Finding Meaning in Life

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.

 

 

Jung on Finding Meaning in Life

 

 

Man cannot stand a meaningless life.

Jung (1959)[1]

Meaninglessness inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness. Meaning makes a great many things endurable—perhaps everything.

Jung (1965)[2]

… when we are unconscious, life has no meaning.

Jung (1929)[3]

Whether the patient is rich or poor, has family and social position or not, alters nothing, for outer circumstances are far from giving his life a meaning.

Jung (1931)[4]

A psychoneurosis must be understood, ultimately, as the suffering of a soul which has not discovered its meaning.

Jung (1932)[5]

Among my patients from many countries, all of them educated persons, there is a considerable number who came to see me not because they were suffering from a neurosis but because they could find no meaning in their lives…

Jung (1932)[6]

When conscious life has lost its meaning and promise, it is as though a panic had broken loose:… It is this mood, born of the meaninglessness of life, that causes the disturbance in the unconscious …

Jung (1932)[7]

Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give a meaning to his life and enable him to find his place in the universe.

Jung (1961)[8]

That gives peace, when people feel that they are living the symbolic life, that they are actors in the divine drama. That gives the only meaning to human life; everything else is banal and you can dismiss it. A career, producing of children, are all maya compared to that one thing, that your life is meaningful.

Jung (1939)[9]

 

The quotes above suggest just how explicit Jung was about the importance of living a meaningful life. For over 30 years he spoke and wrote about this theme, in his scholarly researches, his seminars, his letters, and in the interviews he gave to journalists. In this essay we examine the ideas of Jung and his students on what a meaningful life is and, given our current collective situation, how one might go about creating a meaningful life.

 

Our Current Predicament

 

Jung traced the malaise of contemporary life back 150 years (now over 200 years ago)[10] to the mid-19th century exaltation of science, which since 1850 has become “… the watchword that has become more and more prevalent during the last one hundred and fifty years and has proved to be the decisive one in practice.”[11] This has resulted in “… an extremely one-sided development of a single instinct, for instance the instinct for knowledge.”[12] and, as a consequence, “… people are trained to develop one quality only; they become tools themselves.”[13] When human beings come to be regarded as “tools” it is not surprising that life comes to be thought of as a “tale told by an idiot.”[14] Putting a premium on science has had other doleful results, like the “discrediting” of subjective experience, with a concomitant stress on objectivity, positivism and the “machine model.”[15] In order “to achieve a more detached and objective view”[16] of nature, we “… had to forsake… our natural tendency to endow the world with meaning.”[17] Jungian analyst Lawrence Jaffe reminds us that “… we cannot endure such reality (mere rationalism and materialism) for long. We yearn to be gripped by something—if not God then sex, money, drugs, alcohol, food, love, hate, war or any of a multitude of principles…”[18] Edward Edinger, the “dean” of American Jungian analysts,[19] echoes Jaffe in his recognition that the pursuit of scientific knowledge as the highest goal of human endeavor is not adequate to the needs of the whole man.[20] But since “… questions about meaning are often considered outside the scope of science,”[21] and science is the vaunted “knowledge base of our culture,”[22] issues like meaning, purpose, value and other intangibles tend to get denigrated or dismissed.

Our culture puts little value on intangibles because of materialism—that attitude that is focused on stuff: money, possessions, physicality—what Jungian analyst Marion Woodman calls “the bread-and-butter world.”[23] She reminds us that “If that’s all there is, it’s meaningless…. it is not worth living….”[24] Jung was clear:

“The more a man lays stress on false possessions, and the less sensitivity he has for what is essential, the less satisfying is his life. He feels limited because he has limited aims, and the result is envy and jealousy.”[25]

Materialism would have us put stress on external things, like “power, glory, wealth,”[26] which Jung felt were “futile” things to strive for, since “The really important things are within,”[27] “the eternal things, the things that will be of the most importance in the long run.”[28] Jung noted what, to him, were some of the most important “eternal things:” “living symbols,”[29] “facing one’s own soul,”[30] and developing a “viable, functioning myth”[31] for ourselves. But, to Jung’s dismay, he saw that both Western culture and “all the major world cultures are approaching, to a greater or lesser extent, the state of mythlessness.”[32]

