Synchronicity: Meaningful Patterns in Life

“Never do human beings speculate more, or have more opinions, than about things which they do not understand.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis

From his childhood, Carl Jung experienced strange and seemingly unexplainable phenomena. He feared that he was going mad, and went on the quest to discover what they meant.

“I saw yellow waves, swimming rubble and the death of countless thousands… Two weeks passed then the vision returned, still more violent than before, and an inner voice spoke: ‘Look at it, it is completely real, and it will come to pass. You cannot doubt this.’ ”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

Jung had these vivid visions just before the First World War broke out. When this happened, he was sure that no schizophrenia was threatening him. He understood that his dreams and visions came to him from the subsoil of the collective unconscious.

For Jung, the pressing question was, how are such meaningful events – not linked by any apparent causal chains – possible? What does this say about the physical universe? These were surprising juxtapositions that scientific rationality could not adequately explain.

As a youth, Jung not only experienced unusual visions, but also events that could not be explained in any manner. During the summer holidays, Jung was studying his textbooks and heard a sound like a pistol shot. He rushed to the room and saw that a solid table had split from the rim to beyond the centre. Some two weeks later, he heard another sound. This time he saw that inside a cupboard, the bread knife, which had been used shortly before, had been snapped off in several pieces.

Jung finished his medical studies and became a psychiatrist. During this time, he attended seances for communicating with the dead, and had an interest in parapsychology and the occult, mainly due to his own personal experiences. This formed the basis of his medical dissertation published in 1902, entitled On the Psychology and Pathology of So-Called Occult Phenomena: A Psychiatric Study

On one occasion, Jung was having a conversation with Freud about parapsychology. Freud, in his materialism, rejected most of Jung’s questions as nonsensical. Jung had a strange sensation, as if his diaphragm were made of iron and were becoming red-hot. At that moment there was a loud noise in the bookcase, which stood right next to them, that both of them stood up in alarm, fearing the thing was going to topple over them. Jung told him: “There, that is an example of so-called catalytic exteriorisation phenomenon.” Freud replied that it was sheer bosh. Jung replied that it was not, and to prove his point he predicted that in a moment there will be another such loud noise. Another detonation went off in the bookcase. Jung wrote:

“To this day I do not know what gave me this certainty. But I knew beyond all doubt that the report would come again. Freud only stared aghast at me. I do not know what was in his mind, or what his look meant.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

In 1928, when Jung was drawing the mandalas present in his Red book, the sinologist Richard Wilhelm sent him a copy of The Secret of the Golden Flower, a Taoist alchemical book of life that teaches an ancient Chinese meditation practice for achieving wholeness. Jung was struck by the parallelism between the Chinese mandala and the one he was working on, and he immediately devoured the book. In remembrance of this event, he wrote under his mandala:

“In 1928, when I was painting this picture, showing the golden, well-fortified castle, Richard Wilhelm in Frankfurt sent me the thousand-year-old Chinese text on the yellow castle, the germ of the immortal body.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

This was a decisive point in Jung’s life, where his writings shifted to a focus on the psychological significance of alchemy. He wrote that:

“[From Wilhelm] the spark leapt across and kindled a light that was to become for me one of the most significant events of my life… Indeed, I feel myself so very much enriched by him that it seems to me as if I had received more from him than from any other man.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 15. Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature

Jung was particularly struck by a drawing of a yogi with five human figures growing out of the top of his head and five more figures growing out of the top of each of their heads. The picture, thought Jung, portrays the spiritual state of the yogi who is about to rid himself of his many egos and pass into the more complete objective state of the self.

Origins of Synchronicity

Jung coined the term synchronicity and mentions it publicly for the first time in 1930 in his memorial address for Richard Wilhelm, who also translated the I Ching, or Book of Changes. He referred to it as:

“[A] peculiar principle active in the world so that things happen together somehow and behave as if they were the same, and yet for us they are not.”

Carl Jung, Analytical Psychology: Its Theory and Practice (Tavistock Lectures)

Jung equated it with the Chinese concept of Tao, the union of opposites from the complementary pairs of Yin and Yang. It is based on the oneness of man and the surrounding cosmos. This is akin to the alchemical credo: “As above, so below”, referring to the inner world and outer world, the psyche and matter, being one and the same.

The aim of the Taoist sage is to live in harmony with the Tao and thereby avoiding falling into one extreme or the other. This is, in fact, the goal of Jungian psychology, the balance of opposites (consciousness and the unconscious) is aligning the ego to the Self, as centre of the personality. Here synchronicity plays a vital role.

There is no linear evolution for individuation (self-realisation); there is only a circumambulation (the circling around) in which everything is related to the centre. This is represented by the symbol of the mandala. For Jung, finding one’s own mandala symbol is crucial for the development of the self. For this circular movement to take place, the mandala must have a symbol such as the sun, a castle or a golden flower in its centre. It is a visual image of the divine pattern, a manifestation of the Self.

The end result is the alchemical procedure mysterium coniunctionis (which is also the title of Jung’s last great work). The opposite sides of life are united in a holy marriage. There is a heightening and clearness of consciousness and a deepening sense of unity of being.

Jung comments that Ātman, Tao, and Christ are different cultural symbols for wholeness that correlate the inner self with the animating principle of the cosmos. It is no longer you who live, it lives you.

The oracle of the I Ching played an important role in developing his idea of synchronicity. He used it with his patients in psychotherapy and could remember a great deal of meaningful answers and unusual psychological insights. For instance, he recalls the story of a patient suffering from a mother complex, who feared his prospective marriage partner might be domineering. Jung opened the I Ching and it showed the hexagram 44, entitled Coming to Meet, which stated: The maiden is powerful. One should not marry such a maiden.

Jung’s experiments demonstrated that there are meaningful connections between the psychic realm and the physical world. He wrote:

“For more than thirty years I have interested myself in this oracle technique, or method of exploring the unconscious, for it has seemed to me of uncommon significance… [It relates to] a certain curious principle that I have termed synchronicity, a concept that formulates a point of view diametrically opposed to that of causality. Since the latter is a merely statistical truth and not absolute, it is a sort of working hypothesis of how events evolve one out of another, whereas synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space and time as meaning something more than mere chance.”

Carl Jung, Foreword to the I Ching

What is Synchronicity?

Causality is the way we explain the link between two successive events. The cause of striking a billiard ball with a cue leads to the effect of the ball moving. Synchronicity, however, is a meaningful coincidence of outer and inner events that cannot be causally linked. The emphasis lies on the word “meaningful”. It occurs when an inwardly perceived event (dream, vision, premonition, thought or mood) is seen to have a correspondence in external reality: the inner image has “come true”. The inner world and the outer world coincide, bringing meaning to your life.

Synchronicity derives from the Greek prefix syn (together) and the word khronos (time). It means existing or happening at the same time. The word co-incidence implies various incidents happening together. However, a synchronicity is not a typical coincidence, but rather a meaningful coincidence of two or more events. The problem of synchronicity had puzzled Jung for a long time. When he was investigating the phenomena of the collective unconscious, he kept on coming across “coincidences” that were connected so meaningfully, that they broke all statistical probabilities.

We cannot imagine events that are connected non-causally and are capable of a non-causal explanation. But that does not mean that such events do not exist.

Atom and Archetype: Matter and Psyche

The Nobel prize-winning physicist Wolfgang Pauli sought therapy from Carl Jung and shared many of his dreams. A prominent quantum physicist, who happened to have complex dreams, was an extraordinary find. After he no longer was a patient, he would keep up his correspondence with Jung. This is documented in the book Atom and Archetype, which feature the Pauli/Jung letters.

Through their joint effort, they’d come to see synchronicity as an acausal principle that transcends space, time and causality. It took nearly twenty years for them to reach the point of publishing their ground-breaking, controversial ideas. In 1952, Jung and Pauli published a joint volume, The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche. Later, Jung’s part, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle, would be published in Volume 8 of his Collected Works.

He wrote:

“As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist I have often come up against the phenomena in question and could convince myself how much these inner experiences meant to my patients. In most cases they were things which people do not talk about for fear of exposing themselves to thoughtless ridicule. I was amazed to see how many people have had experiences of this kind and how carefully the secret was guarded.”

Carl Jung, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle

Rhine: Extrasensory Perception Experiments

Jung did not have the necessary means to conduct scientific experiments on synchronicity. He refers to the extrasensory perception experiments of J.B. Rhine, who founded parapsychology as a branch of psychology. The experiments show evidence for acausal combinations of events, where chance concurrence represents a degree of improbability that would have to be expressed by an astronomical figure. It goes beyond the scope of chance and probability.

For instance, in a card experiment consisting of 25 cards with 5 different signs, the subject is separated by a screen from the experimenter, and had to try to guess the cards 800 times. One young man, who in numerous experiments scored an average of 10 hits for every 25 cards (double the probable number), once guessed all 25 cards correctly, which gives a probability of around 1 in 298 quadrillion.

Jung does not seek a complete description and explanation of these complicated phenomena, but to open up an obscure field which is philosophically of the greatest importance. His interest in this problem is not merely scientific, but most importantly he seeks to delve into the human soul.

Archetypes, Collective unconscious, Psychoid

Jung attempts to account for synchronistic events primarily in terms of his concept of archetype, which are patterns of instinctual behaviour responsible for the organisation of unconscious psychic processes. Archetypes constitute the structure of the collective unconscious, which represents a psyche that is identical in all individuals, and contains the images of all creation. It is the master-pattern of life.

The archetypes arrange the psychic material and produce meaningful patterns in the physical world. They cannot be directly perceived or “represented”, in contrast to the perceptible psychic phenomena. On account of its “irrepresentable” nature, Jung has called it “psychoid” (soul-like), which refers to the relationship between a person’s psyche and the physical world beyond that person’s body.

We find ourselves with a factor that has nothing to do with brain activity, but rather with meaningful patterns in our personal life. Meaningful coincidences rest on an archetypal foundation. Synchronicity is the deepest layer of archetypal reality where psyche and matter collide and become indistinguishable. This unitary dimension to all experience is the alchemical notion of the unus mundus (the one world). Jung writes:

“If mandala symbolism is the psychological equivalent of the unus mundus, then synchronicity is its parapsychological equivalent.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis

Psychological life is an expression of nature. In this case, we have to suppose a “knowledge” prior to all consciousness. Synchronistic phenomena are thought to arise from activations of this level of reality. There seems to be an a priori, causally inexplicable knowledge of a situation which at the time is unknowable.

In therapy, seeing one person as radically separate from another is limiting. It is the field that connects and includes the two participants that is transformative. The unconscious communications that link both partners, may usefully be described as emerging out of the psychoid realm, because it transcends limited perceptions of analyst and patient possessing separate encapsulated psyches. It is particularly in the heightened tension generated by such a field that synchronistic events tend to occur.

The psychic life is fundamentally a shared unitary realm. The fullness of the Self is the pleroma, the place where past, present and future exist simultaneously. It is the idea that everything that will happen, has already happened. That is the magic of synchronicity.

Examples of Synchronicity

Jung tells us a story about the 19th century French poet Émile Deschamps who was given a piece of plum-pudding by a so-called Monsieur de Fortgibu. Ten years later he discovered another plum-pudding in a Paris restaurant, and asked if he could have a piece. It turned out, however, that the plum-pudding was already ordered—by de Fortgibu. Many years afterwards Deschamps was invited to partake of a plum-pudding as a special rarity. While he was eating it he remarked that the only thing lacking was de Fortgibu. At that moment the door opened and an old, old man in the last stages of disorientation walked in: de Fortgibu, who had got hold of the wrong address and burst in on the party by mistake.

Jung writes about what seems to be a synchronistic event:

“On April 1, 1949, I made a note in the morning of an inscription containing a figure that was half man and half fish. There was fish for lunch. Somebody mentioned the custom of making an “April fish” of someone. In the afternoon, a former patient of mine, whom I had not seen for months, showed me some impressive pictures of fish. In the evening, I was shown a piece of embroidery with sea monsters and fishes in it. The next morning, I saw a former patient, who was visiting me for the first time in ten years. She had dreamed of a large fish the night before. A few months later, when I was using this series for a larger work and had just finished writing it down, I walked over to a spot by the lake in front of the house, where I had already been several times that morning. This time a fish a foot long lay on the sea-wall. Since no one else was present, I have no idea how the fish could have got there.”

Carl Jung, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle

When coincidences pile up in this way one cannot help being impressed by them. However, Jung had his doubts on it being a synchronicity, for there was no interaction with the inner world. He says it might well be the extremely improbable chance grouping of six events, the seventh event occurring months later.

Jung also cautions that synchronicity can be misused or misinterpreted in a pathological way. People may be carried away and start to see every event as meaningful. Jung had already commented on this in relation to situations where patients, particularly schizophrenics, interpret events as having a special reference to them. He wrote in a letter:

“I have often found that synchronistic experiences were interpreted by schizophrenics as delusions. Since archetypal situations are not uncommon in schizophrenia, we must also suppose that corresponding synchronistic phenomena will occur which follow exactly the same course as with so-called normal persons… The schizophrenic’s interpretation is morbidly narrow because it is mostly restricted to the intentions of other people and to his own ego-importance… [W]e must endeavour to find out what the unconscious thinks and adjust our attitude accordingly… Thus the synchronistic effect should be understood not as psychotic but as a normal phenomenon.”

Letters of C.G. Jung Vol. II (1951 – 1961)

On one occasion, Jung and the members of a seminar he was conducting on dream analysis were discussing the symbol of the bull-god in relation to the dream of an analysand. Unaware of the discussions of the seminar group, the analysand spent several days making a picture of a bull with the disc of the sun between its horns.

On another occasion, Jung wrote:

“For instance, I walk with a woman patient in a wood. She tells me about the first dream in her life that had made an everlasting impression upon her. She had seen a spectral fox coming down the stairs in her parental home. At this moment a real fox comes out of the trees not 40 yards away and walks quietly on the path ahead of us for several minutes. The animal behaves as if it were a partner in the human situation.”

Letters of C.G. Jung Vol. I (1906 – 1950)

The fox is the symbol of instinctive cleverness which told the woman to forget about her hesitations, and to conquer her intellectual blocks by trusting her instinctive wisdom which will show her the right way.

Jung gives us another example appropriate to synchronicity:

“I remember the story of a student friend whose father had promised him a trip to Spain if he passed his final examinations satisfactorily. My friend thereupon dreamed that he was walking through a Spanish city. The street led to a square, where there was a Gothic cathedral. He then turned right, around a corner, into another street. There he was met by an elegant carriage drawn by two cream-coloured horses. Then he woke up. He told us about the dream as we were sitting round a table drinking beer. Shortly afterward, having successfully passed his examinations, he went to Spain, and there, in one of the streets, he recognized the city of his dream. He found the square and the cathedral, which exactly corresponded to the dream-image. He wanted to go straight to the cathedral, but then he remembered that in the dream he had turned right, at the corner, into another street. He was curious to find out whether his dream would be corroborated further. Hardly had he turned the corner when he saw in reality the carriage with the two cream-coloured horses.”

Carl Jung, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle

For Jung, the sentiment of déjà vu is based on a foreknowledge in dreams, that can also occur in the waking state. In this case, chance becomes highly improbable because the coincidence is known in advance.

Jung tells the story of one of his patients whom he pulled out of a depression. The patient’s wife put a tremendous burden on him which he was incapable of coping with. After a year of marriage, he fell into a new depression. Jung told him to come and visit him, but due to the influence of his wife, the patient did not reply back.

At that time, Jung returned to his hotel at midnight after lecturing. He wrote:

“At about two o’clock – I must have just fallen asleep – I awoke with a start, and had the feeling that someone had come into the room; I even had the impression that the door had been hastily opened. I instantly turned on the light, but there was nothing. Someone might have mistaken the door, I thought, and I looked into the corridor. But it was still as death. “Odd,” I thought, “someone did come into the room!” Then I tried to recall exactly what had happened, and it occurred to me that I had been awakened by a feeling of dull pain, as though something had struck my forehead and then the back of my skull. The following day I received a telegram saying that my patient had committed suicide. He had shot himself. Later, I learned that the bullet had come to rest in the back wall of the skull.”

Carl Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

This synchronicity was observed in connection with an archetypal situation, in this case, death.  Jung had perceived something atemporal and aspatial which in reality was taking place elsewhere. In this case the unconscious had knowledge of his patient’s condition.

Perhaps Jung’s most well-known example of synchronicity is that of the scarab, an important Egyptian symbol in the form of the archetype of rebirth and transformation.

Jung had a hard time with his patient, who was “psychologically inaccessible.” The patient was extremely rational and would not believe anything about the unconscious. Jung wrote:

“A young woman I was treating had, at a critical moment, a dream in which she was given a golden scarab. While she was telling me this dream I sat with my back to the closed window. Suddenly I heard a noise behind me, like a gentle tapping. I turned round and saw a flying insect knocking against the window-pane from outside. I opened the window and caught the creature in the air as it flew in. It was the nearest analogy to a golden scarab that one finds in our latitudes, a scarabaeid beetle, the common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), which contrary to its usual habits had evidently felt an urge to get into a dark room at this particular moment. I must admit that nothing like it ever happened to me before or since, and that the dream of the patient has remained unique in my experience.”

Carl Jung, Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle

This seems to suggest that abnormal random phenomena may occur when a vital need or urge is aroused. Jung handed the creature to his patient with the words, “here is your scarab.” The experience broke the ice of her intellectual resistance. It helped her get in touch with her feelings, and had a transformative impact on her, connecting her dream world to her waking life. Her ego died, giving birth to a new self.

Jung uses these examples only as a paradigm of the innumerable cases of meaningful coincidence that have been observed not only by him but by many others, and recorded in large collections.

Synchronicities accompany the crucial phases of the process of individuation. But too often they pass unnoticed, because the individual has not learned to watch for such coincidences and to make them meaningful in relation to the symbolism of his inner life.

Be on the watch for events in your life that may seem random, and see what meaning might come up for you if you let them live within you for some time. Synchronicity is a way of coming to realise what is in our deepest undiscovered self.

Synchronicity at Jung’s death

In 1961, Jung had just finished his last work, a contribution to Man and His Symbols entitled “Approaching the Unconscious”, after a dream advised him to make his works accessible for the general public. Three days before his death, he had several dreams, the last of which were communicated to us.

He dreamed that he was high up in a high place around a boulder of stone in the full sun. Carved into it were the words, “Take this as a symbol of the wholeness you have achieved and the singleness you have become.” In another dream he saw a square and trees growing in it. The roots of the trees were intertwined with gold, a symbol of resolution, the alchemical symbol of wholeness. The collective unconscious was saying to him as it were: “You have earned the freedom to move on! You have done your work. You have done it well and it will grow.”

Just before Jung’s death, his friend Laurens van der Post, who was on a voyage from Africa to Europe, had a dream of Jung waving goodbye. Nature joined in a couple of hours later. A thunderstorm swept over, and lightning struck and destroyed one of Jung’s favourite trees in the garden where he used to sit.  

Some years later, van der Post was filming a documentary at the Jung house in Zürich. When the moment came for him to speak directly to the camera about Jung’s death, and he came to the description of how lightning demolished Jung’s favourite tree, the lightning struck in the garden again.

