STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: JUNG & NEOPLATONISM
by Robin Robertson
Why in the world should we, living in these difficult late days of the 20th century, care about Neoplatonism? What could we possibly find that was numinous in a doctrine which flourished in the 2nd through the 5th centuries and died entirely by the 6th century? And what does Neoplatonism have to do with Jung?
Jung has very little to say about Neoplatonism, especially in comparison with his extensive discussions of Gnosticism and alchemy. Jung saw his work somewhat prefigured in the Gnostics of the 1st and 2nd century, but more in the alchemists of the middle ages. And, though Jung mentions Neoplatonism enough times in the Collected Works to make it clear he is familiar with its ideas, nowhere does he discuss it as a prefiguration of his work.
So I can't give a straightforward answer to my own question, at least not just yet. In order to understand the importance of Neoplatonism, first we have to understand what Jung found so important in Gnosticism. And that means that we have to go back to the time in Jung's life when he broke with Freud.
JUNG'S STRUGGLE WITH THE UNCONSCIOUS
As you'll recall, this was a very difficult period for Jung. He had looked up to Freud as a father figure who could provide answers about the nature of the unconscious Jung was encountering with his patients. When Jung's own discoveries conflicted with Freud's theories, he hoped Freud would adapt his theories. That wasn't to be.
Now on his own, Jung was forced to rely exclusively on his own observations of the psyche. For the first time, he began to look at his patients' dreams without any preconceptions about their meaning. At the same time, he began an exploration of his own unconscious processes. In doing so, he tried to deal directly with what he encountered, without the protection of Freudian dogma to categorize his experience. In his spiritual autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he remembers what it was like for him in those days:
After the parting of the ways with Freud, a period of inner uncertainty began for me. It would be no exaggeration to call it a state of disorientation …I avoided all theoretical points of view and simply helped the patients to understand the dream-images by themselves, without application of rules and theories. Soon I realized that it was right to take the dreams in this way as the basis of interpretation, for that is how dreams are intended.(1)
A few pages later, he adds this:
I lived as if under constant pressure. At times this became so strong that I suspected there was some psychic disturbance in myself. Therefore, I twice went over all the details of my entire life, with particular attention to childhood memories; for I thought there might be something in my past which I could not see and which might possibly be a cause for this disturbance. But this retrospection led to nothing but a fresh acknowledgment of my ignorance. Thereupon I said to myself, "Since I know nothing at all, I shall simply do whatever occurs to me." Thus I consciously submitted to the impulses of the unconscious.(2)
In order to keep some stability in his life during this period, he kept regular office hours with patients, and spent a normal amount of time with his wife and children. When the energy from the unconscious grew too overpowering, he would do Yoga exercises, which helped somewhat in containing the energy. The rest of the time, he wandered alone in the alien terrain of the unconscious. Here's how he described his feelings in encountering the unconscious:
An incessant stream of fantasies had been released, and I did my best not to lose my head but to find some way to understand these strange things. I stood helpless before an alien world…I was living in a state of constant tension; often I felt as if gigantic blocks of stone were tumbling down upon me. One thunderstorm followed another. My enduring these storms was a question of brute strength…To the extent that I managed to translate the emotions into images--that is to say, to find the images which were concealed in the emotions--I was inwardly calmed and reassured. Had I left those images hidden in the emotions, I might have been torn to pieces by them…as a result of my experiment I learned how helpful it can be, from the therapeutic point of view, to find the particular images which lie behind the emotions.(3).
From 1913 to 1917, Jung lived in this symbolic world. As time passed, and he weathered the storms that raged within him, he gradually developed a psychic center where it was always calm, even during the storms. Finally, "the stream of fantasies ebbed away",(4) and he took stock of what he had discovered about the bizarre region he had been surveying.
