How do I begin to write about this? It’s something I’ve struggled with all my life — long before I had a name for it. Irene Claremont de Castillejo provided that name in her book, Knowing Woman, when I read it for the first time more than thirty years ago. Since then I’ve been using the concept of the medial to understand myself and to work out ways to live with my medial nature so that it causes the least disruption for myself and others. I’ve done this for me with no expectation that I would disclose any of it outside the privacy of spiritual direction.
That changed in November of 2014 when I was taking a course to become certified as a spiritual director. Among the assigned readings was a biography of Henri Nouwen by Michael Ford, Wounded Prophet. I was amazed at what I found there. Henri Nouwen was a medial!
Nouwen’s life as presented in Ford’s book clearly shows the influence of the medial archetype. From Ford’s description, it would be easy to diagnose Nouwen as having borderline personality disorder or at least codependence. I understood the dynamics of his psychological pain from my own experiences. Nouwen was possessed by the medial archetype. He was ‘all things to all people’ and felt lost and desperately lonely when he was not in front of an audience or with supportive others. Others drew through Nouwen what they needed, and the medial archetype made that possible. Nouwen’s distress was because he did not understanding that dynamic. When he was alone and nothing was being transmitted through him, he felt empty — because he was. Nouwen was unable to realize that he was separate from and more than what flowed through him.
No doubt, this is an overly simplistic interpretation of Nouwen. He was a much more complicated man than what I’ve just described. He listened for Guidance and took great risks in following what he discerned. His writing shows depth and spiritual maturity, and his published works continue to inspire others.
What shocked me was that I’d been graced with sufficient understanding of the medial function to realize the importance of having an identity separate from it. Inner Guidance insisted that I needed to share this with others. I was overwhelmed with dread at the prospect. I made ineffectual efforts to comply, but didn’t manage to get past my fear. Now more than three years later and because of an unintended public post on Facebook, other medials have asked that I write what little I’ve learned about it.
I still don’t know how to do this. I’ve reviewed some academic material about the medial, but that doesn’t feel like the way to proceed. I’ve come to understand that medials must do their own exploration. It’s part of the spiritual journey, and as such, it is so unique that it is primarily a do-it-yourself proposition. One of my gifts as a medial is to facilitate others’ access to their own inner wisdom. I trust that what I write will do this, even if the specifics do not apply at all. I have not studied this in any formal setting
Metaphors and images from my own inner work and excerpts from my journals may be more helpful than academic explanations — although I will provide a little of that as well. This post is likely to focus more on ‘academic explanations’ in order to provide background and context for future posts. I expect all of this to be a disjointed communication about a complex topic published in an erratic series of blogs rather than a continuity of polished articles whose topics flow logically from one to the next.
NOTE: Please understand that my ‘academic explanations’ are limited by my incomplete knowledge of the subject. I have not studied this in any formal setting. What research I’ve done has simply been to make sense of my life. I haven’t gone deeper than what I’ve needed for myself. Therefore, my presentation of this material is likely to contain an inherent bias of perspective.
I encourage you to listen for the echo of your own life in what I’ve written. That is what is most important! Each of us knows more than we realize. Our ‘knowing’ is not something anyone can teach us. It is something we already have, and it’s ours to discover or rediscover.
The very best resource for information about the medial is a dissertation by Roberta Bassett Corson published in 1998: The Wounds of the Medial Woman in Contemporary Western Culture. I reviewed her dissertation as preparation for this post and much of what I present here is drawn from that.
Roberta Corson’s dissertation is available through ProQuest.com as a PDF document. Price is $38. The website is not easy to navigate, and it is helpful to have the publication number: 9912586.
If you are serious about understanding this topic, Ms. Corson’s work is worth the investment! For an academic paper, it is an easy read, but feel free to skip sections that don’t seem relevant. You may want to begin with the five portraits of medial women in Chapter 3 before diving into the background material and the conclusions.
I’ve been immersed in this topic for so long that I no longer remember exactly where I acquired some of the information I’m sharing. I will provide as much source information as I can. Eventually I will compile a list of other resources.
What is a Medial?
The term ‘medial’ is short for ‘mediumistic.’ And it all began with Toni Wolff. She had a complicated relationship with Carl Jung, first as his patient and later as his assistant/guide and eventually his protégé and mistress. This was not unusual within Swiss culture at that period in time, and Jung’s wife knew of the relationship and accepted the different roles each woman played in Jung’s life — however, not without difficulty on all sides.
Toni Wolff is most noted for her model of women’s personality types. Of course, her work was influenced by the culture of that time where men played a dominant role and women were subservient. Consequently, women’s personalities were interpreted in their relationship to men. Wolff described four personality types for women: mother; hetaera (companion, friend); Amazon; and the mediumistic woman — or medial.
The medial personality as Wolff proposed it only applied to women. Although most of the literature on the medial continues to do this, it is no longer true. It wasn’t even true back then. Jung, himself was a medial, as was Toni Wolff who used her medial gifts to assist Jung with his inner explorations. The medial personality is not gender specific!