Synchronicity is an ever-present reality for those who have eyes to see.


Synchronicity: When Matter and Psyche Collide

Synchronicity is a term coined by Carl Jung which describes a meaningful coincidence of outer and inner events that cannot be causally linked.

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Active Imagination: Confrontation with the Unconscious

“My soul, my soul, where are you? Do you hear me? I speak, I call you – are you there? I have returned, I am here again. I have shaken the dust of all the lands from my feet, and I have come to you, I am with you. After long years of long wandering, I have come to you again…”

Carl Jung, The Red Book

Active imagination is a technique developed by the Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung. It is one of the core concepts of analytical psychology. He considered it the most powerful tool to access the unconscious and for achieving wholeness of personality, which is latent potentiality.

At first, Jung didn’t have a name for active imagination, as he was reluctant to publish work on it. The Transcendent Function is the first major paper Jung wrote about the method he later came to call active imagination, before that he had also called it “the picture method”, or “visioning”, among others.

Active imagination is a dialogue with different parts of yourself that live in the unconscious. In some way it is similar to dreaming, except that you are fully awake and conscious during the experience. This, in fact, is what gives this technique its distinctive quality. Instead of going into a dream, you go into your imagination while you are awake. You allow the images to rise up out of the unconscious, and they come to you on the level of imagination just as they would come to you in dream if you were asleep.

If we honestly want to find our own wholeness, to live our individual fate as fully as possible; if we truly want to abolish illusion on principle and find the truth of our own being, however little we like to be the way we are, then there is nothing that can help us so much in our endeavour as active imagination.

Confrontation with the Unconscious & The Red Book

Active imagination is not just an expression of personal content, but of the collective unconscious. It is an attempt to uncover the quintessentially human. Jung discovered this method between the years of 1913 and 1916, a period of disorientation and intense inner turmoil which he called his confrontation with the unconscious. He searched for a method to heal himself from within, through the power of the imagination.

He wrote:

“It was during Advent of the year 1913 – December 12, to be exact – I resolved upon the decisive step. I was sitting at my desk once more, thinking over my fears. Then I let myself drop. Suddenly it was as though the ground literally gave way beneath my feet, and I plunged into the dark depths.”

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

After his vision where he met with strange figures of his imagination in a dark cave, he became covered in imaginative blood, a thick jet of it leaped up and he felt nauseated. He continued to see fantasies in which blood was a recurring theme, including thousands of dead bodies and the whole sea turning into blood. This was just before the outbreak of the First World War.

The culmination of Jung’s experience with active imagination is presented in his Black Books, written between 1913 and 1932. He later began to copy these notes into the Liber Novus (the “New Book”), also known as the Red Book, because of its red leather-bound cover, where he included a medieval style calligraphy and depictions of his visions from the unconscious. This book he showed only to a few of his trusted friends. It was only around 50 years after his death that the Red Book was published in 2009.

Jung delved into an imaginative venture which he referred to as his “most difficult experiment”, and stated that, “to the superficial observer, it will appear like madness.” It was not, however, an illness, but a conscious and deliberate experiment. Jung remained firmly grounded in the world with his family and his work as a psychologist, and so did not become overpowered by his unconscious.

He began conversations with forces that were not himself, but rather archetypes of the collective unconscious. He saw what he called the “mythopoeic imagination” as the intermediary between consciousness and the unconscious (both personal unconscious and collective unconscious).

Alchemy and Jung

Alchemy played a key role in Jung’s understanding of the psyche. At first he disregarded it as indecipherable nonsense – but he soon realised that the strange symbols present in alchemy came from the same source he was investigating, the unconscious. He continued studying it throughout his life. In his final great work, Mysterium Coniunctionis, completed at the age of 81, Jung describes active imagination as the way to self-knowledge and the process of individuation, to becoming who you are, inspired by the alchemical process of the union of opposites, which in the deepest sense is inner transformation.

“The alchemical art and its allegories are the drama of our own souls – playing out the individuation process on the wheel of life.”

Jeffrey Raff, Jung and the Alchemical Imagination

Approaching Active Imagination

The important thing in active imagination is to let the fantasies or dreams run their course. Jung explained the process in a letter:

“The point is that you start with any image, for instance just with that yellow mass in your dream. Contemplate it and carefully observe how the picture begins to unfold or change. Don’t try to make it into something, just do nothing but observe what its spontaneous changes are. Any mental picture you contemplate in this way will sooner or later change through a spontaneous association that causes a slight alteration of the picture. You must carefully avoid impatient jumping from one subject to another. Hold fast to the one image you have chosen and wait until it changes by itself. Note all these changes and eventually step into the picture yourself, and if it is a speaking figure at all then say what you have to say to that figure and listen to what he or she has to say. Thus you can not only analyse your unconscious but you also give your unconscious a chance to analyse yourself, and therewith you gradually create the unity of conscious and unconscious without which there is no individuation at all.”

Carl Jung’s Letter to Mr. O (2 May 1947)

Precaution Before Starting Active Imagination

For most people the difficulty is in getting the active imagination started. However, there is a fundamental precaution that everyone must take before starting active imagination. Some people may be subject to being so totally possessed by the flow of images that they can’t pull out of it. Their minds get lost in the realm of fantasy and can’t find the way back to the here-and-now of the ordinary world. The unconscious is powerful, and if we are going to approach it, we must do so with respect and care. Though it is a solitary experiment, it is advisable to have someone close to you in the beginning in case you become overwhelmed by the imagination or to consult a competent Jungian analyst before undertaking this technique.

Inner Work: Active Imagination

In his book, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth, the American author and Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson gives us a guide on how to do inner work, direct ways to approach the unconscious through dreams and active imagination, and discover the hidden depths of our personality, enriching our lives.

We will be focusing specifically on how to approach our inner self through active imagination.

Although Jung held dreams in high regard, he considered active imagination to be an even more effective path to the unconscious. The difference is this: when you dream, you receive signals from the unconscious, but the conscious mind does not participate. Unless you are experiencing a lucid dream where you are conscious that you are dreaming. In active imagination, by contrast, the conscious mind actively participates. The ego goes into the inner world, walks, makes friends with or fights with the people it finds there. You engage in conversation, exchange viewpoints, go through adventures together, and eventually learn something from each other. A new world with unlimited possibilities.

The events take place on the imaginative level, which is neither conscious nor unconscious but a meeting place, a common ground where both meet on equal terms, it gives rise to the transcendent function, the Self, that stands as the synthesis of the two opposites.

Distinguishing Active Imagination from Passive Fantasy

Active imagination is different from ordinary, passive fantasy. This is daydreaming: it is sitting and merely watching the stream of fantasy that goes on in the back of your mind as though you were at a movie. You do not consciously participate and thus it is a waste of energy, because the issues do not get resolved. The “I” must enter into the imaginative act as intensely as it would if it were an external, physical experience.

Active Imagination Example: Talking with the Inner Artist

Robert gives an example of a woman who was repainting her house and was unable to sleep because of her obsession with the different colours and designs. She became irritated toward her husband, who couldn’t understand her. One night, she entered into a dialogue with an inner being by expressing her mood, “JA” refers to an androgynous Japanese artist and “E” refers to her ego.

“JA: I am afraid.

E: Afraid of what?

JA: I am afraid that I will be locked up again.

E: Locked up?

JA: There are rarely any opportunities for me to express myself. It seems I must work very fast and intensely while the door is open to me. Soon it will be over, and I will be locked up again.

E: I begin to see what you mean. In my life there have been very few outlets provided for you, so few that I hardly knew you existed. The culture I live in doesn’t provide any place for you. And I have not stood separately from my culture in this matter to provide for you.

JA: That is true. I feel that I’ve been starving. This may be my only opportunity…”

Robert A. Johnson, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth

In the aftermath of this active imagination, this woman found a new world opening to her. She had been so tied up with mental work – thinking, analysing, productivity – that there was no room in her life for the realm of physical beauty. She talked to this inner Japanese artist figure regularly. She started spending time working in her garden or at the ceramics workshop and in other physical or artistic activities that put her in contact with earthly, feminine values.

By honouring this part of herself, she derived a deep satisfaction, a knowledge that she is nourishing a part of herself that was starving before. Her sense of who she is had become amplified.

When You Think You’re Making Up Something

Robert had a patient who made up all his active imagination week after week, just to make a fool out of him. He revealed this the last day. Robert looked at him and the patient’s triumphant expression changed slowly to one of horror. Tears came to his eyes. He cursed and realised that all that he was doing was in fact true, but he didn’t want to admit it.

By trying to conjure up his “fake” story in order to fool Robert, he was spilling out the secret contents of his interior being.

It is common to ask: “How do I know that I’m not just making all this stuff up? How can I talk with someone who is only a figment of my imagination?”

Robert tells us that it is nearly impossible to produce anything in the imagination that is not an authentic representation of something in the unconscious. You are not just talking with yourself, but with your various selves. That is the whole point. The inner figures are autonomous. This is something we do not want to hear, as it is a frightening reality to know that we are not the masters of our house.

Active Imagination as Mythic Journey

Active imagination does not only have to do with immediate issues in our personal lives, but can also take the form of a mythical adventure, a journey into the archetypal realm. Setting foot into a land of evil, taking on a heroic quest to heal the sick and wounded and helping an innocent queen.

Each of us has all the great archetypal themes hidden inside. However, few of us can actually partake in this great primordial energy within us, unlike our primitive ancestors. This kind of active imagination connects us to the timeless cosmic dance of the archetypes that goes on eternally in the unconscious. It is a way of discovering how those universal energies flow through us as individuals, and express themselves in a unique and special way within our individual personalities.

Jung’s technique of amplification helps to interpret these archetypal images by using mythological, historical and cultural parallels in order to “turn up the volume” on the fantasy material.

The Four-Step Approach to Active Imagination

Robert gives us a four-step approach on how to get started with active imagination. But before beginning with the first step, it is important to find a convenient way to record the imagination as it flows out. Many give up before they get started because they can’t figure this out.

Your inner dialogue should be written, typed or recorded. This is your major protection against turning it into just another passive fantasy. The writing will help you remember and digest the experience. Just as the woman did in the example given, she wrote “E” to refer to the ego, and “JA” to refer to the Japanese artist.

If you type it down, you can use the lowercase setting to type what you are saying and capital letters to record what the other person in your imagination says back to you. In this way you can just pour the dialogue onto the page as quickly as they happen.

You can also use a recording device and talk and then transcribe them later, making sure to distinguish yourself from the unconscious inner being. This helps to stay in the visionary state and not have it interrupted by our impressions of the external world. Use any method that works best for you.

You should not try to “dress up” your imagination and make it sound impressive in case some other person happened to read or listen to it. It is highly personal and is something you are doing for yourself.

The goal is to experience and record whatever flows out of your unconscious honestly in its raw, spontaneous form.

Another important thing is the physical setting. There must be a room that is quiet and private enough that you can shut off the outside world for a while, at least half an hour. You also need to be alone.

If you live with other people, tell everyone in the house that you are not to be disturbed except for a nuclear blast or the Second Coming. You are entitled to that kind of freedom, privacy and security. You need it in order to make your journey into the inner world. You should be able to let out your raw feelings and emotions without worrying that someone is watching, or listening to you.

Step 1. Active Imagination: The Invitation

The first step in active imagination is to invite the creatures of the unconscious to come up to the surface and make contact with us. Every interaction helps us to develop the organs of perception of the imaginal world.

We often have something vague and invisible in the unconscious that bothers us. We can feel the conflict just below the surface, but we can’t see what is going on. We can’t associate it with anything specific. Sometimes it is an inexplicable, free-floating anger. We can’t say why we are angry, or at what—we just feel it. Moods, worries, depressions, inflations, and obsessions all come within this category. Robert writes:

“When this happens, you can go to the unconscious in your imagination and ask the unseen content to personify itself. You can start your Active Imagination by asking: Where is the obsession? Who is obsessed? Where does this feeling come from? Who is the one inside me who feels this way? What is its image? What does he or she look like?”

Robert A. Johnson, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth

If you do this, an image eventually comes into your mind. We invite the inner persons to start the dialogue. By taking our minds off the external world around us and focusing on the imagination we can direct our inner eye to a place inside us, then we wait to see who will show up.

To invite the inner figures, we need to “empty the ego-mind”. We clear the mind of all thoughts of the external world and simply wait, with an alert and attentive attitude, to see who or what will appear. If you see someone, you can begin with asking: “Who are you? What do you want? What do you have to say?” Your dialogue begins. Surrender yourself to the experience and don’t try to control or push the imagination in any particular direction.

If you have a certain fantasy material that’s been in your mind all day, you can safely assume that it is expressing one of the main conflicts where psychic energy is concentrated in you. You can begin by going to that specific place as a starting point for active imagination, instead of passively watching the same fantasy repeat itself over and over in your mind, you carry the material forward.

You can also start active imagination by embodying one of your inner figures and assume their consciousness, or make your invitation by going to a symbolic place in your imagination. Robert writes:

“For me, the seashore is a magical place that often appears in my dreams. When I don’t know how to start my Active Imagination, I frequently go to the seashore in my mind and start walking. Inevitably something happens or someone appears, and then the imagination is launched. There have been a few days when I walked and walked, and almost nothing happened; sometimes you can grow weary walking. But generally, if you go to the inner place and search, you will find someone waiting for you.”

Robert A. Johnson, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth

Jung also found that active imagination could be used for extending dreams. If you have a recent dream that you recall or a recurring dream, you can extend the dream by imagining where the dream left off. In this manner, you can effectively continue your dream and interact with it by extending it out. This is a legitimate process as the dream and the imagination come from the same source in the unconscious. It allows you to “continue to the story”, go through the next step the dream is leading toward, and bring the whole issue to a resolution.

Curiously, dreaming decreases dramatically when one does active imagination. The issues that would have been presented in dreams are confronted and worked out. As such, dreams become more focused and concentrated and less repetitious, for dreams do not waste your time. Jung used to describe this method for people who were too overwhelmed by intense and frequent dreams.

Step 2. Active Imagination: The Dialogue

You have invited the unconscious; the images have risen up into your imagination. Now you are ready to begin the second step, the dialogue. This is to give yourself over to the imagination and letting it flow, to let the inner figures have a life of their own.

In your imagination you begin to talk to your images and interact with them. They answer back. You are startled to find out that they express radically different viewpoints from those of your conscious mind. They tell you things you never consciously knew and express thoughts that you never consciously thought.

To begin the writing process, Jung wrote that:

“The alterations must be carefully noted down all the time, for they reflect the psychic processes in the unconscious background, which appear in the form of images consisting of conscious memory material. In this way conscious and unconscious are united, just as a waterfall connects above and below.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 14: Mysterium Coniunctionis

By focusing on your writing, you concentrate and experience the active imagination more deeply, protecting you from wandering off into passive fantasies that creep in from the edges of the mind.

Often the inner person will lead you off on a path. If you feel that it is wrong to follow the person, you have the right to say so. That, in turn, will often lead to a heated discussion of the conflict between this inner person and yourself. The dialogue has begun, and the different parts of the self are learning from each other.

Most people do a fair amount of talking in their active imagination, exchanging points of view with the inner figures, trying to work out a middle ground between opposing views, even asking for advice from some very wise ones who live in the unconscious. However, not all dialogue is verbal – it can also take the form of images, that speak to you without words.

It is important to stick with the image that we start with and not allow oneself to be distracted by other fantasy material. It may take days, weeks or even years for a certain fantasy to be resolved. You must be present with your feelings, and sense that it is actually happening. You are not merely an observer, but an active participant.

Do not try to dominate or manipulate the conversation either. Active imagination is, more than anything, a process of listening, either to the words or the images.

After so many years of ignoring these parts of ourselves, seeing them as the inferior characteristics in our personalities, we find that they have some very unpleasant things to tell us when we finally listen. They may also appear as frightening and threatening, this is your Golden Shadow, which you must wrestle with to find your undiscovered potential.

We must turn a friendly face to the unconscious. It is only when we humbly listen to them and give them time to express themselves, that we can gain new insights that can be integrated into our conscious life. As Jung wrote:

“We know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid – it reflects the face we turn towards it. Hostility lends it a threatening aspect, friendliness softens its features.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 12: Psychology and Alchemy

The ego is a small island surrounded by a deep unseen ocean of energy where huge forces are at work. Active imagination is underwater diving. Though our ego is small in comparison, we shouldn’t take everything the inner figures say as final authority. That would be just as one-sided as our ego-centred approach.

Active imagination starts out from affirming that the unconscious has its own wisdom. It should not be confused with guided meditation practice, which seeks to “program” the unconscious so that it will do what the ego wants it to do.

There is no script, nothing is predetermined. You will have to go your own way, which is both terrifying and exhilarating. You must ultimately walk the path alone.

Step 3. Active Imagination: The Values

The third step is the values and ethical element our ego must introduce. Ethics is derived from Greek and means “proper conduct”. It, in turn, derives from the Greek word ethos, meaning the “essential character or spirit” of a person or people.

It sets limits in order to protect the imaginative process from becoming inhuman or destructive. The universe is awesome and beautiful, but its forces behave in a way that is amoral. They are not concerned, as we are, with the specifically human values of justice, fairness, service to our fellow human beings. These primitive archetypes serve a realm close to the instincts. They do not have a super-ego (socially appropriate behaviour). And since the creatures who arise in our active imagination are personifications of the impersonal forces of nature, it is we who must bring the ethical into active imagination.

But not all archetypes are like this, some may be concerned with human values, by a sense of love and moral responsibility. There is some truth and wisdom in every figure that comes to us in active imagination, and they help us compensate the one-sidedness of our ego.

Robert recalls a case where a woman had a dialogue with what appeared to be a wise old man who gave her good insights. However, one day he told her to hand over her purse and keys, symbolising all her resources and complete control of her life. Robert immediately told her to go back and tell him that she must take her things back, and so she did. Unfortunately, after a year, she went off on an inflation and became a know-it-all, trying to dominate every situation. She became possessed by the trickster archetype and went off a self-destructive path.

It is as much the ego’s duty to bring a sense of responsibility to the creatures of the inner world as it is for us to tend to the welfare of our fellow humans in the outside world.

Jung wrote:

“The images of the unconscious place a great responsibility upon a man. Failure to understand them, or a shirking of ethical responsibility, deprives him of his wholeness and imposes a painful fragmentariness on his life.”

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Step 4. Active Imagination: The Rituals

The fourth and last step is the rituals. To bring the active imagination off the abstract level we must give it the concreteness of immediate physical experience. The most important step of all is for the images of the unconscious to find their place and purpose in one’s outer life.

An important point here is not to take our inner conflicts and urges and try to live them out externally. For example, if a man is arguing with his inner figure during active imagination, he may go and start up the same argument with his wife immediately afterwards. He will try to live out the imagination externally and literally, by projecting on external people.

For this reason, it is important that one should not call to mind the image of one’s spouse, friend or co-worker and start talking with that person in one’s imagination. It is confusing the inner with the outer reality. If asked, the inner figure will almost always cooperate and alter his or her appearance. You can then enter into your dialogue with a clear sense that you are talking with a part of yourself, and not an external human being.

To incarnate the experience, we must do a physical ritual or integrate what we have learned in our daily life. This can be taking some alone time to be aware of one’s feelings, lighting a candle or incense, going for a walk and directing your eyes on the colours of nature and the sky, reconnecting to the physical world. Or make it into something tangible with sand play, drawing, playdough, etc. Jung’s ritual was the calligraphy and artwork of the Red Book, which occupied him for many years. He took his communication with the unconscious seriously and valued it greatly.

Each ritual must be custom-made out of the raw material of your own inner self. Keep your  rituals small and subtle, and they will be more powerful. The best rituals are physical, solitary and silent: These are the ones that register most deeply with the unconscious.

Our tendency in the West is to make everything abstract, to use wordy discussion as a substitute for direct feeling experience. We have a tremendous need to get our bodies and our feelings involved.

“Ritual, in its true form, is one of the most meaningful channels for our awe and sense of worship. This is why ritual came spontaneously into being among humans in all parts of the earth. This is why modern people who are deprived of meaningful ritual feel a chronic sense of emptiness. They are denied contact with the great archetypes that nourish our soul-life.”

Robert A. Johnson, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth


Active Imagination: Confrontation with the Unconscious

Active imagination is a technique developed by the Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung. He considered it the most powerful tool to access the unconscious and for achieving wholeness of personality.  

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Owning Your Own Shadow: The Dark Side of the Psyche

“To honour and accept one’s own shadow is a profound spiritual discipline. It is whole-making and thus holy and the most important experience of a lifetime.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

Robert A. Johnson was an American author and Jungian analyst (a follower of Carl Jung’s analytical psychology).

At the age of 11, he had a near death experience in a car crash and was rushed to the hospital. He found that the nothingness, the blackness, was also the ecstatic world, he saw the world golden in visions. When they saved his life, and the visions stopped, he could not bear to live. In therapy, he was convinced to live because without the human faculty, he could not see the things which he treasured so much.

Robert had a great difficulty with the outer world. At one point he was known as Parsifal, an innocent fool. He experienced many slender threads between life and death during his life. Exploring the inner world helped him tremendously. His encounter with Jung was decisive, he wrote:

“Dr. Jung told me to spend most of my time alone, have a separate room in the house to be used for nothing but inner work, never to join any organisation or collectivity… Dr Jung told me that the unconscious would protect me, give me everything that I needed for my life and that my one duty was to do my inner work. All else would follow from this. He said it was not the least important whether I accomplished anything outwardly in this life since my one task was to contribute to the evolution of the collective unconscious.”

Robert A. Johnson, A Collection of Remembrances (Carl Jung, Emma Jung, Toni Wolff)

At the age of 54, and feeling lost in his life, Robert visited India alone. After a long and exhausting trip, and having lost his luggage, he went to his hotel and wanted nothing else than to sleep the whole day. He looked outside the window, and was struck by the beauty of the sight. He experienced the golden world a second time, after many decades. He was given a second chance. If you trust the inner world, it will take care of you.

The golden world is there all the time, it is a misconception to think that we produce it or earn it. It is not some other place or time, but a state of consciousness, an experience open to anyone, at any time, and at any place. The Kingdom of Heaven is within.

Robert has published books such as: He: Understanding Masculine Psychology, She: Understanding Feminine Psychology, and Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, among others. We will be focusing on the third one.

In our times, the water of life lies not in the external world, but rather within. The exploration of our inner world is the most important task in our lives.

For this, one must go beyond the ego (what we are and know consciously), and delve into the shadow. Robert refers to Jung’s early usage of the term, the part of us we fail to see or know (anything that is part of the unconscious).

Misconceptions of the Shadow

There are many misconceptions regarding the concept of shadow. It is commonly seen as evil, dark and something to be avoided. However, this is not the case. The shadow is not a detached thing that is not part of oneself, or the embodiment of the devil. It is a part of you. It cannot, and should not be avoided, for you will be going against yourself.

We all have a shadow walking behind us (both literally and metaphorically). It is the mirror image of ourselves that we cannot see. It represents those aspects that we lack. It has a compensatory role that seeks to restore our wholeness of personality.

For instance, the shadow of a criminal would not have murderous impulses, but the opposite, sincerity, relatedness, tenderness, etc. The shadow of a shy person would be assertiveness, commitment, responsibility, etc.

By displaying only the pleasant parts and highlights of oneself, and by denying one’s emotions and inner feelings, because one wants to, for example, be likeable or avoid conflict, one will build resentment that will go directly to the shadow and be projected onto others unconsciously.

We must recognise that we are capable of both good and evil. That is the only reality. To deny darkness is to deny half of oneself. With this in mind, most of us strive for a life of goodness, tranquillity and happiness.

The shadow is not to be seen as our enemy, but our friend. It contains pure gold waiting to be integrated into our personality. The shadow only becomes hostile when it is ignored or misunderstood, that is when it takes control of us, because we are not willing to. You can either be led and guided in life by your shadow, or be dragged through life by it, leading to neurotic behaviour.

It is not good that makes holy, it is the union of both good and evil that gives way to the transcendent.

How the Shadow Originates

So, how does the shadow originate? Our refused and unacceptable characteristics do not go away; they only collect in the dark corners of our personality. When they have been hidden long enough, they take on a life of their own—the shadow life. If it accumulates more energy than our ego, it erupts as an overpowering rage.

Someone once told Jung, “how do you find your shadow?” He replied, “how do you find the dragon that has swallowed you?”

By definition the shadow is a part of you that you don’t know. You don’t talk about your own shadow. If you can talk about it, it is already conscious and no longer shadow. As such, other people are more likely to see your shadow first, an embarrassing reality.

We are all born whole, but somehow culture demands that we live out only part of our nature and refuse other parts of ourselves. We divide the self into an ego and a shadow because our culture insists that we behave in a particular manner. This is our legacy from having eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, gaining consciousness of good and evil. The shadow can also be seen as sin, and the self as the figure of Christ.

Culture is the great levelling process, it brings everyone down to the same level. This means that also some of the pure gold of our personality goes into the shadow. Robert writes:

“Curiously, people resist the noble aspects of their shadow more strenuously than they hide the dark sides. To draw the skeleton out of the closet is relatively easy, but to own the gold in the shadow is terrifying. It is more disrupting to find that you have a profound nobility of character than to find out you are a bum.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

Ignoring the shadow is to ignore the inner gold. And many only discover their gold when they suffer from severe or life-threatening illness. This intense experience shows us that an important part of us is lying dormant.

The archetype of the wounded healer is one who has learned to cure himself and find the gold in his experience. This is typically the role of the shaman who often falls ill only to gain the insight needed to heal himself and bring wisdom to his people, the elixir of life.

As we reach adulthood, we have a clearly defined ego and shadow, a system of right and wrong. The religious task is to restore the wholeness of personality. Religion means to put things back together again, to connect whatever is fractured.  This is the job of the religious life. We modern people are broken within. The truth is hard to bear and we do not want to hear that there’s something in the world more important than our ego. Something needs to die, not our bodies, but the ego.

Robert writes:

“Generally, the first half of life is devoted to the cultural process—gaining one’s skills, raising a family, disciplining one’s self in a hundred different ways; the second half of life is devoted to restoring the wholeness (making holy) of life.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

Balancing Culture and Shadow

Robert uses the image of the teeter-totter or seesaw to illustrate our personality. On the right side we have our acceptable qualities (the righteous side), and on the left side we have those qualities that are unacceptable (the forbidden side). No quality can ever be discarded, it can only be moved between these two sides of the seesaw.

A law prevails that most of us choose to ignore completely. The seesaw must be balanced if one is to remain in psychic equilibrium. If one indulges characteristics on the right side, they must be balanced by an equal weight on the left side. The reverse is equally true. This instability is what causes mood swings or suddenly acting as a completely different person.

On the other hand, if the seesaw is too heavily loaded, it may also break at the centre point. This is a psychosis or “breakdown”. While we take the balance of say, our body temperature, for granted – we rarely recognise that the psyche also has its way of keeping a balance.

This idea is illustrated in a medieval manuscript of the tree of knowledge produced from Adam’s navel. On the left, the Virgin Mary is clothed as a nun, picking fruit from the tree and handing it out to a long line of penitents for their salvation. Eve, naked, stands on the right, picking fruit from the same tree, handing it out to a long line of people for their damnation. This single tree gives a dual product.  Whenever we pluck from the fruit of creativity, our other hand plucks the fruit of destruction. We would love to have creativity without destruction, but that is not possible. Our resistance to this insight is very high.

The prevailing attitude of goodness or sainthood is to live as much as possible on the right hand, the good side, of the seesaw. But such a condition would be unstable. The holy place is the centre point. While we must hide our dark side from society, we should never hide it from ourself.

Robert writes:

“Of course we are going to have a shadow! St. Augustine, in The City of God, thundered, ’To act is to sin.’ To create is to destroy at the same moment. We cannot make light without a corresponding darkness. India balances Brahma, the god of creation, with Shiva, the god of destruction, and Vishnu sits in the middle keeping the opposites together. No one can escape the dark side of life, but we can pay out that dark side intelligently… The balance of light and dark is ultimately possible – and bearable.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

This is one of Jung’s great insights: that the ego and the shadow come from the same source and exactly balance each other. To make light is to make shadow; one cannot exist without the other.

“To own one’s own shadow is to reach a holy place – an inner centre – not attainable in any other way. To fail this is to fail one’s own sainthood and to miss the purpose of life.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

It is not perfection that we must strive for, but wholeness – this is how the joy of life is created. It is embracing our own humanity, our strengths and flaws, and not a one-sided goodness that has no vitality or life.

Robert writes:

“I remember a weekend when I put up with very difficult guests who stayed days beyond their invitation. I exercised herculean patience and courtesy and sighed in great relief when they left. I thought I had earned something nice by my virtue so I went to the nursery to buy something beautiful for my garden. Before I knew what was happening, I picked a fight with the nurseryman and made a miserable spectacle of myself. Since I did not pick up my shadow consciously, I landed it on this poor stranger. Balance was served, but in a clumsy and stupid way.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

The Shadow in Projection

One has to honour one’s shadow, for it is an integral part of oneself; but one must not push it onto someone else. The shadow will claim its dues in some form, intelligent or stupid. Projection is always easier than assimilation. It is only possible to do one’s best and live a decent civilised life if we acknowledge this other dimension of reality. We all have the potential for evil, that is what unites all of us. Those who deny this, are often those who fall prey to their own shadow.

To refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness; this is later expressed as a black mood, psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously inspired accidents.

“We are presently dealing with the accumulation of a whole society that has worshiped its light side and refused the dark, and this residue appears as war, economic chaos, strikes, racial intolerance. The front page of any newspaper hurls the collective shadow at us. We must be whole whether we like it or not; the only choice is whether we will incorporate the shadow consciously and with some dignity or do it through some neurotic behaviour.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

The tendency to see one’s shadow “out there” in a specific person or a group of people is the most dangerous aspect of the modern psyche. Not only does it affect others negatively, but also oneself. It is only by taking the shadow back into one self, that one can assimilate it. It must return to where it first originated and where it is required for your own wholeness.

It is common for two people’s shadows to be at each other. This rarely leads anywhere, as both of them are entirely at the mercy of the unconscious. To be in the presence of another’s shadow and not reply is nothing short of genius.

Goethe’s Faust is a great example in literature of the meeting of ego and shadow. Faust is a scholar who finds that life is meaningless and contemplates suicide, his seesaw has reached the breaking point. At this moment, he meets with his shadow, Mephistopheles. Through their perseverance, Faust is saved from his lifelessness and becomes capable of passion, and Mephistopheles discovers his capacity to love. Love is the one word in our Western tradition adequate to describe this synthesis of ego and shadow.

The Gold in the Shadow

One of the hardest things to understand is that we often refuse to accept our noble traits and instead find a shadow substitute for them.

“People are as frightened of their capacity for nobility as of their darkest sides. If you find the gold in someone he will resist it to the last ounce of his strength. This is why we indulge in hero-worship so often.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

All our energy lies in our shadow and ignoring it makes us feel lifeless, exhausted and lazy. A confrontation with one’s shadow fills one up with energy and stamina, which we can use for our daily tasks and work. Robert writes:

“A wise woman once showed me how to get more energy when I complained that I was exhausted before lecturing. She instructed me to go to a private room just before the talk, take a towel, dampen it so it would be very heavy, then throw the towel, wrapped up into a ball, at the floor as hard as I could—and shout. I felt infinitely foolish doing this, for it is not my style. But when I walked out to the lecture platform after such an exercise there was fire in my eyes. I had energy and stamina and voice. I did a courteous, well-structured lecture. The shadow backed me but did not overwhelm me.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow

Parrots learn profanity more easily than common phrases since we utter our curses with so much vigour. The parrot doesn’t know the meaning of these words, but he hears the energy invested in them. Even animals can pick up on the power we have hidden in the shadow!

The Shadow in Middle Age

In middle age one gets tired of the involuntary round trips between the two ends of the see-saw. To our surprise, that middle ground is not the grey compromise that we feared but the place of ecstasy and joy. If we learn how to take the energy of the shadow and use it correctly, it can set the stage for a whole new phase of life.

The Ceremonial World

In a shadow ritual, one must find one of the left-hand contents and give it expression in some way that does not damage the right-hand personality. One can offer a sacrifice in multiple ways, such as writing the shadow material down and then burning the paper. A symbolic or ceremonial ritual affects one as much as any event, as long as it means something for you.

All healthy societies have a rich ceremonial life to pay out their shadow in a symbolic way, through fasting, sacrifice, sexual abstention, etc. We must acknowledge the whole of reality, destruction and creation, evil and redemption. Our fondness for the light blinds us to the greater reality and keeps us from this larger vision of wholeness.

Paradox as Religious Experience

Paradox is that water of life we need so badly in our modern world. All the great myths give instructions on this subject and remind us that the treasure will be found in one of the least likely places. Strangely, the best can come from the most neglected quarter. We will go to almost any length to avoid this painful paradox; but in that refusal we only confine ourselves to the useless experience of contradiction. Contradiction brings the crushing burden of meaninglessness. One can endure any suffering if it has meaning; but meaninglessness is unbearable. Contradiction is barren and destructive, yet paradox is creative. It is a powerful embracing of reality.

Every human experience can be expressed in terms of paradox. Day is comprehensible only in contrast to night. Masculinity has relevance only in contrast to femininity. Activity has meaning only in relation to rest. Up is only possible in the presence of down. Where would I be without you? Where is joy not bounded by sobriety?

To advance from opposition (always a quarrel) to paradox (always holy) is to make a leap of consciousness. That leap takes us through the chaos of middle age and gives a vista that enlightens the remaining years of life.

Winning and losing, eating and fasting, earning and giving – these are not opposites, but are all necessary to the human condition. Everyone one of us lives in this contradiction.

So what do we do with this apparently insufferable contradiction? That is essentially the question that is at the base of every neurotic dissociation and every psychological problem. If we go at the question wrongly we are bound in a neurotic paralysis in which we can do nothing. We cannot act or be still. This is where many people stand and their suffering is intense.

Danish philosopher Kierkegaard expresses this as exemplifying the life of the aesthete, who chases pleasure but is struck with despair. He writes:

“I can’t be bothered. I can’t be bothered to ride, the motion is too violent; I can’t be bothered to walk, it’s strenuous; I can’t be bothered to lie down, for either I’d have to stay lying down and that I can’t be bothered with, or I’d have to get up again, and I can’t be bothered with that either. In short: I just can’t be bothered.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

Kierkegaard, too, believes that paradox is the solution to despair, which can only be found in taking the leap of faith towards God.

To think that one way of action is profane and another sacred is to make a terrible misuse of language. This is a flaming, flagrant error and is the seat of most of the neurotic suffering in humankind.

Religion bridges or heals, it restores and reconciles the opposition that have been torturing each of us. It helps us move from contradiction—that painful condition where things oppose each other—to the realm of paradox, where we are able to entertain simultaneously two contradictory notions and give them equal dignity.

The English poet William Blake also spoke about the need to reconcile both the light and the dark parts of the self. He said we should go to heaven for form and to hell for energy – and marry the two.

Most people spend their entire life energy supporting the war of opposites within themselves. This only brings despair. In the miracle of the paradox, it is good to win; it is also good to lose. It is good to have; it is also good not to have. Each represents a reality, a truth. To stay loyal to paradox is to earn the right to wholeness.

Fanaticism is always a sign that one has adopted one of a pair of opposites at the expense of the other. The high energy of fanaticism is a frantic effort to keep one half of the truth at bay while the other half takes control. This always yields a brittle personality of “always being right.”

The Shadow as Entree to Paradox

But what has paradox to do with the shadow? It has everything to do with the shadow, for there can be no paradox—that sublime place of reconciliation—until one has owned one’s own shadow and drawn it up to a place of dignity and worth. To own one’s own shadow is to prepare the ground for spiritual experience. Conflict to paradox to revelation; that is the divine progression.

Who does not spend much of his time debating whether to do the disciplined task or to goof off a bit longer and stay in dreamy “nowhere”? Neither is holy; but exactly in the paradox between them lies the holy place.

To be in a situation where there is no way out, or to be in a conflict where there is no solution, is the classical beginning of individuation or self-realisation. In this state, the unconscious wants the hopeless conflict in order to put ego-consciousness up against the wall, so that one has to realise that whatever one does is wrong. This is an act of humility, that invites one to see beyond the ego, to that which is greater than ourselves.

The Mandorla

We know that the mandala is the holy circle that represents wholeness, the Self. Mandalas are devices that remind us of our unity with God and with all living things. In Tibet a teacher often draws a mandala for his student and leaves him to meditate on this symbol for many years before he gives the next step of instruction.

The mandorla, however, is an idea that is rarely talked about. The mandorla also has a healing effect, but its form is somewhat different. It is an almond-shaped segment that is made when two circles partly overlap. This symbol signifies nothing less than the overlap of the opposites that we have been investigating. It instructs us how to engage in reconciliation. We can often see Christ or the Virgin Mary in its centre.

By definition, Christ himself is the intersection of the divine and the human. He is the prototype for the reconciliation of opposites and our guide out of the realm of conflict and duality.

When one is tired or discouraged by life that one can no longer bear to live, the mandorla shows what one may do. When the most herculean efforts and the finest discipline no longer keep the painful contradictions of life at bay, we are all in need of the mandorla. Our own healing proceeds from that overlap of what we call good and evil, light and dark. It is not the light element alone that does the healing; the place where light and dark begin to touch is the most profound religious experience we can have in life.

We like to think that a story is based on the triumph of good over evil; but the deeper truth is that good and evil are superseded and the two become one. When one is truly both a citizen of heaven and earth, one finally realises that there was only one circle all the time. This is the fulfilment of the Christian goal. The two circles were only the optical illusion of our capacity and need to see things double.

If one makes a mandorla in the privacy of one’s interior life, it is heard for more than a thousand miles. People often asked Jung, “Will we make it?” referring to the cataclysm of our time. He always replied, “If enough people will do their inner work.”

The acknowledgement of one’s shadow diminishes shadow projection and helps to contribute less to the general darkness of the world by not adding to the collective shadow that fuels war, division and strife. But we also prepare the way for the mandorla, that ultimate place of wholeness in one’s inner life, the great prize of human consciousness.

“In the Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot writes, ‘The fire and the rose are one.’ By overlapping the two elements of fire and flower, he makes a mandorla. We are pleased to the depth of our soul to be told that the fire of transformation and the flower of rebirth are one and the same.”

Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow


Owning Your Own Shadow: The Dark Side of the Psyche

American author and Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson states that to honour and accept one’s own shadow is a profound spiritual discipline. It is whole-making and thus holy and the most important experience of a lifetime.

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The Otherworldly Art of William Blake

William Blake was an English poet and visionary artist born in 1757 whose unique work gives us a glimpse into an entirely different world. His art was ignored and neglected, and few people took his work seriously. He was generally seen as a madman.

Today he is recognised as the most spiritual of artists, and an important poet in English literature. While most artists sought to develop art based on the external world, Blake decided to develop the inner world.

Throughout his life he remained mostly in solitude. He refused to compromise with society, and was known for his eccentric behaviour. He wrote:

“That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy’d, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & Prophecy & Speak Parables unobserv’d & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals.”

Blake’s Letter to Thomas Butts (25 April 1803)

His vivid imagination, visions and mystical experiences lead him to a spiritual task that was the exploration of his inner self. We don’t live in reality, we live in what we think reality is.

At the age of 4, he saw God put his head to the window, which sent him screaming. As a young boy he would read the Bible, which remained a key source of inspiration for his works. He saw visions, mostly of angelic figures and told his parents about them. Such as:

 “[A] tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.”

The Life of William Blake – Alexander Gilchrist

Blake experienced visions throughout his life. He had little formal education and was home-schooled by his parents. He’d later write:

“Thank God, I never was sent to school

To be flogged into following the style of a fool!”

The Life of William Blake – Alexander Gilchrist

He’d frequently read the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Dante, etc. His artistic ability became evident, and his parents decided to send him to drawing school at the age of 10. Here he became inspired by the works of Michelangelo and Raphael. He started writing poetry between the ages of 11 and 12.

He needed to find a career and at the age of 14, Blake became an engraver’s apprentice for seven years, creating illustrations of other people’s work, and receiving a small sum of money in return. After his apprenticeship had ended, he briefly attended the Royal Academy of Arts in London, but soon dropped out as he felt that his imagination was being weakened by academia, and his teachers showed little interest in his work. He set out to follow his imaginative mind, while making a modest living from illustrating books, giving drawing lessons and engraving designs made by other artists.

In 1782, while speaking of his recovery from a relationship where his marriage proposal was rejected, a woman by the name of Catherine Boucher listened and pitied him from her heart. He told her, “do you pity me?” – she responded in the affirmative, and he replied, “then I love you.” They married and began their lifelong relationship together. He taught her how to read and write, arts which few uneducated women ever succeeded in attaining. She proved to be an invaluable partner and supported him in his visions as well as helping him with his art.

Blake saw the effects of the Enlightenment take place. The physical world became increasingly dominated by science and the inner world by rational thinking. Rational empiricism was a philosophy that looked to the material world for evidence of God’s existence. Blake calls this “single vision”, the world observed merely in a cold, calculated and unimaginative way. There’s no room for subjectivity. This is the poorest of visions, where we rely purely on our concrete physical senses. Blake’s idea of the fall is different from Christianity, which understands the fall of man as Adam and Eve’s disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Blake understands the fall as caused by us human beings, by our lack of imaginative freedom.

Twofold vision, on the other hand, is that of subjectivity and imagination – this is how Blake sees the world always. He writes:

“This life’s dim windows of the soul

Distorts the heavens from pole to pole

And leads you to believe a lie

When you see with, not through, the eye.”

William Blake, The Everlasting Gospel

It is to play with fantasy, like looking at the night sky and seeing forms and animals in the stars. This would occasionally lead him to higher visionary states. Threefold vision, also referred to as “Beulah”, is the peaceful place where all worries, responsibilities and troubles vanish. A place of restoration and reflection, where the contraries are equally true. There is no life and death, they are both the same. This occurs in the realm of dreams. While in our conscious reality our relatives may have died, they are still very much alive in the realm of the unconscious. You can step into these images at any time, to prove the being that you really are.

When we are dreaming, it is all very objective and real. It is only after we awake, that we call it a subjective experience. As the American transcendentalist Thoreau wrote:

“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake… in dreams we never deceive ourselves, nor are deceived.”

Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

Similarly, Carl Jung wrote:

“Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakens.”

Jung’s Letter to Fanny Bowditch (22 October 1916)

Jung recounts a dream where he saw a yogi, sitting in a lotus position in deep meditation. He realised that the yogi had his face. Frightened, he awoke. He writes:

“[H]e is the one who is meditating me. He has a dream, and I am it. I knew that when he awakened, I would no longer be.”

Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections

At times, one can experience the final state, fourfold vision, which is hard to describe. It is a glimpse of eternity, making life so glorious and every moment is so delightful that every second makes life worth living. The smallest things in the world holds the cosmic truth for those with the imagination for it. Blake writes:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.”

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

To summarise his four visions, Blake wrote in a letter:

“Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me;
‘Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulah’s night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision & Newton’s sleep!”

Blake’s Letter to Thomas Butts (22 November 1802)

Newton is, of course, the embodiment of reason and science. Our sensory perceptions limits us to the five senses, however, there are many more experiences beyond that.

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

English writer Aldous Huxley would later name his autobiography, The Doors of Perception, inspired by Blake, where he focuses on his psychedelic experiences.

Blake’s idea is that our internal vision changes how we perceive reality. There are days where we find the world golden, though the world stays the same. The change within changes the world. He was practising what Jung calls “active imagination”. Through our fantasies and imagination, we magnify our view of the world, that is, we expand and enrich consciousness by bringing unconscious contents into reality.

Blake wrote in a letter to a man who dismissed his visions and art as superstitious:

“I feel that a man may be happy in this world, and I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike…The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is so he sees.”

Blake’s Letter to Dr. Trusler (23 August 1799)

A fool sees not the same tree that the wise man sees. Romanticism was a movement that rejected this emphasis on the increasingly materialistic society and prioritised the inner reality of the individual. Although Blake was entirely unique and not a typical Romantic poet, he did share the view of society as being something dark, repressive, evil and greedy.

Blake was a rebel of his time and was deeply aware of the social issues of his age. He opposed slavery, racism, tyranny and all authority, including the established church, politicians and kings. He criticised the Industrial Revolution which made man a machine, alienating him from nature, human relationships, imagination and God.

Blake saw how Christianity, the source of life and liberation, with the message of love and brotherhood, God being the principle of each person’s inner life, had become the source of social control, spreading revenge and obedience to society’s laws and rules.

He wrote:

“And all must love the human form,

In heathen, Turk, or Jew;

Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too.”

William Blake, Songs of Innocence: The Divine Image

Though Blake was a Christian, he believed that all religions are one, the pantheon of different deities are part of the act of creation of what he calls the Poetic Genius. If there is one true religion for Blake, it is the divine spark of the imagination.

“Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Some might find this as diminishing the importance of God. However, for Blake the God within elevates our internal world, bringing that up to the level of the divine, which is something that we all can experience.

Blake strongly believed in the emancipation and freedom of the human spirit in a time where the tendency was to restrict human capacity and the freedom of the imagination. He sought a spiritual truth, a truth that could only be achieved through introspection.

He believed that we originated from a spiritual realm, and were born as free spirits, but became imprisoned in the physical world. The only way to be freed from it is by going beyond it through imagination, which for Blake is not just a state, but the essence of human existence itself.

In 1787, one of his most traumatic events took place, the death of his younger brother, Robert, the family member to whom he was most attached to. He tended him in his illness, and stayed close to him for a fortnight. As he watched him draw his last breath, he saw his brother’s spirit ascend heavenward, “clapping his hands for joy”, as he put it. When his brother died, William’s exhaustion showed itself in an unbroken sleep of three nights of duration.

He wrote in a letter:

“I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.”

Blake’s Letter to William Hayley (6 May 1800)

In 1809, Blake put up an exhibition of his art, but hardly anyone attended. A critic called him an “unfortunate lunatic whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement.”

“Some are born to sweet delight,

Some are born to endless night.”

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

One day we are delighted, another day we have a sleepless night. Suffering and joy are complementary, we can’t have one without the other. We can, however, strive for a joyful life in this world, and this is apparent in Blake’s work.

Blake died in 1827, while working on illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, only managing to complete a few. He stayed beside his wife, who he had been together with for 45 years, and he sang hymns and verses until his last breath.

Though he had gained a small recognition and group of followers known as “The Ancients”, he died penniless. It may sound like he had a tragic life, but he didn’t. He lived right into his death.

Blake had a real sense of joy about life and would often sing and recite poems. He considered himself a bard, a poet-singer.

A fellow artist wrote:

“He died… in a most glorious manner. He said he was going to that country he had all his life wished to see, and expressed himself happy, hoping for salvation through Jesus Christ. Just before he died his countenance became fair. His eyes brightened and he burst out singing of the things he saw in Heaven.”

George Richmond’s Letter to Samuel Palmer (15 August 1827)

The Lyrical Poems of William Blake

Blake not only wrote poems but also illustrated them. He published Songs of Innocence in 1789, which deals with the symbol of childhood and innocence, they are optimistic and celebratory. In 1794, he published Songs of Experience, which are more pessimistic, and serve as a counterpart to his first work. These are two contrary states of the human soul. The world is innocence and experience, suffering and joy. Seeing these views as complementary is crucial for Blake.

Here are a few lines of his poems:

“I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”

William Blake, Songs of Experience: London

Blake observed the suffocating atmosphere of London after the French Revolution. Fearing a similar outcome, the freedom of individuals were oppressed and everything was covered with darkness, terror, misery and unhappiness.

“O Rose thou art sick.

The invisible worm,

That flies in the night

In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.”

William Blake, Songs of Experience: The Sick Rose

The beautiful rose (the symbol of love and femininity) is infected and corrupted by a secret night visitor, the worm (the symbol of death, decay and masculine destruction). The poem may imply the constant tension between living and dying.

“I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I waterd it in fears,

Night & morning with my tears:

And I sunned it with smiles,

And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night.

Till it bore an apple bright.

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine.

And into my garden stole,

When the night had veild the pole;

In the morning glad I see;

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.”

William Blake, Songs of Experience: A Poison Tree

This poem gives a great psychological insight, the repressed feelings of anger creates a poison in us. This is the Jungian shadow, if one represses the dark aspects of oneself, the shadow grows darker and denser, until one has no possibility of commanding or controlling it, and therefore it becomes autonomous and may suddenly burst forth in a moment of unawareness.

Prophetic Books & Mythology

Blake’s most important written work are his “prophetic books”, which seek to express universal or eternal truths. Some of them include: Vala, or The Four Zoas, Milton, and Jerusalem.

The works of William Blake contain a mythopoesis, an invented mythology springing from the depths of his psyche. His prophetic books contain some of the most remarkable and least read poetry in the English language.

Vala, or The Four Zoas, is an uncompleted work begun in 1797 and abandoned after ten years. He intended the book to be a summary of his mythic universe. Blake’s psychic forces were so real that he used to converse with them. Hence arose his special mythology, for these forces were living beings. So novel was everything in this new world that no vocabulary was prepared for him, so he had to name them.

Albion (the ancient name of Britain) is a major character in Blake’s work. He represents the Eternal Man, a fourfold being whose fallen state created the Four Zoas, reflections of the divine aspect. These are: Urthona, Urizen, Luvah and Tharmas. Together, they correspond to fourfold vision.

Urthona may derive from “earth owner” and is the imagination of the individual. He is the deepest and most mysterious of the Zoas and is called “dark” several times, he has no manifestation in person, but rather takes the form of Los, the expression of creative imagination (he is the central figure for Blake). Los is often compared with Enitharmon, the Great Mother who resembles spiritual beauty and the emotion of pity.

The second Zoa is Urizen (which may derive from “your reason”). He symbolises law-making, and reason. Luvah symbolises emotions, notably love, but also its contrary, hate. The last Zoa is Tharmas, who represents the body.

Blake’s four Zoas bear a striking resemblance to Jung’s four functions of intuition, thinking, feeling and sensation.

The Fourfold Man is man in his complete or unfallen state, when he is identical with God, and with his four Zoas in harmony. Blake’s model of the human psyche is complex and can be divided into four parts, he writes:

“I see the Four-fold Man, The Humanity in deadly sleep

And its fallen Emanation, the Spectre and its cruel Shadow.”

William Blake, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion

Humanity is man’s innermost part, the image of God in which he was created, deadly sleep is his fall to single vision. The Emanation is a crucial word for Blake, it refers to the feminine counterpart of the male (such as Enitharmon being the emanation of Los), and when it achieves a separate existence, it exhibits destructive behaviour. However, in eternity, where the individual is complete again, there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage, as the sexual division no longer exists there.

The Spectre is the rational power of man, who is opposed to imagination and is focused on single vision, becoming self-centred and unable to sympathise with others. The Shadow is the residue of one’s supressed desires, or a delusion, such as “this vegetable earth” being a shadow of the “eternal world”.

Again, one cannot help but see the similarities between Blake and Jung’s work, Blake’s emanation and spectre are closely analogous to Jung’s anima and persona. There are also resemblances in Blake’s art in relation to Jung’s red book. Nevertheless, they also have radically different views of the unconscious. While Jung believes that ideas have people, Blake thinks that people create ideas.

It is known that Jung was aware of Blake’s work, and included some of his art in his books. He wrote in a letter:

“Blake’s picture is very interesting… I find Blake a tantalising study, since he has compiled a lot of half – or undigested knowledge in his fantasies. According to my idea, they are an artistic production rather than an authentic representation of unconscious processes.”

Jung’s Letter to Piloo Nanavutty (11 November 1948)

Milton is Blake’s epic poem based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is a journey of self-discovery, to rescue Albion with the power of the imagination. The preface contains a  well-known poem called “And did those feet in ancient time”. Today it is best known as the hymn “Jerusalem”, which is considered by many to be the official hymn of England. Here’s an excerpt:

“Bring me my Bow of burning gold:

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:

Bring me my Chariot of fire!”

William Blake, Preface to Milton: A Poem in Two Books

Blake’s last and longest work is Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, not to be confused with the hymn. Jerusalem for Blake meant the divine body of Jesus, the palace of the imagination. He considered it his masterpiece and is an elaboration of his mythology. It is an example of Blake putting into words his fourfold vision. He wrote:

“I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another man’s.
I will not reason & compare: my business is to create.”

William Blake, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion

This was his way of throwing the “mind-forg’d manacles” as he put it, our self-imposed limitations.

Though Blake wrote many poems, toward the end of his life he devoted himself entirely to his work as an artist. Now that we have a sense of the life and works of William Blake, we can turn to his art. As with all art, there are several ways to interpret them. The following is just one such possible interpretation.

1. The Ancient of Days (1794)

This is one of Blake’s most recognised painting, and a favourite of the artist himself. Although he published it in 1794, he recoloured an impression of this work a few days before his death, calling it “the best I have ever finished”.

It depicts the mythological character of Urizen, who has won the power struggle between the four Zoas. The spectre of Urizen is Satan and the power of reason. He is the Age of Enlightenment, a new universe that traps the imagination. He is seen as an old bearded god-like figure kneeling on a flaming disk and measuring out a dark void with a golden compass. He resembles the Gnostic demiurge, who is typically a craftsman or the creator of the universe.

He represents the chains of reason that are imposed on the mind and the material world, as such, he is the opposite of imagination and creativity and is blind to the light behind him.

2. Albion Rose (1794 – 1796)

Albion is the personification of humanity. Blake describes the painting:

“Albion rose from where he labourd at the Mill with Slaves,

Giving himself for the Nation he danc’d the dance of Eternal Death.”

At a time of repression, the dance of Albion symbolises the celebration of humanity freeing itself from the shackles of materialism into the colourful world of imagination, and the light of youth. There is an aura of light that lifts him above the creatures of darkness which can be seen below, a worm and a bat. Albion is seen as above conflict and struggle, and is wholly realised.

“He whose face gives no light, shall never become a star.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

This painting has become an emblem of universal human values, of the value of resistance, of creativity, and of freedom.

3. Isaac Newton (1795 – 1805)

Blake saw Newton as the representative of scientific inquiry and rationality, though it is unlikely that Blake knew that Newton also studied the bible and alchemy. Nevertheless, he is seen with an aura of power and authority, as he draws on a scroll with a large compass (just like Urizen) on what appears to be at the bottom of the sea, though he remains dry. He is surrounded by a void and entirely consumed by his thoughts, unaware of the marvellous corals on the rock in which he sits. There is no imagination, only calculation. For Blake, art is the tree of life and science the tree of death.

4. Nebuchadnezzar (1795 – 1805)

“[The] mad king crawling like a hunted beast into a den among the rocks; his tangled golden beard sweeping the ground, his nails like vultures’ talons, and his wild eyes full of sullen terror. The powerful frame is losing semblance of humanity, and is bestial in its rough growth of hair, reptile in the toad-like markings and spottings of the skin, which takes on unnatural hues of green, blue, and russet.”

The Life of William Blake by Alexander Gilchrist

This is an illustration of an event in the Book of Daniel of the Bible. The King of Babylon, glorified himself for the great city that he had built. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins. To warn him of his impending danger, God sent him a dream prophesising that he will be driven out into the wilderness where he will “eat grass like an ox”. The prophesy is fulfilled, and a hybrid of man and beast, crawls on the Earth on his hands and knees.

It is a warning to us all, those who walk with hubris, are abased to an animalistic level. Evil acts deform a person. Psychologically, the punishment of excessive pride is the death of the self.

5. The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy (1795)

Enitharmon is an important character of Blake’s mythology, who resembles Hecate, the Greek goddess of magic and the underworld. The name may derive from the words zenith and harmony. She is the Eternal Female, and her joy is to establish her view with its false religion of chastity and vengeance.

She stands out starkly against the whispering black of the darkness in the background, with nightmarish creatures. The most bizarre of which is the bat with a furry face, who stares menacingly behind her in the unknown darkness. Enitharmon is in fact a trio of characters, with a male and female outlined behind her, presumably emerging as she begins to read from her magical book.

6. Satan Exulting over Eve (1795)

Satan is flying over Eve, who is strangled all around by the serpent of the Garden of Eden, Satan’s alter ego. However, Satan himself is portrayed as a sublimely heroic character, with a shield and spear. He has a melancholic countenance, and his wickedness is seen in the shape of the serpent. Blake makes us contemplate upon the nature of good and evil.

7. The Good and Evil Angels (1795 – 1805)

Two angels are seen. An active evil angel who is strong, muscular, agile – but also in a state of despair and sorrow, with his ankle chained and flames behind him. The other angel is fair and light. Blake claimed that active evil is better than passive good, rendering the figures in this picture somewhat ambiguous.

Passive good is repressed and uncreative, it’s single vision. Active evil is energetic and creative. Perhaps the evil angel has been misguided and is desperately trying to find a way out, but is misunderstood as trying to grab the baby of the good angel.

It may also suggest the title of his book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where he writes:

“Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human experience. From these contraries spring what the religious call good and evil. Good is the passive that obeys reason. Evil is the active springing from energy.”