Opinions have varied as to whether this period marked a true psychotic break in Jung's life. In his important recent book, The Ego and the Dynamic Ground, philosopher Michael Washburn differentiates psychotic episodes from what he terms "Regression in the Service of Transcendence" (RIST).(5) Washburn argues that in the spiritual journey a point is reached when the ego must be transcended and, paradoxically enough, that can only happen by regressing to an pre-ego state of mind. There are four stages to this process: (1) Withdrawal from the World; (2) Encounter with the Personal Unconscious (which for Washburn eventually activates the instinctual/archetypal unconscious as well; (3) Regeneration in Spirit; and (4) Integration. The key element for Washburn is that this is a process of health, not disease. And clearly Jung's "dark night of the soul" included a forced withdrawal from the world, a deep encounter with the unconscious, and eventually a regeneration of spirit. The results of this time were integrated slowly within Jung over the remainder of his life.
GNOSTICISM AS ANALYTIC PSYCHOLOGY'S PRECURSOR
Jung realized that his conclusions about the nature of the psyche would likely be regarded as outlandish by other psychologists, even by the small number of psychoanalysts who acknowledged that there was such a thing as an unconscious mind. He needed some support for his discoveries and turned to history for that support.
Jung also discusses this problem in Memories, Dreams, Reflections:
I had to find evidence for the historical prefiguration of my inner experiences. That is to say, I had to ask myself, "Where have my particular premises already occurred in history?" If I had not succeeded in finding such evidence, I would never have been able to substantiate my ideas . . .
…Between 1918 and 1926 I had seriously studied the Gnostic writers, for they too had been confronted with the primal world of the unconscious and had dealt with its contents, with images that were obviously contaminated with the world of instinct. Just how they understood these images remains difficult to say, in view of the paucity of the accounts--which, moreover, mostly stem from their opponents, the Church Fathers. It seems to me highly unlikely that they had a psychological conception of them.(6).
Just who were these Gnostics in whose lives and beliefs Jung found prefigurations for his ideas? In fact there was no single group or single set of ideas which could be termed Gnostic. The Gnostics were composed of Christians of the 1st and 2nd century A.D., with widely divergent beliefs. However, their Christianity itself is enough to separate them from the Neoplatonists, who were largely "pagan" and who reacted strongly against many of the tenets of Christianity. Today we discuss Gnostics as a group largely because of their common opposition to the form of Christianity that won out during this period and went on to become the major force of the Western World.
However, if there was a single unifying belief shared by the Gnostics, it was a belief in "Gnosis"; i.e., a belief that religious truth could be directly perceived by the individual. In other words, you and I could be like Christ. In contrast, traditional Christianity stressed the separation between Christ and man, just as Judaism has stressed the separation of Jehovah and man. Mainstream Christianity taught that Christ had been fully God, but had allowed himself to be born a man, in order to unite God and man within himself. Only in this way could he suffer and die as a man, and thus atone for the original sin of pride committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
By his sacrifice, Christ provided the possibility of redemption for sinful humanity. We could best follow Christ's example by living a life in accordance with the ethical teachings he left us; which were summed up in the Golden Rule: "love thy neighbor as thyself." The Gnostics, on the other hand, believed that we could best follow Christ's example not only by living ethically, but by trying like Christ to experience God within ourselves. The Gnostic ideal was for direct religious experience, mystical experience. We, too, could experience the numinous!
Thus Gnostics--and I stress that they were many and varied in their beliefs--were involved in an exploration of the unconscious forces of their own psyches (though it is doubtful they were aware of the psychological implications of their exploration.)
In his own exploration of the unconscious, Jung had found that the energies of the collective unconscious were so powerful that his emotions were in danger of overwhelming him. He had to convert these unconscious energies into images in order to survive. Because the Gnostics were investigating the same territory, they also found it necessary to convert the primordial energy they encountered into images.
As a consequence, the Gnostic teachings were largely symbolic. They presented mythological stories of creation, loss and redemption, which stood in opposition to the traditional biblical stories that dealt with the same topics. Unlike Jung, they didn't yet understand the symbolic nature of their stories and treated them as literal. This is still the most common danger for anyone who ventures into the collective unconscious.
