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Experiences of the numinous are not exceptional and are hardly restricted to saints, monks, and mystics. Indeed, they occur in various degrees of voltage in the experience of ordinary folks. Not unlike dreams, numinous experiences need to be received and empathically understood for their transformative potency to be realized. These experiences intimate to ego consciousness the presence and power of the Self.
Jung asserts the primary value of the numinous experience is its ability to have a powerfully disjunctive impact on consciousness, an impact that brings the conscious ego into right relationship with the Self. While the content of that experience, the numinous image itself, is not unimportant, greater importance is given to its actual impact on consciousness. Its effect is to remind my conscious ego that it is seen by the Self, reminding ego consciousness that it emerges from and is grounded in a more profound and vital psychic matrix. The very specific content of the image and its condensed symbolic meanings complement the essence of that corrective transformative action.
After a point in life, the ego optimally comes to instinctively know the Self, recognizing its presence and remembering other such encounters. Some numinous experiences are intense moments of encounter with the Self that re-mind the ego of its relativity and its origin in Self. Although such moments have great affective charge and are potentially transformative, they are part of an ongoing dialectic, what Jung in Aion calls a “circular opus” (CW9ii, para.419), that is moments in a “step-by-step development of self from unconscious state to a conscious state” (CW9ii, para. 418) The work towards individuation, towards wholeness, towards full realization of one’s Self is the aspirational work of a lifetime, always elusive and never fully realized.
As “dark” implies mystery and depth, it also connotes the potential for blindness and evil. Jung also recognized the dangers of the numinous, both individually and collectively. While optimally the numinous is a catalyst for individuation, it also holds the potential for psychic possession and even psychosis. The numinous can hold group psychology in its thrall with dangerous and terrible consequences, as recent collective history bears witness.
John Michael Hayes has had a long career as a psychologist and psychoanalyst in the Baltimore-Washington area. He holds a Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America and graduated from the Washington School of Psychiatry and the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. He also holds degrees in theology from St. Mary’s Seminary and Nashotah House Theological Seminary and is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.
John has held faculty positions at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Loyola University Maryland, and the Washington School of Psychiatry. He currently serves as an instructor and supervisor in the psychiatry residency program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and teaches at the Washington-Baltimore Psychoanalytic Institute and at the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary and University.
John did two years at the C.G. Jung Institute in the 1990’s, and several years ago returned to complete the requirements for graduation from the Jungian Psychoanalytic Association in New York City. This evening’s presentation is taken from his graduation thesis.
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