Sunday, December 27, 2009

Avatar and the ego-Self axis

I just returned from the movie Avatar. I have to admit that I went knowing very little about the plot, save the little bits of trailers I had seen. I expect Jungians and Joseph Campbell fans all over will be writing about this movie in coming weeks (I'm sure many have already started), but I'm throwing in my two cents here.

Albeit fantastical in every way, and likely too corny for some or too violent for others, this movie remarkably illustrates the worlds in which we can live connected, or disconnected, from Self. This argument could be seriously misunderstood though, if I'm not careful. Let me start here.

Campbell's book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), outlines the "monomyth", a singular theme, that he saw depicted in myth after myth throughout world cultures. The monomyth is what he called the hero's journey, an archetypal theme that George Lucas, a friend of Campbell's, built on in the making of Star Wars-- a key element in its appeal to viewers and overwhelming success. James Cameron has undoubtedly borrowed from this same theme in Avatar, a film about a young, crippled Marine who steadily moves into another world and another body and is personally transformed as a result.

What the hero's journey also depicts in the language of analytic psychology, is the path of individuation. It is a story of the ego's journey from a position of presumed dominance in psyche to a position of conscious relationship with Self, a place of recognition that it is only one aspect of psyche, and certainly not the one ultimately in charge. So Avatar, while clearly a political film indicating the mess of the world we've made and the disaster that comes when militarism and capitalism are in bed together, also of course has a strong mythical layer. And beyond the mythical, the hero's journey, there is the psychological. A well-illustrated, fantastical depiction of what life is like when ego is fully in charge, and what it is like when ego is in relationship with Self, the archetype of wholeness, the great mother, the tree of life, the interconnected web.

When I try to explain the ego-Self axis, I forget the importance of the feeling tone of life with or without it. In this film, the bad guy is ego disconnected from Self. He is the militant, bull-headed soldier who is determined, no matter what, to achieve the goal he set out to accomplish. This is an individual who lives his or her life with a goal that they must achieve, no matter what illness, tragedy or pain comes in their way -- no matter what other components of life are right in front of their eyes to indicate that the path they're on is the wrong one. (I am not speaking of the people who are often referred to as "the fighters", who rise out of tragedy, but those who are typically after money or a title that is a purely ego-centered goal).

The person who is connected to Self, truly connected, is the princess character from "the people." The literal connection point that she shows the film's hero how to use is a perfect image of the ego-Self axis. The connection, which you'll have to watch the film to see, allows the individual human to tap into the larger web of interconnected life and intelligence for guidance, transportation, or life-giving support. By respecting that connection, their people are protected and thrive on what could be an extremely threatening planet.

Of course, like all hero's journey myths, this film provides a sense of how to save the world. One ventures out of a dying land, journeys into tragedy, battles against all odds, and as a result of his (or her) battles, brings life back to his people. In this case, the twist was that the hero, through a kind of dream world, found his true people and fought against the old.

Through our total disconnection from Self in our current world, we are successfully going about destroying the planet, not understanding viscerally that we are destroying ourselves. If this connection were strong, as it is with "the people" in Avatar, we would know immediately the effect of the destruction of our world and seek to stop it. We would individually, personally, feel the pain.

Finally, just as those who listen to the animals in fairy tales succeed in the end (while those who do not, do not), there is a lesson in this film for what happens when you respect and listen to the web of life. She gives back and supports you in the end. Despite how much it kicks and screams about it, in the end, the relationship with Self is for ego's own good.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Yoga, Breathing, and the Unconscious

For at least a couple of years, I was attending a yoga class at least once a week. It was a type of yoga called "Shadow yoga", a technique based in the ancient Hatha texts, ha meaning sun and tha meaning moon, the union of the opposites. As analyst Judith Harris wrote in her book, Jung and Yoga (2001), "The union is desired in order to awaken higher consciousness" (p. 53). The focus on the spine in the shadow yoga method brought me into a deep state of balance after each class. The connection made with the earth, with the breathing, with my own inner structure, was crucial to allowing me to root into the world in what was otherwise a very chaotic period.

