Unit III. The False Self


  1. Psychological Development
  2. Separation from Spirit
  3. Fear
Books needed:

Steps to Freedom
Yoga and Psychotherapy

Practices and Exercises:

Stages of development
Separation from Spirit

Human beings have probably been trying to figure out how things work and how the world came to be since they had their first thoughts. Haven't you ever wondered, upon gazing at the night sky, who put the stars there and why they stay put? Haven't you denied the concept of no God or no order or purpose in the universe? Even if your personal beliefs don't include a Father/Mother God/Creator, you must still try to figure out how all the magic of interdependence in nature came to be. Could it be entirely random as some scientists insist?

Probably since human beings became able to think about abstract ideas like those above, people have tried to make models, often in the form of pictures, to show others how they thought about something. This process is still going on. A model gives us a starting point from which to try to explain something to someone else. So I want to use two basic types of models to show you how two ways of thinking about reality and consequently the spiritual journey can differ tremendously. Then, hopefully, you will begin to understand how combining such models can account for both the separation from Spirit and the return.

The two models are: 1) the Psychological Development of human beings based on the idea that we learn how to function in the world through a process of what could be called social conditioning. This model says we develop an ego, a personality and our intellect through learning processes that occur after birth. 2) The Yogic model of the Higher Self, presented in Unit 4., says that ego, personality and intellect are not real but are illusions which occur as the result of our forgetting who we really are. The first model dominates most of modern psychology in the west, and the second comes out of eastern traditions. Curiously they are both referred to as psychology. We will look at the western psychological model first.

Psychological Development

In this section, we will be restricting our discussion to the normal development of the intellectual mind, the false self or personality and the ego that supports it because these are the three most important obstacles to Self-realization. You may remember that Self-realization means recovery of awareness of our divine identity or Higher Self.

Psychological development occurs in stages that can be outlined roughly analogous to age groups. There is, by no means, consensus on the stages presented here. However, this outline represents the most common groupings. Ages are approximate; children may be faster or slower than the ages given here and still be within the normal range. Also, as people get older, age is less of a factor and the groupings are based on more general concepts. Stages offered in this analysis are: Infancy, birth - two years; Pre-school, 2-4 years; School age, 5-12 years (sometimes divided into Intuitive, 5-7 years and Concrete Operational, 7-12 years); Adolescence, 12-18 years; Young Adult, 18-21 years; Adult, 22-40 years; Middle age, 40-55 years; Aging, 55 years +.

Table 1

If you consult Table I. Developmental Processes, you will be able to read all concurrent developments of a stage across a row, and the evolution of one aspect of development over all ages down a column. For instance, you can see the development of Identity according to Eric Erikson from birth to death down the fifth column. Or you can see all the pertinent development emerging at age three looking across the row for the Preschool period. Where the factors presented come from a particular theorist, his/her name is given in the heading. The rest are the result of a collation from many sources.

Later stages depend upon adequate completion of the tasks in former ones in order to proceed optimally. This means development is cumulative. It also suggests that there are certain learnings that are achieved most effectively in certain periods of life as if the organism were primed for it. Some of this is due to the timing of brain maturation, such as learning a language, learning to read or setting up a basis for general intelligence. There is a critical period for bonding with the mother and/or father immediately after birth, and if this does not occur the individual is likely to have life-long problems with relationships, trust and love. The ability to engage in formal operational thought depends upon the previous development of concrete operations which depends upon specific kinds of learning in infancy and early childhood. Intellect doesn't just happen, it is programmed in by degrees. And not all cultures do it.

Development is not even, nor is it linear. It goes by leaps and spurts as if the child were only attending to one aspect at a time. So some children talk earlier than others who might, in turn, develop more highly skilled motor abilities or interpersonal relationships during the same time span. We arbitrarily separate developmental tasks into the general areas of physical, mental, emotional or psychological, social, and moral development. This is not to say that they do not overlap; it is just a convenience for sorting things out. Obviously there is a great deal of overlap when the underlying functions are similar.

