Spiritual Struggles

Spirituality and Therapy

Struggles with spirituality or religion often cause significant emotional and psychological distress. I’ve worked with many clients who feel profoundly troubled by questions of spirit. However you define these questions, whether in a Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, pagan, atheist, agnostic, or any way, something about human nature wants to ask about the nature of soul, spirit, God, or other realities that we know very little about but find ourselves deeply curious to discover.

While certain individuals don’t seem so oriented to spiritual concerns, at least until trauma, illness, or the prospect of death comes up in their lives, others were either born wondering about these concerns or were brought up in families or religious communities that put spiritual questions at the forefront of consciousness.

So why and how do spiritual concerns become struggles that can cause a person to suffer emotionally? This is a complex question, but let’s consider a few of the reasons. We live in a culture dominated by the success of the natural sciences and an awareness of the historical origins of religions. Both of these tend to make us uncertain about the “old time religion” that we may have grown up with. What seemed like clear and certain knowledge of who God is and how to know God, for example, may crumble when a person starts studying the world through the lens of natural science.

Suddenly questions come up, such as whether what we call God might be the result of certain structures in the human brain that create an image of an ultimate reality. Or we start seeing that the holy scriptures of our religion contain contradictory information if read in a very literal way, and this shakes our faith. We don’t know what to believe anymore. Or the spiritual leaders we had trusted end up betraying our trust in some way, and we are left in a crisis of faith. Or it dawns on us that something we took for granted, for example a moral teaching on sexuality, has actually caused a great deal of unnecessary suffering.

Pushed further, a person of faith may begin to doubt that the God they trusted is really so trustworthy after all. I remember when I was studying theology in graduate school in my 20s, we had a professor who taught a course on theology after the holocaust. How are we to make sense of God, or are we, in a world where horrors beyond our imagining take place? This is an intensified form of what used to be called “the problem of evil.”

These days, especially in a town like Portland, many people explore spirituality outside of the major world religions. Westernized forms of various eastern traditions, such as meditation and yoga practices attract many seekers. Yet my clients sometimes struggle in these communities too. They may constantly seek for the true path that they hope will relieve them of life-long emotional struggles, and the constant seeking itself becomes a problem. Or they may beat themselves up for falling short of some imagined, perfectionistic standard of true meditation, for instance.

The many gurus that have sprouted up sometimes cause a lot of harm to their devotees as well. We would all like to idealize someone, a powerful figure who promises to deliver us from our problems. And it may work for awhile, but often the guru or teacher later is exposed as a mere human being, and is sometimes even abusive in the realms of money, power, or sex, and followers end up disillusioned and despairing.

More “pop” versions of New Age spirituality tend to commercialize the spirit. Every new method has a trademark, and turns into a profit-making system. They may promise to help you transcend the anxieties and struggles of living in the world. They may fantasize about escaping the limitations that we all suffer. Illness becomes something you should be able to visualize your way out of, and when you can’t cure yourself, you feel doubly guilty for somehow not being conscious enough, and you end up in a depression.

I studied philosophy and religion before I got interested in clinical psychology, and so I’m quite familiar with all of these questions and searchings, both from an intellectual standpoint, and from my own personal experience wondering and seeking answers to the questions that we all find ourselves asking about the nature of things.

I favor an open attitude to these questions. Wondering and questioning, in my view, are far more interesting than pretending absolute knowledge, or thinking we can pin God or Reality or the Cosmos down in a formula of doctrines. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said that by nature we desire to know, but that this desire begins in wonder, and every question we answer leads to further questions! By shifting our focus from attaining certainty to lingering in our wondering and curiosity, we enter a far richer landscape, and one where we don’t get so caught in impossible dilemmas that can quite literally drive us mad.

True faith opens us to an infinite horizon that will never cease to stimulate our wondering nature and lead to further and further questioning. For me, living in this space is the essence of spiritual transformation.

Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 13

renewal of myth and Jung

“Unfortunately, the mythic side of man is given short shrift nowadays. He can no longer create fables. As a result, a great deal escapes him; it is important and salutory to speak also of incomprehensible things.”  -C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 331.

There’s far more weight to this quote than first meets the eye. To cut right to heart of it, we no longer speak of what we cannot comprehend with our minds–the “incomprehensible.” Think of all the important things that this excludes. It excludes the divine, the soul, the origin of the cosmos, the experience of love, the archetypes, death and the hereafter… shall I go on? Even the great philosopher Plato blended mythologizing into his quest to understand. He created philosophical myths as approaches to what lies beyond our limited scope. Jung isn’t anti-rational. He’s simply saying that so much of ultimate importance lies beyond reason’s ability to understand. Modern human beings live within a closed horizon of our own undoing. Part of the continued appeal of Jung’s work consists in his return to the psychological experiences of the individual–the myth-making capacity of dreams and the storytelling of our waking fantasies. We have not evolved out of our need to mythologize as some have suggested. We are only hamstrung for the moment, still top-heavy with Enlightenment rationalism, human rationality as the measure of reality, the ego’s revolt against reality as it is rather than as we’d like it to be. So… keep dreaming and imagining! When you do, you’re exercising healthy rebellion against the pathology of our age and making a space in which the gods may return.

Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 12

“A man who has not passed through the inferno of his passions has never overcome them. They then dwell in the house next door, and at any moment a flame may dart out and set fire to his own house. Whenever we give up, leave behind, and forget too much, there is always the danger that the things we have neglected will return with added force.”  -C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 307.

This is a common theme in Jung–the return of the neglected with added force. He even has a fancy name for it, enantiodromia. The quote above occurs in a section where Jung is discussing his travels to India and his reactions and reflections to Indian philosophy and religion. The Christian, he says earlier, demands good from himself and rejects evil, while the Indian strives to experience his nature as it exists outside of good and evil. It seems to me that Jung finds something to argue with in both these perspectives. Cast out evil entirely, and it is liable to return with even greater demonic force. Cast out passionate engagement in the moral struggle of good and evil, and the passions are liable to return and burn the house down. I like this skepticism about absolute standpoints, because it seems to reflect reality. We’ve all known the morally perfect person who requires those around him to carry his incredible darkness. We’ve all known the person who seems to exist beyond the passions but secretly harbors perverse passions or collects troubled companions on which to project his disavowed humanity.

Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 11

Portland counseling

“On the other hand, a characteristic of childhood is that, thanks to its naïveté and unconsciousness, it sketches a more complete picture of the self, of the whole man in his pure individuality, than adulthood. Consequently, the sight of a child or a primitive will arouse certain longings in adult, civilised persons–longings which relate to the unfulfilled desires and needs of those parts of the personality which have been blotted out of the total picture in favour of the adopted persona.” -C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 273

I often wonder where spontaneous feelings of longing come from. Maybe this is one source. Each unique person has a lot of aspects to him or her that don’t get to be in play. These parts even get banished. The “mature” person has to get rid of them, because they cause trouble. They don’t comply with the dominant paradigm of self required to adapt to the world’s demands. Only trouble is, some of them are very worthwhile and want to be lived. Not living them out creates a deep sense of loss that may not even be identifiable. Interesting developments often occur when a person follows these longings, which can be seen as beckonings towards something important that has been lost.

Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 10

portland counseling

“Reforms by advances, that is, by new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and in any case dearly paid for. They by no means increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole. Mostly, they are deceptive sweetenings of existence, like speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time than ever before.” -C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 264

Maybe we should substitute “devices” for the word “gadgets” in the above quote. I feel very mixed sometimes about how easily I’ve accepted digital devices into every aspect of my life. It’s remarkable how my thinking and my time have been rewired as a result, and mostly I go around with only a vague sense that something isn’t right, that subtle damage is being done, despite the benefits. Jung is right to point to the unpleasant acceleration of life’s tempo–the faster we communicate, and the more “information” we process, the more we have lost time in its expansive sense, and the less we really know. How many moments in our day offer a sense of fullness and presence? The benefits of advances always exact a price. I am imagining Jung still sitting in his tower at Bollingen, cooking over an open fire and reading by lamplight, asking us progress-hungry moderns to think twice about our own sanity. It’s at least worth finding moments in which to recollect ourselves to real presence.

Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 9

Portland Therapy

“Only after I had familiarized myself with alchemy did I realize that the unconscious is a process, and that the psyche is transformed or developed by the relationship of the ego to the contents of the unconscious. In individual cases that transformation can be read from dreams and fantasies. In collective life it has left its deposit principally in the various religious systems and their changing symbols. Through the study of these collective transformation processes and through understanding of alchemical symbolism I arrived at the central concept of my psychology: the process of individuation.” -C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 235.

