Doing the Work

About a month after my husband died, I wrote a brief introduction to alchemy, which was a medieval art of transformation that captivated the imagination of Carl Jung because of its rich metaphorical language. As I wrote in February, “For Jung, James Hillman, and other analytical psychologists, alchemy provides a sort of anatomy of individuation, along with a methodology for approaching the psyche and how one experiences the world.”

The goal of alchemy was to transform base matter by liberating the meaning in it. Sometimes alchemists used the term “transmutation” instead of “transformation,” but the terms are interchangeable. They refer to the process of bringing forth the essence of something, to calling forth its essential nature, so to speak. One looks into what a substance is in order to discover what its meaning and nature are.

Many people mistakenly believe that the goal of alchemy was to produce gold from base metals, but this wasn’t the case. To be sure, there were medieval lords and rulers who pressed alchemists into service and tried to force them to produce gold and thus wealth. However, the true alchemist was after another kind of wealth: the valuable essence of whatever substance he or she worked with.

Similarly, in the healing traditions, we seek to discover a person’s essence—his or her gold, so to speak. The essence of everything is called its gold, and every person and substance contains gold. Some forms and people lag behind others in the quality of their “goldness,” which can be easily observed whether one looks at people or objects. What is in you that is of the highest value is your gold; it is the qualitative essence of you-ness.

Some people are able to bring forth their essential gold, while others are not. We differ in the degree to which we’re able to bring forth our precious hearts and share them with the world. The alchemist, like the priest or shaman, psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor, seeks to help bring out the gold in others and, indeed, to help the world fulfill its essential “goldness,” so that everything will be what it was intended to be from the beginning. Some look at this process as regressive, in that it seeks a return to an original state of perfection and hence can be seen as an attempt to reclaim Eden. Others consider the process prospective, for when we seek to increase our consciousness of the meaning of our lives, we reach forward toward eternity. I believe that many times we reach back with one hand and forward with another, expressing the Janus nature.

During the process of transmuting base materials, one finds that every little bit of meaning brings out more gold. This is as true for the modern-day pilgrim as it was for the medieval alchemist. Many years ago, while suffering the effects of profound loss, I remember praying and asking God repeatedly, “Why?” Finally one month, as I was driving, Spirit whispered to me and suggested that, “‘Why?’ isn’t the right question in this situation.”

“What is the right question for my suffering, then?” I asked.

“The right question for you begins with ‘What?’” came the answer.

Since then, I’ve realized that ultimately in most of my sufferings, it’s futile to ask “Why?” We don’t know why. Sometimes the reason why is the same one our mothers gave us after denying our requests: “Because I said so,” or “Because that’s just the way it is,” or “Because life isn’t fair.”

Life isn’t fair and there is no observable grand scheme for rewarding good and punishing evil in the temporal world. Those who are good, generous, and even innocent can and do suffer beyond measure. Sometimes people die the most shocking deaths. If we ask “Why?” when confronted with such harsh reality, we’ll be defeated and unable to discover meaning, for meaning comes from doing the work that produces the gold.


There’s research on happiness. One of my favorite experts on happiness is Dr. David Lykken, who, along with Thomas Bouchard is well-known for his work on the Minnesota Twin Study, has contributed immensely to twin and adoption research. The fact is that there are identifiable happiness markers, and the more of these happiness-making qualities we possess, the happier we feel.

Suze Stern 7 by you.Lykken found that most people, given basic food, shelter, and reasonable security, feel reasonably happy most of the time. One’s level of education, marital status, political affiliation, nationality, gender, race or income made no difference in one’s level of happiness. People who lived in the most affluent countries were, on average, only a bit happier than those living in the poorest countries.

Lykken also identified happy-making traits:

  1. Effectance motivation: productive labor for its own sake.
  2. Nurturance: caring for, nurturing, and being tender toward the helpless and vulnerable.
  3. Self-awareness: developing and maintaining a reliable sense of self.
  4. Future perspective: being able to positively anticipate the future.
  5. Vicarious experience: the ability to empathize and share vicariously in the experience of others.
  6. Aesthetic pleasures: Our mysterious ability to take delight in sensory experiences such as looking at art, listening to music, eating a delicious meal, seeing a sunset, enjoying good sex.
  7. Curiosity: The drive for understanding ourselves, others, and our environment, the delight in discovery.

photo by peggy collins by you.Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, published a highly readable, entertaining, and empirically-based hodgepodge of happiness markers, including the facts that people with children are, in general, more unhappy than childless couples; that once people earn around $50,000 annually, making more money does not make them happier; and that people usually err in imagining what will make them happy.

Gilbert has an interesting video on TED that asks, as an example of just how mistaken we can be, whether you’d rather become a lottery winner or a paraplegic. The audience, of course, bursts out laughing. The fact is, though, that actual research shows that, one year after becoming paraplegic or winning the lottery, paraplegics and lottery winners are equally happy. This is not what we expect, which emphasizes the fact that we are not good at accurately predicting likely outcomes before they occur.

Gilbert’s long-term research on happiness and well-being indicate that people often exaggerate the long-Suze Stern 2 by you.term emotional effects events will have on them, and that these exaggerations are usually mistaken. People also tend to repeat the same errors in imagining what will make them happy, forgetting that doing the same old thing leads to the same old results. He also found that people tend to have a basic happiness set-point that doesn’t change much throughout life-that some people are generally more happy or optimistic than others, in other words. People who appear happy, however, may merely lack empathy or healthy curiosity, and those who are the most productive and creative may in fact be those who aren’t satisfied or happy with the condition of the world or their own lives, and make a difference by striving to change it.

Gilbert concludes that happiness is more fleeting than we expect it to be; we must always realize that good times come to an end and that suffering comes to all. The good news is that the negative emotional impact of a difficult event lasts only, on average, about three months. And that’s likewise true of happy events: the thrill we feel doesn’t last. The basic message we may read into this finding is to enjoy it while we can, and to remind ourselves in the midst of suffering that “this, too, shall pass.” It may be conventional wisdom, but we now have research to back it up.

Another interesting researcher and writer on happiness is Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology.

flower01 by you.Seligman’s ongoing research has found that the pursuit of meaning rather than the pursuit of pleasure leads to the highest levels of satisfaction. Having meaning and engagement-being absorbed in one’s work-is the very definition of the full life. Pleasure is simply the icing on the cake. The question is not therefore whether a person is happy; the question is whether a person’s life has meaning, and is she absorbed by and engaged with what she does? The more transcendent and aware a person is developmentally, the less pleasure and stuff will matter, and the more meaning and engagement will matter.

You can take Seligman’s Approaches to Happiness test to discover which of the three different approaches to satisfaction you favor. I am (no surprises here) all about meaning. How about you?

Photo by Peggy Collins by you.These researchers have used psychology to discover the skills of happiness, engagement, and meaning, which are different from the skills of relieving misery, those most often taught and used by psychologists and psychiatrists.

The research seems to indicate that not all sadness needs to be relieved or attacked with a bulleted list or prescription against it. Reality is sobering. It seems impossible for a thinking, compassionate person to be aware of the injustice, inequality, and suffering in the world and to walk away, whistling a happy tune. But so many do seem to live their lives with a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude that ignores the very suffering that inspires others to change the world, to truly “make a difference.”

And that’s sad.

The Seed So Full of Meaning

Before deciding to write about Webster Cook and what my experience of serving and receiving communion is, I was writing about the psyche, which Jung called the “totality of all psychic processes, conscious as well as unconscious” (CW 6, para. 797). I had posted a couple of diagrams of the way analytic psychology views the person and the psyche, commenting that the physical body is assumed to contain the psyche and to be integrally connected to it. What is not brought to consciousness in a forthright way or neurotically, through complexes, projections and the like, may well be manifested physically through various physical ills. As Yoda might say, “Escape the unconscious, one cannot.”

The collective unconscious is the deepest layer of the psyche. Some believe that an even deeper layer of the collective unconscious exists, a mystery level that can never be known. Perhaps the deepest, unknowable, unfathomable layer is the dwelling place of the most high, the universal Holy of Holies, or maybe just the void people disappear to when they die, if there is no God and no heaven and no return at all. Whatever the case, we can’t know what it is; so I’m left to write about the collective unconscious, which is at least somewhat knowable.

I wrote before that the ego is the conscious part of the self that, in effect, is the homeowner (or so he or she thinks). Put another way, the ego drives the car of the personality. Both the personal and the collective unconscious are inaccessible to the ego, who is always so surprised to discover locked rooms, secret passages, hidden attics and cellars in his orderly, accessible house. Try as your ego may, he or she just can’t find the key to these locked rooms.

If you’ve seen The Matrix Reloaded, the second Matrix movie, you’ll recall the little man called The Keymaster. This fascinating little fellow had all manner of keys in the cell where he was being held hostage, and on his person as he fled for his life with Trinity and Morpheus. I like to think of our egos as similar to the key master: beloved, endearing, darling and clever, but intent with a steely determination to survive, and full of keys to everything. Or so he thinks.

