Tidbits of Jung’s Wisdom

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.



Tidbits of Jung’s Wisdom



            This essay departs from the usual format to take up bits and pieces of wisdom I’ve gleaned from Jung’s Collected Works. I append some commentary to elaborate or apply my own experience of Jung’s insight. In no particular order these tidbits are:



We know that the mask of the unconscious is not rigid—it reflects the face we turn towards it.

“Introduction to the Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy,” CW 12, ¶29

            It is not uncommon in my interactions with others, even with some students at The Jungian Center, to find an individual recoil in horror at the idea of working with dreams, doing active imagination or engaging in any sort of activity that might involve contact with the unconscious. The person usually says something like “Oh, I don’t want to go there. I might find monsters or other yucky stuff.”

            Given our culture’s superficiality and its strong Extraverted orientation,[1] such reactions should not be surprising. American society does not encourage introspection or self-awareness, much less probing our inner depths for unconscious contents. In the years before I discovered Jung I had much the same attitude: No way was I going to get my head “shrunk” or mess around with that mumbo-gumbo!

            And then came the classic mid-life crisis,[2] when my world turned upside down, everything came up for grabs, and I went through years of turmoil. My friends, eager to help me but having no psychological expertise themselves, recommended various professionals. At the time (1984) there were not a lot of them in eastern Maine: a marriage counselor (who knew he was out of his depths), a pastoral trainer (who was also in over his head), a psychotherapist (nice, but not familiar with dream work), a psychiatrist (too scary in his cold rationality)—but they all said that, if I wanted to deal with all the dreams I was having, I should work with a “union.” I was hearing the word “union.” They all said that word. So I figured there was some dreamworkers union. I spent months trying to find this union. Not wanting to reveal my complete ignorance of the field of psychology/psychiatry I did not ask any of them what “union” they meant. Finally, in a mix of exasperation and frustration, when I heard this for the fifth time, I had to ask: “What is this ‘union’? I can’t find the dreamworkers union that everyone has mentioned.” The fellow looked puzzled for a moment. So I repeated my question—“The union. You tell me—like all the rest have—that I should work with a union. What union?” And then he laughed and told me it was not “union” but “Jungian.” And that’s how I came to discover Carl Jung and his work.

            It took months more before I got into analysis: There were no Jungian analysts in Maine in 1984. But one moved into the state in mid-1985, and I have worked with her since then. I can say, from nearly 30 years of personal experience, that Jung’s words are true: The unconscious will take to us the attitude we take to it. If we expect to find monsters and other yucky stuff “down there,” that’s what we will find.

            Conversely, if we can summon enough independence of mind to ignore our culture’s negative attitude toward the inner life and entertain the possibility that the unconscious may not be a den of iniquity, we will discover that it is a rich source for creativity, insight and revitalization. I certainly have found this is so: most of my books, ideas for courses, and guidance for daily living come to me from my depths. I realize now that, before my metanoia, my change of attitude, I was living with only half a life, like trying to play a card game with only half the deck! How much better things are now that I appreciate the unconscious and turn toward it with a positive attitude. I hope that readers of this blog will not have to go through the “swamplands”[3] that I did to get to this change of attitude!



This is the fallacy of the statistical picture: it is one-sided, inasmuch as it represents only the average aspect of reality and excludes the total picture. The statistical view of the world is a mere abstraction and therefore incomplete and even fallacious, particularly so when it deals with man’s psychology.

“Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle: The Structure & Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8, ¶884

            Jung hated math. From the time he was a young student he disliked the subject. He told Aniela Jaffé that he hated math so much that it spoiled the whole experience of school for him.[4] By the time he became a psychiatrist Jung had more than just his personal experience to hold against math: He recognized that it is theoretical, abstract, and deals only with concepts, not with real individual persons.

            When I came upon this passage I was reminded of the famous phrase “There are 3 kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”[5] Certainly in the context of soul tending, statistics “lie,” in their inability to address the feeling level and to reach the person where he or she is suffering. No one ever gets at the truth of the psyche via statistics.

            Jung recognized that we must work with the “total picture” when we deal with the psyche, the dream realm, the unconscious and living human beings. None of us is the “average.” None of us wants to be regarded and treated like an “abstraction.” Doing so is, as Jung says, both “incomplete and even fallacious.” Psychology is fundamentally subjective, not objective, and we need to be ever mindful of this because we live in a culture embedded in scientism, the current degenerate form of science that puts a premium on objectivity, abstraction and theory.

            All too often now (especially since the rise and ubiquity of computers) we are treated in the abstract when we have contact with the health care system. It is not uncommon for doctors to spend more time peering at their computer screens rather than at the patient![6] We must resist this trend and refuse to become just another statistic in the system!



… a dogma is the very thing that precludes immediate experience…. Dogma is like a dream, reflecting the spontaneous and autonomous activity of the objective psyche, the unconscious. Such an expression of the unconscious is a much more efficient means of defense against further immediate experiences than any scientific theory.

