This article is concerned with the phenomenological reality of being in between two states of consciousness, drawing from the psychological understanding of Exodus.
But first, I need to make explicit the context of this article.
Borrowing from James P. Driscoll’s Jung’s Cartography of the Psyche, the human psyche is undergoing a Copernican revolution of monumental consequences. The old way was man affirming his independent and sovereign existence through the use of his will. The Faustian bargain “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” defined an entire psychological era of the imposition of the ego’s will over reality.
But what happens when the will (and by extension the ego) fails? What happens when no matter how much one sacrifices, nothing happens? What happens when reality conspires against you to not let you get what you want? What happens when one faces utter defeat in the face of insurmountable challenges?
The will is the amount of libido (i.e., psychic energy) that the ego has freely available over its own instinctual nature. But the will is by no means the entirety of the libido. From automatic behavior, instinctual drives, reflexes, compulsive behaviors, Freudian lapsus, etc. the ego is surrounded from all sides by things that are outside its control.
With the emergence of depth psychology, we are in the collective process of discovering that the ego is not alone in the psyche. There are tremendous forces hidden in the unconscious: Freud established the presence of the id and the super-ego, whereas Jung established the existence of the self and the dual interplay of archetypes and instincts. Following Jung’s lead, the ego has to realize that it is sharing reality at all times with an Other, a second psychic center, that contributes to the homeostasis of the psyche. This Other, the self, is in a paradoxical relationship to consciousness, being at the same time much larger and much smaller than the ego.
From a historical perspective, the existence of the self is nothing new. In Aion, Jung refers to two texts. The first one is a passage from Monoïmos, a second-century (!) Gnostic.
Seek him from out thyself, and learn who it is that taketh possession of everything in thee, saying: my god, my spirit, my understanding, my soul, my body; and learn whence is sorrow and joy, and love and hate, and waking though one would not, and sleeping though one would not, and getting angry though one would not, and falling in love though one would not. And if thou shouldst closely investigate these things, thou wilt find Him in thyself, the One and the Many, like to that little point [kereia], for it is in thee that he hath his origin and his deliverance.
Carl Jung, Aion, CW 9ii, par 347
Edinger comments: “A modern psychologist could not put it more succinctly. This tells us that we should make a discrimination between our own will and the unconscious. The ability to make that distinction is the crucial discovery in the process of an encounter with the Self. We first have to realize that we are not one, but two; there is an Other inside. As this dawns on us, we discover at the same time that much of what we do in our daily life is not our choice at all. We discover ourselves doing things that we had not intended, not to mention overt slips and accidents and other very crude challenges to our inclination. As we become more and more aware of this twoness, we realize the reality of the Self. This is what Monoïmos states.” (Edward Edinger, The Aion Lectures, pp. 162-163)
The second text is The Upanishads, written around between 800 and 500 BC (!!!).
He who dwells in all beings but is separate from all beings, whom no being knows, whose body all beings are, and who controls all beings from within—he, the Self, is the Inner Ruler, the Immortal.
Brihadakanyaka Upanishad, trans. Swami Prabhavananda and F. Manchester
Notably, it is from the Upanishads that Jung took the word “self”. It should be now clear to the reader that, if the framework by which we now attempt to understand the self appears new, analytical psychology is a contemporary reformulation of ideas that are much older. I have written more about the self in another article.
A Copernican Revolution: A Living Experience
In this regard, the Copernican revolution we are currently experiencing is the conscious realization that the unconscious is the axis around which the ego evolves. The ego might be the center of consciousness but consciousness is by no means the entirety of the psyche. The task of individuation then is to take seriously the “stuff” from the unconscious and align the will of the ego along with it.
This cooperation between ego and self is not just a conceptual idea but a living experience. When the unconscious is constellated (i.e., ready for an increase of consciousness), synchronicities increase dramatically. This can lead to a series of positive experiences or adversarial ones, charged with oppressive meaning. It’s as if events orchestrate themselves around us to help us, to corner us to realize that the ego was never fully in charge.
In these circumstances, the will fails and the ego is defeated. One is tempted to call out for help—any savior would do. But this time things are different. No one will come. No one should come. Abandoned, forsaken, ask yourself: “How did I end up here? What mistakes have I committed? What wrongs have I done? What is so important for reality to enclose me like this? What is it that I have to learn?”
