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Michael Washburn's The Ego and the Dynamic Ground

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02 July 2015, 05:50 AM
Michael Washburn's The Ego and the Dynamic Ground
This is a thread for the discussion of Michael Washburn's The Ego and the Dynamic Ground. I'm starting it now to avoid further interrupting MaryAnn's thread.

Originally posted by Mt:
But my point is that all the observations of infants seem to point to the fact that they are not that good in warding off, repressing or whatever.

Originally posted by Mt:
Btw, since 18th century some authors were faacinated by childhood, like Rousseau, Blake, Coleridge etc. They believed that we lost spontaneity, innocence and even mystical consciousness of childhood. Culture and civilization is bad, beczuse it stifles our inner goodness.

That's an interesting angle. I'll be interested to read how much experimental evidence Washburn adduces in support of his theories.

(My book still hasn't shipped yet. I suspect that this is because the same order included a copy of my own little book. This is printed on demand by CreateSpace, and although Amazon marks it as "In Stock," they don't actually get it into stock until someone orders one. It then takes a certain amount of time to print the book and aggregate it with the other items in the order. Still, I'm surprised that they still haven't done this on Thursday morning, when I placed the order on Monday.)
02 July 2015, 09:59 AM
I read the first edition many years ago, and corresponded with MW for awhile. Very nice guy!

Back in the early 90s, his approach was considered an alternative transpersonal psychology to that of Wilber, who was dominating the scene as the t.p. master. MW's idea of Ego is more Jungian, as is his overall psychology. His idea of Dynamic Ground resonates with kundalini energy, or spiritualized libido. This book influenced my chapter on psychology in my book on kundalini.
09 July 2015, 06:22 PM
Ok, the book has reached Canada, and I've started reading it.

MW clearly states that he wants to present an alternative to Ken Wilber. He characterizes KW's model as "structural/hierarchical," i.e. a model of human development in which successive layers are built on top of each other. MW, by contrast, calls his own model "dynamic/dialectical." Two parties, the Ego and the Dynamic Ground, interact with each other throughout the life-cycle.

Already I can see why his idea of a Dynamic Ground would resonate with your experience of kundalini (explicitly mentioned on p. 21 of my edition).

Going back to a couple of points raised by my discussion with Mt:

(1) I haven't so far seen MW cite any experimental evidence in support of his theory. The writers he quotes are also theoreticians. So his theory is largely speculative and will either appeal to the reader or not.

(2) He refers to the means by which the Ego separates itself from the Dynamic Ground as "primal repression," which "initially emerges at about the beginning of the third year" (p. 19 of my edition).
09 July 2015, 07:05 PM
On the origins of the Ego -- MW distinguishes his view from the "classical psychoanalytic view that human life begins in a state of egoless absorption" (start of chapter 2). MW thinks, in contrast, that the newborn is only "nearly egoless," and that the Ego exists already as a sort of germ or seed. He refers to some research but doesn't tell us what that research did or what it supposedly proved. So, again, we're left watching theoreticians arguing with theoreticians, with no way for the reader to decide between them.

I also wonder why he starts with the newborn. Plenty of people, myself among them, believe that life begins with conception. Just how highly differentiated can the consciousness of a zygote possibly be?
10 July 2015, 09:28 AM
So Derek, you're having to re-think your understanding of the Ego? Wink

His view resonates with Jung and Lonergan, which deeply influenced my book, "God and I." Basically, this approach recognizes Ego as that aspect of our consciousness that engages the world of duality, which we cannot help but perceive as we're embodied as a particular individual with senses. Although MW doesn't get very philosophical, it's easy to situate his understanding in a traditional view of the soul as understood by Catholics.

Re. why he starts with the newborn in his psychology, I think it's not so much that he's denying that life begins with conception as there's not much we can know about the psychology of fetuses, who probably aren't much differentiated from the mother and wouldn't have much of an ego.
11 July 2015, 12:19 PM
I think he honestly does believe that consciousness begins at birth. Again on p. 79 of my edition, he says: "The presymbolic stage begins at birth and extends to the age of four or five months."

It doesn't make sense to me that consciousness would suddenly appear ex nihilo at birth.

To counter that point of view, here's an article on intrauterine memories from that much-respected scholarly journal, the Daily Mail:

(I'm just joking about it being a "much-respected scholarly journal," BTW.)

