Outgrowing the Important Problems of 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.

 

 

Outgrowing the Important Problems of Life

 

… all the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble…. They can never be solved, but only outgrown….                                                Jung (1938)[1]

            What did these people do in order to bring about the development that set them free? As far as I could see they did nothing (wu wei) but let things happen…. The art of letting things happen, action through non-action, letting go of oneself as taught by Meister Eckhart, became for me the key that opens the door to the way. We must be able to let things happen in the psyche. For us, this is an art of which most people know nothing. Consciousness is forever interfering, helping, correcting, and negating, never leaving the psychic processes to grow in peace. It would be simple enough, if only simplicity were not the most difficult of all things….                                                             Jung (1938)[2]

… The way is not without danger. Everything good is costly, and the development of personality is one of the most costly of all things. It is a matter of saying yea to oneself, of taking oneself as the most serious of tasks, of being conscious of everything one does, and keeping it constantly before one’s eyes in all its dubious aspects—truly a task that taxes us to the utmost.                 Jung (1938)[3]

 

            In eight paragraphs early in his “Commentary on ‘The Secret of the Golden Flower’,”[4] a Chinese alchemical work, Jung describes the process of psychological growth. I have found these paragraphs very helpful when students come to me with problems. Invariably these are not simple problems like getting the car fixed, or finding child-care. They are more like what Jung called “… the greatest and most important problems of life…”[5] e.g. finding meaning in life, addressing an arid patch in creativity, facing acute loneliness, having chronic money or relationship problems.

            Typical of us left-brained, linear, logical Westerners, my students want to solve these problems. They expect me to give them specific advice on how to go about this, assuming that the psyche and its expression can be handled with a “cookbook” approach,[6] rationality and consciousness. At this point I quote Jung’s statement that such problems cannot be solved, they can only be outgrown.[7] When we come upon a major dilemma, life is calling us to grow. The major problems of life present us with opportunities to develop our unique personality.[8] Because each person is unique, there can be no “cookbook” approach, and because growth is not under the ego’s control, the rational, conscious mind cannot “figure it out.”

            How my students want to “figure it out”! They want to do something, take action, make their situation better. But the process of outgrowing a major problem requires quite a different approach, as Jung noted:

 

            What did these people do in order to bring about the development that set them free? As far as I could see they did nothing (wu wei) but let things happen…. The art of letting things happen, action through non-action, letting go of oneself as taught by Meister Eckhart, became for me the key that opens the door to the way. We must be able to let things happen in the psyche. For us, this is an art of which most people know nothing. Consciousness is forever interfering, helping, correcting, and negating, never leaving the psychic processes to grow in peace. It would be simple enough, if only simplicity were not the most difficult of all things.[9]

 

Because, in our culture, we tend to associate “powerful” with “complex,” and to dismiss the “simple” as weak or ineffective, most of my students find it hard to “let things happen” and to allow the psyche to do the work.

            This is not to suggest that tackling the major problems of life means there can be no conscious actions. The eight paragraphs in “Alchemical Studies” provide some very specific ways to support the psyche as it works to outgrow a problem. Jung suggests, for example, that we can:

accept the new thing that spontaneously arises and welcome its help:[10] take a positive attitude to what comes up in dreams and fantasies, even if these seem to go “against deeply rooted instincts;” be open to insights from the unconscious

go with the “stream of time:”[11] avoid trying to drive, force or make things happen; develop patience, in the knowledge that the psyche has its own timetable (and this is almost always much slower than the ego would like)

maintain a balanced life in the world:[12] there is no need to become totally absorbed in what’s going on in the inner life; Jung was adamant that the demands of outer life and our roles in the world have great value (aside from providing paychecks and regular routines) in keeping us grounded in reality[13]

give some time in waking life to useful activities,[14] so as to keep the left brain/conscious mind occupied and lessen its fretting

“let things happen:”[15] try to adopt a different attitude about living, one more open to and accepting of the irrational

take Meister Eckhart’s advice and “let go of oneself:”[16] relax into the realization that the ego cannot control the process of psychological growth

accept the “reversal of one’s nature:”[17] our growth often occurs via contact with the inferior function and the orientation opposite to our usual type, so for Extraverts, there can arise some “new thing” from within, while for Introverts, it might be encountered out in the world; likewise, Thinking types may experience a feeling, while Feeling types might become intrigued with an idea and do research about it

hold on to values that are true to one’s nature:[18] while superficial values associated with the persona may fall away those that are genuinely part of us become like roots that can help to hold us in place, so we don’t waver or fall into an enantiodromia;[19] we need stability as we move through the growth phase

appreciate the value of fantasies:[20] our culture tends to dismiss fantasy, imagination, and intuitions, but these are key components of the psyche at work

