Friday, January 20, 2012

Two Forms of Suicide: Physical and Psychological

Psychology has not paid enough attention to death. How little literature there is compared with those earnest annotated studies on the trivia of life. The examination of death through the study of the soul is surely one of psychology’s prime tasks…If we want to move towards self-knowledge and the experience of reality, then an enquiry into suicide becomes the first step...Since we are each in silent therapy with ourselves, the issue of suicide reaches into the heart of each of us. - James Hillman

This paper will examine two kinds of death found in Virgil's Aeneid through the characters of Dido and Aeneas. I will suggest that both are self-inflicted deaths. The term for self-inflicted death is suicide, which typically refers to a literal, physical death. In this paper I mean to expand the notion of suicidal death beyond its usual corporeal denotation. I am viewing suicide from a psychological perspective as well as from the literal or physical point of view. James Hillman addresses these two perspectives in Suicide and the Soul where he speaks of the importance of distinguishing between literal suicide and metaphorical suicide, between inner and outer realities:

"The experience of death is necessary, but is actual suicide also necessary? How does the analyst proceed when the death experience is carried by suicide fantasies? How can he meet the needs of his analysand and keep separate inner and outer necessities?...The suicide a confusion of inner and outer. We suffer when we muddle psychic reality with concrete people and events...Keeping distinct inner and outer is a major task of an analyst. If he uses his tools well he frees life from entangling projections and frees the soul from its worldliness..." (77)

Hillman goes on to distinguish between inner and outer suicidal realities by calling the therapists examination of outer reality a case history and the examination of inner reality a soul history: "A case history is a biography of historical events in which one took part: family, school, work, illness, war, love. The soul history often neglects entirely some or many of these events, and spontaneously invents fictions and 'inscapes' without major outer correlations. The biography of the reported best by emotions, dreams and fantasies" (77). A client's case history is linear and chronological--he/she is identified with his/her external world. For such a person, suicidal death is logically corporeal. The solution to such external despair is to cut off ones physiological existence. On the other hand, a client's soul history is not predominantly identified with the external details of existence, focusing instead on key symbolic life experiences, life-altering crises and internal dreams and visions--sometimes described as personal vocation, destiny or fate. Here suicidal death is psychological, meaning that the self that dies is not identified with a physical body that is caught up in external causes and conditions.

My aim in this paper is to show that Dido and Aeneas represent these two types of histories resulting in two kinds of suicide. I will explore the possibility that Dido chooses a literal suicide provoked by external causes and conditions, while Aeneas chooses a psychological suicide compelled by internal images and divine Fate. Dido's self-inflicted demise is the result of her case history which is comprised of a personal "biography of historical events," especially the losses of her relationship with Aeneas and of her regal status in the eyes of her Carthaginian subjects. Dido's case history is aggravated by the smoldering embers of prior losses--her murdered husband Sychaeus and exile from her Tyrian homeland. Dido ultimately takes her life by ascending a funeral pyre comprised of Aeneas's possessions, and by plunging her ex-lover's sword into her physical heart to end her psychological and emotional pain.

On the other hand, Aeneas experiences a psychological death--a metaphorical suicide. Aeneas gets on a ship and plunges into the sea of his Fate. He too dies to his beloved Dido and sacrifices his status as the first king of the city of Carthage, but his self-inflicted demise is psychological, not physiological. He has a case history, but views it through the lens of his unique soul history or imaginal destiny. Dido's is an outer death--Aeneas's is an inner death. We will see that both go to and experience the Underworld in different ways as well--Dido by physical death, Aeneas through psychological death. Here two means of descending into the realm of death are juxtaposed.

We begin by noting that both of our characters have similar past case histories--both are the offspring of royal families, uncommonly attractive individuals, witnesses to the violent deaths of their spouses; both lose close friends and beloved family members. Dido and Aeneas each lost property and/or financial fortunes; both were wandering exiles from great kingdoms and each was responsible for scores of dislocated subjects looking for a new beginning. The losses and stresses of Dido and Aeneas were enormous. What caused one to commit physical suicide and the other to choose psychological death?

