July 17, 2024
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What is the collective unconscious

What Is the Collective Unconscious?

All of us in our individual conscious personalities are floating like corks in a sea of light— and these corks have a certain porosity. Distinct as though we are in our life experiences, temperaments and conditioning, we are nevertheless unified in something which occultists have called the World Soul or Mind Side of Nature, which scientists have called the Universal Energy Field, and which psychologists have called the Collective Unconscious.

You have your own “ego”, the rational mind with faculties of sensation, reason and its own conscious memories; but there is an aspect of your being which seems to be quite beyond you, from which your individual personal consciousness rises like a mountain from its surrounding range. Within this collective mind reside not your own personal memories, but the memories of the entire human race.

Within this collective essence reside the energetic imprints of all that has ever been. Every war, every wedding, every religious mystery, every birth, every death, every victory and every tragedy. In truth, the past never really goes away; everything that has ever happened leaves an imprint upon the sea of the collective unconscious, and out of this sea each of our conscious personalities comes crawling.

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Some personalities are very sensitive to this energetic field; we may say that in some the veil which separates the ego from the collective unconscious is more thin or more prone to fly open, flooding the conscious mind with the “archaic images” or archetypes that reside in this stratum of the mind that is common to all humanity. Such people are like sponges to the astral environment, sensing—whether they know it or not— the residue of past incarnations, the lessons learned by ancestors, and the recrudescence of those themes which recur and recur again.

Others among us are like ceramic or hardwood, almost impervious to the influx of the tides of this sea, remaining more steadfastly and stubbornly in the objective mind and the physical world. However open we are to this “inner side of creation”, it is nevertheless a part of us— or, more aptly, we are a part of it.

The Eternal Return

Although it is by no means a modern or new idea, the notion of the collective unconscious has been made most famous by the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung. Jung put forth the idea of archaic images or archetypes— primordial symbols which sleep in the subconscious levels of the mind.

Jung observed that once normal consciousness regresses, it turns the psychic energy loose upon the vast storehouse of the subconscious levels. As these images become active they tend to rise past the censor at the threshold of the mind and emerge in the conscious levels. This is what happens in ordinary dreams and fantasies, as well as mystical visions, psychedelic hallucinations and even psychotic breaks. It is also what is happening when we feel a certain kind of “magical” significance in a certain object or person; special meanings are projected onto those images which share an affinity to the archetypes, and this is often what is happening during intense romantic attraction.

Jung was inspired to this line of thinking by observing the recurrence of archetypal stories across cultures throughout history. There are certain patterns which show up in fairy tales, folk stories, myths, religious rituals and cosmologies all over the world, often with astonishing and inexplicable similarity. Tropes like the stealer of fire, the slayer of dragons, the great flood, the fall from paradise, the sacrificial mysteries, the virgin birth, the betrayal of the hero and ritual dismembering appear in every corner of our world and at every period of time.

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But even more bizarre to Jung was the fact that these archetypal images also recurred in the dreams of his patients— with even precise details in common with the ancient myths— when it was completely impossible that the patient had read or heard of such stories.

Jung believed that these archetypal images cleaved around certain centers because they portrayed processes of the human psyche in symbolic imaginary form. He concluded that stories are not so much expressions about the nature of human beings as the nature of human beings is an expression of the forces symbolized in these stories!

The Psychogogue

Figures like the snake, the fish, the sphinx, the helper animals, the World-Tree, the Great Mother, the Enchanted Prince, the wise old man, the wizard, and so forth stand for certain figures and contents of the Collective Unconscious, and these vast collective thought-forms are charged with the emotional energy of their makers.

This stored energy is available for any individual member of the group— a fact made use of by magicians, monks, sages and even Jung himself.

Ironically enough, the nature of the Collective Unconscious was explained to Jung in a dream by the Hellenistic philosopher, Philemon. As Jung writes in Memories, Dreams, Reflections:

His figure first appeared to me in the following dream. There was a blue sky like the sea covered not by clouds but by flat brown clods of earth. It looked as if the clouds were breaking apart and the blue water of the sea were becoming visible between them. But the water was the blue sky. Suddenly there appeared from the right a winged being sailing across the sky. I saw that it was an old man with the horns of a bull. He held a bunch of four keys, one of which he clutched as if he were about to open a lock.

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Philemon and other figures of my fantasies brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philemon represented a force which was not myself. In my fantasies I held conversation with him and he said things which I had not consciously thought. For I observed clearly that it was he who spoke not I.

He said I treated thoughts as if I generated them myself, but in his view thoughts were like animals in the forest, or people in a room, or birds in the air and added, ‘If you should see people in a room you would not think that you had made these people or that you were responsible for them.’”

There is a distinction between you and the object of your thought. There is something in you which can say things that you do not know or intend. There are worlds of wisdom within you that have taken ages to accumulate.

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