Inklings Of The Psychic Commons
Carl Jung’s descriptions of a “collective unconscious” are strikingly similar to ancient Vedic descriptions of the Supersoul.
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home!
A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone.
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.
As a student at the Hawken School in Cleveland, Ohio. from 1956 to 1964, I sang this hymn many times. From fourth grade on we all had to attend morning and afternoon services in the school chapel. Grade by grade, in alphabetical order by name, we twice daily filled the pews, fourth graders up front by the stage and lecturn, eighth graders in back beneath the organ loft. In five years of chapel services I gradually progressed from low-man-on-the-totem-pole status in the front row to a position with far greater prestige and a much better view about thirty feet back, all the while sitting, alphabetically, between classmates Roland Crawford and Skip Fazio. As we rose again and again, opening our worn hymnals to sing verses hinting at peace and permanence. Skip’s peach fuzz turned into stubble, Roland’s voice dropped an octave, and I grew at least a foot.
I believed in God, the almighty white-haired patriarch in whose honor the chapel services were held, and I didn’t want to begrudge Him the daily offerings of hymns and prayers. But over the years the words “A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone” nourished in me an inkling that there was something higher and more powerful than even God-on-High. If God’s evenings lasted a thousand ages, that meant He lived a lot longer than I. But it also meant that His evenings—and therefore His days, years, and life—eventually ended. If He was enjoying Himself, maybe time passed too quickly, like it always does when you’re having a good time. And if He wasn’t enjoying Himself—if angelic harp music and schoolboy hymns bored Him—then what was the advantage of His longevity? In any case, time, the all-pervasive, impersonal force that was sweeping me through Hawken and through life, was apparently sweeping God too.
Coincidentally, while I was serving my pew term in Cleveland, Carl Gustav Jung, then in his eighties, was at home in Zurich, Switzerland, composing his autobiography. Writing of his own school days, Jung, the great psychologist who broke with Sigmund Freud to found the school of analytic psychology, revealed that he too had early-on developed an impersonal inkling. Jung recalled picking up a book in his father’s library and reading that God was a “personality to be conceived of after the analogy of the human ego: the unique, utterly supramundane ego who embraces the entire cosmos.”
God a personality? Jung wouldn’t buy it. Ego and personality, he reasoned, were by nature limited and fault- ridden. If God is unlimited, if He is everything and therefore spread out everywhere, then how can He have a personality? And if He is perfect, then how dare we endow Him with an ego? Schoolboy Jung had experienced that his own ego was “vain, self-seeking, defiant, in need of love, covetous, unjust, sensitive, lazy, irresponsible,” and subject to “errors, moods, emotions, passions, and sins.” Certainly, he thought, the Supreme must be egoless.
Thus two twentieth-century thinkers—one from Cleveland, one from Zurich—came to question the supremacy of God-the-person by way of experiencing the flaws of man-the-person. How could anyone propose, both Jung and I wondered, that personality and supreme perfection are compatible?
In answering this question, India’s time-honored Vedic literature discloses that Jung and I fell into the same impersonal trap.
I fell, I now realize, by mistakenly accepting the old- man conception of God and by consequently overlooking scriptural references to God’s immortality. If God ages, I figured. He must die also. To this inkling Vedic authorities reply that although the Supreme Person is the original being and therefore the oldest of all. He never ages. The Brahma- samhita states, adyam purana-purusham nava-yauvanam ca: God lives eternally not as a white-haired patriarch but as a fresh blooming youth. Time can neither age Him nor deteriorate His transcendental abode. He is time, the Bhagavad-gita says. And other Vedic texts corroborate: time is the energy of the Supreme Person that sweeps the entire cosmic manifestation along to ultimate destruction. Meanwhile the Supreme Person Himself remains aloof, enjoying transcendental pastimes with His pure devotees.
But although God is a person—an active enjoyer like us—we shouldn’t think that His character and personality are like ours in every respect. This was Jung’s mistake—or one of them, anyway. While Jung rightly observed that our personalities are always limited and our characters often unsavory, he wrongly concluded that God’s personality would have to be the same. To refute this notion, the Srimad-Bhagavatam, which is the topmost of the Vedic texts, describes at great length the unlimited attributes and activities of God-the-person. asserting that the spiritual character of God is spotlessly free from the negative qualities our own egos presently generate. Our personalities are sometimes repugnant, but God- the-person, or, to use Srila Prabhupada’s terminology, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, is known as “Krishna,” or “the all-attractive one.”
Krishna is everything and spread out everywhere in the sense that everything is His energy, as heat and light are energies of the sun. The elements that make up our bodies and the rest of the universe are Krishna’s material energy, while we ourselves—the individuals who animate these bodies—are eternally part of Krishna’s spiritual energy. Everything—within and beyond our experience—emanates from Krishna.
Despite the pervasiveness of His energies, however, Krishna remains a person. If you ripped this page from the magazine, tore it to pieces, and threw it all over the room, the page would no longer be available for your edification. That’s because the page is material. Krishna, however, distributes Himself all over by His “pieces” (His various energies) yet remains personally available, shining like the sun. That’s because Krishna is the perfect, omnipotent, completely spiritual Personality of Godhead. He is, as Jung should have gleaned while reading his father’s book, “unique” and “utterly supramundane.” The Vedic literatures warn us not to rely solely on our experience and logic to understand Him.
Our own personalities are always limited, as Jung correctly observed. But they are vain, self-seeking, and in so many other ways a pain in the neck only when we forget that we are eternal parts of Krishna, and that our natural function is consequently to cooperatively serve and satisfy Him. Satisfying Krishna results in our own satisfaction, just as feeding the stomach nourishes all parts of the body. But in forgetfulness of Krishna’s supremacy we vainly think ourselves supreme, falsely identify with our temporary material bodies, and seek only to satisfy our own bodily senses. This self-seeking mentality puts us at odds not only with each other but with Krishna Himself as well. In such an unnatural state of affairs our original Krishna conscious personalities show deformed and ugly faces. We should not, therefore, compare our present personalities to God’s personality point for point, since such a comparison will naturally lead us to doubt, as Jung and I doubted, that the Supreme has a personality at all.
I wouldn’t label Jung “impersonal” in the usual sense of that word. He was a jovial, affable man who gave full attention to the personal lives of his patients. In his writings he championed the cause of the individual over what he considered the mass-mindedness of modern societies, which reduce us individuals to a pile of statistics. Nor did Jung fail to acknowledge the important role ego plays in an individual’s psychic maturation. He even flatly refused to formulate a fixed theory to explain the human psyche, because he felt that a single theory could never do justice to everyone. Theories had to be chosen and adjusted to fiteach individual. What worked for you might be detrimental to me.
Jung’s adjustability makes it difficult not only to label him “impersonal” but to label him anything. Nevertheless, beginning with his childhood aversion to the idea of God-the-person, it is possible to trace an impersonalistic thread through the tapestry of his life’s work. That thread is particularly evident in one of Jung’s most intriguing and controversial concepts—something he called “the collective unconscious.”
It even sounds impersonal. And not so terribly intriguing either. “Collective” suggests the opposite of “private” or “individual.” And unconscious? While a person may sometimes fall unconscious, he or she is least interesting or personable that way. “Collective unconscious” could suitably describe the ambiance of an enormous one-room flophouse, or of a mass grave.
However, just as the Vedic literature warns us not to use mundane logic to judge the Personality of Godhead, so Jung cautions that the collective unconscious is beyond our ordinary sensual and intellectual experience. It is a powerful dynamic entity. In fact, although Jung never says that God and the collective unconscious are one and the same, he does closely identify them. Psychologically speaking, man’s experience of one is indistinguishable from his experience of the other.
To me that sounds unclear, and Jung is certainly hard to decipher at times. Some of his critics accuse him of obscurity, while Jung’s admirers express the same idea euphemistically when they say he is “mystical” or “rich in suggestion.” And Jung himself explains, “I have no definite convictions—not about anything, really… . [But] in spite of all uncertainties, I feel a solidity underlying all existence. ...”
So the collective unconscious is, for certain, a Godlike “solidity underlying all existence.” It is also—a little more tangibly, I’d say—our common heritage. Jung accepted the theory of evolution and felt that as a result of evolutionary development we all have a lot in common not only physically, but psychically as well. Evolution has given you and me a heart, a stomach, a head, a neck, ten fingers, etc. We also have egos, those conscious streams of “I am” that wend their way through our days and years from early childhood to old age. And we both have subconscious minds, whose depths harbor repressed or long- ignored desires and memories, and in whose shallows, just deep enough to keep our conscious shores litter-free, information more pertinent to our daily lives treads water, ready for quick recall.
To have these things in common doesn’t mean, of course, that we literally share them, as town dwellers, for instance, used to share the town commons to graze their livestock. Your stomach won’t digest what I eat, nor does my mind mull over your inner thoughts. Although our physical and psychic anatomies are identical, we have different stomachs and minds, different hearts, and, most important, different egos. We are distinct individuals.
