Archetypes and Elixirs: A Jungian Perspective on Life as We Know It.

Image of flaming red liquid in a cocktail glass

Returning with the Elixir of Knowledge and Wisdom

One of the key themes in Jungian psychology is that of individuation, which is an expansive process involving realisation and manifestation of the archetypes within. Archetypal aspects refer to many different facets of the self’s potential, such as the Shadow, the Animus or Anima, the Wise Elder or the Trickster / Magician. Many of these inner selves are unconscious or undeveloped and only emerge when we are able to unearth their existence through various channels such as encounters, dreams and active imagination.

All cultures have notions of human personality and self, made up of multiple aspects, many of which are oppositional or paradoxical and often these various traits are personified into panthea of gods and goddesses or other equally varied groups of characters. Take, for instance, the ways in which each of the Graeco-Roman deities encapsulates a set of particular human strengths and weaknesses. For instance Athena is wise and just but also warlike and ruthless in certain circumstances. Apollo likewise brings illness but also healing in the form of the arts and muses.

 

Individuation – Incorporating the Archetypes

At the start of every human life there is a diffusion of experience, expression and personality. That complex cloud of embodied sensations in the world gradually becomes organised into patterns of thought, feeling and memory and infused into a sense of the individual self. While all these phenomena are shaped and informed by the physical and social environments around us, variously named and operationalised through culture, certain broad categories of experience and expression can be identified across humanity and according to Jungian thought, these constitute the archetypes. Archetypes are universal potentials for broad human drives, yet as potentials for patterning, they are manifest in ways unique to individuals and cultures, rather like the ways in which each snowflake is structured through certain rules of construction, yet no two snowflakes are the same.

Jung stressed that this individuation was not a materialistic ‘individualism’ but a spiritual quest, a journey, and one which required a certain amount of courage and determination to overcome fear and resistance within the self. It also involves the withdrawal of projections, in other words the taking of responsibility for our own lives and recognising the fact that our own growth is in our own hands. To incorporate the archetypes successively through the sequence of Shadow first, then Anima/Animus and beyond, entails as well a kind of accumulated knowledge or insight – the elixir of life, the wisdom of the ages. And that wisdom and insight is most beneficially directed at ourselves, as The Oracle reminded Neo in the very archetypal movie ‘The Matrix’.

We have helpers along the way, though, such as family, friends, inspirational leaders and authors, as well as examples to follow in the guise of totems, god-like and saintly figures and characters from myth and legend. We also have negative influences, sometimes within the established society and canons of accepted ideas and practices around us, sometimes within our circle of relationships, and sometimes within ourselves as internalised negative attitudes and inner critical voices.

The Hero’s Journey

Archetypes and Elixirs form the raw material of the hero’s journey, our journey. Our internal responses to events, characters and relationships in the world around us shape the person we become. Whether that is contracted, frozen and bitter or expanded, empathic and wise, is largely up to us.  The Archetypes are always there, waiting for us to awaken them, the Elixirs are ever-present and calling to be consumed. Taking the plunge can be the most difficult first move but also the most exhilarating. Starting with some dream delving is one way in, creative journaling another. Both of these techniques helped to jump-start my own journey, informed and motivated by reading the works of Dr Carl Jung and inspirational blogs such as Jean Raffa’s here on wordpress. Individuation is an act of self-creation and the creative potential is inherent in all humans. Any creative activity can get your individuating juices flowing, indeed creativity has been identified as a significant booster of mental health promotion and recovery.

 

Thanks for dropping by,

Enjoy the Journey 🙂

 

Flaming Elixir Image source Guest of a Guest website, New York  http://guestofaguest.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/red-snapper-210×300.jpg

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Buried by the Shadow: Lessons from Baudelaire

Having just read a piece of historical fiction called Black Venus by James MacManus, I have been left at once saddened, uplifted, more informed about the French poet Charles Baudelaire and perhaps also a little wiser on the work of shadow energies in our lives. In the midst of public horror and ridicule, this gifted but tormented artist had the courage to face and describe the human shadow through its many manifestations in his personal life (much like James Joyce would do a century later). It is this window of identification and therefore the sense that we are not alone in our experiences that is, I believe, one of the massive attributes of literature, indeed all forms of expression. These ideas are also tied in with my current interests in creativity and mental health recovery and promotion, as well as with previous musings on the role of the shadow within a Jungian approach to personal maturation.

That literature and Jungian ideas overlap is inevitable. Jung emphasised the symbolic nature of human thought and imagination, as did Baudelaire and Manet. A muse was often a source of both inspiration and projection for the artist, a dynamic that may well be present in all our lives – who hasn’t ever had a hero or a guru or some other personified source of inspiration and motivation?

 

But to truly move onwards in  the hero’s journey of our life course, it is essential to incorporate and balance all the archetypal energies, of which the dark shadow is only one. The self-acceptance required remains elusive and unthinkable still for many of us and therefore while we might take the necessary step of acknowledging the shadow’s terrifying existence in ourselves, we must also avoid disowning and projecting it, or conversely, allowing it to swallow and destroy us. I fear that Baudelaire may have been devoured by his own shadow, a force he projected into his muses and possibly detected in himself but was unable to fully accept with compassion and therefore was ultimately unable to constructively channel it.