The carrier of our collective myths used to be religions, but Jung’s experience—both in his own life and in the lives of countless patients he worked with—forced him to recognize that “… in our time there are countless people who have lost faith in one or other of the world religions….”[33] and “… every ecclesiastical system finds itself in an awkward situation, be it Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, or Confucianist….”[34] Modern people are “utterly disinclined to believe that anything can happen in our psychology which would amount to a superior power….”[35] When Jung suggested to his patients that a “voice in his dream was divine and should be taken seriously, as the command of a superior power, he would not believe me and he would not trust it…”[36] Jung concluded that millions of people “don’t know that they are suffering from a lack of the religious function.”[37] In this conclusion Jung is not alone: multiple other Jungian analysts have found the same problem in their work with analysands. Marion Woodman, for example, saw how her patients

“… want a god. Now they’d never say that, but they want something bigger…. It used to be there in the church,… where people would enter into the sacred world, surrender to it, leave the sacred world, and take that energy back to the profane world. But they had something to take with them; they had a meaning. Their suffering was given meaning….”[38]

This is not to suggest that our current predicament might be solved by a return to the old religious traditions, which (in the words of Jungian analyst Edward Edinger) many now regard as “intellectually naïve” and “concrete.”[39] In fact, far from being the answer, the old religions now often hamper “mature individuals… in their search for meaning.”[40]—a conclusion expressed by John Dourley, who is both a Jungian analyst and a Roman Catholic priest.

The pervasive influence of science (in its degenerate form, scientism),[41] with its materialism, objectivism, mechanism, denigration of intangibles, and the loss of connection with the religious function have led to a fifth feature of our current reality: psychological problems. Narcissism (the need to feel special),[42] the prevalence of addictions,[43] multiple forms of neurosis,[44] the fragmentation of modern consciousness[45]—these are some of the psychological consequences of the loss of meaning in our time. Jung was explicit that

“We are living undeniably in a period of the greatest restlessness, nervous tension, confusion, and disorientation of outlook. Among my patients from many countries, all of them educated persons, there is a considerable number who came to see me not because they were suffering from a neurosis but because they could find no meaning in their lives or were torturing themselves with questions which neither our philosophy nor our religion could answer….”[46]

and he found that, very often, his patients’ Extraversion did not help them find meaning. Extraverts tend to focus on outer life and external things, like “power, glory, wealth,”[47] “business activities”[48] or “bank account,”[49] which Jung knew “… are external and therefore futile. The really important things are within.”[50] To Jung it was “… more important to me that I am happy than that I have the external reason for happiness.”[51] since anything external is vulnerable to being lost. As a wealthy man himself Jung knew that

“Rich people should be happy, but often they are not, they are bored to death; therefore it is ever so much better for a man to work to produce an inner condition that gives him an inner happiness.”[52]

Jung offered solutions to his patients who were suffering from loss of meaning in life. He himself lived a meaningful life, and he could both describe it and prescribe activities that his patients could do to find meaning. What are some of the features of a life filled with meaning? This is the next part of this essay.

 

Features of a Meaningful Life

 

Each individual formulates a meaningful life in accord with his/her unique history, personality and destiny. What follows are some general features that are commonly found in lives that have meaning.

First, let’s consider attitudes. A person living a life full of meaning has a “changed consciousness.”[53] He or she is “aware of the main value of the constituents of his personality,”[54] having discovered his/her “real identity with nature.”[55] Rather than thinking of ourselves as above or outside of nature (as is typical in our era of scientism), we come to understand that we live very much within the “web of life”[56] and seek to align with Nature’s wisdom. We recognize that we live within the whole,[57] and then we offer our part to it. Jung terms this getting “back to a condition where we are right with nature.”[58] Such an attitude requires humility, a humbling of the ego mind, and it allows us to have an “understanding of things,”[59] of why we are here, alive, in this time and place. We gain a “sensitivity for what is essential,”[60] and we refuse to get “caught in the past.”[61] We also don’t shrink from risks, because we recognize that a fulfilling life is full of risks.[62] If we are to have “purposes larger than ourselves,”[63] and get in touch with the transpersonal, the Self, we must have an attitude of openness to challenge, unpredictability, and risk. Such an attitude provides us with a “bigger framework than the smaller personal framework,”[64] with “enlarged”[65] horizons and a sense of greater dignity. We know our lives matter in the cosmic scheme of things, and, with a balanced worldview,[66] we have a “transcendent desire to see and help other beings achieve their potential.”[67] We live in touch with the timeless world,[68] knowing there is something more important to live for than just ego satisfaction.[69] We develop a “viable myth”[70] that springs from our psychic wholeness,” from the cooperation between conscious and unconscious.”[71] With such attitudes, we come to regard death as a “goal and fulfillment of life.”[72]

