Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditionsby Richard Smoley
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Contemporary seekers on the hunt for an overview of the Western mystery traditions often face a small selection of dense, out-of-date tomes. Alternatively, Hidden Wisdom is a fresh, coherent, and accessible work that expounds many of the teachings of Western esotericism, examining its key figures and movements.
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A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions
By Richard Smoley, Jay Kinney
Theosophical Publishing HouseCopyright © 2006 Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney
All rights reserved.
JUNG AND THE DISCOVERY OF THE UNCONSCIOUS
Psychology is an infant science. Although reflections on human nature can be found as far back as the written record goes, the scientific investigation of the mind goes back scarcely more than a century. Indeed, many date its beginning to the publication of Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams in 1900.
Freud's great insight, discussed first in this book and elaborated in his later writings, was actually the discovery of what we don't know: the subconscious, that great unfathomed area of the mind that contains fears, longings, and terrors so deep that we live in ignorance of them. Freud regarded the subconscious as the region of primal desires—principally sexual desires—that the conscious mind cannot accept and has chosen to repress. For the rest of his long career, he would try to unearth the mysteries of this nether region as they were disclosed in dreams, jokes, and slips of the tongue.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of Freud's discovery. Much of twentieth-century thought would have been impossible without it. But Freud's views had been in circulation only a short while when other psychiatrists, including some of his own pupils, began to find fault with them. One issue had to do with spirituality.
Freud had little patience with religious manifestations of any sort. He regarded mystical experience, with its sense of merging with a greater whole, as an unconscious attempt to recapture the "oceanic" quality of the infantile state, when the individual does not yet see himself as an "I" distinct from the rest of the world. Freud also mistrusted religion, seeing it as the product of a repressed libido.
For some of his associates, this view failed to do justice either to the richness of religious experience or to the heights of human spiritual aspiration. Foremost of those who took issue with Freud on this score was Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961), a Swiss psychiatrist who had long been fascinated by the occult (he wrote his dissertation on psychic phenomena). Jung became interested in Freud's ideas and finally met him in 1907. The two men rapidly became close friends, and at one point Freud even seemed to be grooming Jung to be his successor as leader of the psychoanalytic movement. After several years, however, Freud and Jung went their separate ways. Though personal issues contributed to their estrangement, they had also begun to differ on their views of the psyche, especially the unconscious.
THE DISCOVERY OF THE ARCHETYPES
Jung spent most of the first decade of the twentieth century as staff psychiatrist of the Burghölzli, a respected Swiss mental hospital. His clinical work there with psychotic and schizophrenic patients led him to make an odd observation. He found that their fantasies and delusions often bore a striking resemblance to ancient myths—even when there was no way they could have read or heard of those myths.
One celebrated case involved a patient diagnosed with paranoid dementia. In Jung's description, "The patient sees in the sun an 'upright tail' similar to an erected penis. When he moves his head back and forth, then, too, the sun's penis sways back and forth in a like manner, and out of that the wind arises."
To most people, this weird delusion might seem meaningless. Not to Jung. He noticed that it resembled a text from the Mithra cult, a mystery religion that flourished in the late Roman Empire. The text reads, "In like manner the so-called tube, the origin of the ministering wind, will become visible. For it will appear to you as a tube hanging down from the sun."
How could this coincidence be explained? The patient was hardly likely to have read the text, since institutionalized psychotics rarely keep abreast of classical scholarship; besides, the man had been admitted to the asylum years before the document was published. To explain this case, and others like it, Jung posited an unconscious layer of the mind that is more than a mere collection of repressed desires. It is common to all humankind and, he argued, serves as a repository not only for the images of our dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations, but also for the universal symbols of myth and religion. Jung would come to call this realm the collective unconscious. The symbols themselves were produced by forces he called archetypes.
Like Freud, Jung gave central importance to the role of unconscious drives or instincts in the human psyche. Whereas Freud thought these could for the most part be traced to the sex drive, Jung considered such a view too simplistic. In addition to the ordinary instincts designed to preserve self and species, Jung came to see another, even more important drive: the drive toward self-realization. He understood the archetypes as forces that urge us, sometimes gently, sometimes harshly, toward this greater wholeness.
Today, books and magazines are full of talk about "self-realization" and "greater wholeness." But the more one looks into these ideas, the more elusive they seem. What is the "self" that I'm supposed to realize? Does it exist already, or do I make it up as I go along? For that matter, how does it differ from the "I" that I am now? Such questions cut to the heart of Jung's psychology. They also show why his ideas have found their way into discussions of esoteric and mystical traditions.
