The mind, the unconscious and the conscious Ego
In the pages of this site dedicated to the unconscious, I highlighted the difficulties we meet in understanding the concept of the unconscious, considered as a noun, also bearing in mind that the genesis of this concept is a legacy of late Romanticism. On a cognitive level, one can certainly recognize the existence of an unconscious brain activity: with all evidence, most of the operational functions of the central nervous system are unconscious, and therefore do not fall under the control of the conscious Ego. The observations and experiments conducted on people in a state of sleepwalking, hypnosis or trance also show that the human body can be able to perform coordinated and even complex actions, without the conscious Ego, that is normally associated with that body and controls its behavior, being aware of what is happening. Since the Ego is continuously immersed in conscious mental activity, the existence of a similar unconscious mental activity, which escapes the control by the Ego, has been hypothesized.
As a matter of fact, our cognitive activity is based on what we are aware of: even in the case of events caused by unconscious activities, these can only be observed and studied insofar as either the person concerned or other people observing that person become conscious of the effects of those activities. In transforming the term unconscious from adjective, as it should be correctly used, to noun, we run the risk of extending it to everything that can influence our mind, escaping our possibilities of knowledge and control, attributing to it all the ambiguity of similar terms such as God, Cosmos, Nature, etc. However, it must be recognized that the products of mental activity, when they become conscious and can be subject to the Ego's control, or exert their coercive power over the Ego, have their own concrete objectivity, determined by the activity of what we can define as unconscious mind. The very elaboration of the creative contents that become part of our consciousness and can be communicated to other human beings, is determined by the unconscious mind. Then, whether the elaborations of the unconscious mind are determined by the (unconscious) activity of the brain, or are produced somewhere else to simply be transmitted to the brain, everyone can decide it on their own, since we do not have adequate information about it.
The phenomenon of consciousness, necessary for the conscious Ego to exert some degree of control over the products of mental activity, floats, so to speak, on the ocean of the unconscious mind. The conscious Ego further processes the products of the unconscious mind – once they have become consciuos – with the help of its own intellectual resources, and the transmission of these elaborations in the context of human socio-cultural systems determines the evolution of the process at the service of which we work. Without a doubt, the conscious Ego takes part in this process, but when we try to understand what its essence is, what resources it has, how it has to play its role and what its destiny is, we encounter remarkable difficulties, determined by the nature of the unknown phenomenon from which it originated. It must first be noted that consciousness itself is not a function developed to the same extent in all human beings: the same can be said for intelligence, will, goodness, and all the other resources of which the Ego can dispose, but consciousness has the very important function of bringing the contents elaborated by the unconscious mind into contact with the Ego, probably selecting them from a huge range of possibilities, based on its own ability of tuning and in response to the Ego's needs.
What is certain is that the conscious Ego must face psychic experiences of unknown origin, making use of the resources it can have at disposal, but these same resources have been developed by a destiny that determined the constitution of its psychophysical system, that is – after all – by forces whose origin is equally unknown to us. It is therefore no wonder that for many humans the experience of life becomes a rough sea, in which the conscious Ego risks being shipwrecked or adrift. As long as the conscious Ego cannot build the tools it needs to navigate in this at times stormy sea of the psyche, it remains at the mercy of the forces activated by the functioning of the unconscious mind, towards which its nature of conscious being has very little power, nay, makes it particularly vulnerable. For better or for worse, the life of most human beings is still determined by psychic forces that are beyond the control of the conscious Ego: it is therefore appropriate to try to establish with a certain clarity in what aspects the conscious Ego can be considered an entity free to act.
The nature of the conscious Ego
Humankind, as a whole, is still in a very infantile phase of development: the problem is that it seems abandoned to itself, given that there is no trace of fully-developed figures that protect it in this growth phase and educate it so that it can develop in the best way. The guide power that was attributed to the various forms of religion today no longer works, precisely because we cannot feel the actual presence and concrete action of the entities that should guide us, which have become – to our intellect – increasingly abstract and imaginary. Indeed, precisely the plurality of religions, and their different orientations sometimes in conflict with each other, show their psychic origin and their temporary function. I have repeatedly highlighted how, in these conditions, the conscious Ego is imprisoned within the psychophysical structure of the organism with which it is associated (and many people would be willing to correct so this sentence: by which it is produced), which perceives, acts and processes within a collective system – made up of several million human beings – directed by forces which remain unknown to us, and which pursue equally unknown objectives. The cultural models that are constantly offered to us, the scenes of happy (and easy) life with which advertising fascinates and hypnotizes our minds, the examples of successful, fulfilling, intense lives, worthy – as we use to say – of being lived, they are all expedients through which the project (that is, the program according to which the game of human life works) goes on and evolves, not necessarily in a positive way.
