Transpersonal psychology is a branch of psychology which studies the self-transcendent, transpersonal or spiritual aspects of the human experience. A concise definition of the field from Lajoie and Shapiro (1992), sums it up as being "concerned with the study of humanity's highest potential, and with the recognition, understanding, and realization of unitive, spiritual, and transcendent states of consciousness."
This particular division of psychology deals with issues such as self beyond the ego, spiritual self-development, systemic trance, peak experiences and other sublime experiences of living. It is built on earlier forms of psychology including psychoanalysis, humanistic psychology and behaviorism. Transpersonal psychology aims to define and insert spiritual experience into modern psychological theory and to develop a new theory to comprehend such experience. Various types of spiritual experience have been examined by researchers. These include mysticism, trance, altered states of consciousness and religious conversion.
The transpersonal field of study is grounded in many areas of thought and experience, including religion, philosophy and psychology. This movement emerged in the 1960s, with a number of influential thinkers credited with setting the scene for the development of transpersonal studies, including William James, Abraham Maslow, Carl Jung, Otto Rank, Sigmund Freud, and Roberto Assagioli. The first issue of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, the leading academic journal in this area of work, was published in 1969 with Abraham Maslow, Anthony Sutich and Stanislav Grof contributing articles. The Association for Transpersonal Psychology (ATP) was founded in 1972.
Maslow was a key figure in the emergence of transpersonal psychology. In his 1968 book Toward a Psychology of Being Maslow described: "A fourth Psychology, transpersonal, transhuman, centered in the cosmos rather than in human needs and interest, going beyond humanness, identity, self-actualization, and the like." Maslow considered this psychology naturalistic and empirical, although he claimed it could offer a life philosophy and value system to which people could commit themselves.
The transpersonal branch of psychology matches similar movements in other academic and scientific fields, such as philosophy, physics, parapsychology and anthropology. It provides an elaborate or alternate model for the understanding of the person and of the relationships between individuals and between humans and the universe. The origins of transpersonal ideas go back to transcendentalism, an American movement which started in the 1830s in New England. The most prominent representatives of transcendentalism were Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.
Emerson postulated the founding elements of the movement: the perception of the "oversoul" which transcends all; the importance of self-reliance; a veneration of nature; the importance of intuition over empiricism. Emerson believed that transcendent concepts such as justice, goodness, love, beauty and power stood in the depths of spiritual nature. Similar values are found in Maslow's hierarchy of needs theory. Thoreau became absorbed in nature and in being self-reliant. The poet Whitman supplied another aspect of the transcendental movement, an acceptance of the body. For him, body and spirit are sources of equal delight and sexual energy is joyful.
Many of the perspectives of the transcendental movement are expressed in transpersonal psychology, which is not only viewed as theoretical, but also as a practical discipline. Transpersonal psychologists deal with transpersonal experiences, values and actions. Meditation is the most popular practice and has been widely studied both by transpersonal and mainstream psychology. Evidence suggests that it helps people to relax, reduces stress, boosts creativity and also improves personal and work relationships. Besides the standard method of meditation, other forms of include walking meditation, Jewish davening, Christian prayer, Sufi dancing, chanting and tantric energy practices. Other transpersonal practices include dream analysis, writing and using psychoactive substances. Certain experiences of mystics, religious devotees and meditators have been recognized as having transpersonal qualities.
Transpersonal experiences, also referred to as peak, spiritual or mystical, include a wide variety of phenomena, reported by many individuals, not only mystics or transpersonal psychologists. Researchers argue that peak experiences are natural elements of human experience. Transpersonal psychology suggests that such experiences are not only normal but are also advisable. They are part of the process of development of the individual beyond the personal, or are seen as a contact with a higher reality. Unprepared individuals, however, may suffer a crisis following a transcendent experience and might even need therapy.