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“I Am That!”: mystical unity and psychological inflation


“I Am That!”: mystical unity and psychological inflation

The mystic quest for oneness with the divine

Most mystical traditions, in one way or another, speak of being “one with the divine.”

This is the final goal of the quest.

As Joseph Campbell says, there comes a time in the practice when the seeker is no longer satisfied with beholding the beloved. At last, the beholder wants to become one with the beloved. Campbell likens it to the moth who, after many failed attempts, finally breaks through the glass of the lamp, and for one brief moment – that “eternal” moment – becomes one with the flame. The moth has finally experienced the divine without any intermediaries. This is the goal of all mystical seeking.

In Hinduism, one hears repeatedly the refrain, “Soham.” Composed of two Sanskrit words Sah and Aham, it means “I am That.” Similarly, the phrase “Shivoham” means “I am Shiva.” Or, the teaching, “Tattwamasi” means “You Are That!”

Al Halláj (858-922 AD), an Iranian Sufi master who came some three centuries before Rumi, is famous for his utterance “Ana al-haqq,” which earned him eight years of trial and then a gruesome prolonged execution in the central square of Baghdad, for blasphemy. Al-Haqq, literally meaning “the Truth,” is one of the ninety-nine names of Allah. Thus, Ana al-haqq means “I am God.”

Some three centuries later, another Sufi mystic, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, would write thus (translation by Coleman Barks):

"There’s nothing left of me.
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance
to sunlight."

This is how Hallaj said, I am God,
and told the truth!
The ruby and the sunrise are one.”

Angelus Silesius, a Christian mystic from the seventeenth century, describes his encounter with the divine using these words (translation by Andrew Harvey):

“What God is, no-one knows.
God is neither light, nor spirit
God is not bliss, not unity,
Not what we call “deity.”
God is not wisdom, nor reason,
Nor love, nor will, nor goodness.
God is not a thing, nor a nothing,
Nor is God essence.
God is what neither I nor you
Nor any creature can understand
Without becoming what God is.”

Deity Yoga in Vajrayana Tantra

Tantra is one of the paths within both Hinduism and Buddhism. In the latter, this path is known as the Vajrayana, or more generally, as Tibetan Buddhism. It is this version of Tantra that is most well known in the West.

The word Tantra means a loom, and refers to the act of weaving.

Weaving what?

Of course, there can be as many interpretations as there are interpreters. It could be seen as an interweaving of various teachings, texts, rituals. It could be the interweaving of masculine and feminine energies. The Yin and the Yang. The opposites.

Also, it is the interweaving of the profane and the sacred.

Tantric practices are often held suspect by other practitioners because of its explicit use of the “forbidden” material – such as alcohol, meat, hallucinogens and sexuality.

One of the central practices within Vajrayana, the “Diamond” or “Thunderbolt” Vehicle of Buddhism, which is explicitly tantric, is what is called in the West as “Deity Yoga.” The adept here is invited to more and more deeply “embody” their chosen deity.

This concept of the “chosen deity” is very common in the East. In Tibetan, it is called the Yidam, whereas in Sanskrit, the Ishta devata. The words translate to a “preferred” or “desired” or “cherished” deity. The relationship here is personal.

The adept does not “worship” their deity, they “become” the deity. Typically, the practice progresses from the “outer” deity, with attributes that can sensed by the five senses, to the “inner” deity, who is felt more internally, and finally the “secret” deity, where the adept is filled with the essence of the deity.

It is also important to note that not all deities in Vajrayana are benign and “peaceful.” There are many who are “embodied” in their “wrathful” aspects by the practitioner.

Below is an image of the deity Yamantaka (called Vajrabhairava in his Hindu incarnation). His name literally means the “ender,” or “terminator, of Death.” His teaching is thus about conquering death. He is a wrathful expression of Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva associated with prajñā (insight) in Buddhism. If Yamantaka is the yidam of a practitioner, they would then work to embody this buffalo-faced deity whose hands hold various weapons, while he sits on a water buffalo, exposing his immense manhood. This very masculine deity is shown in embrace with his feminine consort, Vajravetali (the wrathful form of the patron Goddess of learning and the arts, Sarasvati). He is adorned with a garland of severed human heads, strings of human bones, and a crown made of human skulls. He is drinking blood from a human-skull-cup offered by his consort, while wisdom-flames emanate from, and envelop them both. The entire scene rests on the trampled, naked body of “ignorance.” Interestingly, however, the entire scene, including the body of ignorance, is held within the matrix of the world-lotus, a symbol of cosmic renewal and “primordial purity,” which in turn floats on the ocean of eternal bliss!

