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  • Our Need for Spirituality at Midlife and Beyond

    If you’re familiar with the writings of C.G. Jung, you will likely be aware of the importance that he places on spirituality and “religion” in our life journey in general, and particularly in our midlife journey and beyond. Why does Jung insist that this issue of spirituality and “religion” is so important?

    Photo by Vijas Rohilla 

    I’ve placed the word “religion” in quotation marks because Jung uses the word in a somewhat special way. For when he uses the word, he doesn’t mean what we might think of most readily, namely organized religion. In fact, Jung has some very choice words of criticism for organised religion, as in the quotation below, where he tells us that it is often

    …a defense against the experience of God

    He contrasts this with the importance of having a genuinely religious outlook, as he asserts when he writes that

    I have treated many hundreds of patients. Among those in the second half of life – that is to say, over 35 – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life.

    I should hasten to add that Jung is not necessarily opposed to organized relgion, but he does make it clear that its value, or lack therof, depends on whether or not it helps individuals to find a “religious outlook on life”. What exactly does he mean by this?

    What is a ”Religious Outlook on Life” and What Does It Mean for Spirituality?

    As discussed above, when Jung refers to a “religious outlook on life”, he is not necessarily referring to the outward forms of organized religion. He is indicating that, whether someone is involved in organized religion or not, something more is needed in middle or later life, if the individual is to find depth or meaning in their existence. What exactly is this necessary thing?

    For Jung, it’s essential to realize that the ego, our normal everyday consciousness of “I”, or my “own identity” is not the sum total of who we are, nor the sole actor in our personal story. Jung is continually asserting the presence of another factor, which he names the Self, with a capital “S”. For Jung, this Self is continually active in our lives, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. In the deepest part of our personality, we are connected to a reality that is far greater than the ego.

    Some may use the term “God” for this reality. In fact, many in our culture may equate experiencing this reality to an experience of God in one form or another. Yet, it may be that others will refer to this reality by another name—the Universe, the Ground of Being, the Ancestors, or many other terms.

    Jung would stress that the important thing is that something greater than the ego is in control. For him, and for Jungians in general, being in contact with that greater reality is of vital importance for living authentically through the midlife journey and beyond. 

    Why Does a “Religious Outlook” Matter in Midlife?

    Someone might assert that they have no need of a “religious hypothesis”; that they find themselves perfectly able to negotiate the situations and demands of her or his life without any such thing. Yet Jung stressed that finding the religious dimension brings us something incredibly valuable. What does he actually mean by this?

    Perhaps one of the best summations of why the “religious” or spiritual is important to Jungians is actually expressed by Jungian James Hollis:

    In the end we will only be transformed when we can recognize and accept the fact that there is a will within each of us, quite outside the range of conscious control, a will which knows what is right for us, which is repeatedly reporting to us via our bodies, emotions, and dreams, and is incessantly encouraging our healing and wholeness.

    From this perspective, there is something greater than than the personal ego that is working towards our health, in the broadest sense of the word and working for our wholeness. As Hollis asserts, that will tries to bring itself into our awareness through our bodies, our emotions and our dreams. If we sit with that for a bit, it starts to appear as quite a bombshell.

    If there is something greater than the ego that is at work in trying to bring us to wholeness and completeness, that is certainly something that it is important for us to be aware of. No wonder Jung calls for us to have a spiritual or “religious outlook”.

    The Importance of the Self

    Jung bases this spiritual or religious outlook on the presence of this greater-than-the-ego reality that he calls the Self. Jung emphasizes that the question of the relationship with the Self becomes a matter of unavoidable significance for many of us when we enter the middle of our lives. He stresses that the questions that the Self asks of our lives, and the ways in which it seeks to be a presence in our lives only increase in importance as we move deeper and deeper into the second half of our life.

    It is reasonably common for human beings to experience a period of disorientation in the middle of life. This may manifest in depression, anxiety or other psychological forms. Often the goals and directions we have moved towards at earlier points in our life journey start to seem far less meaningful and important. This can result in a profound loss of direction, as we also confront the reality that we are mortal and that we have a finite amount of time to spend on what has true meaning and value for us.

    This is not just a recent phenomenon. Many centuries ago, Dante Alighieri wrote that,

    In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself in a dark woods where the straight way had been lost sight of.  How hard it is to say what it was like in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense and gnarled the very thought of it renews my panic. It is bitter almost as death itself is bitter.  But to rehearse the good it also brought me I will speak about the other things I saw there. How I got there I cannot clearly say, for I was moving like a sleepwalker….

    We may well share something of Dante’s profound sense of disorientation. It can be a very fundamental part of the process of midlife transition. The exact form it takes will be very individual.

    As disorienting as this experience is, it can make all the difference in the world if we feel that what we are undergoing has some form of deep significance or meaning for our life journey, To view our journey at this point in spiritual or religious terms, and to feel that there is something greater than our own ego which is guiding us, may make all the difference in the world.

    Depth psychotherapy, and Jungian therapy in particular, can be of immense help in discerning the meaning of what is going on at this point in our journey, and its spiritual or religious significance. A supportive and affirming relationship with a skilled Jungian psychotherapist can enable an individual to discern the highly personal meaning of what is unfolding in her or his life. his is often intiately connected to a profound sense of what the call of life is for that particular person.

    With very best wishes for your continuing personal journey

    Brian Collinson 

    Registered Psychotherapist and 

    Certified Jungian Analyst (IAAP) 

    Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional

    © Brian Collinson, 2024