Have you ever had a dream in which you discovered an entirely new room or section of your own home? Read a folk or fairy tale, or perhaps a mystery or fantasy novel, in which the hero suddenly discovers a secret passage or a whole new world? This is the stuff of the collective unconscious, the Wrinkle in Time-and consciousness!

In A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, the authors write this about the unconscious (both personal and collective):

Jung did not regard the unconscious solely as a repository of repressed, infantile, personal experience but also as a locus of psychological activity which differed from and was more objective than personal experience, since it related directly to the phylogenetic, instinctual bases of the human race. The former, the personal unconscious, was seen as resting upon the latter, the collective unconscious (155).

If you’re familiar with temperament types at all, you’ll know that feeling types are much more subjective about their experience than thinking types, who are more objective. In Jung’s theory of personality, the conscious, aware, or enlightened individual will have achieved a workable balance between feeling and thinking. I think this must be because the ego, key master of all that is conscious, has come into relationship and cooperation with the archetypes, purveyors and symbolic communicators of all that is unconscious. Symbols, you see, are to archetypes what words are to people. Those who fancy themselves too objective to dilly-dally with symbols of any kind (religious, aesthetic, artistic, literary, etc.) do so at the peril of their own potential. They are surface-dwelling, shallow individuals. Know anyone like that?

You’re probably nodding your head and thinking, “Ah, so that explains it.” A person without symbols any more meaningful than the ones flashing across their television screens is working at perhaps 20 percent capacity as a human being. Think about the implications of living and raising children in a society consumed by commercial images and those that take no longer than two seconds to ponder.

The contents of the collective unconscious, that vast underground, cavernous pool that bubbles up and feeds humanity, cannot be consciously comprehended or identified. That pool reflects archetypes, their processes and their images. The language of the unconscious may be found in images, symbols, fantasies, and metaphors. I heard James Hillman say recently that, though psychoanalysts and psychologists and other mental health practitioners ought to be the modern-day equivalent of the shaman, able to heal by helping people get and stay in touch with their deeper, unconscious selves, we do not. Rather, poets, songwriters, and artists of all kinds are today’s shamans. When we write, paint, photograph using our inner viewfinder, we are dipping down into that deep universal pool. If we wait patiently and attentively, something will come up.

Theoreticians believe that the collective unconscious originated in the inherited structure of the brain and so cannot be controlled by the ego. It is manifested in culture, for example, and so we belong to one another in the largest sense. Adoptees, take heart; it is theoretically impossible for you to lose what adoption seemed to take from you. The genetics of the psyche are more certain and less diluted than biological identity, according to analytic psychology. One can know him- or herself and the ancestors by deep work with the unconscious, if one is willing and able; if one dares.

Because the personal unconscious lies on the surface of the collective unconscious, these two elements of the psyche can work together to manifest behavior and images in the individual. For example, in analysis, the analyst will work with the analysand’s dream images through amplification or association, drawing from what we know about ancient myths and symbolism to help put together the puzzle of the message the personal unconscious is trying to convey. If the unconscious can manage to help the ego (the conscious mind) to understand these symbols or images, the ego receives a key that can open his or her understanding.

Freudians and Jungians differ in their understanding of the contents of the unconscious. Freud believed that the unconscious was the repository of infantile, repressed, personal experience; Jung believed that the unconscious was more creative and functioned “in the service of [the] individual and species” (Samuels et al., 156). The unconscious has its own form of knowledge, thought, and behavior much like the ego has. Philosophers call this the ‘final cause,’ but put in layman’s terms, the unconscious may provide the “reason or purpose for something happening,  the ‘sake’ for which it happens or is brought about” (Samuels, 157). The unconscious does not bring events about; but the unconscious may infuse events with meaning.

Put in conscious, ego-based terms, a person would speak of hope, aspiration, intention, or goals; in unconscious terms, one seeks meaning. This is the teleological point of view. The ego always begins with me and my perspective, then shoots its arrow there, or there; or over there with some hope, dream, aspiration, intention, goal. The unconscious is more of a receiver, a receptacle, a vessel waiting, an empty womb receiving the fertilized seed so full of meaning.


Jung, C. G. (1961), The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Samuels, Andrew, Bani Shorter and Fred Plaut (1987), A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis. Routledge: London.

Photographs by © Suze Stern and Peggy Collins used with permission.

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