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.