You are all figments of my imagination. To be precise, I programmed peripheral quasi-intelligences into the core so that, when immersed, I would have the illusion of being one of a crowd instead of the God-like central mass around which all else orbits. What I experience as “my life” is simply the latest consumptive session in this Matrix/Truman Show hybrid. If sometimes I have flashes of former lives, this is because my program has failed to completely block memories of my earlier games – a design flaw more likely to occur if I’m doing the virtual life quivalent of a 48 hour continuous Championship Manager binge.
As I create the universe around me, through a process of unconscious (to my immersed self), artistic perception, I weave patterns in the fabric. Thus I shouldn’t be surprised when motifs reoccur over and over throughout the experience. Coincidence and synchronicity are merely side-effects of the not-quite-total amnesia to which my out-of-matrix mind willingly submits. Deja vu is just that.
The problem of course is that my uber-mind undermines your unter-mind. We can’t all be the creators. Lock two solipsists in a room and the first thing they will do is try and kill each other. Ha! You’re dead and I still exist. Therefore I must be the creator. There can be only one. Bags I be Bagpuss.
And so, I vividly recall when I was only about 6 years old lying in bed and thinking about when I died and imagining being subsumed into the Godhead and being terrified because I didn’t want to disappear into some group mind. I liked being Simon Nugent and was horrified to think that someday my unique pulse would disappear or become dilute. This sensibility has been expressed in very modern form by the Transhumanists, ambivalently awaiting the technological singularity.
The atheist existentialists didn’t offer the comfort of any afterlife at all. We are simply ants on a rock hurtling through a vacuum and when our ridiculously short lives are over there is nothing for us personally except Oblivion (with a great, big capital “O”). Anything else in life is a distraction. You must face this horror full on and keep looking at it even if it makes you physically sick (the famous nausee). The fact that we are conscious of our own impending negation is a cruel cosmic irony that makes our existence even more tortured.
The two attitudes described (melodramatically, I admit) above seem to me to be ubiquitous within our culture. At one end of the spectrum the ego as God and at the other end the ego as transient nebbish.
Take science a case in point. In the nebbish corner along with the existentialists, the “hard” men of science would like to relegate the personal consciousness to a by-product of chemical reactions in the physical brain. If there is a mind it is mereley a ghost in the body’s machine, a machine which itself is driven primarily by the blind watchmaking DNA. The whole universe is a clockwork extension.
In the “we are God” corner you have the “new age” scientists who jump on the latest discoveries within Quantum theory to show that the universe is brought into existence by the act of perception of a conscious subject. Ultimately they describe a reality very like the solipsistic computer game described above.
One of the best attempt to make sense of this is Jung’s theory of Personality Development. (I say “best” but what follows are articles of my faith. I find them useful and fun but they are in the final analysis unprovable and entirely subjective). He proposes two key forces within the mind – the Self and the Ego. The Ego is the better known one, it is the “I” I am normally aware of, the one who travels around in my head all day, the one with all the ambition, the one that reacts well to flattery and strikes out when thwarted.
The Self on the other hand is a more mystical force. It is a combination of an individual spiritual blueprint which identifies each of us uniquely but also which extends beyond the individual and merges with the planetary consciousness.
The usage of these terms is necessarily specific because although the word “self” is used frequently in popular culture (e.g. self-improvement) nearly always what is meant is Ego. Thus an attitude described as selfish is, under our definition, more correctly described as Ego-ish.
According to this model, when we are born the Ego barely exists. It is almost completely subsumed in the Self. The newborn child knows nothing of its own personality. It cannot even distinguish itself as a separate entity from the mother. Gradually, the Ego fights its way free of the Self and establishes its own independent, conscious kingdom where its own agenda can dominate. The Ego must constantly battle for consciousness and the effort can only be sustained for a limited time after which we fall back into unconsciousness (sleep).
Jung (and his colleague Edward Erdinger who specialised in this area) reckoned that the first half of one’s life is typically taken in the attempt of the Ego to battle its way out of the Self. And like any war it is not a smooth advance, rather sometimes the Ego grows quickly, sometimes it backslides towards the Self. Either of these movements, if taken to an extreme, can become dangerous and relate to where I started this post (might there be a point to this after all?).
The first danger is called Ego-inflation and here the Ego, breaks free of the Self just enough to have an identity of its own but is still mostly overlapping with the Self and incorrectly identifies all the feelings of power, all the linkage to the planetary consciousness and the divine, with itself and not the Self.
The second danger is Ego-alienation where the Ego, in its drive for independence, goes too far in the other direction and cuts its ties with the Self and thus loses much of the vitality and meaning that it needs to sustain it.
By now you will have joined the dots between Ego-inflation and the “we are God” corner and Ego-alienation and the “nebbish” corner. I won’t labour the point any more just now – suffice to say that I have enough material for (at least) another post entitled “The role of the inflated Ego in the Cult of Celebrity”. (Come to me for counselling, Keira. I can help you. It’s not the shape of your bum that matters, it’s the size of your Self).
The decisive fact about both these pitfalls (and psychoanalysts delight in discovering many, many others besides) is that while we are unaware that we have fallen into the trap, we cannot get out. Psychoanalysis is, at heart, an effort to make our unconscious mental habits conscious so that we can begin to change them. A physical analogy may make this clearer: if I have got into the unsconscious habit of picking my nose in public it is extremely unlikely that I will ever stop until it is brought to my attention by someone else (possibly by holding a mirror up to me). To Jung this was the most fundamental principle of all. He said: “As far as we can discern, the whole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
If the first half of your life involves steering a way past the twin sirens of inflation and alienation, the second is meant to be about the re-engagement of the (now conscious and mature) Ego with the Self. This process is described by Jung as Individuation and is essentially the development of a fully conscious personality but one which is so in tune with its Self that the spiritual uniqueness of the Self expresses itself in the Ego. To Jung, ’personality’ is a particular term not to be confused with the loose sense in which we use it today. It is the opposite of unconsciousness; it is the hard-won individuality, the flame in the darkness quoted above.