Psychological development can go backward as well as forward and, when it does, it is called regression. This may occur as the result of some kind of trauma, psychological illness or stress. It may be very pathological or it might be just a temporary lapse as when we talk to ourselves. In regression, the behaviors are typical of an earlier developmental stage. Regression may or may not be permanent.

Piaget (1952) says that we go through cycles of equilibrium and disequilibrium which create a spiral form of growth. [Each complete cycle, then, constitutes a stage. Refer to Purce's spiral Spiral Model model.  When we are first beginning a stage, we are doing a great deal of new learning. We must, for whatever reasons, accommodate or adapt ourselves to changes or new kinds of stimulation that upset the status quo and tend to make us irritable and out of sorts. This is the disequilibrium side of the stage. Examples are teething, ego emergence ("terrible twos") and the rebellions of adolescence. As we work through the new learning, we come finally to a place of comparative rest during which we are consolidating the new learning. This involves what Piaget calls assimilation, meaning the new learning is being made a part of our system. This tends to be a relatively peaceful interlude in life such as the "threes," prepuberty and early adulthood.

I want to give you a generalized summary of each stage just so you have a feel for the tenor of growth at different stages of life. Table I. presents most of it in summary form. I will present the mental stage first each time as it tends to set the tone for other learning and often the other learning is based upon the mental readiness.

Infancy (birth to two years). Sensori-motor development dominates this stage and is marked by trial and error learning as the baby explores the environment. In the process, connections are made in the brain between the sensory cortex and the motor cortex of the brain. This establishes the senses as the major doors through which information about the world is admitted to the person. Perception is learned during this time when meanings are connected to the sensory imput. Children learn to walk and begin to talk during this period thus gaining new skills for information processing.

Primary attachments to family members are made and either trust or mistrust is established with respect to other human beings. Ego emerges along with a self-image or self-concept which ego is dedicated to defend. Children are weaned and usually toilet trained. These requirements represent the beginnings of socialization and they frequently run counter to the child's desires. Because of this, equilibrium is upset and the child must adapt his/her behavior to the circumstances. This leads to new learning.

By the end of this period, a child has become a person. Fully embodied. And the mind supports this with the achievement of object permanence meaning the child has developed the faculty of imaging. The image can now stand in for an apparently absent object, so out of sight isn't necessarily out of mind. For our purposes, the break from Spirit is complete.

Preschool (2 to 4 years). During this period, children develop their imaginations, the ability to use internal images in thinking and information processing. However, speech and thinking are still wedded, so everything children think, they also say out loud. The processes are all linear as is speech. There is, however, rudimentary sorting and grouping which are the forerunners of later concept-formation. A curious facet of mental development at this age is that children act as if they think everything that moves, such as the wind, is alive. We call it animistic thinking and try to squelch it, a move that probably further alienates us from Mother Earth. Near the end of this period, children may begin to have nightmares, an indication that imagination is fully developed and carrying over into their night life.

Identification proceeds apace as children strive to find out what kinds of people they are. This triggers the evaluation process accompanied by the emergence of adjectives in speech. How we feel about ourselves begins here whether it is a sense of worthiness and competence or a feeling of lack of self-worth. In other words, the basis for self-esteem and self-respect is laid here. Social conditioning begins with a vengeance now as parents endeavor to train their children to fit into society. If the training is too harsh, there may be considerable soul loss since children tend to repress those aspects of themselves that do not meet with approval from family members.

The developmental task of this period, according to Erikson (1968), is autonomy vs shame and doubt. Emergence of autonomy depends upon adequate opportunity to explore the environment and to learn to control it. Self-regulation and self-control as well as being able to control the impact of others on oneself or to say "No" to others are also important factors here. If autonomy is not gained, there will be a lifelong sense of generalized shame and doubt, especially self-doubt.

The presence of siblings can lead to jealousy, attention-getting mechanisms and competition or sibling rivalry if children don't get enough love and quality attention.

