THE ELUSIVE SELF: AN ARCHETYPAL INQUIRY

Flickr-In-the-mirror-seanmundy

BY GARY McGEE – WAKING TIMES

 

“A human being is part of the whole called by us universe. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self.” -Albert Einstein

One of the many difficulties we find in living an “examined life” is the constant feat of overcoming the perceptual self. What we need regarding the inner-self is not fixed conviction but adaptability. Perhaps it is just as much the case that we are changing as it is that time is moving. And so we must be just as adaptable toward the vicissitudes of self as we are toward the vicissitudes of time.

For our purposes here, let’s imagine using Nietzsche’s Dionysian-Apollonian Dynamic as a tool to leverage our adaptability. Imagine a teeter-totter in your mind: the Teeter-totter of the Self, if you will. On one side we have Apollo. On the other side we have Dionysus. One goes up, the other goes down. One cries wolf, the other is wolf. One sighs, the other howls. In order to maintain an examined lifestyle both of these inner-archetypes must have their say. Nietzsche’s concept of the Over-hero (or Übermensch) is the hero who constantly overcomes the illusion of the self. The Over-hero oversees Apollo and Dionysus going through the motions of “play” on the Teeter-totter of the Self. The Over-hero knows that it’s when the “game” becomes serious, as opposed to playful, or when one side gains too much power over the other, that stagnation becomes the default and the examined life comes to an end.

First, we must accept that the problem of the Self is a complex one, riddled with paradoxes and contradictions. Yes, it is possible to be part of the problem and part of the solution at the same time. Understand: hypocrisy is a crucial aspect of fallibility, and fallibility just so happens to be the essence of the human condition. But by cultivating awareness of all factors involved, and learning to weigh the consequences of our actions, we can begin to make choices that contribute less to the problems and more to the solutions. This is the beauty of the fallibilistic approach: it is inherently an overcoming of itself. Like Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” We all contain multitudes, and not just physically. Our minds contain a vagary of multitudes. This is because our brains were designed by the trial and error of mutation and time: what’s known as evolution.

Human evolution has brought about a modular brain, where a deep menagerie of selves creates the mind that calls itself “Self”. It explains why we are conflicted, inconsistent, and hypocritical. It reveals how we have a multitude of evolutionary layers overlapping, like a giant onion in our skulls, reeking of multifarious odors. Each layer has an evolutionary importance of which we are just beginning to scratch the surface. But we do know that each module, each part of this infinitely fascinating organ, is a prerequisite for our being here. Every module, whether outdated or not (and some are), is necessary for there to be such a thing as homo sapien sapien: a creature that has the capacity to live an examined life.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives,” wrote Charles Darwin, “nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” The one most adaptable to change is the one who can be the most fluid and flexible in the face of adversity, as well as the most courageous and daring in the face of complacency. This, essentially, is the Dionysian-Apollonian Dynamic. It is not just adversity that prevents existential growth and puts an end to most journeys, but also complacency, contentedness, and comfort. Those who would interrogate the many layers of consciousness are the Over-heroes who seek all that looms beyond the surface of things. They pursue mystery (a Dionysian act of courage) until the very substance of reality is revealed to them, then they make sense and order out of it (an Apollonian act of courage), and then they pursue further into mystery (Apollonian death/Dionysian rebirth), and the process is repeated constantly, while always seeking to reinvent the self. This is the essence of living an examined life. This is self-interrogation par excellence.

Our perception of self is as much a construct of a construct as it is an abstraction of an abstraction. The self is not one single thing. It is not an essence; but a process. It is simply what a psycho-physiological system does, the side-effect of an organism having gone through the motions of evolving. The sense of individuality that arises from this process is multifaceted. It’s almost as if the billion-bundled neurons in the brain, coupled with the physiology of the body, came together to perform a symphony. The music from this symphony is what we call the self. Similarly, the masks we wear are multifaceted, even though we still remain an individual. The “roles” we play while wearing our masks are merely versions of who we are, and not entirely who we are. “To switch to a cinematic metaphor,” writes Julian Baggini, “we may ‘edit’ and ‘direct’ ourselves, but it is still ourselves who is being edited and directed.” The psycho-physiological unity of experience is who we are. And that experience is forever in the throes of change.