Death as goal and fulfillment of life??? Few people in modern culture would regard death as something valuable, but Jung was explicit that a meaningful life sees meaning and purpose right up to the end, including death itself.[73] Other values are similarly striking, given our culture’s materialistic orientation: The infinite, the intangible, is “the thing which truly matters.”[74] Value is put not on possessions, stuff, tangibles, but on having purposes larger than or beyond our own self-serving.[75] Premium is put on having causes beyond ourselves, whether large (like supporting a family, serving a country, devotion to a principle) or small (like caring for a pet, or being involved in building something).[76] Such values lift life above the humdrum and mundane.

Such values also foster a set of feelings that give life meaning: When we serve something larger than ourselves we come to feel that “we count for something.”[77] We have more serenity in the face of hardship,[78] more strength and dignity in the midst of suffering,[79] so we can endure hard times with courage. We live with the knowledge that we are important partners with the natural world,[80] that our lives matter, that we have made a difference, and therefore, death is nothing to fear.[81]

Death is nothing to fear because, when we live a meaningful life, we know we are “related to something infinite,”[82] something that transcends the limitations of our individual human nature. We recognize “a divine life” [83]within us, that we have “something of the quality of eternity, of timelessness,… the quality of reaching beyond man…”[84] and this produces a “satisfaction which man-made things do not.”[85] The meaningful life is rooted in “a complete assimilation of the divine factor within ourselves.”[86] We come to be “filled with the Deity,”[87] which “expresses the desire of the soul.”[88] Lawrence Jaffe referred to Jesus’ words in this context, in which Jesus reminds us that “ye are gods.”[89]

With this divine identity, we are called to “divine service… the service which man can render to God, that… the Creator may become conscious of his creation, and man conscious of himself.”[90] In terms of daily life on the physical plane, Jung would have us “create more and more consciousness”[91] as we work on our individuation,[92] living within the whole and then offering our part to it.[93] This implies maintaining the integrity of one’s life,[94] and being responsible for what happens,[95] i.e. we must refuse to play the “blame game,” refuse to take on the role of victim. When we live the meaningful life we fulfill our destiny as humans,[96] living the “symbolic life,”[97] as “actors in the divine drama.”[98]

 

Actions We Can Take to Bring Meaning to Our Lives

 

How might the above features be translated into practical actions? Let’s start with what Jung regarded as the first step: a change of attitude. Most adults in our society function with an attitude of confidence in the rational ego mind. Jung suggests that instead we “assume the attitude of a newborn babe. One must always be humble when it comes…”[99] to working with the Self, the unconscious, the inner life. Going along with this shift is the need to adopt a proper Weltanschauung, a worldview that is not one-sided[100] (as our current scientistic worldview is). So there’s some unlearning required in our attitude.

In addition to unlearning, we need courage: Integrating the shadow is the work of heroes. Discovering and working to develop the inferior function is not easy or fun. Jung was blunt here to his correspondents when they asked him about this: “Insight, endurance and action” are the requirements for grappling with our inferior side.[101]

Regular examination of our assumptions, expectations, and fantasies, especially those which “have limited personal identity, agency, responsibility”[102] is also important. Again, more unlearning is likely if we are to make a “serious and sustained attempt to find the meaning or ultimate value of human existence.”[103] Dreams can help here, if we are willing to engage the symbols dreams present to us. The metaphors in dreams can provide us with a picture of our psychic condition and how to change it.[104] Dreams may also point out where and how our attitudes are askew, and how we might “find the truth of our own being.”[105] Most of all, we need to take the time to reflect on life, with all its “bewildering experiences,”[106] in order to extract the meaning in what happens to us. There are no accidents or coincidences; whatever may befall us has some point in the larger scheme of things. Everything can be grist for the work of finding meaning in life.

Another avenue we can pursue for meaning takes us into the realm of spirit. Jung felt it was valuable for us to hold beliefs “that we know can never be proved,”[107] i.e. beliefs that help us find our place in the universe. This means a willingness to “serve the mystery through becoming an individual,”[108] and turning to sources of “greater wisdom in order to increase our understanding”[109] when we come up against “riddles”[110] which our rational ego minds cannot fathom. It is useful to strive “to formulate an impression of the Deity, or of the innermost center of [our] own soul.”[111] Few people in mainstream society these days would relish facing their souls, but this is precisely what Jung asks us to do: face our own souls and “take pains with ourselves, to foster our soul growth.”[112] This implies dealing with “life processes which, on account of their numinous character, have from time immemorial provided the strongest incentive to the formation of symbols. These processes are steeped in mystery;…”[113] Mystery is another bug-a-boo in our culture. So the processes involved in finding meaning in life require some measure of independence of mind.

