By Bud Harris Ph.D. and Massimilla Harris Ph.D.
“Does our essence live on after death?” was a compelling question asked during the Asheville Jung Center’s webinar on “Re-visioning the Dead, Alive in the Afterlife” with Jungian analysts, Murray Stein and John Hill. “Is there an afterlife?” and “How should we face death?” are questions that touch some of the deepest fears and longings in our heart. At some level we all wonder what is this dream we call life, where is it going and does it matter? Jung thought that facing these questions was key to our quest for wholeness when in Memories, Dreams, Reflections (p. 302) he states, “A man should be able to say he has done his best to form a conception of life after death, or to create some image of it—even if he must confess his failure. Not to have done so is a vital loss. For the question that is posed to him is the age-old heritage of humanity: an archetype, rich in secret life, which seeks to add itself to our own individual life in order to make it whole.” Jung goes on to say: “Reason sets the boundaries far too narrowly for us, and would have us accept only the known – and that too with limitations – and live in a known framework, just as if we were sure how far life actually extends.”
The webinar’s provocative discussion generated a lively discussion between my wife and I as we sat with a glass of wine, later in the evening. We soon found, to our surprise, that talking about death became enlivening, as it led us into a more interesting discussion of life. We would like to share some of these thoughts with you.
We began our conversation by asking ourselves what questions about death and the afterlife mean to how we are living today. By delving into the meaning behind Jung’s description of “…an archetype, rich in secret life,” we were prompted to more deeply inquire: how does seeking an understanding of death and the afterlife enrich the individuation process and contribute to making our lives more whole. We also realized this kind of in-depth discussion gives us an opportunity to think about individuation and what our feeling of wholeness is from a slightly different perspective than usual.
When we talk about death seriously the first thing that comes up is our fear of death. Our fear leads to denial and an inability to form a perspective on the afterlife. Fear and denial rigidify the defensive stance of our egos and diminishes or inhibits their ability to face the transformative cycles through which we grow, the life-death-rebirth processes that are a necessary part of our individuation process. When denied and repressed our fear of death lurks in the depths of our psyche like a great white shark and its presence is ultimately reflected in our fear of becoming fully alive. This primitive devouring presence of danger can become reflected in the fears we harbor about our own necessary transformations and a future defined by the Self, rather than our values, goals, desires.
One of the main questions then becomes how does individuation, the dream of a life that fulfills its unique potentials, both help us and require us to forge a perspective on death and the afterlife. Our religious heritages are closely connected to death and they tell us in their own ways that death should inform life and how we live in this life will affect how we live in the afterlife. For these ideas to be reflected throughout history and, in some form, in almost every religion, makes them archetypal. That is why Jung thought it was critical to our wholeness to consider them. Jung knew that our ideas about death and the afterlife can either inform or cripple how we live, can limit us to the bounds of our intellects, or open us to the inspiring and healing powers of our emotions and the expanses of our mythopoetic capacities. We have an inherent longing to come up with our own conclusions about these mysteries. Our same religious history, Jung thought, reflects an additional longing, that is often buried so deep that we may not even be aware of it. This longing is to have our lives connected to something greater than ourselves, something infinite, so we can embody something essential to insure that our life matters.
Let us not forget that in Jungian psychology our inherent needs reflect powerful instinctual energies that call for psychological channels to contain and direct them. Jung likened the flow of instinctual energy to a river and the archetype as the deep channel in which the water of life has flowed for years, creating a riverbed (C.W. 10, para. 395) that directs this energy.
I was dropped into the vastest of these mysteries as a child, when my mother died. Her death left me feeling abandoned in a hostile world and shattered my childhood image of God. Sadly the Protestant church of my childhood had forsaken the religious symbols and rituals that could have carried me along its archetypal riverbeds through those “deep water” emotions of shock, pain, grief, sorrow…and helped me heal, and find life anew.
Throughout history we have had rituals for preparing for death and the afterlife. But, as Massimilla and I often see in our practices, many of us have outgrown our religious containers when they fail to transform along with us and our needs. All too often, they no longer give us the mythic or symbolic riverbeds to carry us through these crucial human experiences. As a result of these failures, we find that Jung is right. We must deal with these needs as part of our efforts to become whole.
Massimilla and I find that our individuation process, the guiding focus of our lives, challenges us to begin facing death in two special ways. The first one is when we fully realize that we grow psychologically and spiritually by the process of transformation – the cycle of life, death, and rebirth – that is facilitated by our emotional healing and growing consciousness. As we are continuing to transform, we are facing another symbolic death, an encounter with the Self, the Transcendent, the Divine within us. This encounter which necessitates a death and a rebirth of our ego also leads us toward thoughts of the Beyond.
Jungian psychology is frequently so challenging to understand that we often have to remind ourselves that individuation is not an intellectual activity. It is based upon our ability to engage in life actively, reflect on our experiences, listen to our unconscious, and develop the emotional capacities that enable us to fully engage in life. The events in the individuation process are there to push us beyond the ways our histories, families and culture have defined us. In this process, we must be willing to face ourselves, confront the complexes in our shadow, transform their archetypal cores and thereby transform our lives. Here, again, is the transformative cycle, the symbolic life – death – rebirth process. As we live this process, we must continually help old parts of us die, and be willing to live in the betwixt and between state of not knowing who we fully are, until the new parts of our personality have emerged. In this way, if we fully pursue individuation, we will consciously and intentionally encounter death as part of an archetypal format of growth that is an integral part of life.
So this journey through self-knowledge initiates the possibility for us to have an encounter with the Self. This second aspect of the individuation process takes us into a more profound experience of transformation and death in life. The Self is the natural source of life energy and vitality within us. It is also the inherent drive within us to live a life with meaning, to seek, accept and realize our unique potentials and our totality…and to be connected to something larger than ourselves. If this creative force within us stays frustrated too long, then its appearance often catches us unaware and is a formidable experience. When this happens, we may find our hopes, dreams, ambitions and the way we want our lives to be – blocked. We may feel like life is drying up or we may be having to contend with a major illness or other predicament that we can see no way out of. Our visions of the future and our hopes may fail us. In a sense, encountering the Self is like dying. Jung articulates it like this: “ The experience of the Self is always like a defeat for the ego.” (C. W. 14, para. 778 ) Clearly, this experience is life-stopping, and well beyond having just “a bad day”. It is when the structures that support who we are – that give value and meaning to our lives and hope for our futures – have disappeared. We may feel like a shipwrecked Odysseus tossed naked, alone and exhausted onto a lonely beach; or a humiliated Inanna stripped of all that was valuable to her and then left hanging deserted and alone in the darkness of the underworld.
It has been very helpful to us to have some idea of the archetypal pattern we are going through when we experience these events. Edward Edinger in Encounter with the Self (p. 9) explains that if we know the archetypal process, if we can accept our defeat and persevere in the work of individuation, then we will meet the Self, “…the ‘Immortal One’ who wounds and heals, who casts down and raises up, who makes small and makes large – in a word, the One who makes us whole.” This experience is, in his words, “ a crucifixion of the ego.” Our sense of I-dentity dies and is reborn smaller, and paradoxically, stronger. As our awareness of the Self and the part it has played in our lives grows, it becomes very comforting to know that we are no longer alone within ourselves and life. Edinger goes on to say, “The vicissitudes of life take on new and enlarged meaning. Dreams, fantasies, illness, accident and coincidence become messages from the unseen Partner with whom we share our lives.” Edinger, here, assures us that if we persevere through this psychological death, there will be a very interesting afterlife.
Massimilla and I have found that realizing the Self is a powerful experience of “living through death” which significantly changes our attitudes toward life, eternity, and the Beyond. As we have come to know the presence of the Self and learned to relate to it and accept it as the guiding spirit in our lives, this entire process has brought comfort to the way we feel about approaching death. In religious terms, it is like saying: “God Is with us.”
Death, the end of this life, should continually serve as a reminder that we need to face our “deaths” in this present life. Facing them carries us into the archetypal patterns of death, “…rich in secret life” which will open us to the support of our unconscious as we approach the end of our lives. Whenever we have to face a complex or an Encounter with the Self, it is important not to take the easy way out – by simply attempting to rebuild our lives and return to normal – without trying with all of our strength to understand the deep dimensions of what we have encountered or of what has happened to us. Jung refers to this taking the easy way out as “the regressive restoration of the persona”. (C. W. 17, para. 254) We’ve heard countless stories, like the one about the successful man who had a heart attack while on the golf course, and whose life was barely saved because a passer-by had a cell phone. In the hospital, he vowed to change his life. A few weeks later though, he was back at work and back on the golf course, having forgotten his vow.
In other words, we must go forward by “dying into life,” facing the deaths needed in our individuation in order to fulfill and live the broader potentials within us, to open our capacities to love more completely, and to be sure that when death finds us, we are fully alive. Individuation means accepting the reality of our unconscious, sacrificing our ego control of our lives and, with discernment, listening to the superior intelligence of the Self to guide us through life. We wonder, in the long run, how often we are like the man mentioned just now, who was more afraid of facing himself, of questioning his values, ideas and complexes, of “dying into life,” than he was of literally dying. As part of the journey, it is helpful if we can take this line of questioning a step further, and ask ourselves if our fear of dying into life is really our fear of living fully.
