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Religious Images and Psychic Reality

Though the ego is only one complex of associations in the psyche, it has evolved as a coordinator: what it is drawn to as an object of attention will be where and how its energy is applied. These motives are based on unconscious processes, and only by turning conscious attention to them can we find deeper meaning and purpose beyond the preconceptions of ego and its one-sided, paradoxical intentions.” — A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious          

Religious images have dominated human culture since beyond recorded history. So far as we know, they evolved with consciousness: a natural balancing function designed to compensate a split psychic system. As such, they reflect changes in the way we relate to ourselves and the world as we evolve.

This implies that we not blindly or literally accept their centuries-old forms. But, it also implies that their denial means not only that the split has widened between consciousness and its foundations but is in danger of losing the thread altogether as the earlier forms change.

Jung saw spirit as life-energy, and an unconscious symbol-making function points to a diffuse reality beyond what modern ego (preacher and scientist included) intuits in the unbridled fulfillment of instinctual, material desire it calls progress.

Today it’s a matter of some importance as an analogy. Only a fluid mind can grasp an analogy, and religious beliefs and scientific assumptions alike are perhaps the greatest test of our ability to relate and discriminate between a conscious reality and an unconscious one.

Not only is this a primary aim of religion, it’s what Jung’s psychology is about: the life-urge he conceptualized as libido (psychic energy) mediates a concrete reality through images. Beneath sense perception, they express analogies of psychic processes, and the associations embedded in them describe as much how we relate to things as the things themselves.

It’s the nature of a subjective ego to see the world according to its own limited perspective, both individually and ideologically, and it’s taken many centuries to even begin to separate the ideal from the real. Conscious discrimination of want vs. need in the larger context of this double-sided prism is how we see — and don’t see — their conflicting realities.

As Jung pointed out, the religious function is as innate as sense perception. It is, in fact, the complement of it, and its denial defines belief and assumption as inadequate and often misleading substitutes for an indirect psychic reality. Reflections on emotions and their associations provide unconscious information about our relations to objects and their effects on us.

This counter-pole to sense perception is just as real as the material world; the images it produces appear the more exaggerated and fantastic (even hostile) the more we identify with the sensual world: the compensations intended to direct us toward an objective inner reality. A certain measure of opposition between the two standpoints is inherent but, when it attains a critical intensity, destructive projections are the result.

… and God gave man dominion over the earth.” has a high-sounding ring when concieved as a heavenly directive. But, whose god can assert it without revealing a profound contradiction? Today, only a devil could make such a proclamation. Yet still, we believe in our own self-deification.

James Branch Cabell fabled in his, Figures of Earth, a confrontation between Manuel the Redeemer and the disembodied head of Misery, as the two met on Count Manuel’s doorstep in his isolated cabin in the “irrational forest”: “… I wonder why misery should have been created to feed upon mankind.” the Count pondered.

Probably the cows and sheep and chickens in your barnyards, and the partridges and rabbits in your snares, and even the gasping fish upon your hook, find time to wonder in the same way about you…” replied Misery.

What is this contrary nature-image that refutes our best and loftiest intentions and even turns them into their opposites? Is it the severed head of repression, our own misunderstood natures, that appeared on Count Manuel’s doorstep as he looked down below astonished and confounded? Where was it’s body, its foundation, its wholeness?

Ah, but man is the higher form of life —” said Manuel. “Granting that remarkable assumption,”  Misery countered,  “and is any man above Misery? So you see it is quite logical I should feed on you.

Still, I believe that the Misery of earth was devised as a trial and a testing to fit us for some nobler and eternal life hereafter.” Manuel responded. “Why in the world would you think that?” the head inquired… Because I have an immortal spirit, sir, and —

Dear me, but this is all very remarkable. Where is it, Manuel?” — It is inside me somewhere, sir.

Come then, let us have it out, for I am curious to see it.” — No, it cannot get out exactly, sir, until I am dead.

But, what use will it be to you then?” said Misery: “and how can you, who have not ever been dead, be certain as to what happens when one is dead?” — Well, I have always heard so, sir.

So are we taught. Depth psychology has shown that it can get out — here and now, if we would conceive it. But, only the “god-like” effort of consciousness, it’s active examination of its own nature, would reconcile us to the images which point to the veiled reality behind concrete perception.

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