Transpersonal psychology—the umb


Transpersonal psychology—the umbrella term for
psychotherapies that view human beings as more than just skin-encapsulated
egos—has greatly expanded the scope of human psychology. In his review “The
Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy”, a pioneering anthology about
the application of nondualist spiritual views in the clinical circumstance,
transpersonal psychologist D. B. Sleeth wonders if some practitioners are


D. B. Sleeth

For well over a half century—in an exotic, for
some perhaps even quixotic, trend—Eastern spiritual doctrines have been finding
their way into Western clinical psychology practice. In all likelihood, the
first to hand-carry the message of Oriental mysticism to this country was Swami
Vivekananda, a revered dark-skinned spokesman for India’s vast Hindu tradition.
His eloquent, powerful, and unprecedented appearance at the Parliament of
Religions in 1893 caused an immediate sensation, the effects of which are still
reverberating today. In psychology, a steady stream of interpreters of Eastern
mystical revelation have been hard at work, starting most notably with William
James and Carl Jung.

As a result of their and others’ spiritual
insights, transpersonal psychology has come to be accepted as a formal member of
the American Psychological Association. Continuing this tradition, John J.
Prendergast, Peter Fenner, and Sheila Krystal have compiled an anthology of
psycho-spiritual writings in “The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and
Psychotherapy”, bringing a much needed focus on nondualism, one of the most
difficult mystical doctrines of all.

However, like many attempts to expose Western
people to the core doctrines of Eastern mysticism, “The Sacred Mirror” offers an
interpretation of their nondual teachings that highly transforms their original
meaning, compounding the difficulty. What makes nondualism so troublesome is
that it runs counter to our usual intuitions of reality. 

Fundamentally, the problem Westerners have with
nondualism is twofold: (1) its core contention that there no absolute separation
between one person and another; and, (2) its controversial implication that
there is no fundamental difference between the true self of the individual and
the Ultimate Self or God. (Obviously, the Absolute of nondualism—whether it be
described as Consciousness, Self, Void, or even “God”—is of an entirely
different order than the Deity of the Semitic religions.)

“The Sacred Mirror” aims to explore the
implications of nondualism for the practice of psychotherapy. It is an extremely
difficult task, especially in Western culture. Where it is entertained at all,
the notion that there is no ultimate separation between self and other is
sometimes thought of as too abstract and even alien an idea to be useful in
clinical practice. And the idea that human beings might, in their very nature,
actually be divine is anathema to prevailing Western sensibilities.

However, this is core contention and
controversial implication of nondualism. Futher, perhaps surprisingly, nondual
points of view can be found in Western mysticism. For example, a famous medieval
Christian monk, Meister Eckhart, exhorted spiritual aspirants to his own highest
intuition: “I discover that I and God are one.” But Meister Eckhart was severely
chastised by the Holy Roman Church for his “heretical” views.

Other nondual mystics have fared worse. Some have
faced forced ritual “purification”, torture, or, as in the examples of Giordano
Bruno and Mansour al-Hallaj, even death. Clearly, identifying the very Self of
human beings with God (however conceived) is an extremely controversial claim.

This is why nondualism has been kept something of
a secret within Western spiritual traditions, if not held to be a pure heresy.
As David Loy puts it in his excellent book on the subject, “Nonduality: A Study
in Comparative Philosophy”: “[In the West,] claims about subject-object
nonduality, like the broad mystical tradition where they have found their most
comfortable home, have survived as a puzzling subterranean undercurrent . . . a
seed which, however often sown, has never found fertile soil . . .”

Nevertheless, the notion that our usual
presumption that the ego-self and its every other can and should be transcended
is seriously entertained by the contributors to Prendergast, Fenner, and
Krystal’s daring attempt to introduce therapists to the potentially auspicious
benefits of nondualism. In their introduction they tell us that all of the
chapters were written for this volume by authors with first-hand familiarity
with nondual awareness.

