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A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious — Illustrations

The illustrations are enigmatic. In fact, they were as nearly confusing to me as they may appear to others. They are… dream-images, and they “formed themselves” as I lent my pen to them, just as I later followed the promptings of the figures comprising the unconscious voice in the conversations. They emerged in an intense period of concentration at the beginning of my efforts to understand Jung’s work and are dispersed throughout the book at intervals which seemed to me to best fit the ideas associated with them. They are symbolic representations of future development, and the book is an elaboration of the ideas they contain. As dream-images, they do not lend themselves to rational explanation. They are pointers of the way which express the feelings and intuitions beyond thought and logic.” — A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious

View Illustrations.

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Transitional Stages and the Types Problem

A momentous shift in values is taking place today. Dwarfed by the fascination with technology, the wisdom of the soul sinks under the weight of concrete knowledge. Science and religion have become adversaries; the individual, a mere tool for powerful interest groups. Our dual natures are increasingly brought into relief by ideological and political conflicts, the split in our personalities reflected back to us as in a mirror.” — A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious.

In his, Psychological Types, Jung traced the symbolic aspects of religious and philosophical ideas to illustrate the historical opposition between two ways of relating to the world: extraverted and introverted. The primary value placed on the outer world of people and objects describes the extravert’s perspective, and the accent on the inner responses to them orients the introvert. While Jung’s description of the types problem in this example is presented as a projection of the poet’s own inner conflict, the cultural parallels are unmistakable.

Carl Spitteler’s, Prometheus and Epimetheus, shows how closely intertwined the processes of individuation and cultural transition are. Jung described the image formed in the poet’s imagination as a uniting symbol, a product of unconscious fantasy aimed at reconciling opposing tendencies. Only a profound existential conflict creates it.

The ancient Pandora bears the magic symbol: “… Pandora’s heavenly gift brings evil to the country and its inhabitants, just as in the classical myth diseases streamed forth to ravage the land when Pandora opened her box.” This is the perceived ‘disease’ of unconscious nature — a far deeper reality than the artificial persona of conscious ideals:

To understand why this should be so we must examine the nature of the symbol. The first to find the jewel were the peasants… They turned it about in their hands “until… they were utterly dumbfounded by its bizarre, immoral, illicit appearance.” When they brought the jewel to Epimetheus for examination, “his conscience… hid itself under the bed in great alarm...

Like a crab goggling wickedly and malevolently brandishing its crooked claws, Conscience peered out… and the nearer Epimetheus pushed the image the further Conscience shrank back with gesticulations of disgust. And so it sulked there silently, uttering not a word… in spite of all the king’s entreaties…” Jung:

Conscience evidently found the new symbol acutely distasteful. The king… bade the peasants bear the jewel to the priests.” Spitteler: “But hardly had Hiphil-Hophal [the high priest] glanced at the face of the image than he shuddered with disgust, and crossing his arms over his forehead as though to ward off a blow, he shouted: Away with this mockery! For it is opposed to God and carnal in its heart and insolence flashes from its eyes. 

The peasants then brought the jewel to the academy, but the professors found it lacked “feeling and soul, and moreover it wanted in gravity, and above all had no guiding thought.” In the end the goldsmith found the jewel to be spurious and of common stuff. On the marketplace, where the peasants tried to get rid of it, the police descended on the image and cried out:

“Is there no heart in your body and no conscience in your soul?  How dare you expose… this stark, shameless, wanton piece of nakedness?… And now, away with you at once! And woe betide you if the sight of it has polluted our innocent children and lily-white wives!

Jung’s interpretation was weighty, indeed: “The symbol is described by the poet as bizarre, immoral, illicit, outraging our moral feelings of the spiritual and divine; it appeals to sensuality, is wanton, and liable to endanger public morals by provoking sexual fantasies. These attributes define something that is blatantly opposed to moral values and aesthetic judgment because it lacks the higher feeling values, and the absence of a “guiding thought” suggests the irrationality of its intellectual content… Although it is nowhere stated, it is obvious that the “image” is of a naked human body — a “living form.” It expresses the complete freedom… and also the duty to be what one is… a symbol of man as he might be, the perfection of moral and aesthetic beauty moulded by nature and not by some artificial ideal.

