Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Descent Experience and the Tertium Non Datur: Managing the tension and the time of waiting

by Barbara Croner & Sheila Joshi

The Descent Experience

Since the beginning of time, humanity has described a particular kind of experience that many people have had, but many have not had. It involves terrible suffering. It lasts a very long time. During much of it, there is no help or relief that can be had. Eventually, it draws to an end, culminating in a return to life, often with additional gifts.

It has been called The Descent Experience, and the oldest known recorded version of a descent myth was written by the Sumerians on clay tablets in the third millennium BCE.  In this version, the goddess Inanna (also known as Ishtar) has to visit the Underworld. There, she is destroyed physically and psychologically in the most gruesome way.  It’s bad, no one will help; it goes on for awhile.  Finally, Enki, the god of wisdom, comes to her rescue in an artful way, deals are made, she is reconstituted, and returns to the world.

Maybe 1000 years later, the ancient Greeks wrote their own descent myth about Persephone, who is abducted, raped, and held captive by Hades, king of the Underworld. It’s bad, no one will help; it goes on awhile. Finally, her mother Demeter pressures her father Zeus into negotiating her release. Deals are made, she has to spend part of every year in the Underworld, but is allowed to return to the world.

C.G. Jung – The Red Book

In 2009, the heirs of Carl Jung allowed his account of his descent experience to be published for the first time. Over the course of many years, from about 1914 to 1930, Jung wrote and drew about his own frightening falling apart, during which he confronted the darkness in himself and in the world (including WWI). He wrote and drew in order to save himself. It was bad, there was no help. It went on a long time. Eventually, he found help from beings he encountered in his mind who may have been parts of himself, archetypes, and/or spirits of the dead.

Years later, he said that his most important ideas, the ones he worked on for the rest of his life, and that we remember him for, all came out of this period.

The Tertium Non Datur

In 1916, still early in his descent experience, Jung wrote a paper entitled “The Transcendent Function,” which contained the seeds of some of the most foundational ideas of his life’s work. 

He introduced the term “transcendent function” to describe a fundamental pattern in human psychology.  We are continually confronted with internal conflicts.  Initially, he referred to the conflict between the conscious ego and the unconscious, but over the decades this concept has been applied to all kinds of psychological conflicts.  Jung believed that these conflicts reflected not only influences from our childhoods, but also a teleological pull toward our wholeness ( 

When faced with irreconcilable conflict between two needs, the human psyche is designed to create a transcendent third option that never existed before.  This creative dynamic, repeated throughout life, leads to ever greater individuation and wholeness.  The transcendent function is this process.  The product of the transcendent function is called the tertium non datur.

Jung borrowed this term -- tertium non datur -- from the field of logic in philosophy.  It is the Latin translation of a concept attributed to Aristotle, that translates as “the third is not given” (wiki,  It refers to situations where there is no logical third option to conflicting propositions, such as “Socrates is mortal.  Socrates is not mortal.”  There is no middle ground.  (You may already be imagining how there could be a middle ground!)

In this first 1916 essay, Jung appears to use the term “tertium non datur” in its original sense as meaning that there is no logical third solution to an irreconcilable conflict, while  the transcendent function creates something that transcends logic (Jung, Collected Works, Vol. 8, p. 90).  However, over the decades the usage of the phrase “tertium non datur” in Jungian circles flipped over to refer, itself, to the magical, third way solution that the transcendent function creates, and that’s how we will be using it here.

Waiting:  Tension and Time

There are many ills that flesh is heir to, but not all hardships are descent experiences.  A descent experience is characterized by a long, long time of waiting while in great tension.  During it, it may seem like none of the usual remedies work, or that sorrows come not single spies, but in battalions.  Job had a descent experience.  Nelson Mandela did.  Many chronic illnesses are descent experiences.  Neurological damage usually causes a descent experience.  Spiritual emergencies are usually a descent experience.

We humans naturally want to be able to *do* something about our suffering.  We Americans *expect* to be able to do something about it – and pronto.  This long time of tension is, itself, a shocking experience, independent of whatever other suffering each unique descent experience entails.  How could nothing work?!  Why is there not more help?!  What am I doing wrong?!  How on Earth could this still be happening?!  I don’t believe this is still happening…..

There are some human experiences that, no matter what you do, require waiting through a long time in great tension.


Because something is created by this process that would not be created any other way at this time.  Theoretically, there is always room for improvement and for doing things more easily in the future.  We believe everything in evolving – humans, the Tao / God / mind of the Universe, the laws of physics, the collective unconscious.  But, at this given point in time, for this individual, and for her / his role in the Universe, this awful, long time of great tension is what will create what is needed.

Irreconcilable conflict

We humans are complex beings, riddled with conflicting tendencies, conflicting needs. We rarely have one feeling at a time; we have several, some in direct opposition to each other.  We don’t just have a conscious or unconscious mind; we have both.  And so often, we have a desire, but it is opposed or inaccessible in some way.

We humans also experience the universe around us as riddled by conflicting tendencies.  Maybe this is just an artifact of our sensory limitations, or our bilateral symmetry, or our being an anisogamous species that requires two sexes to reproduce.  Maybe it’s an inherent dynamic of the universe.

As early as 1700 – 1100 BCE, the ancient Indians wrote a religious text called the Rig Veda, which talks about a fundamental cosmic dialectic between the opposing elements of purusha (consciousness, masculine, active) and prakriti (matter, the physical, nature, feminine, passive) (,,,,

Around the 6th – 4th c BCE, the ancient Chinese wrote a philosophical text called the Tao Te Ching, which talks about a fundamental cosmic dialectic between the opposing forces of yin (dark, feminine, cold, wet) and yang (light, masculine, heat, dry) (,

Roughly around this same time -- during the intriguing Axial Age when humanity seemed to take a leap in its thinking, spontaneously, across the globe -- the Book of Genesis was also produced.  It is the first book of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, and it also talked about a fundamental cosmic dialectic between opposing forces.  The first several lines are all about God taking a void and inventing a world by creating contrast:  separating heaven from earth, light from darkness, water from dry land, male and female (,

Those are some of the earliest records we have of this line of human thought.  Now, we’re going to skip ahead to the Western thinker whose name has become synonymous with the dialectic of opposites.  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770 – 1831) was a German philosopher who left a legacy of ideas that continues to be influential today. 

