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Pagan ritual as an encounter with depth, part 1, by John Halstead

July 29, 2012
Goddess Afire

“The process of creation of the ritual is a collaboration with the unconscious.”

We are not one

Jungian-based Paganism begins with the proposition that the human psyche is not unitary. We are not one; we are many striving to become one.   As James Hillman writes, “every sophisticated theory of personality has to admit that whatever I claim to be ‘me’ has at least a portion of its roots beyond my agency and my awareness.”  Our conscious mind is only the tip of an iceberg which is largely unconscious.  The unconscious includes the primal parts of ourselves as well as parts of ourselves that have been repressed.  The goal of Jungian-based Neopaganism is wholeness, the integration of the unconscious and the conscious.

A Jungian-based Paganism uses ritual to facilitate this integration.  In Jungian Pagan ritual, the contents of the unconscious (archetypes) are represented symbolically: as persons sometimes, but also as things, places, and events.  The archetypes sometimes become the “gods” of Jungian Pagan ritual.  As David Waldron explains, psychic development

“cannot be achieved through will or intention alone.  People require symbols and rituals to express realities beyond the scope of conscious thought in order to achieve wholeness.  The collective unconscious, the wellspring of intentional and unintentional thought is, by definition, unknowable and cannot be grasped within the confines of conscious rational intent.  The mediation of symbols is required to give a person’s psychological development meaning beyond that of the purely rational.  From this perspective, when a Jungian-oriented neo-Pagan utilizes ritual, it is a metaphor to describe psychic realities in relation to certain archetypes, within the collective unconscious [...]”

Conscious ritual creation

However, the conscious nature of ritual creation raises an interesting dilemma.  When the purpose of ritual is to listen to the unconscious, what role does the conscious mind play?  Jungian Pagans seek to consciously and intentionally construct rituals for the purpose of integration of the psyche.  But, according to Jungian theorists, psychic development cannot be achieved through conscious intention alone.

The reason is because the conscious mind is always trying to transform the contents of our unconscious into something more psychologically palatable, and in the process defeating the purpose of ritual.  Jung wrote that, “Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic feature of Western theosophy [...].  One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”  We run the risk of “imagining figures of light” when our rituals are too much the product of conscious intention.  When this happens, the ineffable archetypes are reduced to mere symbols*.  Waldron explains that, when an archetype is reduced to a symbol which can be a consciously apprehended, it ceases to be archetypal.  Although a symbol may masquerade as an archetype, it is a construction of the ego, and can become what Waldron calls “a collaborator in the suppression of the shadow.”  In other words, when ritual symbols are a product of conscious intention, they not only fail to speak for the unconscious, but actually contribute to its ongoing repression.

Discovering the rite

How then is a new ritual to be arrived at?  Edward Whitmont answers, “A genuine ritual, like a living symbol or a religious experience, cannot be fabricated; it can only be discovered.”  Rituals are not invented; like our dreams, they happen to us.  James Hollis echoes this formula:

“A rite is a movement in and toward depth. Rites are not invented. They are found, discovered, experienced. They rise out of some archetypal encounter with depth.  The purpose of the symbolic act which the rite enacts is to lead back toward that experience of depth.”

Thus, for Jungian Pagans, the process of creation of the ritual is a collaboration with the unconscious.  We can liken it to an artist being inspired by a muse (or possessed by a daimon).

Understood in this way, ritual is the product of a conscious form applied to unconscious content.  Conscious design of ritual is unavoidable, or else there could be no “ritual” per se.  However, to balance the conscious side of the equation, as it were, the Jungian Pagan seeks to draw the content from the unconscious.  This can be done though meditation, dream work, what Jung called “active imagination” (which would be better named passive imagination), creative engagement with mythology, or by collecting what W.H. Auden calls “privately numinous words”, phrases, and images.  These contents are then combined into a ritual form.  Jung explains that the secret of great art (in which I would include ritual creation)

“consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life.”

How do we know if we have succeeded in tapping into the unconscious?  Jung writes that the origin of a work of art can be seen in the work itself.  A ritual of one’s own conscious intention and will can be expected to reflect the effect intended and “nowhere overstep the limits of comprehension”.  But if a ritual is a product of the “alien will” of the unconscious, we find

“something suprapersonal that transcends our understanding to the same degree that the author’s consciousness was in abeyance during the process of creation.  We would expect a strangeness of form and content, thoughts that can only be apprehended intuitively, a language pregnant with meanings, and images that are the best possible expressions for something unknown — bridges thrown out toward an unseen shore.”

