You need to understand yourself.
Who is this thing that we need to understand? What do we need to examine?
Buddhists have been credited with saying that we spend most of our lives trying to understand the self, and there isn’t one.
So if there isn’t one, then who are we? What are we trying to examine?
Psychology says you need to have an ego and certain spiritual traditions say you need to kill the ego? How do I figure this out?
You may have considered these concepts and questions before, or they may be new to you. You may find that your mind goes on stall when you try to figure any of these out. Surely you should have an answer to the question ‘Who am I?’ Surely I should know.
You are lots of things. And yet you are one. You are yourself. And you’ve filled many different roles. Are you your roles? Once you start looking, you see that you fill lots of rolls. And perhaps you call yourself by different names in different roles. What difference does the name make? And just what’s in a name, anyway? Does the name make you, you? Who would you be if you had another name? Different names go with different roles. Does the name make you a self? In addition to roles, there are adjectives that describe you. How do they fit in? Confusing to say the least. And these questions trigger additional questions and lots of introspection.
And how does the ego fit in with all this? And, then, perhaps you’ve experienced the contradictions between how psychology and spirituality characterize the ego. What’s that all about?
Without responding directly to these questions, let me offer a way to begin to understand this thing we call our selves.
The Complexity of ‘Who We Are’
We are complex beings. We come in with our own natural, born-in-us tendencies, temperaments, and personalities, along with our unique DNA. We carry within ourselves the effects of everything that’s happened to us in this life, and some people believe we carry at the soul level characteristics from our past lives. In addition, we’re interacting with our parent’s temperaments, personalities, DNA, unresolved childhood material, expectations about who they are, everything that’s going on in their lives and the world they live in, and their expectations about who we are, or should be. And they have been deeply influenced by their parents and other ancestors! Out of this basic raw material, we began to create our own way of being, creating ourselves out of who we basically are. Whatever is there in the ‘deep creative soup’ out of which we are emerging is the raw material out of which we emerge and create ourselves.
We, also, carry the effects of childhood woundings, our struggles, successes, and the behaviors and patterns that developed out of these, as well as well as learned responses and attitudes about all kinds of things, including as parent, mother, father, sister, daughter, brother, son, rules, good student, hard worker, good person, education, chores, and on and on. We have our own definitions of everything, based on our experiences, never realizing that we think differently from other people, and they from us. And, in many ways, we’re all more alike than we may realize, and, at certain levels, we all think more like than we realize/
We each also have a masculine (yang) and a feminine (yin) energy represented by The Tao, symbolized by a circle halved by a curving line creating a designation for this yin and by the yang energies. The masculine energy is characterized as mental, logical, linear, scientific, of the mind, thinking, active, problem solving. The feminine energy is characterized as feeling, intuition, non-linear thinking, and an orientation to the body, relationship, sexuality, and nurturing. These are basic life energies. We all, regardless of gender, carry a different proportion of each energy and they greatly influence our way of being. We can carry masculine energies in some ways and feminine energies in others, and sometimes it may seem that we possess very little of the energy that is characteristic of our gender. And this can also change over time as certain developments occur. There’s no right or wrong way. Things just are. Read more: The Logo.
The concepts of the yin and yang represent all of the pairs of opposites found in human nature. And, much to our surprise, we also find that in addition to the traits or energies we’re conscious of carrying, we also unconsciously carry their opposite, which we’ll find lying in the unconscious, waiting to be acknowledged and owned. More about that later.
It can be said that we, also, have an aspect or part of ourselves that’s
roughly equivalent to each age we’ve ever been,
roughly equivalent to each significant attainment we’ve made,,
roughly equivalent to each wounding we’ve ever had
roughly equivalent to any particular word that describes an aspect of ourselves,
roughly equivalent to all our beliefs about ourselves,
roughly equivalent to the major influences in our lives,
roughly equivalent to how we’ve learned to think, act, perform in all situations,
roughly equivalent to how we were in each relationship.
roughly equivalent to each feeling we’ve ever had about ourselves
roughly equivalent to everything we’ve thought we ought to be.
I find all of this most fascinating. That we each are so complex, and, yet, we are similar enough that psychological theories can formulate basic psychological principles that explain the basics about who we are. The way I see it, there are these basic principles and within these there are many variations of the variations of the themes.
I’ve found that to truly appreciate myself, I must find a part of my psyche that can hold a big picture, which includes what seem to be contradictions. Perhaps, you might think of yourself like a very large jigsaw puzzle: the pieces are all distinctive and they fit together to create a wholeness. However, in life, the pieces interact with each other in predictable and unpredictable ways, often creating new variations of themes. Early on, it surprises us to find that what we do and think is based on who/what these inner aspects are, at the conscious and unconscious levels, and on top of that, the relationship between these variables is also constantly changing. And, even more to our surprise, we find that the actions of these aspects are largely autonomous, and, we’re unconscious about the ways these variables affect us, as well as how they interact with and affect the other variables, and then how this interaction affects us again.
