Some Contrasts among Transpersonal Psychological Theories: Wilber, Washburn, Russell, and Epstein.


By Leland van den Daele

In his seminal book The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley illustrates how religious experience, cross-culturally and historically, gives rise to commonalities in attitudes, values, and orientation toward the world. In the subsequent literature in the burgeoning area of transpersonal psychology, the idea that the mystic worldview embodies an organized whole with universal stages of development has comprised a central theme in the literature.

According to Huxley, the mystic worldview is integral, general, and universal. It coordinates the within and the without and proclaims the ultimate interdependency of existence. Within this mode of consciousness, all the antinomies, being and not-being, the one and the many, time and the eternal, find a coordinated comprehension. Viewed in developmental perspective, the mystic worldview would appear the most general possible, or nearly so, and therefore be in hierarchical relation to any less universal worldview. It would be last in a hierarchy of human cognitive development.

Transpersonal Views of Contemplative Development

Two major developmental paradigms have been applied in the transpersonal literature: the “structural hierarchical” and “dynamic dialectical” approaches to theory construction. These models parallel the different approaches that characterize developmental and clinical psychology respectively, and so the relevance of this paradigm difference and the issues that are entailed extend beyond transpersonal theory to differences in disciplinary perspective.

The primary proponent of the structural hierarchical view is Kenneth Wilber and his coworkers. Wilber connects stages described in the academic developmental literature with stages derived from examination of contemplative literature. In his formulation of transpersonal development, Wilber appropriates stage sequences from Kohlberg and Loevinger which serve as the stepping-off place for stages within mystical consciousness. Wilber’s method is comparative like Huxley, and typological like Kohlberg. He examines similarities among the published writings and oral traditions of contemplative systems to isolate more or less “cohesive” experience. In the book which first illustrates the framework for his stage perspective (Wilber, 1980), he describes five post-“existential” stages: low subtle, high subtle, low causal, high causal, and ultimate. These stages commence at the “existential” level which Wilber conceives as transitional between formal operational thought and higher spiritual modes of consciousness.  In Wilber’s scheme, the spiritual stages display features which are strikingly discontinuous with pre-“spiritual” thought.   For example, the Low Subtitle stage “mode of self”  is “astral-psychic” with clairvoyant and extra-sensory perception.  Analogous psychic experience and abilities characterize the four remaining spiritual stages.

Wilber’s emphasis upon ineffable experiences and psychic abilities emphasizes a discontinuity in mental function from earlier stages. Wilber’s emphasis on extra-sensory perception is like mixing apples and oranges. A consistent theoretical framework applied to the structures of comprehension would describe the individual’s perspective on life and reality. Wilber’s more recent writings appear to correct his confounding of transient states of mind with enduring features of character. As Huxley quotes Ansari of Herat, “Can you walk on water? You have done no better than a straw. Can you fly in the air? You have done no better than a bluebottle (1945, P.259)”. This is not to deny that psychic abilities may develop at these levels, as suggested by Wilber, but that these abilities are ancillary to the level and category of how experience is cognized. Emphasis on unusual experiences and psychic abilities may serve to establish the discontinuity of modes of thought; but unusual experiences of themselves do not equate to development. Many borderline individuals and psychotics claim experience of psychic abilities, but this merely demonstrates difference not development.

The mystic worldview, as philosophy, may be distinguished from mystical experience. The worldview is the communicable counterpart to the subjective encounter. The worldview possesses attributes of organization and structure which, more or less, are accessible to rigorous representation, but “experience”, by its nature, is more recalcitrant.

Wilber’s more recent formulations of higher stages are more consistent with the requirements of a coherent structural theory and therefore somewhat more comparable to academically derived stages. He remains highly eclectic however, excerpting stages, and characteristics of stages, from the object relations school, Freud, and Piaget. His recent summary of stages at the contemplative level are the Psychic, Subtle, Causal, and Ultimate (Non-Dual). If this appears a simplification, it is, because these four stages summarize a total of 21 stages of contemplative development desribed in a paper titled System, Self, and Structure

To summarize Wilber’s approach, his view of development is a collage derived from psychoanalysis, cognitive development, and mystical traditions. His overall framework for assignment of stage order stems from the cognitive developmental maxim that development proceeds toward greater differentiation and hierarchic integration. Unfortunately, Wilber’s approach, while scholarly and broadly integrative, is so eclectic that the internal consistency of stages is obscured. While intuitively appealing, Wilber’s contention that the higher contemplative forms are later is not satisfactorily established in terms of some coherent theory of structural change. His cut-and-paste approach to stages renders his theory vulnerable to the criticism that the later stages might have pasted elsewhere or perhaps represent a discrete developmental line.

An alternative to Wilber’s structural-hierarchical model is Michael Washburn’s dynamic dialectical model of transpersonal development (1995). If Wilber’s model is inspired by cognitive developmental theory, then Michael Washburn’s, arises from the classical clinical formulation of the “return of the repressed.”  Washburn’s dynamic dialectical model postulates a phase of “original embedment” prior to the differentiation of the ego. This “non-egoic pole” is the original foundation, the “Dynamic Ground” which is the “aboriginal source” from which selfhood, the myriad potential of comprehension and creation, and the higher consciousness proceed. The differentiation of the self commences with the development of the body ego which exists as “one side of a Ground-dominated dyad.” At the next developmental phase, the potentials of pre-egoic stage are repressed in the service of the differentiation and independence of the ego which rules the person’s actions and interests. The person comes to be in a position of frank duality. The pre-egoic pole is non-self or id. Only through a reintegration which entails regression in the “service of transcendence” and eventual regeneration does the individual re-establish his relation to the Ground.

