To aspire to a greater way of being, to seek out and nourish the Soul, is an intrinsic desire that exists in varying degrees within each person, is understood differently by each person, and manifests in equally varying ways.
Charles Shaw is an author, and Director of Spiritus Creative Services (www.spiritus-creative.com), an organization whose mission is to bring about the union of Literature, Psychology, and Spirituality.
An ancient adept has said:
"If the wrong man uses the right means,
the right means work in the wrong way."
this Chinese saying, unfortunately only too true,
stands in sharp contrast to our belief in the "right"
method irrespective of the man who applies it.
In reality, everything depends on the man
and little or nothing on the method.
--Jung, The Secret of the Golden Flower
To aspire to a greater way of being, to seek out and nourish the Soul, is an intrinsic desire that exists in varying degrees within each person, is understood differently by each person, and manifests in equally varying ways. Ultimately, it comes down to a choice that must be made, a certain "path" to be taken en route to some level of personal Wholeness, fulfillment or resolution. Unfortunately, it also appears to be in man's intrinsic nature to scoff or belittle certain unavoidable commonalties or experiences which, in their empirical sense, act as a sort of rite of passage into more developed states of consciousness or being. In other words, we seek uniqueness through a unique path, but discover that there are only a few common themes to our existence, and that we must choose one and make it our own. The original choice, however, is common to us all. We have even derived a word to describe much of this: Cliché, defined as a trite or overused expression or idea. There is a form of universal subjective truth inherent in cliches due to the repetitive, accepted nature of the idea, regardless of the ideas' inherent credibility. We think them silly, romantic or flighty, but ultimately we find that they are unavoidable, and we too fall prey to them; but people mainly come to disdain cliches because eventually, due to limited options, they must embrace them. We mock what exists, partly out of resentment of having no alternative, partly for not knowing or creating one. We mistakenly believe that somehow we are to blame because we want to effect change, create our own "path", but for some reason we don't think we are capable of it. Ironically, that is our only real, true hope. To wit, the process of recovery, New Age spirituality and self-help psychology has been overrun by clichés. In the process of self-discovery, Individuation or the quest for Wholeness, we are handed, gift wrapped, certain established practices, which have been essentially commodified, co-opted and exploited. In the race to gain converts, these practices are slowly extinguishing the uniqueness of the human soul in a miasma of therapeutic malpractice and social conformity. We aspire to uniqueness in our need to Individuate, but find that we must adhere to an accepted standard in order to complete this "Individuation." It is one of the many complex paradoxes that comprise the human condition.
As time tumbled unabated towards my thirtieth year in this world I knew that I was approaching some highly significant apex of understanding, a plateau of musing and clarity upon which I would organize and distill the experiences of my childhood and early adulthood and prepare to move off into the next, more advanced phase of my life in all phases, intellectual, emotional, professional, and spiritual. Romantic as this may sound, the reality was much different. I do not know whether the number 30 was given it's significance within the context of modern American society, or whether it was something akin to an internal development clock upon which my growth was dependent and subservient. All I knew at the time was that doors were simultaneously opening and closing all around me; I felt compelled to action, but confused by my inability to manifest it.
Jung understood that we as beings, in our innermost selves, need to commune with a higher power and through that develop the spiritual component to our personalities. After years of floundering through life, unable to adhere to any particular faith, belief, or ideology, I began a long process of simultaneously trying to find my true nature, embrace my "shadow", and rectify the disparity between my intellectual self, which was compensatorily overdeveloped, and my spiritual self, which was grossly underdeveloped. Jung believed that we all come to this point sooner or later, and that we have the choice to continue our development of Self, or, in effect, miss the turn and double back into a cycle that invariably leads to self-destructive behaviors because we are denying an instinctual, archetypal need. We end up suffering a spiritual starvation which permeates our being. I must say that the genesis of my "quest" came at the heels of intolerable pain and tragedy; in other words, it was as if I had no choice but to "find God" and through that save myself.
The problem I ran into was that I did not then belong to nor particularly believe in any of the ideologies I was fed in my early life: Christianity (Catholicism), Capitalism, the American Dream and it's resultant Middle-American, middle-class Morality, our nation's conception of Democracy, etc. This, of course, is not an uncommon dilemma. What seemed to make it all the more pressing was that my beliefs (or lack thereof) were not a matter of choice, but rather a predisposition or predilection to certain ideas through a strange, almost incomprehensible mix of instinct, learned behavior, environment, and intellectual study. You could almost say it was as if I was made to be this way, made to stand alienated in order to have the necessary objectivity to address the problem. Were I to have had integrated beliefs, I would never have had the discord that motivated my change. Underlying all that I took in as data was a kind of psycho-physiological response to situations in which I would either feel "connected" in either a logical or emotive sense, or "rebellious" in the sense that whatever was being espoused did not compute with me on any level. I was able to begin the process of dissociating myself from the beliefs that were imposed upon me by childhood and circumstance, but I had little- to-no idea that I needed to replace them with something spiritually integrated with my psyche as a whole, or simply put, my identity, and therefore something logically functional. As a consequence, my spiritual being, and thus my being as a whole, began to spiral out of control. I began to self-destruct. I tried frantically to save myself through many different means, but no matter what I tried I found that on the most basic level I could not believe in anything I was being presented. I had too many questions about the nature of God and spirituality, the nature of being, the nature of energy, the "meaning of life", and other very common dilemmas, none of which were answered by these practices I was taught. I felt like a perpetual outsider.
In 1999, shortly after a highly traumatic period, I "discovered" Jung. I had been familiar with Jung for years, but never studied him in depth. To this day I do not know why, but I managed to leverage my psychological and ideological studies heavily in favor of Freud, which I now see as one of the greatest misjudgments of my life. I had, in effect, been following the wrong ideology, or life-philosophy. I was applying the wrong method. Seeing some phantasmal life-clock ticking away, I dove into Jung with a paranoid fervor, deluging my mind with more material than it could possibly grasp in a frantic attempt to unlock some meaning and find a path to resolution and Wholeness. I do not exaggerate when I say that my resolve was manic: I was working to save my very life, and each day the problem seemed to compound itself over and over. I spent my days just trying to keep from being totally overwhelmed so I wouldn't give up. And there was one thing that pervaded my whole experience: I was still alive. As obvious as this is, its significance becomes greatly increased when you consider my history. I could find no logical reason for me to still be alive. I had either already been dead or attempted death on numerous occasions, but I just would not go. Later, through much effort, I was able to see that there was some reason for my existence, even if I did not as yet know what it was. What convinced me was the feeling I would get at the lowest points in my life, when all looked completely hopeless, and most would wish death rather than endure more suffering, I was filled with this thought: what am I going to miss? Though perhaps this thought initially strikes one as superficial, it was really an extension of my unconscious desire to remain living. I wasn't that special. I knew that life would continue without me, and I would miss everything, and no matter what I could not help my curiosity towards the future. When I analyzed this I found that it was because, deep within me, I believed that life could and would get better someday. I realized this was Hope. When you have Hope...Faith is only a step away. With Faith, I was able to address my conflicts about God.
