Crisis and Transformation
In times like these, it is also important to ask ourselves what the psyche is asking of us–where it wants to take us, and for what reason. It seems to be a meaningful coincidence–that is, synchronistic–that the world is being forced to a halt at a moment in time when the world desperately needs us all to slow down and rethink our collective future. Within the greater Jungian community, at least, there seems to be a broad understanding that we have unconsciously imagined ourselves into an ecological nightmare, threatening the climate and all of our Earthly kin. We know unrestrained consumption will lead us to destruction, and yet we go on, overpowered by our complexes and addictions. It’s like one of those bad dreams where you’re speeding down the road, unable to stop yourself. Collectively, we might be like that driver, except in this dream we’ve been forced to a halt by a flat tire at a critical moment.
Our subtle (and not so subtle) unconscious pathologies have led us to consume unreflectively, and in doing so, little by little we kill the planet for our personas. To compensate for inner poverties, we bolster the external image of ourselves, and so we own 20 pairs of shoes and 5 jackets when one (or two) of each would do. Now, COVID-19 mandates our isolation, keeping us in our rooms to think about what we have done, and who we have become. We have no one to dress up for these days, no one to impress or win over, left alone to examine the person beneath the wardrobe. We are stripped of our usual distractions and routines, lured ever closer to the unconscious by this virus. The virus is best known for its effects on the lungs, when its greatest impact has been on our psyches. Yet, its net effects can be more positive than negative with proper tending of the soul.
A lack of depth in the world today results in a plague of disconnection from our own true natures as individuals, and also from nature itself. Our idea of who we are has been distorted by personal and cultural complexes, maladaptive psychological defenses, and a host of other unseen, viral psychological influences which keep us sick. The true self–the soul–finds it hard to breathe in these conditions. Long before COVID-19 became a pandemic that choked the breath from our lungs and hampered the economy, a hidden psychological pandemic had already infected the world, leaving us in a delusional state where we thought we were immune from such a tragedy. Have we forgotten all those myths that warned us what happens when we believe we are gods and goddesses, exempt from the laws of nature? We cannot build a tower to heaven, and that jagged, ever-climbing line on stock market charts cannot take us there either. We have been living in a fantasy–in a delusion of unlimited growth, like cancer. It is long past time we stopped.
It seems reasonable to suggest the cure for our condition(s) would lie in a collective awakening to the realities of the unconscious. It is only by turning inwards (through forced solitude and hardship, if necessary) that we can come face to face with the realization that we do have objective personalities– true selves–which lay beyond the bounds of who we thought we were. Jung wrote:
Without necessity nothing budges, the human personality least of all. … Only acute necessity is able to rouse it. The developing personality … needs the motivating force of inner or outer fatalities. … Yet the development of the personality means more than just the fear of hatching forth monsters, or of isolation. It also means fidelity to the law of one’s own being. (CW 17, 1934/1954, paras. 293-295)
Jungian and depth-oriented psychotherapists recognize the unconscious does not tolerate distortions of the personality. The true self wants to find its expression, and the unconscious will bring us back to it with symptoms if it must. In the same way, we might suppose the anima mundi, the soul of the world, will not tolerate excursions which deviate far from its center. Perhaps our depressive moods and the depression of the stock market brought on by COVID-19 are the symptoms meant to bring us closer to our objective center and the laws of nature. Let us take a brief trek through some of Jung’s words to get some perspective on our situation, and what might be asked of us here and now. While Jung was writing about the individual, let us also imagine this within the context of a collective crisis and the whole of our planet.
The psychological trouble in neurosis, and the neurosis itself, can be formulated as an act of adaptation that has failed. … a neurosis is, in a sense, an attempt at self-cure … (Jung, CW 4, 1916/1961, para. 575)
If we remember that the stoppage of libido was due to the failure of the conscious attitude, we can now understand what valuable seeds lie in the unconscious contents activated by regression. They contain the elements of that other function which was excluded by the conscious attitude and which would be capable of effectively complementing or even of replacing the inadequate conscious attitude …
By activating an unconscious factor, regression confronts consciousness with the problem of the psyche as opposed to the problem of outward adaptation. It is natural that the conscious mind should fight against the regressive contents, yet it is finally compelled by the impossibility of further progress to submit to the regressive values. In other words, regression leads to the necessity of adapting to the inner world of the psyche… Thus a complete orientation towards the inner world becomes necessary until such a time as inner adaptation is attained. Once the adaptation is achieved, progression can begin again. (Jung, CW 8, 1928/1969, paras. 63-69)
What I want to draw out here is the recognition of one of Jung’s chief observations that relates to the regression and progression of psychic energy, which is critical to understand as we reflect upon crisis situations and the individuation process. This has implications we ought to consider in the current crisis. First, at the individual level, we’re each asked to heed the calling of the unconscious by listening to our symptoms, seeking to understand how this turning inwards and downwards is meant to reshape us. As we follow the regressive pull of energy into the inner world, we come into contact with unknown aspects of ourselves that can lead us to new life, as well as an experience of the Self. If we can each find our inner gold, perhaps those destructive, unconscious forces that have driven this planet to the brink won’t have the power they once did.
