The relation to the Self

(from the book “Man and his Symbols,”
by Carl Jung, M.L. von Franz, and John Freeman, 1964)

 Nowadays more and more people, especially those who live in large urban cities, suffer from a terrible emptiness and boredom, as if they are waiting for something that never arrives. Movies, games, travels, political excitements, sports may divert them for a while, but again and again, exhausted and disenchanted, they have to return to the Wasteland of their own lives.

 The only adventure that is still worthwhile for modern man lies in the inner realm of the unconscious psyche. With this idea in mind, many turn to Yoga and other Eastern practices. But these offer no genuine new adventure… is it fun to follow a well-worn path? Still, the Eastern methods serve to concentrate the mind and direct it inward. 

Jung evolved a way of getting to one’s inner center and making contact with the living mystery of the unconscious, alone and unaided. Trying to give the Self a constant amount of daily attention is like trying to live simultaneously on two levels in two different worlds. This kind of experience reminded Jung of the cat watching the mousehole, where the “cat’s attention is not too sharp, nor too dull.” It’s like he is suddenly caught up in an exciting inner adventure; and because it is unique, it cannot be copied or stolen by others. 

 Whenever a human being genuinely turns to the inner world and tries to know himself – not by ruminating about his subjective thoughts and feelings, but by following the expression of his own objective nature – then sooner or later, the Self emerges. The problem only, that the Self has both a light and a dark aspect. The dark side of the Self is the most dangerous thing of all (because the Self is the greatest power in the psyche, and we don’t know much about the mind yet). It can cause people “to spin” megalomanic or other delusory fantasies that catch them up and possess them with time. A person in this state thinks with mounting excitement that he grasped and solved the tremendous cosmic riddles, and therefore, he loses all touch with human reality. 

 The double aspect of the Self and the danger of following the path is beautifully illustrated by this old Iranian tale, “The Secret of the Bath Badgerd.” 

The great and noble Prince Hatim Tai receives orders from his King to investigate the mysterious Bath Badgerd (castle of nonexistence). When he approaches it, having gone through many dangerous adventures, he hears that nobody ever returned from it, but he insists on going on. He is received at a round building by a barber with a mirror who leads him into the Bath, but as soon as the Prince enters the water, a thunderous noise breaks out, it gets completely dark, the barber disappears, and slowly the water begins to rise.

 Hatim swims desperately round until the water finally reaches the top of the round cupola, which forms the roof of the Bath. Now he fears he is lost, but he says a prayer and grabs the center stone of the cupola/dome. Again the thunderous noise, everything changes, and Hatim stands alone in the desert.
After long and painful wandering, he comes to a beautiful garden in the middle of which is a circle of stone statues. In the center of the figures, he sees a parrot in its cage, and a voice from above says to him: “Oh, hero, you probably will not escape alive from this Bath. Once Gayomart (the First Man) found an enormous diamond that shone more brightly than sun and moon, he decided to hide it where no one could find it, and therefore he built this magical Bath to protect it. The parrot that you see here forms part of the magic. At its feet lie a golden bow and arrow on a golden chain, and with them you may try three times to shoot the parrot. If you hit him, the curse will be lifted; if not, you’ll be petrified, as were all these other people. Hatim tries once and fails. His legs turn to stone. He fails once more and is petrified up to his chest. The third time he just shuts his eyes and shoots blindly, and this time hits the parrot.

An outbreak of thunder, clouds of dust… When all this has subsided, in place of the parrot is an enormous, beautiful diamond, and all the statues have come to life again. The people thank him for their redemption.

The demonic parrot signifies the spirit of imitation that makes one miss the target and petrify psychologically. Time and again, in all countries people have tried to copy in “outer” or ritualistic behavior the experience of different great teachers (or so-called “masters”) and have therefore become “petrified.” To follow in the steps of a great leader does not mean that one should copy him. It means we should try with sincerity and devotion equal to his to live our own lives. 

 How can a human being stand the tension of feeling himself at one with the whole universe, while at the same time he is only a miserable earthly human creature? If, on the one hand, I despise myself as merely a statistical cipher, my life has no meaning and is not worth living. But if, on the other hand, I feel myself to be part of something greater, how am I to keep my feet on the ground? Indeed, it is challenging to keep these inner opposites united within oneself without toppling over into one or the other extreme… But we’ll talk about it next time, in part II, “The social aspect of the Self.”

Stay tuned!