The Fun and Games of Ego Development

Babies come out of the womb feeling connected and as one with their environment.  Over time, they begin to understand their separateness and develop an identity: "My body is separate; therefore I am separate".  When we're an adult, and have fully developped the ego structure, we can begin to shed the "I" once again and return to the awareness of our connection with our environment.   Image copyright Lawrence Turner, all rights reserved.  [ Source ]

Babies come out of the womb feeling connected and as one with their environment.  Over time, they begin to understand their separateness and develop an identity: "My body is separate; therefore I am separate".  When we're an adult, and have fully developped the ego structure, we can begin to shed the "I" once again and return to the awareness of our connection with our environment.  Image copyright Lawrence Turner, all rights reserved.  [Source]

I'm about to give my sixth Enneagram presentation next week and whenever I do it, I always shrink before the task of describing the early holding environment, and how babies develop their ego selves.  Don Riso and Russ Hudson do such a good job in their one-hour Ireland talk that [used to be?] posted on their website (their website got a major overhaul earlier this year).  When you hear a master do it, or two in this case, it's hard not to feel inadequate when you do yours.  Plus, I don't have a baby, so how do I know what stages of development they go through?

So I've turned to Sandra Maitri this morning, who provides a good summary of the stages.  I actually heard her give a variation of this talk in Los Angeles in 2013 and it was an honor to be part of the audience- she does it so eloquently.  In her book, though, The Spiritual Dimension of the Enneagram, she takes a different tack, quoting bits and pieces from A. H. Almaas' Facets of Unity, and rounding out her references with some preeminent developmental psychologists and psychoanalysts like Rene Spitz, Heinz Hartman, Margaret Mahler, D. W. Winnicott, and of course, Freud himself.

So when we're babies, we're in contact with True Nature.  In the womb, we're connected to our mom's body, being fed vitamins and minerals through her amniotic sac.  All our needs for development are met; our little bodies are in perfect homeostasis with our dark and moist environment.   Our mom is our world, and we're in perfect unity with our world.  We even share emotions with our mom- we pick up on her joy and her stress, and we're so connected, we don't know any difference between her experience or ours.  Those who have done a lifetime's worth of meditating and have dug deep into the personality structure have told us that in pre-cognition stage, we're aware of a deep connection to all other beings, that at a certain level, we all emerge from the same source.

As infants, once we've emerged from the sac and had the initial shock of separation, for a while, that feeling of oneness is still there.  We are unable to differentiate between our own body and mother's. 

It is probable that while a child sees differentiations between things, he does not actually know that they are separate.  He might feel the warmth of his mother's breast milk, for instance, and see the redness of his rubber ball, and feel the hunger pangs in his belly, but he probably does not conceptualize these experiences as different from one another.  Warm, red, and hunger would all be part of the unity of his experience (Maitri, 2000)

Babies are born flexible and floppy physically, and vulnerable and open psychically.  As they grow up, they begin to aquire psychological "armour" to protect the "True I" that isn't being supported properly by its environment, and their bodies correspondinglyreflect this psychological change by becoming more rigid.

Babies are born flexible and floppy physically, and vulnerable and open psychically.  As they grow up, they begin to aquire psychological "armour" to protect the "True I" that isn't being supported properly by its environment, and their bodies correspondinglyreflect this psychological change by becoming more rigid.

Cognition then starts developping in stages.  The first stage is a distinction between pleasure and pain.  At the onset, we don't yet have our memory function connected to the right neurons to remember what causes pleasure and what causes pain, so first we go through a phase of just experiencing everything without trying to avoid or move toward any particular experience.  As those neuron connections are made, however, we start remembering: being with mom equals pleasure, being put down in my crib for a nap and separated from her equals pain.  Freud told us that the most fundamental principle underlying the ego structure was striving for pleasure and avoiding pain, which we see being laid here.

Margaret Mahler described this phase as the normal symbiotic phase- when the baby is aware of his mother, but is unable to distinguish between his body and hers.