8. The Angel of Revelation (1803 – 1805)

A mighty luminous angel clothed with a cloud raises one hand up and holds a book in his other hand. His light contrasts with the darkness from below. This is an episode from the Book of Revelation in which Saint John describes the visions he experienced on the island of Patmos.

9. Los Enters the Door of Death (1804-1820)

Los represents the imagination (the name derives from sol, Latin for sun), he is connected with Enitharmon, who is his emanation. He is the Sun to Enitharmon’s Moon. This is the character Blake himself is mostly connected to. The soul of the animating principle of everything in this world. Los has to enter many times into the door of death, taking his light (the sun of fourfold vision) into eternal death, in order to move out of “single vision”.

“Trembling I sit day and night, my friends are astonish’d at me. Yet they forgive my wanderings, I rest not from my great task! To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity Ever expanding in the Bosom of God. The Human Imagination.”

William Blake, Jerusalem: The Emanation of The Giant Albion

10. The Great Red Dragon Paintings (1805 – 1810)

These are a series of paintings that depict a cosmic battle between good and evil.

The first one, The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun, shows a woman bathed in sunlight with her feet resting in the crescent of the moon. Above her, a dragon rises with his wings stirring a great wind, sweeping her hair upward, and creating a large flood that intends to engulf the woman.

As the dragon hovers to witness her demise, God grants her wings that carry her to safety. This can be seen in the next painting, entitled slightly different as The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun.

The powerful image of the dragon’s outstretched arms and the woman’s arcing toward each other in mirror image suggest that good and evil are a duality, like the dark and light sides of the moon, rather than completely independent forces.

In the third painting of the series, The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea, we see a scene from the Book of Revelation (12:3–4):

“And behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth.”

In the final painting of this series, The Number of the Beast is 666, we see a large creature offering a lamb as a sacrifice to the ferocious figure of Satan. Below, people can be seen kneeling and praying in terror.

11. The Man Who Taught Blake Painting in his Dreams (1819 – 1820)

In this simple yet bizarre sketch, we see the figure of a man that Blake encountered in his dreams and visions, giving him advice on how to paint. It bears a resemblance to Blake himself, and may be showing the artist at the moment of inspiration or a superior self.

12. The Ghost of a Flea (1819 – 1820)

This painting is quite different from Blake’s biblical or literary themes. It takes on a darker vision, the stuff of delirium and nightmare taps into the unconscious. Blake appeared to see this in a vision, crying out: “There he comes! his eager tongue whisking out of his mouth, a cup in his hand to hold blood, and covered with a scaly skin of gold and green.”

The figure appears to be staring into an empty cup with his tongue flicking, being the symbol for “blood-drinking”. John Varley, a friend of Blake’s, was with him during his vision. Blake explained that he had been visited by the ghost of a flea who explained to him that fleas were the resurrected souls of men prone to excess and overindulgence.

The figure appears to be pacing the boards of a stage, with the curtains open, and set against a backdrop decorated with stars. This stage might be a metaphor for society and the horror or contempt of the crowd in seeing the animal side of the human being, our instinctual impulses must be limited to comply with socially appropriate behaviour.

13. Elisha In The Chamber On The Wall (1820)

In this painting we see a poet in the palace of his imagination, writing to an angel’s dictation. This is how Blake saw his own creative process. Blake sought to free us from the single vision of this world and glimpse eternity. This he was capable to do, because he felt himself part of a world that had been revealed to him in visions, he was at the extreme end of imagination. For Blake, reality is spirituality.

14. The Spectre over Los (1821)

Los is seen as a blacksmith who represents human imagination. His spectre is above him, tormenting him and howling at him and does not want to take part in the effort of creating something in Los’s forge. However, Los must find a way to work together with his spectre, and this is what happens in creativity. As things are created, they go into the fire. Error burns up and only truth survives the fire. Los’s task is regeneration.

Blake experienced a liberation after making peace with his dark side. He writes:

“O Glory! and O Delight! I have entirely reduced that spectrous fiend to his station, whose annoyance has been the ruin of my labours for the last passed twenty years of my life… I was a slave bound in a mill among beasts and devils. These beasts and these devils are now, together with myself, become children of light and liberty, and my feet and my wife’s feet are free from fetters.”

Blake’s Letter to William Haley (23 October 1804)

15. The Inscription over the Gate (1824 – 1827)

This is a painting illustrating a scene from Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante is being led by the Roman poet Virgil through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.Here they are shown entering the Gate of Hell. Above the gate reads: “Abandon any hope you who enter.” This implies the horror of total despair, where all hope is lost. Dante is moved to tears at this. However, he is not yet dead, so this does not necessarily apply to him. He enters Hell while alive, part of his learning process and character development throughout the poem.

Within the gate, one can see the tiny figures in torment on the hills, successive hills represent the different circles of hell, where the souls of people guilty of different sins are punished in an appropriate manner. Those guilty of the sin of lust, for example, are buffeted about by the winds of passion and desire in the second circle.

Dante learns that sin is not to be pitied; however, this lesson takes him many circles of Hell to learn. His descent into hell marks the beginning of the Hero’s Journey, where he must take advice from his tutelary figure. It symbolises the psychological death of the self and transformation into a new self. With the insights gained throughout hell and purgatory, one ascends to heaven.

As Jung wrote: “No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”

16. Behemoth and Leviathan (1825)

God tells Job, his most faithful servant, to look into the depths of the human psyche, to the most aggressive and blind areas that we all contain within us, whether we admit it or not. Two mighty beasts can be seen, Behemoth, who dominates the land, and Leviathan, the ruler of the sea.

Blake’s images transmit universal truths of life. When we channel our emotions into images, or put in another way, when we find the images that were concealed in our emotions, we feel tranquillity and reassurance. If we leave the images hidden in the emotions, we may be torn to pieces by them. Blake’s art helps to console us and calm us in turbulent times. There is always something implied in the work of art, which is beyond thought; something lit up for a moment by the imagination, which is beyond words. If we allow ourselves to enter fully into the experience of a work of art, we can become immediately aware of this ineffable quality.

“If the spectator could enter into these images in his imagination, approaching them on the fiery chariot of his contemplative thought… [If he] could make a friend and a companion of one of these images of wonder… then would he arise from his grave, then would he meet the Lord in the air, and then he would be happy.”

William Blake, “A Vision of the Last Judgement”


The Otherworldly Art of William Blake

William Blake was an English poet and visionary artist whose unique work gives us a glimpse into an entirely different world.

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The Dark Philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer was a German Philosopher born in 1788 who is known as the philosopher of pessimism. He is among the first thinkers to bring eastern philosophical ideas into western philosophy.

Schopenhauer’s father was a wealthy merchant and his mother was a popular author and is among the first German women to publish books without a pseudonym.

As a youth, Schopenhauer was destined to follow his father’s footsteps as a merchant. His father, however, had been through a period of depression before he was found drowned in a canal in 1805. It is suspected that it may have been suicide. Schopenhauer acknowledged to have inherited his father’s melancholy. He was fond of his father, but had a horrible relationship with his mother, admitting that the happiest years of his childhood were those spent away from her.

Schopenhauer developed a distrust of people in general, a depressed view of the world, an inability to maintain close relationships with anyone and a sense of personal insecurity, whether in the form of anxiety attacks, phobias or hypochondria.

The death of his father, however, liberated him from the worldly life of business, and Schopenhauer hurled himself almost ferociously into study, taking private lessons and attending lectures on Medicine, Philosophy, Mathematics, History, Physics, and Astronomy, among others. He treated each subject with the utmost concentration, and taken as far as one could reasonably expect it to be by a student of his age. His progress was so remarkable that his tutors began to predict a distinguished future for him as a classical scholar. As a polyglot, he knew German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and ancient Greek.

In 1813, Schopenhauer took himself off to a quiet country to work on his doctorate thesis, entitled, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, where he stipulates the philosophical principle that nothing is without a reason for why it is, it conditions how we perceive the “world of representation”, a central theme to his later work.

Schopenhauer, however, became increasingly disillusioned by academic philosophers, because of their emphasis on abstractions and generalisations, instead of experience. Academic philosophers, he felt, acquired their philosophical problems conceptually, while the real philosophers acquire them existentially, by an involuntary reflection on their own existence and experience. The work of Schopenhauer’s life was to be distinguished by lived experience. Above all, there is a man speaking: a whole man, a whole life, a whole way of seeing the world are embodied before us on those pages.

Schopenhauer’s writing is far from the sterile and academic German of the time, his work is straight-forward, colloquial, concrete, full of metaphors and anecdotes.

During this time, Schopenhauer was introduced to Hinduism and Buddhism, opening up a whole new world of thought. He fell in love with the Latin translation of the Upanishads and for the most of his life he read a few pages of it every night before going to sleep. He wrote:

“It is the most rewarding and elevating reading (with the exception of the original text)  possible in the whole world; it has been the consolation of my life and will be that of my death.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

In 1821, Schopenhauer had an incident with his neighbour. It is said that the woman knew that he was wealthy and feigned falling from the stairs, accusing Schopenhauer for it. She sued him and won the case. Schopenhauer had to pay her a pension for the remaining 20 years of her life. When she died, Schopenhauer wrote victoriously in his journals: “The old woman dies, the burden is lifted.”

His magnum opus is The World as Will and Representation published at the end of 1818, when he was 30 years old. The second edition was published in 1844 which includes an edited version of the first edition as well as additional commentary on his ideas, it was revised a year before his death. Much of his later writings is a reflection or enrichment of this work written in his 20s, and from which he never departed. The work of his life is unitary in a way that makes it best understood as a single, organic whole.

This masterwork contains Schopenhauer’s entire philosophy: epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics and ethics. The presentation and structure of the book is clear and separated into four parts. He asserted that his work was meant to convey a single thought and suggested a careful study of the book, in order to clarify the connection of each part to the other.

Schopenhauer was convinced that in his masterpiece he had finally solved the fundamental problems of philosophy. However, his work went very nearly unsold, unreviewed and unread. This neglect continued until his old age, and was thus the dominating feature of his experience of life. It needs to be considered along with maternal rejection in explaining his profound pessimism. 

Hegel was a contemporary of Schopenhauer, and was at the height of his celebrity drawing large crowds in the University of Berlin. For Hegel the world is active and develops through the world’s geist or spirit as time progresses. At every moment in the history of the world’s spirit, there are internal contradictions to the zeitgeist, which must be overcome through a dialogue between opposing ideas, moving towards a final perfection which is the full realisation of the spirit in history. 

Schopenhauer, however, believed that Hegel was a charlatan. The heavy terminology and obscurity was a smokescreen for some rather empty thought. He disagreed that we could achieve knowledge of the absolute by reason and that we are heading towards perfection as time passes.

Schopenhauer attempted to teach at the University of Berlin to propagate his ideas at the same time Hegel was giving his lectures. The result was disastrous. Almost nobody came. In frustration, he left his position as a university teacher soon after.

In 1851, Schopenhauer published Parerga and Paralipomena in two volumes (Greek for appendices and omissions), supplementary essays to his main work, which he considered the birth of his last child, completing his mission in the world. He felt as if a load, that he had borne since his 24th year, that weighed heavily upon him, had been lifted from his shoulders.

Schopenhauer’s odd book titles certainly must have played a role in his lack of popular reception. Nevertheless, it was his first successful, widely read book, partly due to the work of his disciples who wrote praising reviews. Though he started to gain popularity, he preferred to live in solitude. He’d wake up early, read until noon, play his flute, have lunch at the same place as always, and take long walks with his poodles. He called them all Ātman reflecting the Sanskrit word for “true self”. He adored them above any person. He’d finish the day by reading a few lines of the Upanishads before bed.

Schopenhauer’s life can be described as a dark, sad, long and lonely life. In 1860, at the age of 72, Schopenhauer had his breakfast, and was apparently well. Shortly after, he was found dead while still seated at the table.

The World as Will and Representation

“ ‘The world is my idea:’—this is a truth which holds good for everything that lives and knows, though man alone can bring it into reflective and abstract consciousness.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

This is how Schopenhauer starts his book. He wanted to understand the world in which he found himself, and his role as an agent in the world. He tried to form a coherent and unified interpretation of human experience and sought to identify the underlying force of reality. He called it the Will (also called will to live or will to life), which is the essence of existence.

Schopenhauer was influenced by Kant, and like him he believed that the world around us, with all its objects, are only representations, any reality that we perceive has been put there by our own minds which form ideas. This was Kant’s idea of Idealism, as he called it. The only thing we think about is what is in our minds. The sense perception we have of the world is not the world, we have no access to the world, because we are always in our own head, “I think, therefore I am,” Descartes’ mind-body split.

However, for Schopenhauer, there must be something else than just pure thinking, something more than just a brain in a jar. In fact, there is only one aspect of the world that is not given to us merely as representation, one “object” that we embody in space and time, and with which we have a direct relationship with, our body.

Schopenhauer calls this the principle of individuation, our mode of cognition of the phenomenal world. It designates the “uniqueness” of each individual. But, this is a barrier to us – because the individual is an illusion, it is the outward manifestation of our true and inmost being, the will – which connects us with the entire world.

Schopenhauer uses Plato’s allegory of the cave to remind us that unless we acknowledge this:

“[We] are like men who sit in a dark cave, bound so fast that they cannot turn their heads, and who see nothing but the shadows of real things which pass between them and a fire burning behind them, the light of which casts shadows on the wall opposite them; and even of themselves and of each other they see only the shadows on the wall. Their wisdom would thus consist in predicting the order of the shadows learned from experience. The real archetypes, on the other hand, to which these shadows correspond, the eternal Ideas, the original forms of all things, can alone be said to have true being, because they always are, but never become nor pass away.”

Arthur, Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

For Schopenhauer, those for whom people and all things have not at times appeared as mere phantoms or illusions have no capacity for philosophy. There is only the self-same unchangeable being that is before us, which today pursues the same ends as it did yesterday and ever will. The true symbol of nature is the circle.

From this insight, Schopenhauer concludes that the underlying force of every representation and also of the world as a whole, is the will. This, however, may lead to some confusion as will connotes a sort of personality with a certain aim. It is  not just our individual will, it also includes animals, trees, stones and the entire cosmos. Schopenhauer’s will can be seen as a force or energy, it is the thing-in-itself. While Kant believed that the thing-in-itself was a world beyond human reach, Schopenhauer believed that it is at the core of existence.

The will is not rational, conscious nor intentional, but rather an irrational, unconscious and blind desire that restlessly strives for more activity. This is Schopenhauer’s great insight, that breaks away from all of his predecessors. The will is the tornado that swirls inside of us and throws us from one place to the other, it is the source of our insatiable appetite that results in strife and misery.

“From desire I rush to satisfaction; from satisfaction I leap to desire.”

Goethe, Faust

Existence is typified by unrest. The will is a war of all against all, a proto-Darwinian thought.

Long before Freud’s psychoanalysis, Schopenhauer argued that most of our inner life is unknown to us, our actions, decisions and speech are for the most part unconsciously motivated by our drives, so that we do not even know our full inner selves.

In summary, for Schopenhauer the world has two aspects related to each other as two sides of the same coin: a world of representation, which is constituted by our minds, and a will, as the irrational blind force, which is at the core of existence and is undifferentiated and beyond space, time and causality. The world is will and representation.

It is impossible to discover the secret of reality by examining matter first, and then proceeding to examine thought: we must begin with that which we know directly and intimately – ourselves.

“Thus we see already that we can never arrive at the real nature of things from without. However much we investigate, we can never reach anything but images and names. We are like a man who goes round a castle seeking in vain for an entrance, and sometimes sketching the façades. And yet this is the method that has been followed by all philosophers before me.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

If we look at the outside world, the common life is to study, graduate, get a job, marry, have kids, work, and live happily ever after. Except that one doesn’t live happily ever after. At best, a desire is satisfied for a short time, but immediately after another desire will emerge, there’s no endpoint of satisfaction, it is an infinite striving. We live as objects in the great stream of desire, the will carries us along like a leaf in a raging river.

To describe the restless will, Schopenhauer uses the Greek myth of Ixion, who went against the Gods and was bound to an ever-spinning winged fiery wheel for eternity.

We think that we are led on by what we see, when in truth we are driven on by what we feel, by our unconscious will.

“Men are only apparently drawn from in front; in reality they are pushed from behind. It is not life that tempts them on, but necessity that drives them forward.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

If we are to understand reality, we must go beyond man as a rational animal, beyond the intellect, to the unconscious will, who is:

“[T]he strong blind man who carries on his shoulders the lame man who can see.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

The will is superior to the intellect. An elephant which had been led through Europe, and had crossed hundreds of bridges, refused to advance upon a weak bridge, though it had seen many horses and men crossing it. This is the instinctual impulse. The will is a will to live, and a will to maximum life, its worst enemy is death. But can it perhaps defeat death?

The Will to Reproduce

For Schopenhauer, the most powerful form of the will to live is the will to reproduce. Schopenhauer doesn’t believe that we marry and have kids to be happy, but rather that the will to live is unconsciously moving us to fulfil our will to reproduce, for the sake of the propagation of the species. Falling in love is an unconscious manipulation by the will which seeks to create “balanced children”. He writes:

“Each seeks a mate that will neutralise his defects, lest they be inherited… a physically weak man will seek a strong woman…. Each one will regard as beautiful in another individual those perfections which he himself lacks, nay, even those imperfections which are the opposite of his own.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

The sexual impulse is the inner life of the tree (the species) upon which the life of the individual grows. Schopenhauer wrote about this long before Freud’s theory of sexuality. And Freud was certainly astonished upon discovering his writings.

For Schopenhauer, procreation is the highest point; and after attaining to it, the life of the individual slowly sinks, while a new life ensures to nature the endurance of the species, and repeats the same phenomena.

“[T]hus the alteration of death and reproduction is as the pulsebeat of the species… death is for the species what sleep is for the individual… this is nature’s great doctrine of immortality.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

The World as Evil

But if the world is will, it must be a world of suffering. For every wish that is satisfied there remain ten that are denied. Desire is infinite, fulfilment is limited. Each individual bears within himself a disruptive contradiction; the realised desire develops a new desire, and so on endlessly. For Schopenhauer, life is evil because pain is its basic stimulus and reality. Pleasure is merely a negative cessation of pain.

“All satisfaction, or what is commonly called happiness, is, in reality and essence, negative only… We are not properly conscious of the blessings and advantages we actually possess, nor do we prize them, but think of them merely as a matter of course, for they gratify us only negatively, by restraining suffering.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

As soon as suffering ceases, we are overcome by boredom, in other words, more suffering. Boredom is nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence. Suffering is not the cry of the individual. That is an illusion. Suffering is the cry of existence itself.

Schopenhauer writes:

“Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and ennui… After man had transformed all pains and torments into the conception of hell, there remained nothing for heaven except ennui.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

Most of our suffering lies in retrospect or anticipation; pain itself is brief. How much more suffering is caused by the thought of death than by death itself! Finally, everywhere in nature we see strife, competition, conflict, and a suicidal alteration of victory and defeat.

