The Collective Unconscious
Where do “I” end and the “world” begin? One of the tasks of psychology is to answer this question. Ever since Freud, psychoanalytic theory has maintained that part of what I call “me” exists beyond my awareness and agency. Carl Jung attempted to map this region of the soul beyond our consciousness, and coined the term “unconscious” to demarcate that territory. For Freud, the unconscious was merely the dumping ground of the ego’s repressed contents. But Jung believed that the ego is a creation of the unconscious, not the other way around. For Jung, the ego emerges like an island out of a sea that is the unconscious. We tend to think of our psyche (or soul) as something “in” us. But if Jung was right, then this is a conceit of an ego-centric consciousness. The psyche is not something that is in us; rather we are in psyche.
The unconscious that Jung describe extends beyond the individual. He writes: “In one of its aspects the psyche is not individual, but is derived from the nation, from the collectivity, from humanity even. In some way or other we are part of a single, all-embracing psyche”. This is what Jung called the “collective unconscious”.
But Jung went even further, extending the psyche beyond the Cartesian barrier of our skin. Quoting the the alchemist Sendivogius, Jung wrote that the soul is for the greater part outside the body. In a letter in 1960, a year before his death, Jung extended the collective unconscious to encompass all of nature. Indeed, for Jung, psyche and nature were one and the same thing, but seen from different perspectives: “psyche” being the world seen from within, and “nature” being the world seen from without. Thus, Jung would write that we cannot touch the earth without touching spirit or soul. This insight led Theodore Roszak (who coined the term “eco-psychology“) to write that Jung’s collective unconscious might be the most important concept in contemporary psychology for the development of an ecological psychology.
“A Psyche the Size of the Earth”
It was left to James Hillman, Jung’s revisionist, to work out the implications of this idea. Hillman wrote about “a psyche the size of the earth”: “Man exists in the midst of psyche; it is not the other way around. Therefore, soul is not confined by man, and there is much of psyche that extends beyond the nature of man. The soul has inhuman reaches.” This is not anthropomorphizing, a simplistic projection of the qualities of human consciousness onto an unconscious world. Rather, Hillman attempts to turn our ego-centric world inside out. The world remains largely other-than-human, but the human ego is immersed in a soul-full world that is suffused with subjectivity, interiority, depth, and intimacy.
Hillman called the soul of the natural world the “anima mundi”. In doing so, Hillman extended the metaphor of ‘innerness’ to the world itself. To contact the soul one needs to go ‘inside’, but that ‘innerness’ is not exclusive to the human subject. Jungian David Tacey explains, “We can, with an attuned consciousness, find interiority in the world around us, so that as we go forth into the world we can see ourselves as walking through the soul of the world.”
This experience of interiority can be difficult to grasp intellectually, but it is the familiar territory of nature poets and mystics, like the Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman and the naturalist John Muir. Muir wrote, “I only went out for a walk, … going out, I found, was really going in.” Hundreds of years of intellectual conditioning causes us to see the world through a Cartesian lens. But in actuality, what Hillman describes is actually the most natural way of interacting with the world. Phenomenologist David Abram describes how poorly our everyday language reflects our pre-linguistic everyday experience: When we’re not thinking about it or talking about it, we do not live life locked up inside of atomistic selves, but spread out over a world which permeates us. We experience the world, in the words of Thomas Berry, not as “a collection of objects”, but as “a communion of subjects”. Levy Bruhl’s seemingly mystical participation mystique turns out to be just our ordinary, everyday way of being-in-the world. But with the rise of the modern self, with its Cartesian assumptions, our consciousness, in the words of “Jung”, “slipped from its natural foundations”.
The unity of psyche and nature described by Jung and Hillman means two things: First, we need to look to psyche for the cause and cure of the devastation being wrought upon nature. The origins of our environmental devastation can be located in repression by our ego consciousness of our link to the unconscious soul of the world, what Jungians call the “anima”. When we loose this contact with the soul of the world, then psyche seems to be withdrawn from the world and located exclusively in the ego which imagines itself to be its own creator. The Jungian term for this is “inflation”. The ego then seeks to project itself onto the world through power and domination. The result is our alienation from nature, both inner and outer. “As scientific understanding has grown, so our world has become dehumanized,” wrote Jung, “Man feels himself isolated in the cosmos, because he is no longer involved in nature and has lost his emotional ‘unconscious identity’ with natural phenomena.”
But the psyche cannot be ignored forever. Jung writes that psyche will destroy us if we ignore it. This is as true of the world-psyche as it is of the individual psyche:
“Western man has no need of more superiority over nature, whether outside or inside. He has both in almost devilish perfection. What he lacks is conscious recognition of his inferiority to nature around him and within him. He must learn that he may not do exactly as he wills. If he does not learn this, his own nature [and Nature] will destroy him. He does not know that his own soul [and the world-soul] is rebelling against him in a suicidal way.”
Thus, as David Tacey writes, we cannot solve the environmental crisis with the same mental approach that created it in the first place. We cannot reverse climate change and repair environmental damage until we have transformed our relationship to the world.
From Ego-Consciousness to Eco-Consciousness
What is needed, then, is a shift from ego-consciousness to eco-consciousness. In Jungian terms, this is called “individuation”; it is the realization of the a “Self” (capitalized here distinguish it from the ego-self). Jung describes the process of Self-realization as increasing identification with the world:
“[T]he more we become conscious of ourselves through [S]elf-knowledge, and act accordingly, the more […] there arises a consciousness which is no longer imprisoned in the petty, oversensitive, personal world of the ego, but participates freely in the wider world of objective interests. This widened consciousness is no longer that touchy, egotistical bundle of personal wishes, fears, hopes, and ambitions which always has to be compensated or corrected by unconscious counter-tendencies; instead, it is a function of relationship to the world … bringing the individual into absolute, binding, and indissoluble communion with the world at large.”
Hillman writes that “an individual’s harmony with his or her ‘own deep self’ requires not merely a journey to the interior but a harmonizing with the environmental world. The deepest self cannot be confined to ‘in here’ because we can’t be sure it is not also or even entirely ‘out there’!” Jung himself experienced something like this in the last words he wrote in his autobiography, where he describes how increasing identification with the natural world led him to a decreasing identification with the ego:
“Yet there is so much that fills me: plants, animals, clouds, day and night, and the eternal in man. The more uncertain I have felt about myself, the more there has grown up in me a feeling of kinship with all things. In fact it seems to me as if that alienation which so long separated me from the world has become transferred into my own inner world, and has revealed to me an unexpected unfamiliarity with myself.”
The Psyche Seen from Without
The unity of psyche and nature means a second thing: We need to look to nature for the cause of cure of the devastation being wrought upon our psyche. Our inner alienation and our outer alienation are mutually reinforcing. When we are cut off from nature, we are cut off from psyche, and vice versa. It should come as no surprise, then, that we can reconnect to psyche through nature. Jung observed this in reflecting upon the salutary effect of contact with nature,
“Whenever we touch nature we get clean. People who have got dirty through too much civilization take a walk in the woods, or a bath in the sea. They shake off the fetters and allow nature to touch them. It can be done within or without. Walking in the woods, lying on the grass, taking a bath in the sea, are from the outside; entering the unconscious, entering yourself through dreams, is touching nature from the inside and this is the same thing, things are put right again.”
We touch nature from the “inside” through contact with psyche, just as we touch psyche from the “outside” through contact with nature. Thus, Hillman explains that “an individual’s harmony with his or her ‘own deep self’ requires not merely a journey to the interior but a harmonizing with the environmental world.” Similarly, Jeremy Yunt writes, “the process of individuation depends to some degree on our ability to participate actively in the vitality, richness, and depth of the natural world.”
These insights form the basis of a newly emerging discourse called eco-psychology. Some of its most prominent representatives include James Hillman, Theodore Roszak, David Abram, Bill Plotkin, and Adrian Harris. The overlap of eco-psychology with much of Neo-Pagan thought is considerable. In fact, Daniel Noel writes that “post-Jungian ecopsychology almost comprise[s] a species of postmodern nature religion itself”. And yet, the relationship between eco-psychology and Neo-Paganism is, as yet, underdeveloped. Eco-psychology has the potential be bring to Neo-Paganism a theoretical subtlety and sophistication that it sometimes lacks, while Neo-Paganism can help embody eco-psychology with the depth and insight of its practices.