The transcendent self
I’ll begin this post by sharing a struggle – specifically my struggle to comprehend the Jungian notion that the Self is an archetype that exists as ‘something beyond us’. This area of philosophical inquiry calls to mind my feelings on time – it has taken me a long time (oh yes!) to come to terms with the idea that time isn’t what we think it is; or rather what it appears to be. The way we experience time as a linear ‘succession of nows’ is actually an illusion; the flow of time as we sense it is simply relative to our localised schema here on Earth. Einstein’s incredible work on Special and General Relativity shows us that our distinction between past, present and future is less clear than it seems; we actually live in an extended present for starters. Time and space are not as constant as they appear – and gravitational pull affects the way time flows.
Anyway, enough physics for now. My point is this – I’m used to thinking about my sense of self as simply the way I see myself as a person; a within-ness – an ‘inner’ identification. Yet, according to Jung and Murray Stein in Map of the Soul, the Self is not only an ‘archetypal coin’ which bears the stamp of who we truly are, but also a transcendent non-psychological entity; a factor that transcends the time/space continuum that governs ego-consciousness. Jung sees the Self as something beyond the psychic and subjective realms. It gives the subject the ground for their commonality with the world, and thus the structures of being, according to Stein. With the Jungian Self, Stein tells us, one is ‘consulting a deeper and wider reality’ than the typical practical and rational landscape that ego-consciousness presents us.
What, then, does all this mean for the body? Is it nothing more than a corporeal shelter for the psyche? Is the Self sort of ‘floating around’ in some kind of ethereal metaphysical space projecting that stamp of who we are to others and vice versa? How do different versions of Self mix? Is it the job of the ego to interpret and evaluate different kinds of Self? Jung saw the Self as the most impersonal archetype – and Stein explains the way that forming this relationship with one’s transcendent centre gives one an ego-free quality – we become less narcissistically invested. For Jung the key to Wholeness (something I’ll go on to explore in more detail) is all about unifying the psyche – the Self holds everything together and gives the psyche balance; from Persona to Shadow, Anima or Animus to other in-built archetypes – the different levels and facets of the psyche. This yearning for unification and Wholeness is represented by symbols deep in the psyche – Mandala circles, squares and other images which demonstrate a ‘completeness’.
Anyway, back to this idea of the Self existing in a universe beyond the psyche. Does this not lend weight to more mystical and religious arguments to explain our existence? Or, like the very nature of being and time/temporality, is this Jungian notion of Self just something beyond the means of our ego-consciousness to understand or interpret? Is the Self a projection of some kind – is it really something that lies beyond our bodies? Surely our bodies need to be present to interact with our Self? I guess others can refer to my Self when I’m not there. Just because a Self isn’t corporeally present, doesn’t mean they cease to exist. Technically we don’t even need to come into contact with a Self to feel like we might’ve met them. Is this what Jung means when he speaks of the transcendent nature of the Self? I don’t know. I’m still pretty confused. But it’s all very intriguing – and is certainly making me rethink the way I consider the nature of my selfhood.
Knowing myself vs The Jungian Self
I have previously written about how confident I am that I know myself. You can read more about that here. It’s something I still stand by – but only to an extent. Because reading Stein’s book has made me realise that I was perhaps a bit naive. Based on the way Jung sees our psychic development, I have to concede that my viewpoint may be a bit premature and presumptuous. Jung would suggest that to know one’s true Self, we would require a Wholeness derived from the unification of all elements of the psyche – both conscious and unconscious. And I haven’t really expended much time or effort trying to delve into my unconscious yet; at least not to my knowledge. I mean, I do try to resolve myself with some of my darker thoughts and desires; I know they’re there and am more aware than ever that I need to come to terms with them. But I suspect I am some way from achieving any kind of Wholeness.
Jung saw our psychological development as something which occurs over our entire lifetime – and he termed this the Individuation process. This emergence of the Self is something that happens in various stages – with the final goal seeing us become a unified and unique personality – an integrated person. This happens through compensation – the psyche makes certain things unconscious to maintain balance in the psychic system; this is the nature of the relationship between the conscious and unconscious. The Self is the driving force, Stein tells us, and the mechanism by which Individuation emerges is this compensation.
Personally, I feel like I am just coming into the second half of the Individuation process – and I’m keen to discover more about my true self. That will inevitably mean that I have accept some harsh ‘home truths’, but I am ready for that. At some point I plan to explore some of the methods by which I can begin to unlock some of my unconscious contents and, hopefully, edge closer to that Wholeness we are all supposedly seeking. There is a part of me that wonders whether the Taoist sage (the wise, lonely hermit) is perhaps something like the Whole being that Jung thinks we are aiming for. Jung’s ideas seem to have strong parallels to Taoism (as most great philosophy does) and I just wonder if discovering one’s true Self might resemble this enlightened, spiritually immortal, transcendent, super-human, celestial being. Hmmm.
