I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder about six months ago. Before that I’d had a diagnosis of bipolar one, a severe form of bipolar where rapid cycling and suicidal ideation are particularly common. Borderline personality disorder, or BPD, makes it difficult for someone to control and regulate their emotions, affecting interpersonal relationships, basic day to day functioning, and employment.
Finding treatment and therapy for both of these diagnoses is difficult. Even under the best of circumstances.
Before covid, my options were limited. Most people choose to go on a waitlist and wait for the type of therapy that is known to work best with borderline personality disorder, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, to become available. This type of therapy works best in a group setting and takes the form of a course wherein a person is taught better coping mechanisms, based on a practice of mindfulness.
I’ve been waitlisted for almost a year now.
Covid made treatments like this near impossible. People can meet in Zoom chat rooms, but scheduling can be difficult. And it requires a full group doing the full 6 to 12 week program in order to work.
Cutting mental health budgets, militarizing the police
Part of the problem lies with state funding. Without people who are experienced in this type of treatment, who can facilitate the group, the number of groups that are available dwindles.
Funding for programs in Chicago and throughout Illinois was cut years ago.
Under Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, the state decided to allow mental health services to receive little or no funding during sweeping budget cuts. True to form, it was the most at need that received the least assistance under the new budget.
Psychiatric care for many programs were reduced drastically or eliminated completely as a result. In Chicago, a city of over eight million people, these budget cuts, and the reduction in services that they cause, have had deep and lasting effects.
Under Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel, many of the city’s major providers were shuttered because of lack of funding. Unsurprisingly, the first providers to go were the ones in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods.
The money that should be going to mental health services and clinics is going instead toward policing and prisons.
The 2021 budget allocates nearly $1.7 billion dollars toward police spending. This is nearly 40% of the corporate fund, the largest of funds of the city’s spending plan.
As seen during the Black Lives Matter Protests, the city’s police force is better equipped than some military forces. In addition to full riot gear, tear gas, batons, rubber bullets, police have availed themselves the use of the Long Range Acoustic Device, or LRAD, a sonic weapon intended to disperse protesters using an ear splitting deterrent tone, capable of causing permanent hearing damage. Use and operation of these weapons is not cheap. Spending suggests the city would rather deal with the problems that having an unhealthy population cause then preventing the problems by providing services.
A history of cuts to mental health services
Cutting health services is a hallmark of Republican budget strategies: As soon as he took office as governor of California, Reagan decided to slash funding for health services. The number of people suffering from mental health issues in the prison system effectively doubled as a direct result of this action.
Private board and care facility operators capitalized on former patients who needed assistance. There was money to be made providing spaces and services for the mentally ill. Those who didn’t end up in prison ended up in one of these facilities, or eventually on the street if their symptoms were severe enough and they were not receiving proper treatment and medication.
Later as president, Reagan decided to cut funding for health services again, reducing federal spending for mental health and pushing the responsibility for funding services onto the states.
This fiscal strategy of intentional neglect continues today. As recent as last year, 45’s proposed budget for 2021 included $2.9 billion in cuts to the National Institute of Health and another $708 million to the CDC, this during a pandemic.
National policy affects people who are suffering from mental illness personally.
Shortly after I was diagnosed with bipolar one, I was prescribed lithium to help with manic episodes and to regulate depressive cycles. I was on lithium for a year before switching to depakote after finding out lithium can damage the liver and kidneys.
Under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, I qualify for Medicaid.
Without insurance, I would be paying hundreds of dollars for my medication.
Even with medication, day to day functioning is a challenge. Trying to explain the necessity of taking medication to someone who doesn’t struggle with mental health issues is difficult and adds to the challenges that neurodivergent people face.
I am in constant fear of losing my insurance because of a change in the administration.
Change is possible: cities making progress
Forward-thinking cities have taken matters into their own hands. In 2018, Denver residents passed a measure that would allow for a .25% tax increase that earmarked funds for mental health treatment. Among a rash of suicides and overdoses, Denver wanted to see its citizens receive access to better mental health services.
Other parts of the country have taken similar steps with positive results. In 2008, King County Washington saw a .1% increase in funding for behavioral health services. Within three years, they witnessed a drop in psychiatric hospital admissions of 29%, with a 35% drop in jail bookings.
