The Psychology of Transcendence

Even after peak experiences are over, self-transcenders tend
to see themselves in more wholistic, even global terms.

Woman on dock overlooking lae and mountains

In 2009 I was stuck. Even though I was hard at work on my memoire A Beautiful Death, I was in a quandary about my future. What would become of me now that my husband had passed away? Business training no longer satisfied my personal or career goals. I enjoyed life coaching and teaching, but whom would I coach and what would I teach?


I was interested in psychology, but not in practicing in the field of abnormal psychology. Surely, I thought, there must be a way to study the psyche as the soul, not as a collection of symptoms or pathologies. An Internet search eventually revealed the term “transpersonal psychology” and an accredited academic institute¹ to answer the question that had burned in my mind for years: How can I become more whole so I can help others do the same?


I immediately enrolled in this rather unconventional program. And one of my first happy discoveries was that prominent psychologists, led by Abraham Maslow, had been on the same search for a “healthy psychology.”


Big Developments in the Sixties
Throughout the 1960s, Maslow and several colleagues had developed humanistic psychology in response to the predominance of psychoanalysis and behaviorism, both of which dismissed and even pathologized crucial dimensions of human experience such as spirituality and alternate states of consciousness.


Maslow and his colleagues wanted to study psychologically healthy human behavior in real life. Here is how he explained the intention behind their work:


This point of view in no way denies the usual Freudian picture, but it does add to it and supplement it. To oversimplify the matter somewhat, it is as if Freud supplied to us the sick half of psychology, and we must now fill it out with the healthy half. Perhaps this health psychology will give us more possibility of controlling and improving our lives and for making ourselves better people.²


Maslow’s approach was music to my soul as I recalled with horror the college freshman psychology course I was required to take in 1968. The Psych department at my school was run by behavioralists, and our lab sessions consisted of testing pigeons to see if they would still go after food even if they got a shock along with the food. To me these labs were nothing short of sadism, as I remembered taking a pitiful bird back to its cage after a testing session—the poor thing limp as a rag.

Thank God! now in 2009, I had found a compassionate psychology that fostered a desire to help people grow beyond mere ego states rather than reducing them to a mechanized existence.

What Is Transpersonal Psychology?

One of the key initial findings of the early transpersonal researchers was that exceptionally healthy subjects—whom Maslow called “self-actualizers”—tended to have peak experiences that were spontaneous, ecstatic, unitive states of consciousness and similar to mystical experiences that had been reported and often recorded in great detail by spiritual traditions of both East and West for centuries.

Transpersonal psychology emerged as a new field dedicated to studying and mapping these experiences and the effects they had on those who had them. Because the researchers discovered that, even though the experiences themselves did not last, they tended to change the experiencer for the better. (See “Being Transpersonal,” Reflection 20 in Reflections on Being Your True Self in Any Situation.)

The fact that peak experiences caused the subjects’ sense of identity and self to extend beyond the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche, and the cosmos meant that the subjects’ worldview became more unitive. And, even after a peak experience was over, they would tend to see themselves in more wholistic, even global terms. Their experiences were trans (beyond) personal and their way of being in the world improved. ³

What’s Next?

Transpersonal psychology is also known as “depth psychology” that explores what Ken Wilber calls the relatively few deep structures that underlie the entire spectrum of human psychological development.

The study of transpersonal psychology also includes such fascinating topics as near death experiences, altered states of consciousness in meditative practices, grief, the shared death experience, lucid dreaming, shamanic journeying, and the psychological movement some people make beyond self-actualization into self-transcendence.

¹ (The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, now called Sofia University.)
² Maslow, A. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd ed. Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1958, p. 5
³ Walsh, R. and Vaughan, F. Paths Beyond Ego: The Transpersonal Vision. Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1993, p. 1-3.