Transpersonal Tidbits: Sigmund Freud – 6 contributions to Transpersonal Psychology |


March 10 by The Running Son

Freud’s Positive Contributions to Transpersonal Psychology

Transpersonal psychiatrist Mark Epstein (1996) describes Sigmund Freud as “the grandfather of the entire movement of transpersonal psychology” and that “it is safe to say that there would be no transpersonal psychology as we know it without Freud’s influence” (p. 29). Epstein (1996, pp. 30-33) identifies three of Freud’s main contributions to transpersonal personality theory that (unknown to Freud) had their roots in meditation traditions of the East: (a) The conceptualization of mysticism as regressive infantile feelings, (b) the use of evenly suspended a ttention as a therapeutic tool, and (c) the hypothesis of the pleasure principle as the cause of suffering. Three additional Freudian contributions to transpersonal psychology include: (d) popularizing the notion of the personal subconscious in American culture, (e) championing the importance of the concept of the ego, and (f) the idea that the psyche has structure consisting of many different areas beneath conscious awareness.
1. View of mysticism as regressive infantile “oceanic feelings.”
According to Epstein (1996), one of Freud’s contributions to transpersonality theory is his characterization of mystical experience in terms of “oceanic feelings.” These oceanic feelings originate in infancy out of early experiences of profound intimacy with the mother while feeding at her breast. When these profoundly intimate moments occur, the boundaries separating the ego-self both from the external world and from its inner subconscious depths dissolve. The momentary dissolution of these boundaries is said to evoke primitive and expansive “narcissistic cravings” of omnipotent unity with the mother (Epstein, 1996, pp. 30-33). “[Freud’s] equation of this oceanic feeling with the bliss of primary narcissism, the unambivalent union of infant and mother at the breast, has served as the gold standard for psychological explanations of meditative or mystical experiences” (Epstein, 1996, p. 30).
2. Use of evenly suspended attention as a therapeutic tool.
A second contribution Freud made to transpersonality theory is his “discovery” of evenly suspended attention as a necessary precondition for the practice of effective psychoanalysis (Epstein, 1984). During the practice of “evenly suspended attention,” the therapist’s critical thinking is “bracketed” and the ego’s preconceptions, categorical judgments, and expectations are momentarily held in abeyance. In their place, nonjudgmental awareness of the here-and-now is cultivated in order to better listen to what the patient is saying and more efficiently “tune into” the patience’s nonverbal, subconscious communications (Epstein, 1996, pp. 33-35). “Freud’s efforts were pioneering from a transpersonal perspective in that they opened up awareness as a therapeutic tool” (Epstein, 1996, p. 30).
3. Recognition of pleasure principle as underlying cause of suffering.
A third contribution to transpersonality theory is Freud’s “elucidation of the pleasure principle, the cause, in his view, of much of our self-imposed misery” (Epstein, 1996, p. 35). The pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain that Freud saw as the basic motivating impulse guiding all behavior and as the source of much of our private emotional turmoil was the same source of suffering that the Buddha attributed as the primary reason for suffering in the world (Buddhism’s second Noble Truth of Tanka [Craving]). Only by renouncing exclusive reliance on the pleasure principle and transmuting or sublimating our persistent cravings, attachments, identifications and desires could psychological health and spiritual experiences, such as liberation and enlightenment, be achieved.
4. Popularization of the personal subconscious in American culture.
The terms “unconscious” and “subconscious” are important hypothetical constructs in many theories of the transpersonal self. Freud did not discover the unconscious (Ellenberger, 1970; Whyte, 1960), but he was familiar with Eduard von Hartmann’s 1869 classic The Philosophy of the Unconscious, which served as source material for some of his formulations about the nature of unconscious motivation (Hartmann, 1869). What is notable for transpersonal psychology is Freud’s popularization of the notion of the personal subconscious in American culture. The boundary separating the conscious from the subconscious (literally, “beneath awareness”) is, of course, arbitrary since that boundary is permeable and always changing – content that is conscious (in awareness) at one moment can become subconscious (out of awareness) the next, and what once was subconscious can again become conscious, depending on the direction in which one turns the focus of one’s awareness. There will always be certain portions of each individual’s psyche that will never be consciously known by the intellect alone. These areas are truly “unconscious” in so far as the conscious mind is concerned, and with which the comprehending ego will never become familiar in any conscious way, even though it may know intellectually that these portions of the self exist. “Subconscious” portions of the psyche, on the other hand, are areas of each person’s reality that are potentially consciously available, even though the individual is not aware of them at the present moment. The important question is: What portions of the psyche are consciously unknowable (truly unconscious) and what portions with which we are not at all familiar in any conscious way are capable of becoming consciously knowable (truly subconscious)? From a transpersonal perspective this is an important question because “You may not know all of yourself, but that is a process of self-discovery, of becoming…. The more you discover of yourself, the more you are” (Roberts, 1995, p. 68).
