The Ego and the Unconscious
Let’s understand the ego as our everyday self, who we take ourselves to be, the routine answer we give to the question of “Who am I?” My name is such and such, I am so many years old, have so many brothers and sisters, went to this or that school, etc. I have spent my whole life being me, and so I naturally assume that I am the expert on who I am.
It logically follows, when we take the standpoint of the ego, that personal growth means the development of the ego. I want to grow in order to be happier, I want to get more education, a better job, meet someone special, move up a step on the socio-economic ladder, and so forth. And there is nothing wrong with this kind of ego development. We need it, but there are limits to it.
Sometimes ego development doesn’t really solve the problems that we are facing. We can reach a point in our life, for example, when we have already achieved a certain measure of ego development in terms of work, relationships, money, possessions, etc., and yet we still feel unsatisfied. There ought to be more, we feel, more meaning, or purpose, more something.
But since we only know the world of the ego, then, despite the fact that we have been putting considerable energy into our ego development, it is easy to imagine that our present dissatisfaction can only be solved by still more ego development. The better job, or the bigger house, or the new relationship, will somehow address the dissatisfaction we are feeling. But at a certain point ego development begins to become ego aggrandizement, a puffing up of the ego that really doesn’t address the lack of meaning that we are facing.
There is another possibility. What if there was more to us than we realized, more than the ego, an unknown dimension of ourselves, and an “X,” or an unconscious which starts meaning no more than something that is not the ego, and because this dimension is unknown, it is neglected? And perhaps this neglect is the source of the dissatisfaction we feel. In short, what if there were an inner world that was integral part of us, a counterpart to the ego, so that they both went together to make up who we really are?
The Psychological Unconscious
In fact, such a world actually exists. We can call it the psychological unconscious. We have heard of the psychological unconscious in terms of people undergoing psychoanalysis, or other kinds of therapy, and we can be left with the impression that it involves some esoteric tinkering with the psyche to solve some problem, and get the psyche running well again. It doesn’t really have much to do with our everyday normal lives, we imagine. We, after all, are the experts about who we are, and it is our own experience that defines who we are because we have made, without thinking about it, the equation that ego = self. Yet the evidence for the existence of an inner psychological world that is inside us is all around us, and cannot be limited as if it only exists in times of upset and illness. Where do our dreams, for example, come from? And where do our daydreams come from, the powerful fantasies that well up inside us and carry us off in unexpected directions? Or why is it that some of our most cherished relationships somehow seem to spin out of control as if something else is going on in them, something beyond two people trying to rationally communicate with each other? If the world of the psychological unconscious actually exists, and is an integral part of ourselves, then it is as if we are going through life imagining that we are 3’ tall when, in fact, we are 6’ tall, and wondering why things are not quite working out. We are much bigger, and there is much more to us, than we imagine.
We can take C.G. Jung as our guide to exploring this inner psychological world. He was fascinated with the inner world of images, and how they interacted, and he collected them and plotted them, as it were, drawing them from everything from modern dreams and fantasies to ancient myths and religions with the hope that if he examined them carefully and closely enough, they would point to the invisible structures that had given birth to them. He spent his whole life trying to create an inductive science of the psyche, one that would be rooted in the empirical data represented by these myriad of images, but would point to the unknown factors which he called archetypes, and which he began to see made up structural components of the psychological unconscious. In short, he created a natural science of the psyche that embraced the ego and the psychological unconscious, and how they interacted with each other. And this science has a multitude of applications. It teaches us how to create a picture, an X-ray, as it were, of the full extent of our psychological selves. And then, for example, use that knowledge when it comes to our relationships with people we truly care about. What if, as Jung surmised, every man has a feminine dimension to his own unconscious that vitally influences the way he relates to women? And every woman has a masculine dimension that does the same thing? Without this understanding of these archetypal forces, which Jung called the animus and the anima, it is little wonder that our relationships often spin out of control. We imagine that they are about two egos communicating to each other, but in fact, there are four factors involved because we have to take into account not only the two persons, but the anima and the animus.
