Carl Jung, part 7: The power of acceptance Like the AA movement, Jung believed that acceptance and spiritual interconnectedness were crucial to a person's recovery
In 1931, one of Jung's patients proved stubbornly resistant to therapy. Roland H was an American alcoholic whom he saw for many weeks, possibly a year. But Roland's desire for drink refused to diminish. A year later Roland returned to Zürich still drinking, and Jung concluded that he probably wouldn't be cured through therapy.
But ever the experimenter, Jung had an idea.
Roland should join the Oxford Group, an evangelical Christian movement that stressed the necessity of total surrender to God. Jung hoped that his patient might undergo a conversion experience, which, as his friend William James had realised, is a transformative change at depth, brought about by the location of an entirely new source of energy within the unconscious. That might tame the craving.
It worked. Roland told another apparently hopeless alcoholic, Bill W, about the experience. Bill too was converted, and had a vision of groups of alcoholics inspiring each other to quit. The Society of Alcoholics Anonymous was formed. Today it has more than 2 million members in 150 countries.
I spoke to a friend of mine who attends meetings of Narcotics Anonymous to understand more about the element of conversion. "It's hugely important," he said.
His addictions had been fuelled by a surface obsession with career and money, and a deeper anxiety that nothing was right. "It's the first time I'd been prompted seriously to consider something bigger than myself."
Calling the experience "spiritual" seems accurate too, because a meeting is about more than gaining a circle of supportive friends. "I have friends," my friend remarks, before continuing that the focused intention of a meeting is about something else: their connection to a very powerful force. "I can't picture it, I can't name it," he says, before adding, "I've never given much thought to church." Narcotics Anonymous literature expresses it more formally: "For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience."
The result is an overwhelming sense that things will be OK because they are as they are meant to be. Though clean, my friend is not cured, and life can still be difficult. But he has the strength to accept what is, to reach out to others, and to trust life. It is moving to see.
Jung believed that we are psychosomatic creatures who must attend to matters of the spirit as well as the body. Further, our psyche is not just our own. It is connected to others, both those with whom we visibly interact, and those who have come before us, via the dynamic he called the collective unconscious. Life goes well when these links are open. Flow brings a sense of purpose. Conversely, blockages can lead to ill-health with possibly physical and psychological manifestations. "A psychoneurosis must be understood, ultimately, as the suffering of a soul which has not discovered its meaning," Jung wrote, in an essay wittily entitled "Psychotherapists or the Clergy".
Other observers of the human condition make similar remarks. Bertrand Russell, who could hardly be different from Jung in terms of his spiritual outlook, nonetheless averred that the happy individual feels himself "part of the stream of life, not a hard separate entity like a billiard ball, which can have no relation with other such entities except that of collision". Such a person knows themselves as a "citizen of the universe".
Jung preferred overtly religious language – instead of the universe talking of the "soul of the world" or anima mundi – and this was more than a question of taste. He believed spiritual connectedness was fundamental to being human and that, wary of religiosity, modern consciousness was struggling to take it seriously. The default image of secular individuality was, indeed, the billiard ball. Notions such as the stream of life, let alone the soul or the collective unconscious, tend to be treated as poetic fictions, at best, with damaging implications for human wellbeing.
But from his earliest days as a psychiatrist, Jung had noticed that "a suitable explanation or a comforting word to the patient can have something like a healing effect". He explained the efficacy as arising from what the doctor conveys, not only what the doctor does. "The doctor's words, to be sure, are 'only' vibrations in the air, yet their special quality is due to a particular psychic state in the doctor." It connects with the other. The patient finds that which "will take possession of him and give meaning and form to … his soul". It's not supernatural but conscious exposure to "a deeper dimension of the real".
Religious traditions have been the custodians of this source, though Jung thought the crucial aspect was to have a religious attitude to life, rather than a particular faith. Like my friend and the AA movement, he argued that the goal is best thought of not as a cure, but as acceptance. "They came to themselves, they could accept themselves, and thus were reconciled to adverse circumstances and events," he wrote of his patients in his Terry Lectures of 1937. "This is almost like what used to be expressed by saying: He has made his peace with God, he has sacrificed his own will, he has submitted himself to the will of God." It sounds passive, though in reality, such acceptance releases a new zest for life because the individual is no longer struggling alone, and is instead tapping "the meaning that quickens".
Just what therapy should provide – cure or acceptance – is still hotly contested. The psychiatrist Anthony Storr agreed with Jung: "I prefer this interpretation of healing to those advanced by other schools of psychotherapy because I believe that it corresponds more closely to what actually takes place in long-term analytic psychotherapy." The success of the philosophy embodied in the family of organisations that has sprung from the Society of Alcoholics Anonymous must weigh in its favour too.