Anatomy of the ego

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The ego refers to the conscious mind - the conscious ‘I’ who reads, thinks and develops an opinion about what is written in this book. Though the ego refers to the conscious mind, it is not solely a product of the conscious mind, but also of other facets of the mind, including the subconscious mind, interconscious mind and the body. It is a creation of conscious experiences of the physical environment from birth to the present day.

The ego (the intraconscious mind or ‘self’) is central on the hub of the mindbody continuum. That it is intra-conscious refers to it having an inward or self-referencing/self-reflective quality. This distinguishes the ego from the interconscious mind (also called ‘Self’ – capital ‘S’ - in Jungian psychology), which is the intuitive, nondual and interpersonal aspects of our mind. The mind is an incredibly complex phenomenon and my simplifications in the diagram do only some justice to the inordinate time spent by many psychiatrists and philosophers to plumb the depth of human psychology. Nevertheless, we do know that the subconscious mind is responsible for the collection of all our asocial and amoral urges, imprints and instincts (the Id) that underlies and motivates all psychic activity. The subconscious is also self-regulating and down-regulating by imprints from parental and social influences and learned traits (the Superego). The subconscious operates under the domain of primitive urges, preaching an ‘an eye for an eye’ and whines ‘this is mine.’ The subconscious is formed anatomically by connections residing in the evolutionary midbrain (diencephalon), but interconnects with most parts of the brain. Because it is a primordial construct of the mind, the subconscious forms well before any social or moral concepts emerge. Thus the subconscious should not be perceived as being cruel, rather primitive or basic. Its demands are not that complex - it only requires satisfaction of some basic needs. To achieve these ends, it makes us eat, seek shelter, have sex and form friendships bonds to further its own survival.

Without down-regulation by the Superego (our ‘conscience’), our subconscious would let us wantonly sleep with whomever we chose, kill another if it allowed us to gain what we wanted, or steal if we couldn’t obtain what we desired. The Superego is the governor of the subconscious, so to speak. It controls what we do, yet is still part of the subconscious itself. The Superego allows us to still seek satisfaction, albeit in more socially accepted ways. The Superego and the Id are in a constant flux within the subconscious mind. Do I help this person or do I do away with them? I’d like to steal this bracelet but what will people think if I’m caught? These questions and millions more arise as the instincts of the subconscious Id struggles with the subconscious Superego and the conscious mind to find satisfaction. The subconscious Id has no morals per se. That is not to say it is evil, merely that its primary function is to ensure perpetuation of the individual at its most basal level – self-survival. The superego is evident in nearly all social animals, where we see social etiquette limiting individual behaviour. It is unknown whether the superego is fully functional in black widow spiders who eat their mates, but it is arguable that the urge to consume their sexual partners is due to an overwhelming demand for protein necessary for egg-laying post-coitus and that at other times the superego may well be sufficient. No research in this area is evident – do biologists really care for black widow’s Id? - nor is there any research proposed or expected in the near future.

The interconscious mind (or ‘Self’) forms during childhood. It appears to be a subtle construct of the mind and is extremely fragile, sensitive and potent. The ‘Self’ is also subject to cultural influences so that the perception of Self varies according to different cultures. As well, Self is anatomically amorphic (i.e. no specific part of the brain is responsible for its function), unlike the ego (self) which can be seriously affected by brain injury. Studies with epileptic patients with a ‘split-brain’ operation, or the psychiatric cases of double personality or multiple personality disorders show a remarkably intact Self even though the ego may be largely fractured or distorted[i]. However, recent psychoanalytic studies of conflict resolution and compromise suggest that, like the paradox of quantum mechanics, Self appears to function separate from the ego, though is not divisible from it[1].

We learn to use our interconscious mind by navigating our way through the maze of interpersonal interactions with parents, family, friends and others. The interconscious mind is that part which embraces social skills and yearns for integration into society, where it can explore greater methods of self-expression. The interconscious mind envelops and produces heroism, altruism, oratory skills, diplomacy and emotional intelligence quotient (EQ). Essentially all the interpersonal skills. The ‘Self’ is the party-animal aspect of us all. It is that part of us which seek union with others to mate, to play, to bond as a group, to seek fame and fortune from others, to use others for our own pleasures, praise and gain. It is not an inherently ‘spiritual’ quality, no more than a politician is necessarily spiritual. But the interconscious mind is an essential survival tool (‘safety in numbers’) as well as an outlet of psychological frustration and thus allows healthy psychological growth. In humans, an inability to bond adequately at a social level would be an impediment to healthy emotional expression. Although the rare few can survive in solitude, the majority of animals are seriously restricted by lack of social interactions and many, if not all, humans consider this the worst form of torture.

The conscious mind is the part of our mind that reads this book, that discerns letters on the page, that perceives patterns in words and assimilates them into sentences and assigns abstract meanings to them through intellectual methods. It is the more computer-like of any part of our mind. It deals best with non-emotional information, and deals poorly when information comes to it heavily-laden with emotions. It is the seat of the IQ, and the weakest link in our emotional competence.

The final influence on the ego is the physical body. The physical body and the mind have intimate connections. When a loved one walks into a room, and we have not seen them for a long time, our heart races, our pupil dilates and our skin flushes. Our mind becomes overwhelmed with feelings. We cry, we laugh. We lose our rationality for a time. To think the body cannot control the mind or that they are inseparable is naïve. There is also the more subtle and less conscious interplays between mind and body via hormones and the parasympathetic nervous system. As well, the mind can directly influence the body, such as over-secretion of gut acids, hypertension and immunosuppression in chronic stress situations.

Having said all this, where does the ego come into the equation? The ego is the nexus of all four parts; the body and the subconscious, conscious and interconscious minds. It is the hub of the wheel. It doesn’t so much turn the wheel but becomes the wheel, when it is in motion. The ego gives us our sense of Self which arises temporally, from one moment to the next, as the ‘I’. It is the synthesis of all aspects of the mind in ‘action’ over time. Peter Singer stressed this capacity of animals to have a sense of Self over time that was crucial for their determination as having a moral equivalence to humans. The ego is the instrument to voice the many demands made by the body, the subconscious mind, the conscious mind and the intraconscious mind. All animals have a functional ego. It is not hard to see this when we consider a socially-challenged Chihuahua who takes exception to being examined by the vet or in the docile Labrador that wags its tail despite painful procedures performed on it. Whether a dog is extrovert, introvert, aggressive or passive, its personality is a function of ego. The only life forms which lack an ego are those which lack consciousness. For example, this would include plants, anencephalics, animals (including humans) in a vegetative brain-state post-trauma and lower life forms such as single-celled organisms, bivalves, molluscs and second-hand car salesman.

The ego is thus the sum of all the mind’s faculties. It is the ‘I’ that feels pain in the body, that has the urge to find a partner and marry, that seeks the company of like-minded souls and joins Rotary international or the local bowls club. It is the ‘I’ that loves solving the crosswords and wondering why it never spoke out against the damming of the Franklin River. It is the ‘I’ that condemns racism but shrugs the street pauper when asked for a dime. It is the ‘I’ that does all our most noblest of deeds and most ignoble of sins. It pinions our mind upon high to contemplate God and also seethes restlessly to seek revenge against our neighbour. It blinds us to our highest potential and pulls us short of enacting the greatest love of all, self-sacrifice. It is at this point in our discussion about the ‘I’ that religious readers might infer something more, that the ‘I’ is greater than the sum of its anatomical parts. That there might be a soul or spirit behind the mind’s workings, to that I can only say read on…

Our ego begins its first spurt of growth at the age of eighteen months of age or thereabouts when we first look at ourselves in the mirror. It is the conscious mind’s first grasping of self-awareness, albeit the most limited form, an image of itself reflected in a Barbie-doll mirror. The baby recognises itself. At this age, we say ‘That is me,’ pointing to the mirror. We smile at the image of ourselves. We touch the mirror and confirm it is us and not our clone or twin, or a trick of magic. As a result, we enter the domain of existential solipsism and narcissism, Freud’s anal stage of development. We discover ourself by touching, exploring, pleasing, hurting. Then we move beyond ourselves and see what this body of ours can do to objects around us. We crash into things, hurt them, get hurt ourselves. We push toys around. We pull the cat’s tail, get scratched. We cry. We laugh as mother rescues us from our pain. We sleep, exhausted. We find, when awakening from sleep, the ‘I’ is still there. It has survived the death of sleep. Thus begins the slow growth of our beautiful ego that we show to the world on our Bar Mitzvah, our Debutante night, or our graduation day. We smile for the camera. We pride ourselves on our achievements. We are ultimately deluded that this thing we see with our eyes is the real ‘me.’ We want to believe that everything is perfect, that we are perfect. If it’s not perfect, we know we will find a way to make it so, and if we can’t then we’ll make a way.

It is important to remember that in order to maintain itself, the ego must constantly establish and protect its physical and psychic boundaries from others. A sense of duality is where the ego was born, and it is how the ego is maintained. An ego is never threatened by inanimate objects, only animate ones. This is why interacting with others is so critical for proper ego development. Without the constant pushing and pulling between our ego and others, the ego is unable to define an ‘ego body’ or boundaries, or what has been popularly called one’s personal space. Without constant external conflicts by relating with others, the ego becomes deformed or malformed - it becomes unsure of who and where it is. A blurring of object/subject occurs and the ego is thrown into crisis. We can see this in the aberrant ego bodies of orphaned children who are deprived of interactions with their family; thwarted, stunted egos unable or reluctant to touch, cry, laugh or even smile.

The ego needs to continually reinforce its boundaries by bonds and conflicts. The greatest defining forces on the ego are those who evoke within the ego the feelings of love and hate. By such interactions, the ego forms its rudimentary construct of good and bad, pleasure and pain, friend and enemy, ‘us and them’. Without an ego, we cannot survive. In primitive times, humans had to quickly discern a would-be enemy who might be out to attack them. The ego would pick up vital body language cues that were tell-tales signs of imminent friendship or hostility. This is critical stuff for survival, and is how the ego has evolved from prehistoric times. Without an ego, other humans or animals would kill us, or at least walk over us. Our needs wouldn’t be met. Without an ego, who would feed us when we cry, or change our nappy?

How do we know when we are operating from the perspective of our ego? Put simply, any time we are concerned with our self-image, with self-pity or with negativity, we can be assured this is the ego operating. These three negative aspects of the ego emerge when an individual becomes overzealous in their self-interest at the expense of others. One can be assured that excessive egoism is operating when any of these aspects are present. Self-image is excessive concern for how one looks physically, or how one appears socially. Self-image is however different to self-esteem. One can have high self-esteem with little interest in how one appears. Self-pity arises whenever one feels physically or emotional threatened or injured. It is normal to be aware of self-injuries, but not to the point of being self-obsessed. Negativity is the third and important aspect of egoism. Being negative or pessimistic of others or things is a defence to maintaining one’s own self-image. Ultimately, negativity is destructive to our emotions and ultimately our relationships with others. Negative people become a ‘drain’ to be around, and are best left to their own self-destructive tendencies.

In exchange for its constant demands to protects us from the myriad slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that life throws us, the ego gives us security, a place to crash and food in our belly and sex. It also gives us the skills of diplomacy and tact that allow us to preen the egos of others in order to share a crowded winter cave with other potentially hostile companions. The subconscious compromises with the interconscious mind to allow us to share food with others, to find a satisfactory mate that others in the social group approve of, and allows us to sleep knowing that we have found sufficient food to last the winter. The ego is perhaps the finest mechanism ever invented by evolution. It does for the mind what the immune system does for the body. It fights our wars, maintains our integrity. It is as untiring as the heart, and as reflexive as a knee-jerk. It is as impulsive as an erection, as explosive as an orgasm, and about as demanding and unpredictable as a cramp. It is intimately perceptive to the needs of those parts of the mind it serves, and incredibly subtle at orchestrating the myriad needs of body, subconscious, conscious and interconscious minds.

