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Climbing the Inner Mountain

146I recently watched the movie Everest which told the story of a group of mountaineers from various walks of life coming together with the same goal, to climb Mount Everest. Without spoiling the end of the movie, let’s suffice it to say that climbing Mount Everest is a perilous endeavor, one that over the years has cost many people their lives.

One of the characters in the movie asked the question that I kept asking myself as I watched these people struggle with the climate, the altitude, the physical pain, the exhaustion, and the ultimate risk of the journey…Why?! The response by several of the climber’s in the movie when this question was asked was “Because it’s there!” One climber stated that she had climbed 6 other related peaks and this was the 7th. I assume that these can be common responses by people who seek out risky experiences in life. These answers however, did not provide me with the depth I was hoping to get, perhaps illustrating the climbers’ own unconsciousness regarding the need that they were attempting to meet with the undertaking.

One of the climber’s in the movie played by Josh Brolin did however reflect more insightfully that he often felt depressed during his normal life with his family, that by contrast, he felt alive when he was tackling a mountain. Although he proved more insightful regarding his motivation for risking life and limb, he did not come to a realization that could have saved him from hardship, both the risk involved in his sense of aliveness as well as the deadened reality of his everyday life, the place where he spent most of his time.

As I watched I realized that the movie was speaking to me about a couple of fundamental Jungian theories; the first was the concept of the opposites, in this case Life and Death. The second was the dangers inherent in the concretization of the symbolic, in this case climbing a literal mountain as opposed to an inner mountain. For the purpose of illustration, we could see Josh Brolin’s character and possibly others, as potentially having missed an opportunity to hold the tension of the opposites to allow for the transcendent function to manifest.

The theory of the opposites speaks to the idea that we human beings tend to want to organize our perceptions into nice neat and thereby safe categories. The risk of this especially when presented with times of crisis where the opposites are most apparent, is to identify with one side or the other. If this is done, then we have shut out the true and deeper reality. What is being called for is to hold the tension of the opposites to allow for the transcendent function to manifest.

The truth of the opposites is that they are illusory. Life and Death are fundamentally dependent on one another. Death creates new life. On a literal level our bodies provide the fertilizer, the fecund soil for new life. On a symbolic level, the old ways, attitudes and situations must die in order for the newness of life to have the chance to be birthed into being. The understanding of the continuum of Life and Death as one reality presents the transcendent function that can allow a person freedom from illusion and an expanded and often eventually joyful view of the world that has a richness that cannot be found in either opposite as an isolated concept.

This is not necessarily the manic high that can be offered by the identification with an opposite. The climbers’ high found by staring Death in the face in order to feel alive is a powerful drug in the face of a powerful depression, but the temperate path offered by withstanding the tension and climbing the inner mountain rather than the outer mountain is often what is really being called for.

The mountain is a beautiful symbol of the journey and process of individuation, a symbol of the Self. It stirs the mythic imagination; its summit is after all the abode of the Gods. The summit’s panorama provides the vantage point from which all seems visible, knowable. No wonder it draws people to it. In Jungian work taking symbolic material, for example images from dreams and working with them in conscious life has power. When undertaken consciously, spending time in nature, climbing a mountain even, can open doors of healing and can facilitate the process of making unconscious contents, conscious. This can propel the psyche forward in powerful ways. The key word however here is “conscious.” When the actions are unconscious, then there is a danger of concretizing the symbolic.

A symbol represents a meaning that is hidden. A mountain can be considered to be a symbol of the Self. It’s appearance however typically comes with other symbols, for example in a dream that gives information to the dreamer about things perhaps that she/he might need to do in order to further their own process of individuation. In keeping with our mountain theme, I had the following “big dream” several years ago:

I was being led upwards in a mountain stream by a shaman. It was not necessary to move our limbs in order to swim but rather we seemed to be almost flying through the water. The voice of the shaman said to me “You too can take people on this journey.”