As Freud pointed out, the subconscious portion of the self is not simply a cardboard figure that can be bullied or pushed around. Nor is it accurate to conceive it as an impersonal machine that can be manipulated to carry out the orders of the outer, conscious ego. Although Freud tended to see the subconscious portions of the personality as “nonconscious,” some transpersonal theorists have moved beyond such a formulation, while retaining Freud’s important concept of the personal subconscious. The subconscious portion of each individual’s reality is far more conscious than Freud supposed. As Myers and Jung discovered, the subconscious, subliminal stream of consciousness is complicated, richly creative, infinitely varied, purposeful, and highly discriminating. “The unconscious perceives, has purposes and intuitions, feels and thinks as does the conscious mind. We find sufficient evidence for this in the field of psychopathology and the investigation of dream processes” (Jung, 1964a, p. 56). It is hardly nonconscious. The waking ego is simply not aware of it because memory of it is blocked.
The conscious ego rises indeed out of ‘the unconscious,’ but the unconscious being the creator of the ego, is necessarily far more conscious than its offspring. The ego is simply not conscious enough to be able to contain the vast knowledge that belongs to the inner conscious self from which it springs. (Roberts, 2002, p. 435)
In these terms, the subconscious portions of the self are conscious. Just as our usual, waking conscious mind is directed by an outer ego, so is the inner subconscious mind directed by what may be terms an inner ego that organizes so-called subconscious and unconscious material. There is an inner ego or inner self that is the organizer of “unconscious” experience (Roberts, 1974). F. W. H. Myers called this inner ego the “subliminal self;” Jung simply called it the Self (Jung, 1934/1960; Myers, 1889-1895/1976).
5. The importance of the psychological ego.
Freud is a textbook example of his own constructed theories that came to reflect more of his own personality structure, dynamics, and development than that of men and women in general. Freud’s tripartite structure of the psyche – id, ego, and superego – though has proven to be a useful construct system for relating some transpersonal aspects of the self (e.g., the transpersonal self, superconscious, collective unconscious) to ordinary personality functioning (the ego). One example of this is Roberto Assagioli’s psychodynamic theory of Psychosynthesis. As Allport noted: “Freud played a leading if unintentional role, in preserving the concept of ego from total obliteration throughout two generations of strenuous positivism” (Allport, 1955/1969, p. 37). Although Freud tended to see the (repressed) unconscious portions of the self as the point of origin for most psychological disturbances and physical disorders, transpersonal psychologists have move beyond such a formulation while retaining Freud’s important concept of ego. As later ego psychologists and cognitive psychologists have observed, conscious beliefs that may be psychologically invisible but consciously available play an important role in fluencing subconscious processes that create personal experience of health and illness. The body and the subconscious mind exist with the ego’s beliefs to contend with. Our conscious mind directs our attention toward sensations that occur in three-dimensional space and time, spontaneously interprets those sensations into perceptions, and organizes those perceptions into concepts, categories, and schemas that subsequently provide interpretations that give meaning to later perceptions. The subconscious mind and physical body depends upon those interpretations. The subconscious mind and the cells that compose our bodies do not try to make sense of the philosophical and religious beliefs that pervade the social, cultural, political human world. They rely upon the interpretation of the ego and its reasoning, conscious mind. These interpretations, in turn, produce the inner environment of thoughts and concepts to which our subconscious mind and body responds. It is not the unconscious portions of the self, in other words, that are the cause of psychological or biological disorders, but the personality’s consciously available, though currently subconscious, beliefs about the nature of the self, body, time, world, and others that are responsible for “setting the stage” so to speak, for the occurrence of symptoms. The quality of our mental and physical health is then formed through the subjective realities and energies of our cognitive constructs and the emotions that those constructs generate (Ellis, 1987).
6. The “lands of the psyche.”
Freud was arguably the first developmental psychologist. He described the structure of the human psyche as consisting of several layers, analogous to the levels that geologists and archeologists discover by digging into the Earth’s crust, stratum by stratum, to reveal its history. Just as the earth has a structure so does the “inner planet” of the human psyche have a structure. Just as exterior physical continents, islands, mountains, and seas emerge from the inner structure of the earth, so do various psychological regions or “lands of the psyche” take various shapes as they rise from an even greater psychologically invisible source that is within psyche itself, not perceivable through the eye of flesh but using the eye of contemplation, vision-logic, and Being-cognition (Wilber, 1990). As the earth is composed of many environments, so is the psyche composed of preconscious, conscious and unconscious (collective and superconscious) environment. As we physically dwell in a particular town or city, so do we presently “live” in one small psychological area called the “ego” that we identify as our home, as our “I.” As different countries follow different kinds of constitutions and different geographical area follow various local laws, in the same manner, different portions of the psyche exist within their own local “laws” and have different kinds of “government” – different “psychic politics” so to speak (Roberts, 1976). Each portion of the psyche possesses its own characteristic geography, its own customs and languages that travelers need to be aware of in their inner journeys through the lands of the psyche. This is a powerful metaphor to help us understand the true complexity of the unknown reality of the human psyche (Roberts, 1977a, 1979a). Psychology is aware of the fantastic complexity of the human brain. The human psyche is even more complex.




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[ Selection taken from the paper, “TRANSPERSONALITY THEORY” and can be viewed in full at: ]

One thought on “Transpersonal Tidbits: Sigmund Freud – 6 contributions to Transpersonal Psychology |

  1. drbrettwade says:

    Very informative post.
    Thank you for writing this!
    Dr. Brett

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