I’m sure that no other species of life, on Earth at least, is as obsessed with understanding itself as are we. We’ve been trying to figure out this human experience for millenniums now, but time and again we get tangled up in our own reflection. Realistically speaking, there really is no hope of ever reaching a completely objective picture since we are both the object under study and the ones conducting the examination.
Over the last 125 years or so, Western psychology has made some impressive advances in our understanding of psyche – the Greek term meaning “self.” The lack of a unified theory is largely due to the fact that the self can be defined in (at least) three distinct ways. In this post I will offer a model that incorporates these distinctions and outlines a Western psychology of wholeness – a way of understanding ourselves holistically.
These “pieces” have been floating out here for some time now, and the various schools and therapies of Western psychology have promoted their alternative visions in the marketplace. Inevitably one “piece” is made central as the others are subordinated to it, dismissed as nonessential, or entirely ignored.
As is the case in Western philosophy, science, and medicine, our penchant for analyzing reality – in this case the reality of the human psyche – into its deeper elements frequently leaves us without Ariadne’s Thread back to where we can appreciate the higher wholeness of it all.
Instead of “pieces” or even “elements,” we should regard these aspects of self as distinct loci that connect us to reality in three dimensions: to our living body, to other persons, and to the ground of being. The loci themselves are named, respectively, mind, ego, and soul. Again, these are not three pieces or parts of the self, but three modes of existence that engage us psychologically with reality and the fullness of life.
Self as Embodied Mind
In Western psychology a great deal of research has demonstrated the psychosomatic (mind-body) dimension of our experience. “Mind” here refers to the autonomic, instinctual, emotional, cognitive and sentient awareness supported by the body’s nervous system. Without the nervous system and its central ganglion (the brain) there is no mind. This is not to say that mind is “nothing more” than the brain and its nervous system, however.
A psychosomatic perspective regards the self as embodied mind, not as a mind “inside” a body but as a living organism imbued with the power to sense and desire, to feel and to think, to attend, wonder, and reflect. Thoughts in our mind activate feelings in our body. Our visceral state both prompts and reacts to the stories we tell ourselves. An anxious or agitated nervous system translates spontaneously into verbal narratives of worry, confusion, or outrage. A story of shame and self-doubt can upset our stomach and make it difficult to breathe.
Many forms of modern dysfunction and disease in the body have their origin in the mind. They are maladies of the mind-body.
As it relates to a psychology of wholeness, the balance of health in the mind-body nexus can be summarized as composure. In this state the self is internally stable and fully capable of maintaining, or quickly recovering, equilibrium. Composure allows attention to “look out” on reality through a clear lens: centered, undisturbed, and free of internal distractions. As a benefit of composure, we can also see more clearly into the experience of others and understand what they are going through.
Self as Personal Ego
The psychosocial dimension of self is about our relationships with others, along with the personal identity we struggle to manage in the social exchange. From the Latin for “I,” ego only gradually comes into itself, supervised and shaped by the family, tribe, and culture in which we are members. By a series of separations – first the physical separation of birth, followed by years of emotional and intellectual moves – we differentiate ourselves as an individual person, one who “speaks through” (Latin persona) the roles and masks we are provided.
During this rather long ordeal, ego consciousness – the sense we have of ourselves as a separate person and social actor – becomes increasingly involved in its own security schemes and strategies. Because the personal ego is by definition separate from all that is “not me,” this constant exposure often motivates us to find cover inside collective identities like cults, sects, parties, and clubs where we can blend in and feel safe.
One of the key indicators of Western cultural progress has been this rise of individual rights and personal values, occasionally snapped back into conformity by authoritarian societies but persisting in its long campaign for autonomy.
In Asia and the Orient, this rise of individualism has been restrained for the most part by strong traditions of deference to authority and by philosophies that regard the individual as a degenerate from the anonymous collective (e.g., in China) or impersonal absolute (e.g., in India).
Self as Mystical Soul
Psychospiritual interests in Western psychology have typically resulted in so-called New Age metaphysics, where the self is seen as an immortal and absolute identity – the “true Self” – utterly separate and apart from the body, time, and material existence. If things don’t go in this direction, then the interest in spirituality will often get annexed to one of the “classic” schools of twentieth-century psychology, as a set of concerns (“religious development” or “crises of faith”) a client may be working through. In either case, the focus of attention is on the personal ego and its quest for enlightenment, salvation, lasting happiness and a more meaningful existence.
Self-as-soul is distinct from self-as-ego, however, and confusing the two effectively forecloses on our human progress into wholeness.
The confusion has roots in Western (Judeo-Christian) monotheism, where the supreme being is conceived in terms of an immortal personal ego. This same principle in humans is consequently regarded as the precious thing to be saved from sin and worldly bondage. Our soul is thus the true center of our personality, the “I” (ego) that longs for deliverance – a final separation from our body, the world, and the ravages of time.
But soul is not another name for the immortal ego. Instead, it invites the self into a deeper contemplation of its own ground.
A contemplative descent of this sort drops below the personal ego and its preoccupation with identity management. In a way, it follows the stem of consciousness through the floor of mind-body composure and deeper into the present mystery of reality. Dropping from the separate ego is also dropping beneath its web of dualities, to a place that is now/here (nowhere) and All is One. This is the mystical (literally ineffable, indescribable, and unspeakable) experience of communion.
As my diagram illustrates, soul-ground communion produces mind-body composure, which in turn inspires ego-other compassion and awakens us to the spirit of genuine community. It is in genuine community that we can fully enjoy the liberated life.