The Journey of the Ego to the Self

In her 1963 novel “The Wall” (Die Wand) the Austrian author Marlen Haushofer (there is also a 2012 film) describes a woman who finds herself living in the Austrian alps by herself, cut off from other humans by a vast invisible wall. She only has a dog, a cat and a cow. To me, this novel is about Jung’s notion of individuation, which is the journey from the ego to the Self. The ego is our known sense of self, i.e. the things we know about ourselves, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. The Self with a capital S, which Jung compared to the Sanskrit term Atman, or divine self is different from the ego, because it is vaster than the ego and contains the shadow and other aspects of the individual and collective unconscious. In the novel, this sense of not-ego is expressed as the wilderness of the alps. Interestingly the protagonist of the novel survives off the land, just like our ego needs to be nourished by the life force that comes to us through our soul, viz. the unconscious.

Between ego consciousness and our shadow and the collective unconscious there are barriers, which are full of energy and which are difficult to cross. When our ego is invited to grow, is challenged, is stretched, it resists. It resists in a variety of ego defenses, some of which I discuss here. It also sees the non-ego parts of the Self as other than itself. In the case of the novel ‘The Wall’, the protagonist perceives the Self as the mountainous landscape, devoid of others, only accompanied by her psychopomps (her animals).

When we journey in dreams, we explore these unknown parts of ourselves. The landscapes in our dreams are glimpses of the Self.

The challenges of ego growth in response to the inescapable call of the unconscious parts of the psyche are best represented by the alchemical stages. After writing a journal of his own visions and dreams during a time of challenge and personal growth (after his break from Freud), that he subsequently turned into what is now known as the Red Book, C. G. Jung discovered that the odd, ‘irrational’ language of his Red Book was similar to the language of alchemists from various ages. He first discovered this when his best friend, the sinologist Richard Wilhelm, who also translated the ‘I Ching’, sent Jung his translation of an ancient Chinese alchemical text “The Secret of the Golden Flower.” Jung realized that because alchemists didn’t really know chemistry or physics, what they were saying about matter in their texts were pure projections of their unconscious psyches. The less we know about someone or a subject the more we project. Interestingly Jung focused on the earlier alchemical writings, because by the 18th century, some of the alchemists had quite a keen understanding of the psyche, over 100 years before psychology became a scientific discipline.

Jung spent the next 30 years deciphering alchemical texts to identify the alchemical stages as well as certain alchemical elements. The alchemical stages are the best representations of how the psyche evolves, how the ego gets stretched and alchemically cooked and transformed. What is important to remember is that each alchemical stage is uncomfortable or distressing to the ego at first, even though eventually they can each have their own bliss.

The ego is resistant to change. It doesn’t like being forced to change. It likes to be in charge and to convince itself and others of the consistency and importance of the story of itself. In the context of individuation, one ego defense is actually for the ego to try to stay in charge and intellectually try to explain away what is happening and in that way to resist feeling and changing.

What is really important to keep in mind is that this process started in Jung’s own psyche, with his own distress, visions and dreams. In retrospect he said about the Red Book that all the important ideas he developed in his life first appeared in the Red Book and his subsequent, more scientific books were just elaborations on these ideas. There is alchemical language in the Red Book, there is the Shadow in various guises and there’s the beginning of his typology (i.e. thinking and feeling types, later elaborated with introvert/extravert and sensate/intuitive, it ultimately became the Myers-Briggs).  Freud himself admitted that his model of ego/id/superego was just a model and he was willing to revise it based on additional evidence. Because the alchemical stages are the pure language of the unconscious psyche, they are not a model that the ego came up with, but a genuine expression of the anatomy (or more precisely physiology) of the unconscious psyche. You can read more about the alchemical stages here.