Jung conceived of the collective unconscious, however, as something we do literally share. It is a town commons of the psyche deep within our beings, a hidden primordial psychic field on which all humanity stands and from which we all receive guidance and inspiration. Conscious egos, Jung said, are relatively recent evolutionary arrivals. They arose from the collective unconscious as plants grow from a rhizome.
Jung gave the collective unconscious credit for the back stage control of almost everything we think and do. He maintained that while our egos, with their personal wills, have an important part to play in life, we have mistakenly crowned them monarchs of our psychic territories, unaware to what degree the ego is carried along by an impersonal force beyond its grasp. That force flows from our psychic commons, from “the one psyche which embraces us all.”
Which is not just intriguing, but pretty spooky, if you ask me. I have always thought of myself as an ego, as that little old stream of conscious “I am.” I’ll concede that my “I am” is carried along by another force—a force that back at Hawken I had identified as time. But time, however mysterious, is something external that acts upon me, whereas the collective unconscious, according to Jung, is me. It’s part of my own self, and of your self too. In fact, Jung defines “self “ as a union, an integration, of the conscious, personal realm and the unconscious, impersonal realm of the psyche.
That’s an awful lot of integration. First of all, we’re integrated with each other already in that we’re an outgrowth of the same “rhizome.” Secondly, since that rhizome is closely identified with God, we’re already integrated with Him too. And thirdly, the self itself, said Jung, is also nearly identical with God, or as Jung murkily puts it, with the God-image in the human psyche.
Follow? Let me summarize: our almost-God selves are an integration of the conscious/personal with our almost-God rhizome.
With all due respect, this is just plain mixed up. Take Jung’s adjustability, add a generous dollop of uncertainty, blend everything with a gallon or two of obscurity, and you’ve got an exasperatingly convoluted, richly-suggestive Jungian goo. Here a Jungian might remind me that Jung never claimed to have a clear theoretical framework. He called his work “a circumambulation of unknown factors.” A Jungian might also point out that the collective unconscious, being in many respects the opposite of consciousness, is by nature irrational and therefore difficult, even impossible, to define or describe. Upon introduction to our antithetical psychic partner, we chauvinistic egos are bound to feel befuddled and threatened.
I can’t swallow these explanations either. There’s something insidious about them. I haven’t yet accepted the collective unconscious as my psychic partner, and look at what Jung is asking me to do.He’s suggesting that I integrate my long-separated psychic neighborhood, making room for this total stranger, this foreigner from the other side—the unconscious side—of the psychic tracks. Jung even has the nerve to suggest that this spooky stranger was here first, that he’s God, and that the neighborhood really belongs to him. The newcomer is not only God, he’s me and you too. How can you say such things in public and not expect to encounter nasty backlash from upstanding, well-bred conscious egos like myself ? No wonder Jung’s idea of a collective unconscious, when understood at all, is controversial.
But vitriol aside, the idea of a collective unconscious has a unique charm and urgency. It is at least an attempt to provide a meeting ground for a world fractured by divergent social, political, and religious interests. It gives us an inkling of our primeval brotherhood, a brotherhood still much touted by religious leaders but buried for all practical purposes by sectarian feuding. It offers us a clue how to sublimate our selfish, ego-centered ambitions by recognizing a central collective entity, a greater impersonal self. Largely on the basis of the collective unconscious, Jung called for a potent, nonsectarian faith to counteract the pseudo religions and fanatical political ideologies of this age.
The big trouble with Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious is that his schoolboy mistrust of personality influences it so heavily. Otherwise, the Vedic literatures confirm that two selves dwell in our bodies. One self is the conscious ego, and the other is known to Vedic authorities as the Superself, or Supersoul. The Supersoul is collective in that “it” is within each and every body. But “it” is far from unconscious or impersonal. On the contrary, the Supersoul is a personal expansion of the eternal, all-cognizant, all-perfect Personality of Godhead, Krishna.
Here again we run into the same question Jung raised as a child: How can God be everywhere—in this case in everyone’s body—and still be a person? And again the answer is that Krishna, unlike us, is unlimited and omnipotent. He does as He likes. More specifically, the Vedic literature explains that Krishna expands Himself into an unlimited number of spiritual personalities identical with Him. The Supersoul is one such expansion. As the sun, shining down at noon, falls upon the heads of millions of people yet remains one, so Lord Krishna in His Supersoul expansion shines into the hearts of all living entities in all species of life yet remains one person. While both you and your body are Krishna’s energy, the Supersoul is Krishna’s very self.
