Question. Has Wilber's pre-egoic and trans-egoic paradigm reduced the likelihood of equating transcendence with madness?
Response by Gerald Schueler, Ph.D. © 1997
Until recently, most transpersonal experiences were considered pathological. In 1985, for example, Grof (1985) wrote, "nonordinary states of consciousness, with a few exceptions, are generally considered to be symptomatic of mental disorders" (p. 25). Furthermore, Rigid adherence to the Newtonian-Cartesian paradigm has had particularly detrimental consequences for the practice of psychiatry and psychotherapy. It is largely responsible for the inappropriate application of the medical model to areas of psychiatry that deal with problems of living, rather than diseases. (Grof, 1985, p. 25)
Grof (1985) points out that if a person has a spiritual crisis or peak experience, in the sense defined by Maslow (1971), and from a lack of understanding went to his pastor for counseling, he or she would probably be advised to see a psychiatrist. Spiritual experiences are seldom recognized for what they are, even by the clergy. One reason for this is that ego-transcendence often shows similarities to the infantile mental state (egocentrism, lack of boundaries, childlike acceptance, and so on) and thus appears as regression. For example, most modern psychologists would classify the actions of both Jesus and Buddha as pathological. Walsh & Vaughan (1996) summarize this problem:
Mystical experiences have been interpreted as regressions to union with the breast, ecstatic states viewed as narcissistic neurosis, enlightenment dismissed as regression to intrauterine stages, and meditation seen as self-induced catatonia. This is the trap that Wilber calls the pre-trans fallacy. (p. 63)
Ken Wilber's (1983; 1993; 1996a; 1996b) pre-egoic and trans-egoic paradigm, which addresses what he calls the pre-trans fallacy, carefully distinguishes the infantile state as pre-egoic (before ego development) and ego-transcendence as trans-egoic (beyond ego development). Trans-egoic states of consciousness are spiritual and normal rather than pathological. They should be considered as a "crisis" only when the individual experiences them without understanding what is happening.
Grof & Grof (1989) view these experiences as "spiritual emergencies" and write, "It is important to recognize spiritual emergencies and treat them appropriately because of their great positive potential for personal growth and healing, which would ordinarily be suppressed by an insensitive approach and indiscriminate routine medication" (p. 3).
According to Wilber (1993) human cognitive development follows a straight ascent from pre-egoic levels to egoic levels to, finally, trans-egoic levels of development.
This paradigm can be called a ladder paradigm because it conceives the path of development as a level-by-level ascent up a hierarchy of psychic structures (e.g., cognitive structures, moral structures, self structures). (Washburn, 1994, p. xiii)
Wilber's model thus uses the "structures" of Piaget and proposes that the structures of any psychic level are merely potential until development reaches the level to which they belong, at which point they become active, and subsume and reorganize preceding or lower structures. Eventually they assert themselves as the new governing structures of the psyche. "Evolution is a process of transcend and include, transcend and include" (Wilber, 1996, p. 30).
Figure 1 shows Wilber's Spectrum of Consciousness in which consciousness itself is broken up into a wide range or spectrum as follows:
a. Shadow. This level contains "the disowned, alienated, and projected facets of the ego which now appear to be external" (Wilber, 1993, p. 130). In Jungian terms, the basic duality at this level is the persona (outward) and the shadow (inward).
b. Ego. This level is characterized by the duality of soma and psyche. "We define the ego as a more-or-less accurate mental and symbolic representation of the total (but biosocialized) psychosomatic organism...[which] at this level...is, in essence, nothing but a bag of edited memories" (Wilber, 1993, p. 124).
c. Bisocial. These bands represent consciousness that is higher than normal ego-oriented consciousness but not yet at the Existential Level. Identification is transiting from the everyday personality to something higher; the focus here is more on humanity than the personal individual. Its primary functions are:
1. Perpetuation of duality.
2. Gives feeling of being a separate being.
3. Reservoir for abstract intellection.
4. Reservoir for ego characteristics.
d. Existential. Here consciousness sees itself as separate from its environment. Consciousness is dualistic. This level is the beginning of time and space.
e. Transpersonal. These bands represent consciousness at the transpersonal level in between the existential level and the pure subjectivity of the Level of Mind. They represent the point where nonduality first splits into duality.
f. Mind. This is the highest, which Wilber (1993) calls "Absolute Subjectivity" and forms the foundation or Ground for all of the other levels of consciousness. Here consciousness is non-dual.
Although Wilber's model is complex, it is a serious attempt to synthesize psychology, psychotherapy, mysticism, and religion. The basic assumption of the model is that human personality is a multi-leveled manifestation of a single consciousness, and can be likened to the electromagnetic spectrum of physics. The thrust of the model is that the different psychological schools "cut up" consciousness; each focuses only on certain specific bands within the spectrum. Thus, using this model, all of the schools of psychology can be brought together into a single continuum by clarifying all of the Western (and Eastern) approaches to psychotherapy. Freudian approaches, for example, are useful for people near the Shadow Level, but beyond that point they may not be as effective. Transpersonal psychology has value primarily for those who are cognitively functioning within the transpersonal bands, and so on.
Wilber's model is one of linear evolution:
Evolution is a wildly self-transcending process: it has the utterly amazing capacity to go beyond what went before. So evolution is in part a process of transcendence, which incorporates what went before and then adds incredibly novel components. The drive to self-transcendence is thus built into the very fabric of the Kosmos itself. (Wilber, 1996, p. 23)
The thrust of Wilber's argument is that there is a natural evolutionary impetus from pre-egoic to trans-egoic consciousness, and therefore ego-transcendence, the ultimate goal of Jung's (1973, 1976, 1985, 1989, 1990, 1991) individuation process and Maslow's (1968, 1971) process of self-actualization, are a normal and natural goal for all of humanity. This view has resulted in three major assumptions underlying the transpersonal position according to Sutich (1996, p. 10):
1. Impulses toward an ultimate state are continuous in every person although full awareness of these is not necessarily present at any given time.
2. The realization of an ultimate state is essentially dependent on direct practice related to a "path" (course of action or conduct entered into for the purpose of realizing an ultimate state) and on conditions suitable for the individual concerned.
3. Every individual has the right to freely choose his or her own path and to change from one personal path to another if or when he or she so desires.
These assumptions form the foundation or basic framework from which transpersonal psychotherapy can proceed. They assume that spiritual experiences, in which the ego is transcended for a time, are normal and natural, and that there are specific techniques (for example, meditation) to hasten the evolutionary forces of ego-transcendence, and that everyone has a right to pick and chose those techniques that work best for them. Judy (1994) concludes:
The field of transpersonal psychology has, indeed, now mapped the human psyche with a great expanse of vision, so that we can speak of the possibility of numinous experience, profound inner healing, realms of dreams and creative vision, mystical awareness, and the potentiality of interactions of mind and body for healing disease of the body and the spirit (p. 99).
Wilber's pre-egoic and trans-egoic paradigm has reduced the likelihood of equating transcendence with madness. Transpersonal psychology has fully adopted Wilber's paradigm, and the differences between regression to a pre-egoic state and transformation to a trans-egoic state are generally accepted today. Speaking as a Jungian, Johnson (1991) says,
Generally, the first half of life is devoted to the cultural process-gaining one's skills, raising a family, disciplining one's self in a hundred different ways; the second half of life is devoted to restoring the wholeness (making holy) of life. One might complain that this is a senseless round trip except that the wholeness at the end is conscious while it was unconscious and childlike at the beginning. (p. 10)
Here is the great difference between the pre- and trans- states: the pre-egoic state of infancy is largely unconscious while the trans-egoic state is highly conscious. Transcendence of the ego heightens consciousness rather than decreasing it. According to Jungian psychology, this is because our sense of identity shifts from the ego to the archetypal self-the center of the psyche. Therefore, most transpersonal experiences should be viewed as a natural process of evolutionary development and not as pathological.
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