WHAT LIES AT THE BOTTOM OF THE UNCONSCIOUS?
What lies at the bottom of the unconscious?
That question might sound a bit ominous.
What's there, in the deepest of the deep in ourselves?
Is it something to avoid, like some primitive, subterranean Kraken of the psyche?
Is it a mother lode of pearls, gold, buried treasure of the psyche?
Is it something in between? Or both? Or is it better than any of that?
It’s an important question. (But like many important questions today, we don’t seem to talk about it much.)
After all, the “unconscious” has become a word we toss around a lot.
“Subconscious” has become part of our everyday speech.
But aside from becoming popular, it also solves certain problems.
For example, the idea of “the unconscious” (or “subconscious”) resolves “The ‘Know Thyself’ Paradox.” That is, how can we not “know ourselves”? After all, isn’t our “self” what we know more than anything else? But if that’s true, isn’t “Know Thyself” silly advice? Why would we have bothered to carve it into marble thousands of years ago? Why have we been repeating it to each other ever since?
The idea of “the subconscious” resolves this dilemma with this basic idea: there are parts of ourselves that we aren’t aware of.
The most popular metaphor in all this involves comparing ourselves to a vegetable.
The idea is that we have “layers,” like an onion.
We can “peel the onion.”
“We” live on the outermost layer of the onion, but we can “peel” each layer to reveal a “deeper” one underneath.
Each deeper level reveals a “deeper” part of ourselves that’s closer to the “core,” or “real me.”
“I wanted only to live in accord
with the promptings which came from my true self.
Why was that so very difficult?”
- Hermann Hesse
This can echo a feeling that isn’t uncommon in modern times: a feeling not just being alienated from each other (the “epidemic of loneliness”), or being alienated from life, but being alienated from ourselves.
This implies that there are deeper parts of ourselves that we aren’t in touch with and feel distant from.
This also explains why therapy is now widespread – something that didn’t even exist just a few decades ago. (And, is if fair to ask: are we healthier now?) It also explains our relentless hunger for drama. Both therapy and good storytelling involve “peeling those layers” to reveal what’s underneath. The idea is that effective drama and therapy reveal character – that is, they expose ourselves to ourselves.
To illustrate this, we could imagine a simple situation.
We want a doughnut.
So, we head to the doughnut store.
This might seem straightforward. But what are we “really” doing? Our “unconscious” might be at work here.
An astute psychologist, for example, might point out that we might not actually be all that interested in mere doughnuts.
What we really want, that psychologist might claim, is to talk to that pretty girl behind the doughnut counter.
This isn’t necessarily mere psychic mind-reading speculation. After all, we could work to verify that hypothesis scientifically, to a degree.
For example, that psychologist might point out that when that particular girl isn’t working, we’re suddenly, coincidentally, much less interested in doughnuts. And there’s also the factor that after we buy a doughnut, we often throw it away. A third piece of evidence could be the factor that we spend a whole lot more time thinking about that particular girl than we do doughnuts.
Through a method of abduction, then – figuring out what explanation best fits the data – we might arrive at the conclusion that we actually have a deeper hidden motive than we’re willing to admit. “I want a doughnut!” is the outer layer of the doughnut. “I have a crush on the doughnut girl!” is one layer deeper.
This is a simple example just to illustrate the point.
But that’s the onion we’re peeling.
Those “layers” are our motives.
They’re our explanation of “why we do what we do.”
The common clinical definition of the unconscious often goes something like this: “a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories that lie outside of conscious awareness.” This kind of definition can seem dry, as if all the life and vitality has been sucked out of it.
But the reality of it might be much more interesting and radical.
After all, mere “feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories” doesn’t necessarily say much. What’s the source of all of these? Assuming for now that they exist – why are they unconscious instead of conscious? How is it possible to be strangers to ourselves?
It’s ultimately a radical claim.
The basic idea is that we don’t fully know ourselves.
There are parts of ourselves that we aren’t aware of.
Here we uncover the next natural question:
What happens if we peel all the layers?
What happens if we keep peeling, and peeling more, until we arrive all the way down to the very core of the onion?
What lies at the bottom of the unconscious?
If we explore new regions where we have no maps of ourselves, is it “Beyond here be monsters!” or “This Way leads to priceless treasure beyond all imagination?”
Will we discover something ugly, crippled, unforgivable, and irreparably broken, or a wellspring of wholeness, completion, joy, nobility, perfection?