And, yet, we are each a wholeness, represented by the circle. And at a bottom line, all of us on the planet are more alike than we are different. And we are all part of a greater wholeness. I’ve found it helpful, perhaps even necessary, to know and appreciate our individual selves and our complexities, before exploring and experiencing other dimensions of awareness. I’m also laying the foundation for us to eventually hold more than one dimension in our awareness at a time. In this way we can experience the Multi Dimensionality of being and the oneness of being. We also can see that this ‘self’ that we think we are is a figment of our imagination. We see that we’ve created ourselves by the thoughts and beliefs that each of our inner aspect or roles live by, based on our interpretation of our inner and outer experiences. Nothing is carved in stone.
And We Don’t Even Make Sense to Ourselves
So, our psyche is composed of input from these and other sources, all trying to put their ‘two cents in’, much like a community committee meeting. Sometimes it seems like all of the characters in our psyche are interacting on a big stage, and that these characters come out of a whole variety of dramas: As the World Turns, All God’s Children, Little House on the Prairie, Gun Fight at OK Corral, Dallas, Las Vegas Housewives, detention hall in junior high school, East Wing, a major NFL football game, and a meeting of the leaders of the major countries of the world, with a rap video movie, a hippie convention, survivor stars, juvenile offenders, a traditional Protestant minister, and a nun.
Each of these characters or aspects is like a separate person, with a particular life history, needs, desires, attainments, psychological characteristics and defenses, thought processes, loves and hates, hopes and fears, titles, ways of acting and talking, etc. When we look at ourselves in certain ways, we can see how each of these parts act and react, and what they wish for in their lives. We see that they don’t know the other parts exist or that the needs and desires of each of them conflict with each other, creating inner struggles that are largely unconscious to us. When we don’t have the knowledge to know what this inner battle or drama is about, we judge ourselves, become fearful of the inner world, afraid to look at it. As a result, we make things worse by finding ways to distract our minds by ignoring, making up cover stories, or using alcohol and drugs to dull the confusion and pain. These defenses enable us to feel better for the short term, but it is always short term, because the inner confusion and conflicts are still there. All of this creates additional confusions to further complicate our lives.
It’s quite normal to have these inner confusions, conflicts, and differences of opinion because at different times in our lives we’ve been at varying levels of maturity, with different needs and wants, and with a different understanding of things. However, as we changed, those old ideas didn’t get ‘deleted from our hard drive’. They still come up, and everything interacts with everything else, and we find ourselves having contradictory feelings about people, issues, ideas, wants and needs. The more judgments we have about any of them, the more confusion we have. And, to complicate things more, our reactivity to other people’s patterns/behaviors is in large part our unconscious projection of what we can’t deal with in ourselves.
We’ve thought we were one unchanging ‘thing’, but we find we’re constantly shifting the place we ‘come from’ and don’t know it, can’t see it. Others can see it. They probably don’t realize what’s going on with you, just as you don’t realize what’s going on with them when they shift and change. We all can notice something, but we usually just judge the other for it, and get annoyed because ‘they changed’ and we can’t count on them. When the reality is that they’re changing all the time, as are we.
In reality, all of these aspects of the psyche are really part of the ego. I’ve found it helpful to separate them out, to label them or give them an identifying name, to enable us to see what’s going on more clearly. When we say something like, ‘I’m not in the mood to …….’, we’re really saying that a part of our psyche that we are in at that time doesn’t want (for some reason) to do the activity in question. Maybe its Friday night after a tough week, and all we want is to have a beer and watch a movie. Another part reminds us, ‘ we need to pay the bills,’, and yet another reminds us that ‘the report needs/must be written, and yet another reminds us ‘that we’ve been putting off cleaning the house until tonight and that “we promised we would”.’ And that other part just wants a beer. Each activity calls forth different aspects of the psyche. We all know how difficult it can be to find the part of us that we need to access in order to do an activity that we ‘aren’t in the mood for’ for one reason or another. And, again to complicate things, there’s usually another reason hidden underneath this top layer that’s more difficult to access. There’s a lot going on down inside. It’s no wonder we don’t understand ourselves.
In summary, our different aspects were constellated in response our own (our ego’s) normal, innate, but mostly unconscious ways of reacting to life and family situations. We’re unconscious of the effect of these situations and events in our lives which may also be creating or activating other unconscious patterns that also have a life of their own. Because all of this goes on normally and naturally in all of us, the multi dimensionality of the psyche develops.
