November 13, 2012

Carl Jung & the Practice of Meditation.


Modern Spirituality is a three part series. Click here for Part 1: “What is stress and how do we work with it?” and here for Part two: “Our Blind Spot is also our Soft Spot: Addressing Anxiety with Meditation.”

Archetypes, Thought and the Spiritual Journey.

We tend to think of experience in very general terms. We think of circumstances, situations and events: the economic downturn, the argument, or the batchelor party. These terms create a blind-spot or shave off a great deal of information.

In truth, the picture is much more vibrant. Direct experience is not a noun as much as it is a verb. It is a sharp edge, rather than a round surface. It is texture, not theme. We feel life, we don’t think about it. In fact, it is this basic misunderstanding—taking symbols as signs—that accounts for much of the worlds suffering.

What is the difference between a sign and a symbol?

Carl Jung said of signs and symbols, “{Signs} do no more than denote the objects to which they are attached…A word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its immediate and obvious meaning. {There is} a wider unconscious that is never precisely defined or explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it.”

Joseph Campbell, one of the great mythologists of our time, had this to say:

“…a symbol is a sign that points past itself to a ground of meaning and being that is one with the consciousness of the beholder.”

“Man uses the spoken or written word to express the meaning of what he wants to convey,” said Jung. Language is a universal manifestation of symbolism. While a particular written or spoken language—Aramaic, French, or Sanskrit—is a man made artifact, there is a biological drive that inspired these innovations.

There is an innate basis for language, as prominent linguist Noam Chomsky points out: “The basic structure of language and the principles that determine the form and interpretation of sentences in any human language are in large part innate.” However, I would argue that Mr. Chomsky’s emphasis on language is misplaced.

In fact, posture, demeanor, art and music are all forms of language to the extent that they are capable of resonating with energetic principles embedded in the human psyche and serving as a medium through which these principles may manifest.

I much prefer the position of Dr. Jung:

“What we properly call instincts are physiological urges (noumenal) and are perceived by the senses. But at the same time, they also manifest themselves in fantasies and often reveal their presence only by symbolic images. These manifestations are what I call archetypes (phenomenal)…Language is originally and essentially nothing but a system of symbols, which denote real occurrences, or their echo in the human soul (psyche).”

An archetype is a symbol or a motif (mandala) that resonates with humanity on a physiological or instinctual level. These self-existing patterns of nature do not belong to man. They are existential fractals—innate characteristics of our true life that unfold like a blueprint or a primordial seed coming to fruition. These motifs no more belong to man-kind than waves belong to water.

An archetype is the creative medium through which the unconscious or unformed mind shares itself with the world. The archetype does not refer to itself. The emphasis is not placed on the image or the pattern, but the principal form of energy or the instinct that the motif represents. A submission to these self-existing patterns or mandalas constitutes the spiritual journey, as the journey itself is a motif symbolizing the embodiment of the human life cycle.

Why is symbolism innate?

From an evolutionary point of view cooperation is advantageous. So, over time social inclinations developed in primates. Moving beyond the restrictions of individualism required the capacity to access a shared space or depth of being that fostered fellowship and unity, rather than personality and division. This is a bond that naturally occurs between a mother and her offspring. In order to explore the advantages of society, we had to discover this space outside of our family. We had to open up and share the inner workings of our life with an outsider. We had to find community in the midst of strangers.

This evolutionary process is what guided the maturation of our symbolic organ, the brain. The act of communing is communication, communication requires language and language is a rough form of symbolism. We establish relationship by relating to the ground of being that begets both ‘you’ and ‘I.’ In order to enter into relationship ‘I’ must be transformed into “we” through mutual understanding.

We accomplish this end by symbolizing our experience, inviting another into who we are and being willing to enter their experience through the gateway or the symbols they offer. Experience, in this sense, moves past circumstances into feeling tone or texture. I may not be able to relate to certain conditions but I know what it means to be sad, afraid, enraged or elated.  In this sense, communication is seen, not so much as an exchange of ideas but as a willingness to sacrifice the ideas that generate and protect the illusion of exclusivity for the opportunity to abide on a shared level of being.

Perhaps the most sophisticated example of our innate drive toward symbolic representation is religion. Every culture has at its core a pattern of symbols or a mythology that seeks to connect with our humanity through the unfiltered movement of our instincts. This mythology is invigorated by a series of practices or initiations, known as ritual, that enable us to find fulfillment through the expressivity of these instincts.

At their best, the world’s great religions are the collective unconscious of humanity, the beating heart of our species. At their worst, they will be our demise. On one hand, they invite us into a deeper realization of who we truly are, and on the other hand, they actively suppress the voice of our true Self.

How can one institution be both our saving grace and the unraveling of our species?

