Sunday, February 6, 2011

Essays - Loving the Mystery: Jung on Our "De-psychized" Modern Reality

“… I can leave a lot of things to the Unknown. They do not bother me. But they would begin to bother me, I am sure, if I felt that I ought to know about them.”[1] Jung, Psychological Reflections (1953)

“Only our intellectualized age could have been so deluded as to see in alchemy nothing but an abortive attempt at chemistry, and in the interpretative methods of modern psychology a mere ‘psychologizing,’ i.e. annihiliation, of the mystery. Just as the alchemists knew that the production of their stone was a miracle that could only happen ‘Deo concedente,’ so the modern psychologist is aware that he can produce no more than a description, couched in scientific symbols, of a psychic process whose real nature transcends consciousness just as much as does the mystery of life or of matter….”[2] Jung, “Transformation Symbolism in the Mass” (1954)

“It has yet to be understood that the mysterium magnum is not only an actuality but is first and foremost rooted in the human psyche.” Jung, “Psychology and Alchemy” (1953)[3]

“Much as the achievements of science deserve our admiration, the psychic consequences … are equally terrible. Unfortunately, there is in this world no good thing that does not have to be paid for by an evil at least equally great. People… still have no notion of what it means to live in a de-psychized world. They believe, on the contrary, that it is a tremendous advance, which can only be profitable, for man to have conquered Nature and seized the helm, in order to steer the ship according to his will….”[4] Jung, “Civilization in Transition” (1945)

A few weeks ago I experienced a synchronicity that led to the creation of this essay. At the same time that I was in the process of reading Jolande Jacobi’s collection of Jung’s “psychological reflections”[5] I attended a meeting of a local group I belong to. That day there was a special program with a presentation by Steve Taubman, who, among his many talents and careers, is a professional magician.[6] As our meeting drew to a close Steve entertained us with some magic tricks. We all enjoyed his feats of legerdemain—all but one person, who kept insisting that he show us how he did them. She didn’t like not knowing. The mystery of it she found unpleasant, and as I sat there I recalled Jung’s statement, noted above: We get bothered by what we can’t figure out, by what we cannot know or understand intellectually. We no longer love the mystery.

Jung was aware of how problematic—even dangerous—this attitude is. Why is this? Why is our current attitude to mystery so dangerous? And what would Jung want to see supplant it? This essay will consider these questions: why the current orientation of Western culture is dangerous, and what Jung called for to remedy or lessen the danger. I will conclude with a reference to one way into mystery that Jung felt was particularly powerful and useful. This way we will explore in depth in a subsequent essay.

Our Current Situation

There are many indicators of the dangers we face in our current situation. In this essay I will consider 11 that Jung identified. These are:

Our One-Sidedness.[7] Western culture lacks balance. We put far too much emphasis on logic, linear thinking, and the rationality of the left brain. We are one-sided in our development of our instinct for knowledge, seemingly oblivious of the need to nourish and develop other instincts, like that for spiritual meaning and a sense of purpose in life.[8] We also overvalue external objects, ignoring or denigrating the inner life and intangibles. This is due in part to the materialistic ethos of our culture, with its focus on “getting and spending,”[9] downplaying spirituality and the religious instinct[10] that Jung recognized as a core component of being human.

Our Orientation to the External World. Perhaps in reaction to the many centuries of the Middle Ages, during which Heaven and religion were so central to our culture, we have shifted to a focus on the here-and-now, the material plane, and “success” measured in economic terms.[11] We forget our inner life and fail to recognize or consider our “inner city.”[12] Many times in my dream courses, when I bring up Jung’s concept of the inner city, students look blank, so foreign is the notion that we have an inner life teeming with a wide array of different characters and energies.

Our Arrogance. As Jung’s quote above notes,[13] we believe we can control Nature. We want to believe we are in control of our lives, that we have control over the forces in our world that could impact our future, our safety and security. The ego mind lusts for control, and we don’t want to admit that our logical, left-brained methods of knowing have limits.[14] These ways of knowing form the knowledge base of our culture,[15] and in this we put our faith.

