The back is that part of the body which is invisible to oneself; keeping the back still symbolizes making the self still. The lower trigram indicates this keeping still of the back, so that one is no longer aware of one’s body, that is, of one’s personality.
Hexagram 52: “Keeping Still, Mountain,” I Ching, Vol. II, (Richard Wilhelm, trans.)
When the flint strikes steel in the moment of conception, a spark of life, whether fertilized in utero or in vitro, worms its way into an ovum, and a journey of metamorphosis begins. In the process, an embryo develops and finds the way to its refuge in the amniotic fluid, floating and dreaming in the warmth of the womb. The alchemical metabolic journey of the personality has begun. The quality of air in every breath the mother takes affects the oxygenated blood that flows through the umbilical cord’s single central vein to the fetus. In response, the two arteries in the cord carry carbon dioxide and waste out.
Every stress and joy that the mother experiences in the outer world is transmitted through the rhythm of her heart, pulsing throughout her shared body. The metabolic qualities of each mouthful of her food influence the early process of accelerated fetal brain development, known as exuberant synaptogenesis. The mother goddess is conditioning the body’s personality to prepare a unique being to be born into the world. Keeping these dynamics in mind, we could use them to model daily self-care for our own precious body.
The child’s awakening at birth is charged with duality from the first cry of chaotic emotions that interrupt the experience of oneness in the womb. This trauma triggers the fight-or-flight response from the sympathetic nervous system. The initial stress at birth is displaced as the archetypal instinct to search for nourishment is awakened. If mother is available and able after birth, the initial flow of her colostrum, the almost narcotic “liquid gold,” dense in nutrients and antibodies, soothes the infant. The golden shadow of paradisal oneness is projected within the union of mother and child. This elixir shifts the infant to the emotionally healing, digestion and procreation supporting, immune enhancing, parasympathetic nervous system. These first alternations of compensatory dualities -- psychic and somatic, diastolic and systolic, dark and golden shadow projections -- are the beginning of the hero’s bio-alchemical object-relations odyssey.
Like a snail in a shell, we are fused with the body’s sympathetic nervous system. This initiates us into a kind of physiological “Eleusinian Mystery,” that helps regulate our rite of passage through the cycle of life and death. Jung explains, “if you could put yourself into your sympathetic nervous system, you would know what sympathy is – you would understand why the nervous system is called sympathetic. You would then feel that you were in everything; you would not feel yourself as an isolated being, would not experience the world and life as your own private experience – as we most certainly do because we are conscious persons. In the sympathetic nervous system, you would experience, not as a person but as [hu]mankind, or even belonging to the animal kingdom; you would experience nothing in particular, but the whole phenomena of life as if it were one” (C. G. Jung, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934-1939, Vol. 1, p. 751).
Once we have lost the refuge of the womb, our dawning awareness within the prima materia may direct us to a sacred marriage within our earthly existence. In order to attain this goal, we will have to integrate the intergenerational transmissions from the karmic legacy of our ancestors: our genetics, epigenetics, a self-destructive culture, and a toxic overheated environment. Jung speaks to this challenge, “At all events, you are a collection of ancestral spirits, and the psychological problem is how to find yourself in that crowd. Somewhere you are also a spirit – somewhere you have the secret of your own pattern,” the quinta essentia of the self. The revelation of that secret may lead us to find refuge in what the alchemists called the “heaven in ourselves” (C. G. Jung, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934-1939, Vol. 2, p. 1401).
One of Jung’s solutions for finding refuge from the burden of stress on his sympathetic nervous system was to build a small stone fortress. Without electricity or running water, cutting his own wood to build a fire, he could step out of the way of the juggernaut of modern technology and collective contagion to find stillness in the primitive comforts of Bollingen. There he could safely commune with his own crowd of ancestral spirits.
If only Jung had a chance to live long enough to have a dialogue with the chatbot ChatGPT after he received the results from 23andMe Holding Co. about his personal ancestral genomics. Somehow, I doubt he would be very surprised by these developments of artificial intelligence and biotechnology. These contemporary “advances” in quick gratification can be pretty scary for many of us, as they develop faster than our comprehension and, as Jung puts it, without “a corresponding development of morality.” It makes sense for us to create our own equivalent Bollingen, to create a sanctuary, for even a day, away from the distractions and incessant spam intrusions from the devices that are trying to create our identity in their image.
Unhealthy eating, with its negative metabolic consequences, now surpasses smoking (only 23% of the world’s population still smoke cigarettes) as the leading cause of avoidable death (or dying longer) in our world of abundance. The internet, pharmaceuticals, and sugar- and carb-spiked food products are often designed for consumption with the built-in intention that the more that consumers use them and remain unconscious of how self-destructive they are, the greater the profit for the manufacturer. Unfortunately, wellbeing is not addictive, as so many self-destructive behaviors and substances are. Jung warns: “Those people who are completely identical with consciousness are often so unaware of the body that the head walks away with them, so they lose control of the body and anything can happen to it: the whole system becomes upset. The brain should be in harmony with the lower nervous system; our consciousness should be in practically the same tune or rhythm. Otherwise, I am quite convinced that under particularly unfavorable conditions one can be killed” (C. G. Jung, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934-1939, Vol. 1, p. 750).
