Self/No-Self, the Transcendent Function and Wholeness

In what I regard as one of the most revealing paragraphs from Jung’s “Mysterium Coniunctionis”, he compares the alchemical operation with the psychological process of active imagination, and says that in giving your special attention, concentration and observation to any manifestation from the unconscious (like a spontaneous fantasy, a dream, an irrational mood or affect), you will see that it already has “everything it needs” (1) within itself.

Ken Holmes, in his translation and commentary of Bodhisattva Maitreya’s teaching on Buddha Nature, says:

“As soon as one truthfully investigates the nature of any one thing, one discovers the presence of everything” (2).

With special attention, exploration and mindfulness, one will see that both personal issues (what problems or experiences I have) and universal or fundamental issues (who I am, who we are, and even the dynamics of humankind and life in general), are contained in every experience, conscious or unconscious. This is the central thesis of this paper, that every experience, deeply explored, contains everyday conventional aspects as well as absolute truths. All is contained in every experience.

When we encounter the fundamental issue or absolute truth of the experience, we see that it can only be described in paradoxical unities between opposing polarities. Paradox becomes the only way to express the essence of the experience. According to Jung, this is why the alchemists were so fond of paradoxes. Paradoxes cluster most thickly around the arcane substance, the prima materia, the very essence, and in order to attain union, the alchemists not only tried to “visualize the opposites together but to express them in the same breath” (3). Let’s look at the experience of pain as an example.


Pain as a personal experience, in what Buddhist teaching would call its “conventional truth”, feels like just one thing: a hurtful and unpleasant sensation. If we look into its fundamental or “absolute truth” though, we see its self-contradictions, its paradoxical nature. Wolfgang Giegerich’s dialectical approach, that is regarded by some as “third wave Jungian thinking” (4) states that if you open up an experience, and look into it, you see as a clock, its “moving parts”, its inner complexity and self-contradictory life (italic emphasis is mine) (5).

In the ‘self contradictory” experience of pain, a harmonious “non-suffering” dialectic of opposites, a temperate “middle way” (to borrow from Tantric and Mahayana Buddhism), is thrown out of balance or off-centre. This is in line with the definition of the Sanskrit term “dukkha” (6). This painful unbalance is because of attachment, fixation and rigid one-sidedness.

In pain one side of the boundary-penetration polarity is amplified while the other side is minimized. Fixation on forging a boundary minimizes penetration, with ensuing painful restriction. On the other hand, an over-emphasis of penetration denies boundary, with some form of painful invasion as a result.

Buddha ascribed suffering to resisting inter-wovenness through clinging to one thing and rejecting another. Jung quotes Chuang-tzu who remarks that “Tao is obscured when you fix your eye on little segments of existence only…(leading to) one-sided attachments” (7). One-sided attachment doesn’t make the other side disappear. It causes what Jung calls a “counter movement” (8). In this way it becomes excessive in its own right. Some form of invasion is always inherent in excessive restriction, and restriction is part and parcel of excessive invasion. A metastatic cancer cell penetrates and destroys boundaries as much as it limits and enforces boundaries. A boss who peers over your shoulder at work is simultaneously invasive and restrictive. The apartheid system in South Africa before 1994 made the forging of boundaries its policy, but took very invasive liberties through people’s boundaries in the process.

This inter-dependent dynamic of the opposites in pain, takes us to another aspect of its fundamental truth, the unity between the opposites. Boundary relates to penetration as Lao-Tzu’s “high stands on low”. Jung called this an “indisputable truth” (9). The one side of the polarity owes its existence, per definition, to the other. Without a boundary limit there is no penetration, because there is nothing to penetrate. Without penetration there is no boundary, because there is nothing to contain. Also, in the process of forging or creating a boundary, some boundary is simultaneously being penetrated or destroyed, and in the process of destroying a boundary, one is simultaneously created. For example, the sculptor creates a stone’s boundaries by destroying it, and the pruning gardener penetrates through the boundary of a bush, while at that very instance, he is shaping its boundary. Penetration and forging, destruction and construction, are polar opposites, but one and the same process. It is like Uroborus who in the process of consuming its own tail is destroying and forming itself at once.

This oneness or unity between opposites is aptly described in Buddhist thinking. Opposites are seen as dependently co-arising or co-originating, and therefore in essence void or empty of their own identity (Sanskrit - shunya). The Indian Buddhist Nagarjuna said: “Whoever sees Interdependent Origination can see Emptiness” (10). Each opposite is a foundation for the other, they seed each other. As Jung said in his VII SERMONES AD MORTUOS (11), the pairs of opposites are not (italic emphasis is mine), because each balances the other.

Words fail a description of this “not”, the Void. In Buddhist terms it is described as “Formless Self” (12) or “No-Self” (13), and from a Jungian perspective as “Self”. Jung preferred the terms “wholeness” and “unity” rather than emptiness for “Self”, but the association with the indescribable void is clear when he uses terms like: “The self is the total, timeless man…unknowable and incomprehensible (14)...the indescribable and super-empirical totality“ (15). If we remember that Jung’s understanding of the term unconscious includes the collective as well, then the Self’s absolute nature is also seen in the following quotation: “The self is not only the centre, but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious…” (16). In a 1955 letter (17), Jung did associate this unknowable “self” with an “empty centre”, but stated clearly that this emptiness does not mean “absence” or “vacancy”, but “…something unknowable that is endorsed with the highest intensity”. In the same letter he refers to the “…’emptiness’ of the centre as ‘God’”. Jung’s concept of Self should not be seen as an entity. He also compares it with a “God-image” or “Imago Dei” (18) in the psyche, one whose name we do not know. In addition, he compares it with the Chinese concept of “Tao” (The Way), being “…wholeness…the beginning, end, and perfect realization of the meaning of existence innate in all things”. (19).

