Participatory Turn in Transpersonal Psychology

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Gregg Lahood:

"I divide transpersonal psychology into three broad epochs, and while they all overlap and have fuzzy borders three patterns can be teased out.

Epoch one is the pretranspersonal movement, sometimes called the ‘‘psychedelic revolution,’’ which was/is highly politically motivated.

With roots in the early 1950s and the Beat Generation (and earlier American Romanticism) this movement gathered momentum throughout the 1960s and 1970s (peaking during the Vietnam War and the civil strife occurring in the United States between 1963 and 1975 and becoming powerfully linked to the political/religious enactment of an alternate spiritual counter-reality).

This grassroots movement intentionally hybridizes psychedelic states with Eastern religious postulates (e.g., samadhi, satori, wu, dharmakaya, moksha, satchitananda, etc.) and cosmic consciousness, which culminates in the movement’s formalization a year after psychedelics are banned in the United States. The transpersonal research of Abraham Maslow and Stanislav Grof are seen as the seminal foundations of the formalized movement, and Grof becomes the central activist over the next 10 years.

The following statement from Rick Fields’ study of how Buddhism infiltrated the United States is an important window into this fascinating era:

Whatever else LSD became in time; at that moment it was the messenger that led a fair number of people into the dazzling land of their own mind. What had begun as the private discovery of a few intellectuals and experimenters had spread in a flash, and for a split second of history it was as if the veil had been rent and all the archetypes of the collective unconscious sprang forth. More often than notFfor reasons no one could explainFthese came in the guise of the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon . . . blue-hued baby Krishna standing on a glowing white lotus. [1992:249]

As early as 1957, Gary Snyder, who was one of the counter culture’s favored (American/Buddhist) poets, writes:

Those who think a great deal about the wisdom traditions [perennial traditions], have remarkable results when they take LSD. The Bhagavad-Gita, the Hindu Mythologies, the Serpent Power, the Lankavatara Sutra, the Upanishads, the Hevajra Tantra, the Mahanirvana Tantra, to name a few texts, become, they say, finally clear to them. They often feel that they must radically reorganize their lives to harmonize with such insights. [1957:109]

Huxley’s charter for psychedelic mysticism or rather psychedelic perennialism had taken root.

Epoch two, the neoperennial era, roughly from 1977 to the mid-1990s was dominated by the writings of Ken Wilber. Wilber’s work is widely acknowledged as a vastly creative attempt to bring Western and Eastern philosophy, science, mysticism, and culture into a single coherent model. Wilber’s accretions to transpersonal psychology include a celebratory neoperennialism with an evolutionary telos boasting an Orientalized nondual end-stateFone ‘‘always already’’ all pervading universal truth applicable to all cultures and all persons in all times. Wilber’s vision of perennialism during this epoch becomes axiomatic to transpersonalism, and his voluminous writings canonical for his many followers. However, his evolutionary account of perennialism and transpersonal consciousness is met with serious criticism from many other voices within the movement (Winkelman 1993; Heron 1998; Rothberg and Kelly 1998; Ferrer 2002). Wilber jumps ship leaving the transpersonal movement to form his own school.

Epoch three: the participatory-turn.

"From the early 1990s beginning with Richard Tarnas’s analysis of the epistemological consequences of Grof ’s psychedelic research (1991) the participatory epoch begins. This represents a revisionist impulse from within the movement, and here transpersonalism is re-booted without recourse to the authority of its perennial fetish (indeed it is on a critique of perennialism that later participatory theorists nourish themselves) (see Heron 1998; Ferrer 2002). For Heron and Ferrer, perennialism, that once authoritative (but unquestioned) idol standing at the heart the transpersonal movement, has become a Jonah (complex)Fto be thrown overboard. I quote Heron: We cannot know from past forms of divine becoming what its innovative future holds in store. The attempt to extract from the past a primordial tradition of universal religious truth holding for all contexts in the future, is vain denial of the inherent unpredictability of the divine womb of time." [1998:12]


Gregg Lahood:

Details and critique about the role of Jorge Ferrer in the participatory turn:

"Jorge Ferrer perhaps has done the most to unbind the transpersonal movement’s adhesion to the perennial philosophy. After deconstructing the perennial core and deftly exposing the bad seeds he concludes that a new image for transpersonal theory was needed and suggests ‘‘An Ocean with Many Shores’’ (2002:133). According to him, the common realm shared by religious traditions is not some ultimate perennialized spiritual state, but rather ‘‘the overcoming of self-centeredness’’ leading to ‘‘a liberation from corresponding limiting perspectives’’ (144). This he calls the Ocean of Emancipation, entry into this ocean may well be accompanied by one of a multiplicity of transpersonal disclosures and transconceptual cognition.

These disclosures can be of ‘‘traditional spiritual shores’’ (e.g., Buddhist sunyata or emptiness, Hindu samadhi or absorption, Christian apatheia, or childlike trust in God) or they can disclose an entirely new and novel shore. He writes for example: ‘‘The Ocean of Emancipation has many spiritual shores, some of which are enacted by the world spiritual traditions, others of which . . . may not have emerged yet’’ (Ferrer 2002:149).

