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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Carl Jung's Formula for Recovery: 'Spiritus Contra Spiritum'

The seed that would grow into Alcoholics Anonymous (and its 'sister' 12 Step organizations) was first planted by the renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung. Jung, once a follower of Freud, developed the theory of psychological 'archetypes' - differing but repeating patterns of thought and action that re-appear time and again across people, countries and continents. He recognized in certain of the alcoholic patients he worked with, an archetypal need for the 'wholeness' that comes from a conscious contact with a Higher Power.

Carl G. Jung (1875 -1961)
In correspondence with Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder, Bill Wilson (attached at bottom), Jung observed that the alcoholic's thirst for alcohol is, "the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God."

In an informative video (attached) examining the underlying psychological and spiritual dimensions of alcoholism and addiction from a Jungian perspective, Dr. Jeffrey Sadinover, a gerontologist specializing in addiction problems amongst the aged, observes that, "(w)hat people experience in addictive behaviour is something which, in and of itself is normal." There is within every human, or so it would seem, a need for the divine, says Dr. Sadinover.

"That is to say," he notes, "the craving is normal - the craving for certain kinds of elation, for a certain sense of 'specialness,' for heroism, for cessation of pain. And, underlying all of those, really, ultimately, and most powerfully, is the seeking of a sense of 'meaningness.'"

"What we hope an individual will gain from the psychotherapeutic dimension of substance abuse  treatment," says Sadinover, "is a way of finding meaning in their lives again. Because, as Jung correctly recognized, ultimately the key motivating factor in the beginning of an addiction is the seeking of spirit."

Author, Robert Johnson, draws on Jung's 'archetypes' and ancient mythology as fables for understanding and explaining the 'psychological' reality of addiction.

"It is basic, Johnson observes. "If we don't get our ecstasy, which is an archetypal quality, in a legitimate way, we will get it in an illegitimate way; which accounts for much of the chaos of this culture now."

". . . deep down within every man, woman
and child
is the fundamental ideas of God."
"We have to have an ecstatic dimension of our life, Johnson observes. ""If we don't get a particular archetypal quality legitimately it will, so to speak, 'pop up' somewhere in its symptomatic, that is, it's 'compulsive' form."

And there we have it, the compulsion and obsession of the alcoholic addict "centers in the mind," or so it seems, just as we read in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous (at page 22).

"When we dismantled (Mount) Olympus," says Johnson, quoting Dr. Jung, "we turned the gods into symptoms." Therefore, as Jung noted in his correspondence with Bill W., the helpful prescription or formula is "spiritus contra spiritum."

The alcoholic needs the spiritual dimension in their life which is afforded by "the God of (their) own understanding," if they are to get, and stay, well.

Correspondence from Carl G. Jung, to Bill W., dated January 30, 1961:


  1. As a recovering addict, many of Jung’s ideas resonate with me also. I object, however, when Jung’s name is used to garner clinical and academic support for AA’s agenda.

    Jung sees alcoholism as “the equivalent…of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in the medieval language: the union with God.” i.e. alcoholism is a misdirected attempt at what is essentially a healthy drive towards individuation.

    AA on the other hand, tends to view alcoholism as a moral weakness and stems from “defects of character.” In a nutshell, we’re addicts because we’re “bad.”

    These two differences in etiology should therefore affect the trajectory of how addiction is treated rather than be casually lumped as one and all the same e.g. “spiritual journey”.

    Perhaps it is for this reason that Jung never endorsed AA although he had plenty of opportunities to do so. Jung also had the following to say about 12-step type treatments:

    “A hysterical alcoholic was cured by this Group movement, and they used him as a sort of model and sent him all round Europe, where he confessed so nicely and said that he had done wrong and how he had got cured through the Group movement. And when he had repeated his story twenty, or it may have been fifty, times, he got sick of it and took to drink again. The spiritual sensation had simply faded away.
    Now what are they going to do with him? They say, now he is pathological, he must go to a doctor. See, in the first stage he has been cured by Jesus, in the second by a doctor! I should and did refuse such a case. I sent the man back to these people and said, ‘If you believe that Jesus has cured this man, he will do it a second time. And if he can’t do it, you don’t suppose that I can do it better than Jesus?’ But that is just exactly what they do expect; when a man is pathological, Jesus won’t help him but the doctor will.”

    Volume 18 of the Collected Works, Miscellaneous Writings, p.272

    Ultimately, AA actively promotes, at least from the perspective of mental health, a pernicious religious belief that I believe even Jung would have a problem with: “They may believe that only God can heal, and [that] the ill need to replace the thinking that created their disease with harmony by restoring their relationship with God” (Rosenfeld, G. W. (2010). Identifying and integrating helpful and harmful religious beliefs into psychotherapy. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 47(4), 512-526. p. 515).

    1. Thanks for the comment . . . .however, I wholly disagree with your assertation that AA "tends to view alcoholism as a moral weakness and stems from “defects of character,” and that "(i)n a nutshell, we’re addicts because we’re “bad.”"

      The 'Big Book', Alcoholics Anonymous, (at page 23) plainly states that "the Problem of the alcoholic centers in the mind." Moreover, at pages 44-45 it clearly dismisses the notion that alcoholic addiction is in any way a "moral" failing. In fact, it states: "If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago. But we found that such codes and philosophy did not save us, no matter how hard we tried." Again, at page 62, the author of the 'Big Book' observes that "(m)any of us had moral and philosophical convictions galore, but we could not live up to them even though we would have liked to."

      Thus, A.A. clearly does not view alcoholism or addiction as a moral failing remediable by "religious" conviction or belief. Rather than promoting some sort of "pernicious religious belief" that one can obtain in the formal outer teachings of any religious body, it promotes a spiritual or religious experience which is only available when one sticks to an inner spiritual or religious path.

      In this sense, one must look back to the etymology of what "religion" means. It comes from the Latin terms 're' (meaning, again), and 'ligare' (meaning, to tie or unite). Thus, the spiritual or "religious experiences" described in the "Spriritual Experience" appendix to the 'Big Book'refer to the attainment of a rarified experience "in reality" (as Jung noted in his letter to Bill W.), experiences which lead to "a higher understanding of the mind beyond mere rationalism." Such experiences allow those who experience them to move beyond the habitual thoughts and modes of thinking (ideas and attitudes) that are characteristic of their defects of character, and lead them to embrace a new state of being and consciousness. As Jung said: The helpful prescription remains, "spiritus contra spiritum."