The Spiritual Method

complementation as spiritual writing and painting

Fateful Theme by Olle Bonniér
“Fateful Theme”, Olle Bonniér (1925 –  2016)

Abstract: Spiritual techniques building on the psychological principle of unconscious integration, such as active imagination, are criticized. A one-sided flow into conscious light of unconscious content leads to stagnation and alienation from the inner Self. Light is shed on the current regress of Jungian psychology into esotericism. Complementation is defined as the complementary opposite of integration. It is characterized by a toning down of dominant consciousness. A spiritual technique that employs complementation is presented. Although it deviates from historical methods, it is comparable to the medieval contemplation of inner images. While retaining stillness and avoiding active involvement with fantasy material, focus of inner feeling and sensation is sought. The article discusses methods of dream interpretation.

Keywords: spiritual technique, complementation, spiritual writing, integration, contemplation, active imagination, esoterism, Self, dreams, C. G. Jung.


Modern spiritual techniques, such as active imagination, [1] as well as esoteric techniques employed in Neo-Paganism and New Age, generally belong to an integrative paradigm according to which the unconscious, or the divine, is experienced and assimilated. [2] The divine, whether it is viewed as unconscious archetype or divine spirit, is regarded as a benefaction that is grasped and integrated with personality. The sacrament of “eating the deity” is ubiquitous in comparative history of religion. On the surface, it seems to rhyme with mystical schools of ‘via positiva’ and cataphatic theology. [3] Arguably, this is a misconception since the latter is better defined as a companion discipline to apophatic theology — the path of worldly denial. [4]

An equally common notion is that of giving sacrifice to the deity, that is, to replenish the divine world as reimbursement for the enormous sacrifice made by the gods in providing for humanity. The equivalent of this, in mystical theology, is the ‘via negativa’ following the apophatic discourse. The contemplative makes sacrifice of worldly passions and stops wasting time on trifles. Thus, the worshipper’s earthly life is bequeathed to the divine, corresponding to pagan worshippers’ offering of “spiritual food”. The notion of ‘integration’ in psychology has become overbearing. It ought to be complemented with a notion of ‘complementation’ (cf. Winther, 2013, here). We cannot expect to endlessly harvest the boons of the unconscious. Carl Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz repudiated the spiritual techniques associated with the ‘via negativa’ and spoke mostly of the integration of the unconscious. Yet, it is necessary to follow the example of the ancients, and give sacrifice for the replenishment of the divine. Using modern terminology, it means the complementation of the unconscious.

Psychic integration (assimilation) refers to the analysis of the unconscious whereby unconscious content are comprehended and integrated with personality. It also includes dark aspects of personality being lifted into daylight consciousness, to restrain unconscious autonomy. However, the method of active imagination, which aims at extending the process by recourse to a method of conscious fantasy, has taken integration too far. Instead, a technique associated with complementation should be considered — a method that complements the unconscious on lines of ‘via negativa’. The focus on integration has given rise to a misinterpretation of the spiritual path. It resembles a complex of dependency, also known as a motherly dependency, equal to the mother complex. Since the unconscious has proved incapable of endless provision, a view has surfaced that reinterprets spiritual stagnation as an optimal condition. It comes to expression as idolatrous worship of archetypes. Stagnation is evident when unconscious themes, in dreams and active imagination, recur endlessly. It fosters a form of psychological paganism, the worship of unconscious images, resulting in the alienation of the unconscious Self [6]. This is a misinterpretation of Jungian psychology.

The misinterpretation of Jung

Whereas orthodox Freudians reduce the unconscious to sexual themes, modern Jungians, by the practice of amplification, tend to convert it into thin air. It happens if one focuses on the collective meaning of symbols and neglects their personal significance. M-L von Franz criticises the way in which symbols are treated impersonally, like they were an end in themselves. The method of amplification can be used endlessly, that is, one can always fly off on a tangent and associate water in a dream with the “water of life”, the ‘aqua permanens’, or I Ching sayings. She grants that Mircea Eliade is an accomplished scholar, but criticizes him for his fondness of amplification (cf. von Franz, 1996, pp. 9-15). Robert Aziz says:

As with the Blakean notion of being able “to see a world in a grain of sand,” it is only through seeing and accurately interpreting the particular that we truly are given access to the whole. Never will we access the Reality line by jumping over the particulars of personal psychology; rather, such access will come about only by processing through them. When the critical particulars of personal psychology are jumped over by way of the archetypal, the soul simply ends up traveling in circles, round and round on the merry-go-round of archetypal theme. (Aziz, 2007, p. 66)

Since we are instinctual beings, always seeking gratification, we tend to fall prey to life’s many little distractions. This attitude tends to be applied on the unconscious as well, as if it were a trivial pastime. Dreams and archetypes are viewed as amusing distractions of life, as if they were signposts of success for achievements on the spiritual path. But if we look closer at the dream content, we find that the trivializing attitude is unsupportable. Neither Jung nor von Franz argues that dreams signify “accolades” of archetypal nature. Nor do they argue that dreams are predominantly aesthetical and therefore not worthwhile to study intently. Such ideas derive from Archetypal Psychology and New Age. James Hillman repudiates the notion of dreams as compensatory, containing valuable messages, although he has no empirical grounds for doing so. Of course, he also repudiates science and logical thinking (cf. Hillman, 1996, p. 283).

