Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What is Jungian Psychology?: Exploring the Rhizome Under the Blossoms

I seem to be on a perpetual quest to develop an "elevator pitch" explanation of Jungian psychology yet I seem to fail abysmally at this task each attempt I make. (It's strange, perhaps, that one can be so dedicated to a form of scholarship and yet get so tongue tied when trying to explain the passion). To help ameliorate my aphasia, I've decided to start researching the ways in which other scholars and practitioners explain Jungian psychology and Jung's concepts, including, importantly, their relevance to the world.

This post is the first installment of this quest, with quotations from analyst June Singer's book Boundaries of the Soul: The Practice of Jung's Psychology (1972).

Singer expounded on an analogy from biology that Jung himself used, in order to explain how analytic psychology differs from others. The image they use is that of the rhizome.

In his autobiography, Jung wrote:
Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above the ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away--an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains. (Jung, MDR, p. 4)
In regards to this image, June Singer wrote:
Students in universities today engage too much in the contemplation and dissection of the blossom. Psychology courses insist that all that counts in man's behavior, which can be measured, predicted, conditioned and manipulated. I agree that behavior merits considerable concern. But I am with many thinking people today who are not altogether satisfied with studying what is, or to be more accurate, "what appears to be." . . . Both [the blossom and the rhizome] are necessary to the existence if the plant and its growth. But in today's hurried world, where the blossom is all to easily seen, enjoyed, and knocked off its stem when it begins to wither and decay, the rhizome is all too often overlooked. We forget that it carries the source of tomorrow's blossom. I admit that Jungian psychology may lay too much emphasis on the rhizome, and not enough on the blossom. . . .But just because institutional psychology has dealt with the observable phenomenon, and dealt with it relatively adequately within the limitations of its methods, it has not been necessary for Jung or Jungians to dwell overlong upon grounds that have been competently tended by others. Therefore . . . Jung's way. . . [stressed] the importance of the unconscious rather than of consciousness, the mysterious rather than the known, the mystical rather than the scientific, the creative rather than the productive, the religious rather than the profane, the meaning of love rather than the technique of sex. (p. xv-xvi)
For additional reading on Dr. Singer's exploration of Jung's work and its importance in today's world, I've quoted several more relevant paragraphs from her introduction below.
Thoughtful people are recognizing that Jung provides a bridge in our time between the scientific-intellectual aspects of life and the religious-nonrational aspects. Jung has faced the apparent dichotomy between abstraction and generalization on one side and the experience of immediate knowing on the other. Our culture, steeped in the principles of Aristotelian logic, finds it difficult to accept paradoxical thinking as valid. Too often it seems necessary to make a choice between the rationalistic-academic way of life or the anti-intellectual camp. Jung's greatness is in that he saw both of these as aspects of the same reality, as polar opposites on a single axis. (p. xi)
Jung's teachings have much to offer to the troubled world in this third of the twentieth century, and there are not nearly enough Jungian analysts to meet the need, the interest, the demand. . . Often when Jungian analysts have spoken out to the general public about the experience of the analytic way--the "way of individuation"--small groups of people have sprung up spontaneously to meet and discuss the words and work and the life of Jung, to try to understand all this in term of their own personal experience. . . . Jung [has] the capacity to touch something essential in the human soul which needs to be touched or needs to be healed, in order to be made whole. (p. xii)
Some of the best works on the psychology of Jung have been written by Jungian analysts, who have formulated the theoretical approach in terms of their own experiences--as therapists and as human beings--living in active relationship with the unconscious. It is understandably hard to get at Jung in any methodical way, And, where "methods" have been devised, they tend to schematize the abstractions at which Jung arrived, without maintaining the vitality of the flesh-and-blood experiences from which his theories were generalized. (p. xiii)
Drawing of human rhizome by Marc Ngui


Friday, June 25, 2010

What Proves the Existence of God?

