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 2

The World of the Individual

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

His client Sarah is almost always quiet during their bodywork sessions. When Sarah had been receiving massage for over two years, she suddenly said, "I need another blanket." This small comment, familiar and welcome to any massage therapist, is a huge step for Sarah. It let the therapist know that Sarah is becoming more of an adult self during her time on the table. For Sarah, whose early childhood was especially traumatic, the experience of being held and touched on the massage table has primarily taken her to very early developmental stages. In the infant (pre-egoic) realm, she never considered asking for anything because her baby-self still had no voice. This small statement of self-assertion is the beginning of a new phase of their work together.

In our last article (Deepening the Healing Relationship: Integrating human developmental issues into the massage practice), we described a powerful map of human development referred to as The Great Chain of Being, as set out in depth by visionary philosopher Ken Wilber. This map, central to the perennial philosophies, describes three major stages that we ascend and descend throughout our lifetimes. The first, the pre-personal (or pre-egoic), 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. 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 deepest spiritual nature.

In this second of three articles, we looking at the middle stage of the Great Chain of Being: the egoic, or personal, world. The egoic world begins when the child notices that there is an autonomous self outside of the Mother/child dyad. This new "me" is created by "good enough" interactions with caregivers in the first months of life. With enough positive "mirroring" from the caregiver, the child absorbs a sense of safety and curiosity. In "good enough" development, the child slowly discovers that he can practice moving outside the primary couple (Mother/child) without jeopardizing love or care.

The toddler begins to walk, to explore. Throughout this period, the child is also always checking back in, "Is Mommy still there?" and then off she goes exploring again. As she grows, she is able to point at what she wants (a Cookie). Once she learns the words for what she wants (Me Want Cookie), another whole universe opens.

The construction of the ego creates a separate self that resists being overwhelmed by the powerful world of forces and feelings. It is an extraordinary human achievement to develop a personal self, an "I" or ego, that gives us a sense of clarity and continuity.

Having a "self" away from Mommy makes living a normal daily life possible. Words become symbols for things. Communication with others, using words as symbols, becomes our normal way of operating. We begin to understand other sets of symbols, like mathematics and metaphor. We build useful structures, materially and symbolically. We organize. We make alliances. We can take care of ourselves. We begin to have enough sense to ask for help when we need it. We use our egos to be creative and productive in the world.


In the egoic state, we have what we call "agency." We can choose to act in the world. It is the egoic part of self that gets us up in the morning, books sessions, makes a living. The egoic, adult self can make choices. We can choose to relax and receive, and help our clients choose the same. It is this choosing part of the egoic self that aligns with healing and growing.

Unfortunately, the ego can also experience itself as separate. The experience of having an "I" comes at a great price. This separate self is also responsible for our experiences of separation, loneliness and alienation; ultimately it is the source of our suffering. Most individuals spend much of their lives in the egoic world. From this place, we experience ourselves as small, personal, and limited. Beneath our anger, sadness, and fear, lies the longing for connection: a desire to regain the profound infant sense of oneness with other that was provided by our earliest caregivers.

The experience of painful separation happens often in adult life. We notice it when the adult ego (I, alone in the world) experiences a threat that triggers survival reactions learned in childhood. The situation seems dangerous. The world suddenly narrows. The ego is no longer the eyes and ears of our longing for wholeness and healing. The under-developed childhood ego wants to stop the onset of overwhelming emotions. It wants to try and control the situation quickly. It may try to soothe itself with caffeine and sugar. It may need to blame others for its predicaments. And, often, it wants someone else to take care of all the adult questions and decisions that the present crisis demands.

Sarah seems relaxed on the massage table. The therapist works on a particularly difficult knot in her neck and Sarah suddenly says, "I wish my husband cared about me the way you do," and bursts into tears. This is the first time she has shared anything about her life at home. She says she is furious at her husband, who made fun of her choice of a new car, which was a monumental decision for her.

The inexperienced body worker might feel extremely flattered. He is being held above the husband. The dangers of the therapist's ego getting involved in this moment include Sarah's loyalties switching quickly back to the man she married or the therapist's comment will undermine the marital relationship. For the body worker to take a stand, one way or another, is to interfere in the adult choices of his client's daily life. She chose the car, and she chose her husband. The therapist's best response in this moment is to address the emotions, not the personal choices the client is making outside the massage room. "I hear how upset you are," said with compassion and no judgment, addresses Sarah's feelings without taking sides. If the massage therapist blurts out "Your husband should treat you better, " he aligns with Sarah's ego in defense.

The "ego in defense" appears when Sarah stops aligning with her whole self, and becomes identified with feeling separate, alone and under attack. From Sarah's distressed point of view, her husband was purposefully cruel to her. In her unconscious mind, the experience lines up with the treatment she received as a child living in an orphanage. The massage therapist is suddenly her hope for the fantasy "good father," the one who will only be kind.

And these dynamics are rarely a one-way street. Sometimes a client's praise can feed the therapist's unmet emotional needs. If he is having trouble with his own partner, Sarah's comment may feel like a long-awaited recognition. This client thinks he is doing well, in areas where his own partner complains about him. Our personal needs "load" our encounters with clients and add emotional weight that may have nothing to do with the session. We may find ourselves projecting our own unrecognized needs and desires onto our clients, depending on the emotional lacks in our personal lives.

In order to facilitate Sarah's return to a sense of agency, the massage therapist might say something authentic and supportive. "I trust that you and he will work it out, because you are a good communicator. Let's see if we can help the tension come out of the muscle." With this response, the therapist supports Sarah's adult ego to operate well in her world, while acknowledging that the tension is real and present in her body. The therapist might also make a personal commitment to talk with his own partner about his needs, acknowledging to himself that Sarah's comments have brought more consciousness to his own relationship.

A massage therapy session usually carries a spoken or unspoken agreement that it is not psychotherapy. The body worker's job is to help the client release or discharge the energy held in the body, allowing the client to return to an adult sense of equilibrium. When the adult ego is back on board, choices for self-care can be made from a sense of personal well-being. It may be that Sarah's husband does treat her poorly and that leaving him would be the healthy decision of her strong ego. Our job as body workers is to help Sarah align with her own commitment to healing and growing towards herself and others, rather than aligning with her sense of separation.

In energy work we notice that old survival patterns unconsciously divert energy from normal everyday life into repeating patterns of stress and tension in the body. There is an energetic charge held or blocked somewhere in the system. It may be the energy of withheld emotions, experienced as neck and shoulder tension, born of repressed anger. The amount of held energy increases until it is triggered by a current experience, or until the muscle, organ, or organ system fails due to the stressful overload. At this point we often notice the client react to something out of proportion to the stimulus. The extra energy in the reaction is supplied by the release of this emotional charge or tension.

For healing, two things are necessary. First, the client needs to release, or discharge the held energy in a healthy manner. Massage is an excellent modality for this. Exercise, nutrition, meditation and having a good support system also contribute to releasing emotional energy in a positive way. Second, the client must learn to let the energy flow through the system on an every-day basis, rather than blocking in a habitual pattern. Self-awareness is the first step in this process. Experience and practice allow us to become familiar with our own patterns.

In our role as massage therapists, we can help our clients notice which choices feel good, and which ones feed the old reactive pattern. With gentle coaching, a massage therapist can help a client notice that they can still choose relaxation over stress if they are aware of the opportunity. For example, we might develop a simple language to share this choice-making process with our clients. Together we can notice what happens inside a tense muscle and which suggestions help the muscle relax. Even noting together the difference between hot and cold, tight and loose, heavy and fluid, can help educate the client's choice-making ability. We can watch together which choices support their longing for wholesome fulfillment, and which choices cause them increasing tension.

As we use our strokes to soothe the body, allowing it to center and rest, many of us also offer encouragement, through words or touch, to help align the client's intent, with the body's relaxation. We might remind the client to breathe. We can ask them if it is all right with them if their low back rests without holding tension, while they are on the table. We might try words like "allow," "permit" and "notice" instead of "do, " "try," or "make." Even these simple vocabulary differences can return a sense of choice and agency. Through our comments and touch, we can help the client to recognize these same choices later, whenever needed. Over time, clients can learn to how to help them restore the adult to service whenever they find themselves triggered.

Self awareness grounded in the earlier stages of the great chain of being, the world of the infant and the developing adult, sets the tone and creates the foundation for the subsequent integration into the transpersonal realms of our spiritual lives. Part #3, The World of Spirit, will appear in MASSAGE Magazine's next issue.

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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