As it stands modern man has been suffering from an over-abundance of the Apollonian dynamic. Weaning ourselves from the 2,000-year Apollonian rigidness takes a very powerful Dionysian assault on our weltanschauung, one that wakes us up with a ruthless cognitive dissonance. Now enter Dionysus: the creative, intoxicating, impulsive, non-rational, nature-based archetype, the individuated untermensch (under-man). This energy is necessary to get us back in touch with our bodies, with the sacred garden of our flesh, so that we can learn, build upon, and evolve the consecrated blossom of our soul blooming in the always harsh “desert of the real.”

But a Dionysian frenzy toward self-liberation only gets us so far. At some point there must come a sobering, an Apollonian continuity and unity that produces a construct of self that is able to function in an ever-changing world. Perceptually the self exists; actually it’s just an illusion. But we live in a reality where our perception is, quite literally, everything. So we must ‘go through the motions’ of having a self, despite, and maybe even in spite of, the illusion. Because as far as we are concerned, the illusion is all we have. The Apollonian continuity of self is a grounding of our multifaceted Dionysian nature into one coherent construct that we can call ‘Individual’. The back and forth play of the Apollonian-Dionysian dynamic is crucial for healthy evolution. The acceptance of the illusion of the self, and the ‘going through the motions’ of being oneself, is what I call self-legerdemain, or ontological sleight of hand.

In the same way that a physicist cannot perceive both the momentum and location of an electron in space, an individual cannot perceive both the multiplicity and the continuity of the self. The concept of ‘I’ is elusive. Any attempt at perceiving it as a “thing in itself,” is akin to trying to eat our own face. Similarly, the concept of ‘now’, like the concept of ‘self’, cannot be located in time, for as soon as one declares a “now!” the moment has already become the past. As soon as one declares “I am myself,” the moment has passed and the self has changed.

So not only are we Creatures of Self in any given instant, we are Voyagers of Self eclipsing all ‘Now’s’. Just as there can never be a ‘now’, there can never be a ‘self’. And yet, paradoxically, perceptually, there is always a Now and there is always a Self. And so self-legerdemain is an act of strategic, healthy denial. Like Jonathan Swift wrote, “Happiness is a perpetual possession of being well-deceived.” It is strategic because we use it despite the illusion. It is healthy because it keeps us sane, and it keeps us aware of the difference between two very important concepts: the Perceptual, and the Actual. (I write more on this concept in my article A Heuristic Inquiry into the Correlations between Consciousness and Theoretical Physics.) But what’s important to understand right now, is that the self is a multifaceted, fluid, ever-changing, amorphous illusion that, nonetheless, must be treated as real. We are a fluid yet binding flux. It’s the permanence of self that is an illusion, not the impermanence of self. After all, the ‘self’ is just as real as ‘now’ is real. Our ‘self’ is just as much a thing moving through time as ‘now’ is a thing moving through time. Some might even argue that the self, through conscious observation, is what’s doing the moving. Like Julian Baggini wrote, “’I’ is a verb dressed as a noun.”

The important thing to understand is that mental paradigms are not necessarily bad. They are cognitive constructs we use to perceive reality. The Apollonian and Dionysian are just two archetypal examples of mental paradigms. Actually, all paradigms are unique to the individual. And since change is the fundamental construct of the cosmos, so too must our paradigms change, lest we stagnate and become locked into a particular neurosis. Breaking mental paradigms is like killing Hydra. When you break one, two more pop up. Like psychological dominoes toppling over each other. Epiphanies and Eureka moments are those times when we manage to take out many “heads” all at once, and the avalanche of mental paradigms popping up can literally change the way we perceive reality.

In the end we are, all of us, emergent phenomena. The illusion is that we’re in control. The self is a complex system of neurological firings and physiological reactions that happen to form a pattern that is unique to “being” you. Just as storms are an emergent expression of a complex system known as weather, the self is an emergent expression of a complex system known as the human condition.