It is this complex, magnificent, and yes, terrifying deity, that the adept is asked to embody - in order to one day himself/herself become the “Destroyer of Death” (in other words, escape from the cycle of rebirth, and achieve nirvana).

By Wonderlane from Seattle, USA - Yamāntaka riding an buffalo (Sanskrit: यमान्तक Yamāntaka; Tibetan: Shinjeshe, གཤིན་རྗེ་གཤེད་, རྡོ་རྗེ་འཇིགས་བྱེད།, gshin rje gshed; rdo rje 'jigs byed) a Mahayana Yidam, holding skeleton wand & noose, consort, flames of wisdom, wall mural, Pharping, Nepal, CC BY 2.0,

By Wonderlane from Seattle, USA - Yamāntaka riding an buffalo (Sanskrit: यमान्तक Yamāntaka; Tibetan: Shinjeshe, གཤིན་རྗེ་གཤེད་, རྡོ་རྗེ་འཇིགས་བྱེད།, gshin rje gshed; rdo rje 'jigs byed) a Mahayana Yidam, holding skeleton wand & noose, consort, flames of wisdom, wall mural, Pharping, Nepal, CC BY 2.0,

What about the risk of psychological inflation in such practices?

The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, used the term “archetypes of the collective unconscious” to describe precisely the kind of potent primordial energies that are represented by the deities of Vajrayana. Jung warned repeatedly of the risk of what he called “psychological inflation” if one became identified with aspects of an archetype. According to Jung, precisely because these archetypes are “numinous” (i.e., magical, and with the power to impress and fascinate), if one becomes identified with them, then one loses their conscious ego function. It is often said within Jungian circles that when you are able to consciously relate to a “Complex” (an affect-laden activated archetype), you “have the complex.” If you are unconscious of it, however, then “the complex has you!”

We all know how it looks like when a complex “has” someone. We see extreme examples in psych wards where someone believes they are Jesus Christ, or Hitler, and act the part. A more day-to-day example may be someone who is so taken by the positive polarity of the Mother archetype that they will carry out the task of being available and nourishing to their children to the point of smothering them, and preventing the children’s own personalities and resiliencies to arise. Or the spiritual teacher who is taken over by the Wise Old Man aspect of the Father archetype, and does not see how his actions are making his followers dependent on him, rather than them cultivating their own relationship to the divine. Remember, the opposite polarity of the Wise Old Man is Chronos, or Saturn - the father who devours his own children to avoid his power being usurped by them!

In Jungian understanding, then, the more we consciously identify with one polarity of an archetype, the opposite polarity “constellates” in the unconscious as a “Complex.” If constellated with enough force, this complex can completely submerge the ego-consciousness and take over the functioning of the psyche.

If psychological inflation is indeed real, and we can see it being played out all around us (and if we are honest, in us), is then there something fundamentally wrong with Vajrayana, and other tantric practices? At least for the Western person, as Jung suggested? Is the Western seeker indeed better off “praying” to God, instead of “becoming” God?

The answer lies in our angle of relating to an archetype

The risks of psychological inflation, and in extreme cases, a complete loss of ego identity and with it, the ability to function in consensus reality, are indeed very real. And this risk is invariably present when a novice approaches a tantric practice such as Vajrayana.

This is precisely the reason why, within the cultures where Tantra is a known and practiced path, it is not a path entered into lightly. One can think of a tantric practice as preparing to climb Mount Everest. One doesn’t roll out of bed one morning and head over to the base camp of Everest. There is years of training – developing optimal physical and psychological fitness, learning the techniques of rock and ice craft, learning survival strategies. And then climbing smaller mountains, over and over again, before heading to Everest. Finally, when one is ready, one plans the expedition carefully, looks at the weather, the fellow climbers, the guides, the equipment, and then starts off slowly – acclimatizing as one goes – and always keeping an eye out for the odd storm or the cantankerous relationship between two expedition-mates that can derail the whole show!

