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Carl Jung


Other Jung Socs.


"Psychotherapy as a Spiritual Practice:
a Jungian Perspective

David Russell

This particular philosophical voyage into psychotherapy may be construed as a meditation on the following poem:

In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything,
Desire to have pleasure in nothing.
In order to arrive at possessing everything,
Desire to possess nothing.
In order to arrive at being everything,
Desire to be nothing.

In order to arrive at that which thou knowest not,
Thou must go by a way that thou knowest not …

In order to arrive at that which thou art not,
Thou must go through that which thou art not.

John of the Cross
Ascent of Mount Carmel, p. 154

A lot of people do psychotherapy. A lot do it well. Some even do it marvellously well. I have no argument with these professionals. My task tonight is to tell you what I think psychotherapy is; what it’s always been: soul work. It’s about learning how to thrust your head into the darkness, knowing how to leap into the void, and to understand that doing this sort of work, professionally or personally, is a dangerous calling.

It would be condescending of me to suggest that I could possibly offer you the end of Ariadne’s thread as a readymade, as a way out of the glorious mess that consciousness presents us with … the mess that we euphemistically call, human experience. No, we are in the labyrinth of day-to-day living, living with awareness and, awareness of our awareness, and there are no pre-existing threads to follow. Yet, it is my argument, tonight, that this is the very place, the place of no knowledge, which is the fertile ground for soul, or psyche, if you prefer, to do its work.

The task that I have set myself is to describe, with ambivalent emotions and difficult words, this fertile field of experience, yours and mine, and to link this intimate experience to one’s desire to make soul, to practice a spiritual exercise. It is not a place of any external authority; rather, it is a place where one struggles to find the emotions, images, and words to tell a particular story.

There are three lines of thinking, intellectual perturbations if you like, that have mutually shaped my personal philosophy of doing psychotherapy.

The first is represented by the distinction attributed to the writer Vladimir Nabokov: If you say that the king died and then the queen died you do not have a narrative. All you have is a sequence of events. However, if you say that the king died and then the queen dies of a broken heart, then you have a plot and every narrative needs a plot.

Doing psychotherapy needs to be a narrative of sorts … a story worth reading!

The second is the image of the human reach always exceeding its grasp. In more practical terms: the world of the imaginative processes is more encompassing than the world of the physical senses (including any literal understanding of the political and the social).

Doing psychotherapy needs to link the world of our sense perceptions and the world of our imagination (our spiritual world) … one that expresses the full gamut of human experience.

And finally, an appreciation of an aesthetic attitude, a focus on structure and style, has a more satisfying outcome, for this sort of work, than a devotion to great ideas.

Doing psychotherapy means that you stay close to the very particular nature of human experience.

Psychotherapy – a dialogue with experience
James Hillman, a psychological writer that I greatly admire, extends the thinking of Carl Jung and, like Jung, valued dialogue-with-experience over any dialogue-with-a-set-of-given-beliefs. Hillman exhorts us to enter into the realm of image making, images that disturb the empirical world of the senses (including the social and the political) in order to more fully do the work that we have evolved, through the experience of consciousness, to do.

We enter the realm of psychological experience via having our equilibrium disturbed!
We enter psychotherapy, as participant and as practitioner, in order to be more disturbed.

Hillman uses the image of the Virgin Mary’s Annunciation as suggestive of just such a disturbance. He pictures Mary as a young childish innocent, nothing more than a schoolgirl at home in her room, who is suddenly confronted with the Angel. Initially, experiencing only shock and astonishment, her mind rejects the knowledge and her face shows the horror of what’s implied. Yet, Hillman says, in her body redemption will be prepared. As a psychological writer, Hillman is keen to include us all in this image of Mary, “… for somewhere we are all virgins, sensitive, shy, psychologically naïve, unexplored in our emotional life, unwilling to be called into involvements, unawakened to the terribleness of truth, resistant to the major challenge, preferring where it is safe, at home, familiar and protected, with books or bits of handiwork, kindly charitable, obedient, well-meaning” (Hillman, 1994, p. 108).