THE DISPARAGEMENT OF THE BODY
In general, Christianity exalted the spirit and reviled the body. Because of their goal of direct spiritual experience, this tendency was even more pronounced among Gnostics. They postulated a highest god--Abraxas--who was above all dualities and could be discussed only in terms of what he was not. Below Abraxas was an inferior god who created the world. The world he created was not only inferior, but actually evil. It was our duty to recognize that our true home was the spirit and separate ourselves from its inferior vessel: the body. So there was a thorough-going disparagement of the world and the body in Gnosticism.
Perhaps I could pause here to say a few words about this trap, for it's a trap that catches nearly all of us who engage in a spiritual journey at one time or another. As with so many other of his brilliant discoveries, Jung saw deeper than others here, too. He continually stressed that the archetypes, which were the building blocks of the collective unconscious, had two equal and opposite aspects:
(1) as primordial images (his original term for archetypes); and
(2) as instinctual behaviors.
This two-headed identity of the archetypes is nothing mysterious; it's just an acknowledgment that the essentially formless archetypes have to be channeled through the human mind and body. There's really only two ways we are capable of channeling these most basic of all psychic structures:
(1) inside our minds, in order to structure our perception of the world; (and it's important to realize that these inner images don't have to be visual; they can be auditory, kinesthetic, etc.); or
(2) outside, in the world, as behavior toward the people and things we encounter in the world.
We experience the world and we act in the world. Archetypes are structures, but essentially formless structures until they take form in our lives as images or behaviors.
In consequence of our very humanity, spirit and instinct are joined within us. Unfortunately, most spiritual traditions, including the Gnostics, try to exalt the spirit at the expense of the instincts. Jung was wise enough to realize that instinct and spirit are two aspects of a single thing; as such, both have to be acknowledged and reconciled. It is no more possible to separate spirit from instinct than to lift ourselves off the ground by grabbing the seat of our own pants.
Unlike so many others in both spiritual and psychological traditions, Jung didn't regard the separation of mind and body, spirit and instinct, as a tragic flaw. He regarded this seeming duality as instead an organic unity. Just as a tree needs both deep roots in the earth and leafy branches stretching toward the sky, we need both instincts to root us in the basic facts of our animal nature and spirituality to remind us of the numinous possibilities alive at every moment in the world around us. Both are integral parts of our essential humanity.
Jung stands nearly alone in this attitude. The three great modern religions (Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam) all preach in one way or another that the body is evil; the wants and needs of the body must be sacrificed in order to properly honor the spirit. (In contrast, the older religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Shintoism, etc., are more tolerant of the body.) Most esoteric spiritual and occult traditions have the same split. Most seem to think that the body can and should be transcended.
Freud's great achievement was in pointing out that it is impossible to ignore our instinctual nature without doing damage to our psyches. Freud saw all energy as basically sexual; i.e., instinctual. In Freud's view, the basis of civilization lies in mankind's ability to put curbs on that instinctual energy. But doing so causes a conflict within each of us, a conflict which has no real solution within Freud's framework.
The best we can do is develop healthy defenses against this animal side of our nature, with the healthiest such defense probably sublimation; i.e., the channeling of "lower" energy into "higher" forms. But all we are really doing is providing an outlet for instinctual energy so that we don't reach a breaking point; we have in no way reconciled the two opposing sides of our personalities.
Similarly, in recent days, Ken Wilbur, who is transpersonal psychology's most eloquent spokesman, has called Jung's linkage of spirit and instinct the "Pre-Trans-Fallacy." Here Wilbur is expressing the conventional wisdom of the esoteric spiritual tradition which believe that there is a lower part of our nature (i.e., the subconscious) which needs to be transcended in order to reach a higher (i.e., the superconscious.)
This is a critical problem, one which we will have to return to later. It's certainly a problem which neither traditional Christianity nor the Gnostics solved successfully. Though the Neoplatonists also didn't fully solve this problem, we'll see later that they came closer to a solution than anyone before, or after, until Jung.
