Modern (Hu)man in Search of a Soul

I recently read, “Jung’s Map of the Soul” by Murray Stein. It’s an introduction to some basic concepts in Jungian psychology. Reading it helped me sort out some of the unconscious, underlying reasons that led me to Vermont. Understanding myself and reality per se through a Jungian lens has been very helpful for me, so I thought I’d share what I learned here for anyone else who may benefit. 

In the weeks and months following our move from Topanga, California to Pawlet, Vermont, it was common for people to ask me why we made such a drastic change. I would bumble around for words and string them together into reasons, so I could offer them a nice, neat answer. Somehow, though, I felt like any answer I could offer was insufficient. While my answers were honest, they were incomplete. A deeper truth evaded me. 

I sensed that there was an almost magnetic force that had drawn me to Vermont. In fact, the first year we lived here, I’d find myself in somewhat of a reverie feeling like a color form stuck on a random backdrop. I’d ask myself in these moments, “So, WHY are you HERE, Lindsay?”

To try to arrive at the answer, I’d think back to the weeks leading up to our move here. During the days of packing and visiting with friends, I’d think about the impending change optimistically, enthusiastically, and pragmatically. In the dark, quiet hours of the night, however, I’d feel a crushing, impending doom weighing on my soul. It was boundless dread for some unknown terror that awaited me. Looking back from here, I now know that I was afraid of myself. I was afraid of slowing down the pace of life enough to have to sit with what was actually inside of me. 

I was drawn to move here like it was my destiny. And perhaps it was. I couldn’t shake the sense that there was a beautiful life waiting for us here in Pawlet, Vermont—but only if I had the courage and the strength to come home to my own soul.

C.G. Jung describes how during the first half of our life, our ego is bound and determined to break free from the conglomerate of the whole, collective unconscious and become separate individuals. The great, psychological task of the first half of our life is to develop our ego and our persona. This is how we carve out our personality and forge our path in life. From a toddler who says “no” to their parents, to an adolescent (who also says “no” to their parents, but) with distinct style, strong feelings and opinions, and specific musical taste, to being a young adult striving for financial security and success–we are forging our conscious identity. Building a solid and well-structured ego is energy well-spent. As we rocket forward and away from the unconscious, however, important elements of ourselves remain in the depths of our identity. There is a lot of potential within us that we have never realized. There is a lot of life within us that we have never lived. Ultimately, the different elements of the soul long to be reunited. 

In the second half of life, it is common for us to realize that our conscious identity is not all there is. Sometimes we discover this under the pressure of hardships (illnesses, failures, heartbreaks, the death of someone we love), and sometimes it’s more of a midlife “Been there, done that. Now what?” experience. However we arrive at this realization, if and when we do, we discover that for our journey of individuation to continue, we need to re-integrate the parts with the whole again. In other words, to go further, we must go deeper.

And this is why it’s important that you did the work in the first half of life building your solid and sturdy ego. As Jung wrote after he suffered and survived a life threatening heart attack,

“It was only after the illness that I understood how important it is to affirm one’s own destiny. In this way we forge an ego that does not break down when incomprehensible things happen; an ego that endures, that endures the truth, and that is capable of coping with the world and with fate. Then, to experience defeat is also to experience victory.”

But sometimes, getting started on this second half of life task can be daunting (like when I would lie awake in bed in Topanga with a looming sense of terror). We don’t always want to face who we really are. There can be many reasons for this including confronting trauma in our past. It could also be because we fear losing important psychological resources in our life—our sense of belonging, our relationships, etc. If we feel that the people who matter to us rely on our persona to remain constant, we can be afraid to look deeper at what lies beneath the surface of consciousness. And if our persona is all that we’ve let people know of us, then we won’t feel very connected. To be truly loved, you need to be truly known. To be truly known by others, you need to truly know yourself. 

Persona: the part of our consciousness that is authentic as possible, but ceaselessly tries to be who we intuit we are supposed to be. It’s our social identity.

To help us in both halves of life—to 1) emerge as separate individuals with ego consciousness and also 2) to help us integrate the deep parts of ourselves—there is an innate special feature called compensation. 

Compensation: The job of compensation is to integrate our ego with our unconscious and help us to become more balanced. Compensation can manifest in slips of the tongue, accidents, great inspirations, dreams, mindless, automatic actions, etc. Compensation is when our unconscious gives us a little snippet to consider that we otherwise tried to leave behind. 

So, to use a metaphor from the novel-based film Fight Club, compensation is like when the character Tyler Durden works as a projectionist at the movie theatre, and he uses this job as an opportunity to splice subliminal scenes into family film reels. There is a little Tyler Durden type projectionist in all of us and compensation is when the cigarette burns appear in the corner of the film reel and a little something unexpected is introduced into our consciousness.This might not be the perfect metaphor (mostly due to the questionable character that was Tyler Durden—he was basically ALL shadow (aka the parts of our identity that we deem unacceptable and so push down below conscious level), and the unconscious includes a lot more than just the shadow), but the basic idea is generally true. 

