“I” is an Aggregate

Terminology, concepts, definitions; these subtle attributes of our understanding seem somewhat neglected and confused in our culture. One of the joys for me of studying both Jung’s Analytical Psychology and Hillman’s notion of Archetypal Psychology, is to participate in an ongoing conversation of the fundaments of human nature.

In this next installment of examining James Hillman’s book, Anima, and Anatomy of a Personified Notion, we look at the notion of Ego, and especially its relation to Jung’s idea of the Conscious, as he understood these terms. Ego, as an idea, concept or definition, has been with us for a very long time and has a complex history of both usage and meaning. Perhaps this is fitting for a word that takes on the impossible task of serving as a single referent for the total sum of who we are.

For Jung, ego was sometimes used to refer to the conscious self, but not always, and especially not in his discussion of the soul’s movement toward Individuation, or Wholeness. Hillman says:

The ego as base of consciousness has always been an anachronistic part of analytical psychology. It is a historical truth that our Western tradition has identified ego with consciousness… But this part of Jung’s thought does not sit well with either his notion of psychic reality or his therapeutic goals of psychic consciousness. What brings cure is archetypal consciousness (mediated by the anima as we know from other passages), and his notion of consciousness is definitely not based upon ego.

Here he quotes Jung:

It is as though, at the climax of the illness, the destructive powers were converted into healing forces. This is brought about by the archetypes awaking to independent life and taking over the guidance of the psychic personality, thus supplanting the ego with its fertile willing and striving… the psyche has awakened to spontaneous activity….something that is not his ego and is therefore beyond the reach of his personal will. He has regained access to the sources of psychic life, and this marks the beginning of the cure. (CW 11, 534)

Hillman continues examining the notions of ego, consciousness and their relationship to anima and animus. He notes definitions by Bachelard and Onians that see anima as the reflective navigator of consciousness, and animus as the possessive owner of it. He then brings us back to Jung’s idea of the relativization of the ego to consciousness, a very important idea for what Hillman calls archetypal consciousness.

The ‘relativization of the ego,” that work and that goal of the fantasy of individuation, is made possible, however, from the beginning if we shift our conception of the base of consciousness from ego to anima archetype, from I to soul. Then one realizes from the very beginning (a priori and by definition) that the ego and all its developmental fantasies were never, even at the start, the fundament of consciousness, because consciousness refers to a process more to do with images than will, with reflection rather than control, with reflective insight into, rather than manipulation of, ‘objective reality.’

Poem of the Soul - The flight of the soul. Courtesy of Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon - Public Domain

Poem of the Soul – The flight of the soul. Courtesy of Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon – Public Domain

This, I believe, expresses the heart of Hillman’s insights into Jung’s brilliant work. Perhaps if the images that consciousness continually streams are too quickly interpreted by that historical aggregate we call ‘I’; dismissed, ignored, or entirely off the radar of our awareness, we are left with whatever the aggregate, habit of self has the capacity for, leaving no possibilty for the awareness that anything lies beneath the stream of consciousness, or that there even is a stream, and especially not one of our own making.

An unrelativized ego becomes both the possessor and the possessed, habitually literalizing one’s stream of consciousness into objects that one understands, controls, and that in turn, control the entire state of being of a person’s waking, conscious, experience.

By contrast, an animated, soulful experience of waking states challenges all tempts to possess one’s conscious experience, becoming more aware through time and practice that all ideas and moods are subject to archetypal influence. Just as we cannot lay claim to that which beats our heart, we cannot lay sole claim to the source of our thoughts, ideas or feelings that stream into awareness as pure, raw images.

Class Notes – Session Seven

In the seventh session of the Jung Platform’s class on James Hillman’s book, Alchemical Psychology, the discussion moves to the nature of the material, the vessel used for containment and the necessity of the “separatio,” of essence from the material. In psychological work this distinction is at the heart of the work, whether in a therapeutic setting or in one’s everyday life. Distinguishing between what can and can’t be changed is a life-long practice.

Our hosts, Pat Berry and Robert Bosnak began with a discussion on the nature of the material and resistance to the work.

“Resistance of any thing is given with its essential nature…Resistance in the work and to the work is not personal but ontological. Being does not move, said Parmenides, to which Heraclitus replied, all things move. Two differing ontologies. Ontological ambivalence.” James Hillman

As Robbie says, the material seeks its essence although resists separation, but at the same time wants to be changed from its present habitual state to its essence.

“The natural body of the metal may become a liquid, a powder, a vapor; it can combine, shift colors, submit to the effects of other substances. The subtle body, however, persists in its own self-same unalterability.” James Hillman

Is it habit then that corrupts essence hidden by habits used for adapting to our situation? Wanting to change therefore carries with it an ambivalence to actually changing. Habit can encrust the material keeping essence hidden.

Accidents, illness, both physical and mental can be the catalyst for change, the thing that causes a fracture in routine, therefore forcing us out of our habit.

“Nature desires to come out and first comes out as a symptom,” says Robbie.

Pat reminds us that the symptoms guide the process. If one is perhaps too soft, too gentle, a cruelty may be necessary to move resistance, that force of habit which perpetuates vulnerability. Each person and situation presents unique material with its own illness or symptom offering the opportunity to break a habit which hides a valuable essence.

