The Writer’s Mandala | 2

I’ve been sharing notes from a writer’s workshop I watched a few weeks ago, presented by Richard Tarnas at Pacifica Graduate Institute. During the afternoon of the first day of the workshop, Tarnas presented what he calls The Writer’s Mandala, a symbol of the complete writer.

Mandalas have long been used in various spiritual traditions as aids to meditation and symbols of completion or universal oneness. Carl Jung saw the mandala as a representation of the unconscious self, and encouraged patients to draw mandalas as they progressed in analysis. Tarnas used the writer’s mandala to illustrate how a writer may forge him- or herself into an instrument of creativity.

the writer's mandala by you.

Nine O’Clock: The Self

At the 9:00 position, the location of the Ascendant on an astrological chart, Tarnas began by identifying the self. All good writing begins with the writer’s self. Yeats and Nietzsche said that you have to transcend yourself (ego) in order to become your Self. Everyone is carrying something, a “flowering of the Universal.” mandala1 by you.He comments that a writer should maintain the idea of being with the self the way a loving parent is with a child; this is a reality when you are in the process of writing. “We have to forge ourselves as instruments that can carry the meaning of the whole,” he explained. But how do we forge ourselves as writers?

We first transform ourselves through style. The poem, the essay, the article, the short story and the novel don’t just appear out of nothing. Every line is re-worked until it belongs. Every line is revised and revised until it has a quality of necessity or inevitability. Like music, it comes in bits and pieces, through revising; Beethoven was a master of revision, taking a great deal of patience and care over every note. We must take similar care with our words, with every sentence, going over and over each word and sentence lovingly and critically.

Use a dictionary. Whenever you’re writing or reading, always have a dictionary at hand, not far away, not even two feet away. Also, it’s very helpful to pay attention to the etymology of words, to know what a word meant originally. If you know a word’s origin, you’ll have a better grasp of how to use it because you have a connection to its ancestral roots. Part of being a writer is to love language. If you know words, they are more likely to appear to you when you need them; it’s an I-Thou relationship around language.

mandala5 by you.Use a thesaurus. When you know that you’re in the ballpark, but the word isn’t exactly what you had in mind, you can benefit from a thesaurus.

Read the great stylists. One of the best examples is Abraham Lincoln, who was a numinous writer with one year of formal education altogether. He read Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and Pilgrim’s Progress during his childhood; this is how he forged himself. Darwin is also a very good writer and a good model for writing about pushing the boundaries of the cultural paradigm. He writes with great intelligence and great modesty. “I am asking you to write with great humility,” Tarnas urges, “You could try a little harder to write it better, more clearly, more nuanced. This relates to the inner reader, the Other, the Thou.”

Do what must be done to make yourself ready. If you have something to say that’s important, then the meaning is what is most important. You must forge yourself into an instrument that can deliver that message. If you do this, writing can be ecstatic; but knowing you have a call and knowing what must be done don’t guarantee success. A writer still has to endure, and do the hard work of writing and facing rejection.

A dark night will come. When Tarnas submitted his book proposal to Princeton University Press, they sent his manuscript out to six scholars for review. Three agreed that his book should be published (Joseph mandala2 by you.Campbell, David Miller, and Houston Smith); and three who were on the Princeton faculty did not. They said it was too narrative, and shouldn’t be published, “Who does this person think he is?” they asked, “We’ve never heard of him.” And, in fact, Tarnas was a nobody who had written the book from his little cabin in the redwood forest. He had little money because he had consciously chosen this writer’s life. As Nietzsche wrote, “Praise be a moderate poverty, for he who possesses less is so much the less possessed.”

At the point of this rejection, Tarnas asked, “What was I thinking, that I could write this book?” But he wrote it anyway, even after going through absolute self-doubt, and eventually of course, the book became a best-seller. Self-doubt, he wrote, is crucial to the unfolding of the writer and to the spiritual being. St. John of the Cross feels it is dying, surrounded by the sight of the soul’s absolute misery. At that moment, the Divine is re-making the soul to be divine. This dark night is experienced as absolute loss; you are a failure and everything is going absolutely the wrong way.

