Thursday, May 10, 2007


“It is, to my mind, a fatal mistake to regard the human psyche as a purely personal affair and to explain it exclusively from a personal point of view.” Carl Jung


The knowledge that we are ‘awake, aware and at choice’ was refreshingly empowering to many of us when we first realized it. Like me, some of you came from backgrounds that taught you to be a victim. We lived as though we were powerless and being taken advantage of by every situation. Then we heard that we had the ability to choose our response to any and every set of circumstances - that we could change them or choose to gratefully accept them if we couldn't change them. We decided we would no longer be mute victims, even when hurt or offended. No one will ever take advantage of us or pull something over on us. But as with all psycho-spiritual perspectives, imbalance is dangerous. It seems to me that truth always has two sides. The fact is, sometimes life just comes apart at the seams and we feel out of control, no matter how many spiritual principles we have learned. Are we really always 'awake, aware and at choice' in an ultimate sense?


The word ‘ego’ is used often these days and in many contexts. I am using the word here to refer to our ‘identity center’, or that part of us that we most often display in public. This is my ego with a name, a certain style of clothing, my entertainment tastes, moral values, speech patterns, politically and socially correct behaviors, etc. Of course we may occasionally display other behaviors in private settings or with certain people, but ‘ego’ is the usual, fairly consistent center of our daily identity.

This ego-self is constructed through years of education and experience. Putting aside the intricacies of the Nature versus Nurture debate, this ego is the congealed result of DNA, parenting, peer associations and all things that go into the developmental stew that makes you, ‘you’.


Archetypal Psychology takes a position which says that ego is just one self in a psychological constellation of many selves. James Hillman says that each ego is really the Hero archetype claiming to be the King of the Hill, or Zeus reigning alone on Mount Olympus. It would have us believe it to be the only self.

Most psychological and religious models have largely neglected the many selves and made the ego the sole center of the individual psyche. We talk of healing ‘the self’ or saving ‘the soul’. You hear of ‘self image’ and ‘self esteem’, but never ‘selves images’ and ‘selves esteem’. This solitary ego emphasis has been reinforced by western religious monotheism which takes a dim view of anything ‘poly’ – polytheism, polygamy, polyamory, ‘poly-psychosis (multiple personality disorder, bi-polar, schizophrenia, etc.) and polyester suits. We prefer finding unity, unified theories, singularities, united states, united nations and work for the integration of all socio-religio, gender and ethnic differences in a ‘universe’.

In other words, we are suspicious of things that can’t be coalesced into a united center. As a result, there is a tendency to hold the ego-self as a little factory that may have some dysfunctional aspects, but is largely an intact little place. Therapy consists of fixing the disordered parts so that the ego can get back to functioning normally. Salvation is seen as rescuing or redeeming the self from bondage to sin and death.
In both views, the self is essentially a good core once it is healed or saved.

Archetypal Psychology on the other hand sees the ego as a temporary center, one of many such centers in a life time, that must be eroded or demolished so that another center or ego-self can replace it. These various centers are like the rings of growth in a tree. The tree may appear to be a single entity, but is really several seasons and a series of rings one around the other.

Life is primarily the succession of seasons or experiences that bring one ego-self to an end that another may replace it. Ignorance of this process creates incredible pain and confusion. These many deaths and resurrections, or new births, are at the center of all religious mythologies.


This brings me back to my initial paragraph about not being victims. Archetypal Psychology attempts to strike a balance between the individual as being ‘awake, aware and at choice’, and the universe being comprised of many archetypal energies which rise up from the depths of the unconscious to erode or destroy the old ego-center. The result, like that of a tree, is expansion, or soul-making.

This means that occasionally experiences enter our lives without our conscious awareness or involved choices. This perspective threatens the notion of the absolute ‘power of intention’, suggesting that sometimes our intentions are thwarted by a Higher Purpose – soul-making.

The nineteenth century poet John Keats addressed this notion as he found himself at the age of twenty-six dying of tuberculosis. Keats questioned the Christian notion of life as a ‘vale of tears’ requiring salvation, and speculated that life was a ‘vale of soul-making’. He suggested that sometimes our plans, made by the reigning ego-self, are completely decimated by archetypal powers that crush the old center through a devastaing experience.


The word experience comes from two Latin words and literally means ‘to seize out’; it is related to the word 'pirate'. An experience yanks something out, takes hold of an object and pulls it apart.

Ex = out
Perience = to seize (root of our words pirate and predator)

Experiences are events that literally come aboard the fixed and secure vessel of the ego-self, plundering and sometimes sinking the vessel. The cargo is removed, the ship sunk, leaving the Captain feeling dislocated, insecure and in a state of confusion. These kinds of experiences are a normal and necessary part of life as soul-making.

