In my undergraduate days. I was a physics and math double major at a medium size liberal arts college. I didn't have time to learn anything about a number of subjects of which I was nevertheless very curious. I would burn out on science and math, and wander through the library stacks and look into whatever books interested me. On several occasions I had seen this strange name 'Jung,' but I had assumed it was just some famous Asian scholar.
Years later, I accompanied a friend to a metaphysical bookstore and opened a book by this pioneer Swiss psychoanalyst, Carl Jung. I read a random passage and saw the unusual terms archetype and collective unconscious, which I then looked up in the glossary. However, this information was so far outside my limited worldview that five years passed before I even considered pursuing any thing quite this weird.
At the turn of the last century, Sigmund Freud presented his theory of the unconscious in his epochal work, The Interpretation of Dreams. However, Jung later claimed that what Freud referred to as the unconscious, was in fact only the smaller personal part of the unconscious psyche. Jung's famous postulate of the collective unconscious was that, in addition to this personal unconscious, there exists a much more vast collective region within the human psyche. This part of the mind is an evolutionarily cumulative, psychic repository of sacred symbols that reach back to the very dawn of humanity. Each individual therefore inherits "similar organizing patterns of thought and motivation" (1), in the same way that we inherit physical characteristics.
Jung referred to the contents of the collective unconscious, as 'archetypes,' by which he meant 'psychic energy matrices' corresponding to typical human situations and experiences, such as the mother, father, warrior, lover, divine child and the wise old man or woman. Each person inherits their original archetypal configuration from their parents. Therefore, children do not begin life as blank slates, rather they come into this world in some way pre-wired to receive the experience of 'mother' and 'father.' As the child grows, their good and bad early life experiences, then activate their archetypes --- these matrices of experiencial potentiality --- thus further molding relational patterns for better or worse, respectively. For example, this is the origin of the various mother and father complexes that have become commonly spoken of in our psychological language. Jung saw the archetypes as virtually autonomous subpersonalities within the unconscious. Archetypes have both light and dark sides. Those that arrive or develop within an individual in a distorted manner, can therefore reek havoc in his or her life, specifically because the person is not conscious of them, yet they are nonetheless outwardly manifesting in unhealthy and destructive attitudes and behaviors. In a word, the devil made me do it! The devil here meaning the dark side of an unconscious archetype.
The archetype par excellence, is the archetype of wholeness referred to by Jung as the Self. The Self is the totality of the individual on the psychological level, whereas the ego, or conscious self is only the much smaller portion of the personality that the individual is aware of. Jung taught that the goal of the first half of life is to build a strong healthy ego, while that of the second half is to bring the ego into the service of the larger unconscious Self. Problems arise where individuals believe that they are only their rational conscious selves, and remain ignorant of their deeper intuitive unconscious reality. They think they are their ego, rather than that they have an ego, but in actuality are something much deeper than their surface awareness. Although archetypes are not directly experienced on a conscious level, they do express themselves through a wide variety of symbolic images in dreams, myths, art, religious experiences and psychotic hallucinations. In fact, one of the natural functions of the unconscious psyche is to express archetypal patterns in an attempt to help us move toward balance and ultimately, psychic wholeness. This underscores the importance of working with one's dreams --- they come from the inner Self in the service of personal wholeness. Jung called the growth process of integrating the unconscious into the conscious self, individuation.
Somewhere around the mid-90's, in my spiritual quest, I had painstakingly begun to read the academically challenging writings of Jung as well as a few other works on depth psychology. One night in 1999, while asleep, I heard a male voice of wisdom say "Jung is right." Although amazed, I was still very skeptical. In particular, for several years one very difficult question had run around in the back of my mind, but I rarely caught hold of it and brought it into consciousness long enough to really think about it. Several authors had analyzed great works of literature such as Dante's Divine Comedy, Milton's Paradise Lost, or Shakespeare's Hamlet, according to how they represented the Jungian archetypes of the collective unconscious. I was completely baffled by the idea of exactly how Dante, Milton or Shakespeare could have possibly organized their masterpieces around Jungian archetypal characters, hundreds of years before Jung had even postulated the existence of the collective unconscious! And even had they known what archetypes and the collective unconscious were, and even manipulated them to concoct their archetypal motifs, what guarantee could there be that their constructions were true?
Then finally in 2000, one afternoon while taking a shower, I was pondering this same question. I recalled that Joseph Campbell taught in Hero With a Thousand Faces that myth is essentially a vehicle by which the spiritual energy of the transcendent realm pours into this world of space and time. I also recalled Campbell's statement that "the myth is a public dream and the dream is a private myth." Suddenly as I stepped out of the shower, I heard myself think, "Wait a minute, that's it! ... Dante, Milton and Shakespeare in fact didn’t know about the archetypes or the collective unconscious! That is why it is called the collective UN-conscious! They were completely unaware of it!" Rather, somehow through their creativity, they became unaware channels for it; they unknowingly tapped into the infinite transcendent and were thereby able to express deep truths about the nature of reality itself! In turn, their works have been immortalized because when we read them, whether we know it or not, they naturally touch something deep within us all!
At that moment of awareness, I felt something deep within me actually 'click' and I was filled with the intuitive certainty of the existence of this tremendous force of primordial wisdom --- the collective unconscious of humankind. Once again, I was reeling with the spiritual energy and excitement, characteristic of correctly interpreting a major dream! Through this intuitive 'hit', this energy of absolute certainty; the unconscious Self within me had just confirmed, that I had consciously discovered for myself, the existence of this tremendous spiritual force!
I now had irrefutable proof from within my own being of the correctness of Jung's method of psycho-spiritual healing through working with one's dreams. I knew without any ability to doubt, that dreams are indeed messages from the unconscious and can give us true knowledge of ourselves that we can not get in any other way! Dreams are messages from the God or Self within.
I also now know that 'myths' have never been consciously invented. Rather, they have emerged since the time of primitive man and woman, from within the psyches of witchdoctors, shamans, seers and mystics. Myths have brought the archetypal patterns by which humans have successfully thrived in society for many centuries before the advent of modern rational man. Only at our own peril, can we continue to neglect the preservation and nurturance of myth. Man can not live by conscious reason alone, because reason is rooted in unconscious intuition.
There has been much controversy and misunderstanding about Jung's characterization in Aion of Jesus Christ as the supreme symbol of the Self. However, this statement is better understood once consideration is given to several facts. First, many people, particularly those of fundamentalist persuasion do not understand that a symbol is a living reality more real than physical facts. It is erroneously believed that to claim that something is a symbol is to reduce it to something of less importance. Rather, to say that something is a symbol is to say that it has capacity to transform one's being, or to produce healing and growth through a process of psychospiritual death and rebirth. (However this can be learned only by personal experience, such as those shared on this website. I share these experiences in the hope that others will be en-couraged to conduct their own experien-tial search for Truth.)
The second fact is that Jesus was a man. This is also the criterion of Christian belief as stated in the Nicene Creed, that he was very God and very man. Indeed, if he was not fully man, then he cannot be the saving mediator between the human believer and God the Father. In the above statement, Jung is claiming that while on earth Jesus Christ displayed the ideal qualities of what it truly means to be a human being; he set the highest example of individuated man, the completed conscious development of the Self. In achieving this, Jesus altered the collective unconscious of all humanity.
There may be a hint in the verse "every knee shall bow, every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord." The symbolic understanding of the phrase, 'to bow the knee' may be to practice humility and to prayerfully accept grace, while the meaning of 'every tongue confess' may be that to speak truthfully is to express or press out that which is within, thereby consciously manifesting one's unconscious power. Finally, to confess that 'Jesus Christ is Lord' is to outwardly demonstrate the Self in one's thoughts and actions. A symbolic understanding might then be that, within everyone's unconscious, there is now through Christ Jesus, a greater potentiality of surrendering one's ego and consciously cooperating with the work of individuation, to achieve by grace the salvation of a greater wholeness.
1. Z.,Phillip, A Skeptic's Guide to the Twelve Steps, Hazelden Foundation, Center City, Minn., 1990.