At the collective level, the same principles regarding the transformation process and the regression and progression of psychic energy remain true. The coronavirus is to the collective what many unpleasant psychological symptoms are to the individual. It is an initiating force that is at once a biologically present and a psychological reality, and as such it forces needed change. The anima mundi–via the coronavirus–has caused the whole world to turn inwards, and to recognize the degree to which we are all connected. An old mentor of mine poetically remarked that this crisis ought to make apparent our oneness, as “what affects the Chinese peasant can ultimately reverberate around the globe and tear down the spoiled, rich asshole in his penthouse in Manhattan.” This awareness is basic to establishing an appreciation of the need for more just, equal, and sustainable societies–societies that have wholeness in mind.
In the midst of this awful crisis, we are also seeing gold in its dark shadow. Already, there are astounding benefits to our inward turn. We are hearing that the people of Punjab, India are able to see the Himalayas for the first time in 30 years as a result of decreased air pollution. The people of Venice are seeing the cleanest and clearest waters they’ve seen in generations, with residents commenting that it is even possible to see the fish that live there. In cities across the world, air pollution and CO2 emissions have fallen dramatically. We are seeing people reach out and come together to sooth one another’s loneliness – playing music and singing together from their balconies or out their windows. Each night, whole cities applaud those who risk themselves to care for the sick and dying. Families are spending more time together than they have since… who knows when? We are remembering things we have forgotten, awakening to potentials we never realized were within our grasp.
There is all of this talk about “getting back to normal.” I do not wish such an ill fate upon us. That would rob us of these beautiful things we are just beginning to discover (or rediscover). We need a chance to realize what we’re missing, so we might realize what we’ll lose if we go back to “normal.” A prolonged period of solitude and adventure into our inner worlds may do us some good. If we are forced to stay here long enough, it might give us a chance to rediscover who we really are apart from the demands of the collective. It might also give us a collective opportunity to reimagine the world we have created. Is there a way forward that can keep the heights of the Himalayas in sight, as well as the bottoms of the canals of Venice, and the corresponding heights and depths of our souls?
Marion Woodman (1985), a famed Jungian analyst, reminded us that if you open the chrysalis for the butterfly or disrupt its natural transformative process by pushing it into the world too quickly, it will not fly. In the same way, we ought to look to nature and let the course of this virus inform when it is time for us to emerge from our own nature-imposed, transformative state.
The chrysalis is essential if we are to find ourselves. Yet very little in our extroverted society supports introverted withdrawal. We are supposed to be doers, taking care of others, supporting good causes, unselfish, energetic, doing our social duty. If we choose to simply be, our loved ones may automatically assume we are doing nothing, and at first we may feel that way ourselves. … We argue with ourselves, “I should be out there doing something useful.” But the truth is I can’t do anything useful if there’s no I to do it. … That is what going into the chrysalis is all about – undergoing a metamorphosis in order one day to be able to stand up and say I am. (pp. 21-22)
That brings me back to Jung, and these wise words:
The symptoms of a neurosis are not simply the effects of long-past causes… they are also attempts at a new synthesis of life – unsuccessful attempts, let it be added in the same breath, yet attempts nevertheless, with a core of value and meaning. They are seeds that fail to sprout owing to the inclement conditions of life and outer nature … I myself have known more than one person who owed his entire usefulness and reason for existence to a neurosis, which prevented all the critical follies in his life and forced him to a mode of living that developed his valuable potentialities. These might have been stifled had not the neurosis, with iron grip, held him to the place where he belonged. There are actually people who have the whole meaning of their life, their true significance, in the unconscious, while the conscious mind is nothing but inveiglement and error. (CW 7, 1943/1966, paras. 67-68)
Perhaps the coronavirus – with its crown-like features, evoking associations of royalty and authority–is akin to a neurosis that is holding us with an iron grip in the place where we belong at this critical moment in time. Perhaps one day, many years from now, we’ll look back and realize this terrible illness helped us to form new, healthier adaptations to reality, to bring us closer together, to the unconscious, to our true selves, and to our home, the Earth. Whatever happens at the collective level, as individuals the opportunity is ours, should we listen deeply enough to hear what this crisis asks of us, and if we respond accordingly.
Jung, C. G. (1969). A review of the complex theory (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 8, 2nd ed., pp. 92-104). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1948)
Jung, C. G. (1966). On the psychology of the unconscious (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 7, 2nd ed., pp. 1–119). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1943)
Jung, C. G. (1961). Psychoanalysis and neurosis. In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 4, pp. 243-251). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1916)
Jung, C. G. (1966). The aims of psychotherapy (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 16, 2nd ed., pp. 36-52). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1931)
Jung, C. G. (1954). The development of personality (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 17, pp. 165-186). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1934)
Woodman, M. (1985). The pregnant virgin: A process of psychological transformation. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books.
Adam Magers, MA, is a counselor and graduate of Pacifica Graduate Institute’s Counseling Psychology program. He is also an Iraq War Veteran, the founder of Warriors’ Ascent, and the curriculum architect of The Battle Within‘s (TBW) 5-day Revenant Journey Program. He is also the co-architect of TBW’s Frontline Therapy Network, which ensures healthcare workers, veterans, and first responders have access to free psychotherapy. Since 2014, he has immersed himself in therapeutic programming for veterans, specifically through group-based, Jungian-oriented interventions. He is also the author of two forthcoming books which explore the Odyssey from a Jungian perspective to draw out the lessons it holds for veterans–one of which is for veterans and military members, and the other for clinicians or deeper readers.