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Jim O'Connor has had an interest in theories of everything and the integral worldview since the mid 1990's. He can be contacted at, while his blog can be found at He currently lives in Swindon, England.

A Mandalic Approach to Development

Part 4: Mental Development

Jim O'Connor

1 Introduction

In three previous parts in this series [1] [2] [3] I outlined a schema of psycho-spiritual development based upon an integration of Andy Smith's one-scale model of holarchy with the concept of the mandala. In those articles I attempted to build up a model of the psyche able to integrate the most important features of the two existing major paradigms in the field, the structural-hierarchical model of Ken Wilber and the dynamic-dialectical model of Michael Washburn.

In this particular article I would like to expand a little on how I see mental-level development unfolding in my model and to look in more detail at how it can incorporate the work of Wilber and Washburn in this area. A certain amount of recapitulation will of course be necessary as some of the ground I am attempting to cover here I have covered at a greater level of generality in previous essays, particularly Parts 1 and 2. I will, however, attempt to keep such repetition to a minimum and assume that the interested reader will have read those articles before tackling this one.

This essay will also assume a certain familiarity with the work of Wilber, particularly his book The Atman Project [4] as well as Michael Washburn's The Ego and the Dynamic Ground [5]. These books are both now over two decades old and few students of integral theory seem to any longer study them, at least judging by the dearth of articles and books currently being produced addressing the issues they raise. However, the models of psycho-spiritual development described within them have not been superseded in subsequent years, and in my assessment the points of contention between them have still not been resolved. It is this latter task that I have made my objective in my essays on this site, utilising Smith's one-scale model as a tool to do so. This current essay will continue with that endeavour.

2 The Basic Model

My model of the mental and transpersonal levels looks as follows:

The structure at the centre of each mandala is an integration of the structures at each of the cardinal points. So the integral structure, for example, is a harmonious blending of archaic, magic, mythic and rational structures, with no single one of them predominating. This is the major difference between how the integral stage, the centaur, is conceived of in this and in Wilber's model. In Wilber's model the centaur is seen as being structured hierarchically, with lower stages being nested and, relatively speaking, constrained, within higher stages. In my model, however, the centaur is structured with lower stages being un-nested and allowed a greater degree of autonomy in the overall mandalic structure. This immediately allows us to accommodate the work of Jean Gebser [6], in which the integral structure is seen as being special, different from those that preceded it, one which is diaphanous and pervious to Spirit, and which is situated at the centre of the psyche. It also brings us more closely into alignment with the work of Jung, who believed that the psyche was structured as a mandala, with the integration of the elements at the cardinal points constituting the Self.

The same conception of the psyche can be pushed up a level (via Smith's principle of holon substitution) and applied to the culminating structure of the transpersonal, which I believe to be the stage identified in the vipassana tradition as the pseudo-nirvanic. In this model pseudo-nirvana is made up of the free and harmonious play of the centauric, psychic, subtle and causal structures, with no one of them predominating. I presented evidence for this assertion in an earlier essay [7].

I believe that a level above the transpersonal exists (not shown on Diagram 1), that it is also mandalic in structure, and that it is associated with the nondual. There are several reasons for this claim. One is that nondual consciousness is a form of consciousness that is an order of being higher than that experienced during transpersonal development, and I will term it transcendental-awareness. This qualitative difference in being can only be achieved, I would argue, by a jump to a higher level of the holarchy, as only higher levels exhibit major emergent properties of this sort. Another reason is that according to vipassana adept Jack Kornfield, there lies an all-encompassing death-rebirth experience between pseudo-nirvana and the nondual (Nirvana) [8]. Such death-rebirth experiences, I argue, are only experienced at the transitions between levels. There is, for example, a death-rebirth experience at the transition from mundane, mental-level consciousness (the centaur) to the transpersonal, and also one at the entry into the mental level itself, as identified by Margaret Mahler (hatching), Stanislav Grof and others.

Discussion of the transpersonal, however, takes us beyond the scope of the current essay which, as I said, will be confined to mental-level development. It is therefore to mental-level development that I will now turn.

3 The Psychological Birth - A New Territory

Entry into the mental level occurs when existence as, and only as, a body gives way in order to herald the emergence of existence as a mind. This precipitates the psychological birth of the infant. It is not so much that identification with the body is relinquished, at least not at this early stage, as that it is now experienced from the other side of a threshold. After the psychological birth the infant is still identified with the body but now from the perspective of a mental rather than purely physical being.

This psychological birth, being a transition between levels, is experienced as a death-rebirth process. Stanislav Grof has catalogued the experiences of individuals reliving and completing this process during psychedelic and holotropic breathwork sessions and noted that they tend to progress through his Birth Perinatal Matrices (BPMs), beginning with oceanic embeddedness, moving through the stages of "no exit" and the existential struggle, and culminating in the stage of death-rebirth [9].

Once this death-rebirth transition between the physical and mental levels occurs, the neonate is catapulted into a new territory, the territory of the mental-level mandala. This territory is identical to Aurobindo's frontal being (as opposed to his psychic being, which is the territory mapped by the next mandala up, and which will be discussed in a future essay). As shown on diagram 1, the mental-level mandala/frontal being is made up of an integration of archaic, magic, mythic and rational structures. As the diagram implies, all of these structures are present in the being of the neonate from the moment of entry into this level, but those that are beyond her current developmental stage have yet to be fully activated. That is, the infant has access from the earliest stage to sensation, energy, emotion and thought, but energy, emotion and thought are as yet embryonic as she lies immersed in sensation. At this early stage the infant is still identified with the body, and higher potentials, while present, are not yet fully developed. Thus, the archaic, magic, mythic and rational structures are inherent components of the psyche, even from birth.

This view of the mental-level as a mandalic unification of mental structures explains how it is that the neonate has access to energy, emotion and thought from the earliest stage of development, when a strict stage-based model would suggest that they should not yet be available. Wilber solves this same problem in later versions of his model (from Wilber-III onward) by invoking the concept of lines of development, all of which carry different psychic potentials and which move through the various stages. This concept has an analogue in my model, and can be retained for those who wish to do so. Thus, sensation, energy, affect and cognition form the most important lines of development in my model, and are active all the way back to the psychological birth [10].

4 Hierarchical Development

So the infant has access to all mental-level structures from the very point of entry into the mental-level territory. However, he remains identified, to begin with, with the archaic. That is, he remains identified with the body, but from the mental side of the threshold. This archaic stage is the stage of embeddedness in the pre-personal matrix, the Jungian Great Mother, or in Washburn's Dynamic Ground. The ego exists only embryonically, is only minimally differentiated from this ground, and has only rudimentary access to higher structures.

Subsequent biological development then serves to drive a movement around the mandala, activating each of the mental-level stages in turn, thus facilitating psychological growth.

The archaic and magic stages are the domain of the pre-oedipal period and the primary process. The child at these stages identifies first with the body, and then subsequently with the libidinal energies, and is enmeshed in modes of cognition based on part-whole and subject-predicate identity, as described by Wilber in The Atman Project, Silvano Arieti in Creativity: The Magic Synthesis [11], and by myself in Part 3 of this series. As development through these stages progresses the developing ego begins to repress the Dynamic Ground in which it was once embedded. In this way the Dynamic Ground is held in place as the lowest stage within a hierarchical structure (an intermediate or social holon, to use Smith's terminology). As development moves around the mandala from the archaic to the rational stage, each emerging stage transcends and includes the previous one in classic Wilberian fashion. The resulting constraining of the Dynamic Ground within this overall hierarchy is illustrated by the following diagram:

As development moves into the mythic and rational stages, cognition becomes conceptual and temporal, and based on the secondary process. Identification moves away from the body and its energies and towards the higher psychic potentials of emotion and thought. The mythic and rational structures become activated and slowly developed in a process driven by physiological growth as well as by socialisation and education. The Dynamic Ground becomes ever more constrained and further lost to awareness. This loss of the Dynamic Ground becomes firmly established with the resolution of the Oedipal conflict, at which point pre-personal potentials, such as spontaneous impulse and the autosymbolic process, become fully submerged and a truly rational, temporal and conceptual mental ego based upon impulse control and reflective self-awareness emerges.

