Existential Issues in Heart-Centered Therapies: A Developmental Approach

Existential Issues in Heart-Centered Therapies: A Developmental Approach

Diane Zimberoff

Abstract: Avoidance of existential confrontation is a central function of neurosis, while existential openness is the most frequent predictor of wisdom. In existential transpersonal psychotherapy, (1) all forces are seen to be acting now, in this immediate moment, and (2) effective therapy or healing involves seeing clearly how the past is alive in the present in the form of unfinished business and resolving it through attentiveness to the experience of the present moment. One’s karmic and existential issues provide the ground, context and meaning for the momentary experiential figures of interactions and reactions in daily lire. The ideal is for one to actively seek to understand one’s experience and responsibly choose meaningful and healthy options in the immediate moment. It might be viewed as the process of “waking up” and “growing up,” of establishing a self-referenced definition of self, one’s existential identity. Existential issues include such topics as death, aloneness, meaninglessness, freedom and responsibility, and awareness of uncertainty, viewing each topic as both related to everyday life and as related to one’s experience of oneself, i.e. the ego. One’s shadow sides are the repressed energy fixated at a given incomplete developmental stage, desperately avoiding the pain of the mistaken belief or personal “conclusion” (angst) and blindly repeating the personal “decision” of a behavioral strategy (repetition compulsion).

Transformational psychotherapy succeeds through resolving progressively deeper levels of personal obstacles to optimal functioning. The deepest levels that we can address are the existential and karmic issues. All the other issues that we as humans deal with, such as mother and father issues, authority issues, spiritual issues, or gender issues flow from these primal prototypical existential issues. The existential issues are most nakedly obvious in the experience of the fetus in the mother’s womb and in early childhood, but continue throughout life.

One conceptualization is that of the forces that “pull” us forward into out future and those that “push” us from the past into the present (Huxley, 1944). The pull is from health, out highest self, the Divine. The push is that of the consequences of what has come before, e.g., the effects of the genes, or one’s karma. We come into the world, into the moment of conception itself, carrying some things. They may be traits, or inherited tendencies, or unfinished business (karma). Another way to describe the “pull – push” is Maslow’s (1962) “being-motivation” and “deficiency-motivation.” Once we confront and heal the deficiency influences from the past, we are freed to follow the higher calling that beckons us forward toward fulfillment, toward actualization.

… a development of personality which frees the person from the deficiency

problems of youth, and from the neurotic (or infantile, or fantasy, or

unnecessary, or “unreal”) problems of life, so that he is able to face,

endure and grapple with the “real” problems of life (the intrinsically and

ultimately human problems, the unavoidable, the “existential” problems to

which there is no perfect solution) (Maslow, 1962, p. 109).

From the perspective of Buddhist psychology, what allows us to wake up to

the very nature of reality and live freshly in the moment is the spacious

quality of our being, which is intrinsically free from past conditioning

(Welwood, 2000, p. 77).

What are existential issues? They are unresolved circumstances, consequences of being human, which challenge personal effectiveness. They include such topics as death (one’s mortality and limitations), aloneness, meaninglessness, freedom and responsibility (actively exerting one’s will; taking more active responsibility for one’s choices between growth or stagnation, between the challenge of the unknown or safety of the familiar; being clear about and true to one’s own needs), awareness of uncertainty (inevitability of change and the sense of freedom that flows from a recognition that one is unable to control the outcome of events), surrender (of the ego to the greater Self, to the Divine).

A Gestalt explanation of existential issues

Gestalt psychology addresses the interrelationship of content and field in life, of figure and ground. Clouds floating through the sky are an example of figure and ground, or content and context. I will use the terminology of content and context (see Figure 1). First, let us understand content/context dynamics. One’s conscious experience makes up the contents, or figure, of awareness. I become aware of the red flowers beside the sidewalk on my way to the grocery store: the flowers are the content of that momentary experience. Someone passes me on the sidewalk and greets me by saying, “Hello:” the interaction is the content of that momentary experience. Both experiences, or contents, exist within the context of the sum of all my previous experience (with flowers, with walking on the sidewalk, with social interactions, with the person who said “Hello”): the walk to the grocery store, and all of who I am, is the context. The content assumes and has meaning only in relation to the context; i.e., the flowers are either inspiring or disappointing or frightening depending on my previous experience. The content exists as an implicit element within a larger background context. A knowable set of factors always exists as the context that underlies, encompasses, and makes possible present experiencing. The content is a single frame photograph within the context of an entire motion picture.


One’s existential issues provide the context and meaning for the momentary experiential contents of interactions and reactions in daily life. Awareness of those issues provides a context within which to accelerate the healing of one’s mother issues, father issues, claustrophobia, anxieties, authority issues, fear of rejection, abundance issues, et cetera. Healing those wounds is the healing of the existential issues, because they provide the access points to the context itself. One’s immediate experience offers fertile opportunities for understanding and healing the totality of past, present and future existence.

While any life problem may have many different angles or many irritating

facets, there is usually one central tangle, one central crux (or sometimes

two or three). Bringing this central concern — usually some confused or

unresolved way of relating to ourselves, to other people, or to life —

into awareness helps the tangled situation to unravel and release (Welwood,

2000, p. 93).

One’s “mother issues” of fear of intimacy resulting from the unresolved childhood experience of feeling smothered and engulfed by mother provide the context to the content of an immediate experience of claustrophobia in a small space. And that current, discrete claustrophobic experience provides access to the “mother issues;” healing the momentary experience heals the underlying issues. Just so, one’s existential issues provide the context to the content of one’s “mother issues.” It remains for future discussion how one’s karmic issues provide the context to the content of one’s existential issues.

Existential issues are the ones so deeply embedded and so fundamentally threatening that they motivate avoidance at any cost through neurotic defenses. What can be so fundamentally threatening? “All threat … ultimately is the threat of non-being, is the existential threat” (Bugental, 1965, p. 93). The individual perceives his/her very existence to be at stake. How I define myself determines what I interpret as threatening, of course. If I define myself by my job, then losing the job is a threat to my being. If I define myself as “not the kind of person who would do that,” then when I do it I feel threatened with non-being. I protect myself from the threat of annihilation with all manner of defenses.

The beginning stage of therapy for any problem or symptom is helping the

person to disidentify from the presenting issue. We need to have the new

and different experience of discovering that we are more than or larger

than the source of distress with which we are so typically identified …

Real transformation occurs when we move from being the content, or story,

of our lives to being the context — or the space in which the life occurs

(Wolinsky, 1991, pp. 57-58).

Stepping outside the problem immediately creates a larger context for it, and that is one of the great benefits of trance-based experiential therapy. In the trance state, or any altered state of consciousness, one becomes aware of the split nature of consciousness; that is, that experience of self which is engaged in the story, or content, and that part which is observing, or witnessing. The witnessing part of consciousness is a unified experience of perception, a wide angle lens of awareness of the self behind the ongoing activity, of the context for the content. Stephen Wolinsky (1991) discusses four specific areas of expanded context that lead to therapeutic resolution.

The first is expanding one’s context to include the body. When we reconnect with our somatic experience, getting grounded in the body, we open up to more information and a more unified experience. Becoming capable of correlating fear with a gnawing emptiness in the pit of the stomach, for example, assists one to identify one’s emotions sooner and provides an additional point of access to them. “Body memories,” or memories that come to us first somatically and only later cognitively, are a prime example of the importance of expanding the context of experience to include the body. Symptoms may be state-specific, and physical symptoms may contain dissociated memories. For example, the child physically shutting down to become totally still as a means of defense against the terror of abuse creates a “somatic ego state” of pervasive immobilization. Following the somatic bridge (body memory) of immobilization back in regression leads to conscious access to the memory of the source trauma which created that ego state – the incident of terrifying abuse. The dissociated memories are “physically contained” within the somatic symptoms (Gainer, 1993).

That wounded ego state can be dramatically healed by retrieving it for re-experience in age regression, abreacting the experience, and allowing a means of reintegration and transformation of the trauma experience into a physically corrected experience of empowerment (van der Kolk & Greenberg, 1987). A corrective experience activates psychophysiological resources in his/her body (somatic as well as emotional resources) that had been previously immobilized by fear and helplessness (Levine, 1991; Phillips, 1993, 1995). In Heart-Centered Therapies, the regressed person is allowed to actually experience the originally immobilized voice yelling for help, and the originally immobilized muscles kicking and hitting for protection. These somatic and emotional corrective experiences reassociate the individual’s originally dissociated body and emotion in positive ways to positive outcomes. Physical sensations in the body are used to strengthen anchors to resource states, and to help gauge the increase or decrease of an unwanted behavior or attitude in the extinguishing process.

A second area is expanding one’s context to include the self, or ‘I’. We connect the symptoms and the experience of body with the ego self, the sense of ‘I’. Just as people may have dissociated the symptom from their bodies, they may also have dissociated it from their sense of self. Healing requires agency, that is the individual must accept himself or herself as larger than the symptom, but incorporating the symptom. It is not only my sensation of a gnawing emptiness in the pit of the stomach, but also my fear. This expanded context prepares the individual for the activity of witnessing. In Heart-Centered Therapies, we facilitate the expansion into self through empowering the individual to reclaim repressed or inhibited expression, through widening the perspective on issues to include lifelong patterns, and through Kundalini meditation.

A further area of expanded context is to include the social network. We know that clients live within a system of support (both positive and negative), a larger interpersonal context, and that effective treatment must address that systemic reality. The client needs to be able to integrate the therapeutic experience with his/her daily life, to find resources within to effect changes without. What are the implications of the expanded understanding of oneself to real life relationships, obligations, career choices, parenting style, choice of spiritual path, et cetera? One’s inner awareness continues to expand, and the healing capacity grows. We facilitate the application of inner resources in Heart-Centered Therapies through rehearsal techniques and strengthening relationships.

The fourth area of expanded context is to include the inner witness. Stepping outside of a symptom, reaction, problem or attitude to observe it helps one to establish a larger perspective, to create the maneuvering room necessary for real change to occur. This observer is the inner knower, the witness, that part within which holds or contains all of one’s experience, the broad spectrum of context for one’s life. Hora (1960) and Welwood (2000) use the analogy of awareness as a mirror. In the most constricted form of awareness, absorbed totally by the contents of consciousness, one is captivated by and lost in the reflections in the mirror. Gradually expanding the awareness of context, one steps back from the appearances in the mirror, witnessing them, studying them, and developing a more objective relationship with them. Finally one expands the awareness into becoming the mirror itself, seeing clearly and experiencing fully. The mirror simply abides in its own nature, without separating from its reflections (selectively repressing) or confusing itself with them (selectively identifying). Negative reflections do not stain the mirror, although they may be unpleasant and chosen for further healing. Positive reflections do not improve on the mirror, although they may be pleasant and enjoyed. All reflections are the mirror’s self-illuminating display, and thus by definition acceptable and attainable.

This expanded context relies on dialectic reasoning, also called cognitive flexibility, and on the capacity for diffuse attention. Dialectic reasoning permits expanded awareness through simultaneous consideration of opposite poles of bipolar meaning structures (e.g., life — death, intimacy — isolation, purpose — meaninglessness, abdication — responsibility) (Slife & Barnard, 1988). In other words, cognitive flexibility permits one to accommodate multiple solutions, even mutually exclusive ones. It carries the ability to shift cognitive strategies and states of awareness, shifting from details (attending to selected content and disattending to other content and to the context) to holistic view (attending to both content and context) and back again. Complex, novel or unpredictable events are appraised as opportunities for growth rather than as personal threats requiring reflexive response. Contrast this with demonstrative reasoning, which is constrained by a mechanical logic. John Welwood (2000) refers to these two types of reasoning as focal attention and diffuse attention.