There is no need to go into great detail about the psychological unconscious and how it functions. Jung and his followers have written abundantly about the subject, as have followers of other psychological schools. We, ourselves, have focused on Jung’s psychological types as a straightforward yet profound way to understand what Jung meant by psychological wholeness. It not only allows us to recognize the differences between people, but to come to grips with the undeveloped parts of our own psyche.
In summary, Jung helped develop a natural science of the psyche so that we could understand the world of the psychological unconscious.
The Metaphysical Unconscious
As difficult as it may be to believe in the existence of the psychological unconscious, despite the fact that evidence for it exists all around us, it is much harder to be believe that beyond the psychological unconscious there is another whole interior world that we could call the metaphysical unconscious. Even the term metaphysical unconscious raises all sorts of issues. It is not about metaphysics in any current New Age sense. It is about metaphysics in terms that metaphysics is understood by the classic Western metaphysical tradition stretching from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle through the Islamic and Christian philosophers of the Middle Ages to someone like Jacques Maritain in the 20th century, but when we think of this tradition, we tend to see it as a dusty chapter in the history of philosophy, an academic affair of interest to only a few scholars, and so we are still far from what the phrase the metaphysical unconscious means.
Let’s imagine, however, that there is a Western metaphysical tradition in the sense of a living wisdom tradition in which, if we could gain admission to it, would not be about the history of philosophy, but about learning to come in contact with the mystery of existence, itself. It would be about learning to see metaphysically, to arrive at an intuition of being, so that we would become excited about the metaphysical unconscious which was the inner world that the great Western metaphysicians came in contact with.
On the other side of the world this same interior world was explored much less conceptually and much more by way of meditation, and as a goal of inner transformation. The vocabulary that developed in the East was so different from that of the West that even now it is hard to believe that they are talking about journeys into that same metaphysical unconscious. While the West, for example, speaks of being, the East is more comfortable speaking about nothingness, or emptiness. And while the West explored the metaphysical nature of God, the East was enamored by nonduality and enlightenment. Yet, someone like D.T. Suzuki saw that beyond the psychological unconscious was a deeper dimension where Zen dwelled, and he was willing to speak of this dimension in terms of the metaphysical unconscious.
Let’s say, then, that there is a world beyond the psychological unconscious described by Jung, and we could call it the world of existence, or even the world of no-thingness, or, like we have, the world of the metaphysical unconscious. This world, if we speak about it in a Western vocabulary, is about the inner nature, or forms of things, and how they relate to existence, itself. It is about the spiritual soul and its deepest structures, and the deepest center of the soul, which is the mystery of existence. We can imagine that two advance parties of explorers set out exploring this world from opposite directions, and after centuries of exploration are just beginning to get the first faint hints that they are not alone in these explorations. But they still can’t believe that someone else could explore the same world and come up with conclusions that sound, at the surface, at least, so different.
The interface between the psychological unconscious and the metaphysical unconscious could be called the within of nature, or the place where the natural sciences like Jung’s science of the psyche meet the metaphysical unconscious in the form of that dimension of it which we could call the philosophy of nature. It is here where the inwardness of nature appears in things like nonlocality, morphic resonance and synchronicity.
The Mystical Unconscious
Beyond the psychological and the metaphysical unconscious there is another inner world that has found expression in those religious traditions around the world that believe in a personal God who invites them into a relationship of love. Once again, what we should call this world poses a problem. We might call it from a Christian point of view a supernatural unconscious, or an inner world of grace, or from a more general point of view, a theistic or relational unconscious, but the essential point is that such an inner world is founded on the conviction that the ultimate ground of things is personal and loving, even though these terms far transcend their human counterparts. In certain ways this world of the mystical unconscious is much better known than either the psychological unconscious or the metaphysical unconscious, but so important is it to its practitioners that they have a tendency to put it in opposition to these other interior worlds.
