Healing Reactive Behavior: A Process and Jungian Approach
Introduction by Sheri Kling
More and more we hear about the disastrous effects of trauma on human psychological, emotional, and even physical health. Many of us find ourselves being driven by eruptions of emotion or habitual behaviors that keep us from the intimacy and joy for which we long. For individuals, John B. Cobb, Jr., describes wholeness as a feeling of “at homeness.” Such people are‘at-home’ in their bodies, in their conscious and unconscious feelings and senses, in their human relationships, and in their total natural environment. They are ‘at-home’ with who they are, and therefore they are comfortable being just that. Because they are ‘at-home’ in themselves, they are free from defensiveness toward others. Others experience their warmth—that is their openness, their concern, and their affection. One is not the object of good deeds or just treatment from the whole person. One is the recipient of acceptance and understanding.
How many of us struggle to feel such “at-homeness” within ourselves? So many of us seem alienated from society at large, from each other, from ourselves, from the other beings that walk beside us, and even from God. What can move us from fragmentation to wholeness and heal the behavioral patterns that keep us stuck?
I’ve found the process thinking of Alfred North Whitehead and the analytical psychology of Carl Gustav Jung to be incredibly life-giving in my own journey. I spent my academic career at Claremont School of Theology exploring the integration of these two thinkers, resulting in the 2020 publication of my book, A Process Spirituality: Christian and Transreligious Resources for Transformation.
In the excerpts below, I begin with a section drawing from the work of dream researchers Kelly Bulkeley, Ph.D. and Ernest Hartmann, M.D., as well as Alane K. Daugherty Ph.D., an expert in stress management and psychophysiology on the physiological aspects of entrenched behavior patterns.
The second excerpt draws from process theologian Thomas Hosinski and Jung to explore ways that Whitehead’s thoughts on enhancing the mental pole, transmutation, and the way we feel the feelings of the world through causal efficacy alongside Jung’s ideas on psychological complexes might shed light on the emotional side of things. Finally, I offer dreamwork as a spiritual practice for healing and wholeness.
Excerpts from Sheri D. Kling, A Process Spirituality: Christian and Transreligious Resources for Transformation (Lexington Books, Lanham, 2020).
Excerpt #1 [Kling, 2020, 135-6]
Although Bulkeley describes the area of research that connects dreaming to learning as “contentious,” he argues that it is helpful to examine dreams and learning through the lens of neuroplasticity which describes the brain as having the ability to adapt in response to new experience. Research in neuroplasticity suggests that there is a correlation between the firing patterns of neurons and learning, meaning that the more we repeat a behavior, the more efficient the firing becomes between the neurons that are correlated with that behavior. Daugherty’s work applies this concept to emotion claiming that the human limbic system connects the body and brain in such a way that when we perceive the world around us, especially if in a strongly threatening way, the body floods our system with chemicals that trigger the amygdala to “record” that experience for future reference through implicit memory patterns. Such patterns become the “blueprints” for interpreting future conditions. Daugherty suggests that the more our experiences trigger the same emotions—the more the emotional “imprint” that is created by the neurons and glia in neural nets gets reinforced—the more that pattern gets re-activated. It then becomes even stronger and more likely to become one’s automatic response. Hartmann believes that when we favor those patterns of activation, they can begin to take on a transpersonal quality and show up as “typical dreams” and as archetypes and myths. In what sounds astonishingly like Jung’s theory of the psychological complex, that imprint or emotional reactivity pattern is then triggered whenever a situation that even remotely resembles the original experience is perceived. The stronger those imprinted patterns become, the more we are psychologically hijacked by an emotional reaction that may be only minimally relevant to the situation at hand. The bad news is that such reactivity perpetuates itself, and our biology changes in such a way as to make threat and anxiety even more likely to be experienced. The good news is that we are inherently adaptive, and it seems that the structure of our brains can actually change with new experience. New experiences allow us to break entrenched patterns by creating new neural connections and nets, and new associations. This holds “staggering” potential for healing and transformation.
The best news of all is not only that neurons and glia have the capacity to grow, change, and form new connections with new life experience, but that our brains do not distinguish between real and vividly imagined experience. Is this also true for what is dreamed? Stephen LeBarge, a leading researcher into lucid dreaming, has discovered that lucid dreams can produce the same physical effects on the dreamer’s brain as corresponding waking life events. Daugherty also argues that while our neural networks can be “re-wired” with new experience, “it is not the conscious mind that does the rewiring, it is deeply felt experience, internal or external and experience is an embodied phenomenon." Dreaming, then, seems to involve the interweaving of new embodied experience below the level of consciousness, guided by the “felt sense” and emotion that is associated with that experience, into existing memory systems—or implicit memory imprints; such interweaving can be related to new connections and new learning.
Excerpt #2 [Kling, 2020, 217-219, 220]
For many, the central aspect of the experience of wholeness may be the greatest challenge of all—the acceptance of oneself. Jung writes that to be forgiving of others, to act in a caring way in the world, and even to “love my enemy in the name of Christ” are all “great virtues.” But if I consider myself deeply unworthy and am my own enemy, where will I find the capacity to love this enemy within? Rather than self-love, we may “condemn and rage against ourselves,” denying ourselves any mercy whatsoever.
