Category: <span>Essays</span>

The midlife period in most advanced countries worldwide today the average life expectancy for males extends to their mid- to late seventies and for women to their early to mid-eighties. Of course, this varies from place to place and depends very much on socio-economic factors that fluctuate broadly with world historical events such as revolutions, wars, economic depressions, and so forth. But on the whole and in average circumstances, the midway point of life for both sexes falls in the period between thirty-five and forty-five years of age. Why is this noteworthy, especially for psychotherapists?

Often midlife is a profoundly transformational period in personal identity for both women and men. Sometimes this takes the form of the famous “crisis,” but often it is not something quite so dramatic. I have come to think of it instead as a potential second birth of adult identity, the first having taken place between late adolescence and the thirtieth year. And birth is sometimes traumatic, and so one speaks of it as a “crisis” with justification. But even if not a fullblown crisis, it may signal a subtle transition in a person’s sense of self and identity.

About the timing of this transformation process, one cannot be quite so precisely mathematical. Some people seem to experience this on the early end of the midlife period, and many others on the other end and in their late forties. The timing is quite variable and depends on a number of factors coalescing that bring it to a point. What happened earlier in the person’s line of development out of childhood through adolescence and into adulthood is of importance in this. Generally speaking, the storms of life catch people by surprise, and the midlife tumult is no exception even if people are somewhat prepared to expect something big nowadays due to the extensive press coverage the midlife crisis has received in the decades of the late twentieth century.

It is also the case that some people do not undergo a midlife transformation at any time, any more than that everyone achieves a solid and meaningful adult identity. This is not a given. Some people show serious developmental arrest in early childhood attitudes or in adolescence, for example, and for such people there is no midlife transformation to speak of, but rather a continuous and prolonged identity as a partially adult person with striking childish or adolescent features remaining in place to the end of their lives. For these people, aging is real only in a physical sense but not psychologically, and even at the physical level it can staved off quite well and for a lengthy period of time given enough money for cosmetic surgery and other forms of anti-aging treatment. For people who make the transitions from childhood into adulthood successfully and more or less fully, however, aging is a psychological as well as a physical process. Psychologically, as one gets older one also becomes more complex and – dare we say it? – more mature and perhaps even attains to a level of wisdom in later years. Most importantly, one achieves a defined identity that extends beyond the early one of late adolescence and early adulthood. This later form of adult identity I call the personality’s “imago.” It takes form as the result of one or more transformations in and around the midlife period.

The Two Halves of Life – Achievement of Conventionality, Development of Individuality

The midlife phase of the lifelong psychological developmental process, which in Jungian circles we refer to as individuation, marks the turning point from the first half of life into the second. The lifespan as a whole can be divided into two more or less equal (in duration) parts, a first and a second half. This is an important image to keep in mind when considering the meaning of the midlife transition. Each half of life has its own proper projects, tasks, and challenges, and they are different. The tasks of the first half have to do with growing up physically and mentally and with attaining the social stature of an adult member of one’s community, willing and able to take responsibility for the tasks of adulthood – working, raising a family, paying taxes, preparing to take care of one’s aging parents and able to care for one’s growing children, and so forth. From the psychological perspective, this calls for personal (i.e., ego) development out of a primal state of attachment to mother and parentlike caretakers and and for growing out of a sense of dependency on them in order to gain a felt degree of independence, autonomous functioning, and the ability to contribute to others rather than only to absorb and consume. This has profound moral as well as psychological features.

Blog Posts Essays Individuation Life Cycle Stein, Murray Transformation

“We continue to speak, if only in whispers, to something inside us that
wants to be named.”

Dorianne Laux, “Dark Chants,” Only as the Day is Long.

My name is Chaika Runya bat Yitzchak v’ Channa Gittl. This is my ‘Hebrew’ name, my sacred name, my Yiddish name, my hidden name, my underground name, the name that binds me to family lineage and tradition and to my people, going all the way back to the beginning of time. This is the name I am called in Jewish ritual, when I have an aliyah to give a blessing over the Torah or when I am invited to the pulpit to read the Torah, or when I am a witness to someone immersing herself in the sacred baths in order to convert to Judaism.

I am named for two great aunts who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Most mornings of my life, since I was younger than six years old, I’ve woken in terror, heart beating fast, body sweating. In an effort to calm myself I’d listen to music or focus on my breathing before opening my eyes to start the day. Each morning the fear would dissolve as I moved into the day’s activities, only to return the next.

One morning, not long ago I decided to turn toward the fear and terror rather than away, to be curious about it, to explore it, to get to know it. I curled up in the fetal position in bed, tuning in to the sensations I experienced physically. I became aware of a feeling like electric jolts pounding and jumping in my chest and arms. I asked the sensations, “What is the message held in my body?”

What I heard them say was this: “Life is not safe.”

My mother tells me my aunts, Chaika and Runya, the younger sisters of my mother’s father, were shot, killed and buried in a mass grave in then Austria-Hungary during the Holocaust. In my mind’s eye, here is how I imagine them: They are two young women, maybe in their 20s; their light brown hair hangs in braids down their backs, each wears a dark wool dress, a cream-colored pinafore, woolen knee-high socks and sturdy shoes. They stand with their family and friends and fellow-townspeople, all of whom have been herded out of their homes, their beds, and lined up at the town’s edge, in rows, ahead of them the deep pit into which their lifeless bodies will be tossed, one on top of another, like sacks of potatoes, to be covered with dirt, and erased.

I imagine dogs barking wildly and the loud yelling of male voices in a language my aunts and their friends and family don’t understand. They do understand what will happen to them. I imagine the rifle shots as faceless men mechanically shoot them from behind, one by one, and I imagine the unbearable, unimaginable terror of waiting as your turn comes, hearing the screams, hearing the heavy plop as each body falls into the pit, witnessing your loved ones’ deaths, knowing your inescapable fate, waiting to feel pain, feeling the bullet entering your chest from the back, breathing your last breath, collapsing and tumbling, finally, into the pit. In their names, their stories, their lives, their deaths take residence within the confines of my body, mind and soul, carried within me like a blessing, or like a parasite.

Blog Posts Champeau, Amy Essays Mind-Body Religion & Spirituality Society & Culture

My personal physician in Thun recently complained about the many patients he sees who are perfectly healthy but come to him doubled up in pain and complaining about their symptoms. “They are crazy,” he said throwing up his hands in frustration. “Perfectly healthy people, but not able to live with their health! On the other side I have patients who feel as healthy as can be, and I have to tell them they have six months to live because of a recently discovered lymphoma. I’d like to send the healthy ones to the moon! They’re nuts!”

His complaint reminded me of the opening pages in Jung’s 1936 Terry Lectures at Yale University entitled “Psychology and Religion.” There he is telling the audience about the power that a neurosis can have over patients’ lives. For instance, he says, a man imagines he has cancer, but there is no physical evidence of cancer in his body. He then feels at a complete loss and becomes convinced that he is crazy. So he consults Jung, a psychiatrist. “Help me, doctor. I think I’m dying from cancer but this is nonsense, yet I can’t stop it!” What does the psychiatrist Jung do with this imaginary cancer? “I told him that it would be better to take his obsession seriously instead of reviling it as pathological nonsense. But to take it seriously would mean acknowledging it as a sort of diagnostic statement of the fact that, in a psyche which really existed, trouble had arisen in the form of a cancerous growth. ‘But,’ he will surely ask, ‘what could that growth be?’ And I shall answer: ‘I do not know,’ as indeed I do not. Although… it is surely a compensatory or complementary unconscious formation, nothing is yet known about its specific nature or about its content. It is a spontaneous manifestation of the unconscious, based on contents which are not to be found in consciousness… I then inform him… that his dreams will provide us with all the necessary information. We will take them as if they issued from an intelligent, purposive, and, as it were, personal source…. The symptom is like the shoot above ground, yet the main plant is an extended rhizome underground. The rhizome represents the content of a neurosis; it is the matrix of complexes, of symptoms, and of dreams. We have every reason to believe that dreams mirror exactly the underground processes of the psyche. And if we get there, we literally get at the ‘roots’ of the disease.”

