Most schools of modern psychotherapy seek to ease our suffering and struggles by reducing our troubling symptoms to restore us to conventional functioning. Our psychological system is based on the scientific medical model that diagnoses and treats nonnormative functioning as pathological, seeks to relieve discomfort and suffering, and restores us to everyday lives and activities. Our practitioners eradicate nightmares and anxieties so their afflicted patient can get some rest and go to work in the morning. We do not tend the dream or interpret the symptoms to find their import and messages. Communities certainly do not, as in some traditional cultures, share dreams upon first awakening and ask what messages for the day they offer.
In contrast to mainstream approaches, Jungian, archetypal, and transpersonal schools pass beyond the personal to reconnect us to invisible, psycho-spiritual, and collective realms—not intellectually, but through living experience. Carl Jung declared that his psychotherapeutic approach was fundamentally experiential; its purpose was not to cure neurosis, but to lead the patient to an experience of the numinous. He wrote, “Everything about this psychology is, in the deepest sense, experience; the entire theory . . . is the direct outcome of something experienced.” He stressed that we must “experience a dream and its interpretation,” not receive a tepid rehash. “Analysis should release an experience that grips us or falls on us from above, an experience that has substance and body such as those things which occurred to the ancients.” Joseph Campbell and James Hillman also affirmed this goal. Campbell taught that we must dredge up what has been “forgotten not only by ourselves but by our entire civilization . . . through the direct experience and assimilation” of the archetypes.” Hillman declared that we must “submerge . . . again into nature for this is what [w]e have lost—the archaic, instinctual response. And this response of nature appears as the archetypal image . . . ”
This is not new. It is an updating in modern psychological terms of what the ancients knew from direct experience. Of countless testimonies from the classical world, Euripides declared: “If you had been there yourself and seen all this, you would have fallen to your knees and mumbled every prayer you know to the very god you now despise.”
The rupture between Freud and Jung can be understood in this fundamental difference. Freud denied the collective or transpersonal dimensions and thought the unconscious was solely the repository of infantile, repressed, and instinctual material. In fact, Freud confessed that he never experienced that energy, influx, broadening we refer to as the nonrational, or bonding to the universe. Though others claim such experience as mystical and the source of religion, he attributed the feeling to remnants of early infantile bonding to the mother and testified, “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself.” Standing in a rationality that cannot perceive or understand mysteries and declaring they do not exist because we have not experienced or measured them is denial of the irrational, the personal and collective unconscious, and the transpersonal as it visits human beings. “We do not know what we do not know.” We need experience.
“An experience . . . such as those things which occurred to the ancients.” What can this mean? How to access it today? Is years-long analytic psychotherapy the only way?
In contrast to Freud, Jung affirmed the collective and transpersonal as our deeper structure and foundation. He and his followers strove to engender through the long, slow practice of depth psychotherapy transformational experiences that the ancient world evoked in great numbers in a great many people for millennia. We are fascinated by the mythological world. We devour its stories and seek to squeeze its lessons and wisdom. But is it possible to so immerse in the stories, peoples, places, poems, plays, teachings, and practices of the ancient world that we indeed achieve experiences akin to the ancients?
Plato taught that reason is our best human tool for discerning truth; the only thing better is divine inspiration. Buddhism teaches the same lesson—carefully examine and evaluate our spiritual insights with reason. Revelation supported and examined by reason is not the same as revelation inhibited, disqualified, or erased by rationality. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The ancients were wont to express themselves, not with intellect alone, but with intellect inebriated by nectar,” the quaff of the gods. We work toward restoring the balance between the rational and nonrational rather than suppressing either sphere through domination by the other.
In our modern world dreams seem to be almost the only remaining natural vehicle for contacting invisible dimensions. The Greek, Hebraic, and other ancient traditions affirmed the revelatory dimensions of dreams. In addition, they taught that we learn and know ourselves, our destinies, and our connection to the divine through visions, oracles, and mysterious, synchronistic events. Divination was “the peacemaker between men and gods.” Oracles led us to our destinies or downfalls; nobles and common folk from all over the known world traveled great distances and endured hardships to receive them. Poetry and the arts were divinely inspired; poets were “makers” channeling songs and stories from the Muses. Each art form was overseen by a demigoddess. Dreams and visions were had through numerous mystery practices under the divine beings Dionysos, Asklepios, Orpheus, and others. Every river, flower, tree, mountain had its deity that might bless, guide, seduce, trick, or foil humans who encountered them. In short, the natural and invisible worlds were utterly alive, coexistent, and infused with spirits. In the Greek world, reason, objective and analytic thought and logic, and self-awareness of the individual and our souls were new to consciousness and greatly exciting.
Ancient Greece thus existed on a unique cusp when humanity stood poised between the invisible world of cosmic and natural powers, deities, or archetypes—everything we mean by the irrational, inscrutable, transpersonal, invisible—and the awakening human consciousness that would eventually reduce them to products of imagination and objects of analysis, dissection, and manipulation. “There was yet no division between the scientific and the imaginative mind.” For a brief time many were “pregnant in soul,” to use Plato’s words, and asked “what is proper for the soul to conceive and bear?” Revelatory experience of divinity was available as direct experience shaping the lives of individuals and societies. Myths, stories, images, and oracles of this tradition were not merely prescientific explanations for things we did not understand, as modern thought likes to claim. They were disguised, symbolized, or mythologized records of living experiences that informed, energized, guided, healed, blessed, and cursed people for millennia. They were a cosmic psychology implicit in exciting and engaging divine stories.
Ancient Greece in its fullness stood poised between the spiritual or cosmic core, the soul the human core, and the material and corporeal their emanations. Sokrates warned us to not mistake the body for the person. Demokritos called the body the soul’s ragged tent. Epictetus said we are each a soul dragging a corpse. The Greeks affirmed, in the same breath, the same songs, what is eternal and what gone in a moment.
For this epoch in pre-classical and classic times, almost unique in human history, civilization rose like the Colossus of Rhodes. Astride the ocean of the unconscious, humanity stood with one foot rooted in the irrational and invisible and the other in the rational and corporeal. The Greeks loved both and separated neither. Together they create mythistorema, the mythic history that is our lives. Lacking either, we are incomplete.
Today we are indeed incomplete. We have lost the one leg of the invisible and immaterial and we have overdeveloped the other. “The soul that animated matter was discarded . . .” We hunger for restoration of the imaginal realms. And we hunger for the experience of meaning, belonging, and being part of a larger story that it provides. We cannot stand forever on one leg. Restore the missing to stand in balance—or collapse.
About the Author:
Edward Tick, Ph.D., is a transformational psychotherapist, international pilgrimage guide, educator, author, and poet. A specialist in archetypal psychotherapy and the healing of violent trauma, he is the author of four nonfiction books, including The Practice of Dream Healing and War and the Soul. He lives in central Massachusetts.
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