Jung on the Enantiodromia: Part II: A Surprising Example

For anyone acquainted with religious phenomenology it is an open secret that although physical and spiritual passion are deadly enemies, they are nevertheless brothers-in-arms, for which reason it often needs the merest touch to convert the one into the other. Both are real, and together they form a pair of opposites, which is one of the most fruitful sources of psychic energy.

                                                                                    C.G. Jung (1954)[1]

…practical confusion of sex and spirit… is inevitably encountered by anyone who embarks upon an  intentional contemplative journey. This has to do with the fact that genital orgasmic experience and spiritual unitive experience are so deeply similar that often one cannot be distinguished from the other. … people who are in touch with spiritual passion often find themselves vulnerable to frantic physical expressions of that passion with other human beings…. Spiritual passion and erotic passion are so similar that people often find themselves using one as a substitute for the other….

                                                                                    Gerald May (1982)[2]


            In Part I of this essay I defined the enantiodromia and gave some examples of this psychological law that Jung found so powerful. If you haven’t read Part I, it is archived on this blog site. In Part II we take up one example that has generally elicited surprised or puzzlement from many of the students at the Jungian Center. This example is Jung’s designation of spirituality and sensuality/sexuality as paired opposites susceptible to enantiodromic conversion. You might wonder “What’s the surprise? Of course spirituality and sensuality are opposites, as opposite as any two aspects of living can be!” My students have never been surprised at my suggesting they are opposites. What surprises them is learning that Jung thought of these as a pair, existing along a continuum.

            In Part I we noted that pairs of opposites share a quality. We identified temporal continua, as in the pairs “early/late” and “day/night;” spatial continua, in “above/below,” “inside/outside,” directional continua like “east/west,” and evaluative continua, like “costly/cheap,” etc. Common to all enantiodromic pairs is some shared feature or quality. It is this shared link or continuum that permits the conversion when an extreme one-sidedness is reached.

            Perhaps you too, the reader, are wondering about the continuum here: What could possibly be the shared quality between spirituality and sexuality, spirit and body? Living, as we do, “… in a culture that has come virtually to the worship of genital sexuality,”[3] with an almost complete focus on materialism (and a concomitant ignoring or denigrating of things spiritual), it is really hard for us to perceive how spirituality and sensuality might be paired.[4]

            Jung, however, was an acute observer of the psyche, as well as a student of religious phenomenology, and so he recognized that spirit and sex are both highly charged instinctual energies in the psyche. He spoke of the pairing of sex and spirit repeatedly:

the physical and spiritual are a pair of opposites[5]

“… these opposites [the physical and spiritual] exist together in the psyche and psychology must recognize this fact. ‘Psychic’ means physical and spiritual.”[6]

“Sexuality does not exclude spirituality nor spirituality sexuality,…”[7]

“… body and spirit…”[8]

            Jung recognized that, as a pair sex and spirit are “antagonists,” and also peers:

“… the spirit senses in sexuality a counterpart equal and indeed akin to itself. …Where would the spirit be if it had no peer among the instincts to oppose it? It would be nothing but an empty form….”[9]

            Jung also knew (perhaps from personal experience?) that the enantiodromic conversion from sex to spirit or spirit to sex can be very fast:

            … it is an open secret that although physical and spiritual passion are deadly enemies, they are nevertheless brothers-in-arms, for which reason it often needs the merest touch to convert the one into the other. Both are real, and together they form a pair of opposites, which is one of the most fruitful sources of psychic energy.[10]

The rapidity of this shift is due to the “psychic one-sidedness [that] is typical of the normal man of today,”[11] i.e. the extreme sensuality and “worship” our culture gives to sex, in such practices as “hooking up,” “sexting,” Internet porn etc. American—and perhaps global—culture is fixated on sex and sensual pleasures almost to the total exclusion of spiritual concerns. The result? a very one-sided situation.

            Jung is not the only psychiatrist to recognize the pairing of spirituality and sexuality. Gerald May has also written of this connection in Will and Spirit, a study of “contemplative psychology.” In chapter 7 he identifies the link between these in terms slightly different from Jung:

            The notion of energy-transmutation allows us to understand how sexuality and spirituality are related at a level far more deep than can be ascertained even by their striking symbolic and experiential similarities. From the standpoint of human contemplative experience, sexual and spiritual phenomena do indeed seem to originate from the common energy source of all experience—the basic life-force that we have chosen to call spirit. Spirit, then, comprises all energy and its manifestations at the most fundamental level and in the purest form. Sexuality, as we experience it, is constituted of all those expressions of spirit that are directed toward creating.[12]

Jung agrees that both spirituality and sexuality are creative:

            For just as the spirit would press sexuality, like every other instinct, into its service, so sexuality has an ancient claim upon the spirit, which it once—in procreation, pregnancy, birth, and childhood—contained within itself, and whose passion the spirit can never dispense with in its creations.[13]

Both spirituality and sexuality are powerful, instinctual, creative energies within us and they often show up in tandem, as Gerald May notes.