My focal point became man's relation to God, the need for Spiritual or Archetypal experiences and growth, and the nature of the psyche when viewed as a whole, as in a whole person. I knew there were other paths out there, other religions, other concepts of God and Spirituality, other ways to achieve Wholeness, peace and acceptance. I set myself to the task of finding them and, if possible, integrating them. But nothing I studied made any sense to me. I could understand them academically, but I never felt any of them in my Soul. But when I studied Jung, it just made inherent sense to me. I knew that within Jung's work lie the clues I needed to piece together my own ideology.
Pirates and Heroes - The Apparent Paradox
There is a passage in the Bible (Matthew 12: 43-45) that says when a demon is cast out of a man, he searches over arid land seeking out another depraved vessel in which to make his home. If he finds none, he returns to the initial host. When the demon arrives at the house, he finds it cleaned and swept, but empty. He finds he cannot immediately resume his possession, for some reason he cannot enter the house. (subtext: an apparently purified spirit created or helped along by the intervening force that cast out the demon), so he leaves and searches the environs for 7 demons more depraved than himself, and once found they return en masse to the house of the initial host, and the man is visited by evil 7 times that of his initial possession. The reason that the evil is revisited is that there has been nothing put in the place of the empty, clean house (subtext: there has been no psycho-spiritual shift, no behavioral modification, the "temporary fix" of the intervening force dissipates). Most times, this evil cannot be exorcised, and so that man lays down and dies, hopeless and defeated. But it is not a quick death; it is a slow, painful disintegration of mind, body and spirit. Eventually any escapeeven a permanent oneis more palatable than this existence of torment and madness.
This is a recurring theme in the nature of spiritual existence in man, the idea that there can be some form of spiritual deliverance from suffering, but that it is only an interlude and not a "cure"; that the "good" spirit and the "bad" spirit have equal reign and equal purpose, and one does not exist without the other; that while one segment of time may be predominated by a certain leaning towards either "good" or "evil", both are equally present. It becomes a matter of the delineation of Conscious and Unconscious: the predominant spirit being temporarily in the Conscious and the subordinate being temporarily in the Unconscious. This idea is most developed in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which states that. "the Alcoholic is given a daily reprieve [from the disease of Alcoholism] contingent upon the maintenance of his spiritual condition." By their logic, when an alcoholic or addict enters into a spiritual program of recovery, he exchanges or transfuses all his views and practices by a form of Behavioral Modification. This results in him ostensibly "acting his way into right-thinking" and not the opposite, which was shown to be the faulty practice all along in the alcoholic or addict's prior attempts to stop his using. A.A. claims that by practicing their program of Twelve Steps, the user will undergo a spiritual transformation of action and ideals and the "compulsion to drink or use" will be lifted. But this freedom is gained only by a constant and rigorous daily application of the practices and principles that have been taught to the user. The user is reminded that while he is provided with a temporary respite from his disease, his disease lies in wait, quietly gaining strength so that if it were to resurface, it would be as if it had never gone away; it would be that much stronger. The demons would return, because, in effect, we had laid out room for them. This results in the user operating from a place of shame and fear: shame of one's prior actions and behaviors; fear of pain returning to dominate his life.
This struggle is a major focal point of The Sinners's Treadmill. West, the protagonist, is a desperate man who has reached the limits of what the society in which he lives can offer him. He has spent almost ten years in and out of every known facet of the psychiatric and psychotherapeutic fields, the established modes of rehabilitation and recovery, the pursuit of religion and spirituality, and ultimately the quest for God and Self. It's not as if he doesn't believe in a God or a Higher Power; West's problem is that he is able to instill a significant amount of doubt through deductive logic and empirical thought, brought about by his high level of formal education and literacy; even the slightest bit of doubt will destroy Faith. West's main problem is exemplified in the Secret of the Golden Flower quote with which I began this Introduction: If the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way. West represents a growing number of individuals for whom traditional methods of "Wellness" (for lack of a better term) simply do not work because they cannot believe in them. The pathologies surrounding their inability to believe is as varied as the individuals, but the common thread is an almost insurmountable feeling of isolation and hopelessness. They feel as if they may perhaps be doomed to a short life of misery because they see those around them recovering but they do not; even the basics are beyond them. How terrible is it for a person to feel that they have no place even in A.A., that not even the denizens of the world understand or accept him. West is one of these people. He struggles with a unique morality that is diametrically opposed to that of society's. He does not judge things in terms of good and bad, right and wrong. He moves from a momentary position of circumstance and believes almost everything has strong mitigating factors. He abhors judgement in people, but finds he is the victim of it no matter where he goes. His problem becomes most pronounced when he returns once again to the recovering community of A.A., but finds that they don't want him. They have no right to turn him or anyone else away, but they do, and through this action West suddenly realizes that the reason he in particular is having this experience is that he is not supposed to be a part of that program. He sees that a person cannot just have a "program" forced upon them, that it has to be something they identify with, something they feel deep within their soul. Otherwise they are merely performing a sort of pantomime. West sees all the signs he had been ignoring for years come sharply into focus. But in addition he also sees the extreme danger involved in excluding anyone from the help they need. He endeavors to help solve this dilemma.
But to understand West and his "quest" one has to understand the role A.A. plays in the recovering community, and how Jung was integral to the ideology that arose around Spirituality-based programs.
It is both compliment and insult to the memory of Dr. Jung that he was credited with articulating the basic principles upon which Alcoholics Anonymous was built. Compliment in that he identified a major component to the total malaise that overtook the addict, and insult in that his ideas were so distorted by the time it reached a mass audience. To Jung, it was always about the spirit, namely that there was a spiritual or religious component to the disease of addiction, and that only through embracing that component could the addict find deliverance. Through his work with a famous chronic alcoholic, Rowland H., Jung discovered the analogue between our perception of "the spirit" (the spiritual dimension to our psyche) and our perception of "spirits" (liquor). "Spirit" is a word that we use, according to Jung, "to describe our greatest religious experience as well as the most depraving poison." This idea became Spiritus Contra Spiritum, a working formula for the conquest of deadly addictions.
In the early 1930's, when Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, went to Zurich to see Dr. Jung, it was after learning of Jung's work with Rowland H., and Wilson's own experiences with a lifelong friend, Ebby T., who had become an early member of The Oxford Group, a religious precursor to A.A. It is interesting to note the Synchronous nature of this meeting, if only for reflection on the formation of the program in the larger picture: Jung and Wilson were both passionately seeking a solution to the problem of alcoholism from opposite vantage points and inevitably crossed paths. After hearing the now-familiar plight of the chronic addict, Jung stated to Wilson, "You have the mind of a chronic alcoholic. I have never seen one single case recover, where that state of mind existed to the extent that it does in you." Wilson was devastated. Here was the leading specialist in the world, a man of impeachable merit and learning, telling him bluntly that he was doomed. Wilson uttered, "Is there no exception?", and expecting to see the good doctor shake his head he was shocked to hear Jung say, "Yes, there is!"
"Exceptions to cases such as yours have been occurring since early times. Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them. In fact, I have been trying to produce some such emotionlemotional rearrangements within you. With many individuals the methods which I employed are successful, but I have never been successful with an alcoholic of your description."
(Alcoholics Anonymous, pg. 27)
Although the idea behind A.A. was noble and humanitarian, the last 70 years have seen the idealism of the founders replaced by the very natural and understandable "character defects" of its followers. A.A.'s brilliance and uniqueness lies within its' organizational framework. It has no leaders, no hierarchy, no outside influences, is fully self-supporting through voluntary donations from its members; in many aspects it functions exactly like a church. But unlike most church's, it does not have one appointed figurehead like a priest, minister or rabbi, and therefore it has no leadership, no one to make important decisions. It is run entirely by a supremely pure democracy. The latitude created by this governing process has an unfortunate side effect: it makes the program subject to a greater degree of human frailty and idiosyncrasy, thus it becomes almost impossible to characterize, and so it becomes impossible to predict. A.A. refers to itself as "those who would not normally mix, but are united under a common purpose." But often times this commonality is not enough. The program is extremely diverse, and that inevitably leads to personality conflicts. This has created a factioning within the Twelve-Step program. Each group operates differently, with their own itinerary. In multicultural, urban environments, cultural groups, logically, tend to cluster together, therefore meetings differ across ethnic lines to involve that specific lexicon in which the meeting is situated. There are Black, Latino, Gay & Lesbian, "Bikers", Men only and Women only, etc. This is not a bad thing. In fact, if it is anything it serves as evidence that it is time for the program to evolve, time to allow each individual conception and construct to grow freely and in order to better help those to whom it serves.
It becomes apparent when reading the literature of A.A. authored by Bill Wilson namely Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, that he was a highly intuitive, intelligent man, an empath and a natural purveyor of the human spirit. No one can dispute his caring for the plight of his fellow alcoholic. But along with all his accolades fall his shortcomings. Wilson was, after, a colossal alcoholic, diagnosed as chronic by every health professional he consulted. He was, like most addictive personalities, rebellious, arrogant, egomaniacal, and stubborn with an almost intolerable manic aspect; he was not a man to be defeated so easily. He took Jung's claims of the hopeless nature of his condition as a challenge, and somehow managed to channel this energy into the formation of A.A. It can be (and is) argued that Wilson was akin to a saint, that he committed the extreme act of selflessness in his devotion to A.A., that his writings and teachings have saved the lives of millions. Life magazine listed Wilson as one of the 100 most influential persons of the century; also listed was a certain Dr. C.G. Jung. Wilson's contributions to the field of recovery are almost immeasurable: if not saint, he was certainly a hero. But it is also quite apparent that Wilson pirated all his ideas from Jung, and in doing so set himself up to fall into a number of deep misunderstandings and oversights that would effect how the program was practiced by future generations.
The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are:
1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable
2) Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
3) Turned our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood him
4) Made a fearless and searching moral inventory of ourselves
5) Admitted to God, to ourselves and another human being the nature of our faults
6) Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
7) Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings
8) Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all
9) Made direct amends to those people, wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
10) Continued to take moral inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
11) Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, seeking only his will and the power to carry it out
12) Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we carried the message to other alcoholics and practiced these principles in all our affairs
The failings of A.A. are numerous. Within it's "academic" contexts, such as the literature published by the group, the practice of the program as outlined in the above listed steps, it claims to be the only path to recovery, that all other means or practices are futile; the addict will inevitably return to his addiction. This may have been true in 1935, but it does not seem true today. The only problem is that A.A. still holds on to this belief. This stems from it's ideological nature: A.A. is undeniably a Christianity-based program. Although it claims to be "spiritual" and not "religious", and over-emphasizes it's mantra of a god of your understanding, every idea, every tenet and every dictum in the Twelve Steps comes from the New Testament. The very practice of the principles of A.A. differs very slightly from the religious practice of Christianity: it mandates daily prayer and meditation, a sublimation of personal will in favor of that of God's, a need for confession of "sins" (i.e. the Fourth Step Moral Inventory), and a need for a "spiritual awakening." It has even integrated established Christian prayers into its practicum; each meeting ends with The Lord's Prayer and The Serenity Prayer; the Third and Seventh steps are conjoined with prayer's taken directly from the King James Bible, and therefore full of the "thees" and "thys" that now have direct association to religious dogma.
West Townsend's complaint is that if the idea was to provide a dogmatically free environment, it has fallen far short of the mark. This modus operandi places the addict within a restricting set of beliefs and subsequent behavior patterns that squelches the uniqueness of character and individual spiritual needs of each addict. In essence, it provides a religion of it's own for addicts whose practices must be substituted for the self-destructive tendencies of the addictive personality. And much like religion itself, A.A. provides a rigid structure of life for it's members to follow, a structure more suited, like religion, for those who prefer to have their beliefs given to them, or to whom it never occurred that one might challenge beliefs or divine one's own morality. This, of course, is not to say that religion is the recourse of the idiot. Just that so much of the population does not question established social mores, much less question the nature of God. A.A. assumes some form of God-conflict, but ultimately resolves it in the same manner as the church. A.A. just allows more latitude with interpretation when it comes to the question of "what do I believe in?" Early on A.A. members are encouraged to pray to whatever they want, be it God or the Universe or a ghost or a lampshade. But eventually, they are encouraged to put aside this "confusion" and develop a "healthy relationship with God." It is all very confusing. A.A. also provides the perfect placebo for those who are either pathologically incapable of self-motivated change or too ideologically constricted to conceive of or genuinely consider atypical or unorthodox methods of spiritual enlightenment. This has little to do with conscious choice. These people are paralyzed by indecision or confusion. West argues that by setting itself up as the solitary option for the suffering, it uses much of the same tactics of fear and intimidation used by Christianity throughout the ages. In essence, it promotes a transmogrified version of the same idea behind the thoughtless slaughter of The Crusades: join us or die! And the threat of death is real! Ask anyone in A.A. if they think their program is a matter of life and death and the will unanimously concur.
I understand with complete candor the importance of the role of Christianity in our society as a whole, in Jung's work, and resultantly in the areas of recovery and spirituality. I addressed this and gave Christianity voice through the character of Nate Hamilton, a minister who West meets while in jail (during Part II The Institutions). West and Nate become friends and colleagues, but Nate remains West's strongest antagonist. It is through this dynamic that I address the modern religious dilemma in America, the basic questions of Faith, and the Morality imposed upon our society by Christian Dogma.
