I was asked during a first year tutorial – “Why is it that you are on a Transpersonal course?”
This question followed my confession of discomfort, frustration and dislike towards the terms ‘Soul’ and ‘Spirit.’ Their recurrent use in the Diploma course conjured unpleasant memories and made me feel deeply uncertain about my choice of training course. What had I gotten myself into?
Over the next two years, I returned several times to this question.
Why am I undertaking a Transpersonal Psychotherapy training? The Psychotherapy bit is easy to answer, the Transpersonal part is a bit less clear.
I took a certificate in counselling at Birkbeck, which introduced me to Psychodynamic and Person Centered theories. I found the Person Centred approach much more appealing from a practice standpoint, the depth and complexity of Psychodynamic theory however, continued to hold a great deal of interest for me. I came to understand that one approach alone would not satisfy my curiosity and that Integrative Psychotherapy would be a better modality for me to pursue, looking forward.
After the certificate, I chose to take a year out, to figure out what I wanted to do and if psychotherapy really was the right path for me.
That year out brought a lot of changes in my personal life. I got a new job and my wife and I moved further into London. Both the change in work and moving were reliant upon one another. A better paying job meant we could afford to move, and the move helped us be closer to our respective workplaces. For me however, the trade did not sit too well. I had taken the job purely for the financial stability it offered and was now bound to it by the need to pay the increased costs in rent.
The stress of working a job I didn’t like, but felt obliged to stick at, began to take its toll. I became more disillusioned and unhappy and started to look for a therapist with whom to work out how to become unstuck. After some searching and enquiry, I was directed to the low cost psychotherapy service at CCPE. I began therapy in July of 2015 with a third year diploma student. We discussed my interest in progressing with my psychotherapy training, but I was anxious about making the commitment. Would I be able to get onto a course and was this a financial and time commitment I felt I could make at this point. In therapy we worked through these concerns and I came to the decision I did want to continue my training, starting in the near future.
I had spent a lot of my year off reading Irvin Yalom’s books and felt I wanted to undertake an Existential training, having also read a little Existential Philosophy and finding the ideas to sit well with my own views.The one Existential training course I knew of was close to home, but costly and would require me to take a day off work to attend lectures. I sat down to fill out the application form and found myself unable to do so. I felt somehow blocked and brought my feelings to therapy. Together, we looked at what was going on. I put my hesitation down to time and financial constraints, however, something else felt wrong. I later came to the conclusion my interest in the Existential Training came purely from my head and not much from the heart.
My therapist suggested I look into the training at Centre for Counselling and Psychotherapy Eduction (CCPE). All of the practical elements fell into place; the fees were reasonable, the lectures were in the evenings and there were weekends, meaning I could fit the course around work and not have to worry about dropping a day and having to make up the shortfall in income.
The big problem lay in the underlying ethos of the course; the ‘Spiritual’ component. As far as I regarded myself, I was about as spiritually inclined as a block of cement.
The big problem lay in the underlying ethos of the course; the ‘Spiritual’ component. As far as I regarded myself, I was about as spiritually inclined as a block of cement. I discussed this concern too with my therapist and he reassured me that the course was integrative in nature and that I did not necessarily have to align myself fully with the spiritual element. The college was not interested in churning out carbon copy Transpersonal therapists. He reassured me I would gain a solid grounding in Psychodynamic and Humanistic theories along with the Transpersonal components. I was excited to see that some Existential theory was covered in the lectures, so I felt I would still get some of the information I hungered for.
I applied and happily was accepted. Upon arriving for the first lecture, I felt both excited and intimidated. I was not used to sitting in a room with so many new people in this context. My certificate group at Birkbeck had been of no more than fifteen, now I had another fifty of so classmates surrounding me. In the introductory lecture the words ‘Spirit’ and ‘Soul’ came up repeatedly and I felt my heart begin to sink. I really was in the wrong place.
Why such an aversion to these words?
This lay in my history and relationship with religious and spiritual ideas. I had grown up having to go to church and by my teenage years had become quite frustrated with Christianity. I’d formed a negative impression from feeling I was subjected to having hierarchical and authoritarian dogma pushed at me from several angles. There seemed to be no room for ‘what ifs?’ What if there is no God, heaven, afterlife. What if this is it? What if our lives don’t follow a prescriptive path.