Or something in between?
This can be a tricky business.
After all, if something is initially unconscious, but then we become conscious of it, then it’s no longer unconscious. It’s become conscious.
This means that the more we learn about “the unconscious,” the more it “disappears.”
Sometimes, that process can change the nature of things.
Because of all this, communicating can be difficult. What’s obvious to one person is invisible to another. Even we ourselves might wonder what we’re doing, or even wonder whether we’ve “learned” or “discovered” anything at all.
In a business this tricky, we need trustworthy guides.
After all, this can be treacherous territory.
It’s also a good idea not to get this kind of thing wrong. After all, we’re talking about what lies at the core of human nature. It lies at the heart of our very motives. It’s the answer to the timeless question, “Why do we do what we do?” What makes us tick?
Our answers here have profound consequences, for better or worse.
But who can we trust?
Let’s start with Freud.
Freud, of all people, seems to be one of the last people we should trust here. Many people have a powerful aversion to him, and often for good reasons. He really did get a whole lot of things incredibly wrong.
That said, Freud might not have originated this line of thought about “the unconscious,” but he definitely helped popularize it.
He can at least serve as a good starting point. If he got it wrong, he could serve as a foil to help us uncover what’s right.
So: Freud’s answer to what lies at the bottom of the unconscious is – to put it briefly – sex and aggression.
Freud drilled down to the primitive reptilian brain, the inner Kraken, the primal animal instincts, the molten lava hotbed of animal savagery.
These drives – especially when combined with a prim and proper Victorian society – sometimes result in “inner conflicts.” He saw the job of psychoanalysis and therapy as working to resolve these conflicts.
So, was he right?
It’s true that sex and aggression are clearly part of human nature, and they’re powerful. Several different models of “drives” or “instincts” can also explain a certain amount of behavior.
That said, this doesn’t seem to be the final answer.
Many of us have an instinctive, intuitive reaction against Freud’s read on this.
The reaction is, “That’s not it.”
Sure, we can all go primitive sometimes.
Most of us know what it’s like to be furious to a degree that seems unhinged. Every child seems to go through it. Being completely overcome with fear or desire or some mixture of both isn’t uncommon. We often pay money to see actors pretend to experience these things themselves.
But those aren’t the times when we feel most like ourselves.
In fact, just the opposite. In real life, these moments can result in “crimes of passion.” These are often times when we say, “I don’t know what came over me.”
While many smart people were fascinated by the questions Freud was asking and the direction he was taking, few decided that he’d nailed it. Even his closest, most loyal followers quickly went very different ways on major points.
Freud lived in the heyday of science, when experts lauded science as “the answer” to all our problems. He was “pre-postmodern” – meaning, he lived before “the failure of the Enlightenment.” Along these lines, his worldview was one of materialism (or naturalism, physicalism, etc.), which typically assumes a mechanical, cause-and-effect explanation for everything that science will soon sort out. It also assumes atheism.
The less-than-stellar track record of psychoanalysis can testify as evidence to the case: Freud didn’t exactly nail it. He raised some good questions, but his answers often landed quite far from the mark.
So, what progress have we made since Freud?
Or, the better question might be this:
Who can we even trust to give us answers in these matters?
This is treacherous terrain. Answers don’t come easy. In these areas, highly credentialed “experts” often disagree with other highly credentialed experts. Sometimes, even the most highly credentialed experts declare outright absurdities and defend them at great length.
But if we can’t trust highly credentialed experts, then who?
Knowing who to trust in these matters is a steep challenge.
That said, a handful of voices have emerged who – at least in our explorations – do seem trustworthy. It’s not that they’ve necessarily “nailed it,” exhaustively and completely, but they seem worth listening to.
While no single figure is universally admired in these areas ( or any area, for that matter), several figures have been proving over time to be relative voices of sanity, clarity, and reason.
They also all seem to converge on a certain idea.
Here are a few.
Maslow was a heroic pioneer in the field of psychology.
He entered the fray at a time when the field was limping along in a grim fascination with either reductionistic, mechanistic behaviorism on the one hand and wildly speculative Freudian psychoanalysis on the other. He launched Humanistic psychology (and what later became Transpersonal psychology) – which introduced elements of humanity and positivity into an otherwise dreary, anti-human enterprise.
