Meredith B. Mitchell
August - November 2002

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            I started thinking about the nature of the ego many years ago. Freud's popular division of the personality into ego, id, and superego seemed superficial, pat, and simplistic. His theories and the Freudian approach to psychotherapy temporarily turned me off to psychology altogether. My interest was rekindled when I was introduced to the writings of C.G. Jung and his concepts of the collective unconscious, archetypes, the Self (wholeness), and his notion of "sub-personalities." Jung defined the ego simply as the focal point of consciousness, which seemed to make sense for a long time; at this moment of my life, his definition has almost no meaning at all for me. In general, Jung's ideas aroused a sense of recognition in me, in that his concepts of the psyche seemed to express what I was experiencing in and around myself, but I have grown confused by his concept of ego.

            A few years after I had begun reading Jung, I developed an image about the structure of the personality that rested on my strong connection to and love of music. I saw the orchestra as a metaphor for that structure, with the conductor as the ego, the individual musicians as the many complexes (or "sub-personalities"), the performing orchestra in its entirety -- along with its music -- as the Self, and the composer as God.

            In the mid to late 1980s, my efforts to grasp the evanescent concept of the ego became increasingly challenging to me. While I was making a serious effort to understand what was meant by ego, a different image came to me: the ego as a solenoid. (A solenoid is a coil of wire wound many times around a hollow cylindrical core within which a bar of iron moves back and forth in response to an electrical current flowing through the wire coil. It is the mechanism most commonly used to electrically operate a deadbolt.) As a metaphor of the ego, the solenoid seemed to offer the promise of a working image of this vague concept. Ego as solenoid has stuck with me and irked me all these years, because there seems to be a real value in the concept, but at the same time, the more I have thought about it, the more questions have arisen to rankle and puzzle me.

            My first effort at explaining the metaphor -- the essay entitled "Ego as Solenoid" - is presented on the next few pages. Thoughts that have arisen more recently on this subject follow thereafter.


            Carl Jung defines the ego as the center or focal point of consciousness, analogous to the fovea in the retina. For Freud, the ego is one of the three parts of the personality, the other two being the id (instincts) and superego (collective overseer); for him the ego is concerned with reality testing.

            It seems to be very difficult to talk about "the" ego without considering "it" a kind of object or thing. Common phrases attest to that, such as, "He has a big ego" or "One needs to build up ego strength." While everyone who talks about ego agrees that "it" has a function, "it" also appears to have an implicit structure for most people who write or talk about "it."

            I would like to propose another image of ego and its function, utilizing a combination of Jung's concept of archetypes and an electrical device, the solenoid. Archetypes refer to energy centers in the psyche that give rise to images. According to this idea, we all develop images for everything we experience; through the images we are, to a limited extent, able to apprehend what our perceptions represent. I think of archetypes as organs of the psyche, analogous to the organs of the body. Every relatively normal human is born with a distinct set of bodily organs, each of which has a unique function: the heart pumps blood, the lungs transfer oxygen to the blood and expel waste gases from it, the kidneys remove excess liquids and extraneous chemicals, and so on. Each of the archetypes also has a unique function. The primary difference between the two types of organs is that we can touch and see bodily organs, whereas archetypes must be inferred from behavior and from imagery, dreams, and fantasies that we are able to portray or describe. We can only directly perceive behaviors and images that infer and represent archetypes; we cannot directly perceive archetypes. We sense their functions through our projections and intuition. Once they are understood, some people can experience archetypes intuitively with as much clarity as they can sense bodily organs.

            The concept of archetype is rather abstruse. When we speak of the "mother archetype," that refers to the energy behind the formation of images of mother. The archetype is only inferred by the images that represent it. Since archetype is a term for an inborn tendency to apprehend experiences in our lives, it in itself is unknowable and not completely definable. Archetype is always an "as if" concept based on our experiences of images. We can strive to define characteristics of a particular archetype, but we cannot know an archetype completely because consciousness depends on imagery to understand and grasp concepts. Therefore, archetype is to be understood as having an innate activating energy that gives rise to particular images. [This paragraph was added during final editing and was not part of the original essay.]

A few of the most common archetypes are mother, father, child, wise old man, wise old woman, hero, witch, ogre, dog, cat, frog, dragon, tree, flowers, gas, water, ocean, river, iron, silver, gold, diamond, and stone. We can be identified by an archetype or we can become affected with one. To be identified with one means to be driven by its energy. To be affected by an archetype suggests that one is identified with another archetype. For example, one can be identified with the inner Child and be affected by the inner Critic (negative aspect of the father) who attacks with a put-down statement such as, "You made a terrible mistake; that shows how stupid you are!" The victimized Child's responses are likely to be guilt and either withdrawal or attack.