Here I don't want to deny that the experiences of a lifetime cannot be – for the conscious Ego – interesting, fulfilling, and also happy: but this happens because and when resources and circumstances allow it. Many of life's experiences (and, I might say, a lot of lives) don't go this way. This is what I could call a lottery effect: everyone buys the ticket in the hope of winning a prize, and some (those who are called lucky ones) actually win, but the prizes consist of a share of the price paid by all those who have bought the tickets. The rest of the money raised – almost always a substantial amount – goes to the lottery organizers. The fascination mechanism through which the lottery effect works is based on the fact that if one does not buy the ticket, he/she is sure not to win (even if saves the ticket money). But it should be noted that in life there is also an upside-down lottery effect, determined by the fear of losing what we have got, however little be it, especially when this little has costed us commitment and effort: every day we have before our eyes examples of people to whom fate has reserved a destiny of this kind. Therefore, since life works in this way, it will not be useless to try to better clarify what the true nature of the conscious Ego is, and what its possibilities are.
The conscious Ego exists because a psychophysical system (that is, a human organism, with its brain and the mental activity that derives from it) is formed and develops – in a word: it lives – in this world. The events that follow one another over time, involving a person, determine a mental activity whose effects are experienced by the Ego when they affect its consciousness. Some traces – more or less precise – of past experiences are kept in the memory. The experiences in which the conscious Ego is involved over time can vary a lot from one individual to another, and constitute our personal history. The Ego can make decisions in terms of action and behavior, and these decisions determine, to some extent, the subsequent experiences. The activity of the conscious Ego usually consists of acquiring experiences, evaluating them, predicting future events and deciding on actions to be taken.
But the way in which this process develops and is implemented changes throughout life, and remains different from one person to another: in the first phase of life, the mental processes that go from the perception of environmental and bodily stimuli to the execution of actions occur automatically, or are heterodirect by those who guide and control us, and the conscious Ego plays, at most, a role of witness of what it mentally experiences. Only when we reach adulthood, and then maturity, do the Ego's evaluation resources develop, to the point of enabling it to consciously manage – with greater or lesser success – even difficult and conflicting situations. But this evolution in many people proceeds slowly, and there is always the risk of automatic mental processes – which the conscious Ego cannot control – being activated, which lead to inadequate and negative actions and behaviors, or conflicting and painful inner psychic dynamics.
Taking as an example a sufficiently developed conscious Ego, it is as if it were to guide a machine that it does not know well and whose functioning responds only in part to the commands that are given to it, making it go on through a path in which, sometimes suddenly, obstacles arise of various kinds, towards an epilogue that is completely unknown to it. The automatic feedbacks on which the Ego – somewhat naively – relies, are made up of sensory, emotional or sentimental mental reactions, which present more or less intense elements of positivity (such as: I like it, it makes me happy, it makes me feel good, it is successful, it is approved, it is a step forward, etc.) or negativity (I don't like it, it makes me suffer, it makes me feel bad, it penalizes me, it makes me unwelcome, it is a step backwards, etc.). Obviously, if this system worked equally well for everyone, we would live in an earthly paradise, in which vital energy would automatically be transformed into personal happiness. Instead, based on the experience of the generations that preceded us in this life, we receive since our childhood more or less effective information, instructions and conditioning programs, that should teach us what is the best way to live.
The level of complexity currently achieved by organized societies prevents us from adopting a model of development of the conscious Ego that can prove valid for everyone, and therefore socio-cultural systems (and those who manage them) are satisfied with the survival over time of the system as a whole, considering the people who are part of it as transient and renewable human material, whose main purpose and occupation is to make the system work. In human history things have always gone more or less in this way, and in relation to particular needs of the conscious Ego – if these were manifested – the systems intervened (and even today intervene) either with a more or less brutal repression, or with deception, or entrusting to institutional organizations the elaboration of forms of management and control of the Ego's instances. These organizations include both state religions and propaganda for the cult of social progress and the personalities who guide the system, but also all those forms of entertainment through which the Ego is somehow distracted from investigating its role, its destiny and the functioning of its mind. Therefore the conscious Ego, if it wants to evolve, must first of all solve the difficult problem of finding a form of survival and adaptation within the social system, without sacrificing its own possibilities for development and without having to abdicate its role.
