There is also a way of understanding the different usage of the term ego from a Freudian point of view whereby the ‘ego’ that we seek to let go of is the ‘infantile ego’. Again Joseph Campbell sees in Freudian terms the use of the term infantile ego to correspond roughly with the id which lives only on the level of ‘I want’ – the focus is on biological satisfaction.
Campbell thinks this is similar to the first two traditional aims of the Hindu life: kama and artha: where kama is enjoyment and sensual pleasure, and artha is Sanskrit for ‘wealth, ’or ‘property, and the pursuit of wealth or material advantage’. The third aim is dharma which Campbell thinks roughly corresponds to Freud’s superego as the conscience linked to the learned values and inhibitions that control the biological urges. The internalised critical parent says ‘thou shalt’ so this counteracts the ‘I want’ and the final Hindu aim is ‘extinction’. Here the life urges of wanting and having are frustrated and inhibited and because of this conflict brought on by social rules the ego seeks only extinction; where in this context it means freedom and release from the will and the drive to live and succeed. So in this Hindu frame of reference the extinction is of the infantile ego which contrasts with the possibility of establishing a mature ego.
Campbell puts it like this:
There is no provision or allowance whatsoever for what in the West would be thought of as ego-maturation. And as a result – to put it plainly and simply – the Orient has never distinguished ego from id.
In other words the infantile ego is escaped by the spiritual instruction to let go of the ego rather than growing up. So in Eastern spiritual practices the ‘I’ (in Sanskrit aham) suggests wishing, wanting, desiring, fearing and so on – all the impulses that Freud describes. The ego as defined by Freud is a psychological faculty which relates us objectively to the external ‘reality’. So this is here and now and the world as it is objectively observed, recognized and judged and known and us in it.
A considered act initiated by a knowledgeable, responsible ego is thus something very different from the action of an avaricious, untamed id; different, too, from performance governed by unquestioning obedience to a long-inherited code…
The mature ago enables us to keep functioning in the world and relating to others and to our environment without becoming psychotic. Those of us in the west who are hearing spiritual instruction to relinquish the ego might be helped if we think that what is to be extinguished is the ‘craving’ of the id-dominated ego. Similarly when the message is to renounce the self it can be understood in a similar way – the demanding strident self can be renounced but not the self as such – which anyway Jung saw as the focus for individuation.
Carl Jung took religion very seriously, understanding that the spiritual side of life needed to be fully explored rather than denied or repressed. He was thinking and writing as a psychologist about Christianity throughout his life and as a result some of his ideas elicited hostility from theologians and analyst alike. However many have been fascinated by his thinking and comprehension of the deep symbolism in religion.
Writing about the cross and Christ in a letter to Father Victor White in April 1954 – before their relationship broke down over White’s belief in the all-good God – Jung again brings up his ideas on the holding of the tension of the opposites in the figure of Christ.
He wonders how absolute evil can be connected and identified with absolute good, as this initially seems impossible. Jung sees that when Christ withstood Satan’s temptation in the wilderness this was the moment when the shadow was cut off, but Jung’s reasoning is that this had to happen because if the moral opposites had been synthesised then there could be no morality and it was imperative that human beings became morally conscious. Rather the two apparently irreconcilable opposites have to be united by something neutral – a bridge or a symbol that can hold both sides in such a way that they can function together. Jung of course saw that one such uniting symbol or bridge that represents psychic totality is the self.
Jung also sees the cross as another such symbol: ‘the tree of life or simply as the tree to which Christ is inescapably affixed.’ Jung sees the function of the tree as compensatory:
‘The tree symbolizes that entity from which Christ had been separated and with which he ought to be connected again to make his life or his being complete… The Crucifixus is the symbol uniting the absolute moral opposites. Christ represents the light; the tree, the darkness; he the son, it the mother … the tree brings back all that has been lost through Christ’s extreme spiritualization, namely the elements of nature. Through its branches and leaves the tree gathers the power of light and air and through its roots those of the earth and the water. Christ was suffering as a result of his split and he recovers his perfect life at Easter, when he is buried again in the womb of the virginal mother.’
Jung goes on to explain how the symbolic history of Christ’s life shows how his union with the symbol of the tree is not just about the impossible reconciliation of Good and Evil, but also of a human being with his vegetative (and here Jung means unconscious) life. In the Christian symbol the tree is however dead and Jesus dies on the cross so through the resurrection we are given to understand that the solution of the problem of the reconciliation of the opposites takes place after death.
In an earlier post I discussed the revelation about the use of the word ‘ego’ by the analyst working with Dennis McCort. In the post titled Reflections on ‘A Kafkaesque Memoir’ in early February I wrote:
An early comment that really helped me was the succinct way that Dr. P. delineated the difference uses of the term ‘ego’ following one discussion: ‘I take it you understand that you are using the term “ego” in the Buddhist sense of self-image, and not in the Freudian sense of a mediating function between inner and outer worlds’. At last clarity to help explain the rather cavalier way that we are urged to cast the ego aside in contemplation, especially if we have taken years building up the ego!
Since then I’ve found some further thinking on this – again from a Jungian perspective and in the work of Joseph Campbell who writes how the idea of the highest goal of life is conceived differently in the West where he takes Carl Jung’s idea of individuation and quotes this as ‘becoming a whole self through the integration of conscious and unconscious, active and passive aspects of the self’. This then is an ideal of being a unique individual in wholeness: this means seeing that our socially defined and learned roles are only part of who we are and only part of our potential.
Campbell contrasts this with the Hindu perspective and ethic which he understands as that we fully identify with our social roles but finding this unfulfilling we then seek by discarding the ego to slip like raindrops into the sea of being – a state of oneness.
Campbell offers an alternative escape from self-image and the social role and that is ego-maturation. As Jung describes, in the first part of life we develop all these social and vocational skills that make up this aspect of our identity, but we can come to feel that this is instead a prison because we have over identified with only one part of our psyche. This leads us to feeling impoverished.
In the second half of life the process of individuation leads to the ego taking on some sort of dynamic relationship with the unconscious. And so we bring into conscious awareness previously hidden or denied parts of ourselves. This is a process of growth where we acknowledge wider and deeper experiences and so the restricted feeling of ‘the householder’ is overcome and in line with the Hindu stages of life we move into ‘the forest’. In other words the goal is not to set aside the ego or to escape from the concrete part of the self but to rather fully realize it by integrating as far as is possible aspects of the unconscious.
It could be said that the paradox of intention might lead one to be passive or even masochistic in contrast to active and assertive but the following example suggests that it takes us beyond such thinking by emphasising a third possibility outside these opposites:
Now the question arises, is floating passive? Is it correct to say that we surrender ourselves to the water when we float? If we were to surrender ourselves to the water, we would drown. What is required in order to float? What kind of activity is required in floating? Attention. Floating is an activity occurring in consciousness. Floating is not passive, floating is not surrendering to the water, floating is not relaxing. It is the quality of consciousness which is alert, attentive and responsive to that invisible power present in the water which is called buoyancy. If we judge by appearances, floating may seem passive.
(From Thomas Hora in Existential Metapsychiatry 1977 quoted by Marvin C. Shaw.)
This is the same attitude needed in meditation and I would suggest also in a psychoanalytic session (either as therapist or indeed as patient) – in other words being responsive to the situation, being participative within it. We take response/ability in the sense of our ability to respond – we let go of trying to make ourselves be or act in a certain way. There is an acceptance both of who we are and also of the insecurity inherent in being alive. We cannot solve the anxiety of what it means to be human through effort or action – when there is nothing we can do, there is nothing we need do. This is the move from self-preoccupation to letting go or what has been called disposability, from hyperintention to a state of yielding. Accepting our insecurity is a form of liberation. Accepting our existential precariousness may be the prelude to a new, more fruitful kind of action.
Chogyam Trungpa in his book Cutting through Spiritual Materialism writes: ‘There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is itself freedom.’
It has been said that play (as distinct from work) is any action that is not burdened by the necessity of making our physical being secure in the ultimate sense either by increasing our self-esteem or making life meaningful. In other words play is any activity not motivated by the need to resolve inner conflict. And why would this be? – because the person does not need to achieve because they have already arrived. In this way play is peaceful and paradoxically highly productive action because the outcome is not attached to the process.