Carving out your Path

Living between realms: Embodying


Second in series of three articles

Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.

– Carl G. Jung, from Psychology and Religion: West and East


In the first article, we saw that what Carl Jung viewed as the path of becoming an authentic individual, involves much more than changing our philosophies, beliefs or correcting our ‘errors of thought’. Deep and lasting transformation of our being involves processes that shape us at the core. Such change has to be imprinted on a body level; it has to be embodied to be lasting. We saw that for this to occur, requires that we ‘stay close to death’ while we are alive; that we embrace death-as-process as an enduring companion on our journey through life. And that ‘living between realms’ is how we activate death-as-agent-of-transformation in our lives.

Dedicating our lives to this continual process of transformation is what James Hillman called ‘soul-making.’ It is the essence of the opus contra naturam of renaissance alchemy. And is core to cultivating the kind of awareness that Buddhists see as ‘resting in awareness beyond self’.


‘Authentic suffering opens us and shapes us into ever more authentic individuals. Whereas inauthentic suffering serves no such transformation, but coagulates into layer upon layer of defensiveness and delusion, and roots itself in our bodies.’

Alchemy of suffering

This ‘living between the realms,’ this ‘betweenness,’ is deeply distressing to the ego. Precisely because it activates death as a perennial process inside us. And death always involves suffering. Most of us rooted in western culture instinctively feel suffering to be ‘evil’, and our jerk-response is to avoid it or fix it. Which reveals just how deeply embodied we still are in institutional Christian values, despite claiming not to be.

Betweenness necessitates embracing the presence of both good and evil in our reality, precisely because their interplay is required for the processes of transformation so central to soul-making. This requires from us to accept the presence of suffering and learning to work with it efficaciously. And doing this is most difficult precisely because we are so unconsciously embodied in prejudices that reject suffering.

Jung’s quote above contains phenomenal wisdom! It implies all neuroses are symptoms of our unwillingness to carry our allotted portion of suffering. One implication is that the suffering which naturally arises from betweenness, is fundamentally different from the suffering that arises from avoiding betweenness. Authentic suffering opens us and shapes us into ever more authentic individuals. Whereas inauthentic suffering serves no such transformation, but coagulates into layer upon layer of defensiveness and delusion, and roots itself in our bodies. We become embodied in resistances, beliefs and habits that insulate us from being fully open and awake to existence.

These layers need to be peeled away if we are to open. This peeling away is the essence of surrender. But before we can do that, we have to know that the layers are there. Often we are blind to them like fish not noticing the water they swim in. Even when we know that something is ‘smelling off’ we probably still don't ‘see’ our inauthentic suffering distinct from our authentic suffering. So, paradoxically, this peeling away has to happen before we even know this difference. We have to peel them away while we don't yet quite know why. Like an addict who has never really experienced what it feels like to be ‘clean,’ who cannot imagine a worthwhile life without using. A leap of faith, a sacrifice, is required. That is, faith in those momentary glimpses of the calls from the depths of our being.

Carrying our own cross

Soul suffers our transformations. Learning to differentiate our sufferings, and then, learning to hold the tensions of our authentic suffering, is an important phase of soul-making. Here, Buddhist ideas are of profound value. They contain wisdom distilled from two-and-a-half thousand years of intimately understanding suffering. They teach us to identify and peel away those attitudes, beliefs and habits that reinforce inauthentic suffering. But significantly, the moment we do this, awakes our authentic suffering. So initially, doing this involves holding the tensions of acting against our resistances. Resistances that emanate from our inauthentic selves. This ‘acting against’ forms part of alchemy’s ‘contra naturam’.

Our culture is still deeply rooted in the values of two millennia of Christianity. Especially the literal-minded quality of those values reverberate from our beings, whether we individually regard ourselves as Christian or not. This is most evident in how readily we moralise and how quickly we cast blame around. Whether externally, in our fantasies, at others or ourselves. All moralising is literalising. True ethics reverberate from beyond rules. Ultimately, this permeation by Christian culture is rooted in the expectation that ‘someone else should carry our cross for us.’

