This chapter summarizes our way of looking at the development of personality. It introduces our concept of selves and of bonding patterns in relationship and presents our particular view of the consciousness process. This is the basic theoretical framework into which the remaining chapters fit. for those readers familiar with our work, this can be used as an update as well as a review, because we have expanded our thinking about bonding patterns considerably. Most of this material, however, is given a more comprehensive treatment in our book, Embracing Our Selves, published by Nataraj Publishing. It is intended as a companion to this book. It not only presents a thorough picture of the different selves that inhabit our psyche, it also provides a definitive description of Voice Dialogue, the process we developed that has been the main tool used in our explorations of relationship.
The Development of the Selves
Most of us are familiar with the outer family into which we were born. We have parents and grandparents, brothers, sisters and cousins, aunts and uncles. We may also have close friends who function as family members and who, at times, are closer to us than our actual families. Learning about our families and how we fit into them is a very important part of the growing-up process.
What is fascinating to consider, and what is a new idea for most people, is that we have an inner family as well as an outer one. This inner family is influenced, first of all, by those closest to us. It consists, at first, of selves that resemble the personality patterns of our family members, friends and teachers, or anyone who has had any kind of influence over us, or conversely, it consists of the personality characteristics (or selves) that represent the exact opposite patterns.
Learning about this inner family is a very important part of personal growth and absolutely necessary for the understanding of our relationships, since the members of this inner family, or "selves," as we like to call them, are often in control of our behavior. If we do not understand the pressures they exert, then we are really not in charge of our lives.
How does this inner family develop? As we grow in a particular family and culture, each of us is indoctrinated with certain ideas about the kind of person we should be. Since we are very vulnerable as infants and children, it is important that we be the "kind of person we should be," and we behave in a way that keeps us safe and loved and cared for. This need to protect our basic vulnerability results in the development of our personality - the development of the primary "selves" that define us to ourselves and to the world.
We each are born into this world in an extremely vulnerable condition. This initial self remains as a vulnerable child, a child of the utmost sensitivity, who carries with it the ability to relate intimately to others. This child can be seen as the doorway to our most profound states of being, to our souls, if you wish. It is this child who essentially carries our psychic fingerprint, and it is this child that we spend our lives protecting at all costs. Other selves develop within us early in life to stand between this child and other people so that nobody will ever be able to harm it. This is both natural and necessary, but by the time we are adults and are functioning well in the world, the selves that were developed earlier have a tendency to be overly protective.
These selves have usually decided that the best way to protect the vulnerable inner child is to keep it well-hidden, fully out of the reach of any other human being (though it may be acceptable for the child to interact with a pet). Unfortunately, this also keeps the vulnerable child out of relationships and deprives it of what it so dearly wishes - a deep and honest connection with other human beings. This keeps many of us from the intimacy we seek in relationship, since intimacy requires the presence of the vulnerable child. It is only with access to this child that we can truly know ourselves and others.
The first of the protective selves to develop is called the protector/controller because it protects the vulnerable child and controls both our behavior and that of the people around us. This protector/controller emerges surprisingly early in life. It looks about, notices what behavior is rewarded and what is punished, makes sense of the rules of the world it sees around it, and sets up a code of behavior for us. It is constantly looking for more information and will change its rules to accommodate it. This basically rational self explains the world, and ourselves, to us and provides us with the frame of reference within which we will view our surroundings.
When the protector/controller is in complete charge of our lives, as it so often is, no input is permitted that might upset the status quo or lead us to question cherished beliefs and characteristic ways of being. The role of this self is to protect the child and, in doing so, it usually keeps the child from real contact with others.
The protector/controller has as its major ally, the pusher. This self is ever-alert to what must be done next. The pusher makes lists, prompts us to complete tasks, keeps us busy and productive so that our vulnerable child will feel that we are good and that people will admire us. It is less than helpful, however, when we are trying to relax. It also tends to interfere with intimacy. If we are never in a relationship, the pusher can continue to run our lives; there is nobody to question its pre-eminence. We are prodigiously productive and greatly admired, but have not learned how to stand still long enough to make meaningful contact with someone.
Another major ally of the protector/controller is the perfectionist. Just as its name implies, this part of us sets goals of perfection, usually on all fronts. We must look perfect, be perfect, have the perfect relationship, work flawlessly, produce perfect children, so that nobody will ever criticize us and the vulnerable child will remain safe. The perfectionist has no tolerance for human frailty, little appreciation of reality, and can be pretty harsh in its view of relationship.
This self is greatly rewarded by our society and usually encouraged by our families, since it makes their internal perfectionists feel successful. The perfectionist has its place, of course. We certainly need it to set standards in some areas, such as performing surgery or designing earthquake-proof buildings, but it can be a tragically inappropriate taskmaster in our personal lives. A deeply committed relationship will lessen the power of the perfectionist and allow us to explore ourselves and others in a more forgiving fashion.