Note Jung’s reference to the “higher feeling values” of collective consciousness as distinct from the primal emotions driving the natural psyche: the affliction of civilized man from the unconscious viewpoint is the disease of consciousness, an anticipation of wholeness which lies at the heart of projected conflict. Jung:

To hold such an image before the eyes of present-day man can have no other effect than to release everything in him that lies captive and unlived. If only half of him is civilized and the other half barbarian, all his barbarism will be aroused, for a man’s hatred is always concentrated on the thing that makes him conscious of his bad qualities…”

Five thousand years of civilization, two millennia of Christian moral ideals, and a century of objective science have barely touched the barbarian in us. He is our connection with the spirit of nature, with earthly reality and all its inhabitants. As we destroy them for our own desires, we also destroy ourselves.

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Individuation and the Conflict of Opposites II

A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious

Up to this point, ego has been turning in circles in its efforts to relieve the tension created by new contents pushing into consciousness. Page 88 continues this roundabout process which now leads to the first real attempt to establish a dialogue with the unconscious; the religious function has reached a pressure and intensity that can no longer be repressed. As the story of Job illustrates, this conflict is not resolved through external relations or collective forms. 

 It’s not a flight of fancy — it’s a real opposition;
His individuality prepared its recognition.
He’s stumbled on the purpose of internal tension:
To redefine and separate his thinking from the herd.
The individual is grounded in its reinvention                         
          Of the rigid values the collective has incurred.
It’s the burden of the past and the future it creates;
It puts a man at odds with what his soul relates.
Though by its own design it will ultimately lead
This man to re-evaluate the nature of his need.
          But his conflict must be further etched into relief
Before he can examine it in more detail.
He must court relations with the god beneath his grief
For any chance to see the man behind the veil.
 How will I get to know you?  What depth must I reach?
What fearful things will I do?  What laws must I breach?
You sit in darkness hid beneath the very thought
The light of knowledge fancied it could make appear.
Indirect emotions that but half-imagined brought
Your half-imagined purposes so faintly near
Are suddenly redoubled in a flood of dark concern
For the power you’ve awakened through the strange veneer
Of images my thought can only half-discern.
Old unfathomed riddles lie before me still
Staring starkly at the weakness I disdain;
Mocking the illusion of my conscious will
As I yet pretend to master what I can’t explain.
In fitful ways your mystery is living through me;
No wiser for it I am much less wise against it.
Are self-disdain and misery the light you’ve given to me
To illumine my fantasies had I but sensed it?
To cast a glow on shadow-worlds that hide your grace
From a man-child’s half-perception of reality?
Who only made himself unfit for your embrace
By clinging to a make-believe morality?
All your ways frighten me I cower and evade
Yet time and again misery exceeds my fear;
And the little light in me that once a heaven made
Again must suffer its bright world to disappear.             
You seemed insane though it was I who didn’t understand;
I fear I’m failing still and you will lose your patience.
There seems no let in all the crazy things you’ve planned
          To symbolize the sickness of my aberrations.
You’re only guiding me I know this in my brain —
Yet what a gaping wound now bleeds within in my heart!
Though I know it’s not your guidance filling me with pain
But my own desire sundering my life apart.
I can’t know your purpose through the fantasies I’m seeing;
Your piercing admonitions are my only light.
If somehow I could peer inside the deep well of being
I’d surely see the marvel of my own pretentious sight.
Your monstrous grace and its privilege I must entreat
For the only useful product it creates in me;        
Otherwise obscured by the harlequin of self-deceit
Ever stealing round the walls of thought’s credulity.
          Can I touch you in time?  In mind’s distant sphere?
When you tear these lovely veils of pretense from my eyes?
Will you be there?  Or only darkness circumscribe my fear
And my thinking then replace you with another form of lies?
I felt you once around the corpse of my dearest friend
And somehow through my agony you gave relief;
Though just enough for me to grimly apprehend
A wondrous thing beneath my agony and grief.
I know not how these enigmatic things occur —
Your living paradox is safe from modern thought.
As stupid and unwitting as my own intentions were
I then was only following what I was taught.
I’m sorry for it now — it was the only way I knew;
I feel its wrongness secreted within my soul.
But, for all the mystery in everything you do
I fear my misery’s the only thing I know.
Through Time and effort he will soon begin to see:
What draws this image to the surface is his misery.
But he must step outside the circle of his Christian past
And resist his childish notions of the Devil;
For the psychic chains they represent now bind him fast
And prohibit him from searching on a deeper level.
Though he long ago pronounced such things a fairytale
They still form the basis of his valuations.
This defines the very point where intellect will fail:
          The Christian myth describes emotional foundations.
A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious 

