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
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.