In alchemy, the ‘ultimate’ stage is called Conjunctio, which is Latin for marriage or sacred union. Jung’s last book is called ‘Mysterium Conjunctionis’ (The Mystery of the Sacred Union). So if the Self appears so different and ‘other’ to the ego, how can and do we experience Conjunctio? The first thing to remember is that no alchemical stage, including even Conjunctio, is permanent (although we can get stuck in some stages or cycles of stages for a long time). So as we grow and evolve, we can have repeated experiences of Conjunctio, sometimes brief, sometimes more enduring. Some of the alchemists knew this and refered to earlier experiences of Conjunctio as Conjunctio and later, deeper experiences of Conjunctio as ‘unus mundus.’ (‘One World’ in Latin.) The descriptions talk of a feeling of being one with all creation. On a more personal level, after we have left behind cherished notions of ourselves (the current version of the ego story) in mortificatio (the death stage) and have been forced to confront our shadow aspects in the separatio stage (the stage of profound reevaluation and shift in perspective), we can have a deep experience of awe as we have glimpses of our more complete selves, stripped of ego and keenly aware of our shadow aspects. But the glimpse is fleeting. We can’t hold on to it. (That would be ego.) Jung said ‘I’d rather be whole than good.’ To me this refers to those moments of conjunctio, when we realize the inhuman (in the sense of beyond egoic) beauty of our existence, our path, as things we thought were important (ego attachements) fall by the wayside, and we deeply cherish aspects that we were not aware of. This process is challenging. A simple representation of conjunctio is the last card of the major arcana in the Rider-Waite (and Marseille) tarot deck: A hermaphroditic figure, representing union of male and female, conscious and unconscious, surrounded by an ouroboros-like wreath (never-ending cycle and the completeness of the circle) and the quaternity of four faces that also appear in the prophecies of Ezekiel, quaternity being a symbol of wholeness in many cultures (e.g. the medicine wheel, or the Zia). The particular aspect I want to focus on here is the pose of the hermaphrodite, floating, one leg bent at the knee, arms spread. This pose is almost a mirror image of the tarot card The Hanged Man, who is upside down, legs in the same position, but arms tied behind his back. The floating, either upside down or rightside up and that leg position, to me represents surrender. (Morbidly, the famous photo of the man jumping out of the burning World Trade Center on 9/11 also shows him with legs in the same position. In that moment of surrender, he may have become a more pure expression of the archetype.)

So we can say that the conjunctio experience is important and fleeting, a sense of oneness with all parts of the self or all parts of creation—or at least those parts we are ready to integrate. It is joyful, in an ego-transcendent way, and it is fleeting. However, it is only part of the journey and to be honest is not the best or most complete representation of the Self.

I was recently watching a few interviews with people who have had near death experiences and one of them put it succinctly, that the near-death experience is an eradication of ‘pride’, meaning ego. He and other interviewees also shared that their consciousness persisted, disconnected from the body and other changes and that returning into the body was challenging. Remember the body is part of the psyche, not the other way around, so it makes sense that the other aspects of the psyche, in their ongoing evolution, would persist.

It may have been in an intense Jung seminar with my mentor Steve Wong many years ago when I first heard the description that as the ego continues on its always-approaching-but-never-quite-getting-there journey towards the Self, it becomes Self-like, like a fractal. In recognizing the endless cycles of the alchemical stages, the tastes of conjunctio, but also of every other stage, and the ever-growing, ever-striving energy or desire that keeps propelling it, the ego’s form takes on the ever-evolving form of the Self. When you keep looking at a fractal, as you zoom in or out and the same intricate patterns repeat themselves, you can’t tell what zoom level you’re at. The ego and the Self in a similar way become fractal mirror images of each other.

We become more Self-like when we embrace all the alchemical stages and don’t just try to stay in the pleasant ones. William Blake said it best “He who binds himself to joy/does a winged life destroy./But he who kisses joy as it flies/lives in eternity’s sunrise.”

The winged life, which I used to think referred to angels, now to me means our own winged life, the continuous flight of evolution that we call individuation. And if we bind ourselves to joy, to a particular alchemical stage, we destroy our own opportunity to continue to grow and individuate. But if we kiss joy as it flies, cherishing it without trying to cling, we live in eternity’s sunrise, which to me is the most beautiful expression for that higher consciousness that some glimpse in near death experiences or we can all glimpse at those beautiful, fleeting moments in everyday life, like beautiful sunsets, if we only allow ourselves to be fully present and feeling, kissing the moment as it passes.

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