Like many before and since, Baudelaire went relatively unappreciated in his own time but is now recognised for his visionary genius and his initiation (with the painter Manet) of a whole new world of symbolism, modernist literature and the impressionist artistic oeuvre. T. S. Eliot, who wrote the groundbreaking modernist work The Wastelandcited Baudelaire as having paved the way for him and as the inspiration behind his poetry.

While the nihilism of these writers might be something of a blind alley if taken alone, and for many an all-too-shocking description of human nature, they did at least move towards a more authentic insight into that nature, if ultimately a too-pessimistic and destructive one. From  more recent work on the shadow as being both dark and light, we can embrace the shadow as having something to teach us, as gifting us with the potential for liberation and motivation, while living alongside the inherent potential danger.

It is unclear whether or not Baudelaire reached a level of self acceptance and accommodation. Certainly by all accounts he struggled and suffered but also experienced episodes of joy and happiness  in his life. I suspect we are all dancing a similar dance and can only hope that through literature, compassion, empathy and all the many forms of self-expression we can find, we can each give and take encouragement with our fellow journey-makers. Whether or not we manage to face, own and constructively channel our own shadow aspect is possibly the chief deciding factor of our mental health and well-being, perhaps even one of the  core tasks of our lives.

The novel Black Venus  by James MacManus is and excellent read by the way (follow the link at the start of this post).

My book is available now in the UK, USA and on Palgrave and Amazon sites:

Creativity and Social Support in Mental Health: Service Users’ Perspectives (Palgrave 2014)

 

images: Top: Charles Baudelaire by Emile Deroy

and Second image is T.S.Eliot photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell

 

 

Creative Mental Health: Ireland

    Creative Mental Health Author Roberta McDonnell, information card for proposed network, Creative Mental Health Ireland.

Something of a paradigm shift is underway in the mental health field, as I discussed in a recent post  about new thinking in psychiatry. Though not a psychiatrist, I have many years of experience as a mental health nurse and health researcher, some of which were spent with people suffering in acute wards, at other times alongside those struggling to invoke recovery in a community setting. These experiences, along with many other studies, can be read about in my current publication Creativity and Social Support in Mental Health: Service Users’ Perspectives (Palgrave 2014). Without exception I observed honest, courageous people using many creative means to rebuild their lives and a strengthened sense of self, finding to my amazement and delight that many other researchers and service user activists were describing similar findings and experiences. It was, then, with further excitement, that I came across the work of Professor Ivor Browne in Dublin and beyond.

Professor Ivor Browne

In Music and Madness, we get a tremendous insight and an engaging story of how life experiences, in combination with with a very creative and fearless thinker, brought the somewhat maverick but highly effective psychiatrist to carry out the extensive work of support, reform and community development that he has accomplished in Ireland and beyond, a legacy which is still vibrant and still very much in the making. As a citizen-wide mode of mental health promotion, community development is essential and shifts our thinking away from a culture of individualised pathology and into a sense of the relational nature of humans – we make each other and we make ourselves, it’s a dynamic, two-way process. I am planning future posts that will be based on interviews with people involved in community arts, mental health promotion and recovery support. In the meantime,  enjoy Professor Browne’s work through his books and some interesting programmes from RTE on the history of mental health care and treatment.

 

image of book cover

Music and Madness by Professor Ivor Browne

Breaking Real: Reflections on complexity and paradox in ‘Breaking Bad’

Promotional image in a threatening stance of the two main characters Walt and Jessie in the television drama 'Breaking Bad'.

The image above is referenced from a post by Leonard De Lorenzo on the Notre Dame University blog, an indication of the extent of interest and depth of debate going on about this deeply engaging drama, even as far reaching as theological circles.

We received the box set of ‘Breaking Bad’ Series 1-4 as a Christmas gift and it has turned out to be the biggest time bandit of my life this decade. I am no stranger to excuses to procrastinate the evening away but our nightly sessions with ‘Breaking Bad’ have turned into something of an addiction! And none of the kids even bother now to book the television after 7.30 pm as they know Mum and Dad will be glued to the screen. So I keep asking myself, WHY???? Why has this drama gripped my imagination to the extent that I am throwing all my time management habits and new year resolutions out the window? There are several possible answers to that question.

Lorenzo’s analysis of the draw and relevance of the show cites Pride as a major theme, leading to increasingly elaborate schemes of lies, deception and self-pity. He goes on to point to the other two main foci as Responsibility and Social Connectedness – no one is an island and Walt’s dilemma is continually re-enacted in his conflicted concerns about his own standing vis-á-vis the needs of his family. While these points are certainly valid, I feel there is more to the alchemy of the show and of course I will suggest that a Depth Psychology perspective can open this up.

