The Great Chain of Being: A Map for Human Development


The pre-personal world = Baby and mother are one

The egoic world = The experience of self as separate

The transpersonal world = Self and Spirit are one

Awareness of these stages supports personal, professional and Spiritual growth


Deepening the Healing Relationship, Part 1
Integrating human developmental issues into the massage practice

The World of the Infant

By Deborah Allen, Scott Bader, Dan Buffo and Timothy Marshall


Sarah gets on the massage table every week. And every week, she cries. She never says why she is crying, and she always comes back. As she feels the warmth of the massage therapist's hands and the consistent tone of his voice, Sarah begins to relax. Sometimes, she curls into a ball and only lets him touch her back. By the end of the session, most often she says she feels "put back together" and goes out to face another week in the world.

This contact between Sarah and her bodywork therapist is not casual. They are in a healing relationship and it is only through relationship that human beings thrive. Literally, touch is imperative to survival. From conception, we are a set of potentials being molded and remolded, responding to a constantly changing environment. Our early caregivers are that environment and we depend on them to provide a safe container for healthy development. We come to know ourselves through being known by others.

In the beginning of life, the nervous system is still forming. Our spinal cord, functioning much like an antenna, continually receives information from the surface of our bodies, registering all that is occurring around us. As we grow, our skin continues to be the critical interface between our experience of the inner and outer worlds. The skin registers basic trust. Am I safe? Will I be hurt? Is the world safe? Can I relax? As practitioners of touch, we hold a powerful, yet often unrecognized opportunity. Through safety and contact, we send messages of hope to the places within our clients' bodies which hold old limited patterns established when the primary care taking relationship was disturbed or untrustworthy.

Sarah was adopted at birth. She lived in an orphanage for the first six months of her life and received consistent but impersonal care. Her adopted mother was a kind woman, but not physically affectionate. Sarah never fed from a breast, and was never rocked in a great warm bosom. Sarah held together until she hit her mid-thirties. Then, the marriage she was counting on to contain her emotional life began to fall apart. For many of our clients, a large stressful event at mid-life will have the effect of "disintegrating" the fragile adult self. At that point, the strong, overwhelming needs of the infant's world rush forward to be met. Whenever Sarah comes to see her massage therapist, some part of her is still longing to be held and mothered. As she lies down on the table, these youngest parts of her begin to emerge hoping that this will be a safe place to heal those powerful overwhelming forces from early childhood. While these needs may not be conscious, this moment is an opportunity for healing.

Most bodywork therapists, whether they are inviting this kind of intimacy or not, trained to understand it or not, find themselves involved in their clients' lives at this very deep level. We need to know something about our clients' intra-psychic life in order to be helpful, and to, as best as we can, "do no harm." We also need to know quite a lot about ourselves to ensure our own stability in the helping-healing role.

Visionary philosopher Ken Wilber utilizes one map of human development, which he calls the Great Chain of Being through which we may navigate this mysterious fluid territory of relatedness. All of the world's great wisdom traditions include a version of the Great Chain of Being. In these perennial philosophies, there is a core tenet that says that reality is composed of several different but continuous dimensions. As human beings, we have the potential to grow and evolve all the way to realizing spirit. Ken Wilber divides the Great Chain of Being into three major stages that we ascend and descend throughout our lifetimes. The first, the pre-personal (or pre-egoic), is the land of sensation and feeling. This is the early experiential world present before language, the infant world and its early nervous system, merging with mother, the constant flow of emotional integration and disintegration. In this article, we will simply call this the world of the infant. The next stage, the personal (or egoic), includes the development of a conceptual and symbolic world, language, conscious relationship, the ability to act on our own behalf, to navigate in the adult world, and the formation and development of a "self". The third stage, the transpersonal (or trans-egoic), brings us into contact with our spiritual nature, our longing for a relationship with the divine.

This journey, from the infant to the adult and then to spirit, is not traveled in a straight line. We have the opportunity to cultivate these three stages, day-by-day, moment-by-moment. Even the most sophisticated thinker must pass through all the stages, with great regularity. It is through repeated experience that we develop our own awareness of where we are along this continuum, ultimately empowering more choice and possibility in our lives.

Each time a client enters our healing practice, both healer and client tend to operate from one or another of these developmental stages. Sometimes, our robust adult is available for our client's distraught baby. Sometimes, our transpersonal strength helps the client move closer to God. On a bad day, our healing room can feel like two crabby babies vying for attention. Our ability to serve can be greatly enhanced by recognizing where we are, moment to moment; along the Great Chain of Being, and which part of the client is receiving us.


