Wednesday, August 24, 2011


The following is an essay to be published in the September-October issue of "The Pathfinder":

Shall We Gather at the River?

The C.G. Jung Society of St. Louis is preparing for its second Jung in the Heartland Conference, November 10-13, 2011. This year the theme is again “Portals to the Sacred.” [Visit for conference details.] In this essay, a precursor to the conference, I want to explore the idea of the sacred by relating it to the notion of the “source.” I will first consider the meaning of the term “source” scientifically and psychologically, then show that we eventually come to a limit of understanding that forces us either to shut down our thinking or to take into account the sacred and the numinous. [By “sacred” I mean anything that evokes veneration from us, and by “numinous,” something exhibiting the power of a divinity.]

To consider what the source refers to in a scientific way, let’s turn to the use of analogy. In the evolutionary development of sight, the eye has been conditioned by light and uses light in its functioning. Without light, there would be no sight, and without sight it is difficult even to imagine light, though it would still exist. Eye and sight have a mutually interdependent relationship. This is the more commonly held view of evolutionary theory. I imagine this view might even be acceptable to creationists who could argue that God works in mysterious and marvelous ways. With either explanation, we come to an unanswerable question: though light might be the source, whence the light? Though we cannot answer that question, we would never deny the existence of light. It is a fact.

Continuing our analogy, it is easy to imagine intelligence having a parallel line of development. Might there be something like universal mind that has developed human intelligence with the interplay of the two similar to light and the eye? Though we can accept the light and eye analogy, the leap to universal mind and human intelligence stretches us beyond intellect to imagine something larger than itself. It is at this juncture that some, unwilling to shut down their thinking, arrive at the shores of the sacred and the numinous. And that brings us to psychology.

In the Jungian view we entertain the hypothesis that there is something like “universal mind,” called the collective unconscious in Jungian psychological theory. An individual consciousness arises from the unconscious and owes its existence to it. Individual consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the unconscious; that is to say, it emerges from the substratum of the unconscious and takes on a structure similar to the unconscious.

Of course, in the development of ego consciousness, conditions of time, place, parenting, education, culture, etc., are also factors of influence over that development. These factors give rise to the personal unconscious, those elements of consciousness unique to the personal history of the individual. Even so, the universal characteristics of the collective unconscious play a huge role. Those characteristics consist of patterns of behavior, archetypes (arche = ancient and typos = imprint) common to everyone. Some of those archetypal patterns are mother, father, journey, birth, rebirth, etc. Every human being has a share in these patterns. Every human being is, more or less, shaped by these patterns.

What can happen (and when it does, it usually happens at midlife) is that the mismatch between the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious creates a felt dissonance in ego consciousness. When this dissonance reaches sufficient amplitude that archetypal elements from the collective unconscious break through and begin to impact ego consciousness, the disturbance in the individual’s life cannot be ignored. A more or less crisis situation develops. This condition creates certain symptoms—restlessness, dissatisfaction, perhaps physical ailments, and undifferentiated but very real suffering. Critical questions arise, the most common being, in the words of the Peggy Lee song, “Is this all there is?”

A psychology that denies the existence of the collective unconscious will treat the symptoms. In terms of my analogy it would be like going to an opthamologist who looks only at the condition of the eye even though the problem may be that the person is wearing blinders. A Jungian-oriented therapist, on the other hand, will focus on helping the individual explore his/her symptoms, strive to understand the dissonance by exploring elements of the personal unconscious that are at odds with the collective patterns of the deep unconscious, and work with the individual to build that critical bridge of understanding between ego consciousness and the collective unconscious. Presumably the therapist, having undergone a depth analysis him/herself, will approach this work with deep empathy and compassion and will know that the attention-getters in the process are those sacred and numinous elements that appear. He/she also knows that experiences of the numinosum change ego consciousness.

The techniques of this work vary. They include careful attention to and exploration of emotions and affects; the living conditions of the individual; his/her relationships; dream images, motifs, and patterns; and the life story. Influential elements from the personal unconscious are explored and understood more fully. The individual examines troublesome psychological defense mechanisms that no longer serve for adaptation so that they can be adjusted or jettisoned and replaced with more mature and appropriate mechanisms.

The therapist keeps in mind the notion of entelechy, the idea that each living organism has inbuilt a blueprint of development attended by life forces that are continually at work to further that development. In Jungian Psychology, we call this force “individuation,” the universal urge for a person to become a unique and undivided individual. However, there clearly are also at work in the unconscious antilibidinal forces that hinder development. It is sometimes the situation that only the therapist can be the tip-weight in the work toward individuation, in a win over antilibidinal forces.

With continuing depth work, archetypal patterns emerge, perhaps THE pattern that most fits the individual, one that affords an optimal line of development. At this level of the work, the client experiences a feeling of “coming home,” an understanding of “Who I am and why I am living this life.” Jung aptly called this experience “amor fati,” a love of one’s own fate.

Notice that this work in a depth analysis proceeds from an experiential basis with no reliance upon religion or dogma or belief. The client need not even entertain the hypotheses of the collective unconscious or individuation, though the therapist must. What is required is that the troubled individual must take him/herself seriously; resist discounting symptoms and seeking easy, quick fixes; and have the courage to see him/herself and his/her circumstances realistically. He/she must follow an inner labyrinthian path made up of elements both rational and irrational. The work is difficult and requires no end of patience from both client and therapist. There are, thankfully, sufficient rewards and consolations along the way to make the endeavor worthwhile. A secret, hidden happiness is often a byproduct of the work.

And that brings us back to the sacred and the numinous. The rewards and consolations often have what can only be called a sacred or numinous cast. This individuation journey, in many ways the real task of life, brings us up against what we cannot understand, cannot know, and cannot ignore. The psychologist and the theologian, the therapist and the client, perhaps on very different paths, arrive at the same place, bowing before something greater than themselves, acknowledging both the sacred and the numinous.

Rose F. Holt
August 4, 2011

[Rose F. Holt, M.A., is a Jungian Psychoanalyst in private practice in St. Louis. She serves as advisory analyst to the board of the C.G. Jung Society of St. Louis and as a training analyst for the Jung Institute of Chicago. She has taught many courses on the topic of Jungian Psychology.]

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