5 Regression, Regeneration and Integration

This mental-egoic structure remains in place from adolescence until late adulthood. At this point, however, the emptiness of a life divorced from non-egoic potentials begins to assert itself in the consciousness of the individual and he begins to undergo a series of painful and disrupting (but ultimately positive) changes in outlook and orientation. Washburn outlines these changes in detail in The Ego and the Dynamic Ground [12] and they include restlessness and narcissism as well as periods of depression and despair [13].

When this existential crisis has a successful outcome, it leads to an even more turbulent period called by Washburn regression in the service of transcendence. This stage is a true descent into the underworld as primal-repression is lifted and the power of the Dynamic Ground once again begins to make itself felt in consciousness. In the early stages of this process the individual can be forced to confront and integrate her shadow as well as any traumas or other contents that were repressed during hierarchical development. In later stages the individual can encounter the contents of the impersonal unconscious in all of their intensity. This can cause experiences of transport, rapture, intuitive insights and vision, all of which the individual finds highly disorientating and disturbing.

In terms of the model I am presenting here, regression in the service of transcendence can be seen as the beginning of development moving away from the periphery of the mandala and towards the centre, as illustrated on the following diagram:

Regression in the service of transcendence is the period during which the hierarchical structure of the psyche which predominated during the previous stages of development gives way under the power of the Dynamic Ground and lower stages once again assert themselves in consciousness. When this process concludes successfully these lower stages come into a harmonious relationship with each other and with the ego and form a perfect mental-level mandala. It is this point that the second of Washburn's spiritual stages begins, that of regeneration in spirit.

Regeneration in spirit occurs after the turbulence of regression in the service of transcendence has settled down and its more disturbing experiences have abated. It is the stage in which spiritual energies take on a nurturing, healing aspect and become more pleasurable (rather than rapturous). The power of the Dynamic Ground now flows freely through the individual's being and the pre-personal potentials (e.g. polymorphous sensuality, spontaneity) are once again inherent aspects of the personality, but now integrated with the mental ego in "trans" rather than "pre" forms. The individual at the culmination of this stage lives in a state of blessedness, awe and gentle bliss as the violence with which the Dynamic Ground initially asserted itself quietens down and life becomes smoother and less chaotic.

In terms of the model I am presenting here, regeneration in spirit is a stage of development at which the individual has become established in the centre of the mental-level mandala, and spirit is able to now flow downwards from the transpersonal level into the centaur, divinising it in the process. Spirit could not do this at previous stages because an inner hierarchy was in place that blocked this flow. Spirit is always attempting to flow downward (through agape) but can only easily do so into mandalic (individual, autonomous, to use Smith's terminology) structures. This process leads to the stage of the spiritualised centaur. I would argue that this stage is the final one that Washburn recognises and that his model does not cover any of the truly transpersonal stages. Nevertheless, it is a significant achievement for him to recognise the necessity of a process of regression during mental-level development and to document its phenomenology so comprehensively.

In my model then, the Dynamic Ground is an amalgam of two ontologically distinct entities: the pre-personal libidinal energies surging up from below and spirit flowing down from above. Washburn conflates these two because they enter into consciousness simultaneously as primal repression gives way and consciousness begins to approach a mandalic structure. This confusion is made greater by the fact that spirit, although descending from above, is often experienced as bubbling up from the psychic depths. Again, as this "bubbling up" occurs concurrently with the resurgence of the libidinal energies, it is not surprising that the two become conflated.