Our Faith in Science. As noted in a previous essay,[16] the knowledge base of our culture is science. When something has to be investigated in any formal (or legal, forensic) way—the way that will have the greatest credibility in our society—we turn to science. But science in its analytical methods fragments life,[17] and brings us “progress” with no sense of all the negatives that come along with it.[18] Science makes us feel we ought to know all things, i.e. there should be nothing unknown, and it encourages a “rootless intellectualism”[19] that has spread beyond the bounds of the sciences to infect the arts and humanities. Jung recognized that, in reality, science is a myth,[20] but it has become so powerful, combined with rationalism and materialism, that it now threatens us with “instant annihilation.”[21] In the realm of psychology it has given rise to an aridity that is woefully unable to address basic psychological truth, even going so far as to deny that the psyche can be a source of knowledge.[22]

Our Lack of Self-Knowledge. When the psyche is dismissed as a source of knowledge what results? Profound confusion and lack of knowledge of ourselves, our inner life, the depths of our being. With the focus of our culture so “out there,” on externals and other people, we have come to the point where we now know more about outer space than about our own selves.[23] We resist looking within and remain completely unaware of the reality and activity of our “inner city.”

Our Skewed Sense of the Meaning of Life. This absence of self-reflection has given us a faulty sense of what life is about.[24] Our culture is so focused on the “newest new thing,” on techniques and technologies and the accumulation of stuff. Materialism would have us believe that our lives will have meaning the more we buy.

Our Living Collective, not Individual Lives. We fall for the blandishments of consumerism because we live collectively, with a herd instinct, following fads and fashions, in an “other-directed” focus on what other people are doing and are into.[25] Jung observed this other-directedness and complained that the modern person now was “not even sure of his own ego.”[26]

The Atrophy of the Human Personality. The result of these collective pressures to conform, consume and “keep up with the Joneses” is that our individual uniqueness has atrophied.[27] We don’t give time or attention to developing the unique set of traits and talents with which we might serve the world. We ignore or forget who we are, why we are here, and what we are meant to do to live out our mission in life. Even discussion of concepts like “mission in life” are met with incomprehension and skepticism in some circles.

Our Fear of the Unknown. There is a generalized fear of the unknown (as I witnessed in the meeting where the magician presented us with magic) that runs through our culture. There are several reasons for this. First, confronting the unknown forces us to recognize that our science—the vaunted knowledge base of our culture—is in fact limited in what it can do, what it can figure out, and how much it can control. Second, facing the unknown makes us aware that we are not fully in control, of our lives or of Nature. Third, admitting that some things are unknown demands that we acknowledge there are aspects of reality that are larger, greater, wiser than we are. So we avoid recognizing unknowns, like our unconscious and the psyche.[28]

Our De-Psychized World. Failure to recognize the reality of the psyche can lead to “psychologizing.” Jung felt that “psychologizing”—using the interpretive methods of modern psychology—devalues the soul.[29] We no longer think much about our souls or our inner lives, and this makes it easy to dismiss and even deny that the psyche exists. We don’t take the time to care for the soul, much less pay attention to its wisdom and guidance.

Our Derision of the Numinous. As noted in Jung’s quote above, we have “stripped all things of their mystery and numinosity: nothing is holy any longer.”[30] In our arrogance, we want to play God. We avoid situations or experiences that might put us in contact with the numinous—with the Divine, with transporting or transcending events, with moments of ecstasy. We also avoid areas of life that force us to confront mystery. If we see a magic show, we want to know how it works; we want to rob it of its mystery. In doing so, we impoverish our lives in fundamental ways. Jung was aware that our derision of the numinous is a catastrophe.[31]

What Jung Hoped to See as Positive Change

Ever the doctor, hoping to heal the world as well as individuals, Jung offered some prescriptions for how we might remedy our perilous situation and forestall annihilation. These prescriptions relate to both individual and collective activities, although Jung always saw change as beginning first with the individual.[32] As more persons take up for themselves the challenges to change, Jung felt that the culture as a whole would improve. Some of the recommendations Jung made include:

Developing a More Balanced Culture. The Western world is too one-sided, too rational, intellectual, enamored of science and material progress. Jung felt we needed, as individuals, to begin to value our imagistic, intuitive right-brained wisdom as much as the verbal logic of the left brain. We need to put psychological truths on a par with the truths of science, and value internal realities and intangibles as much as objects and “stuff.” Alongside scientific ways of knowing we need to have and use the power in symbols. And we must put as high a premium on self-knowledge as we do on material wealth and success.[33]

Developing a More Accurate Sense of Progress. Currently, “progress” is defined only in material and technological terms—inventions, advances in labor-saving machines and methods, greater sophistication in our tools and gadgets. Jung recognized that much more important, for the survival of the human race, was our making progress in non-material terms: in soul growth, in differentiation of personalities (as people separated themselves from the mass), in “perfecting the human personality.”[34] Along with improvement in the material conditions of humanity we need equal concern for psychic development—the nurturance of our souls. Recognizing that the psyche is a valid source of knowledge as much as our intellect,[35] Jung hoped to see the evolution of a society that blended both forms of knowing. Such an integrated knowledge base would encourage ethical development at the same time as it fostered physical growth and improvement.

Restoring Intellectual Humility as a Societal Virtue. But such a shift in perception and values would require a shift of attitude, restoring some of the humility that characterized our world before we came to believe we could play God. We need to admit that we cannot know everything, that there are limits to scientific knowledge.[36] The Unknown is real and we have to face this and be okay with not knowing. Using a term mystics employ, we must appreciate the “cloud of unknowing”[37] and face the fact that we are not in control here, that Nature knows best and that our society would function far more efficiently and effectively if we followed Nature’s ways.[38]

A Reorientation toward the Inner Life. Jung felt that if we want the full picture of reality an outward-turning science is not going to provide it. We need to meld science, and its outer orientation, with inner awareness.

Everywhere one hears the cry for a Weltanschauung; everyone asks the meaning of life and the world…. higher than science or art as an end in itself stands man, the creator of his instruments. Nowhere are we closer to the sublime secret of all origination than in the recognition of our own selves, whom we always think we know already. Yet we know the immensities of space better than we know our own depths, where—even though we do not understand it—we can listen directly to the throb of creation itself.[39]

From his own experience Jung knew that we can discover many of the wonders of creation within our own being, if we resist the blandishments of materialist science (which would pull us out of ourselves) and look within.

More People Taking Up the Task of Individuating. Stepping out of the herd, tending to our souls, refusing to be defined merely as an “intellect” or a tool of science,[40] we can allow ourselves to be guided by our intuition and inner wisdom. We can partner with our “inner friend”[41] and dialogue with our dreams to gain self-awareness and self-knowledge. “Individuation” Jung defined as the process whereby we confront and integrate our shadow side, develop a relationship with our anima or animus and experience the Self (our inner Divine core) to such a degree that the ego comes to recognize its proper place as subordinate to the Self. Such a task requires independence of mind, as well as internalizing the loci of control, of authority, and of security.[42]

Retrieving a Sense of Rootedness. Individuation also involves retrieving our link with our forbears as well as with the wider heritage of our culture. We become aware of the “timelessness” of our psychic foundations and come to recognize that modern political movements, social trends, fads and fashions are (in Jung’s words) “fantastical nonsense,”[43] to which we need pay little heed. What matters is the “real man,”[44] with his two-million-year-old nature.

Loving the Mystery. Finally Jung asks us to appreciate the mystery of life,[45] to

recognize the reality and value of the mysteria tremenda—those experiences in life that are charged with numinosity, that take us out of ourselves and fill us with awe or trembling or a feeling of overwhelment. In the face of such experiences we feel small and acutely aware of our limits. The ego does not like being humbled. With 100+ years of scientism behind us, we must make an effort to refrain from trying to explain (or explain away) the mystery.

