Self-realization as revealed in art, symbol & sacred text: Analytic psychology, Eastern philosophy, mystic practice
It has been 101 years since Carl Jung wrote Symbols of Transformation. This work is now in the US Public Domain, and available on-line for all to read freely. It makes sense that our reading of Carl Jung should also occur in the public domain, so that an understanding can deepen and develop through conversation and community.
Life has shifted quite a bit in 101 years. In this time some things have changed and some have stayed constant. One thing that has changed is there is now a greater availability of ideas and perspectives. Western civilization has become more multicultural, and such a change brings with it a multiplicity of viewpoints and religions. Christianity is no longer dominant; instead, we see a variety of beliefs, mixing and melting together.
The Internet, too, has brought some shifts. One can go to Sacred-texts.com and find a plethora of ancient texts, Sūtras, tantras. The sacred teachings are offered in the public domain for anyone who is open and ready to read. The availability of these various teachings has created the possibility of a shift in perspective: what was once hidden is now in plain view, open to everyone without initiation, or guru, or fee. If we are open, and put in the labor and struggle, we can come to know the hidden: discovering the depth and perspective of many planes and many dimensions.
Such an understanding is not bound to history, or time, or place. What is now available to the collective, has always been available. To know the hidden, texts are not necessary. All one has to do is sit down, shut ones eyes and turn the mind toward the mind; in time the hidden will show itself. The shamans know this, the Hindu yogis know this, the Buddhists, the Christian mystics, the Sufis all know this.
The process of introversion brings with it transformation. Most people avoid such transformation, seeking instead to find solace in entertainment and distraction. The Western worldview is one of extroversion. There is a subtle imperative to look only to the outside written into the Western discourse. It is also an old Christian imperative: God is known only through the church. Truth is known only through figures of authority. We are schooled in such an imperative; it is ‘adaptive.’ We are also lured into seeking pleasure in the world of objects.
We find this view in the psychoanalytic discourse of Sigmund Freud. Libido must seek an object. Neurosis develops when Libido turns back in upon itself. Theorists at that time saw a relationship between mental illness and the introversion of libido. Jung begins Symbols of Transformation with an attempt to express this viewpoint. At the beginning of section III, Jung says:
“We know from psychopathology that there is a certain mental disturbance which is initiated by the patient’s shutting out reality more and more and sinking into his fantasies, with the result that as reality loses its hold, the determining power of the inner world increases. This process leads up to a climax when the patient suddenly becomes more or less conscious of his dissociation from reality: in a sort of panic he begins making pathological efforts to get back to his environment. These attempts spring from the compensating desire for re-association and seem to be the psychological rule, valid not only for pathological cases but also, to a lesser degree, for normal people.”
In this passage Jung sets forth one point of view. But his writing employs a dialectical style. Jung often begins his reasoning process by making an argument common to his era, then shifts to a different perspective, opening a new horizon and space for thinking. Here Jung begins with a premise common to his era, that introversion may cause mental disease. By beginning with this perspective Jung will employ a dialectal method in which he takes us to the next viewpoint: that introversion is associated with mystical symbolism. And finally a synthesis: that religious symbols are associated with psychic life.
Jung’s weaving is a movement between the psychological and spiritual. While psychology as a field seeks a clinical understanding of the psyche, Jung’s work goes deeper into the religious dimensions of the psyche. Jung had an extensive intellectual background in theology and philosophy. He was gifted at not only clinical practice, but also in the art of hermeneutics.
This dual awareness gave Jung a binocular vision. He was able to work clinically, and also hold a wider perspective on human nature. With this, Jung was able to perceive psychic truths that were complex, dialectical, enigmatic, and thus, not always available to those limited to a monocular vision.
While it may be true from a clinical perspective that introversion is sometimes correlated with mental illness, we gain from Jung’s larger perspective that correlation does not mean causation. That is, just because introversion is associated with mental illness it does not mean it is the cause.
It is my hope that many have now come to this understanding. Think of the logical conclusions of the prejudiced viewpoint which would correlate introversion and mental illness. To say that introversion is the cause of mental illness is to say that the practices of Native Americans, Buddhists, Hindu yogis, Christians mystics all lead to mental illness. This seems more prejudicial than accurate.
In the 101 years since Jung wrote Symbols of Transformation, Western civilization has become a more multicultural environment, with a multiplicity of viewpoints and religions. Jung’s writings help us to overcome a prejudicial point of view. By starting with this conservative point of view, Carl Jung slowly deconstructs the conservative Christian imperative that had crept into both Western civilization and the field of psychology.
