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What Transforms Our Defeat by James Hollis, Ph.D.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 4:00 PM | Oxana Holtmann

Somewhere in this peculiar journey we call our life we all will find ourselves needing to make very difficult decisions. Quite apart from our expectations, plans, hopes, and will, we arrive at junctures where no matter what we do there is a considerable price to pay. As I reflected on what to write for this blog, I determined to allow chance, or synchronicity, or the gods who operate in such matters to dictate the subject matter and the approach. And so I pulled two volumes at random from the Collected Works of Jung which, not surprisingly, are at my elbow. I turned to the back jackets and looked at quotes I had noted in earlier readings, some going back as far as the seventies in Zürich when I studied at the Jung Institute. And here are the two which emerged for me, and, seemingly, dictated the content and direction of this blog.

First, from Volume 14, Mysterium Coninuctionis, on the possibility of finding the right path for ourselves.   

We are often gripped by fear, by the comforting powers of the old adaptations whose chief virtues were anxiety management and protection, or, alternatively, the path ahead is blocked by familiar apprehensions about stepping into the unknown on our own. No wonder we tend to abide the familiar, stultifying as it may be. Yet something within us always knows, always protests, always begins to withdraw approval and support and we ratify our old inner divisions. Ego consciousness, tasked with making it all work, labors to satisfy the Anxiety Party clamoring in the back benches of the inner Parliament for surcease, for return to the old order. The insurgent Soul Party agitates for growth, renewal, risk, and enlargement, and the Honorable Ego Prime Minister is beset with the impossible task of keeping these belligerents happy. No wonder this shaky Government is overthrown each night by troubling dreams filled with brigands and guerillas stirring revolt in the provinces. No wonder so many resign this struggle for personal authority and consign their value choices to tradition, to external leaders, to others, thinking it easier to get along by going along. And if only those internal brigands and guerillas would cooperate it would all work out. But every night, in the sugar cane brakes, they agitate anew, and the insurrection within bubbles.

So, how can we find our way, make the right choices? Sometimes we just can’t, and we have to live in the midst of the very uncomfortable for a very long time, until something unexpected appears from within.

As Jung writes, “you can only feel yourself on the right road when the conflicts of duty seem to have resolved themselves, and you have become the victim of a decision made over your head or in defiance of the heart. From this we can see the numinous power of the Self, which can hardly be experienced in any other way. For this reason, the experience of the Self is always a defeat for the ego.”  (CW 14, para. 778).

In other words, the ultimate decisions of our lives are made by some higher agency than the ego, however important ego consciousness is in the governance of daily life. When ego consciousness can accord itself with the will of the Self, there is a profound sense of the rightness, the peace, the accord which comes from a moment of wholeness when we are at one with ourselves, and not this split, divided, warring assemblage of fractious parties.

The second citation which leapt out at me is from Psychology and Alchemy, wherein Jung writes that sometimes one simply has to be “alone if [one] is to find out what it is that supports [us] when [we] no longer can support ourselves. Only this experience can give [us] an indestructible foundation.”  (CW 12, para. 32.)

Both of these citations did in fact leap out at me because I had underlined them, and I had underlined them many years before because they had leapt out at me in the first place. Both of these ideas speak urgently to the Western phantasy of ego sovereignty in which we have all deeply invested, myself included, namely, the phantasy of conscious management of our lives. Such consciousness has brought us many gifts, many rewards, and larger lives, to be sure; it has also brought us considerable internal division, self-alienation, no little inflation, hubris, narcissism, and self-delusion. Both of the volumes I pulled off the shelf are among Jung’s most arcane, but both speak directly to the pathology of the Western mind and its one-sidedness.   

Jung challenges us to consider that within each of us is a center which is wiser than our knowledge, deeper than our learning, older than our chronology, and more durable than our calcified convictions. From time to time, life humbles us, calls us to account, leads us back to the drawing board, and asks us to start over.  Isn’t it nice to think there might also be some resources available there to help us when we think we are bereft, when we have exhausted our conscious tools, when we have lost our way?

In 1939, when he addressed the Guild for Pastoral Psychology in London Jung noted that we all need to re-member what our ancestors knew, that if we wait upon the silence, it speaks, and wait upon the darkness, it illumines. Ours is a frenetic epoch. We are ego driven, time-bound, impatient. The idea of waiting, listening, attending is inimical to the tenor of our time. This is why we are so lost, and adrift, so distracted, and so much at the mercy of any folly of the moment.  The timeless part of ourselves is the only compass which may be found in this troubled hour. Poet Emily Dickinson intuited this in the 1860s when she wrote, “The sailor cannot see the North, but knows the needle can.” She knew she had a compass. She knew a compass would be needed for the night sea journey of the modernist voyage. Jung knew we have a compass, and he provided tools to consult, to interpret, to trust, to embody that compass in this world. When the day arrives in the life of any of us that we can remember this invitation, then the encounter with the Self will not be defeat but resource, not overthrow but transformation.

James Hollis, Ph. D. is a Zurich-trained Jungian analyst in practice in Washington, D. C. where he is also Executive Director of the Jung Society of Washington. He is also author of fourteen books translated into nineteen languages.

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