The very idea of surfacing the unconscious creates a frisson of anxiety among coaches and consultants. The possibility that repressed and dark memories from our childhoods may come flooding uninvited to the surface has somehow found its way into popular culture and created a degree of resistance to the application of depth psychology, beyond the therapeutic consulting room.
For Carl Jung however, the unconscious was something more than a storehouse for repression and anxiety, and in fact represented a primary source of potential and future growth. He recognised that it has a regulatory and compensatory function, to counterbalance the hard reality and the potential tyranny of our conscious life. It opens up new perspectives on the world and prevents us from becoming stuck in our own habits and identifications. It is what is termed teleological, that is, it has a purpose and an intent of its own.
The role of the unconscious is to somehow bring us back on track, reconnecting us with the passion and potential of life, providing the inspiration to adapt and reminding us that there is more to learn. Like bubbles rising and gently surfacing, our unconscious suggests where we may direct our attention, through our dreams and unbidden fantasies; through symbols, portents and apparent coincidences in our daily lives.
These images may well derive from our repressed personal unconscious, but they may also be memories and feelings not repressed but long since forgotten, their relevance untested until now. They may come from a still deeper place, the collective unconscious where our ancestral heritage is born again in our brain structures and cultural memes, prompting us to consider the roles and experiences associated with humanity itself. At particular points in our lives we may be confronted with what may be termed archetypal images, raising questions of what it means, for example, to be a father, a mother, or an orphan.
The unconscious requires us to ask not simply, where is this from, but what does it mean? Why now? Why here? Only through interrogating the messages from our unconscious, can we begin to understand what they may be telling us and what purpose they serve. Only then can we begin to appreciate this compensatory function and the rebalance our unconscious may be seeking in our lives.
Of course there is danger. We may relive our childhood traumas and re-experience that pain for little or no tangible gain. We may become consumed by our dreams and become drawn into the vortex of the unconscious at the cost of our real experience of the world, acting out mythical roles of grandeur or tragedy. We must recognise that to ignore the conscious is to deny reality, but to ignore the unconscious is to refuse growth.
The poet Kahil Gibran (1991) described this duality with the words:
Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.
If either your sails or our rudder be broken, you can but toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas.
For reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended, is a flame that burns to its own destruction.
Therefore let your soul exalt your reason to the height of passion; that it may sing;
And let it direct your passion with reason that your passion may live through its own daily resurrection, and like the phoenix rise above its own ashes.
I would have you consider your judgment and your appetite even as you would two loved guests in your house.
Surely you would not honour one guest above the other; for he who is more mindful of one loses the love and the faith of both.
As custodians of human development our role is to help mediate this balance, encouraging our clients to pay attention to both sails and rudder, and to do that we need to have the capacity and confidence to navigate the unconscious. We must face our own fears and equip ourselves for the real business of learning.
References and Further Reading
Gibran, K (1991) The Prophet. London: Pan
Jung C.G. (1960) The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche. In Read, H., Fordham, M., and Adler, G. (eds.) The Collected Works of C.G. Jung: Vol. 8 of 20 Volumes. East Sussex: Routledge & Kegan Paul