In recent decades, the classic rendition of Hegel’s model of thesis-antithesis-synthesis has undergone some reinterpretation, with some scholars emphasizing that what he really said was abstract-negative-concrete.  Either way, he was definitely trying to say something useful about the progression toward greater knowledge.  It inevitably involves contradiction, and we should be creative about how we handle those contradictions.  In fact, the universe, itself evolves creatively through the relationship between the contradictions.

Hegel scholars also have different views as to whether Hegel proposed to resolve the tension of opposites through synthesis, unification, assimilation, or transcendence.  One term Hegel used was the German word Aufhebung, which he apparently used for its “contradictory implications of both preserving and changing, and eventually advancement.”  He also talked about the universe as resolving “being” and “non-being” into “becoming” (,,

A generation or two later, Carl Jung created a brilliant model of the psyche that placed heavy emphasis on the existence and interrelatedness of opposites in mental life.  He believed there was no mental energy unless there was a tension of opposites (Dotson, 1996a, 1996b).  Some of the opposites he wrote about include:  conscious / unconscious, masculine / feminine, Shadow / persona, animal / spiritual, extraversion / introversion, thinking / feeling, sensing / intuiting, causality / teleology (Spencer, nd).

Jung developed the constructs of the transcendent function and tertium non datur to understand how the essential conflicts progress.  The Jungian analyst and lexicographer Daryl Sharp writes:

“Jung's major contribution to the psychology of conflict was his belief that it had a purpose in terms of the self-regulation of the psyche. If the tension between the opposites can be held in consciousness, then something will happen internally to resolve the conflict. The solution, essentially irrational and unforeseeable, generally appears as a new attitude toward oneself and the outer situation, together with a sense of peace; energy previously locked up in indecision is released and the progression of libido becomes possible” (Sharp, 1991).

The transcendent function is Jung’s name for this process, and the tertium non datur is the result of the process.

Using the idea of the tertium non datur to cope with a descent experience

A descent experience is profoundly unpleasant, sometimes agonizing.  By definition, there are no easy answers.  But, it may be possible to get some relief and reassurance from viewing it as a highly productive seedbed for innovative transformation of yourself that would not be likely to occur any other way.  Jung gave us a useful roadmap that can make sense of the chaos of a descent experience.  It shows how thinking in terms of the transcendent function and tertium non datur, and even looking for them more actively, can help us navigate this dark fastness. 

We will now explore why the passage of so much time is unavoidable; why tension (often in the form of pain and fear) is unavoidable; the unpredictability of the tertium non datur; some specific implications about neurological damage and psi; some thoughts on the relationship between the tertium non datur and the Tao; and, finally, what comes after the arrival of the tertium non datur.

Time (often a very long time) is unavoidable

One of the excruciating characteristics of a descent experience is the unbelievable amount of time it takes.  Yet, we ruefully submit that this is the very purpose of a descent experience.  The descent experience forces one to wait – none of the usual coping strategies seem to work, and there doesn’t seem to be any way to get away from it.  If things are going along in a more conventional manner, we have a strong tendency to keep busy and stay distracted, and therefore certain things don't develop.  But, when there is great tension over a long time, we are forced to think differently than if things are easy and flowing.

The passage of time is required in order to generate a really new and different creative solution – a tertium non datur – that transcends the stuck points in one’s life-to-date.  Whatever one’s personal conflicts are about – self-expression v. loyalty, boldness v. comfort, etc. – holding the forces of opposites for an extended period of time is what brings about evolution.  Something brand new is created, something beyond a compromise or settling.  Jung wrote:

“When there is full parity of the opposites, attested by the ego's absolute participation in both, this necessarily leads to a suspension of the will, for the will can no longer operate when every motive has an equally strong countermotive. Since life cannot tolerate a standstill, a damming up of vital energy results, and this would lead to an insupportable condition did not the tension of opposites produce a new, uniting function that transcends them. This function arises quite naturally from the regression of libido caused by the blockage” (Jung, “Definitions,” CW6, par. 824, in Sharp, 1991).

A tertium non datur only emerges when time goes by, tension builds, and energy is dammed up.  Something has to accumulate; there is no shortcut.  Think of all the things that require time:  many chemical reactions, including cooking our food, or aging wine and cheese.  Diamonds.  You have to wait for sap to flow.  Think of how seeds first go down into the dark, unseen, grow roots, and only then sprout into the sunlight. 

Some bamboo will take three years in the ground before any visible growth appears, and then sprout and grow up to four feet in 24 hours (Hancock, p. 181;;

Even the boiling of water takes time!  Andrew Holecek, a Tibetan Buddhist and faculty member at Naropa University compared benefiting from a spiritual practice to waiting for a pot to boil –

Science speaks about phase transformations, or punctuated equilibrium. A common example is the manner in which water comes to a boil. Put a pot of water on the stove, turn on the heat, and wait. Depending on the intensity of the heat and the temperature and volume of the water, it will boil slowly or quickly, but either way there is a period when nothing seems to be happening. All the energy is going into the water with no obvious result. The phase transformation from water into steam takes time.

Similarly, when we engage in spiritual practice, we have placed ourselves on the stove and turned on the heat. If our practice is halfhearted, then it takes time for that low temperature to transform us. If we practice wholeheartedly, the higher temperature brings us more rapidly to a boil. Either way there is a period when nothing seems to be happening. Lots of energy is going into our practice, but nothing is cooking.

As long-term practitioners reflect over years of practice, they discover they are starting to get warm. The changes come slowly because the water that is being heated is so cold, and the heart of our practice is usually tepid. But sooner or later we come to a boil. After years of practice we “suddenly” transform from an uptight, aloof person into an open, loving one; from a confused sentient being into an awakened one.

Lasting spiritual changes arise from simply being present, again and again. Religion means to link (ligio) back (re). Linking back on the spiritual path takes place every time we return to our breath, our body, our mantra, or the present moment. With each return we are taking a small step toward enlightenment because being fully present is a fundamental expression of enlightenment (Holocek, 2009).

A descent experience has much in common with any deep spiritual practice, but it is usually more painful and less rewarding for awhile.

