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Simplifying Jung

As with most people who possess an ordinary mind {intellectual}, my adventure in trying to comprehend the complexity of Jungian thought was in the beginning a daunting task. But with the tutelage of the equally great mind of Joseph Campbell I was able to discover commonality between these great thinkers of the psyche with my own natural instincts. In other words, what Jung was espousing in often difficult terminology was in fact a natural connection to the universal mind we all possess. It was, and is, a natural fit for anyone who takes the time to explore the deeper possibilities of the psyche. It fits because it is who we are.

The primary objective of the Myths-Dreams-Symbols website has been to simplify in the best possible way the language and thought of Jungian philosophy to a degree where ordinary minds like my own can have an understanding of the complexity of psyche. In an effort to find new resources that help in that understanding I am in constant search of fresh materials. This morning I happened upon a page that does just that. And I want to share it with you in hopes that any misunderstanding of Jungian philosophy may be eased and better clarification is provided. After all it is the sharing of knowledge that is the heritage of the hero of myth, and the duty of sharing such knowledge for those who follow the hero path.

The following is excerpts from an interview with James Holis, Executive Director of The Jung Educational Center of Houston, Texas. Hollis trained as a Jungian analyst in Zurich, Switzerland, and is the author of eight books and over forty articles on Jung's work. He has his own active therapy practice and travels around the country lecturing to audiences of students and peers on Jungian theories of human development and what he calls "the meeting point of psyche and soul. This interview provides clarification to Jungian philosophy and thought, simplifing the termnology to a degree we all can understand. The interview was conducted by Amy Edelstein of what is enlightenment magazine.

The Ego

WIE: What, according to Jung, is the ego?

James Hollis: The ego as defined by Jung is the central complex of consciousness. When we hear the word "complex" we tend to think of something that's pathological, whereas all a complex really is, is an affectively charged cluster of energy. The complex of the ego begins to form when we first split off from the primal other, which is typically our mother; that is when we separate from the breast. And while that separation is necessary for the formation of the individual, it's also very painful because it's the loss of that early experience of unity and sense of primal belonging.

Jung saw the formation of the ego as essential for consciousness. Consciousness is predicated on the split between subject and object—to become conscious I have to know that of which I am not. I have to have a sense of "that over there" versus "this over here." He also saw the ego as a necessary agency of intentionality, focus and purpose. How is it that you and I arranged to meet at the same time to address the same subject? It was a function of "ego focus" that was critical for this conversation to occur.

The ego, as a complex, is extremely malleable and "invadable." When the ego gets invaded by contents from the unconscious, when it's in the grip of other complexes, it becomes insecure or power-driven, or whatever the case may be. You see, what we often call "ego" is really the ego under a state of possession by one or more of the complexes, such as a money complex, a power complex, a sexual complex or an aggression complex. These complexes are not an individual's core nature, but they do have the power to usurp or possess the ego.

WIE: Would Jung's pure ego state be equivalent to a condition where we were in touch with reality directly as it is?

James Hollis: Yes, that's right. In that sense it would be not unlike the Zen concept of "no mindedness"—it's just pure being. And yet to function in culture, we need an ego that allows us to structure time and organize our energies in service to certain abstractions like economics or service or whatever.

Jung's concept of the ego evolved over time. Early on he wanted, I think, to privilege the messages of the unconscious and to say that the job of the ego was to serve what the unconscious wanted. Later in his life he modified that and emphasized the need for ethical responsibility. For example, if I dream I'm murdering someone, I don't wake up and murder the person. I say, "What's that about?" That's a proper use of the ego—to serve as a conscious processing of life's experience, neither giving too much authority to the outer world, nor too much to the inner world.

The Self

WIE: What is the Self according to Jung? Is it that which represents or calls us to realize our highest potential as human beings?

James Hollis: The Self would be the wisdom of the organism. The totality of the purposefulness of that which we are, which transcends consciousness.

