“I only know as much about myself as my mind can work out under its current conditions. And its current conditions are not good.”
Zaphod Beeblebrox, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
We don’t know who we are or what we want.
This sounds like a drastic overstatement, but most of the time it’s true. Many of our needs and instincts are unconscious. We only know what we’re conscious of or what we allow ourselves to know. Because our true needs are hidden they’re never fully satisfied, so we often feel something is missing. We’re split in two and don’t know how this sorry state of affairs happened or what to do about it.
You may want to be authentic and fulfil your highest potential, but you keep undermining yourself. You go round in circles and get frustrated, and the same problems keep coming up. You fall out with a friend, blow up at your boss, drink too much, suffer never-ending health crises, insomnia keeps you awake, and anxiety leaves you exhausted. Or maybe life really is wonderful and you should be happy, but you just feel bored, misunderstood, bewildered, and alienated.
All these problems are like a flag hoisted by your unconscious trying to get your attention. Somehow you need to get back in touch with these lost parts of yourself. You need to embrace your shadow.
The Architecture of the Mind
In simple terms we can divide the mind into what is conscious, or known, and what is unconscious, or unknown. The conscious mind is tiny compared with the unconscious. If we see the mind as an iceberg, the conscious part is the bit above water, the personal unconscious is the rest of the iceberg, and the collective unconscious is the entire ocean.
Dealing with the biggest first, the collective unconscious is universal and impersonal, and applies to everyone regardless of individual differences. It includes everything from basic bodily functions, drives, and instincts, to higher inspirations, genius, higher emotional capacities such as compassion and bliss, and the archetypes.
The personal unconscious includes memories, habits, and the shadow. Some of these things are easy to recall, like your phone number or how to drive. But others have been actively repressed by the ego in the conscious mind, or were never truly conscious because they relate to experiences you had before you knew how to think.
Finally, the conscious mind includes everything of which you’re directly aware, such as sensations, thoughts, feelings, desires and conscious impulses, like hunger or an itch.
The centre of the conscious mind is the ‘I’ or ego. This is a kind of unifying principle that orders the contents of consciousness and makes sense of it so you can relate to the world. It’s a mental construct and based in thought, but it’s rooted in the body, through the self, so you can control your movements and some bodily functions consciously.
A quick aside: one common misconception is that the ego is the self. The words tend to be used interchangeably which is confusing, but they are technically different. The ego is purely mental. It’s your idea of who you are. Whereas the self is what you feel yourself to be. The ego is in your head – all surface and appearance, while the self is embodied – how you feel located in your body.
(Important: when you experience ‘ego death’ during awakening, you don’t lose your self – need a whole other blog post to talk about that…)
So the ‘I’ or ego is what you think and it includes the stories you tell about who you think you are. And it’s these stories that cause many of the problems when you’re trying to grow up and awaken to your full potential.
The Dark Side of the Ego
The ego creates the shadow. You can’t have an ego without a shadow. The two always arrive together, like conjoined twins. The ego policies the conscious mind and banishes anything that it decides is unacceptable. This can include positive traits and potentials, as well as the more obvious negative ones, like emotional complexes, phobias, compulsions, obsessions, and delusions. It can also contain traumatic experiences from very early childhood which you can’t remember, but show up as behavioural problems and emotional blind spots.
“The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly – for instance, inferior traits of character and other incompatible tendencies.” – C.G. Jung
The psyche isn’t fixed. It’s a dynamic system in a state of constant change. The shadow tends to compensate for imbalances in the conscious mind and is always seeking to redress the balance. The unknown wants to be known. If you move too far to one extreme, the unconscious will act to close the gap, and bring about events, either inside the mind and body, or outside in the world, to bring you back into balance.
This is difficult because the ego has already decided that these parts of the self are unacceptable. When they start to resurface, the ego doesn’t like what it sees and resists. The ego doesn’t care about wholeness or balance, it wants to be safe and in control. The unconscious doesn’t care about safety or control, it seeks wholeness. Unfortunately for the ego, the unconscious is infinitely larger and more powerful, and so tends to win in the end, sometimes even at the cost of the sanity or life of the individual.
The ego is a contraction against reality and feels like a kind of mental cramp, as if your mind is a closed fist – always tense, always turning away and saying no. You want to say Yes! to life and be more open, authentic and real, but the ego stands in the way. This is why it’s often portrayed as the enemy on the spiritual path. If you want to awaken you must kill the ego!
This may be a little overzealous. The development of the ego is an essential step on the path to becoming fully conscious, and it seems to be in the driving seat for a while, but this is an illusion. The real power behind the throne is the Self.
The Self (capital ‘S’) represents the archetype of Wholeness, and is sometimes known as the Higher Self to distinguish it from the small self. The ego is the centre of the conscious mind, while the Self is the centre of the whole psyche – conscious and unconscious together.
As the ego is to the conscious mind, the Self is to the totality of Mind. The ego is a reflection, in the mind, of the Self.
The ego (and the embodied self) is separate from other selves. I am my ego in my body over here and you are your ego in your body over there. The ego is personal, while the Self is collective. The Self bridges the individual and the collective, the personal and the impersonal, because it includes both. It’s the Self that drives the evolution of consciousness towards wholeness.
The ego isn’t really killed, just transcended.
Next we’ll look at what we can do to help ourselves become more conscious and discover the hidden gifts of the shadow in: Embracing the Shadow