Origins of Transpersonal Psychology

Notable Transpersonal Pioneers

Origins of Transpersonal Psychology

The principal roots of transpersonal psychology lie in five significant 19th century Western movements:

  • American Transcendentalism and New Thought

  • Spiritualism and psychical research

  • The spread of Indian spiritual systems

  • Esotericism and Theosophy

  • The birth of comparative religion

American Transcendentalism and New Thought promoted an intellectual belief in the essential goodness and spiritual nature of people and the world, the power of individual freedom, and the perfectibiity of the human condition.

Spiritualism and psychical research led to widespread interest in extraordinary experiences, altered states of consciousness, and the possibility of scientific study of humankind's spiritual nature.

As a consequence of British colonialism, Westerners became exposed to Indian philosophies and spiritual systems, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, Tantra and Yoga. Swami Vivekananda's lecture tours of the US and UK in the 1890s were particularly influential and led to widespread Western interest in Vedanta and Yoga.

The 19th century also saw a major growth of interest in Eastern and Western esotericism. The Theosophical Society, founded in 1875, promoted a syncretic quasi-religious system of Hindu, Buddhist and other 'occult' ideas. A renewed interest in Western Magic also emerged in the late 19th Century, largely within Freemasonry, and several Masonic-inspired occult 'Orders' arose around this time. Most notable among these was the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (founded 1888) whose members included W.B. Yeats, Arthur Machen, Evelyn Underhill, and Aleister Crowley.

At the same time, the developing academic field of comparative religion, pioneered by Max Müller, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and James Frazer, supported the notion of universal patterns of religious belief and experience that could potentially be explained using sociological or psychological constructs.

In the early 20th century, psychological approaches to the transpersonal were most strongly represented by the psychodynamic approaches of Roberto Assagioli's Psychosynthesis and C.G. Jung's Analytical Psychology. The study of comparative religion (especially comparative mystical experience) also adopted an increasingly psychological perspective - most notably in the work of Rudolf Otto and Evelyn Underhill.

From the 1940s, humanistic psychology developed as a 'Third Force' and alternative to the dominant psychological paradigms of behaviorism and psychoanalysis. Humanistic psychology promoted a positive, health-orientated perspective that emphasised creativity, free will and the achievement of human potential. Concurrent with the establishment of humanistic psychology as an academic discipline in the 1960s, an eclectic 'Human Potential Movement' developed, focussed on exploring the variety of practical ways in which personal growth might be achieved.

Transpersonal Psychology as a named discipline emerged as a 'Fourth Force' from its parent humanistic psychology in the late 1960s and 1970s. It was heavily influenced by the 1950s and 1960s Beat Generation counterculture, by Eastern philosophies such as Vedanta and Buddhism, and, especially, by the increasing use of psychoactive drugs among both radical intellectuals and affluent, politically disaffected youth.

Transpersonal Psychology finally achieved a measure of wider academic recognition and respectability with the launch of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology in 1969, followed by the establishment of the Association for Transpersonal Psychology in 1972.

Pioneers of Transpersonal Psychology

Assagioli, Roberto (1888-1974)

Roberto Assagioli was an Italian psychiatrist who founded the therapeutic system of Psychosynthesis. Assagioli proposed the existence of a 'higher unconscious' to complement the 'lower' and 'middle' unconscious recognised in classical psychoanalysis. In psychosynthesis, the task of psychological integration is to become aware of, explore, and coordinate all three levels of the unconscious, and to realize the spiritual 'Transpersonal Self' at the heart of the higher unconscious.

Richard Maurice Bucke
Richard Bucke

Bucke, Richard Maurice (1837-1902)

Richard Bucke was a Canadian psychiatrist who, in 1872, had a profound unitive mystical experience that he later termed 'Cosmic Consciousness'. Bucke believed that cosmic consciousness represented the highest form of human evolution, as exemplified by highly creative individuals and spiritual leaders throughout history. In 1901, he published the seminal text Cosmic Consciousness which described and explored the implications of these experiences.

