C.G. Jung, widely credited as one of the founders of depth psychology around the turn of the 20th century, regarded the field of depth psychology as an aggregate of all the sciences, including philosophy, medicine, anthropology, physics, and more. One common description of depth psychology is that it is “the study of the unconscious," thus it lends itself to inquiry into any topic by looking below the surface level and reflecting in order to ascertain what is hidden, invisible, or marginalized.
With the gradual development of our corresponding capacity for logical thinking in humans (that is, to “think about our ability to think”), we have both increased opportunities for consciousness but also increased challenges in the sense that we categorically seek to analyze, label, and put into buckets the things we don’t understand--sometimes becoming reductive and trapped in limited thinking. In order for us to transcend our current mythology and come to new creative awareness, we need to be able to look beyond established boundaries and facades to see what new and emergent concepts await.
One good example of this is the current debate about gun control in America in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting and so many other recent tragic violence with guns. On one level it’s quite common to look at it as whether or not we need to ban public access to guns (and it certainly is worth the debate), but if you use a depth psychological lens, you look beyond that simple black-and-white question to see what the undercurrent is in our society that is enabling or even driving certain individuals to use guns to commit such horrible atrocities.
Part of the study of depth psychology includes regarding the shadow, that invisible aspect of ourselves that is a blind spot for us (even though those close to us can usually see it clearly). The negative, repressed parts of us that we are unable to deal with have often become split off from our awareness but continue existing (and acting out)--albeit under the radar so to speak. For example, one individual may be highly critical or even become derogatory toward parents who allow their children to run wild in public, but in the end it may be stemming from individual’s own deeply ingrained memory of her own experience with parents who punished her for doing the same, insisting she was “bad” for doing so. Gradually the details of the reason for negative feelings disperse, but the negative feeling remains--simply no longer connected to any rational reason that one could point to that triggers it.
Like individuals, society also has its shadow. Going back to the issue of the growing number of mass shootings, I recently read a very good article that offers a symbolic and depth psychological take on the matter. In “Mythology of Bullets” (Spring 81: The Psychology of Violence), Jungian analyst and professor Glen Slater reflects on one of the most fundamental beliefs of the American culture at large. He suggests our inherent belief in the American dream, that anyone can achieve success if he works hard enough may be partially at fault.
In conjunction with the Second Amendment, our forefathers bestowed the right for every individual to bear arms, and the rather black-and-white mandate that stipulates failure in America is not an option and we must do whatever it takes to succeed, those who are moving at a pace that is not sustainable and still find themselves failing, marginalized, and teetering on the brink of defeat simply fall prey to a power complex in which they grasp onto the one enduring symbol that lives in the very biology of our cells. Passed down from the pioneers who subdued (and colonized) the Wild West in order to establish the United States of America, the access to and utilization of guns and bullets to finally and forcefully remove all objects in the way seems an inherent right.
More, by placing a finger on the trigger of such a device that can kill at a distance, it makes us remote--removing ourselves from the human connection. Slater refers to connection between bullets as projectiles and the psychological projections we easily make in blaming others for our failures. The shadow we can’t possibly see rises up, projecting fault and simultaneously seeking to obliterate anything that might be perceived to be linked to our failure, lack of ability to connect, and our corresponding exile to edges of acceptability in a society so focused on success. Additionally, Slater points out, the tendency of our narrative –our cultural myth, if you will--is that the hero always wins, is shiny bright and successful, and has no shadow side. There is no room for failure, and at the same time, we tend to move so fast and expect so much that we fail to allow for a slowing down, a reflection on the reality of life’s ups and downs, and a container for just being in the grips of difficulty, sadness, anger, and depression.
Jungian James Hillman, founder of archetypal psychology and one of the greatest depth psychologists in contemporary times (he just died last year in 2011), points out how absolutely critical it is that we engage in the journey to the “underworld.” Traditional rites of initiation--now essentially absent in our culture--require the initiate to travel on what is essentially an underworld journey to go into the depths, encounter obstacles, overcome trials, and return bearing gifts for the society. If we are not willing to experience the depths, the despair, and the trials, we can’t possibly experience positive growth--what Jung called “individuation”--in the same way. Equally, it’s critical that we participate in what depth psychologists Mary Watkins and Helene Schulman refer to as “engaged witnessing” to honor and validate the suffering and sacrifice of those who have lost loved ones to these terrible eruptions of shadow in the cultural landscape. If we fail to “feel” and honor the feelings of grief, despair, anger, and loss that naturally arise in situations such as this, we remain only “passive bystanders” who are far more likely to participate only as onlookers that experience only the shock value or entertainment-related aspects of such dramatic and traumatic events.
The study and practice of depth psychology allows us to regard what's going on below the surface, to challenge the obvious and wonder about the meaning of things yet unanalyzed. Everyone who has studied Jungian or depth psychology on some level has some insight into how we are all interconnected and how important it is to look beneath the obvious surface of things.
Join me, Bonnie Bright M.A. with Jungian analyst Michael Conforti Ph.D. for a second free teleseminar, Beyond Horror and Hope (PART 2): The Archetypal Intersection of Innocence and Evil, a depth psychological and archetypal perspective on the recent mass shootings. Register to participate or listen later.
Bonnie Bright is the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance, the world's first comprehensive online community for depth psychologyand hosts a regular podcast, Depth Insights, as well as editing the semi-annual scholarly e-zine of the same name. She recently founded www.DepthPsychologyList.com, a free online database to find or list depth psychology oriented therapists and practitioners. She holds Masters degrees in Psychology and Depth Psychology and is a Ph.D. candidate at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA.