Regression in the service of transcendence – The ideas of Michael Washburn

For the past two weeks we have had lectures on the transpersonal ideas of Ken Wilber.  If that wasn’t sufficiently academic we then had a lecture this week on the concept of regression in the service of transcendence, the work and ideas of Michael Washburn. 

Michael Washburn produced a seminal work, The Ego and the Dynamic Ground: A Transpersonal Theory of Development in 1995.  He had been a big follower of Wilber but then rebelled and went his own way. Psychotherapy is littered with such examples of splits such as that between Freud and Jung.  Is this evidence of inevitable evolutionary rivalry in the race to be top dog? Perhaps, but that is a question for another day.

Washburn is equally as theoretical as Wilber, and indeed his ideas are very similar, but his theories have been born of practice, unlike Wilber, who has never practiced as a therapist. However, Washburn does not provide treatment options or any clinical solutions.

For Washburn, human development follows a spiral, more fluid, path of development and indeed some would say that he offers a more feminine approach. Wilber is often accused of being very hierarchical and that his particular path of development represents a ladder like form of development.

spiritual development proceeds along a hierarchy of psychic structures

Wilber’s paradigm is seen as a ladder paradigm because it conceives the path of development as a level by level ascent. There is a separation from what he calls the dynamic ground and a return to the dynamic ground at a higher point.  It is dynamic because the primary focus is on the ego’s interaction with dynamic life. All life energy stems from an undifferentiated psychic energy. Spiritual development proceeds along a hierarchy of psychic structures such as cognitive structures, moral structures and self structures. So, the dynamic ground is what holds the instinctual nature which we are born with (what in analysis is termed the ID),  as well as all the high potentials.  The ego’s interactions with that dynamic ground and our experiences with that process in our life is what determines our issues and our pathologies.  It is dialectical as we move from departure and return.


like Wilber, he sees great benefit in applying psychoanalytic ideas particularly to early life issues


Washburn seeks to marry psychoanalytical ideas with what could be called ideas associated with the transpersonal school.  That essentially is Washburn’s big project. Like Wilber, he sees great benefit in applying psychoanalytic ideas particularly to early life issues.  He borrows from Margaret MahlerJohn Bowlby and Attachment TheoryJung andObject Relations Theory  (particularly Klein) but less so from Freud. Classic psychoanalytic view of the neonate is that there is a blank slate to begin with.  Washburn tries to marry this with the inherited (unknown, unconscious) qualities which transpersonal theorists believe.

There are three phases of development for Washburn:

From the outset (possibly from conception) Washburn sees human life being embedded and in unison with the Dynamic Ground (what he calls Original Embedment).  The being is one with the whole and shares feelings of bliss and ecstasy with the Ground.  This is like a condition of dynamic plenitude and an overflowing upwelling energy.

However, this stage is short lived. The infant soon progresses to the Pre-Egoic stage, which is a stage during which the connection with the Ground is gradually lost and repressed.

Pre Egoic At first the ground is replaced by the mother, who at this stage is described by Washburn as the Great Mother. The infant is described here as a body/ego, a body centered state that is immersed in sensation. Here, Washburn adapts the Freudian concept of the polymorphous perversus, modifying it to polymorphous sensuous to describe this particular stage of development, emphasising the accentuated sense and body based nature of this phase.

There develops a search for independence which is a natural developmental instinct of differentiation from the mother.  A conflict develops with the mother and within the child’s psyche. The child does not view the Mother (and the Ground) as blissful and safe anymore but rather comes to see it as threatening, scary and engulfing.  In language associated with Klein, Washburn describes  the Great Mother as splitting into the Good and Terrible Mother archetypes.  Thus, the struggle between need for intimacy and independence is born which results in the abandonment of the desire for intimacy with the mother in favour of independence, detachment from the mother and the repression of all that mother represents, including the Ground. Washburn calls the repression of the Ground the Original Repression. It precedes all subsequent repression and gives birth to the Egoic stage.

Egoic This is an insecure and restless stage and the Mental Ego suffers from an affective syndrome characterized by unpleasant feelings.

During the Egoic stage the Body-Ego and the Ground are both repressed in favour of the Mental Ego. The inner dialogue can have many voices and here Washburn makes references to sub-personality systems such as Transactional Analysis, and the voices of the child, adult and of the parent.

There is a split.  We enter duality, we split in order to make sense of our reality.  Our psyche, as it starts to emerge, splits into two opposite poles.  Egoic (everything we can deal with, reality testing etc) and Non egoic (the seat of the dynamic ground).   Ego germs starts to form but the differentiation with birth ego is minimal.

Read the full article here


About Noel Bell

Psychotherapist in London. Check out my blog posts and more at
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