“We are entangled in the roots, and we ourselves are the roots.
We make roots, we cause roots to be, we are rooted in the soil, and there is no getting away for us, because we must be there as long as we live.
That idea, that we can sublimate ourselves and become entirely spiritual and no hair left, is an inflation.
I am sorry, that is impossible; it makes no sense.” ~Carl Jung, Kundalini Seminar, Page 29
This quote reminds me of a true story. In 1848 England, art critic John Ruskin married 18 year old Effie Gray. Five years later their marriage was annulled because Ruskin had failed to consummate it. As Effie told her father:
“He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April.” Wikipedia
On their wedding night John discovered that Effie had pubic hair. His malady, which by today’s standards may seem laughable, was psychological. But consider the context: John grew up in Victorian England. His father, John James Ruskin,
“helped to develop his son’s Romanticism. They shared a passion for the works of Byron, Shakespeare and especially Walter Scott…. Margaret Ruskin, an Evangelical Christian, more cautious and restrained than her husband, taught young John to read the King James Bible from beginning to end, and then to start all over again, committing large portions to memory. Its language, imagery and stories had a profound and lasting effect on his writing.” Wikipedia
A romantic, an idealist, and the only child of an evangelical Christian mother, John had so sublimated his instinctual, physical roots that it hadn’t occurred to him that his beautiful young wife’s body would be any different from the smooth, marbled statues of Greek goddesses he so admired.
By ‘sublimate’ Jung meant to unconsciously transform socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations into acceptable actions or behaviors. Freud believed this was a sign of maturity in individuals and civilization. By this means one could deflect the sexual instinct with its erotic energy into so-called “higher” and “socially useful” physical, scientific, artistic, or religious achievements.
Likewise, a person with aggressive tendencies can channel them into acceptable contact sports like football or boxing. A person with an urge to kill someone might join the military where he could justify his urge in the name of protecting his country. A literary example is provided in Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None. In this story a judge with homicidal urges gives unusually harsh sentences to guilty criminals in the name of protecting the citizens and upholding the law.
“One is only confronted with the spiritual experience when one is absolutely human.” ~Carl Jung, Visions Seminar, Page 394
But Jung had higher hopes for individuals and societies. He believed we could be transformed into psychologically whole and spiritually enlightened beings without denying our instinctual roots. And he knew that when the defense mechanism of sublimation remains unconscious, it is an obstacle to an individual’s fullest and healthiest development. Individuation only becomes possible when our egos consciously acknowledge our instincts and choose to channel them in harmless and healing ways. To remain unconscious of them leaves them free to attain toxic extremes.
An ego which denies its entanglement in the roots of the physical body and unconscious psyche can become dangerously inflated, capable of doing unspeakable things while believing itself to be virtuous. One can’t help but wonder what hidden evils the Spanish Inquisition‘s zealous Tomás de Torquemada was striving to deny when he had around 3,000 people tortured and executed for heresy against the Catholic Church.
If we don’t start taking the human psyche far more seriously, countries including our own will continue to enable toxic, minimally conscious egos to acquire positions of far-reaching power. We can change that by learning to recognize three signs of an ego that is growing into health and consciousness:
It explores its unconscious roots with an ongoing self-reflective practice;
It recognizes and reins in its defense mechanisms, including projection and sublimation; and
It acknowledges its shadow without allowing it to control its thoughts, words and actions.
Meanwhile, we might ask ourselves, “Does anyone in the next election show signs of an unhealthy ego?”
Image Credits: My thanks to Lewis Lafontaine for sharing the Jungian quotes and images on his Facebook Jung site.
“When one tries desperately to be good and wonderful and perfect, then all the more the shadow develops a definite will to be black and evil and destructive.
People cannot see that; they are always striving to be marvellous, and then they discover that terrible destructive things happen which they cannot understand, and they either deny that such facts have anything to do with them, or if they admit them, they take them for natural afflictions, or they try to minimize them and to shift the responsibility elsewhere.
The fact is that if one tries beyond one’s capacity to be perfect, the shadow descends into hell and becomes the devil. For it is just as sinful from the standpoint of nature and of truth to be above oneself as to be below oneself. It is surely not the divine will in man that he should be something which he is not, for when one looks into nature, one sees that it is most definitely the divine will that everything should be what it is.” ~Carl Jung, Visions Seminar, Page 569.
“What?” you say? “You mean I have to accept the bad parts of myself? No Way! You must be crazy. I’m not giving in to laziness, lust, selfishness, fear, or greed. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to be perfect. Now you say I have to stop? Didn’t Jesus say, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect’ (Matt. 5:48)? Well, that’s all I’m trying to be: perfect!”
