Ego as Chrysalis


Y'know... when I started this post, I secretly congratulated myself for being insightful and cleverly bringing together ancient perennial wisdom and modern psychotherapeutic advancements when - to my delight and dismay - I found that a dead guy had beaten me to the punch! Not only that, but as I researched I found many others who'd had the same insight on their own as well.

(Shoot. So much for my showing off! 😆)

Anyway, the dead guy's name is "Shankara Atma Bodha" - a notable Hindu priest from around 800CE who wrote numerous commentaries on the Upanishads, the Bagavadgita and the Vedanta Sutra (Hindu scriptures). He is most known for his short work called the "Atma Bodha" in which he fires off this one-liner that perfectly encapsulates this week's reflection...

He knows this who, free from the notion of being a person, rejects the limited superimpositions he previously believed himself to be, and becomes one with his essential nature, being, awareness, bliss, just as the chrysalis loses its former nature to become a bee. - Shankara Atma Bodha

Here's the amazing thing - that the understanding made available to us today through neuroscience and psychotherapeutic research was already well established intuitively over 1200 years ago; and it's coming from a culture so far removed it might as well have been another planet.

So, what's this all about anyway?

Well, Shankara's language of "the notion of being a person", "limited superimpositions" and "chrysalis", is ancient speak for what we call the "Autobiographical Self" today. Other terms we sometimes use are "Ego" or "False Self" (Winnicott, Merton, Rohr, etc.) and, depending on which flavour of Christianity you're from, you might call it your "Flesh" (St. Paul) or even your "Sin Nature". All these terms, while not always touching on precisely the same aspect of human psychospiritual experience, do orbit around the central concept of self-concept as they attempt to get at the notion of who we think we are and how we live this out developmentally.1

Now, what makes Shankara's ancient wisdom and our modern findings so fascinating is how they show that our sense of an inner struggle is not the product of some inherent evil or Genesis-style fall from grace, but rather a necessary component of our development into spiritual maturity. This was Shankara's, Winnicott's, my, and many others' realization. Further, it reinforces what I discussed in an earlier post - that truth is realized when we bring together insights from numerous fields of inquiry as they reflect the same truth from multiple angles. In this case, that the Ego/False Self is as built into human development as a chrysalis is for a butterfly.2

So, what does this mean?

Well, while I remain hesitant to tell you how you should apply this to your life, I can say that it would be a mistake to confuse this finding with whatever you think about God. Developmental psychology gives us language for how humans develop holistically while theology helps us think about the Divine. The two work together, but we act irresponsibly when we shoehorn one into the other in order to avoid tough questions (a frighteningly common error!). In other words, it is okay to rethink fundamental assumptions of your [religious] worldview in light of evidence spanning personal experience, the findings of scientific research and multiple cultures throughout history; but it's not okay to ignore such evidence-based widespread consensus just to avoid uncertainty.

I admit, most people aren't ready for this work, but if you're reading this then there's a good chance you've already started. If not, that's okay!

Ours is an open table.


  1. This notion was introduced to us in the west by Donald Winnicott and then later expounded on by subsequent professionals in his field. Winnicott's insights coincided with other thinkers of his time such as Alan Watts, Ken Wilbur and even Thomas Merton's contemplative theology. If you're interested in further research, start with this Wikipedia article and go from there. 

  2. The formal academic language for this is "ontology" or the study of being. What I'm saying here is that spiritual growth is built into being human and that [for Christians at least], the concept of being a sinner with a sin nature actually disguises (and I would argue, distracts from) the truth about how we grow [in Christ]. I'll leave you to figure out what this means for atonement theory (hint: it's a theory).