The Supersoul could be called unconscious only in the sense that we are currently unconscious, or ignorant, of Him, and in the sense that His consciousness is not defective like ours. Forgetting the Supersoul, or Krishna, is in fact our greatest defect, because in so doing we also forget our own eternal, spiritual selves. Our forgetful friend Jung, for example, proposed that our conscious selves are Johnny-come-latelys on the psychic scene, outgrowths of the collective rhizome.
Yes, the Vedic literature says, we are outgrowths of Krishna in that we are His energy, yet we are eternal—that is, without beginning or end. Krishna is eternal, and we are eternally individual fragments of Him. Krishna is the eternal sun, and we are the sunshine. Although the sun and the sunshine exist simultaneously, one is the origin of the other. According to the Bhagavad-gita, there was never a time when Krishna and ourselves did not exist, nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.
In the Gita Krishna also states that He (as Supersoul) is situated in our hearts, supplying us with memory, knowledge, and forgetfulness. In other words, Krishna, not the collective unconscious, directs all our psychic activities. Without memory and knowledge we can’t think or do anything, and without forgetfulness of our eternal life with Krishna we can’t strut about in this temporary world imagining ourselves supreme and independent. So, according to our particular desires, Krishna equips us with intelligence as He sees fit.
The Supersoul directs not only human beings but animals as well. Whenever even rudimentary intelligence is evident, the source is Krishna, and the receptacle, or secondary source, is one of His eternal, individual parts. For example, the Supersoul gives bees the intelligence to construct a hive, collect nectar from flowers, produce and store the honey, and so on. Bees, ants, whales, human beings—all get their instinctual, mental, or intellectual powers from Krishna, who is seated in our hearts (or, you could say, in the depths of our psyches) as the Supersoul.
Jung’s outstanding accomplishment was to understand that a higher authority governs our psychic activities. Phenomena such as the sudden inspiration of an artist or a scientist, the predictive powers of a psychic, as well as Jung’s own visions and premonitions, helped to convince him that this higher authority exists. In addition, recurrent themes in myths and ideologies throughout human history led Jung to conclude that unseen psychic molds and channels—which he called “archetypes of the collective unconscious”—have always directed man’s consciousness.
Equally outstanding, however, was Jung’s inability to grasp that this unseen authority is a person. The collective unconscious, Jung discovered, serves as a witness, a guide, a governor, a regulator, a knower—even as a friend. Are these not personal qualities? And if consciousness, intelligence, and rationality are the accouterments of ego in this world, then couldn’t Jung at least suspect that the director of intelligence and consciousness has an ego?
No, he couldn’t. Throughout Jung’s life his fear of personality and ego robbed him of a fuller understanding of the psyche.
Both psychic selves—the self and the Superself—are persons, Lord Krishna explains, and we can understand their respective positions only through devotional service:
To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me. To show them special mercy, I, dwelling in their hearts, destroy with the shining lamp of knowledge the darkness born of ignorance.
People who fear personality are especially averse to the supreme personality. Krishna obliges such people by supplying them with forgetfulness of Him, or by revealing Himself to them only as “a solidity underlying all existence.”
On the other hand, those who have lent an impartial ear to the Vedic accounts of Krishna’s wonderful transcendental character have nothing to fear. They fully devote themselves to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, carefully following the direction of the Vedic literature and of Krishna’s representatives. To these devotees Krishna is eager to reveal Himself as the Supersoul in their hearts and to destroy with the brilliance of transcendental knowledge the darkness causing us to falsely identify our eternally perfect egos with our temporary and fault-ridden bodies.
As for little old vitriolic me, the Supersoul poses no threat. I am happy to recognize that He is in charge of my psychic neighborhood. After all, He is not a stranger but my long-forgotten friend and master from the other side—the supremely conscious side—of the psychic tracks. And yes, the Supersoul is God. He was in the neighborhood first. And the perfection of my self is to integrate with Him by constantly endeavoring to please Him with my service.
But no, Supersoul and I are not the same person. He is God; I am His servant. And there’s no threat of my being displaced, or replaced, or blended into some divinely obscure goo. The Supersoul and ourselves exist eternally, and the all- attractive opportunity we now have to awaken our loving relationships with Him is the true basis for the potent, nonsectarian faith Jung was seeking.
The collective unconscious, while intriguing, was not in the least bit lovable.