We feel entitled not to suffer. So that all suffering is seen as ‘caused by something we or others do wrong.’ But the truth is, ‘Jesus dying for us,’ is no longer adequate. In fact, this image enslaves us to remain, psychologically, entitled children. If we are to live more fulfilled lives, we have to ‘grow up,’ which requires that we carry our own cross. The true meaning of Christ’s death, of his ‘descent to hell,’ of his death-and-rebirth, is precisely that authentic transformation requires surrender to death and suffering. Even to the most unfair death imaginable. For death, like nature, has little consideration for fairness.

Avoiding our destiny

Truth is, most people are constantly involved in elaborate strategies of escaping their authentic suffering. It is striking how people often waste away their lives under the self-deception that inauthentic suffering is ‘not as bad’ as authentic suffering. As if that is what it is about. Completely lacking awareness of the rich journey they are missing out on. Two classic ways of avoiding our authentic suffering, which also means avoiding our destiny of being in this world, this world between matter and spirit, is to split off into only the physical realm, or, only the spiritual realm.

In other words, either we become materialists, or we spiritualise. Because when we do this, we feel safe. We feel like we have something solid to hold onto. But the truth is, we then no longer hold the tensions of betweenness. And become disconnected from the creative essence at the heart of living meaningfully.

Materialism and spiritualising

Materialism is when we have little experience of and little connection to, the realness of the presence of existence beyond what our senses perceive, beyond the surface-matter of life. Or when we overtly dismiss ‘the realms beyond’ to serve and feed our ‘sense of self.’ All of which inevitably leads to our lives and who we feel ourselves to be, being defined by the world of matter and our society-of-others. Of course, spirituality itself often becomes ‘the thing’ through which we define ourselves. Which means our spirituality has little relationship to actual experience of, or openness to, the realms beyond matter. We are ‘spiritual’ for the sense of self we gain, for the ‘image’ we imagine others carry of us. Which is therefore, in truth, a form of materialism.

On the other hand, the most prevalent way in which we spiritualise is when we are ‘so in our heads’ that we really have no connection to our feelings and sensations. We think we know what we're feeling and what it means. We have very clever analyses ready to explain what our experiences are about. But really, we are not in touch with what we feel. And yet, we are usually totally blind to this fact. We are so stuck in thought that we're unable to be with what we feel beyond our thoughts about it. We are not embodied at all, but float constantly ‘out there,’ in our minds. We make our way through this world, like those cartoons consisting only of talking heads, with ever wittier speech-bubbles. Completely lacking body.

We also spiritualise when we use spiritual and other techniques to bypass ‘where we are embodied at’ now. Even though we may have had many ‘enlightenment experiences’ or ‘direct experiences of God,’ truth is we still retain our deep psychological wounds. Without exception. In other words, we remain embodied in them: at the critical moment, no matter how spiritually connected we are, we falter and act or ‘be’ from our wounded condition. From our inauthentic selves. It takes lifetimes of dedicated work to embody spiritual awareness. Truthful spiritual teachers always insist on the necessity for embodiment, which overtly involves engaging and working with our psychological wounds.

So, we spiritualise when we use techniques like meditation, yoga, tai chi, diets and countless others, to open into an experience of the spiritual realms while bypassing the work required for embodiment. The line we need to hold in our spiritual practice in order not to do this, is very tenuous. In fact, the very tenuousness of treading that line contributes considerably to the authentic tensions we hold when we surrender into betweenness. It is indeed relatively easy to ‘rest in awareness’ if we ignore the realm of matter or arrange our lives so we're ‘not too exposed’ to the demands of others and the world. Or if we split off, ignore and repress the haunting echoes from our wounded condition. In these ways it is quite easy to open into our ‘pure’ connection to spirit. While ‘transcending’ matter and the world.

If we're fortunate, we may ‘catch’ some signs calling our attention to the fact that we're spiritualising. For example, shortly after a session of deep meditation we encounter another person or some worldly problem and find ourselves highly reactive or irritated. Our ‘pureness’ represses our psychological woundedness, which then has no option but to come out more forcefully. Unfortunately, usually we are so ‘spiritually trained’ that we then further repress that irritation, e.g. through controlling our behaviour. Or any other form of rigid straight-jacketing that represses any engagement with the underlying issues. Eventually, our inner wounds may have no option but to return in the form of serious illnesses, so-called ‘accidents’, devastating relationship crises, or some other form of severe adversity.

