The End of the Line

Death and Dread in Psychoanalytic Process

Jenny had a nightmare.  

I was with a crowd and then suddenly everybody was gone.  I don’t know what happened, it was just nothing, and I screamed when I woke up.

Exploring her dread in session, Jenny realized how the crowd protected her like a blanket. She recognized how she clung to unhealthy relationships so as not to feel the isolation this dream was making her face.  When the crowd was gone she experienced the horror of the void.  Jenny was beginning to let the specter of death into her process.

Carl Jung identified two phases in human development that get separated by his notorious “mid-life crisis.”  The first half he defined as learning how to get ourselves into the world:  living skills, career, family, prestige, etc.  The second half, conversely, focuses on learning to leave the world. It’s important not to get hung up on when these phases literally shift.  Mid-life is not an age set in stone.  Some do not begin the second phase until a life threatening illness gets diagnosed. I’ve seen other begin to reckon seriously with the death question in their teens.  In general it can be observed that once the individual has established a set posture to carry through life, the malaise of a mid-life crisis sets in order to redirect the focus of libido, their life energy, into the second phase.

Death can enter the field of process in some subtle and deceptive ways.

“When people are subtly made to think about their own death, it immediately changes their behavior. In one study, judges who were given descriptions of prostitution arrests and then reminded of their own mortality set bail nine times higher than did those not similarly primed.” The End of the Road

Early narcissistic woundings that the accomplishments of the first half strive to address, come back with a vengeance in the second half.  Alterations in judgement and deep emotional dis-regulation manifest when mortality dominates process.  Levels of anxiety, dread and horror can exceed any previous experience.  While not speaking specifically about religion, Jung taught death challenges each of us to develop a set of individual religious attitudes to meet, process and transform these dark affects as we begin to approach the end of the line.

The Collective Unconscious, Our Unclaimed Inheritance

Working with Unconscious Contents

Jungian psychoanalysis works with two levels of the unconscious, oftentimes simultaneously.  The personal unconscious are those contents not readily available to consciousness that stem from personal experience; infantile drives as well as other forms of repression.  It’s interesting to consider the functioning of memory in this regard, for where do all our memories go when we are not calling upon them?  From this vantage of how our minds operate, it’s a pretty easy step over to consider those contents which are basically off limits somewhere in the recesses of our memories.  Recent work on trauma has discovered that trauma literally gets placed into the body.

Carl Jung teaches that as we build up an identity, all the aspects which we disregard about ourselves fall into the shadow.  A soldier, for instance, might push away his artistic or sensitive side.  Likewise, the scourges of homophobia, political and religious intolerance, and racism in society can all be deciphered on an intraspsychic level as unresolved shadow issues getting projected onto one’s neighbor.  Shadow work at this level is reclaiming the attributes one has banished to the personal unconscious.  People who have  taken responsibility for their shadows ( a tasks at the heart of our ethical responsibility based on the discoveries of depth psychology) no longer need to project their contempt on scapegoats.

Jung went on to delineate within the psyche (the totality of conscious and unconscious factors) aspects which are not personal but collective.  These are inherited psychic structures.  When these appear in a psychoanalytic process they cannot be linked back to any personal experience, but stem from the wealth of human experience of all times.

In dreamwork, instead of familiar elements like the parents house or a workplace shaping the dream, collective elements might place one on the other side of the world, or deep in the jungle or forest, or even underwater.    And along with these types of locales, we might find ourselves encountering unknown figures, even giants, gods, demons, aliens, elves, all giving the experience a mythological flavor.

Working with our personal shadow and owning it allows us to deepen our process to include the collective levels.  The effect is noticable.

 In this way there arises a consciousness which is no longer imprisoned in the petty, oversensitive, personal world of the ego, but participates freely in the wider world of objective interests. This widened consciousness is no longer that touchy, egotistical bundle of personal wishes, fears, hopes, and ambitions which always has to be compensated or corrected by unconscious counter-tendencies; instead, it is a function of relationship to the world of objects, bringing the individual into absolute, binding, and indissoluble communion with the world at large. Carl Jung, “The Function of the Unconscious,” CW 7, par. 275.

What’s so paradoxical about this last statement is that the world at large is not merely the world out there.  The very matter of our bodies and the fullness of the experience of psyche is nothing less than a microcosm of the whole.  Jung made the bold statement that human development has only reached troglodyte (caveman) kindergarten.  It is from this perspective that he recognized that we have yet to mature into our full inheritance. ((I’ve often pondered that the emergence of the web and the explosion of data might signal a shift to first grade.))

Sacred Terror

Terror in Jungian Psychoanalysis
Jungian psychoanalysis aims at bringing about not only an adjustment to the client’s attitudes, but a whole new stance. As Charlie Arthur pointed out yesterday, “The suitably trained analyst helps the patient to bring conscious and unconscious together and so arrive at a new attitude.’ (Carl Jung)

This process brings us face to face with the paradox of psychoanalysis.  Many clients enter their process due to specific symptomology: depression, anxiety, issues with grief  betrayal, loss, midlife confusions…and symptom reduction is often an idea the client has of measuring progress.  But the journey can expose them to levels of meaninglessness, terror and sorrow that they have yet to face.  Oddly, the original symptoms often pale in comparison to the power of these encounters which cannot be anticipated.

If we build out a scenario imagining a client with anxiety, it can be quite common for the initial phases of analysis to bring about symptom reduction.  The client will gladly share the many improvements they are seeing.  Then, a new set of life circumstances happens and the symptoms return.  They often need to.  The analyst here gets the advantage of observing the cycle from its beginning.  Together the analytic couple processes the experience, this time incorporating the material coming from the unconscious, through the dreams.

Carl Jung always raised the question of purpose regarding symptoms, which like dreams are products of the unconscious.  To what purpose is this symptom manifesting?  In Jungian jargon this is called the teleological perspective.  With anxiety, it is common to find a defensive structure in the unconscious holding off archetypal affects like rage and shame and terror and dread.  And defenses must be honored (yes, even the denial we find in addicts and their families).

Returning to our imagined client with anxiety, slowly through process and guidance from the dreams, opportunities will open to drop beneath the defensive anxiety in session.  The holding environment of the analytic container creates a safe enough vessel for the descent to occur.  What can emerge? Perhaps it will be a direct experience of the terror of the unknown, a sacred terror appropriate to an encounter with the numinous and collective aspects of being. Perhaps a churning lava pit of rage awaits, or a tar pit of shame.  Each process takes a unique road through these lower levels, a place Goethe refers to as the return to the Mothers.

“It always seemed to me as if the real milestones were certain symbolic events characterized by a strong emotional tone. You are quite right, the main interest of my work is not concerned with the treatment of neuroses but rather with the approach to the numinous. But the fact is that the approach to the numinous is the real therapy and inasmuch as you attain to the numinous experiences you are released from the curse of pathology. Even the very disease takes on a numinous character.” (Carl Jung, Jung Letters, 1973, 1: 377).

Through the descent, we touch and drink from the transformative waters that bring rebirth to the personality.