Well, let me step back and I'll come around to that in a moment. You see, for Jung, the superordinate reality is what he called the "Self"—which is not to be confused with the ego. In the first half of life, our task is to develop an ego, a conscious sense of who we are that's strong enough to leave our parents and go out into the world and say, "Hire me, I can do that job"; "Have a relationship with me, you can trust me"; etcetera. If we fail to develop our ego awareness sufficiently, we remain children. The dialogue in the first half of life is the dialogue with the world: What does the world ask of me? But the second half of life, Jung said, was for the ego to develop a dialogue with the Self. The question then is: What does the Self ask of me?—which is much more of an interior dialogue, and one could say, a religious dialogue. Because the Self may very well wish one to go in a direction that the ego would prefer not to go in—a direction that might lead not to a path of self-aggrandizement but to a path of sacrifice. For example, if the summons of the Self is to be an artist, then chances are you're going to starve in our culture. And yet if that's what the Self is asking and the ego continues to fly off in the other direction, immense internal suffering is going to be the by-product. So ultimately, the ego would have to come to respect what the Self was asking. There would be an ethical and religious responsibility to dialogue with that and still live in the real world. And part of the task of the ego is to cope with the conflict that that could produce.

WIE:What would you say would be the goal of Jungian psychology? Would it be to help us realize our highest potential?

James Hollis: Yes. You see, for Jung the central metaphor was "individuation," which is so often confused with ego development. It isn't ego development—it's positioning the ego in relationship to that superordinate reality that we all are. Individuation means becoming that which the gods intended, not what the ego intended. And there can be quite a difference. When one says, "Not my will, but thine," that's the ego dialoguing with the Self. Now, the "Self" is a word like "God"—it is meant to be ambiguous; it's not referring to an entity, it's essentially referring to a mystery.

The Shadow

WIE: Jung spoke in depth about the shadow. What is the shadow in his view, and how is it related to the ego?

James Hollis: Well, the most functional definition of a shadow is: that within myself which makes me uncomfortable about myself. So we would quickly think of typical issues like anger. I would not want to acknowledge my anger because it's unsettling to my self-image. But many times, as in the case of the Swiss painter, our most powerful qualities are also a part of our shadow. So the shadow is anything that would challenge the ego's fantasy of control.

WIE:So the shadow can also include our positive traits or those impulses within us that could lead us into something unknown and potentially even further our growth?

James Hollis: Yes, absolutely. And that's why the shadow is not synonymous with evil. The shadow is omnipresent in our culture—in our indifference to suffering around us, in our own pettiness, and in our own sins of omission as much as commission. But on the other hand, the shadow is often the place where the real creative energies are to be found.

WIE: Would Jung see evil as a complex or force within us? Or would evil be our own egotistic or narcissistic urges taken to an extreme?

James Hollis: Well, those are all possibilities. In Jung's book Answer to Job, he talks about the shadow side of God and says that our entire Western theology has been one-sided. The shadow got split off and sent underground or projected onto the enemy over there. The dark side of divinity is our own opacity toward the dark side within ourselves. Underneath those dualities is a unity of life's energies; it's just that ego—and this is a good example of what ego can do—in feeling uncomfortable with the ambiguity of all of that, tries to split things off: "I'm good. You're bad. Our people are good. Those people across the Hudson are bad." It even tries to create a split in theology. What do you do with evil in monotheism? Well, it gets split off into Satan—the "adversary"—or the devil, which means "the opposite principle." And that split is the ego at work seeking to privilege its own insecurity. I would say that the sign of a healthy ego is its capacity to live with anxiety, ambiguity and ambivalence—triple A's—without trying to always solve them. Because life is anxious, life is ambivalent, life is ambiguous, and that's the reality. And the more we try to solve that or resolve that or split it off, the more we're going to fall into a fundamentalism of some kind—military, political, theological, economic, psychological—and that has the seeds of totalitarianism in it. Much of what I would call fundamentalism is really an anxiety disorder—which they try to solve by black-and-white thinking and projecting onto others. It's very unconscious, and it's very poor ego development. You can see how important it is for the ego to be strong enough to tolerate those tensions. When I can't tolerate them, I'll dump them on you. That's all projection. And projection is that which the ego is just not dealing with.
You can see how we use the term "ego" in so many different ways. And there's a place for the positive ego; it's not always an obstacle in enlightenment. It's responsible for consciousness and for ethical behavior and for dealing with the conflict of opposites.

WIE: Jung's view of our highest potential as human beings seems to include more of a spiritual dimension than Freud's view did.

James Hollis: Absolutely. The Self is really, in the generic sense of the term, a religious encounter. In fact Jung says, "Every genuine encounter with the Self is experienced as a defeat for the ego"—because the ego's fantasy of control or comfort is overthrown by what the Self wants.

To read the complete interview go Here

To understand Alfred Adler's concept of the ego go Here

I hope this helps clarify some of the terminology in Jungian thought. It is not as complicated as it might seem. It is a matter of finding the right words. Metaphors for the metaphors one might say.


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