top of page
  • Writer's pictureneti


Updated: Nov 10, 2021

One of the most important of Jung's ideas is that of the Transcendent Function.

Here are some articles about it

Here is a lecture by Jung himself

Here is an amazing talk by Marion Woodman on the Tension of the Opposites and the Transcendent Function

So we have to hold the tension of the Opposites until they are united by a Transcendent Function, and this leads to transformation, development of a new attitude, adaptation and growth.

But what does the process look like? I thought I would go into this a bit.

The Opposites

In the generic sense, the Opposites are "Who you are" and "Who you have to become". The particular Opposites confronting you will vary depending on the life situation that you have encountered.

  • One could have had a traumatic experience at some point and one's entire world view has developed according to that. This is a kind of "stuckness" that prevents seeing things for what they are (you see them as you are), and one might not be capable of being happy even when good things come along

  • Coming to terms with the loss of something precious - a person, a job or a life situation. Now you have to adapt and come to terms with life without that precious thing.

  • Losing an grandiose narcissistic idea of oneself and coming to terms with the reality of the situation. This is something that alcoholics often have to do before they can recover from their addiction, and it closely resembles the grieving process involved in coming to terms with the loss of something most precious.

  • Coming out of an ideology one does not subscribe any more. This is poignantly depicted in the Polish movie Blindness in which an former ardent Communist official struggles to come to terms with the desolation of her inner life, which is something her ideology does not even accept the existence of.

Ideologies are man-made thought frameworks that try to act as substitutes for the full complexity of reality. Leaving out most of the complexity makes them appears to be internal consistent and to offer answers where there can be none - this is their appeal. However being simplistic in this manner makes them go out of sync with reality quite fast. But internal consistency is not enough, what matters is what is left out. And an ideology that does not factor that humans have an inner life too and only bases itself on events in the external world creates ego positions that will eventually precipitate the kind of conflict described in this article (between who you are and who you need to be)

  • Getting in touch with one's Feminine or Masculine side. You might have only paid attention on being one of those - being a "man" or a "woman" because that is what was , and might have reached a point where you don't find fulfillment in it any more. You feel you could be more than this, although it is not clear at this point who you need to become. This is also an idea of yourself that has run its course and does not work any more. In the movie Troy (2004), Achilles is uber-mascline warrior par excellence. He is chasing an undefinable called Glory which he will apparently attain if enough people hear of him and remember him. But the rest of his life is a desert, and his achievements outside of winning fights include having a threesome with two unnamed women, scaring a small boy and sulking in his tent. But that is until he captures Briseius, a priestess of Troy. Briseius is entirely Feiminine and represents everything that Achilles has not acknowledged so far throughout his life. This is the first time he realizes that there could be things outside of the paradigm he is operating within. Briseius will engage with him, but only on her terms, not his. He ultimately finds it in himself to let in and give validation to this new thing, and thus becomes elevates himself to a place where he could die like a mortal man. He was only a god until then of his world - awesome, one dimensional and alone. Mostly alone.

  • Transition between two ideas of oneself. One might have seen oneself in a particular way but it has turned out that the world is not going to treat you that way, at least not any more. In Gethsamane, Jesus has 8 hours between supper and the next day morning to do this - Messiah one day, and common criminal the next, and it is hard even for Him

  • You have been utilizing only one part of your potential. You could be quite good at it and even successful, and that is all people ever ask of you. You are the Doctor or Engineer or Lawyer or Teacher. But what about everything else you are - your thoughts and feelings and telanets? They don't need it or demand it - in fact it may be out of place or inappropriate to demonstrate those other aspects of yourself. You are out of avenues for expression. And one day, you take a piece of paper and make two columns. Things that matter (for reasons of income, financial security - present and future, physical security - a roof over your head and food on the table, expectations from your role, social status, access to information, things of utility and for productivity, even pleasures) and Things that mean something (which bring you a sense of joy, value and fulfillment in this moment right now where you are). And you realize that there is hardly anything in the second column. You are stuck and you need to be more. Or it would all be for nothing.

  • You could have an uncommon gift that other people don't understand or appreciate. In the Homeric tale, Cassandra has the gift of prophesy but is never believed when she speaks. You might be more intuitive, more aesthetic (sensate) or feel deeper than other people. But they never seem to be on the same page with you ever. Why don't they see? Why can't they see? A similar situation (not exactly the same) is depicted in the movie Contact. The theme is the same it is her feelings, not intuition that isolates this lady from everyone else.