The ‘I’ is the ego – the ‘I’ is the sum of the four aspects of mind – but it is essentially a mirage, or illusion. Though it is critical to fully understand how the ego works, ultimately it is more important to realises that it is just a product of the mind. But before the reader grows hopelessly despondent with this revelation, let us step back a few paces. As was said previously, the ego is one of the finest products of evolution. It is so smooth in operating that when it works properly, we are not aware of it. The only time we are aware of it is when we are in a crisis of conflicting urges. We might want to kill someone because they have wronged us, but we know that we cannot, or should not, or are unable to. Or in another circumstance, we might want to flee from an unsavoury circumstance yet know we must stand and fight. Fortunately for us ‘civilised’ folk, these conflicts ‘to be or not to be’, or ‘to flee or not to flee’ are regular conflicts which the ego deals with aplomb. It is hard to rattle a mature ego. Don’t forget, it has dealt with the hardest time of all – growing up! It has seen childhood wars on the playground, witnessed titanic excursions into the deep ends of swimming pools when learning to swim, and undergone the brave foray of swallowing tadpoles as part of adolescent initiations. It has seen our Odyssean struggles with the sirens of puberty and overcoming onanism. It has gold medals pinned to itself for overcoming subconscious fears that would make Schwarzenegger proud. It is only when we dare to challenge the ego’s authority that the proverbial hits the fan. Conflicts, especially prolonged mental conflict, are what makes for good ego drama. Such ‘dark nights of the soul’ occur when we are forced to endure what our ego considers unreasonable. These might include death of a loved one, victory by an enemy, divorce, bankruptcy, imprisonment, becoming maimed or disabled, raped, tortured, etc. Individual egos react differently, depending on their resilience, but none are immune.

The ego during this crisis period is said to ‘wobble’ or becomes unstable. Everything appears out of kilter. ‘The world is out of joint,’ said Shakespeare. The Buddhist use the word samsara which describes a universe ‘out of sync’ or unstable, and this is similar to what is involved during an ego crisis. If the ego cannot accommodate the new experiences – if it can’t swallow the bitter pill of a new reality forced upon it - it remains unbalanced and the proper communication between body, subconscious, conscious and interconscious minds become distorted. We say things like ‘I can’t live with myself!’, not realising that the ‘myself’ we are talking about is the ego – that it is our ego that we can’t live with. We go crazy - doing irrational acts of transferred rage and hysteria directed at everything and everyone - and for a while our world is turned upside down. As a consequence of unresolved ego crisis, people have nervous breakdowns, suffer serious illness, or check into rehab. The wards of psychiatric hospitals are replete with those unable to re-centre their ego and keep the wheels of the mind smoothly turning.

As we have already said, the ego arises at birth and has at that time only one overriding motivation - hunger - to reach to the breast and suckle, or in egg-laying animals, to find food. In mammals, bonding with a parent(s) is crucial for ego development. As we have seen, the ego begins to form by conflict over physical needs. A hungry baby that cries out has its needs (and ego) satisfied when fed by its mother. Some psychologists believe that this primal movement toward the breast is one of love, but without trying to sound trite, what’s love got to do with it? An infant’s search for the breast is simply an instinctual urge to feed. It is an instinct, not an emotion. The emotion ‘love’ arises secondarily to the urge, through bonding with the mother. It is only in conflict, between needs and having them met or not, where emotions arise, but this is discussed in more detail in the next chapter. Suffice to say, where there are no emotions, there is only needs. And where there are no needs, there is only awareness. But this too is discussed later.

As the individual grows, the requirements of the subconscious and conscious minds grow more complex and their demands create not only physical but also emotional (‘I need praise’) and mental (‘I need acceptance, attention, agreement from others’) needs. To grow, the ego separates itself from its maternal bond by creating, as already said, its own ego body. This ego body (our image of our physical Self, what we see in the mirror with our mind’s eye) is a mental chimera that exists through separation (‘I need that object/person in order to be happy’) in time (‘I will only be happy when this or that happens’). Thus the ego is a four-dimensional persona we have of ourselves in time and space. We can experiment about what or where is the ego body by asking yourself what part of your body is the real you? Is it your arm, or your leg, or your brain, or your heart? Is it one or multiples, or all? Many philosophers, from the Buddha to Bart Simpson, have pondered this eternal question - Who am I? Whatever the truth to this puzzle, the ego quickly learns that in order to survive I has to convince us that it is real and that we and it are the same thing. Why should it do this, you ask? Quite simply, for its, and therefore our, survival. The ego is our body guard, our chaperone, the concierge in the lobby of our mind, our pal. But if we choose to ask the ego to step aside, it is like asking a dog to let go of a bone – a fight is what normally happens.

‘I think, therefore I am’ implies complicity in the belief that ‘I’ only exit when I think, and therefore I and my ego are one and the same, whereas in truth we are everything except who we think we are. But that doesn’t not mean that we are nothing without our ego-derived thoughts. There is a subtle difference between thinking and awareness; the former requires cognitive actions, whereas the latter does not. Antonio Damasio, a well respected American psychiatrist, coined the term ‘Descartes’ error’ to describe the flawed notion that we are the sum of our thoughts and that we identify ourselves the ‘I’ with these thoughts. That we may be greater than the sum of our thoughts is, he suggests, a little closer to the truth.

The vitality and creativity of an adult person depends on the quality of the dialogue between the ego and the Self. This dialogue develops from childhood usually by the parental mother acting as a mirror for the creation of the child’s ego. The ego establishes itself first by mirroring, then establishing independence from the mother. This egocentric stage is essential for the infant’s ego to form an identity that is separate from the external world, and to thus to form ego boundaries (what have been coined ‘virtual reality’ paradigms) and for symbolic play[iii],[iv]. Maternal care allows the ego to be projected on to the infant’s body; an ego-self dialogue then develops its roots in the bodily experience of the infant as it interacts with the world and consequently, the ego body is born.

Ego development can be compromised as a result of early overstimulation in childhood or inadequate or inconsistent caring by parent(s). Post-natal depression, marital disharmony, drug/alcohol and physical and mental abuse also cause major distortions in the establishment of the ego-self dialogue and ego boundaries and contributes to unhealthy ego boundaries later in life[v]. Poor ego development can also lead to body-image distortions and difficulties in the regulation of tension and stress, resulting in such symptomatic expressions as eating disorders, compulsive exercise, substance abuse, and the creation of physical danger, as a step toward integration of mind and body as well as a defensive antidote to pain[vi]. Unresolved childhood trauma results in various degrees of ‘ego-grasping’ which manifests along a continuum of irritability, anger, depression, low levels of impulse control, distortions in reality perception and extensive operation of immature defence mechanisms[2][3].

Developmentally, the body and the ego have an integral, mutual relationship. This becomes particularly important during adolescence when the body matures physically while at the same time cognition, self-reflection, and social relations develop. A subtle part of the ego which appears around adolescence is what is called the archaic or primordial layer of the ego. This archaic layer appears to shine through the basic fault in the psyche opened by childhood trauma. This inner Self (what has been referred to as the ‘guardian angel’) appears to form in many traumatic situations as a buffer for the ego against total annihilation. This led many psychoanalysts like Jung and Ferenczi to hypothesise about a spiritual (non-physical) Self which is indestructible, regardless of internal or external trauma. It may well be that this inner sanctuary links the ego-experience with a spiritual aspect of the mind not ordinarily available to consciousness[4].

What is most interesting about the ego’s development is that its maturation is not a temporal phenomenon (i.e. age does not normally infer ego maturity). The development of verbal, social, and adaptive skills over time is not as pivotal to ego maturation as is overcoming psychological trauma. Examples from experiences of entry into adulthood in societies where initiation rites (rites of passage) are still practised (e.g. participating in inter-tribal wars, virginal deflowering by elders, ritual male circumcision) results in more rapid ego maturity[5]. Rites of passage are emotionally-intense rituals which are designed to transform the belief systems of individuals. These rites are performed at important stages of an individual’s life, such as puberty, marriage, birth of children, old age and dying. Typically the rites of passage begin by separating the person from their social network. Without the accustomed social support they begin to feel fear, especially fear of the unknown. They are then taught their society’s mythology by the presiding elder. In the second stage of the ritual they begin to undergo intense emotional experiences and learn to interpret them according to their society’s values. Sometimes psychedelic drugs are used. The individual then begins to mourn the loss of their grandiose sense of self, which leads to the formation of a more mature and realistic self-image. Finally the individual constructs a new conceptual world-view and is re-integrated into his community. However, such rites of passage do not necessarily confer individual ego maturity – merely the ego’s social maturity. Notwithstanding this, many contemporary psychoanalysts associate rites of passage akin to what the Spanish mystic John of the Cross described as the ‘dark night of the soul,’ which is commonly experienced by individuals whose ego is in major crisis. The moments when we are stripped bare of our illusions and confront the realities of our existence, we introduce important questions: Who am I? What is my purpose here? Where am I going? Jung believed these questions important in one’s development toward self-discovery.

