What is Transpersonal Psychotherapy?

A Journey from the Personal to the Boundless

Before I can talk about what Transpersonal Psychotherapy is I have to take you on a bit of my own journey. When I began my work as a psychotherapist about 30 years ago, my approach was psychodynamic and insight oriented; as I grew my work evolved and I began to call what I did Transpersonal. Very simply Transpersonal Psychotherapy ranges from resolving personally neurotic dynamics to the exploration of what is beyond the personal.

I have had three loves my whole life, spirituality, psychology, and art, which included dance when I was younger. Spirituality and Psychology have been my personal search and art has been my self expression.

My work as a psychotherapist has always paralleled my own psychological and spiritual exploration, which all began when I was a teenager. Like many adolescents I was unhappy, confused and trying to understand life. As I began to question the beliefs with which I was raised, I ran into psychology and meditation, and I dove in. My work in both areas began from a very personal perspective. I wanted to be enlightened, and I wanted to resolve my emotional issues so that I could be happy.

I began to explore the dynamics of my childhood; my relationship with my mother and father, and the beliefs I held about myself and the world. Meanwhile I meditated and looked into the teachings of various spiritual teachers and my work with people very much reflected what felt useful to me; object relations, in-depth psychology, hypnosis, inner child work, etc. At the beginning my spiritual perspective was simple and unsophisticated it allowed for the sense that there was more to life than what could be seen, or known concretely.

Needless to say my own therapeutic work was very personal. For instance, I had a difficult relationship with my mother; she felt intrusive, controlling, and overwhelming to me. Some examples are that she wouldn’t let me play with the children in the neighborhood, or that i wasn’t allowed to close my bedroom door, or talk on the phone privately. On the other hand I felt loved and seen by my father, and I loved him and longed to have more time with him. My mother controlled that as well, trying to always be present or go along when my father and I planned to do something together. I remember times when i would connive a trip to the store or a ride in the car with just my Dad. Certainly there was much more to this dynamic, but that will give you a taste.

I learned when I was a child that I had been adopted at birth. This explained and fueled my dissatisfaction with my mother, and also why I was so different from the others in my family. I was an artist and a dancer while most of my cousins and aunts and uncles were in the sciences or math. In my early 40’s I finally went in search of my birth mother. I did find her, which is a whole story in itself. Finding her helped me put many pieces of my puzzle together. She is an artist and her parents were a professional dance team.

After learning about my birth family my psychological work continued. I worked through feeling unwanted and unlovable; I sorted through what is meant to have value, what was a healthy attachment and what was neurotic etc. For quite a while my own therapeutic work remained on the personal level.

Parallel to this was my spiritual journey. Around the same time that I worked through enough of my personal issues to allow space around them, I began to explore and question what my True Nature was. When there is enough space around our issues we can observe them, without allowing them to overtake us. We can see a reaction arise within us and understand that if we can see it arise it must not be what we are, but rather something that appears within us.

At this point my attention went to releasing patterns, behaviors, and beliefs, rather than tracing them back to my childhood or asking where or what caused them. I had enough understanding from the psychological work to be able to accept the emotions and thoughts that would arise without judgment or blame. This was enormously helpful for this next phase. A bridge between the personal work and the Non-dual or Transpersonal perspective was the shift of focus from tracing emotions and reactions back to childhood and then analyzing and understanding them to accepting them and loving them unconditionally. Not an easy thing to do.

I would have an emotional reaction to something, or to nothing. I would notice my old way of first judging or rejecting, and then analyzing the reaction. Then instead I would open to it relax around it, and surround it with loving warmth. This allowed the emotion to soften, and the judgment to release. It was no longer necessary to explore why it was there.

Spiritually, layers of identity began to fall away. I could see that I was not my emotions, my beliefs, or my physicality; all of these were coming and going and in constant flux. There was something else unchanging, immovable that was not affected by my human process. This allowed for even more space, for more acceptance and love, and so more and more was released, relaxed and more boundless awareness began to be known.

My work with people reflected this progression. I could see the value in every step that I had taken. I came up with a general philosophy about what worked for me and what would work for others. It goes something like this: always begin with the simplest most direct approach and then get more and complex only if needed. If there is a thought, emotion, or reaction and you can allow and accept it, and it can come and go, nothing else needs to be done. If there is still suffering attached to the reaction, make space for it, feel it and put a warm loving energy around it. If there is still a struggle, ask where it came from, how far back it goes. Explore the origins until there is understanding and acceptance allowing it to loosen. This progression seems to work because it is generally our resistance to the emotions and reactions, which arise, that causes suffering. The resistance tends to come from conditioning, beliefs and the added meaning we give to life and our response to life.

Often when we begin psychotherapeutic work our patterns are so tight that there is no space to step back and see what is actually going on. The beginning stages of therapy where the personal history is explored and processed can be a necessary step in loosening the ego structure. So we often begin with the childhood, reflecting on what happened that seems to have facilitated our beliefs about the world and ourselves. We notice the patterns of emotional reactions we have carried forward into our adulthood, and how they have affected our life; as these loosen and are released or relaxed, we begin to take life less personally, and our beliefs begin to expand along with our sense of self. Sometimes at this point there is a glimpse of the spaciousness beyond the personal, and the urge to know what lies beyond arises.

Transpersonal Psychotherapy includes the processing and resolving of very personal wounds and encourages the exploration of what is beyond. While there is nothing wrong with the personal human expression it is only a small part of what we truly are, and when we believe it is all there is we suffer on a deep level of being.

In the Transpersonal approach there is a point where our psychological and spiritual work merges. When we are no longer identified with the stories from our childhood, or even the stories of our adulthood. When there is enough space around our beliefs about ourselves and the world, a non-conceptual lived realization can occur that we are not limited to our human personal expression, but what we Truly are is the boundless spaciousness in which everything arises.