‘The Horizon’, Part 2, Chapter 15: about the lessons we learn at the school of life, and why accepting subjective negative experience can be very exciting
“Human subjectivity is drawing forth the world.”Margaret Wertheim
Now you are an adult, and you are finally free to create your own life. Sounds great, except — by some random twist of fate — you find yourself caught up in a cage of social norms, familiar patterns, and personal limitations.
Internal constraints like fear and self-doubt don’t help either, or so it seems.
No, wait — what if they do? What if those highly subjective negative emotions could help us in our work of creation?
This sounds very far fetched, I know. Perhaps even absurd.
We thought it is our free Will which enables us to create anything we want. It gets support from the rational Intellect, which allows us to separate objective facts from subjective illusions.
Maybe we can stretch as far as including the fantastic functions of the Imagination. After all, this is known to be one of our ‘creative Faculties’; it makes us dream and produce visions, it cheers us on to reach for the stars.
The Inspiration is a useful creative Faculty too. It acts like an internal radar for receiving original ideas – always useful when you want to create something new.
The subjective experience of negative emotions, however, that’s the last thing we need. Whenever we want to create the life we really want, they always get in the way. They always jeopardise our beautiful plans of ‘creating a better world for ourselves and our children’.
How can we be so sure?
This dismissive judgment of our negative experiences is nothing but a subjective opinion. Moreover, our rational thoughts about what’s right or wrong are usually far more superficial than the irrational feelings which show up unsolicited and come from a deeper place in human Consciousness.
Did you know that the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung used his subjective experiences — especially dreams and strong emotional reactions — to create his own life? As a scientist he used his subjective experience as a most reliable source of information.
In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Thoughts Carl Jung mentions that certain strong emotions always showed up “when I encounter a thing, person, or idea of whose significance I am still unconscious.” His subjective ‘negative’ emotional experience gave him a clue that something important was waiting to be discovered in the Dark Side of his Consciousness.
The Australian science writer Margaret Wertheim has written several books on the history of science. In her essay I feel therefore I am (published in December 2015) she offers an overview on how human Consciousness creates its own world:
“The business of science was to ascertain the rules by which this machine-world works – the objective ‘laws of nature’ – and the whole question of subjectivity was heaved out the door.” In recent experiments, however, scientists discovered that “human subjectivity is drawing forth the world.”
“Anyone who takes the sure road is as good as dead.”Carl Gustav Jung
As adults we all have to learn to create our own life, or at the very least to manage it reasonably well. This is not something we learn at school. Life itself teaches us the lessons we need to learn.
Our curriculum at the ‘school of life’ is always made to measure. Life acts as a private tutor for everyone. In theory we can learn through play. In practice we usually get tests as an incentive to learn our lessons.
Most of us are reluctant to create our own life. We prefer to follow a known track in the hope to build a secure livelihood for ourselves. Yet life may have other plans.
After completing his studies of medicine at the university of Basel Carl Jung began to work as an assistant doctor at a mental asylum, he started to teach at the university of Zurich, and he set up his private clinic.
The young doctor soon became popular among women from the upper classes. His private practice flourished, he had a secure job as a lecturer, and he developed a close friendship with his famous colleague, Sigmund Freud. In other words, a comfortable and successful life was within his grasp.
Yet something in Carl Jung’s inner world rebelled against the superficial security of mainstream success. After a few years he gave up his job as a lecturer, turned his back on the academic world and dedicated his full attention to the mysterious unconscious.
He began to draw mandalas, recorded his dreams, studied mythology, and read ancient texts of the gnostics and alchemists, all in search of a deeper understanding of the human psyche.
In other words, Jung chose a precarious path which could have led him into complete isolation. If he hadn’t succeeded in bringing something valuable back from his inner journey, he could have ended up as a ‘lone nutter’.
Eventually Carl Jung returned to the world of science and psychotherapy with many significant discoveries. It was a path full of risks, trials and errors.
“When one follows the path of individuation, when one lives one’s own life, one must take mistakes into the bargain;” he explains. “There is no guarantee—not for a single moment—that we will not fall into error or stumble into deadly peril. We may think there is a sure road. But that would be the road of death… Anyone who takes the sure road is as good as dead.”
“I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be the shadow.”Sylvia Plath
At the school of life lessons are frequently presented in the form of personal challenges, difficult situations, tragic events, negative experiences, and crises.
