A few days ago I was in the presence of a master. These occasions do not happen all that often. I was lucky to have had a chance to be present at a dharma talk with Thich Nhat Hanh, the 85 year old Vietnamese Zen master, who was one of the founders of the “Engaged Buddhism” movement. Something happens when one is in the presence of a genuine master. At least if one can show up with some degree of openness and a willingness to receive. This something that happens is a transmission. Transmission can only originate from someone whose knowledge is rooted in lived experience and has become anchored in the tissues and bones of the physical body. We are then in a realm that transcends bookish knowledge gathered in purely academic pursuit. There is a moment when consciousness permeates every cell and lightens up one’s awareness. Consciousness can shine brightly. We are humbled and grateful for we know then, we are in the presence of a master.
This level of consciousness is usually hard-earned. It is life’s gift after much inner work, focused concentration and often much emotional suffering. It comes like an unexpected embrace by Sophia, the personification of divine wisdom. It is the relief of dew drops calming parched skin. Surely one gets there only on one of the roads less traveled. “Stop thinking”, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “and relax”. Relax down into your bones, because without that deep relaxation one is not able to receive, not what is “out there” nor the images and guidance we all have available from within. ~ Exhale, relax, let go ~ that is a good start for all things.
When asked what religion I follow, I like to answer with, “I am a Jungian”. That allows me to make room for spirituality, for what is larger than human life and ego consciousness, without getting caught in any dogma. The notion of transmission makes sense if we allow for the possibility of an interconnected universe in which nature and psyche are embedded. This was Jung’s vision and with this appreciation the mysterious processes of synchronicity and transmission fall into sync. The necessity for transmission may have been at the root of Jung’s requirement, in which he differed from Freud, that all Jungian analysts-in-training undergo a thorough analysis. He knew that we can accompany the individuals entrusted in our care only as far and deep as we ourselves have dared to venture. Jungian training worth its salt must not err on the side of prioritizing academic achievements, but maintain a vestige in the ancient tradition of mystery schools.
Jungian thought at its core opens up a deeply spiritual realm. But just as Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Engaged Buddhism” is a lived practice aimed at building compassion and easing suffering to make this world a better place for all, Jungian thought, if it is to be worth its salt, also must be a practice, but one with a very different focus. Jung, being a true steward of psyche, stayed away from all moral demands. His vision was a holistic one. His focus was individuation, which means becoming more fully oneself. This is not a form of perfectionism but completeness. It requires finding ways of dealing with all forces, positive and negative, light and dark, within oneself and in the collective, the world at large. This is why Jungian work at its core is always shadow work. And there is always more to come, as the Shadow, being archetypal, can never be fully integrated. Yet, as Jungians we soldier on and journey towards a greater degree of relating to that that we do not wish to be or that that we cannot fathom to also be part of who we are. As Jungians we train our eyes to see into and withstand the darkness. Welcome to another road less traveled.
It is a dangerous road. Nietzsche did well by reminding us of its danger: “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you”. Yet it can be done. Seeing Thich Nhat Hanh I knew it was possible to understand and suffer the darkness without being overtaken. I knew because it was transmitted. The diligent practice of mindfulness, as championed in the Buddhist tradition, develops our capacity for compassion. It strengthens our emotional heart and quite possibly our physical heart as well.
Jungian work is very much the development of a unique art of seeing and perceiving. One eye is directed towards the Shadow in its many manifestations in our personal lives and in the injustices and cruelties of society, yet the other eye must learn to hold the vision of our heart’s deepest values and feelings. The more we individuate, the more we will care and feel for the world around us. Individuation takes us into the world, our communities, dissolves imaginary boundaries of race, gender, nationality and creed. Individuation allows us eventually to relate to all sentient beings and to even expand our awareness into the world of so-called inanimate matter.
It may not be the only way, but Thich Nhat Hanh’s way of generating peace and reconciliation provides tools and techniques to develop the compassion necessary for the daunting path of facing the never ending Shadow without getting lost in it. I for one am deeply grateful that I had a chance to experience in person this humble monk yet great Zen teacher whose writings have provided me with much solace over the years. Grateful.
