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Defining Transpersonal Psychology

This is an email exchange from August, 2000 between myself and Charles Tart, PhD. Charlie is one of the better-known educators in the field of transpersonal psychology and offered at that time a strong definition of the field of study.  I was working as an adjunct professor at the University of Arizona Department of Psychology in the fall semester, and had begun teaching an undergraduate course that I’d composed on the topic.


Re: tp research (Perk Clark , 08/30/00 1:10 PM)
To: Charles Tart



I’m teaching a class year at a local university (The Psychology of Religion and Spirituality: I suggest that I am actually teaching ‘the psychology IN religion and spirituality’.)I’m employing lots of transpersonal psychology material. I have hatched this idea of trying to interest the university (which has both psychology and medicine components) in the deliberate construction of a transpersonal psychology track that would seriously contribute to research in the area. If you might name a few vitally-needed tp areas that could benefit from such research… what would they be??!!!

Re: tp research (“Charles T. Tart” , Tue 5:00 PM)


Dear Perk, 5 September 2000

Glad you’re teaching the course and have possibilities open! But you’re asking some big questions! As an answer, I’m going to pass on a discussion of TP that was just circulated among the core faculty of ITP, and you might also look at the ITP website (

With best wishes,

This article appeared in GUIDANCE AND COUNSELLING, vol 15, Number3, Spring 2000, p. 3-8. GUIDANCE AND COUNSELLING is published by the Guidance Centre, 5201 Dufferin Street, North York, Ontario M3H 5T8, Canada.Subscription price is $40 per year; single issues are $10 each, payable in advance.Orders originating outside Canada, add $12 per subscription. I reprint it here with their permission.


This was a special issue of GUIDANCE AND COUNSELLING on Transpersonal Psychology guest-edited by Bud McClure, Barbara Carter, andMichael Franklin.John Davis, Ph.D.Department of Psychology Metropolitan State College of Denvercopyright 2000, John V. Davis



Transpersonal psychology stands at the interface of psychology and spirituality. It is the field of psychology which integrates psychological concepts, theories, and methods with the subject matter and practices of the spiritual disciplines. Its interests include spiritual experiences, mystical states of consciousness, mindfulness and meditative practices, shamanic states, ritual, the overlap of spiritual experiences with disturbed states such as psychosis and depression, and the transpersonal dimensions of interpersonal relationships, service, and encounters with the natural world.

The core concept in Transpersonal Psychology is non-duality, the recognition that each part (e.g., each person) is fundamentally and ultimately a part of the whole (the cosmos). As obvious as this might sound, it has radical implications for psychological systems founded on the premises of mechanism, atomism, reductionism, and separateness. From this insight come two other central insights: the intrinsic health and basic goodness of the whole and each of its parts, and the validity of self-transcendence from the conditional and conditioned personality to a sense of identity which is deeper, broader, and more unified with the whole (Lajoie and Shapiro, 1992; Scotton, Chinen, and Battista, 1996; Walsh and Vaughan, 1993a).

The root of the term, transpersonal or “beyond the personal,” reflects this impulse toward that which is more universal than individual or personal identity. Since the root of the word, personal, comes from persona or the masks worn by Greek actors to portray characters, transpersonal means literally “beyond the mask.” These masks both hid the actor and revealed the actor’s role. Following this metaphor, transpersonal psychology seeks to disclose and develop the source and deeper nature of our identities, roles, and self-images. However, it is important that a focus on nonduality, self-transcendence, and intrinsic health not negate the importance of individuality or personalness.

Transpersonal psychology’s orientation is inclusive, valuing and integrating the following: psychological development as well as the spiritual; the personal and the transpersonal; exceptional mental health, ordinary experience, and states of suffering; ordinary and extraordinary states of consciousness; modern Western perspectives, Eastern wisdom, (some) postmodern insights, and worldviews of indigenous traditions; and analytical intellect and contemplative ways of knowing.

Transpersonal psychology is not a religion; it does not present a a belief system or provide an institutional structure. Rather, it is a field of inquiry which includes theory, research, and practice, offering insights based on research and experience and practices for evaluating and confirming or disconfirming its findings. It is scientific in the broader sense of the phenomenological or “human” sciences (Braud and Anderson, 1998; Davis, 1996; Giorgi, 1970). Overlaps between psychology and spirituality have been present in both psychology (e.g., William James, Jung, Maslow) and in the spiritual traditions (which have their own rich views of development, cognition, social interactions, emotional and behavioral suffering, and methods of healing).

A core practice for transpersonal psychology includes meditation, mindfulness, contemplation, and phenomenological inquiry. Comparing the role of meditation in transpersonal psychology to the role of dreams in psychoanalysis, Walsh and Vaughan (1993a) referred to meditation as “the royal road to the transpersonal.” In this broad category, I would include other awareness practices such as Gendlin’s (1982) Focusing technique drawn from phenomenological philosophy and psychotherapy.

While meditation and related practices can be used for self- regulation, relaxation, and pain control or for self-exploration and self-therapy, they have traditionally been used for self- liberation (Shapiro, 1994). Despite their many surface forms, most styles of meditation can be a means of disidentifying from our “masks” or egos and realizing our fundamental nonduality (Goleman and Ram Dass, 1996).

Other practices that are associated with transpersonal psychology include shamanism, lucid dreaming, and psychedelic drugs (Walsh and Vaughan, 1993a). I would add ritual as another important, though less recognized, transpersonal practice. For people in many cultures, ritual is the central means of discovering connections with each other, with communities, with the Earth, and with the cosmos (e.g., Somé, 1998).

Transpersonal psychology has benefits for both psychology and the spiritual disciplines. Psychology can expand toward a fuller and richer accounting of the full range of human experience and potential and incorporate practices that speak more directly to the depth of our nature. The spiritual disciplines can incorporate insights and skills about human development, healing, and growth to deal more skillfully with the psychological issues that arise with spiritual development. It can use these issues as gateways, rather than obstacles, to self-realization.–

Charles T. Tart, Ph.D. Professor, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Palo Alto CA ITP Web site: Fax: (630) 604-3279 Professor Emeritus, Psychology, University of California, Davis e-mail: cttart@ucdavis.eduHome page & archives: Editor, The Archives of Scientists’ Transcendent Experiences

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