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Carl Jung on old age part 2

In a letter to Michael Fordham one of the founders of the Society of Analytical Psychology Jung wrote in June 1954 in his eightieth year:

‘Well, after all you are approaching the age when one has to become acquainted with the difficult experience of being superseded. Times go on and inexorably one is left behind, sometimes more, sometimes less, and one has to realize that there are things beyond our reach one shouldn’t grieve for, as such grieving is still a remnant of too youthful an ambition.’

He continues to say that while our libido certainly would go on ‘reaching for the stars’ fate steps in to make it clear that there needs to be a change where we move from seeking completion without and if we can read the signs we turn to our inner life.

Jung says that ‘alas! One becomes aware that there is so much to improve’ in the field of the inner person that instead we can even be grateful to the adversity of old age that helps us to have the necessary amount of free energy to deal with what he calls the ‘defects of our development, i.e. with that which has been “spoiled by the father and the mother”. In this respect, loss of such kind is pure gain’. Jung’s reference to what has been spoilt he takes from the I Ching hexagram 18 which reads: ‘Work on what has been spoilt’.

It’s of interest that here Jung is less concerned with spiritual growth but rather with the repairing of old psychological wounds which is also of course a spiritual activity.

In turning down an invitation to research a German poet Jung demonstrates his ability to let go of what might offer some interest and also some narcissistic gratification but at too great a cost; someone else will need to do this work:

‘A person carries the torch only a stretch of the way and must then lay it down, not because he has reached a goal but because his strength is at an end.’

For Jung the first part of life is the going out into the world to see

‘what the self wants you to do in the world, where – we are located, presumably for a certain purpose… As long as I am on the first part of the road I have to forget the self in order to get properly into the mill of the opposites, otherwise I live only fragmentarily and conditionally’.

The self is discovered through actions in the world, whereas on the second half of the road the goal and quest is the self so the earlier experiences are so to speak reassembled and put back together into the self, so, this second half of life then becomes the time for religious and spiritual searching for meaning and truth about oneself and about God.

Carl Jung on growing old, part 1

I am very slowly and intermittently reading volume 2 of C. G. Jung Letters 1951-1961 – correspondence from the last ten years of Jung’s life and from time to time he writes letters about old age.

In March 1951 at the age of 76 Carl Jung wrote to a colleague how age gradually pushes one out of time and the world ‘into wider and uninhabited spaces where one feels at first rather lonely and strange’. He was commenting on the death of his last close friend. Yet Jung still saw the goal of life at any age as the realization of the self and wrote that everything living dreams of individuation, for everything strives towards its own wholeness.

At the time he was continuing to deal with the fallout from his controversial work Answer to Job and answering many letters from theologians concerned by Jung’s understanding of God and Christ. For Jung, God was always an inner experience. He wrote:

‘God is not a statistical truth, hence it is just as stupid to try to prove the existence of God as to deny him. If a person feels happy, he needs neither proof nor counterproof.’

In another letter in February 1952 he wrote about developing what he called ‘islands of peace’. Places where he could be contented and true to himself:

‘Some of the main islands are: my garden, the view of distant mountains, my country place where I withdraw from the noise of city life, my library. Also small things I like books, pictures, and stones’.

A couple of years later Jung wrote to his colleague Aniela Jaffe begging forgiveness for ‘senile egoism’ and talking only of himself. He continues:

‘The 79th year is 80-1, and that is a terminus a quo which you can’t help taking seriously. The provisionalism of life is indescribable. Everything you do, whether watching a cloud or cooking soup, is done on the edge of eternity and is followed by the suffix of infinity. It is meaningful and futile at once. And so is oneself, a wondrously living centre and at the same time an instant already sped. One is and is not. This frame of mind encompasses me and hems me in. Only with an effort can I look beyond into a semi-selfsubsistent world I can barely reach, or which leaves me behind. Everything is right, for I lack the power to alter it. This is the debacle of old age: “Je sais bien qu’à la fin vous me mettrez à bas”’ [which translated is: ‘I know well that at the end you will put me down’].



Mary as the exemplar of true destiny

Mary gives us a vocation which is to become the place of God’s inhabitation, as through her agreement to become the place of God she offers the possibility that the world could also become a place of God’s indwelling in all living things.