“[There was] a plain, as far as the eye could reach, entirely covered with skeletons… they were, however, merely the skeletons of large turtles… which come this way out of the sea to lay their eggs, and are then attacked by wild dogs… who with their united strength lay them on their backs, strip off the small shell from the stomach, and devour them alive. But often then a tiger pounces upon the dogs… Now all this misery repeats itself thousands and thousands of times, year out, year in. For this, then, these turtles are born.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

For Schopenhauer, this fundamental character remains unaltered in the human race. We find that man is a wolf to man. The total picture of life is almost too painful for contemplation; life depends on our not knowing it too well.

“For whence did Dante take the materials of his hell but from our actual world? And yet he made a very proper hell out of it. But when, on the other hand, he came to describe heaven and its delights, he had an insurmountable difficulty before him, for our world affords no materials at all for this… Every epic and dramatic poem can only represent a struggle, an effort, a fight for happiness; never enduring and complete happiness itself. It conducts its heroes through a thousand dangers and difficulties to the goal: as soon as this is reached it hastens to let the curtain fall; for now there would remain nothing for it to do but to show that the glittering goal in which the hero expected to find happiness had only disappointed him, and that after its attainment he was no better off than before.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

Schopenhauer describes us as hedgehogs clustering together for warmth in winter, uncomfortable when too closely packed, as we are stung by our spikes, and yet miserable when kept apart as we freeze. The life of every individual, if we survey it as a whole, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of comedy. Optimism is a bitter mockery of our woes.

“A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands and thousands of years of non-existence: he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

For Schopenhauer, death is the mirror image of the prior abyss. Life smiles at death, and laughs at suicide; for every deliberate death there are thousands of indeliberate births. As a rule, it will be found that as soon as the terrors of life outweigh the terrors of death a man will put an end to his life.

“When in heavy, terrifying dreams anxiety reaches its highest point, then by itself it will awaken us, causing all those nocturnal monsters to disappear. The same happens in the dream of life when the highest degree of anxiety compels us to break it off.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

Schopenhauer saw life as a nightmare which we cannot awake from. He saw that suicide should be regarded with compassion:

“Who has not had acquaintances, friends, relatives who have voluntarily departed this world? And everyone is supposed to think of them with revulsion, as criminals? I say no and no again!”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

However, he did not himself approve of suicide, as one denies life’s pains, different from the ascetic’s renunciation of the will, which denies life’s pleasures. The only manner of self-destruction he finds acceptable is the ascetic’s death by starvation, where the individual will to live is mastered.

“Suicide, the wilful destruction of the single phenomenal existence, is a vain and foolish act, for the thing-in-itself remains unaffected by it, even as the rainbow endures however fast the drops which support it for the moment may change.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

Schopenhauer’s pessimistic philosophy is indeed very bleak, but that also sent him on a quest for tranquillity and peace of mind. He offers several alternatives: The denial of the will through asceticism, or through the wisdom of life, aesthetics and ethics.

The Denial of the Will

Schopenhauer quotes French writer Chamfort, who states, “it is difficult to find happiness within oneself, but it is impossible to find it anywhere else.” To know thyself is a perennial philosophical reflection, where one will discover not only one’s own essence, but also the essence of the universe.

In his youth, Schopenhauer despised theologians and called religion the metaphysics of the masses, he saw how the church indoctrinated the minds of young children. But in later years he began to see a profound significance in certain religious practices. He believes that Christianity is a profound philosophy of pessimism:

“[T]he doctrine of original sin (assertion of the will) and of salvation (denial of the will) is the great truth which constitutes the essence of Christianity.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

However, Schopenhauer believes that Buddhism and Hinduism are more profound than Christianity. The Buddhists make the destruction of the will the entirety of religion, our true nature is nothingness, the realisation of śūnyatā. The Hindus saw that the ego was an illusion, blinded by Maya. The ego is the hallmark of self-ignorance. To transcend the ego gives way to the Ātman, the true self, whose goal is to merge with Brahman (the ultimate reality of existence), this is the source of the profoundest self-knowledge.

This resonated deeply with Schopenhauer’s philosophy, which he developed by arguing against his predecessors in western philosophy, and then discovered to his amazement, that he had reached a conclusion similar to that of the Buddhists and Hindus.

One of the ways to escape suffering is to wage an inner war against the will to live, to cease to desire. The denial of the will ultimately leads to death, there is no salvation, enlightenment or other meaningless words, but simply nothing.

Nevertheless, Schopenhauer knew how difficult it was to live an ascetic life, as only a few people could ever endure such a life. While the possession of material goods can never fully satisfy one’s desire, wisdom can. And this leads to the wisdom of life, philosophy.

Philosophy: The Wisdom of Life

Philosophy is to be understood as experience, it has to be felt rather than thought. Life before books, and when one reads, one should go to the authors themselves, rather than commentaries. Schopenhauer writes:

“When we read, another person thinks for us; we merely repeat his mental process… So it comes about that if anyone spends almost the whole day in reading… he gradually loses the capacity for thinking…such is the case with very many scholars; they have read themselves stupid… Experience of the world may be looked upon as a kind of text, to which reflection and knowledge form the commentary. When there is a great deal of reflection and intellectual knowledge, and very little experience, the result is like those books which have on each page two lines of text to forty lines of commentary.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

One of the ways out of the endless striving of the will is the intelligent contemplation of life through philosophy. Schopenhauer tells us that genius is the power to leave one’s own interest, wishes and aims entirely out of sight. The secret of genius lies in the clear and impartial perception of the objective, the essential, and the universal. While the intellect exists only to serve the will, in certain cases the intellect is so disproportionately large, that it far exceeds the amount needed to serve the will.  In such individuals, the intellect can break free of the will and act independently, though only briefly. This will-less activity is aesthetic contemplation or creation, which Schopenhauer believes is the hallmark of the genius.

However, the genius cannot socialise with others who think of the temporary, the specific and the immediate. He writes:

“[P]eople are sociable to the degree that they are intellectually poor and generally vulgar.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena

What makes people sociable is their inner poverty, which leads to an external poverty. Human beings are unable to bear solitude because the inner emptiness drives them to society. The genius is forced into isolation, and sometimes into madness. The more intelligent one is, the more pain one has. The person who is gifted with genius suffers most of all.

Aesthetics

In Schopenhauer’s aesthetics, there is a subjective and objective experience.

The subjective experience of aesthetics is the will-less perception of the world, we free ourselves temporarily from the individual will. Schopenhauer writes:

“It is the painless state which Epicurus prized as the highest good and as the state of the gods; for we are for the moment set free from the miserable striving of the will; we keep the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

On the other hand, the objective side of aesthetic experience is to communicate Platonic ideas, which represent the quintessential forms of perfection and beauty. They reveal some essential or universal quality of man and the world. These are experienced when our attention is focused entirely on the phenomena. The Ideas are “abstract objects” that are not part of our creation, and are beyond space, time and causality.

Arts such as sculpture, painting, poetry, and theatre, alleviate the suffering and ills of life by showing us the eternal and universal behind the transitory and the individual, allowing us to participate in eternity. We transport our gaze away from the particular objects of desire of the individual and feel ourselves as part of something universal. Art allows us to forget ourselves, and become will-less. Our modern forms of art such as movies and video games also help us transcend our default state.

The most powerful experience of art is the feeling of the sublime. For Schopenhauer, this is present in works of art that overwhelms us or reduces our existence on this planet to a mere speck, they stand in a hostile relationship with the human world in general. However, one may consciously tear away from one’s world, and with both a loss of our self and a liberation from the will,  we experience a “state of elevation”, this is the feeling of the sublime, which is present above all in tragic drama.

For Schopenhauer, the power of the arts to elevate us above the strife of wills is possessed above all by music, which is in an entirely different realm than all other arts. It affords a profound pleasure with which we see the deepest recesses of our nature find expression, calming our inner tornado. He would undoubtedly agree with Nietzsche’s quote that, “without music life would be a mistake.”

“Music is as direct an objectification and copy of the whole will as the world itself, nay, even as the Ideas, whose multiplied manifestation constitutes the world of individual things. Music is thus by no means like the other arts, the copy of the Ideas, but the copy of the will itself, whose objectivity the Ideas are. This is why the effect of music is so much more powerful and penetrating than that of the other arts, for they speak only of shadows, but it speaks of the thing itself.”

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation

Ethics

The non-egoistic attitude one obtains from aesthetics, finally leads to Schopenhauer’s ethics. His ethics derives from the awareness of the suffering of another person’s aimless striving of the will. Our ultimate oneness with each other is the basis of morality, compassion and empathy. Harming others is to harm oneself, and one must treat others as kindly as one treats oneself, with the aim to reduce suffering in the world.

In this kind of selfless love, one feels the life of another person in an almost magical way. In this intimate experience of the suffering of others, we connect with ourselves, with others and with nature in the deepest possible way, leading to a great serenity.


The Philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer

Arthur Schopenhauer was a German Philosopher born in 1788 known for his deep philosophical reflections.

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The Philosophy of Nothingness – Keiji Nishitani

Nothingness is generally considered to be analogous with death and extinction which every healthy living instinct wants to avoid. Many find the notion of nothingness unfathomable. The following thinker, however, was convinced that the way out of nihilism, that which renders meaningless the meaning of life, could only be reached by gazing into the abyss itself.

“The fundamental problem of my life… has always been, to put it simply, the overcoming of nihilism through nihilism.”

James Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness: Keiji Nishitani

Keiji Nishitani was a Japanese philosopher of the Kyoto school born in 1900. The school combines Western philosophy and religion with Eastern traditions. It is philosophy as a way of life in which one acquires wisdom for enlightenment.

Nishitani went out of his way to deeply understand both Western and Eastern philosophy. Through all these interests, he had one fundamental concern which was constantly at work, a doubt about the very existence of the self. In Zen this is known as the “Great Doubt”, the psychological pressure that comes with the struggle of life leads to an awakening. At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully.

Nishitani characterises this doubt concerning the self which originally motivated his philosophical quest quite explicitly as nihilism.  It is a mood that comes up from the deepest despair, when we become a question to ourselves, and when the problem of why we exist arises. However, most of the time, daily work and amusement helps to distract us from our encounter with nothingness.

At the age of fourteen, Nishitani was met with the utter hopelessness after his father had died. Shortly thereafter, he was struck down by an illness similar to the tuberculosis that had killed his father. In this existential mode of anxiety, he was faced with the chilling encounter with nothingness, and felt the spectre of death taking hold of him.

At this point all the ordinarily necessary things of life all lose their necessity and utility, one is robbed from what once had made life worth living. The questions: Why did this happen to me? What can I do about it? – are transformed into the questions: Who am I? Why do I exist? A void appears here that nothing in the world can fill; a gaping abyss opens up at the very ground on which one stands.

This mental torment lead Nishitani to philosophy, and to pursue a career in the field as a professor. He writes:

“My life as a young man can be described in a single phrase: it was a period absolutely without hope… My life at the time lay entirely in the grips of nihility and despair… My decision, then, to study philosophy was in fact—melodramatic as it might sound—a matter of life and death.”

James Heisig, Philosophers of Nothingness: Keiji Nishitani

As a young man, Nishitani used to carry Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra around with him wherever he went – it was like his bible. He was also influenced by Martin Heidegger, and spent two years studying under him from 1937 to 1939.

Nishitani died in Kyoto, Japan at the age of 90. The bulk of his work lies in his enormously rich 26-volume Collected Works, several monographs and articles. His personal library was composed of nearly 1000 volumes of works in western languages and 4100 in Japanese, which were donated to the university where he taught.

For Nishitani, the question of nihilism is the most urgent, the most personal and most radical of all. We will be focusing on two important works of Nishitani: The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism and Religion and Nothingness.

The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism is the result of a series of lectures on the subject of nihilism that Nishitani gave in Japan. It also constitutes the first substantial introduction of Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas to a general Japanese audience. In this earlier work, the primary themes stem from European philosophy, mostly existentialism, with Zen Buddhist ideas at the background.

In his later work and masterpiece, Religion and Nothingness, Nishitani seeks a synthesis and dialogue between Western and Eastern philosophy and spiritual experience, with an emphasis on contemplative practice. The two texts complement one another as records of a shift of emphasis in the author’s thought.

The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism

In The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism, Nishitani begins by tracing back the historical understanding of nihilism and philosophers such as Hegel, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Max Stirner, Heidegger and Sartre.

Nishitani gives his own answer to nihilism as is explicit in the title, of nihilism overcoming itself, rather than us overcoming it.

The nature of nihilism can be conceived in two ways: as universal and existential, and as particular and historical. This duality is something that should be grasped in one single vision in order to understand how nihilism operates in actual reality.

Nihilism is a sign of the collapse of the social order externally and of spiritual decay internally – and as such signifies a time of great upheaval. Whereas before human existence had a clear and eternal meaning, a way in which to live, which one may or may not want to follow, now existence is deprived of such meaning. It stands before nothingness as having been stripped naked, becoming a question mark for itself. And this in turn transforms the world itself into a question. The world in which we live reveals itself as an abyss and profound anxiety shakes the foundation of human being.

Nishitani writes:

“In short, nihilism refuses treatment as merely an external problem for one’s self, or even contemplation as a problem internal to each individual self. This is the essence of nihilism… Nihilism demands that each individual carry out an experiment within the self.”

Keiji Nishitani, The Self-Overcoming of Nihilism

There is a lot of philosophy that focuses only on conceptual analysis, where one loses touch with the human condition. Nihilism is first and foremost a problem of the self, as it underlies being itself.

Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, among others, opened new paths towards nihilism, where things no longer stand firm on the basis on things human: The path towards Christ, the God-man, or the Übermensch, the man-God. While they by no means solved everything, there is no doubt that through their struggle they turned the European spirit in the direction of what is its profoundest dimension.

However, the attempt to preserve the self from nothingness at all costs, means that the process of meaninglessness is not allowed into the self. It is cocooned from it, avoiding reality. We become self-enclosed and all our experiences relate back to the self. Thus, when we encounter nihility, we see it as eroding the very meaning of our life, and we try to resist it with our self, only to sink further into it, like quicksand.

One of Nishitani’s deepest insights is that we haven’t been able to take nihilism deep enough so that it overcomes itself. Nishitani wants to achieve a radicalisation of nihility whereby nihilism overcomes itself. The awakening of the Great Doubt is the conversion to śūnyatā or “emptiness”, which is the deepest layer of being.

Nihility is as part of the fabric of reality as Being is. On this new field of emptiness, you have the paradoxical coexistence of things, where nihility constitutes the realness of being. This interdependent co-arising is a key notion in Buddhism.

Until one accepts nihility as part of the self, there is a lack of relationship with oneself and complete lack of contact. Nishitani traverses nihilism in a much more existential mode where it is not always relating back to the self as an external event, but is actually part of the self. Things can then be encountered on their own home ground, as Nishitani puts it. One doesn’t know something by representing it, willing it or expressing it, but by becoming it.

Religion and Nothingness

In Religion and Nothingness, he begins by asking: What is religion? That is in fact the original title of the work. What exactly is the purpose of religion for us and why do we need it? Nishitani is creating a dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity. And he often appears to be more concerned with Christian conceptions than with Buddhist ones. However, the notion of śūnyatā is central. Religion is not something that claims to be based on some sort of creed, it is the absolute negation of the experience of absolute nothingness and the various efforts to achieve it.

Nishitani also talks about the dangers of scientism to overlook not only religion but philosophy as well. This occurs when science seems to regard its own scientific standpoint as a position of unquestionable truth from which it can assert itself in all directions so that things like religion, philosophy, and the arts appear as no more than subjective opinion. In this way, our existential problems and the human condition are completely ignored.

For Nishitani, religion has to do with life itself. Whether the life we are living will end up in extinction or in the attainment of eternal life is a matter of the utmost importance for life itself. Religion, unlike culture, is at all times the individual affair of each person. Accordingly, we cannot understand what religion is from the outside. The religious quest alone is the key to understanding it; there is no other way.

Nishitani says that it is a mistake to ask “What is the purpose of religion for us?” as it tries to detach us from the religious quest by obscuring the way to its own answer from the very start. It blocks our becoming a question to ourselves. Instead, religion poses as a starting point the question: “For what purpose do I exist?”

He writes:

“Why do we exist at all? Is not our very existence and human life ultimately meaningless? Or, if there is a meaning or significance to it all, where do we find it? When we doubt the meaning of our existence in this way, when we have become a question to ourselves, the religious quest awakens within us.”

Nishitani Keiji, Religion and Nothingness

It is the conversion from a self-centred mode of being, which always asks what use things have for us, to an attitude that asks for what purpose we ourselves exist. Only when we stand at this turning point does the question “What is religion?” really become our own.

“Nishitani understands the essence of religion as the real self-realisation of reality.”

Taitetsu Unno, The Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji

Religion is to see things as they are on their own home ground and this real self-realisation of reality is possible only by understanding nihility as part of our existence. The realisation of śūnyatā is not our salvation or fate, but rather our vocation. Our thought becomes non-dualistic so that we become the world and the world becomes us. This is the Buddhist idea of the non-self, the self-awareness in which the self awakens to its true nature. The non-self is paradoxically the true self. The rejection of the ego gives way to the co-dependence of everything, to what is known as Indra’s net.

“All things that are in the world are linked together, one way or the other. Not a single thing comes into being without some relationship to every other thing.”

Nishitani Keiji, Religion and Nothingness

We become the master of ourselves, and a servant, in relation to others. This approach is used in Japanese psychotherapy to successfully treat neurotic patients suffering from anxiety and depression. The acceptance of things as they are instead of fleeing into imaginary scenarios or focusing monomaniacally on the ego’s petty concerns, is believed to be crucial for the individual’s well-being (and also for the healthy functioning of society as a whole).

In order to become united with reality in a non-dual awareness it is necessary to learn to empty the self and see things as they truly are without our subjective distortions and our reflexive interpretations. Rising above the subject-object division gives way to pure experience.

This again does not make much sense to the conceptual mind. We tend to reify nihility because we cannot wrap our heads against it. In fact, Nishitani explicitly states that one must have contemplative practice to understand the essence of Religion and Nothingness.

Religion and Nothingness is not just a book, but rather a deeply transformative experience. Nishitani’s profound existential concern is far from the speculative and abstract philosophy. Using the words of Psychology and Cognitive Science Professor John Vervaeke, we must not only know about things (propositional knowledge), but also how to do things (procedural knowledge), how to perceive the world (perspectival knowledge), and how to participate in it, by knowing our place in the world and how we relate to the world as agents (participatory knowledge). Philosophy is a transformative experience.

Influenced by Zen master Dōgen, Nishitani practised zazen or “sitting meditation” for more than two decades, a physical practice that grounded his thinking in lived experience.

The harsh reality of Zen life is to sit and not try do anything. Particularly in the West, a sense of ennui arises, of utter lack of occupation and excitement. Because we have been taught that we must be productive and not waste time, we become deeply alienated from ourselves, from other people and from nature. It is difficult to experience time as time and nothing else. We have the tendency to “kill time” or to say “today I’ve wasted all my time”, we begin to see time as something to fight against, as the constant striving for more and more progress.

