Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Undiscovered Self

Examine the spirits that speak in you. Become critical. --Carl Jung
For Christmas, my girlfriend bought me The Red Book by Carl Jung. It's a gigantic book with spellbinding illustrations and exquisite German calligraphy--the second part of the book is a lengthy introduction and translation of the work.

I used to read a lot of Jung. As an adolescent, I went through a Jung phase. I recall reading the fat white psychoanalytic volumes, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Symbols of Transformation, Alchemical Studies . . .

What drew me to these scholarly works I could barely understand? It was the prolonged stage of my life when I always had a book in front of me, my eyes fixed on the pages, almost obsessively. And yet, if you were to ask me to explain what I was reading I couldn't tell you--

Jung's scholarly work was elusive enough to capture my imagination. I could project anything onto the pages--and I underlined and highlighted furiously. I communed with these books I hardly understood.

Buddhism was something I experimented with for about five years. This was the period of my sobriety--after years of drug abuse. Disciplined, vegetarian, clean and sober, I exercised profound control over all areas of my life. I meditated, read spiritual books, and only on occasion wanted my life to be otherwise.

Eventually I grew away from this rigid lifestyle. Somewhere I faltered. I stopped going to Zen "sits". I went out to bars once in awhile. Picked up smoking.

New Age spiritualism turned me off. Not that Jung ever belonged to that movement. But he practically heralded it, and whenever I would think of Jung, I would think of those New Age bookstores sprouting up everywhere in the city. So I stopped thinking about him.

At the tail end of another reckless period of my life, I've returned to Dr. Carl Jung. Over Christmas, I read The Undiscovered Self. My father has an entire shelf devoted to Jung. My impulse was to read as much as I could before plunging into The Red Book, so as to understand it better . . .

The story behind The Red Book is this. At the time of Jung's death, an unfinished manuscript entitled "The Red Book" was discovered. It was stated in his will that all of his published, scholarly work should be made available to the public, but Jung did not take a position one way or the other on "The Red Book."

This may have been because "The Red Book" did not fit into an easy categorization for one of the founders of psychoanalytic theory--it was a creative work. Inspired by Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, Carl Jung set out to write an fictional account of his confrontation with his unconscious. The book began as a series of notebooks, called "black books," which were then used to create the final version of "The Red Book".

I am a lover of pictures. If you know anything about my online presence, you will know that I post an enormous amount of images on the Escape into Life Tumblr. Turning the pages of Jung's Red Book, I sense a similar visual tendency in him--an obsession with design, color, typography . . . and then the tale itself, which has been described as both archaic and modern, fascinates me. But I haven't begun reading it yet; I've only thumbed through the German text, a visual treat, a cornucopia of symbols.

Let me return to my experience on Christmas night, reading The Undiscovered Self. It's important, I feel, because it cemented my convictions about quitting drugs and alcohol for the last time. I sensed from before that my obsession with drugs was a chimera, but I had to go through the heavy use one more time. I had to re-learn what I had forgotten.

I had been tempted by the promise of a carefree life. It started with a girl and proceeded from there, to smoking cigarettes, to going out to the bars, to taking drugs. The disciplined life seemed so austere, so dry, and unnecessary. I wanted something new. I craved novelty.

But this was not novelty. This was repetition. I had been here before--like a blind rat turning the same corner, entering the same dead end. My conception of myself never changes. It is a wonderful script because it is so utterly the same; I live it over and over and over again.

The Undiscovered Self:
When the fantasies reach a certain level of intensity, they begin to break through into consciousness and create a conflict situation that becomes perceptible to the patient himself, splitting him into two personalities with different characters.
Fantasy does this to me--it splits me into two different people, each in conflict with the other. I fantasize about drugs or women, about getting high or having a romantic encounter, and soon I'm at war with myself. I'm at war with the part of me that wants to get high or have sex and the part of me that thinks it's not such a good idea.

And the fantasy grows. It grows until it tears me apart, and the next thing I know, I'm acting out that other person--the cheater, the liar, the addict.

What does it take to keep the human passions in line? It seems I barely manage. With advertisements everywhere telling me to eat this and buy that, I wonder how modern man is able to have a mind of his own. We're pulled out of ourselves constantly. But I don't need Hollywood pulling me out of myself when I have a built-in fantasy world doing it for me.

The Undiscovered Self:
This task is so exacting, and its fulfillment so advantageous, that he forgets himself in the process, losing sight of his instinctual nature and putting his own conception of himself in place of his real being. In this way he slips imperceptibly into a purely conceptual world where the products of his conscious activity progressively replace reality.
How these lines resonate with me! I've even chosen the name "Lethe" for my alter ego. Lethe comes from the River of Forgetfulness in Greek mythology. I've been using the name in my fiction for years. When I read the words, "he forgets himself in the process," I smile. Because that's why I chose the name to represent me. I forget. And my forgetfulness is my character, my original sin.

But let's talk about what Jung says here: "putting his own conception of himself in place of his real being."

What does it mean? It means that our conscious self, or ego--constituted primarily by its aspirations and inner problems, by its suffering--is merely an idea of the self, and not the real self.

How do I know this is true? Because mostly who I parade in front of my friends is who I think I am--it's the elaborate narrative I've subsumed into my personality. And if you're a writer, like me, you're good at telling stories.

My "conception" is essentially a story I have about myself. It has a pattern-like quality. No matter what happens to me in my life, what unusual events befall me, experience is sublimated by my ego or conscious self. I absorb everything into my conception of myself. And I live in the (fake) knowledge of myself. But this is only my conscious self, and sadly, it is a fraction of my spiritual person.

