Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 4

“In many cases in psychiatry, the patient who comes to us has a story that is not told, and which as a rule no one knows of. To my mind, therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal story…. In therapy the problem is always the whole person, never the symptom alone. We must ask questions which challenge the whole personality.” C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 138.

How often is the actual story of the patient ignored by “mental health providers” today? Jung makes this claim that therapy only begins with the personal story after relating an unusual case from early in his days as a psychiatrist for inpatients. He tells of a woman patient admitted with depressive symptoms. She gets diagnosed schizophrenic and is given a poor prognosis. Jung decides to develop a relationship with her and see if he can elicit her story. Turns out she has a terrible secret that lived in her and began destroying her psychologically. Once they get to what is tormenting her, she recovers and leaves the hospital.

We are each a complex amalgam of factors, from genetic predisposition to emotion to spirituality and everything in between. Therapy has to let in all the factors, and the whole person, who is greater than the sum of those factors.

Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 3

Moon over ocean

“There was an enormous difference between my mother’s two personalities. That was why as a child I often had anxiety dreams about her. By day she was a loving mother, but at night she seemed uncanny. Then she was like one of those seers who is at the same time a strange animal, like a priestess in a bear’s cave. Archaic and ruthless; ruthless as truth and nature. At such moments she was the embodiment of what I have called the ‘natural mind.'” C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 67

Jung perceived this “other” personality in his mother: not the solid Christian believer and pastor’s wife and benevolent mother, but a personality more akin to nature itself. Wild like an animal, unconcerned with saving the appearances, connected to reality in a more direct, less civilized way. How many children, I wonder, sense what exists under the surface in a parent? I also wonder how this experience with mother’s archaic self predisposed Jung to his own deep connection with the natural mind.

Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 2

Sacred Fire

Continuing a series of quotes from Jung’s autobiography: “I also recall from this period (seven to nine) that I was fond of playing with fire. In our garden there was an old wall built of large blocks of stone, the interstices of which made interesting caves. I used to tend a little fire in one of these caves, with other children helping me; a fire that had to burn forever and therefore had to be constantly maintained by our united efforts, which consisted in gathering the necessary wood. No one but myself was allowed to tend this fire. Others could light other fires in other caves, but these fires were profane and did not concern me. My fire alone was living and had an unmistakable aura of sanctity.” C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 35

Remarkable how naturally the child enters the space of the sacred and discovers what it feels like to experience the holy. This is a story from Jung’s childhood. It seems to mirror Jung’s lifelong compulsion to bear a living flame into the darker nooks of the unconscious. Do you remember a similar story from your childhood? Did you have a sacred place in the woods? Did you follow mysterious paths along cold streams? Was there a sacred object that possessed incredible importance when you were a child? And where now do you get to step over the threshold into a different space that nourishes your soul? Let the sacred make a demand on you. Rediscover its importance.


Jung’s Memories Dreams Reflections 1

Individuation tree

“My life is a story of the self-realisation of the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself as a whole. I cannot emply the language of science to trace this process of growth in myself, for I cannot experience myself as a scientific problem.” – C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 17.

Jung begins his autobiographical reflections with a concise statement of the notion of individuation. The person you become grows up from and out of the rich soil of the psyche. Perhaps some hidden pattern runs like intricate roots through your life. What is the push inside you? What wants to come forward? What wants to feel the impact of confronting the world and be transformed? “I cannot experience myself as a scientific problem.” Coming from the inside. Remembering, dreaming, reflecting, desiring, longing, wondering…not so much knowing.

Exploring Depth Psychotherapy

pathway to the psyche

Here’s a start to a few blog entries exploring important aspects of psychotherapy as practiced by depth psychologists of various stripes.
Let’s assume a basic working definition of depth psychotherapy. Let’s assume that it’s a form of therapy that goes out of its way to include the unconscious psyche in treatment. By unconscious psyche we mean at minimum certain dynamic patterns that are always at play beneath the surface of our awareness. Let’s assume that engaging the psyche stimulates growth and movement and often helps to ease problematic symptoms of emotional suffering.

So how does a therapist go about engaging the psyche? Truth is, there are lots of ways. There are lots of schools of thought in the history of depth psychotherapy, each with its own opinion about how this should be done. Today, as neuro-mania (the reduction of all psychological experience to brain phenomena) reveals its limits both as theory and treatment in psychiatry, renewed interest in the depths of the psyche is creating excitement as psychology begins to re-balance its lopsided though important focus on brain and behavior.

The best place to start exploring is the therapeutic relationship. Someone comes to therapy, usually in a state of suffering and concern. Something in the suffering–the symptoms–expresses the individual’s difficulty. I’ve found that it’s rare that people will seek out and commit to psychotherapy when they are feeling okay. Maybe they begin in a state of crisis and difficulty, and then begin to feel better, and continue therapy for the sake of further personal development, but it usually takes a painful difficulty, or symptoms, or a loss, or an illness, or a life crisis to bring a person into my office to begin an adventure of self-discovery and renewal.

The relationship of therapist and client therefore includes this aspect of seeking help, wanting relief and healing. At the same time, it’s odd to say yet definitely true that most people are ambivalent about the very same changes they long for. I can say this based on my experience both as a therapist and as a client! There’s something scary about change, apparently. Sometimes this is called resistance. Forces for change are mobilized, but so are forces against change. This is normal, and a good therapist makes room for ambivalence and facilitates change at the pace the client is okay with.

One fundamental gain in psychotherapy is the experience that the client has of being seen and understood. Having a hard time brings isolation, and most of us tend to hide the less fun aspects of our lives. Who wants to hear that? we say to ourselves. Or we try to share what’s going on, but it’s too much for our friends and families to handle, or seems to be. That’s why a depth psychologist will try and provide the kind of safe container that welcomes all of the client’s conscious and unconscious parts into the mix.

One final note for now: I’ve noticed over the years that many people in my office feel a deep longing that is almost unspeakable. Something is missing. It’s hard to say exactly what, but there is a felt sense of lack, and a heartache. I’m not saying therapy necessarily is the answer to this longing, but it can be surprisingly effective is accessing the longing and can even change the way a person gets to bring it into the world outside. Deep desire can lead to interesting transformations that ripple outward through a life. Transformation can happen from the inside – out. Inside the therapy office to outside in the world. Inside the inner self to outside in outer behaviors.

I will save this inner – outer dynamic for another post.


Breaking Bad as a Fairy Tale

The hit television series Breaking Bad begins its celebrated five-year run with a crossing of the threshold between this world and the other. This is no ordinary crossing. Like any truly initiatory experience, it is catastrophic. It takes the lead character and anti-hero, Walt, and ruptures the tender web of his human reality. This web normally protects us from confronting the primitive forces that live in the underworld. That we also want to contact these forces explains the show’s popularity.

When he breaks bad by turning from milque-toast chemistry teacher to crystal meth manufacturer, killer, and drug lord, Walt suffers an initiation. Faced as he is with a likely terminal cancer diagnosis, a son with a disability, a seemingly banal wife, a humiliating failure to live his full potential as a chemist, and the old heartbreak of a woman leaving him for his best friend, what’s to lose by turning to crime and profiting by it and becoming powerful instead of weak? Like Nietzsche he peers into a realm beyond good and evil. He sees the will to power, Machiavellian machinations, and the psychopathic failure of empathy as fundamental constituents of the world. Why then should he keep playing by civilized rules? Why be so nice? Why not break bad and enter the world that is already there just under the surface of the civilized? Seize riches. Take control. Demand compensation from the cold world that deals us afflictions without cause.

By crossing this threshold, Walt and the show itself enter the underworld. This is the same underworld as that induced by the classic fairy tales, which von Franz considers the purest literary expression of the unconscious psyche. As in fairy tales, so in Breaking Bad: the normal rules don’t apply, and certain horrible, unspeakable things happen. A man’s severed head rides across the desert on a turtle and explodes, killing and maiming DEA agents. The psychopath Tuco beats his bodyguard and friend to death just for the rush of it. In the classic fairy tale Fitcher’s Bird, a nobleman imprisons, murders, and dismembers a series of brides, and is later burned to death in his castle as punishment. Our dreams also act this bloody way sometimes, and the effect on us can be similar to the effect of watching a show like Breaking Bad, or of reading a fairy tale. Something in us breaks, and we see more, or we see differently. We see more clearly when we peer into dark places. We begin to notice, for example, the hidden ways that nice people aren’t so nice after all. We begin to understand that the cover story is not the real story. Even our best motivations are mixed up with shadowy parts of the psyche.

Initiation costs something. Or put another way, it wounds. Walt for a long time carries his breakage alone. No one else in his family is to know. It’s a heavy burden for the post-christian pilgrim to bear as he navigates his new world. He has to maintain the split and keep his day world friends and family away from his night world associates and activities. Eventually his wife joins him there in the underworld and crosses into her own badness. There is a certain intimacy then in their encounters with each other, since the illusions have been broken like false idols. On the other hand, relationship no longer even pretends to be based in empathic connection, and there is profound disillusionment and loneliness as characters face each other like Machiavellian princes vying to secure their own aims.

As the show progresses, Walt descends further and further down a spiral that recollects Dante’s infernal descent. Killing out of self-defense becomes premeditated murder in time. At one point, the viewer realizes, with nausea, that it was Walt who poisoned a young boy as part of a devilish plot to win the game of life and death. He has crossed still further, deeper, even demonic. We see that Walt vitiates all limits on the sins he will commit in order to survive. There is no higher principle than survival and dominance worth sacrificing oneself for in this world he’s entered. He is both more free and more caught as the show moves on. Each choice entangles him more deeply and forces him to even more destructive acts of violence and manipulation. We watch as he lets business partner Jesse’s girlfriend die, choking on her own vomit in a drugged out state, choosing her death over risking her bad influence on Jessie’s reliability as his dealer. This is the decision of a man who sees an individual human life as having a calculable value relative to his own aims.

Disgust is a natural reaction to some of these scenes. What else, I wonder? Does it secretly make us envious to witness someone able to act without remorse? I’ve read that we envy the psychopath even as we hate him and do not want to become him. Walt is not a pure psychopath, but in his empathy-free moments of psychopathy he acts with a calculating coldness that embodies an apparent freedom from conscience, which after all does bind us. Most of us go around much of the time full of various neurotic conflicts inside surrounding decisions, even minor ones, for which we feel guilty or conflicted. As everyone can see, the socially adjusted psychopath is often eminently successful in the business world or any world where ruthlessness and being an excellent bullshit artist go a long way. He has the advantage. He’s not bound by the usual rules and will not allow himself to be limited by feeling for the other. As a result, he lacks the neuroticism of the civilized individual.

He suffers, however, in even more awful ways, whether he knows it or not, and Walt suffers more and more too, though he is all too aware of his brokenness, at times. Freud somewhere speaks of unconscious suffering. Maybe the psychopath suffers in this way–in a sense, an inability to suffer is his problem. Unable to make contact with his own wound, he is an empty soul, to use Guggenbuhl-Craig’s term for him. In any case, the show exerts its fascination on viewers by functioning as a fairy tale and giving us glimpses of what lies below. It feeds our paradoxical appetite for what we hate to see about the world’s ugliness. It’s a work of the imagination, and I think more a fairy tale than a morality story, or a work of social commentary. Its success cannot be explained in day world terms, because it is a night world event–a true liminal space.

Dream On

We depth psychologists talk a lot about dreams. But what is it to dream? And what is it not to dream?

Psychoanalyst Thomas Ogden has this to say in “On not Being Able to Dream”: “Much has been written on what dreams mean; relatively little on what it means to dream; and still less on what it means not to be able to dream.” He goes on to tell about Wilfred Bion’s notion that the activity of dreaming is more fundamental than we normally think.

Dreaming is not identical to the “dreams” we wake up remembering. Instead, when we are functioning well, dreaming is happening all of the time, waking or sleeping. It is the unconscious psychological work of linking elements of experience that have been stored in memory. Dreaming makes sense of our emotional realities by making these links and giving elements of experience form. This can take place while we are sleeping, and it can take place while we are awake.

I remember consulting with a very experienced psychoanalyst a few years ago about cases. I asked him how he worked with dreams in his own practice, with his own clients. He said that his approach had changed over time. Now, he said, he thought of each session itself as a kind of dreaming. In other words, each session enters the space of making associations, links, and playing with meanings. Client and therapist dream up the session together and so engage in learning from experience.

In this view, the background experiences held in memory are raw ingredients. We can’t digest experience without first dreaming it. The act of dreaming cooks the raw ingredients. It creates a meal that we can eat and share with others.

