Beyond My Comfort Level

Recently the United Nations published its 2018 research paper, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World. “In addition to conflict and violence in many parts of the world, the gains made in ending hunger and malnutrition are being eroded by climate variability and exposure to more complex, frequent, and intense climate extremes ….”

In November, Mary Hoff wrote in Scientific American that

In the 1990s, reports started cropping up around the world of disappearing pollinators. In 2006, researchers reported dramatic declines in counts of moths attracted to light traps in Great Britain. A 2010 international gathering of firefly experts reported unsettling downward trends(1).  In 2017, scientists reported a decline of more than 75 percent(2) in insect biomass across 63 nature areas in Germany between 1989 and 2016. A 2018 census(3) found an ominous drop in monarch butterflies along the California coast. Anecdotal evidence from Australia(4) earlier this year indicates insect declines there as well.


Although these results are disturbing, they’re not definitive.…

Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to expect declines. Widespread use of insecticides is one obvious one. Others include habitat loss and degradation; declines in or disappearance of plants or animals that specific insects depend on for food and shelter; displacement by nonnative species; air, water and light pollution (5); the global spread of insect diseases; climate change; and even, says Wagner, nitrification due to fossil-fuel burning.

On Friday, March 1, William Brangham interviewed David Wallace-Wells, a fellow at the New America Foundation and a columnist and editor at “New York Magazine,” who has just published The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.”It is worse, much worse, than you think,” Wallace-Wells writes. “The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions ….”

In addition to what climate change brings, we see all around us bullies and tyrants imposing their view and their will through disinformation, spin, fear, lies, and money. In the 7 December 2018 Washington Post, Charles Edel discussed the message of Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz’s novel, The Captive Mind.

It was his attempt to explain why individuals moved along the path from resistance to surrender, submission and ultimately advocacy of a system of government they had detested. Written to explain what intellectual life was like behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, Milosz’s work is freshly relevant today…. This process [of accommodating to an authoritarian regime] hardly ever occurred all at once. The changes happened slowly, almost imperceptibly, and began by a weakening of the will to resist.” [Milosz left Poland and fled to the relative safety of the West. Edel quotes Milosz: ]“I have won my freedom; but let me not forget that I stand in daily risk of losing it once more.”

Edel continues, “For those willing to resist, and for those wanting to encourage others to do so, Milosz recognized that refusing to be complicit is insufficient. The harder and more enduring task was recognizing that they had merely won the privilege to fight for [their freedom] for another day.”

Adding more examples of nastiness happening on the planet would be easy. These references set the background for discussing why I do what I do.

As a young man in my 20s, many of my contemporaries engaged (at least verbally) in various forms of protest and political activism. They vigorously criticized me for pursuing the psychological point of view. Of course, I felt both attacked and guilty. I couldn’t deny that awful things were happening on the planet. Neither could I deny that angry confrontation, or the prospect of angry confrontation, terrified me.

What I “do” is psychotherapy and psychoanalysis (as well as teach analysts-in-training and write my monthly blog for the Ommani Jewel). Since my 20s I have struggled with my awareness of the world mess and with my innate preference to work with individuals. How can I justify doing psychotherapy and analysis with one person at a time, or teaching psychotherapy and psychoanalysis to fifteen or twenty people at a time, when “the world is burning”?

For a long time, I have been painfully aware that an inclination, a predisposition, a fantasy, or an impulse in the psyche precedes whatever happens in the world. I know this from self-observation and from decades of working intimately with individuals. I also know that the native endowment for self-observation varies from person to person. Some people are naturally more predisposed to self-awareness than others. Fortunately, anyone can develop greater skill in self-observation and self-awareness. A person feels compelled to do this when one becomes a problem to oneself. Self-awareness and self-observation before acting give one time to evaluate the immediate situation as well as the fantasy, impulse, image, thought.

