The Ego and the Universe
We began our inquiry into consciousness with the question of what it was like when consciousness first began for us. I meant this to be a metaphysical question. It is a metaphysical fact that we all woke up—so to speak—within a world of conscious experience. Moreover, as was pointed out in the chapter “Consciousness”, that world was one without a clear separation between us and the rest of the universe. The newborn is neither a dualist nor a metaphysician in any sense. Moreover, the psychological story of our lives and our identities, which separates us from the rest of the universe, had not begun yet. Consciousness dawned on us as relatively egoless beings—part of the universe at large. If we examine the history of Western psychology, we find that it has tended to ignore this phase of our lives as it has ignored egoless consciousness at large. The three dominating schools of psychology have been ego oriented (psychoanalytic), cognitive or behavior oriented (behaviorism), or a combination of the latter two schools. None of these schools have focused on consciousness or meditative practices. They have all been thought oriented and/or action oriented. Let us, as an example, examine Freud’s view of the ego as he grapples with the question of what explains our feelings of being part of a greater universe or whole, as is common in the Eastern meditative traditions and also many other spiritual traditions.
Freud cannot, himself, understand what it is like to have the experience of being part of a greater whole, as he struggles with the question of having—as he puts it—an “oceanic feeling” in his 1929 book Civilization and its Discontents (Freud and Strachey 1962, p. 12). Freud acknowledges there that the newborn has a certain experienced connection with the rest of the universe but, for Freud, it simply amounts to an ego subjectively extended to literally everything—a massive, all- encompassing ego. The connection is not about something profound—certainly nothing spiritual in Freud’s mind. Any apparently nonegoic experience as an adult of being part of a greater whole—a larger universe—is, for Freud, the opposite—a remnant of the infant’s all-inclusive egoic state:
Originally the ego includes everything, later it separates off an external world from itself. Our present ego-feeling is, therefore, only a shrunken residue of a much more inclusive— indeed, an all-embracing—feeling which corresponded to a more intimate bond between the ego and the world about it. If we may assume that there are many people in whose mental life this primary ego-feeling has persisted to a greater or less degree, it would exist in them side by side with the narrower and more sharply demarcated ego-feeling of maturity, like a kind of counterpart to it. In that case, the ideational contents appropriate to it would be precisely those of limitlessness and of a bond with the universe—the same ideas with which my friend elucidated the “oceanic” feeling. (Freud and Strachey 1962, p. 15)
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud also speaks of practices of the “worldly wisdom of the East” as involving “sacrificing” one’s life by “killing off the instincts” (Freud and Strachey 1962, p. 26). There is no indication of having understood the classical meditative Eastern traditions. Freud’s idol, Nietzsche, tended to think—as Freud did—that meditative traditions ended up in a negation of the world and a life of passivity (Morrison 1997). Such reactions are easy to understand if we are blind to the formless and live entirely in thought processes in a world of doing rather than being. If we are blind to the formless, then of course Eastern meditative traditions seem pointless, like giving up on a life of doing. But, from an Eastern perspective, the formless or emptiness is often depicted as the key to freedom, or as Nagarjuna put it:
Everything is possible for someone for whom Emptiness is possible. (Nagarjuna 1977)
From an Eastern meditative perspective, the incessantly thinking mind is a conditioned mind that operates under compulsion.
Freud thought of Nietzsche as someone who “had more penetrating knowledge of himself than any man who ever lived or was likely to live” (Jones 1955). Perhaps this was because Nietzsche was, for Freud, someone who pioneered the unconscious, cultural, and biological determinants of human life. Yet, neither of them realized how heavily determined they were with respect to the Western intellectual tradition. They were both fundamentally driven by the Western project of trying to understand ourselves and our place in the world through thought. No room was left for understanding consciousness as the formless.