The Sacred Dis-ease of Neurosis

By Paul Levy

The Sacred Dis-ease of Neurosis

If humanity is seen as a single macro-organism, it is as if there is a fissure, a primordial dissociation—a split—deep within its very core. We are living not just in the time of the splitting of the atom, but during a time of the splitting of the human psyche, and as a consequence, the sundering of the world at large as well. Humanity’s “split consciousness,” in which the right hand isn’t in touch with what the left hand is doing, C. G. Jung calls “the mental disorder of our day.”[i] Not in touch with or at one with ourselves, our species is suffering from what Jung calls a “disunity with oneself.”[ii] This tearing apart of an inner unity, what in alchemy is called the “disiunctio” (the antonym of “coniunctio” – the coming together of the opposites) is an inner situation that is being played out collectively, writ large on the world stage.

Our fragmented and polarized world is dissociated like a neurotic – as if our world is suffering from a “neurotic break” (as compared to a “psychotic break,” which our world also might be having). Split in pieces, our species has become neurotic as hell. We can further our understanding of what’s playing out in the world—and potentially, gain insight on how to deal with our world crisis—by deepening our insight into what happens when an individual becomes neurotic.

Lying behind our neurosis (which means “split mind”) and the resultant anxiety is oftentimes concealed all of the naturally-occurring suffering that we, for whatever reason, have been unwilling to bear. We foreclose on the chance of genuine happiness if we refuse the genuine suffering that is sent our way as part of life. Jung famously writes, “Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.”[iii] When we suppress the legitimate suffering that is ours to bear, however, we create an unnecessary additional form of interminable neurotic suffering that can become more painful than the initial legitimate suffering. In an anxiety-producing self-generated feedback loop whose basis is to avoid feeling our legitimate suffering, we only compound our suffering through our continual avoidance.  

Neurosis is the suffering of a soul which has not discovered its meaning. Jung considered the absence of meaning (the “senselessness and aimlessness” of life) as “the general neurosis of our age.”[iv] Neurosis oftentimes emerges when people content themselves with inadequate or wrong answers to the questions of life. Neurosis is an attempt to escape from our inner voice, and hence, flee from our vocation and ultimately, from ourselves. To quote Jung, “The neurotic is one who falls victim to his own illusions.”[v] Like a psychic barometer, our neurosis can tell us when and where we are straying from our individual path and destiny.

The moment of outbreak of neurosis is not generally a matter of chance – it is usually the moment when a new psychological adaptation is demanded by life. People who have become neurotic are often destined to be the bearers of new creative cultural ideals. Our personal neurotic conflicts, however, are connected with and reflections of the great problems of society and of our time. Jung writes, “Neurosis is nothing less than an individual attempt, however unsuccessful, to solve a universal problem.”[vi] Recognizing the greater archetypal, universal pattern that we are embedded in and expressions of can take our neurosis out of the realm of personal pathology, snap us out feeling isolated and help us to feel connected to—and a part of—humanity as a whole.

The outer divisions in our world, with all of its myriad political, social and militaristic conflicts is an outer reflection of the dissociative neurotic split—and conflict—between the conscious and the unconscious minds of humanity. Jung comments, “there are in a neurosis two tendencies standing in strict opposition to one another, one of which is unconscious.”[vii] When there are no open lines of communication between the seemingly opposing conscious and unconscious aspects of ourselves, it can become—like we see in the world today—a very dangerous situation that can potentially lead to the human-created nightmare of endless war.

Jung describes the splitting of personality which characterizes “neurosis” as “the state of being at war with oneself…. What drives people to war with themselves is the suspicion or knowledge that they consist of two persons in opposition to one another.”[viii] War is an inflammation, an outbreak in the world’s body politic reflecting a deeper systemic dissociative split in the underlying psyche of humanity. When we are not able to contain the “warring” elements within our own self, however, this conflict of opposites spills out into the outside world, where it gets acted out—“dreamed up”—in the world theater by way of projection.

Once we realize that our neurotic conflict is inside of us, however, we can understand that its tribulations are in actual fact a means to access our greatest wealth. Instead of squandering our riches by projecting our inner conflict outside of ourselves and attacking others, we can then “attack” the problem at its source, which is within ourselves.

Neurosis is by no means solely a negative thing, it is also something positive, containing a key to accessing the wholeness of our psyche – the hidden “other” part of our self. If a neurosis could be plucked from us like a bad tooth, we would lose an essential means to access our wholeness, as if a part of our body had been amputated. Our neurosis signifies and contains an undeveloped and precious fragment of our psyche without which we would be condemned to resignation, bitterness, despair and depression. To quote Jung, “Follow the way of your neurosis; it is the best thing you ever produced, your real value.”[ix] A neurosis can be viewed as a positive symptom, as it is a manifestation that something is not right in our present state, an expression that something within us wants to grow. Hidden within our neurosis lies a precious seed which if nurtured can help us to grow beyond the neurosis into a more coherent and integrated version of ourselves in ways that would be impossible without the “gift” of our neurosis. If the growth is not accepted, however, then it grows against us. We don’t heal our neurosis, our neurosis potentially heals us.   

We need to learn not how to get rid of our neurosis, but how to carry and bear it so that it can reveal its deeper meaning. Our neurosis is teaching us something about ourselves that we clearly haven’t been able to learn in any other way. Trying to get rid of our neurosis is analogous to attacking a fever in the belief that it is the noxious agent, rather than recognizing that the fever is an expression of the process of healing that is underway. Speaking of our neurotic illness, Jung writes, “the illness is nature’s attempt to heal [the person] … what the neurotic flings away as absolutely worthless contains the true gold we should never have found elsewhere.”[x] Neurosis is an attempt of the self-regulating nature of the psyche to restore balance to the overall psychic system, similar to how our night dreams compensate a one-sidedness in the dreamer.

Our neuroses are, ultimately speaking, of numinous origin. “The core of the neuroses of our time,” Jungian scholar Erich Neumann writes, is “the search for the self. In this sense neuroses … are a kind of sacred disease.”[xi] Though our neurosis strengthens and seems to feed into and off of our feelings of alienation, their origin is actually to be found in the wholeness-creating tendency of the Self. Paradoxically, neurosis splits us off from our psychic wholeness, while simultaneously being an expression of that very wholeness attempting to actualize itself through us.

Our neurosis is not a residue or hangover from the past (what in alchemy is referred to by the term caput mortuum – a residue left over after the distillation of a substance). To quote Jung, “The true reason for a neurosis always lies in the present, since the neurosis exists in the present.” Jung continues that it a neurosis is “new-made every day. And it is only in the today, not in our yesterdays, that the neurosis can be ‘cured.’”[xii] Jung points out that the loss of our relationship with our psychic totality “is the prime evil of neurosis.”[xiii] This is to say that the cure for neurosis involves reconnecting with the wholeness of the self, an experience which can only be found right now, in the present moment, which is, after all is said and done, all there ever is.


Footnotes

[i] Jung, Civilization in Transition, CW 10, para. 552

[ii] Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, CW 7, para. 16.

[iii] Jung, Psychology and Religion: West and East, CW 11, para. 129.              

[iv] Jung, The Practice of Psychotherapy, CW 16, para. 83.

[v] Jung, The Development of Personality, CW 17, para. 202.

[vi] Jung, Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, CW 7, para. 438.

[vii] Ibid., para. 16.

[viii] Jung, Psychology and Religion: West and East, CW 11, para. 522.

[ix] Jung, Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Vol. 1, 707.

[x] Jung, Civilization in Transition, CW 10, para. 361.

[xi] Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious, 132.

[xii] Jung, Civilization in Transition, CW 10, para. 363.

[xiii] Ibid., para. 367.


About the Author

A pioneer in the field of spiritual emergence, Paul Levy is a wounded healer in private practice, assisting others who are also awakening to the dreamlike nature of reality. Among his books are The Quantum Revelation: A Radical Synthesis of Science and Spirituality (SelectBooks, May 2018) and Dispelling Wetiko: Breaking the Curse of Evil (North Atlantic Books, 2013). He is the founder of the “Awakening in the Dream Community” in Portland, Oregon. An artist, he is deeply steeped in the work of C. G. Jung, and has been a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner for over 35 years. He was the coordinator for the Portland PadmaSambhava Buddhist Center for over twenty years. His email is paul@awakeninthedream.com; he looks forward to your reflections.

(Submitted by Sarah Flynn and Heather Williams, H.W., M.)

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