Addressing Persistent Challenges in Transpersonal Psychology: Cooperative Inquiry as an Innovative Response

This article juxtaposes a synthesis of prominent critiques arising within contemporary transpersonal psychology with an exploration of Cooperative Inquiry (CI) (Heron, 1996)—an experiential, participatory approach to human research and learning—as one avenue to address them. Specifically, repeated calls have been made for more diversity, inclusivity, social engagement, and research from general as well as participatory, feminist, and multicultural transpersonal perspectives. These critiques are balanced with concrete examples of contemporary CIs that have addressed related concerns and suggestions for future applications. Strengths of CI, such as its intrinsically collaborative and transformative dimensions, are discussed along with its limitations in the context of transpersonal validity standards. Through a creative combination of contemporary discourse in transpersonal psychology and a review of relevant CIs in practice, this article aims to inspire innovative thinking and practical responses to some of the most enduring challenges facing the field.

Sohmer, O.R. (2020). Addressing persistent challenges in transpersonal psychology: Cooperative inquiry as an innovative response. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 52(2), 78-112.

After half a century of theory building, research, and practice, transpersonal psychology is poised for a reflective pause in which the advances and challenges of the field can be contemplated in light of the present context. As transpersonal scholars have acknowledged (e.g., Cunningham, 2015; Hartelius, Harrahy et al., 2017), the social climate that forged the field has changed considerably since the late 1960s, when the early pioneers charted a radical redirection from the prevailing psychological orientations of the times by advocating for the spiritual dimension of human experience (e.g., Grof, 1975; Maslow, 1969; Sutich, 1968). Today, the fundamental concerns that once made transpersonal psychology unique have been integrated into the mainstream (e.g., Anderson & Lancaster, 2017; Hartelius, Krippner, & Thouin-Savard, 2017). Yoga, for example, is now taught to children in public schools with recognized benefits (e.g., Hagen & Nayar, 2014; Khalsa & Butzer, 2016; Khalsa et al., 2012), mindfulness is being integrated into mainstream psychotherapy approaches (e.g., Davis & Hayes, 2011; Sanders, 2010), and spiritual development is increasingly recognized as an important vector of higher education (e.g., Dalton et al., 2006; Duerr et al., 2003; Palmer & Zajonc, 2010). This transformed climate at once lends broader social recognition to the longstanding interests of transpersonal psychology, while calling into question the relevance and vitality of the field as a distinct discipline (Cunningham, 2007, 2015; Hartelius, Friedman, & Pappas, 2013; Wade, 2019). Arguably, the task ahead is no longer to map and legitimize the spiritual and expanded dimensions of human life, but to cultivate these potentials for the sake of human and environmental flourishing (Hocoy, 2016; Rothberg & Coder, 2013). In other words, the focus has shifted from establishing the psychological import and overall validity of spirituality to more skillfully cultivating spiritually informed responses to the current social and environmental crises.

Transpersonal psychology, thus, faces the challenge and opportunity of evolving its ethos and praxis in light of this evolved context. Important efforts have been made in this regard to invigorate and redefine the field from contemporary vantage points (e.g., Friedman & Hartelius, 2013; Hartelius, Harrahy et al., 2017; Kaklauskas et al., 2016a, 2016b; McMullin et al., 2017). While nurturing a renewed vision of transpersonal psychology as a discipline committed to encouraging the frontiers of human potential in intimate relation with the greater web of life, systematic reviews (Caplan et al., 2003; Hartelius et al., 2007; Hartelius, Rothe, & Roy, 2013) and theoretical critiques (e.g., Brooks et al., 2013; Clements et al., 2016; Ferrer, 2002, 2017; Louchakova & Lucas, 2007) have illuminated persistent challenges.

This article synthesizes some of the most salient critiques elaborated by transpersonal scholars in the last twenty years. Called by some the second era or wave of transpersonal psychology (Hartelius, Harrahy et al., 2017; Lahood, 2007a, 2010a; Tarnas, 2001), this period has been marked by the emergence of the participatory turn (Ferrer, 2002; Ferrer & Sherman, 2008) or the “relational turn” (Lahood, 2010a, b, in press) in the field. In this context, important critiques have emerged from both general as well as participatory (e.g., Heron, 1996, 2018; Ferrer, 2002, 2017), feminist (e.g., Brooks, 2010; Brooks et al., 2013), and multicultural perspectives (e.g., Hartelius et al., 2018; Hocoy, 2016; Hoffman, 2016). Specifically, repeated calls have been made for more diversity, inclusivity, social engagement, and empirical research. These calls offer an important self-reflective opportunity for transpersonal psychology to face if the discipline is to become a thriving contributor in contemporary psychology, scholarship, and society-at-large.

Juxtaposed with these critiques, this article explores Cooperative Inquiry (CI) (Heron, 1996; Heron & Reason, 1997, 2006)—an experiential, participatory approach to human research and learning—as one avenue to address them. That is, each critique is balanced with concrete examples of contemporary CIs that have addressed related concerns. Then, the strengths of CI, such as its intrinsically collaborative and transformative dimensions, are discussed along with its limitations in the context of transpersonal validity standards (Anderson & Braud, 2011; Braud, 1998; Heron, 1996; Lincoln & Guba, 2011). Finally, opportunities for future applications of CI addressing the prominent critiques are suggested.