Focal attention screens out wholes in favor of differentiated parts, becoming preoccupied with the foreground content, e.g., with the waitress’ inattention or the performance anxiety preceding a lecture or the discomfort of being in a crowded elevator. Focal attention is a telephoto lens through which to concentrate on selective details. It is very useful, but over-reliance on it leads to obsessive mentation, narrow-mindedness, and disconnection from purpose and meaning in life. Diffuse attention is receptive, alive, a wide angle lens through which to experience the whole context all at once. The two forms of attention represent thought (focal, the contents of consciousness) and awareness (diffuse, consciousness itself).

This concept provides a clear understanding of the shadow. Focal attention selectively emphasizes certain aspects of one’s experience while ignoring others, casting into the shadow (repressing) the unattended parts. Those unselected aspects of experience may have been rejected as unacceptable (negative) or as unattainable (positive), but in either case they are a mirror reversal of the aspect that was emphasized. In other words, the human psyche compensates for an imbalance by creating an equal but opposite, although unconscious, counterbalance. This is the compensatory function of the unconscious. A child being abused concludes that he is unworthy of love and decides to deal with the abuse by becoming as invisible, adaptive and quiet as possible, rejecting (repressing) intense anger toward the abusive parent. The anger is now a shadow. A child being told not to be so arrogant when she says, “I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” concludes that she is incapable of high aspirations and decides to settle for mediocre goals in life, repressing her buoyant self-confidence. Her confidence is now a shadow.

The rejected aspects of oneself, whether unacceptable or unattainable, are nevertheless repressed into unconsciousness, the lower unconscious or the higher unconscious (Assagioli, 1971). The individual’s lower unconscious consists of all the psychologically damaging experiences of every developmental age, called primal wounds by Firman and Gila (1997). The lower unconscious also includes the collective lower unconscious, the transpersonal shadow (Vaughan, 1986). The higher unconscious consists of the transpersonal qualities, or peak experiences (Maslow, 1962, 1971). A repression barrier operates to keep these identities out of awareness, protecting the self-interests of the threatened ego. Serving to repress the lower unconscious are shame, fear, loneliness, unworthiness, pain, abandonment, and spiritual isolation. Serving to repress the higher unconscious are transpersonal defenses (Firman & Gila, 1997), mainly the fear of letting go and trusting (surrender). The undoing of the ego’s grip requires undoing the primal repression and embracing that which has been repressed into both the lower and higher unconscious.

Hypnosis and meditation are two methods of cultivating diffuse attention (Welwood, 2000; Wolinsky, 1991) utilized in Heart-Centered Therapies.

Awakening from dissociation is one way to describe the experience of loosening the limited nature of normal consciousness, fixated on momentary figures (content) rather than the underlying ground (context). Diffuse attention, an aspect of cognitive flexibility, allows one to focus on the whole situation underneath one’s thoughts and emotions, and to tolerate ambiguity regarding the meaning of the experience. John Welwood (2000) refers to awareness in a contracted state as ego, and awareness in a relaxed state as egolessness. For a detailed discussion of egolessness, readers are referred to “The Ego in Heart-Centered Therapies: Ego Strengthening and Ego Surrender” in the Journal of Heart-Centered Therapies, 3(2). Suffice it to say here that cognitive flexibility and diffuse attention are intricately related to the experience of humility and non-defensiveness, i.e., ego surrender.

We might view the process of awakening, or expanding one’s perspective, as stepping from defensiveness into vulnerability. The ego is generally on alert to maintain the persona of acceptable qualities and to keep repressed the shadow of unacceptable or unattainable qualities. Continually having to maintain this hyper-vigilance, to be always on guard, leaves us fragile, indeed brittle, and weary. Fear of discovery is the driving motivation; shame and control are the primary vehicles. Contrast this state of affairs with the freedom of vulnerability. Opening oneself to raw experience, unprotected by pretense, denial and guardedness, is liberating. Letting go of the futile attempt to control life allows the tension to give way to relaxation. Screening out the “unacceptable” and “unattainable” is no longer important, and one’s attention opens to a more diffuse viewpoint. One begins living without defense, spontaneously, transparently (i.e., no hidden agendas: “What you see is what you get”), in a state of ego surrender.

Recent research indicates that, perhaps paradoxically, an experience of ego surrender tends to increase the individual’s internal locus of control (Reinert, 1997), and “control is simultaneously enhanced through the process of letting go” (Cole & Pargament, 1999, p. 179). Derived from social learning theory, the concept of locus of control defines an individual’s belief about who or what is responsible for outcomes in their life. People with an internal locus of control believe that what happens to them is a consequence of their own actions and is within their control. Those with an external locus of control believe that what happens to them is related to external events, powerful others and chance, and thus beyond their control (Lefcourt, 1983).

The therapeutic corrective experience and the psychospiritual experience of ego surrender change at a deep level the individual’s locus of control from external to internal. Humanistic psychology points to the ultimate expression of self-actualization as embracing this healthy internal locus of control: “I am 100% responsible for my experience of my life.” This is highly empowering to the individual.

Note here the similarity with a psychosynthesis perspective, where the growth process is seen as a series of awakenings (Crampton, 1974). New awarenesses require a reordering of personality-elements to accommodate a broader self-concept, an expanded identity. The goal of personal psychosynthesis is to promote growth and to integrate the personality: to coordinate one’s various personality aspects, to resolve inner conflicts, and to create a sense of ease and harmony. Psychosynthesis recognizes that at each level of integration, the personality has the potential to transcend itself once again, temporarily dis-integrating on the way toward a more inclusive and comprehensive sense of wholeness.

Avoidance of existential confrontation: a developmental model

A common theory holds that avoidance of existential confrontation is a central function of neurosis (Bugental, 1965). Neurosis, Bugental asserts, consists in the denial or distortion of authenticity, trying to create certainty where it does not exist, trying to invoke probability where there is only possibility, trying to disavow responsibility while we carry it always with us. Attempting the impossible creates neurotic anxiety. We then employ the myriad of neurotic defenses to armor ourselves against the threat.

Research has tended to support that point of view (Thauberger & Sydiaha, 1975; Thauberger & Sydiaha-Symor, 1977; Thauberger et al, 1982). One conceptualization of this process is the worldview of Soren Kierkegaard (1970), founder of existential philosophy, who viewed existence as a conversation between life and death. He observed that the most frequent human reaction to the inevitability of death is dread, or angst. And that reaction is often to flee the dreaded reality by creating an inauthentic life with self-sabotaging neurotic anxiety, defenses, resistance, repression, addictions, distractions and dissociation. Existential anxiety arises not just in relation to physical mortality, but also, and perhaps more so, to the threat of ego dissolution, the realization that the ‘I’ is not solid and permanent but rather flimsy and fleeting, the threat of non-being. “Ego contains at its very core a panic about egolessness, an anxious reaction to the unconditional openness that underlies each moment of consciousness” (Welwood, 2000, p. 46). As Thomas Hora said, “what we oppose, we confirm. What we avoid, we oppose. What we grasp, we violate. What we cling to, clings to us. What we destroy, destroys us” (1960, p. 502).

The neurotic defenses can be viewed as the tendency to reject what is painful (denial and avoidance); the tendency to grasp onto something that appears to be solid, offering comfort and security (fixation, obsession and compulsion); and the tendency to desensitize ourselves so that we aren’t faced with feeling the chaos (numbing and dissociation). In other words, to selectively focus, or become absorbed in, some partial aspect of the whole to avoid dealing with the whole. Grasping, rejecting, and desensitizing strategies are actually determined by developmental deficiencies; the selected area of absorption is the relevant unresolved developmental stage(s). The neurotic defenses can be viewed as attempts to control the eight worldly concerns that, by Buddhist teachings, keep us chained to the wheel of suffering: praise and blame, loss and gain, pleasure and pain, success and failure.

Any of these ways of dealing with trauma, untenable choices and the resulting anxiety, begin as brilliantly creative survival strategies, constructed out of the individual’s inner resources. But due to incomplete maturation the resource is disfigured into a contorted replica of itself, and becomes both compulsive and covert. Ultimately, the defense becomes an obstacle to access to the original unperverted resource, and therefore an obstacle to further growth. For example, one may become judgmental toward others as a protection against the fear of vulnerability, based on experiencing the pain and anxiety of a harshly critical parent. The judgmentalism keeps the individual from opportunities to develop intimacy with others and experience the satisfaction of loving vulnerability.

“Growing up” through those unresolved developmental stages is to release the fixation, or absorption. Growing up might be viewed as the process of resolving the tendency to react reflexively, automatically, to a momentary stimulus as “the straw that broke the camel’s back” (i.e., a drop in a reservoir of unresolved energies), and allowing instead the capacity to respond directly to it as simply a drop. We aim to interrupt the unconscious, automatic reflex reaction to a conditioned stimulus.

In Pascual-Leone’s (1990) model, active exertion of will assumes a central

role in promoting the ability to counter and change automatic processes.

Through the active, effortful process of reflecting on one’s experience and

attempting to change one’s ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, one

develops greater self-realization and concern for core human experience

that transcends societal norms (Kramer, 2000, p. 86).

One’s shadow sides are the repressed energy fixated at a given incomplete developmental stage, desperately avoiding the pain of the mistaken belief or personal “conclusion” (angst) and blindly repeating the personal “decision” of a behavioral strategy (repetition compulsion). That “conclusion” is the negative pole of the existential issue (i.e., the angst of Unworthiness, Identity confusion, lack of Personal Power, or Resistance to Life). A complete discussion on these four primary existential positions is found beginning on page 39 of this article.

The enacted behavioral “decision” is the shadow (e.g., the addict, the judge, the buffoon, the rage-a-holic, the wallflower, et cetera). Recognizing and returning to the incomplete developmental stage, through age regression, provides access to the deep-seated erroneous conclusion that is unbearably painful. Returning to the “scene of the crime,” the traumatic experience that the child generalized into a “law” about what to expect in life, presents the opportunity to experientially and kinesthetically correct the mistaken belief to reflect the positive pole (strength) of that existential issue (e.g., “I am always free to choose” replaces “I am powerless,” et cetera). Of course, mere affirmations are inadequate to counter the deeply imprinted beliefs of which we speak. The individual in most cases needs to experience the correction in the original ego state in which the faulty belief was created. Utilizing a hypnotic state to effect the regression is profoundly important for successfully releasing the old belief and fully embracing the new one.

Returning to and resolving the fixated developmental stage also allows for retrieving inner resources. These may be of two types. One is to reconnect with healthy parts that were abandoned (repressed into the shadows) as “unattainable” in the process of implementing the behavioral decision on how to cope with the existential anxiety (e.g., spontaneity, trust, innocence, wonder). The other is to reframe resources that were originally misinterpreted through unhealthy modeling from caregivers (e.g., reframing “vulnerability is weakness” into “vulnerability is aliveness and freedom”). Ultimately to be retrieved in the process is one’s existential purpose in life. See Figure 2 (next page). Also see Table 1 for a partial cataloguing of those developmental unresolved issues, inner resources to be reclaimed, existential issues in need of healing and the counterpart existential strengths available upon completion of that healing.