There are many things that can’t be sped up.  Time cannot necessarily be replaced by greater intensity.  You can’t force a caterpillar to become a butterfly faster.  It takes time to get to know who another person really is.  You have to wait to see the pattern of their approach to various situations over time.

It is very hard for us to wait in modern Western societies, perhaps hardest of all in the US.  There is tremendous cultural pressure to do more and to do it faster.  There’s something wrong with you if you’re not doing a lot, and doing it at the speed of a quantum computer.  Descent experiences have always been hard, as the Sumerians told us in the third millennium BCE, but never before have they been so counter to the zeitgeist.

Leave it to the Italians to help us with this problem!  There is an Italian musical term, Tempo giusto, that instructs the musician to play the piece at the right tempo.  Some interpret this as a strict adherence to the metre, but some interpret it as an invitation for the musician to use personal intuition “to figure out the tempo that the notes in the score imply. In this sense tempo giusto….can only be [found] on a case-by-case basis by examining the overall character of a composition. It is a speed the musician intuits from the structure and nature of the piece itself” (

The Canadian journalist Carl HonorĂ© (2004) has seized upon this infrequently used musical term and borrowed it for his book and mission, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, which are about helping us hectic modern people to re-find a more natural and human tempo for living.  Painful and coercive as the descent experience is, one of its purposes is to bring us to the tempo giusto.

There in an irony having to do with the descent experience and time which we wish to mention.  During a descent experience, some people find that they are growing, learning, and changing incredibly fast, and yet their overall quality of life – which may involve illness, poverty, imprisonment, war -- remains absolutely stuck.  The lack of synchronization between personal effort and internal development on the one hand and external lived reality on the other can be crazy-making and depressing.  It will probably be very different from how your life was before the descent experience, when there was much more of a correlation between effort and results. 

It is perhaps cold comfort, but still it is true that our experience of time is just one aspect of the whole truth about time.  The physicists, parapsychologists, and psi / spiritual experiencers tell us that there is no time, or all time exists now, or the arrow of time can go backwards, or time really can change its pace.  But, frankly, one of the hallmarks of a descent experience is that, whatever the heck is happening with time, you’re in a bad neighborhood of it.

In the Fall of 2010, Jack Kornfield, Ph.D., psychologist and Buddhist monk, spoke at one of The Red Book Dialogues in San Francisco. In discussing Jung’s descent, and descent experiences in general, he said your worst fears are the gateway to your enlightenment. You must face them, you must suffer, yet you must not get lost in the experience either. You stay present to your fears, you wait, you listen. It can take a long time. If you can trust the desert, at some point, it rains. Then, you find out what your gift, your contribution to the world is, "some new extraordinary wholeness appears and that's who you really are."

So, time will eventually be your friend again.  Let us now take up the issue of this fear that Kornfield mentions.

Tension (often in the form of pain and fear) is unavoidable

Ah….pain and fear….these are the very worst aspects of a descent experience, but keep reading because we hope to give you some thoughts to help you with them.

As a disclaimer at the beginning, we wish to say that we believe the human trajectory is toward growth with less suffering.  There has been a slow shift over the course of human history away from shame, guilt, submission to authority, caste and class assignment, and the general belief that we must and should suffer.  There is also an explosion of knowledge and information-sharing going on, in every subject, including psi and communication with Spirit.  The Aquarian age will be an advance over the Piscean age in terms of the mitigation of human suffering.

However, at this point in our development as a species, some of us still are going to go through harrowing descent experiences.  And to a lesser extent, some tension will probably always be a part of human development.

            Tension inevitable to psychological development

Throughout his writings, Jung repeatedly refers to tension as an inevitable part of psychological life and development.  He thought of the conflict of opposites and the resolution of that conflict as an ongoing aspect of normal development.  He called the resolution of that conflict the transcendent function, because he believed it had to transcend logic and reason to be a fully satisfactory resolution.  The Jungian lexicographer Daryl Sharp writes:  “The transcendent function is essentially an aspect of the self-regulation of the psyche” (Sharp, 1991).

            Tension particularly present in pursuing central life mission

If tension is an inevitable part of psychological life, it is even more present whenever you are working on something that is more central to your purpose in life.  The psychologist and dream specialist Gillian Holloway writes in two excellent blog posts about the relationship between our truest destiny and our deepest fears. 

She has found in her practice that when people pursue their most compelling mission, they are often beset by their own personal worst fears, almost as if this were by design.  She doesn’t claim to know why this is, but she encourages us not to back off from our mission, and assures us that the fears are not a sign that we should give up (Holloway,

Holloway also has observed that developmental steps that increase one’s power or one’s voice tend to be fraught with obstacles.  Again, she adjures us not to take this as a sign that we are on the wrong track.

Goals associated with power are  fraught with challenges the like of which you may never see elsewhere….If your goal will give you more power, even if you are not doing it for the power,  expect the process to be filled with weird hazards….These problems are not a sign you should quit. Keep at it and don’t let the flying debris hit you in the head. Consider this an initiation or ordeal.

And --

Goals related to your voice are highly challenging. There is nothing more taboo than your authentic voice. It freaks out the people close to you, and it ticks off the “experts” who should be helping you.

And –

Be aware of “difficulty at the beginning.” There is a Zen principle about “difficulty at the beginning.” Very loosely, this translates into finding out that your idea was dumb, not possible, not practical, won’t pay, or is not open to people who are not already doing it. This is like a weather pattern that smacks down new ideas. Just realize this is the way of it, not the truth of it. Be rather stubborn about the “no’s” you encounter at the beginning, because they can refine your plan, but should not nullify your intention.

Be aware of “dragons at the gate.” When you move toward something that has been a dream of yours, a passionate hope, or something you’ve worked toward for a long time, monsters will jump out at you from every side, saying you lack the right credentials, “it takes a lot of money,” or it simply can’t be done! The closer you get to the finish line of your heart’s desire, the more dragons will threaten you. This just means you’re getting there. Offer the dragons a breath mint and press on!

