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Cognitive Development

Diamond Approach

Glossary of Spiritual Wisdom

From the teachings of A.H. Almaas

What is Cognitive Development?

Diamond Approach Teachings About: Cognitive Development

A Natural Stage in the Soul’s Cognitive Development

The process of turning the basic knowledge of an inseparable noetic form into a discrete object in the mind is referred to as reification. Ordinary knowledge cannot help but reify its experience, and this process of reification seems to be a natural stage in the soul’s cognitive development, necessary for the development of ordinary knowledge and discursive thinking. The normal mind reifies concepts, which originally are noetic forms inseparable from the oneness of existence. Therefore, ordinary knowledge is composed of a collection of reified concepts. It is important to realize that what is reified is a concept, a concept that is abstracted from the oneness of pure basic knowledge. Furthermore, reified concepts exist only in the individual mind, never in Reality. The most important consequence for the soul is that she ends up living in a reified world, a world populated by reified concepts. She no longer sees reality, but believes in and sees a world composed of objects. She believes she sees reality as it is, when in fact she is perceiving her own reified concepts. In a very real sense, she lives in her own small mind, or more accurately, within a world structured by the reifications that she projects on it. She is deluded by the belief in discrete objects, a delusion that becomes the basis of her sense of separateness and her deep conviction in it. This delusion develops into the crystallized conviction that each object exists ultimately and independently, that reality is actually composed of ultimately and independently existing discrete objects, one of which is the soul herself.

Cognitive Immaturity of the Young Soul

There is a further redundancy in ego development that causes it to dissociate the soul from her essential ground. We know from research in childhood cognitive development that the capacity to conceptualize both self and objects emerges slowly and goes through several stages. One finding important for our present discussion is that newborns do not possess a capacity for self-reflection. The younger the child, the less self-reflection he has. The infant does not recognize where he comes from, is not aware where his actions and responses originate in his experiential field. The infant is the experiential field, and this field is aware of the content that arises within it. Since he has no precedents to compare with his experience, it does not occur to him to reflect back on himself and see the field. His mode of experience, referred to in spiritual literature as “witnessing,” is not questioned until later. The soul’s earliest experience is, consequently, an identification with the field, or more correctly, an abiding in it, without discriminating recognition of this field. The soul begins her life abiding in essential presence, without her knowing this in a discriminated way, without an explicit recognition. The child is not unconscious regarding the essential presence. What is missing is not consciousness, but recognition.

Merging Essence is Needed for the Development of the Perceptual and Cognitive Faculties

The Merging Essence seems to be needed by the organism at that time for healthy maturation and growth. Its presence brings about the symbiotic connection to the mother needed for survival and psychological development. It is a differentiated aspect of Being, in contrast to the nondifferentiated aspect of oneness characteristic of the normal autistic stage, in which there is no perception of boundaries at all. So it is a step toward differentiation, and part of the perceptual and cognitive development towards the ability to discriminate. It allows a certain limited capacity for discrimination. More accurately, it allows discrimination in perception, but it does not allow the fixation of boundaries and partitions. Boundaries and partitions are perceived but are not seen as fixed; they are fluid and changeable. It appears that one of the first boundaries experienced is that of a common boundary around mother and child, in what Mahler calls the “dual unity.” Perception becomes more discriminative when the Strength Essence dominates consciousness, in the differentiation subphase. It brings to perception the capacity to see partitions as more fixed and stable. Still, even here, partitions are seen as porous, transparent and permeable. The impermeability of boundaries is the effect of ego development, and not that of Essence. We see that the Merging Essence is needed for the development of the perceptual and cognitive faculties, among others, and hence is instrumental in ego development. It is involved in the first inner representations, the undifferentiated ones, which arc the basis for all subsequent identifications. 