The inner critic works along with the perfectionist to protect the vulnerable child. If the critic catches all of our mistakes and inadequacies before anyone else does, or so the reasoning goes, there will be nothing about us to displease anyone, and our vulnerable child will be safe from criticism.
Unfortunately, by the time the average inner critic is finished with us, our self-esteem is shot to pieces and we feel totally unlovable. We must then go back to our old friends, the pusher and the perfectionist, and work even harder to make ourselves acceptable.
Another self that helps to make us acceptable is the pleaser. The pleaser is exquisitely sensitive to the needs and feelings of others and gently guides us in the delicate task of meeting those needs, so that others will think highly of us and be similarly understanding of our needs. This, too, is designed to protect the vulnerable child. Unfortunately, if we listen to the pleaser all the time, we tend to forget our own needs and to totally neglect our inner child. In a committed relationship we are required to look past the pleaser within ourselves and see what it is that is truly important to us. This often results in the greatest spurts of growth for both people concerned.
When these selves, and the many others whose job it is to protect our vulnerable child, are used in a constructive fashion, they can aid us on the journey of self discovery. However, when they take over completely, they can prevent us from experimentation and can keep us from bringing the totality of our imperfect, complex, contradictory and exciting selves into our relationships. They may prevent us from realizing the possibilities that exist beyond the known and the familiar.
The Primary Selves: The Development of Personality
By the time we are adults, we have an amazing family operating inside of ourselves, generally much larger than our outer family. We usually are identified with the value structure of our original protector/controller and the parts that he or she has helped bring into the world in order to protect us. These represent our primary selves.
There are also the parts that represent the opposite value structure, that which had to be rejected in the growing-up process. We call these parts the disowned selves.1 Each of us has a surprising array of disowned selves. Learning about these selves is an important part of personal growth.
Let us look at how the protector/controller operates in the life of the child. Tommy is two years old. He is playing with his building blocks in his room, when his one-year-old brother Jerry comes into the room and wants to play with Tommy's toys. Tommy does not want him there, so he pushes him away and Jerry starts to cry. Their mother comes upstairs and tells Tommy he must learn to play with his brother, whether or not he likes it.
Tommy's basic feeling is that he'd like to punch his brother in the nose, but his protector/controller takes in the information from his mother and translates it into a formula for behavior. It now says to Tommy something like this: "Tommy, whatever your feelings about your brother, it's clear to me that your mother is going to give us a lot of trouble if we're not nice to him. It hurts too much to have your mother angry with us; it feels better when she loves us. So let's be nice to Jerry. You can hate him on the inside, but don't show your feelings directly anymore."
The protector/controller does not speak literally in this way at very young ages, but by the time we are adults, the voices of the selves are quite well defined and it is relatively easy to talk directly to them. Such formulations are fairly typical of them.
We want to make clear that the development of this protector/controller is a major part of the development of personality. It becomes what we call the acting ego. It encourages other selves to develop and support its aims and aspirations. It sets the tone and the value structure of the personality. In the case of Tommy, it would encourage the self that has to do with "pleasing." Later, its emphasis would change and it would encourage the self that had to do with becoming ambitious and being successful and making large sums of money. This ambitious self grew in response to Tommy's father, who encouraged his son to be the best in everything. Tommy's father was fond of saying, "There are winners and losers in this world, Tommy, and I'm proud to see that you are one of the winners."
The protector/controller is a major part of the primary self system. Tommy grows up to be an aggressive and quite successful lawyer. His primary selves are associated with success, ambition, money, and rationality. These selves regulate his life and determine the way in which he sees himself. Tommy behaves well toward people - his pleaser sees to that - but he needs to be in charge and to control people. He may know that he is this kind of person, or, more likely, he may be unconscious of the fact.
The Disowned Selves
Each of the primary selves has a complementary disowned self that is equal and opposite in content and power. Tommy has identified with being an aggressive and ambitious type of person. In the service of power, he has disowned his vulnerability and his ability to communicate his neediness because, to the power sides of his personality, this is a sign of weakness. The opposite of his ambition is a disowned beach bum self that loves to be lazy and not do anything. Because this is so disowned in him, he often speaks proudly about his inability to unwind when he is on vacation and notices that when he does finally unwind, it is about time to return home. We will see shortly how important the understanding of these primary and disowned selves are in understanding our relationships.
Throughout the course of this book we shall see many examples of the relationship between primary selves and disowned selves. For the moment, it is important only to become aware of the fact that there lives within each of us a multitude of disowned selves, rejected parts of our inner family that most of us know nothing about. These selves remain in our unconscious, waiting for a chance to emerge and have their needs and feelings considered. Although they are unknown to us, they often have a surprisingly powerful impact upon our lives.