The final stage in Washburn's schema is that of integration. This is the stage of mature spirituality, of the full blending of primary and secondary processes, of saintly compassion (karuna), and of mystical illumination (satori). The world at this stage takes on a hue of hallowed resplendence. Again, I would argue that this is the stage of the spiritualised centaur and not the the nondual proper as Washburn claims, but nonetheless it is a significant attainment, rarely accomplished. It is the stage of, to quote the title of another of Washburn's books, embodied spirituality in a sacred world, and can seem to be the end of the path. A glass ceiling, however, lies between the centaur, no matter how spiritualised, and the truly higher stages, the breaking through of which involves deconstructing the gross bodymind, dying to the centaur and being reborn in the transpersonal. But this takes us once again beyond the scope of this essay.

6 Movement Towards Contraction

Up to this point I have described individual development in the ideal case. There is, however, another aspect to development that should be held in mind and which complicates the picture somewhat. This is the self-contraction. During the initial phase of "transcend and include" development around the mandala it is possible for psychic contents to become repressed or dissociated in response to chronic or acute trauma. Experiences which are too disturbing to be processed by the developing child are embedded wholesale in the subconscious, and the psyche learns to contract away from them as a mechanism of avoidance. By the time adulthood is achieved most of us have a significant number of these "nuggets" living within us, wreaking havoc from below and causing a greater or lesser contraction of the mental-ego. This self-contraction causes a movement away from the harmonious integral structure at the centre of the mandala and a move toward the periphery.

A contraction of the total self becomes anchored in each and all of the structures at the cardinal points of the bodymind mandala, i.e. in the musculature of the body (archaic), in the libidinal energies (magic) in the emotions (mythic) and in thought (rational) and can be reversed through therapies that address it through any of these spheres. I covered this in greater detail in Parts 1 and 2 of this series. Contraction in general causes a movement away from the body and non-egoic potentials and causes consciousness to become identified with thought and the mental-egoic structure as a defense against the trauma that it is unable to integrate.

Healthy individuals, that is those who have less trauma, are situated closer to the centre of the mandala during development and have selves that are more mandalic and less hierarchical. They are in closer contact with non-egoic potentials, have bodies, energy, emotions and thinking that are more alive and vibrant and exhibit greater spontaneity of communication and action. Individuals who have more trauma show greater rigidity and deadness and are mechanical in their daily activities.

In healthy development regression in the service of transcendence occurs naturally in maturity, regardless of how far around the mandala the individual progressed (for the sake of clarity I am assuming in this article that the individual has attained to the mental-ego). Contraction, however, tends to put up a resistance to this process in order that the individual avoid facing the trauma held in his subconscious. This resistance, I would argue, is the reason so few people spontaneously undergo a deep Washburnian regression at midlife in our society. The self-contraction holds regression in abeyance. When this contraction is overcome, either through contemplation, therapy or sheer good fortune, the resulting regression is more turbulent and painful than it would otherwise be as the contracted mental-ego needs to be dissolved simultaneous with the movement from rational to integral structure that is natural.

The mental-ego, then, in this model is an amalgam of two elements: a natural identification with the rational structure that is normal (in the sense of what usually happens); and a contraction away from non-egoic potentials and towards thought that is pathological. Those individuals who are said to have "healthy egos" have less contraction, even though they are still identified with the rational structure, while those with "unhealthy egos" have more contraction.

Thus Washburn's account of regression in the service of transcendence contains two superimposed elements: the natural movement from rational to integral structures that occurs in midlife; and the overcoming of the contraction of the mental-ego. An account even more detailed than Washburn's would separate out these two elements and explain which phenomena described in Washburn's account of spiritual development belong to each. Perhaps some talented individual in the next generation of integral theorists will be able to do so.

