Forgetting to Remember: The Unconscious

This is the third post in the Mythology and the Psyche series, a list of all the posts in the series can be found here.


As Jung warns us, the ego and its attendant persona endeavour to “conceal the true nature of the individual.” And while the ego is tasked with being the psyche’s executive, its sense of control over our actions, emotions, and thoughts is an illusion. The conscious mind is only a fraction of the full Self, and the vast unconscious, meanwhile, exerts a profound influence on us. This is a problem for the ego because the unconscious contains what the ego simply does not know, but also all it does not want to know. Messages, echoes, and vapours ascend from the unconscious into consciousness, but much of what emerges is at odds with the ego’s values. Sometimes, even only a whisper from the unconscious can destabilize or threaten the integrity of our waking identity. Thus, the ego and the persona seek not only conceal the true nature of the Self from others, but also ourselves.

There are two aspects to the unconscious world: the personal, and the collective. The personal unconscious is the bridge between our waking mind and the deeper unconscious. Jung refers to it as the “superficial layer of the unconscious,” as we are not immediately aware of its contents, but they are near enough to the threshold of consciousness that they may break into our awareness – invited or otherwise. This personal realm is the reservoir for the forgotten experiences from your own life. These lost adventures could be as innocent as what you had for breakfast on this day two years ago, as radioactive as repressed abuse or the details of some traumatic shock. Jung sums up the personal unconscious as “Everything of which I know, but of which I am not at the moment thinking; everything of which I was once conscious but have now forgotten; everything perceived by my senses, but not noted by my conscious mind; everything which, involuntarily and without paying attention to it, I feel, think, remember, want, and do; all the future things which are taking shape in me and will sometime come to consciousness… [and] all more or less intentional repressions of painful thoughts and feelings.”

It is within the personal unconscious that we form what Jung calls complexes. A complex is rather like a recurring theme in your life, something that we trip up against again and again. It’s a constellation of charged emotions, beliefs, experiences, memories, and often fears, around a specific topic. An inferiority complex, for example, is marked by feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, and self-doubt, and while culturally we use this term to refer to someone who constantly feels inferior to others, it can manifest in countless ways. The complex may be specific to certain tasks like driving or subjects like math or spelling. Essentially, an inferiority complex is a pattern of thoughts, beliefs, and feelings which create chronic discouragement and a sense of failure around a particular subject. Which subject the complex forms around will be completely unique to each individual’s life experience: someone may form it around athletic ability, another around money (as an expression of self-worth). As psychotherapist Alfred Adler points out, however, the feeling of inferiority itself is not abnormal, in fact, it plays a critical role in the psyche’s development, inspiring the inner drive to learn and grow. It becomes a complex when related thoughts and emotions knot around what Jung terms a “psychologically powerful event.” It’s possible, then, to have a complex around literally any significant psychological impression or experience, a complex is just an emotional-laden issue for you: it could be your body image, any kind of disability, the details of a traumatic or powerful experience (a time of day, a specific phrase, a certain location), your possessions, or money. Anything, really.


A complex is the site where the unconscious usurps the ego and takes control of our actions, thoughts, and emotions, like a big, shiny, red button capable of short circuiting the ego’s supervision of the conscious mind. To some extent, the development of a complex is influenced by the ego: we may get hung up on something because it contradicts our ego’s values, like a violent impulse; or because it enhances or protects the ego’s self-image, like perfectionism. A complex is often the neurotic trap caused by an inner conflict or contradiction, our psyche’s weak spots, aspects of ourselves we impulsively defend or compensate. However, Jung insists that while complexes tend to have negative emotional results, they can also create positive outcomes. Jung uses Napoleon as an example, whose complex about his height drove much of his desire to succeed. Complexes also help support our internal comfort zones and a psychological feeling of safety. Likewise, a complex defines the inner emotional danger zones our interactions with the external world so often trespass.


Jung describes complexes as being little minds of their own, microcosms of the total psyche that are autonomous to the conscious self. But as they reside in the more “superficial” layers of the unconscious, you may be completely aware of one complex, and totally ignorant of another (you didn’t think you only had one, did you?). In psychotherapy, healing a complex often entails finding and confronting its root cause, or, alternatively, it may involve conditioning a new response to a complex’s habitual trigger and overcoming it by sheer force of will. On the level of myth, complexes are simply the symptoms of too rigid an ego which amplifies, resists, and rejects our painful experiences or aggrandizes its own delusions. Healing occurs when we puncture the illusion that the ego is in control, and when we release our attachment to its perspective. As Campbell warns, it is not the ego’s job to “try to dictate to [the psyche] to say how square it should be,” and we get into trouble when the ego tries.


As they form around particular, personal experiences, complexes and the personal unconscious are completely unique to each individual. The second aspect of the unconscious, its deeper layer, is the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious does not originate from personal experience, rather, it’s inherited at birth and shared with every past and every living human. In fact, each species has its own collective unconscious: it can be seen in the innate ability of birds to build nests, or spiders to spin webs, they do not need to attend seminars to learn how to do it, they just know. Likewise, just as all humans inherit similar biology, Jung uses the term ‘archetypes’ to refer to the shared architecture of the psyche – this is the very foundation for Campbell’s model. The ego, the persona, even the collective unconscious itself, are all archetypes. Our modern understanding of archetypes tends to over-simplify their meaning, however. Typically, use of the term ‘archetype’ is found in the context of storytelling patterns or in writing guidebooks, and they are explained as recurring images which carry a universal meaning or significance. For example, the appearance of “the wise old man,” occasionally woman, in stories is about as old as the hills, and is taken to be a universal symbol for wisdom.

I am not an archetype.
I am not an archetype.