When Aeneas arrives in Dido's new city of Carthage with his twenty ships filled with men, women and children, the Queen and her people are busily constructing the great metropolis. Eventually the two regal and "beautiful people" meet. There is an immediate attraction. The allure is solidified when Venus uses her divine powers to cause Dido to fall passionately in love with Aeneas. In a sense, this falling-in-love moment is where the pertinent case history of Dido begins-- found in the first lines of chapter IV of the Aeneid:

"But the Queen--too long she has suffered the pain of love,
hour by hour nursing the wound with her lifeblood,
consumed by the fire buried in her heart.
The man's [Aeneas's] courage, the sheer pride of his line,
they all come pressing home to her, over and over.
His looks, his words, they pierce her heart and cling--
no peace, no rest for her body, love will give her none." (127)

Dido is suffering from the passions of her love for Aeneas. The phrase, “hour by hour nursing the wound with her lifeblood,” might more literally be translated, “feeds the wound in her veins.” There is clearly a play on words here as veins (Latin, venenum) conjures up the Goddess Venus who had moved her son Cupid to fill Dido’s veins with the poison of love according to Book I (I, 782-86). Like an infection of the blood, love is making Dido sick. A soul history would notice here that this love-sickness is an assignment from a Goddess--not of human making. Dido does not recognize this numinous detail. The lack of recognition will be the death of her.

The next line in the above text is even more significant for our study: Dido is "consumed by the fire buried in her heart". The Latin scholar Servius comments on the phrase, "fire buried in her heart," saying that it reveals something that grows "stronger when suppressed”. He quotes Ovid to further elaborate this image of compressed passion, “The more a fire is covered, the more it heats up” (3). Dido is keeping all of her passion and pain inside, and the result is an emotional volcano seeking an outlet.

Further, this text reveals that the causes of Dido's toxic and fiery passion were external conditions. She was fixated on Aeneas's "...courage, the sheer pride of his [royal] line..His looks, his words...they all come pressing home to her, over and over...they pierce her heart and cling..." (Aeneid IV, 127). Again, she does not seem to be aware that her painful experience is not of her making, not really even of Aeneas's making--that it is divinely caused. By coming from Venus it is clear that her suffering is something like a celestial assignment that "comes pressing home to her, over and over..." The 19th century poet John Keats imagined that such earthly sufferings are sometimes given to us as personal assignments, written on the horn-book of our hearts to be wrestled with and deciphered while we are in this worldly school of soul-making (Bauld). Keats perspective suggests that one may be responsible to tackle his/her soul-assignment, or soul history, but that the actual situation is not of any earthly or human making. This is important for the suicidal person. If he/she feels any human individual or earthly condition is the source of their problems, then an external and literal solution seems logical. If the external person or condition cannot be changed, then physical death seems the only option.

Dido's curse of love, or her divine assignment, is further intensified as Juno and Venus, for different reasons, conspire to unite Dido and Aeneas in sexual union. While on a hunt together the two take shelter in a cave during a thunder storm. Juno casts her spell and the couple make love for the first time and we read, “This was the first day of [Dido's] death, the first of grief, the cause of it all. From now on Dido cares no more for appearances or reputation, either. She no longer thinks to keep the affair a secret, no she calls it a marriage, using the word to cloak her sense of guilt” (IV,213-218). At this point in Dido's story, "the first day of her death...and cause of it all" could refer to either a literal or metaphorical death. The birth of her love induced grief, the end of caring about appearances and reputation, her secrecy and avoidance of guilt through self deception are simply a reporting of the symptoms of a tragic state of affairs. While it is true that the end of every tragic and hopeless situation is always some sort of death, some sort of change, the death need not necessarily be literal. Not realizing that her problems are divinely assigned and internally resolvable, Dido will continue to focus on external causes, eventuating in her bodily suicide.