One can constellate the Buddhist Void/No-Self or the Jungian Self simultaneously at the centre and the circumference of any polarity. In pain, the Buddhist Void/No-Self or the Jungian Self is between and all around boundary and penetration, restriction and invasion. It is the emptiness of the interdependence of enforcement and penetration of boundary. The No-Self is the void of the opposites, originating dependently from each other.

One can constellate the Buddhist Void/No-Self or the Jungian Self at the centre and as the circumference, as follows:

Although, to tell someone who is busy experiencing the personal specifics of pain, that his/her pain is in actual fact empty, would be nothing less than cruel, because like a mirage of water in the dessert, the experience of pain remains real in its personal or conventional aspect. In its fundamental truth though, one can awaken to its voidness through its paradoxical polarities. However, it takes analysis, meditation and deeper awakening to see the fundamental voidness of pain through its inherent opposites. And even then, an enlightened one would say: “I have pain, but I don’t suffer”. So voidness is not blankness but wisdom (20). It’s a profound understanding, a way of perceiving, not an elimination of experience in all its contrasts. This is most probably why the Buddha referred to himself as the ‘awakened one’, experiencing the opposites but seeing through their inter-dependence, the emptiness of their separate identities. The Self (Jungian) is similarly awareness of inter-relatedness, understanding wholeness, and experiencing the paradoxical unity of opposites. ‘The self … is absolutely paradoxical in that it represents in every respect thesis and antithesis, and at the same time synthesis’ (21). The synthesis, wholeness or ‘emptiness of a separate identity’ (voidness) that Jung called ‘Self’, the Buddhists call ‘No-Self’, and this is present in the fundamental dynamics of pain, and every other experience.

When we open up the experience of pain, and look into its fundamental nature, we see that pain is the extreme expression of, and call to, a polarity. In turn, the polarity is the expression of, and call to, the No-Self Void or the Jungian Self. It is quite clear why Buddha said that if we know and understand suffering, there is nothing more to understand (22). All is in every experience, even in pain.


Patients rarely present with an awareness of both sides of their issues’ polarity, and even more rarely with an awareness of the interdependence between the seeming opposites. They don’t arrive with an understanding of the fundamental Wholeness, Emptiness or Non-Self of their experience. This is of course why they suffer, experience discontent or anguish (dukkha), and are off-centre or out of balance. As a Western psychotherapist, I cannot possibly understand the subtleties of many levels of Buddhist enlightenment, nor the depth or intensity of unbounded compassion, bliss, rapture, serenity, equanimity or the highest samadhi. I can at most say that I and my patients experience every now and then what Munindra calls “a little bit of enlightenment” (23).

I mainly utilize what Jung calls the “synthetic” or “constructive” method and the mechanism of the “transcendent function” (24). In essence, Jung’s transcendent function has to do with opening a dialogue between opposing poles, to allow a new position or perspective to emerge that is neither a combination of nor a rejection of the two (25). Jung says: “The shuttling to and fro of arguments and affects represents the transcendent function of opposites. The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living, third thing...that leads to a new level of being, a new situation. The transcendent function manifests itself as a quality of conjoined opposites.” (26). As Moore says, “…the role of the transcendent function is to unfold the wholeness of the psyche” (27). Joseph prefers the process phrase “transcendent functioning” instead of Jung’s “the transcendent function”, and says it “…involves at its core a letting go of fixed structures and identities.” (28).

In the process I also find the attitude of mindfulness as described by Buddha in the “Four Establishments of Mindfulness” from the SATIPATTHANA-SUTTA helpful (29). It implies a full awareness and acceptance of what is, sensations, thoughts, feeling, fantasies etc., and even if there is distraction, one can be aware of that too. Joseph (30) speaks of an attitude of “non-attached involvement”, and from the Latin and French origins of the terms calls it a state of being “rolled into” one’s experience, but not fixedly fastened to or entangled with it. As the Dzogchen master, Paltrul Rinpoche says: “It is sufficient to simply let your mind rest in the state of whatever takes place, in whatever happens” (31). Whatever comes up becomes your meditation (Tartang Tulku – 32).

Here are a few general therapeutic guidelines that I follow:


Start with the presenting symptom, the current suffering, like in psychoanalysis. As Jung said: “In the intensity of the emotional disturbance itself lies the value, the energy which he should have at his disposal in order to remedy the state of reduced adaptation” (33). Don’t declare war on pain, rather realize as Welwood puts it: “Hidden within every wound we always find a particular blessing…whatever seems impossible in our lives - if we go toward it, see it, feel it, make a relationship with it, use it – becomes our path” (34). The Mahamudra lineage of Tibetan Buddhism sees the confused mind and the awakened mind, pathology and path, as two sides of the same reality, co-emerging, arising together. In Tantric Buddhism, the energy contained in the intensity of the emotional turmoil is mobilized to transmute it (35).


Aron presented with severe panic attacks while traveling, always halfway to his destination. He would then “freeze”, forcing him to stop. In his immobilized state, he was highly agitated and couldn’t stand still either. He often had to pace around in circles, just to release the agitation. So paradoxically he couldn’t go any further, but he couldn’t stand still either.

We used an immersion technique of going into the feelings and symptoms, almost like taking a journey within and through the symptom sensations. This prompted a cathartic release over a few sessions of childhood trauma around the age of seven. The central theme was one of being left alone to journey by foot over long distances and wide open spaces. The worst was being at the midpoint of the journey, at times in severe weather and completely alone.

From the sessions he gained insights on the origin of his “half-way” panic attacks, and understood the “immobilized in movement” paradox. After the cathartic sessions, the intensity of the feelings during a journey was reduced. He could mindfully experience the “tugging” of the impulse to stop, simultaneously with the agitated hyperactive sensations, while choosing to move on towards his destination. In the last session he described a “new sense of belonging and safety within myself…I can move anywhere with confidence”. On 15 month follow-up after the last session, there was no recurrence of the panic attacks.

Aron’s “new position or perspective” (ala Jung) from the duality was mainly a release through catharsis, of stored pain that manifested in the extremities of “immobilized agitation”. But through mindfulness of both opposites, a freedom of choice and a sense of belonging emerged, where he could embrace experience instead of avoid it.


Sink into and engage with the discomfort, negative affect or mood, as Jung said, ”without reserve” (36). One can use writing, drawing, painting, spontaneous fantasies, active imagination, movements/gestures, sound, inner voice and inner sensing. All of this can be according to Jung, “…a kind of enrichment and clarification of the affect…” (37). It reminds one of Tozan’s Zen koan: “When cold, let it be so cold that it kills you; when hot, let it be so hot that it kills you” (38). If we read “that it kills your ego”, we might get a sense of the immersion into the experience. When cold, be fully and thoroughly cold; when hot, be fully and thoroughly hot.

Mary is a 45 year old married woman referred by an Urologist for psychological post-operative pain management, because of an allergy to many types of analgesics. The strategy was to vary the methods of pain management between distraction from, and immersion into, the pain, without clinging to either side:

For distraction she was taught a form of self-hypnosis with deep relaxation. She also had to work out an activity and sensory stimulation program for herself to use in bed after the operation. For the immersion into pain she was taught a form of mindfulness, almost a pain meditation, where she had to go into the sensations and be aware of how it manifests. She was taught how to feel its intensity, energy, texture, color, sound, movement etc. She quite enjoyed this as a different approach to just immediately trying to quell the pain.

During the first evening she woke up early with “quite severe pain”. She did deep relaxation and combined it with the mindful immersion. Suddenly a spontaneous fantasy appeared where she was floating weightlessly in the warm Mediterranean Ocean. The painful area was soothed but a “little red fish with sharp fins still nibbled at the area”. Next a school of Dolphins came, chased away the little red fish, and performed a “breathtaking water ballet”. In the fantasy she observed this ballet for a long time until they started moving further and further away, and the “sea and sky became one”. This image left her feeling “free, happy and weightless”, with no pain and the ability to “just be” for a long while.

She used a variety of techniques, but preferred the “letting it be” mode of mindful awareness, and on two further occasions when she experienced pain, and “allowed it to happen”, spontaneous fantasies emerged. Once it was “like fairies surrounded by light, carrying away the old blood and debris with soft hands in a flowing but brisk ballet of movement. They put the blood and debris on a conveyer belt that dumped it down a well that reaches to the middle of the earth”. On another occasion the “pulling-out and pushing-in” sensations of the pain became a “hairy, ugly and disgusting worm, but ants battled with it, and suddenly a little bird swooped in, picked it up and flew far away with it”. Seven days after the operation she was discharged without any adverse side effects or uncontrollable pain reactions since the operation. One can say she had pain but didn’t suffer.

The strategy to combine disconnection with immersion caused the pain to run its natural course without any analgesic medication, and without any extreme or uncontrollable experiences from the patient. On follow-up two months after the operation, Mary commented that through the post-operative experience she learned more about life, self-regulation, patience, inner strength, and specifically about “letting things be in awareness”, than through all the times when she was completely drugged, disconnected and not allowed to manage her own pain.

Mary’s “new position or perspective” from the duality was spontaneous fantasies filled with a variety of symbols, and the occasional mode of “just being”.

Jung mentioned that often the new thing that arises between the opposites is the symbol (39). Dehing summarizes it as follows: “…when a conflict appears between two positions, it is important to make the two poles as conscious as possible; if the conflict is borne, the pain endured, a third term may emerge, a living symbol which transcends the opposition” (40). The symbol is the object of the mediating function and carries pieces of both the opposites (41). All the main symbols in her fantasies, like fish, dolphins, fairies and the worm-ants-bird combination, hold the APPEARANCE-DISAPPEARANCE or PRESENCE-ABSENCE dialectic, which was the central theme of Mary’s process with her post-operative pain. These symbols also manifested within the polarities of water-sky and air-earth.

Jung says, “The symbol cannot be consciously chosen or constructed; it is a sort of intuition or revelation. Hence the transcendent function is only usable in part as a method, the other part always remains an involuntary experience” (42). It is Interesting that Jung mentions that the transcendent function can be both a method and an experience. I think the same goes for Buddhist mindfulness. Interesting too that Jung started linking the transcendent function to Self when he states: “The opposites are united by a neutral or ambivalent bridge, a symbol expressing either side in such a way that they can function together…The bridge is the ‘uniting symbol’, which represents psychic totality, the self” (43). Mary’s description of the sea and the sky becoming one as the dolphins gradually moved away, as well as her mode of “just being”, is close to realizing, for a moment, the void of union and wholeness, accompanied by bliss, which neutralized all suffering at that moment.


The inherent polarities of the experience can surface through the immersion process described above. It can also be further clarified and “unpacked” through analytical probing or questioning of the affect regarding its context, possible intention and opposing personal qualities. A polarity map or constellation is created with the two painful extremes and the harmonious “middle way” polarity. At this stage as Jung would say, “The ego takes the lead, but the unconscious must be allowed to have its say too” (44). The process is what Magid would call working with our natural koans (45). Young-Eisendrath says the transcendent function has led her to have an “ironic view of therapy”, defined by Schafer as a readiness “to seek out internal contradictions, ambiguities, and paradoxes” (46). Like in Tantra, one is continually facing the conflict of opposites in the effort to transcend them (47).

Once the constellation is clear and consciously accepted, we again immerse into and deeply explore all sides, as well as their interaction with each other. Often the one extreme has been more unconscious than the other, due to clinging/attachment, over-emphasis and one-sidedness. As Jung says: “…the confrontation with the unconscious must be a many-sided one, for the transcendent function is not a partial process running a conditioned course; it is a total and integral event in which all aspects are, or should be, included” (48). Jung continues, “As the process of coming to terms with the counter-position has a total character, nothing is excluded. Everything takes part in the discussion, even if only fragments become conscious” (49). Epstein sees it as a fundamental tenet of Buddhist thought that “…before emptiness of self can be realized, the self must be experienced fully, as it appears” (50). Room is made for deep feeling, with the Faustian question: “How am I affected by this sign?” (51), as the central guiding prompt. This makes room for full-scale internal dialogue between the polarities, how they affect the person, how they manifest, how they relate to each other, or act as seeds to the sprouting of each other. This is a dialectical process (to use Hegel’s term – 52) that leads the person from one opposite into its dependent arising other opposite and back into itself again, leading (at times) to the awakening that their fundamental truth is found in the emptiness or unity between and around them.

CASE VIGNETTE (JUST “THIS”): Cathy is a volunteer worker to many non-governmental organizations, a very busy singer and an interior decorator. She describes a “frantic fast-paced life”, almost hypo-manic, with her “mind always racing” and her schedule always full. She suffers from sleeplessness and an occasional feeling of “lethargic lifelessness” (almost “like being drugged”).

In the second session, she recognized all the elements of the following polarity map, but specifically saw how the lethargic/lifeless feeling acted “as the cause” for the frenetic activity and hypo-manic state. She was afraid of the lethargic lifeless feeling and counteracted it with frenetic activity. She discovered how her fear started during two near-death experiences, and remembered how she fought against “letting go (lethargic), dying and emptiness (lifeless)”. She saw how every time she gets close to feeling these feelings, she frantically occupied herself with activities and “doing”. On the other hand, she also saw how frenetic activity in turn leads to the lethargic state, to “complete emptiness and exhaustion”:

Her insight into how one polarity acts as a seed for the other, reminds one strongly of the Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Origination, and applies particularly to the Buddha’s’ famous formulation (53):

When this is, that is;
This arising, that arises;
When this is not, that is not;
This ceasing, that ceases.

Although Cathy is a Christian and does not know about the Buddhist description, I took poetic license and played with the above formulation during our session:

When lethargic is, frenetic is;
Lethargic arising, frenetic arising;
When lethargic is not, frenetic is not;
Lethargic ceasing, frenetic ceasing.

She laughed with real understanding, and could hold both opposites at once in a gesture of the left hand on one side and the right on the other. At that point I asked her what it would be like “in the middle of, and all around, both”. There was a long and tangibly peaceful silence. She then placed her left hand onto her right shoulder, and her right hand onto her left shoulder, and eventually just said “THIS”. I could hear the proverbial Buddhist haiku by Basho: ”The old pond. A frog jumps in. Plop!” (54). When after another long silence I asked “This?”, she said: “Yes, just the sound of the waterfall and the bird – nothing more, nothing less”. During this long silence she was absolutely peaceful, yet fully engaged and aware.

It sometimes happens that when two contrasting opposites are held at once, a smile or laughter will ensue. Humor and laughter can at times be the “new position or perspective” from the duality, because the internal dynamics of humor thrives on the awareness of contrasts and unexpected paradoxes. The long peaceful yet aware silence, combined with the clear perception and immediacy, reminds one of the Buddhist terms “suchness” or “as-it-isness” (55). As one Mahayana Sutra puts it: “If we are not hampered by our confused subjectivity, this, our worldly life is an activity of nirvana itself” (56). In Cathy’s case, nothing was changed but the perspective of the observer (57). Her polarized “ego” (Jungian) or manifest “self” (Buddhist) was not destroyed, but used as an avenue to see in a new light, through the interdependent origination (mutual seeding) of its opposites.

With this said, it still remains important however to emphasize that this realization did not enlighten Cathy permanently and irreversibly. In psychotherapy and Buddhist practice we know that transformation takes time and continuous effort. “In the Theravada tradition…and in Buddhist traditions generally, freedom from self-generated suffering doesn’t happen all at once” (58). Continuous training and realizations are required.

