The Nuts and Bolts of Jungian Psychology and Spirituality

by William Walker, D. Min.

One of the things that I have noticed over the past few years is that more and more spiritual directors and spiritual persons are turning to Jungian psychology to help fill out their doctrine of humanity. The Christian religion has always been an apologetic religion, in that it assumes a primary spiritual experience at its core, but uses the philosophy and the psychology of the times in which to clothe that experience so that one can make sense out of it and come to terms with what is demanded of the person in light of the experience. In the early days of Christianity, the Church used Greek and Roman thought to help amplify and illustrate the essential experience of faith. What was clear then and now is that the focus was on the experience of grace and faith, and not in the amplification or philosophical language used to help people understand their experience. Experience was primary and understanding was secondary.

So what are the clothes by which we understand this primary experience today? More and more people are turning to the mythic structure and language of depth psychology for understanding the essential core experience of life. However, one big problem then and now is that a great many people put their faith in the philosophical or psychological understanding, and not in the essential experience behind or underneath the explanations about faith and the experience that brought about the state of faith from the state of un-faith. Faith is not the state of believing but the state of trusting in the source that makes faith possible. Hence, for the spiritual person, one's faith is not in the theological notions, rather faith is in the God who acts in reconciling the world to Himself/Herself and thus overcoming estrangement. Thus, while Jungian psychology may help us, one ought not put his/her faith in a psychological frame of reference. Don't mistake the clothes for the essential experience and its opportunities and demands for a more whole form of living.

In examining the interest many spiritual people have in Jung and his psychology, I find it intriguing to ask about their attraction to Jung's ideas. My initial answer to this question is that Jung's model of the psyche is the most complete and comprehensive model of the human psyche we have in psychology. In my view, Jung worked very hard to come to terms with who we are as human beings and just how we relate to the world and each other. This also includes how we relate to the many parts of ourselves. Jung was very clear that ego consciousness is not the whole package. There is the world of the unconscious psyche, and to be fully human is to be in a dialogue with that unknown "other."

Secondly, I think many people may be drawn to Jung as a way to "piggyback" on his interest in the spirit and its role in the human psyche. In Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Jung clearly lays out that it is essentially through a spiritual experience that people find the true courage to overcome their anxiety, doubt, and estrangement. Thus, Jung's process of coming to terms with himself is a model that interests modern people as a way or paradigm that they might use for themselves.

My third impression about this interest in Jung and Jungian psychology is that in order for a person to be fully informed, we must have an integrated psychological understanding of what is happening to go along with our theological and philosophical understandings. Additionally, people may be attracted to Jung because he was an "Externalist."The task is not to spiritualize life away but to be fully present in the moment—the core of the Existential movement in philosophy, theology and psychology. Existentialism includes the notion that "spiritualizing" is a psychological defense against the anxiety of not knowing, or a tendency to deal with the anxiety of not being whole. To be a true spiritual person is to come to terms with one's anxiety and not psychologically split or create illusions about reality. To be whole is to come to terms with what reality is (the whole of it) and our response to it. Jung had much to contribute to a model of God's presence in life capable of offsetting painful and limiting dualities. It is the unity of God and God's presence that will aid the spiritual development of people.

When we look at the Existential movement, from Kierkegaard, Sartre, Dostoyevsky, to Jung, what we find are two core motifs: the issue of human freedom and the issue of human responsibility. These were key issues for Jung as well. We also find in the Existential movement the motif of the modern person and community, of dividing oneself and creating an ideal about life, and then projecting that ideal into "another" realm. This is seen in the religious realm when people cannot fully come to terms with life and its hardships. They create an ideal and then project this better life into the future, or into a concept of an ideal " afterlife," and look forward to it. The Existential movement very much opposed this psychological splitting and/or its theological counterpart—a tendency to have a good mind and bad body and not to have the Kingdom of God at hand. Existentialism most wanted a person to be fully present in this moment, to be fully conscious in this moment, and to be fully responsible in this moment. One's essential courage to be comes from the individual's being fully informed and aware about the world and oneself. Being informed becomes the basis of our decision-making, for we know that we must somehow be responsible for how we are in the world and with ourselves.