When we lose touch with the existence of the self within, its presence turns adversarial. And it will checkmate you if it needs to remind you of that.
Developing a Synchronistic Attitude
In a way, building the ego-self axis is the same as developing a synchronistic attitude. When you wake up from a dream, the right questions to ask are “What psychic facts were conveyed to me? What is it that I need to be aware of?”. Dealing with synchronicities works the same way: one needs to ask questions such as “What am I being shown? What am I being taught? What do I have to learn from this?” or any equivalent.
Without this kind of introspection, we lose the core of the experience which is the nugget of wisdom inherent to any experience, especially antagonistic ones. If we miss the “why” of a synchronicity or of a dream, we remain unchanged, unfazed by the responsiveness of the unconscious. Missing the wisdom of these experiences is missing on soul growth, on what builds one’s character. Therefore, cultivating the wisdom of our experiences is a necessary practice for bearing witness to the fullness of life.
Similarly, unconscious behaviors (such as compulsive addictions, uncontrollable moods, irresistible ideologies) have also to be scrutinized. In a discussion with Marion Woodman, Robert Johnson commented that “Jung often said that one’s symptoms are the speech of God “. Thus the self’s intention and desire for the wholeness of the ego hide in the murkiest and most unlikeable corners of our own being.
Navigating the Opposites
If introspection and self-knowledge are the focus of inner work, outer work is about navigating opposites without lasting identifications with one side over the other.
[O]nce you become familiar with the phenomenon of the opposites, you’ll see it everywhere. It’s the basic drama that goes on in the collective psyche. Every war, every contest between groups, every dispute between political factions, every game, is an expression of coniunctio energies. Whenever we fall into an identification with one of a pair of warring opposites, we then lose the possibility, for the time being anyway, of being a carrier of the opposites. And instead we become one of God’s millstones that grinds out fate.
Edward Edinger, The Mystery of the Coniunctio, p.15
This conflict of opposites is inescapably everywhere. Everything we do gets us a response by different collectives. People respond all the time, providing social feedback. The body responds all the time, providing biological feedback. Dreams respond all the time to every one-sided conscious attitude. Even doing nothing will take a toll on one’s conscience. As soon as we act in an one-sided manner, we stir the forces that regulate homeostasis.
Don’t try to be better than you are, otherwise the devil gets angry. Don’t try to be worse because God gets angry. Try to be what you are, that is acrobatics enough.
Carl Jung, Visions Seminars, Vol.1, page 235
Sink or Swim
To conclude, it is my conviction that we are in a time where the autonomous existence of the unconscious is being affirmed over the ego. Now dethroned, the ego has to learn to cooperate with the greater personality within or risk defeat after defeat. This transitional process will not be achieved overnight and yet has to be mastered as a living reality.
With this context in mind, we can draw parallels to the Exodus out of Egypt. Just like the Israelites, we have to leave the intolerable pharaonic slavery of the old consciousness in search of a better future.
In this temporary period of being in-between states, we must first respectfully close our ties to the old world.
Our best friend in this process will be grief. Despite many preconceptions, grief is life-affirming because it accepts that things are over, that there is nothing to be done anymore but to move on. This cannot be done intellectually but must be embodied and processed emotionally.
Just as the decay of the conscious dominant is followed by an irruption of chaos in the individual, so also in the case of the masses … and the furious conflict of elements in the individual psyche is reflected in the unleashing of primeval bloodthirstiness and lust for murder on a collective scale. This is the sickness so vividly described in the Cantilena. The loss of the eternal images is in truth no light matter for the man of discernment. But since there are infinitely many more men of no discernment, nobody, apparently, notices that the truth expressed by the dogma has vanished in a cloud of fog, and nobody seems to miss anything. The discerning person knows and feels that his psyche is disquieted by the loss of something that was the life-blood of his ancestors. The undiscerning … miss nothing, and only discover afterwards in the papers (much too late) the alarming symptoms that have now become “real” in the outside world because they were not perceived before inside, in oneself, just as the presence of the eternal images was not noticed. If they had been, a threnody for the lost god would have arisen, as once before in antiquity at the death of Great Pan. Instead, all well-meaning people assure us that one has only to believe he is still there—which merely adds stupidity to unconsciousness. Once the symptoms are really outside in some form of sociopolitical insanity, it is impossible to convince anybody that the conflict is in the psyche of every individual, since he is now quite sure where his enemy is. Then, the conflict which remains an intrapsychic phenomenon in the mind of the discerning person, takes place on the plane of projection in the form of political tension and murderous violence. (Carl Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14, par 510)
Western culture did not have a threnody for the decaying dominant of consciousness, the dogmatic Christian worldview. It is incumbent to each individual to mourn the incalculable loss that comes with it. The most sobering account of this process can be found in Peter Kingsley’s Catafalque.