I was struck this morning by a similarity between Christian Baptism and Jungian psychology while reading a story in the New Yorker about former Arkansas Governor and 2008 presidential candidate, Mike Huckabee. In this story, the Governor and former Baptist minister recounts the following to the reporter in regards to how he knows God exists.
Huckabee told me about experiences he's had with divine inspiration: "There've been times when a thought would come to me . . . and as soon as I wrote it or said it I stepped back and thought, Whoa, pretty darn good." I asked how he knew he wasn't just smart. "Well, nobody thinks that," he said, laughing. "Haven't you read the blogs? I'm a complete idiot. I'm not smart enough to run for president."
For Huckabee, this "divine inspiration," as well as a synchronistic, or divinely inspired experience that he describes, proves the existence of a God. Within the Jungian world, these experience of Huckabee's are rather well appreciated and understood--although, of course, they're viewed differently. Huckabee's experience of something else writing the words he wrote and something other than himself producing the inspiring material might be considered in some ways the basis of all Jungian psychology.

What is that which writes things which in conceptual terms our ego minds could not have possibly produced? Indeed, what is it that dreamed that philosophical idea last night, or put together the elaborate story of crossing a mountain and eating a feast? What is it that places us in impossibly unlikely and favorable circumstances? Is it just chance? Just coincidence? Just the way things are? Is it God?

Certainly, our conscious minds, our human minds, are not always running the show. Where Jungians and this Baptist preacher meet is that both would agree without a doubt that such a statement is true. But does this fact prove the existence of God?

For Jungians, the answer is no. Yet, the question of what is beyond our conscious minds drives the whole research of the field.

In the recently published Red Book, about which I have blogged several times, Jung began developing his technique of active imagination, strengthening his understanding that what he understood to be himself, Jung, did not encompass the whole of what was within his mind, his psyche. Moreover, Jung wrestled with knowing if everything that was in his mind was part of him once he met it there.

About the most prominent figure whom Jung met in the explorations of his inner world was a figure named Philemon. What Jung wrote about Philemon suggests for me similar experiences Huckabee had which proved for him the existence of God.

Jung wrote:
Philemon and other figures of my fantasies brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philemon represented a force that was not myself. In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. . . .Psychologically, Philemon represented superior insight.
So what is the difference? If Jung and Huckabee had the same experiences in which things were produced from them which they themselves know they could not have created alone, does it matter if one is called "God" or something akin to autonomous figures within our psyches?

In this case, for the Jungian world, the answer is absolutely.

What Huckabee concludes from his experiences are in many ways similar to what Jung concluded. There is something greater than our singular minds guiding life, the universe, and our individual life paths. The difference, however, is that the former conclusion delivers control into an externally projected ego-fantasy, a singular, omnipotent being that is in total control of things and has certain expectations and desires for how things turn out. The latter conclusion, that on which Jungian psychology is based, is more of recognition than a conclusion; a recognition of the reality of psyche, that there are observable truths that events happen within our own minds that we do not consciously produce and that synchronistic events in the outer world do occur which suggest an inter-connection of things beyond what we were consciously aware of. As Jung said in his 1932 lectures on Kundalini Yoga, "the psyche is a self-moving thing, something genuinely not yourself" (trans. 1996, ed. Sonu Shamadasani, p. 54).

If we persist in calling this reality of psyche "God," we persist in making decisions and producing values based on an externally projected notion of omnipotence and personality. For some, the end result may be the same, which is that life is lived in highest accordance with the reality that things are not wholly within our conscious control (I personally witnessed and learned from such devotion in my Grandmother's life, for instance). In this case, devotion is authentic wisdom and follows in many respects the Jungian notion of Individuation. For others, however, the notion of a God does not result in a submission of the "ego mind" to the larger realities of life, or of God, but simply leaves the ego in control under the guise of a devotion to something larger -- a rather dangerous, inflated conclusion.

In many ways, it seems that Huckabee's relationship with God may mimic the former more than the latter, recognizing -- as I try to -- that there is something within us or without us, call it the living psyche or God, that renders our conscious minds a tiny island on a vast, unknowable sea. Semantics aside, on one point we will agree, that at any moment a terrible tornado or ship of riches may strike our island, and that such events are totally outside of our control or ability to predict.