After a period of romantic bliss during which Dido and Aeneas are inseparable, it all comes crashing down. Aeneas receives a vision from Zeus, through Mercury, reminding him of his fateful duty and he begins to prepare his ships to sail for his destiny in Italy. Dido discovers his sudden plans to leave and feels betrayed. She confronts Aeneas and tells him that his choice to leave will kill her, “Can nothing hold you back…not even the thought of Dido doomed to a cruel death...pity a great house about to fall…do you leave me here to meet my death?” (IV, 383, 396, 403). Aeneas is the cause of her pain, and the solution by her accounting. She tries everything in her power to change his mind. She "resorts to tears, driven to move the man, or try, prayers--a suppliant kneeling, humbling her pride to passion. So if die she must, she'll leave no way untried" (IV, 520-230). Finally, Dido sends her sister Anna to make a bargain with Aeneas, “stay just a few months until I am done grieving” (IV, 544-46). But when every “twist and turn” fails, she decides to put an end to her self. She believes her external reality is ultimate. She loses her lover and her reputation. Her life is over. Hopeless, Dido climbs the funeral pyre made of Aeneas's furniture and clothing, then thrusts his sword into her breast. She exits the world "in a blaze of passion" (IV, 867) and Iris, dispensed by Proserpina, releases Dido from her body and sends her to the Underworld (IV, 868-74). Virgil indicates that her death was unnecessary by writing, "...she was dying a death not fated or deserved...before her day..." (IV, 866-67). This causes me to agree with Hillman when he writes, " actual suicide...necessary?... We suffer when we muddle psychic reality with concrete people and events...thus distorting reality" (Suicide 77).

Now turning to Aeneas, we discover that he also experiences a kind of self-inflicted death, but of a different sort than Dido's. While the sincerity of Aeneas's emotional attachments to Dido and the city of Carthage are debated by scholars, certain passages seem to make it clear that he really loved Dido and longed for a place in Carthage. After his vision from Zeus, reminding him of his duty to found Rome, Carthage is referred to as the "land he loves" (IV, 348), and Dido is the woman "who means the world to him" (IV, 360). When confronted by the sad and angry Dido, he "fought to master the torment in his heart" (IV, 415) and replies, " have done me so many kindnesses...I shall never....regret my memories of Dido, not while I can recall myself and draw the breath of life" (IV, 416-20). We read further that Aeneas tries to console the heartbroken Dido, his own “heart shattered by his great love” for her (IV, 498). Yet finally, Aeneas “obeys the god’s commands and back he goes to the ships” (IV, 500). When Aeneas visits the Underworld in Book VI, he encounters the ghost of dead Dido: "...that moment Aeneas wept and approached the ghost with tender words of love" (VI, 527-28). He tells her that he left Carthage "against his will" (VI, 535), and with many "appeals, with welling tears, tried to soothe her rage...with streaming tears" he "pities her as she passes" (VI, 543-44, 553). All of these passages show us that Aeneas too experienced deep loss. His case history or biography left him emotionally disturbed and in pain. But Aeneas does not get stuck in his external conditions. Before he left Carthage for Italy, Aeneas tells Dido that his first love is to his internal call, his divine destiny, and seeks to elicit empathy by reminding her that she too once had a love greater than her passion for Aeneas:

"Grynean Apollo’s oracle says that I must seize on Italy’s noble land, his Lycian lots say ‘Italy!’ There lies my love, there lies my homeland now. If you, a Phoenecian, fix your eyes on Carthage, a Lybian stronghold, tell me, why do you grudge the Trojans their new homes on Italian soil? What is the crime if we seek far-off kingdoms too?" (IV, 431-37)