A Way into Mystery

Rather than explain away mysteries, Jung would have us reach out to those elements of our heritage that draw upon the power of mystery to nourish our inner life and soul. One of these elements has been a victim of our one-sided stress on logic, science and externals: the symbol. Jung lamented the fact that our time has little use for symbols and the “symbolic life.”[46] What the symbolic life means and why symbols are so valuable are the subjects of the next essay.


Harman, Willis (1988), Global Mind Change. Indianapolis: Knowledge Systems.

Jung, C.G. (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), ”The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), Psychological Reflections, ed. Jolande Jacobi & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

McGaa, Ed (2004), Nature’s Way: Native Wisdom for Living in Balance with the Earth. San Francisco: Harper Collins.

Riesman, David, Nathan Glazer & Reuel Denney (1955), The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character. Garden City NY: Doubleday & Co.

von Franz, Marie-Louise (1964), “The Process of Individuation,” Man and His Symbols, ed. Carl Jung. New York: Dell Publishing.

Wolters, Clifton trans. (1961), The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works. Baltimore: Penguin Books.

n Submitted by Sue Mehrtens

[1] Jung, “Psychology and Religion,” Collected Works, 11, ¶79. As has been the convention in these blog essays, Collected Works will hereafter be abbreviated CW.

[2] CW 11, ¶498.

[3] CW 12, ¶13.

[4] CW 18, ¶1366.

[5] Jung (1970).

[6] Check out Steve’s Web site ( for a sense of the amazing breadth of his skills, interests, talents and careers.

[7] CW 8, ¶426.

[8] CW 8, ¶731.

[9] “The world is too much with us; late and soon/Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:…” William Wordsworth, “The World Is Too Much With Us” (1806).

[10] CW 10, ¶659.

[11] CW 8, ¶426.

[12] Jung referred to the “inner world” (CW 7, ¶317, 325-327). The Jungian analyst Daryl Sharp has called this inner reality our “inner city” and he created a publishing house with this title that is devoted to publishing studies by Jungian analysts about Jung’s thought and its applications.

[13] CW 18, ¶1366.

[14] CW 11, ¶448.

[15] This is how Willis Harman defined science; Harman (1988), 101.

[16] “The Psyche is Real: Materialism, Scientism and Jung’s Empiricism,” posted to this blog site in September 2010.

[17] CW 12, ¶104.

[18] CW 18, ¶1367.

[19] CW 10, ¶701.

[20] CW 9i, ¶302

[21] CW 9i, ¶195.

[22] CW 9ii, ¶269.

[23] CW 8, ¶737.

[24] CW 8, ¶731.

[25] The concept of other-directedness is David Riesman’s; see Riesman, Glazer & Denney (1955), 34-38.

[26] CW 12, ¶104.

[27] CW 8, ¶737.

[28] CW 17, ¶146.

[29] CW 11, ¶448, and CW 18, ¶1366.

[30]Jung (1970), 264.

[31] CW 18, ¶1367.

[32] CW 10, ¶536, and CW 10, ¶719.

[33] CW 8, ¶426.

[34] CW 8, ¶731.

[35] CW 9ii, ¶269.

[36] CW 11, ¶79.

[37] This is the title of an anonymous 14th century essay by an English mystic; see Wolters (1960).

[38] In this regard native peoples have much to teach us, as they developed cultures that were aligned with and sensitive to the natural world; see McGaa (2004).

[39] CW 8, ¶737.

[40] CW 8, ¶731.

[41] This is my term for the source of my dreams. I got this idea when I read Marie-Louise von Franz’s essay “The Process of Individuation,” in which she speaks of the Naskapi Indians’ Mista’peo—“the friend”—that sends them dreams of guidance; see von Franz (1964), 162.

[42] For further definition and elaboration of individuation and its components, see the 4-part essay “Components of Individuation” on this blog site.

[43] CW 10, ¶701.

[44] Ibid.

[45] CW 13, ¶287.

[46] CW 9i, ¶28.

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