Like observing the unconscious, accepting what arises in images, dreams, fantasies, thoughts, words, gestures without judgment, Harris writes that the same non-judgmental observation of one's breathing allows a heightened consciousness to develop as well.
At the beginning of a breathing practice it is only necessary to observe what is happening with the breath, what is happening in the body. It is here that consciousness begins. With only the simple act of observation, the breath is able to change, to transform into a breath that not only quietens but also can go deeper, gradually penetrating the cells of the body where healing can take place. (p. 59)
By observing breath, a primary focus in any Eastern tradition, we come into greater consciousness (or mindfulness) about our own selves. Not only do we become more aware of what is happening within us and around us in the moment, but it is a manner of working with the unconscious through the physical, versus intellectual, realm. We come to connect psyche and matter, a union of the highest importance for our psychic and physical health.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Embodiment as Enlightenment

I am in the middle of packing tonight for my Christmas trip to Montana, but I didn't want to miss a post today. To carry-on from the theme of yesterday's post, I wanted to write a little more about the importance of being grounded, embodied, for those raised in our culture. There is so much about this topic that fascinates me personally, observing in my own psyche and in my peers the tendency of us to be caught-up in perfectionism, spirituality and intellectualism. We are stuck in our heads or up in the clouds, disengaged from the rhythms of the earth and of our bodies. Our bodies ache, we have migraines, back pain, injuries; we are addicted to exercise or terrified of it. Versus balance, we compete with others and with ourselves for greater heights: better grades, better scores, more money, a better body.

Analyst Marion Woodman has focused her career on this work after healing from her symptom of perfectionist heights, anorexia. In her book Dancing in the Flames (1996), Woodman and co-author Elinor Dickson wrote:
Often individuals get caught up in trying to express that state of perfection in their own lives. The perfect body, the perfect wife/husband, the perfect teacher, all become disembodied images of the ideal, in whose light they inevitably fall short. Sons and daughters of patriarchy are very susceptible to this light. Women trapped in anorexia love and dread this light. They are in real danger of being swept off the earth by their perfectionist ideals and demands for perfect order. . . .Men, too, are vulnerable to being carried out of reality by the light. Their ideals, their hopes and dreams and artistic endeavors, can carry them right out of home, children, wife, and bills to be paid. Fantasy is one of the most dangerous addictions in our society. What is missing is embodiment. (p. 65)
The archetype of the Puer Aeturnus (the eternal boy) for men and what I have come to call the Spinning Girl for women are manifestations of living a life led by the fantasy that a "better" or "perfect" life is to be found elsewhere. Both are attempting to achieve the impossible or find the impossible, either in yet another partner (the puer) or in yet more impossible demands on themselves (Spinning girl). These are common archetypes evoked in our culture, as Woodman and Dickson wrote. We all carry aspects of them within us, ingrained predispositions to addictions from growing-up in a culture that attempts to avoid the darker realities of life (death, depressions, failures, disappointments) through medication, surgery, advertising, the sale of the perfect image in media. What is healing for us is to notice our addictions that keep us reaching higher versus pulling us into our bodies, into the moment. Coming into balance means staying still, feeling our emotions, running less, eating healthily, feeling our bodies, acknowledging and exploring our aches and pains, slowing down, responding to the moment, to the now, to what is true in the present moment versus planning and awaiting the future. And Breathing. Breathing. That's what I'll write about next time. . .

(Image from:

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Enlightenment for Westerners

I was raised by parents steeped in the Buddhist tradition, was given a Hindu name, and spent a considerable part of my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood reading about Buddhism, studying it and meditating. More and more, however, I question the Buddhist path for Westerners. The ancient philosophy is impeccable. The traditions extremely close to my heart, but I wonder about what neuroses Westerners are simply perpetuating by taking to the cushion instead of going to their depths. I know for myself that attempting to follow the tradition only increased my neurosis. Letting it go and engaging in depth psychological traditions instead, the path towards individuation instead of enlightenment, has brought me towards growth and peace in a way that attempting to fit myself into a Buddhist box (that feels karmically appropriate but generally confusing) could not. I've given this a lot of thought, more so than I'm expressing in this paragraph, but re-reading Judith Harris's book Jung and Yoga: The psyche-body connection (2001) today, I read again a paragraph that sums-up why Jung's writings resonate in the same way that the Buddha's do, but are overall more fitting for me. In the following quote, she's referring to the necessity to balance the opposites, to tether the sky to the earth, the spirit to the body, the up with the down.
Jung writes in The Visions Seminars that consciousness in the East is already "down," that is, connected to the earth. It is logical, therefore, that in the East the goal is to connect to what is above, thereby compensating what is lacking; a clear awareness of consciousness does not exist in those who live closer to the unconscious. Jung says it is a mistake for those who live in the West to try to get higher and higher, as we are already living on too high a level, yearning only for the spirit world. We must seek rather to establish a relationship to our roots and to the unconscious. He further says that what is really needed is to establish the connection between above and below. This is the task of the yogin in the Western world. (p. 47)
Harris then includes an alchemical drawing depicting this balance, alchemy being the ancient correlate to the search for individuation, the search for making gold out of raw material, pure consciousness out of the muck of the unconscious.