Bad things happen when we can’t dream. At the extreme, some individuals become unable to dream when in a psychotic state. Psychological digestion is disturbed, and the results can be catastrophic. For most of us, there may be moments of failing to dream–aspects of self and world that we choke on and need help to swallow and metabolize. That’s where psychotherapy comes in and creates a vessel for this alchemical work.

The Chronic

With apologies to my esteemed colleague Dr. Dre, I want to reflect a moment on what I’ll call the chronic. It’s not an easy or entirely pleasant topic. Following Dr. Jung, however, I hope to bring my tiny light into dark regions.

By the chronic I mean what persists despite our best efforts. What doesn’t go away. Old habits persist despite yearly resolutions. Relational dynamics persist. I want you to change; you want me to change; here we are, essentially the same as ever. We call health problems chronic when they won’t go away completely. Poverty and violence and other social problems certainly resist change. You get the notion.

All sorts of changes occur, of course, and therapy and other measures create profound changes, if not always what we expected or thought we wanted. But essential natures, inborn, incurable propensities and aversions, tend to exert considerable force against our heroic attempts to conquer them. I feel that I am breaking a taboo when I write this. What is more dear to us ‘Americans’ than the potential for self-transcendence? To overcome the self and its chronic conditions. It’s part of our charm to embody the potential for the new, the innocent, the hopeful. I like this and embrace it, yet sometimes reality intrudes on this very American fantasy.

To step back further, consider the quest in our country’s history to overcome ourselves. One of my favorite college courses investigated novelists from the States who returned to old world countries in an attempt, I think, to find something lost, and also to lose innocence, to revisit the shadows of ancestral lands. Many immigrants to the new world were deeply religious and intent on building a new Zion, an ocean away from the old world and its persecution, its wars, its tyrannies. All of the old chronic conditions of the old world. A new, self-transcending human being would be the citizen of this new city.

Hopping along the arc of analogy, consider now the quest for self-realization embodied and popularized in humanistic psychologies developed largely in our country. Here again we often find a struggle to overcome the chronic conditions of the self and its environment. The leap from priest to psychologist isn’t far: from preacher of repentance and new life to mentor of self-realization.

Next consider a counterfoil to these transcendental threads in our culture: According to Jung’s psychology, the dialectical development of the self in relation to the unconscious psyche demands at certain stages a loss of innocence towards reality. Things are as they are; the self is as it is; experience comes unbidden, and often frustrates our wishes. There exists a perennial blindness towards things as they are, personally and culturally, when things as they are do not suit our plans. The ego has to suffer this loss of innocence, and feel this defeat at times in order to continue developing in relation to the different parts of the psyche.

Unpleasant as this can be, it can generate a freedom to enjoy an enlivening relationship to the creative, archetypal forces in the psyche. The ego gets dethroned. We get busted out of the narcissistic prisons that we had created in an attempt to make things a little safer, and to soften the impact of life’s chronic difficulties.

I think of Jung’s famous definition of God: “God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse.

Cracked open, experience becomes more expansive to include a fuller palette for self and other. Why? I don’t know, but perhaps the self is no longer unconscious opponent, oppressor, saboteur of our attempts to transcend it. The game is up. Creative types report feeling that during periods of inspiration and artistic work, other forces besides the ego are in play. I hope that what comes is a less fraught experience of one’s own nature, its depths, its curious unfolding, its contentious relationship with itself, and its struggle to define and refine itself over the course of a lifetime.


To Reveal To Conceal

“Reason is emotion’s slave and exists to rationalize emotional experience. Sometimes the function of speech is to communicate experience to another; sometimes it is to miscommunicate experience to another. Sometimes the object is to achieve access to, and permit access from, a good spirit; conversely, to deny access to a bad spirit.”

These sentences appear on the first pages of psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion’s book, Attention and Interpretation. Speech is not a simple matter of communicating something true to another. To reveal, and to conceal, and endless combinations of the two, with varying degrees of conscious intentionality, is the way things go. Bion is speaking in particular of the psychoanalytic situation, a certain kind of place, and relationship, and method of proceeding. To say that reason is emotion’s slave is a hard saying for me to stomach, given my background in philosophy. On the other hand, my reason indicates to me that Bion is right to a greater extent than is comfortable to admit.

I find strange comfort in this troubling news.

Here’s why, or here is my attempt to conceal and reveal the why. To begin, I must let you in on a little twisty journey my thinking and feeling has taken in the past few weeks.

I was re-reading Saul Bellow’s novel, Humboldt’s Gift, a favorite that I read in my 20s, I think, and immediately knew as one of those novels that would return to me over the years to put certain questions and thoughts to the fore and hopefully deepen my sense of the real. So anyway, I was reading and found that the main character, Charlie Citrine, constantly refers to Austrian mystic, philosopher, and founder of the “spiritual science” and the popular movements of anthroposophy and Waldorf schooling, Rudolf Steiner. Steiner wrote prolifically about his spiritual experiences, and Charlie finds himself drawn into Steinerian meditative exercises aimed at perceiving spiritual beings, and (thus for Charlie) overcoming the disenchanted materialism of modernity and its soulless world of matter-in-motion. I read a bit of Steiner myself after encountering Charlie’s interest, but so far haven’t been able to dig it. I feel like Steiner is pulling spiritual fantasies out of the unconscious (fine with me), but calling them literal realities, truths that can be known directly by the initiate. I have trouble with that sort of move on many levels that I won’t go into now.

Then I picked up a copy of Saul Bellow’s Letters, and found that he had carried on a correspondence with Owen Barfield–a Steinerian anthroposophist himself–on spiritual and other matters. Barfield was one of the Inklings–the Oxford-based group of writers that included J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and C.S. Lewis. I have known about him for many years, but never explored his writings in depth. In these letters (don’t you miss actual letters?) and in his fascinating books, Barfield turns out to be the more intelligent exponent of the spiritual views that may originate in Steiner, though, as C.G. Jung notes, most of what you find in anthroposophy or theosophy you can find in the ancient Indian scriptures.

Barfield specializes in “thinking about thinking,” to use his own phrase. He is also (like the other Inklings) trying to rediscover something lost to modernity and our way of apprehending reality. He finds a way to understand the world itself as animated and in fact conscious. In a word, his world is ensouled.

Rather abruptly, back to Bion. What is this talk of “good spirit” and “bad spirit”? I am so curious that he chooses these words, in a work that wants to bring precision to psychoanalytic speech. He does not elaborate the choice in these pages. For me the word spirit in this context evokes the uncanny. I imagine a hidden space, and an intense desire to invite another into this space, and at the very same moment an intense desire to block access at all costs.

In other words, I imagine an irrational moment. What struck me about Steiner and Barfield was a wish to make it all conscious, to evolve to a spiritually enlightened state and progressively reveal mysteries. Where is the irrational in this? Where is that which forever resists attempts to colonize it and know it and progress beyond it? My own sense is that the irrational factor is the very factor necessary for the ensoulment of the world. Without it, language would conquer and illuminate everything, leaving no place for unknowing, and thus no place for wonder, symbol, and relationship to the mysterious other outside oneself.

Ambivalence and the Opposites

Yes and No.

On the one hand, this. On the other hand, that.

I’ve been thinking about ambivalence lately–about its pervasiveness and persistence, despite our genuine hatred of its reality in our lives. Something at the core of us appears to long for simplicity, not complexity. How restful it would be to release from the struggle of our emotional realities and our conflicts. Holding the tension of opposing thoughts, feelings, and images takes psychological effort, and in Jung’s psychology, contributes to a person’s coming into being as an individuated self.

I am reminded of something my teacher of ancient Greek said during my graduate studies. He pointed out how in the literature we were translating, the Greeks loved to structure their language with oppositions. “On the one hand,” they would begin and elaborate one point. “On the other hand,” they would continue later and present an opposing line of thinking. There was a kind of delight and playfulness in this way of elaborating thoughts. One didn’t necessarily expect to come to an absolute yes or no. No final solution. No ultimate redemption.

If I am right that ambivalence is a permanent condition for which there is no cure, then it becomes important to consider changing our relationship to holding the tension of opposites. What if we hold a more playful, curious, and emotionally present stance towards our conflicts?–the yes and no, the love and hate, the faith and doubt that keep happening, sometimes despite our best efforts to overcome our humanness.

My sense is that such a stance helps things to get unstuck, and when things get unstuck, I think that unnecessary suffering decreases. There is more room for us to come into being with our full complexity, and though not entirely comfortable, this process can be deeply satisfying.