Monthly Archives: January 2018

The coincidence of opposites at the cultural level

‘Too much of the animal distorts the civilised man; too much civilisation makes sick animals’.

Here Carl Jung was talking about the coincidence of opposites at the cultural and collective level rather than at the individual (though of course it can equally apply to the personal). Not to get too hung up on either the word ‘animal’ or the word ‘civilised’ it is worth noting Jung was referring to how Western thought has developed the conscious and the rational thinking part at the expense of all the other psychological functions and that the result is that there is no proper balance. We become sick because we are not holding the tension of the opposites.

Jung may have been speaking metaphorically but sadly there is a truth to the reality here too. We read of ‘civilisation’ encroaching on the habitats of our fellow creatures so that there is less space and resources, and so animals become stressed competing with humans for food and as animal numbers decrease so extinction threatens. Humans trade animals in tourism or for pets and create both sick animals and sickened humans. Some humans trophy-hunt, killing under the excuse of helping conservation; by their murderous actions simultaneously terrifying and destroying beautiful creatures and their own connection with creation.

We know in a deep part of our being that the answer is to live in harmony. We also know that accommodating our needs with the needs of fellow creatures is the only way to survive. ‘Life is sacred… that of plants and animals [as well as that of our] fellow [humans]’ so said Schweitzer. Thomas Merton understood that there was a deep conflict imposed by our patriarchal and oppressive culture which was the tension between what he called the wilderness mystique and the mystique of exploitation and power in the name of freedom and creativity. Monica Weiss in her book ‘The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton’ quotes Merton (who was using the non-inclusive language of the time):

‘Take away the space, the freshness, the rich spontaneity of a wildly flourishing nature and what will become of the creative pioneer mystique? A pioneer in a suburb is a sick man tormenting himself with projects of virile conquest. In a ghetto he is a policeman shooting every black man who gives him a dirty look…’  Merton understood, as the prophet he was, that racial injustice, fascination with war and our wanton destruction of the planet was all related.

We need an ecological conscience that is ‘an awareness of man’s true place as a dependent member of the biotic community.’ ‘We mistake,’ Merton writes, ‘the artificial value of inert objects, and abstractions for the power of life itself.’

And both Jung and Merton would agree that rather than projecting out the ‘savagery’ within our own psyches onto wild animals, wild landscapes and nature and indeed onto people with whom we feel uncomfortable or different we could do with recognising and acknowledging that projection and owning it within ourselves… another balancing act of holding the tension of the opposites.

More on the opposites and Hannah’s epiphany

Carl Jung wrote that: ‘Wisdom never forgets that all things have two sides’. He wanted to point out that opposites give energy and the tension between them serves as what he calls the ‘elixir of life’.

Whilst there is a necessity to bring the opposites together in the ‘quest for one’s soul’ he makes it clear that complete unification will eliminate the passion for life and everything is then at a complete standstill. Perhaps this is the peace that passes all understanding and sometimes one can get a glimpse of it during meditation when the mind ceases and there is tranquillity…but usually… certainly for me… not for very long.

Sanford Drob in his book called Archetype of the Absolute says that while a complete unification of the opposites appears to be the impetus to certain  mystical states it can also lead to a form of psychosis in which the distinctions of everyday life collapse and the individual is unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Jung advocated this balancing of the tension and warned against complete immersion in one or other state, or when the separation is carried so far so that the complementary opposite is lost sight of. In other words when everything is all good and no bad is seen in it at all; in this state it is all too one-sided so then the unconscious compensates without our help. You can see this in some people’s belief systems. I can think of examples in certain strands of religion where the family has been held up as the supreme model and then it’s revealed that the greatest advocate of this belief is also a serial adulterer on the side and so on.

The bible offers examples of the tension between the opposites as a state of mind and the idea of their unification (both/and rather than either/or) as being representative of both wisdom and God.

One example is found in Hannah’s song. Hannah in her joy at having a son Samuel is also in pain at the loss as she relinquishes him to God. The coincidence of the joy and pain gives rise to her song, a breakthrough or epiphany about her experience of Who and What God is…

The bows of the mighty are shattered,
But the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full hire themselves out for bread,
But those who were hungry cease to hunger.
Even the barren gives birth to seven,
But she who has many children languishes.
The Lord kills and makes alive;
He brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and rich;
He brings low, He also exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust,
He lifts the needy from the ash heap
To make them sit with nobles,
And inherit a seat of honor;
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
And He set the world on them.

1 Samuel 2

Why trying to be good just won’t work!

The best we can aim for is to become the person we are intended to be… and surely part of that is about being authentically human. That’s why it won’t work trying to be ‘good’. If we try to be good we are merely suppressing the shadow and the parts of us that we don’t like or that others don’t like about us.

I’m reminded of the prayer I was taught to say every night during childhood which culminated with asking Jesus to make me a ‘good girl’ well behaved and loving everyone – presumably including those about whom I had ambivalent or mixed feelings or really hated. And there lies the route to guilt, shame, repressed anger and upset. Being ‘good’ as a child is about becoming compliant and this is where Winnicott’s theory of the false self comes in.

Both Winnicott and Jung are helpful about what Jung calls the ‘intractability and polarity of the human psyche’. Jung points to the parable found in the Phaedrus, where Plato (through his mouthpiece, Socrates) shares the description of the different natures of the black and white horses and the attempts of the charioteer or the soul to steer and control in order to reach the destination. Plato saw the horses as representing the mortal and immortal and the destination as the ridge of heaven where Truth and Beauty might be seen.

We are now thankfully more aware of the implications of the descriptions of deformity, colour/race and class/breeding but one can still get the gist of what was meant by Plato:

One horse is good; ‘upright and clean-limbed, carrying his neck high… in colour he is white, with black eyes; a lover of glory, but with temperance and modesty; one that consorts with genuine renown, and needs no whip, being driven by the word of command alone.’

In contrast the other horse is deformed and obstinate. Plato describes the horse as a ‘crooked of frame, a massive jumble of a creature, with short neck … black skin and grey eyes; hot-blooded, consorting with wantonness and vainglory; shaggy of ear, deaf and hard to control with whip and goad.’

After much effort the soul/charioteer tames the wild horse in the face of beauty. For Jung this was problematic because for him there were always the opposites so if there was beauty there would also be ugliness. All this takes me back to the Victor White and Carl Jung disagreement which I wrote about  a couple of years back…for the priest Victor White God was all good – above good and evil; but for Jung there would be inevitably the shadow side of God.

Jung rather took the analogy of the horses to represent the opposites and the attempts to manage the psyche. At the level of the psychological the charioteer could be seen as the ego trying to control the two parts of oneself.

St Paul understood about the struggle in the psyche: ‘For I do not do the good I want to do, the evil I do not want to do…this I keep on doing (Romans 7:19).

How hard it is to acknowledge and accept what being human is …


the coincidence of opposites in psychology and spirituality

A central part of all Carl Jung’s theories are based on ideas involving opposites. He thought that opposites are necessary for the definition of any entity or any process – one thing helps to define the other and give us an idea of it. So we have conscious/unconscious, ego/shadow, personal/collective, extraversion/introversion, rational/irrational, light/dark and so on.

In the same way Jung thought all the archetypes, or the basic universal human patterns of life, express a built-in polarity… more opposites….between positive and negative aspects of experience and emotions. An example is the archetypal image of the father which can be divided into the positive: the helpful, supportive, strong and admired father and the negative of that: a critical, dominating and destructive figure (or a weak and passive father). Clearly the totally good father would be an idealisation and we would all have a different view of what was good anyway.

The Jungian approach would be to understand how environmental experience has diluted or enhanced aspects of this archetypal image so that there is more of a blended or mediated process. The purpose of understanding all this would be to have a balance so that the good and the bad are somehow held and tolerated by the ego – the famous analytic phrase about ambivalence – so, for example, being able to hold both hateful and loving feelings at the same time.

Jung called the experience of holding, balancing and so overcoming the conflicts caused by opposites as the coincidence of opposites. He saw it as experiential, an emotional experience (in other words non-rational or intellectually thought through) and it was transcendent (the opposites were overcome and so transcended) and then the person was able to gain a new encompassing perspective.

What’s interesting in terms of spirituality is the connection between Jung’s theory and the same notion of the coincidence of opposites found in Christian mysticism as well as in other esoteric traditions as found in the Veda and the Kabbalah. Acknowledging this Jung thought that the coincidence of opposites characterised the God archetype and the Self.  The experiential reconciliation between the opposites in the minds of people is then the development or rebirth of God in the soul. (But, as is ever the case with Jung, God is restricted to the human psyche.)

In one of his writings Jung thought that the failure to reconcile opposites is encouraged by the serpent that tempts us to keep things separate and enslaved or to get taken over by one thing and then the other – overwhelmed and unable to keep things in any balance.

In mysticism the coincidence of the opposites is sometimes heralded by a spark, Thomas Merton described this as ‘The “spark” which is my true self is the flash of the Absolute recognizing itself in me.’ A classic experience as described by mystics and contemplatives is the feeling described as immense fullness and immense emptiness being the same thing.

Again I’m reminded of Thomas Merton’s experience shortly before his death at Polonnaruwa preceded by an inner explosion:

‘I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious….everything is emptiness and everything is compassion…’