Sex, Suffering, Shadow, and Alchemical Transformation


The secret of alchemy was in fact the transcendent function, the transformation of personality through the blending and fusion of the noble with the base components, of the differentiated with the inferior functions, of the conscious with the unconscious. Carl Jung, Vol. 7 of CW, par. 360.The

A friend and I have been discussing painful, life-changing experiences and what we’ve learned from them. Why do they happen? Why do they cause us and those we love so much suffering? Is there meaning in humanity’s endless suffering? The suffering of our planet? Can anything good come from it? Here are my thoughts on one of life’s biggest questions.

Jung said we have five instincts—nurturance, activity, reflection, sex, and creativity. Normally, we’re unaware of our instinctual needs, but at a deep unconscious level, our inability to fulfill them causes great suffering. The instinct for sex is associated with humanity’s desire for love and pleasure. These days, experiencing love and pleasure seems to be our top priority. Not finding it creates enormous suffering, which may be why we are so obsessed with sex. But our failure to satisfy the other instincts can also cause us to suffer. 

strong attraction to another person might initially appear to be about sex, but the love and pleasure you desire is not always or only sexual. Other instincts are also involved. You can find deep pleasure in loving yourself, others, and life. You can’t force love, and you won’t feel the real thing if your youthful need for safety, guidance, and reassurance aren’t met. So maybe there’s something about this person that involves your instinct for nurturance. Maybe your parents couldn’t give you what you needed and this fascinating person instinctively feels like someone who can.

Or maybe your attraction comes from an unfulfilled yearning to express your creative instinct. If you repressed your artistic interests in your youth because of cultural standards and pressures, your attraction to art and artists could be rooted in an unconscious desire to actualize your own creativity. Awakening that instinct will likewise provide access to untapped reservoirs of passion and pleasure.

Regardless of why you think you’re suffering or which instincts are involved, at bottom your pain is caused by your separation from your transcendent function—your true Self. What you don’t realize is that your ego’s conscious life is only the tip of your psychological iceberg. Beneath the water’s surface, you harbor memories of past experiences, forgotten thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and emotions. Deeper than that, the collective unconscious you share with every other human being contains myriad archetypes—each with different personality traits—and at least five different instincts—each with specific needs and urges. Like the inhabitants of the ocean’s depths, your unconscious entities interact with one another, and the alchemy of their interactions transforms you.

To live oneself means: to be one’s own task. Never say that it is a pleasure to live oneself. It will be no joy but a long suffering, since you must become your own creator. Carl Jung, The Red Book, p. 249.

Facing dark inner realities is painful. From childhood you’ve unconsciously disowned traumatic experiences and memories. When they seep into your awareness, it can feel like a matter of life or death to ignore, escape, or rise above them. But anything you have repressed simmers in your unconscious where it can morph into a powerful shadow you can no longer contain. When this happens, like steam from a pressure cooker, your shadow can burst into your consciousness and instigate a personal crisis.

This is a shattering experience that can seriously mess with your life. But things will not necessarily stay this way forever. As my friend wisely wrote when we discussed these matters, “the trauma creates the roots for the drama that cannot be resolved without trauma.” Pure poetry. In fact, this scenario is typical of the Hero’s Journey.

This is not just an imagined story.  Myths are rooted in psycho-spiritual processes with transforming power. Like caterpillar whose body has to dissolve before it can morph into a beautiful new butterfly, your ego has to die to old habits and fears before your true Self can revel in the light of day.

With enough time and effort, you can acquire self-knowledge, love for yourself and others, and gratitude for the miracle of life. Even then, your suffering will not be over. Like the poor, our dragons will always be with us. But you will find comfort in the knowledge that you are taming yours and that your heroic accomplishments make a difference. In assuming the burden of your own suffering, you lighten the load carried by your loved ones, our planet, and every form of life. 

Image credits: Alchemy, from Camille Flammarion’s 1888 book L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (“The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology”).Google images. Butterfly, personal photo.

Jean Raffa’s The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at KoboBarnes And Noble and Smashwords. Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc. Her new book, The Soul’s Twins, will be launched next year.

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9 Responses

    1. I’m very glad to hear that. It’s deeply affirming to know when something I’ve written becomes part of a synchronistic experience for someone else. It makes me feel so connected at such a deep level. Thank you for writing, Marilyn

  1. As we move towards Samhain (Oct. 31st) and the thinning of the veil, a time when the gates between worlds open, I can relate to the Flammarion engraving deeply … for the image of that robed man arriving at a place where earth and sky touch, and how he has slipped under the roof of heaven …. speaks loudly to my shamanic soul when he passes into and belongs to both worlds at the same time.
    Somehow? As a child I knew that such a place existed in me too … a place where I belonged to the God(dess) and also my earthly life. It was a strange knowledge and one that lead me to poetry because it was only there that I could find the language to express my twofold nature. I didn’t talk about this to anyone at the time for fear of being laughed at … and certainly not to my church elders.
    Anyway back to that place I could only ever momentarily enter yet never reach … a place I’ve wandered (or entered?) into enough times now to know that such places exist … not only in dreams but in waking lives too. And when separated from my transcendent function I can be overwhelmed by fear, confusion and anxiety … and yet neither world can claim me as theirs either!
    At the moment I’m reading “Body and Soul: The Other Side to Illness” by Albert Kreinheder which is a feeling-intuitive approach to exploring illness through symbolism and so much more! One I would highly recommend if you haven’t got a copy. Kreinheder recommends that we stop cursing our symptoms and get deeper into the images that rise up instead … then the healing comes.
    A great article Jeanie with plenty to reflect upon! The RB quote you share overflows with Jung’s universal truth. Hmm, by connecting to our transcendent function much fear may be released in the world (even in these dark and stormy times!) however, it’s only by opening up our “transcendent” bottle and letting our “genie” out that we’re ever going to find out what’s on the inside! Warm autumnal blessings, Deborah.

