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Jungian psychoanalyst and author, shares some insights and analysis with Arianna Marchetti.
Over the past three hundred years, Western societies have embarked on a path of relentless scientific discovery and technological development that has led to an unprecedented increase in living standards and material wealth. Mesmerized by the fruits that the scientific mindset produced, people have started to believe that all human problems could be successfully relieved by finding the right formula. Through this expectation, rationalism and materialism are progressively conquering all aspects of human life, leading finally to an outright rejection of the irrational, including any experience that eludes rational explanation. However, from the perspective of Jungian psychology the rejection of the irrational, and the consequent dismissing of the unexplained, especially the spiritual, has not freed man from credulity. In fact, it has made us even more disoriented, since irrational drives, symbolism and intuition are necessary components of the psyche that, like rationality, help us make sense of our experiences and navigate the world.
Dr Jeffrey Raff has dedicated his life to helping people explore their deeper selves. Drawing on both Jungian psychology and ancient traditions, Dr Raff has helped trace the images and archetypes involved in the quest for spiritual awakening, providing frames of reference for those willing to discover that side of their nature. His books, Jung and the Alchemical Imagination, Healing the Wounded God, and The Practice of Ally Work, are great guides for anyone interested in what Carl Jung (1875-1961) called ‘the spiritual problem of modern man’.
The first thing I would like to ask, is for you to clarify the role that spirituality plays in our lives. Particularly, what are the costs of denying its place?
Spiritual imagination has been denied in our culture for a very long time. I think one of the results of that is what’s happening across Western culture right now, where people are denying facts and reality. It’s a form of compensation where imagination is trying to get involved in our lives again, but in a very negative, hostile way, because it has been repressed for so long in our culture. The dominant materialistic outlook has completely rejected what we Jungians call the imaginal, that is, the human ability to enter into a deeper connection with different realities and entities in the world. As a consequence, we are now being completely shut off from even the world of insects, birds, and nature as a whole, treating it in an increasingly instrumental way. No good can come of this.
In terms of spirituality, one way people experience that connection with wider nature is through their dreams. If they pay any kind of attention to their dreams, in the long run they will find their spiritual mentor on the inside, who can guide them to deeper spiritual experiences. What Jung called active imagination is another way we can experience the spiritual in ordinary lives. Through active imagination we can experience imaginal ‘spirits’ and access a whole different perspective on the world that’s richer and more nuanced.
What does it take for someone to have a spiritual experience? And what are the main blockages to it?
Back in the Middle Ages and earlier, people were much more open to spirituality, but at a certain point in history the [free use of the] imagination was rejected. There were a lot of reasons for that, including the different churches’ hostility towards imaginal experiences; but mostly, the rise of science became a substitute for our spirituality. And science is incredibly materialistic, so alchemy was replaced by chemistry, and the spiritually-inclined alchemical imaginary and philosophy were almost completely replaced by Newtonian ideas of cause and effect. Our culture consolidated around a highly materialistic and rationalistic outlook. In doing so it flagged as inferior any approach that would not follow the same principles, denying it any reality.
One thing we would have to do to open ourselves up to different experiences is to rise above the main cultural ‘favorites’, and start to experience non-materialistic reality, or, like the alchemists, to see spirituality in matter in our ordinary daily life. But rising above modern materialism is a very difficult task, because people that we know and love – friends, family – would be discouraging, because they think that would make us out of touch from what they consider reality. This is a really big block against people entering the [Jungian psycho-] analytic process, or other forms of spiritual explorations and experience. It requires a lot of courage to embark on this path, and usually, the people that come to see reality in a different way are already very spiritual people. Finding a community of spiritual individuals definitely helps a lot, since many of those open to spirituality often suffer from what I call the ‘orphan archetype’: many people who are challenging mainstream culture feel like they cannot belong anywhere since their experience and thoughts do not align with those of the masses around them. They are generally alone until they can find a community of individuals sharing the same experiences.
Are there any dangers in following the wrong images in your thinking? How can one avoid being led astray?
