A glimpse of our potential

Ian Florance meets Steve Taylor, former Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Transpersonal Psychology Section.

After this interview, Steve Taylor sent me a copy of a recent paper: Channelling the darkness: Group flow and environmental expression in the music of Black Sabbath and Joy Division. This combines two of his great interests – psychology and music – which threaded our conversation.

I first asked Steve to clarify what transpersonal psychology is. ‘There is misunderstanding. People sometimes assume it looks at the psychology of gender identity. But transpersonal psychologists study transformative experiences of a more expansive reality; states of consciousness in which a person’s sense of self changes, and their perception becomes more intense. I like Abraham Maslow’s phrase: that transpersonal psychology is the study of the “farther reaches of human nature”.

In his research, Steve sometimes uses the term ‘awakening experiences’ [see his September 2018 article for us]. In these, the world around us feels more real, and we feel intimately connected to it. ‘They make us aware that normal human awareness is limited,’ Steve tells me, ‘and that there are deep potentials inside us of which we’re not normally aware. Some psychologists would see these unusual states of consciousness as aberrational, whereas transpersonal psychology sees them as a glimpse of our potential, and as a route to flourishing.’

The spiritual ground
Is it different from say, studying the psychology of religion? ‘Yes. We don’t study why people become religious or choose certain beliefs. If there is a connection to religion, it’s because we look at the experiential source of religion – the spiritual ground. The distinction between esoteric (inner) and exoteric (public) religion can help here. Research with the influential Mysticism (M) Scale developed by Ralph Hood suggests an underlying common landscape of experience behind all mystical and spiritual traditions – from Christian monks to Sufi practitioners – and expansive experiences outside a spiritual context. This is sometimes linked to the idea of a “perennial philosophy”, put forward by, among others, Aldous Huxley. More recently, that perennial hypothesis has been questioned, but I believe that a “soft” form of perennialism may be valid, which focuses on experiences rather than teachings. In my own research, I focus on awakening experiences that occur in a secular setting, outside the context of religion and spiritual traditions. Such experiences are very common in the midst of everyday life – for example, while in contact with nature, playing sports, during sex or in the midst of intense psychological turmoil.’

Where did transpersonal psychology originate? ‘Abraham Maslow and Stanislav Grof were two of the original influential figures. Maslow felt it was important to try to integrate Western psychology with spiritual traditions such as Daoism and Buddhism. He felt that humanistic psychology didn’t go far enough in this direction.’ Did the sixties anti-psychiatry movement contribute to it? ‘I’m not sure if there was a contribution, but there is a connection in the sense that both approaches question what our culture views as psychologically “normal.” But in my view, someone like R. D. Laing took the anti-rational approach too far. Transpersonal psychology is not anti-science at all. Indeed, it’s a scientific study of the expansive experiences I have mentioned, as well as other altered states and transformational experiences. It has largely taken a qualitative approach to research, although in the US there is a move to a more quantitative transpersonal approach using scales and psychometric tools.’

‘This is a field where I belong’
Steve mentioned that he was born just before The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper came out and from a very young age wanted to play music. ‘I lived in Manchester and grew up listening to The Smiths, New Order and other Manchester bands. I was a singer and bass player. There were no psychology courses at my school, not even at A-level, so I ostensibly studied English and American Literature at the University of Warwick. In fact, I spent most of my time playing and listening to music and writing poems and stories. It was around that time that I experienced the awakening experiences I described earlier. I started to read a lot of philosophy and psychology books, partly because I wanted to understand my own experiences.’

Steve took his music on the road. ‘I did a lot of gigs and ended up living in Germany for four years, scraping a living as a musician. But in the end that lifestyle began to pall. I broke up with my German girlfriend, came back to England, and gave up music as a profession.’

For a while Steve wrote fiction but was consistently turned down for publication. ‘I was led into psychology by reading Abraham Maslow and William James, who are two of my heroes. I was also inspired by Colin Wilson, who became famous for his book The Outsider. Wilson was really an early kind of positive psychologist and his attempt to create a “positive existentialism” influenced me. I first read about the field of transpersonal psychology in a book by the American philosopher Ken Wilber. As soon as I heard about it, I thought “Yes! This is me!” This eventually led to a master’s degree in Consciousness and Transpersonal Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University, and then a PhD. All the time I had a strong feeling of homecoming, that this is a field where I belong. And I still feel that. It was wonderful to find my place after drifting around for so long.’

Transformation Through Turmoil (TTT)
Steve’s PhD on reported cases of spiritual awakening ‘made me aware of the transformational power of crisis, turmoil and trauma; bereavement, divorce, addiction can all cause this. This has been one of my primary areas of research over the last ten years or so. I have a new book coming out called Extraordinary Awakenings: When Trauma Leads to Transformation. I refer to the phenomenon as “transformation through turmoil” or TTT.’

This change in his life unleashed his writing. ‘Writing has always been a compulsion with me and once I started writing about psychology and spirituality, I felt like I was finally on the right track. I’ve published 13 books so far. I published a book about the psychology of time perception before I had any academic qualifications. Time perception is one of my interests, along with consciousness and positive psychology. I’m interested in the way time seems to slow down drastically in certain situations (such as accidents) or in certain altered states of consciousness.’

At the time I met Steve, he was Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Transpersonal Psychology Section. It welcomes affiliates from all specialisms and publishes the Transpersonal Psychology Review twice a year. The whole community is not large, though the field is better known in the US. ‘There has been a debate about whether to change its name to spiritual psychology, although I think it’s probably best to avoid the term “spiritual” because most people associate it with religion. Awakening experiences often happen to people who don’t know anything about religion or spiritual traditions. I would like such experiences to be studied in a secular context.’

As part of Steve’s role as Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University he teaches on a master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Psychology, which includes a transpersonal psychology module. What sort of people join as students? ‘A lot of mature students, people who want to understand their experiences and in particular, people who have been through profound transformational experiences. For example, we have had ex-soldiers who were changed by serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were seeking a framework to make sense of what happened to them.’

Do you ever get criticised by other professionals who have little time for spirituality and religion? ‘Not really. Beneath the surface a lot of people are open to wider perspectives, even if they outwardly appear to tow the conventional materialist line. There used to be a very strong assumption that human consciousness is nothing more than a neurological phenomenon, and that that all mental activity can be explained in terms of brain activity, but as time has gone by, that assumption has become increasingly problematic. So more and more people are investigating alternative perspectives.’

Do you see the area growing? ‘Yes. Specific initiatives – such as the use of psychedelics in therapy and the growing interest in mindfulness and meditation in general – have helped to increase interest in transpersonal psychology. I sense a shift in our culture away from the hard-line materialist dogma – exemplified by people like Richard Dawkins – that was dominant 20 years ago. Psychology shouldn’t ignore that.’

Finally, do you still have any involvement in music? ‘I still play my guitar or my bass every day and love to bash around on my son’s drum kit. And I’m interested in the connection between music and transpersonal psychology. That’s an avenue I’d like to investigate more in the future.’

- See also Steve's cover feature from our November issue, on pathocracy.

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