Those selves that are unconscious in us are automatically projected onto another person or another thing; our inner pictures are literally projected upon the other person as though the other person were a screen. These projections act like a bridge that extends out from us to meet that other person. It is one of the significant ways in which we make contact with other people in the world. Let us look at how this works.
John is an engineer who is successful in his work and who lives very much identified with primary selves associated with rationality, adventure, and travel. In the growing-up process he shunned the softer and more vulnerable parts of himself. His father was a strong, rational type, and the softness and femininity of his mother became increasingly alien to John, in large measure because he saw her as such a victim to his father. John is surprised to find that he is constantly falling in love with women who are very feeling-oriented, very feminine, and, as he would describe them, very soft.
Falling in love is, to a large extent, the projection of our unconscious selves onto another person. All of the softness and sensitivity that lie within John as disowned selves are projected onto these women. Sally, his latest love, has an additional feature; she is spiritual, an area of life that John has never touched and about which he has considerably negative feelings. Although John finds himself arguing with Sally for hours at a time about her spiritual viewpoint, he loves her deeply and is at some level fascinated by her unfamiliar way of looking at life. It is his own unconscious, then, that draws him into the relationship to Sally, via the mechanism of projection. By projecting these unconscious contents onto Sally, John has the chance to realize them in himself, if he uses their relationship as an opportunity to grow.
Sally grew up in a family where she was raised to be a loving daughter; all intellectual pursuit and personal achievement were discouraged. Finding the proper husband and raising a family were all her family encouraged. She got the message from her parents, over and over again, that she was very special and some man would be truly lucky to have her.
Sally's primary selves were loving and pleasing and caring. Her disowned selves were her rational and analytic mind, and her drive for professional achievement. We can easily see how these qualities in her unconscious would be projected onto John, while his opposite selves would be projected onto her. This kind of mutual projection is the natural start of many relationships, but it can become damaging when we do not understand how it works.
These mutual projections can bring with them much richness when we see that they represent a natural tendency toward growth, a direct and exciting path for our evolution of consciousness, a chance to integrate unconscious material into our own lives.
Sandy worships his boss. He sees him as wise, fair, powerful, intuitive, sensitive, and godlike, the father he always wanted and never had. Then Sandy and his wife are invited to the boss's home for dinner. Sandy is horrified to find that his boss in henpecked, ridiculed, and seemingly ineffectual in the home situation. His idol has crumbled. The strong father he always wanted is no longer there for him.
This crumbling of our heroes generally happens when we have projected to much power and authority onto them. But this kind of projection is a natural act, occurring constantly in our relationships. It is an integral part of our own personal development because it is through this projection that we can gain back our own power, the power that resides in our disowned selves. If we understand something about disowned selves and projection, then we can learn much from these projections and we have a better chance of reclaiming these selves.
Projection Onto Objects
Projection can occur in relationship to a person or it can occur in relationship to an object. Ralph bought an old army jeep for a considerable sum of money. He spent a fortune fixing it up and when he drove it, which was quite infrequently, something invariably went wrong. In addition, it was an extremely uncomfortable car in which to sit. His attachment to the jeep felt unnatural; one might almost say he felt possessed.
This is a feeling that often is experienced by people who are experiencing strong projections onto a person or an object. A few years before he bought the jeep, Ralph had accepted a major position with an international manufacturing firm. He worked very long hours, and his job was with him constantly. His primary selves had always had more to do with work and power. Playfulness and fun had always been a more disowned system of selves; with the responsibility of his new position, they became totally disowned.
What happened next? The part of him that knew how to be playful and adventurous had been projected onto the jeep. The extent of his possession by this vehicle is directly proportional to how strong the playful and adventurous selves are in him and how strongly they are disowned. The moment that he experienced these disowned selves within himself, through Voice Dialogue, the fascination with the jeep dissipated.
Whenever someone feels "possessed" by another person or thing we know automatically that the person or thing is carrying projected disowned selves. Much of the buying that people do is based on projections. All kinds of disowned energies are seen in bracelets, necklaces, dresses, cars, and boats. Used with awareness, such purchases can open us to new experiences and new possibilities.
Disowned Selves and Our Judgments
If we have grown up more identified with those selves that are associated with personal power, it would be most natural that we would disown the selves associated with vulnerability and neediness. Our acting ego would be identified with power. This means that in the course of growing up we have learned that vulnerability is something bad, something to be mastered. The power side judges vulnerability as something negative and, with time, an automatic shut-off valve comes into operation whenever vulnerability is experienced. When we meet someone who is more identified with vulnerability, our power side (which is our acting ego) tends to judge or react negatively to that person although at the same time we might feel a strong attraction to the person. The basic rule of the psyche can be expressed as follows:
Conversely, the people in the worldwhom we overvalue emotionally are also direct representations of our disowned selves.
This psychic law has immense consequences in the realm of human relationships. Let us look at some examples to see how it operates in a more specific way.