The Interrelationships Between the Three Worlds
We saw that Jung created a natural science of the psyche, and he was certainly aware of the fruits of what we are calling the metaphysical unconscious and the mystical unconscious in the sense that he familiarized himself with the kundalini yoga tradition in Hinduism, for example, and with Christian dogmas like the Trinity. He felt, and legitimately so, that things like that could be examined from the perspective of his psychological science, and yield interesting results. And he was right. But so passionately was he consumed by the world of the psychological unconscious and its exploration that he never could really take seriously that these other interior worlds actually existed, and were knowable, and put us in contact with whole dimensions of reality. For him it was enough to treat them as vast store rooms of symbols which he could draw upon to illustrate the psychological points he wished to make.
Jung was not alone in accepting the reality of one or other of these worlds and neglecting the others. Christians, for example, are convinced of the reality of the world of the mystical unconscious, that is, the world of faith which has at its heart a loving relationship with God. But they are much less aware of the world of the psychological unconscious. When they look at visions and revelations and various other communications from God, for example, they reason that if the individual receiving these things is not consciously fabricating them, then the visions and revelations must come from either God or the devil. They ignore the possibility that the psychological unconscious could, and very well likely, is playing a major role.
When it comes to the world of the metaphysical unconscious, Christians neglect that world, as well. Instead of seeing that Hinduism and Buddhism could potentially teach us much about the human soul and its potentialities, they look at the centuries-old traditions as not much more than the workshops of the devil. Some Christians even go further and tend to drive a wedge between faith and reason and see little value in the Western metaphysical tradition and what it could do to help us understand the Christian mysteries.
Among Eastern practitioners, and Christians who are enthusiastic about these traditions, it sometimes becomes an almost unexamined presupposition that the world of the mystical unconscious, that is, an inner world in which the ultimate reality is a personal God, must somehow be a preliminary and as yet immature step towards an ultimate understanding of reality as nondual. So common is this attitude that there are any number of Christian theologians and writers who take it for granted that either Christianity really always was a nonduality that hadn’t been understood properly up until now, or it has reached the critical point where it should put away childish things and become a nonduality.
Much more exciting, in my mind, is the possibility that all three of these inner worlds exist, and our challenge is to accept the three of them and integrate them. What would happen, for example, if we examined the Christian mystical tradition from the point of view of Jung’s psychology? Then we would have another vantage point from which to read the classical mystical texts. Where else could Christian mystical experience happen save in the psyche, itself? But if it takes place in the psyche, how could it not be influenced by the psychological structure of the soul, that is, by the archetypes and the energy that circulates through the archetypes and in and out of ego consciousness?
In the same way, while it would make no sense to replace the Christian doctrine of the Trinity with a Jungian quaternity, for that would simply confuse the psychological and the theological order of things, that doesn’t mean that from a psychological point of view our language about the Trinity cannot become psychologically lopsided and distorted, and be in need of correction. Jung’s psychology can also be brought into dialogue with what could be called a philosophical psychology, that is, an integral part of classical philosophy. If this were done, then we would see how questions that arise within Jung’s psychology like the nature of an archetype, but which cannot be answered within the limits of his psychology, could be taken up by this philosophical psychology to the enrichment of them both. Even more striking would be the elaboration of a picture of the nature and structure of the human soul that would draw on a variety of disciplines belonging to different interior worlds, not to confuse one world with the other, but to use this variety of perspectives to see if there is a common denominator, or a common language that could be elaborated so that we could talk of the soul in a deeper and richer way. The great kundalini traditions of Hindu and Tibet might, for example, stimulate us to understand more deeply the different dimensions that make up the human soul and the kind of completion it seeks.
If both East and West have their own ways of exploring the same metaphysical unconscious, then we are at the beginning of an exciting dialogue in which we can attempt to discover a universal metaphysics underlying both Western and Eastern thoughts. Similarly, if there is a relational love mysticism which is quite distinct from a nondual mysticism leading to enlightenment, then it is possible that the two could be combined rather than be opposed to create a mystical path that embraces what is best in both East and West.
And all of this could take place in the atmosphere of a world in which the natural sciences enter into dialogue with a renewed philosophy of nature, which is an integral element of the world of the metaphysical unconscious.
The psychological unconscious, the metaphysical unconscious, and the personal unconscious are ways of talking about the riches that exist in the human soul, and these worlds have just begun to be explored.