In early psychology, Freud famously labeled parts of the mind as: id, ego and superego. Freud was so influential that these terms have become part of our everyday vocabulary, particularly the term, ego. For Freud the ego was the mediator between the id and superego, between our biological drives and our sense of social appropriateness. Conflicts between our instinctual drives and what we deem appropriate in our relational context are at the heart of a psychoanalytic explanation of much mental illness or distress. In our current culture the solution to this focuses on eliminating the prohibitions to the satisfaction of the id (our impulsive desires). Traditional spiritual practice recommends the opposite cure in eliminating the demands of the id. So clients could be helped by rationally disputing the overly restrictive messages of the superego and thereby allowing them to be free to ‘be themselves’ or conversely, clients are helped by rationally disputing the possibly self-destructive demands of the id. I’d argue with many practitioners of contemplative prayer that we need a third way.
We’ve learned over the years of psychological consideration and research that defensive processes in the human mind tend to coalesce into patterns that repeat and it is these rigid habits of thinking, feeling and behaving that ultimately bring distress. We shape our interpretations of current events based on our biases begun in early life experiences which may no longer be relevant. Our hope of change lies in modifying these defensive patterns in our minds rather than in the daunting (impossible?) task of eliminating id or superego demands. Contemplative prayer practices, often based in ancient spiritual guides, turn out to be excellent treatment options to bring about these changes. When we sit in meditation much that we encounter within our unquiet minds is the demands of id and superego. We come face-to-face with our tendency to identity ourselves with our egoic consciousness, that is, with the surface layers we created (the metaphor of a mask is apt here) to shield us from our rigid unconscious ways of warding off deep fears and anxieties connected to our instinctive desires (id) and how to manage them. We don’t have to choose to act on these impulses or to repress them, but instead in the contemplative practice we have opportunity to simply notice them and turn our attention back to the present moment and the love that is available here and now. This practice strengthens new neural pathways that are less anxiety-driven. More to come on this process in coming weeks.
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