Medial Archetype, Medial Traits, & Medial Personalities
My best understanding of the medial is as an archetype. An archetype is an energetic form that provides structures for various functions of human experience and/or personality. I understand the medial archetype as embodying the ability to access material from what Jung termed the ‘collective unconscious.’
All of us have elements of the medial to one degree or another, and we frequently access material from the collective unconscious through dreams, insights, creative ideas and intuitions. Just as with any other trait, different people have it to different degrees. Everyone has it is as part of being human. For some the medial is also a facet of their personalities that may be activated at some point in their lives — sometimes as a result of spiritual practices, sometimes because of a significant life event, and sometimes as a result of trauma. For others it defines their personalities and ways of being in the world.
Medial Personality: Vivid & Subtle Types
Someone with a medial personality is born living in two worlds: the outward world that is considered ‘reality’ by consensus and an inner world of the collective unconscious. Because this is experienced from birth, the medial is often unaware of being different in this way and assumes that others have similar experiences. Roberta Corson’s research distinguished two types of medials: ‘vivid’ and ‘subtle’. She discusses these as length in Wounds of the Medial Woman.
Some medials have ‘vivid’ experiences like telepathy, clairvoyance, or precognition. Others are only aware of a ‘subtle’ sensitivity. This makes it more difficult for them to identify their medial nature. Medials of both types often unknowingly attune themselves to the unconscious expectations of others and behave accordingly — which may or may not fit who they truly are. Sometimes they share others’ experiences as if the experiences are their own. They often have difficulty distinguishing what is theirs from what is another’s.
Both types of medials share the challenges of recognizing, accepting and managing their medial gifts. Vivid medials have clear evidence of their gifts, but that evidence may be experienced as frightening and confusing. People around them may also respond with fear and confusion. Vivid medials are typically what one thinks of as ‘psychics.’ Their gifts are subject to exploitation: 1) the medial’s exploitation of others as an exercise in power and control; 2) others’ exploitation of the medial’s special knowledge for their own ends.
Challenges for subtle medials are more ‘subtle.’ While in the beginning, both types of medials may assume that everyone else experiences life the way they do, it takes longer for subtle medials to identify their differences. Subtle medials may be so attuned to the desires and expectations of parents and other significant people in their lives that they live the lives others want for them. It may take years for subtle medials to realize this — even into adulthood. And once they do, the changes required to live as authentic selves may cause significant disruptions for them and for those around them.
Collective Unconscious & the Medial
One of the medial’s functions is to make material from the collective unconscious available to others. Until the medial becomes sufficiently aware of his or her access to the depths of the collective unconscious, that material may get communicated to others in ways that cause chaos and disruption. The proverbial ‘bull in the china shop’ or the clumsy adolescent who hasn’t yet learned to coordinate rapidly growing muscles are images that give the flavor of the inadvertent communication of material from the collective unconscious.
The task of developing an ego that is strong enough to manage living in two worlds is daunting. Separating one’s individual experiences from shared experiences is difficult and interferes with forming a strong sense of self. Some never manage this. Often the medial takes on the projections of another and sometimes of an entire society. Irene Claremont de Castillejo wrote about this in her book, Knowing Woman.
In the chapter, Roles of Women – Woman as Mediator, de Castillejo wrote: “She (the medial) is permeated by the unconscious of another person and makes it visible by living it. …She may become permeated by a religious creed and put herself at its service. She may express in her own person the spirit of an epoch. Joan of Arc was such a one.” Later in the same paragraph de Castillejo quoted Toni Wolff: “The mediumistic type is rather like a passive vessel for contents which lie outside it, and which are either simply lived or else are being formed.” de Castillejo adds: “In that sense she is valuable in giving shape to what is still invisible.”
Shadow & the Medial
What the medial responds to and transmits is not always positive. And it is not always a woman who performs medial functions. In de Castillejo’s chapter, Responsibility and Shadow, she wrote:
Our interconnection does not end with the family. We all meet in the unconscious. How many men have been hanged for murder merely because they were the weak recipients of the murderous shadow of a whole race? There would be fewer murders if we could all acknowledge within ourselves how easy it would be for anyone of us to kill. In wartime we explain our brutality some other way. In peacetime we forget and some man or woman slightly weaker than the rest is hanged virtually for us.
Shadow is not always negative. ‘Shadow’ is the label Jung gave to those parts of us that are too threatening for us to own or acknowledge. It can be what we consider ‘bad’ and unacceptable or it can be gifts and abilities that we reject because we fear the demands they could make on us if we were to acknowledge them.
The ‘shadow’ of what we reject is often indiscriminately projected outward where it may be accepted and expressed by someone else. Joan of Arc accepted the projection of a luminous shadow on behalf of the people of France. Adolf Hitler may have embodied the dark shadow of the German people of that era. And perhaps our current President, Donald Trump, is performing the same function for present day United States.
What is this ‘collective unconscious’ that occupies such a prominent place in the lives of medials? This is one of those concepts that is best approached through images and metaphors.