Donald Allchin returns to the title of his book when he writes that Mary is called the joy of all creation, because the whole creation finds its possibility of fulfilment in her. In her this world reveals its true quality, as the good earth, the land of promise, the place where God’s blessing descends in its fullness – it’s then clear why May as the month of blossoms and leaf growth represents her so well.

‘An attitude of contemplative openness and delight before the gifts of God, a recognition of our own creaturely limitations and fragility, above all a certain awe and respect before the mysteries of existence … Only in the rediscovery of such attitudes, which are symbolized in the person of Mary … shall we begin to find a resolution of the urgent ecological problems which confront us, as a result of our inhuman rapacity and greed.’

It’s worth noting that this was written in 1984 and revised in 1993 but so many years later how much more does our world need the example of Mary towards God’s creation. For many and especially amongst those who are oppressed Mary has been the figure who gives life and courage: She is one in whom powers and dominations are brought down and the insignificance of the humble is exalted, in whom the world becomes fit for human and divine habitation.

For Thomas Merton, Mary is a model of simplicity and hiddenness, and in the late 1950s he commissioned a statue of the Mother and Child for the novitiate library at Gethsemani from an Ecuadorian sculptor Jaime Andrade. He asked for Mary to be as ‘the Indian woman of the Andes, the representative of all that is most abject, forgotten, despised, and put aside.’ In the final section of Merton’s prose poem Hagia Sophia which is set on the Feast of the Visitation Merton writes how Mary is the personal manifestation of Sophia – God’s own wisdom.

It is she, it is Mary, Sophia, who in sadness and joy, with the full awareness of what she is doing, sets upon the Second Person, the Logos, a crown which is His Human Nature. Thus her consent opens the door of created nature, of time, of history, to the Word of God.


May – Mary’s month

May is the month when Mary’s maternal role at the centre of the mystery of the incarnation is remembered and celebrated. Mary’s role in the taking of flesh and her free and personal consent was vital and reminds us of the physical nature of what happened. Mary can root our spirituality in the body – in a woman’s body and can also link us physically with all other living creatures that also give birth; it is a link with the materiality of creation. As Donald Allchin writes in his preface to ‘The Joy of all Creation’ appreciating Mary is also about appreciating the God-bearing capacity of the whole of creation.

‘The material world, the world of plants and animals in all its fragility and exuberance, is touched by the divine and is shown to be capable of the divine. Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.’

The old Christian traditions in Latin, Greek, Russian and Syriac all say the same thing that Mary is associated with joy and is ‘the joy of joys’, ‘the joy of all creation’ – in her there is a meeting of opposites, where God and humankind connect, where flesh and spirit combine and where time and eternity intersect. And as these opposites come together there is an explosion of joy and a kind of ecstasy out of which the genuinely new is born. Allchin turns to Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626) who in one sermon brings together four different attributes with the apparent opposites of peace and mercy on one side, righteousness and truth on the other – Andrewes sees the coming together of all these in the birth of Christ, who rises out of the good earth, the land of promise, out of the Blessed Virgin. Their conjunction corresponds for Andrewes to a fourfold pattern which can be found in creation as well as in redemption and which speaks of the necessity of completeness if we are to receive God’s gift of life.

‘Christianity is a meeting… entertain them all four; 1) hope in mercy; 2) faith in truth; 3) fear of righteousness; 4) love of peace … O how loving a knot, how by all means to be maintained! How great a pity to part it! ‘

Here Mary provides through her body the place for this meeting and reconciliation and provides then the pattern to be continued in the person of each Christian. The theologian Nicholas Lossky comments, ‘Like the Virgin then, the Christian is called to give birth to the truth and to co-operate with their own salvation by encouraging the meeting of the divine attributes.’ Mary gives us an example of the active cooperation of the flesh – of humanity in the incarnation of the Word of God and we are reminded of her as we see the blossoms and the new leaves on the trees, the birds nest building and the general feeling of life and energy that spring offers.

The use of the term ‘ego’ part 2

There is also a way of understanding the different usage of the term ego from a Freudian point of view whereby the ‘ego’ that we seek to let go of is the ‘infantile ego’. Again Joseph Campbell sees in Freudian terms the use of the term infantile ego to correspond roughly with the id which lives only on the level of ‘I want’ – the focus is on biological satisfaction.

