Existentialism and the transpersonal.
Abstract: An attempt to comment on the low level of attention to the transpersonal in the journal Existential Analysis. In view of the eminent existentialists who have expressed a personal interest in the spiritual realms, this seems odd. Some possible lines of enquiry are pursued.

Key words

Existentialists, transpersonal, meditation
Article Type: Report
Subject: Existentialism (Research)
Existential psychology (Research)
Philosophy of mind (Research)
Author: Rowan, John
Pub Date: 01/01/2012
Publication: Name: Existential Analysis Publisher: Society for Existential Analysis Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Society for Existential Analysis ISSN: 1752-5616
Issue: Date: Jan, 2012 Source Volume: 23 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 310 Science & research
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United Kingdom Geographic Code: 4EUUK United Kingdom
Accession Number: 288874178
Full Text: Transpersonal psychology has been developing since the 1960s, and is now well established, through learned journals like the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology and the BPS Transpersonal Psychology Review. It was named by Maslow and Sutich as an alternative to the word 'spirituality', which had become too wide and general and used in a variety of ways, some respectable, some less so. The great advantage of using the term 'transpersonal' is that it is quite clear and explicit, referring to a stage of psychospiritual development that is not to be confused with the pre-personal (pre-rational, pre-conventional, etc.) and the personal (everyday life, the 'consensus trance', the 'they', the mental ego, or whatever label we find useful). It includes the authentic (Wade, 1996), and also the further stages postulated in various systems, such as the Soul Path of many mystics and the Impersonal Divine described by others (Cortright, 1997). In recent years it has been subjected to the critiques of Ferrer (2002) and others, but this gets very academic and wordy, and we need not follow all these controversies in what follows.

Looking through back issues of Existential Analysis, I find there are very few references to the transpersonal. Just to remind everyone, the transpersonal is the more acceptable name for spirituality, because it makes it clear that while spirituality can take pre-personal (fundamentalist), personal (conventional) and transpersonal forms, the transpersonal has only one meaning. It is clearly transconventional, transrational (in the sense of going beyond formal logic), transintellectual and so forth. Similarly, we do not use the word God because, as with spirituality, there can be all sorts of limited or undesirable definitions of God, sometimes leading even to terrorism.

It is true that, even in the more restricted, and in some sense scientific, realm of the transpersonal, there are conflicting voices. Perhaps the best-known division is between Wilber and Washburn (see Rothberg & Kelly (1998) for a good account of several of these controversies), although here I think Washburn lost this particular battle (Thomas et al, 1993). In the light of all this, it seems simpler for the purposes of this essay to take for the moment the map provided by Ken Wilber, which is at least clear and unambiguous.

What Wilber says is that within the transpersonal realm, there are two great divisions; the Subtle and the Causal (Wilber, 2000). The former is the realm of symbols and images, of archetypes and other concrete representations of the divine. It is basically polytheistic (Miller, 1981). The latter is the realm of the infinite, of ultimate concerns (Tillich, 1958), of the Absolute, or the One, the All, or the None.

Sometimes, reading article after article about Heidegger (who, after all, was quite religious [Letunovsky, 2006]), I miss the names of all those who were firmly existential but also fully aware of the transpersonal path of personal development. Keirkegaard was one of the pioneers of the existential outlook, but he always spoke in terms of a transpersonal dimension to life. Martin Buber, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, Rudolph Bultmann, Nicholas Berdyaev, Miguel de Unamuno, Rollo May--all of these had a place for the transpersonal within and because of their existentialism.

In more recent times, Kirk Schneider has contributed some very valuable thoughts in this area (Schneider, 2008; Schneider & Krug, 2010), which very carefully outline both the advantages and the possible pitfalls involved in a transpersonal approach.

What difference does it make whether an existentialist writer and thinker accepts the transpersonal argument or not? Either way, he or she may experience being thrown into a world which can be confusing or problematical. But the difference is that the transpersonalist feels wonder at all this, while the person who steers clear of the transpersonal is more likely to feel despair, absurdity or futility. Neither of these responses is true or false--they are just different. And I know which I prefer.

There was an old prejudice against existentialism that it was atheistic and narrow. This may have come from a set of images, which include Sartre, the Left Bank, students dressed in black in smoky cafes, and so forth, but if we look at the names above we see very clearly that there is a very wide range of existentialists, with a broad variety of opinions about the transpersonal. So why is the transpersonal so seldom mentioned in the Journal? I am puzzled.