I do like MW's chapter on Meditation.

"In crossing the threshold of primal repression, the meditator comes into contact with the numinosum: the Dynamic Ground is unsealed and the numinous power of the Ground begins to reenter consciousness" (p. 166).

That fits well with my experiences in 2011, and I think also with yours at the time of your awakening.
11 July 2015, 12:49 PM
Yes, for MW the Dynamic Ground can be understood as kundalini, and the state of consciousness that eventually ensues from the Ego that has re-integrated with the Ground is a kind of enlightenment.
11 July 2015, 03:27 PM
Yes, I've got to a related bit about kundalini now (book-reviewing in real time, LOL).

His theory is a bit similar to Tara's, but not identical. On k syndrome, he says:

"The 'resurrection' of the body is sometimes accompanied by a variety of bizarre physical symptoms. . . . According to the yogic conception, the arousal of the latent power kundalini -- interpreted here as the opening of the Dynamic Ground -- sets off a flow of energy in the body that, in encountering impediments to circulation, gives rise to unusual bodily sensations and reactions." (p. 196).

While Tara emphasizes the psychological nature of these "impediments to circulation," MW notes their physiological component:

"These symptoms arise, I suggest, because the energy released from the Dynamic Ground is inhibited in its movement by what remains of the physical infrastructure of primal repression, including the overall postural set of primal repression-primal alienation. The movement of the power of the Ground is impeded by countless petrified tensions and constrictions." (pp. 196-197).

Did you ever find stretching exercises helped alleviate k symptoms?
11 July 2015, 05:03 PM
The last two chapters ("Regeneration in Spirit" and "Integration") are very interesting.

It seems that ascetic and Eastern philosophies stop at what MW calls a "regressed" state, in which the Ego is immersed in the Dynamic Ground. But MW characterizes this state as "inert dissociation" (p. 207).

During the regeneration phase, the Ego reinhabits the body, but this is a changed Ego. It is now "filled with spirit" (p. 220), and even "an instrument of spirit" (p. 221).

Finally, at the integrated state, "head and heart are united" (p. 233). It becomes apparent that "the ultimate goal of the regression is not to reembed the ego in the Ground but rather to reroot the ego in the Ground" (p. 243).

This goes beyond anything I've ever read in the contemplative literature, which tends to be written by celibates. (Maybe I've been reading the wrong books LOL.)

Comments, anyone?
12 July 2015, 09:49 AM
I like all this very much! Smiler As noted above, MW deeply influenced my kundalini book, especially the chapter on K and psychology. But there surely is a concomitant physiological aspect as well, and, yes, diet and certain stretching exercises to help. The spontaneous kriyas that often accompany kundalini awakening give evidence of the energy trying to push through these blockages.

Jung's writings on individuation resonate very much with MW (or vice-versa, I suppose, as Jung wrote about all this first). The "goal" is an Ego that is open to and integrated with the unconscious and its energies. MW called this process "Regression of the Ego in the Service of Transcendence," but the "Transcendence" part of his teaching seems to refer to "beyond-Ego" and doesn't reference God. In reflecting on his approach, I introduced a theotic dynamic.
- see

The Dynamic Ground for MW is a kind of sacred ferment that includes a mix of unconscious energies. I postulated that the Holy Spirit could be part of this mix, and why not? Of course,t he HS is not constrained by the Dynamic Ground, but can communicate with the Ego at any time during the process.

Derek, I think this process goes on with contemplatives who undergo the Dark Night of the Soul. As MW noted, Eastern spiritualities don't emphasize the re-integration/re-rooting aspect, but Christian spirituality does affirm individuality and, hence, the Ego, which is the individuating agent and responsible center of the soul.

MW's book and approach was initially considered an alternative to Wilber's description of spiritual transformation, which is heavily biased toward Eastern non-dual mysticism. In that sense, I consider it a success. But Wilber's writings on this topic have obviously been more popular, and Wilber has even claimed that his approach incorporates everything Washburn describes, and then goes beyond (sounds like what Hinduism always does, right?).
- see and scroll down a ways to "The Wilber/Washburn Controversy." The article is dated, as Wilber has revised/updated his system several times since.
- is more recent, and indicates that the Wilber/Washburn conflict continued, though I don't know the status of it now.
12 July 2015, 10:40 AM
Originally posted by Phil:
the "Transcendence" part of his teaching seems to refer to "beyond-Ego" and doesn't reference God. In reflecting on his approach, I introduced a theotic dynamic.
- see

I remember seeing those diagrams in your book. They make more sense to me now.

