Transformations of Consciousness: CONVENTIONAL AND CONTEMPLATIVE PERSPECTIVES ON DEVELOPMENTby Ken Wilber, Jack Engler and Daniel P. Brown (New Science Library, Shambhala: $29.95, hardcover; $14.95, paperback; 305 pp., illustrated)


Let these words play in your imagination for a while and notice how they lure you from the commonplace: “ultimate values . . . peak experiences . . . ecstasy . . . mystical experiences . . . awe . . . self actualization . . . wonder . . . transcendence of the self . . . cosmic awareness . . . maximal sensory awareness . . . bliss . . . maximum interpersonal encounter . . . sacralization of everyday life . . . .”

Those words were extracted from a definition of the concerns of transpersonal psychology, expressed by one of its founders, Tony Sutich, back in the 1960s. In May, 1986, the definition appeared in the midst of an academic brouhaha reported in the American Psychological Assn.’s publication, Monitor. Transpersonal psychology, controversial since its inception nearly a generation ago, is concerned with the spiritual as well as the emotional aspects of human development. The current confrontation is centered on whether transpersonal psychology has moved far enough into the mainstream to receive official status as a division of the American Psychological Assn.

At this critical moment comes the publication of a book by some key proponents of transpersonal psychology. In “Transformations of Consciousness,” no time is wasted on defense attitudes; a positive, assertive approach is taken from the start. “All of the authors of this volume share the belief that a more comprehensive and integrated view of human development can be achieved if both of these major traditions, conventional and contemplative, can be brought together in a mutually enriching fashion.”


Serious scholars who are drawn to the study of transpersonal psychology will find a compilation of useful information in these esoteric essays by six experts--most of whom either graduated from Harvard Medical School or teach there.

All but two of the chapters in this book were published in the “Journal of Transpersonal Psychology.” The journal (therefore the book, as well) is directed toward “psychologists, psychiatrists, philosophers, theologians, and laypersons interested in the fascinating interface between psychology and spirituality, and between clinical and contemplative perspectives.” Focusing on what Jack Engler and Ken Wilber call a “full-spectrum model” of human development, “Transformations of Consciousness” emphasizes that there is much these major schools of development need to learn from each other, and what is presented here is a study across boundaries.

The curious layperson who ventures, unprepared, into these pages will have some difficulties: It is presumed that you not only know your Freud and your Jung but also that you are familiar with Buddhist philosophy, Christian mysticism--and if you can read Greek, it wouldn’t hurt. Frequent references to the works of other writers are appropriately inserted into the text in a scholarly work, but some readers may find that 12 sets of parentheses on a given page can be as irritating as the bumps that are placed in the parking lots of shopping centers in an effort to slow you down.

The authors’ decision that this book should focus exclusively on clinical theory and should avoid the reporting of case histories disappointed this reader. The consistent tone of cool intellectualism tends to chill the enthusiasm after a chapter or three or four. This book is like a drafty castle--elegant and impressive, but lacking in creature comforts. Since the subject is about the human psyche, the personal touch is missed all the more. There is, however, halfway through the book, an interesting account of individual responses to Rorschachs by advanced meditators, and the last chapter examines the lives of some saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church, but that seems hardly enough. If case histories had been included, they might have provided moments of warmth.

When you think of scientists and philosophers who have captured the attention of a broad readership (Lewis Thomas, Richard Restak, Robert Ornstein, Julian Jaynes, Oliver Sacks, Gary Zukav, etc.), you realize that science is not disserved by the addition of captivating theories or fables--or simply an obvious fascination with the way one word chases another through the labyrinth of an idea.

“Transformation of Consciousness” is a valuable book, reaffirming the importance of spiritual growth and transcendent experiences. But unless you are knowledgeable about this particular field, the price of enlightenment must be paid in tenacity and a willingness to chop through the dense forest of abstract concepts to the meadow that lies beyond.