Compensation creates a conversation between the conscious and unconscious parts of yourself. Your ego doesn’t have to accept these considerations from your unconscious. But it’s a sort of dialectic (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) that occurs to bring balance. It’s best to at least acknowledge that these considerations are there. Better yet if you have the courage to do so, it’s an opportunity to wonder why. 

So, this was why Vermont kept emerging in my dreams and my thoughts. I needed to be able to reconnect with my soul, and my unconscious was aware that to achieve the work I needed to do, I had to be here. Some deeper part of my being knew that this specific place—off two dirt roads, up on a mountain, half of a mile from our nearest neighbors, with all the dramatic beauty and challenge of any epic adventure—was going to help me on my journey. And this is why I was also terrified;  I intuited that a lot of deep, internal work was awaiting me here, and that part scared me deeply. To have the life I wanted to live—to make a home for ourselves here in Vermont—I had to first return home to myself and integrate some crucial parts of my identity that had been left behind long ago.

The first year and a half was just as my waking mind back in Topanga expected it to be: heating our home with wood, tapping maple trees, having loads of friends and family visit, making new friends here, traveling periodically, tending a flock of happy, free-roaming hens who gift us with their eggs, getting our fresh milk from the local farm where we know the cows by name, watching the girls come into their own as they ventured out farther and for longer stretches away from the house and into the woods. There was a steep learning curve to be sure (the sturdiest footwear I owned when we arrived from LA was a pair of Vans) but the rewards were also pervasive and tangible.

Then the pandemic hit.

There was no way that I consciously knew when we decided to move here that there was going to be a pandemic that literally shut down most of society for 11 months and counting. There was no way I consciously knew that I would go days upon days not seeing any other humans outside of our family. I wasn’t prepared for the combined effect of overcast late autumn mixed with that level of social isolation. I wasn’t prepared to not see most of my family and friends for a year and counting. I wasn’t prepared for my life to get hyper local and very small while we were still settling in here and making friends. All these factors combined long enough to send me into a very intense state of regression. 

Regression: When the psychic energy flow gets disrupted and flows downward into the unconscious. The disruptors can be pandemics, job losses, relationship conflicts, failing a test, crashing your car, etc.

Progression: When your flow of psychic energy goes toward adapting to the external world. Progression feels positive. 

While progression helps us thrive and move forward in our lives, regression paradoxically opens up new opportunities for psychological growth and development. However, it’s not always a particularly pretty state of mind. Regression can manifest in depression, questioning, loss of motivation, crippling ambivalence, etc. Basically, you want to stay in your sweat pants and stare at the wall. Maybe with a jar of Nutella within reach. Or you may be acting out in some other way (think shiny red sports car midlife crisis style). 

But the good news is, the inner world is being activated. If your unconscious is the ocean floor, then regression is like if suddenly the ocean depths were stirred by a hurricane-induced underwater current. In the best moments, sunken ships are rising to the surface. The ships might be salvageable and fascinating, there’s treasure on board, and you are discovering amazing things that have been obscured from knowledge. In your worst moments, tons of discarded plastics are bobbing around on the surface. And you’ve got to figure out what to do with all that. And it sucks because you had the utmost faith in that recyclable symbol, and you believed that for sure all your plastics went directly from your blue bin to recycling plant to be made into wonderful, useful things again. You did NOT know that your blue bin was getting dumped into the ocean for the entire first half of your life. 

So, all this to say: eleven months into a global pandemic while living up on top of this beautiful, quiet mountain, I now understand why I am here. Maybe it’s why we are all here in the big, cosmic sense—to find our way back home to the whole from whence we came. We are “modern humans in search of a soul” as Jung would say. 

Many of us got handed a special-order regression package this past year. SO many hopes and dreams were cancelled or postponed. So many relationships were strained or damaged over politics and differences of values and beliefs that emerged as we all struggled to navigate this “unprecedented time.” Many people lost their jobs or had their income reduced significantly. Many people got very ill or saw those they love get ill or die. Many people had to uproot their lives and move during the pandemic due to extenuating circumstances. And while some of these changes may not have been directly caused by the pandemic (though I’d argue many were indirectly related) everything has been harder to handle this year due to the stranglehold of resources the pandemic has had on society. The sheer intensity of the pressure this year has put on people has caused so much to surface—the metaphorical hurricane strength current has been dredging up the contents of our souls. It can be frightening—absolutely terrifying, actually, to face (this is the dread and terror that I anticipated back in Topanga late at night), but it’s a necessary part of the journey in our universal quest as modern humans in search of a soul. 

Wherever you are—psychologically as well as geographically—I wish you courage to continue on your journey back home to yourself. Because when you find that home, you will be home wherever you are. 

“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” —C. G. Jung

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