CASE VIGNETTE (AFFIRMATION-NEGATION): Harry, a sportsman client complained of feelings of low self-worth and lack of confidence in his sport. After intensive processing, he discovered the hidden compensatory pride within the low self-worth, and how this ego inflation directly links with low self-worth in turn. He had the following revelation, and afterwards finished in the final of the South African National Championship for the first time ever: “I’m inferior and superior, but when I’m at my best, I’m really neither of either. “Neti-neti” (Not this-not that) says the Upanishad (II, iii, 6). “Negation of negation” says Hegel (59). The ego both is and is not. This realization of emptiness brought him back to being in the present, while doing his required task, without being caught up in the complicated ego stories around the job at hand. Jung mentioned that the something new arising between the opposites “…has the power to take up their energies in equal measure as an expression of both and of neither”(60). Harry’s realization reminded me of the old Zen koan: “This very moment, thinking neither good nor evil (neither inferior nor superior), show me your original face before the birth of your parents” (61).

“RIGHTNESS” AND FLOW: Patients describe an ability to be mindful of the harmonious and the extreme polarities, and appropriately using whichever is required, as determined by the situation and the need of the moment. They describe a sense of appropriateness and timing, where the opposites can exist side by side and almost be playfully utilized as required – with a flow between them. Like Solomon’s description of a whole range of opposites in the Bible (Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8), but linking them through a sense of timing: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven…a time to be born and a time to die…a time to embrace and a time to refrain etc.…”. Jung said: “My aim is to bring about a psychic state in which my patient begins to experiment with his own nature – a state of fluidity, change, and growth where nothing is eternally fixed and hopelessly petrified” (62). This notion of course links closely with the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment and impermanence, which in the final analysis, is also a way of explaining No-Self or Void. Magid says, “…the emptiness of the self is not an additional attribute in any way…(it is) simply a nonresistance to the flow and transience of our lives” (63). No-self is the stage or the mirror for the ego opposites to meet and play. The Void of No-Self is not nothingness, but full of everything in the moment of our lives. In Jung’s VII SERMONS AD MORTUOS (64), He begins with, “Nothingness is the same as fullness…Nothingness is both empty and full”. In Tibetan dzog chen and Talmudic teaching (65), the emptiness essence of mind is compared with a mirror, insofar as a mirror is empty and unobstructed by content, yet it reflects everything impartially without distinction. The empty and full mirror is one of the best analogies for the mindful holding and embrace of opposites (the fullness of life), within an unobstructed void of no identity (the mirror). As they would say in Zen Buddhism, No-Self is “… simply the non-self-centered response to life as it is” (66). A mirror doesn’t obstruct what is, it doesn’t cling to one image as another moves in. Emptiness is like this, not nothing, just allowing the flow of everything, all sides, including their interpenetration.


Although freedom from suffering is the ultimate aim, we don’t make it that, because moments of transcendence are not manufactured or orchestrated. As Jung said: “The transcendent function is not something one does oneself; it comes rather from experiencing the conflict of the opposites” (67). All I can assist the patient with is to go into any side of the polarity with engaged mindfulness, to experience and see the dynamic between the one side and the other, and then to hold the polarity, to embrace the extremes with openness. The “new position or perspective” happens spontaneously, of its own accord. This holding embrace and open witnessing is already as Miller (68) says the transcendent function as the “metaphorical third”, where the choice between either one or the other is suspended so that the relationship between them becomes the focus. The transcendent function makes it possible to move away from the either/or approach, to the both/and or neither/nor approach to the opposites. With the transcendent function then as Miller says, “…the field or vessel in which the opposites are cooked…” (69), affirmed and negated, a new alchemical fourth, a coniunctio can emerge, which goes beyond, to new dimensions, indeed to the numinosum in our everyday experience (70). I want to emphasize the phrase “in our everyday experience”. The transcendent function makes a conjuction possible between the everyday and the numinosum, the ego and Wholeness (the Jungian Self), the particular and the fundamental, the personal and the universal, the Buddhist self and the No-Self Void. The everyday and the ego are not destroyed, just seen in a new perspective to the No-Self, with what the Madhyamaka teaches, “…the eye of wisdom” (71), which sees the unity between opposites, the interdependent emptiness of their identities.

Polarity processing reminds one of the alchemical formula quoted by Jung called the Axiom of Maria: “One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the One as the Fourth” (72). A free translation into our current terms can go something like: One Wholeness (Jungian Self and Buddhist No-Self Void) becomes duality (Jungian ego, Buddhist self, polarity). Duality becomes a Unity (a “new third” Transcendent Function), and out of the “new third” Transcendent Function Unity, comes One Wholeness as the Fourth, but as One Wholeness. Everything begins with One Wholeness (No-Self) and ends with One Wholeness (No-Self), just as it is. One-ness, in operation through Two-ness and the Third, becomes One-ness. This doesn’t take us out of this world though, up a high staircase, to a level far away in heaven somewhere. The step where you are already contains the Whole, you already are the Whole, there is nowhere to go but to simply and profoundly see it, here and now. “No-Self” (One-ness) is an awakening to the interdependent unity (One-ness) in the ego duality (Two-ness) of the current experience. All is contained in the “inner complexity and self contradictory life” (to use Giegerich’s phrase again) of the experience.

GRACE AND SYNCHRONICITY: I have often noticed that whenever someone is prepared to face the reality of all sides of the polarity, and is not afraid to immerse into it with deep feeling and full commitment, that surprising things happen to support him/her in the process. For example, a neighbor played a piece of music on the piano at the very moment that a patient was busy working on a deep memory from his past. The melody was his favourite piece from that time, and took him immediately to a deeper level of feeling and processing. Another patient got lost (with her husband driving the car) on their way back from her therapy session after she processed unfelt hurt from an old school romance. They landed up at the same school, which she hasn’t seen for decades, and this helped her gain a more realistic perspective on her feelings. Temple-Thurstone defines grace as “…an aspect of the unfathomable intelligence of the universe. It is the expression of your higher self, which orchestrates for you the circumstances that you in your limited state cannot.” (73)

In a letter written in 1954, just seven years before his death, Jung refers to the transcendent function as a natural phenomenon…and says, “Psychology has no proof that this process does not unfold itself at the instigation of God’s will.” (74). Miller (75) also notes that in at least three other contexts, Jung connects the transcendent function to the voice, the grace and the will of God. Jung states clearly that “The God-image in man was not destroyed by the Fall but was only damaged and corrupted (deformed), and can be restored through God’s grace” (76). In an important footnote, Jung refers to Augustine saying that for this God-image in man to be “reformed”, the beginning of the process “must come from him who first formed it” (77). The moment of reformation is in other words not a directed and orchestrated process under control of the ego, but a surrender to the transcendent function, the will of God, and in Jung’s terms, to “…the spontaneous symbols of the self, or of wholeness, (which) cannot in practice be distinguished from a God-image” (78). And instead of a reformation or a transformation, Jung actually sees it as a “restoration of an original condition…an ever-present archetype of wholeness” (79).

Of course the ultimate conjunction remains the merging of the personal identity with the supra-personal, the union of the whole man with the “one world”, the “unus mundus”. But as Jung mentioned, to the Westerner this view appears not at all realistic and all too mystical. He adds in the same paragraph though: “For thirty years I have studied these psychic processes under all possible conditions and have assured myself that the alchemists as well as the great philosophies of the east are referring to just such experiences, and that it is chiefly our ignorance of the psyche if these experiences appear ‘mystic’”(80). Ulanov says that “…through the transcendent function people in analysis come into direct contact with transcendence – that which surpasses not only our ego consciousness but our whole psyche – whether or not they give it a religious name” (81).


After any deep insight or realization, the emphasis in therapy should always be on the traditional Zen challenge of “taking a step off the top of the hundred foot pole” (82), and processing with the patient the practical everyday implications, and how to live with it in real life here and now. Magid emphasizes the importance of “post-enlightenment practice” referring to Kornfield’s book “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” (83). Jung emphasized the importance of re-embodying and integrating a “coniunction” experience into everyday life: “The reuniting of the spiritual position with the body obviously means that the insights gained should be made real…making a reality of the man who has acquired some knowledge of his paradoxical wholeness” (84). Jung continues by saying that transformation is only a notable advance “…if the centre experience proves to be a spiritus rector of daily life…for self-knowledge has certain ethical consequences which are not just impassively recognized but demand to be carried out in practice” (85).

It is also important to note that processing through the polarities of experience is as Jung said, “…not a one-sided intellectual pastime but a journey through the four continents, where one is exposed to all the dangers…” (86). He continues, “Even if there is sufficient intelligence to understand the procedure, there may yet be a lack of courage and self-confidence, or one is too lazy, mentally and morally, or too cowardly, to make an effort” (87). “The attainment of wholeness requires one to stake one’s whole being” (88).


One can see that the experiences and insights emerging from the active processing of polarities can vary:

  • Cathartic release
  • Mindful choice
  • Belonging
  • Embrace
  • Spontaneous fantasies and symbols
  • “Just being”
  • Laughter
  • Silence
  • “This” or “Suchness”
  • “Neither of either”
  • “Rightness” and flow
  • Grace and synchronicity

These experiences and insights emerge as a result of engaging polarities and uniting opposites through dialogue and mindfulness. They vary according the person’s circumstances and address the unique requirements of the moment. One can see them as manifestations of the Buddhist No-Self or Jungian Self, while realizing that this Void can never be described or captured into words or experiences. The Tantric Buddha Vajradhare appears in many aspects, with the form of appearance shaped by the needs of the trainees (89). This is because the No-Self is empty, without boundaries, and therefore flexible to manifest in any form or shape. Emptiness is unknowable, but can be seen in all forms, and in every experience. Like in the Heart of Prajnaparamita Sutra: “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” (90).

Therefore, go into the pain, don’t be afraid of the hurt. Get to know the wounds’ inner life by uncovering the polarity. Facilitate a to and fro dialogue between the seeming opposites, including how they inter-dependently relate to each other, without clinging or condemning. Go to pieces without falling apart (ala Epstein’s book title – 91), because as Jung said. “Without the experience of the opposites there is no experience of wholeness…” (92). Allow the various ways in which a “third” or “fourth” can manifest and happen, including moments of understanding the Void or No-Self. This is a complex and a simple project, to see the true nature of everything, and yet to just simply process another polarity from everyday experience. I agree with Jung when he says “… every endeavor of our human intelligence should be bent to the achieving of that simplicity where contradictories are reconciled” (93). And perhaps, during this process of “One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the One as the Fourth”, we contribute to the continuous incarnation and illumination of the One. Jung says that we are indispensable vessels for the transformation of the creator (94 and 95), and that the division into Two was necessary to bring the One out of potentiality into reality (96). But he emphasized that we do not create the One, the Creator, we only choose him (97).

With our processing we are continuously completing a circle within circles, assisting in Hegel’s terms “the True” in “...the process of its own becoming, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal, having its end also as the beginning; and only by being worked out to its end, is it actual” (98). It is as if the One gets “tremendously enriched” to use Giegerich’s terms (99) in our processing through the Two and Three towards One as Four. But, in the same breath, the One also remains, I’m sure, eternally unchanging as One Wholeness. This is our inheritance and our paradoxical mission, to let Wholeness develop and remain the same. And for this we are immersed in, and blessed by, a Self that Suzuki compares to a circle without circumference, with its centre everywhere and nowhere (100), with the implication that every experience already has “everything it needs” and with the presence of everything in it. We were indeed created in the image and likeness of the creator, microcosms in a macrocosm as Jung liked say. Manifested in our own being is as the Avatamsaka Sutra says, “All the Buddha-lands and all the Buddhas themselves”. (101). Or as Angelus Silesius said: “God is my centre when I close him in, and my circumference when I melt in him.” (102).

And yet, to take a step off the 100 foot pole with a few questions from the book of Job in the Bible: Have we caused the dawn just once since we were born? Can we bind the cluster of Pleiades or loosen the belt of Orion? Can we hunt the prey for the lion, or does the hawk fly by our wisdom? Like Job, we can only be silent to such questions, and come down, back to dust and ashes. And yet, isn’t it exactly there, in the dust of every earthly experience, that the No-Self “Spirit” resides?

This is why we can only marvel at Joshu’s (the master of the temple) simple and wise reply when the monk begged him for higher order instructions: He asked, ‘Have you eaten your rice gruel yet?' The monk answered, ‘Yes, I have’. Joshu said, ‘Then wash your bowls’ (103). Every experience has ‘everything it needs’ within itself.


