Try and imagine your time in the womb. You are one with the universe. Literally. You are attached by an umbilical cord and amniotic fluid, and you get everything you need before you even have a chance to realize you need it.
Then there is a separation. You are born. Life seems to go on pretty much the same, but some new things happen, some differences are experienced that you can’t quite reconcile. Sometimes you’re hungry and you don’t get fed. Sometimes you’re wet and you don’t get changed. And so you cry.
This separateness, this contrast is what makes you realize you are not the universe anymore. You are not in control of it, and so it must not be you. This is the beginning of the emergence of the body-self. A body separate from the world helps to explain why you suffer.
This body-self makes sense. There seem to be clear boundaries between your body and the world, and between your body and other bodies. You have control over this body, and so you get the sense “this is me.” Except that you don’t always have control. Sometimes you’re told to sit still and you can’t. Sometimes you want to stay and play but you have to get up and go to the bathroom. Sometimes you want to remain awake, but your eyes get heavy and you fall asleep. You begin to realize that you are not your body. Not entirely, anyway.
This contrast between your body and your will is what makes you realize you are not your body. “So who am I?” you ask. This separation between your body and this interior part of yourself, this part of you that desires and wills and thinks and feels, leads you to realize you are this interior part of you, this thinking and feeling part, this part of you that is not subject to the laws of nature and of the body. This is the emergence of the ego-self.
This ego self-identification seems to be an improvement. You have a lot of freedom here. You can think and feel and you can imagine things—whole worlds of sight and sound, color and music, and other ideas – the whole world of the imagination. But once again, you notice a separation, a contrast that is repeated again and again. Sometimes you think thoughts you don’t want to think. You feel things you don’t want to feel. You can’t always focus or concentrate when you would like to. “What is the meaning of this?” you ask. “I thought this interior world was my world. Why don’t I have control over it?” (Note: Please keep in mind that this simplified individual development is taking place in dynamic relationship with others. Our sense of our ego-self is being negotiated in concert with our group identities and differences as well.)
If you learn to notice these thoughts and feelings and sensations, to notice them in their repetitions and patterns, you begin to realize that you are not identical with them. You begin to see that you are more like the space in which all of these thoughts and feelings and sensations arise. Perhaps you are the awareness of all these happenings. Perhaps you are the observer.
The more time you learn to spend in this quiet place of awareness, the more you begin to recognize it as something powerful. Not silence as in “lack of sound”, but “thundering silence”, full of strength and energy and possibilities. The more time you spend here, the more you may get the sense there is a powerful presence here.
What is this presence? Or who is it? I don’t know. Is it just the next stage of self on this journey of development? Or is it the presence of the indwelling God or Spirit? Or both? Is this expansive awareness the place Christians, Jews, and Muslims call “soul” and Hindus call “atman”? Or might it be the beginning of the emptiness Buddhists call “sunyata”? I don’t know, and this place of unknowing is the limit of my experience to date. After that, I have only glimpses. Glimpses of something beyond the observer, and experiences of integration of all these pieces – observer, ego, body, and universe—into something more whole. More whole, and yet not complete.
Earlier, I only told you half of the story. Yes, I am not only the observer of my life. But I am not other than that observer, either. I am not my ego-self, but I am also not other than my ego. I am not my body, but I am also not other than my body. I am not the universe, but I am also not other than the universe. And that is the most certainly a key to the structure of spiritual development. It is a growing awareness of all that is not worthy of being called “self”, but it is also a growing awareness of how all of it is also not other than self.
Whatever it is, it is worthy of further firsthand exploration. I think I will keep exploring. I hope you will, too.
As Ken Wilber has shown us, all human development contains these three moments: Differentiation, transcendence, and integration. Differentiation is when we see an internal contradiction. Transcendence is when we come to identify with a higher-order part of our self. And integration is when we accept and include the previous parts within a more holistic apprehension of who we are. As Wilber has pointed out, this personal development is similar to the processes of all of evolution: Atoms include subatomic particles, molecules include atoms, cells include molecules, organs include cells, organisms include organs. The molecule doesn’t cease to contain atoms even though it has transcended the atom. In human development, just because I have transcended my body doesn’t mean I have left it behind; it just means my body is not the whole of my identity. My body is a smaller part of a much bigger me. My ego self is not limited to bodily needs. The same goes for the development of my rational self. It doesn’t mean I no longer have a body or an emotional ego, but just that they are not my primary or only modes of self. I still have body and emotional concerns, but these can be ordered differently according to what my rational mind deems to be best (sometimes for higher purposes, but sometimes to my detriment.) My body and ego are smaller parts of a much bigger me. And finally there is the emergence of the observer-self. I have not eliminated my reasoning-self or my ego or my body, but I am just no longer limited to identification with them or rule by them. These are all tiny components of a much larger self that is capable of different modes of being and thinking in the world. This is the extent of my experience to date. I can only imagine, based on the experiences of people who have gone further than me, that eventually I will see this “awareness-self” also recede into the background, taking its place as a smaller part of a “me” bigger than I can now imagine.
This is what my spiritual journey has looked like, and it coincides with the structure and steps that others have observed throughout the ages and the world. I am grateful to all those who have come before us, offering trail markers and encouragement along the way.