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Our Search for Meaning and the Dangers of Possession

“There is no such thing as not worshipping,” wrote novelist David Foster Wallace. “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” G. Jung would have wholeheartedly agreed. He posited that psychic life is motivated by a religious instinct as fundamental as any other, and that this instinct causes us to seek meaning. “The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not?” Jung wrote in his autobiography. “That is the telling question of his life.”1

There is empirical evidence that backs up Jung’s idea of a religious instinct. Researchers have found that the less religious people are, the more likely they are to believe in UFOs. “The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active,” writes psychology professor Clay Routledge, in The New York Times. He notes that belief in aliens and UFOs appears to be associated with a need to find meaning.

Jung felt that traditional religions could provide an adequate means of relating to the infinite where the believer still maintained a “vital participation” with her faith.2 David Foster Wallace agreed with Jung that traditional religions or value systems were a good place to look for meaning. He cautioned that worshipping the wrong thing can have dire consequences. “The compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

Traditional religions do have features that make them less likely to become devouring. They draw on ancient traditions that are often philosophically rich, and they are knitted into the social structure of our society. They provide deep, time-tested channels through which transpersonal energies can flow. But even in Jung’s time, such faith in traditional religious institutions was often lacking. Today in the West, of course, fewer and fewer people find a spiritual home in traditional faiths.

As Routledge notes, we may declare ourselves to have risen above the confining superstitions of the religions of our grandparents, but in many cases, we have merely replaced them with inferior proxies. “We are not absent the gods,” writes Jungian analyst James Hollis. “Quite the contrary. We have too many of them. Too many surrogates with which the ego seeks to resist the spiritual vacuum of modernism. Besieged by pseudo-deities such as Power, Wealth, Health, Pleasure, Progress, we grow more and more alienated from nature, from each other, and from ourselves.”3 Hollis and Wallace are both pointing out that the new deities that many of us unconsciously worship do not connect us with anything of abiding significance.

Psychological Inflation

Death of Semele (before 1640) by Peter Paul Rubens

Even if we manage to avoid worshipping the pseudo-deities that Hollis writes of, we aren’t out of the woods. For being in relationship to the infinite always carries with it the dangerous possibility of psychological possession, particularly when this contact is unmediated by the sturdy cultural buttresses of long-held tradition. Jung used the word “possession” to refer to a psychological state in which the conscious personality comes to identify with a powerful archetypal idea or image, becoming inflated and dangerously out balance. The Greeks knew that the personal ego cannot easily withstand direct contact with transpersonal energies – Zeus’s paramour Semele was incinerated when she was tricked by Hera into demanding that her lover show himself to her in his full divine glory.

In ancient Greece, psychological inflation was called hubris, and was considered a sin against the gods, for it meant that there had been a violation of the divinely ordained limits set for mortals. The Romans knew of inflation as superbia, and guarded against it in their rulers lest it brought divine disfavor. Robed in imperial purple, victorious generals were paraded through Rome amid cheering throngs. All the while, a slave stood in the chariot behind the general, whispering in his ear again and again, “remember you are mortal.”

The Greeks and Romans guarded against psychological inflation because they knew that it could imperil the entire collective enterprise. Jung used the term “godlikeness” to describe those in an inflated state. He noted the tendency for this attitude to give rise to groupthink, proselytizing, fanatical certainty, and a crusader mentality. Above all, such “godlikeness” is perhaps most characterized by a “pathological will to power.”4 Put another way, psychological inflation tends to give rise to extremism – personal and political.

Grizzly Man

There are countless ways to become possessed, innumerable crusades one can fight. In the 2005 film Grizzly Man, documentarian Werner Herzog profiles bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, who spent more than a decade living among grizzlies in the Alaskan wilderness of Katmai National Park. Even watching the trailer, one can see that Treadwell worshipped the bears.

Enthusiasm comes from the Greek meaning “possessed by God,” and Treadwell’s rapture as he describes grizzlies has a religious fervor. “I’m here with one of my favorite bears, it’s Mr. Chocolate,” Treadwell narrates. “Hi Mr. Chocolate! He’s been with me for over a decade and he’s been my good friend. Oh! He’s a big bear!” In 2003, Treadwell’s life ended tragically, if predictably, when he and his girlfriend were killed by one of the grizzlies he loved so much. Treadwell was eaten alive, making Wallace’s point quite literal.

Herzog shows us a clip of his interview with Alutiiq anthropologist Sven Haakanson, PhD.