In addition, many of them know each other and
have participated in a living synergy through various contacts, including the
presentation of their work at an annual conference, called “Nondual Wisdom &
Psychotherapy”. The authors, who are either seasoned clinicians or established
spiritual teachers, are quick to point out that this volume is neither synoptic
nor gospel, but an exploration in progress, one that the reader is emphatically
invited to join.

The nascent flowering of nondual wisdom now
underway in the West is thought to represent new challenges and opportunities
for the field of psychotherapy. Indeed, the authors suggest we are witnessing
the emergence of an entirely new genre of psychotherapy.

Prendergast makes this striking observation about
the significance of this new genre: “Awakening nondual awareness adds a depth
dimension to any of the existing schools of psychology, regardless of their
orientation . . .. It is not so much that therapists integrate Being, as they
are absorbed by it. As they more deeply attune with and embody the ground of
Being, Presence is enhanced.” The author’s define “Presence” as “Being aware of
Itself, whereby one’s ordinary sense of self and reality are literally nothing
more than a dream from which we can potentially awaken. In fact, even while
dreaming it is possible to be cognizant and thereby engage in lucid dreaming,
the first stirring of nondual awareness.”

Clearly, the authors have chosen a formidable
task: take the unusual mystical doctrine of nondualism and make it user-friendly
for clinical service providers. To do so, the various chapters provide specific
clinical techniques, or “skillful means”, whereby the clinician might
effectively intervene with the client, enlisting the aid of traditional nondual

Peter Fenner suggests in his chapter, “Nonduality
and Therapy: Awakening the Unconditioned Mind,” that the fundamental clinical
goal of nondual psychotherapy is to awaken clients to their own true nature,
which is thought to be the source of healing power. In fact, the unconditioned
mind is said to be beyond suffering and ailment, literally, the very state in
which healing occurs.

We come to know our inherent nature through a
letting-go or pruning process, similar to the idea of postmodern and
phenomenological approaches to therapy. This approach is one with which Stephan
Bodian explicitly concurs in his chapter, “Deconstructing the Self: The Uses of
Inquiry in Psychotherapy and Spiritual Practice.”

A basic premise of the book is that a client’s
essential, nondual nature can be reflected back to him or her by the therapist,
hence the metaphor of the mirror in the title of the book, as well as in
Prendergast’s own chapter, “The Sacred Mirror: Being Together.” Sheila Krystal
elaborates on this idea in her chapter, “A Nondual Approach to EMDR:
Psychotherapy as Satsang,” referring to nondual therapy as the process in which
“the Self meets itself in the sacred mirror of satsang.”

She defines satsang as the “coming together in
the company of God (as lovers of the truth) . . .”; which is to say, being in a
loving relationship with God. Consequently, “The Sacred Mirror” is unusual as a
clinical text, for it is willing to include God as a significant agent in the
healing process—although most chapters remain tentative in this regard,
preferring theistically neutral accounts of nondualism.

Indeed, apparently because of its lack of
reference to an explicit divinity, Buddhist nondualism dominates in “The Sacred
Mirror”. With this approach, any potential controversy over the appearance of
God in psychotherapy can be more readily side-stepped.

Time and again in my own clinical work, I have
seen the benevolent effects of a spiritual communion that acknowledges and
respects nonduality as its ultimate truth. To put it simply, love is the healing
principle. Only in overcoming the divisive act of separation between people does
love actually emerge into this difficult world.

Nondual therapy can be understood as the
intention of relinquishing one’s sense of being a separate self, allowing the
living presence of love to embrace and pervade both client and clinician,
replacing the sense of separation from which they each otherwise suffer. As this
living presence informs their relationship, the wisdom of love inherent to each
one’s own deepest being comes to the fore. In this way clinical practice becomes
most auspicious for the client.

However, in therapy it is easy to confuse the
experience of heightened human intimacy with that of the nondual reality. That
being so, it is fair to ask whether the authors have succeeded in their efforts
to establish nondualism as a viable base for clinical practice. It seems to me
that in their attempt to make this most difficult material accessible to a
contemporary clinical audience, they have fudged a little.