Jung describes these as two different types of art, but it is probably better to think of them as two ends of a spectrum.

When I first began creating my own Pagan rituals, I did not feel authentic in performing the rituals, I felt a distinct sense that the rituals were lacking life of their own. I first attributed this to the newness and unfamiliarity of the ritual.  However, I have come to realize over time that my early rituals, although drawing heavily on mythological symbolism, were overly cerebral, lacking in poetry and bodily movement.  The most evocative rituals I have since created have been poetic creations, ones that seemed to come from somewhere other than my rational mind.  They combined words that I had read or heard, which had a talismanic-like effect on me, with intuitive bodily movements.  It is only at the end of the process that I would consciously apply structure to these contents to give the ritual a form.  The result is a ritual that feels like, as Jung says, a “bridge thrown out toward an unseen shore”.

Next week in Part 2, I will discuss how I try to maintain the connection with the unconscious during the performance of the ritual.

* Note on terminology: I have the terms “archetype” to refer to a structure of the unconscious and “symbol” to refer to a signifier which points to an experience of the archetype.  An archetype is ineffable, while a symbol can be fully apprehended by consciousness.  This can be confusing because Jung often used the term “symbol” and “symbolic” in the way that I have used “archetype” and “archetypal”, and distinguished “symbols” from mere “images”, “signs”, and “allegories”.

Sources

Auden, W.H. “Making, Knowing, Judging”, The Dyer’s Hand (1962)

Hillman, James. Re-visioning Psychology (1975)

Hillman, James. “A Psyche the Size of the Earth”, Ecopsychology, eds. Roszak, Gomes & Kanner (1995)

Hollis, James. Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men (1994)

Hollis, James. Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life (1995)

Jung, Carl. “The Philosophical Tree”, Alchemical Studies; Collected Works, vol. 13

Jung, Carl. “The Psychology of the Child Archetype”, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious , Collected Works, vol. 9, part i

Jung, Carl. “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry”, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, Collected Works, vol. 15

Tillich, Paul. “Symbols of Faith”, Dynamics of Faith (1957)

Waldron, David. Sign of the Witch (2008)

Whitmont, Edward. Return of the Goddess (1982)

The author

John H. Halstead

John Halstead is a former Mormon, now eclectic Neopagan with an interest in ritual as an art form, ecopsychology, theopoetics, Jungian theory, and the idea of death as an act of creation.  He authors the blog The Allergic Pagan.

Check out John’s other posts:

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15 Comments
  1. July 30, 2012 5:37 pm

    Reblogged this on Brain of Sap and commented:
    An interesting read on Jungian theory applied to Paganism, a few comments on dreamwork. My own comment on Jung’s theories are still in the very early development phase.

  2. August 4, 2012 8:31 am

    Great piece John. I think you have hit the nail on the head. How do we consciously create ritual (religion) that will take us beyond consciousness, beyond the ego? I agree when ritual is too much of a conscious creation it can come off feeling contrived and lacking in “spirit”. I wonder if this realization (whether made consciously or instinctively) is not part of what is motivating the recon movement. The religion of the ancient polytheists was something organic, which grew over the millenniums, a relationship with the ineffable, that cannot be artificially manufactured. Still it is our egos, our conscious minds, that must pick of the pieces of polytheism and put them together into some new whole. So recon in no way solves this dilemma.

    I think recent work in evolutionary psychology is really confirming Jung’s view of the self. I am particularly a big fan of Jonathan Heidt’s work. In his recent book “The righteous mind” Heidt describes himself as an intuitionist. He believes that in large part it is our unconscious mind (our instinctive, emotional, intuitive, animal self) that it is really in the driver’s seat. Our conscious mind thinks it is running the show, but it gets it’s motivations from the unconscious, instinctive self. Instead of using the horse and rider analogy of Plato, Heidt describes the unconscious and conscious mind as the elephant and the rider, because elephants are so much stronger. Religion isn’t for riders, but for elephants. Religion is about healing the elephant, about bringing the elephant into right relationship with Nature/Reality, and when the elephant is in right relationship, the rider will find its desires and goals shifting accordingly. When religion is created by and for riders, it just doesn’t work. It’s like a dog chasing its tail.

    My rider gets this, but still I don’t really know how to get from here to there, how to make religion, especially naturalistic religion, really work for elephants.

    • August 4, 2012 6:05 pm

      “I wonder if this realization (whether made consciously or instinctively) is not part of what is motivating the recon movement.”

      I suspect so. This is what makes (consciously) invented religion difficult. In some ways, it’s easier to lose yourself in something that is handed down from tradition.

