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 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 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.

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.

Behind Shades

Sunglasses have a way of showing up in odd places, in songs or interpersonal encounters or photos of public figures. “Cheap Sunglasses” by ZZ Top. The image of Ray Charles. A friend whose eyes are hidden behind dark lenses. Other characters who live mysteriously behind shades.

Recently I lost my regular prescription eyeglasses and had to rely solely on my prescription sunglasses to see clearly. In my therapy office, I went without glasses. I enjoy hanging out behind dark lenses in some circumstances, but while doing therapy isn’t one of them. Whether eyes meet or not or at what moments they do … all these variations are significant and interesting during a session. I explained to clients that without glasses I could see, but joked that everything is in “soft focus.”

In the days of film photography, which still continue for some of us, you could buy a soft focus filter to lend a pleasing blur to an image. My digital photo editing software can create the same visual effect. To be more accurate, my vision problem without glasses is not exactly a soft focus issue. It is closer to the blur in a portrait photo, in which the subject is in sharp focus, and whatever is going on in the background fades into a blur that suggests a dreamlike reality. Sometimes I think of this as the dreamlike background of existence–the fluid realm out of which individuation emerges and which becomes activated during developmental events in a person’s life.

One might also think of impressionistic movements in art as attempts to squint, or blur vision, in order to see reality differently. Seeing clearly has its downsides. Used destructively, it kills the imaginative faculty. As I coped with the embarrassment, frustration, and self-attack involved in losing my glasses, this blurring of vision afforded a new view of things. As focus softened, I softened, and my attitudes softened and became more fluid and capable of experiencing what was there.

Maybe not being able to see so clearly forced me to rest my eyes, half-closed, and thus experience a relaxing of my mental muscle–the muscle that tries to know and master what I encounter. In the words of Captain Beefheart, “Somebody’s had too much to think!” Relaxing the need to know and master is in fact beneficial to psychotherapy in various ways. Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion associated each therapy session with a kind of dreaming while awake. Therapy makes a space for reverie and free association–less knowing and mastery, in other words–and thus engages the capacity to dream one’s experience into existence. This capacity undergirds psychological development and therefore therapeutic efforts by making it possible to metabolize experience.