It’s not that we’re trying to be unconscious. It’s just that we don’t know we’re unconscious. We have to be taught how to handle the confusing conscious and mostly unconscious aspects that we are.
We assume we know exactly what’s going on. And we think we’re conscious of what’s going on, and that other people are also conscious of what they’re doing. We live our lives, confused and troubled, not knowing that our conscious mind sits on the top of the 95% unconscious base of the iceberg, and is, at best…. 5% conscious. And we have many inner aspects that operate pretty independently of other aspects. We’ve been taught to believe that what appears on the surface is all that’s going on…. and it isn’t true, for us, or for other people. And we think we’re conscious of ourselves and others, and we really aren’t. And neither are others. This has never been in our school curriculum. Read More: The Unconscious.
It’s very helpful to remember that the psyche is like that iceberg. In fact, Brugh Joy used to say that we are all really more like 99.999999999999% comatose! Walking around on automatic pilot, with blinders mostly asleep. And we don’t know it!
This process makes relationships particularly tricky because the other person has all of this going on, also, and doesn’t know it. As you can see, this causes things to get pretty sticky and upsetting. No wonder relationships fall apart. And families, and other groups, also become an amazing mix of all kinds of ‘stuff going on’ that no one can figure out.
We Can Learn to See More Clearly
So, the ego is that part of us that more or less drives the car of our every day life that we like to believe is conscious, and resides in the tip of the iceberg. Let’s say that the ego is the most conscious part of the psyche that most of us have, even though it really isn’t very conscious. The ego and all these aspects create their own unique interactions, with some few of them have varying degrees of consciousness. The ego would like for things to be easy and flow, so it can feel safe, in control, good enough, and successful. Because, we don’t have the knowledge and ability to be conscious about what’s going on in the inner world, we’re doubly affected by these unconscious parts of the psyche. And to cope with them, we usually either fall into one of two reactions: feelings of inadequacy about ourselves and our ability to cope which can result in confusion, depression, or giving up; or we move to grandiosity and inflation putting on airs of ‘better than’ to cover deep, unconscious inadequacies and fool everyone into believing we’re okay, even when we don’t believe it at the deep level.
Either way, the ego has identified with the unconscious fears the young ego learned while trying to learn to navigate through life. And in this predicament, it does everything to defend itself so it won’t be seen as not good enough. It wraps itself in blinders so as to hide from its self, while at the same time, it’s trying desperately to get in control of its life. The fact that it can’t see itself accurately and deal with reality makes this pretty futile. It’s because of these conditions that many spiritual traditions speak of ‘killing the ego’. What they are talking about is breaking the control that the ego is trying to maintain as it tries to deal with its feelings of inadequacy. However, as long as the ego is trying to hold things together, it becomes confused and frustrated because, no matter how hard it tries, it doesn’t feel secure and good enough because nothing really works because it really doesn’t understand what’s going on. It’s afraid of getting killed.
What to do?
Developing a Conscious Ego Personality
When the ego becomes more conscious of itself and the various mechanisms affecting it, our lives can change. I’m recommending a way to do this. Starting the journey of awakening by first learning about the Heart Center and Unconditional Love creates a supportive foundation for the ego as it becomes more conscious of its self and the bigger psyche of which it’s a part. This support assists the ego to understand its predicament, teaches it a new way to see things, reduces its fear, and quells feelings of hopelessness. Coming into a relationship with the Heart Center makes it possible for the ego to see that it can find its rightful place in our lives, facilitate our growth and development on the human level, as welll as participate in our spiritual development, and find inner peace. Read More: How Does it Work. Read More: So What Do I Do Now?
This next step is tricky: to become conscious, we need to be able to observe ourselves without harsh self critical judgment, because this heavy criticism shuts down our ability to become conscious. And yet, we also must take responsibility for our actions.
Untangling the Inner Processes
So, how do you learn to just observe your self and your actions? and develop a conscious ego?
A number of years ago I heard Jean Houston make a suggestion in this regard that is a first step. She suggested that rather than beating ourselves up and harshly judging ourselves, that we learn to observe our behaviors and merely learn to assess our behavior as either skilled behavior or unskilled behavior. There’s no self critical judgment of your self, just discernment that we’ve either been skilled or unskilled in our actions or behavior. When we’re learning new skills, our behavior will always be unskilled. As we practice, we become more skilled. This is the way of learning. The ego appreciates the opportunity to have a second, or third, or fourth, or as many chances as needed to learn new skills. This begins to eliminate the cycle of hopelessness.
Some systems of psychotherapy have named this part of the ego that is relentless in its criticism and judgments as The Critic or The Judge. This Judge loves to judge and the harsher the condemnation and subsequent punishments, the happier he/she is, and is not about ready to give up its job. The Judge loves to use the heavy gavel and read the heavy law books.