The Copernican Problem
As a guy with a keen interest in metaphysical pondering, I was quite happy to read in Map of the Soul that Jung (kind of) overlooked his strong scientific bedrock and loosened the reins a little in terms of his later philosophy/psychology. Particularly when it comes to his ideas on Synchronicity and an attempt to connect the human psyche to our environment/the world/universe. There’s a real Taoist perspective to such a theory – that the psyche and the world around us are inextricably linked; that something can appear in our dreams and then occur in the real world. I’ll go on to explore Synchronicity in much more detail in the next post, but for now I just wanted to raise an issue I have with Jung and the great German ontologist Martin Heidegger, whose magnum opus Being and Time was the key text driving a series of blogs I wrote before this one (Accessible Inquiries into the Nature of Being).
My grievance is another Copernican problem, of a sort. Copernicus was the physicist who realised that the Earth was not the centre of the universe – and that our home planet is in fact just a smallish rock (comparatively speaking) among others orbiting a much bigger star. This discovery did much to dampen the grandiosity with which humanity had previously identified – suddenly we weren’t this great centre that everything else was dictated by and answerable to. Similarly, those who are familiar with Immanuel Kant’s philosophy will have come across this term before – Kant’s three famous Critiques redefined consciousness as something that was no longer answerable to a transcendental or empirical object; he saw the mind as the active originator of experience rather than a passive recipient of it.
I believe that Jung and Heidegger perhaps give humankind too much of an exalted status with their various ideas. The universe is vast and mysterious – we don’t even know what else is out there. Is it perhaps naive to think that human beings might have some kind of extra-sensory connection to our environment? Probably not. But I do feel like sometimes we put ourselves on a bit of a pedestal. Heidegger’s Dasein is a fascinating concept – this sense of human being which transcends the being of any other animal. Jung’s Synchronicity is inspired; the notion that we might have this transcendent connection between our psyche and the real world. But we’re also just organisms like any other on this planet – deep down. We evolved from the same stardust. Maybe we’re not as special as some people think we are. What do you think? Let me know in the comments section below.
The Holy Grail Psyche
So it seems to me (from my reading of Jung, anyway) that there is almost a kind of Holy Grail Psyche for us to aspire to. The healthy, high-functioning and balanced personality. Can we ever achieve this? How long must it take? All good things come to those who wait, but are we destined to live the majority of our lives in search of Wholeness and psychic unity? And even then, surely only a smattering of people will ever achieve it. What does it look like? Is it akin to the Taoist hermit sage I spoke of earlier – at one with nature and the natural order, free from longing and desire, at peace and at ease with all the facets of one’s Self? And how do we go about trying to achieve this enlightened state of being?
We can’t all afford sessions with analytical psychologists to help us unlock those Shadow thoughts. This is an area I need to explore in more detail – perhaps starting with some freehand drawing and writing exercises. I’m obviously in no way trained or qualified to recognise any symbolic meanings behind that which I might create, but it will be fun to try. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I’ve written a lot of lyrics over the years – maybe it’s time to investigate those words through a deeper internal lens and try to identify any imagery that might express that desire for Wholeness and psychological unity.
I fully accept that achieving ‘ideal psychological development’ is not easy – that the conscious and unconscious parts of one’s psychic system can work in balanced harmonious interplay. But I believe that aiming to find this Holy Grail Psyche is certainly a worthwhile pursuit. As Stein tells us, this takes place in part between the Anima/us and the Persona. The ego is no longer flooded from outer or inner material. Life energy (or libido) flows in a progressive movement into adaptation – helping us to cope with the tasks and demands of life.
For Jung, the healthy functioning psyche has access to these inner resources and is also skilled at outer adjustment. One is able to cope and thrive in the social outer world of objects – but is also adept at using this vast internal well for energy and creative inspiration. “These are the good periods of work and love,” says Stein. I don’t know how attainable the Holy Grail Psyche is, but I’m going to think a lot more about this over the coming years; if you can do something which brings you more contentment, and doesn’t adversely affect others, why wouldn’t you at least try to do it? The greatest things in life require time, effort and love. And a balanced psyche, it seems.
Individuation and artistry
Stein explains in Map of the Soul how anxiety in the ego stems from conflict between our yearning for Individuation against our desire for social conformity. Or, in other words, being oneself and acting freely versus being accepted by others. By adulthood, we tend to find a balance, says Stein, but artists and other highly creative (or temperamental/passionate/you-know-the-type) types “get away with more Individuation” because of what they give to the world in compensation. Stein cites the example of Pablo Picasso, and he’s just one strong source from a long line of immensely gifted artists (painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, etc) who have given such wondrous artistic products to the world at, perhaps, the expense of being, well, a bit of dick.
So what I’d like to consider is this – is the wonderful art of Picasso and others a fair price to pay/compensation for allowing them to (often) act as they wish? I wouldn’t want to live in a world devoid of artistry and creativity – we have produced much beauty and wonder over the history of civilisation that we should be truly proud of. But I have no doubt in my mind that Jung is right here; it is more often than not at the cost of this ‘excess of Individuation’. When does this exchange become unacceptable? When people are hurt? I’ve written in many blogs before about the inextricable links between pain, trauma, heartache, unhappiness and creativity. So much of the brilliant art we create seems to be born in the Shadows of our psyches.
Allow me to quote from a blog I wrote some months back on culture and criticism and the latest release from Mumford and Sons. While trying to defend the band’s output, I also accepted that they may have a ‘missing factor’ which prevents them from truly impressing the critics compared to other bands. Here are my thoughts:
And yet, here’s the thing – would Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Radiohead, Nirvana (just some examples I like) and countless other exponents of great genius and beauty have achieved their amazing work without a bit of misery? Or sadness? Or heartache? Or paranoia? Or fear? Or injustice? Or anger? Or rage? Or melancholy? I’m not so sure they would. At least, it wouldn’t really be the same.
It’s just another of Kierkegaard’s classic irreconcilable paradoxes! There is an edge to artistic and cultural manifestations that are driven by sorrow, melancholy and rage – there is beauty, there is depth and there is raw humanity. There is soul.
And so, maybe that’s just the way it is – perhaps we can’t have great beauty without the Shadow side of our personalities. Maybe we just have to accept that Picasso is going to behave like a dick sometimes because by allowing that side of his psyche out, it gives him the means to create greatness. Now, don’t go thinking that you’ll suddenly be good at art if you act like an idiot – it also requires talent, a hard-work ethic and a touch of innate genius, I’m afraid. But do allow a bit of the Dionysian spirit into your life every now and then – there’s beauty in chaos, too.
And so, on to the final piece of the psychic jigsaw – the quest for Wholeness. It’s a theme that has dominated my philosophy and philosophical thoughts ever since studying Freud and Lacan at university. We have this yearning, this desire, for completeness. Jung recognised it with his Mandala circles, squares and other symbols which represent this quest for unification deep within our inner psychic network. For Freud and Lacan, completeness is inertia – or a return to the dyad with the mother/primary caregiver; a state of being where all our needs were catered for, free of stress, guilt, shame, hunger, desire and all those other things which make life difficult.
When our mother/primary caregiver provided nurture and shelter for us – when they tended to ALL of our needs, we were at peace. Free from the rigours of the symbolic realm, free from the pressures of adapting to society. We didn’t need to meet any cultural expectations and we didn’t have any aspirations. We didn’t need to try to earn acceptance by adopting a Persona – we had all of that and more. And we didn’t have to worry about our Shadow side – because all of those desires were catered for, too. The Freudian in me would say that the only way we can achieve that Wholeness again is with the inertia that comes with death.
Nothingness might just be the only true path to the ceasing of these desires, which can never be fulfilled. It’s a sentiment that appears to be echoed by Martin Heidegger in Being and Time when he refers to how Dasein (our state of human being) can never be explained in terms of Wholeness because there is “always a lack”. He suggests that Dasein has a “constant unfinished quality” due to its persistent potentiality-for-being; it is always open to new possibilities (up until death).
As I’ve said, Jung saw the Self as the transcendent centre of us – but something which is outside of the psyche – something which unifies us. It keeps all the psychic pieces together, says Stein – like a sun with planets orbiting around it. So is it possible for us to ever achieve a kind of Wholeness while we are still active beings? Or are we destined to be hamstrung by the incest wish for the entirety of our lives on Earth? Perhaps there is some kind of Wholeness we can aspire to which precedes inertia, death and nothingness? Could Jung’s uniting of our conscious and unconscious lead to the end of this yearning? Does this higher plane (maybe that Taoist hermit again?) actually have a level of consciousness that supersedes the desire for Wholeness with the mother? Who knows? If it is possible, I sure do hope to find out before I die.
I remain open-minded. It’s the only way a true appreciator of philosophy can ever be. The genius of Freud and Lacan resonates with me – and I do believe there is much to be said for our consumer habits and various other behaviours which show that we have this void which seemingly cannot be filled. But perhaps Jung is right – maybe there is hope for us in this lifetime after all. Maybe we can find some kind of Wholeness by exploring our inner contents as deeply as possible; perhaps there is a plane of consciousness we can achieve which will bring us a contentment or completeness. Good luck finding yours.