Jane has grown up in a family where her natural sensuality had to be disowned. When she was a little girl, her mother was extremely critical of her whenever she danced in a sensual way, and especially when she acted sensually in relationship to her father, with whom she had a particularly strong bond.
Jane eventually married, but she had no awareness of the degree to which her own sensual nature was locked away. One evening she and her husband went to a party. There she saw a woman close to her own age who was a pure "Aphrodite" type (in Greek mythology, Aphrodite was the goddess of love and sensuality). This woman had had several drinks and was flirting outrageously with several men, who were happily flirting back.
Jane was revolted by this display and said to her husband: "That is the most disgusting sight I have ever seen!" What had happened? Watching this woman activated those selves in Jane that are related to her sensuality. Once those impulses began to emerge from within Jane, another self, based on her mother's rejection of sensuality, came into operation to suppress them. The name we give to this inner voice of the mother is the "introjected mother." The introjected mother blocks these impulses within by judging or attacking the person outside who carries the impulses.
The more powerful the affective reaction we have toward the other person, the stronger is the power of the disowned self. In this example, Jane's strong reaction indicated the presence of a powerful disowned sensual self. If Jane understood the basis of her strong negative reaction, what a marvelous opportunity she would have to reclaim this very basic part of herself.
Sherry works in an office, and she hates her boss. She describes her as domineering, power hungry, and unfeeling. Sherry had a mother who fit this same description. Very early in life, Sherry vowed she would never be this way, and she began disowning the part of herself that had to do with power and domination. In their place as primary selves appeared her very caring and loving nature. Now, whenever she was around anyone who carried her disowned attributes, Sherry became unbearably irritable and critical.
If Sherry understood the issue of disowned selves, she could have realized she was reacting, not to a person, but to a part of herself buried deep within; she could have used the opportunity presented by her boss as a challenge for her own personal development.
Disowned Selves in Relationship
Thus far, we have been discussing a number of very basic psychic laws.
1. For every primary self with which we are identified, there are one or more disowned selves of equal and opposite energy.
2. Each disowned self is projected onto some person or some thing.
3. The people and things of the world that we reject, hate, and judge, or conversely, those we overvalue, are direct representations of our disowned selves.
4. As a corollary to the third law, each person we judge, hate, reject, or each person we overvalue, is a potential teacher for us, if we can step back and see how the basis of our reaction is a disowned self of our own.
5. So long as a self is disowned within us, we will continue to repeatedly attract that particular energy in our life. The universe will bring us the people we judge, hate, and resent over and over again until we finally get the message that they are reflections of that which is disowned in us. Or, in contrast to this, the universe will bring us people whom we find marvelous and irresistible, people who make us feel inadequate, inferior, and unworthy. This will continue until we realize that these people are merely showing us aspects of ourselves that we have disowned.
Some Examples of Disowned Selves in Relationship
George saw himself as a scrupulously honest businessman, but he had a strong dishonest streak in him that he had always denied. This disowned dishonesty led him to become involved in a business venture with a man who was fundamentally dishonest and cheated George out of a good deal of money. His denial of his own inner psychopath (and we all possess such "selves") made it very difficult to acknowledge the reality of this behavior in his business partner.
Even after it happened, George had a difficult time accepting the reality that he had been cheated. This disowning of one's own dishonest self is one of the reasons why so many people get cheated so easily.
Steve was a lawyer who was committed to being a loving human being at all times. He totally rejected the idea that any form of darkness existed in the world. In his business life, he got involved with strong criminal elements that almost destroyed his career.
The denial of the dishonest and criminal parts of themselves led both Steve and George into destructive situations. That is the paradox of disowned selves: we are drawn to the very people who carry these "unacceptable" qualities for us. This holds true whether the "unacceptable" qualities are good or bad; it applies to the persons we overvalue as well as those we despise. Life will constantly bring us face to face with people who represent our disowned selves, until we begin to reclaim these selves.
Bonding Patterns in Relationships
If two people in an ongoing relationship understand something about their primary and disowned selves, there is a much greater possibility of working out difficult and repetitive conflicts that arise between them. Let us look at some examples of how this works.
Larry and Janice have been married for five years. Larry is a meticulous, rational, ordered, and controlled person. His disowned selves are the opposite of each of these systems.
Janice carries most of his disowned energies. She is easygoing and does not care if the house is messy. She does not make up lists of things to do. She is feeling-oriented, with a very strong sensuality and sexuality.
Larry and Janice were passionately drawn to each other, but now they are beginning to have some difficulties. They have two young children, and Larry does not like to come home to a messy house. He begins to pick at Janice. Why can't she be organized and neater? He feels irritable and is beginning to sound more like a critical father than a husband and partner.
Janice is defensive. She begins to feel like she is back in her parental home, where her father carped at her constantly about her lack of order. Since she could never please him, no matter how hard she tried, she had stopped trying.
