Monthly Archives: May 2016

Really Looking

Looking –
This is the first part of a presentation I gave for a recent Quiet Garden afternoon event.
Looking outside may mean looking at something…Sometimes it’s helpful to look at an object – perhaps a flower, a candle, an icon as a way of focussing and stopping all those thoughts that start to crowd in. The idea of really looking at something helps us keep other thoughts at bay.
The Buddhists call all that restless thinking and jumping around that goes on in our heads as ‘monkey mind’ because our thoughts are like monkeys in the tree tops, they leap all over the place taking us on unwanted journeys and diversions. Quite often you can start out thinking about Jesus Christ or looking at a phrase from the Bible or some religious book and before you know it you’ve moved on to supper tonight or something someone said sometime back. Our minds can take us anywhere and it seems as if it requires a lot of effort to keep it at least open to hearing the word of God. So we might try to focus on looking at something, or we could repeat a word or a phrase and this technique is the path of centring prayer. Sometime people choose a simple word like ‘love’ or ‘peace’ or a phrase or a mantra… the Jesus prayer can help here: ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ And when the thoughts come up well there seems a consensus that the secret is to allow these inevitable and endless thoughts to flow on their way without becoming caught up or seduced by them. Sometimes the metaphor of clouds scudding across the sky seems helpful.
Really looking and being aware is a spiritual teaching advocated by all the different traditions and the time in the Quiet Garden offers a wonderful chance to do just that. Such looking is to look beyond the concepts, ‘into the realm of the real, where subjects and objects act and rest purely, without utterance. “Launch into the deep … and you shall see.”‘
If there is awareness when looking outside then more may be revealed, we may see more in the flower, the candle or the icon that we thought we would. So what might be expected? Experiences by people who were previously blind, and, who then became sighted may offer one perspective. The accounts vary hugely with some describing how they felt oppressed by the light and associated concepts of space, and others delighting in sight and the visual world.
For example one little girl, newly able to see, is taken to a garden: ‘She is greatly astonished … stands speechless in front of the tree, which she names on taking hold of it … as ‘the tree with the lights in it.’ Another account is of a twenty-two-year-old woman blind from childhood who following an operation:
‘… was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognise any objects, but, the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: “Oh God! How beautiful!”’
For Annie Dillard a writer this way of seeing is a gift and her own vision of ‘the tree with lights in it,’ the expression she adopts that was used earlier by the young girl who had her sight restored, came to Dillard as an adult when it was unsought. She describes her experience in this way:
‘Then one day I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance … I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.’
If we look then perhaps we too can catch a glimpse of the tree with the lights in it, this is a glimpse of paradise.
The way to begin to catch glimpses of paradise again is also about really looking: a question of trying to keep the eyes open and to move away from only seeing what is expected. This involves minimising if possible the editing that goes on automatically in the brain, so what you see is in part about how it is seen. But if we could really see we would see that we already live in paradise.
As Staretz Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov says, ‘We do not understand that life is paradise, for it suffices only to wish to understand it, and at once paradise will appear in front of us in its beauty.’
The recovery of paradise is always hidden in us as a possibility for paradise is ever present. ‘Here is an unspeakable secret; paradise is all around us and we do not understand it … “Wisdom”, cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.’

How can knowledge of the unconscious help spiritually?

How can knowledge of the unconscious help spiritually?
There are a number of ways in which bringing what is in the unconscious into consciousness can help us – certainly at the surface level clearing out some aspects of the past can help us be less preoccupied in meditation and contemplative prayer.
Here there is a connection with memory. For if God is always present in our lives then God is also present in our memories. As Rowan Williams puts it: ‘God is the agency that gives us back our memories, because God is the ‘presence’ to which all reality is present.’ Often the memories that are revoked also feel very present – we can feel as we felt at the time. Time and space have shifted we are in a sense in the eternal present – the now. One of the reasons that remembering is so important is because once memory is brought into the light and thought about it has less power to affect us without our knowing about it. Freud famously wrote about the return of the repressed looking at how feelings that have been kept out of the conscious mind may return with an unexpected force and in an unexpected way. If we keep things locked down and out of our awareness we are then less than whole or as Williams puts it again, ‘the refusal or denial of memory is … perhaps the deepest diminution of all. If the whole self is the concern and the theatre of God’s saving work, in the past of the self must be included in the scope of this work.’
Many writers have debated on the nature of the self and what the self might mean but all are pretty agreed that it is not a static fixed state but is in itself dynamic and changing according to circumstance. After all the very process of treatment and therapy is about the possibility of change; similarly deepening our spiritual life is about also changing and growing spiritually in our self. There is obviously continuity and that is partly about memory where continuity or my sense of self is seen in the form of my own story and our behaviour, our responses and reactions emerge from our experiences in the past. And of course we are affected by what we know about and by the unconscious – after all we are not just a machine and nor are we always capable of acting in the most rational manner. Our story is both a personal story and the wider story of the society and the culture that we live in and so how we are is affected by the history of others as well as ourselves. If we can remember we can also learn from the past and so we can in some ways transcend old patterns and old ways of behaving of responding.
For often memories lie at the heart of our feelings of pain – perhaps rejection and hurts. They will also include how we have hurt and rejected others. So the very process of remembering can also be an act of redemption done in the presence of God with God ever present in the memories.

