Boundaries to the transpersonal: a reply to Peter Schulthess
by David Boadella
st President, European Association for Body Psychotherapy, 1989-1993
Chairman, Scientific Validation Committee, European Association for
Peter Schulthess, the President of the Swiss Charter for Psychotherapy, has written
the extensive critique of transpersonal psychology which he sees as transcending the
boundaries of the profession of psychotherapy. Within this field he includes all that is
“esoteric” or spiritual, although he validates these dimensions for personal
development outside of psychotherapy. His critique was published in the Journal of
the Swiss Association for Psychotherapists, ASP, “A Jour”, 01.06.2015.
There is much in his critique which I can support, in particular the practices of
pseudo-spiritual movements, associated with “gurus” claiming higher powers and
leading dogmatic sects which encourage symbiotic dependency and which are
counter-therapeutic in their effects. The Austrian Psychotherapy Law, which
Schulthess refers to favourably, seeks to protect clients from such extremes.
However there is a danger here of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is
the risk that many valid practices within psychotherapy, and supported by the Swiss
Charta of Psychotherapy itself, may be falsely excluded by over-restrictive
judgements. In this article I seek to agree with some of Peter Schulthess’ critique, but
to defend those practices that may be seen as transpersonal yet which are firmly
anchored within the mainstreams of psychotherapy.
1. Jungian psychology: Carl Jung was one of the founders of Transpersonal
Psychology and he defined the higher Self as the “God within us”. Should Jungian
therapy no longer be recognised by the Swiss Charta and the Swiss State? The
answer is clearly in favour of Jung continuing to be recognised.
2. Music: Peter Schulthess underlines the value of music in personal and cultural life,
yet questions whether “music therapy” can be part of psychotherapy, even though it
is an accredited method within the Swiss Charta.
3. Breathing techniques: Peter Schulthess rightly criticises the holotropic breath
therapy of Stanislav Grof, which I also see as counter-therapeutic for many reasons,
one of which is the risk of several negative side effects from the hyper-ventilation
which his methods induce. However it would be a great mistake to look on modified
breathing in itself as “transpersonal” since this has been a fundamental part of bodypsychotherapy
ever since the time of Pierre Janet until today, and has proved to be
immensely helpful in leading to heightened body awareness and in rebalancing
4. Meditation: The word means “finding the middle”, or learning to centre oneself. It is
true that many meditation methods were developed in religious movements. I agree
with Peter Schulthess that to teach religious beliefs to clients is to transcend the
boundaries of psychotherapy. However, learning to centre oneself and find balance
between extremes is certainly a fundamental aim within psychotherapy. Marsha
Linehan, the founder of dialectical behavioural psychotherapy has emphasised the
central importance of meditation in helping borderline clients. Jon Kabat-Zinn has
produced extensive support for the value of “mindfulness” within his form of mindful
based stress-reduction (MBSR). Other methods like ACT (acceptance and
commitment training, and MSC (mindful self compassion) have been validated by
many scientific research studies.
5. Pre- and perinatal psychology: Peter Schulthess is critical of mystical viewpoints
on life before conception, for which there is no objective evidence. However the field
of pre- and perinatal psychology has a long history, going back to Pierre Janet and
Otto Rank. There has been research for many decades on how experiences within
the womb can shape personality. Memories which are pre-conscious may
nevertheless remain, and can appear, as body memories.
6. Near death experiences: These are not part of psychotherapy, even though Jung’s
personal near death experience had a profound influence on his Analytical
Psychology. However, many clients will spontaneously share experiences related to
near death, or on the other hand to the actual death of a beloved person. In my view
it is important that the therapist remains open to the transpersonal experiences of the
client that may naturally arise at such times.
7. Reincarnation: Some clients will present with apparent memories of “past lives”.
These may often serve as symbolic landscapes for representing traumatic
experiences from this life which have not yet been faced. I agree with Peter
Schulthess in his view that deliberate induction of such experiences does not belong
within the normal boundaries of psychotherapy. Nevertheless ways of bringing the
client back into his actual life most certainly do. I call this “returning to this life”
(”Rückführung in dieses Leben”).
8. False memories: Peter Schulthess warns of the dangers that the psychotherapist
might identify with apparent memories of the client which may turn out to be false.
This can often happen when strong emotions from traumatic abuse in childhood are
attributed wrongly to an innocent person. There can also be true memories that are
wrongly believed to be false. Freud gave up his original trauma theory because it
became socially unacceptable at that time to believe that parents can abuse children.
He replaced his trauma theory with the Oedipus theory: children project their
fantasies of incest onto their parents. Since the therapist is not a detective he needs
to remain open to both possibilities in any individual case.
