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Chapter 13: Personal Essence and Object Relations Theory
We are presenting here a perspective that is supported by a wealth of experience—in fact, by all the spiritual experience of mankind—that inner integration can go beyond the mind, and into the realm of Being. Our goal here is not to demonstrate the truth of this spiritual experience, for this is humanity's common knowledge, but to demonstrate in detail the relationship between this experience and ego development. The connecting factor is the development of the Personal Essence, which is both personal and within the realm of Being.
In contrast, object relations theory utilizes the concept of psychic metabolism,
but with a few partial exceptions (such as the work of Michael Balint and
Fairbairn) restricts its application to the content of the mind. Most writings indicate that when early experience is metabolized it becomes integrated into the structure of the ego.
Since this field does not include the concept of Being, it does not take into consideration what we consider to be the ultimate goal of ego development. Thus ego development is seen as occurring in a completely different realm from spiritual transformation, which is not addressed at all. These assumptions are what underly the mistaken belief in the gulf between the man of spirit and the man of the world.
Personal Essence can be seen as the integration or absorption of personality into Being, as the synthesis of the man of the world and the man of spirit.
However, it is more accurate to see it as the ultimate product of ego development. In other words, ego development and spiritual enlightenment are not two disjoint processes but parts of the same process. The understanding of the Personal Essence shows how they are linked. This point is a radical departure from the understanding of both traditional spiritual teachings and modern psychology. It unifies these two fields into one field, that of human nature and development.
To explore further the consequences of our perspective, we will look more closely at the process of absorption, expanding our investigation beyond the adult ego states we have so far mainly considered. Our question here will be, what are the conditions needed for the absorption of ego into Being?
We have identified secondary autonomy as one such condition, showing that the relinquishing of the defensive aspect of any ego identity is always only partial.
We have also explored how it is possible to go farther, seeing that just before the process of absorption begins, the remaining general but subtle defensive posture of an identification system can dissolve. This indicates that for absorption to occur the process of secondary autonomy must be complete and not only relative. Absorption occurs only when personality completely surrenders its defenses. When personality (any identification system of ego) ceases all resistance, it is readily absorbed, and a transformation occurs that ends in the emergence of the Personal Essence. So the transition from ego to Being hinges on the abandonment of defense. This mirrors the age-old spiritual understanding that surrender leads to enlightenment and realization.
We have observed that abandonment of defense can happen at any age, not only in adulthood. This means that the experience of the Personal Essence can occur in childhood, which we earlier reported having observed. It also explains why some individuals begin to have memories of it after they recognize it in adulthood.
If we look at the question of absorption from the beginning of ego development,
recalling that identification systems arise out of internal representations of early interactions with the environment, we see two alternatives: any given identification system has a defensive function, or it does not. If it has a defensive function it cannot be absorbed. If it does not have a defensive function then it is absorbed and this results in the experience of the Personal
Essence. If it has a defensive function it will continue to be a content of the mind unless at some point it loses its defensive function and is absorbed into
Being. If it does not lose its defensive function it becomes integrated with other identification systems (which also have a defensive function) into the overall structure of ego.
This understanding connects with a view held by the early English object relations theorist, Fairbairn, who believed that ego identifications were built only from object relations with negative affects, i.e., only negative object relations are internalized. Our understanding lends a partial support to this view. We see that the identification systems of the ego persist as mental structures only if they have a defensive function. This implies that many of the object relations internalized are negative in affect, but not necessarily all of them.
One sees from closer study of internalized object relations that some of them are positive, or more accurately, considered by the individual as positive.
positive object relation can be used, for example, as a defense against another object relation that is considered negative. The first one is positive in that it defends against greater negativity, even if it is somewhat negative. The other case is that an object relation which is positive, for example a loving interaction with mother, can be used in a defensive way if there is a need to defend against a loss of an aspect of Being, such as Will.
So our understanding is that the personality is not made up only of negative identifications, but that it is made up only of identifications that have defense as at least one of their functions.
The most important consequence of this understanding for the field of ego psychology is that the development of self and object constancy is not the most complete individuation possible, even in childhood. Taking into consideration the discussion in Part II, we must conclude that the goal of ego development is not the individuality based on self-image, but rather it is the realization of the Personal Essence. We described in detail the following characteristics of the Personal Essence:
It is a sense of being oneself, as a full and strong presence.
These four characteristics include but are not limited to the
object constancy and the establishment of individuality which object relations theory states are the outcome of ego development. To restate Mahier's capsulization of the tasks of the last sub-phase of the separation-individuation process:
"(1) the achievement of a definite, in certain aspects lifelong,
individuality, and (2) the attainment of a certain degree of object constancy." [Margaret S. Mahier et al.,
Psychological Birth of the Human Infant,
Object constancy is usually defined as the capacity to see and relate to the other as a person in his or her own right. This capacity is part of the quality of the
Personal Essence, of being personal and able to make direct personal contact.
The sense of individuality is the normal feeling of the experience of the
Personal Essence, as we discussed in Part Three. Thus the Personal Essence satisfies the conditions of individuation as defined by object relations theory. Moreover, it satisfies them on a much more real and profound level of experience, that of Being.