If you have fears about a project or goal, those fears will be out-pictured in your life. Working on something connected to private fears will magically attract nay-sayers, critics, or technical experts who will pick at you or flatly tell you why it can’t be done. Those critics and experts are not signs that you should give up. Instead, they are your fears being “presented” so that you can chose to keep at it. Go ahead and put your thumb to your nose and wiggle the fingers of your hand at them. Then do the next step. This can actually get to be fun. The more something means to you, the more it relates to your voice, your spirit, your purpose, the more fears may be woven around it, and thus, the more silly critics may jump out of the woodwork and say “boo.” Don’t let them scare you. They are part of the game. Give them your raspberry salute and plunge ahead!

Be willing to let go of the form, but not the essence. The person you loved may flee the scene, but don’t give up on love. The job you thought you wanted may be snatched from underneath you, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be a success. The house you made an offer on may get sold to another, but you still can and will find the perfect home. Separate from the forms when they leave or don’t work out, but deepen your connection to the essence. You haven’t been told “no,” you are simply letting the “not quite right” forms fall away.

These observations of Holloway’s are based on 25 years of helping clients and students.  She is saying that there is some sort of role for difficulties, for tension, in the unfolding of central life purpose.  Tension in the form of fear and pain seems to be an inevitable part of the process.

Tension in the midlife developmental passage

A descent experience can happen at any stage of life, but it is most likely to happen in midlife.  Jung contributed greatly to the understanding of individuation, which is the process of differentiation from others, of developing one’s unique personality (Sharp, 1991).  Although it is a lifelong project, Jung gave a lot of attention to the big leap of individuation that happens in midlife, which is sometimes very disruptive and distressing.

In an excellent article on the midlife crisis, which incorporates Jungian and astrological concepts, astrologer Candy Hillenbrand writes that the task of midlife is to shift from an identification with ego and persona more towards an identification with one’s Self.  For our purposes, the Jungian construct of the capital-S Self may be thought of as the greater self that encompasses ego and soul or higher self.

The midlife task also entails incorporating whatever polarities one has not focused on in the first half of life.  For example, feminine qualities must be augmented by masculine qualities, and vice versa; creative qualities are to be augmented by analytic ones; introversion by extroversion; etc.

The purpose of this shift to the greater Self and to encompassing one’s heretofore less developed capacities is to make it possible to achieve what you really want to do with this life.  As you can see, moving toward the less developed polarities in your personality will intensify that tension of opposites that calls upon the transcendent function to produce its tertium non datur.  You can also see the tension inherent in shifting from ego and persona to greater Self because it involves breaking more than ever with familial and cultural expectations.

Reconciling newly clamoring opposites within yourself and breaking old loyalties often leads to turmoil.  As Hillenbrand writes:  “…the process involved can be a long and arduous one, and along the path we are likely to encounter all the 'demons' of the past, our deepest fears and insecurities, and in the chaos that can ensue, we may be forced to endure long nights of pain, grief and sadness….” (Hillenbrand, 1997/8).

Although the midlife passage inevitably involves some tension, not all midlife passages are descent experiences.  And, again, not all descent experiences happen at midlife.  But, many descent experiences do happen around midlife and involve a spiritual awakening.

Tension in the descent experience:  crucifixion

In this section, we have discussed the inevitability of tension in everyday psychological development; in nearing one’s central life purpose; and in the midlife developmental passage.  Unfortunately, it is still true that tension reaches even more epic proportions in a descent experience.  In fact, crucifixion is an apt metaphor for the descent experience, and this archetype is explored beautifully in an exceptional online book (2000-2003) by Ann K. Elliott, the progressive, environmentalist, Jungian, Christian scholar.  The book is entitled:  The Christian mysteries as the soul's seven-stage journey to higher ground:  Imaged through the pivotal events in the life of Christ according to Jungian psychology, Teilhard de Chardin's evolutionary vision & Sri Aurobindo's Vedic ordering of consciousness.

Jung believed that in sorting out the dark and light within our natures, and finding our own mature, individuated path, we would all have a psychological / spiritual experience tantamount to crucifixion:  “We all have to be ‘crucified with Christ,’…suspended in a moral suffering equivalent to veritable crucifixion” (Jung, CW12, 1944/1968).

Elliott agrees that finding one’s own center, and daring to separate from the rules and beliefs of others, can be as agonizing as a crucifixion.  Shifting from a stronger identification with your ego to a stronger identification with your Self necessitates breaks with family and culture.  The cruciform archetype captures this tension between ego and Self, and also the tension between our physical and transpersonal nature.

Elliott writes about the developmental inevitability of agony:

Normally it takes some kind of conflict or pressure to give rise to a new degree of consciousness.  Ordinarily this comes about as one “agonizes” or is extremely anxious about something, or concerning which one suffers relentlessly recurring anxiety attacks.  The agony of the struggle becomes the crucible in which the new measure of consciousness is separated out and contained.  It becomes the empty, hollowed-out place into which God, light, consciousness can enter (Elliott, 2000-3).

And the cross as symbol of the psyche:

[C]arrying our own cross is a symbol for carrying our own psyche, hence for individuation.  Individuation requires us to carry the burden of our personalities and our lives consciously and courageously (Sanford in Elliott, 2000-3).

What it means to embrace the cross:

Psychologically understood, to embrace the cross is to live from the center in obedience to the inner voice of Self and in full acceptance of who one is called to be and what one is called to do (Elliott, 2000-3).

Individuation and the cross:

The discovery of “one’s own particular pattern of wholeness” is what Jung intends by individuation.  In a spiritual sense, embracing the cross is a matter of accepting one’s unique and infinite worth in the eyes of God.  In a psychological sense the task is to discover one’s innermost creative center and live life from there--not striving to be more or settling for less (Elliott, 2000-3).

The tension between the ego and the Self:

As the work of transformation progresses, the ego’s role as the center of consciousness is threatened by the Self’s higher authority as the center of the total psyche.  As the tension between ego and Self mounts a soul crisis develops which Jung above describes as “a moral suffering equivalent to veritable crucifixion.”  Just as surely as the Incarnation led to the Crucifixion, so in everyone the tensions inherent between “spirit” and “flesh” become the vertical and horizontal bars of the cross upon which human nature hangs.  In the process of the second or spiritual re-birth, the ego must endure the subjective, emotional pain of its own crucifixion.  Psychologically defined, crucifixion is the death of the ego’s will to rule; while resurrection is the maturation of the transcendent Self whose will is in accordance with the divine will.  As crucifixion is the price exacted from the ego and its self-will, so rebirth is the promise of the Self’s new transcendent identity (Elliott, 2000-3).

