A short course in Wrestling an Angel

A short course in Wrestling an Angel

The mistake is to think of angels as cherubs. They’re not. That was just the romantic imagination of renaissance art. A more accurate perspective of the angel, at least psychologically, is provided by the Old Testament story of Jacob, who wrestled with the Angel of the Lord. To put it plainly, the angel fucked him up. He escaped with his life intact, no mean feat after seeing the face of God[1], but, not without suffering a dislocated hip, resulting in a permanent limp.[2] Still, he got off lightly, he survived, many don’t.  Oh yes, and he also gave birth to a nation, arguably one of the greatest nations on earth, the chosen people.  That is how the Angel of the Lord rolls. And that my friend, is how your angel rolls too. The angel may well be mistaken for a demon, but should not be confused with a ‘daemon’ or ‘daimon’.[3] The etymology of ‘genius’ finds its roots in this concept, an inhabiting spirit, gift or exceptional talent.  That noted, the angel is distinct from a daemon.  It carries rather, your essential and divine identity. A subtle but, psychologically, very important difference.

Carl Gustav Jung (1875 – 1961) the founder of Analytical Psychology, recognised this perverse truth of the human condition, that in the deepest recess of our psyche is an angel. An angel that is as willing to play in the muck, cultivate devils as friends and poke fair maidens in the posterior with its pitch fork, as sing halleluiah and bring tears to your eyes with its sublime beauty. Jung identified this phenomenon and made it his life’s work to wrestle this problem, if not in submission, at least to a standoff. He wrote copious notes whilst doing this, now documented in the twenty volumes of the Collected Works of C. G. Jung.

Jung found an analogue, of sorts, for his unique school of psychology in the practice of alchemy, more specifically Gnostic Alchemy. The injunction from the alchemists: the rust or tarnish on the coin is our greatest treasure, expressed this idea in different words. That which is, or at least appears to be, shit, is also gold. Let me immediately clarify this by saying, not always. Sometimes shit is just shit, as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar.[4] What Jung discovered though, was that the very worst shit, the shit that stinks to high heaven, is often gold. The characteristic of your psychology that causes you shame, a sense of inadequacy, heartache, guilt, regret, anger, recrimination and distress, is, simultaneously, your greatest gift. That which ails you, is also nostrum remedium, your remedy.[5]

This idea is approached in various ways by Jungian psychology. One of the most well-known of these approaches is the confrontation and ideally reconciliation with the shadow. Simply, the imperative to wholeness as preferable to one sided perfection, the condition of being only good.  “You can either be good or whole, but not both.”[6]Another angle of approach is, to view a neurosis, i.e. a non-psychotic, but enduring, psychological disturbance, as a maladapted cure. In other words, that which makes you miserable as shit, your compulsive repetitive and self-sabotaging behaviour, is not essentially pathological or sinful, it is just a virtue gone wrong. A virtue that has been perverted.

The idea then is something like this, your essential divine or angelic self is warped when you live in(to) the world. There is a version of your identity that is transcendent. It is what you are as an angelic being. An archetype all of your own. An essential identity, your soul, in religious terms, that is infinite. It is not bound by the finite spacetime continuum, in which we live in the world. It is the immaculate idea of you, rather than the fallible actuality of you. The dilemma is that we live in the finite fallible, arguably corrupted, world. A world that castrates, perverts, corrupts and disembowels us. It is simply the nature of things.  “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.”[7] The world can be a pretty ugly place. But even when it is beautiful, it is a human world, a world where an angel might appear as a freak. And such classification, “freak”, may be appropriate.

The world, as you may have noticed, only smiles upon blissful naïve innocence and sensitivity in pre-pubescent children. After a certain age “excessive” enthusiasm, passion, effusiveness and even love, is the hallmark of a lack of emotional and intellectual maturity. To display such qualities, in all but the most reserved fashion, is the antithesis of sophistication. Frankly put, it is characteristic of lower intelligence. If we look at Victorian England as a metaphor, acknowledging its sexist bias, a stiff upper lip was de rigueur. Man, intellectually superior, stronger and with greater moral fortitude than the fairer sex, aspired to the virtue of stoicism. To master his feelings -albeit that psychologically, such mastery is all but indistinguishable from repression. Hysteria was indulged only in woman, and then only at a certain youthful age, after which it was frowned upon and treated.

Freud saw the answer to hysteria as (psychological) castration.  Hysteria and all its accompanied affects, excessive emotion, are artefacts and symptoms of feeling too much. Psychological castration, a necessary evil, lets the subject know he or she is a limited project, with finite capacities, intelligence, courage, fortitude, beauty, nobility and ultimately value. Yes. that is what you are meant to learn, in the final analysis, your life, you, your essence, your personhood, is of limited value. To think otherwise is a sign of inflation and narcissism, and will be your undoing. Because where your parents and teachers might fail in their castrating project, the world itself, God if you will, will set you to rights. I love the scene in The Matrix, the final fight scene between Neo and Smith in the subway station. Smith has Neo in a dead chokehold, pinned against the subway tracks. As the sound of the approaching train reaches them, a few seconds before it will annihilate them both,[8] Smith says something to Neo along the lines of, “You hear that sound, that is the sound of inevitability.” At the risk of being accused of pessimism, I think Smith, speaks truthfully. A train that will send not only your life, but also your childish dreams and ideals off into the next life, is coming for you. If it’s any comfort, its coming for us all. It is, as Smith puts it, inevitable.

With the above in mind, the seemingly pessimistic, although salutary, Freudian perspective can be appreciated. Now, it would be an error to think Freud was preaching a doctrine of passivity or fatalism. That is, I believe, an unfair reading of his work and life. He, by all accounts, cared deeply. Possibly he was saying something like, don’t care too much. A man can only endure a broken heart so many times, before it kills him.  A certain temperance, a certain moderation, goes a long way to aid psychological and spiritual health.  Freud, exasperated at Jung’s mythologizing of the unconscious,[9] reportedly objected by asking, what use is it replacing one myth with another? In other words, the mythologizing tendency of the psyche, the subject’s narcissistic fantasy life, is the very problem that needs to be resolved.

Here is the kicker, and why the angel is so dangerous. The angel does care too much. It has infinite care, love, passion and pathos. It never got the memo that life is inevitably disappointing and not worth caring too deeply about. If you let the angel take the reigns, you will be a freak. Maybe being a freak is not so bad. Maybe, as some suggest, only the insane are really sane. Still you are going to be an oddball, we’ll laugh at you. Not with you, at you, you understand. So what, you ask? Well okay, maybe you don’t mind being laughed at. I do, but then I have always been a little socially sensitive. But even then, my friend, don’t forget: to care like this, to love so deeply, so fervently, to be invested boots and all with no point of return, no fall back, well, let’s just say, you better be willing to have your heart broken.

That is the first problem of getting cosy with the angel, letting your guard down and allowing it to assume the mount position. There is a second related and equally challenging issue, you need to get your head around, if you plan to survive such an encounter.

The angel is bound up, as already mentioned, with your deepest wound. When you experience a psychologically overwhelming experience, you survive it through one or another form of repression. You split the content off, repress and contain it, project, deny it, whatever. And in conjunction you reimagine a version of yourself as far removed from that overwhelming experience as possible. This is called compensation. You compensate for the wound, and this is inevitably an overcompensation. So, let’s say as a kid you were highly sensitive and consequently suffered excessively in the often brutish environment of school and at the hands of your loutish peers. A, not untypical, survival strategy, is to mask this sensitive nature under an overdeveloped worldliness, machismo, cynicism, nihilism or whatever your band of adaptive poison may be. In order for this necessary, albeit inauthentic, adaptation to take, you need to convince yourself that is not an act but who you really are. Voila! You now have, what in Jungian terms, we refer to as a provisional personality.

The unconscious however does not remain inert. This was Freud’s realisation. The unconscious exerts an influence on our thoughts, behaviour and feelings. Following that, a repressed aspect of your psychology, in the example used, sensitivity, will seek expression. Such expression however will be a warped form of the original, repressed, impulse. Consequently, there will be an acting out of sorts, some behaviour, some affective responses that are usually less than ideal.  This is the classical Jungian shadow.

Our hypothetical sensitive subject will unconsciously find a way of accessing the libido (psychic energy) tied up in his or her repressed sensitivity. The wound, in other words, will find a challenging behavioural expression. To complete the illustration, in this case, imagine, that such expression is excessive affective responses, our subject bursts into fits of tears at inappropriate moments. She displays, seemingly, excessive responses to relatively mild stimulus. She cries during the adverts, never mind the main feature! Or she responds with aggression, assuming an overly defended position, when she feels this vulnerable spot in her psyche is touched. The list could go on, naturally the variety of possible symptoms, ways of acting this out, are varied and extensive.