Fontana, David (1934-2010)

David Fontana was a British psychologist and psychical researcher. He was a past President (1995-1998) of the Society for Psychical Research and Founding Chair of the British Psychological Society's Transpersonal Psychology Section (established 1996). The author of several books in the areas of spirituality and psychical experience, he had a special research interest in the psychology of religion, meditation, and survival.

Viktor Frankl2
Viktor Frankl

Frankl, Viktor (1905-1997)

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist. A survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, Frankl developed a form of existential analysis called logotherapy, based on the search for meaning in life. According to Frankl, meaning can be achieved through creative work, through encounter and, where these are not possible, by a dignified response to unavoidable suffering.

Gordon-Brown, Ian (1925-1996)

Ian Gordon-Brown was a British industrial psychologist, psychotherapist, and proponent of psychosynthesis. In 1973, together with psychological counsellor Barbara Somers, Gordon-Brown founded the Centre for Transpersonal Psychology in London. The Centre offered training in transpersonal counselling and psychotherapy based on an eclectic mix of psychosynthesis and other spiritual systems. In 1995, Gordon-Brown was elected President of EUROTAS (The European Transpersonal Association).

Stanislav Grof by Anton Nossik crop
Stan Grof

Grof, Stanislav (1931- )

Stan Grof is a Czech psychiatrist and proponent of transpersonal psychology. His early career in Prague included pioneering research into LSD therapy. He moved to the US in 1967 and, following a federal ban on LSD and other psychedelic substances, developed Holotropic BreathworkTM as a legal alternative capable of inducing therapeutic non-ordinary states of consciousness. From 1973 to 1987 he was scholar-in-residence at the Esalen Institute and, in 1978, became Founding President of the International Transpersonal Association. Based on his extensive research with psychedelics and Holotropic Breathwork, Grof has developed a theoretical model that recognises both the deep unconscious and transpersonal dimensions of the psyche.

Heron, John (1928- )

John Heron is a British psychologist, facilitator, consultant, and proponent of cooperative inquiry. In 1970 he founded the Human Potential Research Project at the University of Surrey, which pioneered education in humanistic and transpersonal psychology. A critic of authoritarian religion, he advocates participatory approaches to spiritual co-creation.

Houston, Jean (1937- )

Jean Houston is an American teacher, writer and pioneer of the Human Potential Movement. In 1965, together with her husband Robert Masters, she founded The Foundation for Mind Research. In 2008, the Jean Houston Foundation was established, to promote a new approach to leadership and change.

Aldous Huxley psychical researcher
Aldous Huxley

Huxley, Aldous (1894-1963)

Aldous Huxley was a prominent British novelist, essayist and philosopher. A believer in spiritual universalism, he presents his case in The Perennial Philosophy (1945). Huxley was also a pioneer of psychedelic research. He describes his early experiences with mescaline in The Doors of Perception (1954), proposing that psychedelics could be an important means to personal transformation and spiritual discovery.

William James, philosopher
William James

James, William (1842-1910)

William James MD (brother of the novelist Henry James) was an influential American psychologist and philosopher, and Professor of Philosophy and Psychology at Harvard University. He was profoundly interested in religious and psychical experience and, in 1902, published his ground-breaking psychological analyses of these experiences as The Varieties of Religious Experience. He is also believed to be the first person to have used the English term 'trans-personal' (in 1905).

Carl Jung

Jung, Carl Gustav (1875-1961)

C.G. Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist who founded Analytical Psychology. An early colleague of Freud, Jung broke from the Freudian psychoanalytic movement in 1913 over personal and professional disagreements. Unlike classical psychoanalysis, Jung's Analytical Psychology recognises the positive role of spiritual belief and experience, and the possibility of achieving a higher level of psychological integration. Jung sees the psychological journey of 'individuation' as one of development towards the realization of the archetype of the Self. This journey involves exploring not only the Freudian unconscious (personal unconscious) but also archetypal realities, including spiritual potentials, that exist within the supra-individual 'collective unconscious'.