The delusional idea of a cancerous growth in a healthy body, then, is a symbol, which can provide a point of entry into the unconscious realm of complexes, processes, and hidden conflicts. And just as a physical cancer will suck the life out of a living organism if it is allowed to grow and remains unchecked, a psychic cancer too will drain a person’s life of psychic energy and produce a state of hopeless stagnation and eventually even psychic death. Symbols have the power to do just that. They collect, hold, and channel psychic energy, for good or ill.

In one sense, this psychic symptom is a metaphor, in that it is borrowing the language of physicality (cancer, illness) and applying it to the psychic domain. This transfer of language from one domain to another is what poets do when they employ metaphors. The psyche is involuntarily acting in a poetic fashion by stating, “I am sick with cancer,” when the person, were he more conscious of his psychic suffering, would say, “I am in profound despair,” or “I have no energy,” or “I am in hopeless conflict and it’s eating me alive!” But this patient cannot say that. He can only say: “I am convinced I have cancer, and I can’t get this irrational idea out of my head!” He is an unwilling poet. He has not chosen this symbol consciously or voluntarily; it has chosen him. He is unfree to dismiss it and unable to interpret it. So he goes to the analyst, and he confesses that he is possessed by a symbol and doesn’t know what it means. Understandably, he is humiliated by the stupid symptom and its unyielding grip on him. Jung says that such morbidity is usually shameful, and the patient is embarrassed to admit this weakness. He is in the grip of a complex, and this psychic factor – powerful, autonomous, and unconscious – is symbolized as a cancer. It must be analyzed and made conscious so that the very real suffering caused by the symptom-symbol can be transformed into psychic suffering. Perhaps other psychic resources can thus also be constellated, which will assist in bringing about the free flow of energy (libido) into more life enhancing tasks and goals.

What is a symbol?

As Jung understands and employs the term symbol, it is different from a metaphor in that what it is communicating or presenting to consciousness is utterly untranslatable into any other terms, at least for the time being. Symbols are opaque and often bring thinking to a standstill. Metaphors are transparent and must be so if they are to do their job. They help us think in creative ways “outside the box.” If a poet writes, for instance, that a bridge leaps (“vaulting the sea”) and addresses it as a “harp” and an “altar,” as the American poet Hart Crane does in his famous poem, “To Brooklyn Bridge,” the reader can with diligence puzzle out a sense of what the poet means to communicate. We know what a bridge is, and we know what “vaulting” signifies and what “altars” and “harps” are, and we can think along with the poet and appreciate what he is getting at with these metaphors. The image all refer to sense data in the material world, and reflection will yield interesting ideas about how they belong together and what this unique concatenation signifies. But if a patient says, “I am convinced that that I have a cancerous tumor in my body but there is no evidence, what does this mean?” the psychotherapist must confess, with Jung, “I have no idea what it means, but we can explore the image. By looking at your life, your history, your dreams and fantasies, we may be able to discover something that at this moment is locked out of consciousness and is analogous to a cancer.” It is an important difference. The link between signifier and signified is totally opaque in the case of symbols; with metaphors, on the contrary, this link is evident even if often very complicated and at first glance puzzling.

Blog Posts Essays Jung's Life Stein, Murray Transformation

The First International Conference on Jungian Psychology and Chinese Culture was held in Guangzhou, China in December, 1998. My paper was among the conference papers translated into Chinese and later published in English in Quadrant XXXI (2) Summer 2001. An abridged and slightly revised version is presented here.

Hexagram 42, Increase

For many Westerners an introduction to Chinese culture comes through the use of the I Ching. This profound book, a compendium of wisdom extending back to the roots of one of the planet’s most ancient cultures, has become an important companion for many in the West, including myself. Use of the I Ching challenges the reigning scientific paradigms in Western culture and brings a dimension to the Jungian psychoanalytic process that is sympathetic to the deepest and truest spirit of Jungian psychology.

            In Jungian terms, one could say the I Ching is a book that emerged out of the archetypal depths of the human psyche and the psychoid dimensions of the Self. The origins of dreams and the genesis of hexagrams in response to questions addressed to the I Ching are grounded in the same source. The Chinese ideogram for the sage, “the ear listening to the Inner King,” describes the process and goal of Jungian psychology.

