Doctor of the Soul: Carl Jung
In the summer of 1977, I would not have recognized the name Carl Jung even though the major event of my life back then was premised to a significant extent on the work of one of his disciples, Joseph Campbell. I’m talking about that great space opera, Star Wars, which, over the course of six weeks, I would see no less than eleven times. (When I told my wife Laura about this—emphasizing eleven times—she muttered, “amateur.”)
Each time made me want more. Each time I witnessed Luke Skywalker stepping forward into the hero role, deep interior harp-strings were plucked and I could feel a music in my soul that surprised me with the sense of timelessness it carried, as if the music had always been there and I had always, at some level, known it. There was a Larger Life within—a two-million-year-old-person within, with all his wisdom—and Star Wars was tapping into it.
Of course, this was not the justification I presented when Dad walked into the garage one day and saw me blindfolded, whipping my hockey stick this way and that like a sword in order to defend myself against foam hockey pucks tossed at me by my brother. If you know the film, then you know exactly what was happening. I was mimicking the part of the movie when Luke Skywalker is practicing with his lightsaber, face completely covered by a specialized helmet, defending himself against the laser blasts of a randomly floating, metallic ball-like robot, while Obi Wan Kenobi is coaching him, saying, “Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him. Stretch out with your feelings.” I knew deep-down I could be a Jedi, too. I was stretching out with my feelings. But when Dad walked in and saw how close I was to breaking a window, he shut things down, cried out, “What on earth were you thinking?”
Perhaps if I had been well-versed in Carl Jung’s thought back then, I would have replied, “But Dad, Star Wars has activated the Hero archetype in me, and I’m just trying to become more conscious of its characteristic energy so as to facilitate my individuation!” I might have even quoted Jung directly, saying, “Dad, don’t you feel it too? As Carl Jung once said, ‘In every adult there lurks a child—an eternal child, something that is always becoming, is never completed, and calls for unceasing care, attention, and education. That is the part of the human personality that wants to develop and become whole.’ That’s what Carl Jung says, Dad. What do you think?”
Clearly, it didn’t happen. What happened was … a sense of shame and confusion. Being shocked back to the earth Dad was standing on, which was the flat earth of an ego-consciousness that is usually taught to be, as the rock group Supertramp puts it, “sensible, logical, responsible, practical; dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical; acceptable, respectable, presentable, a vegetable.” Flat-earth consciousness that secretly relies on the two-million-year-old wisdom within even to exist, but, as far as possible, pretends it isn’t there, resists it, blocks it.
What on earth was I thinking? I simply couldn’t say, and therefore I stopped, and that’s how it happens. That’s how we lose contact with our deepest instincts. That’s where the troubles begin.
But there are moments before self-consciousness becomes strong enough to paralyze the natural flow of the spirit. Moments beyond the reach of a flat-earth voice that shames. Carl Jung describes one in his spiritual autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections. When he was ten, and feeling particularly alienated from his school-mates, and therefore at odds with himself, he found himself doing something with the “yellow, varnished pencil case of the kind commonly used by primary-school pupils, with a little lock and the customary ruler. At the end of this ruler,” he says, “I now carved a little manikin, about two inches long, with a frock coat, top hat, and shiny black boots. I colored him black with ink, sawed off the ruler, and put him in the pencil case, where I made him a little bed. […] In the case I also placed a smooth, oblong blackish stone from the Rhine, which I had painted with water colors to look as though it were divided into an upper and lower half, and had long carried around in my trouser pocket. This was his stone. All this was a great secret. Secretly I took the case to the forbidden attic at the top of the house (forbidden because the floorboards were worm-eaten and rotten) and hid it with great satisfaction on one of the beams under the roof—for no one must ever see it! […] In all difficult situations, whenever I had done something wrong or my feelings had been hurt … I thought of my carefully bedded-down and wrapped-up manikin and his smooth, prettily colored stone.” Jung continues, “The meaning of these actions, or how I might explain them, never worried me. I contented myself with the feeling of newly-won security, and was satisfied to possess something that no one knew and no one could get at.” Jung goes on to say that, even as this moment “formed the climax and conclusion of his childhood,” he soon forgot about it completely until he was thirty-five, doing research for his book Psychology of the Unconscious, and he encountered accounts of “soul stones” found in ancient ruins near Arlesheim, Germany, as well as among the aboriginal tribes in Australia, half a world away. The realization hit him like a ton of bricks. They were stones that looked exactly like his stone. As for the manikin, Jung found echoes of it in ancient Greece, in the form of the little cloaked God Telesphoros. All these echoes ended up surfacing the long-forgotten episode from his tenth year—and this is when, for the first time, he says, he developed the idea that, at bottom, far below ego consciousness, and below personal memories that have become unconscious, there is something deeper, a Larger Life, not personal but collective, ancient wisdom, two million years in the making, upon which we build our lives here and now. This must have been the source he was tapping into as a child of ten, when he did what he did, because no book read, no experience, nothing else in his life could have been.