This is why developing a relationship with the Heart Center and learning to see ourselves through the eyes of Unconditional Love before we attempt deeper work provides access to a different aspect of the psyche that makes it possible for us to merely observe our behavior, and see it as skilled or unskilled, not as unforgivable act in the eyes of the Judge. I call this aspect of the psyche the Non-Judgmental Observer.
The Non-Judgmental Observer
Over time, with the Non-Judgmental Observer, we can learn to ‘just notice’ our ego’s self-critical judgments, learn to observe the judgments and let them go or let them be without buying into them. Then we notice that we aren’t making ourselves bad and wrong, we’re just unskilled. This gives us space to grow. We see that it’s possible. Eventually we can get to the place of just witnessing ourselves, regardless of what’s going on, just noticing whatever we’re noticing, and noting it as skilled or unskilled. And we are okay. And we learn to engage in skilled behaviors more of the time, while also taking full responsibility for them.
At this point, we’ll be able to just observe ourselves and see within to observe the cast of characters on our inner stage from a place of “Oh, isn’t that interesting.” “Oh, I see how these confusions got started. Oh, wow.” This place of observing with an interested curiosity enables us to see the amazing inner complex of aspects, along with the wide variety of personal resources from these aspects that we can utilize for living our lives. Non-judgmental observing allows us to provide feedback to ourselves that facilitates our ability to live from a place of love and appreciation of a greater wholeness, while at the same time becoming more skilled and holding a bigger vision of ourselves. We begin to truly know that at our core, we’re worthy, we’re good enough, even with skilled and unskilled behaviors..
Having the Non-Judgmental Observer observing from the perspective of the Heart Center makes it more natural to have Compassion for the ego’s unconscious predicament. Acceptance of this predicament expands our consciousness, creating a deep appreciation of the amazing, resourced beings that we’re becoming, including the fact that we’ll always have skilled and unskilled behaviors. This then sets the stage for the development of a Witness state of consciousness which is able to observe it all- the dance of opposites occurring within your psyche, the self judgments, the reaction to judgments, the acceptance of the dance of opposites, or anything else occurring in the awareness process- truly from a place “Isn’t that interesting.’ Read More: The Heart Center.
Hopefully you’re noticing that we aren’t trying to get rid of any parts or make them ‘be better. We’re learning to observe ‘what is’.
The Circle of Wholeness
As we’re observing and becoming conscious of the inner world, it’s very helpful to identify and name the various aspects as they come up. Naming provides more clarity as we observe the unconscious ‘mess’. Then we can see more of what’s happening, when it’s happening, and see what the various named aspects are all about.
We start with a circle signifying wholeness, and divide it up into small ‘’appetizer sized pieces”. To remind us that all our aspects fit within the Heart Center, I place a heart in the center. Then during a working session, I make note of the various aspects that the client begins talking about. We place each aspect on a section of the circle. As we talk and explore, we find that we also possess the opposite of each aspect or attribute that originally came up for the individual. As we explore further, we see that this opposite characteristic which has been stuffed away in the unconscious is a disowned aspect of theirs. They had disowned it because of judgments or negative feedback that they had gotten from someone else, even through the aspect may not have been negative. We began to see that we’ve made our choices about how to live based on others’ preferences and values. Over time, we find that we have many aspects/roles/characteristics that heretofore have been unconscious to us and, thus, have created conflict and ‘traffic jams’.
For instance, we all have both the desire to be taken care of, as well as to be independent. Some people indicate that they have been directing their lives so they could be totally independent, totally self sufficient. However, much to their surprise, when examining their true feelings and preferences, as well as actions, they actually began to see how they’ve also been unconsciously trying to manipulate things so they’d be taken care of, and be dependent on another. But because they consciously valued independence, and rejected and judged dependency, they were unable to see their inner conflict, and accept that they desired both independence and dependence.
At this moment of revelation, to be able to smile, even laugh when seeing the contradiction, and say ‘Isn’t that interesting!’, we can break the spell and appreciate the tangle that we’ve been in. With non-judgmental conscious awareness, the jigsaw puzzle within begins to makes sense, and we can develop the clarity to make better decisions about how we live.
This exciting, often challenging, process is life changing. As you can see, having the help of an experienced guide/teacher/therapist who has walked through this themselves, who can see the inner dance of our aspects, as well as their unconscious opposites, their function in your life, and their interactions can be extremely helpful as you develop the state of consciousness necessary to engage this deeper work. Doing this work in a group is very beneficial because you learn a lot about yourself as you observe others work. The container of the circle heightens the work.
….For your personal exploration
What do you know about your own Soul’s unfolding?
What would you like to know more about so you can understand yourself better?
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