The notion that dreams are to be viewed as certificates of advancement on the spiritual path, cannot be found in the writings of Jung and von Franz. Such a self-affirming way of interpreting dreams goes against the grain of von Franz’s teachings. Her rule of thumb is that dreams are compensatory, that is, they generally present a message that serves to balance out the conscious standpoint. The idea that dreams are there to give applause to spiritual achievements seems to be a notion that derives from New Age. It negates the compensatory function of the dream. In theory, the objective of the dream message is to challenge consciousness when it flounders.

There is, however, a way in which dreams serve to strengthen the conscious standpoint, especially in cases where the subject already knows something that ought to be negated and removed from personality. Thus, the dream attempts to strengthen the resolve of the conscious personality; a function that is underestimated in Jungian psychology. But it is an implausible notion that the unconscious aims to strengthen a conscious standpoint that is already self-gratificatory, thus keeping the searcher entangled in an illusion. Rather, dreams will push for continued advancement when the subject has dilly-dallied on his path through life, thus reinforcing an aspect of consciousness that has been neglected. The unconscious does not seem to reward personality for making progress. Archetypal dreams do not come as a bonus. Rather, they start to dwindle (cf. Jung, 1972). It is as if the Self gobbles up the gain in the form of libido. Accordingly, when the unconscious is integrated, it will cease to produce dreams on the very same theme. On the other hand, as long as the unconscious content is not comprehended, dreams with synonymous narratives will recur, probably throughout a person’s whole life. The same theme, with some variations, is repeated over and over again. This could mean that progress is not taking place, or that the dreamer should give it even more attention.

The misinterpretation implies that archetypal dreams have come to be viewed as awards for maintaining the stagnant condition, which has alienating consequences for the Self. In dreams, the Self could be depicted as an alien being. For instance, a New Age follower dreamed of an alien fish-creature occupying a flying saucer. The fish symbol speaks of undifferentiated libido. The Self is portrayed as a remote and quite unconscious content — very unhumanlike. This is further emphasized in its guise as an alien from outer space. Its alienation depends on the attitude adopted by consciousness, which resembles that of a “New Age tourist” who views the unconscious as a hobby, an object of pagan worship, rather than focusing on its integration (humanization). In a dream, one must always search for the content which formulates the corrective standpoint. It is often presented as a kind of peripheral event, as if the dream says: “Oh, by the way, there is this little issue also…” In reality, this is the very gist of the dream. So the dream function isn’t generally being nice to the dreamer. Rather, it has a corrective function. A common problem is that people underestimate themselves. In that case the dream will send a message that elevates the dreamer, because this is also a corrective. The dream is pointing at the difficulty, the way in which the dreamer is being wrong-headed.

The synthetic dream function

According to the theory of compensation, the relation between conscious and unconscious depends on a flow of libido, similar to how water flows between communicating vessels. So if the conscious side is deficient in some sense, the water will flow in from the unconscious to make up for that deficiency. But there can be no flow if the water in the vessels are level. So the notion that the unconscious can strengthen the conscious standpoint, although it already prides itself on its success, is difficult to explain from the standpoint of compensation, as water cannot flow upwards.

Poul Bjerre (1933) asserts that dreams are best described as synthetic rather than compensative. Dreams often serve to strengthen the conscious standpoint in a roundabout way. On this view, compensation is better seen as subordinate to the synthetic principle. Dreams are less governed by archetypal energies than the impulse to resolve conflicts and acquire harmony, regardless of the teleological goal of the Self. In Bjerre’s system the individuative demand is toned down, at least when compared with Jungian individuation. ‘Assimilation’ is the autonomous effort of the unconscious to acquire harmony and psychic wholeness, building on experiential contents and life’s possibilities. It is plausible from a biological point of view, since the harmonious individual has better survival value. Comparatively, Jung’s teleological form of psychological individuation is hard to explain in terms of evolution.

Bjerre adopts the view that dreams have a distinct structure; that they go through phases and remain part of nature’s intent, similar to the immune system. The dream function more often uses metaphorical language rather than a symbolic language that transcends consciousness. A metaphorical language is more like a rebus, which can be translated in conscious terms. So, for example, we mustn’t confuse the symbol of the house with the metaphor of the house. The symbol has divine properties. Greek goddess Hestia is the patron deity of home and hearth. From her originates the concept of ‘sanctuary’. It makes sense to me that the dream function more seldom makes use of this deep meaning of ‘house’ and instead presents it as a metaphor. In consequence, we should give more credit to the metaphorical method and delve less into deep symbolic meaning.

The notion of breaking out of an old shell, sometimes (but not always) appropriated in childhood, coincides with M-L von Franz’s analysis of fairytales, in which the old king must step down in favour of his son. It also coincides with Bjerre’s idea of “death and renewal” as central theme in individuation. If personality is become stuck, a renewal must take place. But this means that the old Self is abandoned and what has been achieved is thrown off. Apparently, individuation can mean destruction, in the sense of breaking out of an old shell. It conflicts with Jung’s view of the psyche as a teleological system that is seeking integration. Since the telos of the Self is wholeness, it cannot possibly work toward the destruction of wholeness. Thus, it seems that the notion of psychological integration is inadequate. There is also a destructive force at work, which serves to destroy the old edifice, allowing room for the new. It seems that the notion of overcoming one’s old attachments and inhibitions remains central. Whether or not it is rooted in childhood is unimportant — what matters is taking the decision to throw out the old way of life.

Compensatory dreams serve the underlying synthetic purpose of acquiring harmony. It is exemplified by dreams that seem victorious. If an analysand has a triumphant dream, signifying success, it might serve to compensate a psychological dependency on an analyst, which is a common problem. It’s as if the dream says: “You’re ready! There is no reason to continue analysis, because you have triumphed in your analysis.” Thus, the analysand is convinced that he/she is ready and cancels the therapy and the transferential relation that is become detrimental. The impact of triumphant visions and dreams is that the subject terminates the search for enlightenment, since the symbol signifies that the goal is reached. This occurs among spiritual seekers, too, who often go through much suffering in their search for God. According to the synthetic function, natural earthly life should not be forgotten if the spiritual effort damages personal harmony and wholeness. So the unconscious could produce a dream according to which the dreamer has attained the Holy Grail, or united with the Spirit of the Universe. This would signify the end of the spiritual journey. The unconscious only produced the vision because the journey has become a search after an illusion. What the unconscious really achieves is that the searcher continues with his/her life. It could mean starting a family and rearing children. Whether or not the unconscious supports the spiritual standpoint depends on the synthetic motif. Individuation could go in any direction depending on which movement invokes psychological peace and orderliness.

It is indeed a compensatory phenomenon, since the destructive obsession is discontinued. Yet the underlying motif is synthetic. Such abrupt changes, back to worldly life, are not uncommon among spiritual seekers. It may be argued that a similar phenomenon could occur in the therapeutic setting. The unconscious wants to put an end to the wrestling with archetypal complexes, since it leads nowhere. No spiritual insight will arise from a Jungian therapeutic method that has been debased into an esoteric teaching. It is damaging to individuation to continue with such moonshine. I maintain that this is an esoteric notion, and it has become detrimental to psychology. It is an unscientific idea, i.e., that the dream function may gratify the dreamer for his spiritual success. This notion of ego-gratification smacks of the psychology characteristic of the ‘puer aeternus’. James Hillman (1926–2011), a notable theorist in the U.S., is an advocate of puer psychology (cf. Hillman, 1996). These ideas have poisoned Jungian psychology to the extent that dreams have become incomprehensible to the average Jungian. They are seen as spiritual messages, rather than correcting influences on personal psychology. But this is anti-psychoanalysis. M-L von Franz has demonstrated that the puer aeternus is not only the name of an archetype; it is also the name of a neurosis (cf. von Franz, 2000). Psychology must be founded upon science and logical thinking, but not on airy-fairy archetypes. Otherwise neurosis is the result. Hillman’s school of Archetypal Psychology damages the individuation process with human tragedies as result.

The forest star

Whereas Freudians belittle the unconscious by recourse to reductive analysis, esoteric Jungians alienate the unconscious by viewing it as a spiritual otherworld and its manifestations as spiritual messages, remote from concrete application in personal and earthly existence. Thus, there are two ways of quenching the unconscious: (1) belittlement and (2) alienation. The latter is the modus operandi of the puer aeternus who lives on the little asteroid B612 (cf. Saint-Exupery, 1943). An endless impersonal amplification of symbols serves the purpose of transforming the unconscious into a cloud-cuckoo-land surrounded by a thin atmosphere void of oxygen. As a consequence individuation takes damage and the Self is alienated. The Self must be rescued from the New Age “tourist” syndrome. It defines the wholeness of personality and comprises also the ego. Accordingly, the Self acquires the properties of the subject’s preconceptions and level of cultivation. The Sanskrit sentence ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ says it: “Thou art that!” Jesus, in the Gospel of Thomas, logion 77, relates a sound and down-to-earth Self image:

Jesus said, “I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained.”

“Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

The Self is present in the most inconspicuous material thing. According to the alchemists, the spirit Mercurius can be found in the banal things that are lying at your doorstep. As a young man I had this dream:

Trientalis europaea

“I attended some form of New Age congregation in the middle of the night. Together with other people I entered a flying saucer that threw us about in the air in violent movements. During this experience I became conscious for a while. When I went home from the celebration I felt unmoved by the experience and slightly disappointed. I went through the dark wood and passed a little bridge over a brook. My trouser leg touched a lonely little flower; a Chickweed Wintergreen (Trientalis europaea L., “Skogsstj√§rna”: ‘forest star’). It was Linnaeus’s favourite flower. On being touched, the forest star immediately unfolded its petals, something that made a strong impression on me. This formally insignificant thing felt much more meaningful than the grand New Age congregation.”

It means that collective spirituality has played out its role, and I should commence the search after the lonely forest star. Pagan spirituality represents a sophomoric form of spirit. Yet, since it corresponds to a stage in spiritual growth, it is not necessarily obsolete and useless. It could be argued that this form of spirituality is a stepping-stone to a real life in the spirit, that is, a phase that many a seeker must pass. However, the passing to a higher spiritual level does not signify a collective realization of spiritual truth. Rather, it’s the reverse; it is finding the little forest star that has been forgotten in the dark wood, waiting to be touched.

The true spiritual path means to abandon the trivial and aesthetic view of the unconscious for the stage of ‘mors voluntaria’. It means to spend a long time away from the playful distractions of life. This is the ‘mors mystica’, or the ‘nigredo’, signifying spiritual death and abandonment of worldly engagement. It means to discard the esoteric bias in terms of New Age that confines the searcher to a life in an aquarium, among all the esoteric symbols. Jesus expresses the gist of the Upanishadic phrase ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ when he says that the Self is in simple things. “I am there!” is the same as “Thou art that!”, because it speaks about the presence of the Self. This was the realization of alchemical philosophers, too, when they said that the Mercurius is found in the simplest of things. It means that the spiritual searcher ought to withdraw his/her consciousness from the grand and illustrious energies, which is what occurred in my dream about the forest star, and instead look for the soul-spark among the inconspicuous things. It is necessary to tone down our energetic search after gratification, in whatever form, in order to find the scintilla. In fact, this flower is ubiquitous. As Jesus says, it is present also in a piece of wood. We should pay attention to the modest energies, such as the faint whisper that can be heard in the forest.

