This method refers to transcending the personal, either in terms of perception (e.g. awareness of or sensitivity to phenomena beyond their physical manifestations), or by the way insights are arrived at (illuminations, visions, revelations). Such transcendence is often associated with mysticism, esoteria and a non-rational aspect of the mind, but, in fact, it can be relevant to any subject of enquiry, even those that are traditionally the domains of philosophy or science. Socrates habitually communicated with his ‘daemon', mathematician Gauss claimed that the answer to some of the riddles with which he was struggling was given to him by God. Chemist Kekulé discovered the structure of benzene (which was the beginning of modern organic chemistry) in a vision of a snake swallowing its tail, while neuroscientist Otto Loewi found how to conduct experiments on neurotransmitters thanks to a dream.
Transpersonal method is based on manipulating the experience of reality, rather than the objects of experience, so it requires an, at least temporary, altered state of consciousness (the most common being dreams). These shifts do not need to be something radical and can happen spontaneously, but to have any value, they require an opening up, moving beyond common perception and existing constructs. Polanyi claims that scientific discovery would not be possible without these excursions outside the pre-established framework. The same applies to religious insights: a vision of Jesus or Shiva can have an epistemic value only if the images of Jesus or Shiva are transcended, by focusing on the essence beyond the culturally specific representations (in other words, taking such images symbolically).
Most of these experiences, however, are subtle and often pass unnoticed because people usually associate them with something special and grand. To use an analogy, when a tourist arrives in a foreign country s/he is unlikely to bump into the president or the Queen first. Tiny expansions of awareness or shifts of focus are what matters in most cases. This may be compared with listening to a faint radio station that is normally muted by a stronger one. Such ‘signals' are accessible to practically everybody, but are subtle and fleeting, so effort needs to be put into stabilising them. A number of techniques can be used for this purpose (meditation being one, although not every type of meditation has such a function and would necessarily lead to it). Furthermore, isolated pockets of experience are meaningless. It is like when an untrained person looks through a microscope or telescope. S/he is unlikely to discern any meaningful information. To get a coherent picture, to make sense of such experiences, training, discipline, and dedication are necessary, as well as an altered state of mind.
The focus here is not on personal transformation as a ‘technology' (making life better) but as a way to knowledge and understanding. So, the verification of such experiences, rather than their effects, matters. For example, seeing fairies may be psychologically beneficial to some, but it does not have a universal value unless certain criteria are observed that will bear out the perception and enable situating it within a larger context. The same applies to the qualities of experience such as elation or a sense of unity with the universe. They are elements of personal experience, so phenomenological reduction is more relevant in such cases than transpersonal method.
Transpersonal inferences are notoriously difficult to empirically verify (in the same way that many scientific findings can be). The scientific criteria that currently dominate are mostly inadequate when applied to this field. ‘Truth by authority', as is widely used within religious frameworks, also suffers from well-known shortcomings. Yet, to achieve a degree of universality and objectivity, transpersonal experiences need to be distinguished from purely subjective ones. There are other altered states of consciousness such as illusions and hallucinations (triggered, for example, by mental illness or intoxication) that are entirely fictional and do not have an element of the transpersonal. Thus, what needs to be verified foremost is the source: whether the experience corresponds to something real or is entirely the product of one's mind. There are several criteria that can be used to test if such experiences are genuine:
- A lack of other plausible explanations. This means that all other reasonable possibilities have to be examined and eliminated (applying the Ockham razor).
- As with scientific experiments, the quality of the process or procedure leading to an experience also needs to be taken into account (e.g. possible contamination by the influences of one's surroundings if using psychotropic substances).
- Logical consistency: knowledge progresses through checking reason against experiences, and checking experiences against reason (e.g. can the question ‘why would real angels need wings?' have a logical answer?).
- There are certain qualities that characterise such experiences (although not all of them have to be always present). These include a maintained awareness of the parameters of ordinary reality, commonly indicated by an element of surprise (in ordinary dreams even the most bizarre events do not seem surprising); non-attachment, low excitability (even if intense emotions may be present); serenity. In short, transpersonal experiences mean perceiving normally inaccessible aspects of reality with a clear mind.
- Phenomenological criterion: ‘...from a subjective perspective [these experiences] feel truer, more real than dreams, hallucinations, even ordinary perception, they seem to represent "a more fundamental reality than the baseline reality"' (Horgan, 2003, p.78, quoting Andrew Newberg, a researcher in mystical experiences). The genuine conviction that what one has experienced is real should persist after the experience, when one returns to the usual state of mind (after a hallucination the person is normally aware that s/he was hallucinating).
- Maintaining relative control, agency and choice (e.g. an ability to remove oneself from the situation experienced). Transpersonal experiences can be spontaneous, but are extremely rarely imposed to a degree that one feels trapped in them.
- The object of the experience has to have a relatively independent existence from the experiencer. For example, if an observed phenomenon moves as one moves shis eyes, it is likely that it is a product of the observer's mind.
- Although such experiences can sometimes refer to the person involved, their meaning usually has a more impersonal, general nature (whereas a schizophrenic, for example, sees everything as a personal message intended for shim alone).
- An experience is likely to be real if others have independently had similar ones. Considering the possibility of collective bias, fantasies or even hallucinations, arriving at them independently is of the utmost importance.
- Correspondence: the perception of somebody's energy field, for example, can be validated by correlating so gained insights to the emotional, physical or mental state of the observed person. Or, the legitimacy of non-rationally derived predictions can be verified by systematically recording the actual future events.
- It should be possible to interpret an experience in such a way that it makes sense in relation to other transpersonal experiences.
- Usefulness: experiences that can lead to explaining or understanding certain phenomena better can be cautiously taken as probably real.
- Finally, these experiences should not be in breach of accepted empirical facts or basic common sense, and should not be self-contradictory. The only meaningful way to go beyond reason is to climb the ladders of reason. In other words, if a transpersonal conjecture is valid, combining it with the findings of other methods should be not only possible, but also beneficial. Mystics cannot bridge the gap created by the ineffability of their experiences, and religions are hopelessly stuck with outdated interpretations within the narrow range of existing social constructs. As with other methods, the fallacy of self-sufficiency has to be overcome to move forward.
- . Ockham razor states: ‘plurality is not to be assumed without necessity', which in this case means that a transpersonal element should not be invoked if a whole experience can be reasonably explained without it.