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.
Kenneth 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.
In 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?
K.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.”
One definition of what separates us from other species is our ability to construct narratives from our random thoughts, memories, and imaginings. We are a species of storytellers. How and why we construct stories remains a mystery, one being explored by biologists, anthropologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, and researchers in semiotics and linguistics. One common thread in the research is that stories help us make sense of our lives.
Brian Boyd, author of On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, suggests that we are hard-wired to tell stories. Boyd argues that art, in general, and fiction, in particular, have evolved from cognitive play and serve an evolutionary survival function. Our oldest stories, our myths and fairy tales — the story about the hunter and the stealthy lion, or the one about the fox and his invisible cape — may have determined whether our primordial ancestors lived or died. Over time, these stories have become embedded in the warp and woof of our culture, and while the danger of a humanly cunning lion may no longer fit our lifestyle, we get the point. Viewed literally, lions can maim us; taken symbolically, understanding and honoring the ways of an intelligent and powerful predator might help us navigate certain obstacles in our lives.
I’ve recently written several blogs about fairy tales. Fairy tales present simple stories that are still relevant as guides to the archetypal patterns in our unconscious minds. They are also teaching stories and cautionary tales that speak to the mythopoeic in our psyches, that aspect of our minds that think in metaphor and symbol. Like our ancestors who lived closer to nature, and like the cosmologies of many indigenous peoples, we, too, have the capacity to experience a tree as a spirit helper or a demon or a bewitched prince. While the earliest folk tales emerged from peoples who possessed a less sophisticated notion of the world, their repertoire of emotions and the stories they wove around them were not dissimilar to our own. Greed, loneliness, jealousy, sorrow — these continue to be our human burden. Cinderella, Bluebeard, Sleeping Beauty are our contemporaries, their journeys to selfhood or self-destruction familiar to our modern souls.
One way to more fully experience the wisdom of fairy tales is to write your own. Through objectifying the contents of our unconscious by drawing, sculpting, writing, dancing, we find the healing symbols within. The Red Book is a record of Carl Jung’s own plunge into an almost psychotic state after his break with Sigmund Freud in 1913. Characters from his unconscious welled up in his conscious mind. Methodically, with terror and fortitude, he recorded his dialogues with these characters as if they were flesh and blood and Jung even painted images that illustrated his experiences with them. Jung sometimes feared during this period that he was toppling into a psychotic state, but by working consciously with these figures, he found he was able to hear their wisdom “from the other side.” These encounters later lead to his theory of Active Imagination, which he somewhat describes in this advice to an analysand about working with her dreams.
“I should advise you to put it all down as beautifully as you can — in some beautifully bound book,” Jung instructed. “It will seem as if you were making the visions banal — but then you need to do that — then you are freed from the power of them. . . . Think of it in your imagination and try to paint it. Then when these things are in some precious book you can go to the book & turn over the pages & for you it will be your church — your cathedral — the silent places of your spirit where you will find renewal. If anyone tells you that it is morbid or neurotic and you listen to them — then you will lose your soul — for in that book is your soul.”
To begin, what is your favorite fairy tale? Most of us have a tale that has lingered since childhood, one that strikes a strong resonance in us. Rediscover the story that seems to be “yours” and reread it. That you choose one fairy tale over another is significant. Part of your inquiry is to ask yourself why. Does this tale say something about your life? Is your own myth about rejection or abandonment? Do you feel victimized and left in the ashes like Cinderella? Or pressured to be the hero and save your family from poverty like Jack in “Jack in the Beanstalk?” After you read your chosen fairy tale, ask yourself these questions:
- What is my reaction?
- What does this stir up in me?
- Have I lived something similar?
- What are the symbols in the story and what are my associations to them?
You might want to write your answers in a journal you set apart for this work. The magic of fairy tales is that they transport us into an enchanted realm that is itself “set apart” from ordinary life. By recording your responses to your fairy tale, you honor the creative storyteller in you. In attempting to become conscious of the story, you make sense of yourself.
The second part of this exercise is to rewrite your favorite tale using the story you chose as a jumping off point. The goal here is to get “inside” the story and write it from inside out. “The good writer,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the universe which runs through himself and all things.” This exercise isn’t about crafting a story that will make you a famous writer, it’s about discovering the richness, subtlety, and astonishing wisdoms of your inner life.
The guidelines for writing your new fairy tale are simple:
- Create a new setting for the story you chose. The writer Eudora Welty, who grew up in and wrote about the Deep South, reminds us that “feelings are bound up with place.” Instead of beginning with “Once upon a time” or “Long ago,” set your story somewhere specific. NYC, 2017. St. Petersburg under Tsar Nicholas. Setting is locale, period, weather, time of day. It includes sense perceptions —smells, tastes, sounds. What about a fairy tale set in a Wisconsin barn or a bar in New Orleans?
- Choose a character from your favorite tale and tell the story from his or her point of view. Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes. What would we learn if we heard the story of Rumpelstiltskin from Rumpelstiltskin’s point of view? Set your wild imagination free. What if Cinderella’s stepsister confesses she didn’t want to marry the prince, she only wanted to wear his splendid uniform!
In creating this new story you will surprise yourself. The process is one of discovery. Pay attention to what you dream during this process. With inner and outer vision, discover what animals appear to you. What song plays on the breeze? Don’t overthink, strive or fret. There are no rules. Whatever reveals itself wants your attention.
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.”
