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  • H James

Exploring The Depths

There is never anywhere to go but in.

- Doris Lessing

In the 1960s a psychiatrist working for the Indian Health Service in North America was asked by a traditional shaman - a Hopi Indian called Herbert - what he knew about the mind. The psychiatrist considered some clever answers - perhaps involving the hypothalamus and so on - but somehow couldn't come up with a simple answer. A silence descended in the Medicine Man's humble dwellings (" White society we think something is happening when people are talking, in Indian society they know something is happening when there is silence") then presently he just snorted, "if you can't say what the mind is, then you don't understand it". The doctor had had enough of being snorted at "Well, what do you know about the mind?" he retorted. The shaman just smiled:"Mysterious" was his answer.*

Like many of us with a modern mindset, the ways of pre-industrial, tribal cultures can seem a little bizarre. There are strange spirits animating everything, obscure creation myths and mythological figures, often half-animal, half-human, not to mention cruel sounding initiation rituals, even sacrifice. If we think of them at all, we tend to dismiss them as a pre-historical culture's attempt to make sense of a harsh existence on nature's knife-edge. Yet this very strangeness of the symbols and rituals mirrors a fundamental truth: that there is a side to our existence that our rational minds can't, and perhaps never will, be able to explain, not in words and educated mental concepts anyhow. This other side to us normally evades our fickle attention. We rarely know it's there, yet it tugs at the edges of our consciousness and seems to influence every decision we make; it bubbles up in our dreams, makes us behave irrationally and sometimes even flares up in unexplained bodily pain.

These 'primitive' cultures were well aware of this hidden aspect of our minds. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung was fascinated by these cultures and their 'animist' beliefs; that, for example, a person might have a spiritual connection to an animal or tree, which became an ally and something to be protected and nurtured throughout life. He was also fascinated by their myths and strange symbols. Amongst the earliest cave paintings in Lascaux in France is what appears to be one of a shaman, laying on the floor in a trance, a bird-like figure emerging from his head. The bird is a recurrent theme in tribal cultures, thought to represent transcendence, an emerging of consciousness onto a 'higher' realm. Feathers worn by Native American medicine men or Siberian shamans were more than simple decoration: they symbolized these peoples' ability to reach other levels of consciousness.

The Trickster and the Twins

Far more than being entertaining stories, these myths often reveal a keen awareness of human psychology. For example the Winnebago Tribe of the Pacific North West had a mythology which not only told of the creation of man, but also the story of how our own consciousness developed. The story begins with the figure of the Trickster - often represented as a coyote - who could be considered similar to the character of Loki from Norse mythology. The Trickster is dedicated only to the satisfaction of his needs and will manipulate all and anyone to get what he wants. He is immature, instinctive and needy, but also charming. In the next stage of the myth the Trickster transforms into the Hare. The Hare was also often referred to as the Medicine Man, the figure who gave the gift of language and culture. The Hare represents the dawning of socialization in us. The next figure is the ambiguous Red Horn. This character was in a state of flux, but had increasing power and ambition, to the extent that in their adventures they often over-reached their abilities (much like the figure of Icarus in Greek mythology). The Red Horn often had a mentor; a spirit guide or animal to help them. The Red Horn would learn that they needed to submit to some kind of discipline, to make some kind of personal sacrifice in order to grow.

We can see how these myths reflect the development of civilization in general; with the move from instinctive, self-driven animals to social humans, and then onto civilized people, willing to submit to the rules of the tribe to further our survival. However they also mirror our individual personal development; from infancy (Trickster), to childhood (the Hare) and on to adolescence (Red Horn). And we can also see how some of us still appear to manifest traits of the above in our personality. Who knows someone who is still stuck, as it were, in the persona of the Trickster? How many of us perhaps had a prolonged period of Red Horn-like 'adolescence', spending many years in the wilderness before realizing that in order to progress we were going to have to submit to some kind of teaching influence?

There is a final part of the Winnebago mythology. The story ends with the final transformation into theTwins - 'Flesh' and 'Stump'. Flesh represents one side of us; earthly, habitual, happy to find a niche and stay there, maybe even a little lazy. Stump on the other hand was pro-active, energetic, restless and always seeking out new things. By themselves they didn't really achieve much but when they combined their energies - with great difficulty - they could conquer a great many things and overcome whatever challenge lay before them. The myth ends with them becoming so powerful that their energy becomes destructive, and they had to sacrifice themselves in order to save the world - though some versions simply having them winding down their ferocious activity and hanging up their tools as it were to make way for others.

