Mythfire Looks Forward (“The Power of the Unconscious”)

Mythfire is a work in progress. Whether we look at ourselves individually or collectively aren’t we all a work in progress? This is one of the most basic themes of this blog site. Another basic theme of this site is that there is much more to the (human) psyche than our egos are usually willing to admit. This entry looks briefly at rationality versus a particular type of “irrationality.”  In the post-Enlightenment scientific era, of course, the “irrational” has taken on predominantly negative connotations: anything that subverts the ego’s belief in its supremacy, anything that questions dearly held “truths” or is seemingly outside the “norm(s)” is perceived as untrue, unreal, to be disproven, and even dismissed out of hand.

However, events which defy rational understanding (and thus are deemed “irrational”) undeniably occur. Take this past week for instance. Travelling back home after the holidays I was seated next to a woman on a flight from Orlando to Milwaukee. Probably in her late seventies or early eighties she was travelling with her teenage granddaughter. The granddaughter called her grandmother “Nana.”

Often while on airplanes I prefer to stay in my own world, generally my nose in a book. This time, in fact, after having slept very little the previous night, I was attempting to catch up on rest. Nevertheless, Nana and her granddaughter, thanks in part to the latter’s ADHD, were quite friendly and talkative. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and at some point I mentioned that I work at the C.G. Jung Institute in Los Angeles and that Jung was a colleague of Sigmund Freud’s. Nana gave no evidence of recognizing Jung’s name. I also mentioned that I am a graduate student in mythological studies and she perked up, replying that she had read a very interesting book on, I believe, the myths of ancient Greece.

Then, as if out of the blue, she told me a story that caught me by surprise.  I don’t know what moved her to share it with me.  Nana had been married for 47 years or so when her husband passed away. They had been church-going Catholics, though Nana somewhat reluctantly, and in fact she stopped going to Mass after her husband’s passing. (As she told me, “I was tired of going to confession because I had nothing to confess!”).  Just to insert something here quickly: another key idea to this blog site and to Jung’s depth psychology is that the religious life does not automatically end if one rationally decides to leave one’s previously chosen religion. What happened next to Nana bears this out.

One day Nana felt an inner compulsion that she couldn’t understand. She approached her daughter and said, “I don’t know why but I just have to go to the Barnes & Noble bookstore!”  The two of them proceeded to the store. Nana told me what happened once at her destination. “I was inside the store and a book jumped out at me, and no matter how I tried I couldn’t put it down!” The title on the book’s cover was The Power of Your Subconscious Mind by Joseph Murphy. Nana purchased the book, took it home, and read it.  Whatever moved her to share the story with me it is clear that this unusual – and unusually powerful — event continues to affect her to this day.

Some of you reading this now may be thinking something along the lines of “isn’t that a nice story.” Or, “oh, Nana must have heard that title somewhere and subconsciously been on the look-out for it.” Some of you might even feel threatened on some level by this story. These are all attempts of the rational mind, of course, to dismiss the presence of an unknown Other, irrational force that comes “as if out of the blue” into our daily waking life and, moreover, upsets our rational understanding of how things (ought to) work. I mentioned to Nana how her experience perfectly exemplifies what Jung termed synchronicity: an inner psychic state that is mirrored by an external physical event in such a way that a “numinous,” i.e. spiritual or religious, feeling is produced. In Nana’s case, something inside of her at that period in her life needed the type of knowledge contained within Murphy’s book. Her inner psychic need was then mirrored by the external appearance of the book and the force with which it gripped her. (Notice I didn’t say “the force with which she gripped it”!).[1]

Nana went on to tell me that she does not believe in the God of any one particular religion but that we are all spiritual beings, all energetic life forms, able to come into contact with what she called “the Higher Self.”  I think that I mentioned how Jung often used the term “the Self” when describing this “higher” agency. What I didn’t mention but do for the sake of this blog entry is that Jung had numerous such experiences, as did his patients, and he was the first to undertake an empirically scientific study of these occurrences. He coined the term “synchronicity” and wrote the seminal essay on the subject: “Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle.” Such experiences are “acausal” because a definite rationally satisfying cause cannot be linked directly to the resulting synchronistic effect. (Nana did not volitionally cause her inner compelling desire, much less did she or any other readily obvious source cause the book to “jump out” at her once in the bookstore).[2] Importantly, it is also a “connecting” principle because synchronistic events connect us with something outside ourselves, i.e. “a Higher Self,” a connection, furthermore, which is often characterized by a sense of wonder, mystery, purpose and meaning.

Finally, by virtue of how it makes itself known to us in a mysterious and rationally unknowable way, this “something outside of ourselves” is considered “irrational.” Jung sometimes preferred the term “non-rational,” however, as the egoic mind has saddled the word “irrational” with negative connotations. To repeat and in so doing bring this post to a close, as Mythfire moves forward this year one of its thematic questions will continue to be this: in a world that puts such a premium on the rational scientific mind, how can we also increase our awareness of and appreciation for the role that the non-rational unconscious plays in our lives?

There is so much more to life, to “truth” and to being than most of us presume to “know” at any given moment. Perhaps attitudinal traits to continue fostering in 2011, then, include humility, curiosity, respect, and connectedness – whether it be connectedness to “a Higher Self” or to the person sitting next to you as you continue on your journey.

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Next Post:  Friday, January 14


[1] It’s important to repeat that Mythfire is not suggesting everyone should go out and read Murphy’s book or that it is somehow a necessary revelation for all people at all times. Rather, each synchronistic experience generally occurs at a given moment and is meaningfully directed, you might say, toward the person experiencing it. Relatedly, my initial reaction to Murphy’s book and its title is that the emphasis in the book is still on (increasing) one’s own possessions. In other words, ego-based desires. Even the title “Your Subconscious Mind” suggests the wielding of the subconscious as a tool for one’s personal ends. As an innocuous example, Nana told me that every night she tells herself what time she is going to wake up the next morning and she wakes up at that exact moment. Jung’s use of the word “unconscious,” however, rather than “subconscious” – and lacking the possessive “your” or the more anthropomorphic term “mind” — more accurately conveys both the otherness of the “power” involved and how on some level this otherness is ultimately unknowable and mysterious. Moreover, by using the term “the unconscious” (or elsewhere the “objective psyche” or “autonomous psyche”), Jung similarly conveys something of the “transcendent while immanent” nature of “the Higher Self.”

[2] Professor of Physics and Astronomy Victor Mansfield writes of a similar occurrence in Synchronicity, Science, and Soul-Making. In this “synchronistic interlude” – entitled “A Reading Invitation” – a copy of Jung’s volume Aion literally jumps off of a bookshelf on three separate occasions before the experiencer decides, in my words, “well, um, maybe I should open this book up.” See Mansfield pages 161-165. The frontispiece image from Aion is depicted above.

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