I felt deeply uncomfortable with the pre-deterministic sense I got from statements such as ‘God has a plan,’ which were then contradicted by ‘God made us with free will.’ These sentiments formed an infuriating paradox, which to me felt like self protective systems; control mechanisms that punished the enquiring mind and ultimately illustrated what I came to view as dogmatic hypocrisy. Additionally, I felt there was a message that humans could not develop values or morals and live good lives without following and prostrating themselves before God. These requirements of blind faith began to make me angry, that anger and agitation was focussed and sharpened by my finding punk music and alternative culture in my early teens.
These ideologies, from all camps, also seemed to make pretty hefty bludgeons, with which people can beat others.
Christianity had a bad name within the corners of these particular subcultures, however another extreme ideology filled that void; Atheism. To me, this really was no better than the rigidity of Christianity, another set of dogma insisting on absolutes and denying any other ideas, picked up and preached by other wounded outsiders, like myself who needed a sense of meaning and purpose. These ideologies, from all camps, also seemed to make pretty hefty bludgeons, with which people can beat others.
In parallel to this wave of new ideas, I began to learn a little about Buddhism at school. Buddhist ideas were refreshing and seemed more adaptable to the lives of their practitioners, providing a practical method of moving towards a better way of life. This new information gave reinforcement to my sense of an alternative way of living beyond consumerism and meritocratic pursuit. Another formative concept that I became aware of at that time and directed my values was Maslow’s concept of ‘Self Actualisation,’ that humans could achieve a higher state of potential. This powerful idea mingled with the concept of Buddhist values and punk’s quest for emancipation, came together in a heady mix of ideologies. Even Christian morality felt related, once the dogma and hierarchy were removed – all good ideas for living a better life. The realisation that I was searching for a more meaningful way of living became clarified by my repeated attempts to find an occupation or mode of study that felt right, once I had left school. I tried art college, working as as a bicycle mechanic, undertook a music degree and worked in special needs. Each brought new levels of understanding of myself, but none felt quite like they fully satisfied my quest to understand more of the nature of life.
Comfort came in this time of uncertainty, from learning of the Buddhist concept of impermanence, transience of life
The most significant experience that came during those formative years, was that in my early twenties I got very ill. I was forced to face my mortality and stop everything. With no stable idea of what would happen next, I had to take life a day at a time. During my time of illness, I explored more ideas; Buddhism again, Taoism and Existentialism. I looked back to Christianity in some of my more desperate moments, but really found nothing there for me. Comfort came in this time of uncertainty, from learning of the Buddhist concept of impermanence, transience of life. I understood that if I could begin to accept some of this, the prospect of my own death was not so overwhelming. The idea of an afterlife, coloured by my Christian upbringing, felt as wrong to me as much of the other dogmatic principles.
I took stock of and consolidated ideas into my own philosophy of life, landing upon the conclusion that as I knew from my modest grasp of physics, if energy is constant and matter is an expression of energy, everything must be comprised of the same singular/original energetic force that prompted the big bang. All matter is a physical manifestation of energy, by logic, ultimately to return to that singular energetic stste. This was framed better by a saying from Buddhism – We are all waves on the same ocean. Each individual wave is a transient expression of the greater whole, rising and falling but for a moment in the span of existence. This brought me a great sense of peace. I felt the idea of interconnectedness coming to life, of all being part of a greater system together.
From my reading of Yalom, I recognised my experience of ‘Death Anxiety,’ but also the paralysis I had suffered from other anxieties; searching for meaning, being overwhelmed by the freedom of choice and opportunity I was confronted with in life before, yet the paradoxical sense of powerlessness. Getting ill wiped all that aside, I was forced to be present and learned to enjoy the simple act of breathing and being. Something within me gave me the sense I was going to be alright.
I was working with a counsellor a few months before I started to present with symptoms of what later turned out to be cancer. Little did I know, she was quite Transpersonal in approach. She taught me to focus on my breathing and to use visualisation to tackle problems I was facing. I had gotten much more than I’d bargained for, originally enquiring about being treated by a CBT therapist (this was in 2010 before I’d done any training of my own.) However, these tools helped me through my illness, I experienced their power, but I never considered them spiritual as such.
