Monthly Archives: October 2020

Edwin Muir’s big dream

The poet Edwin Muir had this big dream many years ago, but dreams are timeless and it seems to speak to our contemporary situation and the threatened extinction of our fellow creatures and ultimately ourselves.

Muir sees the dream as about our blood-guiltiness towards animals and our vision of a day when humans and other species will live in friendship – when the lion will lie down with the lamb. In the dream Muir is asleep but wakened by a man standing by his bed wearing a long robe falling about him in motionless folds. Muir writes that the light that filled the room came from the man’s hair, which rose, burning ‘like a motionless brazier’. Muir follows the man through a cloister out into the street, and then to a field where it becomes early morning.

‘As we passed the last houses I saw a dark, shabby man with a dagger in his hand; he was wearing rags bound round his feet, so that he walked quite soundlessly; there was a stain as of blood on one of his sleeves; I took him to be a robber or a murderer and was afraid. But as he came nearer I saw that his eyes, which were fixed immovably on the figure beside me, were filled with a profound violent adoration such as I had never seen in human eyes before. Then behind him, I caught sight of a confused crowd of other men and women in curious or ragged clothes, and all had their eyes fixed with the same look on the man walking beside me. I saw their faces only for a moment. Presently we came to the field, which as we drew near changed into a great plain dotted with little conical hills a little higher than a man’s head. All over the plain animals were standing or sitting on their haunches on these little hills; lions, tigers, bulls, deer, elephants, were there; serpents too wreathed their lengths on the knolls; and each was separate and alone, and each slowly lifted its head upward as if in prayer.

This upward-lifting motion had a strange solemnity and deliberation; I watched head after head upraised as if moved by an irresistible power beyond them. The elephant wreathed its trunk upward, and there was something pathetic and absurd in that indirect act of adoration. But the other animals raised their heads with the inevitability of the sun’s rising, as if they knew, like the sun, that a new day was about to begin, and were giving the signal for its coming. Then I saw a little dog busily running about with his nose tied to the ground, as if he did not know that the animals had been redeemed. He was a friendly little dog, officiously going about his business, and it seemed to me that he too had a place in this day, and that his oblivious concern with the earth was also a form of worship. How the dream ended I do not remember: I have now only a memory of the great animals with all their heads raised to heaven.’

Muir was at the time in psychoanalysis but sees this dream as an ancestral dream linking to our racial collective unconscious, and a millennial dream involving the relationship between us all as creatures, where the animals are glorified and reconciled with humankind, and pointing to the way that we should live together. The tall figure of light that came to stand by the bed is Christ.

‘Big dreams’

Carl Jung writes extensively about dream work – seeing dreams as the psyche’s attempt to communicate important things to the individual, and so he valued dreams highly, perhaps above all else, as a way of knowing what was really going on. As did Freud, Jung saw that dreams were ‘the royal road to the unconscious’.

Dreams are also an important part of the development of the personality – the process that he called individuation. Jung thought that dreams expressed things openly, and were often a way of expressing something that the ego does not yet know or understand. They can also act as a form of compensation, particularly if we are in some way out of balance. Sometimes it’s not so easy to know what our dreams mean, because the dreams use symbols in expressing what is not known. There may be resonance with external events, but Jung thought that every object in the dream corresponds to an element within the individual’s own psyche.

‘Big dreams’ are dreams that stand out or in some way are set apart from the usual dreaming, because they link to archetypal themes and have a deep meaning. They feel especially significant. Jung used the term after visiting in 1925 with the East African tribe in Kenya the Elgoni, who had a strong dreaming culture. They explained to Jung that there are little dreams and big dreams. For the Elgoni, big dreams were seen as collective dreams as the dreamer was dreaming for the community, for the landscape, and perhaps for the entire world. Sadly, the old medicine man that Jung consulted about the big dreams said that ‘since the whites were in Africa … no one had dreams any more. Dreams were no longer needed because now the English knew everything.’ As Jung comments, the divine voice that had counselled the tribe and who had gone with the arrival of the colonialists meant that the value of life now lay wholly in this world, showing ‘the spreading disintegration of an undermined, outmoded, unrestorable world.’

But in 2020 as ‘civilisation’ finally begins to confront its own disintegration and an outmoded way of living dreams can still offer deep meaning:

‘The dream is a little hidden door in the innermost and most secret recesses of the psyche, opening into that cosmic night which was psyche long before there was any ego consciousness, and which will remain psyche no matter how far our ego-consciousness may extend…

All consciousness separates; but in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal human dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. There is still the whole, and the whole is in [the person], indistinguishable from nature and bare of all egohood. Out of these all-uniting depths arises the dream, be it never so infantile, never so grotesque, never so immoral.’

The next few posts will be examples of ‘big dreams’ …

Experiential theology 2

Given that our sense of a living God and our sense of our self changes over time and as a result of our experiences, then at any point our insights and beliefs can only be approximations – what have been called ‘endless approximations’. Jung saw this deepening sense of God and self as approaching a centre or rather going around it but incrementally nearer. As Jung inched by inched to get nearer he found a corresponding depotentiation where the ego gets less important and the centre – a feeling of emptiness – here not meaning absence or vacant but rather unknowability endowed with the highest intensity that Jung calls God – increased. This God he thought also includes a large part of the self. But it is here that his ability to experience reached its finite point. ‘The ego can merely affirm that something vitally important is happening to it.’