Perhaps time is just Reality’s way of preventing everything from happening at once. Perhaps space is just Reality’s way of allowing a place for everything to happen. Perhaps space-time is just Reality’s way of allowing everything that’s happening to be perceived. And perhaps the Self is just Reality’s way of perceiving itself. And suddenly we are not so small.

Inception

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Jung

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Freud and Narcissism

Freud: On Narcissism

Primary Narcissism: Definition from Answers.com

Jung and Active Imagination NOT Transliteration (skill for individuating in norm)

Carl Jung and Active Imagination | Evolver.net

Active imagination is a specific therapeutic technique of entering the imaginal world that was pioneered by Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) in the early twentieth century. We could think of it as forced intercourse between two corroborating aspects of being–the ego and the personal unconscious–that make up the transcendent self. Central to the endeavour is the plucking of an image, mood, picture, or event from the ocean of the unconscious, personifying or clothing the former in a way that makes it entirely comprehensible to the conscious mind, and then engaging it through spoken dialogue or some other implicitly understood form of communication. Throughout the entire length of the psychotherapeutic process you are engaging hitherto unacknowledged facets of yourself, other selves if you like, by allowing them to float up to an imaginal world existing between the conscious and unconscious universe. Your own role in this intermediary realm reflects that position–you have conscious control of feelings, actions, and words originating from the sphere of your own ego that should not under any circumstance extend to those communicated to you by your personified subselves.

What do you find by entering the imaginal world through active imagination? You discover the current state of psychic affairs, usually one that is both fragmented and irreconcilable. You meander about the imaginal landscape consciously participating in an internal drama and forging energetic relationships with all other inhabitants of the land. You make friends and enemies; you engage in love, war, heroic journeys and religious pilgrimages; you’re forced to act diplomatically and sign unconditional treaties of peace with hostile personalities or come to some sort of compromise about shared control of your body’s cerebral function with less hostile ones. You also learn a thing or two about yourself from other resident personas that you didn’t think were native to your own being. More often than not, you encounter viewpoints and feelings radically different from your own and at times you’ll find that yours will be ignored, overlooked, ridiculed, or fiercely resisted. Your fellow personalities have minds of their own and will often say and do things that might surprise, worry, frighten, infuriate, offend, or embarrass you. Why might this be so?

Well, the terrain from which these personified images have sprung is inextricably connected to the collective unconscious. As a cosmic and overarching entity, the former is ethically indifferent and morally neutral. It cares not for core and essential values deemed of utmost importance to the personal ego, the ethical balance of one’s conscious life, or the preservation of social standards that serve as adhesives in human relationships and culture. Its only purpose is to express the totality of its archetypal leitmotifs, either by facilitating a conscious channel for them to materialize in the phenomenal world or by projecting them into the realm of the imagination where the ego can actively and purposefully explore evolutionary possibilities associated with each one through guided fantasy, active imagination, or some other technique aimed at authentically illuminating unconscious material. This omission of social taboos and conventions that dictate and condition nearly all conscious interactions in the world of consensual reality from the realm of consciousness might mean that certain actions and words coming from undervalued and unacknowledged subselves will be crass and outrageous. Whatever the case may be, the two complementary and usually conflicting aspects of the total self (ego and unconscious) will converse until a feasible resolution can be reached. The length of time needed to achieve this depends on the nature and depth of the prevailing issue and how deeply entrenched in the black humus of the unconscious its roots actually are; it could take anything from a single session of active imagination to a whole cluster of them extending over weeks, months, and sometimes even years to see tangible results.

