Dreaming the Myth Onward: Jungian Neo-Paganism
Carl Jung's ideas have been influencing the development of Neo-Paganism from its inception in the 1960s and 1970s. But what if Jung's ideas have been misunderstood by many Pagans: literalized on the one hand and oversimplified on the other? What fresh insights can a Jungian Neo-Paganism contribute to Pagan discourse and practice today? And might Jungianism serve as a bridge between the earth-centered and deity-centered Pagan communities?
Jungian Eco-Psychology: Touching nature through psyche and psyche through nature
... and what the soul is, also
I believe I will never quite know.
Though I play at the edges of knowing,
truly I know
our part is not knowing,
but looking, and touching, and loving,
which is the way I walked on ...
-- Mary Oliver, "Bone"
Post-Jungian James Hillman writes that the "first task of psychology is to explore and give an account of subjectivity." But what are the limits of that subjectivity? Where do "I" end and the "other" begin? Hillman writes, "Since the 'discovery of the unconscious,' every sophisticated theory of personality has to admit that whatever I claim to be 'me' has at least a portion of its roots beyond my agency and my awareness." But just how far beyond?
The Collective Unconscious: How big is the soul?
Carl Jung attempted to map this region beyond our agency and awareness, and coined the term "collective unconscious" to demarcate part of that territory. The "collective unconscious" is a term which has been much misunderstood and maligned. It is also a term which potentially has the power to change the way we understand ourselves and our world. Theodore Roszak wrote that Jung's "collective unconscious" may be the most important concept in contemporary psychology for the development of an ecological psychology. But what is the collective unconscious?
For Freud, the unconscious was merely the dumping ground of the ego's repressed contents. But for Jung, the unconscious, not consciousness, was ontologically primary. He believed that the ego was a creation of the unconscious, not the other way around; the Jungian ego emerges like an island out of the unconscious sea. What this means is that psyche is not something that is in us -- a conceit of ego-centric consciousness -- rather we are in psyche.
What's more, this unconscious extends beyond the individual: "[I]n one of its aspects the psyche is not individual, but is derived from the nation, from the collectivity, from humanity even. In some way or other we are part of a single, all-embracing psyche". (CW 10, ¶ 175). Hence, the collective unconscious. Notice Jung's reversal of the typical ordering: rather than psyche being a part of humans, humans are a part of psyche. Jung extends psyche beyond the Cartesian barrier of our skin: "In reality, our psyche spreads far beyond the confines of the conscious mind, as was apparently known long ago to the old alchemist [Sendivogius] who said that the soul was for the greater part outside the body." (CW 11, ¶ 389)
"A Psyche the Size of the Earth": The unity of psyche and nature
In a letter in 1960, a year before his death, Jung took this notion even further, extending the collective unconscious to encompass all of nature:
"[T]he collective unconscious is simply Nature — and since Nature contains everything it also contains the unknown. ... So far as we can see, the collective unconscious is identical with Nature to the extent that Nature herself, including matter, is unknown to us. I have nothing against the assumption that the psyche is a quality of matter or matter the concrete aspect of the psyche, provided that 'psyche' is defined as the collective unconscious." (Letters, vol. 2, P 450).
The notion that psyche and nature are identical may be one of Jung's most radical statements. Jung expressed this idea in different ways: "Spirit and matter may well be forms of one and the same transcendental being." (CW 9i, ¶ 392). "Nature is not matter only, she is also spirit." (CW 13, ¶ 229). "The unconscious is the spirit of chthonic nature." (CW 16, ¶ 480).
"Since psyche and matter are contained in one and the same world, and moreover are in continuous contact with one another and ultimately rest on irrepresentable, transcendental factors, it is not only possible but fairly probable, even, that psyche and matter are two different aspects of one and the same thing." (CW 8, ¶ 420).
Thus, James Hillman, Jung's revisionist, could speak of a "a psyche the size of the earth":
"Man exists in the midst of psyche; it is not the other way around. Therefore, soul is not confined by man, and there is much of psyche that extends beyond the nature of man. The soul has inhuman reaches." (Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology).
