Dreaming the Myth Forward: Jungian Neopaganism
Carl Jung's ideas have been influencing the development of Neopaganism from its inception in the 1960s and 1970s. But what if Jung's ideas have been misunderstood by many Pagans: literalized on the one hand and oversimplified on the other? What fresh insights can a Jungian Nepaganism contribute to Pagan discourse and practice today? And might Jungianism serve as a bridge between the earth-centered and deity-centered Pagan communities?
You Don't Know Jung, Part 1: Psychic/Energy
I'm taking a break from my Jungian Pagan practice series to talk a little about Jungian terminology. Jung is one of the most used and abused thinkers in Pagan discourse. His concepts are frequently misunderstood, both by those who love him and those who hate him. Part of the confusion surrounding Jung is due to his choice of terminology. At times Jung could be very specific about what certain terms did and did not mean, and at other times he seemed to use terms in precisely the way that he said they should not be used. To make matters worse, Jung chose terms that -- at least when translated into English -- are commonly used to mean something very different than what he intended. I want to discuss five Jungian terms which are easily and commonly misunderstood: psychic, energy, self, individuation, symbol, and archetype. In this post, I will address the first two terms: "psychic" and "energy".
Let's start with an easy one: "psychic". Outside of a Jungian context, "psychic" commonly evokes associations with telepathy and telekinesis. But in a Jungian context, the term simply means "of or relating to the psyche". Many Pagans believe in psychic phenomena, so they may misunderstand Jung's use of the term. While Jung did believe in the reality of phenomena which we today would call "psychic", he was not referring to these phenomena when he used the term "psychic". "Psychic" just means something having to do with the psyche.
Jung uses the term "psychic" in the same way that we commonly use the term "psychological" today. The term "psychic", while somewhat misleading, is more appropriate adjective for the psyche than "psychological", because from a Jungian perspective the psyche consists of much more than the logical part of us. While the term "psychological" is often used reductively or dismissively today, Jung felt strongly that that which is "psychic" is very real:
“I hasten to add that I am not alluding to the vulgar notion that anything ‘psychic’ is either nothing at all or at best even more tenuous than a gas. Quite the contrary; I am of the opinion that the psyche is the most tremendous fact of human life. Indeed, it is the mother of all human facts; of civilization and of its destroyer, war. All this is at first psychic and invisible. So long as it is ‘merely’ psychic it cannot be experienced by the senses, but is nonetheless indisputably real." (CW 9i, PP 206-207)
"Energy" is a term that gets thrown around very loosely in Pagan discourse. Jung seemed to use the term "energy" more in his earlier writings, when he was more concerned about sounding scientific. But when Jung wrote about "psychic energy", he was not talking about it in the way that many New Agers and Pagans might. For Jung, psychic energy meant to "libido". And for Jung, "libido" meant desire or appetite, but not just of a sexual nature. It is what might be called the "drive to life". I personally find it useful to substitute the word "potential" for "energy" in Jung's writings, which seems to avoid the confusion associated with the latter term.
The confusion around this term is caused in part because Jung used the concept of "psychic energy" to analogize psychic processes to physical ones. For example, Jung theorized that the psyche is a self-regulating closed system which follows a kind of psychic law of conservation of energy, such that psychic energy which disappears from the psyche in one place (i.e., the conscious) will reappear in another place (i.e., the unconscious). He also theorized that in a healthy psyche energy "flows" or moves, but in an unhealthy one it becomes "blocked". But this is merely an analogy to physical systems, and it would be a mistake to confuse "psychic energy" with electrons or electricity, or to think that "psychic energy" can effect change in the material world without corresponding physical action.
For more on "psychic energy", see Jung, "On Psychic Energy" in Vol. 8 of the Collected Works; and see Mary Esther Harding, Psychic Energy: Its Sources and Its Transformations (1973).
Next time: "Self"
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