A new pattern has begun to emerge between Larry and Janice, particularly with the advent of their second child. Many of the selves that he saw as cute and sweet before have now become annoying to him. He begins to think about having an affair. Neither knows what is happening; they feel miserable and disappointed and seem unable to deal with each other in any kind of creative fashion.
If we approach this from the standpoint of the disowned selves, we begin to get a partial picture of what is happening. Larry and Janice have both married their disowned selves, without knowing or understanding the real implications of this act. This is, in our experience, fairly typical. It is strange, in a way, because couples like Larry and Janice will often talk to each other and to other people about how different, how opposite they are in so many ways. So long as the bonding patterns remain positive, there is generally not too much difficulty. Once they become negative, it is no longer fun and the bonding wars begin in earnest. Let us look at what this looks like in a diagrammatic form.
In this diagram we see the basic male-female bonding pattern. The mother side of the woman is bonded to the son side of the man (the M-S axis), and the father side of the man is bonded to the daughter side of the woman (the F-D axis). This diagram illustrates the basic bonding pattern that exists in all male and female relationships before the development of any kind of awareness. It is a normal and natural process. It cannot be eliminated, nor would eliminating it be desirable; these bonding patterns contain much life and vitality. They often provide warmth and nurturing. The problem is that without awareness they are very likely to turn negative. In addition, the two people miss what is possible in the interaction of two aware egos.
In the early years of the relationship between Larry and Janice, these differences did not matter. Their bonding patterns remained essentially positive. With children, something began to change. Janice and Larry both felt somewhat overwhelmed and vulnerable, but neither of them was aware of these feelings. Janice let herself go a little more than she had before and, as the pressure grew her inattention to details became even more pronounced. Larry, in turn, was more anxious with the added responsibility of a second child. He began to work harder as a way of balancing his sense of vulnerability. He needed order even more strongly as a way of handling his anxieties about money and the responsibility of a larger family. As he contracted more and more he went into a role more aligned with "negative father" than "husband." Janice reacted to her sense of being overwhelmed by resorting to her primary selves as well. She became less and less concerned with what was happening. Thus, they began to push one another more deeply into their primary selves, making it more and more difficult to embrace one another's way of being. This is fairly typical of what happens in relationships when such conflicts begin. Both individuals tend to become more extreme in their identification with their primary selves.
To summarize what we have so far discussed, we refer to this way of being locked into each other in a relationship as a negative bonding pattern. The term "bonding patterns" in relationship refers specifically to the activation of parent/child patterns of interaction between two people. These are normal and natural configurations that exist in all relationships. This bonding can develop between any two people, whether they be male/female, male/male, or female/female. The catalyst for all negative bonding patterns is the activation of the disowned vulnerability in the two people. In this case, the arrival of the children made both Larry and Janice feel a bit overwhelmed and, therefore, vulnerable. The fuel for these bonding patterns can generally be found in the mutuality of the disowned selves that exists between two people. This keeps the bonding pattern burning bright and strong.
To analyze a negative bonding pattern in a relationship, one looks for the following:
1. What was the ignition point or catalyst? How was the vulnerability of the two people activated? Where are they feeling insecure, overwhelmed, or otherwise vulnerable?
2. What are the disowned selves that each carries for the other? What is the fuel that keeps the fires burning?
3. What are the actual selves that are involved in the bonding, i.e., the mother daughter selves in the woman, and the father and son selves in the man?
With Janice and Larry, we have seen that the catalyst was the vulnerability cued off by the arrival of the children and the pressures this brought with it. The disowned selves then provided the fuel to keep the negative bonding pattern alive. Larry and Janice were opposites in many ways, as we have seen. He identified with his rational mind and his need for control of all details in his life. Since he disowned his own feelings and more "laid back" selves, and Janice carried them, her "laid back" behavior became one of the fuels for their bonding pattern. It became the substantive content for the judgmental father that was alive in him and waiting to be activated by the right circumstances. On the other hand, his anxious son, which had initially been activated by the demands of fatherhood, now felt even more panicked by the appearance of Janice's judgmental mother.
On her part, Janice disowned her more rational and orderly self and prided herself on her "laid back" approach to life. Earlier in their relationship, Larry's orientation to details was charming. Now, however, her judgmental mother began to feel critical of this behavior. Larry's need for control became the substantive content for her judgmental mother and it fueled her part of the bonding pattern. Janice also began to feel less sexual toward Larry. As his judgmental father emerged, Janice became increasingly angry and rebellious, moving into her rebellious daughter self, much as she had with her own demanding father. So we see with Janice how her disowned selves became the fuel for the mother/daughter aspect of herself that was waiting to be activated in the relationship.
