My introduction to transpersonal psychology came in the form of initiation. I was no stranger to adolescent disturbances, assigned twelve-step meetings, and group therapy for my drinking after having wrecked my car, and there were many less outwardly consequential experiences that nonetheless ate at my soul. I could not wait to get to college, with the promise that I could party without getting grounded by my parents. I was a young conservative and aspiring fraternity brother, concerned much more with how many seconds I could do a keg stand than choosing a major.
After only a month of microeconomics during the summer, my budding alcoholism became apparent. I was drinking before all social events and blacking out frequently. Somehow, I still managed to get through my course unscathed, but once fall semester commenced, I could not keep it together any longer. After drinking late on a night of orientation, I couldn’t sleep. I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin and my hands were starting to shake whenever I started sobering up. As the sun began to rise and before I slept at all, I decided to walk back to the dormitory from where I crashed the night before.
During my walk, I began losing touch with reality. At first I felt extraordinarily optimistic about my life and the immense possibility of my future. George W. Bush was President at the time and his checkered past informed me that you just never know where life could take you. Soon I found myself delusional, imagining that my new fraternity was a secret society that was granting me supernatural, psychic powers. When I went to the fraternity house to investigate further, older brothers told me to “get lost,” assuming I was high on drugs.
By the time I finally walked from the fraternity house to the dormitory, I was in a state of ecstatic bliss. I felt as if I had never truly experienced life before now. The sun was bright, its light viscous, bathing me in warmth and luminosity. The air felt alive as it sang through the trees and danced around my body. I pulled off my shirt to feel closer to the sun and began gleefully waving to every passerby. My senses were on high; I could smell the fragrance of distant flowers and all of life was aglow. My breath was aligned with the cosmos, with God. My being felt extraordinarily spacious. Surely this was a religious experience of biblical proportions.
As I considered what happened to me, I realized I had not taken any drugs. Scanning the possible explanations for my sudden state of euphoria, I came to the conclusion that I must be the Second Coming of Christ. Given my conservative Catholic upbringing, where direct knowledge of God was reserved for Jesus and the prophets, it was the only logical explanation. I ran to my friends to tell them how they would be my first disciples and began preaching about heaven on earth and how the whole planet would be healed by math. Then the campus police came, arrested me, and escorted me to the back of their car. I was terrified and surprisingly compliant, so much so that one said right in front of me, “What should we do with him?” The other replied, “Let’s just take him in."
Eventually I was brought to a psychiatric hospital and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a chronic illness marked by alternating mania and depression and the possibility of psychosis in extreme states. No mention of the spiritual nature of my experience was ever discussed, except in one mention of symptomatology from my doctor, when he said, “Some patients get so grandiose that they believe they are the reincarnation of God.”
Introduction to Transpersonal Psychology
At the time of my episode, I knew hardly anything about psychology, let alone transpersonal psychology. Four years after my episode, I committed to recovery from alcohol and other substances. Through my recovery journey, I found myself in Boulder, Colorado, at a therapeutic halfway house, and I eventually enrolled at Naropa University. In the undergraduate psychology program, I chose to concentrate in humanistic and transpersonal psychology and began making sense of some of my personal experiences.
In the most distilled sense, transpersonal psychology can be defined as the integration of psychology and spirituality (Cortright, 1997, p. 8). Transpersonal literally breaks down as the prefix trans-, meaning across or beyond, and personal referring to persona or ego, so transpersonal psychology concerns itself with the developmental propulsion beyond the egocentric confines of one’s separate and distinct self-concept (Cortright, 1997, p. 9). Transpersonal psychology is not a spiritual elevation of psychological principles, nor is it the reduction of spiritual attainment to psychological terms (Washburn, 1995, p. 1). Transpersonal psychology is devoted to the synthesis of both, viewing the mystical dimensions of consciousness beyond the individual as valid, while also encompassing the science of psychology in all its incredible findings and inevitable limitations.