To prevent being led into the wrong path by an inner image, one would need to develop what I call the ‘felt sense’. This is not feeling as such, but a different way of perceiving inner reality and being alerted by something that seems wrong to you. If you haven’t cultivated that perception, it’s more likely you can be led astray. But if you are paying attention to your dreams, your dreams will quickly tell you what things are wrong. If you do not pay attention to your felt sense or to your dreams, maybe through taking a more intellectual approach, it’s very easy to go astray. I have to say that in my experience it doesn’t happen a whole lot, but it has happened, and I have seen it. For example, I had a client who was trying to work with the Great Mother as an archetypal image she could learn a lot from, but it got twisted. One day, while she was driving, the inner voice said to her: “If you really trust me, you will take your hands off the steering wheel.” Unfortunately she followed this voice, and, of course, almost immediately got into an accident! So that was a case where the imaginal voice was destructive, yet the person had no filter to realize that something was wrong in what the voice was telling her. The ability to question what the inner archetypal figures are presenting to you is really important when something doesn’t feel right. The other thing possible if something is going wrong during an active imagination period, is to get out of it and set your mind to other things.
For a long time Christianity and other religions have provided guidance to peoples’ spiritual experiences. However, many modern people in the West now seem unmoved by these older traditions. Why is that?
Essentially it’s because the symbolism of Christianity and other traditions have lost the power to express a deeper reality to us. The Catholic Church started out with very powerful symbols, but this symbolism gradually became frozen: there was an orthodox way of looking at things, and other interpretations and experiences were not accepted. Some Christian mystics in the Middle Ages were persecuted by the Church just because they went outside this orthodox perspective. This radical intellectual closure gradually led to a loss of power and meaning. So basically, churches and religions in the West face two problems. One is that their symbolism is on the wane and they haven’t been able to reenergize it; the second is that people don’t like dogmatism. By not allowing free reign to the imagination, they’re preventing people from being able to fully explore and experience spirituality in an unfiltered way.
In the hyper-rationalized society in which we are living today, how can people reconcile their spiritual experience with the dominant intellectual environment?
That’s pretty difficult. First of all you would have to stop withdrawing your projections onto matter and start to experience deeper reality in the world. The imaginal doesn’t just carry us through the world, it is in the world. We can experience it in dialogues with material objects, plants, and animals, and that can give us a lot of information at the imaginal level. Matter has the imaginal trapped within it. It’s as if the alchemical perspective that the light, the savior, and what they call ‘the philosopher’s stone’ is all here in this world – but we don’t see it, because it’s trapped under the material covering. The spiritual seeker doesn’t need to abandon the material world, but just needs to start seeing it in a different way. To put the material and the spiritual together would not be to deny science’s achievements, but to honor them while also acknowledging a different dimension.
In terms of materialism today, neuroscience is very much invested in the idea that the brain controls everything. Neuroscientists don’t really talk about the psyche. They talk about the brain’s functions as if there was no personality. One of the big problems with this is that it doesn’t provide an explanation for consciousness itself. If neuroscientists really want to account for it, they’d have to bring in different approaches.
Consciousness is the great mystery even for the spiritual seeker, so if we could honor both rationality and spiritual experience it would be the beginning of a union between them. As you probably realise, opposites are terribly difficult to bring together; but it is possible, and today some quantum physicists are very interested in the Jungian world. Wolfgang Pauli was a pioneer in quantum physics. [Among other contributions he discovered the ‘exclusion principle’ for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1945. Ed.] Jung had a long correspondence with Pauli on the topic of synchronicity, working with him try to bring physics and psychology together to illuminate that phenomenon. They didn’t really achieve it, but the possibility existed because quantum physicists are particularly willing to explore mysteries especially in relation to consciousness and reality.
How is the Jungian tradition positioned in modern day psychology? Actually, what do you think about modern day psychology?
Jung was never popular in academia. Interestingly, back in the 1980s and early 90s the people studying Jung and trying to apply him were mainly English Literature professors, because they were interested in mythology, and Jung gave them a way to understand mythology; but that popularity faded away too. Today some historians attack Jung and alchemy, essentially by saying that Jung made up the alchemical symbolism, and that alchemy has nothing to do with symbolic reality anyway. They argue that alchemy is all about materialism, so the tendency to reject or ignore Jung still continues. With a few exceptions, the majority of those interested in studying Jung and following his path of investigation are outside of academia.
