‘Religious experience is absolute; it cannot be disputed. You can only say that you have never had such an experience, whereupon your opponent will reply: “Sorry, I have.” And there your discussion will come to an end.’
– Carl Gustav Jung, from Psychology and Religion
The psychology infusing the culture from where these pages are written is called Archetypal Psychology. Therefore, a central question is, ‘what are archetypes?’ Some say they are really no less than ‘the gods’ or different aspects of God. Others emphasise that they are ‘patterns for life and death from which all that exist are born’. That they pre-exist everything, exist beyond time and space and that they ‘are,’ eternally. Others point to the fact that we experience, because of archetypes. That all experience is rooted in archetypes. Some say the patterns we see in nature, like the golden mean, point to their ‘existence’. And others still, say that archetypes are the very ‘cells’ that make up our personalities. These ideas are significant, because making archetypes central to a psychology tells us a lot about that psychology.
But essentially, archetypes are beyond definition. Which is no different from the Tao Te Ching telling us, ‘the Tao that can be captured in words is not the true Tao.’ So, while it may be true that the above descriptions point to dimensions of their meaning, they can never define what archetypes are. Singular descriptions always exclude and neglect dimensions that are essential to their meaning. An often neglected dimension is that archetypes are fundamentally about ‘character’. We ‘catch a glimpse of them’ similarly to how personality characteristics fleetingly reflect in facial expressions. Mystical Judaism teaches that an important key to experiencing the divine is to be lifnei Adonai. Which is usually translated as ‘being before God’. But as Marc Gafniπ illustrates, its true meaning comes out when we explore its etymology a little closer: ‘being on the inside of God's face’.
A sense of soul
If we reflect on this a little, if we pause and lovingly attend to what has just been said, we should get a sense of what this psychology is about. The word ‘psychology’ is made up of the Greek words Psyche and Logos. It means ‘the speech of, or on behalf of, the soul’. So, a core premise of Archetypal Psychology is that there is no ‘logos of Psyche’ if that logos does not cultivate a sense of soul. And this sense of soul cannot be measured. Nor does intellectual understanding of causes and consequences facilitate its cultivation. Which really means, Archetypal Psychology is a radical departure from conventional psychology. To mention just one reason why: it does not aspire ‘to be scientific’. Quite the contrary.
The fact that archetypes can't be defined does not mean we can't know them. But, we know them through experience. When we perceive the colour yellow, that perception is a felt experience. Sure, we can say that this experience of yellow simply occurs because of light vibrating at a particular wavelength. While this fact may serve us functionally, it does not help us to deepen into our experience of the colour yellow. In fact, scientific-mindedness often obscures the cultivation of soul, for which deepening into experience is primary. This is not to dismiss the soulfulness of imaginative Science. But when we relate to yellow as a wavelength, we dim our direct experience of it. This is an example of how ‘literalistation’ functions. Which James Hillman called ‘the only sin’.π As Jesus of Nazareth pointed out, unless we receive the kingdom of heaven as little children, we cannot enter.
So, a true psychology, in its very nature, cannot be scientific. For scientific-mindedness and scientific language does not cultivate a sense of soul. Instead, poetry, metaphor and the language of stories, ‘dramatics,’ personality, and mythology, are far more conducive to evoke and cultivate experience of soul. True psychology is language in service of soul. Which means, language infused with love of and passion for the soul. And this applies not only to what is said about ‘how to cultivate soul’, but also to the language used while doing that. Right down to the language used in the therapy room. If that language is still addicted to causality, it is not psychology. Which is not to dismiss causality per se. But, the ‘cold,’ so-called ‘objective’ language, of scientific-mindedness and ‘clinical’ psychology, utterly falls short in its lack of erosπ for psyche.π
So, we may say ‘the Tao’ is a sacred river, fluid with drops of distinct character and personality, flowing through all existence. Which means, these personality-characteristics are reflected in all that exist. Even so-called ‘dead objects’, for there is soul in everything. Someone with sufficient ‘logos of Psyche’ can ‘see’ which aspect(s) of God's personality is reflected by any phenomenon. Including natural events like earthquakes, veld fires, typhoons, tsunamis. Or illnesses, like cancer. Even so-called ‘accidents’ that happen to us. A helpful question here is: which personality-characteristics are reflected in the ‘facial expressions’ of this event or phenomenon? When the ancients consulted the oracle of Delphi, their concern was to establish which god felt neglected or desired to be nourished, inherent to the situation they inquired about. And we begin nourishing the divine, by honouring them through opening deeply to that experience in our beings that is them.
This ‘seeing through’, this insight into the archetypes does not and cannot come via conceptual thinking. It only arises from direct and deep experience of phenomena. When we start to see through to the archetypes, something quite magical happens. It is as if we have always been stuck in two-dimensional perception. We open to a ‘vibrancy’ or a ‘numinosity’ underlying all existence and it feels as if we are truly seeing in three dimensions for the first time. That third dimension is depth. Which is the dimension of soul. Experiencing depth radically shifts our experience of the first two dimensions. We no longer ‘see’ so linearly, ‘only in straight lines.’ Nor is it only about sight. For, perception stuck in two dimensions is very linear, literal-minded and quite soul-dead. And is a hallmark of ego-consciousness and its obsession with safety and security and ‘surface-life only’.
Any true poetic articulation of our experience cultivates deeper experience with subtler nuances. While it potentially opens us to that realm that gives the word ‘insight’ its true meaning. This is the ‘realm’ of imagination. Which is a place where the experience of depth is a constant live presence. Where we experience everything to be ‘full of soul’. Not only the ‘positive’ and the ‘good’. Everything. It is all part of God. Just as a story without evil is never truly a story. Unfortunately, our scientific-minded culture thinks of imagination as ‘unreal’. Or that imagination is something ‘we make up.’ Some unreal fantasy we ‘create with our minds.’ This is why Henry Corbin, one of four central figures of Archetypal Psychology, called this realm ‘the imaginal’. Which is infinitely deep. In other words, there is no limit to the depth of experience we are able to open into.
This infinite depth is a daunting reality. Many a student have lost their way in this forest,π to madness. Which is one reason it helps to have a guide who has already made the journey. All our spiritual practices ultimately serve our becoming increasingly rooted in, and living from, the imaginal. This is significant, for many schools of spirituality lose sight of this fact. Their cultures often are very heroic and goal-oriented, or overly intellectual. All of which obstruct our opening to the imaginal. Yet at the same time, to enter the imaginal, it is essential that we open deeply to experience ‘what is’. Which is one reason why spiritual practice and meditation are so essential to a truly archetypal psychology. For unless we are able to stay in our experience, without needing words, this ‘other world’ of experiencing the archetypes cannot come alive inside us.
Complement the ideas in this piece with an article on seeing our world with different eyes. To read more on the difference between and the interplay of psychology and spirituality, as well as the contrast between our usual goal-directed way of life with the journey that is dedicated to soul-making, have a look at this article.