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Individuation and the Conflict of Opposites

This piece from, A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious, picks up on page 78 with the Oddly Shaped Man (the conscious standpoint) struggling under the tension of opposites. Along with repressed emotions, the pressures of new, creative contents from the unconscious increase the momentum of the individuation process, now perceived as an “alien will” as ego is openly confronted with the demand for wholeness…

My head circles wildly as I strain with all my might;
All around me lay the pieces of the ghosts I fight.
I’ve forced apart the gates of my own humanity
Staggered weary to the furthest reach of sanity;                     
My own heart I’ve writhed and cried and suffered inside out —
Yet unappeased still labor on uncertainty and doubt.
          Hemmed in by God on all sides like Job he struggles;
          And his pursuit means other things pursue him too.
          Relentlessly the feeling-world his thinking juggles
          Brings him closer to the conflict of his conscious view.
          The torment thrust upon him from this dark abyss
Is Nature’s dispatch to a partial consciousness:
She strives now to inform him of her wants and needs
And give him strength to follow on the path she leads.
How a man must carry on when he is forced to see
That the life he once conceived is not Reality!
He may feel his little world is being torn apart
But in fact it’s being put together quite unseen;
And he’s further than he knows from the inside of his heart
Or his notions of insanity and what they mean. 
He’s not the victim of an angry god’s invective
Sending wrathful thunderbolts of punishment and pain.
He must remind himself the process is objective;
To think outside his merely personal domain.
But how else can his trembling thought be made to see:
His life is subject to a fate he can’t control?
That beneath his thinking is a greater force than he
Seeking to reveal to him the nature of his soul?
This obscure moral process must depend on more
Than simply choosing to obey a god’s command.
Which god will he obey?  Which one will he implore?
When two crossed gods of equal strength before him stand?
One is right the other wrong according to his view:         
The great deception of the life he knew before;
Yet however he perceives it there is little he can do
For his former life is gone and Nature’s closed that door.
The one she opens now brings the opposites to light
Unveiling secret truths beyond his preconception
To temper with a new sight the views of wrong and right
Which form the basis of his modern self-perception.
It will expose the partial attitude of consciousness
Flitting round its fantasies in airy self-pursuit
In the highest branches of the tree of righteousness
Thinking it had planted all the seeds of Love and Truth —
Though half-acknowledged grew to be a thing of wretchedness
And in the end bore little more than ignorance as fruit.
The cheap facade he financed with the treasure in his soul
Is quickly running out of credit with the man below.
The life he once invested in is out of his control
For the loan’s conditions call for more than he could know.
The debt accruing from his youthful self-deception
Must be fully rendered from the life he leaves behind
Until it is depleted of his half-perception
And he accepts the humble place his misery assigned.
This task has led him down inside the knotted sphere     
Concealing images his thinking long repressed.
How he perceives the inner man is hidden here
Whose image only surfaces when he’s depressed.
But repression and depression are in fact related
To form the tension aiming at a new direction.
He must fight them both for how his thinking has created
This upside-down collision with his own reflection… 

                                Mental Health as a Social Concept

The conflict of opposites deeply affects consciousness as it begins to withdraw its projections from the external world and accept its struggle internally, fostering the recognition of a higher spiritual authority. The more frightening, rejected aspects of the personality then begin to impress themselves as living values with a vital meaning for the individual. The fear and anxiety of losing control is tempered by reflection. Jung once wrote that no one who ever had any wits is in danger of losing them in this process; however, there are many who never knew until then what their wits were for. 

          The concept of one’s mental health is relative indeed;
Primarily a social one for cultures to assess
The useful products of the citizens they breed
To work within the sanction of the values they profess.
But a culture has no conscious point of reference:
No place outside itself to judge its valuations;
Its health or sickness no criterion for deference             
To its own psychology or that of other nations.
Every man appears to suffer likewise from this fate
Though facts do not support this from a natural perspective:
The psyche functions in a way itself to regulate
And beyond his preconceptions lives its own corrective…
 More info here: A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious

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Re-Thinking Mid-Life

I recently came across an article by Dr. John Grohol on the Psych Central website: Three Things You Didn’t Know About About Carl Jung’s Psychosis. I appreciated it because it brings into relief certain misconceptions about Jung’s psychology; about unconscious life in general and mid-life in particular.

Depth psychology refers to Jung’s ideas of the unconscious and individuation, because he most clearly conceptualized them. But, these facts of experience are common properties of humanity. It was only (!) Jung who arranged them into an empirical picture.

He outlined the spiritual nature of the mid-life process, and the urge to wholeness implicit in it can be a severe test for a partial ego. The unconscious has a disintegrating and devouring quality which can frighten and overwhelm. It’s a reality so foreign to consciousness that nobody chooses it. Nonetheless, it’s the fate of many to try to come to terms with it.

However suddenly, subtly, or eventually the unconscious may directly insinuate itself into some lives, its indirect influence on consciousness forms humanity’s deepest contradictions. Few in an outer-directed culture see such effects as anything as fantastic as a demand for inner development (or the repression of it), and many have no need to see it. Symptoms mean disease, and the need to live according to our natures remains an idea we can’t conceive until we’re confronted with the experience.

One’s sensitivity to it is a matter of degree, which even in the extreme is less pathological than simply human. “Pathological” and “psychotic” may evoke images of lunatic asylums, yet entire cultures exhibit symptoms so widespread as to be normal from their own perspectives. Another vantage-point could as well view them as crazy. Who sees war as a mass psychotic outbreak or racial hatred, a collective form of schizophrenic paranoia?

Not only does Dr. Grohol’s article serve up on a plate mainstream psychology’s misunderstanding of the causes and purposes of mental “disease”, it exposes the fear and anxiety inherent in the direct experience of its demands. Science can only rationalize the effects of emotional processes it can neither experience nor evaluate. A century ago, however interpreted, spirit was a living reality. The mystery it once circumscribed no longer speaks to the new intellect. It sinks back into the unconscious and, as in a dream, re-emerges in strange forms.

Though extremes exist at either end of the spectrum of how mental health is defined, there’s no real dividing line between normal and pathological, conscious and unconscious — even you and me, if we have some working concept of the projections entangling subject and object; more so if the object is as abstract as the idea of psychosis in a subject as certain of it as a doctor.

A thing is what we think it is until we learn more about it, and there are some things we don’t want to learn more about. It would seem that the direct experience of the unconscious might qualify as such a thing — a psychosis according to popular psychology. At least, Dr. Grohol thinks it is. It was the crux of Jung’s psychology. He discovered that consciousness is subject to (and relative to) unconscious functions which seek their own destiny. The more ego opposes them, the more problems it experiences.

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” This intuitive truth, revered for millennia by those who felt it, were in fear and awe of the mystery it alluded to, has now re-emerged in psychological parlance as a “psychosis.” The fear of God is rationalized; Job’s suffering, a moot point.

I give Dr. Grohol credit for the reserve in his third premise: “Jung’s unconscious journey probably wasn’t the same as the unwanted psychosis people experience today.” Well, it was Jung’s — but he didn’t want it any more than anyone wants it. It happened to him. It was an unconscious need born in a mind destined to reveal a new way of looking at ourselves. But, does that mean it didn’t spring from the same well — and for the same purposes?

Dr. Grohol said that while “Jung described his visions as a type [my italics] of “psychosis” or “schizophrenia,” those terms meant something different a hundred years ago than they do today.” Indeed. The way Jung saw them is even more relevant because of that. The problem is that it required volumes to define them.

Outside the limitations of “pop” psychology, they’re not really definable except through a kind of philosophy grounded on empirical fact: an understanding through experience. “Today,” wrote Dr. Grohol, “the terms describe a specific constellation of symptoms, one of which is the meaningful and significant interruption the disorder makes upon a person’s ordinary, daily life.”

But — that’s the purpose of mid-life: “the meaningful and significant interruption the disorder makes upon a person’s ordinary, daily life.” It has all the symptoms of compulsion, obsession, depression, even a “type of psychosis or schizophrenia.” How else could we be shaken to the core from ego’s illusion enough to feel the mystery drawing it to a fate beyond its comprehension?

For an exploration of the unconscious which goes beyond traditional ideas of pathological/normal in search of a more natural truth, see: A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious.

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