Essay: Underworld Journeys and Depression

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Underworld Journeys and Depression

The work of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud established the groundwork for what Downing (2006) refers to as "depth psychology," (p. 129). Delving into the dark depths of the psyche is both the process and the goal of psychotherapy. The personal underworld is like a rich primordial ooze in which rebirth, reconciliation, creativity, magic, and healing are all possible. Carl Jung became increasingly aware of the limitations of the natural sciences to adequately explain the journey to the underworld, the nature of its depths, and the means by which individuals can deliberately descend into it. As science failed Jung, the psychiatrist turned gradually away from his academic career and towards a meditative contemplation of global mythology and traditional culture. Freud found the underworld equally as compelling as Jung, however, and also drew heavily from Greek mythology. Metaphor is the primary language with which to bridge the conscious and the unconscious.

Carl Jung stressed not just the power of metaphoric thinking and symbolism but also the need to actively experience the underworld. Freud, too, allowed himself to descend to the depths of his psyche to investigate uncomfortable psychological or emotional states. The act of deliberate descent to the underworld was not discovered by the pioneers of psychoanalysis, though. Ancient cultures and especially those steeped in shamanism maintained a wealth of wisdom related to underworld journeys and how they relate to depression and its related manifestations in the conscious world.

Between 1913 and 1914, Jung began to experience catastrophic visions that grew increasingly intense by the onset of World War One. Jung (1963) remarks on the irony of being invited during that time to deliver a presentation to the British Medical Association on "On the Importance of the Unconscious in Psychopathology" (p. 177). Moreover, Jung's visions seemed to correspond with external realities -- as if his mind were linked to the collective unconscious. As war spread over Europe, so too did a battle rage in his mind. Archetypes are indeed meaningful, powerful, and real. What transpires in an individual's psyche does not occur in isolation of the rest of the world or the database of human history.

Therefore, the mythology describing underworld journeys, underworld beings, and underworld environments can be considered real even if it cannot be examined using the scientific method. Psychiatrists and psychologists have long struggled with the need to reconcile the professionalism of their practice -- especially via academia -- with the integrity of personal experience. Jung, perhaps more than Freud, felt that undertaking the underworld journey was a matter of professional as well as personal duty. In Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, Jung (1963) claims, "A cogent motive for my making the attempt [to descend to his underworld] was the conviction that I could not expect of my patients something I did not dare to do myself," (p. 178). Jung (1963) also states that without the personal encounter with darkness, all the psychiatrist possesses are "a few theoretical prejudices of dubious value," (p. 178). Understanding that descending into one's personal underworld can lead to serious mental illness such as psychosis, Jung nevertheless used his motive to serve his patients as a significant source of strength. "I was committing myself to a dangerous enterprise not for myself alone but also for the sake of my patients," (Jung 1963, p. 178). Jung's sense of purpose and selfless service helped the psychiatrist overcome several hurdles and "critical phases" over the course of many years (Jung 1963, p. 178).

Having descended into my own personal underworld, I can attest to the importance of self-awareness and application of theory to practice. Like Jung, I have felt compelled not just to explore the depths of my psyche but also to capitalize on the darkness, to channel what might otherwise be described as negative or unproductive emotions, and to use the wisdom gained in the healing process. By healing myself I become better able to heal others. In fact, I cannot possibly heal others before I acknowledge the need for myself to become whole. Jung (1963) describes his motivation as a "demonic strength" that he derived from the underworld (p. 177).

It does not matter the specific visions or personal journeys the individual encounters, as each person's dreams and visions will differ. What matters is the effort expended towards understanding those dreams, visions, and symbols. To never give up and be unrelenting in the quest for clarity and inner peace is the key to success. We as psychologists can never be of service to others without first overcoming our own demons. When I first recognized the gaping hole of the underworld staring at me, I put aside my career. Like Jung, I had to focus intently on what it was my psyche was telling me and found it impossible to ignore.

Jung's unconscious revealed unexpected darkness including imagery of death and murder. His dream of killing Siegfried is particularly poignant, as Jung (1963) describes the guilt that pervades his soul. "Filled with disgust and remorse for having destroyed something so great and beautiful, I turned to flee, impelled by the fear that the murder might be discovered. but...I had escaped the danger of discovery; life could go on, but an unbearable feeling of guilt remained," (p. 180). The symbol of Siegfried was one among many that Jung used to explore the depth and range of feeling associated with an underworld journey. Jung's positive attitude toward the underworld and his fearless probing of it have had a tremendous influence not just on the field of psychology but also on religion and philosophy.

Downing, for example, draws on Jung's experiences with the underworld. In "Journeys to the Underworld," Downing (2006) recalls suicidal ideations that tormented the soul: "I felt that the only possible resolution was for my body to join my soul in death," (p. 130). The underworld is therefore unavoidably linked with the theme of death, whether that death be of the psyche or of the physical body. Death is a topic that plagues human beings, whether for fear of the unknown or for fear of annihilation. To crave death as with suicidal ideation is to long for a journey into the depths of Hades, the Greek term -- and god -- associated with death and the underworld.

My own bout with depression was also accompanied by suicidal thoughts, just as Downing described. The everyday world seemed too oppressive, unreal, and meaningless in the midst of my suffering. I therefore felt keenly the archetypal loss of soul that Jung describes in Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. Loss of soul is an ancient shamanic concept that Jung (1963) describes as "my soul having flown away from me," (p. 191). Jung also mentions the "loss of soul" that accompanies a shamanic journey through the underworld (p. 191). When the soul is lost, the connection with the mundane world is minimized. Ties with the underworld grow stronger, while connections with the familiar world of daily life grow dim. Downing (2006) puts soul-loss in terms of death as well: "I felt as though my soul had died," (p. 130).

I had undergone surgery to remove lumps from my stomach, and the sense of not being in control of my body became unbearable. It was as if my body was not mine, as if my soul no longer belonged in it. Exacerbating the problem was the side-effects of Cipro, the antibiotic used to prevent infection after the surgery. The powerful antibiotic led to psychiatric side-effects including extreme anxiety and depression. Doctors then started me on anti-anxiety medications. Thus, I felt no longer in control of either my body or my mind. My soul gradually grew disconnected from both. As Downing (2006) points out, during periods of depression and psychosis, "we feel ourselves abducted from the everyday world of work and relationships and egofunctioning," (p. 129). Our souls are lost.

Thus I began a journey into the depths of my psyche, a journey that entailed diving deep into the unconscious without a proper road map. In "Confrontation with the Unconscious," Jung (1963) points out how difficult it can be to undertake this journey while remaining firmly or even sanely rooted in the mundane everyday life one once found familiar. Drawing from his own experiences, Jung describes a gulf that developed for him between his inner and outer worlds. The chasm is between the world of the psyche and the world that comprises the ego such as career and family. This same gulf between inner and outer worlds enveloped me. Like Jung, I eventually made the decision to turn my back, at least temporarily, on the outer world. I also understood that I could not help my patients to heal before I could heal myself.

My journey into the underworld was initially linked to my physical state, to my lack of health and well-being. Freud would have noted that a genuine mourning was taking place within my psyche, especially as I literally lost part of my body during surgery. Later, though,… [END OF PREVIEW]

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