Most forms of psychotherapy have one chief aim: to resolve various kinds of problems—depression, anxiety, sexual or emotional dysfunction—and help people live more balanced lives. There is nothing wrong with this goal, but it does not address the ultimate meaning of human existence. Jung believed that unless one faces this question, particularly in the second half of life, one cannot, in the deepest sense, be sane or healthy. Why? Because the ordinary street-level self, the "I" that goes to work and pays the bills and watches TV, is not the whole self.
THE EGO AND THE SELF
Jung distinguished what he called the ego, the conscious "I" that we normally identify with, from the Self which is the center of our being, conscious and unconscious, and which of course is much larger than the ego. Jung's pupil Marie-Louise von Franz likened the Self to the center of an enormous dark sphere, with the conscious ego as only a small patch of light on the surface. Most modern people lack any means of extending this patch of light so that it illuminates more of the whole, and this disconnection from our own deepest being accounts for the anomie that troubles our lives.
Jung also tells us that this dissociation is not complete. The archetypes leak through the porous barriers of consciousness in various forms, especially through dreams. Working with dream images can thus help bring the hidden treasures of the unconscious to light.
In Jung's view, dreams have two basic functions. In the first place, they show what's going on in the unconscious. As we grow, change, and adjust to the storms and stresses of daily life, the unconscious must make adjustments of its own. These adjustments are reflected in our dreams, which in their strange, allusive language, with its peculiarly logical illogic, serve as a kind of seismograph, indicating the shifts and movements of the psyche.
Often the unconscious seems entirely capable of regulating our psychic equilibrium without any help from the conscious ego. But this isn't always true, a fact that leads to the second function of dreams: The ego is just as much a part of our nature as anything else, and it too has to be brought into the picture. Sometimes it even has to be told where it's off base. This probably explains those dreams whose meaning is all too clear, even to the rational mind. Jung cites an amusing example:
There was ... a lady who was well known for her stupid prejudices and her stubborn resistance to reasoned argument. One could have argued with her all night to no effect; she would have taken not the slightest notice. Her dreams, however, took a different line of approach. One night, she dreamed she was attending an important social occasion. She was greeted by the hostess with the words: "How nice that you could come. All your friends are here, and they are waiting for you." The hostess then led her to the door and opened it, and the dreamer stepped through—into a cowshed!
Clearly the unconscious has a vested interest in communicating with the street-level ego, which has the choice of accepting or refusing the insights offered. But what about the ego? Is it in its turn interested in listening to and speaking to the unconscious?
Usually it isn't. We are, of course, occasionally disturbed by nightmares or warned away from disaster by some premonitory dream. But in most cases the ego and the unconscious are dissociated from each other, like two completely separate people who rent out different stories of the same building. This is the predicament of modern humanity, which has worked so hard to reinforce the conscious mind at the expense of older, more primitive (but more vital) dimensions. Overcoming this split requires tremendous courage and effort, but only if we overcome it will we find richness and fulfillment in life. Forging a conscious relationship with the Self is known as individuation. It is the goal of Jungian analysis.
How does individuation take place? How does one introduce the ego to the unconscious? As we've seen, the barrier between these two aspects of the psyche is permeable. It is more open in sleep, when mental activity is occupied by dreams, and it tends to be more closed when exposed to the bright light of daytime consciousness.
Yet even when we're awake, the barrier is occasionally let down a bit. This can happen spontaneously during times of emotional crisis or depression. Following the French psychologist Pierre Janet, Jung called this state the abaissement du niveau mental, or "lowering of the mental level." It is the "dark night of the soul" mentioned by the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, the "dark wood" in which Dante finds himself lost at the opening of his Inferno. In deeply disturbed cases, like the patient who saw the tube coming out of the sun, this "lowering" is often more or less permanent, allowing unconscious elements to leak through all the time.
Jung evolved his own way of "lowering the mental level" of the psyche during his sessions with patients. He called it active imagination and described it as
a method ... of introspection for observing the stream of interior images. One concentrates one's attention on some impressive but unintelligible dream-image; or on a spontaneous visual impression, and observes the changes taking place in it. Meanwhile, of course, all criticism must be suspended and the happenings observed and noted with absolute objectivity. Obviously, too, the objection that the whole thing is "arbitrary" and "thought up" must be set aside, since it springs from the anxiety of an ego-consciousness which brooks no master besides itself in its own house.