            Many years ago, I had a profound inner visionary kind of experience that led me to the hypothetical conclusion that at all times we (what has been called our egos) are identified with one archetype or another. At the time the visualization occurred, I was feeling very down - a combination of dark sadness and depression. In my meditation, I found myself utterly alone and prostrate on a featureless planet on which I was the sole occupant. I felt weighed down by the pain of existence (weltschmerz?), awe at the sight of the universe around me, and a profoundly deep sadness. I was experiencing all these feelings, when suddenly, I was no longer ON the planet; rather, I was out in space looking down at myself, and I was feeling deep compassion for the me that was prostrate on the planet. From that vantage point, the planet looked like a huge ball, and, while I could empathize with the distantly tiny me on the planet, the observer me was not at all depressed. That me felt only love, concern, and sympathy for the prostrate me. After a few moments, I suddenly experienced myself to be farther out in space overlooking the entire scene: the me on the planet and the me looking down at that me. In this third position, I had no feelings other than an intense interest in what I was observing. What a dramatic sight!

            After that, Intervals became shorter and shorter as the number of "me's" looking down at all the other "me's" multiplied until my head spun, each one situated further and further out in space looking down on all the "me's" below my highest vantage point. At some point --in self-protection, no doubt - I withdrew from the meditation quite shaken. What did it mean?

            Eastern religions speak of the inner "witness" that oversees whatever we experience or do, but in my vision there were witnesses witnessing witnesses to the nth degree! It occurred to me shortly after that experience that whatever I call 'I' is not stable or not always the same, and the ego - that which I call 'myself' -- can switch identities at different rates of speed and at different times. "So," 'I' asked 'myself', "What determines the identity at any particular time?" and "What initiates the changes that occur?" (The discussion concerns normal behavior, not Multiple Personality or Dissociative Identity Disorder, where individual parts of the personality - rather than each representing a unique archetype -- essentially move in to take over the consciousness of the personality.)

            Perhaps it is because I studied electrical engineering (B.S., Caltech, 1960) that my imagination came up with the image of a solenoid, which seems to represent the ego most clearly for me. A solenoid is made up of a coil of wire wound many times around a hollow cylindrical core in which a bar of iron is placed. It is most commonly used as an electrically operated dead bolt. When direct electric current (as from a battery) is sent through the wire coil in one direction, the bar moves rapidly through the core one way, and when the electric current is sent through the wire in the reverse direction, the bar leaps through the core in the opposite direction. Thus by throwing a switch one way or another, a door, for example, can be latched or unlatched.

            Now, imagine a solenoid-like psychological device with an infinite number of different "wires" coiled around a single open core. On one side of the cylindrical core is what affects us, and on the other side is the mind/personality that is affected and responds. There is nothing within the core, and the "wires" become "activated," so that information flows from inside out and from outside in.

            This device offers an image of a part of the structure of the personality in which all experience comes through the core in an inward direction and all behavior goes through the core outwardly. In other words, everything we do passes in one direction through the solenoid, and everything we perceive passes in the other direction. In a way, we might say that the penetrating, performing, outgoing, yang aspect of the personality functions in one direction and the receptive, containing, in-taking, yin aspect functions in the other direction. For me, ego is defined by what happens within the core of the solenoid, rather than the solenoid itself; that is, ego is function, not structure. So the solenoid is an image of that which generates ego function, but it is not the ego itself. (I acknowledge the paradoxical title of this essay.)

            The main idea is that each "wire" of the solenoid receives its energy from a unique archetype. The "wires" determine the nature, quality and quantity of what passes through the core - in either direction. As a simplified example, consider a scenario in which someone within earshot says, "I'm thirsty," or you alone, within yourself experience thirst, as if the body were saying, "I'm thirsty." The most prominent archetypes of the personality are, in my experience, mother, father, and child, in their positive and negative aspects. What, then, does the listener do? If it is the Child archetype that is activating the solenoid at the time, the thought or response might be, "I'm thirsty too" or "Me too; won't someone get us some water?" or "What do you want me to do about it?" or "Don't hate me if I don't get you some water" or "Get it yourself!" If the Critic (negative father) is concurrently activated, it might deliver the message, "You should be a good person and get some water for X!" or "If you ignore X and X's thirst, you are BAD" or some such comment that instills guilt in the child. The positive Father might be encouraging and have a constructive suggestion, such as, "It's easy to satisfy your thirst; you can do it! Just go to the cupboard, get a glass, and pour water from the sink spigot into it." The positive Mother is likely to say something like, "Oh, you dear person. I'll get you some water; just a moment!"