Children do not yet truly play with other children but do enjoy what is called parallel play, "doing their own thing" in the presence of others. They may resist sharing.

Sex-role training begins in this period and is primarily promoted by fathers while mothers reward achievement motivation. Children now learn a great deal through imitation and identification with the parents' behaviors. So we can say a new skill of observation learning has emerged. This applies to television models as well as to parents.

School Age (5-12 years). The early period (5-7 years) begins with a gross internalization process in which speech and thought are separated (thought is internalized whereas speech is not), the ego becomes capable of repression and the superego or self-critic emerges. The self-critic is based upon all parental admonitions and prohibitions and, because it is internalized, the individual carries henceforth within him/her, the standards for behavior and moral values taught by the parents. This is the "parent" in transactional analysis. The separation of speech and thought enables the child to form concepts. That requires using the name of a group of similar things as if it were a genuine reality. From this point, intellectual development accelerates and intuitive development is curtailed because it is not reinforced. About this same time, the male sex-role is strongly enforced but not the female one.

Peer groups begin to take center stage. Children demand others to play with and they act out future social roles together. Conformity learning has begun and exclusion of non-conformists from the play group is not uncommon. The developmental task that takes precedence here is initiative vs guilt. This involves the development of will power, so we see hierarchies of power arise in peer groups. Social subordination becomes a reality, and this is probably a determining factor in loss of will. All of this is based upon the need to belong and to have approval from others.

With the advent of school and around age 7, the stage of concrete operations is ushered in. This means children learn to perform logical mental operations. However, they must have a concrete object in front of them. All of the subject matter in elementary school is presented in such a way as to optimize the development of intellect. Moral development follows a similar pattern.

In later years of this stage, boys' and girls' social development begins to diverge. Boys tend to run in gangs and girls with best friends or as pairs. What they learn about relationships naturally differs as a result. Gangs tend to be focused on external activities such as sports and they reward prowess, leadership and power. The girls' pair relationships lean toward the development of intimacy and internalized, bonding-like connections. Because of peer pressures and demands for conformity, social enslavement is a real danger. The will gets broken as a result of social conformity.

Competencies of all descriptions emerge during this stage. Usually children discover some things they do well and focus attention on developing those skills. This is connected directly with the task for School Age children: Industry vs Inferiority. If a child feels incompetent, inferiority feelings result. If not, they learn how to work and develop new skills, i.e., industry.

Adolescence (12-18 years). Adolescence is a peculiarly western phenomenon. It serves as a bridge from childhood to adulthood and provides a long period of time during which young people can learn the skills required in complex industrial society. Intellectual development reaches maturity and a person can now think about his/her own thinking, i.e., introspect. It also means one can perform mental operations on ideas and concepts that are not immediately present. For example, we can think about justice which has no one concrete referent. Or we can manipulate several propositions in our heads at once without losing track of them. Moral issues lag behind in that they are still based on conventional ideas of right and wrong. The capacity for egocentric thought leads to a preoccupation with how others see one, so one is on "center stage" all the time - or so an adolescent perceives.

Physical maturity leads to an interest in the opposite sex and dating usually in the context of a larger social group or clique whose boundaries are carefully defended. Peer influences reach their zenith, and parental advice is likely to be rejected in a primary bid for independence. Female sex-roles are now enforced by everyone. Due to peer exclusivity and rejection and/or the need to leave family dominance and become self-sufficient, many if not most adolescents have their hearts broken in the sense that the false self takes precedence and the authentic self is repressed in the service of belonging to the group. To maintain this charade, the heart must be closed and vulnerability protected. This probably accounts for the sense of unreality one often has in the presence of young people in this stage.

Ego identity, as defined by Erikson (1968) is the perception of a central self which is consistent over time and which has the executive power to make decisions. Note the difference from the idea of ego in Yoga. This perception needs to be matched by validating feedback from others that they see one in the same way. Ego identity is meant to be accomplished, but often isn't. The individual may settle for a "teenage" role instead thus becoming embroiled in role confusion.

