by Rose Holt
I have long been interested in C. G. Jung’s work, especially as it relates to healing the personality, my own and that of others. We live in a culture in which “personality” is often equated with ego and the ego equated with personhood. Jung amply demonstrated that there is potentially a good deal more to the personality than simply one’s ego and one’s ego self-image.
For someone identified with the ego, that is, someone who believes he/she is the sum total of the ego’s understanding, alienation is a necessary condition. You might ask, alienation from what? Jung’s answer is alienation from the collective heritage of humankind, from the healing balm of unconscious processes and contents that seek to enliven and enrich the ego but cannot find a welcoming window in the ego structure.
The first step for the person isolated in the ego shell is to posit the existence of the unconscious and its healing factors. [The enormous success of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement rests on this supposition. Interestingly enough, Jung’s work was instrumental in the origins of AA.]
The usual condition of the alienated ego is suffering, the natural consequence of the individual encountering a situation for which the coping mechanisms of the ego are inadequate. Such a situation brings enormous dissonance and disillusionment with it—anguish, disorientation, suffering, and depression–sometimes accompanied by physical illness. Common expressions for this experience are “midlife crisis” and “nervous breakdown.” There are myriad symptoms that accompany this condition. Common treatments are prescription drugs, alcohol, busyness, exercise, shopping, etc; all serving the purpose of distraction, repression, and reduced suffering.
If the individual has a religious orientation with beliefs, dogma, and images sufficient to connect the ego with the deeper strata of human existence, that is, with the healing balm of unconscious processes, all will eventually go well. Through scriptural stories, ritual, sacramental acts, and community, he/she will receive the blessings humankind has long relied upon religion to facilitate and will weather the crisis. The individual is graced. Blessings and grace are old-fashioned words that fit well a certain psychological state that is experienced as the end of alienation.
However, if the individual has a remote connection with religion or none at all, the window to the healing effects of the unconscious is not only closed, it cannot even be imagined. Blessings and grace are foreign concepts. For these people Jung’s approach to psychology can be life saving.
Jung discovered that there are very important “nuclear processes” in the unconscious—actual images of the goal (the goal being the union of the ego with these unconscious processes), which can appear in dreams or fantasies. These images appear when there is a certain condition of ego need, a sort of hunger. Of course, the ego seeks familiar and favorite dishes, unable to imagine some outlandish food unknown to it. What the individual experiences is a longing but a longing for which there is no object. Nothing satisfies. An old Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?” well describes this experience
Jung writes about this occurrence: “The goal which beckons to this psychic need, the image which promises to heal, to make whole, is at first strange beyond all measure to the conscious mind, so that it can find entry only with the very greatest difficulty.” Entry and servings of “outlandish food,” come through the numinous. The ego is confronted with numinous experience that is awe-inspiring and naturally demanding of attention.
Addressing the key role of religion to provide healing, Jung goes on:
“Of course it is quite different for people who live in a time and environment when such images of the goal have dogmatic validity. These images are then eo ipso held up to consciousness, and the unconscious is thus shown its own secret reflection, in which it recognizes itself and so joins forces with the conscious (ego) mind.”
Jung is speaking here of the symbol systems, imagery, mythology, etc., that are effective as bridges between the ego and the unconscious. That is why the Catholic Mass, Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, sacred rituals of world religions, Hasidic story, parables, astrology, etc., work so effectively for so many people. These methodologies allow the unconscious, in “its own secret reflection” to be recognized by the individual ego so that the two can be joined in a unity. Jung called that unity “individuation.”
In the numinous experience, the ego encounters a reality incomprehensible to it, a power far greater than itself. The relativising effect on the ego can also release the individual from impossible responsibilities and overwhelming feelings of inadequacy. [Humankind throughout history has always left certain life tasks to the gods. Where there are no gods, the individual feels compelled to fill the role.]
Jungian Psychology, then, is uniquely suited for those people who cannot find a comfortable home in any religious tradition. People who study Jung’s ideas, who gather to hear presentations on various facets of his work, or who enter deeply into Jungian psychoanalysis have discovered the psychological path to healing of the personality. The meandering path of individuation, the cooperative dance of ego individuality and unconscious processes, is enormously enriching. In this dance the healing effects so many of us seek today are revealed and actualized.
Rose F. Holt
June 13, 2013
This article is being published in The Pathfinder newspaper’s September-October, 2013 issue, pathfindnews.com.