The truth is that the present moment is the only reality. Zen is just being with existence, there’s no other point. Not thinking about what to do next, but doing one’s duty each day. If you do your duty, you’ll be satisfied. If you’ve been avoiding what you’re supposed to do the whole day, you’ll be miserable.

“Having received a human life, do not waste the passing moments… Human life is like a flash of lightning, transient and illusory, gone in a moment.”

Zen master Dōgen, Universal Recommendation for Zazen

Consciousness, nihility, emptiness

Nishitani understands human existence as consisting in three fields: consciousness, nihility and emptiness. These fields are always co-present, and each deeper field is more extensive and encompassing than the one above it.

The field of consciousness is where we live most of our waking lives, this is our “life” perspective. We claim to know other people and things, but in fact what we know are merely our own subjective concepts and representations of them. We see things on the standpoint of the self, and in fact many of us can get all the way to the grave without ever becoming aware of the deeper layers of our existence. Invoking Plato’s allegory of the cave, Nishitani states that:

“We sit like spectators in the cave of the self… watching the shadows pass to and fro across its walls, and calling those shadows ‘reality.’ ”

Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness

Below that we have the field of nihility, this is by contrast a “death” perspective, when we encounter the terror of nothingness and meaninglessness. However, death is not something that awaits us in some distant future, but something that we bring into the world with us at the moment we are born. Our life stands poised at the brink of the abyss of nihility, to which it may return at any moment.

Nihility is set in opposition of being, it stands over against existence; it is situated alone, by itself, ‘outside’ of existence. That is, it is still taken as some ‘thing’ called nihility. Nishitani calls it a standpoint of relative nothingness, which he believes was Nietzsche’s view. One doesn’t overcome nihilism through a summoning of the will to power on the part of the heroic ego, but rather by accepting it as part of being. While Nietzsche came close to overcoming nihilism, he did not stare into the abyss for long enough.

The fundamental difference is that Nietzsche does not allow the full Zen standpoint of non-self to appear, it remains a standpoint of the will. We must step back from nihility to the field of emptiness, to shed light on what is underfoot. Nishitani writes:

“In contrast to the field of nihility on which the desolate and bottomless abyss distances even the most intimate of persons or things from one another, on the field of emptiness that absolute breach points directly to a most intimate encounter with everything that exists.”

Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness

Whereas nihility is relative nothingness, emptiness is absolute nothingness (the negation which encompasses everything else and from which particular beings form and emerge). The “absolute negation” as the negation of negation becomes the “great affirmation”. In the openness of śūnyatā realised by nihility overcoming itself, one completely oversteps the confines of self-consciousness and comes to be free of egocentrism, anthropocentrism and even theocentrism, thus allowing ultimate reality to manifest itself in all its fullness.

In reaching the final field, we feel at home. One breathes pure mountain air. It offers us the most enlightened life, a “death-life” perspective in which we experience the most profound joy. It is the hero’s journey, the psychological death and rebirth of one’s self, giving birth to a new self (the non-self), and gaining new insights as wisdom to tackle life’s hardships. In Zen this becomes the Great Death, the moment in which the Great Doubt finishes its work, which only a few will have experienced, though all will experience the “small death”. If you die before you die, then when you die, you don’t die.

For Nishitani, Western philosophy has mostly been conducted on the field of consciousness, where we have no access to things themselves but only to our subjective representations of them. Getting past the ego is getting past the suffering. Ecstasy is to transcend oneself without ceasing to be oneself.

By not making contact with the deepest layers of ourselves, we remain alienated and live without truly knowing who we are. We become like the fly bumping against a windowpane but unable to get through. One ignores the reality of life and the abyss that lies beneath one’s self, and which will manifest itself, whether one is aware of it or not.

By contrast, on the field of emptiness, we can break through how things appear to human subjects and encounter things as they are in themselves.

Cosmic Individual

Not only is one transformed into a new self, but the world also changes form in our eyes, we gain a new vision, a change of heart, a deepening of our perspective, we reveal what was hitherto concealed. As a result of the self’s realisation concerning its deep interconnectedness with the world, the self stops seeing the world as something external to it. The new self is transformed because it does not prioritise itself over other selves any longer. By practicing this “View from Above”, one moves to a third-person perspective and steps back from one’s narrow view of things. Instead of seeing oneself as insignificant in the cosmos-at-large, the individual brings cosmic significance to his or her life. The cosmos and the individual interpenetrate. One becomes a cosmic individual.

Similar to Kierkegaard’s knight of faith, by moving from finitude to the cosmos and back again to finitude, one delights in everything finite, seeing reality as it is. One’s outer appearance looks just like any ordinary person, there is no special aura or superiority that marks the distinctness of the cosmic individual, but at the same every step is filled with the invisible force of cosmic significance.

If you forget yourself, you become the universe. 


Encounter with Nothingness

Nothingness is generally considered to be analogous with death and extinction which every healthy living instinct wants to avoid. Many find the notion of nothingness unfathomable.

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Artwork used in the video

My Views on Life – Eternalised

It’s been a little over a year (Jan 2021) since I last published what I have learned in my studies of philosophy and psychology upon starting my YouTube channel (see Finding Meaning in the Pursuit of Meaning). I had described myself as an amalgamation of Absurdism, Nietzchean, Stoic, Jungian and Nihilist Realist.

My views on life have since then evolved, some have changed, others remain, so I’d like to share what has changed. Hope you find it useful.


“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak, §573

This quote perfectly expresses what I seek in studying philosophy, psychology, and religion. As such, my views are always changing – until I can find something that really resonates with my inner being, and stick to it.

“What I really lack is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain understanding must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do; the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Journals (1835)

At the same time, have an open mind towards other life views, not trying to impose my view on others, but rather learning from other people’s differing views.

For Albert Camus, philosophical suicide is adhering to some ready-made belief system just because people recommend it to you or because you want to blend in with them and not appear as an outsider, essentially shutting down your mental faculties because it is the most convenient thing to do, in detriment of your inner being. You only manage to lose yourself in the finite (becoming a cipher in the crowd) as Søren Kierkegaard put it.

I started philosophy and psychology with the purpose of inner transformation, rather than an intellectual hobby or a game that consists of complicated words without meaning that “absents” you from yourself and “brackets” all of your life’s fundamental questions: life, death, suffering, meaning, hopelessness, purpose, happiness, etc.

“The man of flesh and bone; the man who is born, suffers, and dies—above all, who dies; the man who eats and drinks and plays and sleeps and thinks and wills; the man who is seen and heard; the brother, the real brother.“

Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life

That is why when I found out about Existentialism, I was fascinated. I had held the existentialist view that we can create our own meaning in life, that life is a blank canvas and that we are the artists, from the works of atheist existentialists such as Nietzsche, Sartre, and Camus.

Recently, however, I have been more convinced that meaning creates us. As Carl Jung’s work shows us: People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people. What I have found most pragmatic over the years is Jung’s individuation process, and his analysis of the influence of the unconscious in our daily lives, with concepts such as the persona, the shadow and the anima/animus. As such, he ranks among my favourite thinkers.

Moreover, I am more in line with the Christian existentialists, such as Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Unamuno, and Tillich. Nevertheless, I describe myself as neither an atheist nor a theist, but rather something in between (“aspiring Christian”). I am a work in progress (we are all works in progress…).

I have recently acquired the bible to read as well, and see enormous value in it. The suffering of Christ is unparalleled, and it is no wonder that Christianity has endured for millennia, especially the symbol of the Cross, and Christ as the centre of the Self, as Carl Jung puts it. I am not as interested in the historical validity of it, but rather in its profound analysis of the fundamental questions of existence.

I was, I have to admit, an admirer and follower of Christopher Hitchens. I used to watch his debates, prior to studying philosophy and psychology. But in retrospect, they seem to me now as merely as a game of words, that is only supposed to be entertaining (which they are, he had a great sense of humour!). But, they do not deal with your existential questions. Whether it is the atheist using reason to prove that God does not exist, or the theologian using reason to prove that God exists through empirical or logical arguments (cosmological, ontological, design, etc).

My view is that of Tillich’s correlation method, which I have only recently stumbled upon after researching for the script of my latest video (The Courage To Be: An Antidote to Meaninglessness). The human questions of anxiety, meaninglessness, estrangement, etc., are correlated with religious answers. There is a mutual interdependence between theology and existential, philosophical and psychological issues.

I also find the works of John Vervaeke extremely refreshing and profound, which a friend had recommended to me. I have watched a few of his videos on the meaning crisis, and they are excellent, combining philosophy, psychology and theology, among other things. You can find it the playlist here: Awakening from the Meaning Crisis.

I like Bishop Robert Barron’s take on the general sense of disorientation and lack of meaning in modern life (see: How to Live a Meaningful Life). In summary:

To have a meaningful life is to be in a purposive relationship to a value: the Good, the True and the Beautiful. Religious value, on the other hand, is a life lived in purposive relationship to the summum bonum (the supreme value or highest good), the source of goodness, truth and beauty – which is God. A value nests in a higher value, and so on indefinitely. But there must be a summum bonum that is motivating us. That is religious meaning.

I have also been interested recently in more esoteric matters, particularly alchemy and hermeticism. There’s some profound insights that can be found. There are two lectures that I really like that serve as an introduction (which you can find here and here).

Philosophy is matter of life and death.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

We all have or will come upon the question: is life worth living? Though there may be plenty of contradictions (those who commit suicide might be assured life has a meaning, and those who feel life is not worth living still continue to live), for Camus, suicide is a confession that life is too much, that it is incomprehensible, or that it is not worth the trouble. Dying voluntarily implies the absence of any profound reason for living and the uselessness of suffering.

We try to live out the best life possible, but despite that we still suffer, we cannot live up to our ideals and expectations. And on the other hand, man will never renounce to suffering, destruction and chaos – because both happiness and suffering are the opposite sides of the same coin: Life.

“The sad truth is that man’s real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites – day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. It always has been, and always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end.”

Carl Jung, Man and His Symbols

Perhaps no one has written better on why suffering will never disappear than Dostoevsky, in Notes from Underground. But the elimination of suffering is a utopia (the archetypal dream of a Golden Age). What everyone wants is to reduce their suffering (well, almost everyone).

Despair leads to an existential crisis, of the “why of existence”. Philosophy gives us answers to the contemplation of our existence. And those who are not concerned with it, do not ponder on their existence from time to time, or aspire to keep it unconscious, eventually encounter a dead end:

“Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, according to the same rhythm – this path is easily followed most of the time. But one day the ‘why‘ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.”

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

There is a reason why those who are very rich can still be miserable, there’s a spiritual emptiness. While a monk in a monastery who possesses nothing may feel a spiritual fulfillment that is incomparable to the individual who is solely materialistic and pleasure-seeking (it gets old). There’s an interesting chapter in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or (read here) that explains how the aesthete desperately seeks pleasure, only to end up in misery. The ethicist beats the aesthete in his own game, by focusing on his duty.

The West has a lot to learn from Eastern practices (Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, etc.):

“I imagine future thinkers in whom European-American indefatigability is combined with the hundredfold-inherited contemplativeness of the Asians: such a combination will bring the riddle of the world to a solution.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, 1876 – Quoted from “Graham Parkes: Nietzsche and Asian Thought”

Another thing I’d like to add is the influence of stoicism on me. There has been an enormous spike in its popularity recently. But also a lot of modern “motivational” versions of it, which I am not a fan of. I like to go back to the ancients, particularly Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations, which was not even meant to be read, let alone published and becoming one of the most influential books of stoicism. He did not, however, see what he wrote as “stoicism”, but rather as “philosophy”. There are many hidden gems that can be found in that book, and a profound sense of melancholy of the most powerful man in the world who perhaps also felt as the loneliest man.

I like to remind myself of what is known as the dichotomy of control: “focus on what you can control, and not on what you cannot.”

Which is similar to the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

To summarise my life views, I’d describe myself as an agnostic, but with interests in Christian existentialism, as well as Jungian psychology, stoicism, and esotericism.

I encourage you to continue your journey and keep exploring to see what is right for you. You are on the right path.

I’d love to hear your own journey in the comments.

Godspeed.


Some books I would recommend reading (in no particular order, choose what interests you).

Man and His Symbols – Carl Jung

Notes from Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man – Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Sickness unto Death – Søren Kierkegaard

The Myth of Sisyphus – Albert Camus

No Exit – Jean-Paul Sartre

Thus Spoke Zarathustra – Friedrich Nietzsche

Meditations – Marcus Aurelius

Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl

The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

Disclaimer: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.

I have made 10 minute summaries of them if you’d like a summary: click here for the playlist.


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The Courage to Be: An Antidote to Meaninglessness

Paul Tillich was a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher born in 1886 and is considered as one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century.

He is best known for his works The Courage to Be (1952), Dynamics of Faith (1957), and the three-volume work Systematic Theology (1951–63).

At the age of 8, Tillich would lie in his bed before sleeping and think about the problem of the infinite. This tremendous power grasped him and sparked his interest in philosophical problems. Theology played an important role in his upbringing as well.

Tillich served in the German army as a chaplain during the First World War, participating in the Battle of Verdun, and buried numerous soldiers, including his closest friend. In his free time, he would read Nietzsche in the forests near the battlefields thus contributing to a statement often attributed to him that he became an existentialist on the Western Front.

Tillich was hospitalised three times for combat trauma, and was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery under fire. He sustained two nervous collapses during his time of military service for what would have then been called battle fatigue or shell shock, and now might be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. He recovered enough both times to return to the front.

Throughout his life, he suffered from night terrors from which he would awaken screaming. Years later, Tillich would recall his time spent in service:

“When the German soldiers went into the First World War most of them shared the popular belief in a nice God who would make everything work out for the best. Actually, everything worked out for the worst, for the nation and almost everyone else. In the trenches of the war, the popular belief in personal providence was broken and by the fifth year of war there was nothing left of it.”

Paul Tillich, The New Being

In reflecting upon this and other similar questions over the years, Tillich sought to respond to the question:

“What shall we do with that which is given in our lives?”

Paul Tillich, On The Boundary

Tillich believed that to live on the boundary was the best place to acquire knowledge. He writes:

“I have had to stand between alternative possibilities of existence, to be completely at home in neither and to take no definite stand against either… this position proved fruitful for thought; but it is difficult and dangerous in life, which again and again demands decisions and thus the exclusion of alternatives.”

Paul Tillich, On The Boundary

He served as a professor of theology in Germany and began to develop his systematic theology. Tillich developed a friendship with fellow German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

The aftereffects of the two World Wars had left the world in a state of disorientation, estrangement, anxiety and meaninglessness. Tillich had been one of the earliest resistors of Hitler in Germany and his radical views and defiance of the authority made him the first non-Jewish professor dismissed from a German university after Hitler came to power.

He fled with his family to the United States after being invited to join the faculty at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, where he taught for over two decades.

Method of Correlation

The most important aspect about Tillich’s theology is what he calls the “method of correlation”. As a Protestant theologian, Tillich rejects fundamentalism as it fails to make contact with the present situation. He sees religion as moving between the eternal truths of its foundation and our historical situation.

The human questions of anxiety, meaninglessness, estrangement, etc., are correlated with religious answers. There is a mutual interdependence between theology and existential, philosophical and psychological issues.

The interplay between the human and the divine is crucial for Tillich, it is what allows us to get into the depths of reality.

The Courage to Be: Introduction

While lecturing on anxiety, Tillich noticed that there was an enormous response in the post-war era, especially in the younger people, and he sought to give an answer to the growing anxiety which had developed.

In 1952, he published The Courage to Be, in which he presents his antidote to humanity’s loss of meaning through the concept of courage.

Tillich is not just theorising, he is trying to give us guidance on how to live, and his idea of courage resonates deeply with his personal life. He starts by looking at the history of Western thought. For the Ancient Greeks, one is courageous for the sake of what is noble, for that is the aim of virtue.

“The greatest test of courage is the readiness to make the greatest sacrifice, the sacrifice of one’s life, and since the solider is required by his profession to be always ready for this sacrifice, the soldier’s courage was and somehow remained the outstanding example of courage.”

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

However, the death of Socrates brought a whole new idea of courage, the soldierly fortitude was transcended by the courage of wisdom. It became a symbol for the whole ancient world, showing the interdependence of the courage to die and the courage to live. For Tillich, courage is not just the ability to endure, it is also wisdom towards that which concerns us ultimately.

He draws on thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas (who describes courage as being capable of conquering whatever threatens the attainment of the highest good), the Stoics (for whom courage is a virtue), Spinoza (who believes that courage is individual self-affirmation) and Nietzsche (for whom courage is life-affirmation).

The Courage to Be: Anxiety

For Tillich, courage is self-affirmation in spite of anxiety over the threat of nonbeing.

Man is not only anxiously aware of his finitude, he also knows it as what it is. He anticipates his future nonbeing, and he knows that once upon a time he was not. The awareness of finitude creates anxiety. This anxiety cannot be eliminated as it belongs to existence itself. One can, however, find the best way to deal with anxiety. This is what Tillich wants to attain.

Anxiety is different from fear in that fear has a definite object which can be faced and attacked, endured or conquered, whereas anxiety has no object and one feels impotent and disempowered, it results from facing the threat of nonbeing (a true nothingness).

Tillich tells us that there are three types of anxiety: anxiety of fate and death (which is ontic, that is to say, factual to our existence as particular beings), anxiety of guilt and condemnation (moral), and anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness (spiritual). He compares them, respectively, with the ancient civilisation, the Middle ages and the modern period. But in spite of the predominance of one type, the others are also present and effective.

The anxiety of death is tied with the unpredictability of fate, which is subject to chance. He observes how the Stoic courage (of the type of Marcus Aurelius), possessed a real danger and alternative to Christian courage.

In Christianity, this anxiety is reduced by man’s participation in the divine being who had taken fate and death upon himself. The Stoics, however, believe that every day a little of our life is taken from us since we are dying every day. Therefore, the final hour when we cease to exist does not of itself bring death; it merely completes the death process. The horrors connected with it are a matter of imagination. They vanish when the mask is taken from the image of death.

Stoic courage presupposes the surrender to the Logos, which is the faculty of reason in individuals and the rational principle that organises the cosmos. Clear-mindedness allows one to live in harmony with the Logos, this is how anxiety is dealt with.

While Stoicism espouses cosmic resignation, Christianity proposes cosmic salvation.

In the anxiety of guilt and condemnation, every individual, whether one is religious or not, has the necessity to make of himself what he is supposed to become, to realise his potential. We all have an ideal project and we are faced with guilt and condemnation when we fail to live up to our ideal. This is because we have the power to act against our ideal, to contradict our essential being, a profound ambiguity between good and evil permeates everything we do, and it can drive oneself toward complete self-rejection.

The last form of anxiety, that of emptiness and meaninglessness, happens when what one had found most meaningful in his life is transformed into indifference or aversion. The individual then “escapes from his freedom”, as Eric Fromm put it.

To avoid the risk of asking and doubting, the individual surrenders himself in order to save his spiritual life and escape the anxiety of meaninglessness. This, however, leads to fanaticism, by attacking those who disagree with him. He must suppress in others what he had to suppress in himself.

Pathological anxiety results in a total inability to face one’s life. The neurotic must eschew the reality of illness or danger by hiding in a “castle of defence”, in order to function properly. This is what Ernest Becker argues most people do in his book The Denial of Death, influencing what is now known as the Terror Management Theory.