Psychologically this could be imagined as a therapeutic attempt to help Dido see that “love” has many levels and that temporal, emotional romantic love should not cloud one’s larger destiny. Italy and Carthage might represent something larger than literal geography. Like Abraham's Promised Land or Dorothy’s Kansas, these "places" point beyond to the 'inscape' of the poetic soul or Jung's individuated Self. Abraham is asked to sacrifice the life of his beloved son Isaac in order to fully realize the Promises of God and Dorothy must leave her three beloved friends in OZ to get back to her home in Kansas. While the experiences of human attachments, like love and country, are necessary experiences for expanding ego-consciousness beyond mere self obsession, such attachments are not the ultimate aim of soul-making. The soul is always in the process of poeisis, creative invention beyond the various archetypal incarnations found in physical lovers or parcels of land. That is Socrates point in the Symposium when he sees erotic love as the means to pursuing and knowing The Good. The common denominator is “love,” about which Virgil says, “Love, you tyrant! To what extremes won’t you compel our hearts?” (IV, 518-19). The temptation is always to hang onto the former, literal objects of love and security. But a soulful perspective reminds us of Isaiah's words to Israel as she grieved the loss of her tangible land and beloved temple, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland" (43:18-19).

While Dido focused on her biographical history and external conditions, Aeneas focused on what Hillman calls the internal call or 'inscape.' These individual soul 'inscapes' are known and "...reported best by emotions, dreams and fantasies" (Suicide 77). Emotions, dreams and fantasies make up the soul history. This is what we find with Aeneas. He does not rehearse the former externals of his life, but appeals to a dream from his father, “My father, Anchises…warns me in dreams” (IV,438- 441). Aeneas's soul saga chronicles the fantasy of his ancestral legacy, “My son Ascanius…I feel the wrong I do…robbing him of his kingdom” (IV,442-43). Aeneas does not resort to a mere external case history of biographical facts, but recounts a divine vision: “And now the messenger of the gods…has brought me firm commands” (IV, 446-448). He makes it clear that his departure from Carthage is not really even a choice, “I set sail for Italy against my will” (VI,451-52). The externals or 'outscapes' are secondary, significant only when in-formed by the 'inscapes'. Aeneas recognizes that his loves, reputations, emotions and external conditions are on loan from the gods, assignments with time limits and aims beyond human understanding or control. His Keatsian horn-book contains lessons that have nothing to do with his human plans. If there is to be a death or a loss, it is of the old self that had become attached to externals which no longer served his higher soul calling. His response was very different than Dido's when she focused on Aeneas's "courage, the sheer pride of his line...His looks, his words, they pierce her heart and cling..." (127). Aeneas's self-inflicted psychological death was to the externals--no clinging to his passion for Dido's body and emotional companionship. He detached from or cut off his role as the new king of the great city of Carthage. When he climbed aboard his ship, as Dido climbed atop the funeral pyre, Aeneas plunged his old life into the depths of the sea--a kind of baptism--and died to the man he was in Carthage in order that he might become the man he was to become in mysterious Italy.

However, it is important to see that this was not an easy experience for Aeneas. Psychological suicide is very difficult, in many ways more difficult than the quick cessation of consciousness via physical suicide. This point comes out when Jove, the King of the Gods, sends Mercury with a message to Aeneas. Mercury fastens on his golden sandals and flies to the Trojan prince and castigates him for “building your own realm, dotting on your wife. Blind to your own realm, oblivious to your fate!” (IV, 332-333). After hearing Mercury, “Then Aeneas was truly overwhelmed by the vision, stunned…He yearns to be gone, to desert the land that he loves…” (IV, 346-48). These lines are important for the exploration of psychological death. To the person in despair, it is easy to mistake the urge "to be gone" as something to be taken literally, especially when it involves losing the "land that [one] loves." This point is critical for those moments when “suicidal thoughts” seem to arrive mercurially out of nowhere, urging us to be gone. We might imagine that they come from Mercury with an “overwhelming vision” that terrifies and confuses us with an urge "to desert the land that [we] love...” It is important to remember that such yearnings need not be taken literally. Both Aeneas and Dido were overwhelmed with urges “to be gone". Dido took them literally while Aeneas took them literarily or metaphorically.

