Beyond the Ego: The Distinction Between the Personal and Transpersonal
Editor’s Note: We recently published To Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself, Theyself Must Love Thyself, which is an interesting, contrasting viewpoint to the following article, and good context if you’re interested in exploring all sides of this topic.
Most of us walk around with the general assumption that we are separate from the people around us. Even those of us who hold a spiritual belief that we’re all waves on the ocean of consciousness tend to habitually contract around a separate sense of self we call “I,” defending it against all kinds of perceived attacks, without any awareness that this is going on.
Just think about how often we judge others—politicians, criminals, historical figures, romantic partners. How often we seek approval from those around us. How often we get frustrated at traffic. All of these reactions are unexamined in the moment they happen. Not only are they unexamined, they are assumed to be justified by the ego reacting.
I’ve got some great news: it doesn’t have to be this way!
The Transpersonal Alternative
Think of water becoming steam, then condensing back down to water again. People can experience temporarily “popping out” of their normal state of being and into a wider identity, where the people and objects around us, the relationships we have with these people and objects, the histories and futures and all possible timelines of all things converge in one experience—and this oneness is our identity.
Many people have had a taste of this experience before, or know someone who has. Developmental research shows us that this can be more than a temporary taste; it can become a permanent way of making sense of the world.
Harvard Professor Robert Kegan calls this transition 4th order to 5th order consciousness*, when one’s sense of being an autonomous individual in the world widens into a sense that “who and what one is” is being transformed from moment-to-moment. In Kegan’s terms, “there is a self who runs the organization, where before the self was the organization.” [italics mine] In other words, the very concept of who I am as an ego/self becomes an object that a greater “I” can observe.
There’s Nothing Wrong With Our Limited Ideas of Self
We may not want to evolve beyond autonomy. There is no guarantee that life will be better or that we will be happier. In fact, we are more likely to get in touch with the universal experience of being human, including universal suffering. As Ken Wilber is famous for saying, as we develop into higher stages of consciousness, pain “hurts more, but bothers you less.”
Yet for people who have a healthy sense of “I;” who have begun to deconstruct societal norms (including the norm of deconstruction); who have worked to integrate their disowned and subconscious parts of self; who have spent much time and effort striving for self-actualization and the development of consciousness worldwide; who have built their lives in service of a deeper purpose that is bigger than themselves; and who want to discover what else is possible for human experience; these distinctions are useful. They help us determine which practices lead us in the direction we want to go—to greater awareness, freedom, aliveness, and range of experience.
“How” and “Why” We Use a Practice Is More Important than “What” It Is
Meditation is one such practice. Circling is another. From what I understand, contemplation and theory help. There are many others, yet any practice or theory, by their nature as constructs, can be used to reinforce a separate sense of self and develop a healthier 4th order consciousness instead of helping us evolve to 5th order.
The key is how we use the practice. Are we trying to complete ourselves? To address a sense of inadequacy? To grow to a whole human being? To differentiate from others and make a mark on the world? To do the right thing, or follow the rules of a system or teacher? (4th) Or are we practicing to disembed our sense of identity from the ego and participate with the mystery of the moment to create something entirely novel in each new second? (5th)
Every time we notice ourselves practicing to complete ourselves, address inadequacy, become whole, make a mark, or follow the rules, we welcome it and question it. We wonder, are the assumptions underlying this belief true? How do I know? Are there other options?
As a result our life becomes a living meditation, and because we’ve started questioning the validity of self concept altogether, we stop needing to be perfect and be seen by others in a positive light.
*Note: In Spiral Dynamics equivalents, 4th Order consciousness includes Orange, Green, and Yellow, whereas 5th order consciousness includes Turquoise, Coral, and beyond.