The major problem with programs like this is how people access them. A lack of standards means that people might have trouble finding them, and without regulation there is a good chance that those most in need will slip through the cracks.
In Chicago, this has been a big part of the problem as well as limited services. People who are computer literate and who understand how to navigate bureaucratic systems are still left daunted by a confusing and complicated, time consuming, frustrating system.
For those who do not have the time, patience, and wherewithal, it’s easier to find other ways of coping with mental health issues.
Transformation is something we can undergo, as in a good character arc, or a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. Transformation is also the art of creating something new; matter can never be created or destroyed. Everything comes from something else.
Marx believed the urge to create – which he called species-being – was the essence of human nature, what differentiates us from animals.
In Ancient Greece they created art; temples, poetry, epics, philosophy, rituals, and mythology. Well, it wasn’t some sort of socialist paradise – they had slaves. My point is that the ancients created beauty, while we now mass produce… junk.
Under capitalism, our self-expression and self-actualization, the realization of our finest human capacities and creativity is supposed to be achieved through starting a business. The vast majority of creation (or, work) is done within a monetized system, for profit – usually the mass production of products that don’t serve the common good or are even bad for us. There is a “cult of the entrepreneur”. “Anyone can start a business,” they say, and this is what makes our society “free”.
What a limited sense of freedom!
And a false one at that.
The vast majority of people can’t start a business. Why? Almost 40% of small businesses closed during the Covid-19 pandemic – their market share gobbled up by corporate giants and chains. How are we supposed to compete with Wal-Mart or Amazon? How can we start a business if we’re already in debt from college or a mortgage? Even if we had the savings, why should we risk it when 50% of businesses fail within five years?
Despite its apparent absurdity, the entrepreneurial myth is one that sticks. It’s also a bit of a rich kid fantasy – but it’s polluted the public imagination.
Jung says that there are archetypes in the collective unconscious that express themselves in every society. Entrepreneurs have awarded themselves the role of the hero archetype. They are heroic by virtue of “creating new technologies” (taking public research and commercializing it for private profit), employing people (exploitation), “solving problems” (by creating new ones), or simply by virtue of being wealthy and successful. Politicians are also considered heroic and in a sense deified, even when they’re vilified. Why? They’re supposed to serve the public. They’re not demigods; though most of them consider themselves above the law.
Of course, entrepreneurs are the heroes of their own myths, as projected in the media they own. As long as a large enough percentage of the population believes that Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or Bill Gates are heroic figures, successful because of some genius or superior talent that earns them the right to their obscene riches and positions of power, and capable of solving humanity’s problems, I suppose it’s easy for them to maintain this illusion as well. They make themselves gods through their near total control of the media.
The cult of the entrepreneur is seeded in us so that we believe we can start businesses and get rich, too. This is so we identify with the robber barons of the capitalist class instead of despising them as we should.
Look for the glorification of entrepreneurship on TV shows. I’ve seen it in just about every show I’ve watched recently: Fleabag, Grace and Frankie, The Santa Clarita Diet, Bojack Horseman. The main characters in these series all start their own businesses – or at least try – often in some sort of heroic, transformational moment. This is how one is supposed to make their mark on the world, achieve independence and empowerment.
Not all small business owners are bad people, though being in a position of power over others can certainly corrupt the soul as they lose regard for the needs and humanity of their workers, looking at the bottom line. It’s ironic that part of the romanticism of starting a business is in not having a boss or having to work for someone else. It’s taken for granted that we hate working for a boss, so we instead seek to become the boss.
More hierarchical institutions won’t solve our problems. This entrepreneurial fantasy obscures exploitation behind the “American dream” that you can be an oppressor instead of one of the oppressed, and that this will somehow liberate you.
Wealthy businessmen may be intelligent, or hard-working, but what usually makes them successful is not that they’re brilliant or good at creating things. They’re successful because they were born into money. From a position of power and wealth, it’s much easier to invest in new ventures, especially if you’re ruthless. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be successful. If you don’t exploit, you won’t be “competitive” and you won’t make a profit.
The myth of the heroic entrepreneur also feeds the glorification of productivity. Successful people are hard-working, we’re told. So many of us have internalized the notion that being busy for its own sake is good. That it determines our worth, even if we’re not doing something we enjoy.