Obi-wan Kenobi of Star Wars is the quintessential ‘wise old man,’ but he is not, himself, an archetype. Archetypes are unconscious, and they cannot be directly accessed by the conscious mind. So to say that they are a certain image or pattern which takes a fixed shape or meaning is absurd. These recurring images are, instead, symbols, the conscious mind’s representation of its fleeting impressions of the archetypes, the hidden aspects of the psyche. Obi-wan acts as Luke’s mentor and is the first to teach him about the path of the Jedi, a forgotten tradition based on faith in the mystical ‘Force.’ In fact, Luke’s family has purposefully hidden this heritage from him. Thus Obi-wan is not simply Luke’s teacher: he initiates Luke into what is, essentially, a spiritual life, bringing him into contact with what binds all of life, and the universe itself, together. This isn’t merely wisdom. Obi-wan is a phantasm, a messenger, of the collective unconscious.

While dreams, populated by images laden with personal associations and meanings, arise primarily from the personal unconscious, mythology emerges from the collective unconscious, the reservoir of the whole species. While in our model the unconscious seems defined by the bounds of the circle, below the threshold of consciousness the circle really just disappears. There are no true boundaries to the unconscious because it simply isn’t knowable: it is forever expanding, and its collective aspect reaches back to the emanation of the visible world. Trying to “know” the whole unconscious is as vain as trying to separate every drop of water in the ocean. The recurring symbols and images of myth are only shadows of semblances. Our relationship to the unconscious is analogous with the Joni Mitchell lyric: “It’s clouds illusions I recall / I really don’t know clouds at all.” This is why the symbols of the archetypes are so variable. The collective unconscious may often be “the wise old man” in cultures of the West, but in other places, at other times, this archetype has taken the form of a fox, a frog, a well, a fairy godmother, an enchanted castle, among countless others. What’s significant is the readiness of the psyche to recognize the archetypes in their many iterations. As Joseph Campbell suggests, we recognize the same hero in “a thousand faces.” The wise old man, himself, cannot be an archetype because his specific form is culturally determined, and, according to Jung, “such variable representations cannot be inherited.” We inherit the ability to understand the image, not the image itself. The collective unconscious is not something we can touch or directly experience, we intuit its existence, encounter it in brief moments or clarity or insight. We recognize Obi-wan as the visible vapour of the collective unconscious, that which we have always known but have forgotten. But he is a finger pointing at the moon.

Don't concentrate on the finger.
Don’t concentrate on the finger.

The personal unconscious rests on the deeper ground of this collective aspect and opens up to it: many of our complexes form around archetypal images. Obsession is easily attracted to the symbols we intuitively understand are important, that resonate. The concept of ‘Mother’ is a deeply seated archetype (explored in our next post), and so our emotions, beliefs, and experiences naturally knot around our own mortal mothers and other maternal figures. We come into this world wired to recognize patterns and to both create and interpret the mythology of those symbols. Of course, Campbell explains that one of mythology’s main functions is “the cosmological function.” Mythology is the story we create to order and explain the natural world, what, for example, moves the sun across the sky, and our place in the larger universe. Campbell is adamant that for mythology to stay relevant in a society it “must itself incorporate the modern scientific world.” From the point of view that a mythology becomes irrelevant and loses its power within a society once modern scientific knowledge outstrips what the myths teach about the nature of the universe, Galileo’s imprisonment by the Catholic Church for heresy when he observed that the Earth was not, in fact, the centre of the universe is understandable. However, this is only one aspect of mythology’s purpose. Myths aren’t just a way to explain the natural world, they are also the vehicle through which we represent our inner Selves. Myths are the landscape of the soul: they are the mirrors through which the conscious mind comes to know the Self. But, only to the extent that the mind is ready to receive its messages – which so often means, only to the extent that we are ready to release the ego’s righteousness. For this is not the realm of the ego. It is rather the threshold beyond which the ego fails.

It’s the ego who grabs onto the images of the unconscious realm and decides they have a fixed meaning, that they represent ‘the truth.’ The ego can understand and control images. It has a harder time with symbols who signal unknowable depth, mystery the ego’s ferocious desire to be right will not see. Campbell uses the analogy of visiting a restaurant, where you are typically given a menu with a list of items you can order, sometimes the menu has pictures of various dishes, but you understand that the words and pictures refer to food that will be prepared for you. Reducing a symbol to its surface image is equal to going to a restaurant and eating the menu. This is what he means when he urges that the ego shouldn’t dictate to the unconscious “how square it should be.” This is the impulse which leads to extremism.


Rather, the ego must learn to let go of its own importance. To become transparent enough that it may serve its true function: to interpret the messages of the unconscious realm and “try to bring [the] impulse system [below the threshold of consciousness] into relationship to the conditions of the environment which ego has constructed… a cooperation between the Self, you might say, and the ego.” The hero’s journey itself represents the process of the ego coming back into relationship with the unconscious, and beyond that, the eternal. It is a guide to bring our own minds back into relationship with our inner Selves, to break the ego’s habitual pattern of rejection, resistance, and fear. As Campbell reminds us, “mythology is the language of the Self speaking to the ego system, and the ego system has to learn how to read it.” The trouble is, of course, “for the most part, we in our world have forgotten” how to do that. This is, perhaps, why we have not yet tired of the many hero’s journeys of the world: we still need a map back to our Selves.

Yet, once the hero is called to adventure, he must make the decision whether or not to risk the perilous quest. For crossing the threshold into the journey is crossing the threshold headlong into the unconscious realm. Here he encounters deep, serious, threatening challenges to his waking identity. He will encounter what he fears most, embodied by two of the most important archetypes in the psyche to the hero’s journey: the anima/animus, and the shadow. We visit the anima next.

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About Sinéad Donohoe

A writer from London, Ontario. These are her adventures in writing, movie loving, and general mayhem.