The above myth was a guide, a way of navigating life's various stages. Ideally - the myth suggests - we progress through each persona until we reach maturity in the Twins-stage. Here the challenge is to combine through sheer force of will the opposite, conflicting sides of ourselves. And when we do reconcile these two 'twins' we find that we can achieve the unachievable, while of course bearing in mind that at some point this conquering will come to an end, though not necessarily in death but at least in a new start.

The Origin of Sin

In the European continent we developed into agricultural, feudal and often warring civilizations. If this celebration of our 'other side' survived it was as pagan rituals performed deep in the vast forests, or co-opted into organized religion which found ways to codify these customs and beliefs into an overarching 'story'. Our other side, our deeper reality, was now our Soul. If we weren't careful this Soul might be damned to a fiery perdition, but if we followed the rules and lived right - and had faith - then that soul would live on in a state of eternal glory.

And of course then there was Sin: the idea that we were all, deep down, sinful creatures and had been since we fell from a state of natural innocence. There is a subtle interpretation of the idea of Sin: that it perhaps equates to the birth of self-consciousness in us, when we became self-aware, 'ashamed' even, of our bodies and that it is this - shame, self-consciousness, filling our heads with ideas - instead of some vague sexual transgression that is actually Sinful, the cause of our suffering. However the less subtle view seemed to have prevailed. In this story it is actually our natural selves, our drives and intuitions, that are sinful and it is these which need to be repressed. Perhaps it is here where - unlike Eastern traditions which sought more to unify the mind and the body, to embrace the senses - we began putting space between our minds and our living and breathing sinful bodies?

Of course, it's easy to judge from the comfortable sofa of the present. Undoubtedly in the past religion played a crucial role in bringing communities together and making a tough existence tolerable. And rituals such as the confessional were precursors of modern therapy where people could open up their hearts without fear of judgment. But equally it is hard to deny the authoritarian role played by religion, putting 'a policeman in our heads', cultivating guilt, making suffering into a virtue. Sacrifice was no longer a symbolic renunciation of an old life in order to make way for the new, a part of the natural cycle, but became a permanent demand. It is curious to see how much this still plays out today. How far does the world of work and our economic system ride on the expectation that we sacrifice our current happiness for some better future? And does not the media present humanity as essentially bad, sinful, corrupt, doomed? Did the priests ever go away, or did they just change jobs?

The Birth of the Mind

It is often said that our modern view of the mind dates back to that great blooming of reason and science we call the Enlightenment. Descartes, in his famous phrase 'I think, therefore I am', is both credited with setting down the foundation of a rational understanding of the mind and cursed for splitting apart the mind and the body. Of course, it is a little unfair to blame him for this. As we've seen, this splitting process was already underway. Also, it is hardly surprising that an organic powerhouse such as the brain has a tendency to get a little self-absorbed, to make us forget much of the time that we have a body, that in fact we are a body.

It is fairer to say that Descartes was at the start of a tradition that attempted to look at the workings of the mind objectively and dispassionately (in Europe at least, Buddhism had been at this for several centuries already in Asia, not to mention Indian philosophy centuries before that). In many respects this was the start of the idea of a mind; something that can look at itself, reflect and contemplate. It was an attempt to break free from sin-based ideas and look at humans objectively. If there was a God, surely He gave us this Mind, this faculty of self-awareness, for a reason.

The Human Beast

However no matter how rational we were, despite technological advances such as printing, steam engines, electricity and bureaucracies, we did not seem to be getting any more civilized. The popularity of the novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was no doubt partly due to our ongoing fear of our other side. In his novel La Bete Humaine Victor Hugo similarly painted a vivid picture of how under certain conditions - in this case the dehumanizing effect of industrialization - people could revert to barbarianism, culminating in the castration of a callous factory owner by an angry mob! Hugo was on the side of the downtrodden, but the elites who ruled Europe were not, and the 19th century saw a wealth of publications revealing the extent of anxiety about 'the masses' and the darker side of human nature. It was as though civilization was just a thin crust on a boiling morass of human chaos. Moreover, with religion no longer exerting the pull it once did how were these forces to be controlled?

In the following century the powers that be discovered that they needn't have worried too much. One didn't necessarily need priests or a garrison of soldiers to maintain order. Being able to communicate with peoples' subconscious impulses - their fears and drives - was often enough to keep them civilized and exploitable. A stark illustration of this was the First World War, where fairly crude but effective propaganda was deployed to persuade hundreds of thousands of people to participate in a mass slaughter in which they had no immediate interest or stake. A few decades later the bold simplicity of 'Keep Calm and Carry On' - plus a little crown, just to remind us who's in charge - was so cheering as to enjoy a recent resurgence. The art of communicating to the subconscious became an entire industry, perhaps best personified by the figure of Don Draper in Mad Men, who between endless cigarettes, is able to penetrate into the psyches of 1950s Americans with his gnomic advertising advice.

The Subconscious

The concept of the subconscious was popularized by the early psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. They weren't interested in manipulation but rather the therapeutic benefits of psychoanalysis. They were able to intuit that a huge array of physical and mental illnesses seemed to have their origin in our subliminal or subconscious minds. They also made the bold and, it seems, accurate claim that most of our day-to-day activity and behavior was not, as we comfortably believed, due to rational thought but more often to subconscious drives about which we had virtually no understanding. The challenge as they saw it was to explore these uncharted depths. Also, and unusual for the time (and perhaps even today), they sought to break with the paternalist approach to healing whereby the doctor basically imposes their know-how onto the patient and 'treats' them accordingly. Rather, they realized that any kind of therapy is a dialogue, a to-and-fro between the patient and healer, where the latter can offer interpretations but should avoid imposing their will onto the patient.

We still use a lot of terms coined by the early psychoanalysts. Concepts such as introvert and extrovert, archetype and ego remain common currency. The analysis of dreams is not as popular as it once was but for Freud and Jung dreams were crucial. A little like the Native Americans mentioned earlier, they believed that no dream was insignificant. No matter how random, bizarre or obscene the dreams may be they always signified something. Dreams were essentially the unconscious trying to tell us something. Jung also believed that certain symbols in our dreams were manifestations of 'pre-historic' beliefs, pre-verbal symbols that we inherited much in the same way inherit - or seem to - certain traits like using our hands, or laughing, or fear of heights. Somehow we retain these 'primitive' beliefs on an instinctive level, and they appear in dreams as symbolic forms, or archetypes, that we are usually at a loss to explain. Moreover in contrast to our individual memories (our 'episodic memory'), these archetypes exist in the collective unconscious.

Freud's main contributions to our view of the mind was to unpack the role of unconscious in our everyday lives. Yet for Freud the work was simply to uncover these drives and hold a mirror up to humanity, to show us what we really are, warts and all. If we were very lucky we might become better people as a result, but don't hold your breath. Jung was a little more optimistic: he believed that the key to health was to harmonize with the unconscious, and certainly not to deny or repress it. The unconscious was like a magnetic field - the more it was pushed, the harder it pushed back. By instead merging our unconscious and conscious minds we could become better people and make our subconscious a source of great energy; an ally rather than, for so many of us, a damned nuisance.

Feeling versus Intuition

Although he didn't like 'frameworks' Jung divided our types of behavior into four functions: sensing, thinking, feeling and intuition. To summarize: sensing tells us something is there, thinking tells us what it is, feeling gives it a value (whether is agreeable or not) and intuition tells us - as Jung rather cryptically puts it - "whence it comes and where it is going". A key difference here is that feeling is essentially a rational act as it involves ordering things into basically 'good' or 'bad'. Intuition on the other hand is irrational: it is involuntary, a hunch, an act of perceiving rather than ordering. So while thinking and feeling fall into the realm of our conscious mode, sensing and intuition relate more to our unconscious reality.

This may seem at odds with the common belief that our feelings have little to do with thinking, or represent some deep truth within us. What is more, we are often encouraged to 'trust our feelings'. But really how reliable are our feelings? Are they not, more often than not, simply pre-verbal opinions or judgments which are all too easily often directed against ourselves? Of course, there is 'feeling happy' but I would argue that happiness is more of an intuition than a feeling - an intuition that what I am doing is good for me, or in the words of artist Marion Miller "the ultimate test of whether what I am doing is right." It is remarkable how often we ignore this, how we stick to commitments or relationships because we 'feel we should' rather than because they make us happy. For Jung it was important that we reconnect with this intuitive side. Modern society had fallen out of touch with intuition. In many ways this is a problem we find today; living so much in our conscious minds - thinking too much, beset by strong feelings about this or the other - that we lose our connection to our senses and our intuitions.

Before we leave the psychoanalysts there is one more point worth noting. We often tend to think about the unconscious as some kind of underwater sea, roiling beneath the surface. Or we see it as a 'layer' beneath our waking minds. Similarly we view dreams as being completely disconnected from reality. Jung made the point however that rather than being on a different level, dreams were more like reality being held at a lower tension, which is why time and space can become so fluid and random and why the strangest events can seem normal. Similarly we tend to consider our thoughts and emotions as occupying different levels in our minds, whereas what research is increasingly finding is that they all emerge from the same processes, and that in fact it is not possible to have a completely 'dispassionate' thought, or a feeling that is not in some way connected to our thinking. There is, in other words, no such hierarchy in our minds.

