Transpersonal Psychology: A Problem that’s Inseparable from Its Promise

In the late 1960’s Abraham Maslow, Anthony Sutich and others wrote about what they called the four forces in American psychology.  The psychological forces they identified were behaviorism, psychoanalysis, humanistic, and transpersonal. Known as the fourth force, transpersonal was viewed as emerging at the time. In the first issue of the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology (1969), Sutich provided a lengthy, detailed, and comprehensive definition of transpersonal psychology. In the same journal a few decades later (1993), Roger Walsh and Francis Vaughan gave a shorter definition of transpersonal psychology (known also as spiritual psychology), defining it as “a sub-field or school of psychology that integrates the spiritual and transcendent aspects of the human experience with the framework of modern psychology. The transpersonal is defined as experiences 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.” Although it is a relatively new way of thinking about humanity in the West—that is, with respect to a psychological understanding of the human experience, the viewpoint is fundamental to an African point of view—a viewpoint that is regularly discussed and applied in the writings of African-centered transpersonal psychologist, Linda James Myers—that dates back hundreds to thousands of years, and includes an ancient Egyptian (Kemetic) understanding of humans that viewed spirituality and psychology as inseparable, and embraced and recognized the connection between the lived experiences of human beings and the Cosmos (viewed as a sacred Universe).

Maslow, Sutich and others effectively argued that the four forces in psychology were four unique approaches to studying human beings. As a student I was interested in learning about each of these approaches to varying degrees. I began studying increasing amounts of the material from year to year as a graduate student, when much to my delight, there came a moment when I believed a case could be made for arguing that the four psychological forces aligned with (and are means of expressions for) the four psychological functions Carl Jung identified as sensing, thinking, feeling, and intuiting.

Psychological Types (The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 6) (Bollingen Series XX)

Jung described the four functions in his book Psychological Types as follows: “Sensation establishes what is actually present, thinking enables us to recognize its meaning, feeling tells us its value, and intuition points to possibilities as to whence it came and whither it is going (pp. 540-541).”

The functions are configured in the human psyche with thinking and feeling existing at the opposite ends of the same axis.  Existing at the opposing ends of a second overlapping axis are sensing and intuiting. Together, the four functions represent our means and ways of knowing and understanding reality and all aspects of the human experience while mirroring aspects of the fourfold structure of the psyche. Worthy of note is that the two overlapping axes form a cross which can be referred to as a Jungian cross. 

Individuation Process: A Step-by-Step Look at Jungian Psychology

The single function (which can be any one of the four) situated at the north end of the cross is called the superior function.  It represents the most dominant and developed function.  Opposed to this function is the inferior function which has a special and unique role to play in an individual’s movement towards wholeness. Superior and inferior functions can also be identified in “the psyche” of the people of a nation or culture; and so, too, when identified, the inferior function may potentially, if not surprisingly, reveal a means to wholeness for an individual and/or the people of a nation; and yet, there is typically a price to pay on the journey to wholeness, as there are often considerable challenges to overcome in trying to integrate the inferior function with the other three in an effort to bring about a robust fully functioning psyche. 

Regarding an individual in relation to the four functions, the ego generally comes to experience three of the psychological functions as helpful.  They must, however, occupy the positions of superior, first auxiliary, and second auxiliary functions—or in other words, the positions of North, West and East, respectively, on the Jungian cross. The ego experiences its greatest comfort with the superior function (i.e., the one that develops first in consciousness) while over a period of time, a person’s ego learns to recognize the usefulness of a second function (usually called the first auxiliary function), and a third function that may be called the second auxiliary or tertiary function.  The fourth remaining function (i.e., the one at the South point of the Jungian Cross) is always the inferior function; and yet, although it offers a pathway to wholeness for the individual, it can regularly generate discomfort, frustration, and anxiety whenever the ego experiences it or acts to use it.  From an ego perspective, it seemingly and regularly falls short in some way.  Being inferior (and thus the opposite of the superior and dominant function), the domain of experience that the inferior function covers or provides access to is least valued by the superior function.

In my book Passages Beyond the Gate (2012), I discuss how these four psychological functions give rise to four strikingly different ways of knowing which we find in psychology. In American psychology they unfold in a dynamic and readily identifiable way. 

Passages Beyond the Gate: A Jungian Approach to Understanding American Psychology

As the functions begin to differentiate within the psyche of an individual, the order is such that the first to develop is the superior or dominant function.  This dynamic process determines which function will become the “troublesome,” unruly function, and that function is always the opposite function of the superior function. Two more functions will over time differentiate and become controllable and reliable (to varying degrees). 

