A Jungian Perspective on Death

A Jungian Perspective on Death

This post originally appeared on the Jung Society of Utah blog.

Ironic, but one of the most intimate acts of our body is death.
So beautiful appeared my death—knowing who then I would kiss,
I died a thousand times before I died.

“Die before you die,” said the Prophet Muhammad.
Have wings that feared ever touched the Sun?
I was born when all I once feared—I could love.
~ Rabia Al Basri, Sufi poet

Carl Jung wrote, “When death confronts us, life always seems like a downward flow or like a clock that has been wound up and whose eventual “running down” is taken for granted.”1 In the year that has passed since my father’s death, I’ve experienced this sense of the clock running down. He was 67 years old, 30 years older than me, and the idea that half of my life might be over gave me pause about how I was spending my days. Along these lines, Jung continued:

When an aging person secretly shudders and is even mortally afraid at the thought that his reasonable expectation of life now amounts to only so many years, then we are painfully reminded of certain feelings within our own breast; we look away and turn the conversation to some other topic.1

Of this hesitancy to look at death, poet John O’Donohue wrote, “Though death is the most powerful and ultimate experience in one’s life, our culture goes to great pains to deny its presence…the rhythm of death in life is rarely acknowledged.”2 However, acknowledging, accepting, and even developing a relationship with death can help one to live a fuller, more vibrant life.

Jung suggested that the psyche might have a continued existence beyond death, “that it isn’t entirely confined to space and time…to that extent, the psyche is not submitted to those laws and that means a practical continuation of life, of a sort of psychical existence beyond time and space.”3 However, despite any hints about an afterlife, death remains a mystery. In order to cope with that mystery, Jung wrote that a person “ought to have a myth about death, for reason shows him nothing but the dark pit into which he is descending.”4 Jung viewed death as “an archetype, rich in secret life, which seeks to add itself to our own individual life in order to make it whole.”4 From this perspective, “symbols and images of death may be understood in terms of their significance and meaning for life, while experiences and intimations of life need to be construed as leading towards death.”5 Seen this way, life and death become companions, and equal parts of a complete human existence.

Accepting death as a part of life can help a person to cope with various forms of transition. “Life is an ocean with rising and falling tides. This means death is always implicit in it.”6 From this perspective, all changes in life can be seen as small deaths along the way, and turning toward the element of death that is inherent in all transitions can provide a means of overcoming fear. “To continually transfigure the faces of your own death ensures that, at the end of life, your physical death will be no stranger, robbing you against your will of the life that you have had.”2 Becoming familiar with death as a part of life can transform this archetype from a frightening adversary to a guide who can help one find courage in walking their individual path:

Death is the only wise advisor that we have. Whenever you feel, as you always do, that everything is going wrong and you’re about to be annihilated, turn to your death and ask if that is so. Your death will tell you that you’re wrong; that nothing really matters outside its touch. Your death will tell you, ‘I haven’t touched you yet.’7

The freedom and peace that come from creating a relationship with death can open the way for new possibilities, as well as greater self-expression and authenticity. “Masquerading behind the face of your physical death is the image and presence of your deepest self, which is waiting to embrace and meet you.”2 Released from the fear of death, one is able to live a fuller life and pursue their highest potential. Jungian analyst Erel Shalit spoke of life as being like a candle—the candle will never live out its purpose if it is not lit. “Only a candle you don’t like will never burn out. To live your life fully means that the candle will burn out.”8 Creating a relationship with death can provide the courage needed to light the candle.

Far from being the frightening monster it is often portrayed as in Western culture; the archetype of death can be a friend and a guide. “If you learn not to be afraid of your death, then you realize that you do not need to fear anything else either.”2 Reimagined this way, death becomes a messenger who brings many gifts, including courage, a higher perspective, increased awareness, greater authenticity, and deeper love for ourselves and others. Thus, whether or not the psyche continues to exist after death, we will be able to face death as “a meeting with a life-long friend from the deepest side of [our] own nature,”2 secure in the knowledge that our lives have been well-lived.

Works Cited

  1. Jung, C. G. “The soul and death.” In Feifel, H. (1959). The meaning of death. New York: Blakiston Division, McGraw-Hill.
  2. O’Donohue, J. (2004). Anam ċara: A book of Celtic wisdom. New York: Harper Perennial.
  3. Carl Jung speaks about Death [Video file]. (2007, June 18). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOxlZm2AU4o
  4. Jung, C. G. (1989). Memories, dreams, reflections. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
  5. Samuels, A., Shorter, B., & Plaut, F. (2005). A critical dictionary of Jungian Analysis. New York, NY: Routledge.
  6. van der Leeuw, G. “Immortality.” In Campbell, J. (1954). Papers from the Eranos yearbooks. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  7. Castaneda, C. (1974). Journey to Ixtlan: The lessons of Don Juan. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
  8. “Interview with Dr. Shalit on The Cycle of Life” (2012) http://www.depthinsights.com/radio/ErelShalit-DepthInsights011212.mp4

 

Individuation and the Unlived Life of the Parents

Individuation and the Unlived Life of the Parents

I wrote the following post for the Jung Society of Utah blog.

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”
– C.G. Jung

My dad has always existed for me in the space between “here” and “gone.” He was always around, but only rarely has he been truly present in my life. In recent months this has been literalized as his health has taken a turn for the worst. He’s now in a nursing care facility, spending his most of his days apparently drifting in and out, only occasionally conscious or coherent, no longer who he was.

He graduated from Brigham Young University with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, then worked for the State of Utah for 30 years. It was always clear how much he hated his job. He was miserable and bored, and my mom, my sister, and I seemed to exist only in the shadows of his suffering. When he retired, his health started deteriorating steadily. I feel it has to do with the shadows of unlived potential manifesting as illness.

“The participation mystique, or primitive identity, causes the child to feel the conflicts of the parents and to suffer from them as if they were its own.” – C.G. Jung

I don’t know what my dad wanted to do with his psychology degree, but it occurred to me recently that he could have been an effective therapist. Seven years ago I was on a flight from Cairo to New York City that hit very bad weather. After circling the JFK airport for a tense and miserable hour, the flight was diverted to Dulles. In the midst of a panic attack (though I didn’t realize it at the time), I called my parents’ house and my dad answered. He listened to my story about the hellish flight, being trapped on the plane at Dulles for two hours before being allowed to leave and go through customs, and my fear of having to spend the night alone in the airport. He then told me to breathe, assured me that the airline was required by law to find me a flight back to Salt Lake City, and addressed my other concerns enough that I could function and get through the night. To this day, I’m still grateful for that.

“Nothing influences children more than the silent facts in the background.” – C.G. Jung

All of this played on my mind as I interviewed for the Counseling Psychology program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. On the plane back to Salt Lake City, I read the following in Robert A. Johnson’s book, Owning Your Own Shadow:

“My own father took refuge in invalidism and lived very little of his potential. As a result of this, I feel I have two lives to cope with—my own and the unlived life of my father. This is a severe burden, but it can have creative dimensions if I take on this task consciously. Such things are possible only when we are old and mature enough to know what we are doing—though we do not usually have this kind of wisdom until we reach middle age” (p.35-36).

While I don’t qualify as middle-aged quite yet, my dad is 66, still relatively young in a time and place where people can live to their 90s and beyond. I wonder now what he could still do if circumstances were different. What might he have done earlier in life that would have brought him more joy and meaning? And through my career change, am I indeed taking on my dad’s unlived potential? Does it truly matter?

I don’t have any answers, and at this point, all I can do is focus on finding joy and meaning in my own life. In doing so, I intend to fulfill my own promise and honor myself by living my life to the fullest expression of my authenticity and potential. I want to ensure that no one, especially not me, ever ends up abandoned in my shadows.

“Parental influence only becomes a moral problem in face of conditions which might have been changed by the parents, but were not.” – C.G. Jung

Regardless of whether we have children, perhaps the greatest gift we can give ourselves and those around us is to seek that which truly helps us feel happy, fulfilled and whole, bravely walking the path that leads us to the highest expression of our true selves.