I have mentioned a number of times in this blog that I test software for a living. In software testing you are being paid to find bugs in the software and, although the quality of the software relies on the whole team and even the best tester can’t make crap software good, the tester is usually in the firing line when a bug makes it through to the real world. The dynamic is this: upper management finds out about the bug, usually because a customer complains, and they want to know how it got through. In their minds, it’s the tester’s fault. This makes sense as they are paying the tester to find bugs. So, they come to you for an explanation of why you didn’t find the bug.
Especially early in your career, this is a stressful moment and it’s often made more stressful because the bug is really obvious. It’s the kind of thing anybody could have found and yet you missed it. This looks really bad for you and you know that it’s natural that other people will be questioning not just your competence at your job but perhaps the correct functioning of your mental faculties in general. “Are you a complete moron?” they are probably asking themselves. “Only a complete moron could have missed this problem.”
Missing things that are right in front of our nose is unfortunately not just the exclusive domain of morons. It happens to the best of us. It happens because we only see in the world what we are looking for. This is sometimes called selective attention. For those who haven’t seen it, this is the classic video to demonstrate the concept. If you haven’t done the exercise before, make sure to follow the instructions without reading anything in the comments first.
Software testers must learn to mitigate the bias caused by selective attention by having a variety of heuristics or mental models that we cycle through. A way to think about this is a series of looking glasses that you hold over your eyes. Each will give you a perspective on the world but there is no one perspective that has the complete picture. The trick is to remember this fact and understand that there is always another perspective and always the possibility that you are missing something.
With these considerations in mind, we can say that Jungian psychology is just one lens upon the world and we need to be aware of where it fits into the scheme of things. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Jung and Freud introduced this lens to the modern west. Although there were fringe traditions in the west that had been dealing with the psychic realm for some time, there was little notion of the unconscious in the general culture. As the west began to learn about eastern traditions in the 1800s, it was noted that the East had a much more psychological bent.
Another way to say this is that the west was well behind on psychological understanding until Jung and Freud showed up. The 20th century was the time when the west discovered psychology. We set about putting the new knowledge to work in positive ways like psychotherapy where we help individuals with personal psychic problems. The knowledge has also been put to use in mass propaganda campaigns, advertising, government “nudge” units and other less salubrious agendas. Looking at the current state of the western psyche, you’d have to say that the lessons of psychology haven’t prevented society from being overwhelmed by malefic psychic forces; a possibility Jung was painfully aware of and did his best to try and mitigate.
James Hillman pointed out the problem in his book “We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse.” Is this is a problem with psychology itself? Would it be solved if we only switched from the Freudian paradigm where repressed sexual desire causes all problems to a Jungian paradigm? Perhaps. But such solutions locate the problem within psychology itself and we must remember the point made above: psychology is just one area of study dealing with one aspect of life. Maybe the problem also lies elsewhere.
Therefore, we need to locate psychology within a broader framework and in doing so we’ll clear up an ambiguity that’s been present throughout this series of posts which is the difference between initiation and individuation. I’ve been using the two concepts as synonyms but, as we’ll see, they belong to different frames of reference.
For our purposes here, I’m going to use a bastardised mix of concepts. What we are talking about are levels of being and there are entire systems of metaphysics that go into this in great detail. My purpose here is to just provide a high level overview of the basics. With that said, here’s a sketch.
|Level of Being||Faculty||Field of Study|
|Spiritual||Transcendental intuition (revelation)||Religion (esoteric)|
|Mental||Intellect (reason, logic, dialectic)||Philosophy|
|Psychic (soul)||Dreams, imagination, art, visions, emotions||Biology/zoology (instinct), psychology|
|Etheric||Vibe, animal magnetism||N/A|
|Material||Body, five senses||Physics, chemistry|
Now, in some sense this table is a lie. After all, you can’t study physics and chemistry using just your sense organs. You’ll need to engage the mental too and, although modern scientists don’t like to admit it, the psychic also plays a role and so too does the spiritual. It’s also true that the levels of being interact with one another. Jung started out as a doctor and part of his research involved the discovery that problems with the psyche can also manifest on the material plane as physical illness. As far as I know, the mental plane hasn’t been shown to cause physical illness, although anybody who’s had to trudge through Kant, Hegel and Heidegger might disagree.
Jung’s life work was spent in the psychic domain but one of the things that differentiated him from Freud was that Freud was intent on explaining psychology from the “lower levels”. He wanted to show how instinct, especially sexual instinct, was the root cause of all psychological complexes. Jung, on the other hand, was always more interested in the interface between the psychic and the spiritual.
Sorting out the difference between the psychic, the mental and the spiritual is a very tricky business involving all kinds of tangles. The philosopher, Kierkegaard, for example, showed in a number of his works that you cannot reason your way to the spirit. No amount of logic or dialectic can get “access” to the spiritual and, in fact, when analysed in rational terms, the spiritual is absurd. He concluded that one must simply take a leap of faith. Others, including the more noisy atheists of our time, take the same observation and conclude that the spiritual can be dispensed with entirely.