For more information on Thich Nhat Hanh and his work please visit plumvillage.org
I am not a great believer in words..but I guess the more people believe in words the more powerful they can be.. (thank you Mona K). I came across these words in my twitter stream just as I pondered Jung’s imaginal encounter with “the Anchorite” in the Red Book (RB), in which the two of them discuss the meaning of words.
We are shaped by the spoken and, to even a greater degree, by the written word.
The Anchorite (an inner, imaginal figure) speaks to Jung: “Surely you know that one can read a book many times – perhaps you almost know it by heart, and nevertheless it can be that, when you look again at the lines before you, certain things appear new or even new thoughts occur to you that you did not have before”.
What is suggested here is to appreciate the “word” as a symbol and not as a sign with a definitive, unmovable meaning. A symbol is a door into the unknown and language, the word, can be such a portal. We all the know the power of poetry or of a book that transported us into another world. A good piece of writing can take us to very unexpected places, if we allow it to happen. “A succession of words does not have only one meaning. But men strive to assign only a single meaning to the sequence of words, in order to have unambiguous language”, the Anchorite proclaims.
Like a tightrope walker we are asked to perform a delicate balancing act.Words and language allow us to grasp and assimilate the nature of reality. It is hard to detach the word from human consciousness. “What was word, shall become man. The word created the world and came before the world. It lit up like a light in the darkness“, Jung writes. He also says that “this striving is worldly and constricted” and the mysterious addition that this striving “belongs to the deepest layers of the divine creative plan”.
Initially the limited, narrow range of meaning provides security. We need to believe the illusion that we know what is what. Jung writes, “the unbounded makes you anxious since the unbounded is fearful and humanity rebels against it”.
The paradox: We must build walls of meaning in order to emerge as conscious beings out of the chaos, but then these very walls must be broken down, because “words should not become Gods”.
One way of measuring ego-strength and maturity of personality is to assess a person’s capacity to tolerate ambivalence. This capacity is closely related to the ability to feel empathy. It is all about tolerating otherness. Empathy is the genuine ability to see the world through the eyes of another. Another who is truly different, someone who cannot be easily understood. It takes effort (and ego-strength) to make room for another standpoint, another meaning. There are many ways to be right. We have reached maturity when we can give up tour need to be right without losing ourselves and our values.
Imagine ~ making room ~ imagine that the entire universe is within you and every person, every other living creature is a parallel universe ~ no either/or, no right or wrong
“He who breaks the walls of words overthrows Gods and defiles temples”, Jung writes. We need to break down the prison of stale and empty words. We need to dismantle inherited belief systems, which have lost the spark of life. We need to give up the delusion that a word in itself represents truth. It does not matter whether the word is in the Bible or in another writing considered sacred, in your favorite novel, on the internet or in one of our ingrained thought patterns. The word may give us temporary security. That may be necessary for some time. But the evolution of consciousness cannot be stopped, it can only be resisted, which makes it harder. The evolutionary trajectory of life pushes us towards new meaning. Meaning full of juicy freshness and uniquely individual. This is what Jung’s entire life’s work was about. But this encouragement comes with a warning. Jung writes: “But no one should shatter the old words, unless he finds the new word that is a firm rampart against the limitless and grasps more life in it than in the old word”. We find this over and over again in Jung’s work. Jung who parted ways with Freud, because he believed that the unconscious did not only need to be tamed, but was also the source of rejuvenation and great treasures, was also acutely aware that its forces were so powerful that it could sweep us into the chaos of psychosis at any time.
The word is a container and a prison. We need to find the balance on the tightrope. Words, stories, narratives create our lives. As we grow, our stories, memories and narratives can change. Are our narratives, the way we think about ourselves still true? Are they still meaningful in the sense that light and life are pulsating through them? Or do they need to be shed like a serpent leaves its old skin behind?Nothing is forever. We are always becoming.
Every year I lament the end of summer. Until about this time of the year, when I can sense a major shift of energy. Darkness is settling in. There are so many shades of darkness. I will single out one for today. It is the shade that belongs to Samhain, one of the great doorways into the dark.Tradition has it that the veil between the upper and the lower worlds is the thinnest on the night of October 31 to November 1st. It is a night of welcoming and honoring the dead. In the old days it was a time of divination and communication with the spirit world. It is the beginning of the new year, because the Celts appreciated that new life begins in utter darkness. Although originating in the pre-Christian Celtic tradition, Samhain belongs to all people who are open to the cycles and movements of nature.