It is interesting to note that our bonding patterns are very similar to the kinds of patterns that have existed in the past with our own parents or siblings. We literally re-create our past. We re-create what we had with our parents and/or siblings and what they had with us, or we go to the opposite extreme and rebel against the way they were with us. In this example, Larry had begun to criticize and judge Janice in the way his father had criticized and judged his mother. Janice responded as a hurt and then a rebellious daughter, just as she had with her own father. The bonding pattern then was between the judgmental father in him and the rebellious daughter in her. At some level we always have the reverse pattern in operation, even if it does not show itself at first glance. In this instance, it was Janice's judgmental mother that was bonded into Larry's anxious son, much as Larry's real father (who had been extremely judgmental) had bonded into this anxious son in Larry when he had lived at home. Diagrammatically it would look something like this:
We would like to point out that bonding patterns of this kind that exist without awareness can cause all kinds of misery and mischief, but there is something that can be done about them. These bonding patterns represent the primary reason for the disintegration of the romance and the feelings of love in relationship and often are responsible for the destruction of a positive sexual experience as well. It is our view that they represent a primary reason for many of the misunderstandings and disturbances in relationships and friendships.
This book is basically about the understanding of these bonding patterns. These patterns operate in many of our interactions with people, but they are of particular significance in our most important ongoing relationships. In these long-term situations they tend to become much more ingrained and uncomfortable, motivating us to figure out what is happening to us. As we learn about these bonding patterns and develop an awareness of how they operate, we often find that we can use this information to move ahead and into a period of accelerated personal growth. As for the bonding patterns themselves, although they do not disappear, they become less deadly, and there is an introduction of greater humor and understanding into the relationship.
The Consciousness Process
When we talk about personal growth, we like to describe it as the consciousness process; sometimes we talk about the evolution of consciousness. The idea of process is a very important part of our understanding and thinking. Consciousness is not a static thing; one never becomes "conscious." One is always in the process of becoming more conscious. What, then, are the elements that constitute this process? We see three different levels of activity that are essential to our way of thinking about consciousness. In listing them in the order of levels 1, 2, and 3 we are not implying that one is better than the other. The levels are for purposes of clarification only.
Level 1: Awareness
The awareness level of consciousness is what many people have in mind when they talk about consciousness. It is often referred to as the "witness." Awareness gives one the ability to step back from one's mind, one's emotions, one's body, and one's spiritual nature and to simply view them in a totally dispassionate way. In the awareness level there is no attachment to the outcome of things. It is not an emotional state, nor is it a rational state. It has nothing to do with control.
For instance, if the awareness level is operating within us (Sidra and Hal) at the present moment, we do not have to be identified with the ideas that we are expressing, because our awareness is separate from these ideas and our feelings about them. It frees us from the necessity of forcing our ideas upon you and allows us to focus on the clarity of the presentation rather than being concerned with how the ideas will be received. This automatically frees us from the negative aspects of our inner critics, perfectionists, and pleasers and we are able to write. You can see from this example what a wonderful gift awareness is and you can well understand why it has been the basic goal of so many spiritual and meditative systems.
The awareness level of consciousness allows each of us to step into a certain moment of time and witness what is there. We must realize, however, that this awareness level is not an action level. Since it is not attached to the outcome of things, but is simply there as an observing point of reference, some other part of us must deal with the information made available to us through our awareness.
Level 2: The Experience of the Different Selves
The second consideration in our definition of consciousness has to do with experience. Awareness, we have seen, is a point of reference; there is no intellectual or emotional involvement. A full definition of consciousness must also include the experience of the different parts of ourselves and their experience of the world around us. Without experience, we would lose our sense of who we are as human beings in the world and would lose the excitement and intensity of life.
For example, we might have an experience of our anger or our jealousy, or love, or pride, or religious ecstasy, or any of a host of possible emotional reactions. If we only become aware of things, then we lose our relationship to the amazing variety of experience that is available to us. If we only experience, without awareness, then we remain forever identified with our experiences and cannot separate from them. We could drown in our feelings.
For example, let us say that John feels very jealous of his girlfriend when they are at a party together. If John tries to become aware as a way of transcending the experience of jealousy, then he loses the reality of the experience of jealousy. If, however, he remains jealous and angry without awareness, then he remains locked into the experience of jealousy with no possibility of behaving in a different way. If he goes into an awareness level and transcends the anger, or tries to, then he loses the power and vitality of this very significant emotion. What he does with this anger and how he handles it is something that John has to deal with. Each of us must learn to embrace all of the selves. As we continue to learn from our experiences and to embrace our many selves, we find that life has more options than we had ever imagined possible.
Awareness and experience, therefore, are two inseparable partners in the way we look at the consciousness process. Each has its job to do and, together, they bring us much richness. Even together, however, they are not sufficient. Another partner is needed in this business consortium. Who or what is going to evaluate all this information and experience? Who or what is going to take advantage of all this awareness and experience and decide what to do with it? This brings us to level 3 of our definition of the consciousness process.
Level 3: The Aware Ego
The concept of the ego has been around for a considerable period of time. Historically speaking, the ego has always been defined as the executive function of the psyche; it is the decision-maker. From the standpoint of an individual who is oriented more toward the rational self, the idea of the ego as making choices and executing decisions is very appealing. A person's life must have someone in charge. Otherwise it is like driving in a car with a vast multitude of selves fighting with one another about who gets the wheel. Historically speaking, it is the job of the ego to be in charge, to drive the psychological car.
What we discover about the ego when we first work with the different selves in people is that it is really an operating ego, an ego that is basically the self or selves that the people happen to be identified with at that particular time. So, to go back to the example we have been using, if you have been raised in a family in which rationality has been emphasized, and you are identified with this self, then what you will think of as your ego is basically your rational self. Without an awareness of this, you may feel, quite contentedly, that all your decisions come out of clear choice and free will when, in reality, your rational self is making all your choices under the guise of an ego. To repeat, we call this kind of ego an operating ego.
What we propose, then, is the idea of an ego that is constantly in process. It is forever taking in the information provided by the awareness level of consciousness. It is forever dealing with the experience of the different selves within and how these selves are reacting to, and experiencing, the world without. We call this the aware ego. It is very important to understand that when we use this term, we always are referring to a process and not an entity. There is no such thing as an aware ego. There is only an individual ego that is attempting to evaluate the constant input of awareness and experience and thus be in a better position to make more effective choices in the world. Thus, an ego that is becoming increasingly aware helps us to stay young and alive, allows us to continue to grow, and keeps our options in life open.
The aware ego has another quality that is very important. It has the ability to embrace and to hold the tension between totally different selves. As a matter of fact, it is only an aware ego that has this capability. Let us see how this works. Mary is a 33-year-old mother of three children. She is happily married and enjoys her family life and children. The problem is that she has begun to suffer from migraine headaches. Her nights have become increasingly restless and she recalls dreams of being chased by dark figures. She finally seeks professional help to alter this pattern.
In her earlier life, Mary was a bright student and had already begun graduate school when she and her husband met. They fell in love and were married, though she had some misgivings about the possibility of losing her career. Her mother strongly influenced her to get married and have a family. This fit in well with the part of Mary that really feared the challenge of a graduate program and all that would entail. The part of her that wanted the career went underground. She was no longer carrying the tension of opposites. It is not the decision of what to do in life that is an issue from our perspective. The issue of whether we can carry the tension of the opposites no matter which way we go. In Mary's case, it would have meant that she maintains a connection to the voice in her that wanted a career. Instead, getting married was no longer just a question of marrying the man she loved. It was also a solution to her conflict about a professional life, and so it became a way out for her.
Since both Mary and her husband wanted children, it was not long before the children came and now, ten years later, she had three of them. Mary was a good mother, and her sense of who she was as a person became increasingly identified with her role as mother. The selves that had been operating in graduate school, that wanted to become a clinical social worker, gradually disappeared from her awareness. They became, in effect, disowned selves. Mary's ego was now fully identified with those selves that we related to being a mother. These selves, in fact, had become her operating ego.
Another cluster of selves seemed to disappear at this time as well. Mary reported that the sexual relationship in the marriage had all but vanished, although she was quick to point out this was no problem for either her husband or herself. It just did not seem to matter. They were very happy with their family, which gave them much comfort and joy. They were leading just the kind of life that they had always dreamed about.
Mary was bright, and she was able to see the extent to which the non-mother selves in her had been eliminated or disowned. As an awareness level began to develop, she began to see the extent to which her ego was identified with the mother role. As her ego separated from the mother role, she also began to be aware of, and to experience, a whole new group of feelings and thoughts that were quite contrary to what she had known before. She became aware of the part of her that wanted to forget everything and just go to Greece for a year. She began to feel how dead the marriage had become, and suddenly sexuality became a serious issue for her. She became aware of the part of her that wanted a professional life, that was tired of spending her days at home and driving carpools and cooking meals.
Mary had indeed begun to develop an aware ego, and now she was able to begin to embrace two very contradictory and powerful systems of selves within her. One system of selves wanted her to remain home and raise her children and give them the fullest possible mothering they could get. This part said to her: "Too many women choose career over children and the children always have to pay the piper. Your father left you when you were quite young and your mother had to go out to work, so you know the trauma of a motherless home." On the other side of the conflict were the selves that spoke as follows: "We are bored out of our minds with this stultifying life that you are leading. You have 'put in' eight full-time years of mothering and it is time for a change. We are not telling you to get rid of the children, but just to begin to take our voices seriously and start to think about our feelings and needs. Otherwise we are going to make you good and sick and you'll be forced to deal with us from a hospital bed. We cannot stand this anymore."
