A Different Dimension

Reflections on the History of Transpersonal Thought

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Mark B. Ryan
  • Washington, DC: 
    Westphalia Press
    , January
     2018.
     254 pages.
     $22.50.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781633917576.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In his introduction to A Different Dimension, Mark Ryan briefly highlights the important contributions to the field of transpersonal thought by depth psychologies and especially by Carl Jung. Nevertheless, he informs his readers that his intention in this wide-ranging, delightfully informative, and well-written book is to focus on “the less appreciated contributions of other thinkers, and on the largely Anglo-American contribution to this notion of an expanded view of consciousness” (xvi). The presence of William James looms large in the story Ryan tells, as does James’s emphasis on the experiential dimension of transpersonal states and the varieties of such experiences that have come under the scrutiny of explorers and experimenters from Frederic Myers to Stan Grof and, indeed, Ryan himself. 

Part historical narrative of the emergence of the study of transpersonal states, part critique of the limitations of a reductionistic view that would deny both the reality and significance of such states of consciousness, and part anecdotal and personal accounts of such states, Ryan mounts an argument that merits consideration. Namely, that transpersonal states are present and even ubiquitous in human experience and including them in an overview of the nature and destiny of human life is both in keeping with the reality of things and points to a more comprehensive understanding of the human psyche.

Ryan’s historical narrative of transpersonal thought is not comprehensive nor intended to be, as he clearly acknowledges (10). But he does add an often-missing layer that consists of the earlier intellectual history of transpersonal thought, prior to its formal emergence in the 1960s and up to the current trend to emphasize the “spiritual but not religious.” R. M. Bucke figures in the beginning with his interactions with the New England transcendentalist, Walt Whitman, and publication of his influential and still-in-print Cosmic Consciousness (1901). This is followed by the research and publications of members of the Society of Psychical Research and William James, and in particular the latter’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). Ryan emphasizes that this recovered history demonstrates that transpersonal thought not only had earlier adherents but was in many instances central prior to the eclipse of such forms of inquiry and theoretical formulations brought about by the rise of Freudian psychoanalysis. From this background, he segues into the more recent transpersonal movement, highlighting the development of transpersonal psychology under the influence of Tony Sutich, Abraham Maslow, and Stan Grof. Others who followed and have made indelible marks on the transpersonal movement, such as the prolific, if controversial, Ken Wilber, are included. Lastly, he adds a piece on Helen Bonney’s work on guided imagery and music. More like an afterword, Ryan includes a final chapter in the form of an apologia in which he offers something of his own personal story. In it he gives an account of his ambiguous feelings towards his Catholic heritage, from its instilling the fear of damnation to, in the end, invoking the sensory elements of medieval chants and ornate visuals of a cloister setting in Salamanca, Spain. 

Ryan’s positive view of transpersonal experiences tends to be subsumed under what he terms “the new perennialism” (120), largely derived from Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy (1944). In the latter work, Huxley famously argued that there was a core mystical experience common in all religious traditions and any differences that arose were secondary and peripheral. Ryan is aware of counter arguments that emphasize a “constructivist approach” to understanding such experiences, often identified with the work of Steven Katz, that gives preferential status to the social, cultural, philosophical, and traditional religious contexts. Nor is he unaware of the seminal work of Jorge Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory (State University of New York Press, 2002), that argues perennialism “is a dogma that cannot be sustained by the evidence” (93-94). By contrast, he characterizes constructivism “in its extreme forms” as resting upon “materialistic assumptions” and that it “does not see consciousness as a fundamental principle of the universe, in which our individual consciousness is embedded as part of the whole” (123). He claims there is a middle ground between perennialism and constructivism, but in actuality he returns to Huxley’s perennialism as the most appropriate perspective, albeit one that should not be held to dogmatically (123-24). 

Though mention of Eastern traditions pops up now and again, the topic is largely absent from any in-depth discussion. This is an unfortunate lacunae in an otherwise interesting, if sometimes idiosyncratic, account of transpersonal thought. Nor, for that matter, does Ryan consider the darker side of the transpersonal, something that is so characteristic of those advocating for its inclusion in a new vision of humanity. Moreover, undue privileging of the first-person perspective has the unfortunate consequence of reducing the spiritual and transpersonal to personal experience, uncoupled from the context of the traditions and communities that nurture such experiences. The result is to make such events vulnerable either to turning into extravagant forms of isolated beliefs and practices or being subsumed by an exclusivist scientific understanding, both to the detriment of the wider culture. The upshot of this is to require that religious and transpersonal knowledge claims be deemed valid or falsified only if they can or cannot be evaluated and replicated through various forms of strictly disciplined methods of introspectionIf such an approach claimed the high ground, it would be a further step in the direction of what has been called “the empiricist colonization of spirituality,” something that many transpersonal theorists have been unknowingly working towards in spite of their intent and claim to do otherwise. There are other ways to include the spiritual into a transpersonal model of consciousness, and one is to follow the tracks of the religious traditions and cultures themselves that, after all, provide the sources and context for most of the spiritual experiences people have. Instead of the experiential andempirical approaches and their limitations, perhaps a participatory perspectivethat is inclusive and pluralistic and is expressed in personal, interrelational,communal, and place-based ways would be more adequate (see Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 2002).

About the Reviewer(s): 

F. X. Charet is Coordinator of the Consciousness Studies concentrate in the Graduate Institute at Goddard College.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Ryan taught American Studies and History at Yale University, where he was the long-term Dean of Jonathan Edwards College. Subsequently, he was Titular IV Professor of International Relations and History at the Universidad de las Américas, Puebla in Mexico, where he also served as Dean of the Colleges and Director of the graduate program in United States Studies. For 14 years a Trustee of Naropa University, he is certified as a practitioner of Holotropic Breathwork. Currently he teaches at the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Houston, the Wisdom School of Graduate Studies of Ubiquity University, and other venues.

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