Let us understand the meaning of Samhain from a Jungian psychological perspective. Maybe because our culture has lost the connection to the natural and nurturing aspect of the dark, we are currently so terribly dominated by the devouring and destructive side of it. The darkness of Samhain is of an introspective, reflective nature. Qualities our dominant culture is not supporting. Imagine, letting go of all the noise, the distractions. Imagine, allowing yourself t be alone ~ with yourself, only your breath leading the way.All fears and resistances belong to the ego, which initially refuses to acknowledge the existence of another realm of reality. The natural world knows no such fears. Imagine, walking into the darkness of not yet knowing ~ and listening, and seeing.
The dead come to visit in this night, it is said. They may come with messages or they simply need us to acknowledge their existence. The knowledge, but also the sins and wounds of our ancestors live within us. This is a psychic fact that C.G. Jung very much understood. Psychic life, the life you and I know and experience, emerges out of and continues to be embedded in an archetypal field. Archetypes are ultimately unknowable but very specific patterns of energy which we experience as images and affects. Our relation to the archetypal world connects us to our ancestral history, including our animal and microbial past. Yes, that far back can psyche reach. An archetype is like an old watercourse along which the water of life has flowed for centuries, digging a deep channel for itself, Jung writes. If we manage to quiet the chatter within us, then the world of the forgotten past within us will be at its most available tonight, according to the tradition of Samhain.
But we do not have to peer that far. In the shadow that we carry are also all the traumas, wounds and unresolved issues of our recently deceased relatives, parents and grandparents. I have learned (thank you Malidoma Some : ) that the departed souls of our relatives need us as much as we need them. There is a unique power of healing that only our waking consciousness can generate. Some of us are plagued with psychological disturbances, which we have psychically inherited from those close to us who have died. Every unresolved trauma or other unresolved psychic issue is passed on from one generation to the next, until the chain is broken. Breaking the chain means bringing the dark into light, making what has been unconscious conscious. That is the job of the living and only we can do that. That is our purpose in life.
Jung writes in the Red Book (RB) “If you live your own life, you do not live the common life, which is always continuing and never ending, the life of history and inalienable and ever-present burdens and products of the human race”. Before we can become who we are meant to be, before we can live our own life, we must descend into the shadow left by those who have gone before us.
If we surrender to the natural movement of the soul, we can and must bring forth pieces of the personal and collective unconscious that need to come into the light. This is growth. This is healing. This is becoming.
The sheer beauty of Jung’s writing in the RB shines forth in this quote and elucidates this thought. See it, hear it with your senses open to the ever-present symbolic reality: ” As a drop in the ocean you take part in the current, ebb and flow. You swell slowly on the land and slowly sink back again…you wander vast distances in blurred currents and wash up on strange shores, not knowing how you got there. You mount the billows of huge storms and are swept back again into the depths….You had thought that your movement came from you and that it needed your decisions and efforts….but with every conceivable effort you would never have achieved that movement and reached those areas to which the sea and the great wind of the world brought you..
From endless blue plains you sink into black depths; luminous fish draw you, marvelous branches twine around from above. You slip through columns and twisting, wavering, dark-leaved plants, and the sea takes you up again in bright green water to white, sandy coasts, and a wave foams you ashore and swallows you back again, and a wide smooth swell lifts you softly and leads you again to new regions, to twisting plants, to slowly creeping slimy polyps, and to green water and white sand and breaking surf.”
At Samhain the veil may be the thinnest, but the work of connecting to the ancestors, of acknowledging the archetypal realities is not over when this sacred night has passed. But it could be the beginning of a new attitude.
Samhain has turned into Halloween. We have learned to slip into a disguise, so we are not recognized by the wandering “evil” spirits. But maybe we want to remember some of the old ways and honor the dead. As Jungian warriors we may want to sit quietly and reflect on what has died within us, what traumas have we inherited from our personal and collective ancestors. What is it in our lives that needs to be faced and owned? Who are the hungry ghosts in our soul? How can their energy be released and transform in the light of consciousness?
Sit quietly ~ there is work to be done on your journey of becoming and it begins in the darkness of this night.
A Blessed Samhain to All
For all new life forms in the dark.
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.
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.
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.