I recently came across the following in a book called “The Middle Passage” by James Hollis:
“What the frightened individual wishes above all is the restoration of the sense of self which once worked. What the therapist knows is that the symptoms are helpful clues to the place of injury or neglect, pointing the way to subsequent healing… As Jung asserted, ‘The outbreak of neurosis is not just a matter of chance. As a rule it is most critical. It is usually the moment when a new psychological adjustment, a new adaptation is demanded.’ This implies that our own psyche has organized this crisis, produced this suffering, precisely because injury as been done and change must occur.” pp. 36-7
You can see the philosophy from which I hail, yes? James Hollis is a Jungian analyst who writes from the depth psychological tradition, a field of psychology developed by Carl Jung many decades ago. What Hollis is saying is what I write about all the time in my work: that our symptoms – our anxiety, depression, intrusive thoughts, somatic obsessions, insomnia – are organized and delivered by psyche exactly when it’s time for us to grow. When we get rid of the symptom without taking time to discover and uncover the underlying messages, not only do we miss the opportunity for growth and healing but the message will have to find another way to grab our attention, what I call the whack-a-mole phenomena. This is because our unconscious, the guiding principle of our lives, desires only one thing from us: to grow toward wholeness. Everything we experience that we call suffering is designed to further this aim. So if we don’t get the message from the first symptom, it will grab our attention in another way.
The problem isn’t the suffering itself; the problem is how we regard it. If we think we’re being tortured because we’re suffering from insomnia or heart palpitations or any other exceedingly uncomfortable manifestation of anxiety – if we buy into the cultural mis-message that because we’re struggling “something is wrong” – we will run to the doctor and seek the fastest method to take away the suffering. But when we understand that our symptoms are evidence that something is right, that our psyche is working to our benefit exactly as planned, then we might slow down the process and take some time to sink into the inquiry of what the messages might be.
In order to sink into the process of discovery, we must be willing to spend more time initially asking questions than receiving answers. Rilke’s famous words to his 19-year old protege in 1903 can be a guiding light and principle during this phase of exploration:
“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Herein lies the challenge of our times: we are forgetting how to wait. In other eras, we had to wait to get to the library in order to research information. We had to wait to receive correspondences through the mail. We had to wait to receive mail-order packages, or we had to wait to find the product locally. The internet changed all of that. And when we lose the skill of waiting in our outer life, our inner life follows suit, which means that when we’re struggling, we expect immediate relief and we expect to the find the answers now.
Yet, as I teach repeatedly, there’s nothing fast or easy about inner work. Patience is paramount. We must be willing to tolerate not knowing, which is one of the most challenging experiences for humans to tolerate. I remember when I was going through a transformative time and I sat in my therapist’s office desperately longing for her to give me an answer. I said, “I have no idea what psyche is trying to tell me,” and she responded, “Exciting, isn’t it?” I didn’t feel excited. I felt full of the immense discomfort of the “not knowing” stage of growth. I felt psychologically itchy and antsy, like the snake about to shed its skin or the butterfly trying to emerge from the chrysalis. And I had been feeling that way for months.
But I tried to remember that when we rush to an answer too quickly, we get into trouble. It’s the ego that thinks it needs definite answers in order to feel okay. It’s the psyche – our Wise Self – that knows that life is infinitely more nuanced and subtle than the ego would like us to believe. When we surrender into the nuance, when live into the questions, when we find some patience for the process of unfolding a new aspect of ourselves then, paradoxically, an “answer” or a clear direction often appears. In due time, and with true inner work, we find our way.