Table 1

Developmental Stages, Existential Issues and Shadows

Develop- Unresolved Inner Existential

mental dev. Tasks Resources to issues

level, (Early reclaim (Negative

chakra conclusions) pole)

1. Root, Nurturance Feeling Resistance to

Birth and unity vs. wanted, Life,

1.A anxiety about accepted and Separation

Pregnancy needs being welcome anxiety,

until labor met Longing for

begins peace or


1. Premonition of Trust in one’s Anxiety

1.B. upheaval intuition





1. Victimization, Readiness to Engulfment,

2. “no exit,” move forward, overwhelm,

(Onset stuck trusting in mistrust

of labor) in “no man’s life (withdrawing),

land,” personal power



1. Struggle, Spontaneous Identity

3. death, and experience of confusion,

(Cervix rebirth, feelings with struggle

opens relief: optimism (regimentation)

allowing light at

descent the end of the

into tunnel”


1. End of the Feeling Unworthiness,

4. struggle, welcome in separation

(Birth) Separation, life


2. Oppositional Ability to Fear of

Sacral, bonding explore, abandonment

6-18 mo. (separation sensory or engulfment,

and unity), awareness, to self-sabotage

exploration, express needs (fear of

control and trust that potency),

others will shame,

respond, to need to control

develop constric-

initiative, to tiveness)

openly and



passion for

life, to live


pretense or


3. Solar Separation To think for Fear of

Plexus, (autonomy), oneself, to rejection

18-36 mo. rapprochement, creatively (insignificance),

boundaries, solve need for

attachment and problems, to approval,

bonding, express powerlessness,

separating feelings, to authority

fantasy from balance issues

reality separateness

and autonomy

in intimate


to create






ability and





4. Heart Socialization, Trust, Power struggles

3-7 years belonging and compassion, (fear of

acceptance, forgiveness, a weakness)

unconditional clearer sense identity

love of self- confusion,;

identity, socia

creating exclusion

social (“I don’t

inclusion, belong”),

confidence in abandonment,

one’s feeling stuck,

knowledge, despair

to attract



to accept what

one does and

doesn’t have

power over,

to stop


oneself as

limited and


5. Throat Esteem and The ability to Repression,

7-12 yrs. adequacy, learn from identity

discover & mistakes; to confusion,

express one’s accept one’s not being fully

true self, adequacy; to present,

acceptance of think clearly needing

appropriate and act approval

rules and effectively;

authority to accept the


of having wants

and needs; to





and delegating


the capacity to

co-operate; to

speak the

truth, express


discover the


within, and



6. Third Adolescence, Ability to Projection,

eye identity vs. achieve confusion vs.

12-18 yrs. roles, independence; clarity,

achieve to emerge as a judgmental

independence, separate (fear of

accept person with vulnerability),

authority one’s own fear of

strengths and intimacy,

values; to be narcissism

accountable (inadequacy),

for one’s own no clear

needs, feelings purpose

and behaviors; or meaning in

to integrate life

sexuality into

one’s identity;

and to see

clearly on the


and on the



i.e., with

empathy and


7. Crown Decision- Ability to Spiritual

adulthood making, overcome struggles,

create stagnation and unworthiness

meaning in be creative, to vs. “state of

life create meaning grace,”

in one’s life alienation vs.

through connection,

relationships, “loss of soul”

contribution to

the community,





8. Etheric Death The ability to Unfinished

body preparation, face death business,

death completion, with dignity death anxiety

working and readiness, resistance to

through grief, having lived change,

authenticity and accepted fear of the

life fully unknown

Develop- Existential Shadow parts

mental strengths (Repressed

level, (Positive behavioral

chakra pole) decisions)

1. Root, Acceptance Feeling

Birth and embracing unwanted

1.A life


until labor


1. Safety, Not

1.B. Trusting recognizing

(Transition oneself physical needs

with (intuition) or acting to

hormonal get them met,

changes) terror of


basic lack of

trust in others

1. Clear Addictive and

2. direction, compulsive

(Onset trust behaviors

of labor) (reaching out)

1. Ease Frozen

3. (spontaneity) feelings,

(Cervix numbness,

opens needing

allowing external

descent affirmation of

into one’s worth


1. Worthiness, Inability to

4. inclusion, bond

(Birth) needs being physically or

met emotionally,

inability to


directly for


2. fulfilling Not knowing

Sacral, connection, what one

6-18 mo. living wants, fear of

passionately trying new

things or


deferring to



accidents or




obsessive or


behavior, non


3. Solar Self- Unclear

Plexus, assurance, boundaries,

18-36 mo. integrity, avoiding

intuition, conflict at any

personal cost, unable to

power say no,



using anger to

mask other

feelings, often


cheated, these








or withholding

4. Heart Social Incongruity

3-7 years inclusion, between one’s

disidentifying thoughts,

with being feelings and

unworthy, actions;

clear sense of grandiosity;

identity and clinging to the

agency in life hope of being


sexual identity

confusion; use



or seduction to

get needs met;

rescuing to




with power, or

afraid of


5. Throat Expression Unrealistic

7-12 yrs. of one’s true expectations

self (perfec-

transparently tionism);

, being fully procras-

and tination;

passionately inability to

present in compromise,

life either giving

in completely

or demanding

one’s own way;




one’s feelings;

living in the

past or future,

not in the

present; being

dependent or

being a loner;


reluctance or

inability to be


6. Third Clear vision Desperately

eye of purpose in seeking to fill

12-18 yrs. one’s life, an internal

integrity, emptiness;

accoun- either

tability, extremely

compassion, dependent or



one’s identity



deny needs and



rebellious and

conflicts with


confusing sex

with nurturing;

avoiding real

intimacy; self-

absorbed; one-


vengeful; avoid

separation or


(fear of


7. Crown Meaningful Dysfunctional

adulthood and fulfilling or self-

relationships, limiting

spiritual behaviors

connection which are

(state of substitutes for

grace), “right the missing

livelihood meaning,


and sense of

fulfillment in


8. Etheric Equanimity, Self-

body wisdom, destructive

death actualization, tendencies;

inner peace, deep

conscious preoccupation

death with and

idealization of

what is past or

what might

have been;

guilt and


feelings of


lack of energy

and fatigue

The child’s developmental stages are organized around the need to individuate — psychologically separating from the parents, cultivating trust in oneself as the source of guidance in life. The developmental process is in reality lifelong, involving contraction into fixed identity boundaries, i.e., separation or individuation, and then eventual expansion into a newly open defenseless recognition of interdependence, i.e., ego surrender. Ideally, the individuation process leads one to listen to and trust one’s own experience, to develop an authentic personal vision and sense of direction, and to heal the uncompleted developmental tasks that prevent one from living authentically (defenseless, vulnerable, self-defined, spontaneous, peaceful). Ego surrender is the natural outcome of a completed individuation.

Let us look at this “growing up” and “growing into” process from a psychosynthesis perspective and from a Jungian point of view.

In psychosynthesis, the part of oneself fixated at an incomplete developmental stage is a subpersonality, functioning mechanically, unconsciously. If an individual becomes totally identified with a subpersonality, he/she places its needs and perspectives above all else, “repetition compulsion” in psychoanalytic terms. By recognizing and naming subpersonalities, disidentifying from them and dialoguing with them, their underlying (unresolved) needs and as yet unclaimed higher qualities become apparent. Their distorted behaviors can be transformed and energies released for the benefit of the total person.

Fundamental to psychosynthesis is a deep exploration into experience of the

Self. “Who am I?” is a central question here as it is in some spiritual

traditions. Psychosynthesists have developed ideas about the Self and

techniques for exploring the many layers and dimensions of identity that

one discovers in the course of pursuing growth into realms of higher


The growth process can be described as a series of identifications with

ever-more inclusive wholes. The personality moves through cycles of

integration, dis-integration, and re-integration wherein the individual

disidentifies from the person he used to be and identifies with the person

he has become. At the center of each new whole is an integrating factor, a

center of awareness and will, a point of identity: a Self (Russell, 1982).

In Jungian terms, the part of oneself fixated at an incomplete developmental stage is an autonomous complex, and the aim of Jungian analysis is to transform autonomous complexes into consciousness (Nitis, 1989). One of the complexes is the ego-complex, the center of the field of consciousness, the adaptive, conscious executive of the personality, the observing aspect. The personal unconscious is related specifically to this ego-complex. Other complexes are collections of ideas and images organized around one or more archetypes at the core of the complex and having a certain feeling tone and energy charge. Examples might include a father complex, mother complex, hero complex, child complex, the anima, the animus, etc. All the complexes together Jung called the collective unconscious, or objective psyche. In the altered state, the normally unconscious complexes begin to come into conscious awareness.

Competing identities can often be incompatible. One may be determined to “be good” and stay away from sweets, while another pops up and devours all the candy in the jar. Each is successively in control, and the secondary gain of the latter defeats the intentions of the former. Carl Jung saw most people as identified almost entirely with certain acceptable aspects of themselves (the persona), having denied and repressed the unacceptable aspects (the shadow).

The way back to authenticity and real free will is through recognition of the unconscious nature of most of our choices and experiences. When we “snap out of” the state of absorption, we expand our consciousness of who we are to include a wider spectrum, allowing for new possibilities. Liberation from unconsciousness, waking up from the trance, arousing from the dissociation comes with disidentification from the limited ‘I’. First we must become aware of, incorporate and even embrace our dark side, our shadow, those parts of us that we shudder to conceive could be within us or the parts we are afraid to grow into. Part of us may be “the compulsive smoker”, and another part is the great mystic, and both parts are intimidating to own up to. Experiencing our shadow is the “doorway to the real,” ripping apart the ego’s imaginary identifications (Humbert, 1988, p. 50) and seeing clearly into the blind spots.

Openness to existential confrontation

Faced with existential anxiety, avoidance through neurotic defense is not the only option, of course. A second existential choice is self-rejection, to judge, attack or punish oneself for being the person he/she has become. One of the most heart-rending experiences as therapist can be to observe an adult in an age regression experience confronting the child they once were with blame, revulsion, rejection and hatred. A third existential choice is to remain open and non-defensive in the face of our deepest anxieties. Bugental (1965, p. 286) refers to these choices as between dread or courage. “The crossroads of life, existentially speaking, lie at the point of the confrontation of existential anxiety.” “How man responds to that anxiety — whether with dread or with courage — tells the story of his non-being or his being.”

In the mirror analogy used previously, the mirror becomes captivated by and lost in the reflections in the mirror. The choice of avoidance through neurotic defense is the mirror separating from its reflections, i.e., selectively repressing. The choice of punishing oneself is the mirror confusing itself with its reflections, i.e., selectively identifying. Remaining open and non-defensive is to expand the awareness of context, stepping back from the appearances in the mirror, and developing a more objective relationship with them: “choiceless awareness of what is” (Krishnamurti, 1956).

Openness to experience may be operationalized as non-defensiveness, willingness to share experiences, openness to the unknown and unknowable, to emotions, ideas and spirituality, and to seeming incompatibilities. Operating in such a space, one finds understanding. “Understanding is not an act of the will. It is an event. Understanding happens to man in the openness of the existential encounter” (Hora, 1960, p. 498). Recent research documents the correlation between openness and that deep level of understanding, or wisdom. Indeed, “openness to experience is the most frequent predictor of wisdom” (Kramer, 2000, p. 83). See Figure 3.


Let us look carefully at the concept of wisdom for clues about the nature of existential openness and the consequences of developing it as a character trait.

Research (Kramer, 2000) documents that people who are generally considered wise share the following attributes:

* openness to experience;

* promotion of their own personal development and enjoyment of learning;

* enrichment of relationships;

* critical awareness and tolerance of ambiguity and complexity;

* self-clarity including a critical stance toward oneself;

* capability of finding purpose and meaning in life’s turbulence and using their negative emotional experiences as catalysts for emotional growth, enriched understanding, and exploration of deeper meanings of human experience;

* ability to see patterns in their experience and life choices, and to use the insights gained to help themselves and others;

* concern for others’ welfare and a lack of self-absorption;

* acceptance of, indeed embracing of their own negative and positive characteristics for greater wholeness in the self.

Wise people have learned to view the positive and negative and synthesize

them to create a more human, more integrated sense of self, in all its

frailty and vulnerability. This allows for openness, nondefensiveness and

less judgmentalism, as well as a catalyzing influence of negative emotions.

As Joan Erickson (1988) points out, for the virtue of wisdom to develop in

later life, one must balance ego integrity with its opposite, despair

(Kramer, 2000, p. 94).

Erik Erikson (1979) suggests that wisdom is the ego strength of the final developmental stage. He defined wisdom as “the detached and yet active concern with life itself in the face of death itself, and that it maintains and conveys the integrity of experience in spite of the disdain over human failing and the dread of ultimate nonbeing” (p. 60). He believed that an individual fulfilled his/her life cycle “finding terminal clarity,” and that a final “existential identity” emerges from the culmination of one’s psychosocial development (Hall, 1983).