THE PARADOXICAL NATURE OF THE PSYCHE
We've seen that Jung felt isolated in his view of the psyche (in fact in his view of the entire world, since Jung almost alone among modern thinkers saw the world without and the world within meeting in the conscious awareness of the individual.) He knew the dangers involved when the human mind tries to examine itself. When the mind thinks about the mind, we become involved in a vicious circle, a self-referential loop which can lead to paradoxical conclusions.
Because he was involved in just such an examination, Jung discovered many paradoxes inherent in the psyche: e.g., that we contained an instinctual drive (hence part of our supposedly lower nature) to fulfil our spiritual destiny (hence part of our higher nature). He described that drive alternately as "individuation" (in terms of its importance for individual development) and as the "transcendent function", (with its emphasis on a need for a wholeness which transcends individuality.) That's quite a paradox.
As if that wasn't enough, he found that each of us contains an unconscious complement to our conscious personality, which he termed the Shadow because, like a physical shadow, it appears when a person is seen in too great a light. The Shadow seems to represent everything we regard as vile and despicable, everything which we deny and avoid. So a desire for too much light, too much spirituality, creates darkness, or instinctuality. Again a paradox.
Balanced between the extremes of our conscious personality and this unconscious complement, between the Ego and the Shadow, lies a personality of total wholeness, as close as each of us can come to divinity, which Jung termed the Self (with a capital "S" to differentiate it from the commonplace use of the term). This Self is not only the center between extremes, it appears to also be both the goal of individuation, and the self-regulatory process by which we attain that goal; i.e., the transcendent function. So higher and lower, process and goal, conscious and unconscious, are all united within us.
That's paradox enough for anyone to consider and exactly the kind of thing that made Jung wonder if perhaps he was just a madman projecting his fantasies out onto the world. If he wasn't, he knew that others had to have visited this same territory before and he should be able to find evidence of their search. That's why the Gnostics were so important to Jung. Their mythologies, which were condemned as crazy heresies by the established church, were obviously symbolic representations of the same paradoxes which Jung had encountered.
His discovery of the Gnostic mythologies proved to Jung that he wasn't crazy; the world was really as exotic as he had found it to be. However, as we've seen, the Gnostics couldn't reconcile the paradoxical nature of reality and instead condemned the world, the body, our instinctual nature as evil. Now, if Jung is right, and the higher and the lower are really a single entity, it should be impossible to cut off the lower and still find the higher.
Just as an illustration, imagine a piece of rope held vertically. Let's cut off that inferior lower end of it. The rope that remains still has both an upper end and a lower end. No matter how many times we cut it, the rope still has two ends. However, if we cut it too many times, there's almost no rope left. That's the circumstance in which we find ourselves if we condemn our instinctual nature and simply try to cut it off from our lives. It doesn't go away; it can't. Instead we find ourselves becoming smaller and smaller people, until there's not enough left of us to accomplish anything worthwhile in our lives. And that's sad.
PLOTINUS AND THE FOUNDING OF NEOPLATONISM
Having discussed the importance of Gnosticism as a precursor to Jungian psychology, and the limits of Gnosticism, with its condemnation of the body and instinct, it is finally time to discuss Neoplatonism itself. As the name implies, Neoplatonism was a new formulation of the philosophy of Plato. However, Neoplatonist philosophers did not consider that they were saying anything new; they felt that they were just developing ideas which were already in Plato, either explicitly or implicitly. In fact, they didn't see any dramatic split between the ideas of Plato, with his world of ideal forms, and Aristotle, with his emphasis on the actual forms we encounter in nature, which we do today. To the Neoplatonists, both Plato and Aristotle were talking about the same thing. It is in the Neoplatonist's ability to see a unity, where perhaps there was none, that their greatness lies.