Emmy van Deurzen

Someone who has addressed this problem is Emmy van Deurzen. She has postulated a fourth region of experience beyond the Umwelt, the Mitwelt and the Eigenwelt, which she calls the Uberwelt. However, having introduced the possibility of talking about the transpersonal, she has done very little with it. Even in her book on the pursuit of happiness it gets a quite fulsome mention, but nothing much in the way of content. It is more like a place set for a guest who never actually appears.

For example, she says elsewhere: 'Existential exploration addresses a more spiritual dimension of insecurity as it is directly about the finding of meaning. It provides a focus on life issues, with which many people these days have difficulties. It addresses moral issues head on and it allows people to come to grips with meaning' (van Deurzen, 1997: p124). But there is no attempt to explore this spiritual dimension for its own sake, and so the opportunity to go somewhere with this insight is missed.

Where might she go? One example would be the direction taken by Martin Buber: 'A life that does not seek to realise what the living person, in the ground of his self-awareness, understands or glimpses as the right is not merely unworthy of the spirit: it is also unworthy of life' (Buber, 1958: p40). Here is someone who has fully embraced the life of spirit, instead of touching it gingerly, as if with tongs.

Jyoti Nanda

A frequent contributor to the journal Existential Analysis is Jyoti Nanda, who definitely embraces the transpersonal in what she writes. She has written very well, for example, on mindfulness. Mindfulness is a form of meditation, and as such may lead the practitioner into the realm of the transpersonal very readily. Of course, coming mainly from a Buddhist orientation, Nanda emphasises the Causal and says very little about the Subtle. The Buddhists do have a word for the Subtle--they call it the Sambhogakaya to distinguish it from the Dharmakaya, which is the Causal realm in terms of the distinctions made above. But to recognise the Causal and have a way to talk about it is much better than leaving the transpersonal alone altogether.

What she understands, for example in her research study on mindfulness (Nanda, 2005), is that there are states of consciousness other than our everyday level. One of her co-researchers says: 'When I go into a meditative state, I go into the small, clear state of quiet awareness. I just come from a much stiller place; less influenced by my personal agendas. So I tend to be much calmer, much more understanding, much less reactive.' This is a level of consciousness which I would label as the Causal. In other research this does not come out so clearly (Aggs & Bambling, 2010), because the researchers do not construct their research in a way that would enable such material to emerge. But at this level of consciousness participants really get the existential message, 'allowing the co-researcher to think of change, impermanence, and death, though terrifying, as a given of existence, which cannot be got rid of, and allowing the co-researcher to stay with the client's suffering with compassion' (Nanda, 2005: p331).

What I think is important, however, is that the compassion we are referring to here is a very particular form of compassion. Everyday compassion, as we often hear, can suffer from fatigue. But this kind of compassion, which I would label as some form of spiritual compassion, does not suffer from fatigue. Whether it is existential compassion, or Subtle compassion, or Causal compassion, it goes beyond the everyday level of Das Man, which can be so slippery or shaky. Once we get the concept of levels firmly held in our minds, all sorts of issues look very different. As I said in an essay on meaning and meaninglessness (2004), we get away from the awful dominance of saying 'We' think this, or 'We' do that. There is no 'We', in the sense of uniform unreconstructed individuals who all think the same.

And psychotherapy is one place where many of us experience that sense of moving from one level to another. As Les Todres said:

Even deeper than this sense of personal agency, is the achievement of a more complex experience of their own personal identity, and this complexity constitutes the "sense of freedom" that they were referring to when responding to the research question. The sense of freedom is an experience of "being more than ..." Being more than what I had previously thought and felt; Being more than what I had said up till now; Being more than any premature judgment of myself- good or bad; Being more than any "thing" or self-enclosed entity that reacts to forces and causes.

(Todres 2002, p.103)

This is well said, and my own experience of meditating every morning since 1982 certainly chimes in with this way of putting it.

Todres goes on to say: 'So the study revealed that, paradoxically, in returning clients to the concrete details of their lives, psychotherapy is a work of un-specialisation, or de-role-ing, a sense of complexity of personal identity that is "more than" any definition can capture.' (Todres, 2002; p104). This clearly moves into the transpersonal realm, and reminds us that therapy is not just about fixing problems.