Originally posted by Phil:
I postulated that the Holy Spirit could be part of this mix, and why not?

I like your analogy of a house with the windows opened.

Originally posted by Phil:
Wilber's writings on this topic have obviously been more popular.

Perhaps they're more popular because they don't draw attention to the need to pass through alienation, anxiety, and despair. All you need to do is read some Ken Wilber books, and you, too, can become an advanced human being!
13 July 2015, 09:18 AM
LOL! Yes. Only, as Washburn has pointed out, even Wilber's system includes some "U-turns"

Early Wilber seemed to be enthusiastic about Jung, but "moved on" as he developed his schema. So, naturally, he would have criticisms of Washburn as well. The link below highlights some of the Wilber-Jung issues that have unfolded, including a Jungian's rebuttal.
Wilber's bias toward advaita is obvious in all this.

The image below demonstrates the Jungian perspective. Individuation would be the Ego eventually making contact with and integrating with the deep Self. The Ego must open to and through all these unconscious levels to do so. Washburn's "Dynamic Ground" includes everything interior the Shadow level. What we call "False Self" is the Ego's excessive preoccupation with its Persona, or public image.

A more simplified perspective.

15 July 2015, 10:20 AM
Thanks, Derek, for reading this book :-)

I realize that MW is more Jungian than Freudian in his view of ego. Nevertheless, it's not good to totally disregard really good empirical studies on infants that have been done since 1970s.

Ok, so Jung believed that Ego (as a center of consciousness, organizing conscious experience) emerges from the "darkness" or "abyss" of the Unconscious (which he identified somehow with the archetype of the Great Mother). This is, according to Jungians, pictured in the myths about the solar hero who kills dragon/monster or any animal-ish being connected to the Mother Earth. The solar myth actually can be harmonized with repression as an active force pushing away something - the hero kills the dragon or puts him into some cave, emprisons him etc.

But developmental psychology - psychoanalytically oriented or not - tends to see the infant as gradually developing various functions enabling him to have a better contact with the outer reality. Mother is the first "environment" and the first person with which the infant creates an attachment bond, crucial for his later development. Freud and Jung believed that this contact with reality replaces some kind of passive immersion into the unconscious, but recent studies (Daniel Stern in the 1980s) show consistently that the infant is conscious from the beginning, gradually more and more aware of the presence of the mother. Interestingly, Stern who is a psychoanalyst demonstrated in his empirical studies that infants are able to distinguish between their own body and their own self and the outer world and other people. Until 1980 psychoanalysts believed that infants, like schizophrenics, were not able to tell the difference between the outer and the inner, between me and not-me. it is true, however, that at the beginning of the 3rd year of life, which MW mentions, the child gains a new sense of self, based on verbal language and more advanced cognitive and emotional skills.

What I find difficult in the idea that we repress or lose kundalini, dynamic ground or whatever we call this, is that there is a dangerous assumption here, namely, that the growing development of cognitive and emotional functions, growing ability to distinguish between the self and others, but also growing empathy and lessening egocentrism of the child, are viewed by MW as the effect of losing this precious contact with the dynamic ground or the soul or whatever.
It seems like development is actually losing something or like the cost of cognitive-emotional development is the loss of kundalini? The emergence of the mind, separate from the body, is a huge achievement and only some seriously pessimistic view of human development could see this as sth that destroys the movement of kundalini.

Somehow I just can buy the idea that we actually lost this "paradise" of early childhood. It reminds me of some New Age people who actually believe that animals are better than us poor humans, because they are not malicious or because they are in touch with their bodies and vital energy, and they live constantly in the present...
15 July 2015, 11:30 AM
I don't think that cognitive and emotional development per se do the harm.

People who've been through what I call "awakening," and what Washburn calls "regression," still maintain their linguistic abilities and their capacity for empathy.

They also maintain basic socialization. For example, I've heard that very young children will play with their own feces. They need to be told not to do that. Awakened people retain this awareness of basic social rules.

But there's more than cognitive development going on during childhood.

We're also learning ways to adapt to our parents and to cope with our unmet needs. Because these behaviors are learned, they get repeated, like a script, even into adulthood.

Learned behavior has its cognitive correlate in the form of irrational beliefs. These congregate around the conceptual self.

And learned behavior also has its physiological correlate in the form of chronic muscular tension. It takes energy to keep muscles tense that don't need to be tense.

It is this release of muscular holding patterns that I think gives the impression of "energy" being released. And somehow, removing the "I" concept is the lynchpin that allows the whole breakthrough (or "regression," in Washburn's terms) to happen.
15 July 2015, 11:35 AM
Here is my simplified version of what I think Washburn is saying:

15 July 2015, 01:06 PM
Right. Something like that, Derek. I have the 1988 edition of the book, and MW shares a similar graphical series on page 17. It's Figure 1-1: Triphasic Development, The Bipolar View.

He avoids what Wilber calls the "Pre/Trans fallacy" by recognizing that the Ego after regression and integration is in a new, adult relationship with the Ground -- as the agent of its expression.
- Pre/trans fallacy: (one of Wilber's helpful contributions, imo)
15 July 2015, 01:51 PM
Originally posted by Phil:
I have the 1988 edition of the book, and MW shares a similar graphical series on page 17. It's Figure 1-1: Triphasic Development, The Bipolar View.

By a little bit of Internet magic:

15 July 2015, 04:04 PM
Yep. That's it. Nothing like this in the later edition?
15 July 2015, 06:50 PM
There is a more sophisticated version on page 17 of the second edition. But I don't have a scanner, and I can't find the new edition on the Internet to post a screen grab here.
16 July 2015, 08:50 AM
Sorry, for bothering you guys Smiler but I still don't understand the reasons for accepting this view: the existence of more developed ego (that is, with functions such as me/not-me boundaries, self-concept, memory, imagination, later - logical thinking etc.) means that we are LESS in contact with our dynamic ground (the soul? the soul linked with God as the source of existence?). MW tries later to prove that it is better when all those sophisticated functions are ROOTED in the "ground", but why the development of those functions means separation from the "ground".

(Btw, 3 or 4year old child - a Cartesian self? I mean, REALLY? Wink )

My view would be that the more we have memory, imagination, self-control, thinking, the more clear self-concept and boundaries me/not-me, THE MORE , not the less, we can be transparent to our "ground". Of course, those functions can be used in a perverted way, but this is the old dilemma of progress - technology is bad, because when we have technology our ability to kill people is greater, this sort of argument. Technology didn't separate us from nature and made us bad Cartesian selves. Or did it?
16 July 2015, 05:03 PM
Mt., I don't recall if you've read the book or not. Washburn isn't using language like "soul," which is philosophical, and so it's difficult to translate Dynamic Ground to that kind of language. Even when he speaks of "spirit," it's not in a metaphysical sense so much as energetic.

He regards the Ego's alienation from the DG as an inevitability for many reasons, largely because of the attention it gives to the world of duality. A Jungian might describe this in terms of an Ego invested in Persona. I don't think this in itself so much explains the alienation from DG. I think it's possible that in a world before the Fall, the Ego would retain some transparency and living contact with DG, but its development in a climate of conditional love is accompanied by woundings of shame, fear, and resentment, which it does not know how to resolve in a healthy manner. This further accentuates Ego investment in the Persona in the interest of becoming acceptable, gaining approval, measuring up, etc. The first half of life is largely concerned with these issues, along with developing one's talents, making a living, and so forth. It's not until the 2nd half of life that Ego defenses weaken, Persona investments prove to be inadequate, and the journey described by Washburn begins.

My own journey and kundalini awakening tracks pretty much along this kind of trajectory. I think there is a continuity in Ego development prior to mid-life, with constant tweakings of self-image, but with considerable stability and continuity in one's sense or feeling of being a "self". What MW calls the "regression of the Ego in the service of Transcendence" is a shattering of this Humpty Dumpty Ego. The old place-markers for identity don't resonate any more, and yet one is unmistakably "here." In terms of Christian spirituality, this process truly is an experience of the paschal mystery. The old Ego/identity structure dies, and what emerges is something radically new. It is still an Ego, but it has no interest in the old Persona attachments, nor even with self-image, for that matter. It is a "spiritual" or "spiritualized" Ego, rooted in the deep energy of the body/psyche/soul. It is in this world, but not of it. And yet it enjoys a freedom and ability to enjoy the good things of the world as never before.