I would imagine that it is because the Neoplatonists were philosophers, not latent psychologists, that Jung did not regard them as precursors of his own work. Gnostics and alchemists spoke in symbols, Neoplatonists in rational ideas. But different routes often arrive at the same destination.
Because the Neoplatonists were pagan, they never disparaged the body to the same extent as the Christians: both traditional and Gnostic. Though they believed in the traditional Platonic goal of reason leading to the ideal, they did not condemn matter and the body out of hand, like the Christians. Instead, in trying to reconcile body and spirit, they found themselves involved in a paradox which they struggled over three hundred years to resolve.
Let me give you a very brief history of Neoplatonism. Plotinus, who lived in the 3rd century, A.D. is generally regarded as the founder of Neoplatonism. He was born in Egypt, traveled widely in Syria and Persia, and settled in Rome. He was the first clear expositor of the central theme of Neoplatonism, which I'm calling "The Stairway to Heaven" in this speech.
In brief, this is the idea that there is a single undifferentiated, divine One, and everything else in existence can about as an "emanation" from this One. We can substitute the word God for the One, as long as we don't attribute any anthropomorphic qualities to God. It's harder to find a word that fully captures what they meant by "emanate." They don't mean create in the normal sense of most creation myths. The emanations are not separate from the One; they partake of the One. They may be diffuse, but they are still a part of the One. Radiate is a close parallel, as in the sun radiates light.
There is a hierarchy of emanations, or levels, that lead down from the divine to the mundane. (The Gnostics had a very similar concept in their mythologies.) The first level of emanations is Nous or Supreme Intelligence. This is the level of Plato's divine forms, and Jung's archetypes. The second level is that of the World Soul. The last level is the world itself. It's up to man, by the exercise of philosophy, to recognize the existence of these higher levels and gradually rise up them until he is able to rejoin with the One.
In this early days of Neoplatonism, there was a disparagement of the lowest level--the World itself--that was almost as extreme as the Gnostics. However, there was already a recognition that the world is holographic; i.e., each emanation, since it comes from the One and partakes of the One, must in some way also contain the One. Therefore, the instincts can't be totally evil, since somehow they must also contain the divine. This is the key recognition by the Neoplatonists that brings them closer to Jung than the Gnostics or the alchemists.
However, this holographic view wasn't really stressed by Plotinus. His emphasis was on rising up the ladder toward the divine.
IAMBLICHUS AND THE DEVELOPMENT OF NEOPLATONISM
The next great Neoplatonic thinker was the Syrian Iamblichus, who was born the same year Plotinus died. He vastly elaborated Plotinus' concept of the three-way Stairway to Heaven, in large part drawing on the Pythagorean idea of the divinity of number. Iamblichus divided the level of Supreme Intelligence into two separate triads. The level of World Soul was divided into another triad. Each such division had categories and sub-categories galore.
While this elaborate system is fascinating in itself, I'm less concerned with the details of the system than I am with the central contribution of Iamblichus: each of these categories was assigned a god or goddess who personified the characteristics associated with that category. These hundreds of divinities interceded in the life of mankind and the world and could be addressed through prayers and offerings.
This led to the second great concept of Neoplatonism: the practice of theurgy (from the Greek theos or god, and ergon or work; thus the god work). This was the ritual enactment of episodes in the life of a god in order to join with that god.
This might seem like a reversion to a more primitive belief system, but it also brings Neoplatonism closer to the world of the psyche as pictured by Jung. Under Plotinus, we had an essentially intellectual philosophical system, which had little room for the day-to-day concerns of ordinary men and women. The task of the philosopher was to recognize the transitory nature of physical reality in order to peer beneath the veil at the mystery that lay underneath. That's quite marvelous, and half of the story, but only half.
With Iamblichus' addition of the gods who represented each category of emanation, a more human system began to emerge which recognized that men and women need more than intellectual solutions to the paradoxes of life.