He’s also known as a rigorous but practical thinker, and a rare breed today – an intellectual academic with common sense. His “hierarchy of needs” has become a standard cheat sheet for motives in business and media.
That said, some of his later ideas are often less well known but perhaps more profound:
“To summarize in a few words, I would say it this way:
Man has a higher and transcendent nature,
and this is part of his essence…”
(The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, 1972 p. 349)
Frankl is the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, one of the most revered “psychology” books of all time.
While many know the story of Frankl’s time in a concentration camp and our universal quest for meaning, fewer have explored where he went from there. (Where are all the logotherapists?)
But how does that “search for meaning” really work?
After all, what, in the end, is the source of meaning?
In his later books, Frankl explored new territory in his effort to answer that question.
From Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning:
“There is, in fact, a religious sense
deeply rooted in each and every man’s unconscious depths.”
(Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning p. 14)
As one of Freud’s major disciples, Jung hardly needs an introduction.
Several of his ideas have proven useful enough that Hollywood has adopted them into modern storytelling. His departure away from Freud’s mere-sex-and-aggression Kraken unconscious toward the much more expansive “collective unconscious” includes a greater realm of “archetypes” which provide a personal-yet-universal approach to “the myths we live by.”
One especially crucial aspect of his work is his idea of “The Self.”
As a key aspect of our collective unconscious, what he calls “The Self” is an archetype of “totality” or “wholeness.” In character form, it’s often depicted as a “superior personality” such as a king, hero, savior or prophet, etc. It’s “not only the centre, but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality…” (Psychology and Alchemy, par. 4)
It’s described as the ultimate goal of the entire process of inner work, or what Jung called individuation.
In the process of making the unconscious conscious, we can experience or “realize” – make real – the Self archetype. This all points to something within us that is “totality,” inner “wholeness,” the ultimate goal of the entire process of therapy or individual.
It’s what we ultimately discover when that process is successful.
As he described:
“Intellectually the Self is no more than a psychological concept, a construct that serves to express an unknowable essence which we cannot grasp as such, since by definition it transcends our powers of comprehension. It might equally be called the ‘God within us.’ The beginnings of our whole psychic life seem to be inextricably rooted in this point, and all our highest and ultimate purposes seem to be striving towards it.” (Two Essays, par 299)
Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for his mind-blowing, stomach-churning, mettle-testing book, The Denial of Death.
Becker’s efforts were also heroic. He took on no small task. In a single book, he labored to summarize and synthesize the major revisions and progress from Freud up to the time he was writing, around 1972. His work incorporated insights from Freud, Kierkegaard, Otto Rank, Norman Brown, and others.
Yet despite his accomplishments and his Pulitzer, most in psychology and media seem to ignore him.
(Apparently, not many people really want to talk about death. Who knew? Or, to go even further: was Becker trying to talk about our denial of death to people who were in denial of death? Herein lies the plight of the psychologist, even amid other psychologists.)
Even when folks aren’t ignoring Becker’s ideas (the Terror Management Theory folks seem to be making good strides in correcting this), they’re often misunderstanding it. Many reduce his message down to something like this: “Humans are really, really, really afraid of death.”
While that statement isn’t necessarily untrue, it utterly fails to fairly capture Becker’s insights.
But what does Becker ultimately say about the unconscious? What beast does he say lurks in the heart of human nature?
Without a deep dive into his message (which goes far beyond the “we’re all afraid to die” angle), Becker pushes the ideas to their furthest conclusions. Toward the end of the book, he mentions the idea of the “unrepressed man.”
This fits the problem perfectly. After all, if Freud defined the problem, what’s the solution?
Or, if “repression” is the problem, as many who dabble in Freud seem to believe, what would it mean to become “unrepressed”?
The “solution,” at first glance, would seem to lie in the opposite direction – a complete lack of repression.
Yet this clearly doesn’t generally tend to go well.
Trying to “become unrepressed” on a straightforward way, as many of us might put it into practice, isn’t the answer. Much in modern life can testify to this. (Maybe it’s been a necessary experiment.) We’ve proven fairly well that merely giving free reign to the most primitive parts of ourselves – our reptilian brains – isn’t the road to nirvana. Even in theory, this route would mean making “crimes of passion” the norm. (The one who commits a crime of passion, by this definition, isn’t “repressed.”)
But Becker’s question is still on point. If we know the problem, what’s the solution? Psychology seems to give a great deal of attention to various psychological dysfunctions. But what is psychological health?