But A.A.'s weaknesses as an ideology are nothing in comparison to the problem surrounding the other major component of the Twelve-Step recovery program, namely the "Fellowship" of A.A. The "Fellowship" is A.A.'s term for the social aspects of the program, which is highly significant given A.A.'s mandate that the addict change all his "people, places, and things" in order to survive. Although it is never directly stated, the addict is strongly influenced by a kind of all-pervasive peer pressure that he can only associate with other A.A. members, or at the very least that association with non-A.A.'s will be problematic. After a period of time he begins to see that association with "normies" (those who are not in recovery, and not addicted) becomes an increasingly difficult endeavor. The Program requires each member to have a "sponsor." There is no exact definition for a sponsor; in truth, each person in the program has his own idea of what a sponsor is. But the common denominator is that the sponsor is someone who has a good grasp of the practice of the program(notice I didn't say principles), and this requirement is more often than not based on length of continuous sobriety. But length of sobriety is arbitrary, and often split into "dry" time and "sober" time. This means that the recovering addict who chooses a sponsor is essentially rolling the dice on the quality of recovery they will be tutored in, because the sponsor traditionally has the most contact and greatest influence over his sponsees. Oftentimes, the sponsor's feelings are projected onto the sponsee and a pronounced change occurs. The A.A. member's ability to relate to those whose lives are not recovery based becomes impaired and his trust level drops significantly. In many cases people who use any form of alcohol or drugs, even prescription medications or an occasional glass of wine, are vilified. There is even an irrational belief that springs up in the addict that everyone he comes across is either an addict or in desperate need of a Twelve-Step recovery program. Seeing these behaviors for what they are, a simple act of projection, is of no use to the addict, for A.A. denounces psychological models of addiction and behavior. It states that the addicts sole problem is his addiction, that there is little else contributing to the addicts aberrant behavior. Note that I say this conclusion is made by the members of A.A. It is directly contradicted in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous itself, where they try to calm the moral turmoil in the addict by explaining to him that he has a disease, and not a moral failing, of which his use of alcohol or drugs is merely a symptom (this point becomes obvious later when we look at Jung's statement that Western culture had turned its Gods into symptoms). Take the same addict to an A.A. meeting and let him talk about exploring his psyche and he will most likely be met with a chorus of disapproval.
In an interesting role-reversal, psychology and therapy are considered ineffective, hokey means of recovery, and God is touted like scientific fact. The problem, they will tell the addict, is him. He is an addict, pure and simple, and once he acknowledges his addiction and "turns his will and his life over to the care of God" (steps 1-3) then and only then can he begin the long road to recovery. But, you see, he is never fully "recovered"; he is always "recovering." He is forced into an unhealthy dependency on the program, a substitution or transferred dependence from the chemicals that previously ran his life. He is told that he can never remain clean and sober unless he devotes himself fully, for the rest of his life, to A.A. This they diffuse by stating that the program is only to be lived "one day at a time", but who has come into this program and not thought about the sheer magnitude of the commitment before him, and the length of time involved in the rest of his life. Jung spoke of a form of behavioral modification, but he understood it to be a process which one would eventually complete and move on. He spoke of a profound spiritual change, but one that would "stick" because it was real. If the addict is a free thinking individual, this creates unavoidable ideological conflict, and he must either submit to A.A. in toto, or suffer the natural resentment of ideological confusion, which invariably leads the addict back into active addiction; he has neither resolved his internal conflict nor found a suitable path or vehicle to resolution. Now the program itself espouses this idea of take what you want and leave the rest. But once again I must emphatically state that it is not the program itself that is behind this terrible quandary but the actions and behaviors of the participants. If a vulnerable person in desperate need of support is subjected to all this judgement and intimate interference from people he hardly knows, eventually he will trust less and less. It is very very possible and probable that he will relapse at least once during the process of recovery, and if he is to ever return to A.A. his conflict becomes two-fold: he must overcome his previous resentment of A.A. in order to submit to the program, and then and only then can he commence his recovery. Of course his experience is never the same. He is never given that pure sense of hope again, nor is he ever made to feel that he could truly have a "fresh start." The reasoning for this exemplifies the behavior of the members of A.A.
The irony in all this is that when the program was founded Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob, the co-founder, treated very "low-bottom" chronic alcoholics who relapsed innumerable amounts of times before they got it right, if they got it right at all. They buried a lot of people, and I'm sure that fueled their passions to create a working program. But over the years, in A.A. terminology, they have "raised the bottom" on who is an alcoholic and can participate in the program. In the beginning the program was strictly voluntary. There was not enough resources, and there was far too much skepticism for it to be any other way. Today we have the Courts sentencing people to attend A.A., so we have an element that was previously absent from the program in participants that are there against their will. This has a profound effect on others, because their negativity spreads like a disease. They have no qualms about voicing their opinions; it seems to be the only way they can deal with their feelings, by making others suffer. My heart weeps for those who come in seeking help only to come under the sway of these sorts of people. But this issue is also drawn into contention by the following.
One significant difference between A.A. and Christianity is the 11th Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous which states, "Our public relations policy is based on attraction, rather than promotion." While religions, Evangelical Christianity in particular, actively and openly solicit and recruit new members, A.A.'s "conversion" techniques aren't implemented until an addict steps into his first meeting. A.A. does not advertise, in the strict sense, nor do they have any particular stance on a public issue; they do not offer professional advice, and furthermore they consider themselves above professional standards. But once you cross that social barrier and becomeif even in the most peripheral sensea member, you are considered fair game for any form of confrontation (commonly referred to as "taking another's inventory" or "intervention"), regardless of the current state of affairs in your life. In the event that an addict strays from the programwhether or not it is relapse-relatedA.A. members will typically try to bring him back into the fold, either actively or passively, though they are rarely delicate about it. Although most often intentions are good, what comes across is not concern but contempt. Understandably, there is a natural level of hostility in the members of A.A., for on some level they all wish they could still use again, not to have to rely on the program, not classified and consolidated as "aberrant social behavior", "mentally ill" or, simply, alcoholic or addict. Active members of A.A. consider relapse a form of failure, despite the widely held belief that it is part of the recovery process. And should the relapsed addict choose to return, the preoccupation and ostensible concern shown by the active members rapidly turns to scorn, as if the relapsed addict must be punished for his relapse, for doing what is most natural to him: using. This experience or the threat of this experience has kept many addicts in dire need from seeking out the help they deserve. This is at the core of West's issues with modern recovery.
Whereas the Big Book of Alcoholic's Anonymous teaches that the addict needs to remain "honest, open-minded, and willing", the actual result was much the opposite. People became ashamed to tell the entire truth of their stories or of their actions out of a very real fear of judgement or condemnation or being the victim of particularly malevolent gossip; A.A. refuses to give credence to other philosophical or ideological modes of thought or other theories of addiction and recovery; "willingness" becomes a euphemism for "submission."