The description of a wise person bears a marked resemblance to the concept of existential identity, to be explored later in this article. The resolution for inauthentic life patterns is to openly face the basic life issues, awakening in each experienced moment to the spontaneous, the magical, the real. Indeed, “awareness of existential issues is a prerequisite for personal adjustment and authentic existence” (Stevens, 1992, p. 32).

Another conceptualization of these qualities is that of Tibetan Buddhism, which speaks of five basic wisdom energies: equanimity, mirrorlike clarity, capacity for effective action, spaciousness, and discrimination. These are egoless qualities, manifested through a surrendering ego.

One aspect of wisdom, therefore, and of existential openness is humility. Research (Tangney, 2000) identifies the key elements of humility to include:

* accurate assessment of one’s abilities and achievements (not unduly favorable or unfavorable).

* ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes, imperfections, gaps in knowledge, and limitations.

* openness to new ideas, contradictory information, and advice.

* keeping of one’s abilities and accomplishments — one’s place in the world — in perspective.

* relatively low self-focus, a “forgetting of the self”.

* appreciation of the value of all things, as well as the many different ways that people and things can contribute to our world.

“Clinicians have long noted the links between excessive self-focus and a broad range of psychological symptoms, including anxiety, depression, social phobias, and so forth…. Even in the area of physical health, some research suggests that excessive self-focus is a risk factor for coronary heart disease (Scherwitz & Canick, 1988)” (Tangney, 2000, p. 79).

Brant Cortright (1997) discerns five primary areas of focus in existential transpersonal therapy (and in most approaches to spiritual practice, coincidentally):

1. Present-centeredness

2. Awareness

3. Full sensory and bodily involvement

4. I and Thou

5. Morality

Most existential approaches view the present as the only reality; that is, all forces are seen to be acting now, in this immediate moment. The past exists here and now as memories, regrets, sources of shame or pride. The future exists here and now as anticipation, hope, rehearsing, dread. Effective therapy or healing involves seeing clearly how the past is alive in the present in the form of unfinished business and bleeding wounds. As the wounds heal and the business is finished, the person opens to the immediacy of the present moment. One of the reasons hypnotherapy is so powerful in helping people to change neurotic patterns is that the process involves experiencing the past (for example, age regression to a childhood trauma) or the future (for example, rehearsing an upcoming anxiety-provoking confrontation) as an experience in the present.

Awareness is viewed as the key to actual experiencing. Awareness liberates the person from inauthentic dissociated fantasy into his or her real and actual experience. Experience becomes more vivid and more real by attending to it, paying attention to it. It might be viewed as the process of waking up.

Attending to the moment requires fully inhabiting the physical and sensory realm of bodily existence. Grounded in sensitivity to the nuances of one’s body’s messages leads to greater immediacy of experience. As Fritz Perls said, “Lose your mind and come to your senses.”

Reciprocal, mutual person to person relating with others follows from presence in the moment and grounding in one’s own body. The I-Thou relationship suggested by Martin Buber contrasts with an I-It relationship, the everyday secular relating in which the other is seen as an object, a thing to be used or manipulated, a means to an end. Ultimately, the transpersonal existential perspective embraces the sacredness of human relationship.

Finally, the existential view of morality is that there exists a deep, intrinsic morality of the organism which, when liberated from the constrictions of conventional morality, is infallibly oriented to the highest good of all.

Existential openness and psychosocial factors

Cognitive flexibility, already discussed, is closely associated with existential openness (Stevens, 1992).

Resourceful coping is another factor positively linked to existential openness (Stevens, 1992). Specifically, the coping strategy of interpreting existential issues as promising rather than threatening leads obviously to greater openness to them.

Transformation through developmental completion

Conceptualizing personal growth and healing as completion of unresolved psychosocial developmental stages is well known. Erik Erikson stated the case eminently:

Many of us who have worked not only clinically but also in child guidance

and in the developmental study of children have recognized that it is our

generation’s task to demonstrate the complimentarity between the so-called

genetic point of view in psychoanalysis and a developmental one. The

genetic approach reconstructs the way emotional disturbances are rooted in

early traumatic events which tend to exert a regressive pull on the

present. It also opens the “prehistoric” part of the human life cycle, and

the unconscious dynamics of human conflict, to systematic inspection. The

developmental approach, in turn, is based on the direct observation of

children: following the genetic leads, we realize the developmental

potentials of all stages of life. In childhood we see the actual trauma; in

maturity we see the behavioral consequences of such disturbances (1979, pp.


Of course, the very same traumatic moments of existential choice in each stage offer potential invaluable inner resources (e.g., trust, autonomy, or intimacy) as well as disturbances (e.g., mistrust, shame, or isolation). As Erikson said, “if we let our observations indicate what could go wrong in each stage, we can also note what can go right” (1979, p. 58). One’s overall level of psychosocial maturity, i.e., successful completion of developmental stages, has been found to correlate with one’s level of self-actualization (Olczak & Goldman, 1975). It has been found that an individual’s level of psychosocial maturity correlates with happiness in college (Constantinople, 1969, 1970) and higher expectations about college (Waterman, 1972). Greater psychosocial maturity is associated with greater hopefulness (Brackney & Westman, 1992). Psychosocial maturity is significantly and inversely related to death anxiety (Lonetto & Templer, 1986; Rasmussen & Brems, 1996; Vargo & Black, 1984). Wilson and Prabucki (1983) showed a significant relationship between negative psychosocial maturity and the development of pathological factors of narcissism (sense of entitlement, interpersonal exploitativeness, and narcissistic indifference), as well as a significant relationship between positive psychosocial maturity and two positive dimensions of narcissistic personality syndrome (healthy narcissistic ideology and positive ego identity). Research has determined that learning disabled adolescents show less resolution of Erikson’s 4th stage of industry vs. inferiority than non-disabled adolescents (Pickar & Tori, 1986).

In a study of women with breast cancer, women with more complete psychosocial development fared better than women with less, experiencing less psychological distress in terms of less anxiety and depression, fewer disruptions in social relationships, and fewer consequences of physical side effects (Perlman, 1998). Westenberg et al (1999) studied the developmental underpinnings in the prevalence of separation anxiety disorder (SAD) and overanxious disorder (OAD) in children and adolescents aged 8-18 years. Results showed that level of ego development was the strongest predictor of either SAD or OAD. SAD was related primarily to the Impulsive ego level, whereas OAD was related mostly to the Conformist ego level. Psychosocial maturity also affects adolescent sexual behavior and attitudes (Howe, 1981).

Similarities between the Maslow notion of self-actualization (1962) and the Erikson notion of psychosocial maturity (1959) have inspired research. Simmons (1970) has shown a significant relationship between identity achievement status and the degree of self-actualization as measured by the Personal Orientation Inventory (POI). Indeed, one’s overall level of psychosocial maturity is positively related to one’s level of self-actualization (Olczak & Goldman, 1975).

Useful inventories for measuring successful psychosocial maturity include: the Constantinople Inventory of Psychosocial Development (CIPD) (Constantinople, 1969, 1973), consisting of 60 seven-point scale items, ten each reflecting successful and unsuccessful resolutions of each of the first six Erikson life stages; the Rasmussen Ego Identity Scale (EIS) (Rasmussen, 1964), consisting of 72 statements reflecting the criteria of health and ill health for the first six psychological stages as described by Erikson; the Content Analysis Scales of Psychosocial Maturity (CASPM) (Viney, 1981, 1983), consisting of content analysis of individual constructs in verbal communication, measuring both psychosocial maturation and regression, resources and needs; the Psychosocial Stage Inventory (Rosenthal et al, 1981); and the Psychosocial Maturity Inventory (PMI) (Greenberger et al, 1974), a self-report instrument, comprising 9 subscales and suited for the assessment of 11-18 year old young people.

In transformational work, we regress the client to the developmental stages where the trauma originated, where the developmental tasks were derailed, where the choice was made between what was acceptable and attainable (the persona) and what was unacceptable and unattainable (the shadow). Our purpose is twofold: to clarify what was the child’s conclusion regarding his/her life (the angst-producing faulty belief), laying bare the core existential issue in need of healing; and to clarify the child’s behavioral decision regarding how to deal with the terrifying conclusion, emphasizing some aspects of self into persona and repressing others into shadow. Then the uncompleted developmental tasks can be resolved. The awareness of self can be expanded to incorporate the previously repressed aspects. The over-emphasized aspects can be relaxed into a natural balance. And the inner resources that were abandoned at that time in the process of implementing the decision can be reclaimed. As these stages are healed, the individual moves from rigid and reactive expression of underdeveloped ego states to expression of a wise, whole and ultimately surrendering ego.


An example of this process is the healing experience of Joshua. He is an intelligent and charismatic man of fifty who had endured many years of heroin addiction. He had lived outside the law, selling drugs to support his habit, and was highly reactive to authority. Although clean and sober for twelve years, he has not resolved the underlying source traumas for his dysfunctional life choices, and currently continues to experience life in social isolation, financial and career failure, and to a marginal degree of fulfillment. He identifies himself as a “scammer,” a loser and a screw-up. Joshua has worked therapeutically in the Heart-Centered Therapies milieu incorporating hypnotherapy, psychodrama, breathwork and meditation.

Joshua has discovered through trance-state age regression that the shadow aspect who has been largely running his life originated at about age five. In a series of precipitating events, he was traumatized by his rageful, critical father. The conclusion that he drew about himself in this life was that he would never be worthy of safety. The resulting existential issues, then, were identity confusion; social exclusion (“I don’t belong here”); abandonment; feeling stuck; despair. The behavioral decision he developed as a means of coping with such a devastating reality was to isolate and withdraw. However, he also vowed to get revenge and to subject his father to the same pain and humiliation that he had suffered. That revengeful part of himself was potentially dangerous, since any overt rebellion against his father would have been punished severely. Therefore, it was totally unacceptable, and was repressed into shadow. Of course, out of sight does not mean inactive. That part of him had been extracting revenge ever since age five, furiously railing against the injustice of life and sabotaging any choices that might please authority and, coincidentally, make for a fulfilling life.

Returning in a psychodrama to the uncompleted fourth developmental stage of belonging and acceptance (three to seven years old), Joshua was able to correctively protect the five year old from abuse, removing him from the reach of his fearful father. He provided the comfort and nurturing that the child needed, embracing the child (a group member playing the role of his five year old) lovingly and sobbing in grief for all the losses issuing from that point in his life. Joshua began reframing the experience of abusive power, conditional love, and unworthiness into a gentle acceptance of the five year old and his understandable rage and vow of revenge, thus resolving the unfinished tasks of that developmental stage. He was now reclaiming the inner resources that had been abandoned by the five year old: trust, compassion, forgiveness, and a clearer sense of self-identity. His existential strength unfolded as disidentifying with the unworthy ego state (“the loser”) and expanding his self-identity to incorporate a larger perspective.

Joshua’s Unresolved Developmental Stage, Existential Issue and Shadow

Developmental Unresolved Inner Existential

level, chakra dev. tasks (Early Resources to issues

conclusions) reclaim (Negative pole)

4. He would Trust, Despair; identity

Belonging never be compassion, confusion; socia

(3-7 years) worthy of forgiveness, exclusion (“I

Heart safety and a clearer don’t belong”);

chakra sense of self- abandonment;

identity feeling stuck

Developmental Existential Shadow

level, chakra strengths parts

(Positive (Repressed

pole behavioral


4. Disidentifying To isolate,

Belonging with being withdraw,

(3-7 years) unworthy, and to get

Heart revenge


This summary of the lasting legacy of Joshua’s experience of the fourth developmental stage is only a partial picture of the intricate complexity of his personality development. Of course, other age regressions in his personal healing work will take him to other developmental stages, to reveal those formative anxieties and behavioral decisions.

