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On Gratitude and Thanksgiving – A Jungian Perspective

November 24, 2009
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Thanksgiving is a huge holiday in this country. Their favorite one many of my US friends say. It was not a holiday where I grew up and as the meaning of holidays is very much tied to one’s culture and familial traditions, Thanksgiving as I saw it practiced in mainstream America meant very little to me. I love the idea of harvest festivals and of expressing gratitude, but I could not make  sense of a national turkey day and an obese nation stuffing themselves silly followed by a shopping spree on Black Friday.

I wonder if those who consciously experience and express gratitude on Thanksgiving are a miniscule group. Maybe not, but probably not as large a group as they could be. How do we understand gratitude psychologically and how does one get there? Melanie Klein introduced gratitude, together with its opposite, envy, into psychological language. There are always two sides to everything. Just as light and shadow do, gratitude and envy go together. Jung had a profound understanding of the duality of nature. He knew that the opposite is always present, but usually hidden in the invisible world he called the unconscious.

Most people who experience gratitude describe a feeling of fullness and richness that is unrelated to any material possessions. They experience a well of goodness that does not run dry. There is  enough good to go around for all. They feel as if they were plugged into a source that stills a thirst beyond the physical. Gratitude is an expression in response to an experience of being deeply cared for and held by something larger than oneself. This gratitude goes far beyond a thought of gratefulness that one’s lot is a little lighter to carry than one’s neighbor’s. Gratitude is fearless, it fosters compassion for all living beings and the ability to see life even in the so called inanimate matter.

I do not believe one can fully experience gratitude without being aware of its opposite envy. In Jungian thought gratitude and envy are archetypal forces. They exist outside of our individual lives, but we partake of them. In the case of envy, there is no escaping it.  We all are envious to some degree. The problem is that envy lives in the shadows of the unconscious. Whatever is unconscious will be projected out. Our unconscious searches for a suitable object  and we just hang our projection on this object like an old hat. Consciousness will trick us then into believing what what we see is “reality”.  (Reality becomes more slippery the more we think about it.)

We all know some of these people, may even have been one of them at times, who spew nothing but negativity. Everything needs to be criticized, ridiculed, made small or put down. Envy destroys hopes and dreams.  Envy is full of fear. There is never enough of the good. It is anti-life. It poisons the soul.

Envy is even harder to catch when it is directed against oneself. Then it manifests in that, often very rational and “adult” inner voice, that ridicules our desires and will stop us from believing that our dreams are worth pursuing. That you are too young, too old, too fat, lack education, lack money, not healthy enough or it is just plain impossible or unrealistic… I better stop, I made my point, the list could go on forever. Envy constricts and restricts and hardens, it turns the heart into an arid patch.

What to do about envy? Unfortunately there is no miracle cure or pill. But, as with everything else, awareness and acceptance are the first steps. Nothing changes without them.  Envy is archetypal. We did not create it. We are only responsible for how we express it. We need to trace our negativity. Who or what is on the receiving end of our sneer? How can we put an image to that inner  voice, that judge or saboteur that prevents us from living our life with courage and grit. As we take a stance and stand up to the poison of envy, its opposite, gratitude and trust in goodness, can be released. We don’t own goodness either, but we can take our fill from that cup that never runs empty, regardless of where and who we are in our lives. Gratitude – at last.

Happy Thanksgiving.


On Soul, Solitude and Saturn -The Red Book Reflections, C.G.Jung

November 19, 2009
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Saturn devouring his son, P. P. Rubens

This entry is difficult to write. I have dragged my feet. I am struggling with how to make the subject more palatable. How does one write about Jung’s night sea journey in search of the soul in an appealing way? It just wasn’t a pretty and sweet story. But maybe that is the wrong approach. Maybe some things just need to be said as they are. Jung’s School of Analytical Psychology grew out of an intense personal and maddening process that brought Jung to the brink of his sanity. No pain, no gain? Is it that simple? I think that some things come to us as grace, serendipity, as gifts from the gods, if you will. But, unfortunately for the most part, the creative process is a painful, arduous and confusing path,whether creativity is expressed in writing a novel or in carving out a life for oneself that is truthful to one’s soul calling. The deeper one digs, the greater the treasure, if one can withstand the pressure of the deep.

In Liber Primus of the Red Book Jung writes “My soul leads me into the desert, into the desert of my own self. I did not think that my soul is a desert, a barren hot desert, dusty and without drink”. Who does!? That is not what we imagine when we think of soul.  Jung’s search for an authentic experience of his soul lead him into solitude,  away from “men and events” and he continues to say that he even had to detach himself from his thoughts so he could open up to his soul’s life. This strikes me as significant because thinking was Jung’s primary function. This was how he perceived the world and made sense of it. I think what Jung describes here is the necessity to let go of  attachments, distractions and identifications.

Imagine of how you make sense of the world. It could be through rational thinking or it could be through emotional feeling values, or more through scientific data and facts,or it could be through a sense of intuitive knowing. And then imagine that you deliberately let go of this mode of perception, which has become so much part of your identity. Jung seems to suggest that it is from this state of emptiness (or discomfort or confusion more likely) that one makes contact with the otherness of the soul/psyche.

“The soul has its own peculiar world”, Jung writes. Jung expresses his confusion and disappointment, I assume, that having given up most of ego’s distractions, the soul is experienced as an arid, barren land. No comfort, no inspiration, nothing to hold on to. What Jung describes is not the soft, nurturing quality so often associated with soul.

The image of Saturn devouring his son expresses what Jung initially found on his soul searching journey. Astrology  understands Saturn as a stern task master who teaches about limitations, restrictions and duty. Duty to what or whom one may wonder? I suggest that the often maligned Saturn teaches us to be in the service of the soul. The image of devouring his son reflects the idea of being robbed of what is the dearest to one’s heart. The barren land of despair, hopelessness, confusion,when no future seems possible. “But my soul spoke to me and said””Wait””, and Jung continues,”Nobody can spare themselves the waiting and most will be unable to bear this torment”.

To patiently wait and tolerate one’s feelings is not a popular notion in mainstream psychology. Yet it is a hallmark of Jungian  work.  It is devastating and disorientating to be robbed of the idea of a predictable future and to be robbed of a solid sense of self that can make sense of the world. But these feelings may be unavoidable when venturing into the unknown.  The conscious experience of soul life was the unknown, new territory for Jung. For those of us who wish to live a soulful life we may wonder, what is our desert? Where is our barrenness? Where is that place within us that is so restricted that no life or light can ripple through. Jung suggests that our journey towards wholeness must go through this inner desert.  When we are stripped to the bare bones , then we may meet the soul in the form of the other yet also part of who we are and a dialogue may begin. In  a Jungian sense, only then are we truly alive.


Depression-What to make of the darker moods-A Jungian Perspective

November 12, 2009
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Lately I have thought a lot about darkness. It seems timely as November feels like the darkest time of the year. It might be. But while darkness begins to wrap around us at an early hour, I see the familiar emphasis on light wherever I look. We all want to be in the light  at all times and if we are not, move towards it as fast as possible. Darkness is the unwanted stepsister.

We experience darkness psychologically as depression, as the “hour of lead”, as the poet Emily Dickinson once wrote. A fitting image reflective of the heaviness, the stuckness and the dull, all consuming despair of depression.  Why would anyone of sound mind find any value in the darker moods ?! Mainstream psychology seems to agree and focuses primarily on the eradication of  symptoms via the help of pills, pills and more pills. Make no mistake, there is a place for medication in the treatment of depression, but I abhor the unquestioning carelessness with which our culture medicates its citizens, particularly its most vulnerable members, the poor and poorly educated.

But even the well-off are seduced by our culture’s one-sided infatuation with the lighter, more pleasant moods. It is so much easier to escape into substances or addictive behaviors.  No joke, it is. Nonetheless, I argue that practioners of the healing arts need to rediscover the value of depression and the darker shades of being, because they are as much part of nature, our nature, as the darkness of November is in the cycle of a year.

I recently read that “you can’t discover light by analyzing the darkness”. This was written by an internationally best selling author and spiritual teacher. A very successful person and presumedly helpful to millions, but in this instance he simply did not get it right. But I can see why the message of tolerating difficult feelings and searching for meaning in the muck of one’s psyche is a much harder sell.

But is there a spark in the darkness? On a cosmic level,  science has shown, literally, with the help of an x-ray observatory that a glow with the intensity of ten billion suns pours out of a black hole into the surrounding universe. For a long time scientists believed that no light beam could ever escape a black hole. They were wrong.

Is there meaning to be found in depression? More often than not there is. It might be helpful to differentiate the nature of the darker mood. Is the depression related to a loss that needs to be mourned? It could be the loss of a person or an abstract idea, such as the loss of youth or health, hopes, or the loss of the illusion that life is meant to be an uninterrupted state of happiness. Freud got it right when he said that our whole life is a process of mourning. Think about it, when you allow yourself to feel deeply into your being, are we not always mourning something or someone, even if we are simultaneously quite content and “happy” with our lives?

But there can be black holes in our psyche that can not be explained by insufficient mourning. When Saturn clutches the soul  causing wounding and despair too much to bear. How tempting it is to abandon the soul to her suffering and find refuge in medication that quiets her screams. Jung descended into his own darkness/madness and brought forth the insights and techniques that today constitute the School of Analytical Psychology. We Jungians value the darkness. We know that only by bearing witness to suffering and by extracting meaning from it can a new morning dawn. Spring will follow winter, but in the middle of November there is no memory of that.

For those who are interested in a unique Jungian perspective on darkness and its psychological implications I have a wonderful book to recommend. “The Black Sun, the Alchemy and Art of Darkness” by Jungian analyst Stanton Marlan. It was in this book that I found the information on the discovery of light in the black holes. The book, like its subject matter, is illuminating the dark.

And with Emily Dickinson, wherever she is now, I would like to share that the old alchemists knew that the lead of Saturn holds a hidden promise. When made into a fine powder, it ignites all by itself. There is indeed a spark in the darkness of our depression.


Consider your heart both good and evil. C.G. Jung – The Red Book Reflections

November 9, 2009
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As reported in the New York Times Magazine, the Jungian analyst Stephen Martin, a nonobservant Jew, once responded to his daughter’s question about his religion with “Oh, honey, I ‘m a Jungian”.  No, Jungian psychology is not a religion and the Jungian world is not a sect, at least not if it’s definition involves a specific dogma under a doctrinal leader. Jung’s comment of “thank God I am not a Jungian” is often quoted in this context. And yet, let me be the devil’s advocate for a moment, Jungian psychology always views the dynamics of human behavior from a perspective that is larger than the ego. In Jungian thought, all phenomena are understood in relation to the archetype of the Self, which some translate as the equivalent to God, although that  is not quite correct. This distinction was very important to Jung. Whatever the outer reality may be, all we have is a psychic image, including a psychic image of God. Whether the image is Christ, Yahweh, Allah, shamanic spirits, Buddha, the Great Goddess, or the “image” of an atheist belief, depends on one’s culture and personal inclination. From a Jungian perspective all these images are rooted in the archetype of the Self, which can be imagined as a vital psychic core that bridges humanity with a larger, transpersonal reality.

Psychology is the science of the soul. It does not set out to prove or disprove that metaphysical entities exist. In Jung’s self-experiment, he recognized that his entire life was the expression of his soul. “I am as I am in this visible world a symbol of my soul” he writes in the Red Book,(RB)p.234. In this search for his inner truth he discovered that even, or especially, the people we love the most are ultimately symbols of that search for soul. I do not think that Jung wanted to diminish the reality or intensity of human love, but rather add another dimension to it. One, I’d like to think, true lovers always sensed. The search for soul does not lift you into ethereal heights. It leads right into fleshed out life. To know your soul,  you have to live your life to the fullest. Consider the following quote from Jung: “ To know the human soul one has to hang up exact science and put away the scholar’s gown, say farewell to his study and wander with human heart through the world, through the horror of prisons, mad houses and hospitals, through drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling dens, through the salons of elegant society, the stock exchanges, the socialist meetings, the churches, the revivals and ecstacies of the sects, to experience love, hate and passion in every form in one’s body” (CW 7, para 409).

Go out and live your life, Jung seems to say.  Do not deny your darker impulses. They are part of your soul’s life. I do not believe Jung meant that we literally all have to end up in prisons and “madhouses”, although it may happen, but that we need to find the compassion, the “Mitgefuehl”, which means “feeling with the other”, of what it is like to be there. To connect to another in compassion is an expression of soul, which weaves a net between us all. Soul partakes of all experiences humanly possible.

In other instances, internalized collective judgments and values may prevent us form pursuing our heart’s desire. What part of myself do I not dare to live? Do I need all the prisoners in society so I can feel morally superior? “Consider that your heart is both good and evil, Jung wrote in the RB, p.234. It takes courage to acknowledge evil in the first place, it takes even more to see it within oneself.


On Soul and Darkness and Imagination: The Red Book Reflections

November 6, 2009
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In the Red Book (RB) Jung documents his process of confronting a series of gruesome visions and fantasies filled with blood, destruction and cruelty. As I am writing this, images of the tragic news today of the massacre at Fort Hood flash through my mind. Jung’s recorded visions date from 1913 to 1914 and he considered them to be precognitive, foreshadowing the flood of destruction that would soon sweep through Europe. I am thinking of our culture’s current fascination  with horror, violence and destruction, which, so we are told, will culminate in the cataclysmic events of “2012”. End days? The final hurray before the ultimate apocalypse? Maybe. Jung was deeply effected by the darkness that enveloped Europe during the First and Second World War. The horrors were unimaginable and it was indeed the end, the death for millions. Yet life continued. But the danger still looms. The archetype of the apocalypse (the violent pattern of disintegration of the world as we know it) continues to be the dominant force. Hindu mythology tells us that the dark age of Kali Yuga began 3000 BC and will last for another while (another 400 000 or more years). Are we depressed yet? Ready to stick the head in the sand or bury the nose in a bottle? I would not blame you.

But that is not what Jung did. One way of looking at the RB is, I suggest,  as a “How To” book of some sort.  How to gaze into the darkness and survive it. How to gaze into the darkness and bring forth meaning. How to gaze into the darkness and, Deo Concedente, find a shimmer of light in it. Not a job for the faint hearted, but then the Jung I know never was. One thing I am certain is that the RB will do away with for good with the notion that Jung is a fluffy, new agey psychologist whose path of individuation is filled with love and light and flowery archetypal imagery.

If we stay with the idea of looking at the RB as a  “how to” (deal with these times) book a little longer, then Jung suggests the absolute necessity of “refinding the soul”( p.231). Not the idea of soul as it has been co-opted by religious institutions, but the very private soul (or psyche if you prefer). Our core that is capable of the most terrible suffering and the most ecstatic bliss. It is the expression of our shared humanity, which  connects us to the larger world soul, the anima mundi. The soul in us feels, connects, longs for, desires. It finds and creates beauty. Cynicism, political games and unbalanced ambition are lethal to soul.

Jung writes:” He could find his soul in desire itself, but not in the objects (italics mine) of desire. If he possessed his desire, and his desire did not possess him, he would lay a hand on his soul, since his desire is the image and the expression of the soul. If we possess the image of a thing, we possess half the thing. The image of the world is half the world” (p.232). Jung develops here what is to become a hallmark of his work: an appreciation for the power of the imagination, the true alchemical imagination that creates and transforms worlds.

Looking back out into our blood stained, violent and cynical world as we spin (out of control?) towards 2012, it is our courage and willingness to follow the soul’s imagination that could change the trajectory of our current path of destruction, for nothing is ever written in stone.


C.G.Jung, Twitter and its Shadow

November 3, 2009
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The Rubin Museum of Art in NYC is currently offering a fascinating event series, the Red Book Dialogues. Today’s program was a dialogue between Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and my colleague, Jungian analyst Doug Tompkins. It was an inspiring evening in a serene, beautiful setting. Both Jack and Doug were logged on to Twitter and so was the audience who could send questions and comments via their mobile devices, which were then projected onto a big screen. Twitter and Jung? Do they have anything in common? Doug rightly commented that most Jungians were somewhat technologically challenged. But Twitter is not about technology. It is all about communication. Fast communication, with a lot of people and entities. Doug introduced the very fitting archetypal image behind Twitter. It is the winged god Hermes, the messenger from the underworld, who rules all aspects of communication and commerce. He is flighty and fast, I can almost glimpse him in the 140 character tweets that swoosh past me on the screen. He is often depicted as a youth with winged sandals and it was not lost on the audience that he lives right there in Twitter’s logo of the little bird. The moderator remarked that the German word for Twitter is “zwitschern” but that he could not find that word anywhere in the Red Book. That may be so, but let’s not forget that the Red Book was left unfinished because Jung became fascinated with alchemy, which he translated into the dynamics of psyche. Alchemists communicated in an oblique writing style that became known as, guess what, the “language of the birds”.