Initially, the lines were drawn, out of fear and necessity, between alcoholics and drug-addicts. Neither group believed they had anything in common with the other, and such glaring resentment and hatred arose that the drug addicts were literally kept out of meetings. The rationale used by alcoholics was that the Big Book said nothing about drugs, only alcohol. These "old-timers" did not yet understand or believe that the only difference existed in the molecular structures of the specific chemical that was destroying their bodies. As a result, Narcotics Anonymous was founded in the mid 1950's. Then in the 1980's, cocaine users felt they needed a program of their own, so they formed Cocaine Anonymous. This led to the formation of O.A. (Overeaters Anonymous), CODA (Co-Dependents Anonymous), ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics), and, to me somewhat overkill, M.A. (Marijuana Anonymous), E.A. (Emotions Anonymous) and A.R.T.S (Artists Recovering through the Twelve Steps). This proliferation of Twelve Step ideology has been widely integrated into the mainstream media to the point of parody and satire. And not unexpectedly, what began as a watershed program invariably showed its true colors: either an understandable conditioning, P.T.S.D., or coping mechanism, or perhaps simple human nature, will prevail, despite all seemingly virtuous pretenses. Man is fearful, resentful, irrational and panicky, and all this is displayed unabashedly in the "Fellowship" of A.A., if only for that A.A., despite all its shortcomings, is one of the most profoundly human organizations in all the world. At one point in the novel, when referring to the noble intentions of the founders of A.A., West states, "...nobility aside, it seems absurd to entrust your emotional and psychological well being to another person suffering from the same ailment who has virtually no professional perspective, training or understanding. I cannot think of an easier way to lose your objectivity. Sure, why not, use pop-psychology in place of a necessary course of therapy. Just don't complain to me when it turns out to be a disaster." The notion of one alcoholic helping another is a beautiful concept. We should all help each other heal. That is part of what makes humanity so precious and unique. But we must always be careful to know our limits. As is commonly stated, "The Road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions."
This is not intended to serve as an open indictment of A.A. If one wishes to read such critique, one needs only look as far as The Rational Recovery Program's Small Book, which is an extended comparison between A.A. and the concepts of Rational Recovery (an organization using the precepts of Albert Ellis' Rational Emotive Therapy). But it is no coincidence that R.R. was founded by a disillusioned ex-A.A. who, predictably, fit the most common demographic profile of a disillusioned ex-A.A.: highly educated, professional, self-motivated, arrogant, prideful, willful. But, in a profoundly human sense he was as ashamed as the next person of his history, and did not feel comfortable advertising them repeatedly to a group of relative strangers. This personality type more than likely falls prey to the most intimidating aspect of A.A., the "Fellowship." Quite understandably, given the nature of their shattered lives, on the whole this group has a very real ability to turn insincere, vicious, gossipy, cruel and judgmental. When this occurs, almost every motivation comes from a place of fear, despite the ostensible goal of always coming from a place of love. To give them credit, they did offer a form of free group therapy and encouraged members to be selfless and loving to all, especially newcomers. Whereas A.A. states that the complete basis for the entire program is the notion of one alcoholic helping another, the final product of one's actions is rife with ulterior motives ranging from lust to career advancement. It may sound extreme, but many lives have been destroyed as a result of the erratic behavior of the recovering addicts in the Twelve Step programs. Though it can be argued that one should know what they are getting into when referring one or being referred to a Twelve Step Program, the reality is that little consideration is given to the fragility of the addict's psyche, or the fact that those pontificating to the addict are equally fragile. And those who don't understand the threat, due to their particularly desperate state, are much to trusting and quick to acquiesce to the wishes of others. It is the proverbial blind leading the blind.
Time to grow up, Peter Pan
Peter's shadow darted across the candlelit wall, jumping just out of reach of his Peter's grasping hands. The shadow eludes his every move. Wendy awakes to a noise in her room. She hears the sounds of crying. Rolling over in her bed, she sees a little boy sitting on the floor, backlit by a solitary candle. He is dressed in green tights and wears a green cap with a feather at the peak, and tied around his waits is a rope and a small knife. The little boy is staring past her at the wall, crying. "Why are you crying," Wendy asks? "Because I can''t catch my shadow," the boy replies.
In his essay, "Jung and the New Age: A Study in Contrasts", David Tacey presents a compelling indictment of so-called New Age spirituality and it's inherently flawed distillations from Jung's original concepts of integrating the soul into healing. Tacey believes that the New Age is non-Jungian or even anti-Jungian. But he does acknowledge that Jung has several points in common with New Age spirituality:
"Both Jung and the New Age agree that spiritual meaning is no longer synonymous with, and can no longer be contained by, the religious establishments and institutions of Western culture...the prevailing attitude in Western religious and philosophic traditions is that humanity is essentially tragic and life is synonymous with suffering...Christian spirituality achieves its goal not by increasing the stature of the self, but by displacing the self altogether in favor of humility, emptying, and a kind of negative fulfillment, whereby the divine increases it's fullness in direct proportion to the reduction of ego...[Western] wisdom and spiritual direction does not reduce our suffering, but makes it endurable and gives it higher meaning."
This practice of ego-reduction is one of the core principles of A.A. It states that the Ego is at the root of all our suffering, and only in its abatement will one find true spiritual peace, if in fact spiritual peace is something that can be found and quantified. Today there is a fundamental confusion between the Ego, or personal self, and the Soul, or Self in the larger, Jungian sense, and none of these confusions can be rectified by merely using the intellect, or jumping onto a bandwagon of "higher ideals" (Transcendental Meditation, Dianetics, etc.), or immersing oneself into a foreign spiritual ideology (anything ranging from Astrology to Zuni). These "metaphysical novelties" have a certain flair and allure at first, owing to the newness of thought, their exotic pretenses, and the favorable cultural attitudes of the day. But if any of these beliefs are not internalized in the deepest sense, they fall apart like tissue paper in water, something that perhaps was attractive, but not so strong to begin with.
According to Jung, suffering can never be escaped, but must be embraced and accepted as part of the human condition. His ideas reflect the first two noble truths of Buddhism, which state that 1) Life is Suffering; 2) The root of all Suffering is Desire. Jung understood from the onset that there was a direct correlation between spiritual thirst and spiritual depravity, as elucidated in his belief that there was a spiritual or religious component to addiction, and that only a spiritual solution would be effective. Jung acknowledged that there was a dark side to our psyche, a "Shadow" that was as much a part of us as our more redeeming sides.2 The Shadow is the negative reflection of our Ego, the place where all our least desirable personality traits reside. When a person is in the throes of addiction, he is, in effect, living his Shadow. it has passed through and permeated the Ego, and integrated with the Persona. The goal of any particular therapy involving the emergence of the Shadow is to push it back to its proper sphere of consciousness where it can live as it is meant to. This was something that Bill Wilson failed to integrate into his teachings, which would eventually lead to complications in the treatment of the addict. Jung knew that you couldn''t ignore the Shadow, that one could not achieve Wholeness until the darkness or "Shadow" of human nature has been maturely accepted and integrated. According to Jung, "...for what is inferior or even worthless belongs to me as my Shadow and gives me substance and mass. How can I be substantial if I fail to cast a shadow? I must have a dark side if I am to be whole; in as much as I become conscious of my Shadow I also remember that I am a human being like any other." In most spirituality-based recovery or enhancement programs, the role of the Shadow is almost wholly ignored. Understandably so, people are frightened by its potential; most of them just came out of periods in which the Shadow was predominate. But to ignore it completely is much like the Twelve Step idea of the disease lying in wait, growing stronger; the demons will prevail if not acknowledged. The solution, according to Jung, is to maintain the diametric struggle between "good" and "evil" and follow it through to some resolution. "Without opposition there is no flow of energy, no vitality. Lack of opposition brings life to a standstill wherever that lack reaches." Jung believed, in essence, that the conflict between these opposites arises out of "God's desire to become man" which can only be enacted within the soul of man.
But why would God want to become man? Despite the paradoxical nature of the question, Jung might say that it had been His goal all along. He created man in His image, but endowed him with mortal weaknesses: pain, emotion, injury, fear, confusion, limited knowledge and understanding, and the utmost, mortality. But they were His favorite creation, so much the favorite, in fact, that as a direct result a war was fought over man. Milton's Paradise Lost is about the jealousy of the Angels over God giving man a soul. It so angered Lucifer, the Archangel, that he led a revolt against God, which was eventually quelled, and Lucifer and his minions were cast into a pit of fire heretofore known as Hell. But Lucifer apparently never gave up, continuing his struggle for control of mankind's souls up to this very day, and some might say until the end of this year when, for many calendars, Armageddon is scheduled to take place. And then there was Jesus, God as Man. Is further proof needed?
This of course means little in the grand scheme if you don''t believe in God, or have trouble with theistic concepts as a matter of principle. When asked if he believed in God, Jung's reply was : "I do not believe. I know." It was this conviction that drove his work and gave him an extraordinary sense of balance within himself, so much so that he dedicated a significant portion of his life to the comparative study of religion and spirituality. He recognized that at the fundamental core we all worship the same thing. But it was also in our evolutionary process to question that very thing. The mystery of God's existence is an all-pervading motif in Western culture. One of the first prominent writers to come from an atheistic (or at the very least, substantially conflicted) stance was Henry Miller', whose Tropic of Capricorn provides us with a viewpoint that lies in the antithesis of Jung.
The following passage is the opening paragraph:
Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos...In everything I quickly saw the opposite, the contradiction, and between the real and the unreal, the irony, the paradox. I was my own worst enemy...I never helped any one expecting that it would do any good; I helped because I was helpless to do otherwise. To want to change the condition of affairs seemed futile to me; nothing would be altered, I was convinced, except by a change of heart, and who could change the hearts of men? Now and then a friend was converted: it was something to make me puke. I had no more need of God than He had of me, and if there were one, I often said to myself, I would meet him calmly and spit in His face.
Tropic of Capricorn was the second of Miller's Tropic books. It's predecessor, Tropic of Cancer, took the world by storm in 1936; Capricorn was published in 1939. When these books were first published, no one had seen anything like them. They stirred up such a maelstrom of controversy that the books were banned in all English speaking countries for almost thirty years. It was the first time someone had said with conviction all the little nagging fears that pervade the human experience.
Miller had no pretensions about his beliefs. If anything, it was in his lack-of-beliefs identity where his pretensions lay. Some find him intolerable, negative and meglomaniacal. Many more experience the consciousness-shift that is a common effect of reading his Tropic books and The Rosy Crucifixion. They suddenly feel liberated and energized by finally being able to identify with someone who had little to no fear expressing his singular beliefs, much less a prominent literary figure. For most aspiring writers, Miller serves as a paradigm for the self-exploratory writer, the visceral "life experience" type, the non-conformist in the extreme, which can easily be related as a complex subset of the Trickster archetype; it speaks, in essence, to the rebel or rebellious spirit within us all. He believed that what mattered, ultimately, was the connections made between people, and our futile attempts to maintain them. He espoused a transcendentalist ideology that mandated a certain "in the moment" existence, ignoring the banalities and tragedies of human life, or at the very least, not empowering them. Seeing Miller speak his mind, so to speak, gave them the courage to expand the limits of their personal self-disclosure and to explore aspects of their personality that may have previously intimidated or even openly frightened them. It encouraged one's embracing of the Shadow, because it required the experience of pain in order to distill the ontological wisdom of the total experience, or simply put, to learn about life you had to learn about love and fear. Miller had a most profound influence on both my ideology and my writing. He allowed me to break free of conventional thought, but he also was responsible, indirectly, for much of my pain and suffering. I do not resent him for this; if anything, I am grateful. Though I see him now as more angry and bitter than I did when I was an idealistic student, I cannot take away his importance. I may have grown past his rapier's wit, this need to be crude and sardonic, but I will never outgrow the zeal for life which was his gift to his readers.
To add another dimension to our spiritual conundrum we can turn to the work of William S. Burroughs, who presents us with a brutally honest paradigm of the Addict. Burroughs took Miller one level deeper within. Whereas it was apparent that Miller had a difficult time managing his ego, you would be hard-pressed to find one flattering protagonistic incarnation of the Burroughs character (William Lee, Will Dennison, Dr. Benway, etc.). Burroughs made his addictions and afflictions, his shortcomings, insecurities and inadequacies the lifeblood of his work, and he examined them with such a clinical fervor that books like Junky have widespread empirical and professional merit; It was his obsession with psychology and analysis. Burroughs'' intellect was such that he could either actively or passively assimilate information on how to behave and communicate in almost any social setting. Unlike Miller, he was not a "common" man, nor did he ever portray himself as the voice of the "common" man. He spent most of his life in analysis. He was raised in upper-middle class comfort and well educated, and his experimentation (if it can legitimately be called that) with heroin, marijuana, alcohol and amphetamines seemed to arise out of some anthropological motivation. This is not to belittle the anxiety that he suffered as a result of this and his burgeoning homosexuality, which undoubtedly contributed to his escapism. He was fascinated by the dark, seamy underbelly of society, personified by the junkies and dealers, two-bit con men and homosexual prostitutes, and he embraced the madness inherent in the lifestyle. Being both an addict and a homosexual, Burroughs found himself in a classic vicious cycle, but it was the growing integration with the criminal world that began to unravel him. He was jailed repeatedly, but could neither leave nor maintain his lifestyle. Soon, with an overloaded psyche and a body on the verge of collapse, the logical side of Burroughs began to give way. In the famous pinnacle moment of his life Burroughs, in a chemical haze, accidentally shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City during what was described as a game of "William Tell" (he tried to shoot a glass off her head, but missed). Burroughs literally and figuratively ran to the edges of the earth to get away from having to deal with Joan's death. For many years he would not ever speak of it, much less write of it. But there was method to the madness. He knew he inevitably would have to confront Joan's memory, that even if he fought it, it would pop up someplace else in some compulsive form or other. He knew from many years of analysis that it was slowly percolating through the folds of his consciousness and would invariably become something significant. He had managed to, in his own words, "place myself in such a position that my only option was to write my way out." Personally, I do not find it strange at all that Burroughs was thinking in terms of his work. I don''t think he believed Joan would be there in the distant future. I believe he knew unconsciously that she would be the sacrifice for his work because it effectively left him with no diversion from his troubles; he had no choice but to, so to speak, work it out. The result is his writing, a series of brilliant and intuitive cultural studies expounding on his two major themes of addiction (Junky) and homosexuality (Queer), and the stream-of-consciousness effect of free-association.
Here, in Junky, Burroughs laments the plight of a addict trying to score a fix In New Orleans:
There is a type of person occasionally seen in these neighborhoods who has connections with junk, though he is neither a user nor a seller. but when you see him the dowser wand twitches. Junk is close. His place of origin is the Near East, probably Egypt. He has a large straight nose. His lips are thin and purple-blue like the lips of a penis. The skin is tight and smooth over his face. He is basically obscene beyond any possible vile act or practice. He has the mark of a certain trade or occupation that no longer exists. If junk were gone from the earth, there might still be junkies standing around in junk neighborhoods feeling the lack, vague and persistent, a pale ghost of junk sickness.
In another passage from Junky, Burroughs gives frank insight into the futile nature of addiction:
Junk takes everything and gives nothing but insurance against junk sickness. Every now and then I take a good look at the deal I was giving myself and decided to take the cure. When you are getting plenty of junk, kicking looks easy. You say, "I'm not getting any kick from the shots any more. I might as well quit." But when you cut down into junk sickness, the picture looks different...I knew I did not want to go on taking junk. If I could have made a single decision, I would have decided no more junk ever. But when it came to the process of quitting, I did not have the drive. It gave me a terrible feeling of hopelessness to watch myself break every schedule I set up as though I did not have control over my actions.
The desire the addict feels to quit using comes long before he actually quits. It arises initially through entirely instinctual processes, namely survival and the cessation of pain. But as has been shown, the power of the addiction is almost incalculable, and it continuously beats down the survival instinct and replaces it with a violent craving that spurs on a very real panic attack; the feeling is actual physical pain. The addict is presented with two options. Looming magnanimously in the forefront of his mind is the immediate solution: to take more of the substance or behavior. Far away in the distance squeaks the voice of reason, who tells him he''ll only be starting the process all over again. For some addicts, this is all they hear. They move as if their bodies were not their own, all the while cursing their every move over and over and over in their heads. Most of the recovering community will agree that it is only when the addict has "hit bottom" that he first becomes capable of recovery. Exactly what that bottom is differs for each person. For some, it is only basic social humiliation, compromising one's morals or ethics, the loss of a job, a blackout, or a DUI. For others it may be that one more prison stint will be for life. Other's overdose, or begin to prostitute themselves. It really doesn''t matter when viewing recovery empirically. The point is that something motivated them.
Coming in to recovery is only the very first small step in an unfathomable taxing process. Common statistics banded about treatment centers and A.A. meetings put 90% of any given newly sober recovering community back into active addiction within a year; there is a less than 3% five-year success rate. Whether or not these figures are accurate is irrelevant because they end up having a significant impact on the psyche of the addict. It's as if they feel they are immediately set at odds. Some this motivates, and makes their successes that much sweeter. Many more are paralyzed by anxiety and fear. Many addicts find that they have traded in one vicious cycle for another. They begin a horrifying period of recovery and relapse. They repeatedly alienate themselves from their primary social support (family, friends), manipulating them in and out of trust and compassion and forgiveness. But, as I mentioned before, now they must contend with an added component of returning to their recovering community.
It is natural and understandable that relapse causes fear in the addict. For many it is the proverbial Boogieman come to life. But there is nothing more fragile and volatile than a relapsed addict. They are overloaded with shame, guilt, fear and anxiety, so much so that the very thought of returning to their support groups terrifies them. There is much talk in the program about welcoming back relapsers, but this is one of the relatively few areas where the democratic process breaks down in the face of human emotional frailty. Most often, the relapsed addict is treated like a pariah. The fear is primal, and the reaction to it is quite instinctual: flight, as opposed to fight. Once the addict feels alienated from those in his support group, he will more than likely detach himself from the group. Without any type of recovering structure to implement in it's place, he becomes at the highest risk yet for turning back to his addiction. The demons come back seven fold. This situation is quite complicated because we are contending with two very powerful sets of defense mechanisms fueled by an explosive fear. The addict is full of self-pity, anger and resentment, but a significant portion of his emotional state is self-induced, a masochistic indulgence, if you will, because he has been conditioned to condemn himself. On the other side, we have a roomful of fragile psyches who have in effect been triggered into acting out their hostilities and fears, mostly because they have not been taught proper ways of managing the strong emotions. The logical focus of their energies becomes the relapsed addict. Neither side will budge. But within this absurdity there is always the same occurrence: invariably a rare member with an expansive, working understanding of the A.A. program will step in and try to facilitate the relapsed addict's re-integration. Espousing the traditions of the program and the "Principles over Personalities" dictum, he attempts to explain to the relapsed addict that the others don''t matter, only his desire to remain sober, that he can''t let anything get in the way. The relapsed addict will believe it once, but if the relapses become problematic, much less chronic, he will be less inclined to "give it another shot." And proportionately, the members of his group will be less inclined to "give him another chance." I cannot stress the importance of this: this very circumstance has kept many addicts from returning to recovery. We will see this struggle personified in West and his experiences. It serves two functions: first, it is what finally allows him to break from A.A. and the established and accepted modes of thought surrounding recovery; it leads him to Jung, as he goes back and tries to understand what the program was built upon in the hopes of unearthing some original, but now occluded intent.
The Gods have all been turned into symptoms
Although the discussion has thus far dissected the addiction model, the dilemmas presented are in no way limited to the problem of substance abuse. What we are addressing here is a psycho-spiritual conflict that exists in epic proportions in today's society, a very real and unimaginably horrifying impasse that modern man has reached. It is best described using Jungian analyst Robert Johnson's Theory of Ecstasy. Johnson believes that all people have, or need to feed, an ecstatic dimension to their personalities. Webster's defines ecstasy as:
ec·sta·sy: 1 a: a state of being beyond reason and self-control b archaic:
SWOON 2: a state of overwhelming emotion esp: rapturous delight
This ecstatic dimension exists on the most primal, archetypal level of our consciousness. It is our inherent need to commune with a God or Higher Power or Spirit of the Universe. It represents our struggle and quest for Wholeness, inner peace, spiritual, universal or metaphysical harmony, and the resolution of conflict. Jung called this the Process of Individuation, or simply put, one's full Self-realization. Following the secondary definition of Ecstasy, a state of overwhelming emotion (+) esp. rapturous delight, it is apparent that man, as a matter of course, needs to feel "high." The methods employed in reaching this emotional state have progressed exponentially over the ages from wholly imaginative or organic means to highly synthetic.
In the beginning we were overwhelmed by the forces of nature, which were completely mysterious and terrifying. Soon after that we turned those forces into Gods, and we worshipped those Gods for our security and our prosperity. At around the same time our self-awareness developed to the point where we began to question or ponder our place in this universe, the nature of our being. As we delved deeper into ourselves we unearthed more complex fears, and at the root of these was the greatest human fear imaginable: that our existence is coincidental and meaningless, that we are alone in the universe, that there is nothing beyond our mortality. God (the creation and worship of) effectively removed that fear by eliminating the cosmic loneliness and isolation, replacing it with an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent companion. Without that construct to edify our psyches we would most assuredly go completely insane and effectively self-destruct as a species. The question is: Have we outgrown it? From these Gods we created our mythologies, and from these mythologies we created our morality. Each of these served our higher functions, but each was inextricably linked to our most primal functions: our need for food, rest, sex and love, and invariably, our need for altered states of being, by whatever means, as a method for enhanced communing. We also developed wealth, status, power and influence. As we progressed, we developed science, and science began to answer all the mysteries of the world around us. For a long while science was in collusion with religion, as religion had evolved into a governing way of life, but slowly the mythos of religion was deconstructed into empirical fact. We had conquered the mountains only to realize the emptiness of their peaks. The end result was the predicament I have outlined here.