When Jung says "the products of his conscious activity progressively replace reality," he is talking about the negative potential of thoughts. Each thought that occurs, sometimes with a strong force of emotion, perpetuates the illusion of the conscious self and further separates us from reality. We lose touch with the immensity of human experience when we live inside the repetitive script of our conscious, thinking selves.

The irony of being human is that we seek to escape our "selves." We are drawn to novelty and new experiences, new lovers, new foods, new ideas . . . The irony is that within the confines of limited ego-consciousness, we are determined to find a way out. Our escapes, however, only leads us back to our known selves.

So then, what is true novelty? What is true unknowingness?

It is outside my conception of myself. Outside my conscious ego. Outside the person who I think I am.

I'm sick of repeating the same dramas in my life. Perhaps you too have some of these. I just wonder if I can trust in something that is unknown. How do I learn to trust in the unconscious, which by definition, I do not know what it is?

This is the world of Carl Jung. The collective unconscious. Accessed through dreams. Or meditation. Or what Jung called "practicing active imagination."

What will we find on the other side of our conscious selves? Who will we discover?

Life is depressing if you always know what to expect. The same mood of dissatisfaction, the same loneliness, the same longings, the same annoyances. But when you realize that there is this whole other way to view yourself, namely through not-knowing who you are instead of through knowing, then life begins to feel like it might be sufferable, or better yet, it might even be fun.

More Essays by the Author



Verdigris said...

The contents of the Red Book are based on Jung's earliest attempts to define the nature of the psyche, using the empirical method of active imagination, a kind of replacement for the earlier idea of introspection. The results of his lifetime preoccupation were his thories of the Shadow and the Anima, and other archetypes of the so called collective unconscious. His main idea is that the human imagination produces similar imginative constructs from the inherent basis of the 'mind' ie from the permanant basis of human nature. His real motive, however, was his inability to let go of the vast cultural accumulation of religion, Christianity in particular. A great deal more can be said but this would require a lot of scholarship to be valuable.

syrimne said...

The link between creativity, spirituality and excesses of various kinds (drugs, alcohol, sex - or its opposites in asceticism or abstinence, even desire for sensory death of whatever kind), has always fascinated me. We sound similar in some ways, as I've also see-sawed between these extremes, and I'm a writer as well, and one who can get extremely lost in fantastical constructions of whatever kind. Something about that plutonic nature, or in my case, the utter discontent with mundanity and empty diversion, creates that sort of constant seeking in whatever form. It's just interesting to me that it can flip from escapist to a need for a convincing (real) reality that can be even more intense. I've been more on the disciplined/ meditative side for a number of years now, and ultimately find it more satisfying. Still, writing fiction feeds that other side as well, while straddling both as I try to "use lies to tell the truth". To me, this is living. I'm not happy without this search. It feels like death, that repetitiveness you mention, so maybe the conflict and struggle with these passions is necessary due to the tension it creates...? I don't know. It could be also that I'm not willing to let my ego well and truly die. Like you (assuming I'm reading you correctly), I do think there's something beyond it. I'm not sure it can ever be translated back into an ego-speak world it sounds lonely (to the ego of course!).

Mark Kerstetter said...

Children play-act their chosen adult roles. Often, they assume those roles as adults, thinking that that is who they are. And true, on one level a person is what they appear to be. But one would do well to remember that the play-acting never ends.

Artists usually know all about this. But what one does with the knowledge is another matter.

One's relations with others are always dependent on one relations with one's self. It's messy and complicated and the learning never ends. Maybe that's why Jung didn't/couldn't take a stand on what status The Red Book should have in the world.

Zen said...

hehehe, I'm at work now (in the intervening days between xmas and NY) I have a meeting in 10 minute but I just want to say something v v quickly!


I find a confused self in the your post (great post btw). I don't know if you are, but...

If you are true to yourself, knowing what you are, being what you want to be, then everything will correct itself in due time.

I've just seen this video from, a video of Steve Jobs giving a speech to standford grads, look it up and have a watch.

His life is inspiring, and throughout his life, he is true to himself. He never doubted who he was, or what he wants, and he strive to work hard to get it.

That is his identify, there is no duality, no confusion, only certainty.

Without this, it is difficult to find fulfillment. And the uncertainty will eat you from the inside.

It is true, the bird always yearn to swim, as do the fish who yearn to fly.

In the Arrian, Book 4, he wrote that no amount of conquering or hardwork will satisfy a man unless he have conquered himself. He wrote this after Alexander killed his own friend in a drunken fit.


^ from a scene in the matrix.


rosebud101 said...


Roadsidebetty said...

This resonates with me. I had not realized this seperation of ego and no ego, until the ego self utterly collapsed, my therapist used to tell me after I would recant a story- of what was making me unhappy- that it was just a story and not who i really am. Eventually I recognized this and now I feel like I see the events in my life and the ideas that I have of myself and that others have of me as stories. Dress-up as I think one of your other readers mentioned. I think it is true that all people do this to some degree. Creative types perhaps are prone to encase themselves in larger stories that have more layers to buffer the fragile feeling it is to be human. In any event being in a space of no stories feels really good. After my ego sort of collapsed under the weight of all the stories I could no longer reconcile it was such a relief. I remember someone asking me what I did or what I was going to do and the only thing that came to mind was nothing and that felt so amazing. These are stories too! But as another of your readers said narratives are how we describe our unique experiences to others, so we are stuck with stories if we want to communicate, however, knowing that something must be exchanged in the translation is okay as long as you don't have dress-up lift off- forgeting your not your story.

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