Cultures of spiritualisation have been the source of tremendous harm. To mention but one symptomatic example: the levels of abuse present at many schools of spirituality. The implication really is that those ‘spiritual masters’ are not psychologically embodied enough to cope with the realities of where they've arrived at. This is not to deny the profundity of their spiritual insight or influence. But this immaturity is clearly evident in how they tend to abuse the power they've attained. Of which sexual abuse is but one form. It is alarming how this toxicity is often institutionally condoned, even if only tacitly, and culturally rationalised by entire schools and their members.

Freedom to choose

Learning to open to our authentic suffering, to betweenness as a path of embodying our ‘resting in awareness beyond self’, fundamentally involves choice. This is not to say that choice is constantly instrumental. In fact, we often find ourselves in cycles where we have no choice but to surrender to the cycle unfolding in its own good time. Until the window of opportunity opens, when we must choose before it closes again. Then, not choosing is to choose. Carl Jung said that all our decisions amount to this one choice: either we surrender to our destiny, or we don't. Which path will I follow? Whom or what does my life serve?

So, every choice is between living meaningfully, or living in ways that erode our sense that life actually matters. This erosion often happens very gradually, so it's difficult to notice and easily rationalised or minimised. But let’s not fool ourselves: meaninglessness is seductive! Nothing matters. Life can be all play and following our impulsive pleasures. Responsibilities are as minimal as possible. As long as we take care of the basic structures of our life, we may do whatever we want the rest of the time. We are free to remain children. No necessity to grow up. Many actually choose this ‘easy life.’ In fact, achieving it is often perceived as ‘success’ or ‘happiness’. And often, only at the end of such a life do we awake to the full impact of having lived so much life meaninglessly.

Of course, there are many who do not choose any ‘path’ at all. Some emphatically state, ‘there is no such thing as choice.’ In effect, they choose a ‘path of no choice.’ Because at some deeper level their sense of self is invested in the belief that there is no such thing as choice. Perhaps they tell themselves doing this is rooted in trust, or even faith: that ‘universe will take them wherever it wills.’ That they are surrendering their egotistical will by ‘going with the flow.’ But often this belief is rooted in their egotistical pursuit of ‘the easy life.’ At the same time, it is true that many more simply drift through life without making any real choices (in the sense of ‘destiny’), with as little as possible consideration of any of these things.

The attitude, belief or habit of not honouring the validity and significance of choice, or to overtly choose ‘the easy life,’ can be to spiritualise, to be materialistic, or both. Spiritualising here denies the limitations involved in finite existence, of being a human being in this world, amongst others. That we have desires and longings regarding our material existence. Materialism here denies the significance of those limitations. That these limitations matter to the soul, that we are affected by them, that our dance with them shapes who we are. And that at the core of our beings soul requires of us to live creatively. Which implies that the kind of dance with limitations that serves only ‘practical functionality’ or ‘achievement of our goals,’ is so externally focussed that it facilitates zero shaping of our beings. Which is not the kind of dance with limitations that matters to the soul.

The holy grail

So, these ‘paths’ involve denial of the calls and wake-up calls emanating from our depths. In fact, they often are lived in denial of the very existence of ‘the unconscious.’ In other words, denying the fact that every day we live constantly in relationship to forces inside us and beyond the visible realms, which we do not control, which affect who we are, and which are real. In fact, denial is central here. Which always reveals the unwillingness to look honestly at oneself. And without this honesty, there can be no true spirituality.

In contrast, living meaningfully means what we do matters. We feel the weight of choice. If we ‘miss the mark,’ it hurts deeply, more than we realise. This hurt is authentic suffering and so we need to remain awake to it. Then it becomes our invaluable guide. As we learn to see through our inauthentic suffering, choice becomes instrumental. We are no longer free to passively flow ‘wherever the stream takes us.’ Nor to hide behind the mythology of being a passive victim. Nor to endlessly flow in the mythology of limitless potential.

Perceval eventually discovered that the key to the Holy Grail, to the transformation required to render our world fruitful and alive again, was to ask the question: ‘Whom does the grail serve?’ Choice is often painful, for it demands that we listen more deeply to, and respect, the realms beyond ‘self’. Opening to which, requires hard work. And because choice always involves us in loss: by choosing this, we lose that. This loss is the essence of limitation. It renders this life real. It wakes us up to the fact that how we live actually matters. It opens us to our heart's feelings. This path is also called ‘a path of heart’. Living a life that serves soul is a radical departure from living a life that serves ego.

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