This exploration is offered with a constructive spirit to spark both innovative thinking and practical responses to the enduring challenges facing transpersonal psychology. CI is, of course, neither the only nor a complete answer to these multifaceted challenges. Yet, the participatory methodology and values of CI—as evidenced in exemplar studies in related disciplines addressing some of the most pervasive challenges highlighted in the literature—offer a meaningful lens. At the same time, this discussion bears relevance beyond CI to other transpersonal research methods, participatory and action methods, transpersonal psychology praxis more broadly, and the overall self-awareness of the field. Ultimately, this exploration aims to stimulate creative approaches to promote greater consciousness, diversity, inclusivity, social engagement, and research in transpersonal psychology—not only to ensure the continued relevance of transpersonal psychology in the contemporary world, but also to help fulfil the discipline’s commitment to social, environmental, and spiritual flourishing.

Cooperative Inquiry: History and Methodology in a Transpersonal Context

A brief overview of the CI methodology, its origins, and historic connections with transpersonal psychology, provides an important foundation for a deeper analysis of contemporary challenges facing the field and the suitability of CI as a response. CI is an experiential, participatory approach to research and learning about any aspect of human experience (Heron, 1996). In its full form, CI is participatory at all levels—from the selection of inquiry focus, to research design, and meaning making. The method has been described by its founder John Heron and his collaborator Peter Reason as research with people rather than on or about them (e.g., Heron & Reason, 1986, 1997, 2006, 2008). In this approach, a small group of co-inquirers engage in repeated cycles of action and reflection (typically 5-8 cycles) to elucidate a particular inquiry domain or question. Beyond the basic cycling of collaboratively determined actions, reflection on those actions, planning for the next action cycle, and so on, the methodology is open to all human faculties (e.g., mental intellect, emotional intelligence, intuition, embodied knowing) and inquiry tools (e.g., contemplative, interpersonal, creative-expressive practices) during the action phases. An extended epistemology (Heron, 1996; Heron & Reason, 1997, 2008) is recognized and employed, including conceptual/propositional (statements about the nature of reality), imaginal/presentational (creative expression), and practical (skills and abilities) knowledge, grounded in experiential (direct personal experience) knowledge. Because of the highly participatory nature of CI design and implementation, it is difficult to generalize the inquiry process, which is best understood by looking to examples like the ones discussed below. This being said, CI typically progresses through three phases: (a) initiation, (b) action-reflection cycling, and (c) overarching meaning making—with attention to the inquiry validity throughout (see Table 1). Under optimal conditions, CI in any domain engages the interplay of autonomy and cooperation, thus fostering the capacity for authentic relationship among individuals united by a shared concern. Importantly, the ultimate goal of CI is not to provide informational outcomes alone, but to facilitate transformational outcomes that support human flourishing in an interconnected, living Cosmos (Heron, 1996).

The foundational seeds of the method emerged concurrently with the origins of transpersonal psychology in the late 1960s (Heron, 1970, 1971, 1996). Both CI and transpersonal psychology affirmed an expanded vision of human nature that includes spirituality and the larger systems in which humanity is a part (e.g., Heron, 1996; Maslow, 1969; Sutich, 1968). The first formal cooperative inquiries took place within groups of co-counselors (Heron & Reason, 1981, 1982) and among doctors exploring “whole person medicine” (Heron & Reason, 1984, 1985). After this, CI gained momentum in two directions: following John Heron into an independent research career predominantly focused on psychospiritual inquiry and with Peter Reason—as director of the Center for Action Research at the University of Bath—into various domains of professional practice (Heron, 1996). Beyond these founding applications of CI in transpersonal studies and professional practice, the method has been applied in a variety of disciplines including medicine (e.g., Jenkins, 2007; Trollvik et al., 2013), education (e.g., Kasl & Yorks, 2002; Ospina et al., 2008), social change (e.g., Paxton, 2003; Scher, 2007; Tuazon-McCheyne, 2010), psychology (e.g., Van Lith, 2014), and spirituality (e.g., Heron & Lahood, 2008; Rubinart et al., 2016). However, given the founding emphasis on psychospiritual domains, application of CI in transpersonal psychology has been relatively limited, with no published inquiries in the main journals of transpersonal psychology to date. Notably, this absence is due to change with a forthcoming monograph of the International Journal of Transpersonal Studies focused on participatory research methods (Sohmer, in press).