Although Becker also talks about the existential hero’s way, who sees his impotence and vulnerability instead of hiding within the illusions and disguising his struggle by piling up figures in the bank to privately reflect his sense of heroic worth.

Tillich writes:

“The courage to be is the ethical act in which man affirms his own being in spite of those elements of his existence which conflict with his essential self-affirmation.”

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

Courage is the strength to affirm one’s own life in the face of inevitable annihilation, even if it may seem to have no purpose, and even if we are destined to carry great burdens of guilt for not being perfect or “acceptable” in our own eyes. It is the readiness to take upon oneself negatives for the sake of a fuller positivity. Encouragement is literally embodying courage.

“The vitality that can stand the abyss of meaninglessness is aware of a hidden meaning within the destruction of meaning.”

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

Even if we feel that life is meaningless, if we take the question of meaning seriously, then in the very seriousness of our question, the ultimate meaning is still present.

Why do we take all this so seriously? Because that is what we are here for. That is the question of to be or not be. The question of life and death. Even if we do not know any answer whatsoever, the seriousness of our questioning is the manifestation that we still have an ultimate concern over the meaning of life.

The Courage to Be: Participation and Individualisation

Tillich believes that few concepts are as useful for the analysis of the human condition as the concept of courage. It is an ethical reality, but is also rooted in the whole of human existence and in the structure of being itself, as an ontological reality.

He distinguishes courage by participation and by individualisation. One feels courage by participating in the part of a larger whole that helps sustain one’s existence, and one can be courageous by being oneself (individualisation).

Tillich draws on the existentialists, who he believes offer the most radical form of the courage to be as oneself, because it demands involvement and participation over a theoretical or detached approach to life. This gives a solution to crippling despair and pathological anxiety, by considering the whole of existence from the point of view of the single individual.

However, while both participation and individualisation provide important resources for overcoming anxiety, fear and despair, Tillich believes that neither pole is able to fully reconcile with its counterpart, one risks falling into complete collectivism or individualism.

One cannot look to either the self or the world, the state of existence is a state of estrangement. A truly transcendent power is needed to unite the two so that courage can be fully asserted in the face of anxiety and the threat of nonbeing. The human situation of estrangement is overcome by the appearance of a new being, that allows a courageous affirmation of our life.

The Ground of Being

Tillich’s concept of God transcends the theistic notion, it is not a being, but the ground of being. He cannot be referred to as an individual being among beings. He is personal and suprapersonal at the same time.

“The question of the existence of God can neither be asked nor answered… It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it. God is being itself, not a being… As the power of being, God transcends every being and also the totality of beings –  the world… Being itself infinitely transcends every finite being.”

Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1

Tillich calls this power the “God above God” because it enjoys that position historically attributed to God, but does not abide by theistic conventions.

God is the ground and depth of existence from which the individual unites both ontological poles of courage and is therefore able to instantiate both self-affirmation (the courage to be as oneself) and self-participation (the courage to be as a part).

Symbols

Tillich stresses the importance of symbols, which participate in the meaning and power of  reality, to which they point (the ground of being), they are the bridge between the infinite and the finite.

Symbols can be born, they can live and they can die, and Tillich worries that many of the symbols in Christianity are dying.

“Without the whole of religious experience and religious symbolism, the problem of the symbols of the eternal life, lose their basis and their meaning. They become a caricature of faith – they become superstition.”

Paul Tillich, Lecture “Symbols of Eternal Life”

Tillich warns us against demythologisation, the literalistic distortion of symbols and myths, or restating religious expressions in terms of scientific or rational ones. Symbols lose their meaning if taken literally. They must be criticised on the basis of their power to express what they are supposed to express, such as the meaning of life and the experience of the holy.

Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Therefore there is no faith without risk. The risk of faith is that it could affirm a wrong symbol of ultimate concern. It is wrong, therefore, to consider the risk concerning uncertain historical facts as part of the risk of faith.

The risk of faith is existential; it concerns the totality of our being. A wrong faith can destroy the meaning of one’s life, while a wrong historical judgment cannot, as it is theoretical. These are two different dimensions which should not be confused according to Tillich.

Tillich’s theology is not propositional, it is not about logical statements, which only “absents” us from ourselves and “brackets” the existential concerns of our totality of being. There is rather a participatory engagement with the symbols in which one undergoes a profound transformation.

The Ultimate Concern

We have many daily concerns in our life. However, every human being has something which he finds sacred, even if it is the cynical desire to have nothing sacred, than this desire is sacred to him. Tillich writes:

“Even if the act of faith includes the denial of God. Where there is ultimate concern, God can be denied only in the name of God.”

 Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith

The ultimate concern is what one’s life as a whole means. Tillich defined faith as the state of being ultimately concerned.

This ultimate concern can also take a demonic form, when one’s character is destructive, when one wants to draw the whole world into himself. It is the temptation to be like God.

The perception of the ultimate concern is so overwhelming and valuable that all else seems insignificant, it therefore requires total surrender. This ecstasy transcends both the nonrational unconscious and rational consciousness. Ecstasy means standing outside of oneself, without ceasing to be oneself.

Nothing is more difficult than to be reconciled with ourselves. Everyone has a hidden hostility against his own being, we are hostile against human beings even if we believe we love them.

The notion of reconciliation is important for Tillich. Faith is the courage to accept acceptance, self-surrender in a higher, more complete, and more radical form, the perfect form of self-affirmation.

“One could say that the courage to be is the courage to accept oneself as accepted in spite of being unacceptable.”

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

Tillich calls this absolute faith, which is the best way to deal with the three forms of anxiety that we mentioned earlier, it elevates the soul above the finite to the infinite.

It is important to note that this is not the existentialist courage to be as oneself, it is the paradoxical act in which one is accepted by that which infinitely transcends one’s individual self.

The courageous acceptances of the negative, and meaningful attempts to reveal the meaninglessness of our situation are often misunderstood by the collectivist affirmers, who avoid the reality of life’s challenges in favour of temporary security. But the courage to face things as they are is a radical and creative negativity that points to deeper hope.

“The faith which makes the courage of despair possible is the acceptance of the power of being, even in the grip of nonbeing… The act of accepting meaninglessness is itself a meaningful act.”

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

When we stop trying to push away the nothingness, but have a relationship with it and move through it, then we overcome meaninglessness.

On the last day of his life, after suffering from complications related to a heart attack, Tillich told his wife “Today is dying day”, touched his bible and asked for forgiveness for the sins he had committed during his life. He died shortly after.

“We have a right to… ultimate hope, even in view of all other hopes, even in the face of death. For we experience the presence of the eternal in us and in our world here and now. We experience it in moments of silence and in hours of creativity. We experience it in the conflicts of our conscience and in the hours of peace with ourselves, we experience it in the unconditional seriousness of the moral command and in the ecstasy of love… We experience it in the beauty that life reveals as well as in its demonic darkness. We experience it in moments when we feel this is a holy place, a holy time; it transcends the ordinary experience: It gives more, it demands more, it points to the mystery… of all existence… Where this is experienced, there is awareness of the eternal.”

Paul Tillich, Sermon “The Right to Hope”


The Courage to Be: An Antidote to Meaninglessness

In The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich presents his antidote to meaninglessness through the concept of courage.

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How Eternalised was born

After some requests from my viewers and readers, and also to connect with you in a deeper way, I’d like to tell you the story of how Eternalised came into being. And a little bit about myself.

I was born in the year 1995 in Copenhagen, Denmark, to Indian and Spanish parents. I spent a couple of years living there in my youth, I then traveled between India and Spain (where I currently reside as a citizen). As such, I haven’t really had the conventional educational upbringing, and remained almost entirely self-taught in my bohemian life, with little interaction with other people apart from my family. In exchange, however, I’ve had a rich cultural experience. Nevertheless, I’m only fluent in Spanish and English.

It wasn’t until I was at the age of 17 that I started to take my education seriously, after the abrupt death of my mother, who suffered from schizophrenia, although not diagnosed. I was devastated, and also anxious to make something out of my life. I traveled and finally settled down in Spain and applied to a 1-year adult course to later access high school (secondary school or Bachillerato) for another two years. I then applied to the University degree of Bachelor of Business Administration for four years, finishing in 2020, with an 8-month internship in a consulting firm, related to financial institutions.

At this time, around Dec 2019, COVID-19 started to be discovered. And due to personal issues, I had to take a flight back to India, but flights were restricted.

I had to make a choice: accept the permanent contract in the consulting firm and get a decent salary or decline it, as I had to make an urgent trip. I decided on the latter after much rumination. But, of course – no one expected this big of an outburst of the virus, and I was stuck doing nothing. I also did not want to find a job to later have to leave it. I needed to come up with something to occupy my time, so I decided to upload videos on YouTube of philosophy and psychology.

When I look back, it still amazes me how one single choice can affect your entire life. And I would never go back. When I came upon this quote from Kierkegaard, it struck a deep chord:

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard’s Journals

Fun fact, before my channel was called Goldblockcareer. A channel focused on personal finance and personal growth, with around 30 videos on it (with just audio and an image). However, I started growing weary of it, my interest going elsewhere.

I had been going through some difficult times and I slowly became interested in philosophy and psychology after listening to Jordan Peterson’s lectures on Nietzsche and Jung. I am forever grateful for him introducing me to these thinkers. Listening to the audio-book of Thus Spoke Zarathustra helped me greatly to come to grips with the death of my father.

So I re-branded my channel and uploaded my first video on May 24, 2020: Jordan Peterson VS Friedrich Nietzsche | Is God Dead? This was an incredibly exciting thing for me, and I recall waking up intent on editing and uploading this video.

Also, just for the nostalgia, I re-uploaded 24 audios of my old channel Goldblockcareer around 11 months ago.

At first it was a slow and difficult beginning, I never thought I’d become anything relevant (as cliché as that sounds!), but I’m humbled to have recently crossed the 100k subscriber mark, and it makes me very happy that people are finding value from the videos in these difficult times.

The channel eventually caught up and has been doing great ever since.

YouTube daily views (May 24, 2020 – Feb 13, 2022)

So I’d like to thank all of you, my subscribers, and especially my supporters at Patreon, Ko-fi, and YouTube members as well as those who buy my merch, every bit helps to the growth and continuation of the channel.

Thank you for reading.

Eternalised, In Pursuit of Meaning

The Dark Philosophy of Cosmicism – H.P. Lovecraft

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

Fear of the unknown is something that has been with mankind from the very beginning. Man’s first instincts and emotions formed his response to the environment in which he found himself. The unknown, being likewise the unpredictable, became for our primitive forefathers an omnipotent source of boons and calamities visited upon mankind.

The Ancient Greeks believed in gods and goddesses who, they thought, had control over the world and of people’s lives. And they prayed to these gods for help and protection, because if the gods were unhappy, they would punish them. As time went on, they started to seek explanations based on natural principles rather than gods as primary causes, and became the first natural philosophers (or what we know call scientists).

Science has since then helped us explain many of these previously unknown phenomena, but it has also shown us how much still remains unknown in the vastness of the universe.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an American writer of weird fiction born in 1890, who introduced “the unknown” as the object of fear. The novelty of his approach lies in the exploration of new scientific areas in which the possibility of new, unknown beings hiding among the stars arose. The vast, infinite cosmic depth produces an overwhelming emotion that paralyses us.

A Biography of H.P. Lovecraft

Alienation, insignificance, fear, anxiety and madness are all recurring themes in Lovecraft’s work, and which he experienced first-hand throughout his life. It is important then, to know of his biography.

Lovecraft was an insecure and anxious boy, who suffered from frequent illnesses, many of them apparently psychological. When he was three years old, his father Winfield Scott Lovecraft was committed to a mental asylum after a psychotic episode and later died of syphilis. His mother, Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft became overprotective of him, never letting him out of her sight. Lovecraft’s maternal grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips became a father figure to him, introducing him to classical literature, poetry and weird tales, and ironically even helping him overcome his fear of the dark. He became the centre of his entire universe. Lovecraft was a precocious youth: he was reciting poetry at age two, reading at age three, and writing at age six or seven. He became an avid reader, and he would spent most of his time in his private library.

The death of his grandmother, Robie, had a profound effect on him, it sent his family into “a gloom from which it never fully recovered”. His mother and aunts wore black dresses to mourn her death, and Lovecraft started having nightmares of beings referred to as night-gaunts. They would snatch him up and carry him through infinite leagues of black air over the towers of dead and horrible cities, until they’d reach a grey void full of needle-like pinnacles of enormous mountains, where they would let him drop. He would wake up screaming. These creatures later appeared in Lovecraft’s fiction.

After the death of his grandfather, Lovecraft and his mother would be forced to leave their lavish Victorian home which they lived in, and move to a more modest house. Lovecraft called this one of the darkest times of his life, where he saw no point in living anymore and considered committing suicide. However, his desire for knowledge and contemplation on how much there was still left to explore prevented him from doing so.

At the age of eight he discovered science, first chemistry, then astronomy. The latter would have a big impact on his future writings, gaining a sense of the vast universe and the insignificance of humanity within the cosmos.

At school Lovecraft excelled at all subjects, except for mathematics. And in 1908, he experienced a nervous collapse while studying at high school. He dropped out and remained self-taught for the rest of his life.

Lovecraft would develop a love-hate relationship with his mother. She would call him hideous and say that he hid from everyone and did not like to go out where people could gaze on him. He actually grew up to believe this, and there are reports that he would walk along the streets hiding his face in a raincoat so that nobody could see him.

Lovecraft was invited to a group of amateur journalists, and obtained a renewal to live. For the first time, he met with like-minded individuals and felt at home. He became involved in detailed correspondence with many people and eventually became one of the most prolific letter-writers of the century. Lovecraft wrote an estimated of 100,000 letters during his lifetime, many of which are as interesting as his stories, and give us a deep understanding of his lifestyle and beliefs.

In 1921, Lovecraft’s mother experienced a nervous breakdown and was admitted to the same place Lovecraft’s father had died 21 years ago. She died after complications from an operation on her gallbladder. Lovecraft again experienced a deep state of sadness and contemplated suicide.

He eventually recovered and shortly met Sonia Greene, who became his wife, and they moved to New York. However, they both had financial issues and eventually had to part ways as his wife’s employment required constant travel, Lovecraft could also not stand living in New York, he felt alienated in an enormous city full of foreigners. His own detachment thus contributed to the general atmosphere of his writings. At his time, racism and xenophobia was not uncommon, and Lovecraft fell victim to it as well. But we must also understand that he was a product of his time. Nevertheless, it remains a highly controversial aspect of his popular reception.

In 1926, Lovecraft returned to his beloved homeland in Providence, Rhode Island where he would live until his death. He famously wrote: “I am Providence.”

He continued living at the verge of poverty, and most of his great works appeared in cheap pulp magazines, many of them remaining practically unknown. Lovecraft’s health was deteriorating, and after experiencing excruciating pain making him physically incapable of holding a pen, he paid a visit to the doctor. The cancer had spread to his intestine. He remained in constant pain until his death in 1937.

It is likely that he died convinced that his work would dissipate into nothingness. Lovecraft’s traumatic life could easily have ended differently, but he did not let the dark times discourage him, they instead inspired him to continue writing.

Luckily, many of his friends saw the value in his work and were determined to preserve his work. Today, he is considered as one of the greatest weird fiction writers the world has ever seen.

Cosmicism

Lovecraft’s stories don’t really focus on character development as much as the phenomena surrounding them and their emotions experiencing the unknown. The bleakness of his stories is quite refreshing, and few writers have written so poignantly. His writings can really shake you up.

Lovecraft shifted the source of horror from the traditional belief in vampires, ghosts and demons, to the immense and unplumbed abysses beyond space and time. As mentioned, from an early age, he attained the idea that humanity is cosmically insignificant from his studies of astronomy. The universe compared to the infinitely small earth and humanity’s existence is so vast, that from a cosmic perspective, human history, knowledge, religion, etc., is completely irrelevant and meaningless.

Lovecraft emphasises the fear of the unknown and unknowable. The fear we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs. His philosophy is known as Cosmicism, which focuses on the insignificance of humanity and its doings at the cosmos-at-large, in contrast to the anthropocentric philosophies in which many find intellectual reassurance. This form of non-anthropocentrism is crucial to the philosophy of Cosmicism.

The question of the meaning of life was better left unanswered. Cosmicism is a type of extreme existentialism, as it brings up the uncertainty about the role of humanity in the uncaring universe, an existential crisis on a large scale.

Lovecraft embraces the truth of reality. Things are important to us on the human scale, but we simply don’t matter in the cosmos. He described us as:

“… the miserable denizens of a wretched little flyspeck on the back door of a microscopic universe.”

H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Maurice W. Moe (May 15, 1918)

Lovecraft portrays us human beings as ants in the vast realms of space and time, an incomprehensibly large universe that creates a fear of the cosmic void. This constitutes a serious blow to mankind’s self-confidence. After millennia of living in the darkness, turning on the light will make us realise that there are others living with us. He thought that there was a point in which we could not cope with scientific discoveries.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

Scientific discovery in Lovecraft’s work is both fascinating and terrible and he sees in it not the potential for the enlightenment of humanity, but as the ultimate exterminator of our human species. Knowledge is a self-annihilating disease. The contemplation of mankind’s place in the vast, comfortless and cold universe revealed by modern science gives way to the discovery of unfathomable things, which our mortal brains cannot comprehend.

In The Colour out of Space, one of Lovecraft’s personal favourites, a meteorite with an indescribable colour crashes on a farm. It was only by analogy that they called it a colour at all. As things from beyond the cosmos enter our world, they retain their external qualities to such a degree that humans cannot perceive and understand them.

This cosmic malady made of a never-before seen colour from outer space upsets human perception and eludes all scientific explanation, an unknown force poisons every living thing, while people go insane or die one by one.

Lovecraft’s cosmic horror was achieved through devices that would, he hoped, feel completely foreign and unknown to the reader. This mood was meant to be crafted in unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory – a hard goal to achieve.

However, Cosmicism does not only mean the fear of the cosmic depths. In Lovecraft’s stories, the unknown forces also lurk in the depth of the Earth, oceans, distant territories and in the equally vast recesses of the dreamlands.  

The Cthulhu Mythos: Introduction

Lovecraft explored this preternatural territory through what is known as the Cthulhu mythos. Although he did not coin this term himself. This word is supposed to be a completely non-human word, and there is no correct way to pronounce it. However, Lovecraft wrote that the closest pronunciation is “Khlûl′-hloo”.

Unlike most horrific creatures, these entities do not seek our destruction, but rather appear as utterly indifferent to humanity, and it is merely by accident that they have a relationship with us. The coincidental alignment makes these gods no better than the remaining cosmic forces and by ignoring humans they are actually contributing to the sense of alienation. They stand for symbols of cosmic outsideness, which we can only grasp a tiny fraction.

The horror derives from the realisation that common human laws, interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. Consequently, the entities in Lovecraft’s world were not evil, they were far beyond human conceptions of morality. They exist in a dark reality for which nothing is impossible, and is beyond human access. They represent the “essence of externality”, as he writes:

“To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.”

H.P. Lovecraft’s Letter to Farnworth Wrigh