Active imagination is the chief "meditative practice" of Jungian psychology; indeed Jung was probably thinking of this technique when he urged that Western man "remain true to himself and develop out of his own nature all that the East has brought forth from its inner being"
How does it work? Usually the patient brings in a recent dream, or sometimes a daydream. Then, under the analyst's guidance, the patient is encouraged to take a character or symbol from the dream and work with it in the way described above. Sometimes several dream images or characters are imagined together and allowed to interact in the arena of the patient's imagination. In other cases, say where a dream has ended at a particularly critical or dramatic point, the patient will use active imagination to continue the dream and try to resolve the issues it presents.
Working with an analyst in this fashion over a course of time (usually several years), patients often find that the symbols in their dreams and fantasies change remarkably. Working with many clients over his career, Jung began to find some similarities in the ways their inner lives were changed by exploring the unconscious. Although he always stressed the importance of individual differences, he eventually drew a general portrait of the process of individuation.
Individuation requires us to face the archetypes that lie hidden below the threshold of conscious thought, as well as the complexes, the bundle of emotionally charged individual associations in which the archetypes are wrapped. In his writings, Jung describes a number of common archetypes including the trickster, the hero, and the wise old man. But individuation can be seen primarily as an encounter with three archetypes: the shadow, the anima/animus, and the Self.
THE SHADOW KNOWS
A radio show in the 1940s used to ask: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows." This is not far from Jung's view. "The shadow coincides with the 'personal' unconscious (which corresponds to Freud's conception of the unconscious)," he writes. "The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is thrusting itself upon him directly or indirectly."
As Jung points out, the realm of the shadow is the area where his psychology most resembles Freud's. Much of Freud's psychology had to do with repressed drives—desires or aversions that the conscious mind cannot accept and must push into the background. But as both Freud and Jung understood, these urges are usually only imperfectly concealed. They "thrust themselves" upon us in various forms, ranging from jokes and slips of the tongue to dreams and phobias. Or, as Jung would say, we may project them onto somebody else. Projection is Jung's term for that uneasy compromise whereby one sees one's own faults in others but not in oneself.
Because the shadow consists of precisely those things we don't want to admit about ourselves, it's particularly susceptible to projection. Hence Jung's metaphor: The shadow is the dark image that we cast onto others. We all project our shadows as individuals upon other individuals, but Jung also saw this as a collective phenomenon, something to which nations, races, and various social subgroups can succumb. Here the results are disastrous. Of the Third Reich, Jung wrote:
This spectacle recalls the figure of what Nietzsche so aptly calls the "pale criminal," who in reality shows all the signs of hysteria. He simply will not and cannot admit that he is what he is; he cannot endure his own guilt, just as he could not help incurring it. He will stoop to every kind of self-deception if only he can escape the sight of himself.... A feeling of inferiority ... can easily lead to an hysterical dissociation of the personality, which consists essentially in one hand not knowing what the other is doing, in wanting to jump over one's shadow, and in looking for everything dark, inferior, and culpable in others.
This is a good description of projection of the collective shadow. The remedy, however, is more easily described than carried out: One must recognize these forces in oneself and see them clearly, without yielding to them: "It is everybody's allotted fate to become conscious of and learn to deal with this shadow." Unfortunately, this mandate is still harder to fulfill on a group level, where even comparatively sane people can be overcome by the spirit of the mob. Hence Jung tended to mistrust collective efforts and instead held out more hope for individual transformation. It was no coincidence that he called his method of development "individuation."
Yet the shadow cannot be equated solely with evil. It simply consists of what we can't accept about ourselves; thus its contents, however terrifying they may appear to us personally, are from an objective point of view often quite innocent. They may even include positive qualities that for one reason or another we can't acknowledge in ourselves.
THE OTHER SEX WITHIN
Having encountered the shadow—and Jungians stress that this encounter will continue throughout our lives—the individual may then find another archetype lurking behind it. "In the unconscious of every man there is hidden a feminine personality, and in that of every woman a masculine personality," Jung wrote. To the female aspect of a man he gave the name anima; the male aspect of a woman he called the animus.
Excerpted from Hidden Wisdom by Richard Smoley, Jay Kinney. Copyright © 2006 Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney. Excerpted by permission of Theosophical Publishing House.
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I found this book to be rigourous, well researched and well written. It presents many of more popular traditional and new religious and spiritual movements and explains them in a thorough and thoughtful way. It is one of the best researched and well documented books I have ever seen on comparitive religion and spiritual subjects. The authors have successfully distilled the essence of many traditional and modern belief systems to understandable and digestable content.