Underworld Journeys and Depression the Essay

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Melancholia sat in, as the loss I felt became less and less related to my body. I began to court death first symbolically and then literally. Freud would have noted the presence of the death wish in addition to describing the symptoms of "melancholia," or depression. Symptoms include "a profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, inhibition of all activity," as well as self-loathing (Freud 1947, p. 39). The symptoms of depression are skin to the symptoms of mourning the loss of a loved one, with the key difference being that in mourning the reason for the despair is clearer and within the conscious realm.

The only means to discover the reason for melancholia is to explore the unconscious realm. My descent into a dark state of mind parallels the stories of Eurydice and Persephone who both longed to remain submerged in Hades' realm. The darkness has recently led me to an in-depth exploration of the psychoanalytic process and how it applies to my journey. Psychoanalysis both in the school of Freud and of Jung offers the tools to explore the underworld. Like Carl Jung himself, I needed but did not have a "real live guru, someone possessing superior knowledge and ability," (p. 184). The underworld itself became my mentor, a "midwife to the soul," ("Looking Back at Orpheus" 2006, p. 145).

The "otherworldly" adventures of the psyche described by Freud, Jung, and Downing have compelled me to explore my own inner abysses (Jung 1963, p. 180). More importantly, I became determined to bring back wisdom from the underworld so that I could apply that to my practice as a psychologist. An underworld journey can be dangerous, due to its proximity with death. Downing (2006) claims that the underworld is sometimes "inescapable," (p. 129).

It can also be difficult to willingly enter and explore the underworld because of social stigma and taboo. For men especially, being rational and avoiding realms of dream and fantasy are part of the prevailing social code. They were so also in the days of the ancient Greeks. As Downing (2006) points out, "The tales about mortal male journeyers to the underworld...are, on the surface at least, told from a perspective that celebrates life in the upper world as the only real life available to us humans," (p. 137). Jung (1963) admits that underworld journeys are "tabooed and dreaded," censored and viewed as "the path of error," (p. 188). Undertaking an underworld journey can be a risky venture as one threatens to undermine social life as well as career.

However, inner wisdom cannot be located in the rational world or in the knowledge base of science. When Jung abandons his academic career to explore the depths of his psyche he takes a huge risk. The endeavor can be considered nothing less than heroic. A journey to the underworld is occasionally undertaken willingly, but more often than not the individual is "abducted," taken against his or her will. For me, the sudden onset of anxiety and depression after a physical trauma became the source of my symbolic abduction to the underworld. Jung's visions were his abduction. Yet Jung welcomed the journey with open arms, going so far as to cultivate the descent. On p.180 of Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, Jung describes how he consciously and willingly descended into his dream world to retrieve imagery purposely. "In order to seize hold of the fantasies, I frequently imagined a steep descent. I even made several attempts to get to the very bottom. The first time I reached, as it were, a depth of about a thousand feet; the next time I found myself at the edge of a cosmic abyss....I had the feeling that I was in the land of the dead."

For me, the knowledge and power to cultivate a Jungian state of mind arrived later. At first the journey to the underworld was akin to an abduction. There seemed nothing heroic about my descent. Abduction is perhaps part of the underworld initiation, as I learn how to embody the journey of Orpheus and other underworld explorers. Downing meditates on the nature of abduction that permeates myths related to underworld journeys. Especially in Greek mythology, the figure who is drawn to the underworld is either abducted or heroically rescuing someone who was abducted. Gender sometimes, but not always, determines which underworld role an individual might fulfill. For example, Theseus "on a dare, for the sake of glory" enters the underworld but then gets "stuck" (Downing 2006, p. 137). Although he undergoes a powerful initiation, Theseus seems "immune to underworld experience" and the adventure overall seems "pointless" (Downing 2006, p. 138). Theseus' "pointless" journey runs directly counter to Jung's idea of the meaningful underworld experience.

The purpose of an underworld journey varies from person to person. "Journeys to the underworld undertaken while we are still alive are not only about handling difficult times well...but may also truly serve as preparations for Hades...so that when death, when 'the end,' comes we can move to it welcomingly," (Downing 2006, p. 141). For me, as for Carl Jung, the underworld journey is one that prepares me for the development of deeper wisdom. The goal of the journey to the underworld is to learn and even more importantly, to remember (Downing).

To successfully undertake an underworld journey and emerge with deeper wisdom, one needs an anchor in the world. The anchor reminds us of "normal existence" and helps us to avoid slipping into a state of genuine insanity (Jung 1963, p. 189). As Jung (1963) puts it, I need to "plant the results of my experience in the soil of reality," (192). For some journeyers, the underworld can become a compelling place. Just as Theseus became stuck in the underworld, it is highly likely that a person might never return from their journey. Some may actually commit suicide. Others may resign themselves to a life of misery or mental illness. It would be easy to allow depression to overtake the soul so definitively that one neglects family and other aspects of personal responsibility. There would be nothing heroic about such a descent.

Downing (2006) notes that the underworld is "an uncanny realm, unknown, and yet strangely familiar," (p. 129). There is a sense of comfort in the darkness. In mythology, female figures frequently find themselves wanting to stay in the underworld because a sense of personal fulfillment can be derived therein. The underworld is absolutely a "sacred realm" that is present at all times alongside the world above (Downing 2006, p. 130). Remaining in the underworld does not necessarily mean danger. Journeyers in the underworld have the opportunity to glean knowledge and wisdom that will heal. In fact, depression may be more related to not being willing to explore the darkness at all. Freud's analysis of melancholia illustrates that the psychopathology of melancholia is directly linked to unconscious mourning. Bringing the unconscious into conscious awareness leads to healing.

Jung presents his model of healing via the underworld also in terms of Eastern religion. The mandala becomes a visual and symbolic representation of the interconnectivity between the underworld and the conscious world. Bridges between disparate realms of the psyche can be visualized and realized. Thus, to journey to the underworld is to discover the missing pieces of the mandala, to find balance and wholeness. The mandala illustrates how a person can descend fearlessly into the underworld without becoming irretrievably stuck.

Feelings of despair and self-loathing begin to subside as the individual is more able to embrace the totality of being rather than to focus solely on the conscious aspects. This is why it may be necessary to temporarily remove oneself from the rigors of daily life, in order to discover new parts of the self and new sources of joy. As Freud pointed out, ego and libido-attachments are root causes of melancholia. To avoid exploring ego attachments via an underworld journey is to resign oneself to a lifetime of depression and anxiety. Attachment to objects -- whether real or illusory -- is a narcissistic act that only takes into account the needs of the ego and neglects the needs of the higher self. Freeing the ego attachment is what heroes like Orpheus needed to do. We must respect the part of us that seeks knowledge from the depths. Only in the depths of the underworld can we "detach the libido from the object," (Freud 1947, p. 6). The…[continue]

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