Archive for September, 2012

Finding Meaning

“Man cannot stand a meaningless life.”  C.G. Jung

Jung makes it clear in the statement above that we cannot live a life without meaning. Things in life do not go as well when we have no meaning. Anxiety is very present in a life without meaning. Meaning situates us within the cosmos. It provides a frame for why we are here and how we relate to the world around us. Joseph Campbell defined myth as the stories that provide meaning. We have no unifying living myth for the age in which we live. We are surrounded by a world of particulars; pieces of a world jigsaw puzzle that just don’t seem to fit together.

I actually believe this lack of meaning is the essence of our dilemma around the environment. Our destructiveness towards the world we live in is a direct result of our struggle to find meaning in life. How so? If I do not have a strong center of identity, then I will seek an anchor in many ways and places. If my tendency is to look outside of myself for this center or anchor of meaning, then my identity is integrally tied to the outer changing world. For the outer world is in a constant state of flux: political positions change, styles change, fads change, and people change. Finding some fixed point of meaning within the changing outer world is difficult.

Jung discusses how we tend to have two approaches to this quest for meaning. We can allow the outer world a large role in defining our meaning. If we choose this path, then we project the archetype of centeredness – the Self – out onto something in the world. This would be the realm of consumerism, where our identity is strongly coupled to what we own, especially compared to what others own. This is a life where our fixed point of centeredness is at the whim of marketers, political ideologies or religious credos. This approach to life places us – the ego – in a tough situation. We are suspended between the vagaries of the outer world and the inner needs of the unconscious. Freud would say our ego is in service to the superego in such a situation and Jung would agree with this. However, Jung goes further to show how this relates to a spiritual emptiness, a meaningless existence. We just can’t tolerate this type of life forever. If we are lucky, then we will reach a point where we begin to search for centeredness within. We reflect on what our life is and how we need to go deeper to find a true solid center. We need to pull back the projection of the Self and look within. For you see, the Self, even though it is projected, has never left the psyche. This is the second path described by Jung. As Jung (CW 11, par. 401) says,

“Self-reflection or – what comes to the same thing – the urge to individuation gathers together what is scattered and multifarious, and exalts it to the original form of the One…”

So, by going in and doing the work of individuation we discover an inner sense of wholeness that serves as a true fixed point for us. We no longer need to buy things, over consume or follow someone else to find meaning. Meaning is an emergent property of the individuation process.

Why do we so often choose the first path over the second? Well, for one thing, the outer world is constantly beckoning to us. There is no shortage of messages, explicit or not, that we should be a part of the consumer culture. Peer pressure and advertisements are key lures to follow the collective path of ‘meaning.’ Perhaps it is also due to what is called upon us should we choose to follow the second inner path. Jung (CW 11, par. 411) tells us that,

 “… every step forward along the path of individuation is achieved only at the cost of suffering.”

Who wants to consciously choose a path of suffering? The irony here is that if we choose the collective path, then we will ultimately end up suffering. The shiny objects in the world will not provide true meaning for us. Try as hard as possible, one day we will wake up with that old anxiety back in our life. The suffering that arises from the inner second path is a more honorable suffering. It involves sacrifices, which we may not like at first. But ultimately lead to solidity in our lives. Remember that ‘sacrifice’ derives from the word ‘sacred.’

Our existential choice in life is always present. In this moment do I choose the outer path and let the world provide me with meaning, a shifting illusion? Or, do I choose the inner second path, one that leads to deep, solid centeredness? Each moment we are presented with this choice.

In this very moment, right now, which path do you choose?

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Reflected lights, presencing before me,
gathering me to their world.
Small constellations,
some near, some far.
Drawing me into their pattern,
suspending me in their reflection.
With each glimpse a door opens.
Leaf and Light,
worlding me into their world.

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The Gods We Worship

“We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”

Clive Hamilton

I have been thinking about the root cause of our global climate dilemma. Increases in greenhouse gases are a direct result of our continual burning of fossil fuels to generate energy. We burn more to create more and more energy. This need for energy is deeply rooted in our belief in never ending growth. We worship the god of Growth, the belief that economies must increase year after year. Such an eternal state of growth requires infinite reserves of natural resources. Since our resources are not infinite, there is no way to sustain eternal Growth. Yet, we cannot face this fact. We prefer to worship this God, turning our backs on reality. Eternal growth is the modern worlds living myth. Jung (CW 8, par. 333) wrote that, “Hunger makes food into gods.” Anything that we yearn for, in exclusion of other factors in life, becomes a god. Many may say they believe in a spiritual god, or the protection of nature, or the sovereignty of their nation state, but reality flies against these words. For in consuming the world, we turn our backs on spirit, nature and sovereignty.

What sustains this god of Growth? Psychologically, it is the desire to consume the world. Of course, we need to consume to stay alive. Consumption is a natural aspect of all life. Joseph Campbell once observed that life feeds on life in order to survive. It is the degree to which we consume that has become absurd and destructive. Psychologists Deborah Du Nann Winter and Susan Kroger point out that “…in the industrialized countries, an average person consumes 3 times as much fresh water, 10 times as much energy, 14 times as much paper, and 19 times as much aluminum as someone in a developing country.” They further point out it is estimated that each day the average American uses 3 to 4 times as much energy as the average European. What are we getting for all of this consumption? I seriously doubt that the average American is 3 to 4 times happier than the average European. Yet, we continue to consume more and more to feed the god of Growth. Jung recognized that all gods – or archetypes – contain their opposites. The opposite to the god of Growth is that of Destruction. If consciousness is one-sidedly fixed on Growth, then we know what lurks in the shadows of the unconscious, its polar opposite. Jungian psychology is grounded in bringing consciousness into the world. In light of this, Jungian work  faces the fact that Earth does not contain infinite resources. We in the West need to question what we are gaining with all of this over-consumption. Can we begin to contemplate worshiping a new god of Equilibrium or Balance?



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“…veriditas … the blessed greenness … the secret immanence of the divine spirit of life in all things.”

 C.G. Jung (CW 14, par. 623)

As I walked through a forest today I came upon a place of transcendent greenness. I was reminded of the word “veriditas,” which apparently traces its origins back to the 12th century abbess Hildegard von Bingen. It is a word that appears in alchemical writings and denotes the Anima Mundi, or spirit dwelling in the world. It is related to the Green Lion, a symbol of primeval Life and instinctual energy. The alchemical image depicts the Green Lion swallowing the sun. Life can do this. It can come along and take all of us. It can come over us just as it did when I walked into the greenness of that forest. We have an expression, “it took my breath away.” Perhaps this is the moment when we are swallowed up by the force of nature and are no longer separate from Life. I experience this feeling whenever I see the rich greenness of nature. Can you remember times in your life when you fell into veriditas and were captured by the greenness of nature. These are truly holy moments that can heal a lonely soul.

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