Growing with Intention: Making the Unconscious Conscious

The tie that binds all of the practices in this series on Growing with Intention together is their shared presupposition that growing spiritually involves growing in awareness — being able to see, accept, and integrate more about ourselves and the world around us. While the first four practices we’ve looked at — transcendent spiritual experiences, appreciation of beauty, dialectical epistemology, and value metabolism — have all been about how we engage with the outside world, the next three focus on expanding our awareness of our inner world. Today, I’m going to introduce the idea in general terms and suggest some of the ways we can work with it; in the next posts, I’ll look more closely at two specific examples, dream work and shadow work.

The idea that we can grow by bringing our unconscious inner life into our awareness has a long history. But its more specific roots are in early twentieth-century psychology, and especially the thought of Carl Jung. According to Jung, the strengthening of the ego over the course of human evolution and cultural development has had an unfortunate side-effect: an alienation from the other, instinctual or sensory ways of knowing that guided us for most of our evolutionary history. This over-dependence mental structures stems both from our privileging our thinking over other ways of knowing and the huge influence of our cultural norms and roles, which go a long way in shaping what we think we should or even can think, do, and be. In Jung’s words, this state “inevitably plunges civilized man [i.e., a human living in a social structure] into the conflict between conscious and unconscious, spirit and nature, knowledge and faith” (The Undiscovered Self, 45 (CW 558). But since these pre-cognitive ways of knowing are important, we need to learn to bridge this divide if we’re going to be full, healthy adults.

In Jung’s framework, this unconscious material makes itself available to us primarily through our dreams, but also in our waking imaginations, stories (myths, fairy tales, and legends), repeating symbols and coincidences, physical sensations, our aversions and attractions, or even in esoteric and divination practices. The point of all this is not just knowledge, but becoming more fully who we were created to be. As Gary Bobroff notes:

Serving the interchange between conscious and unconscious is what ensures that we grow into what we are mean to be. It is in this way that the ‘acorn becomes an oak and not a donkey.’ … [F]ulfilling our personal potential, wrestling with our particular demons, finding our way to connect spiritually and living our our fullest self was not only beneficial personally, it was also the route by which we remedy the collective spiritual sickness of our time; it is a pathway to cure the split that lives throughout our culture. (Carl Jung [Knowledge in a Nutshell])

Jung called this process individuation. As we become more and more individuated, we cease to be dominated by the scripts and roles dictated by our communities, and become more integrated and whole, and free to bring the best of our skills, values, and gifts to the table for our communities. Individuation thus does not mean selfishness, but rather growing into a more active and intentional contribution to community life. It may or may not come as a surprise that Jung often looked to Jesus as a primary example of what individuation looks like, both in process and outcome. After all, Jesus lived for the sake of others and built community, but refused to give in to religious and social conventions that got in the way of his ministry and what he believed the Kingdom of God to be all about. In this way, Jesus represents a clear path for all of us. As Jung noted:

If you have still not learned this [the way of Jesus] from the old holy books, then go there, drink the blood and eat the flesh of him who was mocked and tormented for the sake of your sins, so that you totally become his nature, deny his being-apart-from-you; you should be he himself, not Christians but christs…. No one can be spared the way of Christ, since this way leads to what is to come. You should all become christs. (The Red Book, 137)

We might quibble with some of his language here, but altogether it’s a rather classic description of Christian spirituality: We study the Gospels in order to learn and be broken open by the humble-yet-assured way of Jesus; we participate in the sacraments, which are symbols (in the strongest sense of the word) of our uniting with his life; and through this process we are freed from sin and separation and are allowed to grow into “the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4.13).

Even if Jung’s desired outcome resonates very strongly with the Christian Gospel, the question remains of whether his process of growing by bringing unconscious material into our awareness is consistent with the way of Jesus. The language of consciousness is certainly not found in Jesus’ teachings, but we do see him consistently push his conversation partners and audiences beyond the surface of an issue to the spirit of the Law or to their own motivations. He often did this by telling stories featuring such archetypal images as kings, shepherds, brides, brothers, and banquets. More suggestive still, meaningful dreams or trances are a common feature of the biblical story. Over all, the New Testament paints a picture of life that involves a general openness and receptivity to the Spirit, which two thousand years of Christian experience has demonstrated can operate in any number of ways to bring what we aren’t aware of into our awareness. As Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au put it, “To have an inspired conscience is to allow the Spirit of God to permeate all aspects of our decision-making: our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our dreams, and our daydreams” (The Discerning Heart, 9). Or, if you prefer, Thomas à Kempis argued that “a humble self-knowledge is a surer way to God than a search after deep learning” (Imitation of Christ). Knowing yourself, honestly, deep-down, can be a truly transformative path.

The story of my own discernment out of the ordination process is a helpful example of this, I think. On a conscious level, ordained ministry made all sorts of sense for me: It fit with my education, my interests, and aptitudes; I enjoyed teaching and preaching, and already found myself doing a lot of pastoral care in my day-to-day life. It also represented what felt like a persistent sense of calling throughout my life. And yet, the further along in the process I got, the more uncomfortable I became. When I thought about my future life in ordained ministry, I felt a tightness all throughout my body; thinking about wearing a clerical collar gave me a mental image of an iron shackle around my neck. As these sensations persisted, I decided to put my process on pause, and eventually withdrew entirely. Four years later, and I have yet to have had a single regret about that decision and I am so glad I listened to the wisdom of my body and not my mind.

The next two posts will go into greater detail about two specific practices that can be used to help bring the unconscious into our awareness, dream work and shadow work. Until then, here are some examples of other practices that can support this engine of our spiritual growth:

  • Journaling and automatic writing can be great ways of bringing out what we ‘don’t know we know’, especially if we aren’t afraid to go deep and dark.
  • Active imagination: Take an idea, image, or metaphor and “enter into it;” expand on its themes, talk to it (even if it’s weird — I once had a profound experience in active imagination ‘talking to’ a beach that was showing up often when my mind wandered).
  • Metaphor: When you’re experiencing something, think of creative analogies for how you’re feeling.
  • Inner Wisdom Circle: When facing big decision, be intentional about asking different ‘parts’ of you what they think. Everyone’s configuration of their ‘inner’ council will be different, but some possible ones you may wish to consider include: body, emotions, intellect, faith, ambition, fears, inner voice of your family of origin, etc.
  • Esoteric practices, such as Tarot: Make a story around the cards you pull and contemplate how that story intersects with what you are experiencing; what are the archetypes they invoke? What is their ‘medicine‘? (If esoteric practices make you uncomfortable, you may want to check out the introductory posts in my series on ‘My Year of Magical Thinking’, especially the one that addresses some common Christian concerns.)

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