Marie-Louise von Franz, Jung’s long-term colleague, nicely encapsulates the essence of Individuation when she says:
Individuation means being yourself, becoming yourself. Nowadays one always uses the cheap word ’self-realization’ but what one really means is ego-realization. Jung means something quite different. He means the realization of one’s own predestined development. That does not always suit the ego, but it is what one intrinsically feels could or should be. We are neurotic when we are not what God meant us to be. Basically that is what individuation is all about. One lives one’s destiny. Then usually one is more humane, less criminal, less destructive to one’s environment.
For me the drive for individuation is like the Quest for the Holy Grail or, more generally, any spiritual/psychic quest. Sometimes our personal Quests can yield absolutely concrete, tangible results but there is another, psychological and symbolic dimension to Questing which exists simultaneously with, and complements, the physical quest. This symbolic dimension is the individual’s ongoing attempts at defining and refining their unique personality (i.e. the process of Individuation). But this process is extremely hard and the structures and guidelines that once existed to help people along their way no longer resonate with our modern minds.
On the one hand we are unfortunate to be born into this particular time for, as Edward Edinger describes:
We seem to be passing through a collective psychological reorientation equivalent in magnitude to the emergence of Christinaity from the ruins of the Roman Empire. Accompanying the decline of traditional religion there is increasing evidence of a general psychic disorientation. We have lost our bearings. Our relation to life has become ambiguous. The great symbol wich is organized Christianity seems no longer able to command the full commitment of men or to fulfil their ultimate needs. The result is a pervasive feeling of meaninglessness and alienation from life. Whether or not a new collective religious symbol will emerge remains to be seen. For the present those aware of the problem are obliged to make their own individual search for a meaningful life.
On the other hand we are actually lucky to have this freedom that is pressed upon us. For as the Gnostics realised:
No one comes to his true selfhood by being what society wants him to be nor by doing what it wants him to do. Family, society, church, trade and profession, polotical and patriotic allegiances, as well as moral and ethical rules and commandments are, in reality, not in the least conducive to the true spiritual welfare of the human soul. On the contrary, they are more often than not the very shackles which keep us from our true spiritual destiny.
And James Hollis, speaking of the need for personal individuation, spells it out even more clearly:
The more you are like others, the more secure you will feel, yet the more your heart will ache, the more dreams will be troubled and the more your soul will slip off into silences. Finally, one day, you will have forgotten that you have a soul ? you will rise, drive through the traffic, arrive at work, and not remember how you got there.
Regardless of whether we want it or not, we have been forced on our own personal Grail Quest. This is our curse and our blessing. We can take up the challenge and follow the Quest wherever it will take us – hopefully enjoying more frequent bouts of “conscious individuality” as we go, or we can allow ourselves to be distracted by society’s enchantments, choose comfort over adventure and drift along leading an unconscious and unexamined life.
We are human needles in a gramophone and the world is a vinyl record. As we follow our true path, banging off the world, we send out our totally unique music. Of course this is hard and painful ? there is plenty of our blood on these tracks ? and we never run a true course across the record. We scratch, hiss, skip grooves, get jammed ? even run backwards but, if our general motion is to follow our bliss, this disturbance is only feedback in the single of our lives. If the Angels emit a constant stream of perfect notes then we humans are more Jesus and Mary Chain. But, as Jung reminds us, God loves human beings more than Angels.
The dancer Martha Graham puts it more succinctly:
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium, and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is; nor how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU. Keep the channel open…
And this is where Psychic Questing has such an important role to play. In the absence of structured guidance from the traditional religions or from society in general, it is at least an exercise that snaps us out of the glamour that holds us in thrall to the mundane and puts the red thread back in our hands. It forces us to follow our whims (the first law of Questing is ’go with it’); it physically re-connects us to the countryside and uses us to map new lines of power over the landscape; it forces us into the inner space of our psyches to confront the demons and spirit guides that reside there; it fosters creative, active imagination so necessary to the replenishing of our impoverished symbolic life; it teaches us history and, by focusing us on the lives of individuals in other ages, gives us a sense of place; it counteracts the tyranny of the rational; it trains us to silence the inner critic and listen to the nervous whisperings of intuition; it evidences the power of the individual.
At its best, Psychic Questing is an artform and a way of life, a means of staying on the Quest to find the Grail.
Postscript: There are of course as many others ways of attempting individuation as there are people. One of my faviourite authors at the moment is Daniel Pinchbeck whose attempts at Individuation using psychedelic drugs are wonderfully documented in “Breaking Open the Head”. This is a high-risk approach as one of the potential effects of (at least) some psychedelics is blasting the Ego to pieces. While a little of this may be good for deconditioning the Ego from a lifetime of adapting to societal demands, too much will blow you back to the infantile state of an Ego that barely exists and is overpowered by a pre-conscious Self. What Jung is suggesting is not a regressive move like this but rather a loop around the spiral so that we come back to an identification with the Self but this time also with a highly conscious Ego. Still, the book is superb reading and his next (due in 2006) promises to be just as good concerning as it does the prophecies around the year 2012.
Postscript 2: Some of the above has been used by me in other places, most notably the Psychic Questing FAQ. However, this is the first time it has all been brought togther to show the big picture. Thanks to Smiler for sparking the thought.