Centuries of social and environmental engineering have created confusion about what it means to be human. The idea of human nature has become distorted, if not meaningless, from being continually redefined to fit shifting ideologies and economies. Resuscitating ideas like the collective unconscious and archetypes not only supports recovery from sexual abuse, but can also foster a universal sense of humanity desperately needed in our fractured times.
The shamanic journey of the wounded healer, which Jung replicated with his individuation process, uses an engagement with the imaginal to access the universal wisdom of healing. The intense period of self-reflection this journey requires is not easy at this moment in human history. Most of us struggle with distraction. Technology, media, light and sound pollution, and continual connection through email, social media, texts, and that old-fashioned holdout, the phone, bombard our senses and scatter our attention. Still, recovery from sexual abuse and other traumas pull us into our inner worlds to find the truth of who we are. Using Jung’s individuation process, we can discover universal aspects of human nature as we recover our lost souls. It’s an old but true adage: you only can know (and love) others to the extent you know (and love) yourself.
Many of us sense we can’t trust our thoughts, emotions, and imaginings to tell us the truth about ourselves or human nature. Just as waterways and wetlands have absorbed the toxins of manufacturing, we too have absorbed chronic stress and traumatization that are byproducts of the globalized societies we inhabit. Some of what we feel, think, sense, and imagine threatens our sanity, even if absorbed ‘naturally’ from our social worlds. Just as pollution is so widespread in many places that it is impossible to find a source of pristine water, most of us have been trying to heal from trauma without models for a healthy psyche. We have a hard time knowing who we are, let alone the nature of humanity.
According to Jung, through archetypes and the collective unconscious we access remnants of the first human psyches. Like a psychological Shangri-La, in the deep history of the collective unconscious we find humankind’s truest nature. Jung wrote:
“If the unconscious is anything at all, it must consist of earlier evolutionary stages of our conscious psyche … Just as the body has an anatomical prehistory of millions of years, so also does the psyche system. And just as the body today represents in each of its parts the result of this evolution, and everyone still shows traces of its earlier states — so the same may be said of the psyche.” 
The archetypes found in the collective unconscious give form and direction to our experiences as well as our growth across the lifespan. Jungian analyst Jean Knox called archetypes “a reliable scaffolding on which meaningful content is organized and constructed.”  For example, Knox described the archetype of the mother as an ideal sense of containment, experienced through a matrix of images, beliefs, body sensations and emotions.
Because of archetypes, our dreams, fantasies, and memories are more than idiosyncratic combinations of stored sensory input, and our emotions are more than conditioned reflexes. What we react to, remember, and dream about are partially (if not significantly) predetermined by archetypes. Jung described archetypes as “a living system of reactions and aptitudes that determines the individual’s life in invisible ways.”  It doesn’t matter that we aren’t able to prove archetypes exist. Like any spiritual practice, Jung’s individuation process requires a bit of faith.
Like other revolutionary theorists such as Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin, Jung stretched the dominant ideas of his time beyond the boundary of visible evidence. Although Jung tried to capture glimpses of the unconscious at work with his Word Association Test, ultimately his ideas would extend beyond testable reality.
Instead of looking to science for proof, Jung found evidence of archetypes and the collective unconscious in ancient myths, psychotic delusions, and dreams. He confidently assumed archetypes were “patterns of instinctual behavior” passed down through the process of natural selection and inheritance much as genes are. It would take over a half century for science to begin to validate Jung’s ideas.  But that didn’t stop him from taking the journey inwards, and trusting that within himself was the universal wisdom he was seeking.
Affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp noted, “Most scholars are beginning to concede the existence of a core human psyche that is largely a product of biological evolution (specifically a result of natural selection).” He also observed, “Evolutionary psychiatrists are beginning to agree that much of human mental activity is driven by the ancient affective emotional and motivational brain systems shared with other animals.”  This sounds like a description of the collective unconscious in modern parlance.