Campbell thinks this is similar to the first two traditional aims of the Hindu life: kama and artha: where kama is enjoyment and sensual pleasure, and artha is Sanskrit for ‘wealth, ’or ‘property, and the pursuit of wealth or material advantage’. The third aim is dharma which Campbell thinks roughly corresponds to Freud’s superego as the conscience linked to the learned values and inhibitions that control the biological urges. The internalised critical parent says ‘thou shalt’ so this counteracts the ‘I want’ and the final Hindu aim is ‘extinction’. Here the life urges of wanting and having are frustrated and inhibited and because of this conflict brought on by social rules the ego seeks only extinction; where in this context it means freedom and release from the will and the drive to live and succeed. So in this Hindu frame of reference the extinction is of the infantile ego which contrasts with the possibility of establishing a mature ego.

Campbell puts it like this:

There is no provision or allowance whatsoever for what in the West would be thought of as ego-maturation. And as a result – to put it plainly and simply – the Orient has never distinguished ego from id.

In other words the infantile ego is escaped by the spiritual instruction to let go of the ego rather than growing up. So in Eastern spiritual practices the ‘I’ (in Sanskrit aham) suggests wishing, wanting, desiring, fearing and so on – all the impulses that Freud describes. The ego as defined by Freud is a psychological faculty which relates us objectively to the external ‘reality’. So this is here and now and the world as it is objectively observed, recognized and judged and known and us in it.

A considered act initiated by a knowledgeable, responsible ego is thus something very different from the action of an avaricious, untamed id; different, too, from performance governed by unquestioning obedience to a long-inherited code…

The mature ago enables us to keep functioning in the world and relating to others and to our environment without becoming psychotic. Those of us in the west who are hearing spiritual instruction to relinquish the ego might be helped if we think that what is to be extinguished is the ‘craving’ of the id-dominated ego. Similarly when the message is to renounce the self it can be understood in a similar way – the demanding strident self can be renounced but not the self as such – which anyway Jung saw as the focus for individuation.

Carl Jung on the cross and Christ – an Easter thought

Carl Jung took religion very seriously, understanding that the spiritual side of life needed to be fully explored rather than denied or repressed. He was thinking and writing as a psychologist about Christianity throughout his life and as a result some of his ideas elicited hostility from theologians and analyst alike. However many have been fascinated by his thinking and comprehension of the deep symbolism in religion.

Writing about the cross and Christ in a letter to Father Victor White in April 1954 – before their relationship broke down over White’s belief in the all-good God – Jung again brings up his ideas on the holding of the tension of the opposites in the figure of Christ.

He wonders how absolute evil can be connected and identified with absolute good, as this initially seems impossible. Jung sees that when Christ withstood Satan’s temptation in the wilderness this was the moment when the shadow was cut off, but Jung’s reasoning is that this had to happen because if the moral opposites had been synthesised then there could be no morality and it was imperative that human beings became morally conscious. Rather the two apparently irreconcilable opposites have to be united by something neutral – a bridge or a symbol that can hold both sides in such a way that they can function together. Jung of course saw that one such uniting symbol or bridge that represents psychic totality is the self.

Jung also sees the cross as another such symbol: ‘the tree of life or simply as the tree to which Christ is inescapably affixed.’ Jung sees the function of the tree as compensatory:

‘The tree symbolizes that entity from which Christ had been separated and with which he ought to be connected again to make his life or his being complete… The Crucifixus is the symbol uniting the absolute moral opposites. Christ represents the light; the tree, the darkness; he the son, it the mother … the tree brings back all that has been lost through Christ’s extreme spiritualization, namely the elements of nature. Through its branches and leaves the tree gathers the power of light and air and through its roots those of the earth and the water. Christ was suffering as a result of his split and he recovers his perfect life at Easter, when he is buried again in the womb of the virginal mother.’

 Jung goes on to explain how the symbolic history of Christ’s life shows how his union with the symbol of the tree is not just about the impossible reconciliation of Good and Evil, but also of a human being with his vegetative (and here Jung means unconscious) life. In the Christian symbol the tree is however dead and Jesus dies on the cross so through the resurrection we are given to understand that the solution of the problem of the reconciliation of the opposites takes place after death.


