be read that Maslow argued for deepening the human condition through peak and plateau consciousness experiences, which make life most worthwhile living.
Stanislav Grof and Ken Wilber: It was with the innovations in therapy of Stanislav Grof and Ken Wilber that we saw a real integration of transpersonal ideas into a working therapeutic model. Grof, well-known for his discussion of controversial ideas, such as asking his patients about their experiences of past lives, altered states, and substance-induced (e.g., LSD) waking dreams; and Wilber, who introduced an integral model of personal balance among his vast exploration into the nature of human consciousness.*
When Ken Wilber wrote a letter to Albert Ellis about the importance of transpersonal approaches to the human experience in the 1980s, his ideas were vehemently rejected and scrutinised by leading cognitive therapists at the time. Unsurprisingly, in mainstream psychology practice the attitude of Ellis and his colleagues — towards a cognitive approach to the mind — prevail in relation to this topic.
New wave practice: More recent theorists such as Jorge Ferrer have argued that transpersonal psychology is not a discipline to keep to the therapy room — it is rather relevant to all of us in everyday experience.
Perhaps Ferrer's approach of active participation in broader states of consciousness is one I'd like to explore here. Let's consider active participation as a mechanism to understand how we are confronted with our psycho-spiritual nature in all aspects of life.
Participation and transcendence
Many people I have spoken to believe that the psycho-spiritual has never really been a part of psychology practice, until maybe recently, with the popularity of meditation and mindfulness-based practice in the mainstream.
Yet, as we can see above, that hasn't been the case at all. The premise to include all states of consciousness was born with William James and has echoed throughout the development of transpersonal psychology in steady sequence from decade to decade. It's just that these ideas have not come into the forefront, and are rarely talked about openly. The question I wanted to raise in this article is: Should they be?
I would like to talk about one example of participatory psychology — the notion that our lives cross the boundaries of both the inner and outer worlds around us. It is arbitrary to consider the 'internal mind' as separate from the world it participates in, as both are intertwined. Once we consider both inner and outer in tandem, we can learn a fair bit about the world and ourselves.
The idea of 'visionary practice' in transpersonal work is centred on looking out into the world and imagining what the world could be, rather than restricting our lens to how it currently appears. One example that shows a polarised and more passive interaction with the world can be seen in the consumerism culture of the west. We seem to take the attitude of trying to acquire, own, and gain as much of the outer world in front of us as possible, with little variability. It's hard to say whether capitalism or human nature is to blame at the core, but our greed in this respect is undeniable.
We can take all facets of human experience — inner and outer — as representative of our collective meaning in the world. What does this tell us about our nature, when we look outward?
Looking at the consumerism culture, we can see that we have gazillions of shops based on personal acquisition of wealth and status. From a participatory perspective, what sort of reality are we weaving as part of this reflection?
Architecture as embodiment
We can approach this vision of our world from a few different perspectives. First, if we consider approaches to the self in psychoanalytic/Jungian work we can see that we very much cater to the persona or ego, the surface-level parts of ourselves, rather than the broad range of self-experience possible.
We 'flatten' ourselves as it were, and presume that getting the latest gadget, the best fashion, and presenting ourselves as our best version is what really matters the most in our world. Our environments encapsulate and reflect these desires that arise at the very surface, but that rarely run deep.
We can also look to eco-mythology, which examines our interactions with the environments we live in, and what these tell us about our inner narratives. What form of ecolological landscape do we create and contribute to?
Finally, we can consider the idea of embodiment — we embody and participate in the environments around us. In a sort of feed-back feed-forward loop, what type of environments are we engaging and investing in on a daily basis?
From my personal perspective, I find it intriguing to compare the mass physical and environmental structures of the west to the mass structures of cultures and time periods aeons before. The former tend to encapsulate mass commerce, while the latter buildings or 'mass places of experience' were centred around philosophy, art, and religious practice first and foremost. While we can still see some examples where art and philosophy are valued in modern architecture, praise for mass-commercialisation has far exceeded these rare presentations in our modern landscape of the world. And, where they are seen, there is often a commercialised angle present (e.g., tourism).
Integrative art and lost renaissance
Landscape and experience may seem worlds apart, much like mind and matter. However, our everyday interactions with the world we've built, as a culture, and as a society, influence our consciousness in profound ways. In complement, through our imagination and inspiration, we influence the expression and presentation of the world all around us.
One example of action visionary practice can be seen in artist Alex Grey's "Entheon" project. The project demonstrates a participation with art and architecture in order to further our understanding of self.
In many ways, Grey's ambition is quite rare in our modern world. Building a new bank, on the other hand, or a multi-million dollar supermarket, is so much more commonplace. But, if we approach all acts of engaging with the world as transpersonal experiences, then what does that tell us about what we value in our hearts?
More importantly, how often do we actively practise visionary work in our own lives, rather than passively engaging with the mass-structures of the world (rarely, if at all, questioning their purpose)?
Entheon will offer a three-story, 12,000 square foot exhibition of the finest original artwork of the Visionary Art movement, where precious paintings, drawings, sculpture and moving image resonate with the highest states of consciousness.
I can return now to the earlier points in this article, which suggested that we tend not to value the psycho-spiritual aspects of ourselves, which is often seen in mainstream psychology practice. Yet, if we explore the broader situation in the world all around us, we can quickly begin to discern that this is not just the case in mental health, or in particular facets of societies — it is an overbearing representation in the mass structures that have replicated across the world, a seeming representation of our mental and emotional apex.
To create space in our mind — and in our world — we are called to return to the realm of dreaming again, rather than feeding our preoccupation with what we have labelled as objective markers of goodness, wealth, love, and happiness. To what degree are these virtues embodied in the world we live in?
* Many other theorists could have been mentioned here, including some of Freud and Jung's work into the transpersonal and theories that have evolved from their ideas (e.g., psycho-synthesis). These were not included due to lack of space.