What Powers the Human Psyche?

Nothing happens in this world without some kind of energy to power it, to make it manifest. That being the case, what powers the human psyche where so much of what is important in this world occurs? The most obvious candidates are the powerful urges of urges of emotion and the more precise logical functions of reason. Most often, opinion divides between these two options while a minority (trying to be moderate and sophisticated) take the middle ground and say that both reason and emotion power the psyche in a sort of psychic balancing act. This, they claim, yields the proverbial well-balanced person.

Cross-section of an electronic and mechanized brain.

Does reason or emotion rule the mental roost? Or is there another factor? (Image: public domain.)

So dominant is the emotional view that it has become a platitude to say that love makes the world go round, that “God is Love,” and that everyone should live according to the guiding principles of that immensely popular feeling. Others in the feeling camp are more general in their position and maintain that all the emotions (and not just Eros) are the dynamo in a tempestuous psyche. Either way, to view emotions as the source of power puts the unconscious mind firmly in charge.

Those in the reason and logic camp dismiss emotions as irrational and undisciplined and claim that the reasoning ego rules – or should rule – the psychic roost. Many of these people even maintain, in the face of incredible amounts of contrary evidence, that will is a function of consciousness. This would be our now legendary “willpower.” (Apply that to your diet and exercise regime and see how far you get!) In this scenario, consciousness is, albeit somewhat less firmly, in charge, and powers the psychic realm.

Emotions are indeed powerful, but on their own, they are an undesirable choice to run the show. Hate is a mighty emotion and fear is perhaps even more powerful. Shall we live our lives, at least in part, according to the dictates of hatred and fear? The obvious undesirability of this explains the popularity of the love creed. Yet how realistic is it to believe we can select out just one emotion and live by it while ignoring all the others? Human experience suggests the idea is impossible. Even if we could manage to isolate – and live only by – love, what about the jealousy that so often accompanies that potent emotion. What of the crime of passion? The emotionalists retreat to another fortress. They solve these problems by recommending love completely free of demands, love without a shred of possessiveness. Wonderful, but you would have to be a saint!

Reason is even more quickly dismissed as a suitable ruler and powerhouse of the psyche. The conscious mind can deal only with a handful of variables at any one time. This is fine for systematically puzzling out intellectual and theoretical problems, but hopelessly inadequate for coping with the real-time complexities of life.

Arguing that something is an undesirable power source is not the same as proving that it is not the power source. Yet the two options outlined above have one very clear problem: considering the resources every human being possesses, they are both one-sided. Does this mean the middle-of-the-roaders, the proponents of the psychic balancing act, have it right? In a word: No. The act of balancing emotion and reason in this scenario would take place in the conscious mind, and the limitations of consciousness would then apply.

Ideally, what we are looking for is something that combines all of the psyche’s resources in one integrated package, yet can act swiftly and efficiently to deal with the complicated contingencies of life. Does such a thing exist? Humans are a highly evolved species and yes, we do possess such a powerful faculty. In Jungian psychology, the concept is called the self. Ironically, attempts to live by the emotions or reason alone interfere with the workings of the far more powerful, but considerably less visible, self.

The true power source of the psyche is indeed the self, which is comprised of a unique set of emotionally important ideas lodged in the unconscious mind. Authentic will (as opposed to imaginary “willpower”) arises from the self’s emotionally important ideas and therefore automatically embodies both sides of the head vs. heart dispute outlined above. Thus, will is the unifying force in the psyche. If we stand out of our own way, will is able to steer a course between emotion on the one hand and reason on the other. Will is our own personal wisdom in action.

Unfortunately, will has acquired a bad name in recent decades. Some writers have described it as a monster blaming it for many of the world’s greatest atrocities and crimes. A closer inspection reveals that, in many cases, the so-called “wilful monster” is really hatred, anger, and fear run amok in people whose excess of instinctual emotion has cut them off from the wisdom of the self. In other cases, the monster is reason carried to extremes by those, also self-alienated, who are great believers in rigid ideology and strutting false personas.

In reality, embracing your authentic self and its attendant will has only one effect: it makes you whole.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

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