Christianity, with its mandate for extroversion is no longer the dominant religion. We now have hundreds of thousands of people endeavoring into spiritual and religious practices such as meditation and contemplation. Such practices endeavor into introversion with few ill effects.
In the few people who do have ill effects, spiritual teachers are often wise enough to refer the individual to a credentialed counselor or psychologist. Society seems to be heading toward an understanding that introversion is the domain of religious contemplation and mysticism. The process of introversion is vital to many of the more mystical spiritual paths, which put an emphasis on an inner life. Psychology should enter the spiritual domain only insofar as it is works with the psychological disorders associated with spiritual life, and not when it constrains personal freedom or forecloses personal possibility. We must allow for freedom of religion and religious practices, without prematurely and with prejudice associating them with disorder.
Jung’s work, Symbols of Transformation, set the stage for this more open and accepting view of diverse religious and spiritual practices within Western culture. This shift in perspective has now been fully integrated to the point where mindfulness and meditation are a growing part of clinical psychology.
With this opening to the diversity of spiritual beliefs and practices, Jung also set the stage for a shift in consciousness. In particular, he set the stage for a shift in the way that the collective consciousness views the unconscious. The deeper truth latent in Carl Jung’s work has yet to be fully realized. This latent truth is evident within the dialectal synthesis Jung offers, but it requires that we go further, deeper into Jung’s work. Call it the next stage in a collective development if you will.
To read Jung is to view psychic life from various perspectives. We go beyond dialectal thought– into a multiplicity. Through such multiplicity we gain a view of the whole. Through a kaleidoscope of perspectives and dialectical ponderings, we come closer to a realization: that religious deities and arcana are not transcendent to life, but immanent to psychic life– to the self. No wonder we were afraid of going mad. This is not an easy realization for a fragile psyche to bear.
Western civilization is not adequately prepared for this realization. For much of our long history we have been under some form or another of a ‘Lord.’ Due to our feudal roots, we seem quite comfortable giving over our authority and power to someone else. The inner path, the path of Self-realization, demands that we realize our self, or should I say the Self, as sovereign–at least in spiritual terms. There is not much guidance in the Western tradition for such a path. Many who seek this realization turn to Buddhism or Hinduism. These traditions offer the most direct approach to Self-realization. Yet, taken alone they lack some of the insight of the Western psychological tradition into the nature of psychic life.
Jung is a wonderful guide in this regard. For example, in Symbols of Transformations Jung provides insight into the difference between the literal and symbolic. He says:
“As most people know, one of the basic principles of analytical psychology is that dream-images are to be understood symbolically; that is to say, one must not take them literally, but must surmise a hidden meaning in them.” (para. 4)
And again later, he says:
“The conscious fantasy may be woven of mythological or any other material; it should not be taken literally, but must be interpreted according to its meaning.” (para. 44)
One the path of Self-realization, it is wise if we are able to recognize the difference between the literal and the symbolic. If not then our relationship to spiritual images and symbols will most likely be distorted. This may be one reason Western civilization has feared introversion. The philosophical systems had not yet clarified the difference between that which is literal and that which is symbolic.
Although it has changed quite a bit in 101 years, Western civilization is still steeped in projection and projective identification. Such identification blurs the lines between the literal and symbolic. It was not until the philosophy of Husserl and his “phenomenological reduction” that we really began to understand the nature of our projective ‘reality’.
Now that such concepts and realizations have entered into the social discourse we are more prepared to explore the inner world, and soul life, without literalizing the symbolic. At the most basic level this means that the images of the self are to remain within the realms of the self, and not to be projected onto world around us. To imagine or dream of an angel is a symbolic encounter, and in Jungian terms, it should not be taken literally. It is an image of the self, for the self.
Jung elucidates the difference between the literal and symbolic through a contemplation of the ancient idea of dreams. In the second chapter, Jung speaks of “significant and prophetic dreams, of warning dreams and of healing dreams” (para. 5).
Prophetic dreams were once believed to be sent by literal beings: “According to the old belief, a god or demon spoke to the sleeper in symbolic language, and the dream-interpreter had to solve the riddle” (para. 6) Some people are still compelled to literalize the symbolic and believe that they are speaking to an actual, outer being. Jung is calling for a withdrawal of such projections. The god or demon is no longer seen as outside of us, as literal and actual. Instead we are to take the dream content as symbolic, expressing a hidden, inner meaning. Gods and demons emanate from within the human psyche, from within in the self. It is the awareness of the self that dissolves such illusion. This is an essential insight in the process of Self-realization.