The verse associated with this drawing that Harris includes is: "Connect the earthly toad with the flying eagle and thou shalt understand the secret to our art." (p. 48) This is the alchemical depiction of yin and yang, the balance of energies that every ancient art is seeking to achieve. The depth psychological tradition is no different. For those who are seeking the spiritual heights through the goal of enlightenment, the true antidote may be coming deeper into their bodies, into the unconscious, the feminine, the earthly, and not indulging in the path of spirit at all. I can say this has been true for me, and I don't think I'm the only one.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Definition of Archetypes

After all the coursework for my Masters program at Pacifica Graduate Institute, I'm not sure if any one of my classmates (including myself) could have offered a reasonable definition of archetypes. This is not the fault of the school, simply that this is a tricky thing to really get! But God bless her, Marie-Louise von Franz offered a wonderful definition of archetypes in her unbelievably good book (a collection of her writings), Psyche & Matter (1988).
Jung's great discovery lay in not seeing the complex as something purely pathological, as the psychiatry of his time was inclined to do and as Freudian psychology did as well. Rather he assumed the existence of normal complexes. In other words, our psychic system is composed of various complexes, of which the ego complex is only one among various others, and this is normal. Every human being has complexes, and these are not in themselves the cause of psychological illness--only under certain circumstances. They are part of the normal psychic makeup. These normal complexes that everyone has are what Jung called archetypes. The archetypes are more or less the inborn normal complexes that we all have. (p. 5)
This definition is succinct, but incomplete without her very rich example of how archetypes manifest throughout different cultures. How the same feeling, the same human experience, is translated in psyche depending on the culture and social situation in which one is immersed.
Archetypes are in themselves completely unobservable structures; only when they are stimulated by some inner or outer state of need. . .do they, at crucial moments, produce an archetypal image, an archetypal fantasy, a though, an intuition, or an emotion. These can be recognized as archetypal, because they are similar in all cultures and among all peoples. . . .There is no doubt that the archetypal structures are inherited; this is not, however, the case with the images. . . .When an inborn archetypal structure passes into the manifest form of an archetypal fantasy or image, the psyche makes use of impressions from the external surroundings for its means of expression; therefore, the individual images are not entirely identical but only similar in structure. For example, an African child, when an image of something overwhelmingly terrifying needs to take shape in him, will perhaps fantasize about a crocodile or a lion, and a European child in the same situation will imagine a truck that is barreling toward him, threatening to run him over. Only the structure of something overpoweringly threatening will be the same in this case. The image is of course enriched by impressions from the external world. (pp. 6-7)
Okay, so that's a lot of quote, but hopefully it's clear. It has given me a lot to chew-on as I continue to understand the concept. As I read this book, I'm sure I'll be posting more about what I discover. I had borrowed it from the library but bought it online after reading the first fifteen pages. I cannot believe how good it is. The essays explore everything around the relationship between psyche and matter, including discussions on quantum physics, colors, numbers, and mathematical diagrams, themes that continue to be underexplored within depth psychology. M.-L. von Franz was a genius, I can't wait to learn more.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Case of Henry

The last four months of my life have been devoted to the exploration of the first half of life (ages approx. 15 - 35), to understand this neglected stage of life from a Jungian perspective. Most Jungians perceive the first half of life as a stage of ego development, neglecting to explore an inherent crisis (like in midlife) and the potential for individuation in those years. My thesis, The Quarterlife Crisis and the Path of Individuation in the First Half of Life, suggests that the relationship between ego and Self absolutely must be emphasized today for individuals in quarterlife, for our individual sanity and that of the world.

I have not yet decided if I will be including, as part of my argument in the paper, aspects from the report by Jung's contemporary, Jolande Jacobi, of an individual analysis with a 25 year-old patient--what I call The case of Henry, but which is officially titled "Symbols in an Individual Analysis" in Man and His Symbols (1964).

In this case, Jacobi's classical interpretation of the stages of life mean that she cannot perceive of the 25 year-old in front of her as an individual who is seeking individuation. Throughout the case, she does not give credence to his need to engage with psyche on an ongoing basis, but only with the use of such work for the sake of his developing the ego strength necessary for his stage in life. (The two do not seem to me to be mutually exclusive.)