9. Esoteric: Peter Schulthess defines the word “esoteric” as meaning “inwardly”. He
uses the term as a category for all those practices and beliefs which in his view
transcend the boundaries of psychotherapy. He uses the word “exoteric”, meaning
“outwardly”, in contrast, to mean objective and scientifically verifiable methods and
I wish that life could be so simple. In reality psychotherapy is both an art and a
science. The word “psychotherapy” means literally the cure or care of the psyche. In
my opinion, the psychotherapist cannot cure the client of his neurosis. What he can
do is to provide the care from outside which makes the cure from inside possible. In
this sense the care is external and the cure is internal. This goes back to the roots of
attachment theory, which is fundamental to many forms of psychotherapy. John
Bowlby emphasised the importance of the secure relationship as the foundation for
healing. Donald Winnicott called this the “holding environment”.
Winnicott distinguished between the “false self”, which was induced by negative
conditioning, and the “true self” which was authentic. This true self was linked with an
inner trust in one’s own qualities and values. The “true self” has much in common
with what spiritual traditions call the “soul”.
The care from the outer holding environment, which is exoteric, or outward,
encourages the cure of traumatic stress or neurotic conditioning, through the
regaining of contact with this true self, which is esoteric only in the primary meaning
10. The false leader: Peter Schulthess rightly criticises the power of the self-declared
guru in pseudo-spiritual sects on the “psycho-market”, who knows what is best for his
followers and leads them into new forms of imposed conditioning from which it may
be very difficult to become free. In 1990 I was invited to the House of Lords in
Westminster, London, to give testimony about these processes, in a conference on
“Cults and Sects”.
Instead of depending symbiotically on such a false leader in a cult or sect, each
person needs to find ways to develop their own inner “guru” or inner teacher: listening
to the voice of the true self within.
11. Diagnosis: However, there is a similar risk, within any psychotherapy method that
the therapist knows best what is right for the client. He fits the client too easily into his
diagnostic manual, and chooses the appropriate remedy. He may also offer the client
interpretations which he thinks are right but which are actually wrong. He can offer
interventions which he believes should be helpful but can turn out to be counterproductive.
So even the best trained therapist could become, at least some times, a
false leader. Part of the art of psychotherapy is to know when to lead and when to
follow. The word “diagnosis” means “knowing the difference”. So the client can learn
a lot from a good therapist, and the therapist needs to learn a lot from each client
about what is similar to others, and what is different. So “dia-gnosis”, is a wisdom that
grows between the two of them, therapist and client.
12. Spirituality: To be inspired by inner qualities and values is the essential meaning
of the word spiritual. In this sense a person’s own spirituality is part of the self who
comes to therapy, either as client or as therapist. Two human beings meet each other
in the room. This essential spirituality needs to be clearly distinguished from the
pseudo-spirituality described above.
The World Council of Psychotherapy, founded by Alfred Pritz in 1996, in Zürich,
established a Working Party on Psychotherapy and Spirituality, where I became the
acting Chairman. I wrote a report for this committee on how spirituality, in this
essential sense, was a natural part of every major psychotherapy mainstream. This
report was published as “Essence and Ground” in the International Journal of
Psychotherapy, Vol 3, No 1, 1998. I end with a brief quotation from this article:
“Although Freud recognised the reality of what he called oceanic feelings and
longings, his tendency was to view these as a regressive re-experiencing of an
original unity with the mother… What Freud did not recognise here is the formative
side of the spiritual traditions. In throwing out the bathwater of obsessional
compulsion in the exoteric side of religion, he had also thrown out the baby of the
essential heart of human spirituality.
This omission was rectified and recognised by Otto Kernberg, the President elect of
the International Psychoanalytical Association, in a keynote speech at the World
Council for Psychotherapy Congress at Vienna in 1996. In this speech Kernberg
reopened the door that psychoanalysis had slammed shut, to the inclusion of
spirituality within psychotherapy as a key area of focus and concern, a source of
potential healing of wounds, rather than a defensive compulsion to be analysed
It is important for the ethical principles of psychotherapy to make clear that
indoctrination and imposed beliefs about reality are not valid within the therapeutic
Great care, nevertheless, should be taken in the formulating of psychotherapy laws,
whether in Austria or in Switzerland, that power is not exercised in an overgeneralised
way, with the risk that valid methods of psychotherapy are confused with
pseudo-spirituality that clients need to be protected from.
The Swiss Charta has a long history of democratic decision making and liberal
scientific recognition of a wide range of psychotherapy methods, most recently with
Peter Schulthess as President. These methods have all now received provisional
accreditation by the Swiss State. I hope that the Charta and the ASP will use their
influence to keep an open but reasonably bounded Swiss law. Similarly, I trust that
the European Association for Psychotherapy EAP, based in Vienna, will use its
influence to oppose the harsh over-generalisations of the Austrian psychotherapy
Copies sent to:
Peter Schulthess, President, Swiss Charter for Psychotherapy
Dr. Alfred Pritz, General Secretary, European Association for Psychotherapy
and President of the World Council for Psychotherapy
Courtenay Young, former President, European Association for Body Psychotherapy
and editor of the International Journal of Psychotherapy
Christina Bader-Johansson, President of the Swiss Association for Body