Victor Hugo is credited with saying that nothing is so powerful as an idea whose time has come.(Fascinating and important as it is, I will not attempt to establish when the time has come for any particular thought. That would make for a good essay; I’ll think about it.) Suffice it to say here that “ideas” often precede “their time,” some by decades (e.g., racial, ethnic, and gender equality) and others by seconds (e.g., the pertinent or impertinent observation that the king has no clothes, or is a cheat, liar, racist, con, and thin-skinned bully). Effectiveness depends on timing, and timing depends on some ability to sense the other person’s receptivity for what arises in one’s awareness. Effectiveness also depends on action, and action depends on a sense of self and on courage.

“Know thyself” is as old as western civilization. It admonished pilgrims to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and we find it in the Bible. In several of his letters, St. Paul repeats this injunction. In both instances – classical Greek and Biblical – self-knowledge comes from a source other than the conditioned mind. In the Greek context, pilgrims sought the guidance of Apollo – the Greek god of the sun, light, reason, medicine, and healing – through his mouthpiece the  priestess called the Pythia. Similarly, St. Paul references the Holy Spirit as the source of knowledge. Both the Greek and the Biblical sources clearly imply a “source” other than our empirical, worldly personalities. As C.G. Jung has pointed out, since we no longer experience either the classical gods or (for many people) the Christian deity as vital experiences, they have become, for many, myths, stories, historical images that have no relation to how we live or to our sense of ourselves. The vitality they once carried has disappeared from our conscious experience. They have, in effect, fallen into the unconscious.

Nowadays people say “from the unconscious,” as if that were a place or a part of the brain. The “unconscious” is everything of which I am unaware at the moment. Now the energies that filled the gods of Greece, or the Biblical Prophets, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit still move in us, but instead of recognizing them as powers greater than we are, we say “It,” thereby lumping a host of emotional energies together under one puny pronoun. “It makes me angry.” In mythological terms, that would be the god of War, Mars. “It demands a lot of me.” Saturn, the Greek god of limits, confinement, the difficulty would be a more vivid and informative way to talk about the experience. “I’m really enthusiastic!” Who asks, “What god fills me with energy?”

I am arguing that energies exist outside our conditioned consciousness which can sweep us up and carry us away if we cannot perceive them infecting us. When that does happen many of us may say, “I never behave like that. Something must have gotten into me.” Indeed. Self-awareness and self-knowledge must also include our awareness and knowledge of exactly these powerful energies that can and will have their way with us unless we can notice, monitor, and chose how to express them.

“Psychological polytheism” (i.e., what I have been talking about with the Greek gods as figures imaging energies with specific emotional and behavioral characteristics) represents a significant development of consciousness beyond unreflecting victimization by these and other energies. Remember, however, that whether the appeal goes to Apollo’s Pythia or to the Holy Spirit or a Higher Power, the supplicant seeks direction from a source other than his or her ego-consciousness that “stands” behind or above or outside of the manifest world, but is nevertheless involved in and concerned with the here-and-now. The notion of a  “higher power,” and I mean a “power” superior to the plurality of mythological gods, becomes desirable when one recognizes the reality of powerful conflicting forces, each trying to dominate our consciousness and our behavior. If this sounds far-fetched, just look around: Where did you recently see a bully on the loose? What about somebody driven by rage? Or another person crushed by physical or circumstantial or emotional limitations?

Theological terms (God, and gods, and demons, and such) don’t mean much to many people these days. Many branches of psychology prefer to talk in terms of diagnostic categories. Alas, many people identify themselves with diagnostic labels: “I’m OCD.” “I’m a depressive.” I am not trying to “sell” mythology or theology. What I want to emphasize is this: People do have a sense of incompleteness, that something is lacking, that they don’t feel themselves. How often do we hear someone say, “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.”

These words imply some people’s dim awareness that there must be more to what they essentially are than what they have manifested, embodied, developed. For want of a better word, I will refer to this as “core,” the central, essential core of the individual.