Getting back to Cassandra, what is relevant to us here is not the wretchedness of her situation, but what she is doing wrong. See, to get other people to see what you are seeing, you have to hitch your gift to something that people can relate to and understand. Do the work. Go to that meeting not only with your brilliant insights that you got five minutes after you heard the problem (because you truly are awesome), but with a month's worth of excel sheets, graphs and reports and a presentation like everyone else. Then, they will see. Cassandra is said to have been cursed because she rejected advances of the sun god Apollo, the god of light, the god of clarity and consciousness.

I consented [marriage] to Loxias [Apollo] but broke my word. ... Ever since that fault I could persuade no one of anything.
Aeschylus, Agamemnon 

She doesn't seem to have done the work. Coming back to this article, what can happen to gifted people who choose to remain unconscious is that they can withdraw from situations, but start considering themselves simply better and superior to everyone around. At the same time, they are more and more isolated from reality and thus less relevant and useful to everyone around. This is a dark, lonely place. But reality will come knocking on day. And a transition will need to be made.

  • Coming to terms with a different culture or political positiion. Your own position is not wrong, but the other guys seem to have point or at least more relevant to the problem at hand

You might be sensing a pattern here. There is an idea you carry about who you are or who you need others to think you are, or how things should be vs the reality of the current situation.

This idea could be inherited too.

"We ______s (insert name of group, family, community, class, race, gender, country) are ______ (insert word indicating privilege or awesomeness - or equally, the lack thereof).

But one day you realize you aren't though. Maybe you have known for a while.

The Conflict

There is always a pull will want to keep you where you are. This is only natural because no-one wants to let go of the known and the familiar. Being in the known also creates a semblance of being in control of yourself and of the situation even when it is not true. This is in fact a position that your ego has taken and it is not wrong as long as it is fit for purpose. The conflict begins when this position or attitude is no longer fit for purpose and there is a need for adaptation in order to survive or at least to continue functioning.

However another pull will start operating at the same time, subtle but powerful, and rarely recognized for what it really is. This is the urge to dissolve the ego position and to give in to the unconscious so that something new and necessary can emerge. This is already built into us and it operates autonomously - a gift from the gods if you use that kind of imagery. We don't have to do it ourselves - all we really have to do (at this point) is to give in and let it happen, although we fight it and often screw it up. And this loss of "control" can feel like the end of the world since we are not used to it and we are not sure of what it will bring with it. More on this later.

However, at this point the opposites mentioned earlier have not emerged yet. The initial conflict is between these two pulls - the one that wants to keep you where you are and the call to dissolution.


Reactions to this situation may vary. It is not as linear or as neatly laid out as the below list may indicate. One may be in one of these modes at different points even in a day, or even at the same time. Grief is involved in this process of letting go of what you are in order to become something else, because grieving by definition is the process of coming to terms with loss. So the correspondence with the commonly known stages of grief is not accidental.


Ignore the conflict altogether and continue as earlier. However this is not always possible and these things don't just go away just because you choose to ignore them. Also the world will often not let you ignore this and force terrible consequences on you through what appears to be the hand of Fate.

One could attempt to blot out a conscious position by either doubling down and holding on to one's conscious ego position, or seek complete dissolution in the unconscious. The driver is fear, the goal to relieve the tension and the resulting anxiety and the operative principle is escape. Here too the hand of Fate will become operational, since that is always the outcome of not taking a conscious stand.

Father and Mother

This is fertile ground for the Father and Mother complexes.

The Father Complex pushes one to hold on to one's ego position and view people who tell otherwise and any estabilshment or authority that may seek to seek one's actions as oppressive and tyrannical. Everything is defined in terms of a power equation - either they have power or you must. The real struggle is inside against the unconscious calling on them to reexamine and recalibrate one's current position but this is not realized. The need to hold on to an ego position may also make one seek "safe ground" where any reminders for the need to dissolve the current ego position is screened out.