Jung and Elliott also had some interesting things to say about the two thieves who were crucified alongside Jesus.  One thief denies any responsibility for his own fate and scorns Jesus, while the other thief takes responsibility for his fate and acknowledges Jesus.  It is not entirely clear to us whether Jung thought of the two thieves as symbolizing the light and dark in our nature, or whether he thought of them as symbolizing the ego and the Self, or whether he had both meanings in mind.  Either way, he avers that they symbolize an “agonizing suspension between irreconcilable opposites” which, as we now know, he believed would require the transcendent function to resolve and a tertium non datur in order to resolve it (Jung, 1951 / 1959, CW 9, para 79).

Elliott casts the two thieves as the conflict between the ego and the Self with Jesus trying to reconcile the two within himself (Elliott, 2000-2003).  Note that the ego is never left behind.  It must always exist and be strong.  It creates the holding environment for the transcendent function and we need it for everything.  Jung stressed that development works better when the conflicts are made conscious and held by the ego:  “At this stage it is no longer the unconscious that takes the lead, but the ego” (Jung, CW8, par. 181 in Sharp, 1991).

            The purposes of extreme tension

In a simple way, tension is a signal that something needs attention, solution, help, healing, empathy.  You would not notice or work on that something if it weren't in tension.  But tension is much more than that.  It is especially fundamental to creation – the creation of any kind of psychological existence, and the creation of real greatness within us.  It seems that there must be some kind of opposition or meeting between two forces for new things to emerge.

Consider the hologram as a metaphor.  A hologram is made by taking a coherent light beam, splitting it, reflecting half onto an object and then holographic film, and the other half directly onto the holographic film.  The split beam comes back together and creates a 3D image.  Perhaps the pure consciousness we are born with has to be split or differentiated in order to again meet itself, know itself, give us new perspectives, evolve and create.  We start as pure light, become differentiated, but may lose parts of ourselves along the way, and then have to bring all the parts back together to make a magical 3D version of ourselves.

Jung wrote:  “There is no consciousness without discrimination of opposites” (Jung, 1951 / 1959, Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype, CW 9i, par. 178 in Sharp 1991).

Furthermore, Jung believed that when you have intolerable, irreconcilable conflicts, that's when something really exceptional is created.  “The greater the tension between the pairs of opposites, the greater will be the energy that comes from them” (Jung, On Psychic Energy, CW 8, par. 49).

The struggle makes something different be born than would have been born if there had not been a conflict between irreconcilable differences.  The Jungian psychotherapist and actor Camilo Gallardo writes that the transcendent function “unites the opposites for a new attitude to emerge or it can be seen more archetypally as our relationship or interaction with the unknown or other” (  And Jungian lexicographer Daryl Sharp adds:  “This process requires an ego that can maintain its standpoint in face of the counterposition of the unconscious. Both are of equal value. The confrontation between the two generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living, third essence” (Sharp, 1991).

The tension is a unique experience – it creates a spirituality and a life force of its own during the waiting process.  But, in the middle of that process, it can feel like nothing is happening despite great effort, and that you are completely thwarted.  There is a paradox – a descent experience creates deep learning experiences about the self, self-love, passions, life-force, life. Yet, during all that learning, you can still be in outer darkness for a very long time.  You may think, “What am I doing wrong?  Why the hell haven't I found the light?  Have I been abandoned?”

In conclusion, what we have been broadly calling tension, but which often comes down to real fear, is a necessary part of the alchemical process.  It is essential to the chemical reaction of irreconcilable differences.  It’s terrible, but it's there for a purpose.  Fear and time are essential to the transmutation. 

Once you have done everything wholesome you can think of to be safe, healthy, and happy, you must sit with the remaining tension or fear, maybe for a long time, and not short-circuit the process, despite the immense temptation to do so.  “Holding the tension between opposites requires patience and a strong ego, otherwise a decision will be made out of desperation. Then the opposites will be constellated even more strongly and the conflict will continue with renewed force” (Sharp, 1991).

But, if you withstand the tension, a tertium non datur will emerge, “forcing the energy of the opposites into a common channel. The standstill is overcome and life can flow on with renewed power towards new goals” (Jung, CW 8, par. 827 in Sharp, 1991).

The tertium non datur is unpredictable, irrational, and transcendent

And now for the good news.  Certainly, the most enjoyable part of this arduous experience is that the solution to the impasse turns out to be something better than we could ever have expected.  Remember we discussed earlier that Jung named it the “transcendent function” because it transcends logic, and the historical roots of the term “tertium non datur” speak explicitly to the fact that there is no logical, expectable resolution to a given conflict.

Not only does the tertium non datur transcend logic, it transcends familiar reality.  We have only touched lightly on psi, spirituality, and transpersonal psychology in this essay, but let us just mention in passing that Jung thought of the Self as a transpersonal phenomenon, something akin to a soul or higher self.  (He, himself, had a very elaborate near death experience, during which he learned a lot about other parts of reality.)  So, his use of the term “transcendent function” also referred to his belief that the solution to irreconcilable psychological conflicts entailed something beyond personal psychology and physical reality.

As psychologist Jeffrey Miller writes in his book on the transcendent function:  “Though we normally think of the transcendent function as a personal, intrapsychic phenomenon, it is much more.  Since psyche is transpersonal, so are the presence and effects of the transcendent function” (Miller, 2004, p. 128).

The tertium non datur is unpredictable and unexpected.  As far as we can see consciously, our conflict is irreconcilable.  There is no solution that we can imagine.  So, one of the wonderful hallmarks of the tertium non datur is its unexpectedness.  As the spiritual novelist Bill Douglas puts it, when his characters must urgently interpret too little information, they had to allow “their minds to fall away from logic and toward deeper patterns, more elegant and complex than linear thought was capable of processing" (Douglas,  2011, p. 318).

Jung wrote:

As a rule it occurs when the analysis has constellated the opposites so powerfully that a union or synthesis of the personality becomes an imperative necessity. . . . [This situation] requires a real solution and necessitates a third thing in which the opposites can unite. Here the logic of the intellect usually fails, for in a logical antithesis there is no third. The “solvent” can only be of an irrational nature. In nature the resolution of opposites is always an energic process…” (Jung, The Conjunction, CW 14, par. 705, in Sharp, 1991).