We must also explore the role of the Underworld in considering literal versus metaphorical suicides. After Iris releases Dido from her body we find the dead queen residing in Hades in Book VI. Virgil has little to tell us about Dido's experience in the Underworld. In fact, Dido says nothing when Aeneas approaches her with his desire to make things right. One psychological implication of Dido's silence suggests that our soul-making existence is done on this earth once the body is dead according to its time, its fated destiny, and the corporeal experiences of sensation and mentation are finished. This does not mean that soul-making does not go on beyond this world, but it does mean that we know nothing about that. I would even suggest that as interesting as it is, far too much time is spent speculating about what happens "after death".
In contrast to Dido's silence in the Underworld, we find that Aeneas, still in his vital body, has a very full and powerful experience of that soulful realm --one that would inspire Dante's Inferno several centuries later. Aeneas meets and resolves a problem with his former helmsman, Palinurus. He has a long and rich conversation with his deceased father, Anchises; he meets Dido and achieves a kind of confessional purgation through a reflective and penitential monologue. He seems to resolve some of his grief about the end of Troy as he views Trojan war heroes. Aeneas sees the future of Rome. Psychologically, much is done for Aeneas's soul history in the Underworld in order to complete his past that he might move freely into his destiny--his next phase of soul-making.

We might even play with the idea that Virgil's Aeneas willingly enters death and the Underworld through what Jung called Active Imagination, with a view to further self knowledge. Active Imagination is a meditative technique developed by Carl Jung between 1913 and 1916 wherein the contents of one's unconscious are translated into images, narrative or are personified as separate entities. It can serve as a bridge between the conscious 'ego' and the Collective Unconscious. Hillman makes it clear that the aim of Active Imagination is solely self knowledge, not "spiritual discipline, artistic creativity, transcendence of the worldly, mystical vision or union, personal betterment or magical effect...There is no other end than the act of soul-making itself..." (Healing 79).

We might imagine that Aeneas’s desire to enter the Underworld in this fashion honors the suicide fantasy which is necessary prior to all transformation--not bodily death, but psychological death--emotional demise and detachment from all that has gone before and held meaning. This may be what Hillman is referring to when he says:

"Suicide fantasies provide freedom from the actual and usual view of things, enabling one to meet the realities of the soul. These realities appear as images and voices, as well as impulses with which one can communicate…for these conversations with death, one must take the realm of soul—with its night spirits, its uncanny emotions and shapeless voices, where life is disembodied and highly autonomous—as a reality." (Suicide 70)

From this perspective, the Sybil is a kind of therapist or Shaman. Aeneas tells his story to the Sibyl (VI, 7-93) and like a good analyst she is tuned into both Aeneas’s consciousness and the Unconscious in the form of "Apollo who resided in her breast" (IV, 97-98). Aeneas asks to know “no more than the realm [his] fate decrees” (6, 80-81). This suggests that he sought neither eschatological speculations nor rational explanations or emotional relief, but rather self knowledge, or clarity regarding his own destined journey.