The use of the term ‘ego’

In an earlier post I discussed the revelation about the use of the word ‘ego’ by the analyst working with Dennis McCort. In the post titled Reflections on ‘A Kafkaesque Memoir’ in early February I wrote:

An early comment that really helped me was the succinct way that Dr. P. delineated the difference uses of the term ‘ego’ following one discussion: ‘I take it you understand that you are using the term “ego” in the Buddhist sense of self-image, and not in the Freudian sense of a mediating function between inner and outer worlds’. At last clarity to help explain the rather cavalier way that we are urged to cast the ego aside in contemplation, especially if we have taken years building up the ego! 

Since then I’ve found some further thinking on this – again from a Jungian perspective and in the work of Joseph Campbell who writes how the idea of the highest goal of life is conceived differently in the West where he takes Carl Jung’s idea of individuation and quotes this as ‘becoming a whole self through the integration of conscious and unconscious, active and passive aspects of the self’. This then is an ideal of being a unique individual in wholeness: this means seeing that our socially defined and learned roles are only part of who we are and only part of our potential.

Campbell contrasts this with the Hindu perspective and ethic which he understands as that we fully identify with our social roles but finding this unfulfilling we then seek by discarding the ego to slip like raindrops into the sea of being – a state of oneness.

Campbell offers an alternative escape from self-image and the social role and that is ego-maturation. As Jung describes, in the first part of life we develop all these social and vocational skills that make up this aspect of our identity, but we can come to feel that this is instead a prison because we have over identified with only one part of our psyche. This leads us to feeling impoverished.

In the second half of life the process of individuation leads to the ego taking on some sort of dynamic relationship with the unconscious. And so we bring into conscious awareness previously hidden or denied parts of ourselves. This is a process of growth where we acknowledge wider and deeper experiences and so the restricted feeling of ‘the householder’ is overcome and in line with the Hindu stages of life we move into ‘the forest’. In other words the goal is not to set aside the ego or to escape from the concrete part of the self but to rather fully realize it by integrating as far as is possible aspects of the unconscious.

The paradox of intention 6

It could be said that the paradox of intention might lead one to be passive or even masochistic in contrast to active and assertive but the following example suggests that it takes us beyond such thinking by emphasising a third possibility outside these opposites:

Now the question arises, is floating passive? Is it correct to say that we surrender ourselves to the water when we float? If we were to surrender ourselves to the water, we would drown. What is required in order to float? What kind of activity is required in floating? Attention. Floating is an activity occurring in consciousness. Floating is not passive, floating is not surrendering to the water, floating is not relaxing. It is the quality of consciousness which is alert, attentive and responsive to that invisible power present in the water which is called buoyancy. If we judge by appearances, floating may seem passive.

(From Thomas Hora in Existential Metapsychiatry 1977 quoted by Marvin C. Shaw.)

This is the same attitude needed in meditation and I would suggest also in a psychoanalytic session (either as therapist or indeed as patient) – in other words being responsive to the situation, being participative within it. We take response/ability in the sense of our ability to respond – we let go of trying to make ourselves be or act in a certain way. There is an acceptance both of who we are and also of the insecurity inherent in being alive. We cannot solve the anxiety of what it means to be human through effort or action – when there is nothing we can do, there is nothing we need do. This is the move from self-preoccupation to letting go or what has been called disposability, from hyperintention to a state of yielding. Accepting our insecurity is a form of liberation. Accepting our existential precariousness may be the prelude to a new, more fruitful kind of action.

Chogyam Trungpa in his book Cutting through Spiritual Materialism writes: ‘There is no need to struggle to be free; the absence of struggle is itself freedom.’

It has been said that play (as distinct from work) is any action that is not burdened by the necessity of making our physical being secure in the ultimate sense either by increasing our self-esteem or making life meaningful. In other words play is any activity not motivated by the need to resolve inner conflict. And why would this be?  – because the person does not need to achieve because they have already arrived. In this way play is peaceful and paradoxically highly productive action because the outcome is not attached to the process.

The paradox of intention 5

The paradox of intention is then partly about letting go/letting be and being rather than acting. It is a universal human experience where by blocking what we have been seeking to attain our intention becomes modified and this shift can offer an unexpected fulfillment of its own.