“Psychology and Religion: Psychology and Religion: West,” CW 11, ¶81

            Jung was the son of a Protestant pastor but as an adult he almost never went to church (weddings and funerals were possible exceptions).[7] While not religious, in the sense of belonging to an organized religion, Jung was deeply spiritual, his spirituality being rooted in multiple personal experiences of the Divine.

            In this essay in Collected Works, volume 11, Jung explains how organized religions serve to protect their followers from having personal experiences of the Divine: through the use of dogma, i.e. creeds, rites, rituals, statements of belief etc. All the standing up, sitting down, kneeling, singing, reciting is very “efficient” in holding the mysterium tremendum [8] at bay.

            Why would religions want to do this? In part because a personal experience of the mysterium—the Great Mysterious (Wanka Tanka in the Lakota language)[9]—is tremendum,[10] i.e. something that forces us to tremble, in its overwhelming power, force and majesty. It is truly awe-ful and can be overwhelming. Few indeed were those persons 2,000 years ago who could cope with such experiences. So the early church fathers created dogmas and rituals to formalize worship in place of the Gnostics’ stress on personal gnosis, or knowledge of God.[11]

            Another, more practical reason for creating dogma is that people who have come to know God through their personal experience are hard to control. When a person has had such experiences they know the love, the acceptance, the creativity and the freedom that the Divine gives us. The concepts of sin, guilt, shame, judgment—all this stuff is seen for what it is: elements of the old view of the Divine that our world is slowly outgrowing.

            Jung postulated a “new dispensation”[12] that is aborning all around the world, as more people refuse to be controlled and seek to have personal experiences of the Divine. Then they recognize the barriers that dogma throws up to such experiences. The spreading phenomenon of empty pews[13] reflects the shift from religiosity to spirituality, from contentment with dogma to an insistence on knowing God.



Good does not become better by being exaggerated, but worse, and a small evil becomes a big one through being disregarded and repressed. The shadow is very much a part of human nature, and it is only at night that no shadows exist.

“Conclusion: A Psychological Approach to the Trinity,” CW 11, ¶286

            Jung died in 1961, so he was spared the worst of the New Age rhetoric that insists on focusing only on the good. How many times I have encountered people who “declare” this or that, put out “affirmations” about one thing or another, all the while refusing to entertain the possibility that there might be unconscious issues that are blocking their realizing their dreams or aspirations! They don’t want to recognize the reality of evil, of unconsciousness that might be undercutting their success. They don’t want to see their shadow side.

            But Jung recognized that such attitudes only make things worse. When we disregard or repress our negativity—our fears, wounds, anxieties—they don’t go away but only gain more power: The “small evil becomes a big one,” as Jung warns, and all sorts of unconscious forces trip us up and frustrate our conscious intentions.

            On both the personal and the collective levels we need to face our shadow side. As Jung knew this is “a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality,”[14]  something that we naturally resist. Rather than face the challenge presented by the shadow, we tend to project it, and then we see all sorts of problems, failings, faults and evils in other people. On the collective level, we give speeches about the “axis of evil”[15] and go to war against the cultures that carry our shadow.[16] Maturing—for both individuals and American society—will require that we recognize the truth of Jung’s statement: The shadow is very much a part of human nature, and we must wise up to our shadow projections, take them back and see ourselves as carriers of both good and evil. 



Agnosticism maintains that it does not possess any knowledge of God or of anything metaphysical, overlooking the fact that one never possesses a metaphysical belief but is possessed by it.

“Answer to Job: Psychology and Religion: West,” CW 11, ¶735

            Jung had little appreciation of “cosmic vanity,”[17] that attitude that privileges one’s own belief system over others. “Cosmic vanity” shows up when adherents of various religions declare that they have the Truth and if you don’t believe as they do, then you’re going to Hell. Well, no.

            In this passage Jung is reminding us that the Truth is not something we have. No one has the Truth. Truth is something that has us, i.e. a particular metaphysical belief has possessed us, for one reason or another. Agnostics are possessed by a belief in agnosticism, just as scientists are possessed by a belief in scientism, and atheists by a belief in atheism.

            For myself, I am possessed by a belief in gravity: I believe that gravity works for everybody all the time and everywhere. Dante called this “L’amore che muove… le stelle.”[18]—“The love that moves the stars.” Dante here was borrowing a concept from Aristotle: the Prime Mover” is a way of defining God.[19] This is one of the medieval philosophers’ proofs of God. And in all the times I have asked those who declare they have the sole Truth, I have never encountered any person who can show me a cult, a religion, a denomination, a group or fellowship for whom gravity does not work. The source of gravity (which is still a mystery science cannot explain) works for all of us.



But, as always, every step forward along the path of individuation is achieved only at the cost of suffering.

“Transformation Symbolism in the Mass: Psychology and Religion: West,” CW 11, ¶410

There is no birth of consciousness without pain.

“Marriage as a Psychological Relationship: The Development of Personality,” CW 17, ¶331

            In these two passages Jung is reminding us of the price of becoming more conscious: pain and suffering. No one achieves greater self-awareness without hard struggle and effort. Facing the shadow is unpleasant, humiliating, humbling. Wrestling with the anima or animus is fraught (especially if we are simultaneously trying to maintain relationships with partners and “significant others”). When the ego confronts the Self it feels “defeated.”[20] The whole process of becoming conscious is, as Jungian analyst James Hollis says, like wading through “swamplands of the soul.”[21]

            Why would anyone want to do this??? Few do. Jung was clear that not everyone should.[22] This path is only for “heroes.” It requires moral courage, tenacity, determination, and perhaps a level of desperation that makes it seem like the only solution.

            Certainly that was true for me: By the time I landed on my analyst’s doorstep in July of 1985, I knew the Jungian path was the only way I was going to cure what ailed me. From the time the fifth professional put me on to Jung until I connected with my analyst I devoured Jung’s oeuvre, finding myself and my situation on page after page of his essays. But I found it really difficult to make sense of my own dreams (and I still do—it’s a lot easier to tackle someone else’s dreams than to figure out your own, just as it is hard to see your face without a mirror), yet I knew that my dreams were offering me guidance. They were opening up the wisdom of the unconscious, if only I knew how to interpret it. I needed expert input, teaching, direction, and I found all that in my work in analysis.

            I should note that I was blessed in having an amazing analyst, as flexible as she is experienced, as wise as she is adept in handling people on the edge. I came in bad shape, falling apart, and she provided a solid, enduring container. Other analysts I’ve worked with over the years brought me the opportunity to compare different styles and see how different personalities color the process, but none can compare to my first analyst. Everything that I’ve done, all the challenges I’ve met, all the achievements I’ve made, I owe to her and her skillful sharing of Jung’s wisdom.




Aquinas (1960), “Thomas Aquinas,” Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West, I. New York: Columbia University Press.

Davis, Charles (1974), The Temptations of Religion. New York: Harper & Row.

Deloria, Vine Jr. (2009), C.G. Jung and the Sioux Traditions. New Orleans LA: Spring Journal Books.

Hannah, Barbara (1976), Jung: His Life and Work, A Biographical Memoir. New York: G.P. Putnam.

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

Jaffe, Lawrence (1990), Liberating the Heart: Spirituality and Jungian Psychology. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Jung, C.G. (1959), ”The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

Keirsey, David & Marilyn Bates (1984), Please Understand Me. Del Mar CA: Prometheus Nemesis Books.

Otto, Rudolf (1958), The Idea of the Holy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Swift, Elizabeth Clark (2014), “Let There Be Light,” Time (April 28, 2014), 36-41.


[1] Seventy-five percent of Americans types as Extraverts; Keirsey & Bates ( 1984), 25.

[2] The mid-life crisis is archetypal, i.e. everyone experiences it to a greater or lesser degree. It can be predicted astrologically by the transit of Uranus: when Uranus comes to oppose itself, which usually occurs between the ages of 36 and 42. In 1983, when it began for me, I was 38.

[3] “Swamplands” is how Jungian analyst James Hollis describes the “dismal places” that lie within, holding new life for us; Hollis (1996).

[4] Jung (1965), 29.

[5] This quote has been associated with Mark Twain, but he attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli; it is not found in Disraeli’s writings however. For a full discussion of possible sources see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lies,_damned_lies,_and_statistics

[6] I witnessed this scenario multiple times when I accompanied my mother and, later, my aunt to their numerous doctor’s appointments. The physicians hardly paid any attention to the patient, they were so fixated on their computer screens!

[7] Hannah (1976), 51.

[8]Jung got this term for the Divine from Rudolf Otto; Otto (1958).

[9] Deloria (2009), 14.

[10] Tremendum is Latin, in the grammatical form known as the “passive periphrastic,” which indicates obligation or necessity. It is necessary for us—something we must do—to tremble in the presence of the Divine.

[11] Collected Works 9ii ¶302. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[12] Lawrence Jaffe calls this the “psychological dispensation;” see Jaffe (1990), 19-24.

[13] Swift (2014), 40.

[14] CW 9i ¶11.

[15] “Axis of evil” was one of George W. Bush’s phrases, repeated over and over, referring to Iran and North Korea. It seems never to have occurred to Bush or his administration that our “enemies” might have valuable things to teach us.

[16] One of the cultures most in our American shadow is the Taliban: the features of their culture are almost entirely the opposite of everything we identify as “us.”

[17] The term “cosmic vanity” is Charles Davis; he cites the phenomenon of “cosmic vanity” as one of the 4 “temptations of religion,” the other 3 being “pride in history,” the “lust for certitude,” and the “anger of morality; Davis (1974).

[18] This is the last line in Dante’s Paradiso, the third book of his Divine Comedy.

[19] Aquinas (1960), 201.

[20] CW 14 ¶778.

[21] This is the title of Hollis (1996).

[22] Jung felt that a person had to have a “vocation” to undertake the work of analysis, i.e. a sense of “calling” to do it; CW 17 ¶s294 & 300.

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