When asking the Sybil about going to the Underworld, Aeneas is told that getting there is easy—that the hard part is getting out (6, 149-155). This is a critical point. In this earthly ‘vale of soul-making,’ it takes great courage and work to enter psychological death, to disintegrate, to hear the voices in the Underworld and make the return to wholeness. This more difficult path requires the human to remain in his/her body, for as already mentioned, matter is one of three necessary elements, alongside the spark of spirit and the emotions, for soul-making according to John Keats. Again, citing Hillman, “Transformation, to be genuine and thorough, always affects the body. Suicide is always somewhere a body problem” (Suicide 71). Dido, who took the easier route, is just a wandering shade in Hades without a body. Her vague soul is bound to the Underworld. The game or journey of soul-making, which includes body, soul and spirit is over for her. Aeneas, while still in the material body, is allowed to enter and exit the Underworld, bringing with him the wisdom and transformational benefits that can come to a human only through the embodied soul. As Hillman says, "Suicide is the attempt to move from one realm to another by force through death. This movement to another aspect of reality can be formulated by those basic opposites called body and soul, outer and inner, activity and passivity, matter and spirit, here and beyond, which become symbolized by life and death” (Suicide 68-69). In this view, soul is not separate from body, but a necessary and crucial element in soul-making or “spiritual growth”. To shed the body before its time interrupts the process.

There is one final issue that must be addressed in a discussion about literal suicide compared to psychological suicide--the topic of hope. Our natural tendency as loving human beings is to give hope to the person in suicidal despair. Does this help or hinder the situation? On this topic there is an interesting comment made by Zeus as he prepares Mercury to "unseal the eyes" of Aeneas, oblivious to his destiny as the founder of Italy. Zeus says, "What is he [Aeneas] plotting now? What hope can make him loiter among the foes, lose sight of Italian offspring still to come and all the Lavinian fields? Let him sail! This is the sum of it. This must be our message" (IV, 293-97). The comment about loitering in hope made by Zeus suggests that Aeneas's "hope" was causing him to dawdle in a place where he no longer belonged. Aeneas was to release all hope and "set sail" toward his destiny. Hillman makes much of the necessity for the suicidal person to release all hope and even chides therapists to avoid providing hope for the suicidal client. While counterintuitive to the compassionate helper, the way through suicidal despair is by means of abandoning all hope--by entering fully into the despair of the not-yet-conscious, into the experience of death and the possibility of a psychic transformation which is impossible to foresee by any human being:

"The more the impulse towards suicide is conscious, the more it will tend to colour all psychic life with despair. And the more this despair can be held, the less the suicide will 'just happen'. To hope for nothing, to expect nothing, to demand nothing. This is analytical despair. To entertain no false hopes, not even that hope for relief which brings one into analysis in the first place. This is an emptiness of soul and will. It is the condition present from that when, for the first time, the patient feels there is no hope at all for getting better, or even changing, whatsoever. An analysis leads up to this moment and by constellating this despair lets free the suicidal impulse. Upon this moment of truth the whole work depends, because this is the dying away from the false life and wrong hopes out of which the complaint has come. As it is the moment of truth, it is also the moment of despair, because there is no hope...nothing but the experience itself...the suicide gesture [is] a 'cry for help',--but not to live. Rather it is a cry for help to die, to go through the death experience with meaning...Transformation begins at this point where there is no hope. Despair produces the cry for salvation...The cry on the cross is the archetype of every cry for help. It sounds the anguish of betrayal, sacrifice, loneliness. Nothing is left, not even God. My only certainty is my suffering which I ask to be taken from me by dying...Despair ushers in the death experience and is at the same time the requirement for resurrection. Life as it was before, the status quo ante, died when despair was born. There is only the moment as it is--the seed of whatever might come--if one can wait. The waiting is all and the waiting is together." (Suicide 88, 89, 91, 93)

When my son was killed in Afghanistan in 2008, our family had gathered together to grieve and plan his memorial service. My daughter, Micael, two years older than Jason was seated across the table from me. She suddenly started weeping uncontrollably—the kind of sobbing that won’t let you catch your breath. At one point, eyes flooded with tears, she took a deep gasp and blurted out, “I, I just want to be dead!” Of course her declaration caused me and everyone else great concern for her, but I knew what she meant. There was no hope. Nothing would bring our beautiful twenty-five year old son and brother back to us. The hopelessness and pain of such losses are so overwhelming that cessation of consciousness seems an attractive alternative. No one said anything to Micael--we too felt as she did, a desire to be dead. It seems to me now that in that moment, all of us around that table intuited what Hillman meant when he writes, "There is only the moment as it is--the seed of whatever might come--if one can wait. The waiting is all and the waiting is together" (Suicide 93). If one can wait: That is the suicidal moment. What will come next in the midst of such a hopeless moment?