Again, let me stress.  Psychotherapy is not about just anything!

For Hillman there can be no soul-making if there is no disruption, psychological disruption, no imagination in his sense of the term. He insists that psychological life begins when the status quo, the socially accepted routines of daily life, are radically upset, ruptured. In his poetic language, he reflects on Mary’s newly-found situation: “… from all this goodness little can come unless the psyche’s womb receives the fiery seed of one’s own unique essence which fulfils its creative longing and from which inner fertilization issues the experience of renewal” (Hillman, 1994, p. 108). In order to do psychotherapy, as soul work, one must engage with the rupture, be disturbed, and suffer the divine fertilization so that an inner life will grow.

Psychotherapy as ruptured certainty
My thesis is that, in order to do soul work, we adopt an attitude of permanent vigilance against the temptation of certainty. It is an attitude that appreciates and accommodates the experience of doubt. What we have as certainties are our flow of emotions and our flow of language. And the language is only partly verbal, more fundamentally, it is the evocation of imagination: the exploration of and struggling with imagination. Evocation of imagination implies being open to new possibilities, especially a possibility that does not have the heroic ego as the centre of one’s understanding and thus the measure of everything.

Our subject matter is the body. One way or another, soul work is about the body. We converse about the body, the body and its inherent desires, how it learns to make do and, hopefully, to make do with a sense of ‘art.’

The body takes pleasure in creating a story (or better, stories) of what we do to make do. These basic and original desires cannot be directly satisfied but can create a satisfying experience (a satisfying fiction). In my view, our stories, including our cultural stories, our myth making, become stories of loss. The body’s experience of loss/lack becomes the source of invention. Our lives become somehow organised around, and in relation to, absence.

It is of interest to note that Freud’s early case histories – the Studies in Hysteria – were artful stories about how certain women, in a manner essentially outside of their awareness, addressed the perceived loss of the social acceptance of their particular uniqueness. It was their bodies that told stories back to families and to the wider culture.  Freud’s new-found psychoanalytic method encouraged them to answer back in words, rather than in physical symptoms.

It is my contention that by embodying doubt, and not falling into the temptation of certainty, doubt brings forth its own fertility.

The person and the self as relatively recent inventions
My conviction is that we have overemphasised notions of ‘person’ and ‘self.’ We have made them into concrete certainties. Only relatively recently have these notions become so important, overly important, to us.

It is of note that the concept of person entered Western thought largely as a consequence of sustained reflection on the Judeo-Christian Bible (Novak, 1998). A concept was needed so that humans could be talked about as having a rational relationship with God. A relationship that encompassed a past, a present, and an anticipated future: a concept of an entity responsible for actions and choices. With the advent of the Enlightenment, the view that there was one fixed reality, a reality knowable outside of our own experiencing of it, became increasingly difficult to hold. What we know of the world is known only through consciousness and it is consciousness that links us to the world. So, in a metaphorical sense, we live in two worlds: a world of sense perception (with a relatively fixed horizon) and a world of imagination (with a forever shifting and expanding horizon).

As children of the Enlightenment we have created ‘self’ as the object of a drive and as a positive identity to fill the experiential void. In addition, we have created a psychology to attend to the wellbeing of the self and psychotherapy, as a practice, to assuage the feelings of emptiness that are so much a part of our experience of nothingness.

I an arguing that it is timely to construct a psychotherapy that aims to rupture the naïve allegiance that our culture has given to the objectification and commodification of self and, as an alternative, offer an invitation to enter, in a structured manner, the void inside us.