But when we look back at our lives and measure our success, will we be upset that we never became the oppressor? Will we regret that we didn’t work hard enough for the boss?
No, what we seek in the heroic entrepreneur myth is a lost sense of power and control over our lives. The dream of creating something new in our community, or with our friends. The realization of an idea. Creative self-expression. We don’t need to control others or the world, but control our own lives. Entrepreneurial fantasy obscures how much we’ve been disempowered by capitalism, how much it controls our desires, our opinions, our self-esteem, and our very ability to survive.
With the American dream clearly fading, capitalist cheerleaders are trying desperately to keep this myth of heroic self-actualization through business ownership on life support. Portraying billionaires as geniuses and saviors, the media fawns over them and indulges their infantile fantasies of colonizing Mars or owning moon mines, while the world burns around them.
What a thoroughly deluded society.
So the dream of capitalism is finally starting to crumble. Most people, especially youths, no longer see a future for themselves. They’ve been traumatized by their own nascent experience in a sick society that doesn’t value them because they have no money. The only care billionaires have for youth is if they’re trafficked by the likes of Ghislaine Maxwell. None of them have been held accountable. The likes of Bill Gates maintain their celebrated hero status.
When most of us are asked what we would do if we were rich, we usually say something like travel, art, or helping others – not scheme for more wealth and power. We want a comfortable existence and the free time to pursue happiness within a community; that’s all most of us really want.
Most of us will never be rich or famous. That’s okay. That’s not what being human is about. It’s not about being better than others, that’s just another way of isolating ourselves. If we’re to go by Marx, being human is about creation. According to some religious beliefs, it’s virtue. Both are fine; much better than domination, or wealth for the sake of it.
Marx said that creation was the hallmark of humankind, whether it be cave paintings, tools, language, food, music, art, buildings, trains, systems, or myths. He said that we’re alienated from our labor, and therefore our human nature, because we have no control over what or how we create, because the means of production are owned by the ruling class.
As if being alienated from our physical labor wasn’t enough, capitalism and its mass media has destroyed culture by commodifying that, too. Culture is no longer a collective, social process but too often something we passively consume.
Public space has been privatized, and these screens they’ve given us in exchange for human interaction, for ostensibly getting to know each other and create together, are isolating and barren.
Our economic precarity keeps us working too many hours in unfulfilling jobs, while those who don’t have jobs are made to feel worthless. Our job title is the determinant of our belonging and our status in a society, rather than our relationships, which have broken down.
The bosses aren’t truly in control of what they’re producing, either. They may control the company, but the company is controlled by “the market”. Even bosses are alienated from their natural propensity to create. They play God, but they’re really just more cogs in the machine. Of course, this is heresy to them, because in their eyes they’re Olympians, not Ozymandias. But if the billionaires are gods, why are they so insecure? Why do they always need more?
Even the rich are only human. On the other hand, if you’re poor, you can still create. You can create art and myths, organizations and institutions.
But why not create horizontal institutions, not hierarchical institutions? True creation belongs in the public realm. Solutions must be for the whole of society. Food, water, shelter, and energy must be accessible to all.
If you create with your neighbor, you have more possibilities for creating something meaningful. Even your language, your speech, is a form of creation. Writing a poem is a creative act. Starting a childcare coop or a neighborhood school is a creative act. Squatting a building is a creative act. Planting a tree is a creative act.
Create a different world, don’t waste your energy on this one; it’s in decay, let it go. Shed your illusions of wealth and power over, replace them with cooperative creation and love for your neighbor.
Psyche (or Psyke) is the goddess of the soul. The word psyche also means soul in Greek, as well as butterfly.
The butterfly emerges from its dead shell as a new being. Perhaps our souls do when we part from this world, or when we undergo a transformation.
Psyche the mortal
Like the butterfly, the myth of Psyche is transformational. She was a princess, and so beautiful that some began to worship her instead of Aphrodite. Jealous, Aphrodite sent her son Eros (Cupid), to sabotage Psyche.
Eros, the god of love, can make anyone fall in love with his arrows, and Aphrodite instructed him to shoot Psyche with one to make her fall in love with a hideous beast. Instead, he accidentally scratches himself with his own arrow, falls deeply in love with Psyche, and disobeys his mother.
Meanwhile, Psyche has had no luck finding love or a husband. So her father goes to consult the god Apollo, who condemns her to marry a violent dragon. She jumps from a cliff to meet (or escape) her fate, but is instead safely carried by a wind spirit to a beautiful palace.
Psyche is met by a lover at night, but he won’t let her see him. Convinced he’s a monster, she eventually confronts him with a lamp. She’s startled upon seeing Eros, and brushes against one of his arrows, instantly falling in love with him. In her surprise she drops her oil lamp on Eros. Injured, he wakes up and flees. Psyche goes after him.
In her search, Psyche runs into Pan and Demeter, but they cannot help her against a goddess. She realizes that she must go to see Aphrodite, who subjects her to torture and impossible tests. However nature conspires to help her; an army of ants spontaneously lends her their aid, and Zeus himself intervenes in the form of an eagle to save her. Finally, Psyche is told to go to the underworld to retrieve a gift from Persephone for Aphrodite. She again tries to commit suicide, when the very tower she would jump from speaks to her, giving her instructions for safe passage to the underworld and back.
Psyche, the goddess of the soul
Upon her return from the underworld, Psyche is reunited with Eros. Zeus gives her ambrosia, turning her into a goddess, and she becomes the goddess of the soul. Zeus then presides over the sacred marriage of Psyche and Eros, the union between soul and love. Their story is known as Metamorphoses.
At every turn, just as Psyche is about to die, nature saves her. Why does nature favor her?
We are left to think of Psyche as somehow virtuous and blessed. She is motivated in her journey by her love for Eros. Her suicide attempts show her despair at her forbidden love, and that she is more willing to shed her mortal skin than suffer under Aphrodite’s despotism or risk her soul in the underworld. She is in this sense pure; true to herself.
Nature recognizes and supports goodness, sometimes even cosmically intervening in our own folly. Her journey and her visit to the underworld are also metaphors for how traumatic experiences and going to dark places are often a part of our transformation. By trusting nature and valuing her soul, instead of dying, Psyche is transformed into a goddess.
The soul, butterflies, and neuroscience?
The modern father of neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Cajal took up the symbolism of the soul and butterflies two millenia later to describe neurons. He was especially intrigued by interneurons, which are more abundant in humans than animals. His work drawing neurons and interneurons won him more fame and recognition.
“I felt at that time the most lively curiosity, somehow romantic, for the enigmatic organization of the organ of the soul. Humans, I said to myself, reign over Nature through the architectural perfection of their brains…To know the brain, I told myself in my idealistic enthusiasm, is equivalent to discovering the material course of thought and will…Like the entomologist hunting for brightly colored butterflies, my attention was drawn to the flower garden of the grey matter, which contained cells with delicate and elegant forms, the mysterious butterflies of the soul, the beating of whose wings may someday (who knows?) clarify the secret of mental life…”
Santiago Ramon y Cajal was right; thought is created by brain activity. Neurotransmitters activate synapses, which then relay a message through a small electrical signal that travels along the neuron’s axon, activating a cascade of downstream synapses, producing thoughts. These thoughts then shape how we see ourselves and the world.
We’re discovering how the mind works, and this is opening our psyches up to new possibilities. Ideas flitter like serotonin at a synapse, or like brightly colored butterflies; catch them.
Since science is useful in explaining and predicting physical phenomena, we’ve been conditioned to accept it as universal truth. However it isn’t the only way of knowing the world.
Antiquity may have understood the world differently, but many myths survive because they continue to offer insight. Neuroscience is exciting to understand, if tricky and even dangerous to manipulate. And the 20th century offers us yet another perennial understanding of ourselves.
The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung distinguished the psyche from the soul, which he understood as the expression of personality. He defined the psyche as “the totality of all psychic processes, conscious as well as unconscious.”
Jung was very critical of the growing materialist, “scientific” trends in psychology. While Santiago Ramón y Cajal was busy searching for it, Jung insisted that even though it couldn’t be seen, the psyche is the most amazing and important thing in the world, saying:
“I am of the opinion that the psyche is the most tremendous fact of human life. Indeed, it is the mother of all human facts, of civilization and its destroyer, war.”
