Jungian Psychology Series: The Importance of Instincts in Spirituality

“Anyone who overlooks the instincts will be ambuscaded by them.” Carl Jung

The human brain is among the most developed and complex of any creature. Its evolution and refinement has helped us to attain a level of consciousness and a mastery over our environment which far exceeds that of any other animal. But there is a shadow side to our specie’s emphasis upon intellectual and cognitive abilities and that is the danger of losing touch with the wisdom of our instincts. In an increasingly technological and urban world, modern people have tended to become cut-off from their ancestral self, the primal and instinctual foundation of the personality. Although a primitive tribesman may lack our level consciousness and abstract reasoning ability, he typically experiences a much more rich and vital connection to the eons-carved wisdom of his animal soul.

The schism between modern consciousness and the wisdom of the ancestral self can be especially salient in the area of human spirituality. One function of spiritual teachings is to help people move beyond (transcend) a narrowly materialistic view of the universe to develop an awareness of the unseen forces and processes that underlie life, relationships, and the growth of the personality. As the following dreams illustrate, spiritual doctrines sometimes become so airy and idealistic that they lose the stabilizing, centering and humanizing influence of our animal nature.

A 33 year-old man dreamed: “I see the wild-eyed face of a horse. He is frantically pulling away from something, as if he was being whipped.” This man, of strict Catholic upbringing, was in the habit of harshly berating himself for his personal shortcomings. His self-chastisements, which caused a cramping feeling below his rib cage, are reflected in his dream. The horse is a symbol of his instinctual and bodily nature. His instinctual self was revolting against his mental beatings, inflicted in the belief that such mortification would transform his personality. The dreamer got stuck in a process of self punishment when what he needed to do was objectively evaluate his mistakes and move forward with the changes he felt he needed to make. His physical symptoms and the dream redirected him to a more healthy and grounded spiritual perspective.

The horse as a symbol of instinctual wisdom reappears in the following dream of a 69 year-old woman. “I see a horse that is lying on its back in a total body and leg cast. I said to myself, ‘I bet that vet could do plastic surgery.’ Later in the dream I watched a woman that someone said was a doctor trying to get a large gorilla to follow her. She wanted to get the animal to return to the park where it lived. The gorilla obeyed most of the time, but occasionally it did not listen to her commands. It stayed where it wanted to.”

The image of a horse in a full-body cast suggests an injury and severe immobilization of the dreamer’s instinctual self. The act of trying to get the gorilla to return to its park is a variation of this theme. Like the horse, the gorilla is a symbol of the dreamer’s ancestral self and instincts. She wants it back in its cage so that it will not intrude upon her world. The statement about the vet being able to do plastic surgery is a reference to the persona, for the skin is a symbol of our “public face.” Taken as a whole, these dream images depicts how the persona can cripple and silence the voice of our instincts. Another of this woman’s dreams gives some clues as to the aspect of her persona which immobilizes and cages her animal nature: “I am talking to a woman who tells me that she is the ‘Virgin Mary.’ I am not so surprised to learn who she is but am surprised when she tells me that she owns slaves.” When our spiritual beliefs are held in a dogmatic or rigid fashion they become oppressive and we become their slaves. Imposing upon ourselves overly idealistic expectations about how a “spiritual” or “good” person is supposed to act and think can cause us harm. For instance, if you believe that God always expects that you “turn the other cheek” when people hurt or take advantage of you, you are likely to acquire a couple of bloody cheeks while merely enabling your abuser(s). A healthy spirituality flows from the wisdom of our instincts, not in opposition to them.

A 50 year-old woman dreamed: “I am in a large room. The building is some type of chapel or spiritual retreat. I and my family are spending the night here. There is a large bed and my youngest son is sleeping in it. It is nighttime and dark in the room. I am getting ready to get into bed when I see two animals run into the room. They have come through a door that is open to the outside. At first I am not sure what kind of animals they are and start to chase them out. I realize that it is a female fox and her pup. I succeed in chasing them out. But before I can close the door the mate of the fox runs in and jumps on me. He bites me twice before I manage to get him off. I tell a man who works in the building what just happened and ask why the door is left open. He says that because it is a church the door must remain open.”

This dreamer was prone to become very negative and cynical about life based upon all of the injustice she saw taking place in the world. Her cynicism fostered symptoms of depression and an inability to see and enjoy the beauty and meaning that are also present in life. In exploring the meaning of the dream she reflected on  how easily she falls prey to destructive negativity within herself and the world. She associated the fox with the qualities of cunning and resilience. Her spiritual belief system, symbolized by the church, was insufficient for dealing with the destructive energies she was encountering in life. Her dream helped her to see that she would need the cunning mind of her instinctual self if she was to outfox evil. The dream’s reference to the church door that must remain open is an admonition that our spirituality must be connected to our instincts and the raw wisdom of our ancestral self if it is to be vital and whole.

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