Bypassing Spiritual Bypass
One of the major contributions of transpersonal psychology is the identification of various methods of psychological disturbance within spiritual contexts. For the sake of conciseness, I will briefly point out three main concepts that influenced my own development, in the event one might want to research them further: (1) spiritual emergency, (2) spiritual bypass, and (3) the pre/trans fallacy. A word of caution is offered as well.
The most pertinent transpersonal concept to my own experience, spiritual emergency, comes from Stanislov and Christina Grof (1993) and their descriptions of psychological disturbances on the path of spiritual awakening (pp. 137-139). What might be considered merely psychosis to the untrained eye could indeed be the psychological disorganization of spiritual emergence and must not be treated merely as psychopathology but as a growth opportunity (Grof & Grof, 1993, p. 138).
In my own experience, I recognized that my views on God and spirituality shifted from the Catholic framework of my childhood. I viewed religion as much less literal and much more metaphorical. In this way, there was a greater accessibility to Jesus’s teachings but also feelings of isolation and alienation. Without anyone to validate these spiritual insights outside of religious contexts, I was left with the notion that these realizations were all signs and symptoms of mental illness. The concept of spiritual emergency afforded me a chance to see some of my confusion as a progression of insight, validating what felt so true during my episodes and even long after the experiences had dissipated.
Another method of confusing spiritual and psychological material involved more inner interpretation rather than diagnostic confusion. John Welwood originally coined the term spiritual bypass to describe the use of spiritual and religious practices in order to avoid mental and emotional pain, and Chogyam Trungpa used a similar term, spiritual materialism, to further define the ways spirituality might be used to reinforce the ego (Cortright, 1997, p. 210). Spiritual bypass therefore condones the usefulness of psychotherapeutic work as a wise compliment to spiritual pursuits.
The flipside of reducing spiritual insight to bipolar symptoms is this elevation of delusional thinking to enlightenment or becoming a prophet. The concept of spiritual bypass speaks most strongly to me in that it calls for the recognition of psychological disturbance and the need for appropriate treatment, even in the midst of genuine spiritual awakening. For me, even though I was realizing the truth of mystical wisdom woven throughout religious teachings across various times and cultures, I still had a lot of emotional pain and mental anguish that needed to be treated.
Lastly, Ken Wilber (1993) made a major contribution to the conceptualization of ego transcendence by noting a tendency called the pre/trans fallacy, whereby one attributes transegoic qualities to preegoic states of development (p. 125). In plainer terms, he means that being like a child who is underdeveloped in their identity is different than a spiritually awakened person who has transcended a developed ego. Upon first glance, they might appear similar due to a lack of ego identification, but in the child the ego has yet to form (preegoic), and the awakened person has gone beyond the ego (transegoic). Wilber (1993) argues that transcendence requires the formation of an identity to transcend, so one is not entering the transcendent state of consciousness beyond the ego in psychopathic states, but rather has yet to fully develop (p. 128). As the Western spiritual teacher, Ram Dass often says, “You have to be a somebody before you can become a nobody.”
Because Wilber and other transpersonal theorists have at times drawn a clear line delineating spiritual awakening and ego regression, I found in myself the tendency to try to figure out whether my experiences were spiritual or the result of mental illness. There was not much room in my readings or in my own mind to find the truth in both. I have seen this tendency replicated in various blogs on alternative approaches to mental health, and I have worked with people suffering unnecessarily from the false belief that their experiences cannot be both pathological and genuinely spiritual.
Missing the Mark
The primary caution I would give to anyone sorting through symptoms of mental illness and spiritual awakening is to stay honest and balanced in such exploration. In most cases, this means exploring spiritual material with the help of a clinician as well as a trained guide. Transpersonal theory is an incredible lens of psychology that might help validate spiritual experiences amid mental and emotional turmoil, but I also have firsthand experience of how these concepts can be used to ignore pathology. Spiritual bypass must be acknowledged to allow emotional development alongside spiritual practice and insight. To bypass spiritual bypass would be to miss the mark and possibly write off all psychopathy as spiritual emergence. With bipolar disorder, particularly manic psychosis, there are often peak experiences of undeniable spiritual profundity, but the extent to which those insights are integrated will ultimately be the measure of their usefulness.
