Archives for the month of: February, 2012

“So long as the self is unconscious, it corresponds to Freud’s superego and is a source of perpetual moral conflict. If, however, it is withdrawn from projection and is no longer identical with public opinion then one is truly one’s own yea and nay.”

— C. G. Jung, “Transformation Symbols in the Mass” c. 1942

It is now 70 years later and we’re still not there yet.


I created this one as part of my Jungian Psychology and East-West Spirituality class. Jung considered mandalas to be a symbol of wholeness and therefore of the Self. Jung himself used mandalas as a way to explore his current state of mind and as a way to restore balance. It was interesting to notice how at some point the process took over and I was no longer in control.

One of the earliest numinous experiences I remember happened during my late teens at a Computer Science lecture. The speaker demonstrated a simple algorithm that approached the efficiency of the theoretical optimum and my mind was transported to another realm. On the bus home my mind still reeling, I felt expanded, open and excited. I couldn’t wait to share this with someone who could understand it as well. Looking back at this experience, it seems like contact with the archetype of wholeness. In this case the wholeness of human knowledge and therefore of humanity itself as a part of nature.

For quite a while this was the spirit that moved me. The search for wholeness embodying through understanding nature. When I was in touch with that spirit through my studies or through work, I was excited, energetic, happy, moved. If I lost touch for too long I would fall into depression. Now, that I’m intellectually stimulated again, I’m happier than I’ve been in a while and yet I’m conflicted.

Some spiritual circles look down at the cognitive function of the mind as something lower and unspiritual, maybe even a hindrance on the path. At the same time, something in me knows that thinking, learning and understanding are and have always been a part of my path.

I’m driven to understand more about myself and about my path. This understanding feels right in both mind and body. And yet, I’m told not to “think the Dharma” but to “be the Dharma”. This kind of feedback caused me to deny an important part of myself in a a somewhat misguided effort to engage the path more fully. Another way for me to work with this guidance is to see that it is pointing out the shadow side of the Thinking Mind.

This shadow side can keep me from directly engaging with my experience, instead engaging only my conceptual framework. Another aspect of this shadow is in supporting my tendency for Ego inflation (being the smart one, being “in the know”, etc.) and therefore undermines my intention to hold such self-images more lightly.

Confronting this shadow can be helpful in finding freedom from the patterns I mention above. Perhaps once I’ve made progress in working with the shadow side of the Thinking Mind I can find a better balance between thinking and being. A balance that won’t be found through repression of either because for me, at least, both are gateways to the numinous.

“…life has gone out of the churches, and it will never go back. The gods will not reinvest dwellings that once they have left. The same thing happened before, in the time of the Roman Caesars, when paganism was dying. According to legend, the captain of a ship passing between two Greek islands heard a great sound of lamentation and a loud voice crying: Pan ho megas tethneken, Great Pan is dead. When this man reached Rome he demanded an audience with the emperor, so important was his news. Originally Pan was an unimportant nature spirit, chiefly occupied with teasing shepherds; but later, as the Romans became more involved with Greek culture, Pan was confused with to pan, meaning “the All.” He became the demiurgos, the anima mundi. Thus the many gods of paganism were concentrated into one God. Then came this message, “Pan is dead.” Great Pan, who is God, is dead. Only man remains alive. After that the one God became one man, and this was Christ; one man for all. But now that too is gone, now every man has to carry God. The descent of spirit into matter is complete.”

— C. G. Jung “Is Analytical Psychology a Religion?

(Emphasis mine)

“If we evaluate a human being as a type, we need not take the individual case into account, and that is so convenient. It is as convenient as evaluating an automobile by its make or body type. If you drive a certain make of car, you know where you stand. If you know the brand of a typewriter, you know what to expect of it. You can even select our breed of dog in this way; a poodle will have certain inclinations and certain traits, a wolfhound will have others. Only in the case of man is this not so. Man alone is not determined by his origins; his behavior cannot be calculated from the type. The reckoning will not come out even; there is always a remainder. This remainder is the freedom of man to escape the conditioning factors of type. Man begins to be human only where he has the freedom to oppose bondage to a type. For only there, in freedom, is his being–being responsible; only there “is” man authentically, for only there is man “authentic,”. The more standardized a machine is, the better it is; but the more standardized a person is, the more submerged he is in his race, class, or characterological type, the more he conforms to the average–the more inferior he is from the ethical standpoint.”

— Victor Frankl, “The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy”


The religious person enjoys a great advantage when it comes to answering the crucial question that hangs over our time like a threat: he has a clear idea of the way his subjective existence is grounded in his relation to “God.” I put the word “God” in quotes in order to indicate that we are dealing with an anthropomorphic idea whose dynamism and symbolism are filtered through the medium of the unconscious psyche. Anyone who wants to can at least draw near to the source of such experiences, no matter whether he believes in God or not. Without this approach it is only in rare cases that we witness those miraculous conversions of which Paul’s Damascus experience is the prototype. That religious experiences exist no longer needs proof. But it will always remain doubtful whether what metaphysics and theology call God and the gods is the real ground of these experiences. The question is idle, actually, and answers itself by reason of the subjectively overwhelming luminosity of the experience. Anyone who has had it is seized by it and therefore not in a position to indulge in fruitless metaphysical or epistemological speculations. Absolute certainty brings its own evidence and has no need of anthropomorphic proofs.
— C. G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self

Reading this I find myself asking: “Evidence of what? Certainty in what?” There is no proof in experience except of the experience itself. And for me, trying to hold experience as only that with no meaning, without any concepts is, at best, extremely difficult. The interpretation is that in which I might be certain but any interpretation appears to be constructed from previous beliefs and values. Without some pre-existing myth, or framework, the experience proves only that it is possible to have such an experience.

Even with a myth, a numinous experience is only the beginning. The experience may solidify, ground, even prove one’s faith and chase away whatever doubts may have existed before. Now, however, the true work begins, the work of integrating this experience and its meaning into day-to-day life. This is the work that Jung started working on in his 3 years of encounter with the unconscious, this is the work that never ends.

Seeing objectively one’s whole being, be it through dreamwork, guided imagination, or meditation can be intensely freeing. For me, it took facing the pain of feeling completely alone, apart from the world and everything in it. Facing this most hidden part of me allowed me to have faith in myself and in my practice. Not having to hide this part of myself, I was free to face the world around me more fully. Not having to spend energy in hiding a part of myself, I was naturally energized and joyful. That experience, however, merely pointed the way and it is up to me to continue down this path.

I have seen and accepted (at least for a while) a part of me that I wasn’t able to see before. To be true to that experience I must keep uncovering more and more of my self. This path, however, is not easy. It brings new questions and new doubts to the surface. Having had certainty before is not always helpful when surrounded by doubt. The memory of that faith is fading away when faced with present pain. More than once I felt completely lost, asking myself “what does it mean?!”

Anyone who has had it it is seized by it and therefore not in a position to indulge in fruitless metaphysical or epistemological speculations.
— C. G. Jung, Ibid.

It has been the same in my experience. For a while I was seized by experience, by truth, and as long as I was seized the questions did not matter. All was clear. Eventually, however, one is no longer seized and then the rest of one’s life begins with whatever measure of faith is left.

Myth is the natural and indispensable intermediate stage between unconscious and conscious cognition” Memories Dreams and Reflections, p. 311

When Jung and others speak of the containing myth of previous generations, they are not telling the whole truth, in order to see that we need to look at the different notions of truth over periods of human development. Ken Wilber talks about three levels of development: mythic, rational and post-rational. For a person in the mythic stage, myth is seen as concrete, universal truth. However, for a person in the modern age the standard for truth is the scientific method. Through scientific thinking we can see that myth is a story with little basis in reality. We can also, as Jung did, recognize the power of myth but for many of us, myths still fail the basic test of truth. And so, the question is asked how can a modern person connect to a myth?

The power of analytical psychology is not just in the analysis process, it is also in the fact that analytical psychology is, in itself, a modern myth. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Jung’s autobiography, a classic hero myth that is also the creation story of this mythology. Jung’s continuing efforts to prove, despite constant claims to the contrary, that his psychology is based in science are part of his noble attempt to make this mythology relevant and acceptable in the modern age.

By creating a modern myth, Jung made it possible to breath new life into existing myths through reinterpreting them in light of depth psychology. Through this process both mythologies gain something. The new mythology of depth psychology gains support in an established history. The other, older, mythology gains a chance to become relevant again, in a way that it has never been relevant before.

To claim that Jung is strictly set in a rational, scientific mind-set would be too limited a view. In fact, it sometimes appears that this dedication to science is a burden he had to bear in order for his ideas to be seen as credible. Jung saw beyond the small mindedness of his peers and of modern society in general. It is post-rational thinking that formed the basis of all his science. His ability to see beyond mere “scientific truth” is what made it possible for him to recognize the reality of the psyche and the validity of subjective, psychic experience thereby moving beyond the dualism forced on us by scientific thinking.

The answer to the question at the top of this paper is given by the symbol of the trinity. In the first stage (mythical) we identify myth with objective reality. In the second stage we step away from myth and claim our own (egoic) view of the world. In the third stage we must learn how the two aspects relate to each other thereby transcending the apparent difference. This stage involves losing some of the control the Ego claimed in the second stage and some of the clarity afforded by the first stage. But, through learning to hold the resultant complexity, we finally gain the ability to be in full contact with our wholeness, as part of a continuing process of individuation.

“It is only because the persona represents a more or less arbitrary and fortuitous segment of the collective psyche that we can make the mistake of regarding it in toto as something individual. It is, as its name implies, only a mask of the collective psyche, a mask that feigns individuality, making others and oneself believe that one is individual, whereas one is simply acting a role through which the collective psyche speaks.”

C. G. Jung “The Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious” c. 1912

“To find out what is truly individual in ourselves, profound reflection is needed; and suddenly we realize how uncommonly difficult the discovery of individuality is.”

C. G. Jung “The Assimilation of the Unconscious” c. 1912

In “A Guided Tour of the Collected Works of C. G. Jung,” Robert Hopcke makes the point that Jung’s attitude toward and investigation of religion help redeem religion for modern people as “an aspect of human existence at once both vital to human fulfillment and amenable to investigation and understanding.” My own experience certainly validates Hopcke’s sentiments in several ways.

Coming from a rational view of the world, I find myself often biased towards a reductionist approach that tends to reduce religion to an illusion or a comforting story much along the lines of Karl Marx: “religion is the opiate of the masses.” Over the last several years, however, I see that tendency slowly replaced by an openness to alternative views and an attitude of questioning towards my own limited views.

I am beginning to see the value of a containing myth and the difficulties that come up when such a myth is lacking, or is incoherent. In fact, I suspect that I have been feeling the effects of this problem exactly, over the last year. I believe that such a myth could serve as a vehicle to understand the inner experience of something greater than just myself or the experience of longing for such a connection (a longing often described by the Sufis).

While it is easy to dismiss another person’s religious ideas as creative fiction or as a defense mechanism empty from any further meaning I find that this outright dismissal may be pointing at an attempt on my side to avoid dealing with the intensity of numinous experience brought about by existential questions such as “Why am I here?” This intensity can be hard to hold, especially without the container provided by religion.

Looking at the universality of religion and the recurrence of certain themes (e.g. redemption) I think we have to recognize that there are deep commonalities shared by human beings everywhere. There are issues at our very core that we’ve grappled with throughout history. These issues carry a strong charge, one that I recognize in myself as well.

It is hard to deny that religions and myths worldwide point at some similar truths. These truths are not necessarily found in the answers provided, as those may vary between different cultures and different times. Rather, truth can be found in the questions asked.