Archetypes and Healing in Psychotherapy

Many people who have some idea about the work of the Swiss psychiatrist, C.G. Jung (1875-1961) know that there was a time he worked with Sigmund Freud and that he was responsible for developing the idea of the collective unconscious. They may also be familiar with some of the archetypes that make up the collective unconscious, such as the “great mother,” the “wise old man,” or the “trickster,” to name a few. The idea of the “archetype” was not new when Jung made such good use of it but his application of it to depth psychology was a unique and creative contribution. The idea is one that has increasingly strong roots in both studies of subjectivity such as psychotherapy and in neuroscience with advances in the understanding of the working of the brain.

Let me share with you a haiku by the 18th century Japanese poet, Issa:

A dry riverbed
By lightening

The poem reveals itself as an intuitive flash that grips the listener in a moment. The idea of being glimpsed by lightening suggests darkness and mystery, invisibility, and then an instant of complete illumination that disappears as quickly as it came. The haiku gives the listener an image of opposites, darkness and light, suggestive of the polarity of rational and irrational. C.G. Jung maintained that it is only in giving each pole of an opposition its due that a psychological situation can be comprehended most fully. Native American medicine man Bear Heart explained that the eagle was considered sacred because it flies high enough to see both sides of a mountain at once whereas man is limited to seeing only one side at a time. Going back to the haiku, it evokes an image that works in the imagination and has an emotional resonance.

I like to think of the life energies flowing through the archetypes as having their source in the outer edges of a vast unknowable darkness. Perhaps you are familiar with the Kabbalistic idea of the Ein Sof, the “without end” of eternal nothingness that lives in every moment yet is also the pure potential that has existed since the very instant of creation, an eternal infinite energy without which nothing could exist if it ceased to exist for even a moment. The Kabbalists used the image of an inverted tree with its roots above and branches below to symbolize this flow of energy from the universal to the individual, a metaphor Jung also used to show how the roots of the collective unconscious and the archetypes are the wellspring and underlying substance from which personal experience emerges.

I mentioned that the archetypes are also consonant with advances in neuroscience. How? The idea of the mind as a “tabula rasa,” a blank slate, has now been shown to be false. Instead, we now understand that the human infant, like every other living thing, comes into the world with preset ways of seeking out and organizing experience. Furthermore, these inborn characteristics interact with the environment in a process of dynamic mutual interaction that create and shape foundational inner images or schemas (appropriately called “image schemas”) in characteristic ways. For example the preference neonates show for geometric patterns that mimic the arrangement of the human face, a propensity that serves their survival need to find the mother and suckle, plays a seminal role in the formation of the “archaic” and “typical” (hence “archetypal”) inner image of the mother, with all the emotion that is connected with that image. The specific forms that image takes depend on many factors in the particular mother-infant relationship, but all mother-infant relationships are variations on the universal theme of a dependent baby born into a world seeking the nurturing and safety of its mother.

How is this relevant in psychotherapy and Jungian analysis? How is this rather esoteric idea useful in helping when we are suffering from overwhelming fear, worry, confusion, or sadness – when it feels that life has let us down and we are drifting without purpose or hope? An answer to these questions is suggested by understanding that the healing relationship is a special one, unlike any other, in which two people are together in a unique way that allows the energies of all the potentials contained psychologically within the archetypal forms to become activated. Through the patient telling his or her story, and the analyst’s or therapist’s attentive and careful and concerned listening, a new situation is created in that moment. Throughout human history it has been our stories about ourselves that contain image and emotion that give our lives meaning and serve as guides for our lives. It may sound strange to some in the 21st century but it is not a pill or changes in thought patterns alone that cure the ills that plague us. Our suffering is changed when we change the way we find meaning in our experience of living. In this way the archetypes of the collective unconscious, when recognized in the context of a sensitive and thoughtful human relationship, have the ability to bring greater meaning to our lives.

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