The Connection between Self-based African-Centered Spirituality and the Transpersonal Concept of the Self

…from the Yoruba people of West Africa there is a plethora of psycho-spiritual self-based concepts found within the traditional religion Ifá. The concept, aṣùwà – full actualization of one’s essence and orì ire, which address the state of one’s consciousness being properly aligned with one’s destiny are two examples that are focused on the actualization of the self through lived experience

This paper explores the African roots of transpersonal psychology and the importance of spirituality in the development of African-centered transpersonal self. It builds upon the work of Louchakova and Lucas (2007) that addresses the need for transpersonal psychology to develop a congruent clinical theory of the transpersonal self. They note that transpersonal theorists from Maslow to Ferrer have failed to agree on a conceptualization of the transpersonal self (p. 113). Therefore, this paper seeks to add to discussion by exploring the connection between self-based African-centered spirituality, its African-centered psychology counterpart the indexical self, and how these concepts can inform transpersonal psychology’s concept of the self. The long term goal of this initial research is to explore the notion of the transpersonal self and its practical application in the lives of African-American women to live a more fully actualized life through the development of an African-centered transpersonal self.

Louchakova and Lucas postulate that the absence of a transpersonal clinical category of the self is due to transpersonal psychology’s lack of examination of culture-related processes. Louchakova and Lucas note the need for transpersonal psychology to move beyond the bias of “western, male-centered versions of the world’s spirituality” (p. 118). Specifically, they call for transpersonal psychology to be more inclusive of representatives of indigenous spiritual systems, noting the African-American scholar Asante (1984) as a rare example of inclusion of an African ascendant voice in the transpersonal discourse.

Asante is a seminal figure in Afrocentricity (1984; 1990; 2003), which is a method of examining African phenomena. Afrocentricity and its contemporary expression Africalogy are central concepts that frame the theoretical notions underlining this paper. Asante (1990) defines Africalogy as “the Afrocentric study of phenomena, events, ideas, and personalities related to Africa.” (p. 14). The term Afrocentric is used primarily in the humanities and cultural studies fields. The social sciences tend to use the term African-centered. For this paper the terms African-centered and Africalogical will be used interchangeably. As noted by Louchakova and Lucas (2007) twenty-eight years ago, Asante (1984) detected the near absence of the African worldview in transpersonal psychology. A year later, when Myers (1985) conducted a survey of articles in the “Journal of Transpersonal Psychology” from approximately 1974 – 1984, she observed that an exploration of traditional African culture and worldview was noticeably missing. The review confirmed that the transpersonal paradigm mostly focused on “Oriental philosophy and modern physics” (Myers, 1985, p. 32).

To contextualize transpersonal concepts from an African-centered perspective, this paper explores the African roots of transpersonal psychology’s ancient psychospiritual lineage. Bynum (1992) states that awareness of transpersonal concepts such as transcendence, mysticism, and cosmic oneness were explored in Africa in the ancient land of the blacks – Kemet, which is now known as Egypt. The ancient Kemetic Egyptians wrote about “seminal ideas on the dynamics of death and resurrection, divine judgement [sic] and retribution, encountering the luminous spirit, the dynamic transformations of personal consciousness into the divine consciousness, the holy trinity and even the story of the Kristos” (p. 302). Bynum notes, “The psychological knowledge of these peoples included the awareness of the dynamic unconscious”, thereby developing a “transpersonal perspective on the unconscious” (p. 303).

Bynum (1992) reminds us of the cross-fertilization between the ancient Egypt, Ethiopia and Kundalini Yoga-rich Dravidian India via the trade routes; exchanging religious ideas and psychospiritual disciplines (p. 302). Bynum’s overview of transpersonal psychological concepts encompass not only the past, but the future by advocating for the field of study to move beyond its preoccupation with Eastern and Western methods. Bynum advises, by looking back to African mysticism and African notions of the unconscious transpersonal psychology “will open to the Personalism dimension inherent in many forms of ancient African mysticism and the African unconscious” (p. 305).

Transpersonal psychology’s narrow focus on the East constitutes a missed opportunity to learn from African concepts of wholism and consciousness like the Sudic Ideal – ideological harmony (Asante, 1984, p. 168). The ultimate task of ideological harmony (Sudic Ideal) is “to realize the promise of becoming human” (Asante, 1984, p. 168), which is the essential task of the person; for this to happen individual and collective harmony is primary (Asante, 1984, p. 170). Myers (1985) points out that the transpersonal paradigm goal of unity and integration of knowledge or a “system of interconnection” (p. 33) is already extant in the African worldview. Myers (1985), like Bynum (1992), and Asante (1984) call for future researchers to use an African-centered paradigm as a method to structure concepts of consciousness. Consciousness being the first of the four aspects of the transpersonal model of a person (Walsh & Vaughan, 1980, p. 12). For one to begin to understand consciousness from an African-centered perspective, one must understand the role of spirituality.