Similarly, before one begins serious deity yoga, one practices different aspects of what in the West has been translated as “emptiness practices.” One of the fundamental Buddhist practices in Vajrayana – as in all other form of Buddhism – is called Prajñāpāramitā. The Sanskrit words prajñā means "wisdom," or “insight,” and pāramitā means "perfection". Prajñāpāramitā thus refers to a set of practices that leads to a perfected way of seeing the nature of reality. A central element of this practice is the so-called “Heart Sutra,” whose main contention is that “Form is Empty.” What this sutra, and its repetition daily by the adept, is designed to do is to convince the adept’s deep psyche, that ultimately all phenomena are “śūnya,” empty of any unchanging essence. This emptiness is a “characteristic” of all phenomena, and this emptiness itself is "empty" of any essence of its own.

What a practice like this does, is that it places the adept in a mental stance where they are aware – in a deeply felt way – that they themselves are empty and all experiences are empty. Becoming this empty vessel, they can now fully embody a deity – whether peaceful and wrathful – and work with its poisons and get to its medicine, without the risk of their ego becoming identified with the deity (i.e., becoming “possessed”). There are many, many tools that help the adept along the way – tools of imagery, tools of ritual, tools of meditation, tools of sacrifice. And it is all done under close supervision of an experienced guide – the Lama – who has made this journey themselves, and is familiar with the terrain, and its dangers.

Eventually, though, the reason one can practice the Deity Yoga of Vajrayana, and does not fall prey to permanent psychological inflation, is that at all times during the practice, and during their daily mundane life, they are hearing a constant refrain, "Form is emptiness (śūnyatā). Emptiness is form."

The Heart Sutra concludes with the mantra:

“Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā”

which means, "gone, gone… everyone gone… to the other shore… awakening… and so it is!”

It is only from this place of total surrender that one can safely engage numinosity, without being devoured by it.

If nothing else, may this passage serve as a warning against approaching tantra as a “flavor of the month” weekend workshop!

Finally, like everything that is alive, deep mystic experience is a dance of opposites

I want to emphasize as we end this reflection, that the “surrender” or the “sacrifice” of the ego that we speak of here, is not static. We are not asked to be ego-less forevermore! Because we all know, from our lived experience, that what is static is dead. And what is alive is ever-changing, pulsating with the life force.

It is the same with psychological inflation.

The risk, really, is not of being inflated, but of being stuck in the inflated place forever. Indeed, the repetition of inflation and deflation – of expansion and contraction – is what is essential for any birthing, and for the elimination of bodily (and psychic) waste. In medical language, this movement is called peristalsis. It is this movement that propels forward the fetus along the birth canal – from the maternal womb of darkness and unity-consciousness, and into the outside world of light and duality and ego-identity.

Similarly, to be a tantric practitioner, or a spiritual practitioner of any kind for that matter, psychological inflation is unavoidable. Too much fear about any possible inflation can leave us dead on our tracks - never risking to deepen our spiritual practice to the place where a real encounter with the divine is possible.

It is no wonder that the encounter with a divinity is described as “numinous.” This word was popularized by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential 1917 book Das Heilige (which appeared in English as The Idea of the Holy in 1923). Translating from Latin, Otto describes the experience of the numinous as a mystery (Latin: mysterium) that is at once terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans).

Translating this into Jungian psychological parlance, we can say that a true encounter with the divine (including our own divine essence, the Self) is not all roses and holy choir – that it involves both positive and negative inflation. We may think of the negative inflation as the surrendering or “sacrificing,” (i.e., “making sacred”) of our ego. It is about emptying the cup. It is about becoming the hollowed out reed flute. It is about embracing the Buddhist notion of Emptiness. And the opposite polarity of this stance will be the positive inflation - where I am Shiva. I am the deity of my worship. It is the movement of identifying with, and fully embodying, the divine.

Neither of these positions are dangerous in themselves. Indeed, both are necessary for a true “numinous” experience. What matters is that we do not get stuck on either polarity. If that happens, then we are no longer having a numinous experience. Then, we are “possessed” and “devoured” by the deity.

The invitation, then, is to a dance. A dance along this infinity symbol where inflation and deflation flow into and intermingle with each other. We dance - over and over again in this graceful spiral movement – until we are brought to that numinous experience of a mystic birth!

And then, when this particular movement of the dance is concluded, we come back to “chop wood, carry water.” Or, as the Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield says, “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry!”

May it be so.

May it be so for you. May it be so for me. May it be so for all beings everywhere.


The Dance of Ego and Shadow


The Dance of Ego and Shadow

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature and behavior of psychological Shadow. The word “shadow” has now entered mainstream consciousness – and is certainly a much-discussed topic in the New Age circles. Shadow, as we know, includes all aspects of our personality that we do not actively identify with, or own as “ours.”

When I read many of these New Age texts, though, I am often left with the feeling that a lot of the so-called “shadow-work” is really done from the perspective of, and in service to, the Ego. It is about “conquering,” “vanquishing,” “depotentiating” the Shadow. It is about becoming “pure” and “enlightened.”

While it is indeed possible to integrate aspects of our Shadow into our conscious personality, we need to tread carefully in this domain; lest our “shadow-work” become another ego-project in its relentless perusal of perfection! And as we will see later in the essay, the cost of such a project could be prohibitive for our soul!

Tree of Life and Death: from a fifteenth century illuminated manuscript

Tree of Life and Death with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Salzburger Missale - Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 15708-15712; fifteenth century, Germany; Vellum (parchment), paint, gold leaf

Tree of Life and Death with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Salzburger Missale - Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 15708-15712; fifteenth century, Germany; Vellum (parchment), paint, gold leaf

The relationship of Ego and Shadow is magnificently depicted in a medieval illuminated manuscript (see image caption). In this image, we see Adam reclining, as if exhausted, in the center of the field. From his navel rises the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. On the side of the “good,” we see Mary – wearing the blue robes of purity and virginity – offering the “fruits of salvation” to a long line of penitents. On the “evil” side, we see Eve – naked and sensual – offering the “fruits of damnation” to her line of… shall we call them celebrants (as opposed to penitents)? Mary, in her pious act, is watched over by an angel; Eve is assisted in hers by Death!

If we take a moment to connect with the image more deeply, we see that Mary serves as the conscious “right hand” of Adam. Thus, she represents his conscious stance – his Ego. Eve, represents his unconscious “left hand” Shadow.

What this manuscript illustration tells us, in no uncertain terms, is that as we are busy picking the socially acceptable, even laudable, fruits – of service, good work and piety with one hand, the other hand, unbeknownst to ourselves, is picking other fruits (of whatever we see as our personal Shadow, e.g., greed, lust, neediness…).

It cannot be any other way.

Birth of shadow

In the Jungian worldview, Shadow is seen as the most superficial, the most reachable part of our Personal Unconscious. Thus, many aspects of the shadow are, theoretically, possible to be brought into consciousness, and thus “integrated.” Integration of Shadow here does not mean that they are necessarily acted out, but that we are aware of, say our inner thief, or our inner jealous lover. In fact, the more we are aware of these parts – the less likely are we to act them out, and the more likely we will be not to judge harshly when we see another person acting them out! True empathy is born out of knowing our own Shadow.

It may not be wrong to assume that we are born shadowless. Shadow, in all likelihood, begins to form as we develop an Ego – which is very much colored by our family and culture – that tells us what is acceptable and what is not. The child soon learns that if he smiles and follows orders, he is loved and fed and played with. If she throws a tantrum, she gets a time-out, or is sent to bed without supper. The child thus learns, quite early on, that obedience is good, and anger is bad. The child needs its parents for its very survival. So, the murderous rage of the infant moves into the child’s unconscious, and a piece of the Shadow is born.

My Jungian analyst often likes to remind me, “every object casts a shadow!” True indeed. But only in the presence of light. As long as we are in complete darkness, like a fetus in the womb, we are in participation mystique with the Mother, who represents for us the whole of the Universe. In this mystical-magical sense of oneness of the fetus/newborn with the mother, there is no separation of Subject and Object. All is one. Thus, there is no Shadow. But as soon as there is a dawning of Consciousness, of identification of Objects – inner and outer – as “mine,” these Objects begin to cast their Shadow. It is simple physics, really. Whenever there is light, and there are objects on its path, there is also shadow.

As we grow older, we consolidate our identity (“this is me, and that is not-me”) and find our place in the world. The more we progress along this path of “Ego Consolidation”, the more our shadow deepens. One can almost say that for us to become conscious, we have to cast a shadow.