Today's society moves faster than the human ability to react to it. We are inundated with too many choices, too much information, to feel any ostensible sense of security. We are led to believe that our progress is natural, but all around us are examples of the figurative toxic shock our spirits are experiencing. Science has become the new religion, and as a result, in Jung's words, we have "turned the God's into symptoms." With the proliferation of information technology, access to all the world's mysteries lie at a even a child's fingertips. What mankind forgot about was that ecstatic dimension of our personalities. Johnson says that if we do not get our "ecstasies" in a legitimate manner (through religion, spirituality, or mythology), it will pop up in its symptomatic (that is to say it's compulsive) form. Man will continually search for emotional highs, and if he cannot get them through some altruistic method, he will indulge in artificial means of pleasure, such as wealth and status, drugs and alcohol, food, and sex. Jung believed that the increase in artificial stimulation and the concurrent breakdown in basic morality contributed to a loss of meaning in Western culture. He believed that people were essentially wandering aimlessly without purpose or direction, and that this sense of ungrounding or dislocation was at the root of spiritual unrest. This was why he studied other cultures and religions, to try and find what we had missed. It is inherent in man's nature to search for meaning in his existence. Without it, he is unable to perform, because he is unable to justify what is demanded of him. Without justification or rationale, motivation itself becomes tenuous. But these energies within us do not just shut down. When they are not allowed to follow their normal course, they begin to infiltrate other aspects of our personalities. Some of the common behaviors include dissent and rebellion against accepted or established social norms, artistic works or interpretations with an existential or ontological theme, and increased religious fervor or hysteria. The common denominator in all these behaviors is a lack of fulfillment in people's lives.
In the film Floundering (1994, A-Pix Entertainment, Dir. Peter McCarthy), a typical white, mid-twenties American youth played by James LeGros is "floundering" in his own existential crises. Set in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots, he sees the world all around him self-destructing through violence, moral decay, racial and religious unrest, environmental abuse, and rampant capitalism. He feels completely ineffectual, as if his existence has no meaning. At one point in the film, out his window he hears a commotion on the front steps of his apartment building. When he looks out he sees three black males sitting on his stoop smoking crack. He asks them what they are doing there, and one of the men holds up the crack pipe, and with smoke pouring out of his mouth says, "You wanna kiss the lips of God?" LeGros' character contemplates the situation for a moment, then decides to join the men on the steps. The three men crowd around him, and one begins to speak of the impending revolution. He says that the establishment thinks they are weak because they indulge in moral aberrations like drugs, violence, sex and crime, but in fact they are growing in strength, hardening their emotions in order to detach from society more easily. They are full of rage and injustice, and these cannot be kept imprisoned for long. They will permeate anywhere they can and wreak havoc along the way. He tells Le Gros that in the final analysis, his survival depends on whether he is with them or against them. One of the other men hands him the pipe. They ask him, "are you with us, or against us?" Le Gros' character realizes nothing can stop the impending revolution. He feels it all the way to his innermost being; it is what has kept him up at night.
Here, the revolution represents the inevitable transformation the protagonist is himself unwittingly immersed in. What was at first a moral debate quickly transforms itself into an ideological struggle where morality has little to no impact. To survive, he must embrace his most base nature and learn to understand it, to use it to teach and motivate him. He must first embrace his Shadow, bottom out, before he can evolve. Symbolic of his submission to his Shadow and the commencement of his spiritual journey, he reaches out and takes the pipe; it is an initiation to the beginning of the end. He, like his co-conspirators on the stairs, must relent to his need to commune with a God. It is an act of methodical futility, as well as an acknowledgment of the chaos inherent in change.
There is so much of the modern spiritual dilemma contained within that scene: the feeling of non-existence, the relentless nature of social tides and the apparent futility in resisting; the inability to hear, commune with or much less believe in a God; and the artificial means in which we try to surmount this emptiness. Despite the fact that this film is highly contextualized, it does present a compelling paradigm. We witness firsthand, in an encapsulated form, the loss of meaning in our culture, or at the very least, a significant shift in meaning. In the end, the protagonist finds a way out of the misery and into substantive meaning, in his case through romantic love with a woman he falls in love with at first sight and admires from afar, then eventually kidnaps. Suspending disbelief, we watch as the women understands and then demures. One could argue that this ending is problematic in a narrative sense when addressing the Anima/Animus concept, but for our purposes, we will accept it as some fulfilling end in that he was actually able to find deliverance.
One idea this essay has not examined is that of Shame. I do acknowledge this as a pivotal issue, so much so that I chose not to gloss it over. The most plausible reason is that the novel itself is about one man's battle with his Shame, so why try to conquer it now. And to be completely honest, I did not understand enough about the nature of my own shame to include it here. I hope, at the novels conclusion, that I will have reached a fair amount of conclusions, and shared them with all of you.
We are all searching for some meaning in our lives. It is not so important anymore what "the Meaning of Life" is because we now seem to understand that it is as individualistic as our DNA, and is ever-changing, moment to moment. But this path to our Individuation or fulfillment or enlightenment travels through some of the darkest regions of our psyche, and it is in these passings where we discover our potential for pain, strength, hope, faith, love and transcendence.
Jung said in On the Nature of the Psyche:
Change of consciousness begins at home; it is a secular matter that depends entirely on how far the psyche's capacity for development extends. All we know at present is that there are single individuals who are capable of developing. How great their total number is we do not know, just as we do not know what the suggestive power of an extended consciousness may be, or what influence it may have upon the world at large. Effects of this kind never depend on the reasonableness of an idea, but far more on the question (which can only be answered ex effectu): Is the time ripe for change, or not?
There are no applicable laws in the spiritual arena; if anything, the possibilities are endless. The Sinner's Treadmill is the story of one man's quest for wholeness in a powerfully significant age and time, and the lengths he would go to conquer his demons both internal and external, real and imagined. As West Townsend, the novel's protagonist, seeks wholeness, he must first pass through weakness and fragmentation. Although I have invoked Jung in the creation of this book, I do not claim to follow the precepts of Jungian psychology to the letter. It is my interpretation. And it is a work of fiction, in as much as it can be. Not surprisingly, it's identity lie within a paradox: all the fictions combine in an attempt to create a working truth. Perhaps you may find yourself inside.
©Charles Shaw. Chicago, 1999.
1. There is a version of the Twelve Steps called the "Biblical Twelve Steps" which cites each passage of the Bible from which each step was formed. You can find this in places like the Salvation Army, Evangelical churches like The Moody Institute, and many church-based recovery programs.
2 The five spheres of the Psyche, according to Jungian psychology, are: Persona, Ego, Shadow, Anima/Animus, Unconscious (then Collective Unconscious).