Maitri moves us on to the next phase- a sense of inner versus outer.  As the nurturer touches our bodies, we become aware of the sensations of our outer edges.  "The collection of sensations on the periphary of the body coalesce into a sense of the body's boundaries", says Maitri.  This is our first hint that we're separate from everyone else, that our skin is the boundary between "me" and "them", a distinction that forms the basis of object relations theory.  "I am the subject, mom is the object."  Margaret Mahler would call this the individuation phase.  We start crawling and then walking away from mom, exploring our environment, and yes, coming back to her, but less and less frequently. 

By the time we're four years old, our ego self has matured into a fully-formed understanding of the child's being separate from the rest of the world, founded in their experience of themselves as a physical beings who can leave and come back to mom.  The development of the ego, then, coincides with our disconnection from True Nature- that essential state where we feel like we're one with everyone else.  Maitri reminds us that religious traditions call it falling asleep, ignorance or darkness.

But we need that ego structure, it's not all bad.  "Developing this structure", explains Maitri, "is a necessary prerequisite for spiritual development, since part of the ego's attainment is self-reflective consciousness.  Without it, we couldn't be aware of our own consciousness."

And so as we grow and develop through to adulthood, we develop a greater and greater capacity to self-reflect, while the ego performs its job of getting us through school, navigating our social circles, and helping establish ourselves in the world. 

Eventually, maybe in our twenties or thirties or forties (some seniors we're still waiting for), we begin to find that the ego is no longer needed; we can afford to shed some of the protective layer that has encrusted itself around our Essence self.  If we do the work necessary to become more and more self-observant, we begin to shed the layers formed by social and psychological conditioning and relax into our True nature- the self we were meant to be beyond the ego structure.

When you're not the favorite child

This article on favorite children from the New York Times resurfaced in time for Father's Day yesterday.  It's interesting, and reassuring just to know it's a universal problem.  One commenter named Dave from Omaha had a sad story,

As children, we 5 siblings, 4 boys and one girl, got along famously. I can count the fights between us on one hand in our entire childhood. The favoritism to the oldest, a boy, was accepted and largely unquestioned. His post-high school education was funded 100%. Books, tuition, room, board, car and spending money. When I attended college I was given not one red cent. Others experienced the same. He was taken into the family business and made wealthy. He worked hard, but he had opportunities not given the others. Dad died last year and it came to be known that the oldest will benefit from the estate far more than the others. To the tune of millions vs. a few tens of thousands. That was the last straw. Each of the five have gone their separate ways and we can't be considered a family any longer in any more than name only. Favoritism unchecked will destroy a family. I know.

One commenter said she wished the article provided helpful tips into what to do if you're not the favorite.  I agreed- the article didn't provide any insight into how to heal from not being the preferred sibling, so I replied to her.  Here's what I wrote.

I wish the author had consulted a Jungian therapist for her article.  I think what Carl Jung would say is that children are manifestations of their parents' owned and disowned qualities of their psychic structure.  Some of our children, we can project our desired qualities onto successfully (ie. they don't bounce back in our face and remind us of how awful we are)- these are our favorite children; whereas some of them we cast our shadow selves onto- these are the unowned qualities that we think are bad or out of control and are having trouble integrating- the children that receive these projections are the black sheep, the scapegoats for our unprocessed unconscious material.  I'm not totally doing Jung justice here, but you get the jist.  When we haven't been favorited by our parents, we have to recognize that we're the bearer of our parents' shadows- it's not personal, and with enough growth and maturity, we become the parents of our parents, helping them access those unintegrated qualities safely and in love.  But who the hell lives long enough, has the inclination, or starts their healing journey soon enough to get to that point?  Most of us, if we're lucky, will only have enough time on this earth to process the gut wrenching pain of being the neglected child and learn to parent ourselves.  And we parent ourselves through meditation.

So what do I mean by that.  When you're not the favorite child, your essential qualities haven't been mirrored back to you very well, meaning you haven't felt "seen" for who you are.   In neurobiology, they would say that our mirror neurons haven't been attuned to by our parents' mirror neurons, without which, we don't have the all-important emotional resonance we need from them, out of which a sense of safe attachment is derived. 