Jungian analyst and author, Robert Johnson, in his book “Owning your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche,” uses the metaphor of a seesaw, or a teeter-totter, to describe the relationship of Ego and Shadow. As we go through the first half of life, where we are consolidating our Ego, we begin to accumulate things on one end of the seesaw that are “me” (Ego aspects), and on the other end accumulate the “not me” (the Shadow aspects).

Unfortunately, culture is only comfortable with a narrow range of attributes, and what goes into Shadow is not just what is negative, but also the things that are great about us. This so-called “Golden Shadow” will be the subject of another essay soon.

In any case, around midlife, when the Ego has been sufficiently consolidated and functions well in the world, there comes a time when we tend to get bored with our narrowly-defined, culturally-sanctioned and often-bloodless life. This is typically a time when the seesaw can flip, bringing on the famous “midlife crisis.” Thus, the perfectly mellow gentleman begins to collect fancy guns and go on hunting parties with buddies, taking savage pleasure in butchering innocent animals; and the stay-at-home mother-of-four begins a secret affair. This sudden shadow explosion can also be easily somatized as physical or mental illness. But that again is a subject for another day.

Shadow always first appears as projection

It is very difficult, some Jungians will say impossible, for us to meet our Shadow unmediated. We first “encounter” our Shadow (both positive and negative Shadow) as a projection on an outer “Other” – which could be a person, an institution, or even an idea or a philosophy.

So, one of the best ways for us to identify our Shadows is to see who or what triggers us. Any time we feel angry, upset or judgmental toward someone, or are overly in awe of someone, there are probably Shadow elements at play!

An interesting phenomenon often noticed is that our Shadow is most often projected on someone or something that offers a “hook.” So, it is easy for us to hold on to our righteous indignation and put the blame on the Other. They are the one who is bigoted, nasty or greedy! And indeed, a large part of the blame may correctly reside in the Outer Other. But, most often, not all of it belongs to this Outer Other. Thus, if we can find enough space inside us to separate our feelings from the Outer Other, we find that these feelings are our best “mirrors,” in which we first glimpse our “Inner Other.”

How do we “integrate” a shadow element?

Now, the most important question in this investigation. Now that we are aware of a Shadow element, what do we do with it? What exactly do we mean by Integrating the Shadow?

In Jungian terms, Integration of Shadow means integrating Shadow elements into Consciousness. We are now conscious of possessing that Shadow aspect and accept it as our own.

Of course, integration is different from willy-nilly enactment. Culture cannot exist if we all enact all our Shadows.

How do we then “integrate” our inner thief or our inner murderer?

The power of ritual in making the shadow conscious within a safe container

Ritual is a time-honored way to “enact” aspects of our personality that cannot be safely enacted in daily life. Ancient cultures had rituals to “sanctify” lust, for example, through various Dionysian rituals and temple prostitution.

Robert Johnson, the Jungian author mentioned above, draws our attention to the gruesome shadow imagery of the contemporary Catholic Mass:

“The Catholic Mass is a masterpiece of balancing our cultural life. If one has the courage to see, the Mass is full of the darkest things: there is incest, betrayal, rejection, torture, death—and worse. All this leads to revelation but not until the dark side has been portrayed as vividly as possible. If one went to Mass in high consciousness one would tremble at the awfulness of it—and be redeemed by its balancing effect. The Mass lost much of its effectiveness when it was modernized and made to serve the cultural process. One ought to be pale with terror at the Mass.”

It is interesting how the use of the world “awful” itself has been profaned in modern times. Our contemporary words, awful and awesome, originally meant "worthy of respect or fear, striking with awe; causing dread." How different that is from this slice of pizza being awful, or awesome!

One of the great advantages of a ritual, participated in with full awareness, is that it allows a transpersonal container – a temenos – for the shadow aspects that will be too much for cultural cohesiveness, if enacted in daily life.

Our deep shadow elements have archetypal cores

There is an important fact that is often lost in the facile reading of what I have come to call “Jung lite.” Many of our deepest shadow identities – e.g., the Murderer, the Prostitute, the Dark Devouring Mother – are in fact archetypal images. Archetypes, if we remember, live in the Collective Unconscious, much deeper in our psyche than the Personal Unconscious. They belong not to us personally, but to the entire humankind.

