Regression in the service of transcendence – The ideas of Michael Washburn

Wasburn Dynamic Ground A Transpersonal Theory of DevelopmentFor the past two weeks we have had lectures on the transpersonal ideas of Ken Wilber.  If that wasn’t sufficiently academic we then had a lecture this week on the concept of regression in the service of transcendence, the work and ideas of Michael Washburn. 


Michael Washburn produced a seminal work, The Ego and the Dynamic Ground: A Transpersonal Theory of Development in 1995.  He had been a big follower of Wilber but then rebelled and went his own way. Psychotherapy is littered with such examples of splits such as that between Freud and Jung.  Is this evidence of inevitable evolutionary rivalry in the race to be top dog? Perhaps, but that is a question for another day.

Washburn is equally as theoretical as Wilber, and indeed his ideas are very similar, but his theories have been born of practice, unlike Wilber, who has never practiced as a therapist. However, Washburn does not provide treatment options or any clinical solutions.

For Washburn, human development follows a spiral, more fluid, path of development and indeed some would say that he offers a more feminine approach. Wilber is often accused of being very hierarchical and that his particular path of development represents a ladder like form of development.

spiritual development proceeds along a hierarchy of psychic structures

Wilber’s paradigm is seen as a ladder paradigm because it conceives the path of development as a level by level ascent. There is a separation from what he calls the dynamic ground and a return to the dynamic ground at a higher point.  It is dynamic because the primary focus is on the ego’s interaction with dynamic life. All life energy stems from an undifferentiated psychic energy. Spiritual development proceeds along a hierarchy of psychic structures such as cognitive structures, moral structures and self structures. So, the dynamic ground is what holds the instinctual nature which we are born with (what in analysis is termed the ID),  as well as all the high potentials.  The ego’s interactions with that dynamic ground and our experiences with that process in our life is what determines our issues and our pathologies.  It is dialectical as we move from departure and return.


like Wilber, he sees great benefit in applying psychoanalytic ideas particularly to early life issues


Washburn seeks to marry psychoanalytical ideas with what could be called ideas associated with the transpersonal school.  That essentially is Washburn’s big project. Like Wilber, he sees great benefit in applying psychoanalytic ideas particularly to early life issues.  He borrows from Margaret Mahler, John Bowlby and Attachment Theory, Jung and Object Relations Theory  (particularly Klein) but less so from Freud. Classic psychoanalytic view of the neonate is that there is a blank slate to begin with.  Washburn tries to marry this with the inherited (unknown, unconscious) qualities which transpersonal theorists believe.

There are three phases of development for Washburn:

From the outset (possibly from conception) Washburn sees human life being embedded and in unison with the Dynamic Ground (what he calls Original Embedment).  The being is one with the whole and shares feelings of bliss and ecstasy with the Ground.  This is like a condition of dynamic plenitude and an overflowing upwelling energy.

However, this stage is short lived. The infant soon progresses to the Pre-Egoic stage, which is a stage during which the connection with the Ground is gradually lost and repressed.

Pre Egoic At first the ground is replaced by the mother, who at this stage is described by Washburn as the Great Mother. The infant is described here as a body/ego, a body centered state that is immersed in sensation. Here, Washburn adapts the Freudian concept of the polymorphous perversus, modifying it to polymorphous sensuous to describe this particular stage of development, emphasising the accentuated sense and body based nature of this phase.

There develops a search for independence which is a natural developmental instinct of differentiation from the mother.  A conflict develops with the mother and within the child’s psyche. The child does not view the Mother (and the Ground) as blissful and safe anymore but rather comes to see it as threatening, scary and engulfing.  In language associated with Klein, Washburn describes  the Great Mother as splitting into the Good and Terrible Mother archetypes.  Thus, the struggle between need for intimacy and independence is born which results in the abandonment of the desire for intimacy with the mother in favour of independence, detachment from the mother and the repression of all that mother represents, including the Ground. Washburn calls the repression of the Ground the Original Repression. It precedes all subsequent repression and gives birth to the Egoic stage.

Egoic This is an insecure and restless stage and the Mental Ego suffers from an affective syndrome characterized by unpleasant feelings.

During the Egoic stage the Body-Ego and the Ground are both repressed in favour of the Mental Ego. The inner dialogue can have many voices and here Washburn makes references to sub-personality systems such as Transactional Analysis, and the voices of the child, adult and of the parent.