I think of “core” as a “higher power,” superior to all the other powers that have at us as emotions and passions and sufferings. To be in touch with one’s core subordinates everything else to a more comprehensive sense of self than the passing fascination, fury, passion, or sadness. As C.G. Jung eloquently expressed the experience of being in touch with one’s core:

It is always a difficult thing to express, in intellectual terms, subtle feelings that are nevertheless infinitely important for the individual’s life and well-being. It is, in a sense, the feeling that we have been “replaced,” but without the connotation of having been deposed.” It is as if the guidance of life had passed over to an invisible centre.

This brings us back to why I do what I do: psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, teaching, and some writing.

If it is in fact true and real – as my study and experience testifies – that whatever happens manifestly on the planet emerges through the individual as an impulse, fantasy, reaction to something, or a thought, then changing the world depends on individuals’ having enough consciousness to notice what’s moving in them and being able to choose when, where, and how – and whether – to give expression to that impulse, etc.

Many of the impulses and fantasies we experience are less than pure gold. Often these impulses and fantasies are the expression of activated complexes. Technically, what we call complexes – more precisely, feeling-toned complexes – are emotionally-colored memories or memory clusters. Many complexes form around hurts and wounds. When something in our environment resembles any complex in us, that complex responds to some degree, first with the emotion characteristic of that complex, and then often with memory associations. “I cringe every time I hear that voice because it sounds just like my father when he was trying to be funny.” Hearing “that voice” activated emotions and memories experienced with father, and the present begins to feel like the past. To the extent we are conscious of what’s happening, we have the possibility of choosing what to say, what to do, how to react. If we aren’t aware, the activated complex takes over and we become its mouthpiece and agent, often to our regret.

But not all the energies that invade us come from personal complexes. C.G. Jung’s writings have made the words “archetype” and “archetypal” part of our contemporary vocabulary and each and every one of us has a full pantheon of archetypal patterns just waiting for the opportune moment to come alive in us and take over our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Jung wrote that the gods of the pantheon are not dead:

We are still as much possessed by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians. Today they are called phobias, obsessions, and so forth; in a word, neurotic symptoms. The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus and produces curious specimens for the doctor’s consulting room, or disorders the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world.

So part of what I do aims at helping people identify their complexes and the archetypal potentials that may be activated: both the typical emotions as well as the specific triggers that activate them. But beyond the complexes and archetypes we have yet to deal with the issue of the “core,” the essence of the individual.

As I wrote above, a person experiences the core, the essence, the Self (in Jungian terms) as a “higher power.” Some people are blessed with powerful experiences in which their essence reveals itself to them in a vision, a dream, a waking-life encounter.  Near-death experiences, for example, can have this effect. The paradigmatic example is Saul on the road to Damascus. I suspect, however, that most people are not granted this sort of boon. Most of the people I see professionally struggle with their complexes and their adaptation to the world and to themselves, wondering what they will be when they grow up. Through trial and error, they – and I – grope toward finding and following what C.G. Jung called “the implacable law of one’s being,” their “life-lines … not to be confused with the “guiding fictions’….”

Jung goes on to write that these life-lines have only “provisional value.” They are “points of view,” “never general principles or universally accepted ideals.” We do the best we can at the time, maybe not the best we know, but the best of which we are capable. Hence struggle, false starts, blind alleys, bad choices, dead ends, messy relationships. And, we hope, learning something along the way toward identifying, as well as we possibly can, the life-lines that lead toward the implacable law of our individual (and collective) being. All this is necessary but not enough.

It’s not enough because all over the planet we see people driven by their wounds and passions and visions and fantasies and hates and loves. And by the look of it, they are not plumbing their depths to examine what’s driving them.

