Psychotherapy is an experience where someone comes and talks with a trained professional about their struggles, fears, sadness, and loss—as well as wishes and hopes—in a guided and deeply emotional way. When effective, this powerful relationship facilitates movement through suffering and into a richer engagement with life. There are many approaches to psychotherapy, including some which supplement talking with expressive arts and movement, as well as approaches that integrate meditation and mindfulness techniques. In my own practice, I draw from a variety of these approaches, but have felt especially resonant with Jungian psychotherapy, formally known as Analytical Psychology. A mentor once told me that Analytical Psychology is as different from conventional psychotherapy as psychotherapy is from the general practice of medicine—a position that holds some truth in my experience.
I was exposed to Carl Jung as a teenager, struggling to negotiate a multicultural identity in a small and conservative Texan town. My father somehow had the grace to pursue his own personal psychoanalytic work while a teenager himself, a quest which was inspired by his readings of the “Psychologist,” a journal he had chanced upon in the home of an uncle. Many don’t realize this, but India had one of the earliest psychoanalytic movements outside of Europe.
My father found this experience valuable and continued to maintain an interest in psychology as well as spirituality, even as life drew him into the field of engineering. As a teen, I would explore my father’s book collection and amplify my readings with our regular discussions. When I happened upon Jung, I found a perspective that seemed to hold the tension between my Indian self and my Western self—the orientation towards the psyche and towards consciousness that Jung espoused was a critical bridge that helped me better understand myself at multiple levels.
Carl Jung was a psychiatrist and a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, the major pioneer in psychiatry who brought attention to the unconscious as well as our dream life, and who founded a form of deeper psychotherapy called psychoanalysis. Jung and Freud differed in many ways and eventually suffered a mutually painful separation. Jung took a less pathological approach in general and was open to the spiritual side of life, as well as the potential meaning in illness that could arise from suffering. When one reads Jung, there are frequent references to many Hindu gods and goddesses, as well as other Indian myths. Beyond this, there is also a deeper orientation which has resonance with Indian philosophy and spirituality. In fact, one of Jung’s inspirations was the German philosopher Schopenhauer, who in turn was influenced by the Upanishads (Schopenhauer even named his cat “Atman”). One can see this cross-cultural connection in the principle of the “Self,” a major concept in classical Jungian thought. The Self, with a capital “S,” is a mysterious, core aspect of our being that speaks to us through symbols and images in our dreams, fantasies, and synchronicities. One goal of Jungian therapy is to cultivate an ongoing relationship to the Self, with the idea that this can provide us with guidance toward becoming more whole individuals and toward a more authentic and meaningful life. Jung explicitly draws a parallel between this concept of the Self and the Vedantic idea of Atman.
Another major aspect of Jungian psychotherapy is work with dreams. Again, in the Upanishads, we find passages that express deep value of dreams.
At first, I was struck by Jung’s spiritual and mystical side, especially his concept of synchronicity, or the meaningful coincidence. He felt that there was fluidity between the internal and external, calling this the “psychoid” nature of reality. Because of this, internal psychological processes would sometimes be externalized in the form of synchronistic events. Jung was also a believer in the reality of psychic and other transpersonal phenomenon (even Freud wrote papers on premonitory dreams and telepathy, which were published after his death). This seemed to flow well with my personal experiences, as well as family stories in which psychic or other spiritual phenomena were common. This became the initial seed of my deep motivation to become a Jungian Analyst myself.
Part of the training to become a Jungian Analyst includes personal analysis; we each need to do our own work before we can be ready to enter into deep relation with the psyches of our patients. Like Krishnamurti, Jung did not want to be deified, and did not want anyone to become a “Jungian.” Rather, he desired that each become more fully him- or herself. This is an important attitude I’ve adopted in my own training to become a Jungian Analyst—the goal is to have a personal dialogue with principles in Analytical Psychology, and to find one’s own voice along the way.
The process of finding one’s own voice is part of what Jung called the Individuation process. We all need to deal with our shadows, those negative (as well as positive) aspects of ourselves that we repress or are otherwise unaware of. When unaware, we tend to project these qualities onto others around us, or we get into relationships that don’t make too much sense—where we’re in relationship with someone who holds some aspect of ourselves that needs to be worked through, rather than a relationship that is more deeply nourishing on its own terms. Part of our shadow includes what Jung calls “complexes,” which can relate to intense emotional experiences with our parents (negative father and mother complexes), or any other strong or traumatic experiences.
We know we are caught in a complex when we have an unusually strong emotional experience in relation to someone else or some circumstance. As we develop more consciousness, our complexes come out of the shadows and no longer dominate our lives, opening up more space for richness and abundance in our lives.
Finally, a major part of Jungian psychotherapy involves work with dreams, those nighttime fragments that often seem bizarre and hard to make sense of. Their fragmented and unusual quality often leaves us wondering if there’s anything to them at all, beyond a replay of residue from our daily lives. The reality is that dreams are a way in which the deepest part of our being communicates—symbolically and through images. For example, a busy professional who has an important interest in music dreams that a phonograph needle keeps on rising off a spinning record. When I ask him about this, he associates that there isn’t enough weight on the needle to keep it playing. This lets him know that he needs to put more weight into his creative side in order to stay balanced; he’s been caught up in his work and his own psyche is communicating this to him. By working with a trained professional on dreams, we can be guided towards what needs attention at that moment in our lives to stay more fully nourished and alive.
Sometimes, a dream points out a habitual way of relating to ourselves or to others that we aren’t fully aware of. We might hold a certain benevolent sense of ourselves, but our dreams may point out that we’re actually over-critical in certain contexts without having realized it.
Awareness of these sorts of things can improve our sense of self and can improve outer relationships as well. It’s easier to point fingers at people around us, noting all their faults (which often mirror our own in some way), but we owe it to ourselves and others around us to each become more conscious and self-aware. Dreams can also provide a creative solution to a problem or help us with a difficult decision or moment in our life. Most of all, paying attention to dreams is a way of honoring the gods, goddesses, and the transcendent mystery that is both in each of us and also envelops everything.
Though it seems to be shifting, there’s still quite a bit of stigma associated with seeing a therapist or psychiatrist in the Indian community. This leads to many individuals with severe anxiety, depression, and other conditions being under-treated. Yet even beyond these more severe conditions, a good, deep psychotherapy experience can be helpful for most of us. What I appreciate most about the Jungian approach is that it’s able to look beyond pathology (i.e. thinking only in terms of “disorders”) and work in a more holistic manner. There often are maladaptive patterns that are identified—we all have struggled with these in some way or another—but there’s also another side to the work in which the goal is to cultivate a deeper connection to our inner core. At first, I looked at my own therapy/analysis as simply a requirement to complete; I thought I was fairly well adjusted and didn’t otherwise need any therapy. Perhaps this would have been true of more reductive psychotherapy approaches or approaches that specifically target conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders. As time moved forward in my own Jungian Analysis, I began to treasure the experience and ultimately feel like it has opened me up in powerful ways.
We can all benefit from a private and sacred space in which we reflect inward and come to more self-awareness of our shadow side, liberating us from unhealthy patterns in relationships to self and others, where we cultivate more connection to our hidden or undeveloped talents, and which allows us more authentic engagement in life. It is crucial that this therapy space matches us enough to facilitate this—I believe that a Jungian approach offers this to all of us.
Khenu Singh is an Assistant Clinical Professor with the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. He is a Candidate at the SF Jung Institute and also in private practice in San Francisco. He can be contacted at (415) 206-4943; his website is www.khenusinghmd.com
Medical disclaimer: This article is provided for educational and informational purposes only and the information provided should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease. Please consult with your doctor, licensed physician or other qualified health provider for personal medical advice and medical conditions.