Art by Glynn Gorick
Note, what Jung and Hillman are describing is not the same as anthropomorphism, animism*, or personification. Each of these is a form of projection: of human form onto the nonhuman, of animation onto the inanimate, and of personhood onto the impersonal. (See Stephen Aizenstat, "Jungian Psychology and the World Unconscious"; and see David Tacey, Edge of the Sacred: Jung, Psyche, Earth). Each of these presumes an ego-centric consciousness as the source of psyche which is then projected onto the world. Rather, Jung and Hillman turn the ego-centric world inside out. The nonhuman remains nonhuman, the inanimate remains inanimate, and the impersonal remains impersonal; but the ego is immersed in psyche, and the world is suffused with subjectivity, interiority, depth, and intimacy.
Interiority: The world experienced from within
Jung draws on the metaphor of "interiority" to explain the relationship between psyche and nature: "[T]he spirit is the life of the body seen from within and the body the outward manifestation of the life of the spirit – the two being really one." (CW 10, ¶ 195).
"There is nothing without spirit, for spirit seems to be the inside of things … inside is spirit, which is the soul of objects. Whether this is our psyche or the psyche of the universe we don't know, but if one touches the earth one cannot avoid the spirit." (The Vision Seminars, p. 164, 165).
"Psychic events are facts, are realities**, and when you observe the stream of images within, you observe an aspect of the world, of the world within. The psyche, if you understand it as a phenomenon occurring in living bodies, is a quality of matter, just as our body consists of matter. We discover that this matter has another aspect, namely, a psychic aspect. It is simply the world seen from within." (Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters/The Houston Films).
What Jung describe is a form of interiority which does not exclude, but positively includes other people and the rest of the natural world. Hillman warns, "the more we concentrate on literalizing interiority within my person the more we lose the sense of soul as a psychic reality** ... within all things." (Hillman, "Anima Mundi: The Return of the Soul to the World"). As Jung scholar David Tacey explains:
"If the natural world is granted soul or anima, then we must extend the metaphor of 'innerness' to the world itself. To contact the soul one still needs to go 'in', but that 'innerness', as Hillman argues, is not exclusive to the human subject. We can, with an attuned consciousness, find interiority in the world around us, so that as we go forth into the world we can see ourselves as walking through the soul of the world."
(Tacey, "Twisting and turning with James Hillman: From anima to world soul, from academia to pop").
This experience of interiority is the territory of poets, not scientist (although a person can be both). And it can be as difficult to grasp as some poetry. This is because it reverses hundreds of years of intellectual conditioning to see the world through a dualistic and mechanistic lens. But in actuality, it is actually the most natural way that we interact with the world. Phenomenologists like David Abram show us how poorly our everyday language reflects our pre-linguistic everyday experience: when we're not thinking about it or talking about it, we do not live life locked up inside of atomistic selves, but spread out over a world which permeates us. We experience the world, in the words of Thomas Berry, not as "a collection of objects", but as "a communion of subjects". Levy Bruhl's seemingly mystical participation mystique turns out to be just our ordinary, everyday way of being-in-the world. With the rise of the modern self though, with its Cartesian assumptions, our consciousness "slipped from its natural foundations". (CW 8, ¶ 802).
From ego-consciousness to eco-consciousness
The unity of psyche and nature means two things: First, we need to look to psyche for the cause and cure of the devastation being wrought upon nature. The origins of our ecological crimes can be located in the unconscious dynamic of the repression of the anima by patriarchal ego-consciousness. The feminine anima is our link to our unconscious psyche. When the anima is repressed, we lose contact with the unconscious foundation of consciousness, and consciousness becomes ego-centric. Psyche seems to be withdrawn from the world and located exclusively in the ego which imagines itself, like the Gnostic Demiurge, to be its own creator. The Jungian term for this is "inflation". The ego then seeks to project itself onto the world through power and domination. The result is alienation from both inner and outer nature:
"As scientific understanding has grown, so our world has become dehumanized. Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional 'unconscious identity' with natural phenomena." (Jung, Man and His Symbols).
