Getting at the Unconscious through metaphor: a Jungian perspective

By Nicholas Toko

Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash

The unconscious is an untapped potential source of personal transformation. It can help you to improve resilience, better understand yourself and others, develop more effective personal and work-based relationships, find creative solutions to long standing problems, and a source of inspiration, knowledge and wisdom. All in all, it’s a good thing to get your head around.

However, the unconscious is also a difficult thing to describe to others, not because of any ignorance or lack of knowledge on their part, but because the unconscious isn’t a concrete or tangible thing. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the unconscious was the primary source of interest in the developing field of Psychoanalysis: its aim was to access its intangibility and make it more comprehensible to consciousness.

Today the unconscious continues to be a dominant feature in psychoanalysis. If you go see a psychoanalyst (or more broadly, a psychodynamic psychotherapist) for an emotional problem, you can expect your unconscious to form part of the talking therapy between you and the therapist. The unconscious can be engaged with to remedy and address emotional problems as it is perceived to be in a dynamic interactive relationship with consciousness, therefore bringing both sides to the awareness of an individual is one of the goals of psychoanalysis. Jungian analysis has a particular angle on the unconscious that I have been exploring.

My biggest challenge in working with this material in the workplace (and as a training Jungian analyst) is to communicate Jungian ideas about the unconscious in an accessible, practical, and easy to understand way. While trying to work out how to do this I had the good fortune of watching a documentary about asteroids produced by German broadcaster DW which immediately captured my interest as a way to better convey the nature of the unconscious.

Psyche is an Asteroid: a metaphor

The documentary “A new El Dorado in space?”, explores the near-future possibility of mining asteroids for resources that will soon be depleted from Earth. About ten minutes into it an image of an asteroid appears on the screen and the presenter begins to describe it in more detail. The asteroid is called Psyche. It is made entirely of metallic substances, more than 200km in diameter and the rarest type of asteroid. Psyche is the product of the universe’s intense phases of formation. It is a planetary embryo, like the inner core of the earth’s planet, which has not survived the onslaught of collisions from other objects such as asteroids. Unlike earth, it hasn’t formed an outer layer, it has an iron core which has never reached a sufficient size to withstand collisions. Psyche is a rare metallic mammoth, floating in the asteroid belt, discovered by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis on March 17, 1852. He named the asteroid after Psyche, the Greek Goddess of the Soul who was born mortal and married Eros, the God of Love.

So why is this relevant? Well, one way to understand and engage the unconscious is to adopt metaphorical thinking. This is a form of thinking that enables you to perceive or know the unconscious in a more concrete way. The asteroid, Psyche, made me think of our own planet as a metaphor for the psyche. In this conception, the unconscious is like the inner core of the earth while the conscious layers of our planet can be represented by the land, mountains, hills, valleys, oceans, seas, plant and wildlife. They are concrete objects which we can touch and see. However, we don’t immediately see what is beneath the earth’s surface, however we have a good idea or expectation about what makes up the inner core of the planet earth through scientific geophysical discoveries.

The internal structure of earth as a metaphor of the psyche

The earth was discovered to have a solid iron, inner core distinct from its molten outer core in 1936 by the Danish seismologist Inge Lehmann. Lehmann discovered the earth’s inner core by studying earthquakes in New Zealand. The radius of the earth’s inner core is 1220km, around six times the size of the asteroid Psyche. The exploration of earth and the universe by astronomers and seismologists mirrors a parallel process of exploration of the mind by the first psychologists who emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They referred to the inner mind as psyche, a Greek term for ‘soul’. It is now used to describe the totality of the human mind, both conscious and unconscious.

In this metaphor the unconscious is seen as our inner core. We are aware of it but we cannot see it, but we can see its effects on us. Think of the hot molten lava that spews out of volcanoes, volcanoes can transform the environment around it; the land around volcanoes is fertile, perfect for growing crops and sustaining wildlife and human life, sometimes they even create new lands, as can be seen in the islands of Hawaii. But at times, volcanoes can also be destructive, destroying settlements around it and sending volcanic ash high up in the earth’s atmosphere. Similarly, the unconscious can cause eruptions in our conscious mind, in transformative or destructive ways.

NASA’s mission to Psyche is a useful metaphor to use for psychodynamic psychology, the study and exploration of the unconscious. Psychodynamic Psychology is based on a systematic exploration of the human psyche: the totality of the conscious and unconscious mind. Though we can trace the exploration of the unconscious many centuries earlier (mostly through religious and spiritual traditions) the earliest explorers of the unconscious from what would become the psychodynamic perspective include Pierre Janet, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, and Carl Jung. Their discoveries have had a lasting impact on the field of psychology and psychiatry including pioneering techniques to help people address emotional problems such as trauma, depression, and anxiety.

The Jungian Language of the Unconscious

Jung introduced two terms to describe the language of consciousness [directed thinking] and unconscious [fantasy thinking]. These terms define the different forms of mental activity in the psyche and the differing ways in which it expresses itself.

Directed thinking involves the conscious use of language and concepts. It is based on or constructed with reference to reality. Essentially, directed thinking is communication, thinking outwards to others. It is the language of intellect, scientific exposition, and common sense.

Fantasy thinking on the other hand uses images, metaphor, symbols, imagination, emotions and intuitions. The rules of logic and physics do not apply, and there are no moral judgments. Jung also pointed out that fantasy thinking may be conscious but is usually unconscious in its expression. The conscious mind or ego, benefits from such contact with fantasy thinking, especially personality transformation and psychotherapeutic benefits. The interaction of both conscious and unconscious mind is integral to Jungian analysis.

Directed and fantasy thinking coexist as two separate and equal perspectives. These two types of thinking are central to the functioning of the psyche. Directed thinking is usually associated with language, logic, action, analysis, logic, rational and obeys the laws of time and space (popularly associated with the left side of the brain) while fantasy thinking is usually associated with emotions, feelings, fantasies, intuition, it gives one a sense of where one is in relation to everything else, and a holistic capacity to grasp a complex situation (popularly associated with the right side of the brain). Dreams are typical expressions of fantasy thinking which is why they are often used in a Jungian analysis as a means to access an individual’s unconscious.

Jung believed that the degree to which the unconscious becomes available to consciousness rests upon the relationship between the nature of the unconscious material and the ego, which determines what can pass into consciousness. The crucial factor is the ego’s ability to maintain dialogue and interact with possibilities revealed in the unconscious. If the ego is relatively strong it will permit the selective passage of unconscious contents into consciousness. Over time such contents may be seen as enhancing personality development in a unique and individual way. My work with individuals, which is deeply influenced by the Jungian approach, is to help them become aware of, and understand such contents, to bring greater personal effectiveness, improvement or transformation.

Nicholas Toko is a freelance Organisation Effectiveness Consultant and Personality Assessment Specialist. He is currently training as a Jungian Analyst and provides coaching services to individuals based on Jungian personality assessments. This is a shorter version of his original post is available on his blog The Individual Psyche: The Conscious and Unconscious Realm. For the original longer piece, and to learn more about Nicholas, you can visit his blog: www.nicholastoko/blog

Stillpoint Spaces is an international hub for the psychologically curious. With bases in Berlin, London, Paris, Zurich, and online, we offer events, workshops, and courses to explore our world through the lens of psychology. We also provide access to counsellors and coaches. For more information please visit www.stillpointspaces.com

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Stillpoint Spaces is an international hub for the psychologically curious. With bases in Berlin, London, Paris, Zurich, and online, we offer events, workshops, and courses to explore our world through the lens of psychology. We also provide access to counsellors and coaches.

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