In terms of what I think about psychology today, I do not regard it very highly. It’s typically about working with the ego and completely ignoring the unconscious. Typically, it is also short-termist, trying to get the ego to adjust to external reality so it can function better in society. For Jung that was just the beginning of the work. Once you have an ego that can function properly, you have the basis to build a whole new perspective. For Jung, the first half of life was about building the ego, and the second half was about transcending the ego and not being solely concerned with ego issues such as not getting along with your spouse or hating your boss. These things should be addressed earlier, so that later we can get to archetypal images, spiritual questions, and the desire to really get past the ego perspective to a wider consciousness. Generally, modern psychology doesn’t do any of those things. It stops with the first half of life issues, and when they find a person has adjusted to reality, that’s the end of the work. Jung considered society a giant collective that crushes individuality, so there’s that tension too. That’s why I said people following a Jungian path often feel like they don’t belong to the collective any longer.
During his life Jung studied many different traditions and traveled to different continents, from Asia to Africa to America, to deepen his understanding of these cultures and their approach to spirituality. He seems to have argued that although studying different traditions helped him to see the underlying connections between different worldviews as well as important differences, he was very skeptical that someone belonging to one cultural tradition could find his spiritual path in a different culture. Do you think that this still holds true today?
Jung traveled all over the world, and despite his European bias, which he definitely had, he learned a lot. I had the opportunity in New Mexico to meet the grandson of Ochwiay Biano, an elder from the Taos Pueblo with whom Jung had several discussions during his travels. Jung’s fascination with Native American culture is expressed very clearly, and to his surprise he also found similarities to the European approach. The Hopi back then had the idea that if they didn’t go out to greet the sunrise by spitting on their hands then the sun wouldn’t rise. That’s a mythic reality, an imaginal approach. Our rational minds would take it as ridiculous; but in the imaginal world it makes sense, and it’s a mistake to think they meant the physical sun.
Carl Jung (1875-1961) portrait by Woodrow Cowher
I think Jung was right for his time: the archetypal basis of each culture is different, and these bases were all equally valuable. Before WWII he thought there was a racial psyche: that someone born in India would have a completely different spirituality to the extent that if a Westerner tried to adopt it, it would actually cause a neurosis. I think this is no longer true because the world has so come together. In the US there are some people who follow the indigenous traditions, but there are also a great many people who follow Buddhism, which clearly is an Eastern path. Where I would draw the line, especially when it comes to Eastern traditions, and with Western mysticism too, is that they want to get rid of the ego – they consider the ego either an illusion or something that gets in the way of spiritual experience. The Jungian perspective – which I agree with – is instead that if you don’t have an ego you can’t do this work. You need a strong ego to experience spirituality and to allow it to widen your consciousness, and in the West it’s easier to maintain the ego since it is something we’ve developed very much. Now, in India, other traditions are beginning to agree with this, and that’s an interesting cross-pollination. Even some Buddhist traditions are starting to welcome the sense of the ego. So today, Westerners and Easterners will adopt respective attitudes. Jung was very skeptical of people who practiced tantra or yoga, although he himself did some yoga, and I think that that skepticism was misplaced. I think people in the West can fruitfully do these things today. Perhaps it’s better to turn to your own traditions, as there is richness in there, and they may be more easily accessible to you, but they’re typically less known. Western people who become Buddhist typically don’t know that Judaism has a very powerful mystical tradition in the Kabbalah, or that Christianity had some great mystics. We could learn a lot from those traditions but they’re not very well known at all, so there is a tendency to look first to the East.
• Arianna Marchetti is a graduate of Cultural and European Studies. Her main interest is political philosophy, in particular the ethics of migration. She’s a translator and a painter.
Jung and FreudCarl Jung
Carl Jung (1875-1961) was a pioneering Swiss psychoanalyst. He became a close collaborator of Sigmund Freud, and Freud even proposed him as head of the International Psychoanalytical Association. However, their ideas diverged and eventually they had a massive falling-out in 1913.Jungian Psychology
Freud and Jung agreed that the subconscious mind affects our everyday lives so that exploring the subconscious is a way to mental health. Whereas Freud saw the sex drive as key to understanding human psychology, and the subconscious as a repository of the individual’s unrecognised emotions and frustrated desires, Jung believed that there is a collective subconscious. it is filled with cultural baggage including half forgotten traditions, fears, beliefs and myths. These can then re-emerge into our conscious lives in unexpected and sometimes disturbing ways, sometimes through dreams, through the imagination or through mystical experiences. They can also directly influence our thoughts and emotions. We can explore them through introspection and psychoanalysis, aiming to integrate them with our conscious lives to achieve a more complete sense of self.
Jung believed that the contents of the collective subconscious present themselves to us as images. Certain images recur and these he calls archetypes. A number of them are mentioned by Jeffrey Raff in this interview.