Book Review: The Transpersonal in Psychology, Psychotherapy and Counselling

Book Reviews / June 2008

Andrew Shorrock. The Transpersonal in Psychology, Psychotherapy and Counselling.

Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Shorrock coverMatthew KalmanAndrew Shorrock offers us a brief—somewhat over 200 pages—yet informative canter through the highways and byways of transpersonal psychology, Ken Wilber’s intellectual home until he launched his own ‘Integral’ movement in the mid- to late-90s (though Ken backdates his actual exit from the transpersonal scene to 1983).

So we have major early figures, including William James, Richard Maurice Bucke— author of Cosmic Consciousness—and Everlyn Underhill, and even Buddha ‘as the original psychoanalyst’.

There’s plenty of discussion of everything from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), neurobiology and the ‘God spot’, to the growth of ‘integrative therapy’. It’s illuminating to read about connections the author draws to disparate fields, such as the ‘Psychology of Religion’, which apparently has at least 125 tools to ‘measure spirituality’!

As you might guess, the line between transpersonal psychology/therapy as practices and tools and as something more akin to a way of being can be blurry: “…‘doing’ transpersonal psychology is in some ways a false or at least redundant statement ,” says Shorrock, “as the clinical application of transpersonal psychology may be less about ‘doing’ and more about ‘being’, with being meaning an expansive attitude that is open to the fullness of human experience.”

How does any of this relate to leadership? Well, Shorrock doesn’t mention leadership per se, or leadership-related figures such as Bill Torbert and Susanne Cook-Greuter, or the Transcendental Meditation-linked academics who’ve taken an interest in leadership. The NLP and transpersonal psychology section is relevant , though, with so many NLP-inspired leadership coaches now utilisting Spiral Dynamics, Integral, Clare Graves etc. (though this development is not mentioned).

Nevertheless it’s valuable to have a refresher on the state of transpersonal psychology, an overview—especially now it’s no longer such a focus in Wilber’s recent work. And—of course—many items drawn from the range of techniques and perspectives in transpersonal psychology—e.g., subpersonalities/voices, developmental levels—can be, and often are being, used to great effect in the leadership milieu.

Of course, Shorrock’s work moves on to include the more recent transpersonalists too: from Assagioli and Jung to Grof, Washburn, Wilber and Almaas. Intriguingly, Shorrock even mentions the influence of the Western esotericist Helena Blavatsky on Wilber, though gives no further details. He also finds that Wilber’s model is “far too complex to apply in the moment in the consulting room”—I’d love to see a debate on this point between him and Integral/Transpersonal therapists such as John Rowan. I was also interested to read that, as the therapist Petruska Clarkson explains, the pre-Socratics felt that Physis preceded the Eros and Thanatos drives that Wilber often talks about. Physis apparently “represents the evolutionary impulse inherent in every cell”.

Recent milestones in the field are included, such as the success of Lukoff and others in achieving recognition of a ‘Religious and Spiritual Problem’ category in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM IV)—though the 300 per cent increase in the number of categories in 40 years is perhaps a worrying sign of the pathologisation of the clientele in our ‘therapeutic culture’, Shorrock mentions.

Like Wilber, Shorrock mentions the ‘Sokal Hoax’ episode (where a leading postmodernist journal, Social Text, happily printed scientific nonsense, as it was written in postmodernese lingo. I’d forgotten—if I ever knew—that Sheldrake, Bohm and Capra were amongst the theorists that underpinned the hoax. As Shorrock points out, they are “the same as those [theorists] whose work could be considered to support muchtranspersonal theory”.

The risks of transpersonal approaches are not downplayed: “Generally with its non-empirically testable status, and possible grand spectrum of interest, the transpersonal is a field that can draw individuals for whom narcissistic configurations in their psyche have been reactivated”, the author warns. He also discusses Rational Emotive Therapy founder Albert Ellis’ book Why Some Therapies Don’t Work: The Dangers of Tranpersonal Psychology, which I think Wilber has suitably critiqued at one point.

Also discussed is the issue of whether transpersonal psychology has tended to ignore the ‘Shadow’. Michael Daniels 2005 book Shadow, Self, Spirit: Essays in Transpersonal Psychology, complained that the transpersonal movement was all too often about casting off personal negativity on an “easy journey of discovery and spiritual advancement”. Any tendency to ignore the ‘Shadow’ certainly changed in the Integral milieu a couple of years back—around the time of Wilber’s Wyatt Earpy blog posts (which seemed to prompt delight in some and despair in others). Decades of meditation alone was certainly no longer seen as a balanced path, due to its attendant risks of the ‘spiritual bypassing’ of accumulating Shadow/emotional material etc.

The experience of spiritual emergence/emergency is also highlighted by Shorrock, who is unimpressed by the many “ill informed transpersonal therapists, who appear to be wary or hostile towards the prescribing culture of psychiatry.”

Apart from discussion of definitions, history, roots in religious traditions, the comparisons with other traditions are often particularly interesting. For instance, Shorrock ends up explaining the difference between spiritual direction, pastoral psychotherapy and psychospiritual psychotherapy. Links are even investigated with the Philosophy Counselling and Psychotherapy approach. And there turn out to be many instances where the three forces in therapy that predate the transpersonal movement (e.g., behavioural, psychodynamic and humanistic) have been open and inclusive of tranpersonal phenomena. Surprisingly, one such sympathiser is cognitive-behavioural therapist Isabel Clarke.

