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
Integrating human developmental issues into the massage
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
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
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"
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
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,
Copyright 2002 by Deborah Allen, Scott
Bader, Dan Buffo, and Timothy Marshall