  1. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 14, paragraph 749.
  2. Holmes, Ken and Katia. Maitreya on Buddha Nature, Altea Publishing, 1999, p. 28.
  3. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 14, paragraph 36.
  4. Giegerich, W., D.L. Miller & G. Mogenson. Dialectics and Analytical Psychology, Spring Journal Books, 2005, p. x.
  5. Ibid., p. 3
  6. Young-Eisendrath, P. “The Transformation of Human Suffering: A perspective from psychotherapy and Buddhism”, in Young-Eisendrath, P. & S. Muramoto, Awakening and Insight, Zen Buddhism and Psychotherapy, Brunner-Routledge, 2002, p. 72.
  7. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 8, paragraph 923.
  8. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 14 paragraph 603.
  9. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 9 Part I, paragraph 603.
  10. Kawai, H. “What is I? Reflections from Buddhism and psychotherapy”, in Young-Eisendrath, P. & S. Muramoto, op. cit., p.144.
  11. Jung, C. G. VII SERMONES AD MORTUOS, translated by H G Baynes. Also appeared in the original German version of Memories, Dreams and Reflections, by C. G. Jung.
  12. Okano, M. “The Consciousness-Only School”, in Young-Eisendrath, P. & S. Muramoto, op. cit., p233.
  13. Mathers, D. “Karma and Individuation: The boy with no face”, in Young-Eisendrath, P. & S. Muramoto, op. cit., p. 221.
  14. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 16, paragraphs 531 and 532
  15. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 14, paragraph 765.
  16. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 12, paragraph 44.
  17. Jung, C. G. Letters 2: 1951-1961 (G. Adler, Ed., Routledge and Kegan Paul), p. 258-259.
  18. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 9 Part II, paragraphs 60, 70, 73.
  19. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 17, paragraph 323.
  20. Holmes, Ken and Katia, op. cit., p. 26.
  21. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 12, paragraph 22.
  22. Rinpoche, Ven. Khenpo Karthar. Darma Paths, Snow Lion Publications, 1992, p. 44.
  23. Engler, J. “Being Somebody and Being Nobody: A Reexamination of the understanding of Self in Psychoanalysis and Buddhism”, in Safran, J. D. Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: An Unfolding Dialogue, Wisdom Publications, 2003, p. 41.
  24. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 8, from page 67.
  25. Miller, J. C. The Transcendent Function: Jung’s model of psychological growth through dialogue with the unconscious”, State University of New York Press, 2004, p. 5.
  26. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 8, paragraph 189.
  27. Moore, N. “The Transcendent Function and the Forming Ego”, Journal of Analytical Psychology, 1975, 20, 2, p. 171.
  28. Joseph, S.M. “Presence and absence through the mirror of transference: a model of the transcendent function”, Journal of Analytical Psychology, 1997, 42, p. 150.
  29. Kornfield, J. (Ed.). Teachings of the Buddha, Shambala, 2004, p.55-64.
  30. Joseph, S.M. op. cit., p 147.
  31. Welwood, J. Towards a Psychology of Awakening: Buddhism, Psychotherapy, and the Path of Personal and Spiritual Transformation. Shambala, 2000, p. 122.
  32. Welwood, J. op. cit., p. 125.
  33. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 8, paragraph 166.
  34. Welwood, J. op. cit., p. 33.
  35. Moacanin, R. Jung’s Psychology and Tibetan Buddhism, Wisdom Publications, 2003, p. 88.
  36. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 8, paragraph 167.
  37. Ibid., paragraph 167.
  38. Sekida, K. Two Zen Classics. Weatherhill, New York, 1977.
  39. Miller, J. C., op. cit., p. 45.
  40. Dehing, J. “The Transcendent Function: A critical re-evaluation”, Journal of Analytical psychology, 1993, 38, p. 232.
  41. Miller, J. C., op. cit., p. 46.
  42. Quoted in Miller, J. C., op. cit., p. 53.
  43. Quoted in Miller, J. C., op. cit., p. 71.
  44. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 8, paragraph 185.
  45. Magid, B. Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common Ground of Zen and Psychotherapy. Wisdom Publications, 2002, p. 74.
  46. Young-Eisendrath, P. “Locating the Transcendent: Inference, Rupture, Irony”, in The Transcendent Function: Individual and Collective Aspects,  Proceeding of the Twelfth International Congress for Analytical psychology, Chicago, 1992, Daimon Verlag, 1993, p. 163.
  47. Moacanin, R. op. cit., p. 89.
  48. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 8, paragraph 183.
  49. Ibid., paragraph 193.
  50. Epstein, M. Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist perspective. Basic Books, 1995, p 206.
  51. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 8, paragraph 188.
  52. Solomon, H. “The Transcendent Function and Hegel’s Dialectical Vision”, Journal of Analytical Psychology, 1994, 39.
  53. Quoted in Spiegelman, J. M. and M. Miyuki. Buddhism and Jungian Psychology. New Age Books, 1994, p. 131.
  54. Langan, R. “The Dissolving of Dissolving Itself”, in Safran, J. D., op. cit. p. 138.
  55. Welwood, J. op. cit., p. 103.
  56. Epstein, M., op. cit., p. 83.
  57. Ibid., p. 83.
  58. Engler, J., op. cit., p. 39.
  59. Giegerich, W., D.L. Miller & G. Mogenson, op. cit., p. 16.
  60. Quoted in Miller, J. C., op. cit., p. 118.
  61. Quoten in Magid, B. “Your Ordinary Mind”, in Safran, J. D., op. cit., p. 266.
  62. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 16, paragraph 99.
  63. Magid, B. op. cit., p. 57.
  64. Jung,     C. G. VII SERMONES AD MORTUOS, translated by H G Baynes. Also appeared in the original German version of Memories, Dreams and Reflections, by C. G. Jung.
  65. Joseph, S.M. op. cit., p 142.
  66. Magid, B. “Your Ordinary Mind”, in Safran, J. D., op. cit., p. 268.
  67. Quoted in Miller, J. C. op. cit., p. 58.
  68. Miller, J. C., op. cit., p. 126.
  69. Ibid., p. 128.
  70. Ibid., p. 141.
  71. Quoted by Moacanin, R., op. cit. p. 83.
  72. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 14, paragraph 619.
  73. Temple-Thurston & B. Laughlin. The Marriage of Spirit. CoreLight Publishing, 2000, p. 27.
  74. Quoted in Miller, J. C., op. cit., p. 116.
  75. Miller, J. C., op. cit., p. 116.
  76. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 9 II, paragraph 72.
  77. Jung, C. G. Ibid., paragraph 73.
  78. Idem.
  79. Idem.
  80. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 14, paragraph 762.
  81. Ulanov, A. B., op. cit. p. 119.
  82. Magid, B. “Your Ordinary Mind”, in Safran, J. D., op. cit., p. 254.
  83. Magid, B. Ordinary Mind: Exploring the Common Ground of Zen and Psychotherapy. Wisdom Publications, 2002, p. 65.
  84. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 14, paragraph 679.
  85. Ibid., paragraphs 777 and 778.
  86. Ibid., paragraph 283.
  87. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 8, paragraph 193.
  88. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 11, paragraph 906.
  89. Magid, B., op. cit., p. 80.
  90. Moacanin, R., op. cit., 2003, p. 77.
  91. Referred to in Safran, J. D., op. cit., p. 166.
  92. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 12, paragraph 24.
  93. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 16, paragraph 537.
  94. Quoted by Moacanin, R., op. cit. p. 91.
  95. Jung, C. G. Collected Works 14, paragraph 284.
  96. Quoted in Mansfield, V. & J. M. Spiegelman, “The Opposites in Quantum Physics and Jungian Psychology (Part 1)”, Journal of Analytical Psychology, 1991, 36, p. 283.
  97. Quoted in Dyer, D. R. Jung’s Thoughts on God. Nicolas-Hays, 2000, p. 55.
  98. Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). Translated by A.V. Miller, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 10.
  99. Giegerich, W., D.L. Miller & G. Mogenson. Op. cit., p. 6.
  100. Suzuki, T. D., “Self the Unattainable”, in Frank Frederick (Ed.). The Buddha Eye: An Anthology of the Kyoto School. Crowwroad Publishing Co., 1991, p. 15.
  101. Quoted by Moacanin, R., op. cit. p. 80.
  102. Quoted in Jung, C. G. Collected Works 14, paragraph 284.
  103. Magid, B. “Your Ordinary Mind”, in Safran, J. D., op. cit., p. 294.
  104. Deon van Zyl, Ph.D is a former Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Pretoria, where he worked for 13 years. He is past chairperson of the South African Institute for Clinical Psychology. For the last 20 years he’s been in private practice as a clinical psychologist, management consultant, mediator and group facilitator. He is a member of the International Ass<p> </p>ociation for Jungian Studies and the International Association for the Study of Dreams. He has delivered numerous papers at conferences in South Africa, the U.S.A. and Japan. He explores the interface between psychology and spiritual practices.