If we take accounts of spiritual experience seriously, we say that access to the spiritual is through what we might call “intuition”; a kind pure intellect. Jung defines it this way – “The seat of faith, however, is not consciousness but spontaneous religious experience, which brings the individual’s faith into immediate relation with God.” (The Undiscovered Self, p.62) However, in other places Jung also says that spiritual experience is always mediated through the unconscious. This ambiguity between the psychic and the spiritual can also be seen in Jung’s calls for psychotherapists and priests to team up to deal with the psychic/spiritual problems besetting modern man.
To draw a clearer picture of the distinction between the spiritual and the psychic, we can introduce another thinker who was just nine years younger than Jung: Rene Guenon (thanks again to commenter Austin for the reference here).
I have been using Guenon’s distinction between the exoteric and esoteric throughout this series of essays. Guenon’s critique of the modern west is far more polemical than Jung’s. Jung was approaching the problems of the modern psyche as a physician intent primarily on restoring mental health. Guenon approaches the problems from a strictly traditionalist metaphysical point of view. Guenon would agree with the analysis of the archetypal Orphan’s journey described in earlier posts. He would call this “tradition” and further define the modern west as a deviation from tradition. In a healthy tradition, there is an exoteric system that orders society but also provides initiation into the esoteric components of the religion for those who are gifted in that manner. In modern society, as Jung had also noted, we have no tradition. In fact, we explicitly reject tradition and therefore we are without initiation.
For Guenon, the ambiguity between the psychic and the spiritual that can be seen in Jung’s work is a symptom of the larger problem. In a traditional society, the spiritual would be given its proper place above the psychic and would therefore keep the psyche in line. When this does not happen we get caught up in the “illusions” of the psychic realm and this inevitably leads to what Guenon calls the “infra-human” by which I am quite sure he is referring to the shadow side of the psyche. Why is modern society manifesting The Devouring Mother and the shadow side of the child? Because we have renounced tradition. That’s what Guenon would say.
If we return to the levels of being above, we can reframe these into an archetypal journey which ascends to the highest level of the spirtual. We begin in childhood in the lower realms of the material, etheric and lower psychic (instinct/unconscious). During puberty, The Orphan’s mission is to develop the higher psychic elements (consciousness) and hopefully also the mental capacities. In a traditional society, this is also the time of initiation into the spiritual. Thus, one must go “through” the psychic to get to the spiritual. The psychic is not the final destination. Guenon uses the metaphor of sailing. We must sail across the sea of the psychic to reach the spiritual on the other side. But the journey is dangerous and we need an elder to guide the way and teach us how to navigate (it is noteworthy that Guenon’s sailing metaphor matches exactly to the plot of A Wizard of Earthsea where the wizard Ged must eventually sail alone for the final showdown with his shadow).
With this in mind, we can finally draw a distinction between two concepts I have been using interchangeably throughout this series of posts: initiation and individuation. Initiation is the induction into a tradition for the purposes of attaining to the spiritual or metaphysical level of being. Individuation relates to psychic processes in the psychic realm. These will happen whether or not the individual is going through a spiritual initiation, although the manifestation would be different. Guenon would state that the current spate of psychic illness including the mass psychoses of the last two years occur precisely because of the absence of proper initiation. It’s possible for people to individuate in the absence of initiation, but a lot can go wrong. Jung made his career addressing those problems from within the domain of the psychic. For him and other psychotherapists, individuation is limited to that domain even though Jung himself was keenly aware that the root cause of the issues could very well be spiritual.
We can map these distinctions as follows:
|Level of Being||Process|
|Material||Coming of age (getting a job/place in society)|
For Guenon and other traditionalists, the correct ordering here is top down. Thus, the spiritual should provide the exoteric framework which orders the mental, the psychic and all the way down to social norms and ceremonies.
The archetypal story of The Orphan as seen in its purest form in The Matrix, Star Wars and A Wizard of Earthsea, operates on all levels of being. The protagonist is not just coming of age and not just individuating but also being initiated into a metaphysics which is a spiritual journey.
In mainstream modern society, we have no tradition and no elders who belong to that tradition who can guide would-be traveller’s along the journey to the spiritual. As a result, we are on our own sailing the seas of the psychic getting lost in the delusions of propaganda, party politics, advertising and marketing. These delusions are now starting to have an impact further down the levels of being and will continue manifesting on the material plane in the near future.
It would be tempting to think that we can just re-instate the spiritual and fix the problem but Guenon has some bad news for us and the news mirrors the diagnosis of Jung and Spengler. What they all seem to agree on is that we will see a new religiosity but it will not be a “true” spiritual movement but a counterfeit one. If Guenon is right, we will see a false idol appear before we finally bottom out to the end of the current cycle and begin the new. Jung also captured this idea with the end of the age of The Antichrist.
To revert to the story of The Orphan, we won’t be able to properly initiate until the appearance of the new idol who will be the real deal and will be the elder that leads the collective back to the spiritual and instigates the beginning of the new era.
All posts in this series: