Ego, Virtue, Underworld

I have spent too much time in the underworld lately — the world of dreams and complexes; the wild borderland between the conscious and unconscious mind. I feel unsteady, having encountered too many strange and unfamiliar things, each one demolishing another load-bearing wall in my worldview.

Driving in my car yesterday, I began blinking hard as if trying to wake. I raised my hand to my face and stared hard at it, made a fist, and pumped my hand. I tried to ground myself in the sight of skin and the feel of clenching fist; tried to catch hold of something solid and common to keep from being swept away.

I understand now why it is said that exploring the psyche requires a strong ego. Only a strong ego can encounter the unconscious without falling under its control. A psyche-faring ego must remember the duties of normal life. It must be able to confront what surfaces from the unconscious realm without becoming identified with it. The ego must maintain its power to veto the demands and deny the desires that spring forth. It must dialogue and counsel, and not simply obey, the voices and emotions that rush in.

I have spent the past year encountering the unconscious and inviting it into conscious life. My ego has withstood much but is faltering now. If I am to continue exploring the psyche I must strengthen my ego. But how?

Soon after posing this question I was taken back to an earlier time in life when I knew nothing of the unconscious. Instead I spent my time pursuing the most noble ideas. Mentored by the works of Lewis, Heschel, and Chesterton,[1] hardly an hour went by without my turning for a moment to meditate on courage, duty, or love. I felt wrapped in a transcendent force that I called Goodness, which I spelled with a capital G on account of the reverence I felt. I felt the opposite of how I feel now. The more my head stretched toward heaven, the more firm seemed the earth under foot.

The reason for this vision became clear when, next morning, I went searching for guidance from Jung. It only took a moment to find his recommendation, a prescription written plainly by the doctor he was: to strengthen the ego; to prevent the assimilation of the ego by the Self; to protect reality against the archaic dream-world, one must mobilize the virtues.

Virtue — hear, hear. I need some time away from adventures in the underworld to consult old friends.

[1] That would be C.S. Lewis, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and G.K. Chesterton. More figures who I find especially adept at imparting virtue (and thereby strengthening the ego) include George MacDonald, Gandhi, John O’Donahue, Dostoevsky, and Jean Vanier.