Dr. Charles T. Tart on August 31st, 2009

At the unique graduate school I teach at, the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, a number of the Core Faculty are clinicians and counselors, and we have a PhD level program in clinical psychology as part of transpersonal psychology. Recently I wrote them:

Here’s an interesting question from someone responding to my blog, a young woman graduate student/scientist who has a lot of psychic and transpersonal experiences, but often just wants them to go away so she can be “normal” and a “scientist.”  I could try a theoretical response, but how would you real clinicians answer this?  I’ll pass the answer’s on, and hopefully they will be educational to many.    —-  Charley

So how do transpersonal psychologists know what to tell someone who has come in for counseling? I have a counselor that believes my weird experiences are OK. But he doesn’t seem to know what I need to do to be OK about them. He was much better at helping me with a problem I was having as a TA dealing with an unreasonable instructor. That was something he had seen before and it was easy for him to help me do what I needed to do to deal with that problem. But when I show up crying because I’ve seen the ghost of a student who committed suicide, he doesn’t know what to tell me.

I think this is an interesting question for a lot of people, so I’ll share the responses I’ve gotten here. First,

As to what “we clinicians” might do with this young woman:  The first thing I would do is listen to what the she is saying.  She is communicating that these experiences are “weird” and from your comments she is saying that these experience somehow challenge her “scientific” self.  I would start by asking her what does she mean by “weird” and “scientific” self.  Sometimes clients have experiences that they are frightened mean that they are becoming psychotic or losing control.  Of course they ARE losing control of their ego’s ability to keep things status quo, but I wouldn’t say this at this point. This process of exploring could take several months to move through before I would in anyway begin to normalize her experience.  During this time I would listen carefully for any “benefit” she might communicate to me either consciously or unconsciously and I would reflect/explore that with her.  I would encourage her to use the “scientific” method and explore hypotheses about these experience.  At some point clients usually ask me if other people or if I have had these experiences.  This is then an opening for educating them and moving toward normalization.  If you try to make these experiences “OK” right away you de-rail an initiatory  and transformative process that is probably emerging within the client in a healthy way.  Anyway, this is a very quick and simplistic answer to an excellent question raised by this young woman.  Hope it helps.

More later.

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9 Responses to “What is Transpersonal Counseling?”

  1. Sandy says:

    That’s really interesting. In my experience, pretty much every counselor I’ve gone to has tried to “normalize” things for me right away. That may be because the question of “Have you ever had an experience you can’t explain?” comes up pretty fast. I usually end up feeling badly that I can’t accept my experiences the way the counselors would like me too. I try to, but I can’t. What makes it worse is that I’m so good at reading people, I know what they are feeling. I can tell they want to fix things for me, and I feel like I’m letting them down.

    None of the counselors that I’ve seen have tried to get me to use the scientific method to try to explain my situation. I often find that they have issues with scientists, like we are the bad guys who dismiss spiritual experiences as being silly nonsense. And yes, I’ll admit that scientists sometimes do that. I’ve done it. That dismissal is unscientific, and we should all know better, but scientists are human too.

    BTW, I find it funny to be referred to as a “young” woman :-D . I’m quite a bit older than most other grad students are. But I know the NDE thing makes me seem less mature than I really am. I was very innocent and trusting when I first came back from my NDE. In many ways this life started when I woke up after the accident, and in that respect maybe I am a “young” woman.

  2. anonymous says:

    I assume transpersonal psychologists must have some way of deciding if experiences are pathological hallucinations or transpersonal experiences because the treatments would be different.

    How do they make that diagnosis?

    This is a question that I see on a lot of paranormal discussions forums. People say they are seeing spirits and want to know how to tell if they are crazy or not.

    Usually I suggest that if they don’t have any other abnormal pathology like paranoia, that they are probably not going crazy. Is that right?

    I think a clinical/scientific answer to the question is also interesting because it may have implications for parapsychology. If we understand when a hallucination is just a hallucination and when it is more, then we might get a better understanding of how and why psychic experiences occur.

  3. Sandy says:

    Anonymous,

    I’d be interested in knowing how a transpersonal psychologist determines the difference between a spiritual experience and illness too. I know that when I’ve seen counselors I’ve argued that I must be nuts. In the last year I’ve read through all sorts of medical journals trying to figure out what is going on with me, and I haven’t come across anything in those sources that would support the case for me being sane. (I tend to think of myself as being “nuts but OK”.) But every counselor I’ve seen tells me I’m pretty healthy. They don’t see the anomalous experiences as being unhealthy. They just see my difficulty accepting the way I perceive the world as being a problem.

    The counselor that I’m currently seeing says I’m too functional to be mentally ill. He also said that the information I got from seeing his colors was too accurate to be delusional experience. He pointed out that imaginary friends don’t usually have obituaries one can look up, or give useful information about where a lost cat might live. I think he is way too easy on the evidence because he would like me to be psychic. I think a lot of people want to believe in this stuff, so they don’t look at cases like mine critically enough. I’m supposed to just believe that I’m “gifted”, problem solved. (Why can’t I just send the gift back?)

  4. anonymous says:

    Hi Sandy,

    I’m not a psychologist but I think if someone is crazy they have problems functioning. If you are in graduate school, married, etc living a normal life you are not mentally ill.

    There are many reasons that people sometimes have halucinations that have nothing to do with psychological problems, and there is even debate about whether hearing voices is a symptom of mental illness.

