ARTICLE: January 2010
"Through an Eastern Lens: Carl Jung and Alfred Adler"
When one considers the psychological work of Carl Jung and Alfred Adler in tandem, one can’t help but feel hard-pressed to find two theorists with more in common as far as their work’s flexibility and reach is concerned; nor at the same time could one find two professionals more divergent with regards to the primary emphasis of their theories and clinical approach. This in my opinion is one of the great beauties of psychological investigation, as each professional and person must necessarily funnel, choose, and direct their inner work in the way that best suits their needs, wants, and overall intentions. When thinking about Jung and Adler ‘standing’ side-by-side I can’t help but be reminded of the famous painting of Aristotle and Plato standing together – one pointing to the earth, the other to the heavens. In a remarkably related way, Jung’s contributions to psychology point to the heavens, archetypes, and things collective, and Adler’s to the earth, the individual, and to the very concrete and pragmatic issues concerning day-to-day functionality. In this paper I will discuss elements offered by each of these great thinkers, especially those elements that most resonate with my own experience and understanding of the psychological path.
As was intimated in the introduction above, the elements of Carl Jung’s work that most readily appeal to me are those ‘containers’ which fall mostly into the transpersonal, collective, or more psychospiritually-related categories. In my own years of teaching both yoga and meditation, I too have witnessed general recurring themes and ‘archetypes’ that at times either bind or liberate, depending upon their portions and context. As is well documented, Jung was heavily influenced by eastern thought, and in my opinion one of his greatest contributions to western thought is the fact that he acted as a gateway of acceptance for things previously relegated to ‘primitive magic’.
In my opinion Jung’s greatest ‘measurable’ offering was that of the Collective Unconscious, as it is this piece of the puzzle that unites the lives and struggles of the many, while at the same time supporting the very unique unfolding of each person’s specific path. In some ways, the collective unconscious ends the nature verses nurture discussion, as it implies a shared ‘nature’ to all, yet leaves room to honor a specifically ‘nurtured’ niche to each being; it embraces diversity in an all-inclusive way.
As a direct offshoot of the collective unconscious, Jung’s version of Archetypes acts as a way to work directly with how a universal unconsciousness informs our specifically lived experience. Here Jung’s idea reminds me to some degree of Platonic Forms; although because the idea is applied to psychology rather than some assumed objective reality, it becomes infinitely more alive in very inspiring and exciting ways. In working with yoga and meditation students, I have at times seen nearly the exact same circumstances arise in a very similar situation to a very similar yet different individual; and my ‘guess’ about what was needed was greatly informed by my previous time(s) navigating the ‘corresponding trail’.
Of course during these excursions, any innovation occurred in the ‘guesses’ and the ‘weather’ that was current; and although the map was a powerful tool, the uniqueness of the student always kept me on my toes. For myself this is the gift of Jung’s Archetypes, whether they function as part of an intrapersonal nature or via his application of universal imagery and symbolism; I too have found in my own work that knowing many forms gives one numerous tools when serving the unique needs of a given person’s circumstances.
Jung’s central archetype, the Self, which I capitalize for the same reason most great traditions do – that is to distinguish it from the self that is ego, person, or any such separate entity – is in my opinion the natural result of recognizing and acknowledging one’s ‘inter-ness’; interconnected-ness, inter-relatedness, and inter-dependency. As anyone who has had a personal practice for any length of time can attest, only when we can acknowledge that each of us is a link in the greater chain of being can we ultimately rest into, and be (as in embody) the link that we actually are. This roughly is Jung’s Individuation.
It’s almost a contradiction or a paradox that we must let go of the gripping need to overly assert ourselves as ‘individual’, and that then, and only then, can we rest and relax into our own unique individuality. It seems to be the case that the mind is not capable of reasoning this out; which reminds me of something the Indian sage Nisargadatta was known for having said, “The mind creates a chasm, and the heart bridges it.” For myself, Jung’s contributions of the above mentioned things did just this same thing; whether explicitly or not, they ushered psychology from a ‘head-centered’ discipline, to a being, body, and ancestral understanding – a ‘universal heart-centered’ orientation.