Fortunately, realizations about these sources of suffering and death have motivated the development of research in such fields as nutrition, neuroscience, biotechnology, and detoxification. This has produced significant innovations in healing, preventative healthcare, and extending longevity that are now one of the benefits we might extract from this information age.
The opportunistic pathogenic nature of disease is unkind and penetrates to where we are most vulnerable or unaware. Shadow projections, formed in our object relations encounters, trigger us with a similar dynamic. As we remain ignorant of the signs of triggering and the seeds of illness, toxic substances, infections, and psychic contagion can accumulate in the body. These stresses can activate the immune function that is essential for sustaining life in such a hostile environment. The placement of an antigenic substance, an “inoculum,” into the body will boost immunity to a specific disease. This process is analogous to the alchemical principle of conscious meeting unconscious, creating the prima materia, that enables the integration of the shadow. The strength of our bio-psycho-social immunity is interdependent with the quality of sleep, nourishment, and exercise we give to ourselves. All of these interactions of psyche, matter, and movement occur through the transfer of energy mediated through what the alchemists call the subtle body.
If we can take on this sacred task to get to know our subtle metabolic alchemy, it could save us a lot of pain. Through this process we can discover a revelatory model for transmuting the biochemistry of the body’s personality. We can develop a kind of telepathic connection to the inner self. This relationship can empower us to attain the highest degree of conjunction, the prima materia (what Jung calls “the unknown substance that carries the projection of the autonomous psychic content”) that must be extracted from the sacred bath.” Jung says of this procedure: “In the unconscious are hidden those ‘sparks of light’ (scintillae), the archetypes, from which a higher meaning can be extracted. The magnet that attracts the hidden thing is the Self” (C.G. Jung, Mysterium Coniunctionis, CW 14, par. 700).
If we can become mindfully aware of the fight or flight nature of our sympathetic system, we can turn the reverberating effects of trauma into hormetic stress (intentional, non-chronic, beneficial stress) to create a healing crisis. Then we can build our psychic and bodily immune response to these repeated destructive patterns and eventually dissolve these imprints so that we can occupy our body’s refuge safely and thrive. Paradoxically, to do this, we often need to go “out of body,” through our subtle energy, into a world that can transcend time and space. Here, we may be challenged in an encounter with our own mortality in processes more easily identified with shamanism or the occult.
Promoting these non-ordinary states changes the neurobiological environment so that psychic perception is enhanced and synchronistic occurrences can be experienced in ways that references our individuation needs. This way we can integrate the patterns of ancestral object-relations trauma imprinted in the sympathetic system down to the cellular level. This process may help us recognize that much of our reactivity to what seem to be external triggers and patterns are actually self-generated from the holographic inner narrative that fuels our mythical identity.
This realization, in turn, extends the orbit of our psychic awareness. Jung points out: “But you see, this collective unconscious, in spite of its being everywhere, or in spite of its universal awareness, is located in the body; the sympathetic nervous system of the body is an organ by which you have the possibility of such awareness; therefore you can say the collective unconscious is in the lower centers of the brain and the spinal cord and sympathetic system” (C. G. Jung, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1934-1939, Vol. 1, p. 751).
With practice, we can develop our interoception, a synthesis of internally directed senses that creates perceivable biofeedback from the neuropsychic functions of the body. This experience can help us intentionally moderate our sympathetic/parasympathetic cycle through sensory awareness of our back and spinal cord. We can intentionally deepen our stillness, quieting the personality and freeing us from fear and agitation. This heightened inner awareness, paradoxically, leads to the revelation that our sympathetic system extends past our skin and bone boundaries, past the increase of infrared radiation from a flush of shame that can be detected miles away by a thermal scope. Our presence is conveyed beyond the archetypes and space-time into unconditioned, unbounded spaciousness of being.
Timothy Lyons, LCSW, is a Jungian-oriented psychotherapist in private practice for individuals, couples, and families in Capitol Hill, DC and Takoma Park, MD. For over 25 years, Tim has applied the holistic mind-energy-body connection and the healing power of creativity, imagination, and dreams to his practice as well as to his teaching of depth psychology. He has a certificate for post graduate studies from the Philadelphia Jung Institute and is a frequent presenter at the Jung Society of Washington. His post-graduate studies also include infant observation and art therapy. Tim’s work is further influenced by studies in Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga philosophies, having completed teacher training in Trul Khor (Tibetan yoga). His earlier career as architect and editor includes writing for the Washington Post and lecturing at the Smithsonian Institution.
Check out Tim's upcoming programs at Jung.org/programs