It is very common that an individual is traumatized during a very important developmental stage and becomes fixated at that stage. Development became arrested at the point it was unresolved, and healing requires completing those developmental tasks in the age-appropriate regressed ego state. Let us now review the developmental stages and the tasks, inner resources, existential issues and strengths, and behavioral decisions associated with each.

First developmental stage – Root Chakra

The first level, that of our connection to the earth, to community and with our life force (developmental stage conception through birth to six months of age), is focused on bonding, basic trust vs. mistrust, and healthy dependence. Developmental tasks are to express needs, to accept nurturing, to bond emotionally, to learn to trust adults, to choose to live. One faces the ego issue of fear: fear of needs not being met, abandonment or annihilation. As these issues are worked through, the individual is able to access and contain the full vitality of their life force energy, free of the entangling, ever-demanding and competing ego identities. If proper bonding does not take place between mother and child, first chakra issues will be apparent. Feelings of lack or “not enough” are a first chakra issue, as is the pattern of experiencing abandonment or rejection in relationships. For example, a person who often feels that he/she doesn’t have enough time, enough love or enough money in his/her life would have work to do in this chakra.

The Birth Process (Grof, 1988)

Birth Stage 1a: Nurturance and unity. This is the first stage of birth and includes pregnancy until labor begins. In an ideal, normal pregnancy this is a blissful stage for the developing fetus. However, the womb can be either a toxic or safe environment, depending on issues connected with the conception. Was the baby wanted by both parents, or was it an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy? Is the mother considering abortion? Is the father angry about the pregnancy and thus abusive to mother and baby? Are the parents in fear about not having enough financial resources to raise this baby? All these issues and more can affect the feelings of safety during this early time.

Birth stage 1a issues relate to the existential theme of Resistance to Life: separation anxiety, and longing for the spirit world. Birth stage la, the initiation of the birth process, parallels the preconception journey of leaving the spirit world. Emerson (1994) identifies several major themes in birth stage 1a. Two are reflected in the preconception journey: one is “Divine home-sickness” which is a real longing to go back and return to the wonderful, beautiful, non-complicated world of the spirit. It is a very blissful existence. The other theme is “spiritual exile”, where one feels oneself to have been thrown out, leading to unworthiness and authority issues.

Another major theme at the stage of birth is not wanting to move forward, not wanting to be born, because the world is so horrible or the womb is so good, or both. The trauma becomes overwhelming if they also get stuck and can’t descend into the birth canal, leading to impotence and inability issues.

There is often a correlation to the prenatal/birth theme of the dilemma between feeling unwanted or suffocated in the womb, and not wanting what lies ahead after birth, “between a rock and a hard place.”

Birth Stage 1b: Change. The transition between stage 1 and stage 2 may feel strange with the beginning of the hormonal change preceding the birth process. Prior to the onset of labor the fetus may have a premonition that all is about to change, a feeling of paranoia, panic, anxiety, and a lack of safety. If the mother is very connected to the fetus, she can comfort the baby by singing, soothing and sending love and reassurance energetically. Otherwise, the fetus feels the anxiety alone.

Birth Stage 2: Victimization/No exit. The second stage of birth begins with the onset of labor. The release of hormones creates sudden changes in the prenatal environment. Strong muscular contractions begin to push the fetus down and out, compressing the fetus with 50 – 100 pounds of force. Each contraction constricts the flow through the placenta. The environment that was safe and familiar rapidly disappears. The fetus does not know what happened to its world and what might happen next. It may feel like a helpless victim. The cervix has not dilated, there is crushing pressure and no way out. There is a feeling of being engulfed, trapped or being swallowed. There may be a sense of betrayal, as the once life-giving mother now becomes a source of pain and suffocation. This is the stage related to important life transitions or life process where the change feels overwhelming or we feel attached to the way it was before the change started happening. This feeling can come up repeatedly in life and may arise in experiences that appear to have nothing to do with birth such as going through tunnels or changing jobs.

Birth issues deriving from birth stage 2 have to do with presence, related to the Personal Power existential theme. Stage 2 is a transition between stage 1 and 3, and is like being in “no man’s land.” You’ve gone too far to go back, but you’ve got a long way to go and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Because there is full dilation by this stage, the issue of personal choice comes up. The psychology of stage 2 also has to do with directionality, one’s either knowing or being lost regarding “where one is in life” (“Am I going the right way?”). If the cord is wrapped around the baby’s neck, this stage can signify the beginning of the end, bringing anticipatory terror about losing the breath, losing power and thus annihilation.

Birth Stage 3: Struggle/Death/Rebirth. The third stage of birth comes when the cervix dilates enough to allow the fetus to begin its journey down and through the birth canal. Now there is, literally, light at the end of the tunnel. In this stage the fetus assists in its own birth process by struggling and moving through the birth canal. Moving past helpless and hopeless, the fetus no longer resists the change. Sensing the possibilities, the fetus now contributes to and participates in the process. This is the stage of agony and ecstasy! In moving down the birth canal, the fetus encounters struggle, suffocation, fear of death, anxiety and exhaustion, but also determination, hope and progress. Each movement brings the fetus closer to freedom.

Birth issues related to the existential theme of Identity derive from birth stage 3, having to do with the life/death struggle, because if the fetus comes close to dying it is in stage 3. It has anxiety associated with it. Depression or anxious morbidity probably result from stage 3 trauma. Also, this is where the baby is going through the vagina of the mother. This stage can impact one’s sexuality as well: premature ejaculation, impotence or aorgasmia, loss of self.

Birth Stage 4: Completion/Death/Rebirth. The fourth stage of birth begins when the fetus finally emerges from the birth canal and the struggle is over. At this time the umbilical cord is cut, the baby breathes air for the first time and reconnects to the mother. During this phase of birth the baby experiences relief, completion, independence and success while nursing and being held safely in mother’s arms. In a natural process, the baby learns that reconnection and reward follow effort and pain. There is a sense of termination and resolution, survival and accomplishment. In this process of departing, we begin the pattern of completion that is carried throughout life. If there is guilt (for wanting to get out) or anxiety (fear of loss) connected to this first experience of leaving, then this will govern the perception of all future completions. If there is a great deal of pain for the mother, the infant may take responsibility for the pain and conclude, “I hurt the one I love” or “I am bad.” The infant may also develop the pattern of holding back in life in order to prevent future pain to him/herself and others.

Birth issues deriving from birth stage 4, having to do with separation and abandonment issues, and with bonding, are primarily related to the existential theme of Worthiness.

Behavioral decisions (shadows) include not recognizing physical needs or doing anything to get them met; addictive and compulsive behaviors, especially ingestive addictions such as food, sugar, alcohol, pills, tobacco, or eating disorders; inability to ask directly for anything; terror of abandonment; needing external affirmation of one’s worth; a deep, basic lack of trust of others, and of having one’s needs met; frozen feelings, numbness; not enough money, food, time, etc; inability to bond physically/emotionally.

Inner Resources to reclaim include the ability to express needs, to accept nurturing, to bond emotionally, to trust others (including God), and to choose to access the full vitality of the life force energy.

Existential issues include fear of needs not being met; terror of abandonment; a deep, basic mistrust or insecurity; numbness and dissociation; feeling of “I don’t want to be here.”

Second developmental stage – Sacral Chakra

The second level, that of free exploration (developmental stage of 6 to 18 months of age), is focused on oppositional bonding, i.e., I need to trust you to discover me as separate from you, autonomy vs. shame and doubt, and healthy counter-dependence. Developmental tasks are to explore and experience the environment, to develop sensory awareness, to express needs and trust that others will respond, to begin to learn that there are options to problem solving, and to develop initiative. One must face the ego issues of shame, fear and the need to control people and situations. As people work through these issues, they openly and fully experience their passion for life, sensuality and sexuality. One lives transparently, without pretense or defense.

The Sacral chakra is our connection to passion. It is the relationship chakra and has to do with trust and control, and governs the sexual area. Sexual energy is so powerful that many cultures go to extremes in their attempt to control it. Usually those controls come in the form of shame, guilt and fear, which become associated with sexual energy and serve to repress it. This repression then blocks the second chakra. Blocked energy in any chakra blocks one’s experience of the spiritual flow.

Behavioral decisions (shadows) include not knowing what one wants; boredom; fear of trying new things or experiences; deferring to others; fear of abandonment and/or engulfment; fear of making mistakes; not being aware of one’s body, frequent accidents or injuries; overly adaptive; obsessive/compulsive behavior; lack of vitality and motivational problems; reluctant to initiate, non assertive; being hyper-active or under-active.

Inner Resources to reclaim include the ability to explore and experience the environment, to develop sensory awareness, to express needs and trust that others will respond, to know that there are many options in problem solving, to develop initiative, to openly and fully experience passion for life, and to live without pretense or defense.

Existential issues include fear of abandonment and/or engulfment; self-destructive, self-sabotaging, or self-hatred; deep sense of shame; lust and greed.

Third developmental stage – Solar Plexus Chakra

The third level, that of power and emotion (developmental stage of 18 to 36 months), is focused on creating a separate identity, thinking and problem-solving, and healthy independence. Developmental tasks are to establish the ability to think for oneself, to test reality by pushing against boundaries and people, to learn to solve problems with cause and effect thinking, to express anger and other feelings, to separate from parents and be welcomed back with love (rapproachement), and to begin to give up thoughts of being the center of the universe. One must face the ego issues of powerlessness in the victim struggle, the fear of rejection, the need for approval, and manipulative power. Working through these issues brings security, integrity, self-confidence, response-ability and the empowerment of accountability.

The Solar Plexus chakra governs the area of personal power, strongly influencing the adrenal glands, which are associated with stress. When we’re overly stressed, the adrenals break down and cannot function. People often experience the most stress when they feel the most powerless in their lives. So reclaiming personal power in the third chakra can heal adrenal autoimmune functioning.

Behavioral decisions (shadows) include difficulty with boundaries, distinguishing one’s own needs, wants, and feelings from those of other people; not feeling separate or independent; codependent relationships; avoiding conflict at any expense; unable to say no directly, but using manipulative means instead; inappropriately rebellious; using anger to mask other feelings; negative, oppositional, controlling, rigid, critical, or withholding relationship styles; intestinal and colon disease; demanding, often feeling cheated; Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder; Attachment Disorder.

Inner Resources to reclaim include the ability to think for oneself, to test reality by pushing against boundaries and people, to learn to solve problems with cause and effect thinking, to express anger and other feelings, to balance separateness and autonomy in intimate relationships, to give up thoughts of being the center of the universe, to create security, integrity, self-confidence, response-ability and the empowerment of accountability.

Existential issues include powerlessness; Victim / Rescuer / Persecutor patterns; authority issues; “Life isn’t fair.”

Fourth developmental stage – Heart Center

The fourth level, that of belonging and acceptance (developmental stage of 3 to 7 years), is focused on socialization, identity and power, initiative vs. guilt, and belonging. Developmental tasks are to assert an identity separate from others while creating social inclusion; to acquire knowledge about the world, oneself, one’s body, one’s gender role; to learn that behaviors have consequences; to learn to exert power to affect relationships; to practice socially appropriate behavior; to separate fantasy from reality; to learn what one has power over and what one does not have power over. One faces the ego issues of unworthiness, disconnection and conditional love. Working through these issues brings compassion, forgiveness, and disidentification from the ego states based in limitation and unworthiness.

The Heart Center, the fourth chakra, is located in the center of the chest and is the guiding Light of the entire energy system within us. It is the Heart chakra that shows the Solar Plexis how to burn its raw energy in loving ways, that shows the second chakra how to manifest its sexual energy through the transmutation of love, and that shows the first chakra how to merge the physical with the Divine. The Heart chakra is equidistant between the first and the seventh chakras, between earth and heaven. It is the center point of the primary emotional energy of the universe, which we call love. It balances the chakras above with the chakras below, all of equal importance. The fourth chakra strongly influences the functioning of the thymus gland, located in the center of the chest just behind the upper breastbone. Because this gland directly influences the functioning of our immune system, fourth chakra balancing and energization can also have a profound effect on our overall health and resistance to disease.