Spiritual as a lump of cement.
Funnily enough I still feel that a lot of the time. Something around my understanding of the concept of soul as a personal expression of spirit still does not sit well, despite slowly severing the bonds from the negative experience and connotations of Christianity. My view of ‘Spirit’ from a Transpersonal standpoint still is inflected with the tainted concept of a higher being, who has a predetermined plan and regards humanity with benevolence, despite all of the atrocity and destruction the human race has wrought upon the earth.
I still find myself asking; what if this is really all there is, my subjective experience of life? What if there is not a state of permanent essence beyond this life? Maybe I’ve horribly misunderstood what I think CCPE’s view of soul is and coloured it with this biased lense. I react to the CCPE’s Transpersonal/Spiritual assumptions as though there is an controlling authority behind it all – ‘Your soul/true nature is the way you are meant to be, the original traits imprinted upon your soul from the time it incarnated into your body at birth.’
we’re not regressing to the ‘divine nature’ we were supposedly originally imbued with, but evolving into something new that includes and transcends all of our experience
What of authorship of one’s own existence? What if the apparent order that has come from chaos is pure chance. Some force, the Tao, is just driving everything blindly forward. That which works, works. That which doesn’t, doesn’t. No purpose, no great design, no super consciousness being formed. I get the impression from the idea of a unique soul nature, who you are is inescapable and we have to work backwards to find ourselves. Perhaps here is where Ken Wilber’s ‘Pre-Trans Fallacy’ comes into play; we’re not regressing to the ‘divine nature’ we were supposedly originally imbued with, but evolving into something new that includes and transcends all of our experience. I like the idea we are in a constant state of becoming, not attempting to deprogram ourselves and revert back to an underlying true/divine self.
Back to 2016: My tutor, after asking my why I was doing this course, then very helpfully suggested I just try and suspend my disbelief and engage more with the ideas presented.
So what of The Transpersonal?
I think it means – that which is beyond the conditioned ego. The potential for expansion of awareness and consciousness that goes beyond who we think we are as individuals. Being able to see perhaps that we are part of a greater system of existence.
The word ‘Spirit’ keeps coming back undigested. Maybe it’s just a case of semantics? What is meant by spirit may be the same as my understanding of the Tao, a constant universal energy that drives all of the existence we seem to experience? That sounds like it makes sense, although I don’t think putting words like ‘divine’ or ‘soul’ near it are necessary. To me, they form an anthropocentrist defence; humanity’s need to reassure itself it is distinct and special.
I agree, humanity is the only species on earth we know of, that is able to critically evaluate itself and understand it is consciously aware, but the universe is incomprehensibly massive. For humans to say we are Spirit’s (this unfathomable creative force,) way of coming to consciously experience itself, well, that seems a little narcissistic to me. We, as a species fuck up a hell of a lot and I wouldn’t say humanity’s collective progress has contributed to the improvement of the planet. So far, it seems we’ve done more to destroy it.
But again, the more I begin to learn, the more I realise how little I know. All of the above is more than likely my misunderstanding, or my defences coming into play around my own numerous unresolved internal conflicts. But, what I have written above makes up a fair representation of what I feel right now. I’m trying to learn to own and accept that, and to continue to value myself and be open to learning.
Just recently I heard the phrase ‘The Zen of Don’t Know.’ I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean yet, but my inference is that there is a beauty in accepting we don’t and may never know anything in absolute terms, (that I suppose is a given,) yet there is great value in remaining curious.
I am on a Transpersonal training because it gives me the freedom to explore these unknowns without having to adhere to an overly rigid paradigm. Transpersonal theory is holistic, inclusive and expansive. The danger is, there may be too many avenues to go down and get lost in for an ideas hungry intuitive type like myself. As long I can try and check in with what my internal compass is telling me, hopefully I’ll be ok. I might be able to do some work that not only changes my life for the better, but possibly the lives of the others I have the privilege of coming into contact with.
I still struggle to view my outlook as spiritual, but I’m certainly now more comfortable to say it is Transpersonal.