The Pre-Trans Fallacy: Pre-ego, ego, and beyond the ego
The “pre-trans fallacy” (popularized by the noted American psychologist/philosopher/writer Ken Wilber) is based on a simple idea that is very important to understand. It is the idea that “trans-ego” states of mind (so-called spiritual states) can be confused with “pre-ego” states (child-like states), resulting in erroneous views about spirituality, and issues related to responsibility.
In many models of developmental psychology and spirituality, three basic levels are recognized. Those are:
1) Pre-ego (roughly birth to age 2 or so)
2) Ego (roughly from age 2 on, with the development of language skills)
3) Trans-ego (possible in adults who commit to working on themselves)
One of the meanings of “trans” is “beyond”. When we commit to a spiritual path (in whatever form) we are basically attempting to “wake up” to our higher nature — or, to go “beyond the ego”. But what does this really mean?
First, it helps to ask, what is the ego? Basically, it is the sense of separate identity — “me”, “mine”, etc. The ego is basic to individual development and is not inherently bad in itself. In fact, it is necessary for both survival, and individuation (recognizing who we are in distinction to others). Something can be initially known only in contrast to something that it is not. For example, a white dot with no border around it placed on an equally white background will not be visible — for all intents and purposes, it does not exist. But a white dot on a black background immediately leaps into appearance. In the psychological realm, the ego is what provides this basic contrast. “I am me, and you are you, therefore I exist.”
As children growing up we had to learn how to separate from our parents (in particular, our mother, as we were originally joined with her body). This is sometimes called the process of “differentiating”. The development of our ego was basic to this process, and thus it is important that a young person develops a “healthy ego”, which means, good boundaries, solid sense of self, good self-esteem, and so on.
Problems with ego-development are, however, common, and often make it difficult for someone to embark on a spiritual path, because we cannot begin to go “beyond” the ego if we have not first developed it in a healthy fashion. This is why many who begin to work on themselves have to do some form of psychotherapy (whether spiritually oriented, or more conventional forms) in order to heal and integrate old wounds, forgive parents or siblings, come to terms with their family history, their self-esteem, and so on.
Failure to come to a reasonable degree of healing with our past (in particular, our family roots), and with our basic sense of personal identity, increases the likelihood of falling prey to the “pre-trans fallacy”. That is, venturing into spiritual practices and beginning to confuse altered states of consciousness that can arise from such practices with early-life memories of “oneness” (like being merged with what was around us), along with an abandoned sense of responsibility, precisely because we desire to relive our childhood in a way that we think will get us what we didn’t get back then.
Spiritual states of mind do indeed include a sense of “oneness”, but they do not abdicate our basic sense of identity. We do not lose the ability to recognize our own name, and thereby successfully answer the phone or reply to an email (for example). More to the point, we do not abandon responsibility, and all the areas of life in which that is important.
Likewise, concerning the role of “rationality” on the spiritual path, there is also much confusion. Trans-ego states of being (deep connection with others, or life, or the universe, deep peace/joy, etc.) are non-rational, which can lead to the belief that all rational states are therefore non-spiritual.
From there, it is a short leap to assuming that all non-rational states are therefore spiritual. This however ignores the fact that pre-rational states are different from trans-rational states. That is, the “oneness” felt by a child is not the same as the “oneness” experienced by a mature, responsible adult. The former is more a state of “fusion”. The latter is a state of deep connectedness in which the ability to use the mind (or personal identity) is not lost.
The main difference between ordinary rationality, and the rationality of trans-ego states, is that in the latter there is less identification with thought. It’s not that the mind becomes non-functional or somehow disappears, it’s rather that we come to recognize, more and more, that we are not our thoughts, anymore than we are our body. But recognizing that we are not the body does not mean that we abandon the body, mistreat it, or pretend that it is not real (or “not spiritual”). Likewise with the mind.
For those who are heavily identified with the mind (common in academia, for example) there is a tendency to dismiss all spiritual states of being as “pre-rational”, that is, a type of regression to immature, self-absorbed states of being. This was one deficiency in Freud’s views, for example, as he saw all spiritual states of mind as a regression to an infantile oceanic state of oneness with the mother. That is also pre-trans fallacy; in this case, confusing post-ego states with pre-ego states, and in so doing, dismissing all spirituality as a childish attempt to avoid being a responsible adult (or “navel gazing”, is it is sometimes derogatorily referred to).
Contrarily, it’s common in new age or personal growth communities to develop anti-intellectualism, by confusing pre-rational states with trans-rational, and thereby assuming that any non-rational state must be spiritual — even though many non-rational states are actually highly egocentric or narcissistic (self-absorbed), not to mention simply disturbed (pathological).
The natural development from ego to trans-ego is a process of transcending and including. That is, the mind and sense of individuality, along with the capacity for responsibility, are not abandoned, they are rather included on the journey, even as we deepen our sense of who we really are, and orient ourselves toward greater wisdom and compassion and skilful ability to help others.
Copyright 2008 by P.T. Mistlberger