As Martin Shaw puts it:

Experiences of impossibility force us to abandon our pretensions and our intensity, and in this we surprisingly achieve either what we sought or a kind of contentment that we thought could only follow the conquest of that which blocked us. In either case, we discover that the goal is reached by giving up the attempt to reach it.

When I decide that it doesn’t matter and I can’t succeed, success may well come, precisely because I am at peace about the outcome; the hyperintention of the desired result made its achievement impossible, and it is reached when this intensity is abandoned.

Or, if the desire outcome is not achieved, there is at least a sense of relief, of being reconciled, of returning to reality in having abandoned the pursuit of the impossible and the unreal; here the fulfillment we thought only came to those who win, comes from letting go.

So where does this striving for attainment come from – clearly it’s linked to the survival instinct and our continuous sense of the precariousness of our lives, our sense of meaning and indeed our own self-respect so we try for new ways to establish control and mastery, to keep hold of power and to manipulate what happens to us – perhaps even and especially in the smallest of ways.  Existential anxiety about our vulnerability remains no matter what we do, but as mystics and contemplatives have found, and from all traditions, if we accept the impossibility of escaping from this reality then we transcend it. Here is the religious theme of rebirth coming from despair, a complete conversion or reorientation to life through the experience of impossibility. It also opens us up to receptivity and acceptance of our ‘nothingness’ and also to a freedom in our actions where we are involved not in the end goal of attainment but in the action itself.

Here action is about being part of a larger whole – participation without defensiveness or coercion part of being itself and God’s grace.

‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’ Philippians 2: 12-13

As humans we think something must be done but from the divine side God alone is the doer. The action needed is the cessation of doing but the awakening of responsiveness: the way to do is to be. It is the discovery of attentiveness.


The paradox of intention 4

For the psychotherapist Viktor Frankl healing and the fulfillment of the self came not through the strenuous attempts by the patient to take direct action to do so but rather through finding a sense of meaning or value outside the self. He wrote:

‘If we succeed in bringing the patient to the point where he ceases to flee from or fight his symptoms … then we may observe that the symptoms diminish and that the patient is no longer haunted by them’.

In other words, if we preoccupy ourselves with the pursuit of happiness or trying to find peace of mind the less chance there is that we can attain it. Incidentally, here Carl Jung would have pointed to the obvious, that there is then anyway an imbalance if consciously we are endlessly pursuing one aim, and that inevitably this would be compensated for through the unconscious.

For Frankl goodness can anyway only be a side effect of taking action which takes us out of ourselves otherwise we are merely serving our own egotism. His particular focus was though on the search for meaning which can only be found outside our desire for self-satisfaction; meaning is found in relation and commitment to something outside the self, and so self-preoccupation therefore must frustrate the will to meaning. One of the ways that he thought we find meaning is the stand we take towards suffering. [Here we remember that Frankl’s views about this grew out of his experiences of surviving in a concentration camp during the holocaust]. Our attention to physical and emotional satisfactions alone leads to the phenomenon of ‘despair despite success’, but if we can find meaning even in the most hopeless and painful situations we may find ‘fulfillment despite failure’.

In his therapeutic work Frankl used the paradox of intention so understanding that the more one fights symptoms such as fear of panic attacks, or acting oddly or coping with obsessions the stronger the feedback; so the problem becomes one of excessive intention, where in trying to avoid the fear or control the compulsion the effort becomes counterproductive and simply intensifying the problems. He also wrote about the hyperintention of pleasure found in sexual neurosis where the more the person tries to demonstrate their potency or their ability to achieve an orgasm, the less they are able to succeed: ‘Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.’

The treatment for hyperintention is to use paradoxical intention where the person is encouraged to do, or to wish to happen, the very thing that they fear. The inversion of intention in the case of a phobia removes the fear of fear, so that for example the fear of sweating in public is replaced by the wish to do so – the vicious circle is broken and the feedback mechanism is removed. … The person is encouraged to say: ‘I sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour out at least ten quarts!’

The fear is replaced by a paradoxical wish and all the emotional energy previous put into anticipatory anxiety has gone. The symptom of anxiety is accepted as part of oneself and what is feared is accepted.