Anyone who has been raised by a cruel or neglectful mother can attest to a painful legacy of rejection. The effects of deprivation of good maternal care are uncontestably at the core of a host of psychological maladies. Our first relationship is with our mothers. Across cultures an infant’s first attempt at word-forming starts with babbling the sound Ma—mommy, maman, mater, mutti, amma, mare—as if from birth we are programmed to call out to the person most likely to sustain our lives.
But what do we make of negative mothers, those who do not care for and attend to us? Once, on a friend’s sheep farm where I’d gone to help with lambing, I witnessed the sad spectacle of a mother ewe rejecting her offspring. Tottering on its weak legs, the lamb struggled to nuzzle and suckle, but the ewe shoved the lamb from its udder. The lamb tried again, and again the ewe kicked and butted until the newborn lamb collapsed and gave up. Recently, while reading Peg Streep’s excellent book, Mean Mothers, this haunting image returned to me.
“. . . not all mothers love, unconditionally or otherwise. For the mother who doesn’t, the cultural myths of unconditional love and maternal instinct require her to hide and deny her feelings at all costs, even if she cannot always keep herself from expressing them in words or gestures. There’s no room in the mother myth for the mother who resents all the attention her infant or toddler needs, or who chafes at the necessary loss of freedom and self-focus the transition into motherhood usually entails.”—Peg Streep, Mean Mothers
Our personal mother may be cruel and inadequate in fulfilling our needs, but it’s helpful to enlarge our understanding of their influence by exploring the archetypal dimensions of motherhood and situating the personal within the context of the universal. As Carl Jung writes:
“. . . all those influences which the literature describes as being exerted on the children do not come from the mother herself, but rather from the archetype projected upon her, which gives her a mythological background and invests her with authority and numinosity.”—Carl Jung, Four Archetypes
Behind the personal mother is the archetype of the Great Mother. She is the force that drives creation and destruction, fecundity but also the barren womb. The Great Mother is Mother Nature who brings us fruit and grain but also hurricanes, drought, and locusts. She is Gaia, Demeter, Isis, and all the other goddesses from the beginning of time who have been worshiped and propitiated, demonized and thrown out. She is not our birth mother, she is the our psychic heritage of what motherhood attains, and she carries within her the poles of good and bad mothers that come down to us through fairy tales and myths.
“These are three essential aspects of the mother: her cherishing and nourishing goodness, her orgiastic emotionality, and her Stygian depths.” —Carl Jung, Four Archetypes
As the bad mother we know her as the queen in Snow White, as Cinderella’s stepmother, as Circe or Medusa, whose gaze turns us to stone. These figures stand for a reversal of positive mothering. Instead of providing food and comfort, they seduce and devour, harboring a secret malicious intent. They “eat up” our self-confidence or numb us with their betrayal. Many of us read these tales and identify ourselves in the narrative. We say, Yes, my mother is just like that, and we can understand that from the beginning of time there have probably been mean mothers, and realize, because of this long history, that we too can survive our own.
Among the archetypes, the witch is a fascinating figure. When someone calls another “a witch,” we know exactly what they mean. The witch has powers. She is uncanny and unholy. She lives outside the borders of civilization and has been ostracized because her ways stand in opposition to accepted values, thus challenging our own impulse to conform. To not conform, especially as women, puts us at risk of being called a witch (or the rhyming word that begins with a B).
“The witch figure presents an awesome image of the primordial feminine concern with herself. Maternal life spends itself like life’s blood flowing outward to nourish the sounds and bodies of loved ones. In the witch figure, life flows inward and downward to fuel the dark recesses of a woman’s psyche or a man’s anima.”—Ann and Barry Ulanov, The Witch and the Clown: Two Archetypes of Human Sexuality
The witch reminds us there may well be unnamable and untamable aspects of ourselves where passions stagnate and fester. What parts of us don’t fit into the conventional idealized feminine? Do we harbor an urge that wishes to transgress and to cross borders? Historically, innocent women have been tortured and killed because the prevailing masculine rule feared female sexuality.
What if we draw on the full complexity of the mother archetype and think of our mean mothers in another way: as women whose creativity has been stifled, the vital flow of their creative energies dammed up, ignored or rejected, and thus unavailable to be consciously used? Without a positive outlet, these women may experience a fixed negativity that damages their ability to nurture.
The hundreds of similar fairy tales illustrate the universality of certain psychic phenomena. In most tales, the witch is a persecutory figure. She pounces on victims who feel helpless to defend themselves. In reality, young children can be helpless victims of parental neglect, and good fairies do not always intercede. But as adults, we can see beyond our own situations to the archetypal dimensions that underlie our present reality and discover we do not suffer alone. In these tales, help of some sort usually steps forward to rescue the heroine, often in the form of animals, birds or toads. We can hope that these also represent archetypes: inner helpers cultivated in our own psyches who will lead us out of harm’s way.
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.”
As Mother’s Day 2015 approaches, I feel called to write about a subject I’ve lived intimately, a subject I’ve explored in The Conditions of Love and is now shaping my new novel Digging To China—the conflict many women feel between their creative and domestic selves.
Mother. Writer. Are these dueling destinies? How much do the roles oppose? Do the separate roles fracture our identities? How permeable or dense is the membrane between them? Mother. Writer. Where can we find the energy, the juju, the concentration, the tremendous love, care, and devotion needed in equal measures in both domains? Do you know what I’m talking about? I think you do!
Here’s what I can tell you about my own experience: I struggled. And I still struggle with finding a balance between putting myself into my written work and into relationships.