Now if I had concretized the symbolism of this dream, perhaps today I would be leading mountain river swimming expeditions dressed as a Native shaman. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon. This dream however was telling me about my vocation as a psychotherapist. The imagery symbolized my task to guide and journey with people through the contents of the personal and collective unconscious (symbolized by the river) on the upward journey of individuation (symbolized by the mountain), working toward wholeness. The shaman image was used as an expression of divine wisdom that I respect and was more intensely studying at the time that I had the dream. In unpacking this dream, I searched for and came to understand the symbolic message of the dream, every detail providing vital information.

I won’t tell you the end of the movie, but I will repeat what we already have established when talking about climbing Mount Everest. Some people survive, some people die. Climbing the inner mountain can also be a perilous journey with the highs and lows involved in encountering the archetypes and doing the hard work involved in the ascent. It is however the expedition that provides the opportunity to strive towards the Gods by striving toward the God within, the God of both the Light and the Dark, of Life and Death—powerful stuff without the frostbite.


Jungian Therapy: Trusting the Process

“…we are committed to the dream process as it is guided by the Self quite independent of our personal hopes.”(p.70-71) Marion Woodman, The Ravaged Bridegroom.

People often seek out therapy because of a particular problem or crisis that has arisen. Confronted with some difficulty, there is usually a degree of suffering for which the individual feels unequipped to cope. They present in therapy saying they need to fix something: their relationship, marriage, a bad work situation, communication problems. Maybe it is their grief, or their child, or their grief over their child. Sometimes they believe that they have narrowed it down and even diagnosed themselves “I have social phobia” or “I suffer from depression”. Regardless of the reason for approaching therapy, usually there is a request to get things done, solved, today (and preferably), yesterday.

This quick-fix fixation can be traced to many sources. In part, we as therapists play into it by developing our specialties our niches and our expertise. There is, of course, a richness implied and lived within a specialization, but the shadow side, can lead to compartmentalization. This promotes or identifies with the idea of being able to isolate a problem, work on and fix it in isolation of the comprehensive totality of the psyche and individual. A Jungian approach, in my way of thinking, precludes the luxury of a specialty, unless of course you consider the Jungian approach in and of itself as the specialty, which I certainly do. Jungian therapists can in fact almost be more accurately described as linguists, and detectives, attuned to interpreting and decoding the language of the psyche. The expectations related to idiosyncratic problems with idiosyncratic solutions can in part also be traced to trends in psychotherapy driven by research for ‘best practice’ (read also cost effective), those limited, short-term, therapies that target a specific problem. Like a mechanic, we are often expected to diagnose the problem of the day, get in there with our wrench, or blow torch or whatever tool has been designated as the best tool for the job and get the ol’ jalopy back to being road worthy.

Many a depth oriented therapist cringes inwardly at expectant individuals who arrive to spend good money in order to be fixed quickly, efficiently, cost effectively and ideally, painlessly. To be provided with formulas and step by step instructions similar to the ones that arrive with their toddlers toys on Christmas morning. Connect part A with part B until you hear a click and voila! Ce’est fini.
Before I digress into countless metaphors though, let’s return to the ol’ jalopy. Here is my guilty admission: Whenever I take my car in for a service, a bumper to bumper look over, inevitably there is a long list of things that the mechanic has found on his or her search to fix that ONE problem that I, or sometimes my car’s computer malfunction light indicator, identified as needing fixing. I often say to the mechanic “tell me the top three things that if I don’t let you do today, will result in my car blowing up in the next month or so. Let’s do the rest later.”

Many people would (rightfully) argue that this is not the best way to get the most mileage out of your vehicle; that you are potentially setting yourself up for more expensive repairs down the road. Now if we take this same approach to our psyche then the true costs really do outweigh the short term benefits. Time and money are also factors for a person’s desire to get their problems fixed quickly. Who wants to endure what might seem to be protracted suffering? Who wants to spend what can seem to be lots of money on therapy? Who wants to open a Pandora’s Box into god only knows what?

