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.

Relationship with the Unconscious

I remember sitting for a time with some Buddhists when I lived in California. By sitting I mean going to a center, which happened to rent space in a Quaker church, and sitting for a couple of hours, once a week. What did we do while we were sitting there? We listened to a teacher of Vipassana or mindfulness meditation, and then put his teaching into practice, which meant quietly paying attention–to our breath, to our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. I never took on the mantle of Buddhism myself, but the experience there has stayed with me.

Today it came to mind. I was thinking about thinking, and how in any given day, thoughts and feelings and images–the flow of our internal worlds–move along of their own accord. Sometimes it feels as though I have little say in how they move. They happen, quite forcefully at times, and I may find myself on the receiving end. In terms of depth psychology, we are continually fielding the forceful influx of the unconscious psyche.

I remembered something the meditation teacher said about how, when we quiet our minds and simply pay attention to what is happening, suddenly we realize how incredibly busy and noisy it is inside. It can be rather distressing. I believe the Buddhists call it the “monkey mind.” Stop for a moment, and notice all the crazy monkeys jumping and swinging about, making a big racket. And you thought you were master of your psychic house! Think again.

Okay, so now to transpose things into the milieu of Jungian psychology, or any depth psychology that acknowledges the unconscious as a significant force in the human psyche. The personal self or ego does not rule over the unconscious psyche. It is one player on the stage of a drama, and it’s not in charge of the production. But it does have a say; it can take a stand.

Broadly speaking, the other players consist of unconscious forces, which Jung calls complexes. Complexes are emotionally charged thoughts and images that have an autonomous life. They have a personal aspect, based in our individual traumas, biology, and patterns, and an archetypal aspect, expressed in the over-arching images of myths and fairy tales. In their archetypal aspect, the complexes are the gods and goddesses, who rather notoriously do not have personal human welfare high on their list of priorities.

So what of the human? What of the self that wants to take a stand? That wants to move from the receiving end of unconscious forces to the active, choosing end? That is not interested in being a plaything of the deities? It’s not an easy matter. Consider the mundane experience of moving through your day. A terrible mood may overcome you. A thought about an old relationship might take hold of you. A feeling about your unworthiness might convince you. An old wound might open up and suck you in. It’s hard in the moment to take a stand in relation to these psychological facts that happen to us. But say that you do. In your own way, you meet the force of the unconscious with a counter-force. You demand room for “me.”

I would propose that then, when you make that demand, the unconscious will respond differently. I am reminded of a dream I heard once. The dreamer had been chased recurrently in the dreamworld by a sinister figure. Finally, one night, something changed. The dreamer turned to face the persecutor, and things were different after that. Not necessarily easy, but now there was a more symmetrical relationship between the person and the forces of the unconscious. The prey had turned to the predator and said, in effect, “I see you!” And, “You don’t just get to do what you want with me. I have a say in this relationship.” Now there is the possibility for an encounter, a negotiation, and ultimately, the ability for the person to make a demand on the unconscious psyche to contribute something worthwhile. Maybe we can even imagine that the psyche has wanted this kind of encounter with us all along.

The Power of Not Now

Various popular renditions of spirituality and therapy in our current culture encourage us to live in the present moment. We are told to realize the true self in the now–to become conscious, aware, transformed. Sounds good, right?

That is my simplistic take on what seems a common thread of much spiritual and psychological and therapeutic thinking these days. The thread of “living in the present moment” has good precedent in Buddhist and Hindu thinking. I’m not for or against this thinking, but it’s worth playing with for a moment.

To begin with, I wonder why this goal of living in the now isn’t working better, for more people.

I have to wonder how well any of our popular spiritual and therapeutic self-help is working for us. Take a stroll through the self-help and popular psychology sections at Powell’s bookstore. While there’s some good stuff being written, at least now and then, these strolls tend to elicit a certain despair in me. So many theories, systems, and recipes for well-being. The striving for an elusive cure to what ails us goes on forever, aisle upon aisle, world without end. What does that tell us? We want to become conscious, live in the now, make sense of suffering, manage depression, cure addictions, alleviate anxiety, heal wounds, transform behaviors, and renew relationships. And we evidence an unending appetite for new methods of achieving these ends.

What if, instead of striving for a final solution, we slow down and spend some time with the longing in us that drives much of this striving? Our culture values drive, achievement, mastery, and consciousness, and does not encourage us to slow down and feel things that might not be terribly comfortable at first. But I suspect that the human heart, with its longings, confusions, stuck points, unconsciousness, and hurts, will ultimately evade our desperate attempts for a final fix. As a result, we may in the end feel like we’ve failed to live up to some psychospiritual standard of good living–being in the now, being conscious, healed, on top of things, whatever.

A more human approach might help us remember the power of “not now.” We need room to be stuck, confused, defended, and to let our development take the time it needs. The movement of psychological development–individuation, in Carl Jung’s terms–is a spiral path, some have said. Progress is made towards a center, but we also go round and round. That’s just how it is. We are chagrined to encounter our “same old shit” in new and deeper forms over the years. We come around again to the same old joys too, and remember how easy it is to forget them. Real change happens in this cyclical way.

Image of the Spiral

We sense the presence of the center as a kind of timeless “now,” though we don’t get to hang out there forever. If we actually did succeed in fixing / curing / redeeming the innate messiness of a human life, and living 24/7 in a state of ultimate conscious realization of the self, we wouldn’t be living a human life any more. We’d lose touch with the longing that reminds us that there is, after all, a center that we are circumambulating. We’d lose touch with the wounds that open our hearts to others that we’re sharing our lives with.

I think that this take on things makes room for letting go into a development of the self that truly gets the striving ego out of the center… which I think, in the end, is the point of those who tell us to awaken into the present moment–as it is, with all its messy glory, not as we’d like it to be.