Spirituality, as opposed to religiosity is central to African-centered perspective therefore, it is important to define the term spirituality and its distinction from religiosity. Mattis (2000) endeavors to identify the definitions of spirituality by African American laywomen and to differentiate spirituality from religiosity. Mattis’ study takes an ethnographic approach in order to root the study in the subjective experience and perspectives of African American women. Mattis (2000) states, “African American people make complex distinctions between spirits that exist as a part of the religious realm (e.g., God) and those that exist within the secular realm of life (e.g., ancestors)” (p. 101). This is a particularly important distinction because from an Africalogical worldview, African people “do not conceive of themselves as separated from the cosmos but as being completely integrated into a universe [which includes both secular and non-secular realms] that is much larger than any of them and yet is centered around them” (Mazama, 2002, p. 220).

Mattis (2000) provides a variety of meanings of spirituality, including the biblical reference; breathe of God as well as interpretations from contemporary psychology, metaphysics, and sociology. She states that spirituality influences the way “individuals perceive interpret, and respond to their world(s) as well as significant social others” (p. 104). According to Potts (as cited in Mattis, 2000) “spirituality is a ‘belief that there is a sacred force that exists in all things’” (p. 104). Mattis notes that this definition argues for the “transcendent nature of spiritual existence” (p. 104); declaring Potts’ observation is important because it brings about a link between spirituality and sanctity.

African-centered scholar, Thomas (2001) defines spirituality as a distinct personal concept whereas religion is a shared experience with a group of people. Spirituality often corresponds to a universal concept, while religion tends to be about concrete expressions. Thomas declares, “There seems to be a connection between spirituality and mental health, psychological functioning, and wellness” (p. 2). Thomas notes that an African-centered spiritual worldview emphasizes the importance of a life force, accentuates unity, and connectedness of humanity to a Higher Power, to each other, and to nature.

From a transpersonal perspective, Grof (2008) points out the critical need to make the distinction between spirituality and religion. Grof defines spirituality as “direct experience of non-ordinary aspects and dimensions of reality” (p. 50) that are not in need of mediated contact, or an officially appointed person or special place. As an example, Grof notes that indigenous mystics experience their own divinity in their bodies and through nature (p. 50). However he fails to mention that their embodied divine experience occurs within a cultural phenomenon. This is an important oversight because transpersonal psychology tends to disembody indigenous psycho-spiritual practices and, as Louchakova and Lucas (2007) point out, spiritual experiences and ontological assumptions are not disconnected from the self – culture, spirituality and the self are linked.

Louchakova and Lucas (2007) argue that it is time for transpersonal psychology to explore gender, ethnicity, and culture, but to do so would require transpersonal psychology to develop a concept of the transpersonal self – which as previously noted, the field has yet to do. Louchakova and Lucas boldly ask if transpersonal psychologists are afraid to “examine the self, because being too person-centered will damage our work?” (p. 111). Asserting that for the field to develop a concept of the transpersonal self would require transpersonal psychology to move away from universalism and toward relativism and cultural construction. The discipline of transpersonal psychology would need to acknowledge that spiritual universalism is not invincible; as such, universalism would be significantly eroded by the cultural construction argument.

Washington (2010) states, “The assertion has been, within the European context, that what Europeans do is the norm for all people. They are universal and thus the prototype of all people” (p. 30).
Acknowledging that the Eurocentric convention of seeing itself as the universal standard is flawed, Louchakova and Lucas (2007) state, “What it means to be a human being is not the same ‘wherever we go’” (p. 116). They ask an important question regarding culture, the mind, and spirituality. Positing that if culture and mind constitute one another; thereby informing cross-culturally diverse patterns in higher-level mental processes, and if human development at large is the function of these influences, why then should spiritual development be exempt from the construct of transpersonal self? They point out that because transpersonal psychology studies the mind beyond the ego, consequently the sense of the individual “I” is poorly defined, and therefore the field lacks a clinical category of the self. Stating, that the “non-duality-oriented transpersonal rationalist” (p. 123) have a difficult time with the spiritual connotations and devotional attitude of self-based traditions.

