Summary of Chapter I
Though most people underestimate what is truly worthy in life, by seeking power, wealth, and success, there are a few who look for other things. One is Freud's friend who described to him in a letter his experience of oneness and eternity in life. At such moments, he feels unbounded and connected with everyone and everything. It is not doctrine but part of the religious energy of every church. He calls it an “oceanic” feeling (p. 11). Freud honors his friend but cannot find this feeling in his own experience. Freud uses his psychoanalytic theory to discover what his friend experienced. The ego, for instance, or the adult personality, constructs clear boundaries between “I” and “you.” Only when one falls in love does this boundary get temporarily blurred and one cannot tell the difference between the beloved and oneself.
This is similar to the time the infant experiences oneness with the mother in the womb or when breast feeding. As one matures, the ego or “I” fences off the outside world from itself. Freud speculates that in a person both the mature ego and oceanic infantile state can co-exist, thus accounting for his friend's experience.
Commentary on Chapter I
Freud's account of his friend's experience, which in other contexts, might be called a mystical religious experience, is reduced in his system to an infantile state before the individual has matured as an individual. Freud calls the feeling of oneness with the universe or God “limitless narcissism” (p. 19), a regression to a childhood longing for the protection of the father. Freud brings up another friend who practices Yoga, withdrawing from bodily functions, and reaches a primordial state of mind, a mystical state. This friend claims a physiological basis for this state of mind; it is not a mere mood. Freud has nothing to say to this except to regard it as a curiosity, similar to a trance or ecstasy. He does not deny these states exist but categorizes them as primitive. Freud, as an atheist, generally accounts for religion as a psychological consolation and desire for love and protection. Yoga and religion would have alternative explanations, accounting for these same oceanic experiences as part of higher human development, not an example of a primitive, lower state of development.