The re-enchantment of psychology: or, why we are not imagining myth, but myth is imagining us

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 awoman-landscape-square 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.

 

19 thoughts on “The re-enchantment of psychology: or, why we are not imagining myth, but myth is imagining us

  1. Well written and a really interesting read. It’s a shame that you didn’t get to experience those ideas and perspectives sooner. In my own experience, they’ve been very much present throughout my journey in psychology, and continue to be prominent now. It seems important given how pivotal the psychoanalytic theories and psychodynamic approach have been.

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  2. It very much depends where and when you study, clearly. I’m speaking about formal taught degrees at university level, at the time I studied. In the UK in the late 70s, university psychology departments could be categorized according to whether they adopted a predominantly cognitive or predominantly behavioural approach. Not a single one of them adopted a ‘depth psychology’ approach; it wasn’t seen as a critical part of the academic discipline here at the time though as I said, Freud and Jung (and Adler might have had a bit of a mention!) were taught as part of the history of psychology. I don’t know the extent to which that might have changed in the contemporary formal academic study of psychology; these days my academic associations are in mythology and literature, where it is predominantly the ideas of depth psychology that have relevance. But looking back at my old university department, a fairly prominent one, there are still no modules at all in psychoanalytical/ psychotherapeutic elements.

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    1. It definitely sounds as though it depends on where you have studied – and I have furthered my study following undergrad and psychodynamic is a big feature within my studies and current work. It’s really great to hear another perspective but a real shame it can be neglected when it feels very important

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      1. Agreed. But I think those of us who love the depth psychology (or psychodynamic, though of course the two don’t completely overlap) approach might possibly be inhabiting a different planet 🙂

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  3. Just watched Imagine programme on Georgia O’Keeffe… I think she tapped in to these archetypes of the Land and its effects on her in New Mexico, don’t you think?

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    1. I think she is a prime example of an artist who taps into the archetypes of the land, you’re quite correct! So many strong women poets in New Mexico doing the same thing, too. Pat Mora is one of my favourites. Woman as desert …

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  4. Sometimes reading your articles, it seems like I have been living a parallel life. I studied in the early 80’s, both fine art and psych at the same time. The psych was strict behavioral and seemed to me to be completely contrary to what was expressing itself in my own art. Amazingly, I have often joked that the teachers in the psych dept were crazier than the art dept….and I sought no further formal education as the conflict it created in me was so overwhelming. Today I live a creative, mystical life which is profoundly not within the confines of the psychology parameters I was taught. I have become a true anarchist!

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    1. Post-psychology anarchists of the world unite! I was fortunate in that I went into psychology with an all-arts background (except for a rather pitiful Biology ‘O’ level), so the regression to type, when it came, was easier. And my final revenge was the combination of my background in psychology and neuroscience with an MA in Creative Writing and Literature, which led to that specialism in narrative psychology. I have to say though that I am often grateful for that early infusion of rigour, in spite of its brutality. There is so much wooliness in the world. But I am grateful too for the various life-knocks which led me to understand that ‘salvation’ as I understand it can never be found in science, only ever in the creative arts …

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  5. My mind boggles as to what experience you could have had with Christianity that makes you shudder years later. It seems sad, as my own Christian faith is very much compatible with a deep interest in myths and fairy tales. I see myself as standing in the tradition of writers like CS Lewis who believed in the ‘true myth”, John O’Donohue who said “the body is in the soul,” Charles Kingsley (The Water Babies), George McDonald (The Princess and the Goblin) and maybe even the writer of “The Shack” who portrayed God the Father as a big, black woman. Just to say, we’re not your enemies – honest!

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    1. I’m so sorry if that one comment gave the impression that you’re my enemies! I don’t see it that way. I am certainly, and profoundly, not enamoured of the Christian church as a historical institution, but have no argument with certain forms of Christianity as practiced honestly. (By the likes of John O’Donohue, for sure.) Except for the one I was exposed to 🙂 Which lacked … authenticity and integrity. And many more values that I hold dear. So it goes. But many of us are honest fellow seekers, in our different ways. (As long as those ways are inclusive, and none of us believes we alone know the whole truth.)

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  6. So wonderful to read this. I left psychology after I realised that the practices we were trained to use too often created an oroborous experience for clients. I have come to believe strongly in the need for an holistic approach which draws people out of their thought processes and into all aspects of their relationship with life and spirit. Your writings have helped to deepen my ideas on the subject, so thank you. I would love to hear more about the particulars of your own narrative therapy style.

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    1. Sarah, thank you; I’m glad it resonated! Most of the ways I worked are going to be covered in my new course, The Mythic Imagination. https://mythmaking.org/the-mythic-imagination/. I’m sorry but I have never written about them elsewhere so this is going to be the only place where it’s available right now. But they were not based on traditional narrative therapy a la White and Epston, which I also found a wee bit arid, but were rather more focused on working with myth and fairy tale. Again: on the basis that the greatest transformations can be achieved when you capture the client’s imagination.

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  7. Enjoyed your post and it brought back many “academic memories: of dry bones of a mental mind worshipped above intution, instinct, and imagination. Magic is a form of “air” for me; without it the light dims on the preciousness of this world. Just now I thought of Peter Pan asking the children to clap if they believe in fairies…the world would benefit from a resounding standing ovation that could be heard all the way to the stars and other galaxies as we ALL clap and gleefully proclaim fairies, magic and mystery. Your last sentences, Sharon, are smile catchers: “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.

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    1. Thanks, Morgana! I do, as I said, think rigour is necessary, and intellect, and rationality; the key is in the balance. We have swung way too far in that direction. Time to take back enchantment! Which, coincidentally, is the subject of my next book … 🙂

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  8. My only accreditation is a food-handler’s card. That being said, “existing outside ourselves”? If that’s not a metaphor for the world influencing our “psyche”, it seems pretty.. superstitious?

    Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree that people become slaves to who they imagine they should be. But I also think that people can mature beyond that, to be both aware of, and control, that inherent behavior.

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  9. I really resonate with your recovery from your ph.d. I went through a similar period of recovery after my stint in academia. I just found your site and I’m enjoying your work. Thanks for sharing.

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