A great deal of theory proposes that the birth process is experienced as rejection by the infant because all they knew as their universe is excreting and rejecting them; therefore it is absolutely crucial to be worthless mandala4 by you.and rejected as a spiritual being. When we go through that, then we are born as writers and people; gratefully dead, twice born. What dies is something that needed to die in order for birth to take place. (Here, I was reminded of when Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains alone by itself. But if it die, it bears much fruit.”)

People who have had near-death experiences or a death-rebirth experience have this  kind of epiphany. All the times when they thought they were most abandoned are the times that they hold most precious and almost revere later, because these were the parts that soldiered on and received grace. You don’t look back on the times when you were honored or elevated, but on the painful times which you now see were serving some larger goal and deeper purpose.

Six O’Clock: The Ancestors

At the 6:00 position of the writer’s mandala are the Ancestors, the culture from which we come, one’s history and the history of one’s people. There is a boundless expanse of soul that is a body to history; one mandala6 by you.must read, read, read. Read the great works, as many as you can. Thoreau said, “Don’t just read the Times, read the eternities.” Reading great cultural and historical works will expand the quality of your writing and deeply expand your breadth of reference and your depth of understanding.

Learn everything you have to know to say something well. You can’t fake it. The only people you’ll be able to fool are the people who don’t know anything, people who are uneducated. The people you want to read you will be able to catch your inauthenticity right away. When we’re young, we try to make up for our lacks by a greater intensity of statement, often over-stating things with greater force and greater confidence than needed. This has a tinge of inflation that the truly authoritative reader will see through. What you want to do is to devote yourself to learning in whatever field you want to contribute something new to; you want to master whatever it is with enough authority that you can speak with confidence. This often takes a long preparation, and it’s a continuing journey. You want to be there and be ready when the inspiration comes through.

Don’t only read the essentials in your field, but read the best in your culture. Read Shakespeare, the Bible, the cultural references that are essential to the western mind. Watch the great films and great filmmakers mandala8 by you.such as Bergman, Fellini, and Trousseau. Be familiar with the works in your field that constitute the set of assumptions you’re drawing upon or want to transcend. Certainly, our task is challenging in this day and age because so much has been written and published. Aristotle could have read everything relevant in about two months-and he did. Even Descartes could read all the original sources in his lifetime, but by the time you get to where we are, you really have to depend on great scholars who write works that will mediate your access to large realms of ideas, many works, and whole traditions. Today, we depend on secondary scholarship to open up the vistas.

Finally, be familiar with what others are writing, what’s important, what’s popular. Subscribe to the New York Review of Books. Read it all.

Next: The last two positions of the mandala, the Thou and the Divine.

The Art of Writing | 1

vincent06 by you.

Not long ago I watched a writing workshop on DVD presented by writer and cultural historian Richard Tarnas at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Tarnas is the author of The Passion of the Western Mind, a best-selling narrative history of Western thought, and Cosmos and Psyche. Since writing (and writing well) have been on my mind lately, I thought I’d share some of what he taught.

Tarnas presented after writer and actor John Cleese, opening his workshop with a reading of slam poet Taylor Mali’s Totally like whatever, you know?” Mali is a wonderful poet, and it’s especially fun to watch him perform his own work. However, Tarnas did a masterful job reading this poem—his delivery was perfect.

this writer’s awakening

Tarnas spent his 20s as a musician and believed that he would use his creative voice through music. Though he had completed a degree at Harvard, he had no intention of being a writer. But at age 29, his Saturn return occurred, and he realized his path would be different than what he had supposed. He didn’t start writing until his mid-30s, he said, “but when it came, it came with a lot of force.” It’s not worth it to be a writer, he says, if it is fueled by egoic ambition. Many people want to be great writers rather than writing as servants who bring something into the world. “Ego is not a good enough reason to be a writer,” he said.

