Jo E. Schnorrenberg:
Report of the SEN symposium on “Transpersonal Psychotherapy:
A Psychotherapeutic Process, a Psychotherapeutic Method, a Psychotherapeutic Technique?”
on Saturday, September 18th 2010 at the Kolping Hotel International in Cologne, Germany
This symposium formed the morning part of the program of this year's SEN meeting. Its central theme was briefly described at the beginning by the moderator as an attempt to examine critical outside perspectives on the transpersonal approach to psychotherapy. This seemed necessary and desirable (a notion which has only been reinforced by the symposium) in light of a tendency on the part of psychotherapists with a transpersonal orientation toward perpetual mutual reassurance during interaction at conferences and meetings. While the decision to disregard biased and generalized condemnations of transpersonal psychotherapy may be justified, a tendency on the part of the transpersonal “movement“ to stonewall outside criticism altogether is counterproductive: it robs the transpersonal concept of potential opportunities for growth and for acceptance within the psychotherapeutic community as well as within society overall.
As we know, systems tend to become entrenched in a state of homeostasis, developing a tendency toward ossification and resistance to turbulence. However, it is precisely this turbulence that can raise issues that are worth dealing with in order to achieve an optimum balance. Systems theorists speak of inducing “disruptions“ which have a crisis-like effect on the affected system. Such a disruption, with as beneficial an effect as possible, should be the dramaturgical intent behind this symposium. As many participants as possible should come out feeling compelled to concern themselves with difficult questions, rather than – as is so often the case in everyday life – having merely had their pre-existing answers reinforced.
Engaging in such a process of disruption requires a willingness to take risks, as well as mutual respect and esteem. The latter should be a given among psychotherapists. However, experience has shown that in this field in particular, people are often especially sensitive. The process of orienting oneself in the transpersonal field is particularly connected with subjectively profound personal experiences. As a result, a theoretical framework and personal concept of psychotherapeutic practice which is based on such experiences can sometimes end up being subtly shielded from any criticism on a factual level, which is then perceived as an attack on these experiences which have been strongly meaningful on a personal level.
If transpersonal therapy is to be accepted within the therapy community at large, it is to be measured by the standards that apply in this community. That is not to say that there is no room for transpersonal therapists to in their turn question how appropriate these standards may be. EUROTAS is currently striving for such recognition of transpersonal therapy within the European Association for Psychotherapy (EAP) (http://www.europsyche.org/
). It therefore was a logical decision to invite one of the EAP-appointed scrutinizers to the symposium. This was the Gestalt therapist Peter Schulthess from Zurich. He is an EAP Board member and president of the European Association for Gestalt Therapy (EAGT), as well as president of the Swiss Charta for Psychotherapy. Professor Emeritus Wilfried Belschner of the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg took up the task of representing the transpersonal approach.
The task at hand was to examine differences without regarding them as shortcomings: what is different about transpersonal psychotherapy? Wilfried Belschner titled his lecture “What is the healing quality of transpersonal psychotherapy?“ At the beginning, he formulated the following thesis: “Transpersonal psychotherapy requires more and different skills than traditional psychotherapy.“ This set the tone for the content of his lecture. Wilfried Belschner cited J.D. Frank's concept of common curative factors (1961). He also characterized the image of psychotherapy in the public eye (Fischer & Belschner, 2007), which included discussion of preconceived notions of clients regarding psychotherapy. These could include a sense of having failed to achieve autonomy (“As an adult, I should be able to cope with my own problems instead of looking for outside help“), but also the expectation of a positive outcome (“I can use therapy as a starting point to change an unfulfilling situation“). But there could also be skepticism of a perceived “inferior position in the interaction“ (“What bothers me about therapy is that I don't know what it is they're doing with me”). Wilfried Belschner contrasted a possible sense of “transpersonal empowerment“ (“By doing this, I am showing that I acknowledge and want to work with my insoluble bond with nature and the cosmic order“) with a sense of “personal empowerment“ (“In seeking psychotherapeutic help, I am demonstrating a sense of responsibility toward myself“).