Even though these days my meditations take me to a vast underground ocean where all waters connect, it was not always so. Many years ago I relied on Ira Progoff’s metaphor of deep waters and wells. In his book, At a Journal Workshop, Progoff often referred to the collective unconscious as the Source of All Waters and/or the Source of Deep Wisdom and of Creativity. He emphasized, as did de Castillejo, that we are all connected there. Carrying the image forward, he connected the work of the Intensive Journal to accessing the Source of All Waters through our individual wells.
Decades ago in attempts to understand my medial nature, I wrote a journal entry expanding the metaphor to help me explore connections to and interactions with that realm. What follows is a revised version of that entry.
WELL METAPHOR: Will, Ego, & Self
The will is an attribute, and as such it is neutral. It is the energy or force that allows for endurance and perseverance. It can be employed by either the ego or the Self.
Identifying one’s will with the ego and labeling it as something ‘bad’ is a fallacy. And trying to give up one’s will through obedience to another’s will is also a fallacy. In fact, it cannot be done. The will must be employed to even be obedient to another. Obedience to another’s will isn’t even a sound way to overcome one’s ego. The ego can claim such obedience as its own and further strengthen its hold on the individual.
The ego itself has been given entirely too bad a name. Having a healthy ego is essential to knowing one’s Self as an individual and being able to express that Self to the world. People with weak egos have difficulty knowing who they are apart from others. People with overgrown egos know that they are separate from others but have lost contact with their Selves.
Using Progoff’s image of the well and the underground source of all the waters helps to describe this. The ego is like the shaft of the well that allows the waters of the Self to rise to the surface and be expressed to the outer world as an individual.
People with overgrown egos have built huge edifices atop their wells. They have something very powerful and individual to express to the outer world, but the waters of their Selves cannot rise to the surface, and they are cut off from their connectedness with others at the Source of All the Waters.
Some people with weak egos live mostly at the underground source. Their well shafts are so narrow or crumbling that their waters cannot reach the surface. They must borrow another’s well shaft in order to have anything to express to the outer world.
Others with weak egos have trapped themselves above the ground. Their well shafts are so weak that they have crumbled, and the opening is buried. These people have totally lost contact with their own well and the Source of All Waters. They can reach water only by attaching themselves to the above-ground structures of others’ wells. They are more likely to be attracted to people with overgrown egos than those with healthy ones who might be able to help them reopen their wells. And so they continue to be cut off from the waters of Self and cling instead to someone else’s illusion.
People with healthy egos have wide, strong well shafts that are open to the outer world. They are connected with the underground source of all waters and are able to express themselves as individual springs of refreshment to the outer world.
MY WELL: The image of my own well is borrowed in part from Merlin’s spring as described in one of the books I read about King Arthur. I don’t remember which one. I use it for the twilight imagery meditation when I prepare to write dialogues for the Intensive Journal.
There is a spring rising to the surface in a clear, cool trickle of water. It is surrounded with greenery and wildlife. Beside it is an old tin cup ready for use by anyone who wants to drink there. Nearby is a well opening topped with the traditional wishing well structure. It has a bucket attached to a rope that can be lowered into the well. I ride in that bucket when I descend to explore the contents of my well, and it ensures my way back when I go deep enough to reach the source of all waters. (Poustinia Journal, 8/07/1989; revised 7/03/2013; 4/30/2018))
I hope that I have managed to communicate enough about the medial personality to provide sufficient background and context for subsequent posts. What I’ve presented is an autodidact’s incomplete understanding of the basic concepts — hopefully without too many errors. While I am a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, I have no formal training in Jungian psychology.
I write as a medial — and a ‘subtle’ one at that. I write because my medial nature requires it and because other medials have asked me to give them ‘words’ for their experiences.
There is paradox in this. Much of the medial experience cannot be languaged. It is beyond words. I’ve been privileged to hear James Finley teach on mystical experiences. What I remember of that lesson is this:
When we talk about what is beyond words, we are only able to understand each other because we have had similar experiences.
I trust that this paradox applies to the ‘words’ written here.
I am grateful to the Facebook friends who encouraged this writing. Indeed, if not for their comments on my posts, this would not have happened. Many showed a heartening acceptance and encouragement of ‘otherness.’ Others asked for more information after sharing about their own experiences.
A special thank you to Bonny White and to Jim Curtan. Bonny provided technical assistance in proofreading and editing this blog. And both Bonny and Jim have been generous in their understanding, support and encouragement.
Corson, Roberta Bassett. (1998). Wounds of the Medial Woman in Contemporary Western Culture. Santa Barbara: Pacifica Graduate Institute
de Castillejo, Irene Claremont. (1973). Knowing Woman: A Feminine Psychology. New York: Harper & Row.
Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. (1995) Women Who Run with the Wolves. New York: Ballantine Books.
Ford, Michael. (1999) Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri J. M. Nouwen. New York: Doubleday.
Finley, James. (February 22, 2014) Mystics and the Mind of Christ. Retreat day for Stillpoint: The Center for Christian Spirituality.
Myss, Caroline. (2001) Sacred Contracts. New York: Harmony Books.
Progoff, Ira. (1975). At a Journal Workshop: The Basic Text and Guide for Using the Intensive Journal Process. New York: Dialogue House Library.