The Mother Complex seeks complete immersal in a position that is held unconsciously in the hope that it will somehow invalidate the need to make a choice. Hoarding of resources is one example - as if somehow possession of material goods will relieve the anxiety - it's in the name. Greed comes from an inability to feel/know the value of things. If you can't judge what a thing is worth (both intrinsically and vis-a-vis other things), how would you know how much is enough and when to stop?

(Self Righteous) Anger

If one does not fall completely into one of the opposites but still fears the loss of "control" that would result from the dissolution of one's ego position, things could take another turn. This is a place where one is ready to recognize the existence of the Other thing, but it is wrong or evil. Shadow projections are rampant. One claims to oneself that one "knows" what the Other thing represents, it is not desirable because it is just bad. Dozens of "burning down the house to own the ___" jokes come to mind.

In Les Miserables, Inspector Javert would do anything to dissolve his personal identity in his society's rules and norms - he thinks he escaped Mother but only found a new one to dissolve in. So he walks "the path of the righteous" so that he does not "fall into flames" and will not abide anyone who does.

Finally, when his position becomes becomes untenable, rather than give into what the Other might hold, he chooses to kill himself.

In a nice touch, there is a ledge in both scenes, and each time he chooses the safer side. Mother does not give up her sons so easily.

A Mother Complex is primarily characterized by the lack of ability to feel, in the sense of feelings being value judgements about one thing being more important than another for clearly understood reasons. In the absence of this, the people and the actions being judged by the law hold not value in themselves compared to the value unconsciously attributed to the law that is used to judge them. Feeling is also one of the four functions, and lack of exercising it can eventually lead to a conflict of opposites, if you will let it, unlike Inspector Javert. One could come across cold, hard, unfeeling men and even mistakenly call them "men" for precisely that reason, but they just may not have left Mother's side entirely.

And then there is of course Hitler - after dragging the entire world through horrendous misery, it is all someone else's fault. He too chooses Mother eventually.

The Onset of Consciousness

If one is able to accept this need for dissolution of the current ego position, and is conscientious and self aware enough not to project outward, there is still much work to be done and the path is still hard. This is the right time to point out that since conscious choices are involved from this point, suffering is involved. The suffering comes from being present in the current moment in spite of what we are, with full awareness of what we are. And we have no right to decide how much another person should be willing to suffer - not everyone can, should or needs to do it. And no-one can do it all the time. Some days all one can do is weep over one's wasted life. So all the strategies mentioned above, and those that follow do not exist on a curve. No way is "better" than another. The choice is entirely individual and often not even consciously made.

It is common at this stage for people to say that the task is impossible because they have "gone too far from redemption" or "too far from God" (God is a common description). In fact, there is no truth in this - all that is needed is to give in to the pull from the unconscious for dissolution of the ego position. Thus this is simultaneously the easiest and the hardest thing people will do.

Bargaining (making a deal)


Fantasy figures form in your mind. The mind turns into an arena for Game of Thrones - awesome men and women playing out their extraordinary stories. At this point, any impulse originating from the unconscious is experienced as a strong onset of emotion. So the triggering of these conscious fantasies is usually a response to encountering something emotional and linked to the task of adaptation one needs to perform.

The intent is to divert the charge from the unconscious (like a cavalry charge) to a fantasy instead of performing it as a task in the external world, and living out the ordeal of the task vicariously through these fantasy figures. Adaptation and transformation can happen as a result of this (since one becomes at least aware of the need) but at a slower pace. One can learn much from what these figures are choosing to do in their situations, if one is willing to "let it play". There is also the technigue of Active Imagination which should belong to a later section but fantasy figures can be a good starting point for that.


Another kind of bargaining is when one says to oneself that it is necessary to hold on to the current ego position - not for one's own sake, but for one's people - you are ok, but what about those who are still suffering. This is two things. You are not ok, not psychologically - or the question wouldn't arise. Or one might be earnestly mixing this up with a feeling that originates from genuine compassion (There is a word on compassion at the end). Here is how to tell - genuine compassion does not have to draw lines between groups of people because it tends to focus on individuals.


Sharing is another possibility at this stage. You share your anxiety and conflict with at least one other human being, whether it is a priest at a confessional or a support group. There is "magic" involved here that I don't fully understand but it works. And sometimes that is all one can do, and sometimes it is needed as a preparatory step before going any further. Jung's theories about holding secrets may be relevant here.