The archetypal energies or pirates conspire or work together to make soul. Soul-making is a higher priority than happiness, material wealth or physical health. This psychological approach suggests that dreams, fantasies, pathologies and various crises arise throughout life to make soul. Of course we have some personal control in this process, but not as much as we may think. Of course there may be just as many or more enjoyable experiences, but we don't typically go into despair when the ship is loaded with gold and sailing smoothly on a calm sea. And of course we will most often find another boat, meaning we will recreate another secure ego-self. We sometimes call this process reinventing ourselves, hitting bottom, getting a wake up call, or surviving a mid-life crisis, etc. It may involve a horrific divorce, a life threatening disease, fighting an addiction or surviving an accident or a criminal assault. Death is the ultimate devastating experience, and in this model of archetypal reality, even the archetype of death is a soul-making Agent.

The most important thing to remember is that there is nothing ultimately wrong. Like trees, we are meant to grow ego-rings or different centers through various seasons. Like trees, the old season ends, the old ring is completed and a new ring begins. Each of us has many lives and become many selves. If we do not know this, life may be intolerably hard. If we don’t know this, we may always be pursuing some elusive ‘mental wholeness’, or a final spiritual ‘baptism in the Spirit’ or some phantom solution that brings happiness and prosperity so we can be ‘finished’. There are many today who endlessly follow after Gurus, ministers, teachers, self help programs, 'secrets' and therapists in search of the elusive ‘Wholly Grail’. These teachers and programs make their money off of convincing people that they have the solution to the problem.

People often turn to religion or drugs when the center begins to disintegrate. Karl marx spoke of this when he called religion 'the opiate of the masses.' Marx failed to realize that Communist ideology, or any socio-political ideology, may also serve as an opiate of the masses.

Our churches, for the most part, do not prepare people for this psycho-spiritual seasonal growth and ego decay. Most religious programs try to hold the single ego together with a systematic belief system or promise of some end time miracle.

So if your life begins to come apart at the seams, or your old world begins to melt like a snowman in spring, you have choices. You may listen to those who tell you that you aren’t taking your therapy or faith seriously, that Satan is taking hold of you or that your consciousness is weak. This kind of advice sets you up for chronic agitation, deep depression and suicidal thoughts. In fact, the archetype of sui-cide (self death) is actually a potentially helpful ally – because it announces, like a herald before the birth of Jesus, the death of the old ego and the arrival of the new. Unfortunately, some people hear only the literal part of the suicide message and take their physical lives because they don't know that the ego-demolition situation is normal and that it will pass. Say goodbye to the old ego-self, the old order, the old house, the old center, the old identity and step into the empty center. “The modern ego is so conditioned to take personal responsibility for everything that happens to it that it is hard for modern man to recognize religious realities even when hit over the head with them. Religious realities mean realities which are derived from an inner, purposeful, non-ego origin.” (The New God-Image, Edward Edinger, p.21)

In the Bible, when old ego-centers died, they sometimes changed their names. Abram became Abraham, Sari became Sarah, Jacob became Israel. Even ‘God’ evolved, or more accurately, the Hebrew understanding of God shifted as he went from Elohim , to JHWH to Jesus, to Holy Spirit.


After an old ego-center is destroyed, the center is empty. When the ego-center no longer holds, ones feelings usually vacillate between terror and ecstasy, excitement and dread. The emptiness opens a window into eternity and the sense of ‘this’ and ‘that’ disappears. The loss of the old stable ego can feel like standing on the precipice of Paradise or the abysss of Hell.

The Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book says ‘we may feel like the proverbial hole in the doughnut’ as some or all sense of ego and past identity vanishes. We awaken in the mornings wondering who we are and how we shall get through the day. As the Apostle Paul writes, ‘old things pass away and all things are becoming new.’ The Chinese Tao Te Ching puts it this way:

If you want to become full, let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn, let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything, give everything up.

Poem 22

So I ask again, are we always 'awake, aware and at choice'? My answer, today, is yes and no. Yes in that we may be aware that the archetypal Presences in the Living Universe sometimes brings us events out of our control. But no in that we do not always choose these events. Our current ego-self is not big enough or usually strong enough to let go of itself. The various egos are fortresses of stability, giving us a sense of permanence. This is not ego as bad or the enemy, but ego as limited and always on the verge of death in order that a new ring might grow. This is soul-making.

1 comment:

Waldo said...

Today, in my picture of life, the Ego is a center of focus for the Vital Life Force-or Soul-to work its way through the world and daily affairs, building up a personality. One of many perhaps!