He continued, “If you have something to say that’s important, then the meaning is what is important. You must forge yourself into an instrument that can deliver that message. If you do, it can be ecstatic. But it can also be very dark.”

When Tarnas received the vision for his first book, he felt weak in the knees at the very idea of it, yet he also Vue Ensoleille pres d'Auvers by you.felt he was being given the obligation to do it. He became so overwhelmed and tired by this creative compulsion that he lay down on his bed and slept for about two hours. When he woke up, he felt spiritually renewed and was able to connect to the invisibles; but the muses only gave him as much information and vision as he needed to get started. “They don’t tell you everything,” he explained, “it’s all on a need-to-know basis.” As everyone laughed, Tarnas commented that when he started writing, he had no idea that there would be 25 years of work ahead of him, nor that he would publish only two books in 28 years of almost daily writing!

a writer’s habits

The first day of the two-day workshop was spent on tips for the writing life, and the second on the philosophy of writing. The habits he recommended were:

Cultivate the habit and discipline of writing down your thoughts. Whenever your thoughts have a certain force or originality, write them down as soon as you can. You may think you’ll remember them later, but always write them down anyway. You will need these notes later. Anne Lamott has said, “If you don’t carry a notebook and pen with you as a writer, then God will find somebody else who does. Keep notes.

Choose the time of day to write and stick to it without distractions. Choose a time of day supported by your own biorhythms, your own way of writing. Write whenever you are most alert, most creative, and have the most ability to channel the muses. This tends to be morning for most people.

vincent07 by you.It’s very important to avoid being sidetracked; don’t let your energy be appropriated by the telephone, the television, email, your cell phone, or anything else. James Hillman says it can be very hard to seize the day as a writer. Modern life has many distractions that will pull you away from the sanctum of your own interior.

Be particularly aware of your creative self during the first while after waking up, which can be a pregnant time because you’re just coming out of the unconscious. You can go to bed at night, work on a problem, sleep on it after holding it before your mind, and then wake up with the answer. Newton and Einstein each had the capacity and practice of holding before their minds particularly difficult problems and keeping them there, like cultivating the soil until it opened up. When you come back to it, something has unfolded. Thus, it may be helpful to go straight from bed to writing-straight to the desk.

Think and act like an athlete, because being a writer is in some sense a physical discipline as well as a vincent05 by you.mental one. Be aware of how stimulants such as caffeine affect your creativity for better or for worse, or whether eating too much or too often will slow you down. Tarnas finds that if he goes out for a large lunch with friends, he is often unable to write for some hours afterward; he believes that writers have to be aware of anything that compromises the creative intention.

Although some writers like to listen to music while they’re writing, Tarnas says it can interfere with your writing if you are not fully differentiated because you will pick up the rhythm of the music. This will in turn interfere with your rhythm as a writer. Some find that listening to music such as Bach before sitting down to write helps, though.

Set aside a sacred space for writing. Your sacred place can be a studio, your library, even part of your bedroom, but wherever it is, that part of the room for that part of the day is a sanctum sanctorum that is wheatfield under a cloudy sky by you.used just for writing. There should be no phone calls, no interruptions. Doris Kearns Goodwin and Richard Goodwin both talked about the importance of not taking phone calls during the time you’re writing. It’s very tempting to interrupt your writing for the buzz or addictive pull of the immediacy of connection to others, and this is especially true if the interruption is right there on the same machine you use for writing. We can’t do that if we want to preserve this inner space for creating. The tortoise mind takes time, time to nurture the creative thoughts. You cannot just set aside a few minutes a day to do that.

The creative life is an unfolding life. James Hillman once told Tarnas, “If you’re serious about writing, you have to set aside three hours a day for it; ideally even more than that amount of time.” Tarnas said that even the sower, 1888 by you.if you write three hours a day, every day, you may find that you’ll need a few days a week during which you can dedicate yourself to five or eight hours of writing (or more).

