The Ego’s Living Relation to the Self

“… I do know that I am obviously confronted with a factor unknown in itself, which I call ‘God,’… It is an apt name given to all overpowering emotions in my own psychic system, subduing my conscious will and usurping control over myself. This is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans, and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse. … it approaches me in the form of conscience as a vox Dei with which I can even converse and argue.”

                                                                                                Jung (1959)[1]

“… a desire, a talent,… a work, a vocation, a cause or a relationship… become imperatives of the Self which one is enjoined to honor in the conscious pursuit of wholeness…. one is made into an individual,… one is required to pay constant attention to the inner authority, the Self…. One is chosen to be known by God and to know him….One is chosen to be redeemed by God and to redeem him.”

                                                                                                Edinger (1986)[2]

            This essay arose as the combined result of research I was doing on another essay and, in the midst of that work, a student’s question about how the Self shows up in life. While very interesting, the question was a digression in a class that had a tight timetable. So I could not give the student a full answer. This essay is an attempt to describe more fully what it looks like for a person to live in relation to God, the inner divine energy that Jung called the “Self.”

            Let’s begin with Jung’s description, born of his personal experience of 85+ years of contact with the Divine. He was, we should remember, a minister’s son, so God was spoken of much in his household and at every Sunday service. Despite (or perhaps because of) this familial context, Jung found himself diverging from conventional Swiss Protestant attitudes early on, e.g. his very disturbing thought, at age 11, of the turd falling from God’s throne on to the roof of Basel cathedral, shattering it and sundering the walls.[3] By the time he was 15 Jung was aware of his two personalities, #1, the “schoolboy of 1890,”[4] and #2, the intuitive, psychic, “true self,” whom Jung called the “Other. This side of Jung “knew God as a hidden, personal, and at the same time suprapersonal secret.”[5] With this personal awareness of the Divine, Jung found that “Church gradually became a place of torment…”.[6]

            As an adult Jung went to church only for weddings and some funerals, and he did not have his children confirmed.[7] His orientation toward God was spiritual, not religious, and he recognized the emergence of a “new dispensation,”[8] the form of expression of the religious impulse in humanity appropriate to the Age of Aquarius. In this new form, inspired by the Holy Spirit, individual persons become “bearers of living water,”[9] assuming the task that earlier ages had given over to rabbis, priests, gurus and avatars. In this, as in so many other ways, Jung walked his talk, and in doing so, he provides us with insights into what it looks like to live in relation to the Self.

            In 1959, in one of his most famous, widely-seen interviews, Jung was asked if he believed in God. Not expecting the question, Jung paused and then said, more or less spontaneously, “Difficult to answer. I know. I don’t need to believe. I know.”[10] Not surprisingly, there followed a flood of letters from listeners asking Jung to clarify what he meant. In one such letter Jung described his experience of God as “all overpowering emotions” in his psychic system, a force “subduing my conscious will and usurping control,”[11] such that the ego had to recognize it was not in control.

            Jung went on in his letter to describe God as “things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly.”[12] Encounters with the Self can show up as accidents or upsets that create havoc in our lives. In my own life, I came to know this form of relating to the Self in July of 2013. For several weeks I had noticed dreams and intuitions asking me to be receptive, open to receiving. I puzzled over this—what it meant, what was being asked of me. And then, on July 29th, I broke my leg!—I was bushwacking through the forest behind my house in an effort to get to a meeting where I knew many people were waiting for me—an event that surely crossed my path in a violent way. Two days later, showing up to a class with splint on leg, I told the students of what lay ahead: the prospect of an operation in the near future, followed by months of casts and rehab. One student then pulled out a pad of paper and passed it around, asking everyone to volunteer to help—with rides, errands, food deliveries, whatever I needed. And then I suddenly remembered the earlier dreams telling me to be open to receiving. Where I initially regarded my accident as a disaster, over the ensuing weeks I came to see it as a great gift from the Self, giving me the incentive to welcome the generosity of 35 people who nursed me through the operation, cooked for me, took out the garbage, brought me my mail, did my banking, helped around the house, even cleaning my refrigerator! Blessing upon blessing came to me, thanks to the Self’s “willful” intervention.