Carl Jung made ample use of the process on his many patients to drastically narrow the gaping chasm between the conscious will of the personal ego and the disenfranchised contents of a persona unconscious yearning for expression. The underlying theory behind this is when natural tendencies remain hidden as unrealized potentialities deep within the unconscious they manifest as neurotic imbalances. These might be experienced as subtle worries, irritations, or angers of no discernible cause that keep popping up at various intervals throughout the day or as vivid, disturbing nightmares and night terrors that can overturn an individual’s natural sleep cycle. By participating actively in a process which aims to descry the nature and purpose of an unacknowledged and fragmented image through dialogue, you intercept, confront, and resolve the inner conflict before it can materialize in the realm of dreams; in hypnagogic images; and in passive fantasies. Jung found that there was a vast reduction in the number of dreams and the repetition of archetypal content when one used active imagination in coming to terms with the psychospiritual situation of the inner life on a frequent basis. From this perspective we could say that this particular psychotherapeutic method serves two important purposes: to hamper the development and progression of neurotic behaviours and undesirable idiosyncrasies deemed to repeat throughout one’s life when left unaddressed, and to open up a channel of communication between the personal ego and the other muffled ‘voices’ within the unconscious longing to be listened to and engaged on an imaginal level. A most desirable consequence of achieving these two aims is that the complimentary opposites comprising the total self are harmonized and the newly unified personality can continue developing on the less travelled path of self-actualization; a path on which an individuating person awakens to the greater reality of the interconnectedness, the meaning, and the harmony inherent in the cosmos.

Sometimes, we awaken to find that our intricate psychological armoury is being pierced by sharp, painful arrows of inflation, torment, obsession, and other fiery temperaments. For some strange reason the pain is referred and unspecific, emanating to the totality of our anatomy; we can neither localize their point of entry into our bodies nor put a finger on specific causes. These are all latent neuroses and sterile vices hidden within the unconscious that are begging to be plucked out one by one and consciously integrated with psychological impulses already known to and acknowledged by the personal ego. The best way of bringing unconscious content to the imaginal world where it can be grasped by the conscious mind is to relax by reclining on a comfortable sofa or chair with the eyes closed and posing one or more of the following questions: What then is this? Where is this feeling coming from? Is it perhaps somebody who has something important to tell me? Is it somebody who feels differently than I? Who are you? Why are you upset? Show me what you look like.

More often than not, personified images will appear quite spontaneously before you can rattle off a train of questions longer than the Nile River. Once you have a clearly defined image in your mind’s eye you can proceed with an imaginal role-play that involves robust and often frictional communication between your own viewpoint and a conflicting one spawned by the ‘voice’ of an inferior subself or being. An important thing to remember with respect to conscious participation is that you must not allow the trajectory of the conversation to proceed along paths with feeling responses that are premeditated, forced, or controlled exclusively by you. Irrespective of how you might feel towards any one particular subself–in essence a personified blemish, weakness, or obstruction to the natural predispositions of your unconscious life–you must never sabotage or hinder the natural current of imagination by putting words into the inner person’s mouth or by determining their actions. Let the inferior subself say and do what he or she wants and be as unruly as he or she wishes to be, without consciously intervening as to prevent embarrassing words from being spoken and uncomfortable circumstances from arising. A determinative of true wisdom is the ability to listen without preconditions or judgement. Such an emotionally uninhibited approach to participation is probably the only way you’re likely to establish an authentic and accurate representation of the current psychic state of your inner life and thus get anything beneficial out of this psychotherapeutic exercise. Failure in giving yourself over to the contingencies of the imaginal cascade and allowing yourself to willingly experience angers, qualms, delights, titillations, and whatever else the transpiring communion with the individual subself calls for renders the entire proceeding obsolete. In hindsight, the absence of any prepared script to guide the intercourse between conscious and unconscious as well as the notion of relinquishing total control to chance is what makes Jungian active imagination different from other more rigid systems of visualization like guided fantasy or creative imagery.