Certainly when we turn our attention to the unconscious, a problem that is happening with an individual will often be making headline news in the contents of the unconscious, for example, dreams. However, often what are being presented are the pieces of a puzzle that will require time and attention. Additionally, the “problem” could be presented as something that neither the therapist nor the individual had considered. There can be instructions for the person engaging in therapy to be sure, including writing down dreams, engaging in active imagination, spending time with the body and in nature, as well as instructions that arise directly from the individuals unconscious. These types of instructions can often strike the novice as nebulous, whimsical and well, not very…active.
The irony being of course, that being an active participant in a Jungian process is a time commitment that involves often grueling work. This work also opens vistas and rewards that cannot often be found in 5-8 sessions of cognitive restructuring, deep breathing training, or education about the fight or flight response. To be sure, these are all valid and useful techniques, however in my experience these are often simply tools that might be helpful depending on the individual. Often a more intense process is being called for. One that is custom made for the individual.

The opening quote by Marion Woodman aptly summarizes and reminds us that the best way to “get results” is to turn the process over to the unconscious. This requires a certain amount of surrender and trust on both the part of the therapist and the individual in therapy. There is a lot of pressure on both to be ego driven; to get things done efficiently, logically and painlessly. Giving over to the unconscious may seem paradoxically simplistic, as though there is not enough “Doingness” going on. It often takes a leap of faith and an intuitive sense of the importance of the work and method to go along with this, at times, deceptively nebulous work; work that takes direction from the land of dreams, myths and fairy tales. It takes patience to understand that this work truly is the rock to build a solid foundation for a house that can withstand the huffs and puffs of the big bad world. Or, to stick with the ol’ jalopy metaphor, to keep a car running optimally in order to last for the long haul, to get us over the bumps and though the mountain passes along the journey.

Woodman, M. (1990). The Ravaged Bridegroom. Toronto, Ontario: Inner City Books.


The Journey

 By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
This poem by Nobel Prize winning poet Mary Oliver is a wonderful metaphor for the journey of transformation. She speaks about the bravery inherent in leaving behind an old way of being in the world. Viewed through a Jungian lens this poem can easily be talking about the process of individuation.



The voices tugging at the ankles can be seen as the voice of the ego, giving bad advice about how to live our lives and coming from a limited, material or collective perspective that values conformity. The voices could also indeed belong to others in our life who we maybe have outgrown or are needing to leave behind because we sense a pull to be different or make some important changes that are incompatible with the way we were and some of the people in our lives. The process of individuation, of making conscious unconscious elements of the personality in the service of the Self in order to become more whole and authentic a person, causes an internal shift to take place. This shift often triggers an inevitable external shift of environment, circumstances and people in our life.
The imagery of the house being shaken and threatened with destruction can also be representing the old psychological place where the individual is ‘living,’ ie., ways of thinking about life. This psychological house most usually indeed needs to be torn down and rebuilt, or at least left behind as occurs in this poem.

Often the individuation process feels threatening to the person experiencing it. There can often be a feeling of lacking or losing control as indeed one, to a certain extent, surrenders control and known reality for the unknown and for what emerges from the unconscious. These elements often have a foreign feeling by virtue of their unconscious nature.

This is where the archetypes begin to appear in dreams or fantasies, most commonly starting with the shadow. The shadow is the repressed aspects of the personality. Both positive and negative traits are found within it. Confronting and integrating the shadow is often an initial and fundamental task of the individuation process, to take back our negative traits and tendencies that we often project onto others and to rescue the parts of ourselves that we have banished due to often false beliefs about their inferiority or irrelevance.

Other archetypes will also begin to appear such as the anima or animus, the wise old man or old woman, the trickster etc. These figures each represent aspects of the personality common to all people throughout history, although their appearance, expression and messages will be unique and tailored to the individual.

