The practice of integrating transpersonal theories in social work in the field of children’s services is essential as without it, the profession as a whole is overlooking one of the broadest and most significant areas of human behavior and thought. Further, these topics are at the core of a great deal of social research that applies to children and adults alike.
The concept of spirituality does not necessarily mean “religious” and instead encompasses an entire set of beliefs and practices that are geared toward greater personal insight, development, and growth. With this in mind, it is natural to assume that, minus the biases and nuances of individual religions when considering this perspective, the use of broad spiritual principles might offer an entirely new way of imagining the profession. This is not to suggest that this area is free from legitimate ethical and other concerns, but if practiced according the NASW Code of Ethics and more personal ethical and moral guides for social workers, it can be a useful sustaining ideology to guide our professional lives.
While the following paragraphs will discuss in details the theoretical underpinnings and other branches of inquiry on the topic, it is all with the direct and explicit stated bias that this would make a valuable for all areas of practice, not just for children’s services. Nonetheless, children’s needs are varied and they are highly sensitive to their experiences and conditions; by providing them with a base that is inherently spiritual without any element of proselytizing, we can help them grow, develop, and overcome obstacles from a power they learn to derive from within—not just from external sources of aid.
Family and children’s services is a broad and challenging field of social work that requires immense capacity to community across age lines to people in situations that are often chaotic and unsettled. Social workers who handle cases involving children have, just as in the case of the other area of practices, a unique set of concerns and issues that are specific to the population. Those in family and children’s services must consider the varied environmental and other dynamics that contribute to the current well-being of the child as well as the capacity for that child to emerge from what might be a catastrophic situation with adequate coping skills and a desire to work towards greater self-improvement. Social workers in this area of practice are required to address both the essential and the tertiary needs of children of all ages in the course of their work and should recognize the ethical and other constraints that are of great importance with this population. Still, despite all of the careful approaches that are required when working with children, especially those who have been, for example, recently removed from a difficult or painful situation, recognition of their primary needs is critical. As one scholar notes, children have a set of basic needs that must be met in order to allow for proper emotional and social development. These include “nurturance, responsiveness, predictability, support, and guidance” (Webb, 2003, p. 3). With gentle provision of these basics in place, it is up to the social worker to decide how to best provide the less material forms of support to help guide young people and assist them through what might be devastating or sometimes at best, life-altering circumstances. One way to begin to address some of the elements of a child’s process of growth is to incorporate transpersonal theories into one’s practice with children. While there are some questionable issues involved with this approach, with the guidance provided by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics and an informed perspective on the host of complex issues inherent in such a meaningful but contested theoretical framework, social workers can help children grow beyond what their limited initial circumstances might have allowed.
To most effectively put the issue of integrating this theoretical perspective into practice, it is best to outline a few fundamental concepts that underlie transpersonal theory. As Robbins, Chatterjee, and Canda define it, the goal of this theory in social work practice is “to deal with the whole person and environment constellation [and] we cannot forget about the spiritual aspects of the individual in relationship with the world” and they also recognize the “importance of spiritual and religious support systems for discussing with clients experiences of a self-transcending nature that may help them achieve a sense of personal and social fulfillment” (p. 436). In other words, this practical, functional definition is suggesting that by ignoring the spiritual element of our lives as well as those who are under our care, we are denying the existence of a potentially life-changing force that might help those who need assistance finding inner strength and experience personal growth. Another scholar places the emphasis on a definition in terms of the primary goals of putting transpersonal theory into practice, stating that there is an “emphasis on spiritual growth and the transformation of consciousness. Prime concerns are the search for ultimate values, peak or mystical experiences, and unified consciousness and the legitimization of spiritual practice” (Cowley, 2003, p. 528). What is most identifiable about this theoretical framework is that “A transpersonal approach affords the worker added context, content, and process for addressing environmental, societal, and cultural stressors, non-pathologic trans-rational phenomena, and the grief associated with human existential suffering” (Leight, 2001, p. 73). However, this potential all-inclusive approach offered by transpersonal theories in social work was rather slow to gain wide acceptance for several reasons, some of which were institutional in nature (i.e. from within the profession rather than due to factors influencing it from outside).