All human religions/philosophies can either hinder the maturation of the ego or result in ego maladaptation/malaise. In societies where rite of passage is practiced, the death-rebirth struggle is a part of the psychological transformation. During this process, enormous amounts of destructive and sexual material rise into consciousness. Immature and sorrowful beliefs and attitudes, buried in the subconscious mind since childhood, are re-experienced. When the youth successfully assimilates this stage, they pass into transpersonal experiences of bliss, cosmic unity, or other features of higher consciousness[6]. The rite of passage at adolescence is a process about learning to overcome and sublimate infancy trauma by symbolic death. Their rebirth is a symbolic birth of a ‘new’ ego with beliefs that are now harmonious towards their society. The death and rebirth scenario is actually the death and rebirth of belief systems, so that the ego completely re-orientates itself to a new system of values[7].

Such trauma can be precipitated in westerners by events such as getting married, starting a family or buying a house, or from major events such as severe illness, war, famine, etc. Such ego-crises result in a reassessment of the individual’s perspective on life. The individual’s ego is forced to undergo increasing levels of internalisation, differentiation, individuation and integration. The ego begins to re-evaluate ‘reality’ in increasingly resilient and durable forms – that is, it matures, as seen in rites of passage. An ongoing dialectical tension between separation from reality and reunion provides the driving force for ego maturity[8]. Conscious emotional effort is required by the individual to overcome fears of annihilation and usually involves a degree of psychic pain. Getting control of the ego leads to far more effective social behaviour, although there is no guarantee of maintaining control indefinitely and is usually seen as a life-long process of ego-tension[xiv]. In westerners, those unable to overcome the crisis are usually locked into ‘ego-stagnation.’ Such people are usually reluctant to change because of overwhelming annihilation anxieties and declare that they can’t change because ‘that’s how they are[xv].’ They normally exhibit defensive strategies of over-idealised values, neediness, obsessions, compulsions, persecution complexes and self-destructive tendencies.

Ego development is also intimately connected with social identity (interconsciousness). A social collective (Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’) appears to influence individual ego functioning through sharing of these instincts (fighting against a common enemy), needs (gathering food) and desires (social networks and hierarchy). Contiguous with collective needs is the use of social imagery (e.g. social vision of overcoming an enemy through strategic use of individual skills). Individuals with greater imagery (stronger ego imagination) appear to be more manipulative of social order and have greater leadership tendencies[9]. As we mature from childhood, we begin to segregate those parts of our ego which we feel as vulnerable. If, during the course of childhood, we have learned that vulnerability is something bad, the stronger aspect of our ego assume control. When we meet someone who is more identified with vulnerability, our ego tends to judge or react negatively to that person although at the same time we might feel a strong attraction to the person. This basic rule of the psyche can be expressed as follows:

‘The people in the world whom we hate, judge, or have strong negative reactions toward are direct representations of our disowned selves. Conversely, the people in the world whom we overvalue emotionally are also direct representations of our disowned selves[10].’

From this, we could say that those people who invoke the strongest emotions within us, whether it be intense hate or love, are the most important catalysts for our emotional growth. Overcoming intense love is as important as relinquishing blind hatred. Neither are conducive to healthy psychological development. We need to develop a state of seeing the world that embraces what is being experienced without undue criticism or judgement as these tend to strengthen our egoism. The more we cling to experiences and judge them as good or bad, the more we identify with and cling to the ego.

Most crucial in our understanding of the ego is its susceptibility to self-dialogue. Research with self-hypnosis have shown that positive ego states can be attained by the use of ego-strengthening, mental rehearsal, imagery coaching and active-alert trance states[xviii]. Self-hypnosis is used in a diversity of applications from enhancing sport performance in athletes to trauma recovery in sexual/physical abuse. Various techniques are used which aim to restore healthy ego-dialogue. Hypnosis, self-hypnosis, meditation, mantras, etc, have also been shown to reduced acute stress and post-traumatic symptoms that occur after physical or psychological trauma[11].