Jacobi reported what Henry said, regarding his desire for analysis.
He did not think that a neurosis. . .had brought him to me, but rather an inner urge to work on his psyche. . ."It appears to me," he wrote in a letter asking for an interview, "that this phase of my life is particularly important and meaningful. I must decide either to remain unconscious in a well-protected security, or else to venture on a yet unknown way of which I have great hopes.” (p. 326)
Jacobi's bias around the ability of individuals prior to age 35 to engage in individuation meant that she disregarded Henry's clear proclamation and encouraged him instead towards simply committing to his fiance and settling down into marriage. This was the goal of the work as she saw it. The choice confronting him, she wrote, “was whether to remain a lonely, vacillating, and unrealistic youth or to become a self-sufficient and responsible adult" (p. 326). She does not question how a man of his age is to engage in the deeper aspects of his self when neither society nor family encourages or allows it.

Is it possible that Henry was not a neurotic youth but an individual simply seeking individuation earlier in life? Is it possible that the transition of psyche towards a relationship between ego and Self can take place at any time and is not inherent to midlife? The case of Henry evokes such questions for me, questions that I do not think clinicians are wrestling with enough these days given the growing number of individuals in the first half of life seeking analysis of Jungian psychotherapy.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In Cold Storage

About ten days ago, just prior to what I expected would be a very difficult week -- a re-immersion in a painful situation -- I woke up remembering an image: a tiny bird flying out of a freezer in which it had been trapped. In the dream, I walked into the living room where it had flown after being released with frost on its wings and saw it puffed-up, warming itself, relieved to be out of the cold. This image immediately reminded me of a line from Donald Kalsched's book The Inner World of Trauma (1996) and I knew that I was free from the stress of the past, not walking into more of it.

Kalsched wrote,
Rarely discussed by clinicians is... [the] animating spirit at the center of all healthy living. This spirit, which we have described as the transcendent essence of the self seems to be compromised in severe trauma. It is never annihilated completely because, presumably, this would be the literal death of the person. But it may be "killed" in the sense that it cannot continue living in the embodied ego. Or it may be put in "cold storage" in the unconscious psyche. (p. 37)
The bird is a classic symbol of spirit, a symbol I won't explore at this point as it can almost be intuitively grasped why that's the case, but the idea of "cold storage" is extremely fascinating to me. I was extremely intrigued by this line when I read it for the first time last year, recalling immediately dreams I had had for a long stretch in my childhood in which I would discover with enormous grief little mice or cats curled-up, usually in plastic containers like closed petri dishes, in the refrigerator. I would only quibble with Kalsched's statement that the spirit goes into "cold storage" in times of "severe trauma." The concept of what is severe to the inner life of an individual versus what is observably traumatic to others is a discussion for another time, but I would suggest that trauma to psyche of any kind -- like I experienced for periods in childhood and several months ago -- can cause spirit to retract, a kind of depression or lack of animation to take over, and evoke an inner image of spirit being shut away and put in the cold.

Defining the First Half of Life

In his essay "The Stages of Life" (1931) Carl G. Jung defined the three stages of life now taken for granted in the Jungian community. The first is Childhood, beginning at birth and continuing until puberty or adolescence. The second, labeled a bit misleadingly as it precludes the first fifteen years or so, is The First Half of Life, lasting from adolescence to mid-life. The third stage, most focused on in Jungian psychology, is The Second Half of Life, classically believed to begin at the mid-life crisis, sometime in one's late thirties or forties.

The path of individuation, the genuine relationship between the ego complex and the archetype of Self, is generally believed to only be available for people in the second half of life. I disagree. Based on my own life experience, my observations of peers surrounding me, and my research into the topic, I believe individuation is available and calling to individuals of varying ages all over the world today, as long as ego is independent enough from Self to be in relationship with it.

Edward Edinger wrote in his book Ego & Archetype (1973) about the development of the relationship between ego and Self (the undefinable "everything" out of which we are all birthed). While I'll be writing a lot about the dialogic relationship between ego and Self on this blog, for starters, here's the diagram I recreated from Edinger's book, found on page 5 of my copy. Figure 3 refers to the second half of life in Edinger's mind, when ego is independent enough from Self to engage in relationship with it. I doubt that biological growth is as relevant to the ego-Self relationship as Edinger and others believe, but that inner development, inner trials and growth, are what brings one to the stage of individuation or not. Figure 1 defines birth, Figure 2 the growth of ego as an independent entity from immersion in Self, Figure 3 the relationship between ego and Self (the path of individuation), and Figure 4 the seemingly unattainable state of a totally individuated psyche--not synonymous with the concept of enlightenment, but similar enough to be relevant for comparison.

The importance of individuation, the relationship between ego and Self, and everything to do with psyche, is the topic of this blog.