Louchakova and Lucas (2007) consider the impact of self-based and no-self-based spiritual traditions on the development of the transpersonal self. To help understand the underpinnings of the self, Louchakova and Lucas look at how self-based and no-self-based spiritual systems differ in the experience of ultimate reality. Asserting that the lived experience of ontological indivisibility and non-duality of the ultimate reality differs greatly in self-based and no-self-based traditions (p. 123). Specifically, no-self traditions see internal reality as egalitarian and homogenous, while self-based traditions emphasize the “organization of the living self including its internal hierarchical ordering (Louchakova, 2005a) and the inner interrelatedness of its constituents…” (p. 124). Thereby, self-based traditions emphasize a decrease of ego and an increase of self so that the “living self is transformed rather than increased” (p. 126).

Transpersonal psychology’s theoretical emphasis on no-self-based Eastern traditions limits the inclusion of self-based African-centered spiritual traditions. This emphasis may be why the African voice has been neglected in the discourse on the development of the transpersonal self. Louchakova and Lucas (2007) offer an overview of self-based and no-self-based traditions, noting that Buddhism is an example of a no-self tradition, where as spiritual customs such as Tantra, Vedanta, Sufism, and Christian mysticism posit the ontological value of selfhood. “Self-based traditions imply that the attainment of the ultimate reality during one’s embodied existence requires a transformation of the understanding of the self, leading to non-dual perception” (Louchakova & Lucas, 2007, p. 123). African-centered traditions such as the Yoruba-rooted traditions Ifá and its Diasporic variations Lucumi (Afro-Cuban), Santeria (Cuban/Puerto Rican), Candomblé (Brazilian), and Vodun (Haitian), as well as the Akan theory of the person as described by Grills and Ajei (2002) – are examples of self-based African-rooted spiritual traditions. It is worth noting, that all of these traditions are currently practiced in the United States.

As a way for transpersonal psychology to more comfortably consider self-based traditions, Louchakova and Lucas (2007) suggest associating the “understanding of egological and non-egological forms of self in spiritual traditions” (p. 125), thus allowing the traditional transpersonal theorist “to proceed with more discretion in transpersonal theory building” (p. 125). By extension, the African-centered concept of indexical- and referential self could also be a pathway to unfolding the transpersonal self. Landrine (1992) provides an in-depth description of the indexical self and referential self concepts and their application in a clinical setting. Landrine states that “The ‘referential self of Western culture is construed as an autonomous entity defined by its distinctiveness and separateness from the natural and social world” (p. 403).

Landrine (1992) identify two types of indexical self concepts: the indexical self as social role – which is found in sociocentric cultures, and the indexical self as illusion or receptacle, where self is understood as a vessel for immaterial forces and entities; both of which are found within many African-rooted self-based psycho-spiritual traditions. A good example of indexical self as receptacle is found in the practice of spirit possession – which is central feature in all of the Yoruba-rooted traditions referenced above. In Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion developed primarily by enslaved Yoruba, Aja-Fon, and Bautu peoples from West and Central Africa – incorporates veneration of ancestors, spirit possession of deities known as Orixas, and initiation ceremonies. Candomblé continues to be employed as an African psycho-spiritual method for healing. DeLoach and Petersen (2010) state that Candomblé provides “a model and means for understanding and treating the physical, psychological, and spiritual health of its devotees …” (p. 44). DeLoach and Petersen continue, “The process of initiation, for example is the process of joining with the cosmic energy of one’s Orixa; a process of mutual acceptance” (p. 44). It is a lived experience of cosmic unity. For the initiate and broader Candomblé community, individuals engage in spiritual intervention and restoration.

Another example of a self-based psycho-spiritual tradition is that of Ubuntu from the Zulu people of South Africa. It is an African construct that defines what it is to be a person, where being a person is both particular, and a task of self-realization (Brooke, 2008, p. 49). Ubuntu is a person’s internalized sense of community, their sense of responsibility toward others, both living and dead, and toward the wider world at large (Brooke, 2008). Ubuntu is also an example of a social role and receptacle indexical self. Two central scholars in application of Ubuntu are Washington (2010) and Brooke (2008). Washington (an African-American scholar) takes a distinctly African-centered approach by framing Ubuntu as an African system of healing that is part of African/Black Psychology. Brooke, a white South African scholar views Ubuntu through a Jungian lens of individuation, and sees it as part of a multicultural analytical psychology.