The social construct of self offered a certain stability, a new seduction of certainty. The self could be, and has become in common-sense understanding, the soul-like entity that extended the person into the psychological realm; the source of emotions, feelings, insights, and dreams (day-time and night-time dreaming). The self has become the answer to the experiential gap that separates the two horizons. The experience of nothingness was simply too much to bear! (see Novak, 1970). The fact that we can call something by name, such as a ‘feeling,’ suggests that it is a thing, an entity, and the same goes for self. But feeling and self are verbs in that they do things: they are processes, indeed, complex ones, that generate the experiences of consciousness.

To answer the question: Who am I? I need to tell a story. The more often I tell such a narrative the more likely that the shape of the story will begin to shift. There are many stories that I might tell. Which one is true? Which one represents the real me? Possible all of them and, possibly, none of them! All such narratives become pluralistic and need to be judged on criteria of a more aesthetic kind. Our Western myth of the self, a vision of a personal identity continuous over time, is perhaps the most illusory belief of all. Yet we do experience just such an identity, our ‘autobiographical self.’ It seems we do need a particular sort of story (a personal myth) to tell ourselves: an identity story that encompasses a number of remembered events, some of the goings-on of the present moment, and a future that we dream into.

Psychotherapy as deepening the experience of nothingness
The experience of nothingness arises when we consciously become aware of living in the gap between our actual horizons (Novak, 1970). The gap that is our experiential
life-space; the experience of Homer’s Odysseus needing to sail between the Scylla monster of sense perceptions (the world of fixed realities) and the Charybdis whirlpool of imagination (the world of desire, memory, longing). Accepting the experience of living in the in-between and not giving in to the seduction of needing to fill the gap with a solidity-like self; a felt-certainty that removes the feeling of emptiness, is engaging with what actually is.

Freud, towards the end of his life, told his friend Hilda Doolittle (the poet H. D.) that his work was really about an engagement with this difficult terrain that is essentially a place of unknowing. In Freud’s own words: “My discoveries are not primarily a heal-all. My discoveries are a basis for a very grave philosophy” (Doolittle, 1985, p. 13).

The refusal to accept any Archimedean point, any place of pure objectivity, where one can live with a sense of reality without the need for continuous storying of meaning making, that is the challenge of psychotherapy. Such a refusal constitutes a practice of the consciousness of acceptance, even, one could say, of appropriation. The necessary practice is to keep the experience of emptiness empty; the tools, techniques, methods need to be designed to assist us to stay in the in-between and not seek a too-easy refuge with a plethora of the readymade, clichés to fill the void. The ‘story’ underlying psychotherapy, its myth, is grounded in the experience of nothingness. It recognises the emptiness, terror, and formlessness at the centre of human consciousness. Because it is basic to our consciousness, the experience of nothingness is not paralysing, it is liberating – ‘education’ in the older sense of the word.

The realisation that insecurity is the natural state for humans, in fact, its healthy state, is paradoxical in today’s thinking.

Jung and keeping the wound of consciousness open
Jung’s use of the term ‘unconscious’ is imaginative; it does not designate a physical place between the two horizons of knowing. He wants it to remain a no-place, a place empty of substance, a place where nothing can be found: “The concept of unconscious posits nothing, it designates only my unknowing” (Jung, 1943/1973, p. 411).

When he uses the term ‘Self’ he wants it to be understood as an archetypal image “… with no stable or definite centre in the unconscious and I [Jung] don’t believe such a centre exists. I believe that the thing which I call the Self is an ideal centre …” (in Serrano, 1968, p. 50). So, for Jung the self is not a positively existing entity, rather, it exists as an as-if image and brings to our attention the status of a negation, of emptiness; an emptiness that is a fertile space for nourishing an appreciation of the evolutionary status of human consciousness.

Jung’s attitude was to trust that the experiential ‘unknowing’ had purpose and if one trusted this felt-purpose then one’s daily activities would become more meaningful. This characteristic subjectivity, this fundamental acceptance of the wound of consciousness, offered a sense of redemption from suffering and ease of living (Jung, 1914/1960, para. 407).