It’s the singular message of the dream that Jung had in 1907 (which was our reading for today). Jung, on the boat with Sigmund Freud, sailing to America where they would shine as stars of a new movement in psychology called psychoanalysis. At the time, Freud considered Jung to be his intellectual heir and successor, the one to whom he would eventually hand over his life’s work. Yet even then, on the boat to America, Jung found himself balking at certain things, especially Freud’s theory that expressions of culture (including religion and spirituality) were ultimately repressed sexuality—that culture was nothing but a morbid consequence of repression. Just another form of original sin. “Yes,” Jung recalls Freud saying, “so it is, and that is just a curse of fate against which we are powerless to contend.” But Jung would never agree with such pessimism about what drives the human spirit. Not original sin, but original blessing. Remember the quote from earlier: “In every adult there lurks a child—an eternal child, something that is always becoming, is never completed, and calls for unceasing care, attention, and education.” Life has a spiritual purpose that can’t be reduced to something morbid. The eternal child within—which encodes the wisdom of the ages—is fundamentally healthy, and will take us to healing and wholeness if we learn how to follow Obi Wan Kenobi’s advice and “stretch out with our feelings” to listen.
But what exactly is this wisdom that Jung is talking about? The answer, in technical terminology: archetypes of the collective unconscious.
But what is that?
I’ll let Jungian analyst and scholar Anthony Stevens explain: “the collective unconscious is entirely compatible with the theoretical approach adopted by biologists who study animal behavior in natural environments. These scientists (ethologists, as they are called) hold that each animal species is uniquely equipped with a repertoire of behaviors adapted to the environment in which it evolved. This repertoire is dependent upon ‘innate releasing mechanisms’ which the animal inherits in its central nervous system and which are primed to become active when appropriate stimuli, called ‘sign stimuli,’ are encountered in the environment. When the stimuli are met, the innate mechanism is released, and the animal responds with a pattern of behavior which is adapted to the situation.” That’s what Anthony Stevens says. For the male stickleback, what triggers courting behavior is the female whose belly is swollen with eggs. For the mallard duck, what triggers amour is the handsome green head of the drake. Ethologist Konrad Lorenz discovered that if you appeared before newly hatched mallard ducklings and imitated a mother duck’s quacking sounds, the young birds would imprint “mother” upon you and follow you accordingly. Fundamentally, this is what Jungian archetypes are all about. Products of evolution; encoded in our DNA as built-in expectations, demands, and patterns of response; waiting for sign stimuli to be triggered; meant to equip us for successful adaptation to the ups and downs of human existence.
There is a seamlessness of humanity and nature in Jung’s psychology, in other words; biology reconciled with the life of the spirit. The interdependent web. Back in 1977, the movie Star Wars proved to be the sign stimuli that would trigger an ancient pattern of behavior encoded in my nervous system, the Hero archetype, which has been a part of the collective heritage of humanity for millions of years because it helps us adapt to our world. The Hero archetype, but also that of the Persona, the Shadow, Anima and Animus, the Self…. Archetypes figures like mother, father, child, God, Goddess, wise woman, wise man…. Archetypal events like birth, death, courting, sacred unions…. Archetypal objects like water, sun, moon, snake, cross, chalice…. Each and all representing patterns of meaning and feeling which we can know most directly through our dreams, as well as through world mythologies and art. “Your vision,” says Jung, “will become clear only when you look into your heart … Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”
And that is the challenge: to awaken. A significant part of this is the work of becoming more conscious of the ways in which our archetypal potentials have been triggered in incomplete, distorted, or just unsatisfactory ways.