Archetypes represent powerful, primordial instincts or “prototypes” of ways of being, that are then translated into archetypal images. It is important to remember that archetypes are not images - images stem from an underlying, eventually undefinable prototype of experience. An archetypal image may change with time and culture, but the underlying archetype stays rooted in the very depths of our psyche.

Another essential feature of an archetype is that it is always bipolar. If the smothering, devouring Mother is one pole, then the all-nurturing, all-absorbing Mother is the other. And if we really work deeply with any archetype, we eventually experience both its polarities. And therein lies its potential to balance (and thus “heal”) the psyche.

But this brings us to an important fact - one that we can ignore only at our peril. I will reiterate here. Archetypes are extremely powerful, potent, archaic instincts that we can never “integrate,” or assimilate into our conscious self-identity. These “instincts” of the psyche are so potent, that if we try to “integrate” or “embody” them in our day-to-day life, we risk what has been called “inflation.” In other words, our conscious Ego personality is then so completely overwhelmed by these powerful, “awful” images, that we dissociate and fragment. We go mad! Robert Johnson describes this situation as trying to run 10,000 Volts on circuits designed to carry 110 Volts!

To encounter these deep archetypal images, then, we need a “transpersonal container.” This is what makes rituals so powerful. A ritual provides an outer (physical) as well as an inner (psychological) space that is clearly demarcated from our daily life. Within this container, this temenos, we can “encounter,” and even briefly embody, the archetypal affects and images.

For a ritual to effectively allow us to become conscious of our Shadow without being overwhelmed by it, it is absolutely necessary for the participant to have a felt access to the transpersonal realm.

In olden days, this transpersonal realm belonged to God, or the gods.

The ancient Hebrew ritual of the scapegoat

We often talk about “scapegoating” someone, or someone being the family’s scapegoat, but few of us know that the word comes from an ancient ritual of the Hebraic people.

The original ritual of the scapegoat happened once a year on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. Two goats were selected for the ritual. One was sacrificed (“made sacred”) to Yahweh. Its blood was then used to ritually purify certain powerful ceremonial objects. The other goat (the one “not chosen”) was then ritually designated as the carrier of the community’s sins for the entire year. After being laden with the community’s sins, it was cast out – scapegoated – into the desert (outside the communal boundaries). By carrying the sins of the community outside its boundaries, this goat ritually cleansed the community of its sins... until the next year.

It was understood that the goat would perish shortly afterwards – either due to exposure to the elements, lack of water in the desert, or to predators lurking outside the communal boundaries.

What was interesting, though, was that the realm outside the communal boundaries was also seen and experienced as a transpersonal realm – the realm of Azazel. According to the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text, Azazel was a fallen angel — one of the leaders of the rebellious Watchers in the time preceding the Flood. He taught men the art of warfare, of making swords, knives, shields, and coats of mail; and taught women the art of ornamenting their bodies, dyeing hair, and painting their faces and their eyebrows. He is also said to have revealed to the people the secrets of witchcraft.

Thus, the scapegoat carried the sins of the people – the Cultural Shadow – into a transpersonal realm – the realm of the deity Azazel. Etymologically, the name Azazel is composed of azaz (meaning “rugged”) and el (meaning “of God”). In other words, Azazel was the keeper or the manifestation of the Shadow of Yahweh, and thus, the appropriate recipient of the excluded “Other” – the Scapegoat.

How, then, do we sanctify our scapegoat – our shadow – in our time and place?

Unfortunately, most of us are not lucky enough to viscerally believe in an Azazel who will receive our offering of the scapegoat. How then do we relate to our Shadow elements that are just too potent to integrate in our all-so-human personality?

In the absence of communal gods with whom we have a viscerally felt connection, we now have the task to define, for ourselves, a sense of the Sacred that lives beyond our conscious personality (out in the desert, beyond our conscious boundaries). We do not need to be religious, but we do need a container, an image – for that which is bigger than our individual selves. Once again, this sense of the Sacred cannot be just theoretical, but it has to be felt - in our guts! In other words, it has to have numinosity. Numinous is a word derived from Latin “numen,” meaning an image or a symbol that has the power, presence, and/or realization of the divine. For an image to be numinous, it has to provoke a “mysterium tremendum” (a sense of mystery that has the power to cause fear and trembling), and a quality of “fascinans” (the ability to attract, fascinate and compel).