            The archetype can serve not only as the source of energy to the solenoid, but it has other functions as well. As we mature from infancy, we are supplied with - and sometimes creatively develop - images to represent the archetypes. It is through the images that the archetypal energies flow. An archetype can be represented by different images, and an image can sometimes represent more than one archetype. For example, the witch can represent the destructive negative Earth Mother, such as in the stories "Hansel and Gretel" and "The Two Brothers," and she finds her images in such goddesses as the Indian Ragda and Kali, a black hole, a whirlpool, a dragon, and many others. The witch can also represent Mother Nature, as in the stories "Rapunzel," in which the sorceress raises and nurtures the girl into maturity, and "The Beautiful Vasilisa," with the Russian witch, Baba Yaga, who can be as rewarding and helpful as she can be destructive, depending upon how she is treated.

            The point I am making here is that although an archetype may give rise to different images and a single image may represent different archetypes in different contexts, the energy behind any particular archetype is what activates the psychological solenoid to give rise to an image that gives meaning to the archetypal energy. I have often wondered if perhaps the archetypal energy arouses and Image-Maker part of us that synthesizes the image, and in that way brought meaning to consciousness of the otherwise unknowable archetype. Life offers many sources of an image that can come to represent an archetype: an experience, a pattern of experiences, or an image from a fairy tale, movie, novel, or comic book. In our daily activities, at any particular moment, it seems that a particular archetypal energy (or combination of energies) is activated and gives rise to an image (e.g., the positive, caring mother or father and the world the image we have of it), which determines how we function and behave. That can happen either consciously or unconsciously, i.e., with an activated, observing Witness or without it, respectively.


            The concept feels right, but my thinking function gets bogged down in trying to verbalize all aspects of what I intuit. Archetypes that need special consideration are the Image-maker/creator, the Interpreter, and the Witness. Also, inner activities can act in a Yang way that is treated by one's own Yin principle. For example, the Image-maker creates an image to represent something and presents it to another part of us; a reproof by the inner Critic attacks the inner Child; or the Witch observes the Child in a painful situation and somehow works with the Interpreter and Image-maker to create an image of pain that continues indefinitely unless the Child does her bidding. In my view, the Witch is responsible for predictions about the future, such as "You'll never be successful" or "He won't forgive you" or "If you climb the ladder, you'll surely fall down and break your neck." And it is the Child who often receives her predictions and responds with fear and anger.

            The Witness simply observes all that happens, without feeling or judgment. The Interpreter analyzes and explains meaning to another, receiving part or parts of us - be it the Witness, the Hero, the Parent, or whatever. For example, if the Witch is frightening the Child, the Interpreter might explain to the rest of the personality, "The witch is at it again, and the child is believing her." In response, the positive aspects of the Parents might join forces to comfort and reassure the inner Child. While we might be conscious of this inner drama, it can also proceed quite automatically. But when we reflect on what's happening within our minds, such that we can relate the process to ourselves or to someone else, a part of us focuses on those actions, and that part is what we have called ego. But the question that arises very loudly is this: is ego any different from whatever archetype is activated or controlling the personality at any particular moment?

            To explain my imagery of the multiple "me's," I think the one on the planet represents a suffering soul, the observer with feelings may be a parental archetype, and the remaining observers are all Witnesses, expressing the idea that the Witness can witness itself witnessing to infinity - a difficult concept, but I see no other explanation.


            My wife read the paper and said she had many questions, beginning with, "What is the function of the ego." I heard her question as a real challenge to my thinking function, and I was stumped. The question raised another within me: "What the heck is ego in the first place?" Jung says it's the center of consciousness. That sounds simple, but to me that definition becomes more and more vague and elusive the longer I think about it. What is consciousness? (I am speaking here not of being awake, but rather of being aware.)

            Regarding Consciousness

            If I am correct that one or another of the archetypes determines perception and behavior all the time, then aware-consciousness would have something to do with being aware of which archetype predominates at any moment, how it functions, how it is related to other archetypes, and how and when switching occurs. Consequently, it would appear that aware-consciousness has directly to do with the Witness, which is the personality complex that notes, observes, and recognizes without judgment or interpretation.