Courage in the face of a host of negative feelings is also required.[114] Doing the inner work that is a part of a meaningful life implies the experience of loneliness, solitude,[115] the feeling of being misunderstood (often, usually by our closest friends and dearest family—the folks who feel they know us best, and therefore tend to resent our changing).[116] We must endure the “swamplands of the soul”[117] where few fellows would readily accompany us, but this inner terrain is just where “soul is fashioned and forged, where we encounter … purpose and [life’s] deepest meaning.”[118] In the quest for a meaningful life, we can anticipate experiencing inner desperation[119] and personal defeat.[120] The former can be a stimulus to “understanding the meaning of what one is going through,”[121] while the latter can serve as “fertile ground for future success”[122] by calling up an “intensive investment of psychic energy.”[123] The result, in my experience, is that we can come through these intervals with greater awareness and appreciation for the support and guidance of the Self.

Finally, there are a variety of concrete actions we can take to foster a more meaningful life. For example:

  • Living in our bodies, rather than in some ungrounded, impractical fantasy life.[124]
  • Paying attention to and working with our dreams, as messages from the psyche that can provide both guidance and support, if we take the proper attitude toward them.[125]
  • Following our “missing energy”[126] in practices like active imagination, which can produce “satisfying images”[127] that can give meaning to both the dream and to our lives.
  • Watching for and appreciating synchronicities, those “meaningful coincidences”[128] that often show up in life when we are intent on aligning with the Self.
  • Using imagination, as we work toward our own unique form of completeness.[129]
  • Being willing to give up interests and pleasures that no longer bring meaning to our lives, and finding new ones that do[130] (this is often a task of the second half of life, as we grow out of youth and into our mature years).
  • Sustaining connections to others,[131] and doing something in the world[132]—something that makes a difference—these also are important in infusing life with meaning. Jung felt “each of us ought to leave some trace in this world that we have been here,…”[133]

This need not be momentous; we don’t have to become President, or a famous celebrity, or even a person of renown in our hometown (and, given the vast value differences and attitude changes this process entails, such fame or public prominence is unlikely). Leaving traces can be as simple as being a parent, an inspiring teacher, a passionate artist. When we live out our mission in life, our vocation—what we feel called to do in the world—we leave traces, and exemplify the meaningful life.

 

Bibliography

 

Carotenuto, Aldo (1989), Eros and Pathos. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Dourley, John (1984), The Illness That We Are. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Edinger, Edward (1984), The Creation of Conscious. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Elder, George & Dianne Cordic eds. (2009), An American Jungian In Honor of Edward Edinger. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Gawande, Atul (2014), Being Mortal. New York: Henry Holt.

Hannah, Barbara (2000), The Inner Journey. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Hollis, James (1996), Swamplands of the Soul. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Jaffe, Lawrence (1990), Liberating the Heart. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Jung, C.G. (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1977), C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, ed. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.

________ (1984), Seminar on Dream Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mehrtens, Susan ed. (1996), Revisioning Science: Essays Toward a New Knowledge Base for Our Culture. Waterbury VT: The Potlatch Press.

Storer, John (1956), The Web of Life. New York: New American Library.

Tart, Charles (2009), The End of Materialism. Oakland CA: New Harbinger.

Woodman, Marion (1993), Conscious Femininity. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Young-Eisendrath, Polly (1984), Hags and Heroes. Toronto: Inner City Books.

[1] “The BBC Interview,” Jung (1977), 439.

[2] Jung (1965), 340.

[3] Jung (1984), 224.

[4] Collected Works 8, ¶686. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[5] CW 11, ¶497.

[6] Ibid., ¶514.

[7] Ibid., ¶517.

[8] CW 18, ¶566.

[9] Ibid., ¶630.

[10] Jung wrote this essay in 1927, 88 years ago; 88 + 150 = 238 years; CW 8, p. 358, note 1.

[11] Ibid., ¶731.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] CW 18, ¶566.

[15] Jaffe (1990), 90.

[16] Ibid., 93.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 94.

[19] Elder & Cordic (2009), 9.