The wonderful thing about active imagination is that it transcends dealing with moods, conflicts, and qualities that bubble beneath the surface of our conscious minds. You can use the technique to explore fascinating personalities and aspects of yourself wishing to be lived out, or heroic adventures that have occasionally manifested in passive fantasy; to continue an offensive dream that ended abruptly or unsatisfactorily until closure is attained; and to consciously experience the spiritual plane. Whatever your agenda may be, always proceed with caution and with the utmost respect for the generative powers of the collective unconscious. It doesn’t hurt to remember that archetypal forces are insurmountable, eternal, and transcendent powers or “fields of energy” that appear in the intermediary imaginal world clothed in humanistic garments for the sake of making themselves lucid and concrete to the human intellect. Those who refuse to remain firmly rooted to the earthbound realm of consensus physical reality and maintain clear differentiations between fantasy and the real world can become overwhelmed, possessed, and even severed from outer environmental influences when these archetypal fragments are blasted out of the unconscious. Generally speaking, personified images and events that take on a life of their own within the diverse and autonomous terrain of the psyche are symbolic interpretations of one’s current egocentric situation and are not directly connected to the objectified subsistence of the same images and events in the external world of phenomena and forms. Thus, we should never imbue personified images with exterior physiognomies that look identical to or resemble living relatives, friends, or acquaintances. Doing so gives the psyche the perfect excuse to blur the lines between the real and the imagined and aids in the fruition of illusions and delusions about one’s affiliations, relationships, and communions with others along with the greater community at large.

While labouring on this formulative level may be quite meaningful, constructive, healthy, and second-nature to experienced users of this therapeutic technique, first-time users and amateurs will often question the authenticity of the experience. There is nothing unusual about doubting labours on the transpersonal level, especially when those labours involve communing with psychic presences that are, in fact, subordinate configurations springing forth from the diverse and autonomous ground of your own psyche. Is it an authentic experience or are we merely making things up and engaging in child’s play for the fun of it? The important thing to remember when entertaining such doubts (because I’ve had them too) is that any act of imagination, whether voluntary or involuntary, involves a summoning of pre-existing archetypal contents from the unconscious, a transformation of these images from configurations of protean existence to personified forms (i.e. gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, men and women), and finally conscious manifestation. You cannot imagine something that isn’t lying dormant in the fertile slime of your own unconscious; you cannot grant it form unless it is a pre-existing aspect of your own becoming, a potentiality sown into the fabric of your own being. Consequently even slight fabrications of images and feeling responses in the imaginal world are faithful echoes of your unconscious voice.

Marie Louise Von Franz, Robert Johnston, and other Jungian psychotherapists have faithfully endorsed and developed a quaternary or four-stage approach to active imagination that builds upon Jung’s prototype. The initiatory phase involves clearing the conscious mind of random psychobabble and allowing fantasy content to emerge from the depths of the unconscious in personified form. This naturally blends into the second stage where the candidate selects one of the images that has surrendered itself to conscious expression and enters into a dialogue with it without impinging upon its ‘rights’ to self-determination. The third introduces the concept of moral conduct which separates humans from all other creatures on the planet: a set of ethical parameters that one should use during formative communication with subselves as to prevent the dialogue from degenerating into a primitive or inhumane altercation. Finally, no session of active imagination should be executed without a conscious intent to transpose the subtle, rarefied resolution to the earthbound dimension of existence. There just has to be a practical element, a way you can incorporate the conscious resolution into the circumstances of your own life. If you don’t complete the last phase and make it concrete the imaginary role-play would have all been for nothing. So think practically!

Jung and Archetypes

It’s a book of essays on a theme, like most of his other books. Here’s an attempt to describe the whole theory in a few paragraphs. Jung suggests the existence of a 3-layered psyche consisting of (1) the conscious (active part of the mind), (2) the personal unconscious (thinking over which we have little or no control), and (3) the collective unconscious (unevolved, animal-instinctive mental activity). The collective unconscious is “collective” in the sense that humans resemble each other the most at the lowest, biological levels. “The body’s carbon is simply carbon” (pg. 173). We inherit the collective unconscious from the common pool of human characteristics, like morphological aspects of the body such as arms, legs, etc.