As will be shown later through the results of a qualitative study of Christians who use Jungian-influenced dream work as a spiritual practice, such self-acceptance and transformation can result from the healing experiences that working with one’s dreams and synchronicities may bring. Yet it is not only true that dream work can facilitate healing encounters with sacred reality, the argument herein is that within a relational-imaginal praxis, dream work can be a means of discerning God’s initial aims and fostering conscioustransmutation. As noted earlier, aligning with God’s aims and transmutation—the blocking out of unwelcome detail—are two ways of enhancing one’s mental pole and thereby allowing complex societies to remain stable while still incorporating novelty and intensity. These separate methods of enhancing the mental pole—transmutation and discerning God’s initial aims—are the very heart of what we might consider to be a relational-imaginal praxis for psycho-spiritual wholeness.
In Whiteheadian terms, transmutation is a “method of simplification” that allows us to focus our attention on the aggregate occasions or enduring objects within our environment. Irrelevant details are subsumed, differences are eliminated, and we then feel our actual world as a community. Whitehead considers transmuted feelings to be akin to “propositional prehensions” or “propositional feelings” and Hosinski argues that while they arise unconsciously, they may acquire consciousness in more complex occasions with intellectual feelings. Transmuted feelings allow us to grasp purposes and intentions at a more abstract level. It is my contention that if transmutation is made more conscious, it is healthier for the individual, because unconscious emotional transmutation—caused by the entrenched behavioral patterns and psychological complexes that trigger emotional reactivity—leads to repetitive and unhealthy life operating patterns as well as bad decisions.
Yet recognizing our unconscious patterns and agendas is no easy task in contemporary America. Our modern world is heavily skewed toward concentrated attention and this imbalance risks dissociation from the unconscious. Such dissociation is problematic because when we dissociate from the unconscious, the more likely that disruptive unconscious counter positions will operate beneath the level of consciousness and wreak havoc upon our lives.In such instances, reactive patterns we have developed that result in our blocking out the detail of the real experience in front of us in favor of the projected imprint of emotional wounding and self-defeating thoughts prevent us from engaging in the world as it is in the present moment. In such cases, we are no longer responding to the dynamic flow of life but reacting from the perspective of past experience. In Whiteheadian terms related to the material already explored on formalism and history, we are more likely to repeat the past unless we can perceive the propositions that join the past world with our novel aims and raise these propositions from unconsciousness to the level of intellectual feelings so that they may be consciously evaluated.
Before our rationalistic side gleefully grabs the steering wheel, we must keep in mind that this is an emotion-heavy and value-soaked endeavor. Hosinski describes propositions as lures for feeling that result from the integration of an eternal object with the physical prehensions of actual entities.Regardless of the truth or falsity of a proposition, its purpose is simply to influence the process of concrescence and persuade us to act through the attraction of value. While entertaining propositions, an actual entity unconsciously feels the difference between the “fact” of past entities and the “theory” of the new possibilities prehended; this is known as a propositional feeling and is an unconscious valuation… …A relational-imaginal theory of dreaming is a foundation upon which we can posit a praxis of dream work for harmonization of contrasts, discernment of aims, and conscious transmutation through raising unconscious propositions to intellectual and religious feelings resulting in more conscious decisions, less reactivity, better alignment with initial aims and more wholeness and flourishing.
Human life is good, says process theology, but it is also wounded. Many of us are not at home with ourselves or with the world, sometimes subject to traumas we have faced in the past. In Buddhist terms, we suffer from various forms of dukkha, of dis-ease. Some of this dis-ease is a result of decisions we have made, some has just happened to us, through no fault of our own.
Out of our wounds, we fall short of the healthy selves we seek to be. We do not respond honestly and lovingly to the world as it is given to us in the immediacy of the present moment. And often we do not love ourselves, either. In short, ee foist upon the world and ourselves the projections we inherit from our own personal pasts and our societies. These projections are not simply ideas; they are more deeply feelings, largely unconscious. They shape our lives even without our being consciously aware of them.
Using Whitehead's philosophy, Sheri Kling points out that these inherited feelings are forms of what Whitehead calls "transmutation." They are, as it were, transmuted feelings that function in us, not simply intellectually but also emotionally, as, in Whitehead's words, "lures for feeling." Transmutation is a mental activity by which we simplify the complexity of what we experience, reducing it to a relatively unified lure for feeling that becomes a habitual way of responding to the world. We act out of these lures: these patterns of anger, fear, hatred, or self-loathing. Unconsciously, we are slaves to the wounds.
And yet, she proposes, there is within each and all of us an inwardly felt lure toward wholeness: what she calls the whole-making nearness of God. We can do our best to align ourselves with this healing spirit, albeit with help from others, the companionship of other animals and the natural world, and myriad forms of religious and spiritual practice. We can, in her words, "discern" the initial aims of God as these aims are operative in our lives. These aims are lures too; they are healing and whole-making lures.
In addition, as she makes clear, we can access the unconscious aspects of our lives through our dreams and come to recognize the role that the transmuted feelings play in our lives. These feelings are not just unhealthy. Unconsciously, we inherit whole-making lures too, many of which arise from how God has already been present in our lives. Our own past consists of moments of healing and moments of trauma, often intertwined. Still, with powers of discernment, we can separate the wheat from the chaff. We can discern "entrenched behavioral patterns and psychological complexes that trigger emotional reactivity, leading to repetitive and unhealthy life operating patterns as well as bad decisions."
The good news is that, as we work with these feelings within the context of dreamwork and other methods, we can grow closer to the very people we truly want to be: whole persons who help create whole communities for a whole planet. The novelty of Kling's work and its genius lie in her detailed exploration, with the assistance of Whitehead and Jung, of how this can happen.