If a person's activity within the collective system requires a lot of energy, that person's conscious Ego will not have any residual energy to devote to its evolutionary purposes, and – given the difficulties of the enterprise – it will be more vulnerable towards any forms of game or entertainment that show themselves as emotionally rewarding. On the other hand, even with a too austere attitude one runs the risk of limiting the range of mental experiences which the Ego must face without repressing, but overcoming them. Given that the starting conditions and circumstances of life are different for each of us, the conscious Ego must be able to find an autonomous path of evolution, using the resources it already has at disposal and those which gradually become available. In order for this to be possible, the program that directs human life must be able to guarantee that, under any circumstances, if the conscious Ego actually wants to evolve and decides to engage in this difficult feat, it can be successful and its own condition will improve.
In a certain sense, this is an act of faith on the part of the Ego, given that life often presents itself as chaotic and full of contradictions, conflicts and forms of competition. On the other hand, if this possibility were not guaranteed by the program – or by some entity capable of intervening on the program – the life of a human being would be run out in itself, in its temporal duration, and its meaning for the conscious Ego would be limited to one or the other programmatic element capable of influencing, convincing and enclosing the Ego in its human condition. Often this act of faith constitutes the starting point of the Ego's evolutionary path, and it is logical and understandable that, proceeding along this path, the conscious Ego also wonders about the possible continuation of its existence once the experience of human life has come to an end. So the manifestation of the interest and commitment of the conscious Ego in seeking the meaning of human life and in following – according to its resources – the path of knowledge that will lead it to conclude this experience in a positive and evolutionary way (and not under the sign of decline and renunciation), marks in itself a fundamental difference in the way of living of human beings.
The effects of psychic energy
Although every living organism endowed with a more or less developed form of consciousness is able to experience the internal effects produced by the functioning of its nervous system in response to environmental and bodily stimuli, it is only in the context of human cultures that the psyche's energy manifests itself in the most effective way: not only does it translate into mental experiences through the brain functioning, but due to human interactions some psychic products spread in the brains network, allowing the development of the programs on which the functioning of a socio-cultural system is based, during a certain period. The psyche's energy determines the drives, desires, thoughts, ideas, and all those forms of conceptual and organizational creativity that continuously – through human mental activity – contribute to forming the reality of our world. Both scientific progress and the most complex technological products are made possible by the ways in which the psyche's energy exerts its influence on human activities through mental processes. Obviously, the psyche's energy manifests itself differently in the mental activity of each individual: relatively few humans are endowed with an exceptional creative genius, but many people have enough resources to contribute to the realization of new projects within enterprise organizations.
The neural networks of our brains too work in this way: the single neurons can be considered as tuners and catalysts of the psyche's energy, while the ways in which they interconnect in the network determine the data processing – at various levels of complexity – through which the psyche's energy produces its mental effects, in the form in which they are perceived by our consciousness. The modalities of functioning of the individual brains – interconnected with each other through the networks of interpersonal relationships within the social systems – determine both the whole range of human behaviors, and the perceptions, by each conscious Ego, of the psychic experiences in which it is involved. On the whole, the effects of the psyche's energy are partly chaotic and partly ordered, at least according to the evaluation that can be given in the light of our intelligence. Just as, within the natural laws that regulate the growth of vegetation, there is a certain difference – in our perception of order – between a natural forest and a well-kept garden, also in the manifestations of the psyche's energy we can observe forms of order and of harmony mixed with conflicting and destructive effects.
The action of the psyche's energy, in the way in which it manifests itself through human beings, is in some measure opposed to natural creativity, determining a higher level of complexity, ranging from the transformation of the land aimed at intensive agricultural use, to the construction of industrial production plants, communication routes and transport systems, up to the progressive creation of megacities in which most of humans now live. At the same time, conflicts and hostile competitions of all kinds continue to manifest themselves at all levels of human organization, partly as a legacy of our animal origin, still subject to the laws of nature, and partly due to the effect of the same psychic energy, which can manifest in such different and antithetical forms in individual people, in social groups and in various cultures. Compared to this state of affairs, in which billions of humans are involved, the Ego – if the resources of its consciousness allow it – is relegated to the role of a more or less impotent witness, given that any action that may be taken, even with the best intentions, is determined by how the psyche manifests itself in the mind functioning in which the Ego is involved. It is necessary, at this point, to better examine the collective mechanisms by which psychic energy displays its effects.
The study of history, psychology and neuroscience, and the experience of life itself, teach us that the programs that determine the functioning of most humans are transmitted through forms of conditioning when the brain is malleable enough to be able to assimilate them more or less uncritically, that is, in the first phase of life, that which goes from childhood to youth. The factors involved in this process are the brain of the person who receives the programmatic information (the neophyte) and the brains of those who transmit such information: parents, educators, relatives, friends, but also brains that operate in an organized way through the media, such as television, newspapers, internet, etc. The neophyte's brain reacts to the transmission of any new programmatic information (directive) either by accepting it – also on the basis of the charisma of those who transmit it – or by comparing it with other directives previously received and acquired: the results of this comparison can lead to a full or conditional acceptance of the new directive, or its rejection. A cultural directive can also come into conflict with natural instinctive dynamics (in short: basic programs that regulate the functioning and development of the psychophysical system), causing a negative reaction of opposition or resistance.
The process of transmitting directives is complex, it varies from person to person, and produces the wide range of results that are visible to all of us, both because the cultural environments that transmit programmatic information can be very different from each other, and because the neophyte brains themselves react differently. But the most interesting aspect of this process is the genesis of the directives and the way they spread. At some point, within a cultural system, a particular brain focuses its attention on some conflicting or problematic aspects of that system, and the conscious Ego associated with that brain waits for something new to be revealed to it. When this revelation occurs, if the conscious Ego is satisfied with it, it decides to transmit the new information to other people so that, in turn, they can evaluate its effects: some of this programmatic information is successful and spread more or less rapidly. This process takes place according to an automatism that, in general, does not offer any guarantee as to the real effectiveness of the new programmatic information: this is particularly evident in politics, but also in all sectors of mass culture. In our day, a significant aspect of the way this process occurs is represented by the way in which we are solicited to express our likes on social networks.
The conscious Ego, therefore, while being involved in the process by which the psyche's energy translates partly into human activity and partly into inner experience, cannot be considered a main character, but at most an employee with the role of executor of what is required of it, and witness and experimenter of the psyche's effects deriving from the condition in which a human finds to be, in relation to the environment and the brain network to which the Ego is connected. But the same quality of the conscious Ego differs from person to person: in fact it can be noticed that in most cases the Ego is more or less prone to conform to the role assigned to it, contenting itself with functioning – as best as it can – according to the mechanism of seeking gratification and avoiding the psyche's punishment, without carrying out any investigation into the causes that determine these (positive or negative) psychic effects, and the consequences that derive from them. This form of adaptation to life, from the most humble positions to those of greatest power and responsibility, constitutes one of the primary directives that are transmitted to us within the socio-cultural system in which we are bred, and on the basis of which most humans – as members of that system – function for a lifetime: extra ecclesiam nulla salus.
Evidently, complex societies, made up of millions of people, cannot function in a different way: any alteration of their mechanisms – often in a precarious balance – can have devastating consequences for the subsistence and survival of a large number of human beings (as in fact happens in many areas of the world). The era in which the programs transmitted from generation to generation consisted of learning to hunt and fish and living in respect of nature's forces has long since passed, and in our days programs of this kind apply to a few thousand individuals distributed in some areas of the planet, within tribal groups likely destined to become extinct, or to be protected within reserves, almost as ethnographic curiosities to study. That kind of existence, which – although difficult and often risky – gave a sense of freedom and a more intense personal meaning to life, is possible only if the number of people living within a territory does not exceed a certain limit, totally incompatible with the multitude of human beings that currently populate Earth.
In any case, the transformation of human civilizations has occurred as history teaches us, and is destined to continue, therefore every new human being born within one of the current complex societies will receive the programmatic directives, in one or the other form present within that cultural system, and will react to them according to its own mental resources, experiencing both the aspects perceived as positive and those perceived as negative, while he/she proceeds over time along the path of human life. However, it is precisely as a result of this experience – or of this series of transitory experiences that follow one another over time – that the conscious Ego develops the need for an existence not conditioned by the time factor, and therefore complete and meaningful in itself. This need is not manifested in the same way in all human beings, indeed – especially in our days – in some people it does not occur at all. Nevertheless, if the conscious Ego succeeds in disposing of a sufficient amount of psychic energy, a transformation will occur which will lead it to exit this life with the precise intent to enter another dimension.
The change of existence
To those who are ready to claim that this is an illusion destined to be disproved, since the knowledge we have gives us the certainty that no form of consciousness is possible without the support of our brain, I can answer that the only certainty we have is that of death, that is, of the end of our experience in the human dimension of this world. Since the experiences to which the Ego is subject in the course of life are determined by the mind functioning, they reflect all the contradictions and conflicts of the psyche: therefore in any case the death of our organism – about which we have no doubt – represents for the conscious Ego a liberation from the discomfort of living, especially when it puts an end to the sufferings caused by an illness or a painful process of physical deterioration. Thoughts or reasoning about survival (or its impossibility) are determined by the human psyche, and therefore are closely related to the transient experience of our life. The commitment of the conscious Ego consists instead in the recognition of the need for a permanent existence, different from the earthly one, and in the affirmation of a right to the realization of this aspiration. Although not infrequently a claimed right is not recognized by those who have the power to do so, the conscious motivations that lead to the manifestation and defense of that right constitute a guarantee, if so I can say, of its legitimacy.
In this life the conscious Ego is bound to an individual existence determined by energetic, functional and operational factors that not only determine the destiny of each individual life, but escape the intelligent understanding of the goals they pursue. The psyche's energy, the way in which each brain processes its potential through its functioning, and the programmatic directives that are transmitted and spread in a given network of brains, rather than being controlled by the conscious Ego, condition it so that it actively collaborates in the development of a process whose meaning goes beyond the comprehension skills at its disposal. In this condition, the conscious Ego must be content to play willingly and to the best of its ability the role that some superior power has assigned to it, hoping that the very fact of having consciously experienced the difficulties that the task of living may have reserved to it, will be then recognized as a merit by that same form of higher organization which is supposed to manage the order of things of this world. But if the Ego succeeds in detaching itself, already during this life, from the psychic experiences that ensnare it, it can claim for itself the right to consciousness, nay, to a qualitatively more intense and refined form of consciousness, through which it can explore not only the dimension of this human life, but even other dimensions.
It is not up to me to judge or decide on the destiny of every single conscious Ego once human life is over: the way in which consciousness transfers the psychic experiences of life to the Ego requires respect for the individuality of each human, but also a certain detachment between our own experience, that which is actually lived by our Ego, and the experience of others, which can be subject to psychic attunements very different from ours. And yet the progressive evolution of consciousness should lead every human being to recognize the Ego as a conscious entity, free and autonomous – or at least separate – from the conditionings of the human psyche. Each conscious Ego has the faculty to evaluate the meaning of its own life in full autonomy: it is fully legitimate to believe, for example, that our behavior in the service of the human project will be evaluated and possibly rewarded at the end of our life on Earth, even if we are not able to understand the aims of this project. It is equally legitimate to believe that the conclusion of our life will mean the annihilation of our conscious Ego. It is important, however, to understand that each of these perspectives is determined by the functioning of our mind, which activates one or the other answer by the psyche.
The claim by the conscious Ego of its right to a change of dimension consists instead of the recognition of the incompatibility – at least partial – between the very essence of the conscious Ego and the conditions of human life. The Ego, accepting to carry on the experience of life until its natural end, going through the various phases of life, experiments, examines and evaluates all the various dynamics of the psyche that it can be able to tune, until it realizes that there remains an unbridgeable gap between its intrinsic need for existence, of which it becomes aware through the process of self-consciousness, and the conditions that are imposed on it by the human psyche. But precisely the temporary and changing nature of human experience makes the Ego understand the freeing character of the end of this life. Obviously, this way of feeling of the Ego is in tune with the final stages of the evolution of individual life, although in some people it can be intuited – in a more or less intense way – since a young age. But throughout the initial and central stages of life, the Ego normally immerses itself in the human adventure, going in search of new experiences and engaging in its involvement in the social environment of reference and in the search for ways of social and cultural affirmation of its person.
Problems arise when the Ego remains imprisoned in the psychic attunements of one of the phases of life, which prevent its evolution and liberation: a typical error of our culture – whose claims to progress are destined to be drastically reduced – is to enhance and transmit conditioning programs whose purpose is to want to bring all life back to the youthful phase, thus pretending of exorcising the old age and death. While it is certainly to be appreciated every exercise aimed at keeping a healty and efficient organism and a lucid mind over the years, the reduction of the last phase of life to forms of repetition (more or less ridiculous and silly) of the experiences of the youth imprisons the Ego in the passive expectation of an annihilating death that must be delayed for as long as possible: this is, in all its stupidity, one of the dogmas of our age. The individual destiny of each human being – determined by the same forces that control the events of this world – establishes the condition of the conscious Ego, which can submit to this dogma, or get rid of it to get out of life with its head held high.