PROCLUS AND THE CULMINATION OF NEOPLATONISM
The high-point of Neoplatonism was reached in Athens in the late 5th century by the man I consider Neoplatonism's greatest philosopher: Proclus. Proclus was born in Constantinople, studied in both Alexandria and Athens, and was the head of the Neoplatonic School of Athens until his death.
In order to get a feeling for the importance of Proclus, we might think of him as being to Neoplatonism what Bach was to Baroque music. In neither case, would we emphasize revolutionary creativity, though both were creative geniuses of a very high order. In both cases, an entire tradition reached its peak and found full expression in their work. Bach encapsulated Baroque music so perfectly that, after Bach, there was really no need for any further development of Baroque music. The way was prepared for "Classical" music.
Similarly, Proclus brought together all the disparate threads of Neoplatonic thought, not only in his philosophy, but in his life. Proclus lived his philosophy, as Bach lived his music, and as Jung lived his psychology. There was a wholeness, a balance to Proclus' version of Neoplatonism that was lacking in its earlier proponents and which was never again recaptured in its later adherents. In his attempt to bring all of Neoplatonism together into a single system of both thought and life, Proclus was brilliant enough to separate out two central ideas.
(1) The Stairway of Heaven which leads from God down to man, and back up again, is holographic at every level; i.e., even if the world of men and women is inferior to God and his world, we each contain that world in some part within us. At the lowest level of instinctual nature, we are still capable of experiencing divinity; all nature is holy.
This is an amazingly modern concept. I don't know of a truly clear presentation of it until the twentieth century, when religious historian Mircea Eliade discussed his concept of the Sacred and the Profane. Eliade said that "by manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself." In other words, everything is both sacred and profane. Something becomes sacred, numinous, when we see it as numinous. It is the sacred inside us which is able to experience the sacred in something outside us. This recognition lead Proclus to the second great Neoplatonic idea.
(2) The practice of theurgy is above all human wisdom. Proclus saw the world as filled with divinity. By that, he did not mean just some ambiguous life force which permeated everything; he meant that there were clearly defined gods who, in total, represented every aspect of both the Sacred and the Profane. By interacting with those divinities in an appropriate ritual manner, man could awaken similar qualities within himself and gradually advance up the Stairway toward the One.
Again this is an amazingly modern idea, not a reversion to a primitive belief system. Jung was to echo similar thoughts when he said that the gods have become diseases. By that he meant that, since we have denied the more-than-human forces of the psyche which we previously regarded as gods, the gods express themselves in the only way possible to them: through highly specific diseases of our bodies and souls.
Primitive man populated the world with gods and goddesses who personified the different aspects of reality. Modern psychologists have come to understand that the gods were actually aspects of our own psyches which we projected out onto the world. However, Jung saw deeper; he insisted that our awareness of the psychological origin of the gods in no way invalidates their more-than-human numinosity. We are still better off regarding them as gods than in thinking that we can dismiss them as intellectual constructs.
Living fifteen hundred years ago, Proclus did not, of course, have the psychological acumen of a Jung. However, he did understand that the gods are not only outside us, but also live within us. By constructing rituals to interact with the gods as they present themselves in the world, we can access the corresponding godlike parts of our own deepest personalities. This is a far more sophisticated concept than that held by primitive man, who conducted ceremonies to propitiate or honor the gods. It is also far more sophisticated than that held by modern man, who dismisses the gods as merely intellectual creations.
THE IMPORTANCE OF NEOPLATONISM IN OUR OWN LIVES
There is very little more that needs to be said at that point, except to try and bring some of this down to earth, and discuss what it means in our individual lives, and how we can use this knowledge to aid us in our own journeys of individuation.
First, the concept that there are definable levels between the sacred and the profane is important. Individuation is a long, difficult journey that takes a lifetime (or more) to complete. It's very easy to lose our bearings along the way. It makes an immeasurable difference if, when things get tough, we are able to identify where we are on the journey. It helps to recognize that perhaps we are having a difficult time in our lives because we have reached a stage that is difficult for everyone.
