ARE WE POSSESSED?
By Paul Levy
C. G. Jung writes, “If, for a moment, we look at mankind as one individual, we see that it is like a man carried away by unconscious powers.” We are a species carried away — “possessed” by — and acting out, the unconscious. Jung elaborates, “Possession, though old-fashioned, has by no means become obsolete; only the name has changed. Formerly they spoke of ‘evil spirits,’ now we call them ‘neurosis’ or ‘unconscious complexes.’” To condescendingly think that we, as modern-day, rational people, are too sophisticated to believe in something as primitive as demons is to have fallen under the spell of the very evil spirits we are imagining are nonexistent. What the ancients call demons are a psychic phenomena which compel us to act out behaviors contrary to our best intentions. To quote Jung, “…the psychic conditions which breed demons are as actively at work as ever. The demons have not really disappeared but have merely taken on another form: they have become unconscious psychic forces.”
“Possession,” according to Jung is “a primordial psychic phenomenon” that “denotes a peculiar state of mind characterized by the fact that certain psychic contents, the so-called complexes, take over the control of the total personality in place of the ego, at least temporarily, to such a degree that the free will of the ego is suspended.” Though the possessed might imagine they have free will, their freedom is an illusion. They are unwittingly being used as an instrument for some “other” energy or force to incarnate and express itself through them. Having complexes is not necessarily pathological, as everyone has them. What is pathological, however, is thinking we don’t have complexes, which is the precondition that makes us most vulnerable to possession. Jung clarifies, “Everyone knows nowadays that people ‘have complexes.’ What is not so well known, though far more important theoretically, is that complexes can have us.” The more complexes we have, the more we are possessed. We don’t need to get rid of our complexes, rather, we need to become consciously aware of them. What is important is what we do with our complexes.
Complexes are the psychic agencies which flavor and determine our psychological view of the world. To quote Jung, “The via regia [royal road] to the unconscious, however, is not the dream…but the complex, which is the author of dreams and of symptoms.” Thematically organized (such as the power-complex, savior-complex, mother-complex, inferiority complex, etc.), the complexes are the vehicles that flesh out the rich repository of contents of the underlying archetypes, giving the formless archetypes a specifically human face. Complexes are the living elemental units of the psyche, acting like the focal or nodal points of psychic life, in which the energy charge of the various archetypes of the collective unconscious are concentrated.
An emotionally-charged complex acts like the epicenter of a magnetic field, attracting and potentially assimilating into itself everything that has any resonance, relevance or is related to itself in any way. This inner process can be seen as it en-acts itself in the outer world when we come in contact with someone who has an activated complex and we find ourselves drafted into their process, picking up a role in their psyche. This is an outer reflection of how a complex can attract, co-opt and subsume other parts of the environment, both inner and outer, into itself. Complexes, when split-off from consciousness, can potentially engulf and possess the whole personality.
“Possession” is an interesting word. It conjures up immediate associations of the Devil, who, mythologically speaking, is the one who “possesses” us, in the demonic sense of the word. Jung, however, differentiates his meaning of the word “possession” from the meaning associated with the Catholic Church, for example, when he writes, “The Church’s idea of possession, therefore, is limited to extremely rare cases, whereas I would use it in a much wider sense as designating a frequently occurring psychic phenomenon.” Possession, psychologically speaking, is to identify with a complex of the unconscious, and become taken over by it such that we act it out in, as and through our lives. Who among us hasn’t done this? Who among us shall cast the first stone?
As I write this article, multiple examples of people becoming possessed […] on the world stage happened for everyone to see. Tennis star Serena Williams “losing it” when she fell into a rage at the U. S. Open, Republican congressman Joe Wilson’s unrestrained outburst, yelling “You lie,” during President Obama’s speech in front of congress, and rapper Kanye West […] rudely interrupting and ruining country singer Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards all illustrate exactly what I am pointing at. They were all “taken over by something.”
Jung writes, “since the world began, mankind has been possessed.” Possession is synonymous with bondage. Jung comments that in states of possession it comes down to “the same age-old experience: something objectively psychic and strange to us, not under our control, is fixedly opposed to the sovereignty of our will.” Possession means being supplanted by something stronger, being taken over and “owned” by something other than ourselves. Jung says, “Wherever we are still attached, we are still possessed; and when we are possessed, there is one stronger than us who possesses us.”
We’ve all had moments where we’ve been possessed by something, where we’ve felt “not ourselves,” where we are no longer identical with ourselves. Some of us spend our whole lives living someone else’s life instead of our own. We’ve all had moments where “something” has gotten into us, where we feel out of sorts, beside ourselves. When deeper, primordial archetypes seize us, Jung writes “They easily catch hold of you and you are possessed as if they were lions or bears, say – primitive forces which are quite definitely stronger than you.”
At any moment any one of us can become “possessed” by the unconscious in a way such that a more powerful energy than our conscious ego moves and animates us. To quote Jung, “…it easily happens to any one of us that we do not act through our own volition. Then I cannot say I do, but it is done through me; something takes possession of me, the very action can take possession of me.”
When we have fallen into our unconscious and compulsively enact an unconscious complex, we become manipulated by more powerful forces than ourselves. In Jung’s words, a person then becomes “the devil’s marionette. This could happen only because he believed he had abolished the demons by declaring them to be superstition. He overlooked the fact that they were, at bottom, the products of certain factors in the human psyche.” In dismissing the demons as being mere illusions without realizing their psychological reality, we unwittingly become possessed by them. The demons are ultimately split-off, rejected, and disowned parts of the psyche that are experienced as alien and other than who we imagine ourselves to be (please see my article, “Meeting the Other Within”).