The “archetypes” originate in the collective unconscious and are the psychological equivalents of Platonic Forms. (I realized about halfway through the book that archetype-figures also appear in the personal unconscious, where they’re called “complexes”). The most important archetypes appear to be the Shadow (the inferior aspects of the self which we hide from others), the Anima/Animus (our object(s) of desire), and the Wise Old Man (e.g., teacher, medicine man). He also discusses a Mother archetype and a Child archetype and indicates the existence of numerous others. Identifying strongly with an archetype leads to psychosis.

The heart of the book is in the first essay, but the rest is useful in fleshing out descriptions and giving examples. The collective Anima archetype, for instance, can be found among movie stars and in the general pop culture. Devils and tricksters often represent the Shadow archetype. Tolkien’s Gandalf is a good instance of the Wise Old Man. It’s not so easy to identify a particular individual’s Anima complex or Shadow complex.

A few things bothered me about the book. For one, Jung indicates that the “Primitive mentality differs from the civilized chiefly in that the conscious mind is far less developed in scope … The Primitive cannot assert that he thinks; it is rather that something thinks in him” (pg. 153). This is a dubious kind of distinction between civilized and uncivilized states of mind that seems to have gone out of fashion over the decades. Also, I couldn’t tell from this book what methodology Jung used to determine the significance of dream symbols. Does every dream about climbing a tree represent the psyche climbing the “World Tree” toward higher states of consciousness? Do snakes always represent the unconscious? Is every old woman in a dream an example of the Mother archetype? Etc.

 

Jung and Archetypes

Jung’s books are not easy reads, but they are almost invariably eye-openers. I recommend first reading his student’s works (von Franz, Barbara Hanna, Joland Jacobi), his “Man and His Symbols,” & (especially with respect to this book) Joseph Campbell & Jean Shinoda Bolen. It helps a lot to understand mythology when exploring the collective unconscious. Jung goes to great lengths to show how the denizens of the collective unconscious (archetypes–universal images~Plato’s view) map onto very different cultures throughout time & space–appearing in art, dreams, visions, etc. Bolen uses Greek goddesses & gods to depict these. Jung disliked neologisms (creating new words) instead he transplanted them from other disciplines to map into his psychological theories & constructs–thus, “archetypes” & “complexes”–paralleling General Systems Theory (cf. biologist von Bertalanfy’s works). “Complex” comes from mathematics’ complex numbers. Jung knew & conversed with physicist Pauli, Kabbalah professor Scholem, & many other famous, high-caliber scholars. It is important to realize, when reading this book, the important differences between archetypes of the collective unconscious & complexes of the personal unconscious–though they have the same names! Thus, the mother archetype is the pure image of motherhood–with both positive & negative aspects. But, each person has an actual, individual mother (or lack thereof–absent mother). The interaction or combination of these two forms one’s mother complex. As in math, it has a rational part (actual mother) & an imaginary part (archetype). In math, the imaginary part is multiplied by i, the square root of minus 1–which cannot exist, yet mathematicians use it creatively! So does Jung. Even modern works by “post-Jungians” often confuse or confound these two. The Anima/animus is particularly prone to this confusion. Unfortunately, Jung added to this confusion IMHO by calling the anima soul & the animus spirit. The anima/animus use gender & projection to enable people attune to the Self, the overarching archetype (others are essentially subsets). It is the image of wholeness &, thus, the object of psychological individuation–not integration. Jung says one cannot integrate the entire unconscious–that is beyond human capability. This is more subtle than it seems–esp. regarding western mystics’ unio mystica (union with God) & eastern enlightenment. Jung attempts to assist people evolve, ~the U.S. Army: “be all you can be,” rather than a thin veneer of civilization–p. 269 “Outwardly people are more or less civilized, but inwardly they are still primitives.” Further, p. 322 “The view that we can simply turn our back on evil & in this way eschew it belongs to the long list of antiquated naiveté’s. This is sheer ostrich policy & does not affect the reality of evil in the slightest.” Therefore, Jung includes the negative aspects of both archetypes & complexes. Finally, as scientific psychologist, Jung notes that p. 269 “We should never forget that in any psychological discussion we are not saying anything about the psyche, but that the psyche is always speaking about itself.”