All through the ages, sages have referred to it again and again, yet the very inherence and fundamentality of our Unconscious deferred its being named. The analogy most apt is for fish to name water; it is the very medium and support of their existence, it would take a very objective fish indeed to actually separate itself from water in order to be able to name ‘it’ as ‘other’; water. Humans didn’t actually do it until Freud did in the early 1900s, and to this day, there are those who refer to ‘oh that!’ as if it weren’t really real.
Once we saw it, though, what a revelation! All of a sudden a place that contained our memories, secrets, longings, dreams. Freud’s insight, as we know, went only as far as the personal level, stopped at the unconscious that contains only one lifetime’s worth of ‘stuff’.
The definitive revolution occurred when Jung shortly after identified not only the ‘personal unconscious’, but the ‘Collective’ one as well. This is the big stuff. This is where all of humanity deposits its memories, verbal and pre-verbal, its history, patterns of being, its learnings, morals, dreams, ambitions; all of it; the very stuff of our individuality and our humanity. This is the biggy. The Collective Unconscious contains memories encoded in our racial DNA, this is where to look for the unexplainable, the magical, the revelations, intuitions, and the genius of deep understanding.
It is here that we take the journey oaf the deeper life.
We need to make clear now that we are using words and names to delineate ‘stuff’, to point to a place that is difficult to talk about because it is not tangible. There have been several reinterpretations of what the term Collective Unconscious actually refers to, so we will, at the outset, determine the definition to which the rest of our discussion will refer, and we turn to Jung’s as the starting point, and the point from which we will extrapolate.
Jung used the term ‘collective’ to refer to the whole of humanity as a single organism, and so ‘collective unconscious’ was to him a reservoir of our history, memories, instincts, patterns of behaviour and patterns of thought that were ‘unconscious’, by which is meant that information that is not at the moment part of our awareness. The connotation is that some of the information from the Collective Unconscious may become conscious, through dreams, word association, active imagination, spontaneous insights, and that it contains our own personal history or personal unconscious. Ultimately, in a way, it contains us, and we each have access to this information, whether we aware of it or not.
It is important to realize that this place is a reservoir that contains all that has to do with humanity, be it individual, or as a faction, or the entire group of humans. We can take one step further from Jung’s definition and acknowledge that the collective unconscious may or may not embrace the story of the whole earth, including all Life, animals, single-cell etc. For the present purposes we will limit our view to the collective unconscious of what we are able to imagine.
This definition of the Collective Unconscious, by its nature is referring to a realm other than our normal ‘waking’ life. This realm, being unconscious, is therefore in the dark, not the dark with the connotation of evil, but the dark with the implication of ‘unvisited’ or unlit with the torch of consciousness. In symbology, mythology and dream language, this realm may be referred to as underwater, underground, subterranean, or even outer space – any place that is vast, mysterious, unexplored, sometimes scary, containing treasures, can usually safely be interpreted to refer to this (sometimes personal, but usually) collective unconscious realm.
Thus we have an underground realm and a ‘sunlit’ realm, that which we see with our physical eyes, our everyday reality, what we are aware of and capable of thinking about. We can liken the two realms to the underwater, unseen parts of an iceberg, and the tip that is out in the world. I find it handy to distinguish these two realms as ‘underground’ and of the ‘sun’. (It will be important later on in our exploration to remember that although we distinguish these two realms, further distinction within them is possible. However, it is rhetorical to ask how many levels there are underground, the sages say it is fathomless.)
Just like any duality, the whole of this picture is better understood when we contrast and compare important distinguishing markers, and being realms that we are discussing, these markers can be understood as ‘cultural differences and similarities’.
The terrain of interest in the sunlit realms is clearly made of matter – heavy, dense, slowly vibrating energy – think of concrete, fossil fuels, possessions, pudding, flesh. In the unconscious realms, on the other hand, the terrain is formed by energy, subtle, light, not measurable by the five senses, which tends to cluster together by habit or relatedness, not so much by boundaries. Jung referred to the content of the unconscious as psychic energy or activity. Think of attitudes, images, feelings, memories, these tend to cluster together by meaningful associations, rather than because they are discrete entities. This difference in the type of landscape gives rise to many cultural differences, some which are not so obviously grasped, so let’s have a look at these.