Washington (2010) describes the self from Ubuntu Psychology perspective “as being an expression of the Divine and is thus divine. All humans come from one divine Source and are at the same time an expression of that divine Source” (p. 35). He continues, “Relative to this notion that self is divine is the idea that Ubuntu Psychology adheres to the notion of universal consciousness or Soul” (p. 35). This universal consciousness of the divine human spirit “is always in connection with a Divine source within the universe. One then is able to connect with multiple dimensions of the universe because the universe is all and is multi-dimensional” (p. 35).

Brooke (2008) offers a nuanced view of Ubuntu via a Jungian lens and his concept of individuation – “with its emphasis on separateness and the withdrawal of projections, is essentially modern and Western” (p. 36). Jung’s psychoanalytic model being the first transpersonal psychology (Cortright, 1997) is important especially in light of Jung’s travels and studies in Africa. By way a of critique of Jung’s colonialized perspective of the African psyche, Brookes notes “With regard to individuation, for instance, Jung’s concept is so thoroughly [Western] cultural that it all but forecloses the possibility of individuation for people of color, especially in Africa” (p. 39). Brooke bridges Jung and Ubuntu by exploring the concept of African consciousness called negritude from the philosopher, poet, writer Leopold Senghor, the former President of Senegal. Paraphrasing Senghor, Brookes writes, “[Negritude consciousness] is the whole network of civilized values…which characterize the Black peoples, or, more precisely, the Black African world. All these values are informed by an intuitive reason – consciousness – that involves the whole person” (p. 48). Brooke notes the Jungian undertones in Senghor’s work. Brooke sees the concept of Ubuntu as an “important counterpoint to Jung’s view of the social world” (p. 48). Brooke’s defines Ubuntu as something that was given to all “because we are human, but its realization is a spiritual task that requires personal resoluteness, moral courage, and the support of others who treat us as persons”(p. 49), thus reemphasizing the connection between self, spirituality and community – the indexical self. Regardless of which lens Ubuntu is viewed through – be it African-centered or Individuation, it could serve as a valuable transpersonal model of the self.

Lastly, as mentioned, from the Yoruba people of West Africa there is a plethora of psycho-spiritual self-based concepts found within the traditional religion Ifá. The concept, aṣùwà – full actualization of one’s essence and orì ire, which address the state of one’s consciousness being properly aligned with one’s destiny are two examples that are focused on the actualization of the self through lived experience. Although there are numerous books and traditional knowledge on orì ire and aṣùwà, a cursory review of various databases, has not yet revealed any peer-reviewed articles that focus specifically on these topics. These two concepts are primary topics in the research interests of this author. As a practitioner of Ifá/Lucumi and budding transpersonal researcher, she is keenly interested in exploring these psychospiritual concepts of the self in depth. It is the intention of this author to conduct a preliminary phenomenological study on the transpersonal aspects of African-centered Black women healers. The study will examine the role of African-centered spirituality as it relates to the development of their transpersonal self and their psycho-spiritual well-being – to discern if and how these factors inform their healing practices. Additional research will also look at cultural constructionism and feminist theory as suggested by Louchakova and Lucas (2007) to explore their application to African-centered spiritual traditions.

In summary, Africalogical concepts are important to transpersonal psychology because they offer the field an opportunity to expand beyond its East/West paradigms, thereby allowing transpersonal psychology to embrace a neglected, but no less imperative cultural view in the fields’ ongoing quest to develop the notion of the transpersonal self. This paper endeavored to reflect upon the African roots of transpersonal psychology to show the need for their contemporary inclusion. It examined the importance of spirituality in the development of African-centered transpersonal self by exploring the role of spirituality in the African-centered concept of the self/personhood. Encouraging the field to move beyond spiritual universalism.

Building upon the work of Louchakova and Lucas (2007) and Landrine (1992) this paper explored the connection between self-based African-centered traditions, its African-centered psychology counterpart the indexical self, and how these concepts can inform transpersonal psychology’s concept of the self. To see how these concepts can be useful in understanding African-centered notion of self, the paper explored the African-rooted concepts of indexical-self in Candomblé and Ubuntu. This paper observes that there remains a dearth of research on African-centered psycho-spiritual traditions within transpersonal psychology literature in general and specifically regarding self concepts found in Yoruba-rooted traditions. There appears to be a critical gap in the field – the African voice. There is much that the transpersonal field can learn from African ontology, beliefs, ethos, and traditions (cosmology), and value (axiology). This paper affirms that the lack of attention given to African-centered self-based traditions has contributed to transpersonal psychology’s ongoing challenge with developing a definition of the transpersonal self.


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