On Monday, a total solar eclipse will be visible from a wide swath of North America, starting in Oregon and ending over South Carolina. This is the first total solar eclipse over the United States in nearly 40 years, and millions of people are expected to position themselves under the path of totality to witness the fleeting few moments where the moon will completely obscure the sun. In that moment, day will turn to twilight, and the stars that are always there, but hidden in the daylight, will emerge for a few brief moments before the sun emerges from behind the moon.
What might this planetary phenomenon have to do with the practice of psychiatry? For those of us who spend our lives helping our patients make meaningful change, the eclipse is a potent symbol of transformation.
The Jungian scholar Robert Johnson spoke of the form of a mandorla as the almond-shaped ellipse created when two circles overlap1. Those of us who have sat through many a presentation know this symbol as a Venn diagram. If one looks to the rose windows of the cathedrals of Europe, or at the geometry of Euclid’s Elements2, one sees this shape, sometimes called the vesica piscis. This shape is the first indication that an eclipse has begun, and doubtfully will enrapture millions of viewers next week. Carl Jung often said contemporary culture was malnourished of symbols3. What is it about this overlap of celestial bodies that is so captivating to our contemporary eyes?
This shape can also be seen as the process of integration between what was and what is is and what one is becoming. It symbolizes the dialectic between “this” and “that.” As therapists, we help our clients hold this tension between who we are now and where we have come from, and the direction we wish to move. It is often this very tension that brings patients into our offices, both compelled towards and, at the same time, frightened of change. This process of change in therapy is often one of “the hero’s journey,” an archetypal story of emergence, struggle, change, and integration that has been told in stories since humans began telling tales.
Those of us who help our clients transit though this change know that it is a landscape often filled with what Jung would call “shadow,” that which we have disowned in ourselves but see projected onto others. It is the process of bringing these disowned parts of self back into the light, rather than trying to cut them off, that brings us back to a place of wholeness. In therapy, we learn, with our patients, how to transit, again and again, through this in-between place, this place of uncertainty, tension, and ultimately, integration. The external process of change is forward-linear, like the moon passing in front of the sun, but the internal process of change is recursive, as we revisit parts of ourselves again and again in order for change to occur. Like an eclipse that will recur on another day and over another swath of earth, this change will occur over and over again, on a different frontier of our psyche.
At the moment of totality, there is a sense of unity between the two circles—a circle of darkness obscures the circle of light. The shadow, for a brief moment, triumphs, and night emerges in the middle of the day. This experience is a transient, but potent, reminder of what happens every night and every time we honor our inner experience, an invitation to go into the dark/ where the night has eyes to recognize its own/ There you can be sure/ you are not beyond love, as the poet David Whyte4 wrote in “Sweet Darkness”. (Listen to the full poem here: https://onbeing.org/blog/sweet-darkness/). We are reminded that we are both light and shadow, and that in the complexity of the self, there is room for all the different parts of us, all of what makes us who we are. After the darkness, the light returns again, as sure as the sun will rise again tomorrow, hope embodied.
- Johnson RA. Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding The Dark Side Of The Psyche. New York, NY: Harper One Press; 1991.
- Densmore D, ed. Euclid’s Elements. Ann Arbor, MI: Green Lion Press; 2002
- Wright J. Christ, a symbol of the self. C. G. Jung Society of Atlanta Bulletin. Fall 2001. http://www.jungatlanta.com/articles/fall01-crist-symbol-of-self.pdf. Accessed August 15, 2017.
- Whyte D.The House of Belonging. Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press; 1997.