In the sun realm, dealing with matter, language is usually literal, whereas in the underground realms, dealing with energy, the language is usually allegorical. Whereas in the sunlit realm we may speak English, Cantonese or Russian, the language of underground realms, being collective, are universal, and include symbology, mythology, and dream language. It serves our understanding to state outright that the undercurrents of language increase in import when we travel from the sunlit to the underwater realms.
Let’s take a simple example. When we say, ‘I’m hungry, I’m going to get something to eat’, in the sun realm, we mean we will have a meal that we will consume physically and digest, then eliminate. Clear and obvious. When the exact same thing is said in the underground realms, ‘I’m hungry, I’m going to eat,’ the nuance is entirely different because the language is symbolic.
In the underground realms, the seemingly innocent expression ‘I’m going to eat,’ has rather the connotation of the bestial, or even of vampirism. In this realm, where action is distinct from, unrelated yet to matter, language refers to energy, and ‘hunger’ here is for energy and ‘eating’ is a way of getting such energy. The very word ‘hungry’, when spoken in the context of energy sends a frisson down our backs, alerting us to the possibility of energetic carnage. This may take the form of putting others down, and ‘eating’ their power or energy, as in that type of person who, looking directly into your eyes, tells you of this or that wonderful occurrence, as you feel smaller and smaller and your life more and more inadequate. Being hungry in this realm, we may point our awareness on someone’s insecurities and ‘eat’ their confidence that way.
This difference between the language that refers to matter and the language that describes transmission of energy lies in the subtle nuances that are experienced rather than heard. (It is worth noting that it is these very undercurrents that populate the deeper realms.)
This brings us to another, related point, which is that of values. What is experienced as positive in the sun realm may be experienced as negative underground. As referred to in the first article of this series, (Gifts from The Sages) the second gift of the sages is that the whole of the manifest world is made up of pairs of opposites, so it is not surprising that the whole of the human psyche is also made up of pairs of opposites, where what is visible has a value opposite to that which it has in underground realms. As a general guideline, unless we are living from our unique authentic centre, it seems that the nature of the movement between realms is that value of an experience flip flops, and what is experienced as negative on the upper sun decks is positive on the lower shadowy ones.
This is a general guideline, and an example will further clarify this point; on the upper deck we safeguard our possessions by taking out insurance, putting locks on the windows, installing alarms etc. Common opinion would say that someone who does these things is acting responsibly to ensure the security of their possessions. Underground, on the other hand, where we emanate that which we give our energy to, we are holding the mental belief that we will be robbed, or that we are in threat, so the more we attend to preventing the threat, the more we prepare for it, the more we emanate a threatening situation. In this way we manifest a world of crime. It seems a strange way to express the relative values we place on sunlit and underground activities, but it is helpful to remember that the values we place on things flip flops between realms. Another way of seeing it that our perceived estimation of a thing is dependent on the realm we are speaking from.
Also important to consider is that the lower down, the darker, the further away from the light of awareness, the more subtle the movements. This point is important because from this we can extrapolate that increased subtlety translates as increased power. We all know that in the ‘sunlit’ material world, the more evident, or the more blatant, the more powerful. You wouldn’t, after all, blow at a building to knock it down. On the contrary, we use force to make changes to our material world.
The way of the unconscious is otherwise. In this pre-formed realm, the realm of energy, movement follows ‘emanation’ rather than ‘construction’, [for a discussion of the distinction between the natures of these movements see the third gift of the sages in a previous article], and the subtle has much further emanation power than the non-subtle. Consider the subtlety of the breath compared to the movements of the hands; in emanating reality, the subtle movements extend to a much more vast space than the grosser, heavier ‘created’ stuff.
Let’s take a more complicated example this time. Consider the person who believes his brothers have stolen his rightful due, the money he helped them make in a business, for example. This man feels wronged, hurt, vengeful, and lacking. So many years have passed, however, though he remembers the sequence of those events, he’s forgotten that he feels lacking, because he’s lived with that feeling for so long. Now along comes a ‘new age’ movie that promises, ‘Visualize it and it will happen!’ and this man pictures his being rich, puts pictures of cars and houses on his walls etc, you know what I mean. He’s consciously ‘creating’ his world.
Then he wonders why it hasn’t worked. Or maybe it started to go that way, but failed. Or maybe it did go that way, but he doesn’t ‘feel’ better, or rich, and then it failed. From the viewpoint of unconscious energy, the subtler emissions of his feelings have more far-reaching ‘manifestation’ power in emanating his reality than the grosser visualizations of his attempted creation.
As a very basic guide rule, in the unconscious realms, subtlety is more powerful than the non-subtle. Therefore it could be said that at the point of manifestation, where the two realms meet, development is entirely tied to emanation, whereby what is manifest in the world is the reflection of the subtle energies in the form of beliefs, feelings and thoughts held by the minds in that world.
Another important distinction between the underground and sunlit realms is that whereas in the sunlit realm of everyday reality, there are things alive and things not alive – inert objects, dead things, old happenings etc., in the underground world, EVERYTHING is alive. Every thought has a life, (as in Jesus’ statement that God knows every hair on your head), every happening is contained and can appear in the present moment, even if it happened in the upper realms a vast 20 years ago, and yes, even death is alive and has a character, (in some places, a name, a wife), a life. We’ll talk more of that in a later article. The underground realm is distinctive by its animism – even links between thoughts have life.
Let us take an example of how a thought has life there. Let us take a banal example, the better to illustrate the drama of the life contained within a thought even as mundane as ‘I wonder if the rich neighbour will leave any money in his will for me.’ I cannot be the only one who has given very brief fantasy time to such a possibility, it probably happens quite often. What happens to this thought in the sunlit world? For me, nothing. I dropped it quite quickly, I didn’t even put much effort into thinking it in the first place. I suppose when I was younger I did entertain such fantasies of a kindly rich older person leaving me a lot or even a little bit of money, but I don’t engage my energy that way anymore. I simply noticed this thought go by. Then a few days later I had a dream to show me what happened to that thought in the ‘alive’ world underground.
In the dream, I found the neighbour’s daughter’s wallet. I didn’t know he had a daughter, but found out days before this dream, and that she hadn’t come to see him in years. So in the dream I was about to return this wallet to her, even though I was tempted to keep it, and went to knock on the door to do just that when I heard from inside someone say that she had kidnapped someone, and about the same time, I noticed the wallet contained a thousand dollar bill, so I left the door, took the wallet to my home and hid it. That was my dream, where the wallet with its obvious connotations of the money I was hoping to get, was in the dream world associated to the daughter’s identity because the money naturally belongs to her. The reason I had considered the possibility of keeping the wallet was because in ‘real’ life the daughter wasn’t around, in the underworld, she had been ‘kidnapped’ – by herself from her father’s life. By being the one who chose not to see her father, she was both daughter and kidnapper of daughter. By coveting money, I coveted her identity which carried the right to the money. In that way, each aspect of the one story as it unfolded in ‘real’ life, took on its own life in the underground; each moment took on character, each character contained within it whole worlds. I was a thief of someone’s identity, indeed, I was the kidnapper myself in that sense. And the daughter who never visited withheld the father’s child from the father. She too was a kidnapper in that sense. And in this mystical way, all things are alive. All from one silly little thought, worlds were born, came into being, and then returned to the dust of my psyche, leaving some lessons and glimpses of that underwater realm.
What became clear is that underwater beings, what Jung called psychic complexes, both influence and are influenced by our conscious or sunlit reactions.
In the same way that the language of this Collective Unconscious realm is symbolic, and that all bits are alive, the relationships here can also be seen as symbolic. In this realm of energy, familial relationships refer to the prime character as it evolves in succeeding generations. In other words, a son or daughter is related to the prime character by way of being of the next generation, a brother or sister is of the same generation.
For example, take the desire to ‘Be Accepted’ as the prime character. This character, as all the characters in his family, can be personified, imagined, he is not so foreign to us. Meet his brother, the “Desire for Power’, because power makes one acceptable, but is also desirable in and of itself, they are of the same generation, brothers. Our prime character’s son then is the pattern of behaviours engaged in to become acceptable such as ‘Be Funny’, or his daughter, ‘Be Empathic’. Now, meet the next generation, the grandchildren, ‘Deny True Opinions,’ to attain the original goal to please others. It could happen that this grandchild feels powerful (from denying her true opinion, that is), as a legacy from the great-uncle. She then evolves to become what we might call a ‘Tough’ character. Thus this family of underworld characters are engaged on a circular path that clearly leads to low self-esteem, dissatisfaction, discomfort, feeling a victim etc. In this way, relationships in this realm may (although they don’t always) express an evolutionary relatedness.
Unlike what in the sunlit realms is seen as a linear cognitive ‘process’, this way of conceptualising our inner lives implies a coherence of reactions, thoughts, feelings, and their change over time. This coherence is not so readily apparent from identifying an inert course of thought. Also, being personified in this way implies an existence independent of the personal, a character such as ‘deny yourself to be accepted’, has parents that don’t belong to ‘me’, and this alone may reduce our attachment to it. To see characters rather than thought processes, we see that we may engage in dialogue, we can aim for understanding, we put this character into a more realistic perspective, seeing his good and bad sides, his ability to inspire kindness as well as his skill at chaining our spontaneous expression. Our inner life is easier to comprehend this way, it is a more natural and childlike worldview, and even our sunlit conception of the lack of mental health changes from ‘sick’ to ‘otherwise occupied by bad counsel’.
This briefly summarizes the differences between the sunlit and underground realms, however, a few more words on the collective unconscious.
When a series of symbols and symbolic relationships are repeated among many psyches within the collective psyche, they together form a story, a symbolic story, a mythology. Joseph Campbell has described mythology as ‘spontaneous eruptions from the psyche’, much in the same way a dream might be. Whereas dream content is private and happening within one psyche, emerging from one personal unconscious, mythological content is public, erupting as it were from many psyches in many different parts around the world. Without the concept of a collective reservoir of information, this would be a ‘magical’ happening.
Keeping in mind the collective reservoir, on the other hand, such ‘magical’ happenings are natural, mundane and predictable (as are, for that matter, ‘mind-reading’, and ‘foretelling’). That one story can emerge into consciousness in many different places seemingly without connection, is merely a natural process (that is nevertheless wonderful), and one of the tools that the One-that-is-Love has of harmonizing the multitudinous psyches (the One appearing as many) with spiritual evolution.
In other words, it could be seen that as the One emanates, our collective evolution unfolds and appears as a mythological story. When we attend to a mythological story, our individual psyches are reminded that each is the One that appears to be Many, and this brings us to some level of harmony with all that is.
Viewed in this way, all mythologies are our mythologies, and their availability to us in this day and age is a great resource for healing our spiritual ills because we are not limited to the story we were born into, but can rely on the one that talks to us personally, be it from Australia, Africa, North America, Peru or wherever.
Our true land, our country, is not only the physical landmass to which we are attached, but the invisible, spiritual realm out of which we emerge, to which we return, and of which we are nurtured. Our spiritual heritage is in this way all of humanity’s.
The wonderful world of mythologies has been and continues to be described knowledgeably and eloquently, and is not our present purpose, however. For us, who are interested in the mental health that flowers from exploring the deeper life, it helps to make the analogy that our personal unconscious is a unique expression of a collective story. No other life is capable of expressing what our individual life does, and if we don’t express our uniqueness, the sunlit world will have lost it outright - this opportunity of expressing our unique aspect of the One will never return.
Like mythologies and other collective stories, our personal inner world can be described as a kingdom, with a queen who may have been locked away, a rightful king who was usurped by a wanna-be, the kingdom may have dragons, treasures, scouts; we may call on helpers, healers, counsellors, mates, and when the kingdom is in order, peace reigns in the land, the populace is joyful and safe, there is abundance and productivity, and in the outer realm, we know our way, we are mentally equipped and healthy.
A healthy kingdom is itself the treasure that we search for in our explorations of the deeper life, and is not got by easily. The effort involved will not break your bones or give you sunburn, however. It is a light burden – that of understanding our inner life - and the only journey that promises mental health, even if it means facing your fears, feeling your pain, admitting your vulnerability.
When we turn our gaze inwards for those moments, when we unite our conscious processes with our unconscious lives, we transcend a fundamental duality of existence, and the union that is felt not only heals us personally, but ripples out to the collective as well.
The information contained in this and the previous two articles in The Deeper Life together give us the groundwork – the safety and security, the language and terrain, the humility - to explore more intimately that aspect of the collective unconscious that is uniquely our life. Holding the three gifts as assumptions that act as torch-lights and acknowledging that we are with our consciousness simply visitors of a real albeit different realm of existence, we can resolutely set to work returning the kingdom within to order.