The unconscious needs more time to go deep, to keep the wellsprings open. You have to keep clearing out the wellspring of the daily clutter if you want to write well. If you haven’t been working for a day or two, or even a week or more, it will take days of writing before you can get back to the flow where you left off. The well has to be kept clear by continual creativity and consistency.

Once you’ve started writing, it can take several hours each time to allow the space to emerge where the creative intelligence begins to move fast-to run, to sprint, to fly and leap and flow. At the beginning of the day it does that when it knows that you’ll be hanging around long enough for the creativity to come through, time for it to stretch out and be born.

If you have a sense of commitment and mission, you have something to say because you are a bearer of a message. Then no matter what else is happening in your life, you must set aside several hours a day to become a vessel, a communicator of that message. Remember, a mission has been given to you; a commitment occurs when you give yourself to it. You must have both.

This can be done. Even the frustrating interruptions, the things that come from your other duties, obligations, and loves-all those are forging you as a writer. How you respond to those things speaks to how you develop patience. Nothing is wasted.

Make quality choices. Whenever you are in the great flow of your work, you will need to make quality choices vincent01 by you.about what you do. You may need to pull back from trivial pursuits, particularly television. It’s not so much what television brings in through the wall, it’s what it sucks out. Television imposed too early in life is unhealthy for young children. The way to nurture creative people is not through television; we want to sustain the womb of soul and the spiritual aesthetic sensitivity that the child is born with. It stays with them longer if they haven’t been prematurely pushed out into the madness, as Rudolph Steiner taught, as Waldorf education teaches.

You do need culture and art and all the things that feed your deep spirit, but you will have to make decisions about quality. Get the trash out of your life if you want a healthy creative spirit.

Do your writing ritual to invoke your creative self. You have your sacred writing place; now you need Starry Night by do your ritual. Tarnas believes that writing, as an art, has a vertical dimension that reflects the writer’s higher purpose. The true writer, he says, is one who is the vessel of a higher purpose, a purpose the writer is often unaware of initially. Without this dimension that comes from God, the Muses, angels, the spirit, the divine, we are missing something. “This brings us back,”he explained, “to the ritual we use when we first begin writing in the morning or during our writing day. We must open ourselves, feeling a certain opening in the top of the head, at the crown chakra.” He explains:

You will need a source of inspiration and faith when you’re working on a big project such as a book or dissertation. There will be times when you feel you won’t make it, when you just want to put your head down on your arms on the desk and just weep. When you say, “I’m not going to be able to do this.” Every mother knows that point she comes to during labor when she feels a truly inexpressible level of painful labor in the service of something that doesn’t seem to have any possibility of success. When the writer has a similar experience, he needs a source of trust that will keep him able to stick with it and push through. This is where the vertical relationship to the Divine comes in. You pray to open yourself to larger, divine resources.

“You have to trust something larger than yourself to help you, to carry you through,” he explained.

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment


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I used to be so sure of myself. I used to think I knew quite a lot about a good many things. These days, I think more and more that I don’t know much at all about anything–most of the time, in fact. Yesterday we went to the funeral of our friend who was killed Tuesday, and seeing the stricken faces of the children who look so much like her was more than we could bear. I keep carrying this grief with me, knowing that they will never be the same again and will have to grow into a new “normal,” but will still feel numb for a year or more. And I know there is nothing I can do at all for them at the deepest level, because grief is like birth: you go through it alone. The good news, if there is any, is that many other people have been in circumstances and felt griefs just as harrowing. They have felt just as lonely.

The casket was opened at the end of the funeral service. I do not generally like the American way of burying image1 by you.people, where they make the body into a spectacle–a plastic, creepy looking thing that hardly resembles the living person at all. In the case of our friend, though, I was glad they opened the casket, even though she died in a car accident. I was glad because her children who are developmentally still in quite concrete stages of development could see and feel that their mother was dead. It’s final; they’ll know that they won’t see her alive again until heaven, if then.

