The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Psychoanalytic Assumption

There is a certain assumption I'm going to label as the Psychoanalytic Assumption, not because it is only found in psychoanalysis, but because it is inherent in the psychoanalytical model of the psyche. The Psychoanalytic Assumption is the assumption that humans in their natural state are possessed with irrational neuroses, urges, presuppositions and prejudices, totally irrational and totally out of control of the individual. Consciousness, in this assumption, is a glimmer of sunlight on the surface of a very deep lake, most of which is too deep to receive much sunlight, and depths are stirred by consciousness roughly as much as the sunlight stirs the water.

In this assumption, addictions and other obsessive or compulsive behaviors are manifestations of unconscious urges that wrest control away from the rational mind. But more than this, our personalities are a combination of our conscious selves and our unconscious selves, and our conscious selves are not fully in control of our behaviors.

When Sigmund Freud observed that human beings were in this situation, he was met with great resistance by the general public. The idea was terribly offensive to most of the people who lived a century ago, and I would imagine it is probably rejected by the majority of people today. Subconscious urges are very good at mimicking conscious behaviors, going so far as to generate rationalizations in the mind to justify their existence. Ask someone why they are smoking a cigarette, and likely they will give you endless verbiage in support of their behavior, none of which amounts to a rational justification.

Freud's optimism asserted itself in the assumption that psychoanalysis could get at the real justification for behaviors through a systematic analysis of subconscious processes. This is not dissimilar to the process of meditation, where the body is stilled, the breath is deepened and slowed, and the practitioner is led to focus on the breath, or on a particular image or word of feeling. It is understood that the mind will flood with chatter and noise before stilling, and the person meditating is advised to let these thoughts and feelings emerge and pass without fighting them, with the person, upon noticing the intrusion, leading the focus back to the original focus as soon as possible.

Freud describes the interplay between the id (it in Latin) which is a bundle of urges, the ego (I in Latin) which constantly asserts a crude selfhood, and the superego (above myself in Latin) which seeks to correct the ego with shame and praise. Basically, the id cries out "I want it!", the ego says "Not now," and the superego says "Good for you for saying no."

It really doesn't matter if my reader subscribes fully to this model (I certainly don't). But I bring these terms up to show that the voice in each of us that tells us that we are it is not the only portion of the psyche. So at one time a person can say "I want a cigarette," and then later say "I don't want to smoke anymore," and then immediately afterwards reflect "I am being good. I am taking care of my health by quitting smoking," possibly without realizing that the three I's might be coming from different sources.

Gurdjieff, through Ouspensky, talks about different centers of consciousness. The moving (or physical) center governs motor functions, involuntary motions like peristalsis, blood flow, and involuntary breath, and sexual functions. The feeling center (or false emotional center) governs basic emotions. The thinking center (or false intellectual center) is that which is capable of logic and reasoning (although it requires rigor to function properly and is easily capable of fallacies). Roughly speaking, the moving center correlates with the id, the thinking center correlates with the ego, and the feeling center correlates with the superego.

Ouspensky's model allows for a true emotional center and a true intellectual center, but posits that the average human being has no access to either, and has to cultivate them through directed awareness. While Freud's model requires psychoanalysis and a psychoanalyst to navigate, Ouspensky's model requires focused meditation and directed attention, with a guide directing the work. In both cases, consciousness transcends the prima facie state of being and brings the self into alignment with the will. The Hermetic tradition seeks as its intermediate goal the knowledge and conversation with one's Holy Guardian Angel, who reveals the True Will to the self. The work that brings the self into that knowledge and conversation is called the Great Work.

I bring up the Psychoanalytic Assumption because one possible negation of it seems to be extremely prevalent in the culture today, and I find it worrisome. This negation asserts that its adherent is fully conscious right now and at all times, and is governed by reason and the will, and in such a state is incapable of generating irrational thoughts or behaviors. One version of this negation asserts that the adherent's education has exalted them to this state, and another version asserts that the adherent is in this state by virtue of some credo or affirmation.

The adherents of this negation can come from many different places, but are usually moved by ideology. Some of the more naïve followers of the New Atheists (especially among those influenced by Dawkins, Hitchens, et. al) adhere to this negation merely by virtue of having rejected religion. There is a category of born-again Christian who believes that, upon being saved, Christ bestows perfect consciousness on the Christian forever and shields against egregious error. Much of the moral failures seen among some within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community come from an assumption that their rigid religious practices bestow higher consciousness on them while they adhere to such practices. Marxism is particularly prone to this sort of triumphalism, as are other various political movements that have an oppressive dualistic model (divide the world into oppressors and victims, identify with the victims, and castigate the oppressors in the specific model). The assumption in this case is that being a victim (or merely identifying with the victims) starts the dialectical process that, led to its fruition, resolves any lack of consciousness on the part of the adherent. This is not to say that people with such beliefs generally embrace this negation, but I am providing examples of how this particular negation of the Psychoanalytic Assumption asserts itself through very different filters.

It seems to me that the Psychoanalytic Assumption is more useful than this particular negation. In the catalog of symbols that Freemasonry uses for its moral philosophy, the symbols of the Rough Ashlar and the Perfect Ashlar are instructive here. An ashlar is a squared block of building stone. Masonic ritual informs us:
The Rough Ashlar is a stone as taken from the quarry, in its rude and natural state. The Perfect Ashlar is a stone made ready by the hands of the workmen.... By the Rough Ashlar, we are reminded of our rude and imperfect state by nature; by the Perfect Ashlar, of that state of perfection at which we hope to arrive, by a virtuous education, our own endeavors, and the blessing of God.
As long as we assume we are a rough ashlar that can be improved, we will continue to work on our imperfections. The moment we assume we are a perfect ashlar, we put the mallet and chisel down and we are stuck with whatever imperfections remain. I regard the assumption that one is a perfect ashlar as a form of spiritual death, either because one has attained that perfection that comes with immortality on the other side of death, or because one has abandoned the Great Work of visiting the interior regions of the psyche, healing long-embedded wounds, taming the urges that circumvent our conscious agency, and repairing the cracks and fissures one finds within.


  1. Dear Brother,

    You are spot on! Life is full of mysteries, and there is no realization that eliminates them. When we consider the testimonies and eye-witness accounts of the most awakened, enlightened, or illuminated people in history, it is clear that there is much in life that remained mysterious even to them. For example, speaking as a Christian, I find it remarkable that Jesus said more than once that there were things even he didn't know, but were known only to the Father.

    The mysteries of life are both external and internal. The fact that our dreams occur largely beyond our conscious control, and then have to interpret them in order to gather meaning from it, reveals that we are mysteries unto ourselves. And this is only one among the many pieces of evidence, to which you have alluded, for the limitations of waking consciousness.

    One of the things that complicates these matters is how some saints and sages speak of realizing perfection. It's too easy to misconstrue their meaning with a shallow understanding of what 'perfection' means. Most often, it has been my experience that careful examination of such teachings suggests that they are speaking of a kind of perfection that is non-dualistic. In other words, it is a perfection that includes the imperfect, and thus we may think of the ongoing process of transformation itself as perfect in ways we can only begin to grasp.

    If this is so, then perhaps the illusory sense of perfection you speak of, and the accompanying abandonment of the Great Work, is just another alchemical phase that some of us must pass through.


  2. Very interesting post. I do want to disagree with one notion that was not central to your analysis (as I interpret it). I take issue with your equation of the ego with the feeling center, and the super-ego with the thinking center. In Freud's set up, the ego was the seat of reason and rational thought(the reality principle and ego functions) while also a source of self deception at times (the ego's defense mechanisms distort reality), while the super-ego was non-rational but moral (the seat of the ego ideal and the conscience).

    On your main notion, I like that you have gone deeper than simply raising the general notion of false consciousness and the value of remembering that our sight is impeded by it. I'd argue that the value of the assumption (insight?) that humans see imperfectly can be entirely lost by either deceiving ourselves into thinking that we have freed ourselves from all illusion, or falling into absolute despair as to the possibility of any further knowledge.