‘Why does it all have to be so negative?’, you may wonder.
Good question. The answer is, it doesn’t have to be sooo negative. Our subjective experiences show up in relation to issues within our Consciousness which have been repressed, often for a long time.
These repressed parts of ourselves can be the result of childhood experiences — every child has impressions which are beyond his grasp at the time. Such overwhelming impressions get stored in the memory of our Consciousness and are waiting to be processed later. They don’t have to be terribly traumatic.
Additionally during the child period human Consciousness usually takes on board repressed issues from parents and grandparents. Adults who don’t manage to learn their life lessons for whatever reason — i.e. who don’t face their repressed issues and transform them — pass this ‘negative stuff’ straight on to their children.
We have seen an example of this in Sebastian’s story in chapter 12 — Consciousness in Paradise.
All repressed issues passed on to us from our ancestors somehow filter into our personal curriculum at the school of life. These topics are difficult to learn because they have been charged with negative emotions over many generations.
Objectively they don’t have to be hard at all. What hardens them is our individual and collective resistance to deal with such obscure topics. The subjective human experience makes the lessons at the school of life far more complicated and painful than necessary.
In psychology these repressed issues are also called ‘shadows’. For Sigmund Freud, the shadow referred only to the unpleasant, negative aspects, the stuff we try to eliminate. Therefore the shadow became associated with the ‘source of all evil’.
Through Carl Jung’s work the shadow became the unknown side of the personality, which is not necessarily bad. It includes positive as well as negative aspects, and the ‘negative’ parts don’t have to be ‘evil’. They are simply untamed, wild, not yet developed aspects of the individual.
All our creative potential lives in the shadow side of our Consciousness. This has always been known to artists, poets, writers, original thinkers, and all creative people. For them the shadow is an intimate friend.
In her novel The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath writes, “I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be the shadow.”
Carl Jung was an original thinker and creative scientist. He discovered how to transform his shadow by bringing it into awareness and deciphering its symbolic meaning. This became a key aspect for his process of individuation. His groundbreaking research into the inner world has paved the way for what is now known as ‘shadow-work’ in psychology.
The principle of transforming negative experiences into positive sources of information is not new. It was practiced over 1000 years ago by a female Buddhist saint. This information got lost in the dust of history — written mostly by men — and it was recently rediscovered by a woman.
“I didn’t expect the practice to have any outward results.”Tsultrim Allione
In 1967 Joan Rousmaniere Dewing travelled to Calcutta with a friend. The 2 young American women first worked as volunteers in an orphanage, then they travelled to Kathmandu, Nepal, and Tibet.
3 years later Joan cut off her long hair and took the vows to become a Buddhist nun. She studied Tibetan, practiced meditation, and immersed herself in an ancient culture, which felt strangely familiar to her.
Another 3 years later, at the age of 25, Joan Dewing gave back her vows and returned to the United States. But she kept her Tibetan name, Tsultrim Allione.
Back in America she got married to a fellow Buddhist practitioner, and they had two children. The couple split up after a few of years, Tsultrim Allione married an Italian film maker and moved to Italy.
Soon she was pregnant again and gave birth to twins, a girl and a boy. After 8 months the baby girl unexpectedly died of so-called ‘sudden infant death’. The loss of her child threw the young mother into a deep crisis.
Tsultrim Allione had already been struggling with meeting the demands of 4 young children, coping with a foreign way of life, and trying to help her husband who was suffering from depression and addiction.
The grief following the death of her daughter accelerated her descent into an unknown ‘inner underworld’. This marked the beginning of an intense search for Buddhist answers to the female experience of life.
Tsultrim Allione travelled back to India to gather biographies of female Buddhist masters. She translated their stories into English, and founded a Buddhist centre in Colorado, where she teaches an approach which integrates the female and male experience.
Tsultrim Allione is considered by some Tibetan teachers an ’emanation of Machig Labdron’, a female Buddhist saint who lived around 955 — 1045. Legend has it that Machig was once attacked by some aggressive demons. Instead of fighting them, she offered herself to the demons as food. Through Machig’s act of complete surrender the demons were transformed and became her allies.
This story is the basis for an ancient Buddhist practice called Chöd. Tsultrim Allione has adapted this practice for contemporary Western use, and she describes it in detail in her book Feeding Your Demons.