We have both been in descent experiences for the last few years.  While we think it’s essential to work consistently at maintaining our lives, and learning, and trying to be more conscious, we have come to recognize that the events -- both external and intrapsychic -- that seem to be the stepping stones out of the descent are most likely to come from out of the blue and could not have been anticipated despite our keen efforts to do so!

Some thoughts on neurological damage and psi

One example of a descent experience and irreconcilable conflict with which we are very familiar is that of neurological damage and psi.  There is a pandemic of neurological damage and disorder going on due to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; the creation of new, powerful prescription medications in every category that have neuro-toxic side effects; and the increasing environmental toxic load.  We believe that this surge in neurological vulnerability is being enlisted by Gaia and the Tao as an opportunity to jump start a widespread reconnection with our innate psi.

Psi, the ability to know and affect things across time and space beyond the reach of our senses and body, has been pushed into the collective and individual unconscious for millennia.  Now, it takes great effort for most people to re-integrate it into their conscious experience.  Yet, it is our normal birthright, and to live without it is to live artificially constrained.  And, some people think we cannot afford to be artificially constrained if we are to salvage life on Earth.  Biologist Lyall Watson:  “As man uses up the resources of the world, he is going to have to rely more and more on his own.  Many of these are at the moment concealed in the occult – a word that simply means ‘secret knowledge’ and is a very good description of something we have known all along but have been hiding from ourselves” (Watson, 1973, p. xi).  And psychiatrist Stanislav Grof:  “A radical inner transformation and rise to a new level of consciousness might be the only real hope we have in the current global crisis brought on by the dominance of the Western mechanistic paradigm” (Grof in Peirce, 2009, p. xx).

Neurological damage often creates a descent experience.  A descent caused by neurological damage may be thought of a particular type of distressing spiritually transformative experience.  As was mentioned earlier in Ann Elliott’s discussion of the crucifixion archetype, tension between our physical nature and our spiritual nature / consciousness is a classic developmental duel, but in the case of neurological damage, that tension has reached catastrophic proportions.

In the field of parapsychology, neurological incidents have long been anecdotally linked to psi openings.  We are still in the preliminary stage of understanding why this is.

One way to look at the relationship between neurological damage and psi is that they are in irreconcilable conflict with each other, and require the transcendent function to arrive at a tertium non datur.  “Being very psychic,” or, more accurately, “being very conscious of psi and integrating it into your life to a highly developed degree” seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum of human health and prowess from having “brain damage.” 

Yet we assume that both are present at the same time in cases of neurological damage, since we subscribe to James Carpenter’s First Sight model and believe that psi is an inherent, foundational way that we interact with reality all the time.  It just tends to be unconscious and unrefined in most of us.

So you have a person who is experiencing the profound physical, cognitive, and emotional dislocation of neurological damage and recovery, who is also automatically equipped to draw information from any place and any time and to affect matters beyond physical reach, but they either don’t know this at all, or are only beginning to suspect it, or believe it, but still can’t make it operate very well.

How do you move through this ironic paradox, this thwarting impasse?  You “work your steps,” as they say in the recovery community, with exercise, study, healing practices, etc.  This is all helpful and expediting, but the tension must still be borne for some time.  At long last, a tertium non datur will arise that never could have been anticipated.

Laura Bruno, the TBI survivor and medical intuitive is a good example of this.  After a car accident, she had debilitating neurological damage, and mostly had to sit or lie and do nothing for the first year or so of recovery.  Among other symptoms, she had pernicious migraines.  At some point, she started having sudden, unsought, accurate intuitions about the medical conditions of others.  She found that the migraines would grow worse if she kept the intuitions to herself, and the migraines would abate if she told the intuition to the intended recipient.  She went on to heal fully, and change career paths from English Lit academic to medical intuitive – something which never would have crossed her mind before the neurological accident (

Some thoughts on the Tao and the tertium non datur

In this essay, we have focused on a particular kind of human experience, but Jung did state that the transcendent function and its resulting tertium non datur are integral to all psychological development all throughout life.  The magical quality of the tertium non datur just becomes even more evident when the human condition is more severe.

Likewise, the transcendent function and resulting tertium non datur are characteristic of how the Tao works.  But when the tertium non datur has a particularly impressive quality, you get the sense that you are seeing the workings of the Tao more clearly than usual.

We humans are still groping to understand whether the Tao or God or the mind of the universe exists, how it works, and how best to work with it.  But, there have been many different streams of thought that suggest that there is intelligence, plan, and order, and that we do best when we try to discern that and align ourselves with it.

We are talking about creation here.  You find yourself at an impasse.  You´ve tried everything you can think of.  You desperately need a solution, yet you have none.  You have nothing.  It is out of the nothingness that the tertium non datur eventually emerges, as if something were created in the zero point field of infinite, unformed, untapped potential.

Unexpected, elegant solutions from out of the blue are the hallmark of how the Tao works.  The Tao seems to be particularly associated with tertium non daturs -- taking irreconcilable conflicts and co-creating with you a third, brand new way. 

David Sunfellow, the Founder of NewHeavenNewEarth, wrote:

Finally, while classic enlightenment experiences lead one to believe that there is nothing new under the sun — that the Ground of Being is all there really is and It is eternal and unchanging — I’ve also come to believe that brand new experiences, on all levels, are actually unfolding as we (and the created universe) evolve. While this is plainly obvious on the physical level, I think it is also true on the spiritual level (Sunfellow, 2011,

In order to create something really new for you, and perhaps new for others as well, you have to be open to the unknown.  You have to hold the tension (aka fear) and the time.  With age and experience you get better at this, and better at keeping a lookout for the tertium non datur.

One of the reasons the tertium non datur is so enigmatic and hard to anticipate is that it reconciles parts of the self that are more conscious with parts that are less conscious.  The less conscious parts include the greater Self or soul and the Shadow or parts of ourselves we feel uncomfortable with (which can be both “negative” and “positive”).  With age and experience, we also get better at knowing and holding these different parts of ourselves.