But the psyche cannot be ignored forever. Jung writes that psyche will destroy us if we ignore it, and this is as true of the world-psyche as it is of the individual psyche:
"Western man has no need of more superiority over nature, whether outside or inside. He has both in almost devilish perfection. What he lacks is conscious recognition of his inferiority to nature around him and within him. He must learn that he may not do exactly as he wills. If he does not learn this, his own nature [and Nature] will destroy him. He does not know that his own soul [and the world-soul] is rebelling against him in a suicidal way." (CW 11, ¶ 870).
What is needed is a shift from ego-consciousness to eco-consciousness. In Jungian terms, this is called "individuation"; it is the realization of the "Self" (capitalized here distinguish it from the ego-self). The "Self", according to Jung, is the "the union of the conscious mind or egopersonality with the unconscious". Like the Indian concept of atman, "[t]he [S]elf too is both ego and non-ego, subjective and objective, individual and collective." (CW 16, ¶ 474). Jung describes the process of Self-realization as increasing identification with the world:
"[T]he more we become conscious of ourselves through [S]elf-knowledge, and act accordingly, the more [...] there arises a consciousness which is no longer imprisoned in the petty, oversensitive, personal world of the ego, but participates freely in the wider world of objective interests. This widened consciousness is no longer that touchy, egotistical bundle of personal wishes, fears, hopes, and ambitions which always has to be compensated or corrected by unconscious counter-tendencies; instead, it is a function of relationship to the world of objects [it might be better to say here "a world of subjects"], bringing the individual into absolute, binding, and indissoluble communion with the world at large." (CW ¶, P 275)
David Tacey writes that we cannot solve the environmental crisis with the same mental approach that created it in the first place. We cannot succeed in repaired climate change and environmental damage until we have transformed our understanding of our relationship to the world. We do this by reconnecting to the soul of the earth -- and we do that be recognizing the soul of the earth as the soul we find "in" us.
The unity of psyche and nature also means that we need to look to nature for the cause of cure of the devastation being wrought upon our psyche. The relationship between our inner and outer alienation is mutually reinforcing: we are cut of from psyche, so we cut ourselves off from nature, which further cuts us off from psyche.
It should come as no surprise then that we can reconnect to psyche through nature. Jung observed this in reflecting upon the salutary effect of contact with nature:
"Whenever we touch nature we get clean. People who have got dirty through too much civilization take a walk in the woods, or a bath in the sea. They shake off the fetters and allow nature to touch them. It can be done within or without. Walking in the woods, lying on the grass, taking a bath in the sea, are from the outside; entering the unconscious, entering yourself through dreams, is touching nature from the inside and this is the same thing, things are put right again." (Jung, Dream Analysis: Notes on a Lecture Given in 1928-1930).
We touch nature from the inside through contact with psyche, just as we touch psyche from the outside through contact with nature. Thus, Hillman explains that "an individual's harmony with his or her 'own deep self' requires not merely a journey to the interior but a harmonizing with the environmental world." (Hillman, "A Psyche the Size of the Earth"). Similarly, Jeremy Yunt writes, "the process of individuation depends to some degree on our ability to participate actively in the vitality, richness, and depth of the natural world." (Yunt, "Jung's Contribution to an Ecological Psychology").
These insights form the basis of a newly emerging discourse called eco-psychology. Some of its most prominent representatives include James Hillman, Theodore Roszak, David Abram, Bill Plotkin, and Adrian Harris. It should be obvious by now the overlap of eco-psychology with much of Neopagan thought. In fact, Daniel Noel writes that "post-Jungian ecopsychology almost comprise[s] a species of postmodern nature religion itself". (Noel, "The Necessity of an Ecopsychology of/as 'Nature Religion'"). And yet, the relationship between eco-psychology and Neopaganism is, as yet, underdeveloped. Eco-psychology has the potential be bring to Neopaganism a theoretical subtlety and sophistication that the latter lacks, while Neopaganism can help embody eco-psychology with the depth and insight of its practices.
* I mean here animism in its most technical sense, not animism as it is experienced by religious practitioners like Graham Harvey, which resembles closely the experience of interiority, depth, and intimacy in nature that I describe herein.
** Jung wrote, "What most overlook or seem unable to understand is the fact that I regard the psyche as real.” (CW 11, ¶ 751, emphasis original). Whatever its ontological nature, the project of eco-psychology requires us to take psyche as seriously as matter.
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