To consciously live in this in-between “is a spiritual goal toward which the whole nature of man strives; it is the sea to which all rivers wend their way, the prize which the hero wrests from the fight with the dragon” (Jung, 1947/1969, para. 415). Jung used the term ‘psyche’ to convey the experiential goings-on of this in-between space, this fruitful emptiness. And it is fantasy, the language of the imagination, that “seems to me [Jung] the clearest expression of the specific activity of the psyche” (Jung, 1921/1971, para. 78). It is fantasy images, and the sequences of these images, that are the primary activity of consciousness; “the psyche creates reality every day” (Jung, 1921/1971, para. 78). Psyche is, in Jung’s view, not a substantial entity but the very processes of consciousness.

For Jung, it is this in-between that is the psychic space of inner experience. In a letter to an American correspondent, he claimed that religion “is not at all a matter of intellectual conviction or philosophy or even belief, but rather a matter of inner experience” (Jung, 1976 p. 183). Jung was convinced that this experience of the in-between was ultimately uncommunicable except in terms of myth or rich cultural storying. “Myth,’ he wrote, “gives the ultimately unimaginable religious experience an image, a form in which to express itself” (Jung, 1976, p. 486). These cultural stories are descriptions of psychic processes “told by the many and heard by the many,” and as the primal form of communication, “makes community possible” (Jung, 1976, p. 486).

The practice of consciousness, the awareness-of-awareness as a practice, the openness to doubt and uncertainty, generates a place for narrative imagination. This is a place of metaphoricity: a rich environment for the creation of metaphors. It is a place of desire and promise and, as a result of productively sitting in this place (which, itself is a no-place): “some transfer (meta-phora) of meaning is eventually, if always tentatively, achieved … It is the place where stories, songs, parables, and prophecies resound as human imaginations try to say the unsayable and think the unthinkable” (Kearney, 2001, p. 8).

In this place, soul in made, psyche is offered ‘objectivity,’ the God-of-possibility (Kearney, 2001) comes into being. In Christian imagery, the Holy Spirit is now one’s guide.

One is reminded of the beautiful and poignant words of Etty Hillesum, shortly before she was executed in a Nazi concentration camp: “… one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You [God] cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves … and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last” (Hillesum, 1996, p. 178).

Consciousness as dialogue, and religious consciousness as the awareness-of-awareness of the dialogue, is akin to the image of a rock face cracking, very slowly and deliberately, and out of the opening comes something different; some unexpected experience. From this fertile space come images, not formed ideas, which are limited to known visual images. These images are not even limited by lived experience these are psychic images and are unburdened by needing to conform to a fixed reality.

If we learn to linger long enough, and become aware of the changing experience in us, this change merits the term ‘transformation’. This is what our imaginative processes do. This is what we have evolved to be able to do and the products of this doing are gifts that we can (and need to) offer back to the community. Jung, in talking about just such a learning process, says that it “… should release an experience that grips us or falls upon us from above, an experience that has substance and body such as those [that] occurred to the ancients. If I were going to symbolize it I would choose the Annunciation” (Jung, 1925/1989. p. 80). However, unlike the pregnancy of the Bible, which was permanent, transcendence in a psychological sense is always a verb in which the movement never comes to rest. It is an experience and not an accomplishment. The term soul-making is used in the literature to convey its experiential and attitudinal nature.

In the title of this paper the term ‘practice’ is used in order to denote the need for ongoing application, ongoing transformation, ongoing learning;  a learning to see psychologically. Hillman, in emphasising experience, speaks of the ‘image that is soul-making’ as the transformative process that in analytical psychology makes an action or attitude into ‘seeing psychologically.’ He makes his point thus: “The phase beyond fantasy is imagination, which is the work of turning daydreams and fantasies into scenic inscapes wherein one can enter and which are peopled with vivid figures with whom one can converse and feel, and touch their presence” (Hillman, 1994, p. 117).

Consciousness of consciousness as nihilism
Analytical psychologist, Wolfgang Giegerich, follows the very Jungian theme of experiencing an absence of God ‘out there’ and the burden of a religion that does not espouse such an object. As Giegerich says: “Jung saw in religion a great burden from which he suffered [and that he did suffer] is the sign that he experienced it on an entirely new level of consciousness” (Giegerich, 2005, p. 223). Interpreting our situation, our awareness of consciousness, as nihilism is for Giegerich a defence against the decisive rupture that has occurred as we’ve become increasingly aware of the loss of the status quo of previous times. Jung accepted the burden, the loss, and willingly struggled with it. He maintained, with a degree of sadness, that the world to which religions has addressed their answers had gone. What was not threatened, if we are prepared to do the psychological work, is the embodied consciousness that is the reality already at hand if we have the mind to accept it. In Giegerich’s language: “We have to learn [not to strive for emptiness, but] to live with and in the emptiness that already prevails. We don’t need [actively] to sacrifice our religions, nor the notion of religion as such … We only need to own [the sacrifice], to allow it to be (Giegerich, 2005, p. 230).

Consciousness as the bittersweet of Eros
The experience of consciousness, like all experience, is fashioned by desire, by body states that we have named ‘emotions.’ In early Greek literature this embodied experience was attributed to Eros.

The Greek scholar and poet, Anne Carson, says that it was the poet Sappho who first called eros ‘bittersweet’ (Carson, 1986). Carson reminds us that eros denotes ‘want,’ ‘lack,’ ‘desire for what is missing.’ Carson, taking Sappho as her inspiration, develops the experience of eros as a dynamic of ambivalent emotions: ‘bittersweet’ as in the title of her book. And, “Desire moves. Eros is a verb” (Carson, p. 17).

The experience of consciousness is erotic to the core. Its reach (its desire) always exceeds its grasp (of concrete objects). In the poem that is Carson’s work bench, “… Sappho begins with a sweet apple and ends in infinite hunger. From her [Sappho’s] inchoate little poem we learn several things about eros. The reach of desire is defined in action: beautiful (in its object), foiled (in its attempt), endless (in time)” (Carson, p. 29).

Eros denotes an absence, a hunger, a desire. The space that is experienced as an absence must be maintained or desire ends. The real subject of this love poem is not the human subject but the empty space that brings forth the desire. It is the presence of want that awakens in the protagonist of the poem a nostalgia for wholeness.

Clearly this is an early literary expression of what latter psychologists, particularly, William James and Carl Jung, would hypothesis as a biological function, a function that expresses itself as religious life.

The so-called empty space, the experience of loss, is for Jung precisely where an engagement with the divine begins. “Psychologically speaking” he writes, “the domain of the ‘gods’ begins where consciousness leaves off, for at that point man is already at the mercy of the natural order, whether he thrives or perish” (Jung, 1942/1969, para. 231). And in another place he writes: “The gods have become diseases …” (Jung, 1967, para. 54), and, to put this bold hypothesis in another way, it is through dis-ease we experience the gods.


I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self
And the wounds to the soul take a long time, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance,
long, difficult repentance, realisation of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

D. H. Lawrence

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. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive
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    papers towards a critical psychology Vol 1
(pp. 219-231). New Orleans: Spring
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Hillman, J. (1994).
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(E. Allison Peers, Trans.), Image Books Edition, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. Jung, C.G. (1914/1960).
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    (R. F. C. Hull Trans.): Vol 11, Bollingen Series, (pp.107-200).  London: Routledge.
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    Vol 6, Bollingen Series, (pp. 8-66). London: Routledge.
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    London: Routledge and Keagan Paul.
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. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
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    and the concept of the person. Journal of markets and morality, 1(2), 107-121.
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A paper presented at the Jung Society of Canberra, on 7 September, 2007.



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