Over time things stabilize, and the ego realizes it has three functions that it can effectively use, but one that is unreliable, difficult to manage, and thus often devalued. This dynamic is aptly named the problem of the three and the one.  It is a dynamic process that can be seen not only in an individual, but in a discipline—such as psychology, which in itself mirrors and identifies dynamics and those things of importance in the psyche of groups that comprise cultures and nations.
If the first force in American psychology, represented by behaviorism, is grounded in the function Jung called sensation—then the alignments of the three remaining functions with the three remaining psychological forces point to psychoanalysis (the original psychodynamic psychology) being grounded in thinking, and humanistic (sometimes referred to as humanistic-existential psychology) being grounded in the feeling function. Transpersonal psychology grounded in intuition represents the inferior function in American psychology; consequently, being on the same axis, it is opposite behaviorism which is grounded in sensation. With this in mind, the argument can be made that behaviorism (essentially, the tenets it rests upon that are consistent with the traditional scientific method) is not only the first force in American psychology, it also is a manifestation of sensation, the superior function in American psychology. 

There is a split in the thinking among transpersonalists regarding the means and ways one should go about studying transpersonal phenomena. On the one hand, there are those adherents, practitioners, and researchers who are compelled to explore ideas, acquire knowledge, and gather information gained only from identifying and exploring measurable phenomena. There are others who embrace a different, if not, expanded or broader view of the transpersonal that calls for the exploration and gathering of information in those realms of being that go beyond the concrete, and measurable aspects of reality. Still, some transpersonalists, like myself, believe both approaches are important, and should be pursued.

In order for transpersonal psychology to provide its ideal and unique contribution to American psychology, it must have and maintain a foothold in the metaphysical aspects of knowledge and reality. Metaphysical knowledge and spiritual values must be combined with practical applications of our understanding of science to best inform us of ways to enhance the quality of life for humanity. Such a statement points to this being a major problem in the United States because the psychology of Americans, as much as it can be discerned by how psychology is largely defined in the United States, and the value placed on it by the nation’s major and most value centers of academic learning, places an extremely high value on the sensing function which—as important as it is, promotes a materialistic viewpoint of reality, and leads to an overvaluation of science as the be-all and end-all means to improving the life of human beings. Traditional science denies or ignores the realm of the spiritual. Traditional science is grounded in a materialistic viewpoint of the world that seeks to comprehend and explain its objects, and phenomena—including its understanding of human beings. Traditional, mainstream science claims to reveal and describe how we are as human beings; and yet, over, and over again, our human lives point to there being truth in the viewpoint that “man shall not live by bread alone (Matthew 4:4)”

Sensing is the dominant function in American psychology: its dominance was originally expressed in behaviorism, but, in current day studies and practice, it is further expressed in the growing call or demand by many mainstream psychologists for all psychologists to embrace evidence based research only: that is, research based on the traditional scientific method where measurement and quantification rule. Transpersonal psychology tends not to be embraced by these mainstream psychologists because it is a psychology that in its purest form is grounded in intuition and it is open to the metaphysical realms.

A complete understanding of human nature will be gained from the contribution to knowledge that emerges from the four functions that give rise to the four forces in psychology. This means transpersonal psychology which embraces a spiritual understanding of reality cannot be pushed to the side or ignored—and yet, in American psychology, transpersonal psychology is the psychological approach mainstream psychologists are most determined to ignore, resist, ridicule, or even condemn. In order to make transpersonal psychology more acceptable to the mainstream, some transpersonalists are willing to deny the fullness of exploration and possibilities that characterize the transpersonal by avoiding the metaphysical side of the transpersonal or rejecting methods that explore it other than those ways that embrace the traditional scientific method.

At American leading academic institutions across the nation, approaches to the study of psychology (based on traditional scientific method and inquiry grounded in sensation) greatly mirror an acceptance of tenets embraced by behavioral, cognitive, biological and other related physical scientific approaches. Though, admittedly, and thankfully—so, too, can there be found at many of these institutions psychologists who adhere to the tenets of psychodynamic, and humanistic-existential approaches. All of the psychological approaches named above currently have a seat at the table; however, American psychology will never be whole or complete without transpersonal psychology also being granted a seat at the table. Once this occurs transpersonal psychology’s important contributions will be realized, as it will have been given the opportunity to fulfill its promise. In time it will be recognized that the contributions of an intuitively based transpersonal psychology are just as important as the contributions of sensation, thinking, and feeling oriented approaches, if not more so.

American psychology should be an expression of the best that each of the four functions will make possible in our quest for knowing the physical and material aspects of our being, the meaning of our lived experiences, the values that give importance to our lives, and the metaphysical possibilities as to whence we came and whither we are going both in our present earthly existence, and beyond this lifetime, given the spiritual beings that we (in essence) are from a Transpersonal perspective.

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