How about another self-help book? Maybe Ten Ways to Improve your Love-life or Seven Essential Tips for Losing Weight? Or Become a Leader with these 10 Important Steps? Or how about Seven Tips on How to Lose Friends and Gain Enemies?
All joking aside, we live in a culture that is obsessed with self-improvement. The ego gets fixated on its various goals, telling itself that ‘if I can just fix this or change that, then I will be happy – or at least happier. Well if not happier, at least have a better love-life, or more money or more power, or more houses, or cars or mistresses – or whatever.
From the ego’s perspective, the focus is always on growth – which is essentially uni-directional. You hope to get more of what you want or know or are familiar with. You want more of who you already are. That is all the ego knows and of course it thinks it is in control. Even evolution is uni-directional growth in which a system gradually becomes more complex as it adapts to new circumstances.
So is transformation any different from the type of growth implied in the self-help discourse? Jung felt that at the core of every psyche is the longing for wholeness. It is this principle that drives the transformative process in every individual. It is the deep-seated impetus towards individuation. If we look at the root meaning of this word, it means the undivided whole.
The ego tries to manage and direct this deep-seated urge by being the stage-manager and director of the various self-improvement projects. Otherwise it would have to submit to the guidance and direction of the Self, or Spirit, and the ego doesn’t want to give up control.
We are all fearful of the unknown, and the ego strives to manage this fear with its own personal agenda, but this has nothing to do with the transformative process. So the ego keeps bumbling along, putting the cart before the horse, creating karma left, right and centre, until it gets the big wake-up call. This can feel like getting hit over the head with a 2 by 4, often repeatedly. (I know I’ve been there.) There is a value in this, however, because it as if the ego finally gets exhausted from trying to control everything, and maybe is prompted to turn towards the Higher Self, or the Divine for guidance.
As a culture, we do not generally value the process of things disintegrating and falling apart. We mostly fear it or consider it a tragedy because we resist moving away from what is known. However, the alchemist of yesteryear saw it differently. Jung became very interested in alchemy in the latter part of his life, because he saw in alchemy a symbol system for the transformative process that paralleled the transformation process of the human soul. The first step in that process is a breaking down of the original structure. The closest analogy we have of this in nature is in the insect world, with those insects that transform from the cocoon stage to the butterfly. When the caterpillar spins its cocoon and rests within it, it doesn’t just grow wings. First it must completely dissolve into a black gooey substance.
When a human being hits the wall and the ego is forced to give up control of the way it was doing its life, the human enters into what has been termed, ‘the dark night of the soul’. In alchemical terms, it is called the nigredo. This is probably the most important, but most painful step, because without it – nothing new can come forth. It is the break-down of who you think you are. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
Life has a way of throwing us off the deep end – but not for malevolent reasons. It is simply to get you to wake up to what is important, and get you to turn and face your higher purpose.The bottom line is that if you are interested in your life being transformed in a deep and meaningful way, you can give up all the self-help. The ego cannot be in charge of the transformative process; only the Self can.
There is nothing wrong with losing weight or learning to manage your anger in a more productive way, but don’t expect that it will free you to engage in your life in a more authentic, joyful way. In other words, all the self-help in the world won’t, by itself, make you happier.
The ultimate goal in alchemical language is the philosopher’s stone. Jung understood that this paralleled the individuation process. There is much to be said on this subject, but I won’t do it here. If you are interested, Jung wrote extensively on the symbolism of alchemy. Probably one of his most accessible texts is in the Collected Works, Vol. 16, The Practice of Psychotherapy, specifically the section on the Psychology of the Transference. Another suggestion: Marie Louise von Franz, a close associate of Jung’s, wrote a book called Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology.
Stefan Hoeller also gives a wonderful series of lectures on Jung and Alchemy which you can access at:
I have lived on the lip of insanity,
Wanting to know reasons,
Knocking on a door
I’ve been knocking from the inside
Another from Rumi spoken by Coleman Barks: