On the insularism of depth psychology

By Matthew Bennett; Copyright 2000

Metaphors are dangerous.  Metaphors are not to be trifled with.  A single metaphor can give birth to love.-Milan Kundera

“Runes and charms are very practical formulae designed to produce definite results, such as getting a cow out of a bog," T.S Eliot writes.  When I first read this line, steeped in Jungian theory at the time (in my teens), I rejected it out of hand because I didn’t like the idea that “magic” should be practical, that it should be put to coarse and vulgar purposes. I preferred to distinguish between what my good friend Leigh McCloskey calls the difference between the “real” and the “actual.”  Or, as Don Quixote puts it, “Facts are the enemy of truth.”  I daresay that all of us in this conversation find a lot of sympathy with that argument, and we are all responding from an instinct to honor the “real” over the “actual.” For the same reason, I prefer fiction to non-fiction: nothing that happened in The Lord of the Rings was “actual,” but I find the story a lot more “real” than a history textbook, because such fiction (especially well written fantasy fiction) is redolent and radiant with archetypal meaning.  Like many of us, I prefer my meaning in pure form, not bent and misshapen to fit the rules and regulations that prevail with evidence-based scientific inquiry and randomized control trials. “The world is too much with us,” writes Wordsworth, “Late and soon.”

byss_d-a-freher-in-works-of-j-behmen-law-edition-1764-public-domain-imageHowever…..now I have adopted a gentler, and perhaps sadder, but certainly broader view.  Now, a lot of life and clinical experience later, I see Eliot’s point. The world and its material demands, its corporeal ethic… demands much of us.  Some things you have to get right.  You have to file your income tax return on time, you have to accumulate enough CEU’s to renew your license to continue doing psychotherapy; sometimes you can’t turn right on red.  Maybe this ethic came to me after years of working in psychiatric hospitals with the seriously mentally ill, which so often brought home the consequences of living entirely within the archetypal sphere with no tethers to this present world.  We are embodied, tethered entities in this world, and we have a responsibility to it.  We are here to cohere.  Our task is to translate the pure, ineffable transcendent realities as transplanar, pandimensional spiritual beings into something with a name, gender, political party affiliation, and social security number.  We have to be able to stand in line at the DMV, and to suffer other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune spawned by this Kafkaesque world of the ten thousand things.


Because the world around us so effortlessly devalues the truly psychological or psychoid (to say nothing of the spiritual), it’s easy to respond with the equal and opposite mistake, to eschew the demands of the contextual world.  I no longer agree that we have to choose one over the other, because I think being in the world, but not of it, is the hero’s calling.  We have to do both.  As healers, as psychotherapists, as teachers, especially as administrators, we cannot withdraw into an autistic world of Manichaeism, presuming that the world is inherently evil, and to contend with the coarse realities of the “actual” is to somehow contaminate the spirit.  On the contrary, I think a willingness to contend with this world on its own terms sanctifies the human spirit, makes it more real, and not less.  Now I have concluded that parsing “natural science” from “human science” is a false dichotomy that does injury to both.  This false dichotomy is perhaps the highest example of Ken Wilber’s so-called pre/trans fallacy…to define the terms of one layer of reality by the layers of another layer. “Once these two conceptually and developmentally distinct realms of experience are theoretically confused, one tends either to elevate personal events to transpersonal status or to reduce transpersonal events to personal status,” Wilber writes.  Although it does not seem fashionable to point this out, Jung himself insisted that the goal of psychological development was successful adult adjustment to the world and its realities (resolution of neurosis). 


astronomy-fantasy-taut-bruno-1880-1938-281x300Allow me this quote from chapter 9 of Modern Man in Search of a Soul: “We do not profess a psychology shaped to the academic taste, or seek explanations that have no bearing on life. What we want is a practical psychology which yields approvable results — one which helps us to explain things in a way that is justified by the outcome for the patient. In practical psychotherapy we strive to fit people for life, and we are not free to set up theories which do not concern our patients or which may even injure them… Whether energy is God, or God is energy, concerns me very little, for how, in any case, can I know such things? But to give appropriate psychological explanations — this I must be able to do.”


Is light a particle, or is it a wave?  Even physicists ended up un-asking this question.  Light is a wave on one level, a particle on another.  To me, that’s the key: layers.  I just completed a book about this, and I’ve talked to some of you about it.  It’s called Return to Freedom and Dignity (a poke at BF Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity).  In my book I argue that the human psyche is layered, ranging from the immutable realm of archetypal resonance to the concrete and thing-bound layer of cognitive schemas and political opinions.  I call these layers harmonics, after music theory, in order to suggest that they represent different “vibrations” of reality, which together can result in something truly symphonic.


Among depth psychologists, we have differences of opinion, for example, about diagnosis.  Many well-meaning thinkers among us deplore the idea of diagnosis in the first place, because it forces categorization on the dynamic and ineffable realm of soul.  I oppose this world-view for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that such perspectives discourage mastery of the art of clinical conceptualization, further isolating transpersonal psychology from the clinical mainstream, and virtually assuring the insulation of the latter from the former.  Depth psychology cannot afford to become recursive and insulated.  We must translate it.  Its message is too vital to risk its loss.