An Ancient Egyptian Approach for Modern Psychology

Psy­chol­ogy today offers a wide spec­trum of modal­i­ties for guid­ing the sub­con­scious and the instruc­tion of the con­scious. There are many school of psy­chol­ogy which base their the­o­ries on the sole func­tion­ing of the mind. There are also holis­tic or trans-personal prac­ti­tion­ers that say the mind does not act sep­a­rately, but is always in inter­ac­tion with the body and the spirit. What becomes evi­dent is a fun­da­men­tal psy­chol­ogy ver­sus a spir­i­tual psy­chol­ogy. Let’s look at that aspect of psy­chol­ogy, which stud­ies the mind and behav­ior in rela­tion­ship to a par­tic­u­lar body of spir­i­tual knowl­edge, by exam­in­ing a psy­chol­ogy much older than Freud or even Socrates.

In ancient Egypt we find a modal­ity or prac­tice, a way of life rich in this syn­the­sis of body, mind and spirit. Ancient Egypt was a dom­i­nant coun­try and its cul­tural cen­ters were both eccle­si­as­ti­cally and polit­i­cally all-powerful. It’s dynas­tic lega­cies and for­eign ruler ships pro­vided Egypt with a long and instruc­tive his­tory. For the con­text of this paper we will draw from the dynas­tic times of Egypt, ca. 3100–300 B.C.E.

Jon Manchip White describes the basic char­ac­ter of the Egypt­ian peo­ple as serene, indus­tri­ous and dis­ci­plined. He claims that they must have been one of the least neu­rotic civ­i­liza­tions in his­tory. They were secure, sta­ble and sen­si­ble con­cern­ing their abil­i­ties toward life. As White put it, the Egypt­ian “put him­self in tune with the rhythm of the Uni­verse as it had been estab­lished by the gods.”

When an Egypt­ian expe­ri­enced ques­tions of self-doubt and analy­sis, he went to his priest. These were not the usual min­is­ters we find today, who hear con­fes­sions, dole penances and offer prayer. They were mul­ti­fac­eted physi­cians, philoso­phers, archi­tects, astronomers, math­e­mati­cians, arti­sans and dream inter­preters; and they gave coun­sel with a wide base of knowl­edge. By 3,000 B.C.E. their philoso­phies were already firmly estab­lished. The Egyp­tians rec­og­nized a divine order, estab­lished at the same time of cre­ation; this order is man­i­fest in nature, in the nor­malcy of phe­nom­ena; it is man­i­fest in soci­ety as jus­tice; and it is man­i­fest in an individual’s life as truth.

The con­scious­ness of the peo­ple or their intel­li­gence lay in “the way of the heart” and all judg­ment of one­self was weighed against the “feather of truth.” In essence, they knew upon death to the body, that their soul would meet with the great God Osiris, who would observe the bal­ance that the indi­vid­ual had achieved dur­ing his or her life. If he were “true” or had lived a life of “ma’at” or bal­ance, he would enjoy an after­life. The Egypt­ian firmly believed in per­pet­u­at­ing his God-like qual­i­ties for a truly long-lived soul. The Egypt­ian was con­cerned with karma and good deeds. Thus, it was not a threat that pro­pelled the per­son on in the care of their soul, such as pos­si­ble damna­tion, but rather as a desire to do well and right by his Gods and Goddesses

One of the pri­mary sim­i­lar­i­ties between ancient Egypt­ian psy­chol­ogy and its mod­ern coun­ter­part in transper­sonal psy­chol­ogy is that there are no sharp bound­aries between their philoso­phies and their behav­ior. Through the analy­sis of the early dynas­tic peri­ods of Egypt, Frankfort’s (1961) The Intel­lec­tual Adven­ture of Ancient Man stated that, to the Egypt­ian the vis­i­ble and tan­gi­ble phe­nom­ena within his exis­tence was not only super­fi­cial and tem­po­ral, but also blended with the pro­found and eternal.

All chil­dren attended school at the age of four. By ten, they began tech­ni­cal train­ing at what­ever they had shown a propen­sity for. Some became arti­sans, or went into a trade, some became sol­diers, and still oth­ers bear­ing philo­soph­i­cal inquis­i­tive­ness, con­tin­ued their edu­ca­tion in the outer peri­style in prepa­ra­tion to enter the tem­ple. Beside sci­en­tific instruc­tion and gym­nas­tic exer­cises, they were taught ethics, prac­ti­cal phi­los­o­phy and good man­ners. They were also taught the pow­ers of obser­va­tion as well as the recog­ni­tion of val­ues, both mate­ri­ally and morally; and they have had placed on them cer­tain respon­si­bil­i­ties which they had to fulfill.

Pri­mar­ily, they were instructed on the phys­i­cal world, and more specif­i­cally on the phys­i­cal body. The func­tions of the organs and parts of the body were ascribed to dif­fer­ent Gods. The inter­re­la­tion­ship of these names given and their sym­bols pro­vided a direct indi­ca­tion of their vital and cos­mic func­tion. The eye, for exam­ple, was extremely impor­tant sym­bol. The right eye sym­bol­ized the sun, the left the moon. They are the open­ing and clos­ing, day and night. The word for eye “irt” basi­cally means “to make” or “to cre­ate.” Ra, rep­re­sent­ing the right eye, cre­ated the day or made the night pass into day. So the stu­dent was not only to learn the words and sym­bols of the phys­i­cal body, but also their eso­teric counterparts.

Along with the phys­i­cal under­stand­ing of the rela­tion­ship between the body parts and that of a God, there was also taught the mean­ing of sub­stance and mat­ter, form and forms, num­ber, mea­sure and pro­por­tion. The knowl­edge of the value of mea­sure was needed to under­stand the jux­ta­po­si­tion of images; for instance, in wall murals. Schwaller de Lubicz explains num­ber from the Ancient Egyptian’s per­spec­tive. “Num­ber begins with the scis­sion of pri­mor­dial unity. Causal unity, itself into two states, the self and the ego, but it requires the psy­cho­log­i­cal con­scious­ness to real­ize that one counts.” Thus begins the con­scious­ness of the ego.

In the hypostyle, the lessons con­tinue. The ini­ti­ate was taught three lev­els of con­scious­ness: the automa­tion, which is the “moral being” — the phys­i­cal, emo­tional and men­tal; the Per­ma­nent Wit­ness, which is the per­son­al­ity; and the Spir­i­tual Wit­ness, which has the aspect of the incar­nate being or the high­est form of consciousness.

In Schwaller de Lubicz’ words, “There can be no final lib­er­a­tion for any human being with­out attain­ing Unity of Con­scious­ness, in which the Per­ma­nent Wit­ness rec­og­nizes and accepts the guid­ance of the Spir­i­tual Wit­ness.” The stu­dent even­tu­ally under­stands this and thus elim­i­nates his self­ish aims and obsti­nate opinions.

Along this path, the ini­ti­ate must learn to dis­cern the dif­fer­ence between two types of intel­li­gence. There is the ana­lyt­i­cal, which com­pre­hends cere­brally ideas with acquired expe­ri­ence, and then there is gno­sis or “the intel­li­gence of the heart,” which pro­duces aware­ness upon the sub­tle state of being.

Another ele­ment of dis­cern­ment is that between a per­ceived real­ity and the pos­si­bil­ity that the per­cep­tion may be illu­sory. Only by becom­ing a neu­tral observer can this iden­ti­fi­ca­tion become pos­si­ble. The prac­ticed ini­ti­ate, hav­ing expe­ri­enced dif­fer­ent states of con­scious­ness, can even­tu­ally and cor­rectly iden­tify them. By con­scious­ness it is meant that it is the mea­sure of indi­vid­u­al­iza­tion and it comes from the knowl­edge of the ele­ments of the individual’s genesis.

To add to the initiate’s intel­lect and behav­ioral ele­ments of gen­e­sis there were seven accom­plish­ments and seven obsta­cles that helped to develop his psycho-spiritual self. A sense of pres­ence was the first accom­plish­ment of which the indi­vid­ual had to be aware; and more specif­i­cally, the Spir­i­tual pres­ence. The sec­ond was to attain great con­cen­tra­tion, for the will must be a strong part of the per­son­al­ity. The third was seren­ity in achiev­ing this qual­ity where one must become “neu­tral” in one’s dis­crim­i­na­tion, which brings a “trans­parency” or a “qual­ity of let­ting the light pass.” It is the “illu­mi­na­tion within and the radi­ance with­out” (Schwaller de Lubicz, 1981). The fourth is a ges­ture, or rather the knowl­edge of the appro­pri­ate ges­ture in deal­ing with all nature. The cor­rect ges­ture teaches one the rhythm and char­ac­ter of things. The fifth is silence. The first step in achiev­ing silence is immo­bil­ity of thought and no will to action, and immo­bil­ity of the body and no will to emo­tion. Schwaller de Lubicz instructs us, “Silence is the void into which the spirit is drawn.” The sixth accom­plish­ment is thank­ful­ness, which leads to real joy, a vital­iz­ing qual­ity. The sev­enth accom­plish­ment is gen­eros­ity, which means for­get­ting one­self for the well being of another. It is the union of the Spir­i­tual Self and the Uni­ver­sal Self, when these are brought together.

Now for the obsta­cles: The first, per­sonal con­cern is the strug­gle for con­trol between the ego and the higher self. Clar­ity of thought and con­trol of emo­tions will help develop one’s val­ues. A pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with health is another con­cern. The sec­ond obsta­cle is the wrong notion of prov­i­dence or the plan of des­tiny. The mis­take is to try to bring in a God who would pre­vent causes from hav­ing con­se­quences. The third is false pity. It is impor­tant to real­ize the dif­fer­ence between false char­ity and arbi­trary pity from “dis­in­ter­ested sym­pa­thetic altru­ism.” Through the under­stand­ing of this, com­pas­sion is learned.

The fourth obsta­cle is the quest for sanc­tity. This being an extremely dif­fi­cult obsta­cle, fail­ing will at first occur. With these will be expe­ri­enced shame and remorse which will have “the sac­ri­fi­cial value of puri­fy­ing fire.” The fifth obsta­cle is sen­ti­men­tal­ity, which Schwaller de Lubicz describes as a “spu­ri­ous rela­tion­ship by the imag­i­na­tion between Nature and our­selves.” It is unpro­duc­tive because it is the prod­uct of per­sonal motives and not of con­tact with either nat­ural or spir­i­tual realities.

The sixth obsta­cle is sat­is­fac­tion. The Per­sonal Wit­ness must con­trol the Automa­ton up from the lower depths, but the Spir­i­tual Self must raise it fur­ther. This can be done if the Ego’s self-satisfaction is not held down. The sev­enth obsta­cle is rou­tine. If it is allowed, one loses one’s own nature. For one must be fully con­scious of one’s aims and find virtue in the des­tiny of his incarnation.

The iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and assim­i­la­tion of these qual­i­ties, once under­stood, can then be merged. They will enhance the phys­i­cal, stim­u­late the men­tal and emo­tional, and strengthen the spir­i­tual. The Egypt­ian names for these are very impor­tant and a very basic under­stand­ing, as herein given, must suf­fice. The khaibit is the astral or etheric body, and psy­cho­log­i­cally acts as the Shadow. The Ba is the ani­mat­ing spirit that gives the breath of life. It has two aspects. One is the Nat­ural Soul, which sta­bi­lizes in bod­ily form; and the other is the human soul, which is rep­re­sented as a bird with a human head, that comes and goes between heaven and earth.

The Ka also has three aspects. One is the cre­ator of all the oth­ers; then there are the dif­fer­ing Ka’s of nature (min­eral, veg­etable and ani­mal,) and third, the indi­vid­u­al­ized Ka of man, which includes his inher­ited char­ac­ter. The human Ba of an indi­vid­ual soul, together with the Ka as the gen­er­a­tive power, pro­duces an entity. Schwall de Lubicz sum­ma­rized it, “thus the Ka is his agent of con­scious­ness, the Per­ma­nent Wit­ness of the trans­for­ma­tion of his being.” The enlarge­ment of con­scious­ness can mod­ify the char­ac­ter of his per­sonal Ka until the spir­i­tual fac­ul­ties are awak­ened and it makes con­tact with its divine Ka. It was then the aim of all stu­dents to acquire an endur­ing con­scious­ness through a pro­gres­sive com­mu­nion of their phys­i­cal body with their spir­i­tual being. The men­tal and the emo­tional bod­ies were only tran­si­tory and quite often were hin­dered by the body-spirit union; but one could not have one with­out the other so a con­tin­ual bal­ance was needed.

Such were some of the teach­ings pre­sented in ste­lae, ostraca and papyri, brought through the ages by trans­la­tors for the mod­ern stu­dent and teacher. It is with amaze­ment that we can still today read about what the ancient stu­dent had to do to obtain an under­stand­ing of him­self, how they learned to con­quer their obsta­cles and accom­plish a whole and inte­grated pres­ence of self. It is no won­der that the Ancient Egyp­tians pro­duced such a strong and sta­ble soci­ety for so long a period. It was only through the inva­sions of dif­fer­ing polit­i­cal thought that the edu­ca­tional processes shifted. Though those orig­i­nal teach­ings and ter­mi­nolo­gies have changed to even­tu­ally pro­duce what is now mod­ern day psy­chol­ogy, there remains still a human­is­tic approach that mod­ern day behav­ior­ists might find ben­e­fi­cial, should they choose to exam­ine and per­haps embrace.

Within the fol­low­ing lines of an old Egypt­ian med­i­ta­tion we find the sim­plic­ity, exac­ti­tude and beauty of their way of thought and how they lead their lives: “Divine law is my word. The divine word is my law. The path is my act. The knowl­edge is the chief of all things. The wis­dom is the empa­thy with all things. The truth is my condition.”


Brun­ton, Paul  A Search in Secret Egypt, Anchor Press, Tip­tree, Essex, 1965

Erman, Adolf  Life in Ancient Egypt, Dover Pub­li­ca­tions, New York, 1971

Fran­jk­fortm, Henri  Ancient Egypt­ian Reli­gion, Harper and Row, New York, 1961

Schwaller de Lubicz, Isha  Her-Bak, Egypt­ian Ini­ti­ate, Inner Tra­di­tions Inter­na­tional, New York, 1978

Schwaller de Lubicz, Isha  Her-Bak, the Liv­ing Face of Ancient Egypt, Inner Tra­di­tions Inter­na­tional, New York, 1978

Schwaller de Lubicz, Isha  The Open­ing of the Way, A Prac­ti­cal Guide to the Wis­dom of Ancient Egypt, Inner Tra­di­tions Inter­na­tional, New York, 1981

Schwaller de Lubicz, R.  A Sym­bol and the Sym­bolic: Ancient Egypt, Sci­ence and the Evo­lu­tion of Con­scious­ness, Inner Tra­di­tions Inter­na­tional, New York, 1978

White, Jon Manchip  Every­day Life in Ancient Egypt, G. P. Putnam’s Son’s, New York, 1963

Wil­son, John A.  The Cul­ture of Ancient Egypt, Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1951

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