Clearly—in a book of little over 200 pages—discussions on any topic have to be somewhat brief, though this can still be more than might appear in some integral discussions, where a whole field will get only a quick mention when it is briefly used within a meta-conceptual graphic. The tone throughout is somewhat scholarly, but very much of the accessible rather than impenetrable variety. Shorrock doesn’t take himself too seriously or set himself up as the ultimate arbiter. In the final line of the book he even ends up—beer in hand—ready to recount some transpersonal experience.

Like anyone, I can suggest much else that I’d love to have seen also included in this overview—pushing the page-count up through the roof, no doubt. Shorrock,for instance,doesn’t engage with the latest iteration of Wilber’s theoretical model—Wilber V, including the ‘Wilber-Combs Lattice’ which supercedes the simpler ‘spectrum of consciousness’ (but, of course, if he had included it, Wilber would no doubt already be on to ‘Wilber VI’ at least…). This fascinating shift in Wilber’s scheme certainly deserves more discussion than it has had, I believe. (An unconvinced researcher on the Society for Research in Adult Development’s ‘Adult Development’ e-list recently wrote: “My main thought about [Ken Wilber’s recent book]Integral Spirituality was that it was so easy to decide that the ‘Stages’ are really ‘States’ because there was no evidence for it being either way in the first place.”).

Shorrock himself thinks Wilber was “splitting hairs” when he departed from transpersonal psychology to build up ‘Integral psychology’; transpersonal psychology itself is “inclusive”, Shorrock suggests. I don’t know if Wilber’s self-declared exit from the ‘Transpersonal’ milieu in which he was a leading light has been analysed anywhere. (I did once hear that a resignation letter from Wilber to one of the international transpersonal organizations—which fully explained his reasoning—was available to read on the web, but I never found it myself).

Wilber’s strong opinions on transpersonal psychology certainly merit discussion, some kind of response: “I believe, that in three decades, and aside from one or two specific theorists, the actual school of transpersonal psychology has had no major impact outside of the Bay Area, and it is today, many people agree, in an irreversible, terminal decline” (though Wilber also wrote that psychology, ‘as a discipline’ has been dead for some years.) But Shorrock seemingly never spotted these comments, in an interview of Wilber’s available online.

Shorrock discusses ‘subpersonalities’ (which are at the heart of Integral’s popular ‘Big Mind’ workshops, and loom large in Psychosynthesis) in the book, but will have missed some of the latest developments on that topic, that I’d love to have fully explained to me. John Rowan—a leading transpersonal/integral therapist and author, and proponent of subpersonalities theory, recommended by Wilber—now seems to have turned against this approach, and advocates something called ‘I-Positions’ instead. (Indeed Rowan and another London Integral Circle member, the Psychosynthesis figure Keith Silvester have been skirmishing within the pages of the Brisith Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy magazine Therapy Today over whether or not subpersonalities has been superceded.)

I’d love also to have heard something about how today’s Jungians respond to critical books like The Jung Cult : Origins of a Charismatic Movement and The Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Jung.

The book also doesn’t exactly have space for discussion of actual interventions, clinical vignettes or suchlike—though the ‘spiritual emergency/emergence’ section probably goes furthest in that direction. The actual Upper Left Quadrant internal experience of the transpersonal is not a focus either.

Shorrock also decided not to directly compare and contrast the work of the key transpersonal thinkers he covers in more depth. I rather wish he had had a go at that, as it could have made for a more ground-breaking, iconoclastic and unforgettable book—whereas it’s more merely gently powerful and helpful. I’d, personally, also love to know which schools in the transpersonal milieu are waxing and which are waning. And why. What is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’? (E.g., have, say, Psychosynthesis, TM or Oscar Ichazo’s ‘Arica School’ waned? The Jungians? What can we learn from Esalen, Findhorn? Or even from as far back as Ascona/Monte Verita, where early transpersonal types—like Jung, Hesse, Steiner—gathered?)

The annual conference of the transpersonal section of the British Psychological Society last year included a workshop on ‘Big Mind’, that is so popular in the Integral milieu, for the first time. Interestingly, the reception given to ‘Big Mind’ by the audience was very lukewarm, from what I hear. Though I’m not sure how many—if any—of the audience had actually experienced the ‘Big Mind’ process. Playing a 5-min audio segment, in which Genpo Roshi leads a woman through a very telescoped ‘Big Mind’ process, failed to impress!

I personally would love to have heard more about how eclectic/integrative therapy is on the increase—beyond what Shorrock has heard anecdotally.

One let-down in an otherwise well-produced book is the execrable proof-reading in places. I really don’t want to keep coming across basic misspellings like Groff, Pearls, Kabala, Almass, Hursserl, Ramana Maharishi, 1 Ching, Vippasena etc. At one point the word ‘depth’ even appears in the text as ‘death’. Luckily this book offers an interesting and expansive enough overview of the transpersonal that this flaw can be overlooked and forgiven.

Matthew Kalman, MA, is a founder member of the Integral Institute, and launched the London Integral Circle in 2000. The group has hosted Integral Institute founder members including Susanne Cook-Greuter, Don Beck, John Rowan, Robert Augustus Masters and Rabbi Michael Lerner at events attracting up to 300 people. He has worked with Henley Management College to develop the first model of Integral Knowledge Management. Matthew works as a media professional and lives with his family in London, England.