[Treadwell] tried to be a bear… For us on the island, you don’t do that. You don’t invade their territory. For him to act like a bear the way he did… for me, it was the ultimate of disrespecting the bear and what the bear represents…. If I look at it from my culture, Timothy Treadwell crossed a boundary that we have lived with for 7,000 years.5

While Haakanson is speaking, Herzog cuts away to a scene of a grizzly swimming near the bank of a calm lake. A bare-chested Treadwell gets in the water with the bear, and we as viewers feel a bit breathless with awe. Treadwell swims right up to the bear, but the animal seems to barely notice him. One gets the impression that Treadwell may feel at one with the bear, but the bear certainly doesn’t feel at one with him. As the bear edges past him, Treadwell reaches out and touches the animal’s fur. The bear snaps its head around in irritation.

Treadwell developed a distorted sense of mission, believing that his presence in Katmai was necessary to protect the bears from poachers. Protecting bears was his “calling in life,” and he became convinced that he had been singled out to do this work. “I’m the only protection for these animals,” he states emphatically in the film. In fact, there is no evidence that the bears in Katmai were under any threat from poaching. Nevertheless, the sense of mission Treadwell felt in relation to the bears gave him a sense of a special destiny.

Bears carry an undeniably numinous energy and have forever been associated with the divine in various traditions. Treadwell had indeed made contact with the infinite. However, he lacked any structure to ground these experiences. He transgressed human limits, and like Semele, was destroyed.

The Fallen Goddess

Eva Tiamat Medusa

The transpersonal can be destructive if it is not mediated. Consider the case of Eva Tiamat Baphomet Medusa, the chosen name of a 58-year-old who is in the process of transforming into a dragon, and who prefers to be referred to as “it” or the Dragon Lady. Born Richard Hernandez to migrant farm workers, the Dragon Lady was abandoned by its mother and stepfather to be raised by its grandparents. Fascinated as a child by the diamondback rattlesnakes in the woods near its grandparents’ home, the Dragon Lady honors these reptiles as its “true” parents.

The Dragon Lady has spent 20 years modifying its body. It has a full body tattoo of reptilian scales, and has had numerous subdermal implants above the eyes. Horns have been implanted, the whites of its eyes have been dyed permanently green, and its tongue has been surgically split. Ears and nose have been removed. It describes these body modifications further in this news report.

Reptiles don’t have ears and my ears needed to go. I have had two procedures done on my nose. The first stage was to basically reshape the nose, remove all the cartilage in my nose, remove the nostrils and remove the septum completely, pulling the skin down and reattaching the skin to my upper lip. Now I have what I call is my dragon nose with a bigger nostril, which are basically slits right up on both sides of my nose and I can breathe so much easier now.

Though its chosen name invokes four different female goddesses or mythological entities, it prefers to go by Tiamat. “Tiamat is the Acadian five-headed dragon,” it explains, according to this interview, apparently referring to a character from Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. (Another article about Tiamat attributed the name to a video game character.)

In fact, Tiamat is the great goddess of the salt sea in the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation epic. She is both the embodiment of the original abyss, and personification of primordial chaos, while also the creator goddess who brings forth the cosmos. Tiamat is an image of very powerful transpersonal energies related to creation and destruction.

We can’t know for certain whether the Dragon Lady is aware of Tiamat’s mythological significance, although it seems that it has only become aware of the goddess through the cheapened, third-hand sources of video and role-playing games. Even in such a diluted form, the archetypal power carried by the Babylonian goddess and her rattlesnake kin grips, inspiring the Dragon Lady to undertake a complete metamorphosis.

Like Treadwell, Tiamat appears to have become possessed by these powerful energies. It experiences itself as having been singled out for a unique destiny, vowing to “defy and stand alone against the world.” “I am what I am,” it says. “I am my own special creation.” This powerful belief has driven The Dragon Lady to spend decades denying its human biology in an effort to become Tiamat.

Archetypal contents that have fallen from ancient pantheons – bears, dragons, snakes – into the unconscious represent one kind of threat in their own right, but such energies can also feed a fascination with ideologies that promise utopian renewal. These can grip not just individuals, but groups, and even whole nations. When this happens, such inflations feed mass movements that can be destructive on a larger scale.

Ideological Possession

Ideologies and isms make for easy objects of worship, substituting handily for religions of old. “Our fearsome gods have only changed their names,” Jung wrote. “They now rhyme with -ism.”6 Political or social ideologies are appealing because they tend to confer de facto special status upon adherents, and offer a clear path to transformation. They therefore set us upon a quest toward a better life or a better society, and so provide compelling structures that dictate meaning and purpose.

“Anyone who falls down from the roof or ceiling of the Christian cathedral falls into himself,” Jung wrote.7 By this, Jung meant that, when conventional structures of meaning and value cease to have validity, one is thrown back on oneself to form such judgments. These days, falling into ourselves often means falling into the internet, which is proving to be a powerful tool for the dissemination of ideologies.