In parallel, transpersonal psychology has grown and evolved with some scholars (Dale, 2014; Daniels, 2005; Lahood, 2007a, 2010a; Tarnas, 2001) drawing attention to the participatory turn (Ferrer, 2002, 2008, 2017; Ferrer & Sherman, 2008; Hartelius & Ferrer, 2013)—which shares fundamental values with the participatory ethos of CI (Heron, 1996)—as a significant shift in the field. Although it may be premature to determine whether the participatory turn in fact constitutes a paradigm shift in transpersonal psychology or is more accurately an increasingly popular orientation or network of perspectives (Ferrer, 2017), the distinctions identified between these proposed eras are informative (see Hartelius, Harrahy et al. [2017] for a discussion of “second wave transpersonalism”). Briefly, the first era emphasized expanded human experiences from a predominantly neo-perennialist lens (i.e., drawing on perennial philosophy [e.g., Huxley, 1945] and assuming a universal spiritual Truth variously expressed by the worlds wisdom traditions; e.g., Cortright, 1997; Grof, 1998; Wilber, 1975, 1980). Meanwhile, the second era has been characterized by increasing recognition of the cocreative—or participatory—nature of reality, empowering the premise of ontological pluralism (i.e., the potential coexistence of multiple divergent spiritual realities; Ferrer, 2002, 2017), as well as emphasizing radical relatedness (i.e., inextricability of parts and whole in a living system and the intersubjective domain that arises between individuals and groups; Hartelius, 2016; Lahood, 2010a, b). Allied in some ways with feminist and multicultural perspectives, the participatory perspective recognizes the importance of the larger contexts—sociohistorical, political, environmental, spiritual—in which individuals are embedded and emphasizes the transformative dimension of research and scholarship. Concerns with the macro-level group, societal, planetary or cosmic contexts beyond the individual were intrinsic to the founding transpersonal vision (e.g., Boucouvalas, 1980, 1981, 1995, 1999) and are, thus, common to both eras. However, discourse and application in these domains has, arguably, gained momentum since the participatory turn within the transpersonal as well as broader cultural milieu. Furthermore, although the participatory perspective has been lucidly elaborated in theory (e.g., Ferrer, 2002; Ferrer & Sherman, 2008; Hartelius & Ferrer, 2013; Heron, 2006; Heron & Reason, 1997; Tarnas, 1991, 2006) and has brought important perceived limitations in dominant transpersonal projects into view, it has, arguably, not been fully actualized in practice (see Lahood [in press] for a practical exception). CI and participatory action methods, thus, could play an important role in enacting the participatory ethos that is becoming increasingly prominent the field.

In this context, some of the main features of CI that are especially relevant for transpersonal psychology after the participatory turn came into focus include the experiential, holistic, relational, and transformative nature of the method. First, CI is experiential in the sense that the method unfolds through repeated cycles of action and reflection in which all co-inquirers participate. Data collection and design of subsequent action-reflection cycles are based on the direct experience of co-inquirers engaged in actions that are collaboratively determined to generate relevant insight and transformation regarding the inquiry focus and purpose. It is important to note, however, that unlike the experientialist focus of the first era of transpersonal psychology (Ferrer, 2002), in which experience was held as a purely subjective human phenomenon, a participatory perspective recognizes the larger spheres of life in and with which human experience is enacted beyond the Cartesian subjective-objective split (Ferrer, 2002; Hartelius & Ferrer, 2013).

The second important feature for this discussion is the holistic nature of CI. That is, CI is holistic because the method acknowledges and cultivates multiple ways of knowing through the aforementioned expanded epistemology (Heron, 1996; Heron & Reason, 1997, 2008), making room for contemplative, imaginal, and embodied knowledge. Also, CI recognizes and leverages state-specific knowledge (Cunningham, 2015; Ferrer, 2014, 2017; Tart, 2009)—knowledge that is accessible only through intentionally cultivated faculties, such as meditation or interpersonal practices. Because a CI can employ introspective, creative expressive, and relational practices as inquiry tools during action phases, the methodology is well equipped to grant access to, and generate knowledge within, a variety of states of consciousness. Multiple ways of knowing can be further emphasized in the context of CI if directly intended, such as in Ferrer’s (2017) method of Embodied Spiritual Inquiry (Anderson, 2018a; Ferrer & Sohmer, 2017; Sohmer, 2018).

Third, CI is relational, or intersubjective, in that knowledge is generated through collaboration in action-reflection cycles, research design, and meaning-making. Importantly, this feature adds a dimension of validity beyond individual subjective research because confirmation between co-inquirers can provide a foundation to substantiate participatory knowledge claims (although not universal claims; see below). Finally, CI is transformative in that the inquiry experience in itself is intended to meaningfully transform co-inquirers and their worlds (e.g., Heron, 1996, 1998; Heron & Sohmer, in press). These features are elucidated further through concrete examples and a discussion of the CI method in the context of transpersonal validity standards (e.g., Anderson & Braud, 2011; Braud, 1998).

Persistent Critiques in Transpersonal Psychology

Surveying the self-reflexive literature in contemporary transpersonal psychology, key challenges and limitations stand out. Although this discussion cannot cover the whole range of critiques, it focuses on themes that have been especially prominent and raised from both general and specialized perspectives. Specifically, I organize these critiques into three interrelated but distinct categories: cultural bias, social engagement, and research.
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