Prendergast, for example, describes the
transformations wrought in the client by nondual psychotherapy like this: “In
time and without any conscious effort or intent we become like stained glass,
more adequate forms for the transmission of light. Our individuality is
liberated and enhanced as we knowingly share this common ground with all

It seems misleading to speak in terms of
liberating or enhancing one’s individuality, for egoic individuality is
precisely what is transcended in nondualism. Likewise, becoming stained glass
(which, almost by definition, is multicolored and therefore suggests form or
defination) is a questionable metaphor. The realization of the nondual state is
better understood as the realization of the very Light Itself.

The literal translation of the Sanskrit term
, from the initial Indian spiritual tradition of nondualism, is
not-two, more commonly referred to simply as Oneness.  However, there are two
very different types of Oneness found in spiritual literature: (1) holism, in
which we are connected to or intimately a part of some larger spiritual reality,
while retaining our distinct identity; and, (2) nondualism, in which are sense
of being a separate self disappears completely and we realize that we literally
are this larger reality.

Overall, “The Sacred Mirror” favors the former
over the latter. In doing so, it would appear that “The Sacred Mirror” is not so
much offering an innovation of psychotherapy, as merely elaborating on
psychotherapy that is already taking place.

Humanistic and existential psychotherapies
advocate holism, not nondualism. They speak of treating the “whole person”.
Transpersonal psychotherapies also generally align with holism, although they
expand the term’s reference to include spiritual dimensions. Stanley Krippner
offers a particularly compelling definition of this latter sense: “[A]n
individual’s sense of identity appears to extend beyond its ordinary limits to
encompass wider, broader, or deeper aspects of life or the cosmos—including
divine elements of creation.”

Abraham Maslow tends to speak in terms of “peak
experiences”, in which one’s awareness of reality is suddenly heightened to
include ecstatic and perhaps even mystical states. Likewise, Carl Rogers feels
that life has the potential for transcendental intuitions that increase our
capacity for healing.

He describes moments in therapy in which “my
presence is releasing and helpful to the other . . .. [I]t seems that my inner
spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our
relationship transcends itself and becomes a part of something larger.”

These are the kinds of experiences described in
Prendergast, Fenner, and Krystal’s book. Although their work may add to the
techniques of psychotherapy, all this stops short of authentic nondual states,
however much the authors advocate their innovations as manifestations of nondual

In reality, what they are describing seems more
akin to the temporary states—heightened well-being, feelings of intimate
relatedness, or even, on occasion, mystical absorption—that most spiritual
traditions have long regarded as well short of nondual Enlightenment.

Unfortunately, “The Sacred Mirror” never clearly
differentiates the valid but non-ultimate experiences of associated with holism
from the more profound nondual intuition of our native egolessness. Theirs is an
understandable mistake, for nondualism in no way excludes the experiences
characteristic of holism.

As Prendergast puts it: “While essentially
without qualities, [nondual reality is] commonly experienced as being vast,
free, spacious, heartfelt, and present-centered. Many people report feeling a
subtle joy, love, compassion, peace, gratitude, and sense of connectedness with
all of life when they directly attune with it.” Clearly, these attributes
resonate with the most ordinary and common goals of clinical practice.

One way to resolve the ambiguity between holism
and nondualism is by contemplating a familiar experience: the sense of us.
It is precisely the sense of us that is emphasized throughout “The Sacred
Mirror”. For example, John Welwood’s chapter, “Double Vision: Duality and
Nonduality in Human Experience,” even pays homage to Martin Buber’s vision of
the I-Thou relationship: “The concentration and fusion into a whole being can
never be accomplished by me, can never be accomplished without me.