Indeed, this is the quintessential human struggle – the struggle to be who we’re really supposed to be, and not just who we might have thought we were.  And key to finding / making deeper meaning in our lives is being able to go through all the paradoxes, contradictions, and conflicts of our inner and outer worlds.  The tertium non datur specializes in navigating paradox.

Furthermore, by going through a lot of encounters with the tertium non datur, you become more of a co-creator with the universe.  You learn better how to dance with the Tao, when to lead and when to follow, when to try hard and when to surrender.  You even come to expect the unexpected.

The **Ascent** Experience and the Spiral

Descent experiences come to an end.  If you are in one as you read this, they really do.  We have read countless stories of descent experiences, and the similarities are so striking, regardless of the cause.  People often report a period of “ascent” when things have started to change for the better, but are still hard, followed by arrival at a new stage of their lives where they are astounded to encounter an unprecedented peace and ease.

Katabasis is the ancient Greek word for a descent, and anabasis is the ascent.  The oldest myths of descent always lead to an ascent to a new life.

Ann K. Elliott, the Jungian Christian scholar, writes about the ascension that follows crucifixion and descent.  She notes that in the Bible, in Jungian theory, and in her own dreams, spirals and spinning movement appear as symbols of ascension (Elliott, 2000-3).

Jungian Analyst Martha Blake also notes that many different ancient traditions speak of a primal spiral creative force, and furthermore characterize it as feminine.  Interestingly, she writes that the ancient Greek natural philosopher Anaxagoras hypothesized that order was brought out of original chaos by a rotational force and by the interaction of opposites (Blake,  You can see how this jibes with the transcendent function and the tertium non datur.

Blake goes on to cite Jungian Analyst Neil Russack as having written that:  “Spirals may signify equilibrium in a state of disequilibrium, the stability of being contained in the womb of change, growth that retains ultimate shape, and thus permanence despite its asymmetry.”  And Blake quotes Jung:  “The spiral in psychology means that when you make a spiral you always come over the same point where you have been before, but never really the same, it is above or below, inside, outside, so it means growth.”

Spiraling, rotating movement is apparent at all levels of the physical universe.  (See section on “spin” here 

In a seminar given in the 1930s, while discussing a dream, Jung explains:

Dr. Jung:  Yes, and moreover, the very symbol of unfolding and the beginning of development follows the law of the spiral:  a plant grows in a spiral, and the buds or the beginnings of leaves are arranged in a spiral.  It is, as Dr. Barker points out, the functioning of opposites, the reconciliation of opposites.  The man who discovered the mathematical law of the spiral [Jacob Bernoulli] is buried in my native town, Basel, and on his tombstone a spiral is carved with this very significant and beautiful inscription:  “eadem mutata resergo,” which means, literally translated:  in an identical way, changed, I lift myself up.  It is a circular movement with a slight lift which produces the spiral.

Dr. Baynes:  Is it the reconciliation of the idea of change and the idea of sameness?

Dr. Jung:  Exactly.  The spiral moves away from the original place to another, yet it always returns to the same place, but just a fraction above; always moving away and always coming to the same.  Sameness, non-sameness.  So the spiral is really a very apt symbol to express development.  You see, this vision says:  if you surrender to the terror of the blood, you will discover that it leads to development; instead of leading down into hell, it leads upwards (Jung, Douglas, & Foote, 1997, p. 243).

Spiral petroglyph -- Chaco Canyon

The Fourth Protocol

Finally, after a period of ascension, we arrive a new stage of life, a new level of stable identity.  After tolerating irreconcilable conflict, and after achieving the transcendent third, we arrive at a state of integration and stability.

Jung observed this progression, and used an alchemical metaphor to capture it.  The “Axiom of Maria” is an alchemical principle attributed to an early woman alchemist that:  "One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth."  Jungian Analyst Lara Newton writes that this precept “speaks of the alchemical procedures which unite and separate, procedures that are to be performed again and again to the same substance (using the sun, using divine water, using sulphur or mercury) — each time the procedure is followed brings us closer to the state of perfection that all alchemists seek” (Newton, 2012).

According to the Jungian Analyst and lexicographer Daryl Sharp:

Jung used the axiom of Maria as a metaphor for the whole process of individuation. One is the original state of unconscious wholeness; two signifies the conflict between opposites; three points to a potential resolution; the third is the transcendent function; and the one as the fourth is a transformed state of consciousness, relatively whole and at peace” (Sharp, 1991).

As an illustration of this model, Jung had a fascinating critique of the Christian trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He saw it as being incomplete until it incorporated the feminine and chthonic principles as well, and thus became a quaternity.  Not surprisingly, he believed that true psychological health required the acceptance of the underworld, Shadow, evil, or Satan in all of us.  And, as for the importance of the feminine (and masculine) for everyone, he actually wrote a letter of congratulation to Pope Pius XII in 1950 when the Catholic Church officially proclaimed that the Blessed Virgin Mary had been assumed bodily into heaven, thus adding the feminine principle to the Trinity (Brabazon, 2002;

Mary may have been taken up into heaven, but for us the fourth, the quaternity, speaks to reaching a little bit of heaven here on Earth.  It stands for the archetypal human experience of arrival at a longed-for destination of wholeness and peace.  It’s a reminder that this is possible and that it happens and that other humans have described it.  If you are not in such a place now, if you never have been, it is hard to believe this is not pie in the sky.  Certainly, one does not ever stop growing, learning, evolving, maturing, so life does not become static and unchanging at some point.  But there is a enormous variety of human experience, and one of the things that is possible is to feel “arrived,” and this is what descent experiences are designed *for*.



Brabazon, M.  (2002).  Carl Jung and the trinitarian self.  Quodlibet Journal, v. 4, n. 2-3.

Dotson, M.L. (1996a).  Jung and Heraclitus.

Dotson, M.L.  (1996b).  Jung and alchemy.

Douglas, B.  (2001).  Conspiracy of spirits:  Wall Street vs. the 99%.  Illumination Corporation Publishing.

Elliott, A.K.  (2000-2003).  The Christian mysteries as the soul's seven-stage journey to higher ground:  Imaged through the pivotal events in the life of Christ according to  Jungian psychology, Teilhard de Chardin's evolutionary vision & Sri Aurobindo's Vedic ordering of consciousness.  Online book.  Cited here: 
The ascension.

Gallardo, C.  (nd).  The mechanics of the transcendent function.

