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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Carl Jung and Alcoholics Anonymous: Part II

Carl G. Jung (1875-1961)
In "Carl Jung and Alcoholics: Part I," we touched on Bill W.'s correspondence with the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, discussed why letting go of our "old ideas" is crucial to recovery from alcoholic addiction, and highlighted the following pithy description of just what "vital spiritual awakenings" consist of. Talking to Roland H. several years before Bill W. attained sobriety, Jung described the latter as "phenomena," whereby:
"Ideas emotions and attitudes which were once the guiding forces in the lives of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and new conceptions and motives begin to dominate them."
It is essential to rid oneself of "old ideas," or at least work at letting go of them, in order to obtain a truly open mind and allow new conceptions of what one's life is really about to take root. For it is in obtaining such a new worldview that we are truly relieved of the craving for the experience and relief from ourselves that came with taking the first of what inevitably turned out to be too many drinks.

As Jung explained to Bill W. in the course of their correspondence some thirty or so years after Jung had last treated Rolland H., the thirst of the alcoholic is symptomatic of a much deeper existential craving. In Jung's words:
"His craving for alcohol was the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God."
Jung, as he explained to Bill in his letter of January 30, 1961, was deeply concerned at the time that his then (and now) somewhat 'controversial' views with respect to the 'spiritual' or 'religious experiences' undergone by many reformed alcoholics might be misunderstood. Nonetheless, he would explain to Bill just how such experiences took root, as he had concluded that Bill had acquired an understanding "above the misleading platitudes one usually hears about alcoholism."

In explaining the spiritual paths that lead to what he termed a "religious experience" (undoubtedly an "inner religious" as opposed to an "outer religious" experience, employing the terminology used by William James in "The Varieties of Religious Experience"), Jung explained:
"The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is, that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path, which leads you to a higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism."
I was extremely blessed to have received the benefits of "an act of grace" one evening, like so many other alcoholics I have met, while staring into the eyes of a very sick man reflected in my bathroom mirror. It was just the result of another typical day of drinking, but it was my last day of drinking some twenty-odd years ago.

I was doubly blessed to have the "personal and honest contact with friends in my first years in Alcoholics Anonymous," particularly the hundreds of hours that I was able to spend with my first sponsor before he died.

And, yet, even this was insufficient to trigger within me that deep and effective "spiritual" or "religious experience" Jung describes. I would spend five years in the lonely wilderness of sobriety after a decade clean and sober; a decade when all my time and effort was given over to a newly acquired profession and a growing young family that I put before my mental and spiritual sobriety. The result was not atypical, a slow and almost imperceptible descent into the depths of insanity, with a frightening drop at the end, as I hit bottom in sobriety.

I was fortunate to have survived bottoming out in sobriety. Many people I knew did not. And I was thrice blessed, because after hitting bottom in sobriety I was humbled and finally ready to receive "a higher education of the mind before mere rationalism."

As strange as it may seem at first, largely because many of us misconstrue rationalism with sanity, "mere rationalism" can be a block to the true and effective spiritual awakening that will relieve us of the symptoms of alcoholism, just as "the good can be the enemy of the great," as the saying goes.

Reinhold Niebuhr, the man who penned the "Serenity Prayer" explained that there is a  plane of thought and inspiration above the ordinary self-conscious "rationalism" or "reasoning" that we witness even so-called "normal people" struggling with. In delivering the annual Gifford Lecture (the same lectures that William James used as his basis for writing "The Varieties of Religious Experience") Niebuhr observed:
"Individual selfhood is expressed in the self's capacity for self-transcendence and not in its rational capacity for conceptual and analytic procedures."
I was extremely fortunate upon hitting bottom in sobriety to encounter two old-timers that would lead me on "a higher education of the mind beyond mere rationalism." Neither of them made it as far as high school even, yet with their spiritual experience in hand they were able to demonstrate to me (with my two university degrees) that a rigorous program of "self-examination, meditation and prayer." particularly meditation - could and would open an entirely new plane of existence to me.

And it is in attaining this promised "new plane of inspiration" or existence that one perfects the promise of a spiritual awakening and gains a whole new set of conceptions and motives with which to live a radically different life; it is on this plane that one can, in actuality, find a "contented" (and more importantly) a "purposeful life."

To find this new plane of existence and purposeful life is essential for long-term, contented sobriety. As Jung noted in his letter to Bill, in an observation that is at least as relevant, if not more so, today as it was fifty years ago in 1961:
I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world, leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted by a real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society cannot resist the power of evil.
Fortunately, the alcoholic addict in recovery no longer needs to be isolated in society - unless he or she so chooses, as I did - nor must he or she be left unprotected outside "the protective wall of human community" or unaided by "an action from above."

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