Sign Up for Our Bi-Weekly Email

Expand your perspective with thought-provoking insights, quotes, and videos hand-picked by our editors—along with the occasional update about the world of EnlightenNext.

Privacy statement

Your email address is kept confidential, and will never be published, sold or given away without your explicit consent. Thank you for joining our mailing list!


In the Meantime ... 

An interview with Frances Vaughan
by Susan Bridle


Frances Vaughan

"To meditate is to transcend time. Time is the distance that thought travels in its achievements. The traveling is always along the old path covered over with a new coating, new sights, but always the same road, leading nowhere—except to pain and sorrow. It is only when the mind transcends time that truth ceases to be an abstraction."

J. Krishnamurti, The Only Revolution

"I'm interested in [a] humbler approach, one that is more accepting of human foibles, and indeed sees dignity and peace emerging more from acceptance than from any method of transcending the human condition."

Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul
In our exploration of the question, "What is enlightenment?" for this issue of WIE, we sought out the insights of two of the most prominent enlightenment traditions thriving in the West today: Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta. Yet there is a new spiritual philosophy emerging in the West that has begun to compete with these age-old teachings in both influence and appeal—the modern psychology of spirituality known as transpersonal psychology. While traditionally the goals of goals of enlightenment spirituality and psychotherapy have been at odds (enlightenment teachings aim at subverting or transcending the ego, while psychotherapy aims at supporting or healing the ego), transpersonal psychology is now attempting to reconcile these differences and to offer new answers to perennial spiritual questions. Curious to see if this school of thought could shed new light on our inquiry, we began a brief but fascinating foray into the world of transpersonal psychology.

Transpersonal psychology, which began as part and parcel of the human potential movement in the 1960s, has advanced groundbreaking research in its attempt to open doors of perception hitherto unknown in the West and to chart the furthest reaches of human consciousness. Once a radical current in the spiritual subculture, transpersonal psychology has become widely recognized as a legitimate branch of psychology and is now included in mainstream college curricula. At the same time, it has also become increasingly associated with popular Eastern spiritual paths and practices as they have taken root in Western soil. Ram Dass, originally trained as a psychologist, became a spiritual teacher after traveling to India and meeting his Hindu guru; and Jack Kornfield, now one of America's most popular meditation teachers, decided, after several years as a Buddhist monk, to pursue a graduate degree in psychology. The Naropa Institute, founded as a Buddhist college by the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, now boasts one of the most acclaimed programs for "transpersonal studies." And the ideas and language of therapeutic psychology have become intermingled with those of Eastern spiritual teachings to the point that the two are often indistinguishable—meditators speak about "working through psychological blocks" as much as therapists speak about "going beyond ego."

Thirty years ago, transpersonal psychology was lauded for its innovations in the scientific "mapping" of human consciousness and development, but it was not yet viewed as an authoritative source of spiritual guidance. Disciplined spiritual practice under the direction of a spiritual teacher, if one was serious about enlightenment, was still understood to be the most credible approach to the spiritual path. In the interim, views have changed. Participants at the first national conference of American Buddhist teachers in 1993, facilitated by a panel of psychotherapists and attended by 115 Western teachers in the Zen, Tibetan and Vipassana traditions, noted that the therapeutic perspective dominated the conference, and that many meditation teachers no longer make any distinction between psychotherapy and Buddhist practice. Judith Simmer-Brown, chair of The Naropa Institute's religious studies department, commented in a firsthand account of the conference published in Shambhala Sun magazine: "Those present had completely bought the psychotherapeutic model of liberation, casting aside the tools they had developed through their dharma practice. . . . We even threw out our dharma vocabulary, our discussions of practice, even our practice of meditation."

Transpersonal psychology has not only established itself as a distinct voice in contemporary spirituality, it has also gradually become the most resounding. Complicating matters even further is the fact that, one after another over the past twenty years, renowned spiritual teachers have fallen prey to the temptations of greed and power. Many of those we have looked to as the highest examples of spiritual attainment have left a trail of corruption and abuses of trust, disillusioning disciples and onlookers alike about the reliability of spiritual authority as well as the ultimate meaning of enlightenment. In the wake of this confusion, leading proponents of transpersonal psychology have offered potent criticisms of Eastern spiritual approaches that emphasize spiritual experience and transcendence to the exclusion of a mature development of other areas of the personality. Noted transpersonal psychologist, meditation teacher and author John Engler, in an essay, "Becoming Somebody and Nobody: Psychoanalysis and Buddhism," writes:

One has to be somebody before one can be nobody. . . .The attempt to bypass the developmental tasks of identity formation and object constancy through a misguided spiritual attempt to "annihilate the ego" has fateful and pathological consequences. This is what many students who are drawn to meditation practice and even some teachers seem to be attempting to do. What is needed, and what has been missing from both clinical and meditative perspectives, is a developmental psychology that includes the full developmental spectrum. . . . Both a sense of self and a sense of no-self—in that order—seem to be necessary to realize that state of optimal psychological well-being that Freud once described as an "ideal fiction" and the Buddha long before described as "the end of suffering" and the one thing he taught.
Transpersonal psychology has, over the past two decades, popularized the very full-spectrum, stage-specific, developmental approach that Engler proposes, with a sophisticated analysis of the evolution of consciousness and therapeutic techniques that address every aspect of human experience. Transpersonal psychology, with its model of continuous growth rather than one of absolute attainment, and transpersonal therapists, who derive their authority not from claims of enlightenment but from knowledge of developmental processes, now hold forth the prevailing paradigm. Jack Kornfield, in an article entitled "Even the Best Meditators Have Old Wounds to Heal," writes: "For most people, meditation practice doesn't 'do it all.' At best, it's one important piece of a complex path of opening and awakening. . . . There are many areas of growth where good Western therapy is on the whole much quicker and more successful than meditation." As we approach the millennium, transpersonal therapists rather than spiritual teachers have, to all appearances, become the most authoritative and trusted commentators on the subject of spiritual paths and practices in the West.

Therefore, for this issue of WIE, we were eager to speak with a transpersonal psychologist who could illuminate how this new breed of spiritual guides grapples with the big questions we'd set out to investigate. We were delighted to have the opportunity to speak with Dr. Frances Vaughan, a respected therapist who has been called a "transpersonal pioneer," a "Wise Woman" and a "midwife of the soul." Vaughan maintains a private practice in Mill Valley, California, and teaches and lectures around the world. She is the author of two books and coeditor of five, several of which are required reading in transpersonal training curricula. Speaking with clarity and confidence about spiritual paths and practices, her books elaborate a precise methodology for guiding others to "healing and wholeness for the purpose of enhancing well-being at any level on the spectrum of consciousness, pointing the way to liberation." We hoped our discussion with Dr. Vaughan could answer some of our questions, the most central being: Could the goal of the Buddha's teaching, as a growing number of transpersonal therapists would suggest, really be reduced to "optimal psychological functioning"?

We approached Dr. Vaughan, after reading her books as well as a number of the other central texts in her field, with a genuine respect for the contributions transpersonal psychology has made to modern discussion of spiritual questions. Leading transpersonal thinkers, Ken Wilber foremost among them, have clarified many significant distinctions about psychological development and spiritual attainment that have never before been so clearly articulated. And transpersonal psychology's emphasis on including moral, relational and other dimensions of human experience in a complete understanding of spiritual attainment we had long appreciated as crucially important. Yet the more we had inquired into the transpersonal approach to the spiritual path, the more we had been haunted by the fundamental paradox inherent in any therapeutic approach to enlightenment: How can one simultaneously pursue the healing and the dismantling of the personal self? Or, if one is committed to pursuing healing first, can that still be properly called a spiritual path? We had also had lingering questions about whether the pursuit of enlightenment is a developmental process that can be mapped in the same way that other developmental processes can. Ken Wilber suggests in his book The Atman Project that it is: "The same process of growth and emergence runs through the whole sequence—the way we got from the [bodyself] to the ego is the same way we go from the ego to God." Yet the great enlightenment traditions have always claimed that the spiritual quest is no ordinary journey—that enlightenment is a leap beyond the known, beyond any conceptual framework, and off the map of relative progress altogether, no matter how comprehensive that map may be. While it is traditionally understood that the spiritual quest requires every faculty we can bring to it, in the end, enlightenment has always demanded that we leave all our tools, maps and concepts behind, and step into the unknown, blind and empty-handed. "You people still conceive of [the One] Mind . . . as something to be studied in the way that one studies a piece of categorical knowledge, or as a concept," wrote Zen master Huang Po as long ago as the ninth century B.C. "Those who use their minds like eyes in this way are sure to suppose that progress is a matter of stages. If you are that kind of person, you are as far from the truth as earth is far from heaven."

In the following dialogue, which took place in her counseling room in May 1998, Dr. Vaughan articulates her holistic vision of transpersonal psychology as a bridge between the dimensions of psychology and spirituality. Describing herself and transpersonal therapists more as "companions along the way" than as spiritual guides, and transpersonal spirituality more as a personal healing journey than as an ultimate reckoning of the individual with that which is Absolute, Vaughan gives voice to some of the most popular themes in contemporary spirituality today—and reveals another fascinating perspective on the question: What is enlightenment? Does anybody know what they're talking about?


Subscribe to What Is Enlightenment? magazine today and get 40% off the cover price.

Subscribe Give a gift Renew

This article is from
Our Advaita and Buddhism Issue