            Scientists are giving ecological perspectives more credibility, where patterns of relationships are central. Psychoneuroimmunology research and the statistical verifications of the power of prayer and belief blur the distinctions between mind and matter. Our outlook on life, the way we perceive the world, and our ability to reflect and see meaning in experiences have been shown to affect our health and physical well-being. Dreams, particular psychological approaches, certain spiritual practices, and the I Ching address these issues at deep and subtle psychogenic levels where mind and matter meet (1).

            Analysts are in a good position to notice synchronistic events because we work with dreams at an archetypal level. Synchronistic events are usually related to archetypal events like birth, death, strong love relationships, and jealousy. Circumstantial evidence that synchronicities occur prompted me to develop an experiment to statistically test the possibility. This was part of my thesis (1983) at the Jung Institute in Zurich entitled “Synchronicity Experiments with the I Ching and Their Relevance to the Theory of Evolution.”

            Synchronicity convinced Jung there was an element of the psyche outside time and space: space and time are relative to the psyche (3). Incorporating the concept of synchronicity into his theoretical system late in his life led Jung to substantially reformulate his concepts of archetypes and the collective unconscious, putting them on a transcendent basis. Jung thought of archetypes as forms of existence without time and space, with the archetype per se being a “just so” ordering principle, an imperceptible structural element giving order to ideas and completely integrated with physical reality (4). Archetypes have a psychoid nature, meaning they have both a psychic and a physical dimension: psychic and physical are two sides of the same coin (5). An analogy in physics would be light, which behaves as a particle and a wave; matter (particles) and field somehow being two sides of the same phenomena…

Archetypes Blog Posts Dreams Eastern Philosophy Essays Individuation Merritt, Dennis Nature

In a letter to P.W. Martin (20 August 1945), the founder of the International Study Center of Applied Psychology in Oxted, England, C.G. Jung confirmed the centrality of numinous experience in his life and work: “It always seemed to me as if the real milestones were certain symbolic events characterized by a strong emotional tone. You are quite right, the main interest of my work is not concerned with the treatment of neuroses but rather with the approach to the numinous. But the fact is that the approach to the numinous is the real therapy and inasmuch as you attain to the numinous experiences you are released from the curse of pathology. Even the very disease takes on a numinous character” (Jung 1973, 1: 377). If one holds the classical Jungian view that the only genuine cure for neurosis is to grow out of it through pursuing individuation, then treatment based on this model would seem necessarily to include “the approach to the numinous,” as Jung states so firmly in this letter. The individuation process, as proposed by Jung and his followers, typically includes experiences of a numinous nature.

The question is: How are such momentous experiences related to and used within the context of analysis and the individuation journey, and how do they contribute to the overall process of individuation? On the answer to this complex question rests the difference between psychological individuation and the development of spirituality. While the psychological hero(ine) of the individuation journey is by no means identical to the spiritual hero(ine) of the journey to God (however this term may be defined), it is not always easy to tell where their paths diverge, precisely because Jung placed such central importance on numinous experience for individuation. And yet they do diverge, and decisively.

On Healing and Numinous Experience

We can begin by investigating how attaining to numinous experiences releases a person from the curse of pathology, as Jung claims in his letter to P.W. Martin. Generally speaking, an “approach to the numinous” is considered a religious undertaking, a pilgrimage. The “attainment to the numinous experiences” that Jung speaks of refers to religious experiences of a quasi-mystical nature. By itself, this attainment might well persuade a person that life is meaningful. Numinous experience creates a convincing link to the transcendent, and this may well lead to the feeling that character flaws like addictions or behavioral disorders are trivial by comparison with the grand visions imparted in the mystical state. The pathological symptom can be interpreted as an incitement to go on the spiritual quest, or even as a paradoxical doorway into transcendence, and this can donate meaning to the malady itself. Perhaps some degree of pathology is needed, in fact, in order for a person to feel strongly enough motivated to set out on a spiritual quest to begin with. In this case, attainment to numinous experiences would bring about a change in the feeling that pathology is a curse, even if it did not result in curing the pathology itself, although it might lead to this as well.

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