Jungian psychology provides us with at least two useful models of those levels or stages of development:
(1) The model of the archetypes of development: the Shadow, the Anima/Animus, and the Self; and
(2) The model of the alchemical coniunctios: the union within the mind, the union of mind and body, and the union with the totality of the world.
When we recognize that what we're experiencing is a Shadow problem, or a characteristic encounter with the Anima or Animus, we feel less lonely and isolated. There's a reason why we're struggling. Our suffering acquires a meaning that gives it dignity.
Another useful model I have drawn on frequently in my own life is the Hero's Journey as presented by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Many a time, I have been able to recognize difficulties associated with "crossing the boundary", confronting the "guardians of the gate", etc. That recognition made my situation less frightening and more meaningful.
Neoplatonism originated that concept of a progressive, evolutionary path, which now permeates our thinking. However, Neoplatonism had a second element which is missing in the modern concept of progress, with its insistence on higher and farther, better and richer. This is the holographic concept that at each step of the journey, we have the potential to experience the One that is the goal of the journey.
Anyone who has ever played "Snakes and Ladders" (or any of the modern computer arcade versions such as "Donkey Kong") is familiar with this phenomenon. If you land on the right square in "Snakes and Ladders," you can climb directly up a ladder to a higher level. But step on the wrong square and you can ride a snake all the way back to the beginning.
Similarly, in our path of individuation, we are capable at any moment of experiencing enlightenment, a "satori" as it is termed in Zen, an "epiphany" to James Joyce. At any time, we can see the sacred in the profane because everything in our lives is pregnant with meaning if we would only see it. Again, we owe that recognition to Neoplatonism.
Finally, Proclus insisted that we need theurgy to mediate between the material and the spiritual. Jungian psychology warns equally against the inflation that follows trying to swallow an archetype, and the depression that follows the archetype swallowing us. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to proceed along the path of development without experiencing both inflation and depression. We have to encounter the gods in order to assimilate their human possibilities into our personality.
It would be nice if life wasn't so difficult. It would have been easier if Adam and Eve could have stayed in Eden, yet mankind could still have progressed along the path of consciousness that would lead eventually to Christ. But that's not possible; there's a price to pay for consciousness. What is possible is to structure the encounters with the gods so that we are protected from their more-than-human energy.
Jung warned of the dangers for Westerners of taking the Eastern paths which deny both the physical world and the products of the unconscious as illusionary. Something denied doesn't go away; it builds up in the unconscious, sometimes to lethal proportions. Jung instead recommended working with dreams and Active Imagination.
In my experience, the former is a perfect example of theurgy. The unconscious presents the gods (i.e., the archetypes) to us in symbolic dramas unique to each of us. Jung insisted that a self-regulatory process protects us in our work with dreams. After working with over 8,000 of my own dreams over the last decade, I've got experiential evidence that Jung is right. When I'm not ready to deal with the implications of a dream in my life, I can't understand it no matter how much I try. When I'm ready, the understanding is there. But, regardless of my level of understanding, the actual process of engaging with the dreams accelerates the process of my own growth. So dream work is a wonderful method of practicing theurgy.
Here's how Jung described his second method: Active Imagination:
…Take the unconscious in one of its handiest forms, say a spontaneous fantasy, a dream, an irrational mood, an affect, or something of the kind, and operate with it. Give it your special attention, concentrate on it, and observe its alterations objectively. Spare no effort to devote yourself to this task, follow the subsequent transformations of the spontaneous fantasy attentively and carefully. Above all, don't let anything from outside, that does not belong, get into it, for the fantasy-image has "everything it needs." In this way, one is certain of not interfering by conscious caprice and of giving the unconscious a free hand.(7)
In my experience, Active Imagination is nowhere near so safe or infallible a process as dream work. When we "give the unconscious a free hand," as Jung suggests, the unconscious doesn't always provide us with honest answers. Like many other methods of encountering the unconscious, Active Imagination can be deceptive. Mercurius frequently plays games with us, and it takes a great deal of experience to separate truth from falsity in this encounter. However, when aware of its dangers, Active Imagination can provide counsel unavailable to us in dreams alone. The most important way to avoid the pitfalls is to remember the "active" participation by consciousness which is implied in the phrase "active imagination", and not simply allow the unconscious to have sway.