            From years of his own contemplative practice as well as his experience working with people on the contemplative spiritual journey, Gerald May came to recognize that a spiritual awakening often is accompanied by increased sexual energy. He offers an explanation, along with a warning:

            Spiritual growth—the growth of appreciation of meaning, purpose, belonging, and loving in life–requires the opening and freeing of spirit and therefore of sexuality. But as with everything else a balanced middle ground must be found. … This is an especially difficult problem for people who have led lives of considerable sexual repression and then find themselves opening to increased passion in the course of their spiritual practice. … people can spend months or years displacing           their spiritual longing onto interpersonal sexuality… when a person begins to evolve greater liberation of sexuality as a consequence of spiritual growth, or when spiritual awakening occurs in the context of interpersonal loving, one often feels caught as to what to do, how to express the tremendous surge of loving, living energy that has so dramatically come into awareness. The answer is certainly not to be found in channeling all one’s spiritual energy into sexuality. Time and again throughout history human experience has shown that this is bound to result in confusion and despair. But neither, do I think, is the answer to be found in attempting to channel all one’s sexuality into spiritual expression. …[14]

            The key to handling such situations—and all the pairs of opposites—is balance: holding the tension of opposites. This is as essential for the collective as it is for the individual. But, as I noted above, on the collective level, our culture is by no means balanced in terms of the spirit-sex polarity. What might this suggest for our future?

            In Part I we noted Heraclitus’ prediction that when a marked one-sidedness had developed there would be a “running” to the opposite pole. With our culture so focused on sex and sensuality—perhaps “obsessed with” sex is not too extreme—according to the principle of the enantiodromia, we are likely to see at some point a countertendency toward spirit. Perhaps this conversion might show up as a metanoia, or change of mind, away from porn, “sexting,” casual sex, materialism, the vaunting of greed as a virtue,  toward a deeper appreciation of the intangibles in life—things like psyche, wisdom, dream work, the inner life, purpose, meaning, creativity and trust in the Self.

            What it might take to get us to make this shift and how another major enantiodromic pairing might influence our current reality is the subject of Part III of this essay.




Edwards, Tilden (1980), Spiritual Friend: Reclaiming the Gift of Spiritual Direction. New York: Paulist Press.

Ehrman, Bart (1993), The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture. New York: Oxford University Press.

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

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

________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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

May, Gerald (1982), Will and Spirit:A Contemplative Psychology. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Pagels, Elaine (1975), The Gnostic Paul: Exegesis of the Pauline Letters. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.



[1]Collected Works 8, ¶414. As has been the convention in these blog essays, Collected Works will hereafter be abbreviated CW.

[2] May (1982), 149 and 154.

[3] Edwards (1980), 109.

[4] Our difficulty in this regard may be due in part to the influence of Gnosticism on St. Paul and other early Christian advocates, which left later Christianity with a highly ambivalent attitude toward sex, the physical body and matter in general. Gnosticism denigrated the material plane, encouraged chastity and had a dualistic theology with a “demiurge” responsible for creating the world of matter. For more on the Gnostic elements in Paul’s letters, see Erhman (1993), 151, 154, 177 notes 150 and 162. Elaine Pagels has written extensively on the Gnosticism in Paul; see Pagels (1975). For some of the verses that suggest Paul’s Gnosticism, see I Cor. 2:6; 4:1;6:12-20; 7:8;8:1;10:23;13:12-21;15:34,42-54; 2 Cor. 4:3-6,18;5:1-4;11:6; and 12:2. It seems Gnostic influence was particularly strong in the early church in Corinth.

[5] CW 12, ¶436.

[6]CW 13, ¶76, note 2.

[7] CW 14, ¶634.

[8] Ibid., ¶655.

[9] CW 8, ¶107.

[10] Ibid., ¶414.

[11] Ibid., ¶408.

[12] May (1982), 189-190.

[13] CW 8, ¶107.

[14] May (1982), 194-5 and 196-7.