As the gatekeeper of consciousness, the ego has a profound effect upon the expression and health of the larger personality. Like the iris, which regulates the amount of light entering the eye, the ego regulates the sensory data that reaches the “retina” of your inner mind. For example, if you believe that a certain drug (e.g., Prozac) will elevate your mood, you are more likely to experience an elevated mood when you take it. In pharmaceutical research this is called the “placebo effect.” Our beliefs influence our perceptions. The ego also regulates the “light” that passes from the soul to the outer world of relationships. If it is your deeper calling to be a high school teacher, but your chosen profession is that of a real estate agent, the light of your inner nature is occluded by your ego identity, that of a real estate agent. On the other hand, if your calling is real estate, and you do sell real estate, people are likely to perceive the congruence between who you are and what you do. Your true nature shines forth more freely and brightly.
It is important to understand the relationship of consciousness to the development of the ego. A newborn infant has no ego and, though responsive to sensory stimulation, is without consciousness and a sense of identity. As the child grows and interacts with the outer world, the ego begins to take form and to differentiate itself from the rest of the psyche. The separation of the ego from the unconscious psyche represents the psychological birth of the individual and the dawn of consciousness. Further development and strengthening of the ego involves a taming of the instincts and passions, and the gradual establishment of a resilient, stable identity.
It is interesting to note that the process of ego development is reflected in the creation myths of various cultures. For example, most creation myths depict the world as being formed from a featureless and formless substrate, a “primordial oneness” or “nothingness.” These images are apt representations of the undifferentiated psyche of the newborn infant. The psyche of the newborn is raw potential–without development, definition, or organization. A second theme in creation myths is the separation of land from water and/or the earth from the sky. These events correlate with the development of the ego and its separation from the unconscious. Where there was one, there are now two; where there was just the unconscious, there is now consciousness and the unconscious. Differentiation of the psyche has begun. A third theme found in many creation myths involves a clarification of the hierarchy between animals, people, and the creator/deity. Typically, humankind is placed below the creator(s) but above the animals and plants. From a psychological perspective, this implies that men and women are to be the masters of their instincts and emotions (the animals), but servants of the creator and the Self. Taken literally, creation myths are interesting but irrational stories. Looked at symbolically, they offer fascinating clues regarding the deeper nature, challenges, and path of the developing psyche.
One of the chief symbols of consciousness is light, e.g., sunlight, firelight, lamplight (but not a Bud Light). A man dreams: “I am driving down a mountain road at night. It is very dark and I am worried my headlights will go out. If they go out on this winding road I will surely crash.” In the dream the mountain is a symbol of a higher, more spiritual perspective. The dreamer’s fear that his headlights might go out symbolizes his concern that a newfound insight/consciousness will fade away. Since the car is an extension of his ego, the dreamer’s apprehensions probably reflect his resistance to the integration of a new and potentially transforming level of consciousness. A similar theme is raised in dreams where the dreamer is trying to turn off a light, or where he/she is trying to go to sleep. Symbolically, the dreamer wants to be unconscious of something. For example, a young boy who was resisting a necessary change in his life had the following dream. “I dreamt I fell asleep and started to dream. In the dream I turned off my lights and went to bed. I fell asleep and entered another dream. In that dream I turned off the lights and went to bed. I entered another dream. In that dream I turned off the lights and went to bed….” To our occasional frustration but ultimate benefit, the deeper psyche can be just as stubborn in its pursuit of consciousness as the ego is in its avoidance.
Eyes are another important symbol of consciousness. The “third eye,” for example, is the eye of insight and knowledge. To dream of being blind can symbolize a lack of conscious awareness in some area of your life. Dreams of buying new glasses, or of visiting an optometrist or ophthalmologist frequently symbolize the need or opportunity for expanding your consciousness.
Like an eye, windows regulate our view of the world and therefore describe our level of consciousness. If you dream you are in a house with small, darkened, or blurry windows, the psyche may be saying that your consciousness is constricted or impaired in some way. A man dreams: “I crashed my car and shattered the windshield.” Not only is his psyche warning him of the potential for a “crash,” it is also suggesting that the lens (windshield) through which he views the world is inadequate to his needs.
To dream of being bitten by a snake is an invitation to greater consciousness. Snakes are symbols of the psyche and of the process of transformation. Such dreams often occur when you are being initiated, voluntarily or involuntarily, to an important but unfamiliar aspect of life. If you have dreamed of being bitten by a snake, think back to what was going on in your life at that time. Chances are it was a time of significant transition or initiation, such as leaving home for the first time, beginning your first job, getting married, or becoming a parent.
To achieve a higher level of consciousness we must sometimes break the law–not the formal laws of society, but the “laws” of our ego and established identity. We each have a set of laws by which we live. They are our beliefs about the nature of the world, God, the psyche, and self. They are our beliefs about who we are and who we are not, what we can become or cannot become, what is possible and impossible, what is important and unimportant, what is right and what is wrong. Growth in consciousness often involves going beyond our established worldview to discover the laws of the deeper Self. Adam and Eve broke the law by eating the apple (of consciousness). From a psychological standpoint, they left the blissful realm of unconscious oneness, and began the arduous journey of conscious development, or individuation. Similarly, Prometheus stole fire (a symbol of consciousness) from the gods and gave it to humankind. Zeus punished him by chaining him to a cliff where, for all eternity, eagles would feed at his wounds. These stories imply that consciousness comes at a price. Gone is the childlike carefreeness of unconscious being. With consciousness comes choice, will, responsibility, and a moral component to life. And yet, the task of consciousness seems to be our destiny. After all, it was God who placed the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and Zeus could have kept a tighter leash on Prometheus. Each of us is a keeper of the fire, and the level of consciousness that we can bring to our own life and relationships will be our most valuable gift to the world.