Sea change. Your psyche isn’t a fixed entity. It’s unfinished business–it goes through transformations. Look closely, and you’ll notice that the symbols that come up in your dreams and fantasies express these transformations. Jung says he found parallels to these processes in myths and religions and even the obscurities of alchemy. Turns out something discernable is going on in us, something that creates changes in recognizable patterns and that issues forth a changed you…an individuated you. Maybe there is something to trust in this individuating. I hope so. I’m counting on it!

Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 8


“It was then that I dedicated myself to the service of the psyche. I loved it and hated it, but it was my greatest wealth. My delivering myself over to it, as it were, was the only way by which I could endure my existence and live it as fully as possible.” -C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 217.

When I reread these sentences, I thought to myself what better statement of Jung living out the call of his daimon. The daimon is a metaphorically real being who instigates a person’s living out a destiny peculiar to that individual. The daimon might appear, as it did to Socrates, as an inner voice communicating things not know by the conscious personality. It drives a person, often, and is by no means without danger. The point is to have a stance vis-a-vis the daimon and not to take a slavish role, but also to pay attention to that sense of a push from inside. What wants to push forward into being in this one life you have?

Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 7

therapy relationship

“For psychotherapy to be effective a close rapport is needed, so close that the doctor cannot shut his eyes to the heights and depths of human suffering. The rapport consists, after all, in a constant comparison and mutual comprehension, in the dialectical confrontation of two opposing psychic realities. If for some reason these mutual impressions do not impinge on each other, the psychotherapeutic process remains ineffective, and no change is produced. Unless both doctor and patient become a problem to each other, no solution is found.” -C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 167.

These sentences remind me of times earlier in my life where I sought out the help of a psychotherapist, but found myself across from a clinician who did not intend to see me or my suffering. What an alienating experience. Fortunately, soon I found someone who made room for me and what I was going through and allowed my experience to impact her. I’m always shocked to hear from clients about negative therapy experiences they’ve had in the past. Really, they said what to you?! It takes emotional energy and focus on the part of the therapist to let the client’s suffering in. It’s not an option to remain separate, unaffected. As Jung says, therapy brings together two psyches and creates a vessel in which profound changes can begin to take place. Such a relief to be heard….

Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 6

Portland Therapy lighthouse

“Years ago I once drew up statistics on the results of my treatments. I no longer recall the figures exactly; but, on a conservative estimate, a third of my cases were really cured, a third considerably improved, and a third not essentially influenced. But it is precisely the unimproved cases which are hardest to judge, because many things are not realized and understood by the patients until years afterwards, and only then can they take effect. How often former patients have written to me: ‘I did not realize what it was really all about until ten years after I had been with you.” -C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 165.

Jung’s words here don’t sit well with the ego’s desire to be in control of outcomes from our psychological work. It’s a reasonable desire, though things tend to unfold in ways beyond our control, or even our capacity to understand. So much about our individuating remains a mystery. What a relief, really! Feel the release of not having to take all of the responsibility! Interesting too that Jung imagines seeds being sown during therapy that only years later sprout above ground. I’ve noticed this in my own therapy experiences as well as with clients at times. Try telling that to a mental health insurance company! Think of your personal development as an adventure that is unpredicable and exciting. Let your symptoms lead you to answers that you have an inkling of already but haven’t fully embraced.

Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 5


Mt. Hood

“Therapy is different in every case. When a doctor tells me that he adheres strictly to this or that method, I have my doubts about his therapeutic effect. So much is said in the literature about the resistance of the patient that it would almost seem as if the doctor were trying to put something over on him, whereas the cure ought to grow naturally out of the patient himself.” C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, pp. 152-3.

Is there a method in this madness? We might well ask that question about psychotherapy. After all, we’re trying to get down to the deep forces in a person’s psyche and create lasting shifts and hopefully stimulate a cure that, like Jung says, grows out of the individual personality. This process may not be quite so neat and clean as some therapies out there that basically follow a manual, a treatment plan devised somewhere by some researcher and applied to you the individual because your symptoms match a certain category like depression or anxiety. Yet personally I find that the changes that come out of Jung’s “natural cure” are more trustworthy. They tend to stick, in other words. I like what Jung is offering here–that depth psychotherapy involves the whole person in a very individual process of coming into being. He certainly lived this process of individuation out in his own life.