Adolescents have little or no meaningful work to do in our society coupled with enormous energy. Something to think about.

Young Adulthood (18-21 years). This is an era of emancipation. Persons of this age usually leave home, in activity and status if not in fact. College is an option for many while others go to work and become financially independent. If encouraged, thinking may develop into the analogical mode; and creativity, if it survived schooling, may blossom and bear fruit. It is usually a prime time of life because skills and energy are optimal and hope is high. Those who have been disadvantaged may turn to crime if they have not found adequate guidance and/or love. Moral issues are now beginning to be seen in a context of intention rather than rigid right and wrong.

Mating becomes a primary focus and will remain so until it is dealt with. Along with this, intimacy issues arise. If they are not satisfactorily resolved, isolation may result. Marriage may occur but is usually put off until people are more self-sufficient. Sexual activity may begin now if it did not do so in adolescence.

Deciding on a life's work or finding employment comes to the fore, and individuals with future orientations may become focused on discovering their life purpose.

Adulthood (22-40 years). This age division is based on reports of feeling "over the hill" at one's fortieth birthday, rather than on objective evidence. It becomes more difficult to delineate stages by ages as individuals grow older because they tend to diverge so much in their developmental accomplishments. Some never leave adolescence.Cycles of development may complete themselves now every seven to twelve years and are usually marked by a crisis of some kind at the initiation of the cycle.

It appears that mental development in adulthood depends upon how much use the mind gets and how much stimulation. It's like exercise. We say "use it or lose it," and that applies to the mind as well as to the body. Challenging mental tasks result in keener mental activity.

The task for adults, according to Erikson, is generativity vs stagnation. Generativity means taking responsibility for the society and for the younger generation. Marriage may occur and parenting begins if a family is desired. In any case, a home is created and usually shared. Love and work are the two major tasks for adults, according to Freud, and this seems to be true. One seeks a partner and meaningful work to do. In current society, a transformation is going on with respect to social norms. Marriage is often being replaced by other kinds of living arrangements and the outcome in terms of the welfare of our society is uncertain. Divorce often coupled with remarriage and blended families, or single parenting is on the rise.

If the spiritual journey is begun now, the heart may be able to reopen and enable the person to create deeper, more satisfactory relationships.

Middle Age (40-55). This period is marked by adaptation. Whether one is successful or unsuccessful in his/her vocation, there may be a surge of discontent and disequilibrium leading to a mid-life crisis. This can manifest as neurosis, divorce, addiction or vocational change. It tends to center around the lack of meaning in life. This can trigger a spiritual revolution. If one is successful in the work arena, mastery of the field may emerge with attendent mentoring of younger aspirants to the profession. If one is not vocationally successful, rebellion may occur or one may sink into recurrent routine, apathy or despair. I am using the term "successful" to mean work satisfaction, not in the usual connotation of status and prestige.

Mid-life is also the time when children leave home. If a parent has based his/her identity on parenting, a major crisis may ensue due to lack of a central focus for energy and motivation. Loneliness and isolation may become problematic for those who live alone.

This period is an ideal time to work on soul recovery since the person is usually mature enough to throw off social conditioning without running amok. It is also a good time to work through issues around loss of will.

Aging (55+). This period has its own unique challenges. Retirement coupled with physical slowing means that people may have to reevaluate their orientations because they can't do as much. Endurance usually suffers, and illness, disability or disease may appear. If the person is healthy, retirement may create a crisis around inactivity and motivation especially if identity was tied to the work being relinquished. If illness is a factor, issues of helplessness and control may surface. One begins to lose friends and loved ones who die. So grief and loneliness must be confronted. The crisis here is integrity (meaning wholeness) vs despair. How does one maintain a sense of wholeness throughout all the changes that are taking place expecially since the prime of life energy is past? If it hasn't happened yet, thoughts begin to turn now to what happens after death. So some kind of preparation for the transition is in order. Return to Spirit.

