C.G. Jung was a radical thinker. He was a man who ventured into unknown psychic territory and wrested a map out of the unconscious, which he thought was able to link the present moment with a remote past. To his surprise Jung found in alchemy a model that he identified as the basis of our modern way of perceiving things. In other words, a model for how we experience reality. Alchemy provides a pattern of transformational processes right under the threshold of consciousness, which all energy follows.
The patterns are there. Seeing them is the challenge.What is this curious practice called alchemy? There is more than one answer. For one it is the art of seeing beyond material surface. It is a way of seeing we have lost since Cartesian thinking removed the enchantment from our world. Common knowledge holds that chemistry evolved out of alchemy. That is true, but it was also the end of the alchemical vision, as chemists believed their experiments took place only on a mundane physical level.
Alchemists had a different vision. Alchemists knew that energy and matter could not be separated. They knew that there was no such thing as inorganic matter and that indeed all matter was infused with an element of consciousness. They knew that you and I are much more connected than mundane science wanted us to believe. They also intuitively knew what quantum physicists confirmed at a later age, namely the alchemical principle of the experimenter’s consciousness influencing the outcome. You and I matter! Our conscious and deliberate intent is much more powerful than the authorities in charge want us to believe.
No wonder that alchemists were discredited, persecuted, burnt at the stake and ridiculed.Jung saw and understood that. There is a heretical and subversive aspect to Jung’s work , at least from the perspective of our cultural dominant, which I cherish.
Alchemy describes a pattern of transformation. All creation and transformation follow the cyclical movements of falling apart and coming together on the spiral of evolution. There is one and it falls apart and becomes two and of that a third (something new) emerges and out of the third comes the oneness again that is the fourth. (This is a paraphrased version of the axiom of Maria Prophetissa, a third century female alchemist).
This is the movement of evolution and it is the movement in the mandala in Jung’s work.
If we transfer this movement into the evolutionary process of human consciousness then the falling apart (the two, the duality) represents a confrontation with a previously unknown content that ultimately belongs to the oneness that we are part of, but not necessarily conscious of. A constant flow between what is conscious and what is unconscious is established, which is best captured in the image of the Klein bottle
As materialism and one-sided rational thinking weaken but still dominate the Western world view and as we have brought ourselves to the brink of our own destruction, we must ask ourselves: Where are we in relation to matter, to earth? Where are we in relation to psychic reality? The South African Jungian Analyst Ian McCallum suggests that we desperately need to develop what he calls “Ecological Intelligence”, an intelligence the alchemists seemed to instinctively possess.
McCallum describes ecological intelligence as a way of understanding and articulating our evolutionary links to all of life, to all living things, as a debt we owe to the earth and as our contribution to the evolution of human consciousness. An ecological intelligence is also an intelligence oriented towards the feminine principle. It is the fourth we have been waiting for. It may be the next step in the evolution of human consciousness. The feminine principle is the principle of relatedness and of completeness. Relatedness and completeness are the opposite of perfectionism that so often drives our inner and outer lives.
Ecological intelligence can be experienced as a deep empathy for the other in the outer world, but also for what feels other within ourselves. The other as it manifests in other races, ethnic groups, but MacCallum particularly sees the other in the natural world, in nature, animals, plants.
It is the beauty of our evolving relatedness.
..for beauty is nothing but the terror, which we are still just able to bear. R. M. Rilke
I highly recommend: McCallum,Ian: Ecological Intelligence. Rediscovering Ourselves in Nature. It is a wonderful book.
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.
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.
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.