As everyone tried to work out how such a tragic accident could happen to the people involved, judgments began to form. The conversations I was privy to were sowed with “should,” “ought,” and “wrong.” I have not been able to think or feel my way through this well, because on a deep level I believe the suffering is senseless. One labors over its senselessness like the tongue over a broken tooth. It’s jagged; it’s out of place; it’s worrisome. Even after it’s fixed and only the memory of the sharp edges linger, we can go back to it and touch it, remembering how uncertain the decay and sudden loss made us feel.

image3 by you.It’s the uncertainty of life, and how people seem to deal with it, that has my attention this week.

The fear uncertainty causes seems to make many of us rush to judgment, because judgment is certain, and when we are certain, we feel safe. There are no question marks in “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.” We love to judge people up until the day we go to their funerals. On that day, we’re not as inclined to be judgmental. We’re kinder when we notice the tears streaming down the faces of those who are most bereaved. Otherwise, we go through life making judgments; we may build our blogs, our conversations, or even our livelihoods around judgments.

We would much rather judge one another than love one another. How unlike my heavenly Father I am when I give myself the right to judge you. Is there not only one lawgiver, and one judge? As Saint James wrote,

“Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother, or judges his brother, speaks against the law, and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?”

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.’ But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:11-17).

How unlike Him I am when I tell you how right my own belief is, and how sure I am about it, and how wrong image5 by you.yours is. How arrogant I am for forgetting that you and I “are just a vapor.” My life should be full of “if the Lord wills,” and not so much “we shall go.” I know two people who died in their 30s of aneurisms. Their spouses woke up and found them dead in the bed beside them. How sure can I be that I’ll survive this day? And if I’m not sure that I will, absolutely certain, shouldn’t I try to be sure about something in the moment I have right now? Shouldn’t I try to be sure that I’m filling this moment with my whole being, and with love? Or is my life so lacking in these qualities that I need to fill up the space with judgments?

I am not sure. I am not certain. I don’t know much about anything, any more. I used to argue with people who helped me to feel inferior and stupider by their certainty. But something changed in me over the past eight years of ongoing suffering of one kind or another, beginning with my daughter’s death; I don’t argue as much any more, or with as much certainty, although I’m still a passionate person.  I don’t blame her death for my shift in thinking; I just point to it as a turning point in my life. Many other things also happened to change me, most of which I’ve never written about here: moving to our dream home, which brought us problems we never anticipated; having terrific financial and marital problems for year after grinding year; experiencing large changes to our family structure, and large losses of other kinds.

image4 by you.And then I spent the better part of a year reading deeply in Buddhism; that changed me. I learned that in Buddhism nothing is permanent, and was reminded that this is true in Christianity, too. But western Christians have made Christianity into a westernized mockery of what it once was; I didn’t know that, either. I was so arrogant about my faith in the past, and now I am mostly just grateful and overwhelmed. I’m overwhelmed most of the time, whenever I turn my eyes toward the sacred. I find I have been too free with my judgments and my platitudes, and have been more than ready to offer simplistic, shallow explanations of why things happen as they do.

I don’t know why things happen as they do; I can’t possibly be sure about why. The fact is that I am rarely sure or certain of anything, and this is the most humbling and comforting place I can be for now, because it’s a place where mercy triumphs over judgment.

Images by David Béjar Suárez


This morning when my daughter called, I knew right away that something was not right. Her voice sounded leaden and strangely detached.


“You sound odd. Did you just wake up?”


“What’s wrong?”

“I have some terrible news . . .”

My mind went to reeling because I knew then that someone had died. I knew it couldn’t be my granddaughter, because had it been, my daughter would have been hysterical. My heart skipped a beat when I thought something may have happened to my son-in-law; but then I realized no; she’s too calm for that, too.

One of their closest family friends, mother of five, was dead. Killed in a car accident. A friend had been driving, and had walked away from the wreck.

Six children, the youngest not even a year old, and still breastfeeding. A warm, lively, homeschooling mom who loved her children and had one of the sharpest senses of humor I’ve encountered. I little over a year ago, I was at her baby shower and we were laughing about how her having given away all her baby stuff had brought on this fifth pregnancy. She was so happy to be carrying another baby. Now her baby won’t even remember his mother.

All day I’ve felt like lead myself. The family of the woman who died, and the one who killed her, so close for over 30 years; will their friendship survive this? One wonders. The driver was driving too fast, and they had all had drinks with dinner.

At supper tonight, my little girls fidget and want to talk about this lady whose children they’ve played with at Nanny’s house, my granddaughter’s other grandmother. “Why didn’t God save her, Mom?” they ask.

I look at them blankly. “I don’t know. I don’t know if God is involved in car wrecks. I don’t know what God is doing at times like this. I don’t know. I wish I had an answer. I’ll think about it; but right now I really don’t know. All I know is that she loved God, and she taught her children to love God, and I hope they all are comforted by God right now.”

We watch the news; we see the twisted metal. A nearby resident who saw the aftermath says of the driver, “I hope he goes to prison for life. That’s what he deserves.”

Is that the propitiation for when mommies die?

We get out of bed in the morning, we brush our teeth, we make coffee or tea. We brush our hair. We absently brush the hair out of our kids’ eyes. “Brush your teeth!” we say, “Get dressed!” We pour cereal, we pour milk. We do what mothers do, what fathers do. Our children complain sometimes; they demand. They take us for granted; we take ourselves for granted too. We assume we’ll live all day today and all day tomorrow. We assume we’ll live for a long time and avoid major tragedies. When my husband leaves in the morning, I never think, “I won’t see him alive again. Later tonight, I’ll have to go identify his body.” We do not put our keys into the ignition and drive to work in the morning thinking to ourselves, “Tonight I’ll accidentally kill someone.

We never assume, “Today will be the last day of my life.”

The Seed So Full of Meaning

Before deciding to write about Webster Cook and what my experience of serving and receiving communion is, I was writing about the psyche, which Jung called the “totality of all psychic processes, conscious as well as unconscious” (CW 6, para. 797). I had posted a couple of diagrams of the way analytic psychology views the person and the psyche, commenting that the physical body is assumed to contain the psyche and to be integrally connected to it. What is not brought to consciousness in a forthright way or neurotically, through complexes, projections and the like, may well be manifested physically through various physical ills. As Yoda might say, “Escape the unconscious, one cannot.”

The collective unconscious is the deepest layer of the psyche. Some believe that an even deeper layer of the collective unconscious exists, a mystery level that can never be known. Perhaps the deepest, unknowable, unfathomable layer is the dwelling place of the most high, the universal Holy of Holies, or maybe just the void people disappear to when they die, if there is no God and no heaven and no return at all. Whatever the case, we can’t know what it is; so I’m left to write about the collective unconscious, which is at least somewhat knowable.

I wrote before that the ego is the conscious part of the self that, in effect, is the homeowner (or so he or she thinks). Put another way, the ego drives the car of the personality. Both the personal and the collective unconscious are inaccessible to the ego, who is always so surprised to discover locked rooms, secret passages, hidden attics and cellars in his orderly, accessible house. Try as your ego may, he or she just can’t find the key to these locked rooms.

If you’ve seen The Matrix Reloaded, the second Matrix movie, you’ll recall the little man called The Keymaster. This fascinating little fellow had all manner of keys in the cell where he was being held hostage, and on his person as he fled for his life with Trinity and Morpheus. I like to think of our egos as similar to the key master: beloved, endearing, darling and clever, but intent with a steely determination to survive, and full of keys to everything. Or so he thinks.

Have you ever had a dream in which you discovered an entirely new room or section of your own home? Read a folk or fairy tale, or perhaps a mystery or fantasy novel, in which the hero suddenly discovers a secret passage or a whole new world? This is the stuff of the collective unconscious, the Wrinkle in Time-and consciousness!

In A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, the authors write this about the unconscious (both personal and collective):

Jung did not regard the unconscious solely as a repository of repressed, infantile, personal experience but also as a locus of psychological activity which differed from and was more objective than personal experience, since it related directly to the phylogenetic, instinctual bases of the human race. The former, the personal unconscious, was seen as resting upon the latter, the collective unconscious (155).

If you’re familiar with temperament types at all, you’ll know that feeling types are much more subjective about their experience than thinking types, who are more objective. In Jung’s theory of personality, the conscious, aware, or enlightened individual will have achieved a workable balance between feeling and thinking. I think this must be because the ego, key master of all that is conscious, has come into relationship and cooperation with the archetypes, purveyors and symbolic communicators of all that is unconscious. Symbols, you see, are to archetypes what words are to people. Those who fancy themselves too objective to dilly-dally with symbols of any kind (religious, aesthetic, artistic, literary, etc.) do so at the peril of their own potential. They are surface-dwelling, shallow individuals. Know anyone like that?

You’re probably nodding your head and thinking, “Ah, so that explains it.” A person without symbols any more meaningful than the ones flashing across their television screens is working at perhaps 20 percent capacity as a human being. Think about the implications of living and raising children in a society consumed by commercial images and those that take no longer than two seconds to ponder.

The contents of the collective unconscious, that vast underground, cavernous pool that bubbles up and feeds humanity, cannot be consciously comprehended or identified. That pool reflects archetypes, their processes and their images. The language of the unconscious may be found in images, symbols, fantasies, and metaphors. I heard James Hillman say recently that, though psychoanalysts and psychologists and other mental health practitioners ought to be the modern-day equivalent of the shaman, able to heal by helping people get and stay in touch with their deeper, unconscious selves, we do not. Rather, poets, songwriters, and artists of all kinds are today’s shamans. When we write, paint, photograph using our inner viewfinder, we are dipping down into that deep universal pool. If we wait patiently and attentively, something will come up.

Theoreticians believe that the collective unconscious originated in the inherited structure of the brain and so cannot be controlled by the ego. It is manifested in culture, for example, and so we belong to one another in the largest sense. Adoptees, take heart; it is theoretically impossible for you to lose what adoption seemed to take from you. The genetics of the psyche are more certain and less diluted than biological identity, according to analytic psychology. One can know him- or herself and the ancestors by deep work with the unconscious, if one is willing and able; if one dares.

Because the personal unconscious lies on the surface of the collective unconscious, these two elements of the psyche can work together to manifest behavior and images in the individual. For example, in analysis, the analyst will work with the analysand’s dream images through amplification or association, drawing from what we know about ancient myths and symbolism to help put together the puzzle of the message the personal unconscious is trying to convey. If the unconscious can manage to help the ego (the conscious mind) to understand these symbols or images, the ego receives a key that can open his or her understanding.

Freudians and Jungians differ in their understanding of the contents of the unconscious. Freud believed that the unconscious was the repository of infantile, repressed, personal experience; Jung believed that the unconscious was more creative and functioned “in the service of [the] individual and species” (Samuels et al., 156). The unconscious has its own form of knowledge, thought, and behavior much like the ego has. Philosophers call this the ‘final cause,’ but put in layman’s terms, the unconscious may provide the “reason or purpose for something happening,  the ‘sake’ for which it happens or is brought about” (Samuels, 157). The unconscious does not bring events about; but the unconscious may infuse events with meaning.

Put in conscious, ego-based terms, a person would speak of hope, aspiration, intention, or goals; in unconscious terms, one seeks meaning. This is the teleological point of view. The ego always begins with me and my perspective, then shoots its arrow there, or there; or over there with some hope, dream, aspiration, intention, goal. The unconscious is more of a receiver, a receptacle, a vessel waiting, an empty womb receiving the fertilized seed so full of meaning.


Jung, C. G. (1961), The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.

Samuels, Andrew, Bani Shorter and Fred Plaut (1987), A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis. Routledge: London.

Photographs by © Suze Stern and Peggy Collins used with permission.

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