A white supremacist march in Charlottesville U.S., 12 August 2017

Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof was one example of someone recruited into an ideology via the internet. Roof worshipped the darkest of gods – the most philosophically disingenuous, morally bankrupt, and ugliest, as well. According to a profile of Roof in GQ, he suffered from a profound lack of meaning in his life. “I don’t like it when people try to read into things, or try to find, or create meaning that isn’t there,” Roof wrote in his journal while awaiting trial. “For example, I stated before I never used drugs to ‘drown the pain,’ or ‘self-medicate.’ I used drugs because they get you high. There is no deeper meaning behind this. There is no deeper meaning behind any of my behavior.”

Psychological inflation can manifest as a sense of feeling different and special from everyone else in a positive way, but it can also be characterized by a feeling of being singled out in a negative way. In a negative inflation, we are special by virtue of our great suffering and victimhood. When Roof found white supremacy websites, his special status as a victim of African American oppression and crime became clear to him. In his prison manifesto, Roof states that he googled “black on white crime.” “I have never been the same since that day…There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment, I realized that something was very wrong.”

White supremacism gave Roof meaning, and impelled him to hate and brutality. “Even if my life is worth less than a speck of dirt,” Roof wrote, quoting a movie, “I want to use it for the good of society.” At his trial for the murder of nine African Americans, Roof said of his deed, “I felt like I had to do it, and I still feel like I had to do it.”

In January, 2017, Roof was sentenced to death by lethal injection.

“Everything is Problematic”

Fervent certainty such as that evidenced by Roof may be the surest indication that we have fallen into an archetypal inflation. This kind of certainty is seen in activism along the political spectrum. Such certainty brooks no disagreement, holds space for no nuance, and cannot tolerate any doubt.

Former campus activist Trent Eady wrote about his experience of ideological possession in a remarkable personal essay from 2014. The experience did indeed nearly eat him alive. What began as a passionate desire to make a change for the better evolved into a consuming orthodoxy that became “the darkest chapter in [his] life.” This kind of activism begins, writes Eady, with “good intentions and noble causes, but metastasizes into a nightmare. In general, the activists involved are the nicest, most conscientious people you could hope to know. But at some point, they took a wrong turn, and their devotion to social justice led them down a dark path.”

Eady’s world became divided into what he calls “the righteous and the wrong-teous.” There were those chosen and special – and everyone else. Ingroup status could be maintained only by strict adherence to the special truths. “When I was part of groups like this, everyone was on exactly the same page about a suspiciously large range of issues. Internal disagreement was rare. The insular community served as an incubator of extreme, irrational views.”

Eady gives his own cogent definition of a crusader mentality: “an extreme self-righteousness based on the conviction that they are doing the secular equivalent of God’s work.” He continues with a warning:

The danger of the crusader mentality is that it turns the world in a battle between good and evil. Actions that would otherwise seem extreme and crazy become natural and expected. I didn’t think twice about doing a lot of things I would never do today.

Trent found that when he laid down the yoke of ideology, “a world that seemed grey and hopeless filled with colour…. Losing my political ideology was extremely liberating. I became a happier person. I also believe that I became a better person.”

The Religious Function of the Psyche

How do we worship without being eaten alive? A genuinely religious attitude in the psychological sense is an antidote to inflation. The word religion may come from the Latin religare, which means to bind fast, or place an obligation on. In contrast to puffed-up inflation, a religious attitude binds us to something larger, and puts upon us a sacred obligation to the infinite.

An awareness of our dependence upon that which is larger breeds the humility without which wisdom is not possible. It reminds us that our ego is just a small part of us, and is dependent upon – and easily influenced by – irrational, unconscious forces that are beyond our full understanding. We must be humble before the destructive capacity that exists within each one of us, and like the Roman slave, we must remind ourselves occasionally, that we are merely ordinary.

 

Lisa Marchiano is a clinical social worker and Jungian analyst in private practice in Philadelphia, PA. Her writing on parenting issues can be found at motherhoodtransformation.com. Follow her on Twitter @lisamarchiano

 

References

1 Jung, C. G., & Jaffe, A. (1989). Memories, dreams, reflections. New York: Vintage Books, p. 325.
2 Ibid, p. 140.
3 Hollis, J. (2004). Mythologems: incarnations of the invisible world. Toronto: Inner City Books, p. 98.
4 Jung, C. G. (1966). Collected works of C.G. Jung volume 7: two essays on analytical psychology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, para. 235.
5 Herzog, W. (Director). (2005). Grizzly Man [Motion picture]. United States: Lions Gate Films.
6 Jung, C. G. (1966). Collected works of C.G. Jung volume 7: two essays on analytical psychology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, para. 326.
7 Jung, C. G. (2015). Letters of C. G. Jung, vol. 2. Routledge, p. 569.

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