Oak Tree… Mandala … My Inmost Self
Most of the analytical psychology of Carl Jung ultimately revolves around the idea and image of the Self. It is here that his approach differs from that of so many other psychologies. What exactly does Jung mean when he uses this term?
He certainly doesn’t mean just the ego. For Jung, the ego is the centre of our consciousness, but it is not the whole of our personality. Not by a long shot! As he states,
…the self comprises infinitely more than a mere ego, as the symbolism has shown from of old. It is as much one’s self, and all other selves, as the ego. (C.G. Jung, “On the Nature of the Psyche”, in Jung, Collected Works, v. 8, para 432)
It’s very hard to describe in a few words exactly what is meant by the Self. The Self is, among other things, the sum total of what we are. It’s an image of a human’s fullest potential and of the wholeness of the human personality. In the words of Jungian Andrew Samuels:
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The self as a unifying principle within the human psyche occupies the central position of authority in relation to psychological life and, therefore, the destiny of the individual. (Samuels et al., Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, p. 135)
The destiny of the individual. So the ego is not “running the show”. It may think it is, in the midst of its incredible, frantic busyness, as it tries to balance all the demands of life, and to pursue its pet projects and seek its goals. But there is more at work in us than that.
Most people have had the experience of moments at some point in their lives of a profound truth, where we somehow touch on destiny and on what we are meant to be, and where we get a sense of something bigger than our everyday selves that is at work in our lives. We can really “feel ourselves” at those times. Some people may attribute a religious significance to such moments: some may not. Abraham Maslow in his psychology speaks of “peak experiences”. Sometimes such experiences can come in dreams; sometimes in meaningful coincidences, what Jung calls “synchronicity”. At such times, we can become profoundly aware that something within us is striving to come into being. Often people have the feeling that we do have a destiny, that our lives are moving toward something that we can only dimly intuit, at best.
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There are many ways that the Self has been portrayed throughout human existence. Jung believed that a lot of religious imagery protrays the self, for instance. But a lot of imagery in art and in other parts of human culture does so as well. Two forms of image that have particular importance, according to Jung, are the tree and the mandala. The tree, with its deep roots that penetrate into the fertile, dark depths of the ground, and its branches that reach out into the sky, is a profound symbol of the growing, living unity of the personality. It represents the wholeness of a personality that can embrace those parts of ourself that we are most reluctant to face, where we have to face our own weakness, and the things about ourselves that we might even be ashamed of, together with the parts of ourselves that aspire and soar.
Similarly, the mandala is a symbol of wholeness. In a mandala, everything forms a unified whole, connected to the center. Mandalas appear in many religious traditions, and often appear in peoples’s lives and dreams at demanding, maybe even chaotic times, when a person is trying to find a sense of unity and stability to his or her life.
The Self is there. It’s in the very depths of our psyche, and it can be experienced, in very many different ways. It is always drawing us toward a unified awareness of who we are, with a compassionate acceptance of all our strengths, our weaknesses, and those parts of ourselves about which we’ve learned to feel ashamed or guilty. How is the Self moving in your life? How will it manifest in you?
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