Transpersonal therapy: What is it?

Most Western models of health deal extensively with physical, social/emotional, and mental levels of health. When they talk about maximising a person’s potential, it is normally within a context such as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1962), which – in stating that the highest level of the nested hierarchy is “self-actualisation” – takes one to the threshold of the transpersonal, but not into it. Transpersonal therapy, conversely, can be thought of as an open-ended effort to help clients expand their awareness and grow beyond the limits implied by the Western models.

The transpersonal is a phenomenon or experience “in which the sense of identity or self extends beyond (‘trans’) the individual or personal to encompass wider aspects of humankind, life, psyche or cosmos” (Walsh & Vaughan, 1993). Thus, in addition to typical counselling and psychotherapeutic techniques and methods, the therapist may employ mindfulness and other types of meditation or stillness practice adapted from Eastern spiritual disciplines in order to facilitate the expansion of awareness (Vaughan, 1979).

Goals of full humanness, with responsibility, balanced growth, and self-healing

Given that the ultimate state of psychological health is deemed to go well beyond “normal” levels when one works in the transpersonal, it makes sense to define just what the goals might be. Frances Vaughan (1979) makes the case for the following aims of transpersonal psychotherapy.


While normal (non-transpersonally-oriented) counselling certainly attempts to move clients in the direction of taking responsibility for themselves, transpersonal therapy makes no bones about it: we are all responsible for what we have created in our lives and in our relationships. Thus, if we do not like what we see, our best option is to change how we think and behave until outer reality begins to conform to our preferred circumstance. We cannot always shift all outer situations, however, so the psychospiritually advancing person also needs to be able to disidentify.

Disidentification (detachment)

The healthy person is assumed to be capable of feeling the full range of human emotions, yet not getting “stuck” on or overly identified with any particular personal drama. Such a person has the skill of being able to detach, experiencing all life situations and events with a minimum of melodrama. A goal, therefore, of transpersonal therapy is to help the client expand into and identify with any emotions not yet fully experienced, while simultaneously being able to disidentify at will.

Meeting needs

Along with taking responsibility, the transformed individual has (mostly) achieved the capacity to meet physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs appropriately in accordance with his or her individual preferences and pre-disposition. There is the expectation that s/he can generally find a way to make things work, to meet the need. Where a client seems unable to meet his or her own needs, transpersonal therapy works to enhance the client’s sense of self-reliance and resourcefulness. There is the corollary assumption here that no one path can be right for everyone, due to the infinite range of personal preferences and inbuilt character tendencies; thus the transpersonal therapist aims to be flexible in helping clients see how to meet needs (Vaughan, 1979).

The spiritual life integral to full humanness

Contrary to the general stance of other counselling modalities, which leave up to the client whether to engage in spiritual pursuits, transpersonal therapy takes as a basic assumption that a fully human life includes the spiritual dimension. In addition to needs for food, shelter, and nurturing relationships, human beings, to maximise their functioning and achieve the highest levels of health, must also meet needs for self-realisation: that is, connection with themselves as Self, as soul. We must clarify here that the client determines the content of a session.

The therapist is not in attendance to proselytise any religion, nor to insist that a client – especially including agnostic or atheistic ones – acknowledge the existence of spirit. Rather, the therapist sees the client within a wide context which, often silently, holds the space for the client to unfold into. The processes used may be, as noted, either ones used in general counselling or they may be transpersonally oriented. Always, there is the opportunity in session to identify with the most inclusive sense of oneself.


The old saying that “the doctor is the one who stands by while the patient heals himself” is nowhere truer than in transpersonally-oriented helping, where every client is seen as having the capacity for self-healing. The therapist’s role is not to provide a “fix”, “cure”, or “solution” for what ails the client, but to facilitate the client’s tapping into inner resources which allow the natural healing or growth process to occur.

Beyond that, there is the assumption that the natural tendency of the human organism is to seek ever-greater enhancement and expansion in the process of self-actualisation. Thus, qualities or capacities that may lie dormant within an individual when that person is experiencing great conflict or stress can be brought to bear as healing resources when the transpersonal is accessed. Finally, in service of the ultimate self-healing, transpersonal therapists may aim to facilitate the client’s experience of self-transcendence, in which the separate ego is experienced as an illusion, and the underlying oneness of existence is experienced as real (Vaughan, 1979).

Balanced integration

Through the transpersonally-inspired recognition that one’s beliefs and point of view are necessarily subjective, relative and limited (although the therapist aims to find validity in the client’s worldview), clients can be helped to conduct a closer examination of their beliefs, which yields the ability to break out of self-imposed limitations of awareness. As clients come to disidentify from beliefs which they thought were part of them or which they took for granted, they are able to discard or transcend limiting views and thereby heal psychological splits.

In this process, disowned parts of the psyche (component parts of one’s psychological shadow) can be re-integrated, yielding an accelerated resolution of internal conflicts. The client can then achieve another aim of transpersonal therapy: namely, the balanced integration of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of oneself and one’s wellbeing (Vaughan, 1979).

This article was adapted from the Mental Health Academy course “Recognising Spiritual Emergence”. The purpose of this course is help you recognise when spiritual emergence is occurring for a client.

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  • Maslow, A. (1962). Toward a psychology of being. Princeton: Van Nostrand.
  • Vaughan, F. (1979). Transpersonal psychotherapy: context, content and process. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 11(2), 1979.
  • Walsh, R. and F. Vaughan. (1993). On transpersonal definitions. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Vol. 25, No2, pp. 199-207.