A New Approach to Integrating Science, Religion and Spirituality
(Published in Exceptional Human Experiences)
What is the meaning of the word transpersonal? This question has more significance than simply trying to decide upon a string of words to include in an entry within the dictionary. Exploring the meaning of the word has profound implications for both science and religion.
Consider what happened for want of a definition for transpersonal. When some members of the American Psychological Association petitioned to have created a new Division for the study of Transpersonal psychology, their request was challenged on the grounds that it did not warrant a division of its own. Why couldn't they be a part of the Division for the Psychology of Religion. The enthusiasts argued that they were not studying religion, nor people's experience with religious matters, but with a distinct dimension od the human being, a transcendent realm of experience. The APA countered that if transcendent realm was a dimension of being human, then why couldn't they conduct their affairs within the Division of Humanistic Psychology, which concerns itself with all aspects of the human potential. The enthusiasts countered that what they were studying manifested in human experience, but transcended the individual human being in nature and scope, that it was a transcendent reality. If it was a transcendent reality, APA countered, then why not go to the Division of Psychology of Religion. Their proposal was denied. They lost because they could not make a clear case for the independent existence of a transpersonal psychology, separate from human potential and from religion. So the conception matters.
In response to this conundrum, I have designed the course that introduces Atlantic University's master's program in "Transpersonal Studies to speak to the issue of the meaning of transpersonal. I want to share with you its basic outlines, as i have found that student response to the course to be very stimulating and constructive.
I have built the foundation of the course upon Rhea White's work in Exceptional Human Experience (EHE). SHe has effectively used the EHE paradigm to integrate parapsychology, spirituality, miraculous healing, stupendous feats, and a variety of other anomalous phenomena. She in turn has referred to William James's description of that moment when a person has an experience which makes them suspect that, to use a modern phrase, that there is "something more" to life than meets the eye or than which we usually publicly acknowledge.
I begin then by asking my students to create an "EHE autobiography." The assignment is to write about whatever EHEs they can recall, anything that made them think there is "something more." We use the term loosely, but accompany the request with many reprints of articles on a variety of EHEs, as well as about people's experience, or lack of it, talking about such events. The students write about a wide variety of experiences, childhood epiphanies, dreams following the death of a parent, a miraculous track meet, a psychic experience. They write, in short, experiences spanning the whole array of EHEs that Rhea White has assembled in her data-base.
Their second assignment is of a theoretical nature. How does their experience shape their imagination about the nature of what a person and the nature of the reality in which a person lives. Much in the same way that a scientist creates theories and models to account for their observations, the students create models of their supposed "transpersonal identity." Whether they wish to use terms such as "soul," or "spirit," or whatever is less relevant than the manner in which they tie their model, or image to their experience. In preparing for this assignment, they are given reading material about how others have created models of transpersonal identity based upon their experience, such as Edgar Cayce's model of clairvoyance ability based upon his experience diagnosing illness while under hypnosis, or Carl Jung's theory of archetypes, which was based upon his and his patients's dreams, to cite but two well-known examples.
For their third and final assignment, the students are asked to describe how their experiences, and the resulting models, have influenced their lives. Specifically, they are to address the "so what" implications of what they have written in their first two assignments. How have they tried to adapt the way they live to be consistent with what they have experienced? In what way have they created a transpersonal lifestyle that tests out their assumptions, or which attempts to repeat or maximize their EHEs? In short, and here is an important connection, what practical philosophy of spirituality have they adopted? In other words, the sequence of assignments proposes that spirituality is the resultant, applied strategy of living that is evoked by the perceived implications of the imagined meanings given to the person's EHEs. To complement this assignment, students are given readings on the subject of spirituality as well as the philosophy of science concerned with the challenge of replicating observations made while in exalted states of awareness.
Students who are taking this course at a distance, on a home study basis, submit their assignments both in writing, and with an accompanying drawing, collage, or other visual representation of their experiences, ideas, and principles. The assignments are circulated so that students can read and comment upon one another's contributions. Students who are physically present at the Atlantic University facility make their presentations orally, with some visual (or multi-media) component, and their presentation is video-taped so that it can be reviewed by others.
The sequence of assignments, and the underlying philosophy, and the sharing of them among the community of learners is totally analogous to the scientific enterprise, in which a community of investigators make and share observations, draw inferences and create models, and then test these ideas by more deliberate actions intended to achieve certain results. The students learn that the study of the transpersonal can touch upon subject matter usually addressed by religion, but with the empirical-cognitive processes usually attributed to science--science at its best, that is, and not scientism! Furthermore, the students see how values and value-directed actions (ethics and idealistic prescriptions) grow out of theory and observation. Ideas about the nature of reality are tested by seeing if the transpersonal lifestyle results in more frequent or reliable contact with that reality.
In addition to this formal dimension to the educational value of the course, there are two other valuable results of this course.
One, a data-base of experiences is being created. Most interesting are the students' models of reality, which sometimes have the fresh inspiration of a popular book such as something like "Children's Pictures of God." There is also the accumulation of experienced-tested approaches to spirituality, including both the successes and failures to replicate the EHE-inspired consciousness, or, in short, the maturing of wisdom.
The second result is the impact upon the student. Beyond the eye-opening encounter within other people's experience, there is the, often quite emotional, healing experience of recollecting, honoring and sharing the EHEs. Many students write about moments they've never described to anyone previously. Another result is that the students feel stronger, they have more confidence in the meaningfulness of their experiences, and are pleased to explore a rationale that gives them the right and responsibility to determine by how they live afterwards the ultimate meaning and worth of these experiences. In such ways, the course has exceeded expectations. It is proving to be a vibrant social laboratory for exploring the meaning of the word, "transpersonal." We are learning that it means something to us that we dare not deny and which repays our attention with rich rewards.