    1. First of all, Deborah, Thank you so much for giving me the original source of the first image. I had forgotten it and was in too much of a rush to publish this by midnight last night to track it down. But I’ll add it to the post when I’ve finished this note.
      For those who are interested, here’s an excerpt about it from Wikipedia: A traveller puts his head under the edge of the firmament in the original (1888) printing of the Flammarion engraving. The Flammarion engraving is a wood engraving by an unknown artist, so named because its first documented appearance is in Camille Flammarion’s 1888 book L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (“The Atmosphere: Popular Meteorology”).[1] The engraving has often, but erroneously, been referred to as a woodcut. It has been used as a metaphorical illustration of either the scientific or the mystical quests for knowledge.
      Second, your comment stirred up a lot of thoughts for me. Mostly, I was struck by, and envied, your deep connection to your homeland with its strong links to the myths and rituals and beliefs from pre-Christian times. That reminded me that I recently got an update from 23 and Me about my ancestors, half of whom (on my father’s side) were British and Irish. I hadn’t known that until my brother sent his DNA in. It filled in a lot of the missing pieces.
      My father died when I was 11, and nobody seemed to know where his family came from. It was generally assumed his father, or perhaps grandfather, was from England, but nobody knew for sure. Or if they did, they didn’t talk about it. That got us all wondering if he was a horse thief or something! But now that I know about the very strong Irish link, it’s given me a new take on his emigration to the US. The strongest pocket of DNA relatives I have is located in County Donegal in Northern Ireland. Now I’m wondering if my grandfather or great-grandfather left Ireland because of the religious problems between the Catholics and Protestants which continued into our times. My mother’s family left South Netherlands and came to America in the 18th century for religious freedom. It would make sense that my father’s family did the same. It helps explain the strong need for religious freedom that I have! But my DNA shows that I have a lot of relatives in Greater London too. I’d be interested to know more about them.
      Anyway. You can see you’ve given me lots of food for thought today. But then you always do. 🙂
      Thank you. Jeanie

      1. Wonderful! By shining that light of love all the way down your ancestral lines, I’m sure you’re creating long and lasting healing for future generations. As a child when I first met my father’s family I was terrified as many were noisy, rowdy, colourful Romany gypsies with caravans in tow! Which probably explains my strong need for religious freedom too! x

  2. ??? I am there. Creating some joy on Thursdays for six weeks. Doing mythical stories for 17 Group members and feeling the joy of sharing as you must sending out the deep and meaningful blogs. This one was over the top. Sent from my iPhone

    1. Oh, dear Annie! I love it that you’re back where you belong, sharing your vast store of knowledge and wisdom about these matters with other like-minded souls.
      Yes, I do feel the joy of sharing every time I write one of these posts, and every time I read a comment from an interested reader. Enjoy the joy, and stay conscious.
      Thank you for writing. Sending you and Bob love and blessings.

  3. Thank you. The season of Fall Equinox is so obvious in nature in NY State. That in-between threshold moment in time.
    I’m grateful for the pleasure and comfort I find in meaning, but know it won’t spare me from suffering. In this way, I feel strongly connected to the Buddhist view that suffering is a given when we’re incarnated. If I’m temporarily spared in my personal life, all I have to do is read the news or notice Nature’s struggles. As I watch the Dalai Lama hobble on painful legs, remember Marion Woodman losing her mental way the last times I saw her, and recall the anguish on the face of my uncomplaining root teacher as he suffered from cancer, I don’t expect life to be easier for me. Still, the presence of suffering is a teacher that holds me firmly on that threshold between my small self and the Self where it’s clear the ego is not in charge.
    This all sounds gloomy, but it inspires me to find pleasure in the small things from writing to meditation to walking with a friend in the forest to volunteering at hospice and showing up at the Climate Strike. I released 2 large migrating Monarchs today (~140 for the season with 5 more chrysalises waiting). I’m also visiting a litter of puppies tomorrow that were rescued after recent southern floods. I hope I can adopt one for the pure joy of having a peeing chewing snuggling puppy to join my old dog and me. Whatever unfolds and especially at this equinox time of year, I’ll keep practicing the art of holding one foot in the world of darkness and the other in the world of light and life. Here come the dark days…

    1. “I feel strongly connected to the Buddhist view that suffering is a given when we’re incarnated. If I’m temporarily spared in my personal life, all I have to do is read the news or notice Nature’s struggles.” I share your outlook on suffering. It most definitely is a teacher. If it teaches nothing else but gratitude for life’s small pleasures, whatever ones remain, it has done its job.
      I’ll be very curious to know what becomes of your puppy visit. I expect Willow will find great pleasure in having a new friend. At the moment I’m looking forward to a visit from Izzy this afternoon. It’ll be the first time I’ve seen her since we returned from the cabin and I’ve really missed her! We’re both in for a lot of pleasure today!
      I love your practice of holding one foot in the world of darkness and the other in the world of light and life. There are many ways I do that as well but I hadn’t thought of it as a practice! I guess everything we do can be a practice if we are mindful, accepting, and grateful!
      Wishing you continued healing and greater pleasure in hearing

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