Whereas Carl Jung’s work speaks of a person’s relationship to universals, Alfred Adler touches instead upon the subtleties and complexities of each individual’s particular and contextual content. In some ways I view Jung as more of a monist – similar to the ideology of Hinduism, and Adler as more akin to the teachings of the Buddha; the Buddha after all may have been the first great psychologist – his diagnosis of the Four Noble Truths, and his subsequent prescription of the Noble Eight-Fold Path are both very much in line with modern day psychology’s views on inner suffering and the potential for liberation. In my opinion, either directly or indirectly, Adler’s work falls into the same broad realm as Buddhist psychology.
Adler’s views on the importance of goals and the will are very similar to how the Buddhist value the necessity of wise intention – one might even argue that Adler for the most part was referring to intention, even though his view on goals did seem to have a ‘future leaning’ component. I however, believe that Adler’s view on goals was in fact focused more on how they ‘flavored’ each present moment and not on the goal itself; and from this perspective, such a ‘flavoring’ would be similar to Buddhist intention. In the few descriptions of Adler and his many influences that I’ve read, I can’t help but suspect that Arthur Schopenhauer may have been left out inadvertently – if this were to be the case, surely a clear bridge between Adler and Buddhism would have been established.
Both an individual’s Style of Life and the thought-system of Holistic Philosophy are elements of Adler’s approach that I find resonate deeply with my own views. They both speak of inclusion, integration, and a well-rounded approach to giving complete attention to the varied elements of living a human life. For myself, these ideas are the foundation of what in Buddhism is an interconnected morality, or from a more secular understanding (which I believe Buddhism to mostly be), to live in tune with one’s self and the natural world. This same idea is mirrored in the Advaita Vedantic school’s emphasis on microcosm/macrocosm – as is outside, so too is inside; and vice versa.
The manner in which Adler views social interest is very much in line with Buddhism’s selfless service; Adler seems to have taken the Buddhist practice of ‘exchange self for other’ to heart. This paired with his views on Cooperation speak to me in a practical way as community, and spiritually as extending one’s view of self beyond the limits of the body, beyond individual experience, and ultimately in the direction of one’s role in existence. Whether this was Adler’s intention in introducing these ideas or not, their impact on the individual surely must have been liberating in an ‘enlightening’ way – as to put one’s own concerns in the greater context of universal suffering and shared experience can often be the seed of deep gratitude for what one has. As we may know, this also very often increases our likelihood of experiencing personal contentment, ease, and peacefulness.
Lastly, Adler’s emphasis on Self-Understanding is in my opinion of the utmost importance – for if someone sees suffering in another, ultimately, ‘so what?’ It is for each individual to see and to know their own suffering, and to see it as either the result of self-defeating habits or self-defeating thoughts/impressions; all of which is the result of thoughts, actions, and words that no longer serve their ability to abide in peace and happiness. I feel that Adler for the most part does a wonderful job of systematizing that which is beyond and independent of system. His focus on the central themes that pertain to both the person and to the person within society, acts wonderfully to simplify inner work via a methodology that is manageable. By manageable I mean that Adler gives us the ‘roots’ of the tree of our life so that each of us can begin to cultivate a bountiful harvest in an effective manner.
Would I personally choose to practice either Jungian or Adlerian psychology as a therapist? Ultimately of course my answer to this would be ‘neither’ and ‘both’. But if I had to choose I would select Adlerian for the very fact that it sometimes addresses topics in a more tangible way. From it (Adler’s perspective), any universal or collective truths would eventually bubble to the surface on their own. I don’t necessarily see this phenomenon happening in the reverse direction (the collective revealing the particular). That said, I would posit that Jung’s Archetypes and Universals only gain their therapeutic thrust because of his (Jung’s) sensitivity and keen attunement when in the room with a given individual. In this sense I would argue that Jung too was an Individual Psychologist; or perhaps that any skillful psychologist is ‘individual’ in a necessarily ‘in situ’ sort of way.
In conclusion, I believe that the particulars can be ‘worked’ without necessarily having a broader knowledge of the universals (context however is necessary), but that the universal cannot be addressed skillfully without some sample (even a sample of one is enough). Without a sample, one is simply floating in the theories of abstraction, lost in the uselessness of disembodied philosophy. What stimulates and creates the discipline of psychology is the individual. Adler’s approach of Individual Psychology honors the starting point of all personal work, and thus he also completes its circle by making it (the individual) his theory’s endpoint. Even from the perspective of Buddhism, which includes the experiential understanding of ‘no substantial self’, initial therapeutic emphasis on the individual is central.