Anthropology is systematically hampered by the monophasic conditioning of our practitioners. Competent ethnographic fieldwork, particularly among some religious systems, requires nothing less than a trained transpersonal anthropologist. A transpersonal anthropologist is one that is capable of both attaining whatever extraordinary experiences and phases of consciousness that inform the host society's cosmological system, and evaluating these experiences relative to invariant patterns of symbolism, cognition and practice found in religions and cosmologies all over the planet.

In keeping with William James' radical empiricism, the goal of a transpersonal approach to the study of religion is to understand:

The maximum potential genetic and developmental limits to patterns of human consciousness in any and all cultures.
The mechanisms by which societies condition patterns of human experience, and the maturation of experience.
The mechanisms by which societies produce recurrent extraordinary experiences in some or all of their members so as to enliven and inform their worldviews.
By extrapolation, the possible future evolutionary possibilities of human consciousness.

Transpersonal anthropology is really just a natural extension of the grand tradition of "participant observation" that has made ethnology so unique among the social sciences. But it is an extension that requires the ethnographer to "suspend disbelief" in the native worldview to an extraordinary extent and to participate actively in those native procedures that guide one to the extraordinary experiences that give the worldview its spiritual grounding. Transpersonal ethnography depends upon the researcher being able to apply something like the process of spiritual exploration outlined by Ken Wilber in A Sociable God (1983:133):

Injunction: Any transpersonal exploration begins with the injunction, "If you want to know this, do this."
Apprehension: The work is done, the "thick participation" carried out, and cognitive apprehension and illumination of "object domain" addressed by the injunction are attained.
Communal confirmation: The experiences attained are checked with those members of the host culture who have adequately completed the injunction and illuminative procedures.

Taking an example from my own work among Tibetan Buddhist lamas, operationalizing the injunction was relatively straightforward. Tibetan gurus teach by a system of ritual initiations ( wang kur ) that dramatize the attributes of the focal deity. And the deity represents a state(s) of consciousness to be eventually realized by the initiate. The initiate participates rather passively in the initiatory drama, but is given certain active meditation work to complete in the weeks and months following the initiation. In keeping with many esoteric religious systems, the lama knows the extent of the maturation of the meditation by the experiences reported back to him by the initiate as the latter's work unfolds. The meditations incorporate such ritual drivers as chanting, percussion, visualization, intense concentration, special diet, fasting, breathing exercises, body postures, etc., that all participate in incubating and eventually evoking transpersonal experiences that become the meaning of the symbolism for the initiate (Wilber's "apprehension and illumination"). Confirmation is attained in dialogue with one's teacher and with other meditators who have undergone the same or similar disciplines. It becomes clear over time that in order to comprehend the meaning of the symbolism, one must do the work necessary to flesh out the experientially rich meaning. In a word, if the ethnographer hasn't undergone the apprehension phase, he or she cannot comprehend the real meaning the symbolism holds for the native.


One reason why anthropologists have so often neglected the transpersonal realm of religious experience is that the culture of science in our age is, and has been for some generations, anti-introspectionist in its positivist bias. This is particularly noticeable today in some schools of cognitive science where introspective methods are still considered anathema. What is needed in ethnology as a counter for this culturally-driven bias is training in phenomenology, especially for those wishing to do cross-cultural research on religious and healing systems. Phenomenology (a la Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Aron Gurwitsch, and others, as well as some shamanic and eastern mystical traditions) is the study of the essential (invariant) processes of consciousness by the application of mature contemplation.

Phenomenological training directs the mind inward in a disciplined way. The student learns to direct concentration and inquiry toward his or her own internal processes, be those processes dreaming, bodily functions (such as breathing, movement, etc.), eidetic imagery, feelings, thought processes, etc. The training builds habit patterns that counter the Euroamerican conditioning toward ignoring or repressing internal processes, and prepares the student for the kind of procedures used in many alien cultural situations for incubating and attaining transpersonal experiences.


I believe what is needed in anthropology, and in science generally for that matter, is a cadre of what we have called mature contemplatives . Generally speaking, a mature contemplative is an individual who has trained their mind according to some discipline to sufficient tranquillity, concentration and interest that they can explore the structures of consciousness involved in producing experience. In Husserlian terms, this is someone who is able to perform the phenomenological reduction, although they may not have completed what Husserl called the transcendental reduction. In Buddhist psychology, this is someone who has realized stage four or above, but not necessarily stage 12, of the development of intuitive insight ( Satthipattana ). What this means is that the individual has come to realize in the course of their introspection that nothing arising in consciousness is permanent or has an unchanging nature. Any object of experience, be it a thought, a thing, a feeling or any other quality of mind, is known to be impermanent, including anything identified as "me."

I am not suggesting just another theoretical treatment of perception. What I am describing here is a mind that has trained itself to be sufficiently quiet and concentrated in its attention that it can study its own operations without the intervention of theories and methodologies. The mature contemplative is applying an acquired skill in self-discovery, rather than someone who is carrying out naive introspection of the sort one finds in many philosophical projects.

Consider the classic example of Descartes who begins his famous "meditations" by sitting before a fire and playing with a lump of wax. This is not mature contemplation. This is a philosopher who has decided to sit down and look at how his perception works and then reason about it. It is quite a different matter to train the mind to enter a tranquil state in which it can stop grabbing at objects every few seconds to fulfil its desires and look at its own processes with intense concentration. Mature contemplation comes after an often lengthy period of development in which the intention to train the mind to disciplined self-reflection is a major factor.

Associated with this development of self-awareness is the reduction of the "empirical ego" -- that is, transcendence of one's culturally conditioned self-concept. This is so important a maturational landmark that it is recognized as a distinct stage in the unfolding of insight. The realization that "I" am impermanent and without any unchanging substance requires for its completion an extraordinary degree of calm and concentration, as well as a protracted state of curiosity about the nature of the self. The curiosity must be sufficiently strong over a long period of time to carry out a series of explorations that inevitably encounter numerous conceptual hindrances and emotional blocks. Very few scientists are capable of, or willing to carry out, this kind of intense self- exploration, and yet something like this process of reduction is absolutely requisite for the resolution of many paradoxes that seem to emerge around the role of consciousness in scientific research.

It is unrealistic to expect that most anthropologists can, or should become mature contemplatives. Would that it were possible to engender this level of self-awareness, not only in science, but in the military, in the police forces and in the top bureaucratic echelons of government generally. But this is an unrealistic pipe-dream at this stage of human evolution. It is especially unrealistic in a materialist culture which enculturates its members to believe in the independent ego.

However, with a change in the current epistemological paradigms in science, it may be realistic to expect:

That more scientists will become mature contemplatives, and
That science itself will become increasingly sensitized to the importance of mature contemplation.

This movement will involve science in becoming what Charles Tart once called "state specific;" that is, the phase of consciousness of the observer will be included in any description and explanation of the scope of inquiry. This is not merely a typological exercise in which phases of consciousness are categorized and correlated with observational invariants. Rather, this movement entails the discovery of those structures of experience that produce the world and our knowledge of that world. This movement will inevitably lead to increasing research into the domains of "transpersonal" experience, because it will be sensitive to the full range of human experiences, and not just those experiences considered "normal" by the Western empirical ego, or by any particular culture.

We have reached the end of this segment. There will be more to come, so keep watching for future additions to the tutorial. You may wish to return now to the index.