In India, there are four stages of life: Youth when one is expected to be a student (first 25 years), Adulthood when one is supposed to maintain a household, raise children and support society (second 25 years), Forest Academy when one leaves home and goes into the forest to meditate (third 25 years), and Teacher when one is supposed to return to society and teach the young (fourth 25 years). We might learn something from this system, not the least of which is respect for elderly wisdom.

Spiritual development can begin at any time. Some people come into life already well advanced, but these are few and, as they mature, many are seen as great souls, called mahatmas. However, most people will turn to spiritual development some time after the prime of life (although it seems more and more young people are seeking the path now). There seems to be a natural tendency to turn inward for self-examination once external obligations are fulfilled. And this usually occurs in middle age. Maturity enhances the process as was acknowledged by the east Indian culture.

Exercises: Stages of Development

1. Read A Path with Heart, Ch. 12, pp. 171-179. Make notes on the cycles he talks about and compare them with the psychological developmental cycles. Do the Meditation: Reflecting on the Cycles of your Spiritual Life exercise on page 183, and make some notes on what you experienced.

2. Write your spiritual autobiography. This is an account of all the events in your life that you remember now that were significant in your spiritual development. Try to keep it brief, so you will want to read it again. You can just outline it if you wish.

3. Read Steps to Freedom and reflect on how the point of view in this book differs from that with which you were raised. This book represents the Sufi perspective which is the mystical tradition of Islam. (All religious views will be considered relevant in these guidebooks.) Islam came after Christianity historically, so watch to see what aspects of Christianity are accepted and included and which are expanded. What is new in this view? What, if anything, contradicts the Christian message? Were you inspired by it? Make notes for yourself.


The Initial Break with Spirit

Almaas* in The Pearl Beyond Price (1990) drawing on Margaret Mahler's work (Mahler, 1975) has outlined the process of alienation from Being [or Spirit] which alienation is identical with the development of ego and personality. He says:

Being is a true existence; it is what is actually there, whether we are aware of it or not. And it is this existence, this presence of Being, independent of any inner image, that is what we are... the actual presence of true nature which can be directly experienced...Being is eternal and timeless... When the mind is still, there is just presence, just Being, unqualified by ideas or concepts of time or individuality. Thus when we cease to construct entities in the mind, we see that the ego does not exist. We then simply are. So to believe that we are the separate individuality is to take ourselves to be something that does not truly exist, and to fail to see who we are, to fail to realize our true essence (pp. 27-28)... The person is nothing but the embodiment of Being... Ego development is part of the process of embodiment of Being learning to manifest and live in embodied existence. (p. 458).
Furthermore, he says, "When the child is born he is completely Being...completely cathected (i.e., bonded) to Being" (p. 281). However, this connection to Being is soon lost. The gist of it is that neonates when faced with temporary (we hope) disappearances of their mothers become terrified because they sense that they are entirely dependent upon her. They feel abandoned, and this is the separation anxiety of infancy with which we are all familiar.

Soon, however, as a result of sensory-motor development, according to Piaget (1952), infants learn that the boundary of self does not include mother and their separation from her becomes complete. Because of the newly developed ability to form images in the mind, babies become capable of seeing mother as a separate object rather than being immersed in a symbiotic union in which neither is differentiated. So they are increasingly able to tolerate her temporary absences, i.e., the image stands in for mother and can be held on to until she returns. By the end of the first year, as a result of physical and mental development, the first stable ego boundaries appear. Children then begin to practice their new skills and, in the process, find out they are not omnipotent which leads to identification with the self-image instead of with Being. Children now believe themselves to be identical with the body, mind and emotions. The essential connection with Being is lost. By time children are two years old, a stable self-concept is in place and the ego is capable of saying, "No." Also, children have achieved object constancy meaning that they know that someone or something being out of sight does not necessarily mean it does not exist. This includes mother, of course, and themselves as well. Unfortunately it does not include the larger context of Being. "..the birth of ego does mean the loss of contact with Being" (Almaas, p. 68).

