Pagan Paths

Carl Jung's ideas have been influencing the development of Neo-Paganism 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 Neo-Paganism contribute to Pagan discourse and practice today? And might Jungianism serve as a bridge between the earth-centered and deity-centered Pagan communities?

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You Don't Know Jung, Part 5: Collective Unconscious

You don't know Jung ... and it's his own fault.  Jung concepts are frequently misunderstood by Pagans, both by those who love him and those who hate him.  Part of the confusion surrounding Jung is due to his choice of terminology.  Jung chose terms that -- at least when translated into English -- are commonly used to mean something very different than what he intended.  In this series, I discuss six Jungian terms which are easily and commonly misunderstood: psychic, energyselfindividuation, symbol, collective unconscious, and archetype.  In this part, I will discuss "collective unconscious".

I had intended to discuss "archetypes" next, but I realized that it is impossible to discuss archetypes without first explaining the nature of the collective unconscious.  It is common for Neo-Pagans and New Agers to speak about the collective unconscious like it is some kind of mystical group mind.  But there is nothing mystical about the collective unconscious.  It is simply that part of our unconscious which we have inherited through the evolutionary history of our brains.  It is distinct from the personal unconscious, which is a product of our personal experiences.  For this reason, Jung often called the collective unconscious the "objective psyche".

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Jung inferred the existence of a collective unconscious from the existence of dream material in his patients that could not be explained on the basis of the patients' personal experience, but which resembled material from mythology.  Jung wrote that "the whole of mythology could be taken as a sort of projection of the collective unconscious. . . . We can therefore study the collective unconscious in two ways, either in mythology or in the analysis of the individual. (CW 8, P 325, "The Structure of the Psyche").

According to Jung, this collective unconscious is a function of the brain, not the part of the brain which holds the personal memories of an individual, but the inherited brain structure itself.  This shared structure of the brain is the reason for the identity of symbols and myth-motifs across cultures and throughout history.  (CW 10, PP 12-14).

"The instinctive, archaic basis of the mind [...] is no more dependent upon individual experience or personal choice than is the inherited structure and functioning of the brain or any other organ.  Just as the body has its evolutionary history and shows clear traces of the various evolutionary stages, so too does the psyche.”  (CW 5, P 38). 

Because we share a common humanity, we also share certain psychic similarities, just as we share certain biology.

“[J]ust as the human body shows a common anatomy over and above all [individual] differences, so, too, the human psyche possesses a common substratum transcending all differences in culture and consciousness.  I have called this substratum the collective unconscious. [...]  The collective unconscious is simply the psychic expression of the identity of brain structure irrespective of all [individual] differences.  This explains the analogy, sometimes even identity, between the various myth motifs and symbols, and the possibility of human communication in general.” (CW 13, P 11). 

The collective unconscious then, far from being some mystical cloud of knowing, is just the archaic structure of our mind which all of humanity has in common by virtue of a shared evolutionary history.  

“It is really quite simple to explain.  Our mind has its history, just as our body has its history.  You might be just as astonished that man has an appendix, for instance.  Does he know he ought to have an appendix?  He is just born with it.  Millions of people do not know they have a thymus, but they have it.  They do not know that in certain parts of their anatomy they belong to the species of the fishes, and yet it is so.  Our unconscious mind, like our body, is a storehouse of relics and memories of the past.  A study of the structure of the unconscious collective mind would reveal the same discoveries as you make in comparative anatomy.  We do not need to think that there is anything mystical about it.  But because I speak of a collective unconscious, I have been accused of obscurantism.  There is nothing mystical about the collective unconscious [...] and it is really common sense to admit the existence of unconscious collective processes.  For, though a child is not born conscious, his mind is not a tabula rasa.  [...] The brain is born with a finished structure, it will work in a modern way, but this brain has its history.  It has been built up in the course of millions of years and represents a history of which it is the result.  Naturally it carries with it the traces of that history, exactly like the body, and if you grope down into the basic structure of the mind you naturally find traces of the archaic mind."  (CW 18, P 84).

In the next installment, we can proceed to clarify the nature of the archetypes which are to the collective unconscious, like organs are to the body.  (CW 11, P 845). 
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John discovered Jungianism and Neo-Paganism at the same time through the writings of Vivianne Crowley, Margot Adler, and Starhawk, and the two have remained intertwined for him ever since.  John is the managing editor at HumanisticPaganism.com, a community blog for Naturalistic Pagans. He also writes about his spiritual quest on his blog The Allergic Pagan (www.patheos.com/blogs/allergicpagan/), where he explores his personal religious history, Paganism, UUism, and Jungianism.

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