To understand Becker properly, we should probably keep in mind that he wrote as a cultural anthropologist. Working within the times that he was, he strove to keep things “scientific.” This often translated into adopting a materialistic worldview or life philosophy, either deliberately or unconsciously. This worldview assumes atheism.
Materialism marks all spirituality as off-limits. It’s the stuff of soft-minded speculation and fuzzy fantasy, playpen-level speculation that hasn’t yet reached the level of rigorous, hardboiled truth. This is often the outlook in mainstream “scientific” psychology (though usually unstated, implicit, and assumed (or – ironically – “unconscious.”)) The result is often an anti-spiritual bias. This kind of bias isn’t scientific or valid, but can seem mandatory as the only credible route for legitimate scientific pursuit.
For this reason, it’s unsurprising that Becker ends on a pessimistic note about “men sweating within the nightmare of creation.” “The most that any one of us can seem to do,” he eventually says, is to “fashion something” and “drop it into the confusion.” (285) In some ways, this brutal honesty and lack of pretense makes Becker even more admirable. He seemed to step into the boxing ring with both hands tied behind his back.
Yet also in his concluding paragraphs, he seemed to be straining to articulate the outer edges of a strange, barely-visible new terrain where he had arrived, despite having stripped himself of the tools necessary to bring it into full and vivid view:
“There is a driving force behind a mystery that we cannot understand, and it includes more than reason alone. The urge to cosmic heroism, then, is sacred and mysterious and not to be neatly ordered and rationalized by science and secularism.” (285)
He mentions how himself, Otto Rank, Norman O. Brown, and others, with different approaches and at different times, have in some ways arrived at the same point, often reluctantly.
“He [Brown] realized that the only way to get beyond the natural contradictions of existence was in the time-worn religious way: to project one’s problems onto a god-figure, to be healed by an all-embracing and all-justifying beyond…he saw that the orientation of men has to be always beyond their bodies, has to be grounded in healthy repressions, and toward explicit immortality-ideologies, myths of heroic transcendence.” (285)
In this mention of “a mystery that we cannot understand,” that we need to approach with “more than reason alone,” that is “sacred and mysterious” and that involves “heroic transcendence,” he seems to be straining to avoid talking about the elephant in the room.
Huston Smith was the author of classic work The World’s Religions and a widely revered scholar.
In one of his later books, Beyond the Postmodern Mind, Smith includes a chapter in the section, majestically titled, “The Way Out.”
The title of that chapter is “The Sacred Unconscious.”
The title itself is revealing.
Something about or in the unconscious, Smith says, is sacred.
“…the supreme human opportunity
is to strike deeper still
and become aware of the ‘sacred unconscious’
that forms the bottom line of our selfhood.” (218)
He talks about
“…one who is in touch with his deepest unconscious,
an unconscious which…deserves to be considered sacred.
Our century has acquainted us with
regions of our minds that are hidden from us
and the powerful ways they control our perceptions.
My thesis is that
underlying these proximate layers of our unconscious minds
is a final substrate
that opens mysteriously onto the world as it actually is.”
And he continues:
“Normally we are not in touch with this
objective component of ourselves
– which paradoxically is also our deepest subjective component…(220)
Referring to Blake’s famous phrase, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite” – Smith says this:
“The fully realized human being
is one whose doors of perception have been cleansed.
And these doors,
which up to this point I have referred to as windows,
I am here envisioning
as successive layers of our unconscious minds.” (222)
The word “Zen” has been growing in popularity over the past few decades. Unfortunately, that also means it often gets watered down, misused, and misunderstood. “Pop-Zen” lines often imply that Zen is merely a moment of calm, a state of simplicity, a moment of insight, or something to do with rock gardens and miniature rakes.
Real Zen, though, is a very different matter.
As D. T. Suzuki described it:
“…the truth of Zen can never be attained unless it is attacked with the full force of personality. The passage is strewn with thistles and brambles, and the climb is slippery in the extreme. It is no pastime but the most serious task in life; no idlers will ever dare attempt it. It is indeed a moral anvil on which your character is hammered and hammered.” (Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki, William Barrett ed, p22)
If we can believe Suzuki and many others, Zen is about much more than calm moments or gardens of rocks.
But what does Zen say about “the unconscious”?
Suzuki said this:
“Some think that there is still an unknown region in our consciousness which has not yet been thoroughly and systematically explored. It is sometimes called the Unconscious or the Subconscious. This is a territory filled with dark images, and naturally most scientists are afraid of treading upon it. But this must not be taken as denying the fact of its existence….The power to see into the nature of one’s own being may lie also hidden there, and what Zen awakens in our consciousness may be that…” (pp. 25-26)
He also says this:
“Zen does this…by discovering a new source of energy in the inmost recesses of consciousness, and by bestowing on one a feeling of completeness and sufficiency. That is to say, Zen works miracles by overhauling the whole system of one’s inner life and opening up a world hitherto entirely undreamt of.” (132)
“…so far as its psychological experience is concerned, both the Zen masters and the Catholic leaders aim at bringing about the same state of mind, which is no other than realizing the Unconscious in our individual consciousnesses.”
(The Zen Doctrine of No-Mind, p69)
Or we could quote the original Zen guy, Bodhi-Dharma:
“…Direct pointing at the soul of man;
Seeing into one’s nature…”
Another prominent Zen author, Hubert Benoit, describes in Zen and the Psychology of Transformation what “sleeps in the depths of my consciousness (3) or “is asleep in the centre of my being, because it is not awakened, living and active…” (3) or is “At the centre of myself, in this centre which is still unconscious today…” (68), it “…is asleep is us.” (153) and the key task is “…nothing else than the becoming conscious of existing which actually is unconscious in me…” (25)
Benoit also mentions the inadequacy of the Freudian approach directly:
“The Zen master…sees the Freudian unconscious not indeed as a real unconscious but as the deepest and most obscure source of the discoursive consciousness…”
This points to the possibility that Freud didn’t go deep enough. Or, perhaps he was digging down into the wrong well. It could translate – perhaps unfairly – as the difference between digging to the bottom of a muddy pond (at the bottom of which is only more mud) – verses breaking out of prison, the end result of which is freedom.
(Side note: Robert Assagioli in Psychosynthesis made a point to distinguish the subconscious from the superconscious. This is key. Just because something “isn’t conscious” doesn’t mean it's the same, and should all be lumped together.)
A final passage from Benoit:
“Everything happens in me as if I believed myself exiled from a paradise which exists somewhere and as if I saw, in such and such a modification of the outside world of myself, the key capable of opening the door of this lost paradise. And I live in the quest of this key.” (170)
Summary: So, where does all this leave us?
If these thinkers are roughly on track, then what lies at the bottom of the unconscious, in so many words, is “God.”
This idea might seem a bit startling.
That said, it’s not a new idea. It’s been in play for thousands of years. Centuries ago, Meister Eckhart said this:
“A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don't know ourselves! Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox's or bear's, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.”
He also said this:
“To get at the core of God at his greatest, one must first get into the core of himself at his least, for no one can know God who has not first known himself. Go to the depths of the soul, the secret place of the Most High, to the roots, to the heights: for all that God can do is focused there.”
Thousands of years ago, the Upanishads also had more than a few things to say along these lines:
“Concealed in the heart of all beings is the Atman, the Spirit, the Self…”
“The little space within the heart is as great as this vast universe. The heavens and the earth are there, and the sun, and the moon, and the stars; fire and lightning and winds are there; and all that now is and all that is not: for the whole universe is in Him and He dwells within our heart.”
And even more:
“There is a Spirit which is pure and which is beyond old age and death; and beyond hunger and thirst and sorrow. This is Atman, the Spirit in man. All the desires of this Spirit are Truth. It is this Spirit that we must find and know: man must find his own Soul. He who has found and knows his Soul has found all the worlds, has achieved all his desires.”
…and so on. Scores of others seem to converge on this basic idea (as explored here.)
Of course, there's reason for caution in all this.
We can sometimes respond to these ideas in ways that aren’t helpful.
For example, we might reject it outright. Today – if we think God exists at all – we often see this “God” as exclusively transcendent, and only transcendent. We sometimes define God as a distant, remote, supernatural being or realm that’s far away from the muck and splatter of everyday life – and not all that relevant to what’s going on “down here,” if we’re being honest. (This is roughly a form of deism.)
But God is traditionally defined not as merely transcendent, but as both transcendent and immanent. God is both “beyond and within” – not merely beyond, but also within, or even “the beyond within.”
The familiar word “conscience” can play a key role here.
Most of us, if asked, “Do you have a conscience?” would automatically respond, “Sure! Don’t you?”
(A lack of this is one way we define psychopathy or sociopathy.)
But what is “conscience”?
In the most basic and practical terms, it’s often defined as something in us that knows something.
In other words, it seems to be a component of human nature that is also a source of knowledge.
This idea is accepted enough to be baked into many of our most fundamental laws. It’s even seen as something sacred, as in “our sacred conscience.”
But all this might raise just a few questions.
Or, yes – it might raise more than a few.
If God is at the bottom of the unconscious, what is “God”?
How does this align with the teachings of the major religions?
Does this mean we should all get a God complex?
Each of these questions could be a deep dive.
But instead of that, we’ll just briefly mention other trails we could follow.
The “What is God?” question is no small matter. We could jump into those waters here.
The “major religions” question is another grand adventure. Each religion approaches the matter differently, yet there are also some areas where they agree and overlap. The situation might work like the blind men and the elephant, where the same thing (an elephant) can be described in several different ways and from different perspectives. As in the passages above from the Upanishads, Hinduism describes the Atman, for example. Vedanta describes the Buddhi. Buddhism and Zen describe the “Buddha nature” or our “Original Nature.” Judeo-Christianity describes humans as made in “the image of God” with “the law written on [our] hearts.” The “original nature” of human beings, according to Judeo-Christianity, started in Eden, or Paradise. Along these lines, “the kingdom of heaven is within,” and for now, we see “through a glass darkly” (or through the doors of perception) – but at some point, we will “see face to face.”
One common denominator between these different approaches seems to be a faculty in us that makes meditation, prayer, and various forms of contemplative practice not just possible, but functional, practical, and effective. In this sense, human nature is like a Ferrari that we usually drive in first gear – but every so often, we figure out that there are higher gears. This “faculty” or “higher gear” seems to be some sort of back-channel direct line – a kind of cosmic Bat-phone. It isn’t merely a kind of antenna that (if we can become sensitive and tuned in enough) picks up the content for spiritual experiences. It also serves in the practical and everyday sense – as a sturdy basis for knowledge itself (in logic and truth in epistemology), our foundation for ethics (our ideas for how we should and shouldn’t act in ethics), and our overall understanding of the universe (our ontology or metaphysics.) The key idea of “conscience” is that there’s something in us that knows, and a lot of important things are built on that.
So, should this give us all a “God complex”?
In a word: no.
Just the opposite, in fact.
In a way, the problem might really be that we all already have a God-complex. It might be operating unconsciously, and that’s what’s causing the problems.
We’re sometimes quite surprised to find out that we aren’t the center of the universe, or all-knowing, or that we’re mortal.
And even when we do experience these things, we often find them hard to admit out loud.
But why? Why are these so often so hard to fess up to, even when they become undeniable? Why is denial so easy in the first place, even as a kind of default setting? In other words, why do we so naturally assume that we’re the center of the universe (or that we’re “self-ish”), or that we’re never wrong, or that we’ll live forever? Could it be that we secretly (or “subconsciously”) think that we actually are the center of the universe, or all-knowing, or immortal?
This might seem crazy when it’s said out loud (or when it’s made conscious.) But that’s the task: to make it conscious.
Getting down to the truth of the matter in all this might cure of us a God complex instead of giving us one.
Many of our problems, our angst and anxieties, our soul-warping ideas and insanities might come about when we suppress, ignore, and downplay all this instead of trying to understand and work with it.
That said, no small hazard lies in the opposite direction as well.
It’s also possible – and even not uncommon – for someone to skim a few sample ideas along these lines, misunderstand them, and misapply them, resulting in a casual declaration of, “I am God” or “I am a god or goddess,” like a status symbol logo we can wear or pin on our shirt. (This sometimes even happens to those of us who aren’t celebrities or politicians.)
But that approach misses the mark. It’s one thing to theoretically understand the hypothesis that “God” might lie at the bottom of our unconscious. It’s another thing just to assume it’s true, and then to assume that we’re already conscious of our unconscious, or that we’ve already made it conscious. (It is called “unconscious” for a reason.)
After all, even if this is all fully true, God lies at the bottom of our unconscious, not the top. We’re usually at the top.
The outermost layer of the onion doesn’t get to just declare that it’s the core.
There are plenty of red flags along these lines. Buddhism and Hinduism warn about maya or illusion, Judeo-Christianity warns about pride, sin, hardened hearts and darkened minds, the ancient Greeks warned us about hubris, The Matrix warned us about The Matrix, and so on. If we’re going to listen to the fun and flattering parts, it’s only fair to also listen to the rest.
So, the answer isn’t to simply declare ourselves gods and goddesses and be done with it. The warnings about “ego” and all the rest are pretty clear. They describe in some detail how this business can get pretty tricky, and the stakes in these matters are quite high.
Almost everyone agrees that success requires a degree of humility – the opposite of hubris – which again involves “knowing who you are” and who you aren’t.
So, the idea isn’t to anoint the ego as being fully enlightened.
Any teenager, media personality, or politician – anyone – can declare themselves enlightened. But few of us could actually hold forth like Buddha or Lao-Tzu, face death or torture like the martyrs, or act selflessly like the saints and sages. History shows that when kings start literally thinking they’re literally God, reality has a pretty effective and brutal habit of reminding them otherwise.
All to say: it’s one thing to understand a certain potential. It’s another thing to realize it.
The hard part isn’t understanding the idea of it. The hard part lies in realizing it, or making it real.
This difference is significant. It’s the difference between a menu and food, or reading a map versus hiking over actual terrain. It’s the difference between a trillionaire and a guy living in poverty who declares that he’s a trillionaire. He might insist something like this: “I’m a trillionaire, I just don’t have access to the money.” The “access” part is pretty important.
There’s good reason for caution in these realms.
That said, if this approach is roughly on track, it should be heartening.
This can recast the aim of psychology in an entirely new light.
No longer is therapy solely about a seemingly endless process of “healing wounds,” recovering from childhood traumas, developing better habits of thinking, or better adjusting ourselves to the mundane grind of the rat race. It’s not even, as Freud so inspiringly put it, to “change neurotic misery to ordinary suffering.”
It’s much better than all that.
All of this would imply that we aren’t mere puppets who must obey whatever we think our “genes” or “brain chemistry” are ordering us to do.
It might mean that when it comes to whatever game we play in life – or what we should do with ourselves in the short time we have here – we might find that some games are better than others, and some are much more fun to play than the usual wealth, fame, status, power, pleasure, etc., and so on. All of these might turn out to offer only consolation prizes, or sorry substitutes for the real thing. Some trophies might be much more rewarding.
And this all becomes something like a quest.
If our findings so far are on track, then our task becomes clear.
Our challenge is to make the unconscious, conscious.
It’s to “know ourselves,” all the way through.
If this points toward a seed in our nature, it invites and challenges us to give it water and sunshine, to clear away the weeds and predators, and nurture it in order to help it grow and flourish. That “seed” might be “our real self.”
We can act in ways that either push the unconscious deeper down or raise it up and bring it out where it can live and flourish.
That latter route, it seems, is better.
Jung once said, “…when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.”
We sometimes complain about our “fate.” But if Jung is right, we don’t have to just meekly submit to being ruled by “fate” or any other blind, impersonal forces. We can refuse to allow ourselves to be tossed around by luck and accident. In fact, we can reverse it. We have say in what we become conscious of and what we don’t. If the unconscious appears in our lives as fate, then we can seize control of fate by making the unconscious conscious.
This becomes an “inner journey.”
This “journey” isn’t merely one of healing for someone who thinks of themselves as psychologically wounded. It isn’t even someone embarking to become “their own best self,” for those who are serious about wanting to who wants to “live fully” their “best life” with “no regrets.” The aim and reward of all this isn’t merely a more functional mundane life (although that can happen as a side-effect.)
This journey is one we’re all on already.
It’s one we can’t not take. We’re already searching for “happiness,” and we don’t seem to know how to do anything but that.
But we often search in the wrong places. We can search in ways that prevent us from finding it. We can refuse to look at anything unflattering. We can insist on sticking to surfaces within easy reach when even though what we’re really looking for is in the depths.
It’s the hero’s journey, the quest for the Holy Grail, the effort to cleanse the doors of perception, to go pearl-diving in the depths of the soul, exploring the frontiers of the beyond within – the stuff of fairy tales and high drama. It’s the search for inner wholeness and completion, or the blossoming of nothing less than ourselves. It’s a task of both peril and promise. The “search for our self” can be the most difficult journey we can undertake, and the most rewarding.