[20] Edinger (1984), 58.

[21] Jaffe (1990), 95.

[22] Willis Harman, quoted in Mehrtens (1996), p. v.

[23] Woodman (1993), 26.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Jung (1965), 325.

[26] Jung (1984), 289.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid., 515.

[29] Ibid., 336. “Living” symbols are those which still contain mystery, i.e. they have the capacity to effect transformation or to affect the soul, e.g. by calling up feelings of transcendence or meaning.

[30] CW 12, ¶126.

[31] Edinger (1984), 9.

[32] Ibid., 9-10.

[33] CW 18, ¶565.

[34] CW 11, ¶516.

[35] Jung (1984), 510.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 336.

[38] Woodman (1993), 26.

[39] Edinger (1984), 58.

[40] Dourley (1984), 19.

[41] Tart (2009), 24-25.

[42] Jaffe (1990), 91-92.

[43] Woodman (1993), 27.

[44] Hollis (1996), 9.

[45] CW 8, ¶731.

[46] CW 11, ¶514.

[47] Jung (1984), 289.

[48] CW 18, ¶604.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Jung (1984), 289.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., 455.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid., 593.

[56] This is the title of a pioneering work in ecology by John Storer; Storer (1956).

[57] CW 7, ¶404.

[58] Jung (1984), 37.

[59] Ibid., 224.

[60] Jung (1965), 325.

[61] CW 8, ¶798.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Gawande (2014), 238.

[64] Woodman (1993), 125.

[65] Hollis (1996), 15.

[66] CW 8, ¶731.

[67] Gawande (2014), 127.

[68] Woodman (1993), 73.

[69] Jaffe (1990), 72.

[70] Edinger (1984), 9.

[71] Jung (1965), 340.

[72] CW 8, ¶797.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Jung (1965), 325.

[75] Gawande (2014), 238.

[76] Ibid., 126.

[77] Jung (1965), 325.

[78] Jaffe (1990), 91.

[79] Ibid.

[80] Ibid.

[81] Jung (1984), 460.

[82] Jung (1965), 325.

[83] Ibid., 340.

[84] Jung (1984), 289.

[85] Ibid.

[86] Ibid., 608.

[87] CW 18, ¶631.

[88] Ibid.

[89] Jaffe (1990), 90, quoting Jesus (John 10:34) and Psalm 82.

[90] Jung (1965), 338.

[91] Ibid., 326.

[92] Jung (1984), 289.

[93] CW 18, ¶566.

[94] Gawande (2014), 141.

[95] Ibid., 140.

[96] Jung (1965), 326.

[97] CW 18, ¶630. In my experience “living the symbolic life” shows up as a life characterized by encounters with words, phrases, images or experiences that call up responses, either physiological (e.g. goose bumps) or emotional (e.g. weeping, joy, feelings of gratitude or transcendence), reflecting some shift within me to a different level of consciousness.

[98] Ibid.

[99] Jung (1984), 252.

[100] CW 8, ¶731.

[101] Jung “Letter to Olga Froebe-Kapteyn,” Letters I, 375.

[102] Young-Eisendrath (1984), 27.

[103] Hannah (2000), 16-17.

[104] Woodman (1993), 77.

[105] Hannah (2000), 27.

[106] CW 18, ¶565.

[107] Ibid., ¶566.

[108] Hollis (1996), 12.

[109] Hannah (2000), 24.

[110] CW 12, ¶564.

[111] Hannah (2000), 16-17.

[112] CW 12, ¶126.

[113] Ibid., ¶564.

[114] For an in-depth discussion of the need for courage, see the blog essay “Jung’s Hero: The Form of Heroism in the New Era,” archived on this blog site.

[115] Jaffe (1990), 160.

[116] Matt. 10: 34-39. Jesus warned his followers that their enemies would be the people in their own households.

[117] Hollis (1996). This is the title of his book.

[118] Ibid., 9.

[119] Carotenuto (1989), 95.

[120] Jaffe (1990), 71.

[121] Carotenuto (1989), 95.

[122] Ibid., 116.

[123] Ibid.

[124] Jung (1984), 288.

[125] Woodman (1993), 77.

[126] Hannah (2000), 43.

[127] Ibid.

[128] This is how Jung defined synchronicity; CW 10, ¶593.

[129] Hannah (2000), 43.

[130] Ibid., 46.

[131] Gawande (2014), 147.

[132] Jung (1984), 618.

[133] Hannah (2000), 11.

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