The Triune Brain

The idea of layers however has persisted and this is especially true when we look at our contemporary view of the mind. One of the most popular models of how our minds work (one I've often used myself) is that of the 'triune brain'. You'll no doubt be familiar with this. It's the idea that buried deep down we have our reptilian brain, then slapped over that we have our mammalian or limbic brain, and above this we have our modern 'neocortex'. Each 'brain' corresponds roughly to a stage in our evolution. As well as these layers the brain is composed of various units - like the amygdala, the hippocampus, the hypothalamus - which roughly take care of different emotions. Sometimes one of these parts overwhelms the others, such as in states of high stress when our mammalian and reptilian brains overwhelm our pre-frontal cortex, drowning out rational though in an unstoppable wave of neurotransmitters.

It is a persuasive model, and undeniably parts of the brain do appear to 'specialize' in certain emotions. Furthermore fMRI imaging has demonstrated that meditation, among other things, can reduce the activity of the amygdala and increase activity in areas which correspond to feeling generally calmer. However the triune brain model is not without its problems. It suggests the brain is a set of discrete units taking care of different jobs. It also perpetuates the false idea that our thinking and reasoning is somehow separate from our emotional processes. Yet we know that sometimes the most coldly analytical thinking takes places in a maelstrom of emotions. When we are thinking, feeling or emoting every part of our brain is involved and, just as there is no real separation between our body and minds, nor is there any separation within our minds. However, the idea that our brain has different layers, just as our mind has different layers, is remarkably persistent. Perhaps the reason is that it so often feels that way. Just as I sometimes feel like I have just 'surfaced' from a deep sleep, it also feels like I have a hidden side to me, a subconscious, or feels that my mind and body are separate. But just because something feels a certain way is it true? Maybe sometimes we need to go beyond our feelings in order to connect with our deeper intuitions.

Depth Psychology

For the psychoanalysts the key to well-being lay in acknowledging and exploring the depths of our unconscious. The problem is that in unskilled hands this can lead to endless analysis without any real insight, not to mention a great deal of charlatanism. It can also lead to a pre-occupation with the past. Certain behaviors and habits get attributed to past events, bad parents, repressed traumas, coping strategies and so forth and we are seduced into thinking that if only we can unlock these puzzles, then we will be fixed. This isn't entirely wrong. Traumas unquestionably do change people. The ability to 'unfreeze' those moments in the past when something blocked our development is profoundly liberating. It allows people to move on. However it isn't easy and requires a skilled and responsible facilitator. Crucially it also requires follow-through, because it's one thing to uncover the origins of one's behavior, but another thing to actually live differently, day-in, day-out and maintain that 'being someone new', especially amongst people you know, and to keep going despite the inevitable stumbles and relapses. True transformation is really a day-by-day practice.

And here perhaps is the main limitation of depth psychology: for while it is fascinating to know what makes us tick, good mental health often seems to boil down to the same thing - being really present in the world. Not repeating the same patterns of behavior in an attempt to resolve some past mistake, or ashamed of the past, or seeking things from other people in an attempt to feel whole, but being in the here and now and taking people for who they are. Here the 'why' is perhaps not so much as important as the 'how'. But as we all know this being present is at once the simplest and yet the most difficult thing to achieve.

Nonetheless it seems crucial to 'know thyself' and indeed when Socrates was asked to sum up his thinking this was top of his list. But how well do we know ourselves? Why do we make the choices we do? And when was the last time you thought about your dreams or took them seriously? We don't talk much about dreams anymore, and their power to teach us is being lost. In our merciless, utilitarian culture we tend to regard dreams as some kind of mechanism for de-cluttering our minds, all the better to be fresh for work the next day! Worse still, we have reduced the word 'dream' to its purely functional role as in 'wish' or 'desire', yet another something we must succeed at in order to be happy, another experience to tick off our 'bucket list'. The ability to look into our murky depths is perhaps something we are losing in our hyper-rational, hyper-real present. We tend to look outwards, to immerse ourself in virtual other worlds, but perhaps we need to take a time out now and again to explore our own inner world; for as Doris Lessing suggested in the opening words, to know where we are going we need to first know where we are coming from.

H James, 2019

Recommended reading:

*The Dancing Healers by Carl Hammerschlag

Man and His Symbols introduced and edited by Carl Jung

How Emotions Are Made by Prof. Feldman Barrett

Briefing for a Descent Into Hell by Doris Lessing

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