For Almaas, all of these identifications are defenses against the groundlessness of Being which are built up because of the overwhelming anxiety that results from the initial loss of contact with Being (p. 140). What this means is that our whole structure of personality including ego and all of its defenses have been developed as a substitute for the Love of the Divine One, or Being. "There is an abyss separating Being from the ego membrane. This abyss is the experience of absence of Being" (p. 142). "Ego development is due to loss of contact with Being" (p. 376).

To summarize, the achievement of a stable identity, ego and personality depends upon being able to represent oneself to oneself with a set of mental images that are learned as we grow up, and to having had feedback from others about what kind of person they perceive us to be. These images are based on a perception of separation from others and (probably unconsciously) from Being with boundaries of self that usually correspond to the body-image. These images remain with us still and will be referred to in these lessons as personality aspects or self-image.

This explanation shows us how personality stands in the way of Liberation or Self-Realization which is simply the knowledge that our true identity is Being or Spirit. It also explains our continuous underlying sense of loss and yearning, the emptiness we all feel inside.

* Almaas is a modern psychologist who draws his ideas from the Sufi (mystical branch of Islam) tradition and from psychoanalysis, a la Freud.

These are only two of the possible psychological models from the western body of information that one might use as a way of understanding part of life's journey; in this case, the first half. Any model is only an approximation of reality since each individual experiences life differently. However, models help organize information, so that's how we will be using them here.

Exercise: Separation from Spirit

1. Read pages 179-194 in Yoga and Psychotherapy. Compare what the authors say with the ideas Almaas has presented. Notice the similarities and differences. What is the major cause of defenses? What is the predominant defense that develops from the insecurities of the first chakra?

2. Write a paper on how you experience the loss of higher consciousness in your life.


Given the trauma of the separations we have discussed and our alienation from Spirit, it isn't surprising that fear is something that accompanies us throughout life. Often, or perhaps when we are not occupied with our daily concerns, we may sense our loneliness and isolation in the cosmos and that feeling that no one person can understand us completely. We may feel threatened by a loss of control over what happens to us in the face of more and more frequent global catastrophes.

This yearning to be safe and protected at Home may well be tied to an existential anxiety caused by separation from Spirit. Such anxiety is a low level, ever-present background of fear that has no apparent cause and which is present in nearly everyone to some degree. It may be stronger in those who think deeply about their identity and existence in a boundless universe. Therefore, existential anxiety should be considered separately from those other fears and anxieties due to life experience although these latter may be primed by it initially. Existential anxiety may be our most pressing reason for trying to find the way Home, so it is very important to pay attention to it.


Almaas, A. H. The pearl beyond price: Integration of personality into Being: An object relations approach. Berkeley, CA: Diamond Books, 1990. Permission to quote granted.

Erikson, E. Identity, Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton, 1968.

Feild, Reshad. Steps to freedom: Discourses on the alchemy of the heart. Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1983.

Kornfield, Jack. A path with heart: A guide through the perils and promises of spiritual life. NY: Bantam, 1993.

Mahler, M. S., et al. The psychological birth of the human infant. NY: Basic Books, 1975.

Piaget, J. The origins of intelligence in children (2nd ed.) New York: International Universities Press, 1952.

Rama, Swami, Ballentine, R. & Ajaya, Swami. Yoga and psychotherapy: The evolution of consciousness. Honesdale, PA: Himalayan International Institute, 1981.

The next chapter of Return to Spirit is Unit 4. The Higher Self which will take up some of the models of eastern or Yogic psychology most of which deal with the journey Home. We will look at Jnana Yoga, the route of self-study and knowledge according to Vivekananda, and the Samkhya system of Patanjali that is designed to lead us to enlightenment. We'll see how many of the findings of modern physics were known to the seers in ancient India, and yet how their knowledge led to a totally different world view. The chakra system of Kundalini Yoga is introduced, and you will have a chance to work with some new symbol. The Higher Self is that part of ourselves that is in touch with the Divine One and that is often called the Witness Self.

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