Note that this is coincident with notions of worldly denial, in the way of contemplative tradition. The latter has often taken things to the extreme in its search after an “empty consciousness”, as if everything worldly, including categories of mind, was of the devil. But the forest star is really the divine spark that was implanted in matter at the world’s inception. The cataphatic path should be viewed as a companion discipline to the apophatic, along lines of St Thomas Aquinas’s via eminentiae. [5] This has a bearing on functions of empathy and heartfelt feeling. Feeling recognizes the lonely one forgotten in the darkness of the wood. It necessitates a mild focus, and withdrawal from distractions, regardless whether the subject makes creative use of the pen or the paintbrush. It is not the end product that matters, but what is found inside it or under it, as you cleave the wood or lift the stone. The legend of Christopherus (which means Christ-bearer) is about a man who stops pursuing the illustrious spirit, associated with the devil.

Christopherus was a man of giant stature who vowed to serve only the strongest master. He did service for a king; but when the king was shaken at the mention of the devil, Christopherus saw that he wasn’t so strong after all. Eventually he went as far as offering his services to the devil. But when the devil shuddered at the sight of the cross that stood by the wayside, Christopherus decided to abandon him, too. After many years of repentance, and the daily toil of helping people across the river, he one day heard a child’s cry from the wood. He went out to search for it but could not find it. Only when the child cried for the third time he managed to find it. The little child needed help to get across the river.
   But as the child rode on Christopherus’s shoulders it got heavier and heavier, and Christopherus felt as if he carried the whole world on his back. He came close to drowning in the torrent, as his head went under the water. Yet, he continued to struggle, and finally managed to get across. At the other shore the child revealed that he was Christ Pantocrator. The Christchild told Christopherus to plant his staff in the earth, and the next day it carried leaves and bore fruit. Christopherus realized that he had finally found the strongest master.

The scintilla

The scintilla divina (divine spark) or scintillula (little spark), embedded in the material cosmos, appears in Gnostic mythology and in mystical tradition. The spark, symbolically equivalent with the forest star, must be harvested by the seeker. It must be released from its captivity in matter and returned to God as the source of divine light. Alchemists have associated it with the dew, which is gathered in the early-morning hour. So this is a myth of returning to God what belongs to him, but not of acquiring more boons from the divine sphere. It does not allude to integration, but speaks of sacrifice or complementation. The search for the forest star, of which there are plenty, relates to a spiritual method which radically deviates from active imagination and the integration of the unconscious. This view, of course, is remote from Carl Jung’s understanding of the scintillæ, as expounded in Mysterium Coniunctionis (CW 14, 1977). It must be said to his advantage that, unlike Edward F. Edinger’s books, it is not overladen with jungianisms. Jung doesn’t claim to understand these symbols to the full. The Gnostics, on their part, understood the myth much too concretely, a mistake that made them inept for this world. Benjamin Walker says:

According to Epiphanius the Borborians based their teachings on the idea that the divine light-spark exists not only in men and women, but in all living things, vegetables, plants, fruits, cereals, fish, serpents and beasts of every kind. The Borborian gnostic was required to collect these scattered soul-fragments and partake of them as a sacrament, for in this manner the plant or animal soul became absorbed into his own. They believed the gnostic was doing a kindness to the plants and animals, for by collecting their spiritual substance, he would in the end transmit it, along with his own, to the heavenly world. […]
   In the gnostic Gospel of Eve, fragments of which are preserved by Epiphanius, it is related how the voice of a mighty being declared, ‘I am dispersed in all things, and in gathering me you gather yourself’. The Borborians took this to mean not only the soul-stuff in plants and animals, but in semen and menstrual blood as well. (Walker, 1983, p. 129)

Thus, they resolved to eat all kinds of revolting substances, a practice which earned them the name Borborians or ‘filthy ones’ (p. 157). In this self-punitive way they surrendered themselves to God and contributed to the liberation of other creatures to boot. This was their belief, anyway. In a less naïve interpretation, to ‘gather yourself’ means to collect yourself.

According to Gnostic theology, the exercise of free will requires an area for its operation. Accordingly, God withdrew the operation of his will (thelema), an event that resulted in a vacant area (topos) that was to be the natural universe which we inhabit. The process of emptying (kenosis) resulted in certain catastrophic consequences. Where his light was withdrawn, darkness supervened (ibid., p. 37).

Yet it must be remembered that nothing can have existence without God, and even when God is apparently absent, his erstwhile presence has left its permanent impress. The Gospel of Truth speaks of this residual presence of God even after his withdrawal, as the footprint-trace (ichnos) of the Father’s will. Basilides too emphasized the essential presence of God in all circumstances and situations, when he said that the empty place resulting from God’s withdrawal did not ever cease to show traces of the divine brightness. The vacated place retained the ‘flavour’ of the Father, just as a bowl containing sweet-smelling unguent retains the fragrance even after the bowl has been completely emptied.
   No place is therefore quite devoid of the divine flavour, and the empty topos might be spoken of as a mixture of good and evil, light and darkness. It is because of this residue of God’s presence that the demiurge was able to fashion this world. (ibid.)