“Yet the innate urge toward perfectibility welcomes the fire. Hence, they rejoice also in their submission, allowing themselves to be smelted, hammered, and extracted from their home ground.” James Hillman

Robbie and Pat discussed the need too for a masochism that submits to the “work” in therapy and also how unpopular the language of masochism and sadism has become. Submission breaks down resistance:

“It takes heat to subdue the innate resistance of a substance, a heat gentle enough to melt the stubborn and fierce enough to prevent regression to the original state (emphasis added). Only when the regression to the original “found” condition – the substance in its symptomatic presentation – is no longer possible, only when it has been thoroughly cooked and has truly separated itself from its historical and habitual mode of being can an alteration be said to have been accomplished. Then the substance, which psychology might call a complex, becomes less autonomous and more malleable and fusible, having lost its independence as an intractable object that objects and resists.” James Hillman

Submission is that state of malleability in which change can occur; submission is itself the change and the agent of change.

The material desires sophistication through separation, differentiation and disidentification. Not distinguishing between what is essence and what is encrusted habit filters our perceptions, keeping us stuck – seeing and defining ourselves, others and all we encounter, because we’re not able to look, listen, hear and see each instance anew. Through the force of habit we are restricted by past perceptions without being aware of them, for we do not often think about our thinking.

This rings true for me as I am sure it does for many others. If we’ve ever seen the world anew, the experience and taste of renewal introduces to us the possibility that there is a way out of our encrusted stuckness. But before we leave behind the force of habit we are likely to encounter resistance. It can be hard to distinguish between essence and habit. The fear of losing one’s own essence might become the resistance to letting go of habit.

I often wonder in my own moments of stubbornness, can I let go of the wound? I think the cultural climate too, has left an era where woundedness, not often acknowledged, has led to one in which our wounds are bought and sold as commodities. To stay wounded, seeking revenge on the perpetrators of crimes committed against us benefits politicians and pharmaceutical companies but does not promote the idea that healing is possible.

Robbie uses the example of the fear of dogs that might originate from a bad childhood experience tainting all future experiences with dogs. The subtle body, or essence of dogness is lost then, through the habit of fear.

File:Amphitheatrum sapientiae aeternae - Alchemist's Laboratory.jpg

The Vessel

“Do not act out; do not hold in. A paradox. And a double negative that suggests a via negativa, a de-literalizing cancellation of both commandments. A mercurial escape from the exhausting oscillation between them. Instead of holding in or acting out, act in.” James Hillman

What we act in then is the vessel. Vessels both contain and separate. The vessel is both what holds us and the material forming and shaping, storing and styling events and experiences:

“Vessels: methods of containment. Can you take the heat? Are you opaque and dense, slow to warm so no one can tell what is going on inside? Sometimes it is less an issue what is in the vessel, the nature of the stuff being contained, and more one of shape: leaky, fragile, brittle, solid, full to overflowing, empty, cracked … “I’m doing fine, in great shape.” James Hillman

The vessel then tells a lot about the material:

“Vessels present the style of a culture. One image tells a story: a chipped, dirty toothbrush glass for whiskey in a cheap bed-sitter by Graham Green; pop-up beer cans, Styrofoam cups, jokey ungainly coffee mugs, motel wastebaskets with plastic liners. The bruhaha over wine-glass shapes, stems, thinness … By their vessels ye shall know them.” James Hillman

Shaping and forming what it contains – so by “not acting out,” is to value containment. To “not hold in” uses the vessel to release what is contained.

Robbie and Pat then discussed the difference between “acting out” vs. to “acting in.” I found their distinctions useful. To act out is perhaps what comes from habit, a defense against a more fresh, spontaneously creative way to respond. To act in then is to bring to each moment an awareness of both the act, the actors and the story in which we are a part of. Not so much to separate ourselves from our actions, as if we could act objectively, but to see our actions as taking part in the play or myth of each situation. I suppose the difference lies in a flexibility to imagine more fully what it is that is going on.

Hillman cautions us on too much identification with the vessel or locating it within us as all things have their interiority. Contained things are separated things, necessary for differentiating one thing from another, you from the not-you. It is the separation which allows us to discern whether our fear of the dog is based on historical and personal habit, or on our animal sense of the particular nature of the dog coming toward us at this moment.

“You are not the vessel, nor is it necessary to believe that “within” is within you – your personal relationships, your psychic processes, your dreams. Interiority is within all things – the garden bed that is in preparation, the poem that is the focus of attentive emotions. Keep a close watch on these interiorities; by watching we are vesseling, for it is the glass vessel that allows the watching, and watching provides the very separation and containment expressed concretely by the glass vessel.” James Hillman

Glass

Glass was a preferred material for containment to the alchemists as well as to future chemists. It’s parallels to the psyche are obvious. Session Eight deals more with the nature of glass vessels so I will stop here with one last quote from Hillman.

“Glass: like air, like water, made of earth, made in fire. Blown glass melts, liquefies, glows, expands, takes on all sorts of shape, size, thickness, brilliance, and color. It can take the heat. Glass lets us see what is going on within it, behind it. Glass, the vessel of inside revelation, capturing and transmuting the glimpse or glance into studied observation.

Glass, like psyche, is the medium by which we see into, see through. Glass: the physical embodiment of insight. The illusion of glass makes content and container seem to be the same, and because we see the content before we recognize that it is held by glass, we do not at first see its shape, its density, its flaws since our focus is fixed on the contents.” James Hillman

Quotes taken from: Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.