Although there are several questionable practical elements of transpersonal theory in social work that will be addressed in coming paragraphs, there are some positive correlations between the use of this approach in actual practice and some scholars feel that the very nature of transpersonal theory is, in itself, perfectly aligned with the basic goals of social work. Transpersonal theory has direct and immediate value in the context of family and child-centered social work. The elements included in this theory possess “specific relevance for individual, family, and group modalities” (Sherman & Siporin, 2008, 259). This connection between the goals behind an implementation of this theory in practice are clearly aligned with the general ideals for practice set forth in the preamble of the NASW Code of Ethics (1996) in its discussion of mission. The Code of Ethics (1996) states that both past and current elements of social work are the “focus on individual well-being in a social context and the well-being of society; fundamental to social work is attention to the environmental forces that create, contribute to, and address problems in living” (p. 5). Without taking into account the unique social force of spirituality, however, the goals of the Code are ignoring an aspect of our society that is deeply ingrained, no matter how the spirituality is manifested (in personal forms of spirituality or organized religions, for example).
The overlooked status of this theory in the historical context of social work practice is an issue that many scholars have explored and questioned as it seems that there is a natural alignment between the needs of clients and what this approach might offer. “Although transpersonal psychology offers a theory that is uniquely relevant to the tasks at hand in a spiritually bankrupt society, the perspectives and understandings it espouses represent a radical change in focus from that of the traditional Western psychologies that have informed social work education and practice to date” (Cowley & Derezotes, 1994, p. 33). As a result, it was not until the early to mid-1990s that this theory emerged as a practicable theory in the field of social work, even in areas that might be best suited for such a framework, such as work with children or in palliative settings. This problem is more succinctly defined and explored by Leight (2001) in his suggestion that a full integration of transpersonal theories into all practice areas is a “logical extension of the profession’s inclusive perspective” (p. 71) even though there it is still not completely accepted across the board as a “legitimate” approach. Social work, despite its inclusive approach to considering the person within the context of the whole set of forces that influence daily thought, action, and behavior, has historically ignored the potential value of a stated and broad-based connection between the individual and spiritual principles. Leight (2001) explains this historical notable omission from the literature and practice by suggesting that social work, in its efforts to receive credence as a legitimate field of scientific practice, has been “leery of an association with the unconventional, transpersonal perspective as the work of self-transcendence sometimes has been deemed inappropriate for clients whose basic life needs for food, shelter, and medical care have not been fulfilled” (p. 70). While the reasons for the persistent lack of full recognition this theory has received vary, there are some notable successes with this theory’s application, especially in the practice area of children’s services.
This practice of transpersonal theory in aiding families and those under the care and guides of social workers at large has been defined by some as being a practice of “mindfulness” (Birnbaum & Birnbaum, 2008) which is at the heart of the process of expanding awareness of one’s self and position in society through conscious, secular, spiritual guidance beyond the problems at hand. This can be a particular useful theory in the context of child and adolescent-centered practice as it helps the young person identify the self within the context of society—a difficult process as it stands for young people to begin with. However, it is only through a balanced approach to transpersonal theory that is free from sectarian sways that this approach can be successful. Although social workers cannot be expected to leave all of their personal beliefs “at the door” when they enter into their practice, they should temper their personal belief system with the non-sectarian commitment of holistic spiritual attainment espoused by transpersonal theories. By failing to recognize this critical element, the weaknesses of transpersonal psychology and theory will be manifest as the process will have more in common with proselytizing than aiding in development, which is one of the most clear and present dangers for a theory that has the “slippery slope” aspect when applied in practice.
It has been suggested by several scholars in the field of transpersonal theory in application that spiritual experiences do not need to be of a distinctly religious or hyper-spiritual nature. In fact, there are experiences that are particularly useful for children that can produce the positive spiritual effects without any intervention of religious ideas per se. For instance, Canda and Smith (2003) suggest that “introducing a group of children to the natural world experienced daily on a small farm can be an exciting, moving, and soul-altering experience” (p. 39) and can put them in touch with something far larger and greater than themselves—which in itself is a primary goal of transpersonal theory in the practice of any area of social work. As one can see from the provision of details for such a transpersonal experience, there is no involvement of any direct reference to spirituality or even development, for that matter. Instead, personal development through connecting with something higher and more ethereal is a process that is implied in the experience rather than overtly stated by a guide offering such an experience. It is in this form that transpersonal theory seems most easily applied, especially as it avoids some of the possibility for ethical pitfalls that will be discussed in future paragraphs. In other words, “From a transpersonal perspective, social conditions and personal actions are the outward expression of inward sentiments. All problems are deeply interconnected. Thus nothing will change significantly unless everything changes” (Besthorn, 2001, p. 28). In short, since all aspects of experience and conditions are interlinked, activities like this that change experiences and initiate “higher” levels of experience can thus influence everything—from the ground up.