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Understanding Jung’s Gradient, by Kelly McGannon, MAR, MA

Saturday, February 01, 2020 7:47 PM | Anonymous

“It has become abundantly clear…that life can flow forward only along the path of a gradient.”

(CW 7, 78)

Since the Fall, several of us in the Jung Society of Washington’s Reading Seminar have debated what Jung meant by “gradient.” The term skips through the Collected Works (CW) like a bright star—all streak and color—but is never defined satisfactorily. You won’t always find it in the indexes, and when you do stumble across it, there’s not much to chew on, as if Jung decided to be annoyingly vague on purpose.

I like elusive concepts. They activate my inner scholar adventurer, compelling me to piece together the tesserae until an image appears. And, this possible image has made a deep impression on me, stunning me with its poetry and beauty.

Before digging into the gradient, it’s important to revisit the energy Jung believed flowed along it. He called it “libido” and “psychic energy,” but we also know it as “chi,” “prana,” “ki,” or “mana.” This energy, which moves through all of life, is like “water” (CW 5, 337). It has a “natural penchant” and crackles with its own intelligence—it wants what it wants. You can’t will it to move or force it to take a particular direction. Nope. This energy acts fastidiously, insistent upon the fulfillment of its own conditions (CW 7, 76, CW 8, 78).

Jung felt that the energy’s flow had a definite direction (goal)—a natural, right way. If you could follow it, then you could realize the Self. “No other way is like yours. All other ways deceive and tempt you. You must fulfill the way that is in you” (Red Book, p. 308). Yet, following one’s natural gradient (way) is much easier said than done. Today, it’s like trying to keep an eye on your True North in whiteout conditions while your man-made, Siri-powered GPS shouts, “Please return to the highlighted route.”

Anyone who has spent time in the proverbial midlife crisis knows the collective is not interested in your self-actualization. It would prefer you go its way, choose its more favorable gradient, and set your energy along its prescribed and unnatural ways.

Such Faustian bargains never turn out well for the Self. Very slowly, the energy of our lives retreats, often goes on walkabout into the unconscious, and waits for us to claim it. Many of us don’t even notice it’s gone until we wake up feeling hollowed out, dried out, and alone. Even Jung succumbed, having first invested his energy on Freud’s gradient before painfully discovering his own.

If you’ve been likewise hooked, don’t fret. You’re in the best place possible to rediscover your gradient. Everything you need is within you. The biggest question is whether you have the courage to go within and sit with what you find. This isn’t overnight work. Jung sat in the tension of his opposites for close to a decade, relying on creativity and curiosity to make sense of it all. His inner voices filled hundreds of pages and gave him everything.

I think one path back to the natural gradient is a radical acceptance of our own humanity—the good, the bad, and the ugly—a willingness to love what we find when we’re with ourselves, and a desire to make amends to the parts we have cast off and neglected. As we become the container for our Self, we have a better chance to listen deeply, honor what we hear, and take authentic action.

Jung said it well in the Red Book, “Protect the riddles, bear them in your heart, warm them, be pregnant with them. Thus you carry the future…Great is the power of the way. In it Heaven and Hell grow together, and in it the power of the Below and the Power of the Above unite” (p. 308). The gradient is the path the heart must take through the mind’s abyss. It is the road that takes us to our holy center and where we become wholly centered.


  • Sunday, August 28, 2022 9:06 AM | Anonymous
    Yes, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Loved and enjoyed your paper. As to the "gradient", it has already carved the path in the labyrinth of the heart while we are in the maze of the mind which is what you are stating, here is my addition, we keep losing our way and chi force bugs us until we get back on the path. But, an important but, it is not the gradient that matters only, it is also all the sideroads that we take while lost. The totality of the journey is collective for the collective experience of life, our lives.
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