I first learned of my son's death on the evening of July 14, 2008 and eventually went to bed in the early morning hours. Like Aeneas, my eyes were unsealed from sleep by Hermes. His Logos was knocking at the door of my soul. Images and emotions flitted like pale sprites behind closed eye lids. At one point a stark message broke through the chaotic menagerie, “Michael, you are not the man you were yesterday. You are no longer the father of a living son. You will never be that man again.” I intuitively asked, "Who will I be?" The answer was simply, "Wait and see." Only the waiting holds the transformative seed. Many months or years later, after the waiting, people often speak of the miracles that followed such tragedies. Without hopelessness and suicidal despair, there can be no miracles. Miracles like a resurrection can occur only from such utter despondency.

Neither my daughter nor I took our physical lives, but we both experienced a profound loss of “I”. We both knew unqualified hopelessness, and each of us underwent our own unique journeys to the Underworld and returned transformed. She went on to work with the Unites States military and various groups of peace activists, often anti-military, bringing them together to talk about solutions to world conflicts. Her connections to the military through the loss of her brother allowed her to become a bridge between the two archetypal extremes of war and peace.

I too survived the psychological journey into the Underworld. For eight months I dwelt with Hades and Persephone. Like Aeneas I spoke to the shades of my deceased relatives—my grandmother, my mother and my recently departed son. The prolonged encounter with death and conversing with the shades of many past and present losses inculcated a form of compassion in me that I had never known. The old cliché, “Many tears water the flowering heart,” was no longer just a Hallmark card. Jason’s death and my subsequent psychological suicide transformed my soul and my work as a teacher. As Hillman writes, “…the suicidal crisis, because it is one of the ways of experiencing death, must also be considered necessary to the life of the soul” (Suicide 76).

In conclusion, suicide may occur literally or metaphorically, externally or internally. Having this choice of perspectives can make all of the difference in the midst of loss and despair. Ernst Becker says that holding to a psychological perspective of death boils down to the ability to forsake former values:

"In order to grow he needs to renounce precisely that form of comfort and salvation that have become inseparable from his deepest values as these are grounded in the muscles and nerves of his organism...The person has to renounce precisely that which he feels at least able to renounce—that which is as dear as life itself because it has become the indispensible condition for his life." (145)

Renunciation of old attachments comes hard to the person who believes his/her past conditions are indispensible in order for existence to continue. Such persons seem to see only two alternatives: manipulation of external conditions or death by physical suicide. We saw this in Dido. Aeneas, on the other hand, was able to die psychologically and morph into the next phase of his psycho-spiritual existence.

In this paper I have tried to do as Hillman admonishes, pay "attention to death...through the study of the soul [which] is one of psychology’s prime tasks…If we want to move towards self-knowledge and the experience of reality, then an enquiry into suicide becomes the first step...Since we are each in silent therapy with ourselves, the issue of suicide reaches into the heart of each of us" (Suicide 1-2). Will it be literal, or metaphorical?

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Relationship of New Age Spirituality to Depth Psychology

The Soul of Spirituality and the Spirit of Soulfulness
The Relationship of New Age Spirituality to Depth Psychology

For depth psychology, a sort of working distinction is sometimes made between soul and spirit—soul takes a person into the depths while spirit raises a person into the heights. Soul is a way of referencing human fragmentation and spirit refers to wholeness. Soul takes us into the darkness of hades while spirit takes us into the heavenly light and so forth. Soul is often associated with the negative emotions of depression, panic, fear, sorrow, etc. Spirit on the other hand leads us into feelings of ecstasy, tranquility, courage and joy. Soul is often associated with death and disintegration while spirit is associated with life and integration. Soul’s depths are at the center for the depth psychologist; Spirit’s heights are at the heart of the New Age religions. Using a popular New Age bestselling book as an example, we might say the New Age is about the spiritual Law of Attraction, while depth psychology is about the soulful Law of Subtraction.