7 Tulkus and Ordinary Beings

The movement around the mandala that constitutes ego development, then, can take place close to the centre or close to the periphery, depending upon how contracted the individual is. Those individuals who stay closer to the centre have less inner hierarchy and more inner mandala, even during early development, and are thus psychologically healthier. They remain in closer contact with non-egoic potentials and with the Dynamic Ground. Those individuals at the periphery have more inner hierarchy and less inner mandala and are less healthy. In extreme cases this can lead to debilitating repression that is extremely difficult to remedy.

One factor determining how close to the centre an individual stays during early development, in addition to the quality of parenting they receive, I would argue, is their level of spiritual attainment in past lives. Those individuals who have developed a strong affinity with the centre of the transpersonal mandala on a soul level, beings who, for the sake of brevity, I will refer to as tulkus, will have a natural magnetic pull towards the centre of the mental-level mandala as they progress around it. Staying close to the centre of the mandala takes the sting out of the usual phenomena of hierarchical development (parental incest/castration, Oedipal complex etc.) and allows the tulku to maintain more of a mandalically-structured, centauric form even as they progress around the various stages. Avoiding the worst vestiges of the phenomena of normal hierarchical development lessens the rigidity with which the ego develops, and leads to a personality that is more open, flexible and integrated. This, I would argue, is why tulkus can be so spiritually weighty even as children and how they can seemingly bypass normal stages of ego development and move straight towards the centaur (thus lessening the need for a regression). They are undergoing development, in my view, but with a tendency to stay close to the integral structure at the centre of the mandala.

To my knowledge no theorist to date has attempted to explain the differences in development between tulkus and ordinary individuals and, in my opinion, only the model I am putting forward here currently has the capacity to do so.

8 Childhood Spirituality

I believe that the mandala model also offers a more coherent explanation for experiences of childhood spirituality than Wilber's does.

In this model spirit is an emergent at the transpersonal level (the soul) and is constantly attempting to flow downwards from there into lower-order structures, i.e. the bodymind (via agape). It is able to flow into autonomous holons (mandalas) with relative ease because of their open, decentralised nature, but finds itself blocked when attempting to flow into intermediate holons (hierarchies). It is particularly hampered when the lower-order holon exists in a state of contraction.

The earlier childhood stages of development have fewer layers of hierarchy in place and are therefore more amenable to this flow of spirit from above. The egoic stages, however, having more layers of hierarchy in place and in most individuals a more rigid contraction, block this flow. In the ego, the same hierarchical defenses that block the upward flow of the libidinal energies from below also block the downward flow of spirit from above. And, thus, the Dynamic Ground is repressed, a la Washburn.

In particular, the stage of the neonate, the archaic, being structured as an autonomous holon (the body) with no repression, is maximally open to the flow of libidinal and spiritual energies. So the neonate lives in a state of the free flow of these energies and hence in a kind of pre-personal eden, just as Washburn and the retro-romantics describe. This is a case even though it is a lower, pre-personal structure that is being infused with spirit.

Young children start to repress the Dynamic Ground with the beginnings of ego development, but still have fewer layers of repression in place than adults, and usually less contraction. They are therefore more likely to experience moments where contraction is relaxed, thus allowing a temporary influx of spirit from above, and the resulting spiritual experiences.

In neither of these instances is the infant ascending into the transpersonal. Spirit is flowing downwards from a higher level of the holarchy into a lower one and is temporarily infusing itself into the pre-personal bodymind of the child, causing a state of samadhi or nature mysticism. In my model, such a state can occur for any individual at any time when contraction is relaxed, but is more common in individuals who have less layers of hierarchy in place or, ideally, a mandalically-structured bodymind, which is the case particularly at the archaic and centauric stages.

This explanation for childhood spirituality follows naturally from the mandala model and does not require ad-hoc additions as I believe that Wilber's does (e.g. "trailing clouds of glory"), and it also explains why such experiences are more common in childhood than at the egoic stages, another facet that Wilber's explanation fails to account for. Indeed, in Wilber's model the egoic stages are closer to spirit than the pre-personal stages and so should exhibit greater numbers of spiritual experiences, a claim which is at odds with the evidence.