For Merton there is a difference between the experience of God as one who is present – this is the God of revelation – to the God of the mystic, where, a bit like Jung’s experience of reaching the edge of cognition and affirmation by the ego, Merton writes about being lost in God. In ‘The Seven Storey Mountain’ Merton describes God as ‘that centre Who is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.’

Neither writer is reducing God to the level of an object or a thing – this is sadly what happens in much religious writing. The invitation is more to experience for oneself and with the understanding of paradox, approximation and limitlessness. This is the God who will not be pinned down by a manifesto or a doctrine or a set of conditions – this is the God without limits and boundaries. As Merton puts it: ‘He transcends them all and hence is not to be sought among them’. God is not to be found amongst all that he has made but nothing can be separated from the God who created them. Like the Sanskrit teaching ‘neti neti’ – ‘not this not this’ God is transcendent – not this object and not that thing but also immanent in all creatures as the ground of every creature’s being.

So, our experiences of God become mediated through concepts as best it can be and through the experiences written down by others – perhaps also in our own notebooks and from our own glimpses of the something ‘more than ourselves’.

Experiential theology

As is clear, spirituality is not the same as psychotherapy, and nor is faith the same as the project of individuation, but there is a mutual influence within the one psyche. There is a deep mystery attached to faith, and one that is rarely discussed in spiritual direction or in church group discussions. In those sorts of settings it is easier to look at what is ‘out there’ than what is ‘inside’.

One difficulty is that our sense of self and our sense of God shifts, and there’s a connection there. We are as is God full of paradox and it is hard to put our deep beliefs out in the public square for scrutiny – especially if it is in the presence of a secular psychotherapist. Our deepest beliefs may feel embarrassing or unsophisticated and childlike and so our vulnerability is on display.

What is clear is that faith is a mystery and yet we are contained within the mystery, and so inevitably part of the same. What can we say about our faith and if we do are we talking about ourselves or God? Or neither? Jung says that when God is discussed we don’t know who we are talking about. If God is unutterable, unknowable and incomprehensible the nearest we can get is hesitatingly uncovering ourselves as deeply as we can go. As the Sufi poet Rumi put it: ‘I searched for God and found only myself. I searched for myself and found only God.’

Thomas Merton realised that it was not proving the existence of God and deciding through rational reasoning on God’s nature and so on that mattered so much as the experiencing of God’s presence. It was not enough to find a God who answered his mind’s questions – or indeed anyone else’s questions. He thought, and here Jung would agree with him, that many people ‘believed’ in what he called ‘an apologetic hypothesis’. This might mean believing in a God we have been told about – from received doctrine and dogma and this means that this is a God who is kept at arm’s length. Both Jung and Merton write how if we are to talk about God we have to rely on experience and to trust that experience. The experience is about being present to God, and this God demands a personal response. This is not the silent God of reason, but rather the God revelation who speaks to people.

Jung writes how growing up in the heyday of scientific materialism, with an education where only arguments against religion were offered, and watching his own father a pastor ‘cracking up before my eyes on the problem of his faith’ led Jung to rely instead on subjective experience. ‘I was thrown back on experience alone … The only way open to me was the experience of religious realities … that seem meaningful to me.’


ideas on wholeness and holiness

Carl Jung sees that the search for becoming whole involves integrating parts of the collective including what he refers to as ‘brother animal’ – ‘who is actually holier than us since he cannot deviate from the divine will implanted in him.’

This is an interesting idea because Jung is suggesting that wholeness itself – which is God – is only found in God. Jung sees this as a compelling force against which we should offer no resistance: ‘I find that all my thoughts circle round God like planets round the sun, and are as irresistibly attracted to him.’

Jung sees that his ability to think has been given to him by God and so he pits ‘my thinking at his service’. This inevitably means that Jung conflicts with the traditional doctrine including that of evil as the privation of good, and God as all good or the highest good. Jung’s challenge to the Christians through his publication of ‘Answer to Job’ is how can one square the all-good God, a guardian of justice and morality to the one who is unjust. Jung quotes Isaiah 48 where God refines and tests and why? ‘For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it.’

Richard Rohr sees these contemporary days as apocalyptic. Certainly times of trial – most of which have been brought on the planet by humankind. Is there evil? Such questions make me feel uncomfortable and uncertain. Jung makes a strong case for recognition of evil – which he sees as not ‘nothing’ but ‘something with substance’ – a force in its own right. Of course, in this sense, then acknowledging and beginning to integrate the personal shadow and indeed aspects of the collective shadow is the only way to achieve some form of completeness.

I like Jung’s comment that ‘You lose nothing and you even gain something in contemplating such thoughts.’ We seek balance but as Jung says, ‘You only get it when either side carries equal weight. Christ is crucified between the one going up and the other going down, i.e., between opposites’. Redemption Jung added is to be found in the middle ground – the centre of your self – where ‘God suffers in his own Creation’. None of us can escape the opposites within us and God wants us to unite these. Jung writes these rather lovely words so familiar to those of us who read Merton and his work on ‘le point vierge’: ‘If turmoil and torment become too great, there is still the oneness of the self, the divine spark within its inviolable precincts, offering its extramundane peace’.