Fortunately for these children, the intrapersonal attunement we achieve between our own minds and our nervous system during meditation has the same healing effect on us as if we were being resonated with by our parents.  In other words, it's been scientifically proven that compassionate self-observation through meditation offers the same soothing effect on our mirror neurons that are craving resonance as you would have if you had had better interpersonal attunement with your parents.   In this sense, these children are able to provide the parenting to themselves that they never received as children. 

Where I read this latter neurobiology stuff is in Dr. Daniel Siegel's book The Mindful Brain.  If you want to know more about the technical details of how meditation has the same effect on our brains as being mirrored by a parent, check it out.


Little Type Four Kids at Level 6

Some teachers I know are working with a couple of dramatic and melancholic Type Four kids whose need to be different and special have both blown up in the last few months.  From what I can tell about their Riso-Hudson levels of health, they're both at Level 6, flirting with Level 7.  The Red Flag fear at Level 6 is "I am ruining my life, I am wasting

The Is-ness of Parents

In the Hindu tradition , there are four stages of life, the final one after being a householder/parent is to become a Wandering Beggar, a different kind of scaling down than we do here in the West.  Basically, it just means you have "the duty to prepare [your] spirit for the stage in which spirit will be all [you have]."

In the Hindu tradition, there are four stages of life, the final one after being a householder/parent is to become a Wandering Beggar, a different kind of scaling down than we do here in the West.  Basically, it just means you have "the duty to prepare [your] spirit for the stage in which spirit will be all [you have]."

I was reminded the other day about this idea of the Holy Perfection of all things, a concept I don't really like that much as it seems a little flaky, spiritually gratuitous, and frankly, unnecessary.  There is good and there is bad in the world.  No need to be trying to squint our eyes a certain way to see the essential "good" underneath someone's evil behavior.  What is the purpose?  Aren't we letting ourselves off the hook of confronting the wrong-doer by trying to see their essential qualities?  Who cares about their essential qualities when they need to be make aware of their wrong-doings?

This topic came up in the context of a conversation about raising a family.  Parents who try to improve their children without doing any inner work on themselves are "bad", I said, in the sense that they're imposing their ego delusions on someone else without stopping to examine them.  So when the kid grows up, they not only have to deal with their own egoic delusions, they have to wade through the ones imposed on them by their parents.  Basically the parent is asking the child to do their own inner work for them.  They're saying, "Here, I don't want to examine my motives or sift through all this psychic material I've inherited.  You do it."  The kid has to separate all the layers in therapy.  I mean, this happens all the time, but for a parent to still hang on to their ego-structure long after the child has left the house?  To never have examined their own lens?  Basically to go through life never having any big existential crisis about your own ego story?  Isn't that bad parenting? 

What I tell parents who want to help their kids is, "The best gift you can give your child is to do your own inner work."  You're definitely going to start out thinking you have all the answers, which is natural, but when you realize your lense on the world is only one of several, and there are other valid points of view out there, you start incorporating them and you get a little humbler and a little humbler until you realize, like the Fool in the tarot card journey, you're back at the beginning of your journey.  What you "knew" throughout your life was your own ego story and when you transcend that a bit, you start doing some digging to see what else you've been missing.  I attend Enneagram workshops, and the median age of the attendees has to be around 45-50, that age when people start seeing a bigger picture beyond their limited worldview that they parented out of. 

The answer given to me in this conversation this past week was no one HAS to do inner work.  It's optional.  There is still an inherent goodness in that parent who constantly feels the need to impose their egoic lens on your worldview.  Goodness, she said, in the sense of the the Type One's holy idea- that of Holy Perfection, not "goodness" in our egoic way of judging one thing against a standard of an ideal.  While we see stubbornness and self-importance and self-delusion, an enlightened person sees someone who is "inherently and implicitly perfect, that [they] are just right as [they] are, that [they] do not need anything added to [them] or subtracted from [them]", says Sandra Maitri.  She goes on.  "From this angle we see that [they] do not need to become better, that [they] do not need to be different, and that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with [them]. 