That being said, we must remember that terms like soul and spirit are symbols pointing to a slice of lived phenomena, not the phenomena themselves. There is a danger of making these two kinds of human experience, soul and spirit, too distinct and unrelated. In order to avoid a complete split we need to talk about the soul of spirituality and the spirit of soulfulness.

By the “soul of spirituality” I am suggesting that while in the heights of spiritual ecstasy, on might get a momentary hint of being too consumed by the heights, or of being too far removed from the common earthly human experience. Sometimes in the middle of ecstatic spiritual transcendence there is a moment of dread or suffocation from the light. One might hear a voice whisper things like: “This is too much for you.” “This will not last.” “You will not be able to identify with those around you.”

The “spirit of soulfulness” on the other hand might refer to the feeling of peace and familiarity that arises mysteriously while in the dark depths. Sometimes in the middle of deep murky musings there is a moment of freedom from soaring too high or a moment of profoundly valuable insight about oneself or life in general. One might hear a voice whispering, “Relax and stop trying so hard.” I recently talked with a woman in the final days of her terminal cancer. She was smiling serenely. She said, “This is so odd. I do not really want to leave this life, but I have no fear of dying. There is a sense of release and relief that I feel.”

These two realms or ideas of spirit and soul are not really radically distinct phenomena. Like the Chinese Yin/Yang symbol, a bit of light resides in the deepest darkness, while a bit of darkness inhabits the brightest light. Similarly in the Christian Gospel, the infinite divine God has united with the mortal decaying human in Jesus Christ. This is not dogma, but rather images and stories which reflect the internal human experience of us all--a dynamic flow of dark and light experiences to make each of us into unique souls. I like to imagine that the thin line running between the two realms is each person's individual soul in the matrix of diverse yet related life experiences.

Duality is a necessary requirement for the dynamic and ongoing creative process, demanding both spirit and soul, above and below, positive and negative. Yet the two are always working in tandem, never alone.

We find this inside of our own skulls: the two hemispheres of the single human brain—each side with certain unique functions, yet neither complete without the other. Just as a single light beam, we are told by physicists, is comprised of wave and particle, so the fabric of Being (God) is comprised of soul and spirit; each has a distinction set of functions, yet both work together. However, just as the naked eye cannot tell the difference between particles and waves in a single shaft of light, so most often we humans cannot discern the differences between soul and spirit in a given life experience, but they are always there. For example: A man and woman who have been married for many years are fighting again, on the verge of a divorce. Upon later reflection one of the persons may recall feeling a deep dark despair over the disintegrating relationship and the anguishing loss of love and family, while another tiny part of that same person was feeling a sense of relief and even anticipation of a brand new future life. Or conversely, one of the persons in that argument may recall feeling a great sense of freedom as the oppressive relationship was finally ending, while that same person may also have felt a tiny fragment of sadness flickering inside the joyful anticipation of release. One is experiencing the spirit of soulfulness, and the other the soul of spirituality. There is no such thing as pure light or pure darkness. There is no soul without spirit, nor is there spirit without soul. Again, as with the Yin/Yang symbol, each contains a bit of the other.

The danger lies in separating soul and spirit completely. If Depth Psychology has a fault, it is that of emphasizing the dark depths to the implicit or explicit denial of the radiant heights. If New Age Spirituality has a fault, it is that of emphasizing light, union and love over darkness, fragmentation and conflict.

This short essay is not meant to answer all of the questions. That is up to the reader. The purpose is simply to remind us that spirit and soul, while operating in different spheres with differing values and aims, are never operating separately.