The notion of God – beyond knowing

The notion of God is beyond conceptual knowing in the sense that there can be no ideas or any image that can adequately represent God – the ineffable. In fact when we limit God to our own understanding we do both ourselves and God a disservice. What we do know is that our experience of God changes over time and deepens if we let go of preconceived ideas. This is why it’s almost impossible to explain what contemplation is – though you can explain how to meditate and so on and it’s only some of the poets who can sometimes capture glimpses of it.

We will find a deeper idea of God through bringing the unconscious into consciousness – we will at least get a sense of the kind of God we focus on and why. But God cannot be seen as ‘just’ an archetype. Poor Carl Jung got criticism from both camps about his theories of the archetypes. He is often concerned to be seen as a scientist proceeding from as he writes ‘empirical facts which everyone is at liberty to verify’ and then from the other camp he is criticised as a philosopher or as he puts it, as ‘a Gnostic who claims supernatural knowledge.’ I think some of that still lingers on in both contemporary analytic and contemporary religious circles. After all what Jung was above all else was a seeker and a searcher for the deeper things in life and as such remains a giant thinker and psychologist. He was interested above all else in developing awareness and consciousness and this aspect of his thinking is highly relevant for the spiritual life. He saw that there were layers of consciousness including the rational and the psychological but beyond that was a level that one might call mysticism – yet for Jung psychology remained above all else the route towards understanding.

It is true that after a while depth psychology – analytical psychology – can open up realms beyond the limits of what one previously thought were the edges of one’s personal being but to venture into these areas you either need the structure of a spiritual discipline or the framework of being in analysis. The God of the personal unconscious is easy enough to recognise…in my case analysis revealed a punishing, highly critical, demanding god – Freud would have called it the super ego. Somewhere though I felt something else existed – a loving God but I needed a guide to find that God and this was not an analyst but the Advocate – the Helper and so my conversion 16 years ago introduced me to the God represented by Jesus Christ … a God who loves us above all else. However old habits die hard and during a second period of therapy my then analyst (both the therapies that I have undertaken have been with Jungians from the Society of Analytical Psychology – the London Jungians) called the god that I worshipped a devil because of the lack of love and the emphasis on power. So there is a struggle between the conditioning from the past and the present experience and it is only too easy to fall back. Gradually little by little new experiences can replace old ones and faith in love can I believe overcome the darkness; and God is present in the unconscious because He is present in all things but he is not the unconscious…he is more than we can know or imagine we know…

God and the Unconscious Again

I thought that I had ended the Victor White and Carl Jung controversy but after reading Jung’s foreword to White’s book on God and the Unconscious I found myself really struggling to make sense of the dispute again…

‘The very religiousness of Jung, is apt to scare off the religious-minded as much as, or more than, the irreligious.’

This quote by Victor White, written many years ago, reflects still I think contemporary understanding of the relationship between analytical psychology and religion. It’s easier for the church to understand CBT, behavioural and cognitive psychology and the materialism of traditional Freudian psychoanalysis – after all they seem very much to deal with mental distress and emotional difficulties and they don’t tread on the territory of spirituality or religion.

Contemporary psychoanalytic psychotherapy still doesn’t have much time for the spiritual or the religious but contemporary Jungians are usually very much interested in the spiritual and the religious reflecting Carl Jung’s desire for cooperation and understanding.

