Evolution of Consciousness: The Dark Side of the Ego

“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.

This is your mind – sort of…

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

Becoming Conscious

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

Read the whole series here: Evolution of Consciousness

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11 thoughts on “Evolution of Consciousness: The Dark Side of the Ego

  1. Such a cool analogy that iceberg one. It speaks volumes. Even though I am majorly influenced by Buddhist teachings, I disagree with how much they see the ego as an enemy to be vanquished. Although at times you do need to go at ego hammer and tongs to dissolve some of it’s more chronic conceptual obstacles especially early on in one’s path. I try to balance this out with indigenous wisdom ( American Indian for example) which has a more realistic take on working with ego, in that it is simply the consciously directed portion of self and that it doesn’t require obliteration. It just needs to be healthy.


  2. Hi Jessica

    Hehe -I already put a link to Kat MacCay’s glossary on my site, accessible from the side bar no matter where someone’s at in my blog. I use enough Sanskrit that it will really help to have it there.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So enlightening and helpful!
    I hadn’t considered the perspective that the unconscious seeks wholeness and is more powerful than ego. Or that the ego is like mental cramping.
    Thank you for opening up new perspectives and possibilities Jessica.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is really interesting, Jessica. I’ve been doing my take on this very issue over at PlaneTalk. Mine mostly is about the “ocean” side of the unconscious. I haven’t gotten into detail yet about the personal unconscious (what I am calling the “cave of consciousness” after Plato) or the conscious mind (what I am calling the “screen”, based on the teachings of Kashmiri Shaivism). I’ve been discussing how the impersonal unconscious is the whole rest of the Universe, and how this could even be plausible.

    It’s interesting how you distinguish ego from self and Self. Very Jungian approach. In the yogic framework I am trying to explain, its called ahamkara, the constriction, that separates the Atman from Brahman, or, in Western terms, the soul from God. One thing I realized reading your piece is the Eastern view doesn’t have an idea like the Shadow. The East talks about “samskaras” or the “latent impressions” that range from personal unconscious habits near the surface, to the Kleshas, or very deep impression, like the ahamkara itself (sense of separateness), and the things this engenders such as desire, aversion, and the fear of death.

    It is interesting that, given their very detailed knowledge of the mind, that the Shadow is not an explicit part of their teachings. I’m not sure what to make of it because, as we’ve discussed in the past, the Shadow is very real and is something everyone must face at some time or another as they grow spiritually.

    Anyway, this series you are doing about the Evolution of Consciousness is really excellent and thought provoking! Thanks for sharing! I’ll look forward to more!

    All my best wishes,


    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Don. I’ve been enjoying your series on Consciousness – it’s great stuff – not sure I understand all of it and I can’t follow the maths to save my life! I struggle with the Hindu take on this because I find it difficult to remember what all the different words mean – could use a good glossary.

      It is interesting that the idea of the Shadow doesn’t come up in the same way. But maybe they’re just calling it by other names. It’s really whatever you’re not aware of, whether that’s personal or universal, so the samskaras and kleshas probably fit the bill. As soon as you’ve got that constriction in consciousness, you’ve got the Shadow. Doesn’t really matter what you call it! People tend to assume the shadow is all dark, but the most important thing that falls into it is our knowledge of our true nature – which is unbounded, unborn. We repress the sublime much more than anything else – especially these days.

      Looking forward to your next post – something for me to wrap my head around! Keep up the good work 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Jessica

        Thanks for the nice reply! Sorry if I am getting abstract in my post. It’s less written for the choir than it is written for those I am calling “the pygmies” who are people that know these math ideas but look at it all in purely secular and mainstream materialistic terms.

        As to a glossary, I found this really excellent glossary from Kate MacKay:

        Please feel free to trumpet it far and wide. She does a spectacular job. In fact, I think I may make it a permanent link on my blog so people can always easily refer to it.

        Also, thanks for your thoughts regarding Kleshas = Shadow. Your idea makes perfect sense!

        Will look forward to more of your interesting insights, Jessica! Thanks so much!


        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hi Don. Thanks for the link – looks like something I’ll be referring to quite a lot.

          I don’t mind the abstractions really – it feels good to stretch my poor brain occasionally. I’ll never learn anything if I don’t try to understand things I can’t understand!

          Liked by 1 person


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