      “I think recent work in evolutionary psychology is really confirming Jung’s view of the self.”

      You may like *Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious* by Timothy Wilson. I haven’t read it, but it looks interesting to me. [ http://www.amazon.com/Strangers-Ourselves-Discovering-Adaptive-Unconscious/dp/0674013824/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1344121135&sr=8-3&keywords=unconscious ]

      “Religion isn’t for riders, but for elephants.”

      Ooh, I like that! I’m going to borrow that!

      “… I don’t really know how to get from here to there, how to make religion, especially naturalistic religion, really work for elephants.”

      I wonder if BT’s upcoming post (How can a naturalist emerge in Paganism?) will address that.

    • August 5, 2012 7:59 pm

      >I think recent work in evolutionary psychology is really confirming Jung’s view of the self. I am particularly a big fan of Jonathan Heidt’s work. In his recent book “The righteous mind” Heidt describes himself as an intuitionist. He believes that in large part it is our unconscious mind (our instinctive, emotional, intuitive, animal self) that it is really in the driver’s seat. Our conscious mind thinks it is running the show, but it gets it’s motivations from the unconscious, instinctive self. Instead of using the horse and rider analogy of Plato, Heidt describes the unconscious and conscious mind as the elephant and the rider, because elephants are so much stronger. Religion isn’t for riders, but for elephants. Religion is about healing the elephant, about bringing the elephant into right relationship with Nature/Reality, and when the elephant is in right relationship, the rider will find its desires and goals shifting accordingly. When religion is created by and for riders, it just doesn’t work. It’s like a dog chasing its tail.

      Holy cow, that is exactly how I feel about the unconscious as well! I will have to get that book ASAP!

      >My rider gets this, but still I don’t really know how to get from here to there, how to make religion, especially naturalistic religion, really work for elephants.

      Exactly. It’s a perplexing question, but I think the answer lies in the increasing recognition that nature can do the complex work that we can’t. What I mean is, instead of trying to design the perfect religion (ego-based, and probably involving far too many variables for us to do well), we can just set the conditions and then let a suitable religion evolve organically. We need to know our basic values, such as naturalism, and accept nothing that strays out of bounds, but then let a variety of paths flourish within those bounds and see which one(s) triumph in the game of natural selection.

      To even get started, though, I think naturalists need to go beyond the kind of simplistic rationalism which characterizes too much of today’s atheist and agnostic discourse, where anything that even remotely smacks of supernaturalism or religion is dismissed out of hand as woo. Instead, we need to recognize that the unconscious is an elephant that needs to be spoken to in elephant language, through symbols, rituals, myths, etc. Once we can accept the necessary conditions for genuine non-supernatural religions, they are bound to evolve.

  3. August 4, 2012 10:58 am

    I’m wondering what people think of the difference between the Jungian unconscious and the notion of higher power. It seems to me a lot of people at least in New Agie circles think of the unconscious as the enlightened inner self, whose wisdom is being overpowered by the ego self. I don’t think of the unconscious in this way, but more of as our animal/instinctive self. And also what is the difference between the subconscious and the unconscious? Does Jung make any distinction between these two? I tend to think of these as being the same.

    • August 4, 2012 7:59 pm

      “… the unconscious as the enlightened inner self”

      I see it that way, but also as more primal. It is the chaotic source of inspiration. Consciousness gives order to the chaotic contents of the unconscious, just as it does for the chaos of our experience. So it is a source of wisdom, but also of madness. Too much focus on the conscious and you die of thirst in a spiritual desert. Too much focus on the unconscious and you can loose your self. Balance is what is needed. David Tacey has written an interesting critique of New Age conceptions of the unconscious which idealize the unconscious and denigrate consciousness in his book *Jung and the New Age* [ http://www.amazon.com/Jung-New-Age-David-Tacey/dp/158391160X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1344127987&sr=1-1&keywords=jung+and+the+new+age ]

      “… more of as our animal/instinctive self.”

      I think that’s part of it, but it also includes everything we have repressed as well as the cultural milieu which we are largely unaware of. To me, dreams (and other manifestations of the unconscious) seem too rich with meaning to just be a manifestation of the reptile brain.

      “what is the difference between the subconscious and the unconscious? Does Jung make any distinction between these two?”

      Jung may have used “subconscious” (or been translated that way), but I only recall seeing “unconscious” in his writings. I think of them as the same thing as well — it is sub (below) consciousness and I am un-aware of it so it is un-conscious.

    • August 5, 2012 8:25 pm

      >And also what is the difference between the subconscious and the unconscious? Does Jung make any distinction between these two?