The Heart Center is the key to personal transformation. The unconditional love of the Heart Center transforms effective psychotherapy into transformational healing. The work in the Heart Center is to release unworthiness. This unworthiness begins in the lower chakras where the individual experiences being emotionally/physically abandoned by parents and then transfers this up into the higher chakras as unworthy to receive God’s love.

Behavioral decisions (shadows) include relying on guesses and unchecked assumptions; having incorrect or missing labels for feelings, with anger often labeled as sadness or fear experienced as anger; belief that incongruity between one’s thoughts, feelings and actions is normal; power struggles to control one’s own and others’ thoughts and feelings; a grandiose sense of one’s own magical powers, e.g., if I act a certain way, my father won’t drink or my parents won’t get divorced; clinging to the magical hope of being rescued from challenges; manipulating others to take responsibility for them; sexual identity problems; use of seductiveness to get needs met; metabolic and circulation disease; taking care of others’ feelings (emotional rescuing) to avoid abandonment; needing to always be in a position of power, or afraid of power.

Inner Resources to reclaim include the ability to assert an identity separate from others while creating social inclusion; to be confidant in one’s knowledge about the world and oneself; to learn that behaviors have consequences; to learn to attract healthy relationships; to practice socially appropriate behavior; to separate fantasy from reality; to learn what one has power over and what one does not have power over; to create compassion, forgiveness, and disidentification from the ego states based in limitation and unworthiness.

Existential issues include identity confusion; social exclusion (“I don’t belong here”); abandonment; feeling stuck; despair.

Fifth developmental stage – Throat Chakra

The fifth level, that of discovering and expressing one’s true self (latency stage of 7 to 12 years), is focused on industry vs. inferiority, concrete knowing and learning, healthy interdependence and co-operation. Developmental tasks are to learn skills and learn from mistakes; to accept one’s adequacy; to learn to listen and collect information; to practice thinking and doing; to learn the appropriateness of having wants and needs; to learn the structure of the family and the culture; to learn the consequences of breaking rules; to have one’s own opinions, to disagree, and still be accepted and loved; to develop internal controls; to learn about taking responsibility and who is responsible for what; to develop the capacity to co-operate; to identify with same sex role models and peers; to compete and test abilities against others. One must face the ego issues of adapting and repressing the true self. As these issues are worked through, the person speaks the truth, expresses feelings, discovers the creativity within, and lives transparently.

The throat chakra is the place of expression and creativity. Children are often shamed about expressing who they really are and what talents they possess. They are taught to be “seen and not heard” and to repress their feelings. Personal transformation is about learning to fully express who you are and thus allowing your creativity to flow. This is the center of communication and of expressing the inner depths of our feelings in words, through art, in dance and ideas. This is where we begin to listen to ourselves and to have full permission to express it. The thyroid gland is associated with this chakra.

Behavioral decisions (shadows) include a belief that one should know how to do things perfectly, without instruction; lack of information on how to organize time for complicated tasks; procrastination; inability to negotiate, either giving in completely or insisting on having one’s own way; perfectionism; inflexible values; acting without thinking; discounting one’s own feelings; ulcers, headaches, high blood pressure; living in the past or future, not in the present; having to be part of a gang, or being a loner; difficulty with rules and authority, rebelliousness; reluctance or inability to be productive and successful.

Inner Resources to reclaim include the ability to be skillful and learn from mistakes; to accept one’s adequacy; to think clearly and act effectively; to learn the appropriateness of having wants and needs; to accept the structure of the family and the culture; to accept the consequences of breaking rules; to have one’s own opinions, to disagree, and still be accepted and loved; to develop internal controls; to learn about taking responsibility and who is responsible for what; to develop the capacity to co-operate; to compete and test abilities against role models and peers; to speak the truth, express feelings, discover the creativity within, and live transparently.

Existential issues include perfectionism; living in the past or future, not in the present.

Sixth developmental stage – Third Eye Chakra

The sixth level, that of identity vs. roles (adolescent years from age 12 to 18), is focused on identity vs. role confusion, sexuality, healthy independence from the family. Developmental tasks are to achieve independence, a clear separation from the group and the family; to gradually emerge as a separate person with one’s own goals and values; to be responsible for one’s own needs, feelings and behaviors; to integrate sexuality into one’s identity. One must face the ego issues of judgment and the projection of our own illusion onto others. When the individual is able to work through these issues at a deep transformational level, the person begins to see clearly on the interpersonal and on the spiritual level, i.e., with empathy and compassion.

It is helpful to recognize three distinct stages within the adolescent period: ages 12-13 when the central concern is belonging, driven by the need for acceptance; ages 14-16 when the central concern is uniqueness, driven by the need to separate or individuate; and 17-18 when the central concern is worthiness, driven by rigorous demands to live up to internal standards and expectations (Barrett, 1996).

The sixth chakra is located in the forehead and is often referred to as the intuitive or psychic center. This is the seat of true wisdom, where the thinking mind comes into contact with the intuitive mind. This is where, if one is listening during meditation, God speaks directly. One learns clarity of vision, or one learns to project one’s own experience of fear, anxiety, and confusion onto other people and the world. The sixth chakra influences the pituitary gland in the brain, and thus determines the entire functioning of the body and mind at high levels.

Behavioral decisions (shadows) include desperately seeking companionship to fill the emptiness one perceives in oneself; refusal to accept traditional standards of behavior; flaunting of differences through extremes of dress or style, thumbing one’s nose at society; either extremely dependent or isolated; without needs and wants; forming codependent symbiotic relationships in which one loses a sense of separate identity; extremely rebellious; conflicts with authority figures such as police, bosses, teachers, the government, etc.; sexual games, addictions or dysfunction, confusing sex with nurturing; use of psychological games to avoid real intimacy; self-absorbed; needing to be one-up on others; vengeful; difficulty with completion, beginning or ending jobs or relationships; abandons others to avoid separation or completion; confused sexual identity.

Inner Resources to reclaim include the ability to achieve independence; to emerge as a separate person with one’s own goals and values; to be responsible for one’s own needs, feelings and behaviors; to integrate sexuality into one’s identity; and to see clearly on the interpersonal and on the spiritual level, i.e., with empathy and compassion.

Existential issues include lack of clarity regarding one’s purpose in life; fear of intimacy; Narcissism.

Seventh developmental stage – Crown Chakra

The seventh level, that of clear and wise decision-making and self-transcendence (developmental stage of adulthood), is focused on generativity vs. stagnation, creating meaning in one’s life through relationships, contribution to the community, self-actualization, and spirituality. We must develop spiritually and emotionally in balance to experience true transformation. If we develop spiritually but not emotionally, we become psychics blinded by personal projection, or ministers filled with rage rather than compassion, or meditators who take refuge in the safety of meditation at the expense of social obligations. If we develop emotionally but not spiritually, we become therapists who avoid our clients’ spiritual experience, or become stuck in “meeting our needs” and isolated from the peace that surpasses all understanding. One must face the ego issues of lack of self-aware confidence: grandiosity or unworthiness. If the individual hasn’t successfully completed all the developmental stages, he/she may become fixated at one of the stages and not be able to truly become an adult. Thus the individual will remain “an adult/child,” and his/her lack of self-confidence has by now turned into grandiosity, ego inflation (resembling the over-zealous self-importance of the three-year-old) or alternatively into inferiority, unworthiness and ego deflation.

The Crown chakra is located at the top of the head and is light years beyond the lower chakras. It is associated with the final developmental stages: adulthood and maturity, with a base need for self-actualization. When ego, fear, and doubt rise to the ultimate expression of selfhood, it is grandiosity or it is unworthiness. When each of the chakras contributes its pure and uncontaminated energy upward through the next to the ultimate expression of selfhood, it is gracious acceptance of God’s grace. It is surrender of the ego. This chakra is truly the gateway from ordinary human experience to the higher transpersonal realms of consciousness.

Behavioral decisions (shadows) include all dysfunctional or self-limiting behaviors, which are substitutes for the missing meaning, satisfaction, and sense of fulfillment in life.

Inner Resources to reclaim include the ability to overcome stagnation and be creative, to create meaning in one’s life through relationships, contribution to the community, self-actualization, and spirituality.

Existential issues include spiritual struggles; God/authority issues.

Psychosocial developmental stage 8: Wise elder

Ultimately, we must all face death. Those who have lived fully, fulfilling their dreams and accepting themselves in totality have achieved wisdom, ego integrity, and self-actualization. They are prepared to meet death with dignity and readiness. Those who have lived afraid to dream, afraid to excel, afraid to accept themselves in totality, live in fear of death. In the words of Erik Erikson, “it seems possible to further paraphrase the relation of adult integrity and infantile trust by saying that healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death” (1950, p. 269).

This stage of growth involves working through grief and reaching completion. Grief has to do with loss. Loss has to do with change. Some common losses relate to drugs, relationships, lifestyle, job, spouse, child(ren) leaving home, self-respect, trust, memory (blackouts), health, promotion, financial well-being, freedom, values, childhood, ideals, dreams.

Behavioral decisions (shadows) include self-destructive tendencies; deep sorrow and “pain of loss”; preoccupation with and idealization of what is past; guilt and self-reproach; feelings of “unrealness”; lack of energy and fatigue.

Inner Resources to reclaim include the ability to face death with dignity and readiness, having lived and accepted life fully.

Existential issues include death anxiety; death urge or preoccupation; resistance to change, fear of the unknown, denial of death.

Our work is clearly based on the premise that the process of therapy reinstitutes an arrested or distorted developmental process. The underlying developmental psychology must, of course, include the full developmental spectrum, i.e., transpersonal experience from before conception through death. One way to observe these expanded developmental processes is to divide them into ego, existential and transpersonal (karmic).

The ego level is organized around the self-image of “I” as separate and unique from all that is “not I.” Work at the ego level builds boundaries, integrates polarizations, replaces nonfunctional concepts of self and others, and modifies character structure for more fulfillment.

The existential level is organized around life on earth itself and the social, cultural and spiritual ramifications of it, that is, the “human condition.” People’s existential issues are related to their mortality and impermanence, their experience of freedom of choice (or lack of it), and/or their sense of separation / connection with others. Work at this level is to loosen the rigidity of the self-image, to expand the relationship to God and to life before and after death.

The transpersonal (karmic) level is organized around (1) the rejected and repressed parts and (2) the unrealized potentials (the reclaimed inner resources and existential strengths). The work at this level includes identifying repressed shadow parts, often easily accessed through one’s projections, and identifying and reclaiming the transcendent parts hitherto beyond reach (such as pastlife, preconception, prenatal, perinatal, death experiences, and ultimately the Divine).

Existential Issues

In order to “achieve” personal transformation or self-actualization, it is necessary to look at the reasons why you are here on earth at this time, to understand what the lessons are that you are supposed to be learning. The higher your awareness of these issues, the sooner in life you can live in fulfillment of your purpose. The discovery of who you really are is probably the most exciting aspect of being alive. Without this insight, life seems meaningless and often boring.

Based on considerable experience, we propose four primary existential positions with which people go through life. Most people are engaged in all four categories, of course, but find that one of them seems to be predominant and overriding consistently through their life span. Bugental (1965) referred to this concept as the “dominant emotional theme” that runs through an individual’s experience, and around which the therapist’s interventions need to be organized. He referred to the theme as more immediate, an expression of the individual’s “being-in-the-world” at the moment he is talking. His experience was that interventions offered apart from the individual’s dominant emotional theme would usually be rejected, dealt with superficially, or accepted only rationally. “Interventions designed to make the dominant emotional theme both conscious and explicit are in most instances essential to other therapist activity” (p. 112). Following is a discussion of our proposed four primary existential positions, thematic expressions in the moment that are in fact expressions of a lifelong legacy.