What does Mary do with this conflict? She learns to carry it. She learns to live with opposites. She needs to disengage from both sides and learn to use both kinds of energy in her life. She has two totally opposite people living inside of her and she has to be able to stretch out her arms to embrace both of them. She has to learn how to live with discomfort, how to sweat. When one embraces opposites, one sweats. The greater the power of the aware ego, the more the sweat. It is only an aware ego that can learn to live with seemingly irreconcilable opposites.
Let us return to the three levels of our definition of consciousness. We have awareness, the experience of the different energies and selves, and an ego that is in an ongoing process of becoming more aware and is constantly evaluating experience so that it can make more effective choices. If we believe in this definition, then it has far-reaching consequences. It means, for example, that we are all just fine the way we are, so long as these conditions are met. It means that if Mary gets angry at her children, and she has awareness and an ego that is taking advantage of the experience, then that is the process of consciousness.
Many people who are interested in the consciousness process and who strive toward personal development have a concept in their minds about the way that they should be in life. Their goal is usually a state of tranquillity and awareness. It is often the case that when they experience strong affective states like jealousy or anger, guilt is experienced because these are not tranquil or aware feelings. An inner voice then criticizes them for feeling this way. If, however, there is no need for this kind of perfection, as in our way of viewing the consciousness process, then this inner critic is remarkable stilled and everything is fine just as it is.
More About the Aware Ego and the Issue of Surrender
For people on a spiritual path, the concept of the ego is a distasteful one. "Ego" is seen as worldly, prideful, rational, arrogant, power-oriented, and most certainly not surrendered to any kind of spiritual power. So it has happened in many spiritual traditions that people are taught to eradicate their egos because only then can they be truly on a spiritual path.
From our perspective, the ego to which they are referring is not the "process of the aware ego," but rather the operating ego. It is what is commonly called ego but which is, in fact, the primary selves with which the ego has been identified. Since these primary selves have been largely identified with rationality for many centuries, it is no wonder that an ego that has been identified with these selves rejects the non-rational aspects of reality and would be a hindrance to anyone on a spiritual path. It is, therefore, perfectly understandable why spiritually oriented people reject the concept of ego as too limiting.
Furthermore, for those dedicated to the eradication of the ego, there is a feeling that the identification with ego leads one down a blind path that removes one from one's spiritual origins. This argument conveys the idea that the ego must give way to a deeper part of oneself that is less concerned with worldly things. It sees the ego as interfering with the ability to experience divinity or to surrender to a spiritual path. This deeper self, they feel, needs to gradually become the prime mover in life and as this process takes place, the ego gradually relinquishes its role and fades into oblivion.
What we are talking about in our view of the consciousness process is the aware ego. It is the task of this aware ego to embrace all of the different selves without being identified with any of them. It is only an aware ego that can do this. An aware ego is surrendered to the process of the evolution of consciousness. It accepts the sacred task of becoming aligned with all of the various energy configurations that constitute who we are as human beings. Since this is a process and, so far as we can determine, there is no ultimate final condition of consciousness, the surrender is the process itself.
Since the aware ego is surrendered to the process of consciousness, it is open to the total range of possible experiences. It embraces them all, positive and negative, "acceptable" and "unacceptable," without being married to any of them.
This surrender of the aware ego to the process of the evolution of consciousness has certain consequences. It means that we cannot be selective in what we embrace of do not embrace. An aware ego can be selective in what it does ultimately with the different energies. It cannot be selective about its willingness to embrace all of them. The choice lies in the subsequent action taken, not in the embrace itself. Embracing a part does not mean becoming it. Instead, it means honoring the part, as one would honor a god or goddess. In our viewpoint, the aware ego seeks to honor all the different selves and energies exactly as though they were gods and goddesses.
We then might try to give a name to this new kind of surrender, and we believe quite profoundly that it is a new kind of surrender, one that leads to a new kind of renaissance person. We might say that this surrender to the process itself, and the requirement that we gradually learn to embrace all the selves, is a surrender to Spirit with a capital S rather than a small s. We might even say that it is a surrender to a much wider and more comprehensive vision of Spirit than anything we have known before. We might see it as the surrender to an intelligence that lives within the unconscious itself, an intelligence that has as its goal the evolution of consciousness in the human species. We might say that it is all of the above.
If we wish to surrender to the process of consciousness, we must surrender to it in all its complexities and contradictions. If we want to be loving human beings, we must learn to love our own wolves and jaguars and snakes and dragons, our stupidity and irritability and weakness and vulnerability and darkness as much as we love our loving and rational, competent, caring, and light-oriented selves. To have as a goal the honoring of all the energy systems that exist within us is a highly devotional act. By whatever name we call it, it is indeed a new kind of surrender and this kind of process that opens us to relationship as one of the most powerful teachers on the planet. Now let us turn to the most basic aspect of this teaching, the introduction to the vulnerable inner child who we see as the doorway to our unique and, at the same time, universal soul.
Embracing Each Other © 1989