Vol. 16, pp.55-60:

Anything concealed is a secret. The possession of secrets acts like a psychic poison that alienates their possessor from the community.

All personal secrets … have the effect of sin or guilt, whether or not they are, from the standpoint of popular morality, wrongful secrets.

…if this rediscovery of my wholeness remains private, it will only restore the earlier conditions from which the neurosis, i.e. the split off complex,  sprang.

All of us are somehow divided by our secrets but instead of  seeking to cross the gulf on the firm bridge of confession, we choose the treacherous makeshift of opinion and illusion.


Now we have come close to "holding the tension of the opposites" consciously. You have chosen not to avoid, repress, project, introject (into fantasy) or share. You have chosen to do this yourself. But there is yet one more thing that could go wrong - one can get stuck in the past and blame the original causal factors for the way you are today and lose the chance for transformation. Remember, you have come all this way and you are already too conscious to fall back on any of the previous strategies. But it is not the past that made you the way you are today, but the way you are today because of that past that needs to be held in tension with its opposite. The way forward can be blocked if one does not realize this.

The hero suffers many ordeals and reaches the temple, but turns into stone on encountering the Gorgon's face. Perseus however, does something different. Mirrors are known to symbolize consciousness. What he does is to use his shield as a mirror to look at the Gorgon, that is, to hold the past reflected in his present consciousness, and thus he is able to cut off her head.

Which brings us to the next section.


It is important to note that, although this article is written in a sequential matter of fact way, people almost never do this willingly. They fight all the way.

Jacob wrestles an Angel all night (this entire article could have been about Jacob. Only that he chose to remain unconscious in his father-in-law's dominion, instead of Javert who chose society's). But Jacob is ready to ask the same Angel for his blessings in the morning.

Jonah will not be a prophet and spends three days in the belly of the whale. Jonah finally goes to Nineveh.

This acceptance is the final preparatory step for what is to come.

These moments could be tinged with regret because the loss is real, and what you have lost is time in this world. St. Augustine said it best when he said

Late have I loved you:
Beauty so old and so new.
Late have I loved you
And behold: you were within,
and I was without,
and there I sought you

This is still fine because one minute of clarity can make up for many years of being lost. What is more important is not to fall into guilt. Guilt is a cheap substitute for legitimate suffering

At this point, one is able to consciously hold what one is today in the present and in this moment, as a result of one's choices, experiences, events, circumstances and upbringing in active tension with the force that is compelling one to transition - while giving equal cognizance and acceptance to both. This is true legitimate suffering.

The intention is not to paint a rather romantic picture of this (which is just another of idea of yourself really) - consciousness always comes at a price because you are acutely aware of everything at once. If it feels that way it is because of the references to myth, and myths are as close as it gets to expressing the truth of our being - they will resonate and make you respond with your body, not your head. In Jungian terms, you could have an archetypal reaction. But what is really required at this point is only the humility to accept that there is something more than you currently know, and the faith that it is waiting to meet you halfway if you are willing.

Transcending the Conflict

If this tension is held long enough, a mysterious thing happens. A solution presents itself - not as a concrete thing, but as a new attitude or state of being that makes the conflict superfuous. You don't engineer this. The experience has a quality of receiving, and this is also characterized as Grace or Redemption. This is what Jung called the Transcendent Function.

But for this, you will have to find it in yourself to earnestly say, as Jesus did in Gethsamane - "Thy Will, and not my will be done". Everything said in this article and much more in present in this simple phrase.

This is where one becomes capable of genuine compassion. Compassion differs from sympathy and empathy in that it is free of emotional entanglements from those you feel it towards. The experience can be quite cold in that sense, it can manifest as a strong compulsion to help, to act even if you stand to gain absolutely nothing from it personally - even psychologically as a sense of identity. Especially psychologically as of a sense of identity.

Then this new place that you have reached will become "what you are" and it is only a matter of time before you need to transition into something newer. This process goes on throughout life (if you let it). Jung called this process individuation.

214 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

The Lindworm Prince

A Jungian interpretation of the fairytale The Lindworm Prince

The Blacksmith's Wife

Thoughts on the Dickens novel Great Expectations from a Jungian perspective


When I was fourteen, I wanted to become a lighthouse keeper. The idea of being alone with my thoughts in an isolated place away from people for long periods of time with a straightforward repetitive d


Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page