The answer is quite simple: we mistake symbols for signs. This simple but profound mistake takes the transformative, life-giving potential of religious symbolism and turns it into the stale, rigid, debilitating atmosphere of fundamentalism.

If we wish to resolve this dilemma we must find the common denominator, the medium though which all symbols are formed. We need to explore the subtlest example of symbolism, thought.

Thought is the quintessential symbol. In-and-of itself, thought is lifeless. Like every symbol, it is empty, finding vitality, not in itself but in the experience it represents. It is the noumenal world, the somatic, physiological Reality that breathes life into the phenomenal world of symbols. Symbolism is the creative medium through which the undifferentiated (unconscious) ground of being gifts itself to the world of time and space.

Sanity is the quality of life when our point of view is inspired by the revelation of direct experience. This is contingent upon a vital and relevant symbolism that is capable of establishing a connection between the primal, unconscious mind or the soma and the socially adjusted conscious brain.

In fact, individuation is so full and so complete that there is no longer any distinction implied between will or point of view and direct experience. Like pouring water into water, the three dimensions of being dissolve into an individuated observation devoid of any solid, separate observer. The true nature of mind and reality are revealed to be of “one substance.” This is the Great Symbol; the self-revealing nature of Truth beyond representation. This is the sharp corner.

Unfortunately, we fail to experience thought as a symbol. We relate to it as a sign. It is this misguided relationship that sits at the core of all our frustrations. Relating, or better yet identifying with thought, rather than allowing it to moves us past itself and into the experience it represents, sets in motion all human suffering. Identifying with thought we are left feeling empty or lifeless. We are discontented—without content or meaning. This transforms life into the search for content or a solution—that magical missing ingredient: the meaning of life, esoteric wisdom or God’s will.

In order to fill the hole in our soul, we begin to ravenously consume empty signs. Being empty of any nutritional value they only make us thirstier, more frustrated. The disappointment only brings us back to square one—confronted with the pervasive sense of dissatisfaction, the feeling of lifelessness. Only this time there is the added frustration and embarrassment of having convinced our self that we had out grown this non-sense, only to come to right back where we started.

Is the sense of division we experience and the consequences of that division unavoidable? Are they just as innate as our biological tendency towards symbolism?

To answer these questions, we need to probe the common denominator amongst thoughts, the quintessential idea.

The common denominator, the idea that all other ideas are organized around, in terms of human experience, is ‘I.’ Experience becomes organized around our image or self-centered as ‘I’ is used to judge the value or worth of each experience. The value of every interaction is calculated by determining whether the object in this equation affected the subject, ‘I’, in a positive or negative way. If Tom affects me in a positive way I will consider him a friend, but if he pisses me off I will consider him an asshole. In this way, every experience is influenced by this one simple-minded concept. We build worlds around this insolvent idea. This is inception.

This situation is made all the more problematic when one realizes that ‘I’ is unique. While other nouns could be considered symbols, ‘I’ can never be seen as a symbol, as it is always referring to itself. Not only is it the common denominator, it is devoid of any symbolic value, as it is incapable of pointing past itself.  So, rather than thought guiding us back to the vitality of Being, we find our self trapped in a vacant loop.

What metrics does ‘I’ employ for calculating value?

‘I’ is governed by resentment or re-sent information. Resentment manifests in one of two ways, either as fear or expectation. Expectation is how things should be and fear is the way things shouldn’t be. It is obvious that fear inspires expectation—things should be a certain way, because I am terrified of them going in the opposite direction. Of course, the way things shouldn’t be is defined by those moments in our past where we were hurt or disappointed. Expectation is the wishful account of our personal narrative in future tense, while fear is the cynical recollection of undesirable instances from our past. ‘I,” the center of our world view, is governed by this fear/expectation dynamic. In this way, fear infiltrated every aspect of our life.

So, we see that through a simple process of inception suffering was born. Our innate drive towards symbolism and community lead to the acquisition of language. Language not only personified thought, it did so using a word that had only the capacity for self-referencing. As a result, we found our selves stuck in an endless cycle of inbred thought. This one little word refers both to the prisoner and the guard.

Freedom is not an environmental condition. It is not something that can be granted or confiscated. It is a basic recognition of the space beyond the limitations imposed by self-referencing thought. It is freedom from self. The spiritual journey is a process of learning to listen to our heart, to the voice of the body, by discontinuing the obsessive pattern of thinking about what we think. It is in the body that the possibility to reconnect with our primal or instinctual nature exists. When these instincts are called into being through symbolism, like a seed, our humanity unfolds, inviting us to consciously participate in the journey. Consenting to this journey is the practice of meditation.

Meditation is cultivating the willingness to sit with an attitude of openness, holding whatever arises in your gaze, free of attachment or rejection, allowing it to come and go in its own time.


Editor: Bryonie Wise

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