The primary malaise of the ego is depletion, where its boundaries are brittle, fragmented or dissolved. As depletion advances, clinical symptoms appear such as anxiety, restlessness, undisciplined behaviour, aggressiveness and laziness. In advanced cases depletion leads to dystonia, where there is major aberrations in cognitive ability, motivation, self-regulation and will-power. Other symptoms also occur, such as depression, aberrant social behaviour, lack of self-assessment and in extreme cases, catharsis[xx]. A common German expression for ‘crazy’ means literally ‘not sealed.’ In severe psychoses (where people are usually said to have gone mad), the ego boundaries are non-existent; reality and illusion are one. The imagined world of our fears become so real that we are like the Titanic surrounded by an ocean of icebergs.

Eastern traditions (Hindu/Buddhist) understood the importance of the ego long before it was defined by psychoanalysts. The main objective of eastern traditions has been toward transcendence of the ego. The ego is seen as the cause of all emotional suffering and is meditatively destroyed through relationships of the meditator with animate and inanimate objects. Like the Vulcan ‘mind meld’ in Star Trek, the mind dissolves into everything and reaches a state of ‘emptiness’ or nothingness. Westerners see this condition of ‘emptiness’ as having negative connotations for the ego. Instead, modern psychoanalysis has reinvented the psychoanalytical wheel by constructing a ‘meeting of the minds’ approach[12]. This approach aims at fusing the individual’s ego body with other ego(s); essentially mirroring the approach of eastern philosophies.

Traditionally, westerners characterise the ego by its strength, and seek to develop superiority of mind to body - ‘fullness.’ Christian thinking is such that one lives by aligning oneself (ego) towards God, whereas Eastern philosophies have more circular reasoning (Nietzche’s ‘eternal repeat of the sameness’) where the individual egos is assimilated into one collective sea of egos. The prime objective of ego sublimation by Eastern traditions is the same as for western philosophies; ego sublimation and rapture with a universal mandala (the numinous father-figure, God, higher self, etc). This has the result of liberating us from all emotional dissatisfaction. This emotional quiescence (‘nirvana’, rapture, etc) results in the abolition of the fear of death (annihilation anxiety). Annihilation contentment (acceptance of death) rather than pushing the ego to suicide has the opposite effect, namely a heightened appreciation of the sanctity of one’s and other’s life. Implied by this is that the ego’s self-survival mechanisms can actually function like a governor on consciousness, imposing limitations to a ‘full’ and carefree life.

According to Jung, the ego, full of distortions and projections, needs to be dissolved before the Self can emerge. The Self, however, which is the totality of the psyche, includes the ego. In the process of individuation one does not destroy the ego, rather one places it in subordinate relation to the Self.The ego is no longer the centre of the personality; the Self, which unites all opposites, is its centre. What is dissolved is the inflated, concrete ego, pursuing its exclusive selfish purposes, just following its own impulses.

‘Man has to cope with the problem of suffering. The Oriental wants to get rid of suffering by casting it off. Western man tries to suppress suffering with drugs. But suffering has to be overcome, and the only way to overcome it is to endure it. We learn that only from him (the crucified Christ).’[xxii]

But the path leading via the underworld to illumination, to the Self, is by no means an easy one. It requires the sacrifice of our most cherished possession, our ego, so that the Self can emerge. Similarly, Buddhists say the root of all suffering is attachment to ego, and they urge us to relinquish it, so that our true nature cam be revealed.

Jung repeatedly warns against releasing unconscious content within the psyche without proper safeguards, as it may overwhelm consciousness, resulting in serious psychosis. He compares the potentially explosive power of the archetypes latent within the unconscious to that of the released atom, and say:

‘The archetypes have this peculiarity in common with the atomic world, which is that the more deeply the investigator penetrates into the universe of microphysics the more devastating are the explosive forces he finds enchained there.

It can be concluded then, that we should not attempt to commit suicide of the ego, rather that it is important to learn to let go of attachment to mental concepts, ideas and ideals that may only cause us problems in the future. We need our egos, as they are important to keep us functioning as a person. Perhaps the most important facet of understanding the anatomy of the ego is that intellectual performance has been shown to be dependant on a healthily functioning ego. When depleted by unresolved emotional issues, the intellect performs poorly at logic and reasoning, cognitive extrapolation (deduction) and reading comprehension, though not on general knowledge, memorisation or recall[xxiv]. This is critical to understand not only when it comes to maximising intellectual performance by students but for clinicians under emotional stress associated with work.

References

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