In writing about “The Aims of Psychotherapy” in 1929, Jung observed that the therapeutic project is less about “cure,” for life is not a disease, but an on-going experiment to be lived through. So, the common work, he asserts, “is less a question of treatment than of developing the creative possibilities latent within the patient.” (CW 16, para.82)
As projects of nature, we are infinitely adaptable, resilient, and resourceful. Without these attributes, this animal species we are would not have been able to survive the perils of this planet. Just as we adapt to the various powers around us, adaptations that often distort, even violate our own souls, so we manage to wedge ourselves into the narrow slots where external forces so often maneuver us. While these adaptations allow us to fit into our family structures, or social environments, they also tend to cost us a great deal. Every adaptation, however obliged by outer pressures, risks a further injury to the psyche which will not go unaddressed by the soul. So, bombarded as we are by the cacophonous claims of contemporary culture, we find ways to fit in; and the hidden cost of doing so shows up in our disturbing dreams, our anaesthetizing addictions, or our sundry forms of denial or distraction. How many of us, for example, have tried to do “the right thing,” as defined by our family messages, our cultural imperatives and prohibitions, or by succumbing to the pressures of the hour, and then felt empty within, used, exploited, betrayed somehow? The perverse irony is that these same adaptations that often allow us to “fit in,” become traps, constraints which also contain or deform the developmental desires that course through us as well.
When we understand psychopathology as the quite legitimate protest of the psyche, a summons to take seriously a wider range of life’s choices, we realize that we do have an internal guidance system. If I am doing all “the right things,” why is it I have to keep forcing the energy, fighting off the doubts, depressions, and keep trying to stay ahead of whatever is pursuing me?
Jung speaks to this common phenomenon quite clearly and powerfully. He notes that so many of his cases “are not suffering from any clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and aimlessness of their lives. I should not object if this were called the general neurosis of our age.” (Ibid. para. 83).
Most of us really “know” what is right for us, though we may be frightened or intimidated to know what we already know. As Jung put it, “Most of my patients knew the deeper truth, but did not live it. And why did they not live it? Because of that bias which makes us all live from the ego, a bias which comes from overvaluation of the conscious mind.” (Ibid., para 108). And by “conscious mind,” generally Jung means the mind that is occupied by the complex triggered in that moment. So, seldom are we “in our right mind.” Most of the time we are subsumed by, and serving, the invisible text of a “message,” which means we serve the received authority rather than our own deepest promptings.
So much of the self-help genre prattles on about “happiness.” “Thirty Days to this or That...”. “Five Easy Steps to…”. You fill in the blanks. But this Pablum does not feed the soul, fire the spirit, create the new world. The pursuit of “happiness” is delusory. It is a by-product of those rare moments of détente, of concordance between our external choices and our internal reality. As he writes in another essay, “Psychotherapy and a Philosophy of Life,” “the principle aim of psychotherapy is not to transport the patient to an impossible state of happiness but to help him acquire steadfastness and philosophic patience in the face of suffering. Life demands for its completion and fulfillment a balance between joy and sorrow.” (Ibid., para 185).
In the end, we prove to be more than just social animals; we are meaning-seeking, meaning-creating creatures. As Jung notes, “The least of things with a meaning is always worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” (op. cit., para 45).
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.