He suggested the usage of a session questionnaire to assess the effect of clients' expectations on the course and the result of psychotherapy.
Wilfried Belschner mentioned his dissatisfaction with the lack of a unifying factor among different theories in the psychotherapy field – something which continued to frustrate him after having undergone different kinds of professional training. As a potential solution, he suggested the incorporation of the notion of “consciousness”, as this would allow the inclusion of all existing models of psychotherapy, including transpersonal psychotherapy. Consciousness has the status of a basic anthropological category. At the same time, varying levels of consciousness can be differentiated: from everyday waking consciousness to an “altered” conscious waking state. Whereas the prerequisite of the former is subject-object duality, this changed consciousness is characterized by experiences of non-duality. Three-dimensional space, linear time, local causality as well as consistent self-organization are further criteria for everyday waking consciousness. In an analogy to physics, people can be viewed as wave functions which are not discretely separated from one another – ie, which do not have an unequivocal and permanent zero value on either side. A corresponding image would be that of a mountain range where individual peaks can be distinguished, but do all rise from the same base. From this, Wilfried Belschner concluded that connectedness is the “basic condition of human existence”, and as such forms a “quality of our true nature which contradicts our everyday experience”. Thus, different experiences can be located on a continuum between the two poles of consciousness (“duality/non-duality”). In Wilfried Belschner's view, relaxation, “flow”, and one's stream of thoughts coming to a standstill are all still close to the pole of everyday consciousness, whereas intuitive experiences, love, and experiences of all-encompassing connectedness to the point of “pure qualities of consciousness and experiences of unity” are located near the pole of “higher states of consciousness”; a state of “enlightenment”, too, belongs on this end of the spectrum.
A broadening of the states of consciousness that one is capable of experiencing subjectively can be achieved through the practice of various methods, such as for example meditation.
Wilfried Belschner has further divided this topography of consciousness into different regions, ranging from “factual, rational debate“ via “empathic discourse” to “encounters informed by the experience of pure qualities of consciousness” and “resonance as a result of the experience of non-duality”.
Accordingly, psychotherapy treatments are always “specific to the client's state of consciousness, and respond to constructions of illness specific to this state of consciousness”. Within this process, the decisive change of perspectives consists in the treatment of the “disturbed”/”sick” individual to reach a point where they are able to unfold their full potential which can be boiled down to a specific desire: “What is to be brought into the world through me?”; “Who am I really, considering that precisely in this moment Creation occurs through me and only through me?” A potential metaphor for this could be the sculpture which is still trapped in marble, but which is released, as Michelangelo believed, by a hand that willingly follows (divine) creative power.
These, then, are the qualities that distinguish the two poles of consciousness: everyday waking consciousness, – which, in Wilfried Belschner's view, is determined by “cultural expectations” – and the altered state of consciousness as a site for experiencing one's essence, one's “true nature”. In transpersonal psychotherapy, the individual should – also – be understood in his essence/full potential. This means “the context of a waking conscious state which is appropriate to the situation and which has been induced professionally” must be provided – more specifically, experiences of “pure qualities of consciousness” should be made possible. The goal behind this is the “self-organized transformation of the suffering person”. For this, the transpersonal psychotherapist needs to have had personal experience with the different qualities of consciousness and must be able to navigate between them with the client. Precisely this constitutes the “more and different skills” that distinguish transpersonal psychotherapists from traditional psychotherapists. According to Wilfried Belschner, the effectiveness of this kind of psychotherapy, based on notions of transpersonality, can be empirically demonstrated.
Following this lecture and the characteristics of transpersonal psychotherapy outlined therein, Peter Schulthess presented his critical notes under the title “Transpersonal therapy transcends the boundaries of psychotherapy”, which at the same time summed up the basic thesis of his lecture. In connection with this thesis, he asked a number of initial questions:
“Is transpersonal psychotherapy
- a path to spiritual maturation?
- a mission and a path to higher development for mankind?
- a religion?
- a form of psychotherapy?
- And what are its theoretical and political implications?”
Peter Schulthess pointed out the problem of unclear definitions as well as the muddling of disparate fields, beginning with the notion that transpersonal therapy is an umbrella term for various methods, which conjures up the impression of a pool of different esoteric and psycholytic ideas. The terms “religiousness” and “spirituality' are used interchangeably. More broadly, he asked the question why religious practices are psychotherapy to begin with.
Spirituality can be understood as the art of living – with keywords such as awareness, mindfulness, groundedness, connectedness, engagement, and transformation – and thus distinguished from an understanding of this concept as an evolutionary mission with the goal of bringing people to a higher level of development – a programmatic approach to personal development which is contrary to the development of a mature self-identity.
He saw the danger of the closeness of this second definition to the ideologies of totalitarian systems (National Socialism). With regard to the susceptibility of models of psychology and psychotherapy to such ideas, he brought up examples from his field, that of Gestalt therapy and Gestalt psychology. In contrast with Berlin Gestalt psychology (Wertheimer, Koffka, Köhler) with its emphasis on having a sense of personal boundaries, there were the Leipzig and Graz schools of Gestalt psychology (Ehrenfels, Weinhändl) with their notions of higher levels of order, which incorporated ideological concepts such as the notion of an Aryan Volkskörper (national body) or plans for the “Germanic race” to achieve an ultimate stage of evolution. Peter Schulthess pointed out the impact these ideas had on Graf Dürckheim, among others, and raised the question of to what extent this past has been dealt with within the field of transpersonal psychotherapy. Within this context, he also voiced criticism of Ken Wilber's concepts and constructs as being a mythical collective model of evolution.
Peter Schulthess contrasted this with a summary of the central beliefs of humanistic psychology:
- People must be viewed as equal and fully developed. Uniqueness of the individual.
- Psychotherapy as support in using one's full potential.
- Development of the individual takes place through self-determination, rather than being controlled by society.
- The goal is to help the client develop their powers of distinction, courage of conviction, their ability to say “no” or “yes” and draw boundaries.
Strengthening of the individual.
- Mindfulness of oneself, a potential significant other, and one's social and ecological environment.
- Flat hierarchies or no hierarchies at all. Self-regulation of the organism.
In contrast to all this, Schulthess has a different understanding of transpersonal psychology:
- Transcending individuality.
- Individual satisfaction of needs comes second to the needs of the greater good.
- Attention to the transpersonal is more important than attention to the interpersonal.
- Emphasis on spiritual growth.
- Evolutionary model.
- Regressive, supports confluence.
- Notion of people developing differently. Inequality.
Leader, Student-teacher. Dependency.
Transpersonal psychology developed from humanistic psychology. However, whereas humanistic psychology developed within a social context of cultural liberation, protest and change, the emergence of transpersonal psychology in the US occurred at a time of conformism and a political shift to the right. In the background Peter Schulthess sees, among other things, the spiritual/magical, transcultural teachings of the Russian Helena Blavatsky, which constituted an alternative to rationalistic science; a position which can be viewed as a romantic regression to the preservation of the old order and values.
Against this background, Peter Schulthess showed contradictions between humanistic psychology (as being an emancipatory psychology) and transpersonal psychology. Whereas humanistic psychology is based on a notion that all people are equal, on the side of transpersonal psychology, there is inequality; whereas humanistic psychology strives for individuation, transpersonal psychology focuses on transcending individuality. For this reason, he sees a danger within transpersonal psychology of encouraging dependency, in contrast to the emancipatory approach of humanistic psychology. At the center of the humanistic view of man is the individual with a stable ego structure and self-responsibility in their contact with other individuals, whereas the transpersonal view of man focuses, of course, on transpersonality, in which ego structures become weaker. What is viewed as a sense of integration into the spiritual/divine may indeed require regression and confluence. In a sociopolitical context, a democratic understanding of the psychotherapy process on the one hand is accompanied on the other by the danger of potential totalitarian appropriation. The same is true for the hierarchical structures common to transpersonal groups, which are unhelpful in developing autonomy.