Through a Jungian Lens

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Archive for May 2010

I-Thou and I-It Relationships

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In early spring, one of the first flowers in our garden is this little guy, a wild and free-spirited pansy.  This particular plant caught my eye on a day that was dark and gray.  For a moment I began to think that the pansy was animated, looking at me for recognition, daring me to look back and confirm the connection.  Okay, I know, it is just a plant and it doesn’t have a sense of self-awareness or awareness of others.  I do understand that this is simply my imagination running wild again – active imagination.

This idea of connection reminded me of Martin Buber’s work, I and Thou, where the “self” as identified as “I” and that this self stands in relation to the world in two ways with both a subjective and an objective attitude.  Buber calls these two attitudes I-Thou and an I-It.  I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert, let alone an expert on Buber and his work.  Still, I can speak of what I understand and where these thoughts lead me in terms of understanding relationships such as my relationship to this pansy which for a moment in my head, became a holder of my projections.

The basic word I-You can only be spoken with one’s whole being.  The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being.” (Buber, I and Thou, p. 54)

As I understand it, for Buber there is no “self” that exists without an “other.”  Now this does make sense to me in a way as I do understand how my sense of self grows out of unconsciousness.  And I do understand, how my personal unconscious is encased in a larger collective unconsciousness.  I understand how over time I come to differentiate myself from other in order to get a sense of “I.”   And, I can understand how the relationship to other is framed within me as either as a subjective or objective relationship, a “you/thou” relationship or an “it” relationship.  The “it” relationship has nothing to do with whether or not the object is a living person or a thing.  It is all about attitude, my attitude.

Buber talks about how attitude can shift from an “it” relationship to a “you” relationship, even in terms of a tree:

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. ” (p. 58)

This might sound like foolish talk but it is a way of thinking that was accepted by most older cultures and still can be found among some of today’s aboriginal peoples in a number of countries.  The shift from objective to subject is only achieved when one can get past the skin and enter into depth.  For example, a stranger is an “it” for most of us.  Becoming acquaintances does not alter our objective attitude toward this stranger who becomes an acquaintance.  As indicated by Buber, it takes more than contact to shift the attitude.  It takes a will combined with grace to achieve this.  It takes reciprocity for this shift of attitude between two people.

In my experiences, I find that this reciprocity in my face-to-face world only comes when I can see into the eyes of an “other” and that “other” looks back into my eyes confirming for both of us the real presence of each other.  At that moment, the shift from an I-It relationship to an I-Thou relationship has happened.  In this cyberspace world, I get the sense that we can have an “I-Thou” relationship because reciprocity is possible, only not through the eyes – it must come from the words in which we sense we are heard and are hearing the “other.”  A few final words from Buber:

One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation:  relation is reciprocity.”  (p. 58)

Now, can I say that there is reciprocity in my relationship with this pansy?  Only in terms of becoming aware of a relationship that says that we are connected in universal terms, each being a part of the whole.

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Life Deferred and Regret

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This is my brother-in-law, Michael.  As I have mentioned in past posts, he suffers Alzheimer’s disease.  He remembers his first name but not his family name.  He remembers mt name, but not that of his sister, my wife.  As much as we love him, we cannot walk his path for him.  He must walk his own journey for as far as it will take him.  He teaches me much as I come to this realisation.  Michael is mostly a happy person unless he is confronted with choices which leave him stuck, or he is left alone in an unfamiliar place where he becomes fearful and agitated.  Yet for all of the anxiety and confusion, he willingly leaves his space to follow me into the countryside.  There, he boldly strides down the paths that he finds, even if I don’t see the path.

Michael was a hard worker and like most, raised a family.  He was involved in his community and was well liked and well respected.  He not only worked in his community, he played as well.  He did everything right by any standards of measurement that we could devise.  He didn’t allow himself much time or many resources as he felt that they belonged to his family as much as they did to him.  He knew that with retirement he would be able to have time for himself.  However, retirement came in the guise of Alzheimer’s.    Still, he does have moments of peace.  Sadly, these moments are not filled with conscious recognition, an awareness of the quiet spaces he treasured when he was younger.

