My psychology studies didn’t begin well. In the first lecture I ever attended, a sardonic disbeliever-in-everything thoroughly and mockingly debunked the idea of hypnosis, demonstrating how to fake the Human Plank Feat to a lecture theatre full of mesmerized (sorry) students who were already beginning to wonder what on earth they’d let themselves in for. So began the brain-washing. A year in, and I could hardly say the word ‘mind’ without shuddering. ‘Brain’ was okay, and ‘behaviour’; ‘cognition’ was marginal; anything else was pure woo-woo.
It was a fine enough education in its way. It was wonderfully broad, as we delved into the behavioural aspects of subjects as diverse as genetics, neuroscience, social sciences, linguistics. It was rigorously scientific, and the subjective nature of psychology meant that it was necessary to question everything, always to be aware of your assumptions.
I like rigour, but I didn’t much like disenchantment. I had perhaps rather naively imagined, in signing up for psychology, that I was going to be inducted into the mysteries of human existence. I came to psychology with a worldview on the atheistic side of agnosticism, after a clichéd, brief but passionate flirtation with evangelical Christianity when I was 14, an experience the memory of which has, ever since, made me shudder. I’d for sure given up on God the Father, but I hadn’t given up on magic, and I certainly hadn’t given up on mystery. My three-year psychology ‘education’ turned out to be a concerted attempt to strip students of both, as lecturers wielded copies of Boris Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity as if it were their own institutional bible. It was a ‘disenchanting’ experience for sure, and when I look back on it now, I see that particular brand of fiercely behavioural psychology as Max Weber’s ‘disenchantment of the world’ in stark and painful practice.
It took a long time for me to recover from that reprogramming; a PhD followed by postdoctoral research in neuroscience for sure didn’t help. And yet I lived a curiously double life; in my spare time I read and studied, just as I had always done, everything I could about myths and fairy tales, and immersed myself in books and novels imbued with that sense of enchantment which was now sorely lacking in my own working life. I wouldn’t, of course, have admitted to it under torture; the persona I presented to the world was always wonderfully … rigorous. It wasn’t until I was in my late thirties, all at sea in the American South, working my way through what seemed like the last in a whole line of early- and mid-life crises, that I found the work which could bring those two sides of my own personality back together.
I found it by exploring an area of psychology which had been forbidden to us during my own undergraduate studies. Freud and Jung were presented in brief as mere historical curiosities, now (like the Human Plank Feat, and hypnosis) thoroughly debunked by Proper Psychologists. Not for grown-ups. Not for Proper Psychology students like us. But when a series of synchronicities (a woo-woo word, for sure) landed a series of books written by contemporary Jungian therapists in my mailbox, the re-enchantment of psychology began for me in earnest.
Jung was all very fine, but the most transformative reading of all came from the remarkable James Hillman, the first director of Zurich’s Jung Institute, who founded ‘Archetypal Psychology’ in the early 1970s. Unlike earlier Jungian approaches, Archetypal Psychology has no great interest in the ego, but focuses instead on what it calls the psyche, or soul, and the deepest patterns of psychic functioning: ‘the fundamental fantasies that animate all life’. For someone who had always been steeped in myth and story, this was pure gold. Archetypal Psychology focuses on the many myths, images and symbols – gods, goddesses, animals and other archetypes – which shape our inner lives. Imagining, Hillman declared – the construction of images through which we both experience and interpret the world – is critical to understanding psyche. And, more than that, these images express what is important, what is of value for psyche.
But more interesting to me, as someone who has always been suspicious about the kind of psychology that locks us up so firmly in the prison of our own heads, analysing and over-analysing our emotions, our behaviour, going round and around in self-referential circles – is that a key tenet of Archetypal Psychology is that psyche is not ‘in’ the individual person, but rather that each individual person is ‘in’ psyche. Psyche is everywhere. As Hillman puts it: ‘It is not we who imagine, but we who are imagined.’ The soul is not an entity ‘within’ each of us, but something transpersonal which expresses itself in our unique experience, without being reducible to that unique experience.
After that exposure to Hillman’s ideas I had what can only be described as a conversion experience. I returned to the UK, did some retraining, developed a specialism in narrative psychology and mythology, and developed a further specialism in the mythology of place. And now, both in my work and my personal credo, I take that original notion of Hillman’s a step further. Psyche, Hillman said, is not in us; we are in psyche. And I believe that if psyche is shaped by myth, by mythical images and symbols, then myth is not in us: we are, in some deep and indefinable sense, in myth. ‘It is not we who imagine, but we who are imagined.’ What if we are not imagining myth, but myth is imagining us?
This idea, and Hillman’s conceptualization of Archetypal Psychology, was foreshadowed by Jung in his later years, when he revised and broadened his original concept of archetypes, arguing that they were actually psycho-physical patterns which existed in the universe independently of us, and were given specific expression both by human consciousness and culture. In other words, he proposed that the archetype has a dual nature: it exists both in the individual psyche, and in the world at large. In exploring all of these ideas, I take comfort in a psychology that is not all about us; that is not simply about what goes on in the dark, confined spaces of our own heads. This is the perfect re-enchantment of the arid, stripped-back psychology I grew up with, offering us a sense of our place in, our belonging to, a mysterious world, the magical depths of which we still haven’t even begun to plumb. A world in which the greatest of adventures still, always, lies ahead.