The Bipolar Psyche
These three concepts of spiritual emergency, spiritual bypass, and the pre/trans fallacy were paramount to my own integration of spiritual material with comorbid psychopathology. I must confess however that for a long time, even having studied these concepts, I tended to fall into dichotomous thinking regarding bipolar disorder and spiritual emergency. I would convince myself at times that I surely did have an identity to transcend, only to reverse my thinking and recall how emotionally and mentally disturbed I was at the time. Even now, fourteen years since my initial episode, I still cannot say that I was merely in an ego regression state or an ego transcendent state. I see both operating at the same time.
I had a difficult time bridging the painful dissonance of authentic spiritual insight and genuine bipolar symptomatology. Then I found a transpersonal theorist named Michael Washburn (1995) who offered a more inclusive and dynamic paradigm which presented the psychological structures of the mind and its innate spiritual drive as two aspects of the same source (p. 4). He called this primordial root of the psyche the dynamic ground, from which both psychological unease and spiritual awakening both emerge (p. 4). Washburn asserted that there can be “regression in the service of transcendence,” which provides more space to have the sort of co-occurring ego regression and ego transcendence I experienced myself (p. 7). Or to say it another way, I could have spiritual realization at the same time that I was experiencing psychosis. The dynamic ground was the perfect antidote to my confusion around whether or not my spiritual experiences were regressive or transcendent. I could experience the truth of both without overly concerning myself over Wilber’s pre/trans fallacy and other transpersonal or spiritual criteria.
Washburn (1995) even goes so far as to say the nature of the psyche is bipolar, constantly seeking complementary balance between egoic and nonegoic polarities (p. 11). Within the human mind, there is the need to be a separate and distinct identity, which can survive and interact appropriately with others and the environment, but there is also the part of ourselves which desires a more unitive state of consciousness, which sees the interdependent nature of life and the impermanence of our precious existence.
Washburn’s theory of the dynamic ground naturally appealed to me, validating the order in disorder and providing me with more space to treat symptoms while also honoring spiritual insight. Today I recognize my bipolar disorder as a neurological condition which requires vigilant attention and sustainable treatment while maintaining the growth opportunities afforded to me through qualities of spiritual emergence. Holding both has forced me to transcend the false dichotomy of psychology and spirituality, allowing the discovery of a personal synthesis which might best be described as “transpersonal.”
A Word of Encouragement
My hope in sharing this personal story in conjunction with transpersonal theory is to bring more awareness to the spiritual potential of bipolar disorder. For many years, I lived in secret shame about my spiritual insights, afraid that if I openly discussed my experiences I might be mocked, ridiculed, or further pathologized.
There are certainly pitfalls along the path of integrating spiritual insight and bipolar recovery, but there can be a rich, depth of personal redemption by finding peace amid such chaos and confusion. When explored in secret, spirituality can become dangerous and we can lose ourselves to feelings of grandiosity and thoughts of delusion. But when approached in a cautious and respectful manner which honors both the healing potential and destructive properties, spiritual practice and study can aid one’s recovery in miraculous ways. This has at least been my experience.
Chris Cole is the author of The Body of Chris: A Memoir of Obsession, Addiction, and Madness, and he’s a life coach for people in recovery.
1. Cortright, B. (1997). Psychotherapy and spirit: Theory and practice in transpersonal psychology. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
2. Grof, C., & Grof, S. (1993). Spiritual emergency: The understanding and treatment of transpersonal crisis. In F. Vaughan & R. Walsh (Eds.), Paths beyond ego: The transpersonal vision (pp. 137-144). New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam.
3. Washburn, M. (1995). The ego and the dynamic ground: A transpersonal theory of human development (2nd ed.). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
4. Wilber, K. (1993). The pre/trans fallacy. In F. Vaughan & R. Walsh (Eds.), Paths beyond ego: The transpersonal vision (pp. 124-129). New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam.