The Journey into the Unconscious — Jung and Shamanism, Part 4
“We shackle ourselves to a world view which exalts the conscious mind, externality and an identification with the collectivity at the expense of the inner resources which have for thousands of years enriched man’s existence. And perhaps most importantly, (Jung) finds that among these neglected inner resources are compensatory factors which have an innate, natural tendency to transform consciousness if we can open ourselves to its sources”.
This is the next in a long series discussing Carl Jung’s ‘confrontation with the unconscious’. (For what has preceded please see this list.) In the introduction to this section I suggested that there is a link between Jung and shamanism going back through his own depth psychology, mediaeval alchemy, Gnosticism, Greek pre-Socratic philosophers like Parmenides, and perhaps more.
I’m currently exploring the links between Jung and shamanism in more detail. This is important because it shows that his inner journey and the Depth Psychology which emerged from it is a genuine tradition going back many thousands of years, and that this ancient tradition of shamanism still has great healing potential in modern times.
My primary source is Shamanism and the Psychology of C. G. Jung: The Great Circle by Robert E. Ryan¹. In the introduction I quoted the jacket notes. In the following article I discussed his first chapter. In this article I provided the evidence that shamanism was and remains a unified global phenomenon, not just in general terms, but often in precise detail. In the previous article I discussed chapters 2 and 3, where Ryan compares Jung’s cosmos with that of the ancient shamans. Here I’ll go on to discuss chapter 4, which is called ‘The Psyche’s “Strange Symbolic Wanderings”: Jung’s Individuation Process’, which is where the opening quote is taken from. None of what follows will come as any surprise to those readers already familiar with Jung’s ideas. The chapter nevertheless provides an excellent summary of one of his principal themes.
The words ‘shaman’ and ‘shamanism’ are rarely used here. The ideas they represent remain in the background, however, since the need for modern humans to reconnect with their primeval roots, and the potential for healing that brings, are the themes of this chapter. Thus Ryan chooses as his epigram: “The conscious mind will enjoy no peace until it can rejoice in a fuller understanding of its own unconscious sources” (Lancelot Law Whyte).
I’ll actually begin with the material towards the end of the chapter, since this reconnects with familiar themes. Here Ryan introduces the term ‘creative illness’, which has been one of the more sympathetic descriptions of Jung’s confrontation with the unconscious (others have called it psychosis or schizophrenia). He says that it was “one of Jung’s most significant contributions to modern psychology”, although “it was a truth resuscitated from the forgotten past” (thus shamanism). “These disturbances are not mere irritations to be drugged into a numbed quiescence but are often a call to the larger life which the psyche carries hidden within itself if they are guided in the proper direction. Properly understood, they are signposts and not impediments; they are attempts at a new synthesis of life”.
He then quotes Jung: “A psycho-neurosis must be understood as the suffering of a human being who has not discovered what life means for him. But all creativeness in the realm of the spirit as well as every psychic advance of man arises from a state of mental suffering, and it is spiritual stagnation, psychic sterility which causes this state”².
There then follows a section entitled ‘The Descent into the Domain of the Symbol’, where we again find some familiar material from earlier in my series — the descent into the Underworld, and its associations with madness. “Frequently Jung found that this process was imaged spontaneously as a descent into the unconscious envisioned as the mythic land of the dead, the land of the ancestors. Yet, properly understood, the ancestors are the source of a person’s life, and their realm represents a reality which is ‘ancestral’ to, antecedent to, our own. It is essential for man to realize, Jung insists, that ‘his beginnings are not by any means mere pasts; they live with him as the constant substratum of his existence, and his consciousness is as much molded by them as by the physical world around him’. It is, therefore, not surprising that one of the initial phases of the process of psychodynamic transformation is to uncover this buried mythological substratum”. This is “a return to the ancestral realm of the dead which, paradoxically, becomes the source of life and renewal”.
Given the identification of the ego with what Jung calls the persona (the external aspect of character that is presented to others) and social pressure, “it is natural that the conscious mind should fight against accepting the regressive contents, yet it is finally compelled by the impossibility of further progress to submit to the regressive values… While this influx of unconscious contents initially can be highly disconcerting to the ordered realm of consciousness, it can also contain the germs of a new dimension of consciousness and vital possibilities for the future… The return to this archaic world with its chaotic wealth of images is most dangerous; it is a journey into that long-buried aspect of the psyche which can easily overwhelm the conscious mind, for here we encounter the same psychic material which is found in psychosis and the insane”.
Returning now to the beginning of the chapter, Ryan begins by recognising a connection between Plato, for whom the tendance of the soul was philosophy’s primordial calling, and Jung who said the same thing about psychology. This again suggests a longstanding tradition. For Plato, “the process involved leading the soul back to its vitalizing creative sources from which it has easily become estranged”. For Jung this was “a recovery of the soul’s universal foundation and the expansion of human consciousness which this implied”. (The importance of this for Jung can be seen from something he wrote in a letter towards the end of his life: “I have failed in my foremost task, to open people’s eyes to the fact, that man has a soul and there is a buried treasure in the field and that our religion and philosophy are in a lamentable state”³. His attempts to achieve this task can be seen from the title of his books The Undiscovered Self and Modern Man in Search of a Soul).
Ryan continues: Jung’s “psychic cosmos reconnected man with modes of symbolic expression and psychological transformation employed by men in the past and in many non-Western cultures. It re-established the vital relationship between the conscious mind and its instinctual roots and reached back farther to the natural principles of form and order which govern and coordinate organic growth and also guide the development of man, both in body and mind. Whereas Freud had asked ‘What is the origin and nature of psychic conflict?’, Jung tried to pierce beyond this level to discern a deeper source of psychic, organic and even cosmic coordination, harmony and universality to which the soul was naturally heir”.
One manifestation of this connection with the cosmos is the tendency to produce symbols or, put another way, thinking in primordial images. However, though this way of being is innate, and apparently therefore cannot be eliminated, in modern times it has been largely repressed. It may find some kind of expression in art, literature, (and superhero comics and movies). It may also reassert itself when we dream. However, “Jung recognized contrary structures of consciousness which tended to repress or exclude the recognition and acceptance of this early mode of human expression. These structures centered around a very different orientation to ‘the real’ which he found characterized by, and to a surprisingly large extent actually created by, what he referred to as ‘directed thinking’. Whereas thinking in primordial images enlists the resources of the preconscious mind, directed thinking seems to be more closely allied to the ego and to concentrated, intentional thought. At least the ego tends to regard such thinking as its ally or instrument, though often deeper motive forces are, in fact, at work”.
We therefore see a conflict between the ego and something much deeper, to use a general, unspecific term. This is obviously the problem identified by Eastern religions, most obviously Buddhism. (More of that below.) I would also identify the philosophical and ‘scientific’ movement known as the Enlightenment as part of the problem, given that it emphasises reason — which is closely associated with the ego and directed thinking — and rejects anything irrational, magical, mysterious.
Both the ego and the Enlightenment were, for different but associated reasons, probably necessary for the evolution of human consciousness and society. As Ryan says: “ To a degree this was a necessary sacrifice to the success of the human endeavor, as Jung readily recognizes”. We have, however, reached the point where both have become a problem in urgent need of resolution: “As the conscious mind seized more and more of the light, the unconscious grew correspondingly darker and the seeds of a dangerous division in the mind of man were sown at the expense of its connecting faculty, the human soul”. Also, “according to Jung, the unconscious is indifferent to the purpose and direction which characterize the ego. It shares in the impersonal objectivity of nature. On the other hand, the ego is generally concerned with our personal adjustment to the environment”.
Let’s look more closely at the term ‘directed thinking’, which is closely associated with the ego. Ryan says that it “is generally directed outwards, toward the outside world, and thus becomes a thinking that is adapted to external reality”. This “effort involved in directed thinking has yielded very substantial benefits to mankind, and no one should be foolish enough to discard it as an instrument of continued success. Yet, like anything substantial, directed thinking brings a darkness in its wake. What begins as a tool of thought becomes its template; that which we directed subtly begins to direct us. Man becomes immersed in a structure of consciousness which progressively draws him away from the central moorings of the soul in a process that Jung found repeatedly in his clinical observations. The strictly outward orientation assumed by this mode of thought, he realized, naively overlooks the fundamental difficulty that ‘the real vehicle and begetter of all knowledge is the psyche’⁴ ”.
Here Ryan shows the connection between this thinking of Jung and ancient traditions: “The divisions upon which (directed thinking) trains its concentration tend to be those that most disturb the harmonious soul. As Lancelot Law Whyte points out, modern human consciousness tends to neglect or take for granted what he refers to as ‘perfectly ordered processes’ and stresses the disorders, conflicts, disharmonies and inadequacies with which we all must cope. Yet history has left us ample evidence that great civilizations, which were less in the control of directed thinking than is ours, employed and revered as central points of cultural reference concepts denoting a universal ordered process uniting man, nature and cosmos. Such terms as rta, dharma, tao, me, maat and many others guided the thought and behaviour of Indian, Chinese, Sumerian, Egyptian and other civilizations, and served to anchor our human existence in a larger order. We shall see somewhat similar concepts fundamental to societies with a strong shamanic tradition expressed in such terms as itz, orenda, shakti, nlum and others. In fact, the term ‘cosmos’ itself originally meant for the Greek mind order, beauty and the sacred”.
“Having lost a sense of the greater whole, humankind becomes immersed in particularity, fragmentation and alienation… Gradually individuals are drawn to the ultimate act of bad faith against themselves. They see themselves as the sum total of their external relationships as sanctified by the reigning attitudes of the collectivity. Jung calls this structure of conscious ‘the persona’. It is the identity individuals assume under the weight of social pressure and the need to conform. We become identified with our profession, position in society and the patterns of thought and behavior which are characteristic of the community in which we find ourselves. Such people ultimately become merely the products of compromise, imposed by social order and expectation, at the price of their essential identity”.
This reconnection with our essential identity can be achieved through Jung’s version of the spiritual path, the Individuation Process, “a deep need and an inherent compensatory drive which… worked to restore human wholeness and to open hidden dimensions of the psyche”.
A problem arises when this is resisted: “When the compensatory offerings of the unconscious are rebuffed, the energy charge of the repressed content increases. If this process continues, soon repressed compensation becomes rebellion… Thus begins a process of dissociation which can lead to the ‘splitting off’ of unconscious contents and eventually to forms of neurosis and even to schizophrenia.
“Very importantly, a similar phenomenon may occur when the unconscious strives to convey an emergent new creative content — often a deeply needed mode of self-expression or a spiritual calling for which the conscious mind is not yet prepared…
“When such highly charged emergent contents are isolated in the unconscious flow of psychic energy between the unconscious and conscious mind becomes disturbed. This… marks the beginning of a dissociation between the conscious and unconscious mind… As the gap between the conscious and unconscious grows wider, the fatal splitting of the personality which can lead to neurosis or to schizophrenia grows nearer and nearer. Jung equates this process with ‘those well-known perils of the soul’ — a splitting of the personality (‘loss of soul’) and reduction of consciousness, both of which naturally result in an increase in the power of the unconscious. ‘The consequences of this are a serious danger not only for primitives;’ he warns, ‘in civilized man, too, they may give rise to psychic disturbances, states of possession, and psychic epidemics’⁵ ”.
Ryan frequently refers to the goal of the process as being a uniting or reuniting with the cosmos. One is immediately reminded of Richard Maurice Bucke’s famous book Cosmic Consciousness, described (on the front cover of my copy) as ‘The Classic Investigation of the Development of Man’s Mystic Relation to the Infinite’. Ryan says that “the experience brings with it a depth and fullness of meaning that was unthinkable before” ⁶.
However: “For those who refuse or cannot heed this call, the consequences can be dire. If the promptings of the soul are turned away, the dissociation between the conscious and the unconscious widens. The products of the unconscious now assail the conscious mind in forms which threaten its unity, effectiveness and even sanity, if it is not prepared for their contents”.
Jung considered his Individuation Process to be an authentic spiritual path, one especially appropriate for Westerners in modern times. As everyone knows, Christianity has been the primary religious/spiritual foundation stone of Western Civilisation for centuries. In modern times, however, many Westerners, having found conventional Christianity unsatisfactory for various reasons, have turned to Eastern religions to seek spiritual satisfaction. Buddhism seems to be the most popular choice. It’s therefore worth considering what similarities and differences there may be between them.
Here Ryan outlines the similarities: “(Jung) is detailing the anatomy of modern despair and meaninglessness which he had encountered in his patients. Somewhat like the Buddha, he determines that there is suffering, that suffering has a cause and that the cause can be overcome. And like many schools of Eastern or more ancient thought, he finds that this cause is itself a structure of consciousness”.
Thus, for both Jung and Buddhism, the ego is perceived as the problem and the goal is the transformation of consciousness. For Jung the ego becomes an outward ‘false’ personality (the persona) which prevents us from realising our true self. For Buddhism the ego is a belief in a self which is considered non-existent, and which therefore keeps us trapped in an illusion.
It is therefore an interesting question whether there are any similarities between the two proposed ‘solutions’, indeed whether one solution is ‘better’ or more appropriate than the other. I have no firm opinions on this question, although I freely admit that my own experiences are steeped in the Jungian tradition, which I have advocated in this earlier article.
So many people have found satisfaction in Buddhism that it seems inappropriate to criticise. I nevertheless sometimes wonder whether Westerners turn to Buddhism in order to avoid the extreme difficulties involved in the Individuation Process. Let’s face it, who would voluntarily choose to enter a period of apparent madness, quasi-insanity, and hopefully live to tell the tale? Isn’t it much simpler to sit quietly and meditate, difficult though it may be to still the chattering mind?
I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.
- Vega, 2002
- Modern Man in Search of a Soul, (Ryan says page 224, but that is not the case in my copy)
- Collected Works, volume 9, II, paragraph 268
- Collected Works, volume 5, paragraph 248
- Collected Works, volume 8, paragraph 405