Stanley Krippner 1969
Stanley Krippner

Krippner, Stanley (1932- )

Stanley Krippner PhD is an American psychologist and one of the founders of humanistic and transpersonal psychology. He is best known for his research into hypnosis, dreaming, and parapsychology. Krippner is Professor of Psychology at Saybrook University.

Maslow, Abraham Harold (1908-1970)

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist whose writings established some of the key concepts in humanistic, transpersonal and positive psychology. These include the hierarchy of needs, self-actualization, peak experiences and self-transcendence. In 1961, together with Anthony Sutich, Maslow founded the Journal of Humanistic Psychology and helped establish the Association for Humanistic Psychology in 1963. From his studies of peak and related experiences of 'Being', Maslow came to believe that human beings possessed an essential spiritual nature. To recognize this, Maslow argued that psychology needed a radical perspective beyond the 'Third Force' of humanistic psychology. This led Maslow, Sutich and other colleagues to establish the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology in 1969, in order to represent this new 'Fourth Force'.

Murphy, Michael (1930- )

Michael Murphy is an American psychologist, author, and pioneer of the Human Potential Movement. Together with Dick Price, Murphy founded the Esalen Institute in 1962. In 1992 he published The Future of the Body, an encyclopedic work on extraordinary human experiences

Rudolf Otto

Otto, Rudolf (1869-1937)

Rudolf Otto was a German theologian, philosopher, and scholar of comparative religion. He argued that religion was fundamental to the human condition and that religious experience was based on the encounter with an unknowable, 'wholly other', numinous Mystery.

Rogers, Carl Ransom (1902-1987)

Carl Rogers was an American clinical psychologist who, from the 1940s onwards, developed the person-centered (or, client-centered) approach to counselling, psychotherapy and psychological theory. He is widely acknowledged as one of the founders of humanistic psychology. While he played no direct role in transpersonal psychology, his phenomenological and dialogic perspective is central to more recent participatory approaches to spirituality.

Rowan, John (1925-2018)

John Rowan was a British counsellor, psychotherapist, trainer and author who pioneered humanistic, integrative and transpersonal psychology in Britain.

Sutich, Anthony J. (1907-1976)

Anthony (Tony) Sutich was an American counsellor and psychologist. He had become almost totally paralysed by the age of 18, as the result of progressive rheumatoid arthritis, and lived his remaining 50 years on a wheeled stretcher. Sutich contacted Abraham Maslow in 1949 and the two became lifelong friends. Together they founded the Journal of Humanistic Psychology (1961) and Journal of Transpersonal Psychology (1969), with Sutich as founding editor. Sutich was also instrumental in establishing the Association for Humanistic Psychology (1963) and Association for Transpersonal Psychology (1972). He was awarded a PhD the day before he died. His doctoral dissertation was The Founding of Humanistic and Transpersonal Psychology: A Personal Account.

Charles Tart
Charles T. Tart

Tart, Charles T. (1937- )

Charles Tart PhD is an American psychologist, parapsychologist and transpersonal psychologist. He is a Faculty member of Sofia University and is internationally known for his research into states of consciousness and parapsychology.

Evelyn Underhill

Underhill, Evelyn (1875-1941)

Evelyn Underhill was a British writer on religion and spirituality. She is best known for her highly influential work Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness (1911). In this she presents a psychological interpretation of mystical experience and the spiritual path.

Watts, Alan (1915-1973)

Alan Watts was a British philosopher, theologian, writer and lecturer who was instrumental in promoting Western psychological and counterculture interest in Eastern philosophies. A student of Zen Buddhism, he argued that Buddhist practice could be compared to Western psychotherapy.

Ken Wilber 10
Ken Wilber

Wilber, Ken (1949- )

Ken Wilber is an American philosoper and writer. His early books, especially The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977) and The Atman Project (1980) provided an influential conceptual framework for the emerging discipline of transpersonal psychology. Wilber later renounced transpersonal psychology in favor of an 'integral' approach to theory and practice.

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