I require a You to become; becoming I, I say
You.” This orientation to intimacy understands the human psyche in the manner of
holism, in which you and I maintain our individuality but relax into a kind of
communion with one another, a sense that we form a greater or larger whole. We
become an us. In nondual realization, however, “you and I” drop out
altogether. To the nondual realizer you literally are me. From this point of
view, holism only approximates nondualism.

In a sense, holism could be thought of as
preliminary or transitional to nondualism. That Prendergast, Fenner, and Krystal
should conflate the two doesn’t invalidate the holistic approach toward
treatment they advocate, just so long as we understand its limitations. Indeed,
“The Sacred Mirror” could be thought of as specializing in the holistic contact
point of a bridge they are building to nondualism. Although the healing agencies
they invoke may not be full-borne advaita, they clearly are of real

There is a feature of nondualism often overlooked
in the standard view that merely defines nondualism as not-two. In his book,
“Vedanta and Christian Faith”, the late Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths used a
traditional formula to define the essential features of the nondual Godhead:
“Ultimate reality can be said to be comprised of certain discernible attributes:
. . . ‘sat’—being, ‘cit’—consciousness, and ‘ananda’—bliss . . .” This
benevolent set of attributes—the living presence of free awareness and love—has
clinical application.

Effective clinical practice seems to follow the
formula “the greater the awareness, the greater the love”. Like most clinical
texts, “The Sacred Mirror” is self-conscious about directly addressing love as a
viable therapeutic intervention. Occasionally, love is mentioned in a nondual
sense, as when Fenner, building on a Buddhist orientation toward nondualism,
states: “Another way in which the unconditioned mind unites with conditioned
existence is through the union of love and wisdom . . .. The capacity to
identify [with the client] is love.

The capacity to disidentify is wisdom,”. The
book’s only specific reference to love as an essential aspect of the nondual
process, however, appears in an interview with Adyashanti in a chapter titled,
“Love Returning for Itself.” Unfortunately, even this chapter is pretty short on
instructions for therapists. In “The Sacred Mirror” love remains a largely
unthematized idealism.

Clinically, a host of therapeutic interventions
build on the awareness/love equation, attesting to the essential role awareness
and love play in the therapeutic process. In one guise or another, many of these
appear in “The Sacred Mirror”. Interventions of this nature, which are common in
clinical practice, are generally referred to as supportive technique, whereby
the sense of us can be specifically engaged therapeutically.

Examples include: accurate empathy and
unconditional positive regard, mirroring and empathic immersion, focusing,
communicative attunement, sensitivity to the intersubjective field, empathic
resonance, gestalt awareness, and mindfulness. In fact, mindfulness could be
thought of as the appropriate rubric for all of these approaches to developing
awareness, which is no doubt why mindfulness is becoming increasingly popular as
an intervention in clinical practice. Indeed, the infrequent references to
mindfulness in “The Sacred Mirror” constitute a notable absence in the book.

Even so, “The Sacred Mirror” places an inordinate
emphasis on awareness, either in the sense of concentrated, focused awareness
(i.e., attention), or a more diffused, merely observing state referred to as
“witness consciousness”. Leaving aside the authors’ likely confusions about the
latter (most of what is described as witness consciousness seems much like the
state of an intelligent and alert but nonetheless egoically identified
observer), tt at no point does “The Sacred Mirror” come right out and state that
love is the healing principle—or explain how love is directly related to

“The Sacred Mirror” engages in a secondary focus
that values a vague affective orientation on the part of the client, generally
referred to by the following array of desirable attributes: equanimity,
peacefulness, kindness, compassion, empathy, and occasionally even self-esteem.
Perhaps the taboo in our culture and professional psychology against the
appearance of love in therapy has made doing so too controversial for the
contributors of this anthology.

