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Carl Jung and the Numinous Experience: What it Tells Us About Addiction

By Daniel Jordan
General Manager
Sunshine Coast Health Center

In one of my web surfing sessions I happened to come across a YouTube video showing an interview with Carl Gustav Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist. Not only is this a rare glimpse into the world of a master therapist it is, to me, an account of the ‘inner void’ that seems to lie at the core of addiction

 

For those that prefer not to watch the entire video, the key section of the video (2:22 – 7:54) has been transcribed as follows:

Background

Jung: A case where there was an intelligent, young woman, she was a student of philosophy, very good mind; where one would expect easily that she would see that I am not the parental authority but she was utterly unable to get out of this delusion. And, in such a case, one always has recourse to dreams: it was just as if one would ask the unconscious “now what do you say to such a condition?” You see, she says in her conscious “of course I know you are not my father but I just feel like that; it is like that: I depend on you …”

The Therapy Session

Jung: Now let’s see what the unconscious says. Now the unconscious produced dreams in which I really assume the very curious role … she was the little infant, she was sitting on my knees; I held her in my arms. I was really tender father to the little girl. And, more and more, the dreams became empathic in that respect; namely that I was a sort of giant; and she a very little, very human, thing you know like a little girl in the hands of an enormous being; and the last dream of that series was … I cannot tell you all the dreams; was I was out in nature, I stood in a field of wheat that was ripe for harvest and I was a giant and I held her in my arms like a baby and the wind was blowing that field of wheat. Now you know when the wind is blowing over a wheat field there is waves; and with these waves I swayed as if putting her to sleep and she felt as if being in the arms of a god; of the godhead.

“Now the harvest is ripe, and I must tell her. And I told her, “what you want and what you project into me – because you are not conscious of it – that is, you have the idea of a deity you don’t possess. Therefore you see it in me. That clicked.”

“She suddenly became aware of an entirely heathenish image that comes fresh from the archetype. She had no idea of a Christian God or an Old Testament Yahweh. It was a heathenish God, a God of nature, of vegetation, he was the wheat himself, the spirit of the wind; and was in the arms of that numen.” *

(*) Numen – a god or spirit believed to inhabit a place or being.

Jung’s Interpretation

Jung: That is the living experience of an archetype. That made a tremendous impression upon that girl and instantly clicked. She saw what she really was missing; that missing value, which was in the form of a projection in myself and made myself indispensible to her. She saw he’s [Jung] not indispensible; because it as the dream says, it is in the arms of that archetype … idea. That is a numinous experience. And that is the thing people are looking for: an archetypal experience, that gives them an incorruptible value. They depend upon other conditions, they depend upon their desires; their ambitions; they depend upon other people because they have no value in themselves. They have nothing in themselves. They are only rational, they are not in possession of a treasure that would make them independent.

“But when that girl can hold that experience then she doesn’t depend any more; she cannot depend any more; because that value is in herself, and that is a sort of liberation.”

“And that, of course, makes her complete. Inasmuch she can realize such a luminous experience, she is able to continue her path, her way, her individuation.”

WHY THE FASCINATION WITH THIS VIDEO

Despite it’s title, neither transference * nor archetypes is central to my interest in this video. Furthermore, dream analysis is typically not a technique we utilize at Sunshine Coast Health Center. ** So why, you may ask, the fascination with this video? For me, it’s the “numinous experience” described by Dr. Jung as the moment when his client, the philosophy student, was able to free herself from her unhealthy fixation on Dr. Jung.

Obviously, Dr. Jung is not some sort of drug but, according to Dr. Jung himself, his client was “dependent” on him as a father figure. From my personal experience with our chemically dependent clients, there seems to be an inner void (clients often call it their ‘donut hole’) that finds them grasping for anything external: drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, sex, gambling, anarchy, etc. Those clients that complete addiction treatment and go on to live happy lives seem to discover an inner “treasure” that, as Dr. Jung points out, makes them independent, complete, liberated.

(*) Transference: the emotional bond that develops on the client towards his analyst/therapist.

(**) Note: Sunshine Coast Health Center does, however, use depth psychology, which is related to archetypal psychology in that they both employ the model of the unconscious mind as the source of healing and development in the individual.

BILL WILSON’S ‘WHITE LIGHT EXPERIENCE’

For Bill Wilson, a similar moment of transformation was the beginning of long-term recovery for the famous founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. During Wilson’s fourth admittance to Towns Hospital in 1934, Bill Wilson recalls his ‘white light’ experience: “Suddenly the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe. It seemed to me, in the mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And then it burst upon me that I was a free man.” *

Source: Kurtz, Ernest (1979) Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous, pgs. 19-20.

CONCLUSION

I will be the first to admit that these peak experiences are rare and that holds true for the clients at our alcohol and drug rehab program. For them, addiction recovery is more gradual, with repeated advances and retreats. Regardless of how long it takes, however, the objective of personal transformation remains valid.

Oftentimes, it’s a difference in language. For example, what Dr. Jung calls a “luminous” or “archetypal” experience, we at Sunshine Coast Health Center call “personal transformation.” The end result of such an experience, what Dr. Jung calls “incorruptible value,” we call “meaning and purpose.” However, this video, if anything, further reinforces my sense that our current approach to treatment is heading in the right direction.

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