(1) The first one is Resistance to Life (“I don’t want to be here” or “I don’t want to do this anymore”). It can be characterized by feelings of not wanting to be here, an attitude that gets projected onto almost every situation in one’s life. One may have grown up with the feeling of not wanting to be in one’s birth family, of one’s race or gender, or in one’s marriage. If the existential belief is that you shouldn’t be or don’t want to be here on earth, then you would continue to attract unpleasant people and situations which would reinforce that belief and be easy to resist. The term resistance connotes protest and defiance against an opposing pressure or force. The resistant individual experiences one “opposing pressure” after another in a never-ending struggle. Resistance exists on a continuum, ranging from (1) active or passive resistance to (2) avoidance (active or passive non-confrontation) to (3) grudging compliance (meager and unenthusiastic). Resistance creates overt obstacles to acceptance (the individual usually, of course, denies any personal responsibility for those obstacles in his/her life, hence “passive resistance” as in “passive aggression”). Avoidance can also be accomplished through active or passive means. Compliance is a strategic acceptance in order to gain specific rewards and/or avoid punishments, but falls far short of internalized acceptance of something as congruent with one’s values and beliefs (O’Reilly & Chatman, 1986).

One form of resistance through avoidance is longing for something other than what actually is. Longing is a dynamic state of consciousness punctuated by fluctuations in focus on awareness of phenomena experienced as existing in the world and of experiences regarded as products of fantasy or imagination. It shifts among the themes of “reaching for a desired object,” “barriers to having it” and the “bittersweet feelings” of tension between the two (Ravicz, 1999). Experiencing longing in life to the degree that it is distracting one from engaging with what is real in his/her life is a form of avoidance.

This existential position may result in an unconscious death urge, or in death anxiety and the microsuicidal behaviors (Firestone, 1985, 1987) that many people use to defend against that anxiety (e.g., smoking tobacco, reckless recreation). People’s experience of near-death situations, most likely at or around birth, left a profound impression on the organism, a vague feeling that one’s life is in danger, an imprint that we could call “death anxiety.” In Primal Therapy terminology, these are called “first line traumas.” Many individuals, in therapies that allow access to very early traumas, have relived near-death situations like suffocating at birth (anoxia) or being strangled by the umbilical cord in the form of “body memories.” Existential despair results from the trauma of leaving the uroboric world of the uterus, which parallels the preconception journey of leaving the spiritual world at the time of conception (Emerson, 1994).

Erich Fromm (1959) concluded that there exist four basic needs that must be met for man to be fully human: rootedness, identity, transcendence, and relation. The Resistance to Life existential position is related to Fromm’s concept of rootedness. The underlying question in either is, “Do I belong here?” Fromm suggested that the “antidote” for the unmet need for rootedness, or belonging, is faith. That is precisely the transition step from resistance to acceptance.

Variants of this existential position are fear of annihilation or suicidal tendencies (“Don’t be”); despair and separation anxiety; longing for connection; struggle with hardships; feeling stuck or claustrophobic; fear of needs not being met; isolation or terror of abandonment; a deep, basic lack of trust; numbness, avoidance, disconnection and dissociation; or the nagging question of “Why am I here?”

(2) The next primary existential position is Personal Power (the extent to which I have agency and meaningful choice in my life: “I am at the mercy of forces beyond my control” or “I am accountable for my experience in my life”). One might view the negative manifestation of this basic existential issue as autonomous complexes. A particularly strong complex, and perhaps the easiest one to observe, is the victim, which fights back when attempts are made to release it (“I am here only to be victimized by [rescue] [persecute] others”). An example is a woman who did some personal work on taking back her power only to find herself hours later flat on her back and helpless. It looked as if “the victim” complex was literally threatened by her healing attempts and proceeded to let her know who was in charge. She definitely appeared to be possessed by the victim. Such a soul often was ‘pulled’ into this life because of a past-life agreement to “always take care of someone else” or “be taken care of” or “get revenge” or a promise that “I will never leave you. We will always be together.” Often a soul makes last minute agreements or promises with other souls just before death, or bargains with God. Of course, these are not consciously remembered. Past life work is very helpful in determining what agreements we may have previously made and may wish to change. The existential issue here is, in fact, “I am here to complete something unresolved, or to fulfill a contract.”

Relevant to personal power is the concept of ego activity and ego passivity. Rapaport (1961) proposed an important psychoanalytic theory that differentiated between active (autonomous) or passive behavior on one hand and ego activity (autonomy) or passivity on the other. The ego is active, or autonomous, when the individual can make a choice from “free will;” the ego is passive, or lacks autonomy, when a person is overwhelmed either by unconscious instinctual demands or by environmental demands (Fromm, 1972). The ego lacks (instinctual) autonomy, for example, when the individual’s behavioral choice is compulsive, as in excessive hand-washing or drug-use, or when it is impulsive, as in an immediate rageful or guilty response. The ego has (environmental) autonomy to the extent that the individual copes effectively with the demands of the outside world, such as fight / flight / freeze reactions. Rapaport (1951, 1958, 1960) suggested that these two types of autonomy are reciprocal: moderate degrees of each help to guarantee the other, and excessive autonomy from either one means enslavement to the other. The Jungian goal is unification of the opposites, decreasing tension between the extremes. The result of integrating the opposites of activity / passivity is not an average between them, but rather the ability to spontaneously and freely use either pole or any combination in the service of the entire personality (Hall, 1986).

Incidentally, the ego can be active (autonomous) when making a passive behavioral choice (e.g., Ghandi chose passive resistance, or one may choose to respond to the incessant demands of another by quietly ignoring them). Here the ego remains active in the sense of refraining from being reactive. The question to answer in analyzing the activity or passivity of the ego in a given situation is, to what extent is the behavior experienced as a conscious, deliberate, non-habitual choice, i.e., to what extent is the locus of control internal rather than external? Important to note here is that for the ego to actively make a passive behavioral choice requires a strong ego. Passively making a passive behavioral choice would be, for example, succumbing to performance anxiety by “freezing up,” or becoming immobilized in the face of another’s abuse, or the ego’s decompensation into psychosis. Actively making a passive behavioral choice would be, for example, following Hora’s (1960, p. 496) admonition that “a therapeutic process cannot be conducted, intended, managed; it must be allowed to occur.”

Confronted by the conclusion that “I am helpless and powerless,” the individual develops deep existential anxiety. A passive response is to withdraw from participation in life; an active response is to become overwhelmingly active in the belief that being busy is the cure for powerlessness. Bugental (1965, p. 299) called it “valuing of action for its own sake. This amounts to an effort to hide from the dread of powerlessness by making so much ‘noise’ about doing that one can not hear the hollow echo” of the fear, “and the point of the doing is utterly lost.”

Personal power lies at the opposite end of the spectrum from abusive or manipulative power. It is defined as power with or to rather than power over. It is an expression of self and not domination over another or others. To develop personal power, children must have their thoughts and words validated, and be free to participate in intellectual curiosity and questioning. Too often, children are disempowered and silenced through educational systems, family, and mass culture that ignore the authenticity and creativity of children (Tucker, 1997). Personal power serves as an important activator of leadership (Lesmeister, 1996).

This existential position is based on the premise of limited or nonexistent choice (“They’re doing it to me”). It is related to Fromm’s basic need for transcendence, for rising above the status of an object with no choice to reign as subject in his experience, capable of creating meaningful choice in life. The antidote for this need unmet is creativity. “Powerlessness reflects a perceived loss of personal power. Although powerlessness is the same as having no control, it is not the opposite of having control. Humans do not need to feel they are in control so much as they need to feel that they are integral parts of what is occurring around them; that they have an effect on their environment” (Stensrud & Stensrud, 1981).

Variants of this existential position are authority issues (intimidated by authority, rebellious against authority, competitive to gain authority); compulsive or addictive patterns; self-destructiveness, self-sabotage, or self-hatred; deep sense of shame or feeling judged; powerlessness; injustice (“Life isn’t fair”).

(3) The third primary existential focus is Identity (the extent to which identity is externally or internally defined: “You tell me who I am” or “I know who I am”). Fromm believed that “this need for a sense of identity is so vital and imperative that man could not remain sane if he did not find some way of satisfying it” (1959, p. 157). Of course, the identity created to satisfy the need may be authentic or inauthentic, depending on the individual’s developmental maturity. If the identity formation is unresolved, the Soul feels incomplete, disconnected, and self-conscious. This existential position is related to the third and fourth developmental stages (from 18 months to 7 years), focused on identity and power, initiative vs. guilt, separating fantasy from reality, and belonging. The task at hand is to separate from others (including God) and be welcomed back with love (rapprochement), and to give up narcissistic beliefs in being the center of the universe.

Being born into human life carries an indwelling anlage, a biological developmental striving toward adult existence as a separate, self-sustaining individual (von Broembsen, 1989b). Other related strivings are toward fulfilling one’s potential, and the need for agency, i.e., the individual’s experience that he freely chooses his actions according to the dictates of his own intrinsic needs and strivings (von Broembsen, 1989a). A vital aspect of that developmental striving is identity formation.

A key issue in the formation of identity is the location of its referent, that is the degree to which the definition of self is established for the sake of the self or for the benefit of another. If the infant develops normally, his/her sense of identity first manifests in the discovery of the body self. As natural exploration of the body and environment progresses from random to purposeful, self identity begins to include the concept of inside (I) and outside (not-I), as well as the experience of purpose. This progression of identity formation occurs within the first three developmental stages (conception to age three): the highly complex neonatal phase of accepting that needs will (or won’t) be met; the exploratory stage of differentiating between I and not-I in which a primitive sense of group identity is formed (the child gestalt) and the referent is internal but not individual; and the separation or individuation stage of shifting the referent for definition of self from gestalt identity to individual identity.

The shift to individual identity is largely a function of the primary caregivers’ capacity or willingness to allow it. Since the ability to reflect on our own experience does not fully develop until the early teenage years during the stage that Piaget termed “formal operations,” the young child’s self-identity forms through identification. Thus, unable to reflect on itself, the child internalizes the caregivers’ reflections and regards itself in terms of how it appears to others. For example if the caretaking adult’s needs become the referent for the definition of the child, the result is formation of an other-centered identity before self identity has consolidated. Personality develops in such an individual on the ego and superego levels without access to the self, and thus the referent for definition of self is external. The power to validate the self lies in the hands of others, leading to (co)dependence and ultimately to a sense of futility, meaninglessness, and existential despair.

One aspect of the reflected identity that is rampant in most modern cultures is that of identifying oneself with doing, having and achieving at the expense of simply being. Many of us learned very early to suppress tendencies to unstructured and unproductive thought or activity, considering them to be unacceptable and wasteful deficiencies, the inability to be good enough, the failure to measure up. We repressed that part of ourselves into the shadow. Pediatrician and psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott stressed the importance for young children of having time in unstructured states of being (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983). The experience of formlessness and comfortable solitude is necessary in the development of a healthy self-identity. If the child is repeatedly interrupted in these experiences by a demanding caregiver, he/she becomes prematurely and compulsively attuned to the demands of others. This child loses awareness of its own spontaneous needs and develops a false sense of self based on compliance and performance. Therefore, Winnicott defined two essential elements of parenting in early childhood: sustained emotional bonding, and space to be and rest in unstructured being, which he called “going-on-being.”

The final progression toward identity consolidation brings a self-referenced (internal and individual referent) self-definition. Let us call it existential identity. Existential identity is the ultimate expression of agency, of experiencing everything as choice, expressed as “I choose my experience” or “I am 100% accountable for my experience.” It is a sense of sovereignty of the self. Such an individual avoids the narcissistic beliefs in being the center of the universe, however, through a clear need for relatedness with nature, with others, and with its own conception of God. Existential identity is, then, the ultimate achievement of balance between the seemingly incompatible needs of autonomous separation from others and intimate affiliation with others, without feeling threatened and without narcissism.