Jung offers us something to think about as we approach midlife if we would stop long enough to listen and reflect:

The nearer we approach to the middle of life, and the better we have succeeded in entrenching ourselves in our personal attitudes and social positions, the more it appears as if we had discovered the right course and the right ideals and principles of behaviour.  For this reason, we suppose them to be eternally valid, and make a virtue of unchangeably clinging to them.  We overlook the essential fact that the social goal is only attained only at the cost of a diminution of personality.  Many -far too many- aspects of life which should have been experienced lie in the lumber-room among dusty memories; but sometimes, too, they are glowing coals under grey ashes.” (Jung, CW Volume 8, The Stages of Life, par 772)

I am glad that Michael has lost his memory as with those memories gone, he will not experience regrets for all those experiences he sacrificed, experiences he had hoped would be lived in retirement.  Now, if only I could learn from his experience, the autumn of my life will be that much richer.

The Costs of Love

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This is a home-made birdbath that sits beside our crab-apple tree.  A number of the artifacts found in the yard are from the farm upon which my wife was raised.  Rather than toss out the old, the cream can, various pots and pails, and wooden items; my wife gave them a new home in the yard.  In her way, she honours her roots while at the same time uses these artifacts as anchors in an otherwise too fluid world.  Since leaving her home on the farm, she has shared a home with me in ten other homes before this one.  Only one of those gave her a sense of stability, a home in which we spent twenty years.  This home has been ours now for seven years.  There is no doubt that my wife has sacrificed much to stay with me as I am more of a gypsy where she is rooted.  But then again, that is part of the cost of love.

“Love requires depth and loyalty of feeling; without them it is not love but mere caprice.  True love will always commit itself and engage in lasting ties; it needs freedom only to effect its choice, nor for its accomplishment.  Every true and deep love is a sacrifice.  The lover sacrifices all other possibilities, or rather, the illusion that such possibilities exist.  If this sacrifice is not made, his illusions prevent the growth of any deep and responsible feeling so that the very possibility of experiencing real love is denied.” (Jung, CW Volume 10, The Love Problem of a Student, par 231)

Holding the Tension of Opposites

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“If we succeed in bearing the anxiety of solitude, new horizons will open up to us and we will learn finally to exist independently of others.” (Aldo Carotenuto)

When I took this photo out in the countryside where it was so quiet that one could actually hear silence, I thought about how lonely solitude could become.  At the time the photo was taken I was with my brother-in-law and was struck by how easily he slipped into a state that seemed not to “need” others as he wandered from my side to investigate.  He suffers Alzheimer’s and is indeed alone with himself.  From what I can see, most of that alone-ness is filled with anxieties.

I wonder at times about being alone, sometimes thinking that it would be easier, that there would be fewer distractions, fewer interruptions.  What books I might then write, what photos I might then take, what learning about “self” I might then discover!  But each time I find myself alone, I slip into lethargy and do less.  Anxieties seem to surface and paralyze.

I “know” that I must learn to bear the anxiety, but I cling to the hope that in relationship to an “other” I will be saved the pain of loneliness, that in relationship to an “other” I will have meaning and purpose.

Indeed, next to the fantasy of immortality, the hardest fantasy to relinquish is the thought that there is someone out there who is going to fix us, take care of us – spare us the intimidating journey to which we have been summoned.” (James Hollis, Swamplands of the Soul, p. 11)

Well, I’ve thought about this for so long, chasing the idea all around my head and heart that I only get dizzy.  My heart says that this “other,” this someone is there.  My mind says that this “other” is found within, not without.  Now, if I understood Jung correctly, I must continue to hold on to this polar opposites for a something else to emerge that reconciles these opposites.

A Paradox

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This is a bay that I found on walking the shoreline of Lake Diefenbaker, a flooded section of the South Saskatchewan River near Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park.  The hills in the background look the same as the hills I see from my living room windows though they are a different set of hills.  The scene is about 65 kilometres from my home.  Between my place and this recreational area are scattered farms and a small community of less than 500 people.  This is a land that somehow doesn’t encourage people to stay in spite of its beauty, a beauty that is overlooked.

Personally, I am a forest, trees, small meadows, streams, rivers and lakes kind of guy when I am not hugging an ocean shoreline.  I find myself at home in the woods.  Yet, I recognize a need for connection to people, a need for relationships.  In that context, I would have to say I am a city person rather than a small rural town person.  In the city there is a better chance that I can maintain my privacy yet have the opportunity to converse with someone on topics that I find interesting and stimulating.  It’s interesting that somehow I find myself living in the semi-desert country where trees are scarce, where water is scarce and where people are scarce.  Not only does this contradict how I understand myself, but I am also allergic to the grasses, alfalfa, poplar trees and dust that form the ecosystem of the prairies.  All that said, here I am wandering rare shorelines naked of trees with no human visible as far as I can see, which is quite far indeed.  This is quite the paradox.  Why?  The answer is actually quite simple – there is a woman . . .

