Soulwork: The Role Archetypes Play in Jungian Analysis

Guardian Spirit of the Waters by Odilon Redon for Archetypes blog post

A Conversation with Jungian Analyst Kenneth James (Part Three)

This post continues my conversation with esteemed Jungian analyst Kenneth James. In Part One, we focused on how Jungian analysis is different from conventional therapies and other analytic traditions. In Part Two, we discussed the importance of dreams in Jungian analysis. In Part Three, we turn to archetypes.

Perhaps you are wondering: Why pay attention to dreams and archetypes when our daily life seems on the verge of collapse? Stores are shuttered and bare. Some of us have lost our jobs. Some have lost our health. Many of us have lost faith in the possibility of a more just and equitable world. Isn’t turning toward our inner life rather indulgent?

Collectively and individually, we are in a state of transformation. The future is uncertain and our energies limited. To turn inward toward our dreams is to honor life’s mysteries and place trust in a source beyond our ego’s domain. In dreams, contradictions and paradoxes abound: we can be both shattered and strong, frightened and brave. We can run from the tiger, and in the next moment, be the tiger.

Think of a dream as a portal, or a portal leading to other portals, by which we enter wildly new terrain where at any moment fresh insights might impress themselves upon us.

Dr. Kenneth James for Archetypes blog postKenneth James holds the rank of professor emeritus after a 33-year career as a university professor and now devotes his time as founder and director of The Soulwork Center in downtown Chicago, where he practices as a Jungian analyst.

Dale Kushner: What is the definition of “archetype?”

Kenneth James: Archetypes are best conceived as organizing principles that are part of the human psyche simply by virtue of a person’s existence in the world of space and time. Archetypes in themselves are a priori givens and are not derived from an individual’s particular experiences in their lifetime. The images associated with particular archetypes, including visual images, myths, legends, scriptures, and any other artifacts of human presence on earth, are created through individual experience and cultural transmission. Thus, the images I associate with, for example, physical love and sexuality, will be informed by the mythological image of Aphrodite, or Venus in Roman mythology, because given my age, society, culture, and educational experiences, her mythic image emerges as dominant for me. The archetype-in-itself has no image, but images quickly attach to the archetypes. As I go through life, the archetype of physical love and sexuality is also amplified by my own personal experiences of physical intimacy, the attractions I feel, the images I encounter from art, cinema and literature, and even myths I encounter from other cultures and religions, either through education. From a Jungian perspective, experiences are not provided for us by the environment; rather experiences are constructed through an interaction between the archetypal ground and the particular day-to-day stimuli that we encounter.

D.K.: What archetypes have the COVID-19 virus constellated and how might they appear in a person’s psyche?

K.J.: The COVID-19 virus is an interesting phenomenon. All of the depictions of the virus offered in the media show a spherical center with projections coming off the surface perpendicularly. In Analytical Psychology, the sphere, or any mandala (circular) shape, is usually thought of as an emblem of the Self. Jung wrote that at times when an individual is experiencing significant chaotic emotional challenges in daily life, a round image may emerge in dreams or daydreams. Jung felt that the multiple axes of symmetry found in circles and spheres, all arranged around a center point, were an attempt on the part of the psyche to provide an image of order and stability in the face of psychic chaos. How curious then that the image we are given of the COVID-19 virus should be, of all things, a mandala.

COVID-19 Mandala by Christina Lee for Archetypes blog postIn my practice, dream images of the virus itself has not figured significantly, but the effects of the pandemic have appeared abundantly in dreams. Fear of being overtaken by a flood; concerns about whether the foundation of a high-rise building will be able to withstand the impact of runaway hurricane winds; jogging in territory familiar to the dreamer, but in spite of attempting to run “full out,” the dreamer feels like she is running through a lake of molasses—all of these have been dream images which, upon investigation between analyst and analysand, point to the anxiety, fear and confusion surrounding psyche’s attempt to come to terms with this exceptional time.

Perhaps the images that medical science has given us of the virus itself, the sphere with perpendicular protuberances, is a way for the Self to remind us that wholeness lies at the core of every experience. Even in the global chaos that we are now experiencing, the fundamental processes of life are in order and can be considered not only as destructive but also as providing an opportunity to form a new relationship to the world. Just as death and birth are characteristic of every cell of our bodies throughout our lifetimes, so may we be being reminded to find the wholeness amidst the chaos, move toward that, and begin to organize our experiences in a more coherent, symmetrical and balanced manner.

D.K.: How do archetypes figure in Jung’s view of the personal and collective unconscious?