She quotes A. H. Almaas here,

To see things as they really are, which is to see things objectively, we have to put these [judgements and preferences, likes and dislikes, fears and ideas of how things should be] aside-- in other words, we have to let go of our minds.  Seeing things objectively means that it doesn't matter whether we think what we're looking at is good or bad-- it means just seeing it as it is.

It was "good" to be reminded of this, although I'm going to need a bit more enlightenment in this regard.  :)  This gets into the idea of the child parenting the parent, which surely does happen.   When the child develops the leadership skills that the parent won't develop, or can't... or to use this new phrase from Robert A. Johnson that I love... when the child provides the container for their parents' psychic energy and learns to see their parents' Essential qualities.

How Big a Container

Yesterday I wrote about having a "container" for your child's psychic energy.  Or whomever's. Your dad's, your employees', your own.  The leader in the room is the one with the biggest container.  Actually, let's back up a bit.  As Russ Hudson brilliantly said Oct. 2014, "The leader is just the first person to become present."  Another quote that has changed my life in a big way.  How do you develop leadership skills?  Develop your practice of presence.

Which should provide a clue as to how exactly a person would go about "creating a container" for others.  Create it for yourself first with your practice of presence and it will be there for others.

Basically, what I mean is developping a self-observation practice.  By turning the flashlight of your mind back in on itself and observing your breathing (is it shallow or deep, quick or slow), your thoughts (how they float -- or zoom-- by like clouds), the muscle tension in your body (can you feel tension in your neck?  Your jaw?  your buttocks?), you deepen your quality of presence, thereby creating a container for others.

Kids can be a prompt for reminding us to breathe.

Kids can be a prompt for reminding us to breathe.

How long do you do this for?  One second?  One second is good- it's a long time by meditative standards, but I prefer to use the metronome of my breathing because my attention is on my body anyway, might as well keep it there instead of going back and forth between my body and my watch.  A deep, mindful breath can feel like a very long time.  It's difficult to stay with the awareness of your body for an entire breath, but it's a good goal to aim for when you're in the throes of your job and you want to create a little island of mindfulness in the hecticness of the pace of business.  If you can't stay with yourself for an entire breath, that's fine, a half a breath, or even a quarter breath has been known to change the course of events.  Two breaths is audacious.  The people around you will wonder what you're doing.  Three, you're off your rocker according to non-practitioners.  Three mindful breaths creates not only an island, but a retreat centre on the island and a rent-a-car establishment so you can drive to the retreat centre.

But let me go back to high-energy kids, because that's what prompted me to write about this in the first place.  When high -energy kids become annoying or draining, the best thing to do when you feel reactive is to take a mindful breath and "land" in your body.  When you spend some time sensing into your body, noticing how the annoyance feels (do you feel annoyance in your throat?  Your stomach?  Your face?  Your feet?  I notice it in my nose quite a bit) you've landed in that moment, and you've essentially created a little container for your child's energy.  The next time you practice this, you might notice a little bit more tension, like maybe you didn't notice before, but you've got tension in your hands.  That second time, your container grew a bit. 

The third time you practice this, you might notice tension in your jaw as well as your hands, and maybe if you stay with the mindfulness a bit longer, you notice the arches of your feet are tensed up.  "Wow", you say, and you let go of the tension and relax.  Your container has grown a little bit. 

And then you forget for a couple months and when you remember again, you're back to only being able to do mindful half breaths, and the tendency is to beat yourself up and say, "Gah!  Why didn't I sustain my practice??!"  But then you notice the tension in your body as self-condemnation arises, and you take a deep, mindful breath and notice how tight your neck is, or how you're clenching a body part.  Eventually you're back on the horse, back to being audacious again.  And after getting on and off the horse more times that you would like, you decide to have a sitting practice, and set an alarm that rings gently after 20 minutes.  You love it that much.  Over the years, the love grows.  You get on and off the horse, don't worry, it happens to everyone, but the smart mindfulness practitioner uses prompts to turn the flashlight of their mind back in on itself, like it used to be turning on the bathroom taps for me.  But you could just as easily use the tension that comes with self-condemnation as your first prompt to start the journey back onto the horse.