In his foreword to Victor White’s book ‘God and the Unconscious’ written in May 1952 Carl Jung writes that all therapies require a spiritual completion, not least because a lot of the material that emerges in dream work reflect archetypal myths and spiritual insights. Jung notes that often those in the church don’t like the idea of myth because it seems to be an undermining of religious testimonies which are understood as supreme truth. But we need to recognise that we are all part of something; for anyone to be healed and to feel whole involves more than individual well-being or individual salvation. In this we are all in it together and acknowledging the collective matters – both consciously in being part of a group and inevitably as part of the collective unconscious (to use Jung’s term).

Jung’s main point about religion and therapy is that we use language in different contexts and with different associations. The God of the church is not the same as the God of the archetype – or is it? For Jung, God is present – a God that he said he knew – present in the deep unconscious with divine attributes of almightiness, omniscience, eternity and so on and this includes a numinous quality which deeply stirs our emotions. However, as I have discussed before, the difficulties that came to the surface in his relationship with Victor White have also disconcerted other religious and that is Carl Jung’s belief that God cannot be all good – without evil – but also has to have a shadow aspect because after all he is an archetype and archetypes have both good and bad aspects. What can we make of this?

My answer is that perhaps the conceptual thinking doesn’t matter quite so much but rather what really matters is the experience and I do find Thomas Merton’s description of his early conversion helpful here. He turns to the concept of aseity which simply means the power of a being to exist absolutely in virtue of itself, not as caused by itself, but as requiring no cause, no other justification for its existence except that its very nature is to exist. In other words God is Being Itself and that Being includes the archetypes and all the thinking about them, and all the deep longings within each of us but is also more than the archetypes encompassing the whole. In his early reading about this Merton notes the idea of the concrete and real Infinite Being, Who, Himself transcends all our conceptions. In other words God doesn’t need me to believe in him in order for him to exist…
We can’t know but we can have a sense of and be open to something which is both inside and outside of ourselves and so much more than can be thought of and easily imagined.

Jung on enlightenment and the unconscious

Carl Jung to his great credit was fascinated and curious about religion and religious experiences as part of analytical psychology and he struggles to make sense of mystical experiences from both the Christian and Buddhist traditions. He writes about how a transformation experience isn’t that something different is seen but that one sees something differently – it is as though the spatial act of seeing were changed by a new dimension. (c.f. ‘Something like scales fell from his eyes, Acts 9:18).

Jung in his foreword to the Suzuki book refers back to the story of Gensha (see previous post) and says that the master when he asks, ‘do you hear the murmuring of the brook?’ obviously means something quite different from ordinary hearing. Perhaps this is when an earlier form of contemplation becomes endowed with a richer and deeper level of contemplative prayer – in other words there are layers of contemplation.

In such a way mystical Christianity meets in Zen Buddhism but is far removed from the mainstream church – for example Meister Eckhart was condemned by the Church for his ideas on all this. And perhaps it can seem sometimes rather heretical because it is a breaking down of established structures and concepts. So in following the methodology of the Zen koan Jung sees that the aim is to destroy – completely destroy the rational intellect. In other words you’re not allowed to think about it or consciously think about it, but as Jung points out that won’t stop the unconscious or as he puts it an answer from Nature, and he uses a capital N. The answer to the paradoxical koan comes from the depths of one’s being from the unconscious. The answer cannot be present in the world of consciousness which is full of restrictions and very one-sided; but below is what Jung calls a ‘total exhibition of potential nature’. If there is a focus on emptiness or on the paradoxical koan then this increases the readiness of the unconscious contents to break through. Jung has always made much of the compensatory relationship between the conscious and the unconscious which certainly comes through in dreams, and he sees this as a similar thing that happens in meditation with the conscious emptying of the mind. He also of course sees the unconscious as much more than the personal unconscious which he describes in this foreword a bit oddly as ‘a lumber room of dirty secrets’ for of course he is interested in the collective unconscious which includes mythology and philosophy. So Jung understands the breakthrough as a result of many hours/days/months/years of emptying the mind when the only true answer comes from Nature itself.

Jung remained unconvinced about how this could all work in the West doubting our ability to believe in the possibility of such paradoxical transformation let alone trust in a master and his incomprehensible ways! I did find myself at this point thinking of the trust that develops in analysis where the patient commits themselves often to years and years on the couch usually paying a lot of money and wondering where, when and how the experience will end! And Jung does see that here is a connection – for neither what the long-term patient in analysis nor the long-term meditator is doing can be explained to others nor be understood in the wider culture – and sadly not even in the church who as Jung wryly notes has the function to oppose all such extreme experiences.

The whole thing is to do with seeking, awareness and reflection: and the transformation is to become whole/ to become real and that involves spiritual and psychological depth.