Relationship with the Unconscious

I remember sitting for a time with some Buddhists when I lived in California. By sitting I mean going to a center, which happened to rent space in a Quaker church, and sitting for a couple of hours, once a week. What did we do while we were sitting there? We listened to a teacher of Vipassana or mindfulness meditation, and then put his teaching into practice, which meant quietly paying attention–to our breath, to our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations. I never took on the mantle of Buddhism myself, but the experience there has stayed with me.

Today it came to mind. I was thinking about thinking, and how in any given day, thoughts and feelings and images–the flow of our internal worlds–move along of their own accord. Sometimes it feels as though I have little say in how they move. They happen, quite forcefully at times, and I may find myself on the receiving end. In terms of depth psychology, we are continually fielding the forceful influx of the unconscious psyche.

I remembered something the meditation teacher said about how, when we quiet our minds and simply pay attention to what is happening, suddenly we realize how incredibly busy and noisy it is inside. It can be rather distressing. I believe the Buddhists call it the “monkey mind.” Stop for a moment, and notice all the crazy monkeys jumping and swinging about, making a big racket. And you thought you were master of your psychic house! Think again.

Okay, so now to transpose things into the milieu of Jungian psychology, or any depth psychology that acknowledges the unconscious as a significant force in the human psyche. The personal self or ego does not rule over the unconscious psyche. It is one player on the stage of a drama, and it’s not in charge of the production. But it does have a say; it can take a stand.

Broadly speaking, the other players consist of unconscious forces, which Jung calls complexes. Complexes are emotionally charged thoughts and images that have an autonomous life. They have a personal aspect, based in our individual traumas, biology, and patterns, and an archetypal aspect, expressed in the over-arching images of myths and fairy tales. In their archetypal aspect, the complexes are the gods and goddesses, who rather notoriously do not have personal human welfare high on their list of priorities.

So what of the human? What of the self that wants to take a stand? That wants to move from the receiving end of unconscious forces to the active, choosing end? That is not interested in being a plaything of the deities? It’s not an easy matter. Consider the mundane experience of moving through your day. A terrible mood may overcome you. A thought about an old relationship might take hold of you. A feeling about your unworthiness might convince you. An old wound might open up and suck you in. It’s hard in the moment to take a stand in relation to these psychological facts that happen to us. But say that you do. In your own way, you meet the force of the unconscious with a counter-force. You demand room for “me.”

I would propose that then, when you make that demand, the unconscious will respond differently. I am reminded of a dream I heard once. The dreamer had been chased recurrently in the dreamworld by a sinister figure. Finally, one night, something changed. The dreamer turned to face the persecutor, and things were different after that. Not necessarily easy, but now there was a more symmetrical relationship between the person and the forces of the unconscious. The prey had turned to the predator and said, in effect, “I see you!” And, “You don’t just get to do what you want with me. I have a say in this relationship.” Now there is the possibility for an encounter, a negotiation, and ultimately, the ability for the person to make a demand on the unconscious psyche to contribute something worthwhile. Maybe we can even imagine that the psyche has wanted this kind of encounter with us all along.