Ferrer’s is a cogent, insightful, and liberating account; however, I suggest this cartography, in its attempt to unbind the marriage of paradises in the U.S. context, carries over from its predecessors a subtle form of boundary fetishism and potentially a tacit appeal to religious purity, an appeal that hybridity theorists would claim as untenable. The shores appear in Ferrer’s model as separate, ‘‘particular,’’ ‘‘incompatible,’’ ‘‘independent’’ (2002:146–148), shores seemingly not in too much contact with each otherF‘‘Each spiritual shore is independent’’ (148).

Ferrer claims that the traditional ultimates found in Sufism, for example, would be incompatible with the ultimates found in Buddhism (that may well be so) (2002:47), and he uses the Dalai Lama’s authority and strict boundary defining and essentializing claim that even other schools in Buddhism ‘‘do not actually understand the doctrine of emptiness’’ (148) to make his point. However the roots of both Tibetan Buddhism and Sufism are not so clearly demarcated. According to Vincent Crapanzano, ‘‘Historically, the origins of Sufism have been related to such diverse movements as Christianity, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism’’ (Crapanzano 1973:15). June Campbell suggests that Tibetan Buddhism itself is a cultural me´lange blending polytheistic Iranian Mithraism, Indian Tantric Buddhism, and ‘‘existent practices of shamanism’’ (1996:36). She reminds us that Mircea Eliade had noted the ‘‘scarcely studied problem of the similarities between the Tibetan and Iranian traditions’’ (Eliade 1964 cited Campbell 1996:39). She writes that ‘‘Tibetan Tantic Buddhism skilfully mixes the philosophies Buddhism, with Tantric yoga and shamanism of the ancient past’’ (44). The spirit-scapes that Sufism and Tibetan Buddhism (and indeed all traditional spiritual shores) have nourished have emerged not from pristine origins, but from religious, political, cultural, and human blur.

When Ferrer describes the U.S. context as one in which a decline of Christianity (theism) led many Westerners to an interest in indigenous and Eastern traditions (nondualisms) he is actually talking about the process of hybridity: Some have rejected their religious roots, travelled to India or South America . . . Others have adopted some kind of spiritual eclecticism or syncretism, importing and mixing from a variety of religious traditions those beliefs and practices that they consider to be vital at certain times and for certain purposes. [2002:xvii]

In disabling perennialism Ferrer must strongly affirm the ethnohistorical, the social/cultural, and the relational matrix of transpersonal participatory consciousness, thus, ‘‘participatory events that can emerge in the locus of an individual, a relationship, a collective identity, or a place’’ (2002:3). However, given that these are sites where hybridizations occur then not only are the shores in his metaphor hybrid but they really ought to be mixing, mingling, and miscegenating with each other. Ferrer’s Ocean of Many Shores, according to the ideas presented here, should really be constituted of hybrid spiritscapes: Oceans of many hybrids of hybrids.

Yet Ferrer tends to speak only of traditional shores and shores that have not yet emerged (2002:149). I suggest this cartography seems to model a kind of (cosmological) multiculturalism. To be sure, Ferrer’s diversity and pluralism is more culture friendly than Wilber’s model, yet as Ian Clothier writes, there is a misleading and tacit assumption that in the notion of a multicultural society there is a kind of ‘‘forest of cultures’’ approach:

Over there is an Indian, to the right someone from Tonga, and standing next to the German is someone from Nigeria. It is unnecessary to point any accusatory fingers regarding this assumption, but important simply to state that this vision is incomplete: in between the trees of the forest of cultures, are the hybrid bushes of cultural pluralism. [2006:19]

Ferrer’s notion of separate shores seems to have an affinity with this multi cultural model (over there is sunyata, here is samadhi, there is the angel Metatron, yonder lie the Names of God). However, the trope of multi culturalism has also been exploded by the concept of hybridity; Bhabha contends, for example, that

Cultural diversity is the recognition of pre-given cultural contents and customs; held in a time-frame of relativism . . . Cultural diversity is also the representation of a radical rhetoric of the separation of totalized cultures that live unsullied by the intertextuality of their historical locations, safe in a Utopianism of a mythic memory of a unique collective identity. [1994:52]

Thus Ferrer’s deployment of distinct cultural/spiritual shores as an antidote to the Wilberian position may inadvertently reify a subtle fetishizing of cultural boundaries (instead of an appeal to one purity we have an appeal to many purities, albeit in dialogue with each other). His cosmological cartography, as with Wilber’s, is incomplete and needs to acknowledge and incorporate the vertigoinducing force of cosmological hybridity; however in doing so their respective models will likely explode so drastically as to be unrecognizable from their present forms."


  • Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?. By gregg lahood. April 2009 issue (20.1) of Anthropology of Consciousness.