Wednesday, August 20, 2008

“Shadow Cornered” by C.G. Jung

By Rose F. Holt, Jungian Psychoanalyst

C.G. Jung (1875-1961)
”One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was a lot of things—psychiatrist, theologian, historian, anthropologist—but above all else, he was an explorer. He explored first his own inner life, his interiority, through what he called his “confrontation with the unconscious,” then he helped many, many of his patients explore their own interiority. All this work was his primary field of research from which he developed a powerful theoretical construct, a “map” for those of us who dare to go on our own voyage into the interior. Today that field of endeavor is called Jungian Psychology or Analytical Psychology.

Before Jung, few people dared go beyond the collective understanding of human nature. Like the maps of old, the collective understanding was edged by mythical monsters, so there was a frightening prohibition against journeying there. The primary function of religions was to protect people from venturing into those areas where the roads ended-- areas of mystery, death, birth, sacred experience. Religious rites and sacraments served as containers for the sacred. They were prescriptions to keep people safe, confined within an area of understanding determined by others and sometimes misused in the interest of power. It was unthinkable, even dangerous, for people to venture on their own without benefit of the shelter of a given religious understanding. There were (and are) severe penalties for those who did so. Some who ventured successfully we remember as mystics, saints, or founders of new religions. They described their discoveries, but until Jung, few could adequately guide others to their own unique and individual discovery of their interiority. Interiority was assigned or assumed by faith and dogma, not discovered.

Jung opened the way for the many. He eventually understood that an early part of the journey is an exploration of one’s personal unconscious—that area of psyche to which experiences, thoughts, feelings, impressions unacceptable to conscious understanding were unwittingly banished. Initially, these unconscious contents reach consciousness through projection, i.e., some quality that rightfully belongs to the individual is assigned to some loved or hated “other.” Through careful attention to one’s feeling reactions, to thoughts, and to dream images and motifs, one can eventually withdraw the projection and begin to integrate this hitherto unacceptable quality—good or bad—into one’s own personality. Such withdrawal requires humility in accepting what was unacceptable and a sense of responsibility for either managing or developing the newly-discovered quality. No wonder, then, that many of us shirk the duty to work toward increased consciousness!

With continued work on oneself, these personal unconscious contents become more differentiated. There will be the projections onto people of the same gender, of the opposite gender, onto heroes and hags, onto saviors and demons. Once this clearing out of the personal unconscious is more or less complete, an entirely new territory begins to show itself, the collective unconscious, as Jung called it.

Jung demonstrated that all humankind shares not just a collective consciousness but also a collective UNconsciousness. In the territory of the collective unconscious one finds the archetypal [arche = ancient and typos = imprint] images, motifs and patterns that underlie the common experience of humankind. It is a collective heritage to which everyone may lay claim. For Jung archetypes are simply the typical patterns of human behavior. Some important ones include the journey, mother, father, the hero, home, the child, birth, the savior, king, queen. Underlying all other archetypes, Jung describes the central organizing principle of the psyche and of individuality—the Self. It is the Self that gives rise to consciousness and our sense of individual existence.

An important tool in one’s journey into interiority is the dream. Like a key, the dream has no logic to its shape. Its logic is that it turns the lock. An example might be a dream in which a loved one dies. Taken at face value the dream is disturbing, even terrifying. Like a key, however, a symbolic understanding might allow the dreamer to “open” a message that something ‘alive’ in the unconscious has died, i.e., is no longer active there. Whatever energy the figure represented might now be available to the dreamer on a more conscious level and, therefore, more amenable to the will. Same dream, vastly different approaches to it, vastly different effect on the dreamer. In working with dreams we make a kind of "Pascal's Wager." We can't know with certitude what a dream means. Therefore, let's wager on a meaning that promotes growth and enhances life because we have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Jung demonstrated clearly that dreams carry messages from the unconscious to consciousness, and they do so in a manner finely tuned to the attitudes, needs, and desires of the dreamer. Attitude is of critical importance. The dream messenger is Janus-faced. If one dismisses the dream as unimportant or irrelevant, that is just what dreams become. However, if one takes dreams seriously and pays attention to them, dreams speak with increasing and sometimes astonishing clarity.

If one thinks about all this, it makes very good sense. Humankind has always and everywhere felt the need for story. Dreams are primarily story. They can be extremely important because they are deeply personal and capable of providing meaning and value to the individual. Research has shown that, deprived of dream sleep, an individual will become ill in a very short time. Almost everyone has had an impressive, unforgettable, even numinous dream. Almost everyone has had the experience of waking in a particular mood determined by a dream. The old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” particularly applies in working with dream images. It hardly needs be said that dreams have always been an important component of psychic life and development. Only we moderns, with our “not invented here, therefore not of value” attitude, have denigrated the dream.

When one has ventured deeply enough into one’s own interiority that archetypal patterns, figures, and motifs begin to appear, something happens of singular importance. One begins to experience healing—often illusive, difficult to explain or prove, but definitively a feeling of wellness. In religious terms, this feeling is characterized by the word “salvation,” or as something akin to “God’s in his/her heaven, all’s right with the world,” but viewed experientially the feeling is a psychological fact. One’s life becomes imbued with meaning and purpose, and even a seemingly mundane existence takes on great value to one gifted in this way.

Jung writes poetically about this state:

“The state of imperfect transformation, merely hoped for and waited for, does not seem to be one of torment only, but of positive, if hidden happiness. It is the state of someone who, in his/her wanderings among the mazes of his/her psychic transformation comes upon a secret happiness which reconciles him/her to his/her apparent loneliness. In communing with him/herself, he/she finds not deadly boredom and melancholy but an inner partner, more than that, a relationship that seems like a secret love, or like a hidden springtime, when the green seed sprouts from the barren earth, holding out the promise of future harvests.” [From Vol. 14, Mysterium Coniunctionis, Para. 623, modified slightly in the interest of inclusive language.]

I think Jung is describing here the state of someone who has glimpsed that the Self is at work in his/her life and is sustained by that glimpse.

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