            The Self can also show up in life as “things which upset … subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of … life.”[13] I have had multiple instances of this, the first on November 23rd, 1983, when I had the first of my “voice-over” dreams (no action or figures, just words), telling me that friends would die, relatives would die, I would give up everything and my life would be transformed. These predictions began to come true just 5 days later, when I learned of the death of one of my local friends. Within 6 months I had lost another friend, two aunts, an uncle and everything in my life began to fall away. Subsequent similar dreams have caused further upsets, relocating me around the country over a dozen times, leading me into work projects and out of work projects, and finally inspiring me to set up the Jungian Center. By now, after 30+ years of these upsets to my plans, I’ve come to think it might be better to entertain no plans at all! The ego likes to plan, tends to assume tomorrow will be like today, that things will stay the same. But no. The Self has other ideas, and the ego must defer to them.

            Edward Edinger, one of Jung’s students and, until his death in 1998, the “dean” of American Jungian analysts,[14] wrote several books that address how the Self can show up in our lives.[15] One of these ways I noted above: as numinous dreams or fantasies. When I have my “voice-over” dreams, telling me of the future and giving me specific instructions, the quality of the dream is special, highly charged, carrying the numinosity that is characteristic of archetypes[16] (the Self is an archetype).

            Another way the Self can show up is in affects: moods, feeling states, intense emotions.[17] Often these will be compensatory: If we are depressed, dreams can turn up with Wonder Woman or Superman, flying through the sky, as the psyche is trying to remind us that “this also is true;” as much as we might feel “down,” the Self wants us to know we are also “up,” more powerful or invulnerable than we think.

            The Self can also present as instinctual responses or intense energy.[18] When we quickly pull a finger away from a hot iron, the Self is seeking to protect us. When we are caught up in creative pursuits such that we lose all track of time (what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the “flow”),[19] we can work for many hours with no feeling of fatigue. In a similar way, mothers can manifest superhuman strength in lifting cars off their children in crises, and soldiers in the heat of battle can accomplish miracles.

            The materialism of our culture would have us believe that health problems are purely material in nature, but the Self can show up as psychic or somatic symptoms,[20] dis-ease and disease. From colds to cancers, the Self is calling for our attention. When I had my accident, I knew it was a meaningful event but I didn’t know what the meaning was. It was only two days later, when Kathy circulated the volunteer sign-up list, that I realized the whole experience was meant to open me to receptivity and the generosity of dozens of wonderful people. There are no “accidents:”[21] Everything that happens to us is full of meaning, and the Self never sends us experiences for no purpose.

            But, as Edinger notes, the Self sometimes seems to be our antagonist,[22] forcing us to wonder just whose side it’s on. Our side, of course, but the ego often fails to recognize this, at least initially. In reality, the Self is our redeemer.

            By “redeemer” and “redemption,” Jungians don’t always use the term as dictionaries usually define it (i.e. as “buying back, paying off, setting free”).[23] While in some situations it can have this meaning of liberating or setting free, in other contexts Jung & company mean bringing unconscious contents up into consciousness.[24] The Self works in our lives that we might become more conscious. One of our tasks, as human beings, is to create more consciousness, and life events serve to help us fulfill this task.

            Edinger provides one of the most explicit descriptions of how the Self can manifest in our lives in The Bible and the Psyche. He succinctly lists 5 “aspects” of the ego’s experience of the Self.[25] These are:

•our being given a task, assignment or purpose, which tends to show up in life in the form of desires, talents, interests or attachment to a vocation, a cause or a relationship. In our  younger years these may not be obvious, but as we age, it becomes imperative that we honor the full range of our talents “in the conscious pursuit of wholeness.”[26]

•our recognizing our individuality: how we are different, separate, unique, “brought out from the state of collective participation mystique.”[27] Given the Extraverted nature of American culture, with its “other-directedness,”[28] this can be difficult for some people to accept: they want to “go along to get along.” But the Self never sees us as part of the herd, nor are we to be content with merging with the “mass mind.”[29] Our living in relation to the Self means that we willingly stand out, be different, strike out on our own unique path.

•our recognizing our consecration, as a possession of the Self;[30] no longer is the ego running the show: It must recognize that the Self is the authority, and the ego must subordinate itself to the higher wisdom and direction of the Self. This shows up as repeated humiliations as long as we remain stubborn and headstrong. In my own life, this often took the form of the Self setting up experiences that “popped my paradigms:” I thought I knew how things were. I had all the prejudices and limited range of thinking typical of an Eastern Ivy League intellectual. What a challenge it has been to cut that mind set down to size!

•our recognizing that we have been “chosen to be known by God and to know God:”[31] It was one of Jung’s most challenging realizations that God/the Self needs us to know him/it; in order to become conscious of himself God needs us to create consciousness.[32] In relation to our topic here, this means that we are tasked with working on our salvation, becoming more self-aware, wising up to our complexes, wrestling with the myriad events, “accidents,” synchronicities and other ways life offers that present us with opportunities to become more conscious.

•our recognizing that we have been “chosen to be redeemed by God and to redeem him:”[33] As we create more consciousness, we bring contents of the collective unconscious up into consciousness, and this, in Jungian parlance, is an act of redemption. The Self will assist us in this work, because while we become more conscious we simultaneously help the Divine to become more conscious also. In light of our theme, we can expect dreams, trials, testing, tortuous efforts both inward and in outer life, to assist us in this process of growing consciousness.

            When I related the above to the student who posed the question that became the catalyst for this essay, her reaction was typical: “That’s it? That’s what it’s like, living in relation to the Self? That doesn’t sound very appealing!” Given our American puer orientation, focused on play, having fun, being entertained, enjoying life, it is not appealing. As Jung reminds us “…the experience of the Self is always a defeat for the ego.[34]  Only heroes need apply for this task. But I reminded the student that the hero lives in all of us. Our inner Divine is calling it out into consciousness.




Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi (1990), Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Edinger, Edward (1984), The Creation of Consciousness. Toronto: Inner City Press.

________ (1986), The Bible and the Psyche. Toronto: Inner City Press.

________ (1987), The Christian Archetype. Toronto: Inner City Press.

________ (2000), Ego and Self. Toronto: Inner City Press.

________ (2004), The Sacred Psyche. Toronto: Inner City Press.

Elder, George & Diane Cordic (2009), An American Jungian in Honor of Edward F. Edinger. Toronto: Inner City Press.

Freeman, John (1977), “The ‘Face to Face’ Interview,”C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, ed. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hopcke, Robert (1997), There Are No Accidents. New York: Riverhead/Penguin.

Jaffe, Lawrence (1990), Liberating the Heart. Toronto: Inner City Press.

________ (1999), Celebrating Soul. Toronto: Inner City Press.

Jung, C.G. (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lewis, Charlton & Charles Short (1969), A Latin Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Otto, Rudolf (1958), The Idea of the Holy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Riesman, David, Nathan Glazer & Reuel Denney (1955), The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. Garden City NY: Doubleday & Co.

Stevens, Anthony (2003), Archetype Revisited. Toronto: Inner City Press.

[1] “Letter to M. Leonard,” 5 December 1959; Letters, II, 525.

[2] Edinger (1986), 116.

[3] Jung (1965), 36-39.

[4] Ibid., 45.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Bair (2003), 126-7 & 321.

[8] See Jaffe (1990) & (1999) for more on the new dispensation.

[9] Aquarius in Latin means “water bearer;” Lewis & Short (1969), 148. The reference to living water is to Jesus’ promise in John 4:10.

[10] Freeman (1977), 428.

[11] “Letter to M. Leonard,” 5 December 1959; Letters, II, 525.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Elder & Cordic (2009), 9.

[15] Cf. Edinger (1984), (1986), (1987), (2000) & (2004).

[16] For more on the features of archetypes, see Stevens (2003); for an in-depth description of numinosity, see Otto (1958).

[17] Edinger (1984), 68.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Csikszentmihalyi (1990).

[20] Edinger (1984), 68.

[21] This is the title and subject of Hopcke (1997).

[22] Edinger (1984), 86.

[23] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1631.

[24] Edinger (1986), 118, 136.

[25] Ibid., 116-118.

[26] Ibid., 116. I should note that some people do know at a very early age what their vocation is; in my own life I knew by age 4 that I was a teacher; likewise, my sister was passionate about rocks as a little kid, and she has gone on to become a distinguished geologist.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Riesman et al. discuss the concept of other-directedness in Riesman (1955).

[29] Mass-mindedness was one of Jung’s bugaboos; see Collected Works 10, ¶s 453 & 723, and my essay “Jung’s Timeliness and Thoughts on Our Current Reality,” archived on this blog site.

[30] Edinger (1986), 117.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid, 118.

[33] Ibid.

[34] CW 14, ¶778; italics in the original. I capitalized Self to be consistent with the rest of the instances in the essay where I use the term; Jung never capitalized it, which leads some students to confuse self (ego-based, as in “selfish”) and Self (our inner divinity).

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