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!

The “Field” of Depth Psychotherapy

There are many ways to practice depth psychotherapy these days. One meeting point that I see between various theories is a focus on the therapeutic relationship itself. What happens in the therapy hour has a way of generating therapeutic change. That means it’s important to pay attention to what happens in the “field”–that is, the space of the relationship that exists between client and therapist, and encompasses them both in the therapeutic hour. Many contemporary depth psychotherapists recognize that what happens there is the most important therapeutic factor in getting a person’s life and development unstuck and moving.

Depth psychologies often refer to the space of the therapeutic relationship as a field–something like a field in contemporary physics. This is a space where different elements of the two individual psyches in the relationship interact on many levels. When things are going well, there is a feeling to this space of being held safely, known, and welcomed. When challenges come up, it’s safe enough to work them through in ways that create helpful changes that ripple through the client’s life and relationships.

An alchemical image of the relational field

An alchemical image of the relational field

It’s not the therapist’s interpretations and interventions (however insightful they may be, and however attached he or she may be to them) that matter most. To say that depth psychotherapy is insight-oriented therapy isn’t quite right, in this view. When a therapist makes an interpretation that meets and helps the client make sense of a felt experience that’s hard to put into words, often the therapeutic factor derives from the feeling of being understood, of being known and held by the space of this relationship, with this therapist. Insights happen, but the curative factor is not the strictly cognitive event of understanding one’s own unconscious process.

It’s more a matter of feeling known than of knowing rationally.

This is a key distinguishing factor of depth psychotherapy and analysis from other therapies. We see that therapy creates a relational field in which both conscious and unconscious processes of psychological development come into play, get unstuck, and move forward. The field of the therapy hour eventually extends outwards into the client’s life in the world as the effects of therapy manifest themselves.

The Figure of Mercurius

Depth Psychologist CG Jung was fascinated by the mythological figure of Mercurius, who shows up in ancient alchemy as a trickster deity. Jung sees alchemy and its fantastical images and chemical experiments as a reflection of human psychology, and especially of processes by which individuals and relationships go through developmental transformations. Mercurius is the imaginary figure who gets us started on a path of transformation, and is also the ever-elusive goal of the process.

Here’s what Patrick Harpur says about Mercurius in The Philosopher’s Secret Fire:

“In Mercurius we see the characteristic that so excited Jung: he (or, she, or it) is coincidentia oppositorum, a coincidence of opposites, the point at which all the contradictions which rend existence are resolved. He is the beginning, middle, and end of the Great Work – prime matter, secret fire and Stone… Mercurius… is one’s own soul and also the Soul of the World; as personal as a lover, as impersonal as a god. Like the Tao, he is everything and nothing, everywhere and nowhere. Like a trickster deity he is both sublime and ridiculous, never allowing his spiritual side to become divorced from matter, never allowing the high mystical goal of the Great Work to become altogether divorced from its dark physical side.”

This is the language of alchemy and mythic consciousness, and is rather foreign to modern sensibilities. Yet the psyche, as anyone who pays attention to dreams and waking imagination knows, does not behave like a machine. Mechanical metaphors for brain and behavior tell us something true about a biochemical and behavioral basis for psyche, but to be in contact with the psyche means to be in contact with a fluid, moving, emotional, and image-rich level of your being. Here, in this experience of the fluid psyche, Mercurius is a guide. It is also the level where real changes in the individual can begin to take place as the process of becoming oneself – what Jung calls “individuation” – moves forward.

An image of Mercurius



Yesterday Portland heated up once again nearly to the 100 degree mark. We were in an “excessive heat warning” until 10pm.

There’s a form of heat that happens sometimes in therapy. Things heat up. It can even feel a bit uncomfortable at first, until the client discovers that he or she survives and even feels liberated and energized from going through the heat.

During a heating process, clients may feel emotions that warm, such as anger, desire, or sadness. Learning to move through such feelings can create a greater sense of aliveness, and more resiliency for facing challenges.

Considering that so many clients who seek therapy are suffering from feelings of deadness in some way, learning to face and claim more warmth can create a shift towards aliveness, and a re-entering into the flow of life. Whatever was stuck, whatever was feeling dead, in need of change,  de-pressed, can begin to transform.

The psychologist CG Jung found many images from the ancient tradition of alchemy that expressed psychological processes such as heating up, cooking, and distilling. These images became a lens through which Jung could see and experience the work of psychological transformation.

Image of alchemical heating apparatus:

Alchemical apparatus for heating process

The processes I am talking about generally take some time, commitment, and attention in therapy. The heat comes and goes, as it does right here with the outside weather. Today it’s been 10 degrees cooler, and tomorrow maybe a few cooler still.