While Jung was writing The Red Book, during the darkest and most transformative period of his life, he understood from a dream that he had to “kill” the Parsifal within himself. For us, in psychological language, this means he had to transform the core of the Parsifal complex within himself and redirect its instinctual energy into avenues more in harmony with his Self. Of course this was no small realization. The goals and values of this complex, which we would call his central or dominant complex, had carried him out of childhood and into a very successful adult life. While he realized it had become a prison that he needed to break out of, it also meant sacrificing the drive and ideals of success and the good life that had guided him so far.
Think for a minute about the enormity of this realization. We are called on to sacrifice the psychological structure and the dominant characteristics that may have made us feel safe, successful – that formed our adaptation, defined our personality and is a cornerstone in who we are. This is what “dying into life” really means and it is what becoming fully alive really means. Massimilla and I have also discovered, through our decades of work, that dying into life doesn’t mean that we have to devalue or throw away any of our competencies or things we have accomplished. But they have to come into the service of life in new ways.
As we think about such radical shifts, it is helpful to remember that the basic goal of Jungian analysis is the transformation of the core of complexes. (The Symbolic Quest: Basic Concepts in Analytical Psychology, Edward Whitmont, p. 67) In a personal conversation with us, Marie-Louise von Franz emphasized the importance of transforming our dominant complex. This transformation is the most significant death and rebirth in our lives and opens us to the future inherent in our Self. One might say that this transformation opens us to our true afterlife in this life.
Every complex that develops within us as we grow up carries the wounds and experiences of our childhood, the wounds and the effects of the unlived lives of our parents and ancestors, and the values and expectations of our society. Jung concluded from a dream in which he encountered “distinguished spirits” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 307) that as we work through our individuation, we are also carrying the individuation of our ancestors forward. In this way we are connected to the afterlife as we are often facing and addressing unresolved, unhealed and unredeemed issues that may have gone on in our families for generations.
Massimilla and I are very moved by the opportunities we have to transform our psychological legacies into healing and growthful directions. We have also found that just as a real death is harsh, every period of transformation has its grief…and experiencing it is part of being human. As Jungians, we must guard against the temptation to intellectualize life and Jungian psychology. It is too easy to deny our almost day by day experiences of grief and bury them in busyness or sublimate them in searches for momentary pleasures. It is also too easy to step aside and intellectualize death and our need to mourn for our own death. We can say it is just another passage, or as Hermann Hesse said, “To die is to go into the Collective Unconscious, to lose oneself in order to be transformed into form, pure form.” (C.G. Jung and Hermann Hesse, Miguel Serrano, p. 35) To some extent, this is a comforting thought, but no such thought ever came from Jung. He continued to search into life and its mysteries as long as he was alive.
Dying into life though individuation and knowing that the Self is supporting us has lessened our fear of death, perhaps even eliminated it. At the same time, it has greatly lessened our fear of life. Most of us don’t even know we have a fear of life, or how great that fear is, until individuation leads us into the full acceptance of life’s horror and beauty, its wholeness and our wholeness, our true strengths and our real weaknesses, our ability to love, our capacity for rage, our experience of ecstasy and our despair. Dying into life continually increases our ability to stop living in denial, and to see how integral a part of our lives death truly is, and how thoroughly it is woven into the fabric of our existence. Death and the afterlife are still mysteries, but we can be very in touch with them and informed by them.
A life fully lived brings peace, in the face of death. In our professional practices and in our personal lives, Massimilla and I have the security of trusting the archetypal processes we have experienced, to support our lives. In addition, we can see the possibilities of becoming spiritually and psychologically stronger, while we weaken physically. Most of all, we can feel the support of the Self when individuation is our task and, from all we can see, this is the best preparation for the afterlife.
We love the passage in Memories, Dreams, Reflections (p. 306), where Jung says: “But while the man who despairs marches toward nothingness, the one who has placed his faith in the archetype follows the tracks of life and lives right into his death. Both, to be sure, remain in uncertainty, but the one lives against his instincts, the other with them.”
“Revisioning the Dead, Alive in the Afterlife” has reminded us of the importance of these living energies and their presence in our psyches and in our lives, and how important it is to honor them. We are glad to have shared our thoughts with you.
Bud Harris, Ph. D.
Massimilla Harris, Ph. D.
Bud Harris, Ph. D and Massimilla Harris, Ph. D. are practicing Jungian Analysts in Asheville, North Carolina. Both are graduates of the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich. Bud and Massimilla are also authors, lecturers and have many creative pursuits. You may learn more about them at www.budharris.com.