Orphaning the Sexual Instinct

Few ideas have had more of an impact in the last couple months on my way of thinking than Robert A. Johnson's first chapter in Inner Gold.  I don't even think I finished the chapter- it was the first two pages that hit me between the eyes and then I returned the book to the library, having needed time to digest what I just read.  If you were a psychology student, you might have studied him already in school, Johnson being one of the best-known Jungian writers on earth today, but having just found him, I am so excited to read every single one of his books.  I love Carl Jung and this guy now.

His first chapter is on projection.  You know how we develop crushes on people and we absolutely have to have that person in our lives.  It's embarassing to need or want someone that bad, especially if you know you don't have a chance.  At least I find it something to be embarassed about.  Well Johnson lays it out in the most compassionate of terms- basically we all have inner gold- our sense of value and worth, and sometimes, he says, that gold is too heavy for us to carry and we need someone else to carry it for us.  If that person is willing, ie. if they have the "psychic container" for the gold we can't carry, they'll smile and carry it for us until we demand it back.  Crushes on your teacher are like this- you have a crush on your grade three teacher and then you outgrow it.  The teacher knows you will, but she makes a fuss over your Valentine's Day flowers anyway and put them in some water. On the other hand, they might not have the psychic container for it, and it might make them feel really uncomfortable.

That's a phrase I keep coming back to- container.  Johnson says, "All psychic energy needs a container".  Just those six words- I've been seeing how they can apply on so many levels. 

If you know about the three instincts in the Enneagram, you know the Sexual instinct (the need for intensity, the preference for one-on-one interactions over group interactions, and the enjoyment of increasing the intensity in a group, like cracking a joke instead of keeping the pace and tenor of the conversation on a regular "beat".  You know Seinfeld's low talkers?  Well close talkers- there's a good chance they stand close to you to feel the intensity.  But I mean, that's just an example.  Not everyone with the Sexual instinct stands close to you when they talk to you, but it is a thing.)  I've written about this before- you can google it for more examples.

Anyway, I've been noticing amongst my friends a lot of Social couples having children who have the Sexual instinct.  (I seriously think we have children to balance us out, because Mr. M is the opposite- he's a Sexual 8 with a Social daughter.)  But yeah, I can name quite a few couples with a laid-back Social instinct with crazy intense children, the container for which the parents just don't have.  If the parents don't realize this and the intensity annoys them, they tend to "orphan" it.  Like cringe and be like, "Ooohhh, XXX, just settle down, PLEASE!"  It can happen between spouses too- I know a couple where the husband can get really intense- like either mad or excited and he'll raise his voice and his wife will bristle and say, "Just lower your voice- why do you have to get so angry?"  And he'll be like, "I'm not angry", and she'll roll her eyes really slowly and dramatically.  I guess I would call that orphaning the sexual instinct, like not holding it, not honoring it because the wife just doesn't have the Sexual instinct (ie. Not to say she doesn't have sex!- big difference- the Instincts are technical terms- it just means she doesn't have the instinct to instensify the energy in a conversation- she's fine with her Social instinct, where the energy is a lot more spread out and democratic amongst the group).

We have some families at school where only one kid in the family has the Sexual instinct and it's sad to watch because they have no container for it- neither of their parents knows how to "hold" it and they end up condemning it, or to borrow this phrase from a recent post of Fred Wilson's, "orphaning it", and it takes quite a few years- decades even- for you to figure out how to handle all that instensity in a graceful way if you don't have someone to emulate how they handle that energy. The Sexual instinct can be a curse that way, but I mean, once you create your own container for it, you're sailing.

Anyway, this is just what's been brewing in my head lately.  Looking forward to finding more applications. 

Parenting to Engender Resilience in Children

The best way to understand how a child develops resilience is to look at the role of the nervous system vis-a-vis the rest of their body.  Knowing how the child's brain reacts to stress can help us understand what they need in order to develop empowered and adaptable responses to life's unpredictabilities.