Psychosis is the great other in Western civilization. Insanity, craziness, off-the-wallness is what frightens us the most. And for good reason, for one it is terrifying. And if that were not enough, we also run the risk of being immediately (over)medicated, hospitalized and stigmatized with that awful descriptive of having a “mental illness”. To be fair, there are of course psyches that are so fragile that they are hopelessly and helplessly flooded by what Jung refers to in the Red Book (RB) as the spirit of the depth. Much of this individual suffering can be alleviated by proper medication and designated caring environments. The psychiatric wards of most hospitals these days are not “caring environments”, but the problem is a systemic one and generally not the fault of the well intentioned but overworked and misinformed personnel of these wards. But the needs of this relatively small group of the population are not what I am addressing here. I am talking about you and me. The chances are that if you are reading this, you qualify for this much larger segment of the population, the reasonably well functioning average neurotic. What we generally deny is that we also have psychotic pockets in some of the more hidden corners of our psyche. Often a source of great fear and shame, these raw, uncontrollable spots in our inner landscape may also connect us to a divine, transpersonal reality.
A good working definition of psychosis is that the boundaries between inner and outer world have become blurry or non-existent. Remember the last time you completely lost it? Had a melt-down? Were so caught up in a personal complex that outer reality became skewed? This is where the other side begins. No problem as long as you can bounce back. The ability to recuperate from a moment, or days, or weeks, or even years of insanity is the real marker for psychic health and not having no knowledge of madness and therefore seeing (projecting) it only onto others. “It is unquestionable: if you enter into the world of the soul, you are like a madman, and a doctor would consider you to be sick”, Jung writes in the RB.
“I am seized by fear, but I know I must go in” he says, “the spirit of the depths opened my eyes and I caught a glimpse of the inner things, the world of my soul, the many-formed and changing”. The descent into the depths can be maddening and dangerous, but what is remarkable is that Jung also sees a form of madness looming when a person never leaves the surface. In other words, when a person is entirely identified with waking life and ego consciousness. In Jung’s words, “the spirit of this time is ungodly, the spirit of the depths is ungodly, balance is godly”. There is great wisdom in these three words, “balance is godly”. There is a time to be lost and there is a time to find oneself again. We fall apart and we are put together again. We breathe in and we breathe out. To accept the good and the bad. Life and death. Each cycle leaving us slightly changed. The secret of transformation lies in moving to this rhythm, consciously. “Depth and surface should mix so that new life can develop”, Jung writes.
Consciousness is related to awareness, but also to meaning. Without finding meaning in events, especially in our mad episodes, whether they take the form of a suicidal depression, a panic attack or an outburst worth a wrathful god, no light, no consciousness can be wrested out of it. “The meaning of events is the way of salvation that you create”, Jung writes.
The editor of the RB, Sonu Shamdasani, remarks in a footnote that what Jung is developing here in the Liber Primus is the connection between individual and collective psychology. What that means is that if we, as Jung did, look inward, give credence to our dreams, visions, fantasies and moods, when we dive into them versus running away, we will unavoidably come in contact with the forces of the collective unconscious and that can be terrifying and overwhelming. “My knowledge has a thousand voices, an army roaring like a lion, the air trembles when they speak, and I am their defenseless sacrifice”, Jung writes.
What is being sacrificed here? Jung suggests that it is our own head that needs to fall. Growth and new life are subjectively experienced as something most dreadful and even evil, like our own execution. “You thought you knew the abyss? Oh you clever people! It is another thing to experience it”, Jung writes. Our head is also sacrificed, when we let go of our judgment, when we accept experiences for what they are: expressions of the soul’s life regardless of how psychotic they might be. I know this is easier said than done, but Jung for one has walked the talk before us. The Red Book is proof, it can be done.
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.
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.