One example of this comes from Anthony Stevens. “Take,” he says, “the case of a woman whose childhood had been dominated by a tyrannical father, who insisted always on having his own way and made terrifying scenes whenever he was thwarted. The father archetype was activated … by this monster, but only partially: only the law-giving, authoritarian, commanding aspects of the father archetype [were built into the fabric of this woman’s personal orientation in life]; the loving, protective aspects remaining in the collective unconscious as unactivated potential. The result,” continues Anthony Stevens, “was that throughout her life this woman seemed fated to be drawn into the orbit of bullying, self-righteous men, whom she felt she had no alternative but to placate, appease, and obey. At the same time, there persisted in her an unfulfilled longing for the man who would do none of these things to her but, on the contrary, would give her love, support, and protection. Unfortunately, she could never seem to find him, for she could never get into a relationship with such a man: he was too alien, too essentially unfamiliar to her, and she did not possess the emotional vocabulary necessary to share such love.”
For this woman, the path to healing is to become more conscious of the unhealthy pattern she found herself living—seeing it at arm’s length, realizing that though it feels like fate, though it feels inescapable, it need not happen. For she has within her everything she needs for her fulfillment. Parts of the father archetype in her remains unactivated—the loving, protective aspects—and they just wait to be triggered. They come to her in her dreams. They call out to her from kind men in books and movies and TV. The task before her is to learn how to find them within—learning how to weave them into her emotional make-up, to become whole. So she might develop a fuller emotional vocabulary with which to connect with the actual kind of men she longs for.
This is only one case, among so many possibilities. But the general idea is this: our suffering in life results from imbalance. Parts of the ancient archetypes triggered by the circumstances of our lives, but not all of them. And lack of awareness that this is so. Feeling in the grip of fate. Feeling powerless, unfree, the downward spiral.
One kind of imbalance that particularly worried Jung had to do with over-rationalism. “Reason,” he says, “sets the boundaries far too narrowly for us, and would have us accept only the known and that too with limitations and live in a known framework, just as if we were sure how far life actually extends.” Again he says, “Prejudice cripples and injures the full phenomenon of psychic life. And I know too little about psychic life to feel that I can set it right out of superior knowledge. Critical rationalism has apparently eliminated, along with so many other mythic conceptions, the idea of life after death. This could only have happened because nowadays most people identify themselves
almost exclusively with their consciousness, and imagine that they are only what they know about themselves. Yet anyone with even a smattering of psychology can see how limited this knowledge is. Rationalism and doctrinairism are the disease of our time; they pretend to have all the answers.”
Perhaps this was on mind of poet Reginald Gibbons when he wrote,
The collection manager of the bird specimens at the natural history museum told of often stopping, on his way to work during spring and fall, at the immense convention building—tall, long and wide—on the shore of Lake Michigan, where on the north side he would gather the bodies of the migratory birds killed by their collisions against the expanse of glass before first light.
The north side, whether in fall or in spring—a puzzle.
Are these particular birds blown off course by winds, and do they return in starlight or dimness before dawn or under dark clouds toward shore, making for the large bulk they might perceive as forest?
They have been flying along this same route for tens of thousands of years, and not yet has their thinking formulated this obstacle of the city that has appeared in the swift stroke of a hundred and fifty cycles of their migration.
That’s the poem. In modern times we have raised up immense convention buildings of one sort or another with which the ancient rhythms of our lives collide, and one of these buildings is certainly the flat-earth consciousness of scientism. Says Jung, “Because we cannot discover God’s throne in the sky with a radiotelescope or establish (for certain) that a beloved father or mother is still about in a more or less corporeal form, people assume that such ideas are ‘not true.’ I would rather say that they are not ‘true’ enough, for these are conceptions of a kind that have accompanied human life from prehistoric times, and that still break through into consciousness at any provocation.”
Bidden or not bidden, God is present, no matter what expanses of glass are raised up that would block the flight of our spirits. God is an archetype of the collective unconscious, the part in us responsive to that which signals sacredness—responsive to mysteries which both terrify and fascinate simultaneously. The real question for Jung is not so much, “Does God exist,” as it is, “Who or what is your God?” Does the archetype come through in your life in distorted, imbalanced ways, so that your religion would cause harm to yourself and others? Or does it lead you to heal? Who or what is your God? Evolution has put the archetype into our DNA, so how are we going to do justice to it? If the idea of a God who is all good, or all powerful, or all male, or all certain is not true enough for you, then what other archetypal God-potentials can you tap into? What would happen if you were to see God as a source of evil too, as vulnerable too, as female too, as creatively uncertain also? What then?
Pay attention to your dreams, says Jung. Go back to the ancient mythologies from around the world. Witness what the arts and literature have to offer, and you might glimpse the form of God that will be true enough for you. For me, way back in 1977, it was the image of the Force in Star Wars. So much more compelling then the angry judgmental God I grew up with. “Remember,” said Obi Wan Kenobi—and it felt like he was speaking right to me—“a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him. Stretch out with your feelings.” So I stretched out, I stretched out with my feelings, I felt beyond the God I thought I knew, and I will never stop.
The reading before the sermon:
Today’s reading comes from Carl Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. It records a pivotal dream that Jung had while on route to America, in 1909. Accompanying him on this trip was Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. They were together every day, and analyzed each other’s dreams.
This was the dream. I was in a house I did not know, which had two stories. It was “my house.” I found myself in the upper story, where there was a kind of salon furnished with fine old pieces in rococo style. On the walls hung a number of precious old paintings. I wondered that this should be my house, and thought, “Not bad.” But then it occurred to me that I did not know what the lower floor looked like. Descending the stairs, I reached the ground floor. There everything was much older, and I realized that this part of the house must date from about the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The furnishings were medieval; the floors were of red brick. Everywhere it was rather dark. I went from one room to another, thinking, “Now I really must explore the whole house.” I came upon a heavy door, and opened it. Beyond it, I discovered a stone stairway that led down into the cellar. Descending again, I found myself in a beautifully vaulted room which looked exceedingly ancient. Examining the walls, I discovered layers of brick among the ordinary stone blocks, and chips of brick in the mortar. As soon as I saw this I knew that the walls dated from Roman times. My interest by now was intense. I looked more closely at the floor. It was of stone slabs, and in one of these I discovered a ring. When I pulled it, the stone slab lifted, and again I saw a stairway of narrow stone steps leading down into the depths. These, too, I descended, and entered a low cave cut into the rock. Thick dust lay on the floor, and in the dust were scattered bones and broken pottery, like remains of a primitive culture. I discovered two human skulls, obviously very old and half disintegrated. Then I awoke.
What chiefly interested Freud in this dream were the two skulls. He returned to them repeatedly, and urged me to fund a wish in connection with them. What did I think about these skulls? And whose were they? I knew perfectly well, of course, what he was driving at: that secret death wishes were concealed in the dream. [… ] I felt violent resistance to any such interpretation.
I was never able to agree with Freud that the dream is a ‘façade’ behind which its meaning lies hidden—a meaning already known but maliciously, so to speak, withheld from consciousness. To me dreams are part of nature, which harbors no intention to deceive, but expresses something as best as it can, just as a plant grows or an animal seeks its food as best it can. These forms of live, too, have no wish to deceive our eyes, but we may deceive ourselves because our eyes are shortsighted…..
It was plain to me that the house represented a kind of image of the psyche…. The ground floor stood for the first level of the unconscious. The deeper I went, the more alien and the darker the scene became. In the cave, I discovered remains of a primitive culture, that is, the world of the primitive man within myself—a world which can scarcely be reached or illuminated by consciousness. The primitive psyche of man borders on the life of the animal soul, just as the caves of prehistoric times were usually inhabited by animals before men laid claim to them.
Here ends the reading for today…..