Washburn’s theory reinstates the working model of Carl Jung and the “Liberationist school” of body-oriented analysis which included Saldor Ferenzi, Wilhelm Reich, D.H. Lawrence, and Norman O. Brown.  Washburn’s analysis is reminiscent of Brown’s eulogy of the body-based spontaneity.  The spontaneity of the unrepressed body self antedates the repressive rule of civilized consciousness. But where Brown’s investigation concluded in a kind of deadlock between alternatives of physical abandonment and civilized renunciation, Washburn proposes their transcendent integration. When sensory awareness and rule-oriented consciousness are integrated, the conceptual is infused with significance and immediacy. This is not the traditional “regression in the service of the ego” so much as it is the instatement of a new and articulated bicameral consciousness. “Integration”, writes Washburn, is “perfected humanness”. Near the conclusion of his study, Washburn makes reference to “vistas of experience that are so extraordinary that, although still human, they must be considered divine.” Of these vistas, Washburn includes prophetic vision, saintly compassion, and mystical illumination, but these vistas are only perfunctorily discussed and ancillary to his main thesis.

Washburn’s prescription that the individual must regress to progress is descriptive of the position of mainstream schools of psychoanalysis. By adumbrating Liberationist Freudian and Jungian descriptions of intrapsychic change with observations of transformation through meditation, Washburn revives the psychoanalytic clinical model as an alternative to the structural-hierarchical model. Wilber has critiqued the style of thought that suggests that the higher is “nothing but” some earlier regressed state.  Washburn’s reply to this potential objection is “Pre-egoic correlates are non-egoic potentials in arrested, still primitive-infantile form, and trans-egoic correlates are the same non-egoic potentials once they have been liberated from original repression and fused with developed egoic forms (1988, p. 38).” Washburn does not so much reject Wilber’s argument as to affirm the idea that ego growth derives from the integration of earlier potentials.

A primary shortcoming of both Wilber’s and Washburn’s work is that both authors derive their generalizations from secondary sources. The varied nature of their source material renders comparison and “synthesis” of materials highly problematic. One may allow for this shortcoming in view of the exploratory and heuristic nature of their work. Given the source material, Wilber and Washburn have performed a credible job, but more fine-tuned investigations are required to resolve basic issues about higher order development.

The Case for Different Lines of Development

A third perspective about the relation between psychological and contemplative forms of development is provided by Elbert Russell (1986). Russell argues that East is East and West is West. Knowledge of unconscious processes that derives out of dynamically oriented psychotherapies is a uniquely Western form of exploration.  Experience with states of consciousness obtained through mediation and the insights that this provides is the foundation of Eastern comprehension of man and nature. In Russell’s view, the two disciplines are largely independent.

Russell’s argument is highly pertinent. Meditational disciplines ordinarily view everyday thoughts, feelings, and emotions as distractions which are merely illusory or, alternatively, evidence of the “play” of the eternal.  Correspondingly, dynamic therapies tend to emphasize the significance of even “random” thoughts. The domain of interest and the working methods of inquiry are philosophically distinct. Paradoxically the Eastern techniques that foster skill in knowledge of conscious perception may block the articulated knowledge of the unconscious.

Another vantage point for examination of the relation of Western psychological and Eastern spiritual disciplines is provided by Mark Epstein on the relation of meditation to personality pathologies. Epstein’s observations suggest that meditative states may be interwoven with various “psychological” stages to yield types of experience that are a joint function of these factors. In accord with the idea of some minimum level of personality organization antecedent to meditative discipline, Epstein suggests that persons with borderline characteristics cannot withstand it rigors.

Through cultivation of the ideal personality of the arahant, the realized individual who has obtained the fruition of meditative practice, the initiate guides his practice and labors. Epstein distinguishes the ego ideal from the ideal ego, “The ideal ego …is the source of abstract ideas that the ego has abut itself as perfect, complete, immortal and permanent. It is the wellspring of vanity and self-righteous, the ‘source of an illusory ontology of the self’ [from Hanly, 1984] (Epstein, 1986, p.146).” Buddhist mediation practice undermines this illusory ontology by calling into question the substantivizes of idea about the self and self-experience.


Epstein, M. (1986). Psychotherapy without the Self: A Buddhist Perspective. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hanly, C. (1984). Ego ideal and ideal ego. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 65, 253.

Huxley, A. (2012). The Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harper Collins.

Kohlberg, L. (1963). The development of children’s orientation to a moral order. Human Development, 6, 11-33.

Loevinger, J. (1966). The meaning and measurement of ego development. American Psychologist 21, 195-206.

Russell, E. (1986) Consciousness and the unconscious: Eastern meditative and Western psychotherapeutic approaches. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 18, 51.

Washburn, M. (1995). The Ego and the Dynamic Ground. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Wilber, K (1980). The Atman Project: A Transpersonal View of Human Development. New York: Quest.