Similarly, anthropologist John Tooby and psychologist Leda Cosmides observed, “Human cognitive architecture contains many information processing mechanisms that are domain-specific, context-dependent, and specialized for solving particular adaptive problems.”  This is similar to the “scaffolding” Knox associated with archetypes.
Jungian analyst Erik Goodwyn reported emotions are now seen as “motivational programs that deal with fundamental evolutionary ‘life tasks’ … [that] tell us what, out of the barrage of experience, is important.” He added, “What we should attend to, what we should worry about, what we should seek out, what we should learn, is all dictated by our emotional systems in surprisingly subtle ways.”  Jung similarly saw instinctual emotions, along with archetypes, as the contents of the collective unconscious organizing experiences.
Archetypes can also be understood through an analogy with epigenetics, the field devoted to studying the environment’s impact on gene expression. Since the 1970s, researchers have known about methyl groups: an extra organic element that ‘tells’ DNA which genes to transcribe in response to environmental conditions. Traumas like sexual abuse likely alter methyl groups, albeit without actually changing the nature of DNA. Nevertheless, modifying methyl groups is enough to shift the direction of development in ways that can be consequential for the individual and future generations.
Because of methyl groups, an organism has a greater chance of survival since it can adapt to unanticipated environmental stressors without altering the original DNA sequence. Since original DNA sequences remain consistent across generations and environments, a universal model of the organism is maintained, along with an implicit sense of the ideal environment for growth and development.
Perhaps images, dreams, and fantasies act much like methyl groups. However, rather than altering the transcription of DNA, archetypes use personal experiences to adapt archetypes to present conditions. Archetypes are like DNA, waiting for alteration and activation by the lived experiences of each person, yet at the same time placing limits on growth and development. Much as Jungian analyst Anthony Stevens wrote, “archetypes constitute the basic themes on which different people and different cultures work out their individual variations.” He added, “Most of the time we are blissfully unaware of the existence of these basic themes, believing our individual expressions are entirely of our own making.” 
Archetypes, like epigenetics, shift the debate about nature versus nurture to comparisons between the particular and the universal. This complementary relationship, which exists within each of us, is a powerful metaphor for a world exceeding seven and a half billion people. Given the sheer number of us, we must continually balance our needs and rights as individuals with the needs and rights of all of us as a global community. Perhaps Jung’s ideas about individuation can be extrapolated to our individual relationship with the greater collective. Just as meaningful engagement with archetypes supports the integration of the conscious and unconscious, committing to engaging with the universal in each other naturally creates more integrated societies.
Such an application of Jung’s ideas is not the same as a quest for universalizing discourses produced through the analytical powers of consciousness. Rather, the universal is found in images, fantasies, dreams, emotions, and even gestures — what we can identify in ourselves that leads us to feel part of a greater whole. The search for universality should be playful, and have the potential to transcend old wounds and grievances, letting go of our unique stories for the wondrous feeling of being part of the collective whole. Unlike a religion that demands we forgive, we only need a little faith that the universality we feel within heals not only ourselves, but also has the power to heal the world.
Activities to ponder: Spend a little time playing with images, body sensations, and gestures to find something you can use to contact a felt-sense of universal human nature. (I like to put my hand on my heart and take a breath.) Use this gesture or image to remind yourself to drop into a universal feeling of humankind when you find yourself caught in “us versus them” (or me versus him/her) thinking.
- Jung, Carl. (1989). Memories, Dreams, Reflections (R. Winston & C. Winston, Trans.). New York Vintage Books, 348.
Knox, Jean. (2003). Archetype, Attachment, Analysis: Jungian Psychology and The Emergent Mind. New York, New York: Brunner-Routledge, pp. 63-64.
Stevens, Anthony. (1993). The Two Million-Year-Old Self. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, p. 11.
Jung, CG. (1959). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 44.
Quoted in Goodwyn, Erik D. (2012). The Neurobiology of the Gods: How Brain Physiology Shapes the Recurrent Imagery of Myth and Dreams. New York: Routledge, p. 13.
Ibid., p. 25.
Stevens, p. 17.
© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).