But Hermes is also a trickster and thief who can cross our path just when we think we have it all figured out and under control. I bet he was to blame when my iphone just all of a sudden refused to function and would not connect until after the event! Go figure! It is said of Hermes that he lives in the in-between places and that he bridges  boundaries. Hermes also trespasses. He will not be confined in neatly ordered places. Maybe Hermes’ inspiration could help to bridge the seemingly different worlds of Twitter and Jung’s Red Book.

People send their “What are you doing” tweets into cyberspace in the hope to find or connect with others. In the process an interconnected web is being woven that brings the immediate experience of its participants to the forefront.  As just one example I am thinking of the transparency the tweeting community brought to the recent elections in Iran. An anonymous mass of people were suddenly individual voices, which were heard. Now to Jung’s self-experiment as documented in the Red Book. I wonder if the cyberspace of the tweeting community is not the equivalent to Jung’s collective unconscious out of which he wrestled images and meaning and thereby created a structure and road map that allowed him to negotiate a world much larger than himself.

By far the most interesting question came from an audience member who inquired about Twitter’s shadow. The question kept lingering in the room. Nobody had a clear answer. I don’t have an answer. Twitter is such a new tool,  it might be too soon to tell. The shadow by definition does not want to be seen. But from a Jungian perspective, we also understand that everything has a shadow. As a start, I suggest that we might want to look at what we project onto Twitter. If I see it as a means to connect with great speed to others and allow others to make contact with me, “follow” me, with little discrimination of who they are, then I am at risk of being flooded, overwhelmed and losing my bearings. Could one shadow aspect of Twitter be the disintegration of boundaries and the loss of a container for private, sacred space? When Jung traveled into the depths of the unconscious he was  aware of the dangers. He sensed the treasures the invisible world held, but he knew that if one got lost in it the price was disintegration and psychosis. In lieu of clear answers I may have to live with the questions a little longer. Hermes is a trickster god, but he is also the only guide we have when we enter new territory.


Now we have Jung’s Red Book. So what? Reflections on the tasks ahead

November 1, 2009
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There is indeed a buzz about Jung’s Red Book (RB). At least within the comparatively tiny group of people who either know of Jung’s significance in the field of depth psychology or those who, in one way or the other, appreciate the value of soul and psyche. So far the book’s images elicit the greatest interest. No doubt, they are magnificent and incredibly meaningful in the context of Jung’s journey through his psychic depths. But be warned, I say, don’t be simply seduced by their esoteric beauty. Don’t become reduced to a mere audience that applauds a master.

I wonder what the purpose of the publication of the RB at this time might be? One valid answer is a purely academic one and Shamdasani, who edited and introduced the RB,  notes the importance of putting Jung’s process in a historical context. But that still begs the question of how Jung, or at least the Jung that I have internalized, would have liked to see the RB put to good use? We already know that he rigorously refused to be cast in the role of a teacher or guru. He clearly did not want his way, which we can trace step by step in the RB, to be seen as the way. Nothing is further away from Jungian thought than a dogmatic one size fits all program of how to understand psyche.

The RB follows Jung’s trail of how the School of Analytical Psychology came into being through the process of Jung’s “most difficult experiment”. Maybe this is what ails main stream psychology and other forms of the healing arts today, a stifling willingness to follow a well trodden path, even if the path was forked out by someone like Jung, without delving deeply into the chaos and mystery of one’s own psychology. Maybe this is one reason why the RB is needed. Jung records the development of  tools and techniques, which later became known as active imagination. Armed with these tools we can walk our own path. Jungian work is all about experience followed by integration. Our own experience. The value we give to the imagination, the sense we make from our dreams, the relationships and dialogues we build with our dream figures. Jung demonstrates over and over again that only through the imagination do we gain access to the mysteries of our inner lives. What has been experienced needs to be integrated. The alchemists knew this phase of the process as the reddening. When experience needed to be infused with the red of one’s own life blood, which means bringing what you have gained in your imaginative exercises into your life. That is integration. Then you live your truth. So don’t be an admiring audience, Jung would not have any of  it, be a participant in the great work of the alchemical tradition that Jung envisioned. The world needs it and that may be why the RB has been made available to us at this time.


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