In this article, the first of three, we are looking at the world of the infant and how it manifests in our healing rooms. Bodywork, with its reliance on touch, easily stimulates this baby world. Even the horizontal position of the client on a massage table can invoke helplessness and dependency. When clients move into the early world of the infant, they once again taste the boundary-less self, essentially undifferentiated from the mother (caregiver). The baby only knows itself as a stream of sensations. Our psychological strength is developed in direct relationship to the efforts of our caregiver to help us survive the torrential forces and feelings that flood our baby-body. The soothing effect of the mother's body, her calmness, her joy at touching her infant - all of these translate directly into the psychological and physical well being of the infant. The more identified the client is with the dependent world of the baby, the more responsibility the therapist has to hold the powerful role of the "good enough" caregiver.

How can we notice when this nurturing containment is poorly developed? Remember that these are infant patterns, begun when babies cannot move or turn over by themselves. Waiting too long for Mommy can create a hyper-vigilant baby who strains the shoulders, neck and jaw with watchful hoping. For some babies, neglect turns into rigid musculature, as the baby unconsciously decides, "I have to take care of myself." Others may find their bodies becoming flaccid as they give up, knowing "she's never coming." These physical traits can last well into adulthood, and are familiar in our healing rooms. Clients, who have had poor maternal attachment may also talk without ceasing, stay busy without taking breaks, or feed fear with an addiction. They will do anything to keep from the stillness that might trigger a return of the horrendous forces and feelings of infant helplessness and rage.

As body workers and massage therapists we too can get caught in our own infant needs. Any one of these descriptions might fit a massage therapist at different moments in time. It is important to develop an internal witness, to notice the signs we are losing touch with our adult coping mechanisms. After weeks of overworking, many therapists find themselves wishing clients would call and cancel, and often they do. Personal illness and accidents happen right when we need a break. Feeling out-of-sorts and impatient with clients judged as "whining" or "too needy" often signals the onset of our own infant need for comfort and care. Eating sugar and drinking coffee right before working, over-booking and then resenting it, staying up late and being tired at work: any of these behaviors may indicate that we need to notice if, indeed, our inner baby is asking for help. Difficult feelings, including anger, as we approach work or during a massage, often tell us that our own needs are trying to surface.

Sarah curls up into a ball as she usually does sometime during her massage. To the therapist's surprise, he finds himself unexpectedly irritated. She is making his job harder. How can he really get to the deep muscles in her shoulders, work that would really help her feel better? He thinks to himself "I am really not helping her much. She's starting to waste my time and her money coming here." And then he catches himself. The witnessing part of him comes on board. (Enter the Egoic stage, more on that in part II.)He realizes that the "self" that is feeling these things is very young. He remembers that he has not been eating well for several days and that he is sad about the illness of a much-loved relative. He has not had a day off for too long, and his infant needs are making themselves known.

Once we notice that we are behaving in ways that our adult self might label "childish," we can begin to make new choices. The baby inside needs an adult care-taker, and we must respond to the infant world from an adult place. It is the adult self that has the strength to change our diet and regulate our sleeping hours. We may need to cut down on clients for a few weeks until we begin to feel a new wave of rested energy. Receiving body work is an excellent gift to the infants inside of us, reassuring them that their needs are being heard.

The more we study the life of babies, the more respectful we become of early childhood's effect on our later mind, body and spirit. In the Great Chain of Being, we bring everything forward with us, including the inevitable reentering of this "pre-egoic state." Mastery is our ability to notice and care for this integral part of ourselves appropriately.

If a massage therapist can remain aware and compassionate of baby's world in the adult body, the client's body relaxes. The sense of connectedness with the body worker as a symbolic Mother leads clients to relax their armor, letting old belief systems liquefy and reform in new ways. Awareness of this earliest stage of human development, the world of the infant, is vital for health and well-being. It sets the tone and creates the foundation for the subsequent adult ego and the transpersonal realms; areas that we look forward to exploring with you in Parts 2 and 3 of this series.

Deborah Allen, Scott Bader, Dan Buffo, and Timothy Marshall are energy work practitioners. They are the founding members of The Healers' Forum, an organization supporting healing and healership located in Santa Cruz, CA.

Copyright 2002 by Deborah Allen, Scott Bader, Dan Buffo, and Timothy Marshall

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