OK, I think I've gotten it now that the ego is to the Self as surface tension or an oil slick is to an ocean (I'm imagining that place that holds a surface of water intact as a sort of "skin" on the water). My ego, my conscious mnd, received a gift. I feel as if my perspective, which has been very focused, has pulled back a bit, so I see a Bigger Picture. I have an overall sense of the Map, where I am on it, and where I am going. It's a lovely feeling to find confirmation for the work I've been doing.
I stumbled on it innocently. When feeling really discouraged last week at the array of mutually exclusive choices in front of me, I googled something on the lines of how long people typically remain in the type of therapy I've been involved. I've passed 2 years since my return to Sharon after our difficult ending so many years ago...periodically I worry about the addition of therapy to our monthly expenses and wonder if I'm getting anywhere near 'graduating'.
Among the hits my search yielded was a website called "Evolution and Archetype", a book in progress by John Ryan Haule. I'm grateful that he's posted his work here because it is a treasure trove for me. He is a Jungian analyst and this work puports to ground the theories of Jung into what's currently known about neurophysiology and evolutionary theory. Information that was not available in Jung's day appears to confirm some of his basic concepts.
Of particular interest was the section on "Complex Formation" and how this relates to neuroses, and healing.
The human psyche is dissociable. In extreme situations this manifests as multiple personalities where different ‘selves’ have a distinct autobiography within a shared skin. However, this is an extreme of a more commonplace fact of human life. We’ve all noticed ‘other selves’ within us. Each of these, too, has an identity which is located, anchored in, our bodies.
The human, and perhaps mammalian, and even reptilian brains have a task of developing certain efficiencies to speed the process of learning, recognition, decision/response. As the brain communicates with itself body circuits are established which become reinforced. Once a pathway is established it is predisposed to be reused:
Philosopher, Frédéric Paulhan, wrote a very influential phenomenology of the dissociable psyche in 1889, L'Activité mentale et les elements de l'esprit, that was read and cited by Janet, Alfred Binet, and Jung. It introduces three laws to describe the characteristics of dissociation:
1. The Law of Systematic Association: each image and memory tends to associate with others “which are able to be harmonized with itself,” work toward “compatible goals” and “comprise a system” (Paulhan, 1989: 88).
2. The Law of Inhibition: every such psychic element tends to interfere with and deny “the phenomena which it cannot assimilate in the interests of a common goal” (Ibid., 221).
3. The Law of Contrast: contrasting and opposed psychic states tend to alternate with one another and may sometimes function concurrently (Ibid., 315f).
For although each alternate personality knows only a part of the autobiography of the afflicted individual, each lives in an organized scene that is anchored in an experience of its own body. That somatic marker also grounds a relatively coherent partial history and a version of the individual's future. (highlighted text mine)
Often these patterns are anchored in our emotions. These are what Jung, and Haule, refer to as “complexes.”
Whatever has an intense feeling-tone is difficult to handle because such contents are somehow associated with physiological reactions, with the processes of the heart, the tonus of the blood vessels, the condition of the intestines, the breathing, and the innervation of the skin. Whenever there is a high tonus it is just as if that particular complex had a body of its own, as if it were localized in my body to a certain extent; and that makes it unwieldy, because something that irritates my body cannot easily be pushed away because it has its roots in my body and begins to pull at my nerves. Something that has little tonus and little emotional value can be easily brushed aside because it has no roots.
Jung often said: “Everyone knows nowadays that people `have complexes.' What is not so well known . . . is that complexes can have us ” (CW 8: ¶200). He meant that the “energy” of a feeling-toned complex, the way it can mobilize psyche and body, is often much greater that that of the ego-complex with its conscious intentions. The ego simply becomes “assimilated” to the intentions of the complex, usually without realizing it has lost its way (Ibid., ¶207) (highlights mine)
In any event it is clear when a “feeling-tone” takes over, we are emotionally affected, and our capacities for reality testing and discrimination decline, along with the stability of our attention and the resolution of our will. Our “level of consciousness” (niveau mental) drops, and we can no longer criticize the plausibility and relevance of the scene that opens before our eyes. As in a dream, we have lost the capacity for critical reflection and slipped into “immediate belief,” the inability to doubt what we think we see.
In other words, we believe we are functioning normally. The information we receive from our senses tend to serve to reinforce the narrative that particular ‘self’ has begun, in terms of its understanding. When our ego has ‘merged’ with a complex we are no longer able to function freely and flexibly, either in relation to our inner Selves, or to the world around us. We may find that patterns repeat themselves. The details vary, but the underlying pattern is what the details coalesce around. We repeat.
Saint Paul put it this way: “I do not know what I am doing. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” And, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15,24 New International Version) Religions call it human “sinful nature.”
There seems to be a neurological basis for this. Detailed studies of the brain reveal a network of automatic connections that run through mid-brain structures to the cortex through the amygdala and thalamus. Researchers have dubbed it “the wheel of fear”. It’s a very old structure evolutionarily and has also been called our “lizard brain”. It is about survival.
Later in development comes connections of the thalamus to the medial prefrontal cortex—the structure which provides judgement and perspective. Messages reach the cortex through the amygdala (“the low road”) and through the prefrontal cortex (“the high road”). “The high road” buys us time between a situation that triggers our memories, emotions, & automatic responses and enables us to evaluate. We are able to differentiate the situation before us from similar past situations and we’re able to consciously evaluate what is before us, rather than through the stereotyped circuit of a complex.
It takes a while for those circuits to be laid down and established. But more and more I’m seeing evidence that it can be done, and indeed it is:
Therapy is just another way of creating synaptic potentiation in brain pathways that control the amygdala. The amygdala's emotional memories, as we've seen, are indelibly burned into its circuits. The best we can hope to do is to regulate their expression. And the way we do this is by getting the cortex to control the amygdala (LeDoux, 1996: 265). (highlight mine)
There was genuine joy for me in reading this chapter. It helps me to see where I’ve been, what I am doing, and where I am going.
And also why it takes so damn long.