What is this numinous transpersonal image for us – the “modern” human?

For some, it is still God. For others, it could be the psychological Self – the center and the totality of our psyche that encompasses a much larger range of experience that just our Ego identity. For others, it could be the Earth or the Cosmos. It could also be a particular piece of music, art or philosophy. It could be a “therapeutic temenos” held by a therapist, a mentor, or a counselor. It could be a modern image - such as Yoda or Galadriel, or Professor Dumbledore. As the psychologist Matt Licata says in a recent blog post, it could even be “a reindeer who has come from the moon!”

In the end, the specifics of the container does not matter. What matters is that it be able to serve as an alchemical vessel, a vas, during our encounter with the Shadow. It needs to be strong enough – in a felt sense - such that it will not shatter when the 10,000 Volts of archetypal energy flows through it!

Finally, a word of caution

As we discussed above, it is imperative that before we do any serious shadow-work, we must first find, and build a trusting relationship with, this ritual container – this “divine container” – in whatever way we understand (“feel”) the Divine to be.

In alchemy, there is a saying, “festina lente,” which means "hasten slowly." This is sage advice for anyone seeking to do deep shadow-work. One needs to ensure that one has a safe container to do the work, and then to proceed slowly, increasing the temperature in the vas only a bit at a time - so we can “cook” our soul instead of burning it to a crisp! In fact, this work is best done within a relational field - where another soul can watch over ours, while we are being fragmented and put back together.

So, here is the message once again. In any serious inner work, our first order of business is to be gentle with our soul. We cannot beat it over the head to “integrate” its shadow in a weekend workshop! The psyche has its own timeline, and it is wise to respect that. In fact, any attempt by the Ego to fast-forward Soul Time is a hubris that could literally kill us - at least psychologically and spiritually, if not physically.


Jungian Analytic Psychology: a spirituality for the psychologically minded


Jungian Analytic Psychology: a spirituality for the psychologically minded

Carl Jung and his concept of individuation

“Grapes want to turn into wine.” – Rumi

The line above could very well have been uttered by the Swiss psychiatrist and the father of analytical psychology, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). Jung believed that the basic tendency of the human soul (or psyche) is towards wholeness. This wholeness, or individuation, is understood as an increased integration of our so-called “good” qualities (i.e., the aspects that our ego identifies as “I”), with the dark or “bad” parts (the shadow; which the ego says are “not I”). Whatever shadow elements are still unintegrated in our psyche (i.e., not accepted as part of “I”) will have to be projected outside on other individuals, institutions and cultures. In Jungian understanding, this disowning and outward projection of parts that truly belong to us is what causes neurosis (“neuro”: to do with nerves; “osis”: abnormal condition). Thus, the goal of Jungian analytic psychology is an increased capacity to accept and integrate formerly disavowed parts of ourselves, and thereby to heal our neurosis and become individuated (i.e., undivided).

Self: our "God within"

Jung defined this larger container that includes both our light and our shadow as the Self, which can be understood as the “God within.” Based on his extensive research on a variety of religious traditions including Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Gnosticism and indigenous/animistic traditions, Jung was convinced that what he defined scientifically as the “drive toward individuation” was the same drive that mystics in all these traditions have described as the search for the divine, which in turn, is a journey to the center of our souls. In fact, it is Jung’s belief in the essential need for a spiritual quest as the only means to truly transcend suffering that lies at the root of the twelve-step philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous, and all its following derivations.

Ideas of consciousness, the personal and collective unconscious, shadow and anima/animus

Jung’s concept of individuation can be more generally defined as psyche’s tendency to bring together pairs of opposites, and to hold them in dialectic tension (they both exist; neither is lost or “cured”). Whereas above I have described these opposites as light and shadow, they can be conceived of, just as well, as conscious and unconscious, or masculine and feminine. Typically, what we are conscious of is what is “ego-syntonic” (i.e., our ego is comfortable with identifying as “I”). The unconscious, in this scheme of understanding, can be divided into the “personal unconscious” (memories or tendencies that have been suppressed or repressed, because our ego cannot yet accept them as part of who we are), and the “collective unconscious,” which is a substratum of unconscious energies or drives (or “instincts”) that we all share as our common heritage of being human. Jung called these instinctual patterns that live in our collective unconscious as archetypes. Although their specific form may be culturally colored, we all share the same essential archetypes – some of the common ones being the hero, the mother, the wise man or woman, the trickster, the child etc. In this sense, both the Self and the Shadow, as described above, are archetypes of the collective unconscious; so are the basic imprint of our opposite gender in the form of anima (for men) and animus (for women).

Jung believed that the best way for us to access the various archetypes – for the purposes of integrating aspects of them into our concept of Self – is by means of studying their projections in daily life, but more potently, in world religion, mythology and folk tales, as well as in our individual dreams and fantasies.

Gods as archetypes

In order to understand Jungian spirituality, one approach would be to nominally equate the theological construct of “gods,” to the archetypes of collective unconscious. For example, in this scheme, Yahweh may be considered to be a representation of the Father archetype, and Durga would be a representation of the Mother archetype. For a cultural coloring on the archetypes, one may consider Mary, Durga, Kali, Kwan Yin and Gaia, as all archetypes of the Great Mother. Similarly, the Greek god, Hermes, as well as the animal, coyote, embody the Trickster archetype.

"Numinosity" as a quality of archetypes

In Jungian understanding, a spiritually potent archetype has “numinosity.” Numinosity is a complex word, whose definition varies substantially depending on usage. Derived from the Latin word “numen,” it means an image or symbol that has the power/presence/realization of divinity. In addition, Jung believed, like his contemporary, Rudolf Otto, that a numinous experience invokes a “mysterium tremendum” (i.e., a tendency to invoke fear and trembling), and a quality of “fascinans” (i.e., the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel).

Thus, in Jungian analysis, the spiritual journey involves engaging with numinous archetypal images and working to integrate them into our sense of Self (i.e., our conception of the divinity within). The numinous archetypes may arise spontaneously in night dreams or fantasies (which may be facilitated by active imagination, lucid dreaming, shamanic journeys, spiritual practices typically involving repetitive and rhythmic movements such as whirling, drumming, “daven”-ing etc.), or may be drawn from religious or mythological stories and symbols.

What does "integration" of an archetype really mean?

It is important, however, to understand the idea of “integration” of these extremely potent numinous archetypes in a nuanced way. An archetype is an ultimately “unknowable” energy or instinctual pattern, which is met by our psyche in the form of symbols or images. Thus, for example, a complete merging with the archetype of Kali or Christ will cause an “inflation;” which is a “possessed,” psychotic state. In fact, such possession by archetypal energies is also often seen as a result of moving “too far, too fast” on certain religious paths such as Tantra or shamanism. The goal of Jungian spiritual journey is, for the lack of a better word, an integration of a paradox – “it and its opposite.” For example, if I can identify with Kali but also simultaneously with Kwan Yin, i.e., the feminine maternal energy both in her creative and destructive forms, I am less likely to become one-sided and thus destructive to myself or others. Another way that Jung and the later Jungians have understood integrating the numinous is to use yet another definition of the numinous as the “wholly other” (i.e., an image or symbol with whom one may relate, and as our work deepens, the “angle of relating” may change; but we never completely become one with that symbol). In this sense, the very process of a spiritual journey, that necessarily involves an engagement with the numinous, is a work that requires and depends upon our ability to hold a paradox – to embody completely the numinous energy by integrating it into the Self, while simultaneously relating to it as the “wholly other” (which Martin Buber famously described as the “I-Thou relationship”). We do neither one – solely; we do both. And that is the koan that Jungian spirituality leaves us with.

Image details: Carl Jung understood a mandala as a visual symbol for the Self. A mandala is a circle with no beginning and no end, but one that can nevertheless provide a container for all its constituent elements, which can be held within it in a I-thou dialectic. Jung encountered mandalas in many religious traditions, as well as in the artwork that he and many of his clients produced, as they moved ahead in their healing journeys. The above (computer-generated) mandala holds in dynamic tension pairs of symbols. Specifically, there are a total of four, or multiples of four, of each symbol, which invokes Jung’s powerful concept of the Quaternity as a symbol of completion. Jung understood the most powerful mandalas as representing “the squaring of a circle” (i.e., holding within a circle the most stable organization of pairs of opposites).


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