nature of the Self: theory, image & archetype
I have heard many people complain about the division between spirit and matter. Often they blame Descartes. For example in Marigold’s book titled A Guiding Hand, she says:
“If we hadn’t given so much credit to… Descartes division between spirit and matter, we would have saved ourselves a lot of time and a lot of pains.” (p. 181)
Marigold’s view represents a way of thinking that is quite common: turning a creative tension into a problem, as if it were invented by Descartes.
The opposition between spirit and matter is quite a bit older than Descartes. One might call it an archetypal dialectic. Spirit and matter represent basic categories of thought. These categories help us to conceptualize the world around us.
One of the ways in which humans conceptualize the world is through opposition. Oppositions are often represented as binary pairs, such as spirit and matter. These binary pairs provide reference points, one idea is known in relations to the other. Oppositions drive us to resolve tensions through acts of creative synthesis.
One of the primary forms of psychic development is the ability to hold a dialectical tension without collapsing to one side or the other. This is a hallmark of a developed and integrated self.
The height of this psychological development is symbolically represented by the coincidentia oppositorum, or coincidence of opposites. This is not a collapsed unity, but a dynamic co-incidence created through dialectical tension.
One of the most basic binary pairs for the developing infant psyche is the mother and the father. Some others pairs are: life and death, light and shadow, good and bad, love and hate. These can be integrated in the self. For example, we may realize we love and hate the same person. Love can hold or contain hate, thus transforming it. This is the creative synthesis that only the self can produce.
Another basic binary pair is animate and inanimate. Spirit may be seen as representing the animate aspect of life. Carl Jung says:
“In keeping with its original wind-nature, spirit is always an active, winged, swift-moving being as well as that which vivifies, stimulates, incites, fires, and inspires.” (Carl Jung, CW 9i, para. 390)
Spirit stimulates, incites, fires, and inspires. Spirit represents the active inspiring aspect of life. The dynamic is understood in tension with its opposite– stasis and inertia. When we take this division to the extreme we get the binary opposites of life and death. Life being dynamic and death imagined as static. Jung says:
“To put it in modern language, spirit is the dynamic principle, forming for that very reason the classical antithesis of matter-the antithesis, that is, of its stasis and inertia. Basically it is the contrast between life and death. The subsequent differentiation of this contrast leads to the actually very remarkable opposition of spirit and nature.”(ibid)
Now, most of us, most of the time, prefer life over death. We want to live, or at least, as Jung puts it “the anima (soul) wants life.” So, the problem with our thinking is not so much the tension between spirit and matter, but instead the association of matter with death and the unspiritual. Jung continues his thought:
“Even though spirit is regarded as essentially alive and enlivening, one cannot really feel nature as unspiritual and dead. We must therefore be dealing here with the (Christian) postulate of a spirit whose life is so vastly superior to the life of nature that in comparison with it the latter is no better than death.” (ibid)
Anyone who gets out in nature knows that nature is not dead. It is teeming with life, humming, vibrating. Being in nature is often one of the places we feel most connected with the animating source of life. Just the experience of nature can be integrating, creating a synthesis between spirit and matter. This is the living synthesis of the self.
To live life is to live with these psychological tensions, to have the chance to integrate them in the self. To collapse onto either side is to limit our perception. By opening to these tensions we gain the possibility for experiencing a synthesis of opposition. That is, through working with the tensions our mind may gain the capacity to synthesize a dialectical pair into new thought, symbol, or direct experience.
In the Christian tradition the synthesis between spirit and matter is symbolized in the form of the Dove as the Holy Ghost as seen in the image above.