The Larger Context of Transpersonal Psychotherapy

For over twenty years we at the Transpersonal Therapy Centre of Toronto have been in the business of teaching psychotherapy skills in a spiritual context.

Under recently enacted legislation, psychotherapy has been designated a ‘controlled act’; this means that if one wishes to practice as a psychotherapist in Ontario one must be licensed in compliance with this act.

The word ‘transpersonal’ effectively means ‘spiritual’. Our name signifies that our work is grounded – not in a medical model, but in the full ‘spectrum of consciousness’ represented by the spiritual wisdom traditions.

Some of the techniques we teach have come out of 20th century psychotherapies like Gestalt; others have come out of what has been called the personal growth or human potential movement.

Emphasizing human potential rather than pathology, the human potential movement specifically sought to distance psychological or spiritual self-exploration from the medical model. Others techniques we teach, like meditation, movement, ecstatic dance, etc. are purely spiritual in nature and are clearly oriented to self-realization and spiritual enlightenment. Our Living Spirit course was explicitly a training in spiritual exploration. And of course the silent meditation retreats that we have run for over twenty-five years are purely spiritual in nature.

The focus of our work, then, has been grounded – not in the medical model – but in the perennial philosophy.

This perennial philosophy is the understanding common to all spiritual traditions that (1) human life has its source in a divine ground, and . . . (2) our destiny as human beings is to evolve into the conscious realization of this, and (3) in this we discover our true nature. This understanding is central to all the work we do at the TTC. Indeed, from our point of view, the denial of this deeper context to life is itself a kind of existential alienation or dissociation.

It may be pointing out the obvious, but let us be clear about it: this is not the medical model.

To quote Wikipedia, the medical model is ‘an approach to pathology that aims to find medical treatments for diagnosed symptoms and syndromes and treats the human body as a very complex mechanism’. The key term here is ‘mechanism’.

While it may seem helpfully ‘modern’ to describe the complexities of the human instrument in mechanistic terms, it is largely unrecognized just how injurious this philosophy of technological reductionism can become to the human condition. We are not biological machines and the insistence that we are, and that we should rightly conceive of ourselves in such terms is itself a kind of fixation that leads to untoward consequences. It has led to treatment modalities that are as detrimental to the individual as the syndromes they aim to cure. And in its dehumanizing and objectifying of the individual it has added significantly to the spiritual malaise of modern culture. Unfortunately this conception of the human condition has come to dominate much of society’s thinking.

The term ‘psychotherapy’ has come to be associated with this model, but not exclusively so. Over the last twenty years the split between the medical and the spiritual is one that we at the TTC have been able to negotiate. Indeed, it should be possible to practice psychotherapy in a spiritual context; the whole Jungian tradition is an attempt to do this. And we have always been clear that the skills we are teaching in our training are taught in this larger context.

What is that larger context? It is that of the wisdom traditions.

To quote Wikipedia: ‘wisdom tradition’ is a synonym for the perennial philosophy, ‘the idea that there is a perennial or mystic inner core to all religious or spiritual traditions without the trappings, doctrinal literalism, sectarianism and power structures that are associated with institutionalized religion.’

In our view this ‘perennial’ understanding is an accurate one, and the reason that it is ‘perennially’ rediscovered is that it is a cognition of the real, just as a long line of mystics, buddhas and sages have affirmed.

Our training, then, aligns itself with those wisdom traditions that have as their aim the awakening to this true nature. The traditions that recognize and are dedicated to this awakening variously call it enlightenment, self-realization, heart-realization . . . This is the deep context of our work, rather than the reductive conception of therapy and pathology that emerges from a psychology of biological materialism.

A Call to Wake Up