      I defer to John, but my impression has always been that they are different takes on roughly the same thing. Freud seemed to favor the subconscious I think (beneath/inferior to the ego), whereas Jung favored the unconscious (no necessary indication of hierarchy). I could be wrong about that though.

      >It seems to me a lot of people at least in New Agie circles think of the unconscious as the enlightened inner self, whose wisdom is being overpowered by the ego self. I don’t think of the unconscious in this way, but more of as our animal/instinctive self.

      Animal, instinctive, and more, IMO. Such a ridiculously huge amount of what we normally think of as conscious thought is actually unconscious. Even the elephant rider metaphor seems to undershoot the mark; the conscious is more like a barnacle on a blue whale! (at least in terms of size proportions). Take intention, for example. If you meditate, try to catch yourself intending to do something, whether it’s intending to scratch your knee, or intending to have a thought. Can you find that intention? I have never been able to find it. Intention is completely unconscious as far as I have been able to ascertain. We just notice ourselves doing things the moment we start to do them, and somehow feel that we willed it to happen.

      Attribution theory is very enlightening in this regard. In tons of experiments, people have been shown to routinely invent rationalizations for their behavior after the fact. In a common experiment format, a person is shown two photos of different people and asked which is more attractive and why. Here’s the interesting part: after a photo is chosen, the experimenter uses sleight of hand to give the subject the photo they *didn’t* choose and ask why they “chose” it. A shocking proportion of people go on to explain all the reasons they “chose” that photo. This suggests that much of our intentions are hidden from our conscious minds, and we attempt to infer our intentions after the fact based on our behavior. We believe we have privileged access to our intentions, but in fact we may have no more access than an external observer of our behavior. In light of this, it starts to look like the conscious mind is less like a driver directing the elephant than a passenger taken for a ride, like a kid at a zoo. :-)

  4. August 5, 2012 8:23 am

    “To me, dreams (and other manifestations of the unconscious) seem too rich with meaning to just be a manifestation of the reptile brain.”

    When I say “animal self” I am thinking of something more elevated then the “reptile brain”. I really think of the unconscious as the “the body” and the consciousness (the talking self) as “the mind”. When you take away the talking mind, what is left is similar to what other animals have. Animals think but certainly not in words. According to Temple Grandin animals think in pictures, and surely she must be right. (see http://www.amazon.com/Animals-Translation-Mysteries-Autism-Behavior/dp/0156031442/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&qid=1344165921&sr=8-9&keywords=temple+grandin) Do animals have an unconscious mind or is it all unconsciousness?

    “I think that’s part of it, but it also includes everything we have repressed as well as the cultural milieu which we are largely unaware of.”

    Do you mean something like genes and memes – all those things which shape our nature (our way of being) which are outside of our conscious awareness? This kind of collective unconscious is bigger than the unconscious as “the body” or “animal self”. It is the animal self and its environment. The person we are is the result of the way our animal (our instinctive intelligence/will) reacts and interacts with the environment, including the many layers of human culture.

    The Jungian unconscious and archetypes are difficult concepts at least for my conscious mind.

    (FYI: I previously misspelled Jonathan Haidt’s name (it is Haidt not Heidt). Haidt’s theories grew out of his work in traditional India and because of this I think they provide a lot of insight into the psychological drives behind traditional religion. If you ever have a chance to look into any of his work, I would love to know what you think. For an introduction to his work see: http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html. Amazing his chapter on divinity (“Divinity With or Without God”) from his book “The Happiness Hypothesis” is online at http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/haidtreading2.pdf. His work has really influenced how I think about religion.)

    • August 7, 2012 8:16 pm

      M. Jay: I haven’t read the book chapter yet (but it looks fascinating), but the TED talk was great. By the unconscious, I do mean “all those things which shape our nature (our way of being) which are outside of our conscious awareness”. The relationship between Jungian archetypes and Dawkins’ memetics could probably led to a fruitful discuss, but I admit to not being well versed in the latter.

      • August 19, 2012 8:03 pm

        The book chapter was good too. My favorite part was: “With the wrong metaphor we are deluded; with no metaphor we are blind.” I would add that every metaphor is at least a little “wrong”.

  5. August 20, 2012 7:56 pm

    Thanks John for the feedback. Jonathan Haidt’s work has been kind of paradigm shifting for me. I think one of the reasons I find his work so compelling is that it really fits with my understanding of ancient religions. Anyway it is good to know that you thought at least some of his work made sense and had value.

  6. October 4, 2012 11:31 am

    Reblogged this on The Darkness in the Light.

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