Central oval of James Thornhill's "Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny" (1714) on Archetypes blog postK.J.: The archetypes are the organizing principles which constitute the collective unconscious. It is because of the archetypes that the collective unconscious exhibits such a high level of organizational structure, and why more or less direct expressions of the collective unconscious patterns such as are found in myth, fairy tales, religion, and literature are also highly organized with a rich web of connections among all the archetypal images in any given system. With this as a foundation, the personal unconscious also can achieve a similar architecture. Whereas the collective unconscious is populated with contents (the archetypes) which were never part of the space/time experience of any particular individual, the personal unconscious is composed of material that was at one time part of day-to-day experience. Aspects of this personal material, which may be thought of as residue from encounters in the so-called outer world, finds its way to the personal unconscious so that it may be processed by the ego and ultimately integrated into our understanding of who we are. Most of us discover the contents of the collective unconscious through intense consideration of personal experiences, including dreams, daydreams, projection, displacement, somatization, parapraxis, and synchronicity. These “disclosures” from the unconscious, if considered respectfully as sources of valuable insight into personal suffering, show the intimate connection Jung believed operated between personal and collective aspects of the unconscious.

D.K.: Does analysis involve trying to identify which archetype mostly closely “fits” an analysand?

K.J.: Absolutely not! To do such a thing is completely ego-based, which is not the Jungian way. Finding a fit can be seen as a sort of parlor-game approach to the collective unconscious made popular nowadays in a variety of ways, from decks of cards depicting subsets of “the archetypes,” to disjointed considerations of individual mythic characters who may be seen as motifs that may, at times, bear a strong resemblance to some aspect of an individual’s life. If we try to identify “the” archetype which “fits” an analysand, we would be doing the opposite of what analysis seeks to accomplish. Such a static understanding of the archetypes ignores completely the vast web of interconnection among all of the archetypes of the collective unconscious.

The meaning of analysis is “loosening.” Therefore, one goal of analysis is loosening up the unconscious identification with particular episodes in one’s personal history. Analysis can also shed light when we feel stuck in patterns of relationship to our experience which, upon deeper consideration, can be seen to exemplify particular archetypal motifs. This loosening comes about by exploring the connections among archetypes and finding ways of encouraging psychic movement that can free us from the possession we can experience at the archetypal level. It is perhaps more correct to say that we come to analysis already unconsciously identified not only with aspects of our personal history but also with a fixed subset of the characters and situations from the archetypal ground. Analytic work seeks to free us from those unconscious identifications. We are always far more than we can ever believe ourselves to be, and analysis makes this abundantly clear. Throughout our lifetime, we will experience many parts of the archetypal ground, and believing there is one particular node or element of that ground that “fits” me is an egoic attempt to control the dynamic nature of the human person. It is this dynamism that analysis seeks to support and encourage.

This closes my three-part conversation with Jungian analyst Kenneth James. I described my own experience with Jungian training in “Treating Patients or Creating Characters,” and my decision to choose to become a novelist rather than a therapist. No surprise that readers sometimes comment on the Jungian themes in my novel, The Conditions of Love. I’m happy to participate virtually in reading group discussions of my work, and the themes I explore, whether Jung, dreams, archetypes, resilience, mother/daughter relationships, intergenerational trauma, etc. You can find information on how to reach me on my Contact page.  

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Soulwork: Why Dreams Are So Important in Jungian Analysis

The Strange World of Your Dreams comic book cover for Jungian Dreams blog post

A Conversation with Jungian Analyst Kenneth James (Part Two)

This post continues my conversation with esteemed Jungian analyst Kenneth James. In Part One, we focused on how Jungian analysis is different from conventional therapies and other analytic traditions.

The COVID pandemic is reshaping life as we have known it on the planet. For many, the absolutes we have counted on to sustain us during times of crisis have already disappeared. That we have lost all sources of income, that our hospitals are understaffed and inadequately supplied, that we may die alone without a beloved near are the unthinkable realities we must now face. During the long weeks ahead, fear, loneliness, and despair will be uninvited visitors. As our sense of catastrophe deepens, so will our feelings of isolation. How can we cope? One way is to turn inward and pursue a relationship to our inner world. In this second conversation, Dr. Kenneth James will discuss the importance of dreams and how making the unconscious conscious is a giant step toward becoming self-enlightened.

Kenneth James is a Jungian analyst in private practice in Chicago. He holds a Ph.D. in Communicative Sciences and Disorders from Northwestern University, and a Diploma in Analytical Psychology from the C.G. Jung Institute of Chicago. Dr. James holds the rank of professor emeritus after a 33-year career as a university professor and now devotes his time as founder and director of The Soulwork Center in downtown Chicago where he practices as a Jungian analyst.

Dale Kushner: Most contemporary models of psychological counseling do not value the examination of dreams. Why do Jungians place so much value on dreamwork?

Kenneth James: The dream is considered the purest expression of unconscious dynamics, both personal and collective. Jungian work is not strictly speaking ego-based. We rely on disclosures from the unconscious to guide us in analysis and more importantly, in life outside of analysis. There are many ways that the unconscious seeks to communicate with the ego. These ways include daydreams and reverie, projection, displacement, somatization (the production of medical symptoms with no apparent organic cause), parapraxis (the so-called “Freudian” slip) and synchronicity. Dreams we have while we are asleep are highly esteemed because the ego is not involved in the generation of dreams (while we are asleep, the ego is absent). By examining dreams, the analyst and the analysand are guided to explore critical areas of the analysand’s life that may lead to unsuspected breakthroughs in self-understanding and growth of consciousness.

D.K.: In your experience, how does working consciously with dreams benefit an individual?

K.J.: Dreams point both the dreamer and the analyst toward issues and concerns that are in need of exploration and understanding. These may not be considered important by the ego, but when considered calmly and openly, dreams can awaken awareness of connections that can help the dreamer resolve problems, alleviate suffering, and calm conflicts. I often refer to dreams as the “MRIs” of the psyche. They show what the ego can’t see. A skilled analyst can use the dream to help the analysand explore areas that may not be brought up in any other way. Dreams circumvent the dominance that the ego wishes to claim for itself, and help facilitate both individuation (see Part One for our discussion of individuation) and its close companion, the relativization of the ego to the unconscious.

D.K.: Is there a positive side to nightmares or so-called bad dreams?

Mysterious Dream by William Blake for Jungian Dreams blog postK.J.: Although uncomfortable for the dreamer, nightmares can serve as “stat” directives for the analysand and analyst, calling us to deal with something right away, now. Nightmares can be thought of as dreams that will no longer be ignored. Nightmares often motivate people to question what is going on at deeper levels of human personhood, and as such can be valuable in bringing the ego to the place it needs to be for psychological health. No matter how hard we try, we cannot take into account all of the exigencies of human life. The ego is always thwarted when faced with phenomena that can be referred to as luck, fate, and hazard. Each of these is an event that happens without regard for causality, intention, planning, or personal volition. We go along in life, making our way and formulating decisions, and if all goes smoothly, things seem like they are under our control. This is a pernicious egoic illusion, or perhaps delusion. Experiences of luck (who knew that would happen?), fate (I had no choice, I was destined to undergo that event) or hazard (an event that seems to come out of nowhere, usually suddenly, with significant consequences for the individual) show the ego that, despite its good-faith efforts to plan and provide for all contingencies, life has more to offer than any ego could dream possible. The nightmare supports this, bringing the ego to the place where it can experience fear, and possibly terror. This capacity for utter terror, which would be avoided at all costs by the ego, serves to shake up the complacency of even the most resistant person, if the nightmare can be respected for its gifts, and not explained away as “nothing but a dream.”

D.K.: Can you give some examples of how dreams contribute to the development of the individual?

K.J.: Dreams can help individuals approach events in their lives more slowly and reflectively than one might do habitually. Because dreams can shine new light on situations and relationships that the ego thinks it already understands, an individual who can become more open to dream symbolism will find new and different perspectives by which to consider aspects of their experience. Dreams are viewed as works of art produced by the unconscious, and as such, can be explored again and again throughout one’s life. Jungians rarely simply “interpret” a dream and then abandon it as having been understood. Dreams never cease to be sources for deeper and deeper insight. A dream image, whether a person, place, or event, can serve as a seed for what Jung referred to as “active imagination.” Active imagination is sometimes referred to as “dreaming the dream forward.” In active imagination, the individual gets into a relaxed state and focuses on a particular element in the dream.

Glory of Commerce (1914), a sculptural group by Jules-Félix Coutan (1848–1939) featuring Mercury as the central figure atop Grand Central Terminal, New York City for Jungian Dreams blog postFor example, one analysand had a puzzling dream about being in Grand Central Station, a place familiar to him because he was born and raised in New York City. He wondered why he should dream of what was to him a very mundane setting. I suggested he do an active imagination on Grand Central Station, relaxing his body and then focusing his mind on the place, letting himself move through it as though exploring it in waking life. His visions began in an ordinary way, and he went through areas of the station he remembered from waking life. But then he turned a corner in the imagined station and found a doorway down to the sub-sub-basement, where he witnessed rats carrying on their lives unbeknownst to the people bustling to meet their trains or greet their loved ones. He then was taken, in the active imagination, to the top of the station, where he saw a large statue. He didn’t know what it was. When we discussed his active imagination, I suggested that he investigate what statue might be on the top of Grand Central Station. He did, and discovered it was a statue of Mercury, or Hermes in the Greek mythological form. I explained that Hermes/Mercury was the messenger of the gods, entrusted with carrying messages from humanity to the Olympian realm, and returning with divine message for mortals. He then said, “so Mercury is what helps us do this analytic thing!” I agreed. I believe that one of the functions of this dream of Grand Central Station for this analysand was to help him accept the reality and the autonomy of the psyche. He also was able to see that the rats might represent things going on “really deep inside me” that he either ignored or judged to be disgusting. Because of his valuing of the dream, he came to see that even the disgusting parts need to be witnessed, understood, and respected.

Please watch for Part Three of my conversation with Dr. Kenneth James. This series is an invitation to turn toward your deepest internal resources. How we respond as individuals to the overwhelming emotions generated by this global crisis will affect not only our own lives and those in our circle, but the entire planet. When we know ourselves, when we can name and face our fears, we are in a stronger position to act with clarity and brave hearts. We also recognize we are joined to others in our suffering. As Buddhist teacher Tara Brach says, “What if compassion could go viral? What if love could?”

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”