Transpersonal Theory – An Overview

As the globalization phenomenon strengthens its roots in the minds of increasingly more researchers, we arrive at a unique time in our history where there is access to scientific, academic, philosophical, and mystical writings on endless topics, which have been adapted to and interpreted from modern, postmodern and integral perspectives in a transdisciplinary, developmental fashion. Never before did the majority of the population have access to such vast amounts of information and wisdom presented in so many relative ways – the major problem remaining is how to get the population interested in self-discovery and self-development and how to engage ourselves on a path of personal, civic and spiritual responsibility. We believe that the first step towards a solution is that we – those preoccupied by such matters – continue developing ourselves in order to be able to guide and help the others, hoping in the mean time to inspire and lead by example.

It is one of our aims to present and share the maps developed by the pioneers of these fields through which we can learn to navigate the vastness of the human consciousness and create a common language through which we can talk about theories, inner experiences and structures of development in an accurate and intelligible manner. These maps deal with the study and development of the human nature itself, forming in a new, inclusive and holistic model of spirituality that aims to speak to the spirit of our age.

It is only in the past half of a century that a paradigmatic change in the philosophy of science as knowledge has started to take place – shifting from studying the objects of our knowledge to studying the beings who are capable of knowledge – the self (ourselves) – in a subjective, noetic, participatory, cocreative and verifiable manner. 

It is true that in the West sciences of the mind and soul have existed longer than that – the term psychiatry has been coined in 1808 by Johann Christian Reil, psychology as a self-conscious field of experimental study began in 1879, when Wilhelm Wundt opened the first experimental psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig in Germany, and that philosophy has been dealing with the concept of the self significantly since the Age of Enlightenment through Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Hume and many others. Even on a global scale, as far as we know, records of thought disorders and depression have been found dating back to 1550 BCE in the Ebers Papyrus (Okasha, Ahmed, 2005), and the ancient Greeks have dealt with concepts of the human psyche since antiquity.

And although Eastern wisdom traditions, too, have been dealing with studying and knowing the self for more than three millennia, and schools of thought and contemplative psychosomatic practices have been developed to transmit the teachings and apply them to generation after generation, it is only since the 20th century that the East and the West have started to merge and co-create a truly global sense of self. It is the first time in known history that we possess a technology which enables us to travel and know other cultures from a purely co-habitual and knowledge-driven interest, as opposed to the previous attitude of conquering and colonization.

It is now that the first generations are forming and appearing, which have the resources and the conditions needed to develop themselves in a truly holistic manner – rationally, artistically, somatically, vitally, aesthetically, emotionally, interpersonally, intrapersonally, etc. The works of the researchers presented in this article, besides many others which we will cite throughout time, are essential models for mapping the holistic development of a human being.

As presented by Jorge Ferrer (2017) in his book Participation and the Mystery, “this movement has become more prominent with the birth of transpersonal psychology in the late 1960s”, and, according to transpersonal anthropologist Lahood (2007), we can differentiate two turns in transpersonal scholarship:

“The first turn (aforementioned) can be defined as an attempt to integrate psychologies East and West; an attempt to map the farthest shores of consciousness and the merging of pragmatic science and spiritual concerns.” Lahood characterized this turn with a “commitment to religious universalism (perennialism), including the work of Maslow, Grof and Wilber as representative.”

The second turn has been called a participatory one, representing “a departure from transpersonal psychology’s allegiance to perennialism” and emphasizing “the embodied, relational and pluralistic dimensions of transpersonal events”. In this respective, the participatory perspective has been placed within a “wider second-wave transpersonalism that stresses the embodied, embedded, diverse and transformative aspects of transpersonal psychology”, rather than the structural-hierarchical ones characteristic to the first-wave transpersonalism.

In a subsequent essay, Lahood (2008) extended this account into three paradigmatic epochs of transpersonalism:

  1. Epoch One –  the pre-transpersonal movement or “psychedelic revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s, which lead to the hybridization of Eastern spirituality with entheogenic states and culminating with Maslow’s and Grof’s formalization of the movement.
  2. Epoch Two – the neo-perennial era,  which went from 1977 to the mid 1990s and is dominated by Wilber’s work, who seeks to “integrate Western and Eastern philosophy, psychology and religion into an evolutionary framework structured according to a supposedly universal teleological process (relating to or involving the explanation of phenomena in terms of the purpose they serve rather than of the cause by which they arise) whose ultimate aim is an integral non-dual realization”.
  3. Epoch Three the participatory turn, which begins in the early 1990s with R. Tarnas’ (1991) analysis of Grof’s consciousness research and is formalized in the writings of Heron (1992, 1998, 2006) and Ferrer (2002), both of whom Lahood named as “articulating cogent alternatives to transpersonal neo-perennialism”.

In following articles, we will go through the major theories in consciousness studies and transpersonal psychology and present them in rapport to their arising conditions, purpose, limitations and applicability into our lives. Since these are high-end topics and concepts, I will draw upon Maslow’s theory on the hierarchy of needs and stress upon the fact that, similar to how people who are hungry and cold don’t worry too much about self-esteem or psychology – in order to feel curiosity towards higher concepts, one must have reached and started the process of self-actualization and lay upon a well-defined basis. The higher needs become relevant only when the lower needs are satisfied.

Maslow’s updated version of the Pyramid of Needs

It is less known that Maslow amended his model near the end of his life. He argued that there is a higher level of development, what he called self-transcendence, a level achieved by practicing things that go beyond the self, such as altruism, spiritual awakening, liberation from egocentricity, and the unity of being. In The Farthest reaches of Human Nature, he explains:

“Transcendence refers to the very highest and most inclusive or holistic levels of human consciousness, behaving and relating, as ends rather than means, to oneself, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos. “

Mark Kiltko Rivera (2006) summarized the differeneces between these states in Rediscovering the Later Version of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Self-Transcendence and Opportunities for Theory, Research, and Unification:

“At the level of self-actualization, the individual works to actualize the individual’s own potential, whereas at the level of transcendence, the individual’s own needs are put aside, to a great extent, in favor of service to others …”

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl (2006) wrote:

“… the real aim of human existence cannot be found in what is called self-actualization. Human existence is essentially self-transcendence rather than self-actualization. Self-actualization is not a possible aim at all; for the simple reason that the more a [person] would strive for it, the more [they] would miss it. For only to the extent to which people commit themselves to the fulfillment of their life’s meaning, to this extent they also actualize themselves. In other words, self-actualization cannot be attained if it is made an end in itself, but only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

Through these series of posts we hope to create maps and references which will help those interested in navigating this complex fields easier, and to create an approachable introduction and materials in transpersonal psychology and holistic, integral practices for self-development.




Jorge N. Ferrer – Participation and the Mystery: Transpersonal Essays in Psychology, Education, and Religion., Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 2017.

Koltko-Rivera, Mark. (2006). Rediscovering the later version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: Self-transcendence and opportunities for theory, research, and unification. Review of General Psychology. 10. 302-317. 10.1037/1089-2680.10.4.302.

Lahood, Gregg. (2007). The Participatory Turn and the Transpersonal Movement: A Brief Introduction. Revision: A Journal of Consciousness and Transformation. 29. 2-6. 10.3200/REVN.29.3.2-6.

LAHOOD, GREGG. (2008). Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?. Anthropology of Consciousness. 19. 155 – 189. 10.1111/j.1556-3537.2008.00008.x.

Maslow, A. H. (1971). The farther reaches of human nature. New York, NY, US: Arkana/Penguin Books.

Okasha, Ahmed (2005). “Mental Health in Egypt”. The Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences. 


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