    Macular degeneration can cause hallucinations:

    http://www.forteantimes.com/fe.....ation.html

    When seated at breakfast and looking out of his window into the garden, he had on several occasions seen a kind of illumination within which not just one but a number of figures appeared, walking in a column. They were, seemingly, all male, some wearing hats, others caps. They would silently advance towards the window then turn to the right near the garden shed, but one figure would often break away from the others at this point and come right up to the window as if peering in at Don, before it too moved out of sight to one side.

    Hearing voices:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03.....nted=print

    What H.V.N. does dispute is that the psychological anguish caused by hearing voices is indicative of an overarching mental illness. This argument, disseminated through a quarterly newsletter, numerous pamphlets and speeches and alternative mental-health journals, are as voluminous and diverse as its membership. But H.V.N.’s brief against psychiatry can be boiled down to two core positions. The first is that many more people hear voices, and hear many more kinds of voices, than is usually assumed. The second is that auditory hallucination — or “voice-hearing,” H.V.N.’s more neutral preference — should be thought of not as a pathological phenomenon in need of eradication but as a meaningful, interpretable experience, intimately linked to a hearer’s life story and, more commonly than not, to unresolved personal traumas. In 2005, Louise Pembroke, a prominent member of H.V.N., proposed a World Hearing Voices Day (held the next year) that would “challenge negative attitudes toward people who hear voices on the incorrect assumption that this is in itself a sign of illness, an assumption made about them that is not based on their own experiences, is stigmatizing, isolating and makes people ill.”

  5. anonymous says:

    … I should have mentioned in my previous comment that the second article, the one from nytimes.com, also discusses one person’s experience trying trying the medical approach to treating halucinations.

  6. anonymous says:

    Hi Sandy,

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03.....nted=print

    The pills help Angelo to manage his voices, but they have not been able to eradicate them.

    I think you might find the whole article interesting. I recommend reading it. Here is more of it:

    Angelo, a London-born scientist in his early 30s with sandy brown hair, round wire-frame glasses and a slight, unobtrusive stammer, vividly recalls the day he began to hear voices. It was Jan. 7, 2001, and he had recently passed his Ph.D. oral exams in chemistry at an American university, where, for the previous four and a half years, he conducted research into infrared electromagnetism. Angelo was walking home from the laboratory when, all of a sudden, he heard two voices in his head. “It was like hearing thoughts in my mind that were not mine,” he explained recently. “They identified themselves as Andrew and Oliver, two angels. In my mind’s eye, I could see an image of a bald, middle-aged man dressed in white against a white background. This, I was told, was Oliver.” What the angels said, to Angelo’s horror, was that in the coming days, he would die of a brain hemorrhage. Terrified, Angelo hurried home and locked himself into his apartment. For three long days he waited out his fate, at which time his supervisor drove him to a local hospital, where Angelo was admitted to the psychiatric ward. It was his first time under psychiatric care. He had never heard voices before. His diagnosis was schizophrenia with depressive overtones.

    Angelo remembers his time at the hospital as the deepening of a nightmare. On top of his natural confusion and fear over the shattering of his psychological stability, Angelo did not react well to the antipsychotic he’d been prescribed, risperidone, which is meant to alleviate the symptoms of schizophrenia by reducing the level of dopamine in the brain. In Angelo’s case, the pills had a predominantly negative effect. His voices remained strong and disturbing — an unshakable presence, quiet only in sleep — while he grew sluggish and enervated. “If you think of the mind as a flowing river of thoughts,” he told me in an e-mail message, “the drug made my mind feel like a slow-moving river of treacle.” Several days into his stay, Angelo’s parents flew to the United States from London and took him back home.

    More than six years later, Angelo still lives at his parents’ house. He currently takes a cocktail of antidepressants and antipsychotics, with tolerable side effects, and sees a psychologist every two months to monitor his medication. The pills help Angelo to manage his voices, but they have not been able to eradicate them. Shortly after his return to London, he made an attempt to resume his career, accepting a research position at the university where he had received his undergraduate degree. He lasted eight months (his neighbors heard him screaming at his voices and called the police), checked himself into the hospital for six weeks and returned home. Despite these setbacks, Angelo has maintained his optimism. He is eager to discover new ways to combat his voices. Not long ago, he found one. In November, his psychologist informed him of a local support group for people who hear voices, from which he thought Angelo might benefit. Angelo began to attend the group late last year.

  7. Sandy says:

    That actually scares me a bit. What If I lost the ability to function because of the way I am? People tell me that this is a gift, but what if it isn’t? What if it is just damage from being in a car accident? I’m lucky that what I deal with is a lot like dealing with living people. I can ignore them as well as I ignore my husband when he talks about sports. But what if this gets worse? No one can really prove my experiences are psychic… coincidences happen all the time. And even if they are psychic experiences, how can anyone know if it is safe or healthy to be psychic?

  8. anonymous says:

    The article from nytimes.com underlines the difficulty in distinguishing a mental illness from a spiritual experience.

    Carl Wickland was a doctor who successfully treated many people who seemed to be mentally ill. His method of treatment involved his wife who was a trance medium. Together they were able to help many patients by isolating spirits who were influencing patients and then counseling the spirits. This is described in Wickland’s book “Thirty Years Among the Dead” http://www.spiritwritings.com/.....eDead.html.

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