As fundamental as it is, working with individuals is not enough. I will continue doing what I do, but I also have to do the hard thing – speak out and act publicly – not only in a blog in the Ommani Jewel, not only in the classes I teach but as a human being and a citizen. The prospect does not appeal to me. I’d much prefer to get lost in my books and follow the ideas that appeal to me.

In October 1916, Jung lectured his group of colleagues in Zurich. Three years had passed since he and Freud broke off their relationship. During this time Jung was plumbing his depths. In his lecture Jung  identifies the roots of neurosis: When a person prefers to look only within or only to look without, that is a one-sided, and therefore inadequate, adaptation, a failure in affirming the wholeness of one’s being.  We have to learn how to live with what we are (inner adaptation) as well as figure out how to live in the world (outer adaptation).

As if this weren’t demanding enough, Jung then talks about the individual’s relationship to the collective, specifically the individual who prefers to look inward, who preferences inner adaptation. This is the person who goes his or her own way, following his or her life-line for as long as it has energy.  This often violates the expectations, norms, and values of his or her society. Going one’s own way – the path of individuation – “cuts one off from personal conformity and hence from collectivity” and produces guilt. The individual “must offer a ransom in place of himself, that is, he must bring forth values which are an equivalent substitute for his absence in the collective personal sphere.”

For years I have struggled with my sense of guilt in relationship to the society and to the world in which I live. I have struggled with Jung’s hard words about “ransom” and about bringing forth “values which are an equivalent substitute for [my] absence in the collective personal sphere.” As my sense and acceptance of what I essentially am has grown, I feel safer with myself. Self-knowledge and self-acceptance make it easier to speak and write more openly about what I have experienced, what I have observed, and the “lessons” I have learned. I am less fearful than I used to be. I like to believe that in the course of my life I have recognized some “objective values,” as Jung puts it.

We now need all the self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and courage we can muster. Why? Because going beyond one’s comfort zone is what offers us the only opportunity to know what we are made of and to discern if what we do is good enough.

I will continue “to do what I do,” and I must now speak out more publicly. I must now contribute to the public discussion, the public dialog, the public debate. And to the public protest against what is hateful, wrong, and destructive. I have to move beyond my comfort zone to work in concert with others because isolated individuals cannot effectively confront the challenges we face as a species.

And so, Gentle Reader, what about you? Are you gaining ground against the complexes and archetypal energies that will colonize and run you if you let them? Is your self-knowledge and self-acceptance increasing? Do you have a sense of the “core” you, your essence, from which you can speak with integrity and act with others beyond your comfort zone?


March 2019 Boris Matthews, PhD, LCSW practices Analytical Psychology (a.k.a. Jungian Analysis) at the Ommani Center for Integrative Medicine in Pewaukee, WI. He is a teaching and supervising faculty member of the C. G. Jung Institute of Chicago, IL, and Director of the Analyst Training Program. He has been in practice since the mid-1980s.  To schedule an appointment, call the Ommani Center, 262-695-5311. Learn more at







1 The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World,, vi.

2 Hoff, Mary (2018). As Insect Populations Decline, Scientists Are Trying to Understand Why. Scientific American, November 1, 2018.


4 Edel, Charles (2018). “How democracies slide into authoritarianism.” The Washington Post, 2018-12-07,

5 Attributed to Victor Hugo. Various references found on the Internet (2018-02-27).

6 See 2 Corinthians 11:31-32, Galatians 6:4, 2 Peter 1-10. Also 1 John 1-9.

7 “Pertaining to possession by a deity,” from Greek enthousiastikos “inspired,” c. 1600.

8 Jung, C.G. (1938/1967). “The Secret of the Golden Flower,” Alchemical Studies, vol.13 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Princeton” Princeton University Press, para. 4. 

9 Jung, C.G. (1938/1967). Para. 54.

10 Ibid., para. 77.

11 Jung, C.G. (1916/1980). “Adaptation, Individuation and Collectivity,” The Symbolic Life, vol 18, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Princeton” Princeton University Press, para. 1095.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.