Similar to Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s Stages of Grief not being linear, the appearance of the archetypes is not linear. We are never really done with our shadow work (sorry if this is a great disappointment) similarly we are never fully individuated. This is a life-long process with varying degrees of success. There are typically great leaps that can occur within the context of a relatively brief amount of time however, and a person can arrive at a place where the work can feel more like maintenance of progress. A more individuated person often has a palpable sense of self possession, is creative and embraces challenges and opportunities in life. Not necessarily successful in our Western definition of money, power and influence, these individuals nonetheless embody the true definition of success as defined by individuation. They have confronted and accepted the unsavory aspects of themselves, dealt with maladaptive tendencies and patterns, learned to recognize and act on synchronicities and are typically engaged in life with a sense of vitality that comes from being and doing what you are uniquely here on this earth to be and do. Even for people who have done a lot of individuation work however, inevitably life comes in and provides fresh challenges and the unfathomable depths of the unconscious are there to provide fresh grist for the mill of the individual’s development. Far from lamenting this, we can view this as the potential to delve ever deeper into Self-mastery. But more about the archetype of the Self later.

The part of the poem referencing the concept of “it was already late enough” can correspond to the fact that the stirrings of the soul calling us to individuate can often begin around mid-life and there can be a feeling of being behind in some way or needing to reinvent ourselves. This urge however can take place to varying extents at different times in our lives not strictly at midlife. Any transition or significant life event can create the need and opportunity for radical change. Symptoms related to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, etc can all arise as a way of calling our attentions to the need for change. Because we so often resist change, for some people these symptoms can worsen or persist. Regardless of a person’s chronological age, the feeling of being late or a sense of urgency sometimes born out of a crisis can accompany or herald the individuation process.
doorThe “wildness” of the night again corresponds to the sense of crisis and attendant qualities of the unknown, uncharted territory being embarked upon. Here the poem takes on the quality of dangerous excitement. The barriers in the road are natural elements, stones, branches and the like. The barriers to the individuation process are more often than not internal barriers that we erect ourselves or that have already been present for a long time, whether conscious or unconscious. These barriers on the road of our individual journey can be the ego position, fear of the unknown, fear of change and failure. What is important to remember is that these barriers are natural and as such overcoming them can be seen as a part of the process that everyone must work at.

As these barriers are overcome and the depths of the unconscious are confronted and plumbed, elements of the treasure within, the Self can be glimpsed and encountered with more frequency. The stars that “burn through the clouds” can be the archetypes of the wise old man or woman, or an encounter with the Self. Regardless, these experiences often resonate as “big dreams.” This term captures the healing, teleological, hopeful aspects of the individuation process.

and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own,


The above quote highlights the new voice, the voice of the Self, the voice of the more individuated personality. The Self is defined as the goal of the individuation process. This is the totality of the individual that includes and goes beyond the individual ego. It takes into account the infinite and the concept of the cosmic connection of all things, the ego and the spiritual aspects. As one works their process, they begin to be able to discern the Self from the Ego which is not as simple as it may sound. As Jung has said, the individuation process is always a defeat for the ego. As such, we often struggle and deceive ourselves into believing that an ego drive that must be overcome is in fact a part of our individuation process. Luckily, the unconscious will intervene time and again if necessary, until the accurate message is received. This does however require diligent work on the part of the individual. This can also be where the assistance of the neutral third (the therapist) can be beneficial to help “burn through the clouds” so to speak.

The end result as promised by the poem is the saving of the life of the individual. And as the sometimes maddening therapeutic adage goes “The only person you can change is yourself.” Rather than bemoan this however, we benefit from realizing that this change of the self that represents the saving of our life via its transformation, truly is all that is necessary, and if we can do it to whatever extent possible with effort, diligence, humility and a good dose of humor and most of all a sense of adventure, it is indeed a life work to be proud of.


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