Depth of Character

Firstly I think it is the depth and complexity of the characters. They pull on every emotion and frailty as well as strengths and attributes. Unlike the sometimes superficial, uni-dimensional figures in some of the material presented to us through the media, who are either a good character or a bad one, we can identify with the chaos and muddle of many of the players in Breaking Bad. Fear for the welfare of our children  and a desire to do the best for them may sometimes conflict with meeting our own perhaps long unmet needs and secret desires. It is this kind of existential crisis that sparks off the whole rollercoaster ride of Walter White’s descent into a world of deceit and scullduggery, not to mention extreme danger. For me this points to a potential understanding of many of the social issues that are, in the mainstream mentality, seen to be located in the ‘disordered individual’ or ‘criminal mind’. Not making excuses for evil-doing such as aggressive drug pedalling, and drug addiction is certainly a social ill, but perhaps if we understood the root causes to be more social and cultural than individual, we might be more effective at primary and secondary prevention?

No-one knows the moment when the tide of life might turn from the ordinary everyday to extraordinary nightmare. From seemingly everyday family life and trivial irritations (such as Walt’s frustrated genius and resulting irritability and like Skylar’s arguably patronising and disempowering style with her husband and son early on – note the scene with the veggie bacon and the conversation where Walt asks her to ‘just for once, get off my ass’)- the drama quickly moves on and each character is thrust into immeasurably scary life events that call forth a whole myriad of unexpected depths: Skylar’s infidelities and shifts in loyalty and occupation; Walter Junior’s struggles with identity, loyalty and the right-wrong continuum; Hank’s macho exterior alongside a deep affection for his family and his own vulnerable psyche and struggles with fear and panic; Jessie’s self-hating loneliness and attempts to curb it through reckless behaviour and substance abuse.

Now all this would be hard to take in large doses if it were not for several other features of the show. As far as humour goes, some of the temper tantrum and irritation scenes with Walt and Jessie are hilarious but I have to lay my vote on the funniest and most well acted character of them all – the colourful lawyer Saul Goodman, whose vocabulary and stock phraseology are unsurpassed. In terms of the background music, again the variety in style and the tongue-in-cheek relevance of many of the chosen songs would justify a thesis of its own. But of all the addictive factors of the drama, I believe it is complexity and paradox as central themes that are, for me, the major hooks.

Complexity of Themes

Where to begin? It’s all there….

– unconscious drives, unfulfilled needs and emotional blindness that lead to the slippery slopes of grasping and denial, as Walter makes one disastrous decision after another, then attempts to justify and distract himself through projection and obsessive rituals (including the chemical process which he seems to worship like a religion). It must be said here that we are only halfway through the third series and thus I am blind as to the final outcome – no spoilers thanks 🙂

-the power of money to enable or corrupt, its role (or lack of one) in human fulfillment and how it can rob us of real meaning-making in our lives, yet we all know we need a certain amount to get by and to raise our children. I love the old adage that goes something like: ‘Money is a good servant but a terrible master’.

-the way in which perception and thinking can gradually become grossly distorted over time. An example is Walt’s wife Skylar, whose first reaction to Walt’s secret drug business is horror and anger, yet she begins to come around to the idea of using the money for Hank’s physical therapy, justified by incorporating a sense of Walt’s initial motivation as being a desire to provide for his family in light of his originally terminal cancer diagnosis.

-the fuzzy boundaries and cultural relativities in concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, and the growing awareness that each individual person harbours potentials for all of these aspects of human behaviour, given any number of possible sets of circumstances conducive to desperation. There is also allusion to certain possible hypocrisies such as violence being justified in one context and not in another. I find myself lurching from sympathy to disgust and back again during the course of the narrative and in relation to all the characters (with the exception of Hank – for some reason I see him as the only really decent person so far, personal opinion and stand to be corrected).

-We are also challenged by these characters and their actions to examine really big issues about modern society and how it repeatedly fails people in terms of nurturing self esteem and opportunities for self actualisation. Social justice and its relationship with social ills such as drug addiction, drug dealing and corruption in high places are deep themes here I think, as is the microcosm of society which is the nuclear family. There are hints that Jessie, for instance, had been labelled and treated as a disappointment at a young age, resulting in a rebellious turn and a lapse into drug abuse, becoming increasingly alienated from his frankly obnoxious parents.

-Essentially I see the story as being all about paradox: humans are complex mixtures of selfishness and altruism, hawks and doves, creativity and destructiveness, all the archetypal forces of the Universe. Jung recognised this as the core of human maturation – making contact with all aspects of ourselves, including the Shadow and the Trickster, reining them in, taming them and channeling their energy into constructive and creative living and relating. The late great Dr M. Scott Peck provided invaluable knowledge and insight on the need to accept paradox and work with it rather than live in denial of our innate humanness, and if we don’t do this we live then in denial and become ‘People of the Lie’. This is essentially where Walt started out on the wrong foot – heading down the path of increasing denial and lies. I’ll be hooked ’til the end, I hope and dread but won’t stop watching.

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