Transpersonal Therapy: A Therapist's View on Presence, Compassion and Imagination
Transpersonal therapists believe we have a deeper, more authentic self waiting to be discovered
Therapist Richard Graveling explores the qualities of presence, compassion and imagination as tools in therapy
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A number of therapists (including myself) describe themselves as working transpersonally. But what does this mean? The term transpersonal implies something beyond the personal, but this definition may leave some people none the wiser!
So, with this question in mind, I offer a brief outline of what transpersonal means for me, from a therapist’s perspective.
Overview of transpersonal therapy
In a lot of ways, transpersonal therapy may appear similar to other approaches. A client comes to therapy with a particular set of issues, and the therapist seeks to help the client understand their difficulties.
This will typically involve exploring the client’s relationship patterns (with others and with themselves), recognising limiting beliefs, and helping the client to ultimately befriend their experience (with the support of empathic modelling and acceptance from the therapist).
This last point feels to be the most essential aspect of therapy. If the client learns that their feelings have a context (and so make sense), that they are acceptable (and so do not need to be rejected), and that the client trusts that feelings can be allowed to be fully felt, then this opens the way for a softening of habitual defences, allowing the possibility for more awareness and insight to emerge.
One way of understanding the transpersonal emphasis, is through the quality of presence. Presence essentially means being fully in the here and now. This is a panoramic awareness that can include awareness of feeling states, bodily sensations, energies and cognitions. Grounding in the body and the feelings helps to anchor awareness in the present, as 'the body is always now'.
However, more profoundly, presence can be experienced deeply as a field of awareness, where the habitual sense of self appears to recede into a spacious immediacy of awareness, and where the boundaries between self and the world feel less clearly defined – the experience can be that of the therapist and client inhabiting a shared space.
When in touch with the experience of presence, it can feel imbued with certain qualities, such as sensitivity, compassion, peace, spaciousness and clarity – there can also be a sense of one’s nature being inherently good, with the trust that we can let go into our experience. Indeed, the experience can be one of feeling supported by a deeper ground of Being.
The Higher Self
Transpersonal therapists would say that we have a deeper, more authentic nature beyond our everyday sense of self, which has variously been termed the “Higher Self”, or “True Nature”.
Through presence, some of the qualities of our deeper nature can emerge, helping not only the therapist attune to the client with sensitivity, clarity and compassion, but can allow these to be experienced in turn by the client – providing them with the resources needed to be able to fully meet their experience, so that it can be worked through more effectively.
It seems that self-compassion is a fundamental healing agent in therapy – when clients can really begin to access this then something can begin to shift at a deeper level. Transpersonal therapists would largely hold that compassion is an intrinsic quality of our deeper (or higher) nature, and that it can arise in the shared space between therapist and client – almost as if it doesn’t belong to either of them individually.
Use of the imagination
Another emphasis in transpersonal therapy is on the use of the imagination, where spontaneous images and symbols can be worked with consciously to help understand what might seeking to emerge into awareness and be more fully known – these might be what are termed ‘lower unconscious’ aspects of the psyche, such as unconscious feelings and inner conflicts, as well as ‘higher unconscious’ aspects, such as the arising of joy, strength or love.
Ultimately, the goal is for a greater level of integration that includes our heights as well as our depths. This would seem to correspond with Carl Jung’s notion of individuation, or of becoming a more ‘complete human being’.
How transpersonal therapy can help
The transpersonal approach provides an orientation towards working with clients i.e. through the emphasis on being present to what’s emerging in the here and now between the therapist and client, at the level of body, feelings, cognitions and imagination. This may incorporate meditations and various exercises.
It also provides a framework for understanding non-ordinary psychological states that might typically be called 'transpersonal', such as meditative states, feelings of interconnectedness, states of boundless awareness and love, or a sense of being supported by a deeper ground of Being.
In the nuts and bolts of the therapy session, this understanding will often largely be implicit. The explicit work might be more psychodynamic (working with attachment and relationship patterns) or exploring boundaries etc. However, by embodying presence and the qualities that are inherent within it, the therapist maintains an attitude of trust that the client has all the resources they need, and that these qualities are seeking to emerge through the symptoms that they are experiencing. The therapist is therefore simply a guide to support the client’s emerging process.