Jung relates that the scintillæ correspond to the particles of light imprisoned in the dark Physis, whose reconstitution was one of the chief aims of Gnosticism and Manichaeism. The tiny soul-sparks are associated with fishes’ eyes (oculi piscium) from which the shining figure of the filius (son) is created. In alchemy the scintillulæ are put together to form the gold (Sol); in the Gnostic systems the atoms of light are reintegrated (cf. Jung, 1977, pp. 48-56).

Also Meister Eckhart (c. 1260–c. 1327) speaks of the scintilla, the “little soul-spark”. Hippolytos (170–235) says that in the doctrine of the Gnostic Sethians, the darkness “held the brightness and the spark of light in thrall”, and that this “smallest of sparks” was finely mingled in the dark waters below. Heinrich Khunrath (c. 1560–1605) recognizes that the scintilla is the true aqua permanens, eternally living. The “radical moisture” is “animated … by a fiery spark of the World-Soul, for the spirit of the Lord filleth the whole world.” He also speaks of a plurality of sparks: “There are … fiery sparks of the World-Soul, that is of the light of nature, dispersed or scattered at God’s command in and through the fabric of the great world into all fruits of the elements everywhere.” The “fiery sparks of the World-Soul” were already in the chaos, the prima materia, at the beginning of the world (ibid.).

The scintillæ often appear as “golden and silver,” and are found in multiple form in the earth. Jean-Jacques Manget (1652–1742) relates a symbol, ascribed to the “philosopher Malus,” which shows eyes in the stars, in the clouds, in the water and in the earth. The caption above the image says: “This stone is under you, and near you, and above you, and around you.” George Ripley (c.1415–1490) remarks that at the “desiccation of the sea” a substance is left over that “shines like a fish’s eye” (ibid.). Paracelsus (1493–1541) named this light the lumen naturæ. One must open wide the eyes of the soul and the spirit, and observe and discern accurately by means of the inner light. God has lit this light in nature and in our hearts from the beginning (cf. Jung, 1980, p. 322).

Spiritual writing and painting

The scintillæ can be collected by us moderns, by the creative use of the pen or the paintbrush, although not for the aesthetic result. In a kind of unassuming prose poetry, one may return to places where one likes to be and where the presence of the spirit can be felt. Such motifs and feelings are often found in dreams. Suitable terms for this technique are complementative imagination, contemplation, writing, or simply complementation. Prose poetry is defined as neither poetry nor prose but as a hybrid or fusion of the two, characterized by a focus on narrative and a prominent use of metaphor. It originated as a reaction against dependence upon traditional uses of line in verse (cf. Wiki, here).

Such creations won’t qualify as art, for they are inferior from an aesthetic point of view. It is not for publishing. It is merely a spiritual technique of harvesting the divine sparks embedded in the darkness of matter, for the purpose of conveying them back to their origin. The advantage of handwriting is that it keeps the mind focused. It is necessary to attune one’s sensitivity to the faint spiritual voices. These are like delicate fragrances in the summer wind. It can be achieved only if worldly engagements are toned down and distractions are avoided, which includes intellectual efforts, too. The conscious mind mustn’t shine with such a bright light; one’s awareness must be tempered. This also includes political, social, and economical awareness. It doesn’t mean to forget the learning that one has acquired, but the conscious passion for the world must be toned down. This is the great difficulty of this method. It is the real meaning of the saying in Matthew 18:3: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Such a method rhymes with the contemplative teaching of St John of the Cross, but rather more with his teaching on meditation (meditatio) than with his contemplative praxis, which is extreme in that it aims at removing any content of consciousness. Such a state needn’t be striven for, but will occur spontaneously. If emptiness ensues it is a welcome side-effect, as it acclimatizes the soul to a clean state void of delights and distractions. It enhances the seeker’s sensitivity to the many-coloured divine sparks hidden in nature. There is an immense multitude of forest stars to pluck, many of them similar. As soon as they are touched by the conscious mind, they open their petals and give off a spiritual fragrance. There is no gain in this for the ego. There is no resultant expansion and strengthening of consciousness; but the seeker has found a narrow path to travel on, and a sense of spiritual meaning in life. This all rhymes with traditional Christian notions of piety and godly love. It can be likened to playing a musical instrument. Although it doesn’t seem like much, it is really a primeval instrument of huge dimensions that is resounding through the universe, as portrayed in a dream of mine.


There is a backside to psychological integration, in the way the conscious ego assumes control, transforming instinctual and archetypal nature into a function of consciousness. It means that the content loses its lifeblood. Evidently, something valuable, namely autonomous life, is wiped out in the process. Humankind has a hubristic tendency. Neoplatonic, Buddhist, and Christian contemplatives wanted to fly up to God by relinquishing all the mental categories that bind us to the world. Psychoanalysts and philosophers, on the other hand, think that they can achieve the totality by means of integration, along lines of Hegel and the continual manifestation of the World Spirit. The one party aims to fly up to God, like Icarus. The other party aims to pull Him down to earthly reality.

Spiritual life is not a unidirectional road, except perhaps with certain extreme individuals. On this view, integration and contemplation are like two traffic lanes in spiritual life. In earthly reality, following an inner call, we must be prepared to travel in either direction. The wind blows where it wishes. Complementation introduces another direction of travel into modern unidirectional Western psychology and philosophy. Regardless of how many books we read and how much wisdom is acquired through the assimilation of the unconscious, it does not lead to wholeness or holiness.

It would mean that a roundly meaningful life can never be accomplished. But neither can the ideal of emptiness be attained. We cannot penetrate the dark cloud in which God hides. In fact, if we venture into the desert, we will discover something sublime; something akin to a lonely forest star — a sense of ‘meaning’ that burgeons. On the other hand, if we attempt to achieve wholeness of life, we will find a dark abyss of emptiness. It is only through our obsessiveness that opposites acquire such archetypal dimensions. In fact, meaningfulness and emptiness are never that far apart. We cannot by a dialectical process go beyond the opposites, in terms of Nietzsche and Hegel. We must accept that life happens in between them.

Carl Jung introduces the notion “confrontation with the unconscious”. The unconscious takes the appearance of another person (= anima/animus) that the conscious ego confers with and wrestles with. However, this a fabrication of imagination. Although creative imagination is often rewarding, it does not give us a correct picture, because the unconscious is not a separate ego. Nor can one enter the unconscious with one’s luminous ego, because it would really mean descending into unconsciousness, i.e., the obliteration of the ego. So Jung’s conception would be a contradiction in terms if it weren’t for the concept of active imagination. The “confrontation with the unconscious” really means producing fantasies, along lines of Swedenborg’s spirit-seeing.

So it is not the question of going down into unconsciousness. Jung repudiates the method of Christian mystics, because it would pose a danger to the ego. For Jung, a continuous flow of libido back into the unconscious is out of the question. In ‘Critique of Individuation’ (2014, here) I discuss active imagination as “ego maintenance”. I put forth that this is a form of hoax, like the playing of a game, something akin to a personal religious ritual. Yet, this is not always something bad. It’s just that if libido is flowing only in one direction, the source will eventually dry up. Jungians should know this, that in the long run Jung’s project cannot work. The remedy is to allow libido to flow back in the other direction. And that’s why we need a scientific term for the reversive process, namely ‘complementation’. We require a conceptual counterpart of ‘integration’ (assimilation).

The Japanese have a concept of Wabi-sabi (Wiki, here), which implicates “emptiness or absence of self-nature” as well as modesty, intimacy, asymmetry, imperfection, incompleteness, transience, and austerity. I associate it with complementation; dethronement of the ego. It comes to expression in the tea ceremony, Zen gardening, archery, Haiku poetry, etc. The way in which complementation is practiced finds personal expression.

Jung says that modern art, such as Picasso’s paintings, can hardly be understood as they give expression to schizophrenic fragmentation (Jung, 1966). However, from the standpoint of complementation, it is maybe so that Picasso makes of painting a sacrificial ritual. He dismembers his motifs like the Celtic priest dismembered the sacrificial victim. The only artistic products that Jung find valuable are those which serve the purpose of conscious integration, i.e. pictures that can be understood. That’s why he likes his patients’ naive images much better. The conclusion would be that artistic expression in the way of Picasso and Braque corresponds to Wabi-sabi and complementation. Jung is wrong in thinking that it depicts neurotic or psychotic dissociation. Personally, I see Georges Braque (1882–1963) as the prophet of complementation. He led a reclusive life. His paintings cannot be understood at all but are gifts to God. They put the viewer in the very same frame of mind that Wabi-sabi attempts to accomplish.

Pitcher and newspaper (The Greek Vase). Georges Braque (1928)
“Pitcher and newspaper (The Greek Vase)”. Georges Braque (1928)

The spiritual ideal of simpleness

It’s like the whole collective is in frantic pursuit of worldly illusions and people are running about in circles. There’s nothing “out there” that can satisfy the soul to the core. People who live the “high life” soon come to realize this; and that’s why they, in desperation, lose themselves in alcohol and cocaine abuse. Yet, the pursuit of wisdom means the acquirement of a possession, too. Although it leads personality on the right path, intellectual search can become obsessive. That’s why mystical tradition says that, at some point, we must tone down also the pursuit of wisdom. The famous Chan monk Rinzai (9th century) took up the path of scholarship and studied ardently for many years. Then, one day, he declared that his books were “only medicines for salvation and displays of opinion,” and threw them all away (cf. Besserman & Steger, 1991, p. 29). The pursuit of knowledge and intellectual understanding is a form of eagerness which keeps feeding the ego. It seems that we are torn between a vertical, spiritual, urge and a horizontal urge of worldly eagerness.

On the spiritual path we must strive to become “simple” by toning down expansive consciousness. It seems that this can only be achieved by a focusing of consciousness, so that it is kept busy with something. We can gather the “spiritual food” because it is perceptible to the mind’s eye. But then we are thrown back into the world, both by the ego and our passionate instincts. At this point, we must have something with which to feed the beast inside us, because our brains and our bodies want to have their fill. My brain loves to think and to create, and my body likes to go for long walks. In this way simpleness is maintained. The notion of a complete worldly abandonment, as in different forms of quietism, is just out of bonds.

‘Gnothi seauton’ (“Know thyself”) is very much about disidentification. There is not much left of the ego when we have cut away everything that we are not. Bjerre put emphasis on notions such as ‘negation’ and ‘distancing’ when he discusses individuation of personality. We must sometimes negate parts of ourselves which we earlier thought belonged to our nature. This allows room for a more genuine side of ourselves. Realizing what you are not is equally much a conscious realization as realizing what you are. To ‘know thyself’ is to become ‘simple’ — it really seems so! What illustrates this is a dream of mine, in which there occurred an “earth quake” in the flower pot where my dragon tree stands. The tree was felled. Out crept a tortoise — an uncomplicated and round creature. It required simple and nutrient-poor food: oats milk. The tortoise represents the new ideal of Self. The dragon tree, which grew uncontrollably in all directions, was now gone. The tortoise manifests the ideal of “roundness and simpleness”. This ideal is accomplished when a multitude of branches are cut off from personality.

Maybe the unconscious could provide for us interminably; but it won’t! If we view the unconscious as an undrainable Horn of Plenty, then it is become a Mother Goddess. If we think of the unconscious as a benign and ceaseless provider, then we have begun developing a mother complex. We are likely to become pueri aeterni (cf. Winther, 2015, here). This illusion must cease. There’s an inherent fault in Jungian psychology inductive to puer psychology. It explains why it has degenerated into Archetypal Psychology which elevates the puer aeternus. This fault constitutes of the tenet that says: individuation is the continual integration of the unconscious that leads to the realization of the Self. But this is equal to defining the unconscious as a Mother Goddess. Psychic integration is among Jungians viewed as a process whereby the “whole man” is created, signifying the ideal person who also allows room for unconscious spontaneity and benign instinctuality. Thus, he is equally much unconscious and conscious, as if the Self would be able to sustain all opposites, side by side, in the form of a complexio oppositorum. I contest this picture of integration. This is not what it leads to.

Integration is assimilation of the unconscious. We see what happened to Narcissus. Before, he was a happy and swift hunter in the forest. When he became self-aware by the pond, he expired and turned into a white flower, symbolic of a content of consciousness. Integration is equal to reducing the autonomy of the unconscious. A rule of thumb is that this process is of the good whereas to remain unconscious is bad. But it is so only up to a point in time, when we must allow the flow to go in the other direction. Thereafter the conscious ego must keep itself busy with its one-eyed enterprise, not to disturb the unconscious process. Hard-working artists and scientists are often surprisingly unconscious, wholly embroiled in their little world of aesthetic forms or mathematical equations. The physicist Wolfgang Pauli was such a one-eyed person, I believe, and that’s why Jung found that his unconscious was ripe with archaic material. His unconscious had great autonomy, because his conscious side was very compact and small. It contained not much more than mathematical equations.

That’s why I recommend the praxis which the Christian mystics called ‘meditatio’, that is, focusing one’s mind on a theme. (Today we would call this contemplation; the terms are reversed.) I am skeptical of meditation that strives to achieve the empty mind (what the Christian mystics, such as John of the Cross, called contemplation). One can only look at the enormous sufferings that mystics went through. It can’t be right. Bankei, the Zen monk, became so weakened by his asceticism that he contracted tuberculosis. He resigned himself to dying where he sat. Suddenly he spat a huge ball of bloody phlegm against the wall opposite, at which moment he attained satori (cf. Besserman & Steger, 1991, p. 92). Later, he told his students not to follow his example, because there are better ways to enlightenment.

The themes that one ought to focus on, I believe, are those which are emotionally dire yet imbued with the divine, and which pull the soul into the dark night. Melancholia is to be sought after. When the ego has grown strong, when the artifex has seen through the world, he repudiates every silly thing that he is attached to and enters nigredo. John of the Cross says that God hides in the dark night of the soul. It is a shattering experience, and this is probably why the ego must first acquire wisdom and a passion of consciousness. Personality must be strong enough to endure the darkness of God.

If we look at spiritual tradition, such as the monastic, we find that the monks were devoted to hard and monotonous work. They did not spend all day doing prayer, singing hymns, or studying Scripture. It was regarded essential to establish a routine of work that keeps consciousness from expanding too much. The ideal was to diminish oneself; to humble oneself before God. The ego must be reduced in dimension, and the disciple must not strive to become a polymath — an expert on everything. Simpleness is the ideal of mystical tradition. It runs counter to the path prescribed by Jungian psychology. After all, we are supposed to establish a nebulous cloud of consciousness that expands in all directions. It is good to start with, but then the lucent cloud must be compressed into a little shining star. I had a youthful dream on this theme:

There was once a kingdom where a lilliputian yet divine man lived with his people in great happiness. To everyone’s dismay, he one day had to leave his people. His light could be seen moving erratically over the ocean, like a will-o’-the-wisp, until he finally disappeared. The people fell into a gloom. In this distant epoch the sun was merely a diffusely shining cloud. But after a long time the sun cloud sent a long tube down to the ocean. The tube transported the god-man up to the sun cloud. As a consequence of the union, the cloud contracted and became the small but blazingly bright sun.

So here we see the god-man Mercurius leaving the conscious world and returning to God. It is portrayed as a very benign event. It is the opposite of the incarnation of the divine, and it coincides with the contraction of the source of light. In Christian theology, God is simple. Thus, we must also become simple. Certain people know that they could, should they want to, devote themselves to the same little passion all day long, like a monomaniac painter. In such manner, they could, like cloistered monks, become one-sided and simple. Such a change of heart is aptly symbolized by the contraction of the sun cloud in my dream. This is a step that the spiritual pilgrim must take, at some point.

Interestingly, my dream coincides with the Osiris myth. Osiris was king over the golden age of Egypt. He was killed and dismembered by Seth, who spread his bodily parts all over Egypt’s land. The rule of Seth followed. However, Osiris’s body was reassembled, and he was restored as a ruler in the heavenly kingdom beyond the polar star. This change coincided with the demise of Seth’s rulership and the rise of the sun-god Horus, son of Osiris. It seems that archetypal evolutions in the beyond govern also the individuation of personality.


In postmodern belief, the world shall again be imbued with meaning, leading to a “resacralization of the world”. In fact, since the Fall of Man, life has always been suffering and toil, and so shall it remain, until the Last Day. Thus sayeth St Augustine. Only gods and heroes lead symbolic lives; not humans. It is rewarding to read about their adventures, as it gives us another perspective. It transports us out of the ego world into the Otherworld. The divine spirit is indeed present in nature, and one can take part of it, little by little. In the mean time, one may listen to the messages of dreams.

It is necessary, at some point, to acquire a simple and constant passion of consciousness. In this way, the ego may remain plain and small, instead of being like a nebulous cloud. This works as a reduction, as a penance, and as an offering to God. This idea rhymes with the apophatic schools of mysticism. The ego has a marvelous capacity of focusing its energy on something and produce work. For instance, one may continue like a robot to paint abstract art. For once, the ego isn’t focused on “eating”. It is neither incorporating knowledge nor any new experiences in whatever form. Instead, it is producing something. What’s in it for the ego, then? The answer is “nothing”, and that’s the point. This is godly activity, because it benefits the divine. It’s like an offering to God. To curtail the voracious ego and to turn its energy into a focused “laser beam”, means not only that we allow room for the divine; it also provides nourishment.

© Mats Winther, 2013-2019.


1. Active imagination. In analytical psychology, a term introduced by Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) in the Tavistock lectures, delivered in London in 1935, to denote a process of allowing fantasies to run free, as if dreaming with open eyes. He had expounded the concept (though not the terminology) earlier (Collected Works, 6, paragraphs 712-14, 723n). (Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, 2003)
   As developed by Carl Jung between 1913 and 1916, active imagination is a meditation technique whereby the contents of one’s unconscious are translated into images, narrative or personified as separate entities. It can serve as a bridge between the conscious ‘ego’ and the unconscious and includes working with dreams and the creative self via imagination or fantasy. Jung linked active imagination with the processes of alchemy in that both strive for oneness and inter-relatedness from a set of fragmented and dissociated parts. This process ultimately resulted in the Red Book… (Wikipedia, here)

2. Individuation n. The act or process of giving individuality to someone or something. In analytical psychology it is the process occurring by degrees over the lifespan whereby an individual achieves wholeness through the integration of consciousness and the collective unconscious, and it is symbolized by the mandala. In a key passage, Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) described it as follows: ‘Individuation means becoming a single, homogeneous being, and, in so far as “individuality” embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one’s own self. We could therefore translate individuation as “coming to self-hood” or “self-actualization”’ (Collected Works, 7, paragraph 266). Jung borrowed the word from the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), but it has been traced back to 16th-century alchemy […] [From Latin individuare to single out, from in- into + dividuus divisible, from dividere to divide]. (Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, 2003)
   According to Jungian psychology, the goal of psychological integration is the development of the individual personality, termed individuation (cf. Wikipedia, here).

3. Cataphatic (sometimes spelled kataphatic) theology is the expressing of God or the divine through positive terminology (cf. Wikipedia, here).
   [Traditional divine attributes] take cataphatic or ‘positive’ form, including designations of God as omnipotent, omniscient, wise, just, and merciful […] [Perhaps] the greatest proponent of apophatic theology, the pseudonymous writer Dionysius the Areopagite, argued that cataphatic theology constitutes an important first step in Christian God talk, although it is one that must ultimately be left behind by the dedicated theologian, who, in contemplating the ineffable Godhead, must move from the presumption of knowing (cataphatic theology) to the mystery of unknowing (apophatic theology) […] The task of cataphatic theology is therefore preparatory. (The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, 2011)

4. Apophatic theology — also known as negative theology, via negativa or via negationis (Latin for “negative way” or “by way of denial”) — is a theology that attempts to describe God, the Divine Good, by negation; to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God (cf. Wikipedia, here).
   [The] negative way of apophasis is less a method to be used to derive theological propositions than a discipline to help guide the believer’s apprehension of God as a supremely personal (and not simply cognitive) mystery […] God’s personal transcendence of the world as its Creator rules out cosmologies in which creatures are related to God by way of a hierarchically ordered sequence, with intellectual beings nearest to God at the top and inert matter languishing far from God at the bottom. Instead, God’s radical difference from all that is not God means that this kind of emanationist ontology is ruled out from the start: as Creator, God is equally transcendent over every creature, but this does not translate into any sort of ‘distance’; on the contrary, it allows God to be intimately present to creation… (The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, 2011)

5. [Thomas Aquinas] employed a classic mode of combining cataphatic and apophatic dimensions of theology in what is generally called the ‘way of eminence’ (via eminentiae). According to this approach, the presence of perfections in creatures implies that they are also present in the Creator as their cause (the cataphatic dimension)… (The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, 2011).
   The perfections manifested by creatures exist in God in a supereminent manner, incommensurable with their mode of being in creatures. Yet, we can conceive and express these perfections by means of analogy.

6. Self. The archetype of wholeness and the regulating center of the psyche; a transpersonal power that transcends the ego […] The self is not only the centre, but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the centre of consciousness. (Sharp, 1991)

“The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.” (Luke 8:14)

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)


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