            From his own experience and his 60+ years of work with patients, Jung came to recognize the importance of fantasy. Rather than dismiss these inner gifts, Jung would have us give free rein to them, faithfully observe them and work with them, via creative activities like writing, painting, drawing, modeling in clay, movement or dance.[21]

            At times during the process of inner growth, consciousness can develop a “cramp,”[22] and in such intervals, creative activities become one of the best ways to get the conscious mind to relax. Once it relaxes, we can let things happen and the results show up in a variety of ways, e.g. “an enlargement, a heightening and enrichment of the personality,…”;[23] and/or new attitudes about ourselves,[24] about life, about the problem we had (which generally no longer seems to be an issue or concern).

            In this regard I am reminded of an example from my own life. During the course of my analysis, I became aware of the great frustration I felt from the fact that my voice was not heard. I would participate in meetings, but no one seemed to pay attention when I spoke. I would co-author books, but my co-author would get all the invitations to speak about the topic. I would write books myself and never find a publisher. There just seemed to be block after block around this issue. My analyst said to me just what I say to my students now: It was not a problem my logical mind could solve. It was something I would outgrow.[25]

            This seemed to me at the time to be such a mystery! How would this happen? More to the point, from the perspective of my impatient ego, when would it happen? It was only by going through this process that I came to realize that the “how” and the “when” are not in our purview. These belong to the psyche.

            But the “what” we can take up: the living of daily life with a determination to “say yea to oneself, of taking oneself as the most serious of tasks, of being conscious of everything one does, and keeping it constantly before one’s eyes in all its dubious aspect–…”.[26] This was what I was to do, and just as Jung says, I found this to be “… a task that taxes us to the utmost.”[27] It requires devotion with all of one’s energy.

            The “development of personality is one of the most costly of all things.”[28] It is also very demanding, particularly because our Western culture gives us so little support. Jung notes that “… The Westerner who wishes to set out on this way, if he is really serious about it, has all authority against him—intellectual, moral, and religious. …”[29] We are not likely to find friends or family appreciative or understanding of what we are doing,[30] especially since so little of the work can be explained in any clear, logical way.

            At this point, dear reader, you may wonder if inner growth is worth all the challenges, effort and energy. Why not just ditch problems that can’t be solved and turn to other things? This often is not an option because insoluble problems are major problems, i.e. ones than cannot really be ditched or avoided: too much life energy is bound up in them. Such was the case with me: I had come up against problems that were neither avoidable nor amenable to any sort of conscious solution.[31] Another way to answer the question “Why bother?” is by noting the wonderful benefits that come with outgrowing a problem, e.g. the “enlargement, heightening and enrichment of the personality”[32] noted above; greater creativity; a deep sense of meaning in life; greater fulfillment and joy in living; and a deepening sense of trust in the wisdom of the soul. Such growth is the proverbial “pearl of great price,”[33] and it’s worth every ounce of energy put into it.

 

Bibliography

 

C.G. Jung (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

 

 

 

 



[1] Collected Works 13, ¶18. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] Ibid., ¶20.

[3] Ibid., ¶24.

[4] Ibid., ¶s 18-26.

[5] Ibid., ¶18.

[6] For more on the “cookbook approach” and why Jung objected to it, see the essay “Why No Cookbook Approach,” archived on this blog site.

[7] CW 13, ¶18.

[8] Ibid., ¶24.

[9] Ibid., ¶20.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., ¶18.

[12] Ibid., ¶24.

[13] Jung found it helpful, in staying grounded, to attend to his work as a doctor, father, husband and householder; Jung (1965), p. 189.

[14] CW 13, ¶24.

[15] Ibid., ¶20.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., ¶24.

[18] Ibid.

[19] This is a key concept in Jung’s thought which he took over from Heraclitus. The Greek means “a running to the opposite.” For more on this concept and what Jung did with it, see the three-part essay “Jung on the Enantiodromia, Parts I-III,” archived on this blog site.

[20] CW 13, ¶20.

[21] Ibid., ¶22.

[22] Ibid., ¶20.

[23] Ibid., ¶24.

[24] Ibid., ¶25.

[25] Eleven books and numerous speaking engagements over the last dozen years indicate clearly that I did outgrow this problem; now the issue of being heard is not an issue at all.

[26] CW 13,  ¶24.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., ¶25

[30] Jesus recognized this when he spoke of how the enemies would be those in one’s own house; Luke 12:53.

[31] My experience was particularly difficult because I was so “heady” and intellectual. It might be, for people who are more right-brained, artistic and familiar with the fantasy realm, that relinquishing life to the psyche might not feel so foreign.

[32] CW 13, ¶24.

[33] Matt. 13:46.

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