This wounded acting out is the shadow of the angel. The angel and the wound are bound together at a very deep unconscious layer in what is referred to in psychoanalysis as a complex. A complex is a cluster of like-minded, feelings, memories, associations, behaviours etc. that share a mutual sympathy, orientation and feeling tone.  When you then attempt to give expression to this original authentic self, the angel, and get beyond your compensating, provisional personality, what emerges, if you are successful, is the complex that holds both the angel and its shadow. The effect then, is that along with the angel a demon (shadow) emerges. You cannot access your angel, without accessing the accompanying feeling life.

An encounter with the angel then, as testified to by Jacob, is an encounter that will test your moral fortitude to its limits. Many mortals are vanquished and fill the wards of various institutions for mentally unfit or are consumed by the shadow and end up as addicts or criminals, or simply number themselves among the itinerant. They have been unplugged from the conventions of mainstream society, liberated from the yolk of convention, but without finding their way to a greener pasture. If the angel points the way to Jerusalem, watch that you do not wander or are led off the road and lost in the wilderness on your way there.

Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. There, in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-hells, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul. (C. G. Jung) [10]

Depending on your perspective though, the above category of lost souls may be not be the unluckiest ones. They are, it is true, in purgatory. However, the souls in hell are those who spend their lifetime frozen in the provisional self. Psychologically, spiritually and emotionally inert. As Morpheus put it, “Most people are not ready to be unplugged and many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.” [11] In the provisional self, feelings are moderated, hopes are curtailed and dreams are edited.

A breaking away from this state such as in an encounter with the angel, can precipitate the release of the freak. The world is still warped, distorted and scary. I don’t care what your psychotherapist said to your inner child, to the contrary.[12] Those demons you imagined hiding in the closet, monsters waiting under the bed to grab your ankle when you put your foot on the ground, they were real. And those were only the shadows of the real monsters out there. Your parent’s placations were, as you now realise, more to comfort you, than an expression of a sincere truth. An angel living in this world cannot but appear as a freak.

In conclusion, let me speak as plainly as I can.[13] My personal ethic and the ethic of the Centre for Applied Jungian Studies and I would wager the ethic of the majority of Jungian analysts, is to liberate the angel.[14] The intention of this post was to encourage you in this endeavour, to illustrate some of its contours and, critically, to better equip for some of the challenges you will face. Don’t take up this task lightly, it will test you to your very foundations. In the end though, what purpose can be served by dodging such an imperative? How could cowardice or lack of moral fortitude in the expression of our individuation be right. If there is some way, I don’t see it, I’m with Jung on this.

My friends I bid you every success for the combat to follow, a low centre of gravity, a tight guard, a razor-sharp mind and most importantly a good and open heart. May you wrestle from the angel your destiny without being vanquished in the process. Fight as if your life depends on it, maybe it does.

Until we speak again,

Stephen.

[1] As Jacob, thereafter named Israel – one who struggled with the divine angel, described his little wrestling match.

[2] The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man [no ordinary man, but the angel of God] wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.’ ( Genesis 32:22-32)

[3] ‘Daemons are benevolent or benign nature spirits, beings of the same nature as both mortals and deities, similar to ghosts, chthonic heroes, spirit guides, forces of nature or the deities themselves (see Plato’s Symposium). Walter Burkert suggests that unlike the Christian use of demon in a strictly malignant sense, “[a] general belief in spirits is not expressed by the term daimon until the 5th century when a doctor asserts that neurotic women and girls can be driven to suicide by imaginary apparitions, ‘evil daimones’ How far this is an expression of widespread popular superstition is not easy to judge. On the basis of Hesiod’s myth, however, what did gain currency was for great and powerful figures to be honoured after death as a daimon…” Daimon is not so much a type of quasi-divine being, according to Burkert, but rather a non-personified “peculiar mode” of their activity.’ – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daemon_(classical_mythology)

[4] Supposedly said by Freud, in contradiction to his own tendency to universally regard phallic like objects as phallic signifiers. No doubt, even he wished break from psychoanalytic reduction on occasion, whilst enjoying one of life’s few pleasures!

[5] From the Latin meaning, “our remedy.”

[6] “Jung on Evil” [Paperback] C. G. Jung (Author), Murray Stein (Editor)

[7] The Tempest, Act 1 , scene 2.

[8] Naturally this is all good from Smith’s point of view, He does not die with the death of this body.  He can incarnate endlessly into anyone plugged into the Matrix.

[9] Notwithstanding Freud’s own keystone Oedipal myth.

[10] The Psychology of the Unconscious, Collected Works, vol. 9. Part 1

[11] The Matrix film, (1999)

[12] Upon hearing such advice, suggest that he (your therapist) depart his little ivory tower in which he is so comfortably ensconced, and go play in the mud with the other devils out there. Once her returns, if he returns, battered and bruised, having the bluster knocked out of him, possibly missing a tooth, then, perhaps, a more meaningful dialogue can be entered into.

[13] If that is not very plain, you will not be the first to find me verbose. Despite my every effort at directness, it is a challenging topic to speak of with economy of expression. In my defence, open a journal on Jungian studies and read a few of the papers and see how you get on. Whether you find yourself much closer to any practical and enduring truth. Now that is not meant to criticise the efforts of these very accomplished scholars, it is rather a reflection of the complexity and enormity of the topic.

[14] Typically referred to in Jungian psychology as the second personality, the authentic personality or the Self archetype.

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Comments (17)

  • missy Reply

    I LOVED this article!!! Well written so true! Moving!

    May 8, 2017 at 14:55
    • Stephen Reply

      Thank you Missy, glad it touched you.

      May 9, 2017 at 14:46
  • Carina Tuerlinckx Reply

    At first I want to emphazise the transcendent dimension in the psychological battle to relativate our human possibilities. A identification with the role of the hero or the idea that everything is depending of the personal emotional, intellectual or moral capacities can lead to an unappropriate feeling of failure. I have the impression that we alle need a guardian and not only in the presentation of a therapist because of the level of the transformation. In essence it ‘ s a SECRET that we never can share with others and loneliness is inevitable in this stage. And as you ‘ve mentioned above perhaps deadly in different forms. Because of this and other reasons I always advise to kneel down in silence in the conviction that we ‘ll always survive with support of a Divine Love. At first side this is seemingly a return to the narcistic mythologic way of thinking but as you are looking further it is rather a sign of the true reality of the human condition – call it humility to become HUMAN. Of course many of us don’ t see the healing dynamic of this gesture but it can become really a matter of live of death. I only can assert this through my personal path of individuation.

    May 8, 2017 at 18:03
    • Stephen Reply

      Thank you for sharing these thoughts Carina.

      May 9, 2017 at 14:47
      • carina Tuerlinckx Reply

        It is of course life or death in the last sentence and at the end !

        May 11, 2017 at 12:29
  • claire Reply

    Summarized so many of Tues eve swarays …Thank Stephen – love your way of putting things. Still leaves me questioning and wanting to know more! 🙂 This is one to be printed and re-read and unpacked as one moves through various stages of awareness. My next question … once identifying one’s greatest shame … how to go about ‘releasing’ the Angel and the exceptional gift it holds? Once the shadow has been brought into the light, how to channel it more appropriately? (if I’m understanding it correctly). Big thank you!

    May 8, 2017 at 20:41
    • Stephen Reply

      Thanks Claire. 🙂

      Let’s pick up that question this evening in the Master Class.

      May 9, 2017 at 14:47
  • Barry John Johnson Reply

    “An angel living in this world cannot but appear as a freak.” i love this line – i would like to quote and cite you.

    May 9, 2017 at 03:44
    • Stephen Reply

      Thank you and only with the greatest of pleasure Barry.

      May 9, 2017 at 08:41
  • Michael Stevens Reply

    Can I post this to anyone else not related to Applied Jung. Like a mate of mine?

    May 9, 2017 at 18:03
    • Stephen Reply

      You most certainly can Michael.

      May 9, 2017 at 22:03
  • Arna Reply

    This I what I think in my own little private world

    It’s nice to read… it lends credibility to my ‘insanity’!

    May 9, 2017 at 23:26
    • Stephen Reply

      Glad it resonated for you Arna.

      May 10, 2017 at 07:53
  • Tracy Reply

    Excellent piece and beautifully written.

    May 10, 2017 at 06:39
    • Stephen Reply

      Thank you Tracy.

      May 10, 2017 at 07:50
  • Sherri Soukoroff Reply

    Thank you for a great article

    May 10, 2017 at 15:44
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