Friday, June 4, 2010


Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Child in the Man's Suit: Israel's Response in Gaza

I just returned home from the Middle East, having spent the majority of my time in Israel, with shorter trips into Jordan and the West Bank. Of course, given this week's news of the confrontation in Gaza, I have been paying keen attention, and have been struck again and again by Israel's seeming inability to see its own errors and accept its own wrong doing.

For instance, this bullet point, issued in a brief by the Prime Minister's office to government workers: "Israel regrets that people have been injured, but responsibility lies with the organizers and participants of the flotilla who initiated the violence."

There is a certain subtle absurdity in such a statement, a certain tone that I could not quite pin-point until I translated the feeling into an image. In an e-mail to a fellow traveler yesterday, I wrote that such statements seem like a little boy's teary protestations of punishment after being caught red-handed swinging fists on the playground. Israel is clearly embarrassed by its fumbled response to the Gaza flotilla, but it cannot see its own errors because it is also so deeply entrenched in its own defensive posture and desire for the global community to understand the whole story: the history of anti-semitism, the terror of living surrounded by enemy states, and that the threat of Hamas and the looming flotilla, as they repeatedly claim, made them do it. They are the little boy who, when caught fighting by his mother looks at her in an emotional desperation to be seen and wails: he hit me first!

I should say that I am not without compassion for that little boy, nor for Israel. The situation's complexity can not be overemphasized, nor can the genuine fear of living surrounded by well-armed enemy states and the terror of smaller scale suicide bombings. Nonetheless, though dressed in well-tailored suits and speaking without emotional pleadings, Israel's spokesmen convey an almost childish inability to see their own part in provocation. In response to Gaza, they always start the "he made me do it" argument at just the convenient moment -- i.e. after the soldiers boarded the boat and were attacked.

I had the great fortune to spend some time with Israeli Jungian analyst Dr. Erel Shalit while I was in Tel Aviv. Last night, I began to re-read his book The Hero & His Shadow: psychopolitical aspects of myth and reality in Israel (2004) and came upon a very interesting discussion of child developmental processes as it relates to Israel. Prior to last night, I'd not yet explored this fascinating notion that nations are dealing with collective developmental struggles like individuals do, but in approaching the disconnect between Israel's self-perception and that of its observers, there are intriguing correlations. It is like Israel's militarism is the archetype of the unseen, hurt, desperate "angry young man" who woefully finds himself in trouble on the wrong side of the justice system and, despite his trangressions, still feels deeply that it is he who has been most wronged, feeling terribly unseen and unappreciated.

I wonder, is it possible that Israel, like a little boy still growing-up, just wants desperately to be seen by the international community and no longer forced to explain its fights? Does Israel want to be acknowledged for all its struggle and its history by the global community and appreciated for all its hard work and successes? Does it want to stop being accused of its imperfections because it is trying very hard to be good?

In his section titled Developmental Aspects of Fear, Aggression and Boundaries, Dr. Shalit wrote, "An examination of the relationship between fear and aggression in the child's early development might contribute to our understanding of the Israeli collective's psychological development" (p. 65). He suggests that as "basic aggression can be found in the child's very first movements" (p. 66), and as the dependent child is always struggling with a fear of non-existence and abandonment which could lead to its death, it projects its terror of annihilation onto others and wrestles with it there.
If the basic fear and threat of annihilation are too strong, or the outside threat too great, the self may disintegrate or withdraw, meaning death, autism, psychosis or
depression. The result can also be frustrated and uncontrolled violence. (p. 67)
As the international community cannot possibly give Israel what it needs in terms of a perfectly seeing parental container for growth, Israel must acknowledge its own developmental needs and raise itself psychologically. Israel must take stock and look inside itself, at itself, instead of outside at others, to see for itself its own terrible mistakes and adjust accordingly. This does not mean Israel is a "bad kid," but it does seem as though it collectively feels that the international community sees it as one.

Israeli peace demonstrator on displayed on a wall at the place of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in Tel Aviv. Photo by author.