9 Conclusion

The point should by now be clear, but in case it is not I will make it explicitly as I finish. In the model I am presenting here, only psychological structures that are mandalic can be said to be healthy. Internal hierarchies, even those of the supposedly benign Wilberian kind, are seen as being pathological and based inherently upon repression. Most of us may progress through a series of hierarchical stages during our development due to the influence of our society and physiology (although, as I pointed out, this influence can be lessened), but in this model this is seen as being a type of "normal pathology", and no less pathological for being normal. In line with the one-scale model there may be components of a healthy psyche that are hierarchical, such as cognition or affect, but the psyche as a whole should have a decentralised, mandalic structure. If it has a hierarchical structure, then I would argue that something has gone wrong.

This mandala/hierarchy dichotomy is, however, not an all or nothing state of affairs, and there exists a sliding scale of psychological health along the mandala/hierarchy axis. An individual's psyche can be more or less mandalic or more or less hierarchical, with those that are more mandalic being indicated on the diagrams accompanying this essay as positioned closer to the centre of the mandala. Individuals that are situated on the extreme edges of the diagrams are those who are obviously pathologically repressed and who will exhibit more overt neurotic symptoms in their daily lives. Those who are less repressed (and therefore slightly more mandalic), but still identified with the mental ago - the average man or woman, in other words - are those who exhibit less debilitating but more common neuroses. Those individuals situated in the centre of the mandala are those who are considered high functioning, psychologically "together", and self-actualising.

This ties perfectly into the one-scale model. Mandalic structures, as I have here described them, equate to autonomous holons in Smith's schema, while hierarchical structures equate to his intermediate holons. There are only two real differences, I believe, between the model I am presenting here and the one Smith has put forward. The first is that I am saying that in an ideal world it should be possible for an individual to attain an autonomous form early in development and then grow to maturity through the progressive complexification of that structure, whereas Smith sees passing through a series of intermediate hierarchical stages as being necessary. The second is that the centaur, in my view, is not a transpersonal structure as it is in Smith's model, it is merely the culmination of psychological development. It brings the individual into alignment with the descent of spiritual energies, but these lead only to the spiritualised centaur, not into the transpersonal proper. The ascent into the transpersonal forms an entirely new level of development, and an entirely new mandala, and will be covered in the next part in this series.

Footnotes and References

[1] O'Connor, J. (2015). A Mandalic Approach to Development, Part 1: The Structure of the Psyche. Available on

[2] O'Connor, J. (2017a). A Mandalic Approach to Development, Part 2: Releasing Contraction. Available on

[3] O'Connor J. (2017b). A Mandalic Approach to Development, Part 3: The Collective Mandala. Available on

[4] Wilber, K. (1985). The Atman Project. The Theosophical Publishing House.

[5] Washburn, M. (1995). The Ego and the Dynamic Ground. SUNY Press.

[6] Gebser, J. (1985). The Ever-Present Origin. Ohio University Press.

[7] A Mandalic Approach to Development, Part 2.

[8] Kornfield, J. (2002). A Path With Heart. Rider.

[9] Grof, S. (1998). The Cosmic Game. SUNY Press.

[10] In Wilber's view each of these lines would not become active until the equivalent stage of development has been reached. Wilber, K. (1997). The Eye of Spirit. Shambhala Publications Inc. Chapter 10, Note 5. Note the difference with my model in which these lines are active from the moment of the psychological birth.

[11] Arieti, S (1980). Creativity: The Magic Synthesis. Basic Books.

[12] The Ego and the Dynamic Ground. pp111-117.

[13] Washburn is careful to make clear that the experiences described in his model represent exaggerated versions of those that most individuals actually go through. He is being deliberately parabolic in an attempt to make his descriptions of the various stages stand out with clarity.

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