Hancock, M.  (2011).  The medium next door:  Adventures of a real-life ghost whisperer. 
Deerfield Beach, Florida:  Health Communications, Inc.

Hillenbrand, C.  (1997 & 1998).  The quest for soul at midlife.  Federation of Australian Astrologers Journal, 28.

Holloway, G.  (5 Aug 2012).  Obstacles:  Message or challenge?

Holloway, G. (19 Sep 2012).  Why life purpose is so tricky?

Holocek, A.  (2009).  The power and the pain:  Transforming spiritual hardship into joy.  Ithaca:  Snow Lion Press.  (Excerpted from the Autumn 2010 issue of Light of Consciousness by Utne Reader

HonorĂ©, C.  (2004).  In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.  (Available on DVD, too, from Sounds True.)

Jung, C.G.  (1951 / 1959)  Aion:  Researches into the phenomenology of the Self.  Collected Works Vol 9, 2nd ed.  London:  Routledge.

Jung, C.G.  (1944 / 1968).  Psychology and alchemy.  Collected Works Vol. 12, 2nd ed.  London:  Routledge.

Jung, C.G., Douglas, C., & Foote, M.  (1997).  Visions:  Notes on the seminar given given in 1930-1934, Vol. 1.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

Miller, J.C.  (2004).  The Transcendent Function: Jung's Model of Psychological Growth Through Dialogue With the Unconscious.  Albany, NY:  SUNY Press.

Newton, L.  (2012).  My first blog post – thoughts on the Axiom of Maria.

Peirce, P.  (2009).  Frequency:  The power of personal vibration.  New York:  Simon & Schuster.

Sharp, D. (1991).  Jung lexicon:  A primer of terms and concepts.

Spencer, W.B.  (nd).  Carl Jung.

Sunfellow, D.  (2011).  The purpose of life, Jesus, and NDEs.

Watson, L.  (1973).  Supernature:  A natural history of the supernatural.  Aylesbury, UK:  Coronet Books.

Barbara Croner, M.F.T. is a psychotherapist in San Francisco, and a co-founder of the International Antidepressant Withdrawal Project.


  1. Stunning! Anything I can think to say would trivialize my response. This is simply a spectacular synthesis. Thank you. Burbling...

    1. I was really hoping you would read it, Nan. I had you in mind often as I wrote it up. It was a lot of work and it comes from our hard-won experiences, so thank you very much, indeed, for the recognition and for posting it on your blog!!

  2. Wow! You must have put in it cosmic amount of work, Sheila. Incredible job. I'll be reading it as soon as possible.

    1. Ha ha! Thank you, Luc. It was Barbara's brainchild, and most of the original ideas are hers. I resisted it almost the whole time, but I believed I was being guided, and, in fact, I have never stumbled so easily over so many really fantastic essays. I felt like writing at the end -- "Sources -- read them all! Really!"

  3. There's a question for you at the Dancing blog. If you like, I can carry it over here, too.

    1. Oh, thank you, Nan, but I'll come over to your blog --

  4. I shared the following comment on Dancing Past The Dark and felt that I should post it here as well.

    Wow! I am still struggling to find words! I read this post and in a state of stunned “??????” I proceeded to read all of the others on the site and then reread the Descent Experience again. My experience with this body of work is…… ineffable. I simply don’t have the language to discuss this journey, the experience, the impact, the solace, the epiphanies, the “you know truth when you hear it like you know that you are awake when you are awake” state. I read, I have a substantial personal library; this is probably the second time that I have thanked the Cosmic Intelligence for the gift of a piece of work and for those responsible for its coming into existence. THANK YOU!!!!!

    Unfortunately I am not familiar with the comment profiles below so I will have to select anonymous in order to publish.

    1. Well, you made me tear up. Thank you *so* much. That was an incredible compliment, and I think I may just remember it my whole life! You are a very kind and generous person. I will look forward to seeing you on Nan's blog, too. I *am* trying to turn my descent experience with antidepressants into something really useful for others coming down the same path or other comparable paths, so your words are incredibly validating. (Sorry this blogspot commenting software is so clunky! Thank you for taking the trouble to post this twice.)

  5. Wow, Sheila. So erudite and thorough. I came thru a neurological damage descent experience and I did come back with gifts that I didn't have before. This piece rings true for me.

    1. Thanks, MiV! That's really helpful to hear from a descent experience survivor that this model does hold water!

  6. I have often wondered why it was that whenever I have tried to accomplish anything in my life I have immediately suffered defeat. I didn't know if this was normal, or if it was just my organic lack of unworthiness and ability. After reading this blog post I have a whole new outlook on my entire life and renewed hope for the future.

    Thank You so much for taking the time to post this blog post!!!

    1. Thank *you* so much for taking the time to write such a kind compliment! I hear ya. Funnily enough, I don't know if I'm having a synchronicity with you or if I'm projecting, but I've just been thinking the last couple of days about the handful of times in my life when I had just *arrived* at a great life place, but immediately something happened that caused it to be lost again for years.

      My coauthor Barbara adds that when a big, *good* thing comes along, it's so hard to keep standing and not fold. The two Gillian Holloway essays are very helpful about this.

  7. You're welcome. :)

    I've kind of come to the conclusion recently that since life is a journey we can't ever really "make it" because the only way to actually stop growing and changing or just experiencing and suffering is to die, and even then from what NDE's tell us the journey appears to continue.

    It's exciting though! I was raised in an Independent Baptist church and have only just grown past that in the last year or so, and I was always taught that the entire point of our lives is to work hard to reap rewards in heaven, and I used to get so scared - I would lie awake at night and have panic attacks, not because I was afraid of going to hell, but the idea of being static forever terrified me.

    I apologize for the rabbit trail. But I love finding web sites like this where I can read others deep thoughts on subjects I've treaded alone for decades.

    1. It sounds like you’re going through an exciting period of discovery, Angela! How interesting that you were so afraid of a static afterlife. I agree, that doesn’t sound too appealing. When I was growing up there was a saying that the newspapers in heaven would be dull. Now, we have a lot of information that suggests otherwise!

      If you haven’t already been there, you might find Nancy Evans Bush’s blog interesting. There are a lot of readers there growing past fundamentalist upbringings.