In Jungian analytical psychology, we work with the concept of Self which is the superordinate, transcendent principle of order and wholeness within the psyche; it is genetically transmitted and shared by all humans in common. The Self is the sum of all human potentiality, past, present, and future, and is the psychological manifestation of the unus mundus, the “one-world” organic interconnection of all elements in the universe. The unfolding of individual self (or ego) development follows the pattern of the Self, and the teleological goal of individual self-development is the greatest possible realization of the potentialities in the Self within the limits of individual genetic endowment and environmental experience. This self-realization represents our acceptance of the “middle way”—the inclusion of all the oppositions in human experience—expressed in a harmony between our experience of the inner and outer worlds, an experience of the paradox of our own utterly unique realization of the potentialities of the Self and our cosmic union with all of creation.
As our individual self-development unfolds, certain archetypal potentialities are distorted by the wounds inflicted by our environmental experience. (The archetypes are the human potentialities which make up the Self.) These wounds “collect” around the archetypal potentialities and form complexes. The complexes are the old “tapes” which erupt spontaneously from the unconscious when they are triggered by further experience, and take possession of us whether we like it or not, dictating our problematical behavior, causing us to repeat old patterns or mistakes and causing us considerable suffering.
Much of the healing work of psychotherapy is the identification of the client’s complexes within a trusting relationship which supports the capacity of the self to watch the complexes and to not identify with them. This effort has much in common with the effects of vipassana meditation in which, as we concentrate on a neutral given such as the sensation of the breath through our nostrils, we are beset by powerful images arising from the unconscious, which often possess us with intense affects and distract us from our point of concentration. These images and affects are, in Jungian terms, complexes. As we watch them, resisting attaching ourselves to them or identifying with them and reaffirming our point of concentration, we capture energy for the healing work of the Self away from the wounds of our temporal experience; we support an objective standpoint which relativizes our individual experience and brings us closer to the goal of self-Self correspondence.
In my work as a Jungian analyst with practitioners of vipassana meditation, the healing process is greatly enhanced by their familiarity with the meditative process described above, which has much in common with a process which Jung called “active imagination.” I have been particularly impressed with the vipassana method as I have understood it in my own limited practice because it encourages a “watching” of the complex until it loses its energy and passes out of the “screen” of one’s awareness. Here, it seems to me, the meditative process supports as full a preoccupation as necessary until the complex does lose its charge of energy. Some other methods of meditation appear to put so much emphasis on transcendence that the necessary psychic work is avoided through sheer force of concentration on the mantra (or whatever), and psychological development is not supported.
At its very root, the process of “watching” moves toward an acceptance of ourselves as we are rather than as we should be; this is given explicit expression in metta practice of lovingkindness toward ourselves and others. I find that the metta practice is a particularly powerful healing practice for those of us who have suffered deep wounds in our capacity for self-acceptance. A wounded capacity for self-acceptance implies an insufficient experience in early life with an unconditional acceptance of our very being. All later capacity for self-love flows from this early experience.
Those of us who are wounded in our capacity for self-love have typically internalized a method of self-validation which depends upon what we will become in some cherished hierarchy or other; we are frustrated and unkind toward ourselves when we do not exemplify the standards of this hierarchy. We are not interested in ourselves as we are, but rather are fascinated with an image of perfection and the power that flows from it. We may turn this standard on ourselves in one moment, loathing and rejecting our imperfections, or we may turn it on others in another moment, inflated with our sense of superiority as we judge them. We are in flight from expectations in our effort to find peace and self-acceptance, while we are fascinated by the promise we project onto relationship with those who appear to exemplify the perfection we seek. Therefore, we may find ourselves afraid of entanglement in intimate relationship with anyone who has a particular expectation of us.
This wounded condition in which we seek self-validation through some cherished hierarchy is, of course, a complex and it can subvert and dominate our approach to Buddhism as it does everything else. For example, in this complex, we may be fascinated with the image of enlightenment which can come through the disciplined and sustained practice of meditation. But when our interest is in the goal of enlightenment, the path may soon become tedious; we become impatient with it and ourselves, periodically breaking off practice but continuing a frustrated fascination with the goal. Or, in quite a different example, we may be afraid of intimate relationship and its entangling expectations, and take refuge in a premature fascination with the monastic spirit of Buddhism as a defense against the challenge of personal intimacy. Here, rather than supporting us in confronting our complexes, meditation practice is a refuge against the stimulation of our complexes which would flow from intimate interpersonal involvement. Whatever “enlightenment” we achieve, it is a function of our avoidance of intimacy. In this case, our metta practice may support our lives in the human arena at an essentially impersonal level, but it does not transcend the complexes which are aroused by efforts at intimacy.
In my experience, psychotherapy can be a great help for those of us whose “complexes” lead us to flee from personal intimacy. Psychotherapy can provide a container—a relationship of controlled intimacy—in which the issues that arise can be experienced and examined by the client without his or her being overwhelmed by the needs of the therapist. Unfortunately it is often difficult to get clients who are defensively involved in their Buddhist perspective to embrace psychotherapy!