Jung encouraged other methods of structuring the unconscious, such as drawing, painting or sculpting our dreams, drawing mandalas that express our state of wholeness (or lack thereof) at any particular point, etc. These are all useful tools that help protect us from the overwhelming force of the unconscious.
Unfortunately, none of these methods involve ritual, and it was the ritual encounter with the gods which Proclus saw as the supreme contribution of theurgy. Jung himself realized how much we need ritual in our lives. Traditionally, it has been provided within our religious lives. Our religions have provided sacraments and rituals for every important event in our lives.
However, religion no longer occupies center stage in the lives of many of us, and there is very little ritual left in modern life. This means that when we do meet the gods, we meet them unprepared. And that's dangerous. So, if our culture no longer offers us such rituals, we have to construct them ourselves. This is what Jung meant that we said that each of us has to discover our myth. What is unique in our time is that collective rituals are no longer sufficient, we each have to construct rituals that fit our individual lives.
The central issue of our day is how we can construct rituals which can serve both individually and collectively. That's another way of saying that we need a new "living symbol" in our lives. Over sixty years ago, Jung discussed the role which the individual can play in bringing a new archetypal symbol into existence:
…Only the passionate yearning of a highly developed mind, for which the traditional symbol is no longer the unified expression of the rational and the irrational, of the highest and the lowest, can create a new symbol.
But precisely because the new symbol is born of man's highest spiritual aspirations and must at the same time spring from the deepest roots of his being, it cannot be a one-sided product of the most highly differentiated mental functions, but must derive equally from the lowest and most primitive levels of the psyche.(8)
The Neoplatonists struggled for three hundred years with that problem. Proclus was able to find an inner harmony through theurgy, but the rituals he engaged in were not powerful enough to capture the general population, and Neoplatonism died out. Now, fifteen hundred years later, we are struggling with the same issue once more.
Those closest to the unconscious are usually the first to experience any new aspect of the gods. In that light, let me close with some excerpts from a poem by Wallace Stevens called "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction." More than nearly any other twentieth century poet, Wallace Stevens struggled to reconcile the world that exists outside us with the world that exists in each of our minds. This is the same issue with which both Jung and the Neoplatonists struggled. I hope that the following at least offer hints toward how we can reconcile the two and advance up the Stairway to Heaven:
First, maybe the most important tip Stevens can offer:
You must become an ignorant man again And see the sun again with an ignorant eye…
Here's the trap that those of us in the late twentieth century have fallen into, when we try to dismiss the gods with logic:
…The death of one god is the death of all…
Here's a central insight of both Stevens and Jung:
…There was a myth before the myth began.
Now here finally is as close as Stevens comes to providing an answer, perhaps as close as any of us can come:
…Perhaps The truth depends on a walk around a lake, A composing as the body tires, a stop To see hepatica, a stop to watch A definition growing certain and A wait within that certainty, a rest In the swags of pine-trees bordering the lake. Perhaps there are times of inherent excellence. …Perhaps there are moments of awakening.
1. C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (New York: Pantheon Books, Random House, 1973), pp. 170f.
2. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 173.
3. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, pp. 176f.
4. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 206.
5. Michael Washburn, The Ego and the Dynamic Ground: A Transpersonal Theory of Human Development (New York: SUNY Press, 1995), pp. 21, 26, 42, 171-202. Washburn is clearly contrasting RIST with Freud's concept of Regression in the Service of the Ego.
6. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, pp. 200f.
7. C. G. Jung, Collected Works, Volume 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis, 2nd Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series, 1963/1070), par.749.
8. C. G. Jung, Collected Works, Volume 6: Psychological Types (Princeton: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series, 1971), par.823f.
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