In my previous post, I discussed the limitations of the conscious mind, the deeper wisdom system residing in objective psyche, and the relevance of these ideas in both our personal lives and in the global community. In this follow-up piece, I will reflect on the abuses which occur when we unconsciously attribute a personal, subjective meaning to archetypally-derived issues.
Humanity has often sanctioned ruthless, evil and destructive actions by claiming allegiance to a myriad of forces. Fidelity to religious beliefs and political ideologies is frequently used to justify these behaviors, believing them to be the will of a higher power. Such is the way of human delusion, and the power of our personal and collective susceptibility to these darker forces of the unconscious. In my thirty years of clinical practice, I have witnessed the terrible damage adherence to “sacred truths” has wrought in the world, and I hope this essay stimulates a conversation about this important topic.
Realizing the limitations of a personal, ego-centered viewpoint, humanity has always sought to heed the voice of the transcendent. Called God, Jesus, Allah, the Self, or the search for “the greater good”, we attempt to align our behaviors with this higher virtue, and to make decisions reflecting its values. Much that is just and compassionate in our world flows from this source, yet we must admit that much of the violence and abuse perpetrated throughout history also has resulted from this same field of influence. Rooted in the transcendent, religions become a ready screen for the projection of all that is both good and bad in our hearts, minds and souls.
Our sacred texts and bible tales reflect humanity’s attempts to transmit the wisdom of these eternal archetypal truths. However, our personal fallibilities serve to limit our perspective, and lead to a misunderstanding of the true meaning of these timeless stories. For example, in the Old Testament we are told that Abraham believed God asked him to sacrifice Isaac. Did Abraham ever consider the ramifications of exiling his first-born son Ishmael into the desert? This abandonment, or killing-off of his first-born son, was repeated in the slaying of Isaac. Was it God or Sarah who demanded the banishment of Ishmael, and was it God or Abraham himself who acceded to these wishes? Was Abraham able to look at himself and clearly see the truth of his actions? Freud once said that we repeat what we do not want to remember, and perhaps this is what we find in the binding of Isaac.
In the name of God, deeming ourselves to be righteous believers, we have engaged in untold horrific acts and unspeakable atrocities. Holy wars are waged killing countless individuals, destroying families and nations. Thousands of women worldwide are stoned to death each year as punishment for adulterous behavior. In the privacy of the consulting room I have seen far too many lives shattered by obedience to religious edicts forbidding divorce, abortion or intermarriage. I have seen the fires of loving relationships extinguished because of irreconcilable religious beliefs. Can a just and caring God ever claim the dissolution of such love as his victory? Not only in the religious arena, but also in psychotherapy, the wisdom of the deep unconscious has been lost in the mire of the subjective. Believing ourselves to be advocates for the Self, we advise and act from the viewpoint of a faulty and limited ego.
Any way out of this cycle of abuse, this misattribution of the personal and subjective onto the eternal wisdom of our spiritual traditions, requires an ability to clearly listen to the mandates of the Self. We must approach this work as free of conjecture, speculation, and bias as possible. Like ethologists, we must seek to understand the objective natural patterns that drive the human condition.
Dreams, sacred texts, and global initiatives each have an intrinsic meaning that is not open to speculation or interpretation. Instead we must learn to translate their messages in order to pave the way to a truly spiritual approach to life. Stories convey eternal truths by presenting universal motifs that resonate in our collective psyche, and each story contains its own valuable nuggets. Like miners searching for hidden treasure, we need to learn the work of refining these raw materials. A story reveals its gold when its symbolic meaning is recognized. While most of us are aware of the limitations of a fundamentalist belief system, we can now understand that it is this neglect of the symbolic – which occurs each and every time we linger in the literal – that causes harm. The symbolic allows for the meaning of a story to be revealed, for its message to become part of our psyche. Very little change or transformation can occur without a deep regard for and an ability to translate the profound wisdom residing in our repository of spiritual, psychological and archetypal truths.
We need to turn away from literal interpretations, from dogged obedience to belief and doctrine, from careless approaches to working with images. Like ancient Biblical and Talmudic scholars, those of us interested in the ways of psyche need to learn the discipline of working with the sacred representations presented in our dreams and in the expressions of psyche in our daily lives. This commitment requires more of us than we may have ever realized, and may bring far greater meaning to our lives than we have ever imagined. Recognizing both the riches and abuses that may result from this work, we must adopt a new attitude. Like new parents, we need to embrace the precious opportunity offered to us, knowing that like tending to a newborn, tremendous care, attention and love is required of us, not for the moment – but for a lifetime.