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.
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.
Jung’s Red Book (RB) is a book of extraordinary beauty. Nothing got lost in the reproduction. While I focus here primarily on the images of ideas in the text, it is a treat to spend time with Jung’s paintings, the details of the calligraphic script of the Liber Primus in its medieval manuscript form. Wherever you can, take the chance to take a look at the book! I hope I will eventually find a way of bringing some of the images in here, without infringing on any copyrights. I can read the original in German, which I do in bits and pieces, but it is hard work to decipher Jung’s calligraphic longhand. For the most part I resort to the English translation, which, as far as I can tell, is a brilliant one.
But let me begin at the beginning. The way of what is to come is the heading of the first section of the Liber Primus. Jung speaks “in the spirit of the time”. Each time, each era has a specific “spirit”, a Zeitgeist, that forms our rational mind, morals and values. We are good citizens if we act in accordance to this spirit of the time. The spirit of the time forms our ego-personality and does not question the supremacy of God in the spiritual realm.
But then Jung also speaks of the spirit of the depths that has begun to stir in him. A spirit that “from time immemorial and for all the future possesses a greater power than the spirit if this time” p.229. It was this spirit, irrational, foolish, intoxicating, even ugly (at least from the other spirit’s point of view) that was the motivating, even dictating force behind the RB. Here Jung seems to talk about the spirit of the greater archetypal psyche. A potentially dangerous force if one is possessed by it. Madness, insanity and psychosis loom if this spirit takes over. But this very same spirit of the depths is also the source of all visions, inspiration and greatness and divine bliss that humanity can hope for. It is, in Jungian lingo, the spirit if the Self (with a capital S), which represents and brings forth the God-like nature in mankind, with all its dark and bright aspects.
Jung is a true shaman here. Never identified. Never possessed. Fully aware of the danger of a one way ticket into psychosis, he stays put and moves along where the spirit of the depths ushers him. He made sense of the nonsensical because a NEW VISION was needed. No pain, no gain. No risk, no gain.
Apropos, a new vision. There is a quote from “Flight out of time: A Dada diary” in the RB, which I will repeat here:
“The world and society in 1913 looked like this: life is completely confined and shackled. A kind of economic fatalism prevails; each individual, whether he resists it or not, is assigned a specific role and with it his interests and his character. The church is regarded as a “redemption factory” of little importance, literature is a safety valve……The most burning question day and night is: is there anywhere a force that is strong enough to put an end to this state of affairs? And if not, how can one escape it?”
Now that is a pretty neat quote. I have no problem putting 2009 instead of 1913. Are we not as much in need of a vision for cultural and spiritual renewal as the dadaists observed in 1913? Another question, is it not interesting that the RB is published at a time when we are desperately in need (think 2012!) of a new vision that leads to renewal. In fact our very survival may depend on that. Some might even call that a synchronicity.