In nondualism, the presumption of being a
separate self not only misguided, it is impediment to love and happiness. In
David Loy’s words: “[T]he nondualistic systems also agree that our usual sense
of duality—the sense of separation (hence alienation) between myself and the
world ‘I’ am ‘in’—is the root delusion that needs to be overcome.” Yet some
contributors to “The Sacred Mirror” assume that this is a reductive, even
anti-human view. For example, in her chapter, “Dancing with Form and Emptiness
in Intimate Relationship”, Jennifer Welwood argues:

Love does indeed come from beyond us, from
pure being, from the absolute source that shines through us and those we
love. And the essence of love does involve a dissolving of the boundaries of
separation. Yet, defining love purely as a mutual recognition of
transpersonal being is incomplete and unsatisfying in human terms . . ..
Nondual teachings that mainly emphasize the illusory quality of human
experience can, unfortunately, serve as just another dehumanizing force in a
world where our basic humanity is already under siege at every turn.

Unfortunately, this way of understanding
nondualism takes away the very essence of what is it is to be nondual. Speaking
equivocally about the separate self only undermines the ability to address its
limitations. Yet, it is understandable how this objection might occur.

Attaching meaning to experience is usually
thought to be extremely important for human beings, perhaps even our most
crucial enterprise. Nonetheless, it is precisely by putting our egoic humanity
to the test, indeed, by ultimately transcending it, that the reality of
nondualism can make its incontrovertible appearance—and, in doing so, replace
our egoic complications with the divine healing properties of awareness and

In conventional approaches to psychotherapy, it
is often thought that the objects or conditions of one’s love are the source of
happiness. As the famed nondualist spiritual master Adi Da Samraj argues,
however, being in possession of the objects of your love is not the source of

Love, rather, requires a far more significant
gesture of submission: we are obliged to give love—regardless of what happens as
a result. Knowing this out front puts us in position of learning the essential
lesson of life—which is not merely to be loved, or even to be loving toward this
or that other, but to be unqualified love itself.

Ordinary clinical interventions attempt to
improve our capacity to adapt to the conditions of ordinary life, but that does
not put people directly in touch with the very source of love. Even spiritual
orientations can confuse the issue. Simply put, there is an intimate—indeed, a
nondual—relationship between awareness and love. The two are inseparable.
They are born in us together when self and other truly yield to the greater

In the words of Swami Vivekananda:

This mighty attraction in the direction of
God makes all other attractions vanish for him; this mighty, infinite love
of God which enters his heart with the divine waters of the Ocean of Love,
which is God Himself; there is no place there for little loves . . .. He
sees no distinctions; the mighty Ocean of Love has entered into him, and he
sees not man in man, but beholds his Beloved everywhere . . .

Obviously, this represents a high standard for
clinical practice! Indeed, it could be said that nondual psychotherapy is not
really about being better adjusted or espousing a better social ideal—even if
for the admittedly useful purpose of getting confused and willful people to
behave better.

Rather, the purpose of nondual psychotherapy is
actually this: enlightenment. Certainly, such is the case for the spiritual
traditions from which nondual doctrines are culled. It remains a very open
question whether or not any therapeutic measures can measure up to this ultimate

Of course, it is perhaps not surprising that “The
Sacred Mirror” should be reluctant to address such issues head-on. To date,
nondual practices such as mindfulness have to be sanitized of any improper
alliances with love, much less spiritual submission to be accepted into clinical

Nevertheless, to honor the nondual spiritual
traditions from which such practices originate, both love and spirit must surely
play as large a role in treatment as any other intervention. In so doing,
therapy can perhaps further expand itself across the soul’s continuum. It should
be enough for now to ask for the intimacy of a holism brave enough to kneel
before the ultimacy of non-dualism, something “The Sacred Mirror” amply

D. B. Sleeth received an MA in humanistic and
transpersonal psychology from Sonoma State University, an MA in counseling
psychology from Argosy Graduate School in San Francisco, and a PhD in clinical
psychology from Saybrook Graduate School in San Francisco. He currently
practices family therapy with disadvantaged youth and young adults in Northern
California. D.B. Sleeth lives with his wife of 11 years, both of whom are active
members of Adidam, the spiritual community of the nondual spiritual master,
Avatar Adi Da Samraj.

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D.B. Sleeth