Jan Sheppard

Which brings us to Jan Sheppard, who contributed a sparkling essay on Gelassenheit, 'no-mind' and psychotherapy. He explains that the term Gelassenheit, as used by Heidegger, means 'releasement, but also calmness, detachment, serenity, composure or concern or, more crudely, "letting-be"' (Sheppard, 2003: p253). He argues that Heidegger appears to be using the term Gelassenheit as a synonym for meditative thinking, contrasted with the calculative thinking that is generally encouraged in our culture. 'By characterising releasement as a kind of waiting which simply waits, Heidegger conveys a sense of holding oneself open without having anything in mind, with an alertness to each moment ... Releasement means becoming aware of our openness' (ibid: p255). This is a good description of the kind of meditation that is cultivated in mindfulness, as described in the quotations above. Sheppard argues that this is the same as the Zen doctrine of no-mind. 'As in releasement, when defeated, the [Zen] initiate sees that he, the agent, does not act, there is just acting or just thinking. It is happening, but neither to anyone nor from anyone, as for Heidegger it is "let in"' (ibid: p256). What is being described here is what in the transpersonal field is called the Causal level of consciousness. As outlined at the beginning of this essay, the Causal level is the level where the meditator lets go of ordinary consciousness and even of Subtle consciousness, and basks in the great openness, the being without limits. We do not need to speak of the 'heiteres Gelassenheit' to understand this, but it is important to make the link with Heidegger, and so to show that such notions are no stranger to existential thinking. In cultivating mindfulness in psychotherapy we are doing something profoundly existential, in my opinion. The fact that such methods are also embraced by the behaviourists is neither here nor there.


This is not the place to go much further. We can indeed tease out the distinction between the Causal and the Nondual, and I have done this elsewhere (Rowan, 2007), but for the present purpose this is not necessary. I simply wanted to register that the existential approach is by no means hostile to the transpersonal, and has indeed made contributions to it.

Of course, in this brief essay I have not dealt with all the ramifications of the mystical realm, which itself has an enormous literature (e.g. Harmless, 2008), and in recent years Jorge Ferrer has contributed some stirring arguments critiquing the whole idea of the 'perennial philosophy' which is so prevalent in this field. Enough for now.


Aggs, C. & Bambling, M. (2010). Teaching mindfulness to psychotherapists in clinical practice: The Mindful Therapy Programme. Counselling & Psychotherapy Research, 10(4): 278-286.

Buber, M. (1958). Hasidism and Modern Man. New York: Horizon Press.

Cortright, B. (1997). Psythotherapy and Spirit: Theory and Practice in Transpersonal Psychotherapy. Albany: SUNY Press.

Ferrer, J. N. (2002). Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. Albany: SUNY Press.

Harmless, W. (2008). Mystics. USA: Oxford University Press.

Letunovsky, S. (2006). Was Heidegger a religious man? Existential Analysis, (17)2: 312-319.

Miller, D. L. (1981). The New Polytheism. Dallas: Spring Publications.

Nanda, J. (2005). A phenomenological enquiry into the effect of meditation on therapeutic practice. Existential Analysis, 16(2): 322-335.

Rothberg, D. & Kelly, S. (eds) (1998). Ken Wilber in Dialogue: Conversations With Leading Transpersonal Thinkers. Wheaton: Quest.

Rowan, J. (2004). Meaning and meaninglessness. BPS Psychotherapy Section Newsletter, 36: 22-32.

Rowan, J (2007) The Mental Ego is not the Centaur: The Causal is not the Nondual. BPS Transpersonal Psychology Review, 11(1): 19-28.

Schneider, K. J. (ed), (2008). Existential-Integrative Psychotherapy: Guideposts to the Core of Practice. Abingdon: Routledge.

Schneider, K. J. and Krug, O. T. (2010). Existential-Humanistic Therapy. Washington: APA.

Sheppard, J. (2003). Gelassenheit, 'no-mind' and psychotherapy. Existential Analysis 14(2): 251-264.

Thomas, L.E., Brewer, S.J., Kraus, P.A., & Rosen, B.L. (1993). Two Patterns of Transcendence: An Empirical Examination of Wilber's and Washburn's Theories. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 33(3): pp66-81.

Tillich, P. (1958). Dynamics of Faith. New York: Harper Torch-books.

Todres, L. (2002). Globalization and the complexity of self: The relevance of psychotherapy. Existential Analysis 13(1): 98-105.

van Deurzen, E. (1997). Everyday Mysteries: Existential Dimensions of Psychotherapy. London: Routledge.

Wade, J. (1996). Changes of Mind: A Holonomic Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness. Albany: SUNY Press.

Wilber, K (2000). Integral Psychology. Boston: Shambhala.

John Rowan is author of The Transpersonal: Spirituality in Psychotherapy and Counselling and is on the editorial board of the BPS Transpersonal Psychology Review.

Contact: 70 Kings Head Hill, London E4 7LY.

Email: johnrowan@aol.com
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