A discussion of grief starts at 10:36.
Transition: The Red Sea
Once we leave the tyranny behind, we must first survive the Red Sea. What is the psychological understanding of crossing the Red Sea?
In Mysterium Coniunctionis (CW 14), Jung discusses the symbolism of the Red Sea first by quoting Honorius of Autun, “the Red Sea is the baptism reddened by the blood of Christ, in which our enemies, namely our sins, are drowned.” (ibid., par. 256). Expanding on some gnostic material, he writes “The Red Sea is a water of death for those that are “unconscious,” but for those that are “conscious” it is a baptismal water of rebirth and transcendence. By “unconscious” are meant those who have no gnosis, i.e., are not enlightened as to the nature and destiny of man in the cosmos. In modern language it would be those who have no knowledge of the contents of the personal and collective unconscious. The personal unconscious is the shadow and the inferior function, in Gnostic terms the sinfulness and impurity that must be washed away by baptism. The collective unconscious expresses itself in the mythological teachings, characteristic of most mystery religions, which reveal the secret knowledge concerning the origin of all things and the way to salvation. ” (ibid., par. 257)
In psychological language, crossing the Red Sea is leaving the tyranny of the super-ego and surviving the waters of the unconscious, reddened by the self. (Note: please refer to Edinger’s Ego and Archetype for an interpretation of how the blood of Christ and the redness are linked with the Red Sea.)
There is also a great emphasis on the purifying aspect of this crossing as the waters drown sinfulness. This indicates that a thorough examination of the content of the personal unconscious, the shadow, is necessary to get unharmed on the other side.
““Unconscious” people who attempt to cross the sea without being purified and without the guidance of enlightenment are drowned; they get stuck in the unconscious and suffer a spiritual death in so far as they cannot get beyond their one-sidedness. To do this they would have to be more conscious of what is unconscious to them and their age, above all of the inner opposite, namely those contents to which the prevailing views are in any way opposed. . . . We should get along a lot better if we realized that the majority views of “others” are condoned by a minority in ourselves.” (ibid., par 257-258)
To be less unconscious, Jung recommends going beyond our one-sidedness by abandoning our certainty in prevailing views and engage with any other side. From there, we can collect many threads to the personal unconscious: every affect that arises by engaging with others is a minority within us that we should learn to know better. The more vilified, rejected, despised the other, the more necessary the shadow work is.
Crossing the Red Sea doesn’t lead directly to the Promised Land but to forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Psychologically, this means that after a descent into the unconscious, one will experience disorientation, confusion, and alienation for an extended period of time.
Interestingly, the Israelites stop at a place called Marah, meaning bitterness. Thus bitterness is a prevalent psychological condition that is experienced during the exile. What can we learn from the symbolism of bitterness?
Unsurprisingly, bitterness is associated with salt in alchemy. This association is even found in common language: when losing at video games, one is “salty” which translates to angered, frustrated, bitter. Similarly, another line of association of salt is wisdom. “To take something with a grain of salt” and “to be worth one’s salt” indicate that salt is a measure of good judgment.
As it is usually the case when discussing symbolism, we find extremes on either side: if the lack of salt is a problem, the excess of salt is no solution either. Salt is a great equalizer, and therefore to notice its absence or overwhelming presence is a sign of being out of balance. Jung concludes:
The most outstanding properties of salt are bitterness and wisdom. As in the double quaternio of the elements and qualities, earth and water have coldness in common, so bitterness and wisdom would form a pair of opposites with a third thing between. The factor common to both, however incommensurable the two ideas may seem, is, psychologically, the function of feeling. Tears, sorrow, and disappointment are bitter, but wisdom is the comforter in all psychic suffering. Indeed, bitterness and wisdom form a pair of alternatives: where there is bitterness wisdom is lacking, and where wisdom is there can be no bitterness.
ibid., par 330
Bitterness is an excess of feelings, thus a lack of wisdom. One is overwhelmed at the apparent injustice of the world and we feel like helpless victims of a cosmic ploy. However, even if the suffering is real, we might be missing on a greater context that would put our subjective happenings into the comfort of a reality larger than our current myopic worldview.
Exile in Dreams
If Exodus is an archetypal story of individuation from an old level of consciousness (Egypt) to a new level of consciousness (the Promised Land), how does it look like in contemporary times? I’ve chosen two short dreams that, in my estimation, give us an educated glimpse into what’s ahead.
I dreamed that the earth was destroyed and that Tony Stark sacrificed himself to drive a spaceship “cocoon” and transport the sun to a new solar system to help sustain life.
“The earth was destroyed” brings the theme of exile as necessary survival, having to move on from the old to the new. The new solar system with its ability to sustain life symbolizes the new level of consciousness. (Note: solar consciousness = highest/life-giving form of consciousness).
This transition is achieved by the self-sacrifice of a heroic figure (Tony Stark) who has to drive a spaceship cocoon. The spaceship can be seen as the alchemical vessel of transformation. While it is not explicitly stated in the dream, I see this cocoon as an emphasis on the necessity of isolation to do inner work: a sealed crucible is necessary to work on the prima materia, on unconscious contents, otherwise we risk contagion and impurities from the exterior world.
In short, the dream outlines the future development of a transformation of consciousness by a sacrificial act, by the voluntary sealing of a heroic attitude in a hermetic vessel. If the dreamer lived around the alchemist, his dream would have looked like this.
We can see Hermes (Tony Stark) leaving the earth towards the sun in an alchemical vessel (spaceship “cocoon”).
Image found in Psychology and Alchemy, CW 12, illustration 22.
I was listening to Jonathan Pageau and another orthodox priest talking about the value of faith, ritual, and prayer done right. They were uncomfortable and uneasy in the way they were emphasizing the correctness. It implied that if things did not go right, they would go seriously wrong.
In this dream of mine, the dream ego is faced with the seriousness of learning orthodoxy, which associates with the right way, manners, and rituals of a religious attitude. The teachers hint at the fact that there are great risks if this is not learned correctly. This dream came after some resentment and bitterness, wondering why I had not seen any opportunity for weeks. This allowed me to recontextualize my situation.
Taken together, these two dreams show that isolation (forced or voluntary, preferably) is a necessary part for the ego to reach the new level of consciousness. This transitional time has a definite purpose, which is for the ego to learn the ways of the unconscious.
Much is left to be discussed on how one should cross the wilderness. This article only hints at some of the necessary experiences that are found at the beginning of the wandering. According to Exodus, it took two generations/forty years to go through the desert, therefore one should not be too hopeful about this period of adaptation being dealt with easily.
In fact, the crossing of the Red Sea as an encounter with the unconscious opens up a whole new phenomenal world to the ego. This offers us no less than the obligation to relinquish the supremacy of the will, and work on mastering a new way of being by taking into account the unconscious for each and every significant conscious decision.
“The continuation of the opus leads to the dangerous crossing of the Red Sea, signifying death and rebirth. … [B]ecoming conscious of the whole psyche faces us with a highly problematical situation. We can indicate its scope in a single question: What am I to do with the unconscious?
For this, unfortunately, there are no recipes or general rules. I have tried to present the main outlines of what the psychotherapist can observe of this wearisome and all too familiar process in my study “The Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious.” (CW 7) For the layman these experiences are a terra incognita which is not made any more accessible by broad generalizations. Even the imagination of the alchemists, otherwise so fertile, fails us completely here. Only a thorough investigation of the texts could shed a little light on this question. The same task challenges our endeavours in the field of psychotherapy. Here too are thousands of images, symbols, dreams, fantasies, and visions that still await comparative research. The only thing that can be said with some certainty at present is that there is a gradual process of approximation whereby the two positions, the conscious and the unconscious, are both modified. Differences in individual cases, however, are just as great as they were among the alchemists.” (Carl Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14, par 274-275)
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