            Then, there is the consciousness of being awake but not aware. In this category, there are at least two subcategories: sane-consciousness and psychotic-consciousness. It seems most likely that in the former condition, archetypes occupy the personality somewhat automatically as a consequence of habit, learning, or conditioning. In psychosis, being awake means living with unconventional perceptions, ideas, and thoughts that are at odds with consensual ones; such experiences imply a far-out, idiosyncratic function of the inner Image-maker and perhaps one or more other archetypes that result in relatively odd behaviors that reflect distortions (from the norm) of thought and perception.

            Whatever the category of consciousness, conscious people refer to themselves as "I" or "me." Such self-referral implies what has come to be called ego, which Freud called ich - the German word that literally means "I", not ego. But what is "I"? Very briefly, it seems that "I" can refer to whatever archetype happens to be operating at the time that that pronoun is used. It is the solenoid "wire" (or "wires") connected to the psychic "battery" at the moment. In the case of aware-consciousness, it can be both the Witness and another archetype, such as revealed in the sentence, "I know what I'm doing." That is, the Witness may be declaring that it knows what is going on, and the functional archetype - for example, the Father - interacts with the Witness, the Image-maker, the Interpreter, and others (such as whatever in us accesses memory) to give rise to an action based on those internal interactions. It seems to me that even a simple comment arises out of a highly complex system of operations that I enjoy visualizing as an inner drama. With awake-consciousness, a person does not -- and probably cannot --access the inner drama.


            Earlier, it was mentioned that the Witness plus another archetype might be operating at the same time. Actually, in the above discussion of aware consciousness, it was intended to convey that the two were not functioning concurrently, but in an alternating fashion. But what happens when two or more archetypes activate the solenoid simultaneously? That is called contamination, a concept that was not discussed in the original essay, "Ego as Solenoid." When archetypes operate in this way, they are not distinguishable and therefore "contaminate" each other. Again, this differs from aware-consciousness where the inner drama can be accessed through awareness of several archetypes that may be activated in rapid succession - a switching capacity not available to awake-consciousness.

            I believe it is easiest to understand contamination between a shadow element and another archetype. The Shadow is that within us which has not risen to awareness and is rejected by whatever is in consciousness. In other words, all parts of us that are able to become conscious have rejected what lies in the shadow of our personality, and therefore have kept what lies in the shadow from becoming conscious. If the Shadow is rejected because it is considered evil, and if it is contaminated with, say, the child archetype, our conscious general attitude toward children will include one or more of the following: we will despise, feel angry at, be disgusted by, and reject them. For "child" and "children," one can substitute "men," "women," "mothers" (which might include caretakers in general), "fathers" (or any authority), "dogs," "cats," and so on.

            Now, when I think about shadow contamination, it seems more complex. Dark shadow reactions must originate in the Critic, since Shadow is vehemently believed (and felt) to be morally "wrong" and "bad," a judgment associated with the negative Father complex or Critic. But the Critic is a logos function, and feelings are carried by the feminine, if I understand Jung and my experiences. Since guilt - or the projection of guilt -- is associated with behavior considered shadowy, then the feelings of repulsion toward those on whom the shadow is projected must lie in the inner feminine child. Any guilt-driven or repulsion-driven behavior associated with the projection would come from the inner masculine child. This discussion seems to lead to the conclusion that all shadow reactions involve the Critic and the Child, and as long as there are shadow elements to project, these archetypes are involved. Consequently, in such comments as, "I hate people who ------! They should be shot," or "Ooooh, people who ------ make me so angry!" (or similar statements referring to a particular individual), it appears that it is the inner Child to whom the "I" and "me" refer.


            In conclusion, a more appropriate title for my original paper might have been "Personality as Solenoid." The concept "ego" now seems meaningless to me, and I would like to rid psychology of the term altogether, since it does not clearly refer to any stable or definable part of the personality. My intuition tells me that we need a different language that takes into account the variable meaning of what we refer to as 'ourselves.'

            Raja Yoga comes to mind. One practicing that form of yoga begins by meditating on separating from every part of the body, e.g., "I am not my left little toe," "I am not my lungs," "I am not my brain," "I am not my skin," etc. Once one has separated from every part of the body, one meditates on separating from feelings, attachments, needs, and so on, such as, "I am not my hunger," "I am not my fear of flying," "I am not my anger at my son," "I am not my thoughts about the meaning of life," etc. These meditations go on for years. After one separates from all that is contained within us, what remains? Spirit? Soul?

            That is a big question.

            What "I am" is for each of us to discover for ourselves.

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