Preconceptual Structures that Develop Before there is Cognitive Development

The structures we have discussed so far are formed by impressing the soul with self-images in the process of ego development. The primitive forms, especially the libidinal soul, are less structured, but they do develop in the stages when memory and cognition are sufficient for the formation of mental representations. They include both direct impressions and mental images. The preconceptual structures we will now discuss develop before there is cognitive development, so they are exclusively direct imprints of experience on the field of the soul. Strong impressions leave deep traces on the soul that structure it in a relatively permanent manner, forming the forerunners of actual ego structures. They develop before the soul has the capacity to identify with mental images and representations. They set the original template, the original general terrain of the soul’s structure. These structures are generally impressions of physical organs and processes that predominate at the beginning of life. Most of these seem to form the preconceptual foundation for the libidinal soul in particular. In fact, it is by inquiring deeply into the animal soul that we are able to discriminate these preconceptual structures, just as the primitive structures arise as we thoroughly explore ego structures.

Primitive Experiences of the Soul

The various structures of the ego develop in two ways: directly by impression of immediate experience and indirectly through representations. The representational structures are formed primarily through mental images and accrued associations. The structures of the animal soul and the libidinal soul are less formed—a mix of direct impressions and indirect representations. But there are even earlier and more primitive experiences of the soul— structures formed before cognitive development that are exclusively direct imprints of experience on the field of the soul. Think of the embryo in the womb, bumping around all the time not only against the womb but also against the mother’s consciousness and against the environment. Those experiences are happening at a time when the soul is actually more impressionable than at two or three years old. The earlier in life, the more the soul is in its raw state, which means it is more susceptible to impressions. And these very early impressions that begin to structure our consciousness, structure our soul, will have lifelong effects. These original structures become the ground upon which the later libidinal and representational structures are built. So even though we might work through the self-images and the object relations, the reifications and the conceptualizations, and everything we remember of our childhood, that does not end our work with the structures of the ego, the self, and identity. The earlier primitive structures persist and usually begin to arise at this point. These earliest structures of the soul—formed exclusively through direct impressions—I call precognitive or preconceptual. Psychologists call them preverbal, but I think it’s more accurate to think of them as precognitive. We can easily overlook these precognitive structures because we tend to believe that the deepest work we can do is to see the reifying and conceptualizing tendency of the mind.

Qualities, Structures and Capacities of the Soul Develop Together with Various Degrees of Integration

From this place the soul begins her life, and goes through various stages of development toward maturity. The major portion of this development happens in the first few years of life, resulting in the soul developing her physical, cognitive, emotional, and ego capacities. With a sense of inner identity and a coherent character structure, she becomes an individual human being who can think, reason, respond emotionally, and interact with the world and the people in it with increasing capacity and autonomy. The qualities, structures, and capacities of the soul develop together with various degrees of integration, but can be viewed as going through different lines of development, some going into adolescence and adulthood. There is the cognitive line of development, as well as the physical, the emotional, the relational, the logical, the moral, the ego developmental, and so on. Ego development can be divided into separate lines of narcissism, drive development, and object relations, comprising development of relation to self and others. These various lines have been studied extensively by many researchers in various field of study, with some thinkers developing systems that synthesize some of this wealth of research findings. Therefore, it will not be our task to discuss these lines of development in any detail. Our concern in this book is to study the soul and her relation to God/Being and cosmos/world, in such a way that reveals her nature and relation to these other two facets of the triad. Therefore, we will use only the elements of this knowledge, drawn mostly from research in ego and cognitive development, that will help us open up the experience of the soul and its relation to the divine and the world. The most relevant question for us concerns how this normal development of the soul is reflected in the experience of her essential nature, and how, as a result, this affects her view, cognition and everyday experience. More specifically, what concerns us is how this development translates into our experience and understanding of reality. 

Representational Structures We Work with in the First Stages of Inner Work

On our path, we encounter many kinds of structures, delusions, and impressions that constrain and pattern our experience and that ultimately limit the freedom possible for us in our lives. The structures that first manifest in our work are what we call “representational.” For example, the superego, self-images, and object relations all involve representations—that is, models or structures that the mind puts together. Working with representational structures requires that we recognize, at some point, that they are constructs, that they are memories that are woven together to create a structure of identity, or a sense of being an individual, or a sense of being a particular individual. This means that the representational structures we work with in the first stages of inner work require a certain degree of cognitive development. Usually these structures begin to cohere when we are two or three years old, when our mind has developed enough that it can represent, which means we can retain an impression and create an image or a memory of it. At that point, instead of being limited to the immediate experience, we can also form a mental representation of it, which is a memory or an impression of the experience that can be recalled. But, as we know, our experience and the conditioning of that experience don’t begin when our mind is developed enough that we are able to represent experience. Experience and its impressions begin much earlier. They begin, in fact, at the beginning of our life. From the moment we are born, we have experiences that affect us and create structures. And even before then, when we are in the womb, we have all kinds of experiences that leave impressions on our consciousness.  

The Basic Structure of the Self is Laid Down in the Earliest Years

Psychoanalytic ego psychology, and specifically its object relations theory, has formulated in a very useful way how this sense of self or ego identity develops. Basically, what is called a self-representation develops through the organization of the early experiences of the individual from smaller units into larger, more comprehensive ones. This happens concurrently with the development of object representation. Self- and object-representations are schemas that are enduring organizations, or structures, within the mind, which are the outcome of the several processes subsumed under the term organization—assimilation, accommodation, generalization, differentiation, and integration. These schemas change most rapidly over the first three or four years of life along with perceptual and cognitive development in general. They continue to be modified with subsequent developmental tasks and experiences, such as the assimilation of the changes of puberty into the self-representation. However, the basic structure of the self as a cohesive, integrated, and differentiated representation is laid down in the earliest years.

The Next Stage of Our Cognitive Development

We have seen that such “mentalization” of experience is necessary for ego development, but we see here that it leads to a new kind of knowledge, ordinary knowledge, and a new function, thinking. Thinking itself goes through stages, culminating in formal operations, which is working with formal concepts independently from perception. We have seen that this alienates us from basic knowledge, and its field of presence. Yet we see here that on its own it is a new faculty of the soul. We will see later that it leads to alienation only when used in a certain way, to know who we are fundamentally, but appreciating its nature and place in the overall economy of the soul we recognize it as a tool of tremendous potential benefit. An aspect of this cognitive development is that the soul learns how to use reason and logic. This is the application, in the process of thinking, of abstract rules to our concepts. These rules help guarantee that our conclusions do not contradict basic knowledge, direct observation. We will see in chapter 20 that these rules of logic reflect invariant patterns in basic knowledge as it unfolds through the dynamism of Being. This cognitive development is clearly important and useful for the experience, life, and development of the soul. We already know how it is useful in our ordinary life, and its usefulness is amply demonstrated in the development of science and technology. In fact, most of the achievements of modern Western civilization are direct consequences of this cognitive development.

However, this achievement is also necessary for the eventual spiritual maturation of the soul. The cognitive achievements contribute to our capacity for discrimination and reason, and our ability to relate and synthesize in general. We ordinarily apply this capacity for discrimination and synthesis only to our ordinary knowledge. However, there is no reason why we could or should not apply it to our basic knowledge itself. We only need to be in touch with the ground of this knowledge, essential presence, to do that. In fact, we believe this is the next stage of our cognitive development. Our cognitive achievements can be seen not only as the creation and expansion of ordinary knowledge, but basically as the development of our intellect to new heights of discrimination and synthesis that can now be integrated with basic knowledge on a higher level of understanding.

The Soul Integrates Only the Elements of Her Potential that Her Human Environment Could Reflect and Support

When we recognize that most parents are ignorant of their essential potential we see that they will have a difficulty seeing it, and hence mirroring or supporting it, in their child. The result is that the most fundamental part of the soul, her essential ground and its aspects, will receive at best a minimum of mirroring and support. The soul develops without integrating this fundamental dimension into her identity, leading again to her dissociating her experience of her essential nature. Instead, the soul integrates only the elements of her potential that her human environment could reflect and support. Thus the parents’ lack of self-realization is passed on to their offspring. (See The Point of Existence, chapter 18, for more detailed discussion of the various environmental factors involved in this dissociation.) The establishment of identity constitutes the development of a major and central ego structure in the soul, for in ego development the soul develops with an overall structure that constitutes a separate individual with a sense of identity, psychological characteristics, character, and preferences. The soul also develops the capacity to relate to others as separate individuals, with various degrees of autonomy and personal love. Cognitive development goes through the fantasy stage, to primitive conceptualization, to thinking and symbolic operations. The soul also achieves moral and aesthetic development. All these coincide, of course, with the normal growth and maturation of the body. We are listing these developments simply to note that they are developmental achievements.

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