Machig Labdron’s ‘demons’ bear a striking resemblance to Carl Jung’s ‘shadow’. Both stand for repressed aspects of one’s own inner world and both are reflected by adverse events in the outer world.
In the preface to her book Women of Wisdom Tsultrim Allione shares an example of the Chöd practice from a difficult time in her own life. This happened during the time when she and her Italian husband were splitting up, and he didn’t want to let her take their son with her to the United States.
“One night during this struggle, I decided to do Chöd,” she recalls. She visualised her husband and her own fear as the ‘demons’. Then she offered her own body as nectar to the inner demons until she had a profound sense of relaxation. She could feel that the inner struggle had ended.
The most surprising result of the Chöd practice happened the following day: “I didn’t expect the practice to have any outward results,” Tsultrim Allione writes, “and so I was surprised the next day when my husband came to my apartment and sat down in the living room physically shaking. … He said that he had decided to allow us to leave. In a complete reversal of his previous stance, he said that he understood my need to return to my country of origin and that it wasn’t right to keep me in Italy against my will.”
This episode from Tsultrim Allione’s life captures the essence of ‘human subjectivity drawing forth a world’, as Margaret Wertheim calls it.
“Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”Rainer Maria Rilke
When we talk about ‘creating our own life’ of course we are not literally creating a whole world for ourselves from scratch, although in some sense some people say we do. This is confusing, so let’s take a closer look at the human act of creation.
The work we call ‘creation’ in this context is an act of shaping, processing, and transforming one’s own experience. What we ultimately want to ‘create’ for ourselves is a better experience of life. And our resource for this creative work is our subjective experience.
When we manage to transform our negative experience — not via repression and other aggressive means but through genuine understanding — it becomes the most uplifting positive experience. This gets reflected in the outer world, which is where we want to change things.
So-called ‘shadow work’ and ‘feeding inner demons’ are not terribly attractive. Even though the value of working with the unknown aspects of ourselves is slowly sinking in, we continue to experience a great resistance.
Describing those phenomena as ‘shadows’ or ‘demons’ doesn’t help either. Who wants to welcome dark, fierce, and potentially dangerous characters from their inner wilderness into their life? Nobody can predict what might happen. What if they make life harder than it already is?
Here it helps to remind ourselves that ‘shadow’ and ‘demon’ are only names given by our ancestors to phenomena they didn’t understand.
If the human work of creation is a processing of subjective experience — and our subjective experience produces our world — then it would be fair to say that throughout our life we create a world, which is literally overshadowed by impressions from the past.
This means, our ‘work of creation’ is not an act of free Will, and it cannot be controlled by the rational Intellect. It is the default setting of human Consciousness, and all our Faculties are somehow involved in the process.
All troublesome experiences that overwhelmed us (or our ancestors) in the past, have taken residence in the Dark Side of our Consciousness, like uninvited squatters. And they’ll sit there forever until someone welcomes them into the Bright Side.
I imagine those mysterious phenomena as living creatures surviving in the inner dark wilderness, waiting for an opportunity to meet us. When they jump out, they always create a disruptive scene.
Of course this is unpleasant. That’s the whole point! By stirring negative emotions these dark inner creatures make sure they can catch my full attention.
Those repressed issues behave like neglected children who have gone a bit wild. So far they have only learned to attract negative attention, and they have become very good at it since they’ve had many centuries to practice.
However, as a creative contemporary adult, I don’t have to be scared by them. I can listen to them. I can find out what they want to teach me. This is what creative adults have always done.
In his Letters to a Young Poet the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggests that, “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”Carl Rogers
All mysterious and ‘still unconscious’ residents in the Dark Side of our Consciousness are effectively part of your dormant creative potential. They are neither bad nor dangerous. They simply have not yet had a chance to enter into the Bright Side of Consciousness and make a constructive contribution to life.
This means, what we experience as ‘dark’ or ‘demonic’ is an immature, undeveloped life form within our personal eco system.
We are extremely reluctant to accept things in our world which we don’t like, which make us feel bad, which seem to cause hassle, problems and suffering. So we resist and reject them.
But our resistance only makes the situation worse. It makes it impossible to learn our lessons at the school of life. Learning can only take place by welcoming it into our world.
We have to be able to accept the teacher and the new information. The new information in this case comes via our subjective negative experience, and the teacher is life itself.
The best tool we have to help us with our lessons and tests throughout the adult period is Acceptance.