In the Aramaic language Jesus spoke, the word perfect meant completed, or whole, not always good or spotlessly pure. Here’s the paradox Jung was addressing and we find so difficult to accept: to complete ourselves we have to be honest with ourselves, and this means acknowledging those things in us we think of as bad as well as the ones we consider good. We can’t be complete by accepting only half our nature. For example, by identifying solely with reason and logic, we cut off our capacity for passion, intuition, instinct, and the tender feelings of empathy and compassion. Then we start finger-pointing, name-calling, wall-building, and war mongering.
Accepting our flaws is not for the faint-hearted. Like Christine, the innocent young singer who, in the classic Gaston Leroux novel, earnestly persuaded the Phantom of the Opera to take off his mask, we may be painfully convinced of our puny audacity in challenging the archetypal masters and mistresses of our unconscious, and we may faint at our first sight of the ugliness. But it is only when the ugliness has been unmasked and we can see it for what it truly is that it loses its negative power over us and we can begin to learn from it.
The Phantom was certainly a dark and frightening creature, but behind that hideous face was a pure musical soul with the voice of an angel. If Christine had refused to grant her negative animus its rightful place in her life, she would not have achieved her destiny. Fortunately for her, instead of rejecting the Phantom she came to love him, and in the final act of lifting the mask a second time and kissing his grotesque face, her ego grew up and she developed an honest relationship with her unique Self.
Snow White had the same problem. She was tormented again and again by her wicked stepmother, a dark, vain, and passionate feminine antagonist—psychologically the opposite, shadow side of her own conscious personality—who did everything she could to destroy the sweet passive child who knew nothing of evil. Snow White’s trials were long and painful, but by patiently enduring them she was brought to the point where she could awaken to her masculine strengths (represented by the kiss of the prince), conquer her own evil tendencies (represented by the evil Queen), gain enough balance and maturity to stand on her own two feet, and marry her prince (the Sacred Marriage, or hieros gamos).
In the masculine hero myth, the hero kills his dragons, or inner and outer enemies, thereby earning his way to salvation. It is true that a kind of death always precedes transformation and rebirth. However, the feminine way, which we must incorporate into our psyche as well if we wish to continue to evolve, is not to fight perceived imperfections in order to destroy them.
Rather it is a peaceful way of withdrawing, descending into our own depths, seeing, reflecting, grieving, accepting and integrating. This happens slowly, gradually and naturally, through a diligent desire to let our immature egos die a natural death to make way for the new, the way flowers fade and wilt after they have produced seeds from which new growth will arise in the spring.
No matter how hard we may try, we’ll never be perfected in the traditional sense of the word. But it is possible to become more aware and individuated, and thus less vulnerable to our hellish inner demons. By owning them as parts of ourselves, we’ll be less apt to project them onto others. This is our only hope of moving ourselves and the world a little closer to our enduring ideals of peace and salvation.
Quote and Image Credits: My thanks to Lewis Lafontaine for sharing this quote and these images on Facebook.
A few months before my father died, we went to visit him in another town where he was working. I was outside with several other girls and boys having a carefree time diving, racing, and showing off in the motel pool when my parents called me inside. They had been watching and talking about me, and now they had something to say. Receiving personal attention from either of my parents was rare enough, but to be called into their joint presence was like being summoned to an unexpected audience with the Queen and King. I knew the matter must be of utmost importance, and I listened intently.
I was a natural leader with gifts and talents many children lacked, my father said. I should be careful, he warned, about not showing off, being bossy, or dominating situations. A little girl out there by the pool was having trouble keeping up with the rest of us. She seemed shy and maybe lonely. I should notice her, think about her feelings, try to include her and make her feel better about herself.
This was a crucial moment in my development. My eyes were instantly opened to an entirely new way of looking at myself and others. Suddenly I knew people were watching me, perhaps even feeling bad about themselves because of me. I should think about their feelings instead of my own. I should hide my own strengths so as not to intimidate them. I was strong enough to make these kinds of sacrifices for others. Believing I had received a valuable piece of wisdom, I left the motel room a very different little girl from the one who had innocently pranced in. For a moment I deliberated carefully, then casually walked up to the little girl in the faded brown bathing suit and tentatively lied, “I like your bathing suit.”
She grinned widely and said something like, “Really? This old thing?” Then she bounced off happily to the diving board while I sat quietly in the nearest chair to avoid notice. At the age of 11 I was stunned by my new awareness and uncomfortable about what I had just done. I had said something that wasn’t true, but apparently with very good effect. The things I said and did could make a difference to others! I could help people or I could harm them. What if in my ignorance I had spent the whole day out here playing with these children, innocently enjoying the competition, being such a good swimmer and diver that I made some of them feel terrible about themselves?
My God! The mistakes I could have made. As I sat musing, my self-consciousness inflated to encompass the universe. Suddenly the world was filled with eyes, and I knew that all of them, including God’s, were watching me. I felt as if I were being dissected, cell by cell, beneath a critical, cosmic microscope.
Practically everyone becomes self-conscious by the teen years. Like all psychological potential, it can be healthy in some ways, harmful in others. As social animals, we need to be able to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Noting our behavior, hearing our words and tone of voice, seeing the expressions on others’ faces, reflecting on how they’re responding to us, then altering our behavior in more suitable ways help us create loving relationships and a social conscience.
But there’s also a down side to self-consciousness. For whatever reason, perhaps it was partly genetic, after Daddy died my self-consciousness morphed into self-flaggelation. I remember sitting next to a date in the choir loft at church around the age of 18 worrying about bad breath and trying to stifle the sound and frequency of my breathing until I got dizzy. Oh, God, don’t let me faint, I prayed as I pictured scandalized ladies and leering old men staring up at my exposed underwear as I was carried down the stairs!
Yet, my youthful torment was redeemable. Mindfulness and self-reflection are keys to personal transformation. Only now does it occur to me that my painfully self-conscious adolescence might have predisposed me for an adult passion for self-discovery and practices like meditation and dreamwork that would aid it……or maybe it was only an early symptom of a soul born to walk that path. Either way, knowing myself better has brought not only great relief, but great joy. Growing into a more conscious being is not always fun, but it’s well worth the suffering.
Do you have a story about painful self-consciousness or growing self-awareness?
I’m at my desk reading the Goethe quote on my coffee mug: “Nothing is worth more than this day.” I feel the truth of this deeply, but wonder if I really understand it or can express it adequately. I want to try.
I close my eyes to feel the life in my body and follow my breath. Tiny tinglings everywhere…chest and belly rising and falling…the air conditioner fan whirring away to my left, an airplane humming overhead…the solid floor beneath my feet…the warmth of my clasped hands…the softness of my velvet robe.
I open my eyes and look out the window at the stand of bald cypress with their knotty brown trunks and newly green foliage. I watch the soft sway of their gray Spanish moss beards. I wait…for what I don’t know. I smile. It’s a relief not to need to know. A love bug lands on the window at eye level. No, wait; it’s two love bugs! My smile expands. My heart seems to expand too. I’m enjoying this tiny reminder of love. Fluttering leaves sparkle. Some show their paler sides; others are a deeper green. A dragonfly flits by. Cottony clouds with dove gray undersides sink slowly below the cypress canopy.
I rise and step outside to see if the great blue heron is still fishing across the creek. S/he’s gone, but a pair of black-feathered, yellow-legged, red-billed birds (young coots?) fly past, then abruptly make a U-turn and hurry back in the opposite direction.
I remember the brilliant cardinal that kept dropping by one day last week to peck at the picture window, either flirting with his image or trying to pass through the sky’s reflection. I Googled the symbolism of cardinals and found this: [The cardinal] “reminds us to hold ourselves with pride – not ego pride. Rather, the cardinal asks us to stand a little taller, be a bit more regal, step into our natural confidence as if we were born to lead with grace and nobility.” Good advice. But that was a few days ago. I return to this moment.
Other random thoughts intrude and I invite them to pass on so I can stay present. I realize I’m hoping to close these musings with some sort of sign or synchronicity I can share to prove how rewarding just appreciating this day can be! But nothing is showing up and I’m running out of writing space.
Wait. Something is showing up. (As I write these words a cardinal darts by…is it my cardinal?… but that isn’t what I mean.) What shows up after I’ve written the previous paragraph is an awareness of my ego’s influence over my thoughts and writing. My ego wants a sign it can use to be impressive, but my soul just wants to be! And just as I was thinking this the cardinal passed by. I guess I did receive a sign after all: ego pride! I smile and let it be. Self-knowledge is healing but self-criticism erodes my confidence and robs me of this moment. Simply being aware of everything, including my baser tendencies, is the true value of this day.
Why do I meditate? Because it slows down my monkey mind and makes me more mindful of my body. Because when I’m mindful of my body, I experience this fleeting miracle of being. Because experiencing the miracle of being—being alive, being me, having this body, this day, this comfortable place to live, my health, people who love me—fills me with love and gratitude. And when I remember love and gratitude, I remember to choose love more often that day, no matter what’s happening in my outer world. For me, that’s reason enough.
The Wilbur Award is given by the Religion Communicators Council for excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and for encouraging understanding among faith groups on a national level.