At this point the fact forces itself on my attention that beside the field of reflection there is another equally broad if not broader area in which rational understanding and rational modes of representation find scarcely anything they are able to grasp. This is the realm of Eros. In classical times, when such things were properly understood, Eros was considered a god whose divinity transcended our human limits, and who therefore could be neither comprehended nor represented in any way. I might, as many before me have attempted to do, venture an approach to this daimon, whose range of activity extends from the endless spaces of the heavens to the dark abysses of hell; but I falter before the task of finding the language which might adequately express the incalculable paradoxes of love.”  (Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 353)

Bored? Try a Voyage of Self-Discovery

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The hills to the south provide quite a few opportunities for photographs.  It doesn’t seem to matter that I have probably taken similar photos in the past.  Since I continue to change over the years as I get older, these scenes take on different affect.  Because I change, the world around me retains a sense of vital energy,  a numinous quality.

As I wrote these words above, my mind raced with thoughts of those who miss out on this renewal, those who live with the creed “seen that, done that and bought the tee-shirt!”  The search for renewal is limited to the outer world and outer experience.  The constant changing of even the home with new furniture, new furniture arrangements, new colours, new toys . . . The need for renewal has to be met or we feel suffocated, bored, a loss of soul.

Carl Jung had to deal with this as well.  In his Red Book, a very personal story of Jung’s search for soul and soul-renewal written between 1914 to 1930, CGJ said:

My soul leads me into the desert, into the desert of my own self. I did not think that my soul is a desert, a barren hot desert, dusty and without drink” (Jung, The Red Book:  Liber Novus, 2009)

I want to give credit to Heide Kolb, one of my Twitter friends, for this quote which appears in this blog post.  Unfortunately, I don’t yet have a copy of this book.  Now, back to the post.

In the desert … the desert of one’s self … there among the thorns, thistles and burnt grasses … in the desert one passes through suffering, a necessary passage, in order to go deeper and discover that which was hidden.

However, in taking this journey of self-discovery, unlike Jung who somehow managed to emerge sane doing the journey without a guide, I would advise that anyone trying to renew their spirit, the soul and the will to life, that the journey be taken with a guide at hand.  Like Urspo commented in the last post, guides are necessary for almost all of us.  Even then, the journey is painful and difficult.  But, the cost is worth it.  As the old expression goes:  “no pain, no gain.”

If we look all around us at all the renewal projects happening in the outer world, we see that change is a difficult process to experience whether it be changing the face of a community, changing the structure of a family, changing location, changing relationship.  Even the creation of new materials only comes through destruction of old materials (petroleum into plastic is a good example).  The change process is an alchemical process – baptism by fire, so to speak.

So, if you are bored with life, bored with yourself and others, then perhaps this is a signal for you to embark on the voyage of self-discovery . . . with a guide, of course.

The Dark Side of a Prairie Slough

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The last number of days I have been posting photos taken featuring prairie sloughs, the prairie swampland.  In each of those photos I focused on the positive, on the source of life that the water provides.  However, like everything else, there is an opposite side, one that is negative and dark, one that embraces shadows and death.  It would be unwise to enter into this swampland unaware of both of the faces of a swampland.

This photo was taken just a few steps from the previous photo of a duck.  This bush is dead, drowned in the stagnant water that has overwhelmed.  It seems that too much water, the source of life, kills.   Getting lost in the unconscious contents means losing the conscious world and becoming trapped in the underworld and appearing to be insane in the outer world where one has left one’s body.

One needs to enter the unconscious domaine to discover more, to become more conscious.  There is no question that the high one gets in discovering treasures (and consciousness is treasure) that point to a higher and more valued “self” can become addicting leading one to dive in too often or too deep.  One must protect the self by constructing a safe container.  That is the job of the ego.

Since we live in community, even the timing of journeys into the unconscious must be considered.  It isn’t any different than my needing to time my physical journeys to visit a slough or a forest or the hills.  I must weigh my need for presence and connection with others and then carve out my private time accordingly.  It can’t be all private time or all relationship time.  As always, there must be a balance that is individual specific so that the individual can maintain optimum psychic health.

There is something more to be gained than greater self-awareness, there is also the “bonus” in that one can now be more aware of others, being able to see the dark as well as the light in those others.  Of course, Jung says it best when he said:

Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”  (Carl Gustav Jung)