We are reluctant to accept our negative experiences for several reasons, some of them I have already mentioned. Another obstacle lies hidden in the word acceptance itself. We assume accepting a negative situation or event makes things worse.
Of course this is a valid argument, yet it is based on a particular understanding of the word acceptance.
We interpret accepting as a passive attitude — ‘putting up with’ unacceptable circumstances, or offensive behaviour of others towards us, or resigning ourselves to an unfortunate fate. This would indeed be a destructive form of acceptance.
This is not what we are talking about here. Constructive acceptance means taking something as it really is and dealing with it appropriately.
Any negative experience points directly to an unresolved, immature, undeveloped aspect within ourselves. Constructive acceptance means taking the opportunity to become aware of this ‘negative’ aspect, taking full responsibility for it, and treating it with appreciation and kindness.
Acceptance means giving unconditional loving attention to an aspect of myself that is suffering. It means treating that suffering aspect of myself with compassion, kindness, care, and understanding — as if it was a vulnerable child.
When I look at any negative experience, which triggers emotional discomfort and produces a strong reaction within me, as if it was an inner child, then I can instantly recognise it as a part of myself that is stuck in an unresolved childhood pattern.
Once I can see this negative phenomenon as an immature part of myself which wants to grow up and make a constructive contribution to my life, then it is easy to meet this ‘helpless immature creature’ with wholehearted acceptance.
The American psychologist Carl Rogers once said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
“Human Consciousness is a living organism”Veronika Bond
Why is this a ‘curious paradox’? Carl Rogers’ statement makes sense only if we regard ourselves as machines.
When you have a machine, and something doesn’t work, then you search for the fault and fix it. You might have to take out a broken part and replace it.
If you regard yourself in those terms — and if something doesn’t work in your life — then it makes sense to reject it and replace it with something better. This is how humans have approached themselves and their lives for many generations.
And we still do it. When we are not happy with ourselves, we try to become more efficient, faster, bigger, better, slimmer, richer. We put a lot of effort into improving our behaviour and our outer world.
We believe we can become ‘better humans’ by rejecting parts of ourselves. We expect we can have a ‘better life’ by ignoring essential aspects of it. And what happens?
Life itself becomes a draconic schoolmaster. It presents us with difficult lessons. It seems to punish us when we do something wrong.
We keep creating a world for ourselves where there is no space to simply be as we are. Again and again we manage to squeeze ourselves out of our own life.
Here is the first and most important lesson to learn in the school of life: Humans are not machines. Human Consciousness is a living organism.
This means, when parts of your life are ‘not working properly’, it’s not because they are ‘broken’ or ‘bad’. It is because they are not yet fully developed. They are still in an earlier, immature period of Consciousness.
Once you realise this as a basic fact, it becomes obvious that resisting or rejecting those immature aspects of yourself only makes things worse.
All those mysterious negative phenomena in your life are like children who need some loving care, attention, and a little patience. By meeting them with constructive wholehearted acceptance those ‘younger parts of Consciousness’ get a chance to grow up. Then they will no longer be a nuisance. They return the loving kindness with appreciation and loyalty.
Therefore it is logical that we can only change anything about ourselves or in our life when we accept ourselves as we are.
Suffering and negative experiences are meant to serve as powerful catalysts. They play a key role in our curriculum. As adults it is our job to learn to access our inner dormant resources so that we can promote the growing up of our own Consciousness.
At the school of life learning is not a rational process, it is an experience. It involves all Faculties of human Consciousness — Body, Intellect, Instinct, Imagination, Intuition, Inspiration, Soul, and Will — the entire living organism with all its autonomous and voluntary functions.
Accepting life lessons is actually very exciting. It is a fantastic life skill, and it is extremely useful. Once you get the hang of it, subjective experience becomes like receiving a precious gift every day.
Accepting my life lessons is continuously enabling me to discover, process, and absorb new information, which then comes alive and makes a constructive contribution to my life.
This is the process of creation — or inner transformation — in my personal subjective experience. Every time I pass a test at the school of life, something in my inner world grows up a little. And every inner creature that grows up helps to draw my outer world a little closer towards how I wish I could have created it.
© Veronika Bond, 2016
This article is a draft of chapter 15 of The Horizon, volume 2 of The Solo System.
It is complemented by an e-letter, containing additional background information about the progress of the book and the creative process.
If you want to receive updates in the future, subscribe now.