There is a split.  We enter duality, we split in order to make sense of our reality.  Our psyche, as it starts to emerge, splits into two opposite poles.  Egoic (everything we can deal with, reality testing etc) and Non egoic (the seat of the dynamic ground).   Ego germs starts to form but the differentiation with birth ego is minimal.

Mental ego loses its presupposed substance, purpose, and justification.  There is an ego crisis. Self identity wobbles.  However, the mental ego fights in the process of that which was repressed in the dynamic ground. The mental ego needs to accept that it is not in charge anymore. It is necessary to regress and re-engage the dynamic ground (which can be good or bad).  Ego finds its true position, which is to be in service to the self. We thought we know who we were.

In therapy, the dropping of defences can be a transformative moment.  It can be exciting but also terrifying.  Can you step into the life that you have always wanted.  Or is there clinging to addictive ways?

Regression in the service of transcendence is not commonly undertaken because it involves the process of lifting Primal repression.  The ego becomes open to pre egoic consciousness. The material comes flooding in. This is the mid life crisis territory.  We have adapted and have become completely functioning in that we have the car, the house, etc etc.  However, we need to regress to reengage with those bits that were repressed in the dynamic ground.  During this stage the Ground (thesis), that was repressed during the egoic stage (antithesis), is gradually re-discovered and re-integrated (synthesis) into the being.

Trans egoic  During this stage the Ground (thesis), that was repressed during the egoic stage (antithesis), is gradually re-discovered and re-integrated (synthesis) into the being.

We reform our identity based on our experiences, knowledge and feeling about who we are now, now that we have been through the dark night of the soul. We become less self centred.

It is not sufficient to merely move forward. We also need at some point to move back at times and reclaim the past and he has the key concept of regression in the service of transcendence.  For example, we get to a point where we are strong enough to return to inner child material and embrace it. This is where Washburn has a spiral form of development. Washburn employs the concept of regression in the service of transcendence  to illustrate a stage in spiritual development where there is a crisis or dark night of the soul preceding a spiritual awakening. What was lost or repressed in the psyche through the primal repression of the ego is retrieved once again through regression

This is perhaps similar to emerging from a secure base, like what Bowlby refers to as well as the movement associated with the alchemical journey. The Freudian application of using regressive techniques to help restructure the personality is transformed almost a century later to address themes and debates within the field of transpersonal development.

There is a bi polar interaction of moving from our personal  egoic sense to the dynamic ground. Wasburn adapts the Hegelian dialectical model and applies it to the psyche. Dynamic ground is the nascent ego’s psychic womb and sustainer. This constitutes the great mother system.

Manifestation of dynamic ground:

According to Washburn, Kundalini rising, Reich’s psychic energy within the sexual system (1942), Grof’s nonspecific amplifer (1975), Otto’s notion of the numinous (1917), are all included as manifestations of the Dynamic Ground.

1. Libido: It is pleasurable. New moms can talk about almost wanting to devour their child.

2. Psychic: non-specific amplifier or fuel of psychic processes.

See Maria Montessori’s the Absorbant Mind of new born children. Like when clients hoover up feelings and psychic energies so do babies soak up anxieties in the womb.

3. Spirit:

Washburn refers to the light of wisdom., the overflowing heart of compassion and the Luminous God. He sounds very Christian when he talks about consciousness in search of communion.

This journey, from the infant to the adult and then to spirit, is not a linear process, it is not  travelled in a straight line. We have the opportunity to cultivate these three stages, day  by day, moment by moment. Even the most sophisticated thinker must pass through all the stages, with great regularity. It is through repeated experience that we develop our own awareness of where we are along this continuum, ultimately empowering more choice and possibility in our lives.

How useful are the ideas of Washburn?  It allows a frame from which to view what may seem like a mere snapshot merge into a full motion picture by allowing presenting symptoms to have a larger meaning. It can, therefore, serve as a useful map in long term psychotherapeutic work. The maxim “our vulnerability can become our greatest strength” can help to illustrate this redemptive process of transformation.



2 thoughts on “Regression in the service of transcendence – The ideas of Michael Washburn

    • Regression is in service of “soul reclamation ” NOT transcendence -as Washburn suggests. We never totally or permanently transcend -in this life anyway- we return to the body-emotion-mind sphere – and rightfully so – hopefully transformed ???

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