The ego gets a pretty bad rap these days. People say things like “It’s just ego,” as though the ego were something we could just dispense of at will. As the center of our conscious mind, the ego is a psychological necessity. Perhaps a lot of what people say today comes from the influx of Eastern philosophy. We should remember that the idea of the dissolution of the ego arose in a different cultural context.
Dissolution of the ego is not something we can simply adopt as an attitude. It is something, however, to which we can adapt – if we keep the practice within the context of our culture. Individuality is one of the greatest contributions of Western culture to humanity. The idea that an individual can contribute something of value gives a human being a sense of meaning and purpose. Meaninglessness is something from which a lot of people suffer these days. I think we should be more respectful of something so precious as our individuality. Individuality is an expression of authenticity.
What Affects the Ego?
We are surrounded by the Collective on two fronts: the Collective Consciousness in our external world and the Collective Unconscious in our inner world. Both of these act upon us like objects – meaning that each front has a certain level of autonomy over which we have no control. From the external front, Collective Consciousness, we are bombarded with cultural norms, social pressures and social roles (personas). These promote societal and cultural conventionalism. Conventionality assimilates individuality. On the internal front, we have the Unconscious, which encompasses both a personal (biographical) and a collective (archetypal) aspect. The difference is important, the details of which are best left to another topic. For now, let’s look at the Unconscious as those overpowering emotions, thoughts, moods, fantasies and daydreams which can possess us against our will.
What is the Ego?
The ego is the “commander in chief” as Jung called it,
… its reflections and decisions, its reasons and doubts, its intentions and expectations are the general staff, and its dependence on outside factors is the dependence of the commander on well-nigh incalculable influences emanating from the general headquarters and from the dark machinations of politics in the background.
A stable ego provides us with the necessary foundation from which to do our transformational work as individuals. We can look at the ego as a sort of complex that serves as the center of consciousness. Consciousness – what we know about ourselves – can only be transformed by a well-established ego. A well-established ego works in conjunction with those forces that are beyond its control. When our ego is not well-established, the onslaught can be paralyzing. Moods, thoughts, emotions, and images can take over and possess us in such a way that we no longer feel like ourselves.
In order to withstand the onslaught of life, we have to build up strong ego boundaries. In psychological terms, this boundary is called a stimulus barrier. Hence, when our stimulus barrier is too permeable, we can become overwhelmed, especially when we are in particularly dark states of hopelessness and fear. Similarly an alchemical text reads:
… be not too hasty in bringing your work to pass, and remember that your door be well and firmly shut, that he which is within fly not out and thus by the help of God you shall obtain a wished effect.
Generally speaking, the work we are bringing to pass is our own transformation. Whenever we collapse under the pressure of the world, we lose a piece of ourselves.
The Ego as the Vessel of Transformation
In terms of alchemy we can look at our egos as an aspect of the “vessel” in which the work of transformation takes place. When we leave the door of the vessel open too wide, we become overwhelmed by both fronts – duty, obligation, and service on one and difficult thoughts and emotions on the other. This is a tension that must be born. Only when we have a keen sense of our egos can we distinguish between our authentic selves and conventional opinion on the outside and the “dark machinations” of the Unconscious from the inside. Our process of individuation, or Self-discovery, is the means by which we excavate what is truest to our individual nature.
The greatest events of world history are, at bottom, profoundly unimportant. In the last analysis, the essential thing is the life of the individual. This alone makes history, here alone do the great transformations first take place, and the whole future, the whole history of the world, ultimately spring as a gigantic summation from these hidden sources in individuals. In our most private and most subjective lives we are not only the passive witnesses of our age, and its sufferers, but also its makers. We make our own epoch.
(Carl Jung, Collected Works 10, par 316)