Three factors are crucial in developing existential identity (von Broembsen, 1989b). One is the understanding that I am not defined by the roles I enact, whether self-oriented or other-centered, nor by the response I get from others, whether supportive or critical. Two is the recognition that every experience chosen serves some intrinsic need or striving of my own, whether it be healthy or pathological. And three is the acknowledgement of an indwelling lucidity for making conscious choices that are congruent with supporting and expanding the healthy aspects of the self and extinguishing any maladaptive conditioning.

Variants of this existential position are fear of abandonment and/or engulfment; identity confusion; social exclusion (“I don’t belong”); and inhibition (“Don’t be me”).

(4) The final primary existential focus is Worthiness (the degree to which “I accept myself and embrace life fully” or “I am not worthy to exist”). This soul is struggling with God for justification of its existence. Am I significant? Am I worthy to express my true feelings? to enjoy abundance in life? to move through life with ease rather than struggle? to have an intimate relationship with God? Ultimately, am I worthy to exist? Unworthiness is ego-centric, manifested either as inferiority or as grandiosity. They are one-in-the-same.

This existential position relates to Fromm’s basic need for relatedness, demanded in response to one’s existential separateness and isolation. We need to be connected with others, and may concentrate that connection around comparison, competition, avoidance, emotional detachment, or various alternatives to intimacy. We also need connection with a spiritual source, and may structure that relationship around struggle, longing, blame, abandonment, or confusion. We need to believe that our life is significant, that we have some purpose for living, and may experience that as a burden or a boon, as clear or inscrutable.

Variants of this existential position are perfectionism (“I’m never good enough”); living in the past or future, not in the present; lack of clarity regarding one’s purpose in life; fear of intimacy; Narcissism; spiritual struggles; authority issues with God.

The Four Primary Existential Positions with which People Go through Life

(1) Resistance to Life (“I don’t want to be here” or “I don’t want to

do this anymore”).

an unconscious death urge, or death anxiety

fear of annihilation (“Don’t be”)

despair and separation anxiety

longing for connection (fear of intimacy or engulfment, “Divine


struggle with hardships

feeling stuck or claustrophobic

fear of needs not being met (money, time, safety, material things)

isolation or terror of abandonment (perceived abandonment or

abandoning others)

a deep, basic lack of trust

numbness, avoidance, disconnection and dissociation

the nagging question of “Why am I here?” or “Why am I in this

[relationship, predicament, family, job, et cetera]?”

(2) Personal Power (“I am at the mercy of forces beyond my control”)

authority issues (intimidated by authority, rebellious against

authority, competitive to gain authority)

compulsive or addictive patterns

self-destructiveness, self-sabotage, or self-hatred

deep sense of shame or feeling judged

powerlessness (blaming others for problems or failures)

injustice (“Life isn’t fair”) leading to vengefulness or self-pity

entitlement (“The world owes me”)

(3) Identity (identity is externally defined: “You tell me who I am”)

fear of abandonment and/or engulfment

identity confusion

social exclusion (“I don’t belong”)

inhibition (“Don’t be me”)

(4) Worthiness (“I am not worthy to be here”), manifested either as

inferiority or as grandiosity.

perfectionism (“I’m never good enough”)

unmanageable responsibility (“It is too much for me”)

living in the past or future, not in the present

lack of clarity regarding one’s purpose in life

fear of intimacy


spiritual struggles (not worthy of God’s love or acceptance)

authority issues with God (blaming God)

abandonment by God (“spiritual exile”)

The capacity to enter into and use the following traits determines one’s

success in converting the original traumatized conclusion into positive

strengths, and converting the originally repressed behavioral aspects into

reclaimed inner resources (see Table 2):

1. Openness to experience

2. Internal Locus of Control

3. Diffuse attention

4. Cognitive flexibility

5. Non-defensiveness

6. Low self-focus

7. Expression

8. Completion (leaving no unfinished business)

Therefore, effective psychotherapy and personal growth methods will support and enhance these traits.

Table 2

Positive and Negative Aspects of Existential Conclusions and Decisions

Angst – Existential

Existential Strength


Resistance to 1. Avoidance 1. Openness

Life 2. External LOC 2. Internal LOC

3. Focal attention 3. Diffuse

4. Cognitive attention

rigidity 4. Cognitive

5. Defended flexibility

6. High self-focus 5. Non-defensive

7. Repression 6. Low self-focus

8.Uncompleted 7. Expression

8. Complete

Personal 1. Avoidance 1. Openness

Power 2. External LOC 2. Internal LOC

3. Focal attention 3. Diffuse

4. Cognitive attention

rigidity 4. Cognitive

5. Defended flexibility

6. High self-focus 5. Non-defensive

7. Repression 6. Low self-focus

8. Uncompleted 7. Expression

8. Complete

Identity 1. Avoidance 1. Openness

2. External LOC 2. Internal LOC

3. Focal attention 3. Diffuse

4. Cognitive attention

rigidity 4. Cognitive

5. Defended flexibility

6. High self-focus 5. Non-defensive

7. Repression 6. Low self-focus

8. Uncompleted 7. Expression

8. Complete

Worthiness 1. Avoidance 1. Openness

2. External LOC 2. Internal LOC

3. Focal attention 3. Diffuse

4. Cognitive attention

rigidity 4. Cognitive

5. Defended flexibility

6. High self-focus 5. Non-defensive

7. Repression 6. Low self-focus

8. Uncompleted 7. Expression

8. Complete

Shadow – repressed Inner Resources

behavioral decisions to reclaim

Resistance to 1. Avoidance 1. Openness

Life 2. External LOC 2. Internal LOC

3. Focal attention 3. Diffuse

4. Cognitive attention

rigidity 4. Cognitive

5. Defended flexibility

6. High self-focus 5. Non-defensive

7. Repression 6. Low self-focus

8. Uncompleted 7. Expression

8. Complete

Personal 1. Avoidance 1. Openness

Power 2. External LOC 2. Internal LOC

3. Focal attention 3. Diffuse

4. Cognitive attention

rigidity 4. Cognitive

5. Defended flexibility

6. High self-focus 5. Non-defensive

7. Repression 6. Low self-focus

8. Uncompleted 7. Expression

8. Complete

Identity 1. Avoidance 1. Openness

2. External LOC 2. Internal LOC

3. Focal attention 3. Diffuse

4. Cognitive attention

rigidity 4. Cognitive

5. Defended flexibility

6. High self-focus 5. Non-defensive

7. Repression 6. Low self-focus

8. Uncompleted 7. Expression

8. Complete

Worthiness 1. Avoidance 1. Openness

2. External LOC 2. Internal LOC

3. Focal attention 3. Diffuse

4. Cognitive attention

rigidity 4. Cognitive

5. Defended flexibility

6. High self-focus 5. Non-defensive

7. Repression 6. Low self-focus

8. Uncompleted 7. Expression

8. Complete

A Way to Discover your Early Conclusions and Behavioral Decisions

Clearly, one of the easiest ways to discover our shadows is to non-defensively observe our projections onto others. People to whom we have an emotional reaction, either repulsion or admiration, are reflecting for us those qualities within us that we have repressed as unacceptable or unattainable. Whenever we find ourselves reacting to the behavior or way of being of another, using this brief method of self-reflection is extremely useful (see Table 3). First, identify the behavior or qualities of the other that you have reacted to (“When you …”). Then become aware of the somatic and emotional nature of the reaction (“I feel …”). Follow the bridge back to a time in early life when you felt the same way or had the same experience. Note your age at that time (to correlate with the developmental stages) and re-entering the situation, feel the feelings again. Then identify what conclusion you drew about yourself in that traumatic moment. That conclusion was so overwhelmingly painful (angst) that you devised a strategy for dealing with it unconsciously. You repressed into shadow some immediate urge that seemed too unacceptable or unattainable, and you selected some behaviors to emphasize that seemed both acceptable and attainable. In the process, a normal and natural developmental task was interrupted, and inner resources abandoned.

Table 3

The Clearing Process

1. “When you , I feel .”

(behavior) (sad, mad, hurt, shame, scared,


2. “What that takes me back to is .”

(childhood incident)

3. “A conclusion I made about myself at that time was .”

4. “The decision I made of how to behave to deal with it was .”

5. “I change the old conclusion to .”

(new, healthy conclusion)

For example, two women who worked closely together in a holistic health environment were experiencing paralyzing tension between them. They agreed to use the “clearing process” to resolve their high reactivity to each other. Florence began, citing the other woman’s tendency to elaborate at length about the reasons behind every request. She was very willing to say yes to the requests, but reacted with great irritation to the long explanations. Florence also cited Sarah’s habit of escalating her requests from something innocuous, adding more and more until meeting resistance. Florence was aware of her emotional reaction being mostly angry, although she also felt some hurt and fear that she would be overwhelmed. Then Florence closed her eyes and allowed herself to go back to the source incident. She was in the kitchen at age seven with her family after supper. Her father and brother left the table, and her mother asked her to clear the dishes off the table, elaborating about what a headache she had, how difficult had been her day at work, and how much she needed some quiet rest. Florence had no more than begun to clear the table when her mother said, “Well, as long as you’re clearing the table, you might as well wash the dishes too.” Seven-year-old Florence felt burdened by all her mother’s problems and tricked by the “one, two” approach of getting agreement to do one thing and then adding more to it. She was furious at her mother, and also at her brother who was never expected to help in the kitchen. She felt overwhelmed and powerless with too much responsibility, and also felt a deep sadness. That seven-year-old girl concluded that “Life is unfair, and I am bound to be taken advantage of.” The decision she made was to keep her guard up with people, becoming hyper-vigilant for anyone who might potentially take advantage of her. This experience, like no doubt many other related ones over the years, documents the formation of Florence’s authority issues, unwillingness to risk intimacy, and her extreme reaction to Sarah’s style of asking for something. Her developmental tasks in the fifth stage of 7-12 years, related to rules and authority, were interrupted and not completed. The inner resources to be reclaimed include acceptance of having wants and needs, taking only reasonable responsibility, and speaking the truth. Through utilizing this process, with trained facilitation, Florence gained a clear understanding of the unconscious reasons for her reaction, and a map of how to heal it.

Self-care without self-absorption

One of the hallmarks of the evolved individual, one who has achieved wisdom, is the lack of self-absorption and concern for the welfare of others. Let us discuss this element, lest the important process of discovering and healing one’s own developmental deficiencies becomes a purposeless exercise in narcissism.

Manifesting higher and healthier qualities of being, here and now, while serving a meaningful role in this world is a noble goal. The eastern concept of karma yoga is particularly in tune with this idea: any action can be performed with a high quality of consciousness, in harmony with the larger whole (Satprem, 1968). Even the most simple or mundane chores are an opportunity to live with expanded awareness, or with a high quality of being. Related to karma yoga is the commitment among many westerners to taking action in the world based on the insights gained through therapeutic work and meditation. In Psychosynthesis, for example, this is referred to as “grounding.”

The experience of feeling “grace” while in selfless service to others has a long history in the Christian tradition as well as the Hindu and Buddhist. Research has documented seven themes associated with the experience of grace: feeling present in the moment, often with heightened awareness; feeling oneness or connection, often without fear; feeling blessed and/or loved; feeling energized; feeling guided; feeling peace; feeling joy (Gowack, 1998). The experience of “feeling grace” while in selfless service to others is characterized as a transpersonal, transcendent, and mystical experience that dissolves the boundaries of one’s ego-self, expanding the context of life to incorporate the ever-presence of grace.

Maslow spoke to this point:

Self-actualizing people are, without one single exception, involved in a cause outside their own skin, in something outside of themselves. They are devoted, working at something, something which is very precious to them — some calling or vocation in the old sense, the priestly sense. They are working at something which fate has called them to somehow and which they work at and which they love, so that the work-joy dichotomy in them disappears (1967, p. 280-281).


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