Transpersonal psychology brings into the purview of
empirical enquiry that realm of experience deemed transcendent or numinous. At
the beginning of the twentieth century William James forged links between the
new discipline and the worlds of religion and philosophy with his seminal text,
“The Varieties of Religious Experience.” James emphasised the crucial role of
subjective experience in the endeavour to explore the human psyche. Laboratory
science was in the ascendant, however, and attention soon focused on that which
could be observed and measured.
The new experimentalists were intent on breaking experience down into measurable
sensory units. James, with his concept of the transitive, relational “stream of
consciousness”, decried the reductionist tendency to atomise experience, and
delivered a cogent critique of the application of positivist methodologies to
psychology that still has resonance today. His call went unheeded. The
preoccupation with stimulus and response would win the day, eclipsing James’
ideas in the decades to come.
A mission statement, composed by John Watson in 1913, urged that psychology
abandon all allusions to consciousness. Behaviourism was born in that year and
would dominate the field of psychological enquiry for half a century, the mantle
passing to B. F. Skinner in the nineteen thirties. In accordance with its focus
solely on observable behaviour, references to the soul, inner life and conscious
experience were abjured by the majority of academics and theorists.
As transpersonal theorists engage with scientific psychology, the discipline is
changing. This is evident in the creative encounter between Eastern mystical
traditions and Western psychology , in the transcendence of traditional
boundaries between science, the arts and humanities and in the development of
methods of research that attempt to understand, rather than simply explain,
human experience .
Consciousness includes transpersonal experience. The transpersonal self, called
in Sanskrit sat-chit-ananda, being-consciousness-bliss, has been copiously
described in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Many maps exist for
this dimension of being, and many disciplines offer techniques to still the mind
and transcend the limitations of the ego.