In his 86 years, Jung produced more than 20 volumes of writings. In these he developed a "worldview," or psychological paradigm, to help him in his struggle to be truly himself as an individual in participation with the world. In understanding Jung, it is important to focus on what he meant by "individuation" and why he found dreams, visions and active imagination helpful in the process of overcoming our sense of estrangement and anxiety. His notion of individuation is, simply put, "the process" by which a person becomes fully one's true self. It is the process whereby consciousness does not identify with a part of the whole, and thus try to make the part into the whole. It is the process of developing consciousness and encountering the unconscious and being in a dialogue with it.

The most essential issue for Jung was coming to terms with the unconscious aspect of himself and others. There is the question of estrangement and how it comes about in the first place. How do we get reconciled with the true self once we are off course? Jung's essential notion is that the ego (one's consciousness) must be open to the various ways in which the unconscious presents itself. It is the manifestation of the unconscious mind that assists us in overcoming our one-sidedness and estrangement. According to Jung, the Self (big S, ie, the central core and totality of life, and not little s self) wants life fully developed and integrated. Dreams, visions, and religious experiences present those parts of ourselves (or reality) of which we are not conscious. It is in the process of receiving and integrating these contents of the unconscious "other" that we become more whole and truly individual persons.

As human beings, we cannot stand a meaningless life. If life is to have authentic meaning, we must become truly ourselves and not just be a part of the collective herd. We must find a way to manifest this new sense of self and its meaning in order to be fully alive. We must not only understand ourselves but also be willing to live from the new ethic found in this encounter between the conscious and unconscious. This is an ethic that includes one's social world but it is not based on the social ethic, as social ethics are relative. Social ethics have been transcended; we are provided an ethic rooted in "the Other" rather than the social orders. One can see rather quickly why Jung's thinking and model would appeal to the religious person. It implies a parallel in the Christian theological world, where a human being must come to terms with the presence of God and the demands that has on one's life. The key theological practical question is that of revelation. How does "The Transcendent Other" reveal itself in the historical world and the world of "this" individual? Jung tackles that question as best he can. He views dreams, visions, and spiritual experiences as a natural process of revelation.

Jung's map of the psyche includes the ego, persona, shadow, complex, anima/animus, Self, introversion, extroversion and the like. Jung saw problems in opposites (or the antinomies) and looked for a resolution of this duality into unity, writing, "The Self then functions as a union of opposites and thus constitutes the most immediate experience of the Divine which it is psychologically possible to imagine" (CW 11, par. 396). The Self is the slow, gradual realization of a divine cosmic center in the unconscious psyche of the individual. It is interesting to look at the nature of psychological projection and its purpose of bringing about reconciliation and wholeness, as well as Jung's method for becoming a unified whole. His method of becoming an individual and becoming whole off-sets the simple method of belief or identification with collective roles or values that bring authentic life.

We are confronted with a new ethic when we truly become our authentic selves as opposed to being adaptive selves (just part of a family system, a national system, or a system of social organization). To be fully human is to find a way to be an individual in participation with the various systems of social organizations in which we live. Essentially, however, the true core of ourselves comes from the experience of being our unique individual self and knowing that the core of this is transcendent of our ego-conscious orientation. It encounters us and demands that we become truly whole and find a way to manifest this in our daily lives in a loving way. In the last chapter of Jung's "so-called" autobiography" Memories, Dreams and Reflections, he sums up the issue of this mystery of life by saying, "In the final analysis we are all victims of cosmogonic love." It is our duty and destiny to find a way to become conscious of this love then manifest it in our individual and social lives. Jung held fast to the notion of love as in the Greek word eros, that power in the human psyche to overcome estrangement (be it emotional, physical, rational, or ethical) and to be an authentic creative and self-expressive person. To be such is to actualize the depth of human freedom and responsibility.

The above text  was written in conjunction with a seminar presented by the Samaritan Counseling and Spiritual Direction Program in Memphis,Tennessee, in October 2001.

William Walker, D.Min., is Director of the Counseling and Education Center of Memphis and the Memphis Jung Seminar, a training center for the certification of Jungian Analysts. A Diplomate Jungian Analyst, he has also served as Training Chairman for the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts.