Introspection is an art. It is possibly the most important skill we can develop if we want to find a measure of contentment in life. But, like any art, it takes a lot of time and practice before we become skilful enough that the results are considered admirable by others.
It is hardly surprising that all too often we ignore the need for it altogether, because facing the truth is always painful. It is not easy to strip away the layers of pretence and stare at yourself as you really are. We are understandably reluctant to see that we are actually fragile and mortal, that in the vastness of the universe our tiny lives do not really matter; that we are not really different from everybody else, and the chances are that the only accomplishments of our lives will be much like those of the countless others in history: a teeming mass of humanity that ate and slept and made love, worked at a meaningless job and procreated. It is not comfortable to own the fact that our own struggles – monumental as they seem to us now – are the same struggles that innumerable generations have faced, and which have now faded into the mists of time: relationship difficulties, employment problems, loneliness, rejection, betrayal, loss.
At the same time, we are – at least subconsciously – aware that for there to be any fulfilment in life, we need to find something transcendent. At some level we are all looking for something to give our lives meaning. We all chase some form of enlightenment. It may be in religion, in science, in the latest diet, but I do not believe anyone is exempt. Carl Jung put it this way:
“The idea of an all-powerful divine Being is present everywhere, unconsciously if not consciously, because it is an archetype. There is in the psyche some superior power, and if it is not consciously a god, it is the “belly” at least, in St. Paul’s words. I therefore consider it wiser to acknowledge the idea of God consciously, for, if we do not, something else is made God, usually something quite inappropriate and stupid such as only an “enlightened” intellect could hatch forth.” C. G. Jung, Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 7: Two Essays in Analytical Psychology, 71
So how do we deal with these paradoxical desires? How do balance the need to find some purpose and fulfilment with avoiding asking ourselves the sorts of questions that should lead to honestly confronting our deepest desires and fears?
One of the ways we accomplish this is to externalise the quest. We construct for ourselves “figures of light” – ‘infallible’ idols that exemplify success and perfection for us – and we devote our lives to blindly serving them. These idols may take the form of a moral code, a fanatical adherence to a certain lifestyle (veganism, for example), a political philosophy – the possibilities are endless.
The problem with these is that they are actually a form of escape. We use these quests for enlightenment (and even the semantics are problematic here, because the very word is constructed to make the process seem noble and beneficial) to justify moving away from confronting the very issues that would – more painfully – yield more substantial results. We use our quests for enlightenment to help us avoid facing the truth. Again I quote Jung:
“There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” C.G. Jung, Alchemical Studies, 265-266
It is only when we are prepared to engage with our ‘darkness’, our inadequacies, our insignificance, that we can even begin to find what we are looking for. And I suspect that attaining any form of “enlightenment” is not so much about finding something as it is about seeing and accepting what is.
I think Jesus alludes to this process in a number of his parables. Consider, for example, the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The turning point for the younger son is when he is able to realistically assess his situation, pierce through his self-delusions and accept things for what they are. There is great humility and humanity in his return home. The older brother, whom we often overlook in the parable, is like so many of us, who cannot get past a sense of our own self-importance, and so miss out on grace and fellowship.
And this is not the only time Jesus suggests that any genuine attempt to face one’s own darkness is more important than any quest for personal salvation. Look at the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18: 9 – 14), or ask yourself what on earth he meant when he told the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16. Perhaps you ought to look more closely at his dialogue with the rich young man in Luke 18:18-30, or his interactions with the Pharisees in Matthew 23. It seems that Jesus did not have much time for the process of “enlightenment”. He had a lot to say, though, about honest self-assessment.
And it is not just Jesus. All the Biblical heroes of the faith, the people lauded as following after the heart of God, were those who wrestled intensely and openly with their own darkness: David (Psalm 51), Jacob (literally: Genesis 32:22-32),Isaiah (Isaiah 6), Paul (1 Corinthians 15:9-11; Ephesians 3:7-13).
It is an important process, this confronting one’s darkness, because it is very difficult to be loving without knowing and accepting oneself in this way. After all, Jesus stressed that all the laws hinged upon loving God and loving our fellow human beings. And coming to terms with your place in the scheme of things – the utter insignificance of both your triumphs and failures, but also your paramount importance as the treasure of God’s heart – is critical to developing a worldview that is underpinned by love. As long as you are consumed by the pursuit of enlightenment, you will never get there.
So how do we accomplish this “making the darkness conscious”? That is a discussion for another day. If you are keen, this article (http://veilofreality.com/tag/carl-jung/ ) summarises the issue succinctly and sincerely, and is well worth the read. Be brave, friends. I know the darkness is terrifying. Like Macbeth, it is easy to live in the reality that “To know my deed, ’twere best not know myself.” But that is not living. Nothing good in life is ever painless. Nothing truly good comes without a sacrifice. Give up your complacency. Stop running. Turn on the lights in the cellar of your soul and see what is there.