Transformation is a recurrent theme throughout Jung’s works. In Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious he devotes a chapter to rebirth, describing a few scenarios in which it can take place: transmigration and reincarnation (there’s a subtle difference), transmutation (becoming something else entirely, as when Psyche went from mortal to goddess), and psychological renewal and rebirth (the most common form).
However, change needn’t always be positive. In Greek mythology, beautiful women are transformed into monsters as well as goddesses. Jung refers to a South American tradition in which depression is described as a “loss of soul”. Similarly, he describes the anxiety following shock or trauma as “abaissement”, in which the personality “shrinks”. The descriptions feel apt. This is contrasted with the positive transformation we seek, which he calls an “enlargement of personality”.
“Rebirth… suggests the idea of renovatio, renewal, or even of improvement brought about by magical means. Rebirth may be a renewal without any change of being, inasmuch as the personality which is renewed is not changed in its essential nature, but… parts of the personality, are subjected to healing, strengthening, or improvement. Thus even bodily ills may be healed through rebirth ceremonies.”
Jung elaborates on the different means by which a transformation or “rebirth” may occur.
Rituals as common as communion at Catholic mass can give rise to renewal, he says, though he theorizes that crowds diminish the power of rituals in accordance with their magnitude, and that this is why they must be repeated for their effects to be sustained. Techniques such as meditation or yoga may be used to induce transformation, and visionary or transcendental experiences can also provoke transformation.
The Eleusinian Mysteries
Among the examples of transformation he provides, Jung alludes to are the Eleusinian Mysteries, which connects perfectly to some of the new (yet old) experimental treatments we’re exploring in this journal.
An ancient psychedelic cult of Demeter, the goddess of harvest and grain, revealed to its initiates the secrets of life, death, and immortality. The guest list reads like a who’s who of Ancient Greece: Socrates, Plato, Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, and Cicero all are said to have participated in this rite, which took place annually over the course of 2,000 years.
The initiates would journey to Eleusis, where Demeter was offered comfort while looking for her daughter, Persephone, after she had disappeared to the underworld, reenacting Demeter’s search. Persephone’s eventual return marks the beginning of Spring, symbolizing immortality as the eternal continuity of life through generations.
Upon arriving in Eleusis, initiates drank a psychoactive brew made of barley and mint called kykeon, and were said to come away with special knowledge of life after death.
Albert Hofmann, the chemist who discovered LSD, would go on to write a book purporting that the Eleusinians had, in fact, been ingesting LSD (or a very similar alkaloid). The theory is logical: Demeter is the goddess of the harvest and grain, and LSD is derived from ergot, a fungus that grows on barley and rye. Though ergot is usually quite poisonous when accidentally ingested, apparently its entheogenic properties are water-soluble whereas its most toxic ones are not. So it’s possible that the priests of Eleusis had discovered how to prepare a beverage with ergot in just the right way, as Hofmann happened upon LSD some four thousand years later.
The symbol of the Eleusinian Mysteries was an ear of grain, and traces of ergot were found at ruins of temples of Demeter and Persephone in Catalonia. These findings appear to confirm the theory that these ancient Greek philosophers were essentially taking acid (and that this tradition had spread to Greek colonies across the Mediterranean).
Initiates were sworn to secrecy about their experiences, but some secrets escaped. And some, perhaps, were disguised as myth. Plato’s Republic concludes with “The Myth of Er”, which tells the tale of a man who returns from the afterlife to share his knowledge with the living.
Er has seen the celestial planes of heaven, those returning from sentences in the underworld (where they must endure 10x the suffering they’ve inflicted upon others in their previous lives before being released), and how the newly dead choose their next lives as animals, good people, or powerful tyrants. Previous lives are forgotten with a drink from a river, and old souls go on to embark on new lives.
The Delphic priest and philosopher Plutarch described the revelations of the Eleusinian Mysteries in fewer words:
“Because of those sacred and faithful promises given in the mysteries… we hold it firmly for an undoubted truth that our soul is incorruptible and immortal. Let us behave ourselves accordingly.”
Transformation through love
Love is another way we can be transformed. Themes of rebirth and immortality are also prominent in Plato’s Symposium, where the intellectuals of Athens gather at a dinner party, each one delivering a speech on the god Eros, or the nature of love.
The most prominent account is that of a woman philosopher, Diotima. Though she isn’t at the party, Socrates credits her with teaching him the nature of love and recounts their conversation at the agora.
Diotima says love moves towards the beautiful, which is synonymous with the good. Moved by love, people are filled with the desire to give birth to more beauty, through reproduction or the creation of art, philosophy, and virtuous acts. The concept of immortality through reproduction mirrors that of the Eleusinian Mysteries. However Diotima widens the possibilitie: driven by love, one can also give birth to actions, ideas, and laws for the benefit of society.
Eros, or love, represents longing, and begins with a sense of incompleteness in the self. Through love of the other, the incomplete, needy lover is redirected towards the world and inspired to create. Their vulnerability transforms them from an insecure being into a conduit for creativity. Love begets possibilities for creation and immortality in the form of children, works of art, noble acts, and wisdom and discourse, or, philosophy. Love generates change and creation, transforming both the creator and the world.
For Diotima, love is a process of becoming that is also generative, giving birth to new people, things, and ideas along the way. The final step in this transformation, however, is completely distinct from the process. It culminates in the knowledge and contemplation of beauty itself. Once a person has seen true beauty and is fully transformed by love, they lose interest in the mundane, and lack the inner restlessness that drives creation, she says. They’ve had a transcendental experience that persists, and are then complete, and content to contemplate the eternal beauty of the world in a state of ecstasy. Full metamorphosis, they become their own creation.
Journeying through madness
Socrates describes love in yet another way in the Symposium, which is also in a sense transformational:
“The madness of a man who, on seeing beauty here on earth, and being reminded of true beauty, becomes winged, and fluttering with eagerness to fly upwards, but unable to leave the ground, looks upwards like a bird, and takes no heed of things below—and that is what causes him to be regarded as mad.”
Here we’re reminded that transformation can also take us through or resemble madness, and that our transformations aren’t always accepted by others. It’s possible that we could become detached, or find ourselves emerging with a new identity or perspective not understood or shared by those around us.
Jung also recognizes the transformative power of madness – which is comforting to hear, now that we’ve all gone mad. Likening it to our shadow – or that part of ourselves which we reject, and therefore remains unconscious and unintegrated – he urges us to embrace it:
“Be silent and listen: have you recognized your madness and do you admit it? Have you noticed that all your foundations are completely mired in madness? Do you not want to recognize your madness and welcome it in a friendly manner? You wanted to accept everything. So accept madness too. Let the light of your madness shine, and it will suddenly dawn on you. Madness is not to be despised and not to be feared, but instead you should give it life…If you want to find paths, you should also not spurn madness, since it makes up such a great part of your nature… Be glad that you can recognize it, for you will thus avoid becoming its victim. Madness is a special form of the spirit and clings to all teachings and philosophies, but even more to daily life, since life itself is full of craziness and at bottom utterly illogical. Man strives toward reason only so that he can make rules for himself. Life itself has no rules. That is its mystery and its unknown law. What you call knowledge is an attempt to impose something comprehensible on life.”
Jung keeps circling back to Ancient Greece. It’s ironic that he makes reference to the Eleusinian Mysteries, because they hint at how nature may aid us again by allowing ordinary people to experience the sacred. Hofmann’s LSD theory of the Mysteries hadn’t yet been formulated, however psychedelics were just starting to be experimented with in the last decade of Jung’s life. In a letter, Jung expressed that he didn’t think regular people should take psychedelics. He believed that normal people wouldn’t be able to psychologically integrate such intense experiences, or that they wouldn’t be ready to receive the responsibility that would come with the knowledge they offered. However he elsewhere wrote that we are only able to know or become what we’re ready to receive or be.
Perhaps psychedelics aren’t for everyone. There are other means of transforming ourselves. And just like traumatic or psychedelic experiences, or Jung’s embraced madness, they often have to be integrated into our psyches, whether through ritual, conversations, journaling, or daily practices like yoga or meditation.
However we’re transformed – through experience, ritual, yoga, drugs, psychedelics, a vision or an epiphany – experience belongs to people, not the elite whether they be philosophers or millionaires. Individual experiences must also drive cultural transformations.
The collective unconscious
For Jung, individuals were never – are never – islands. Equally if not more important than our individual psyches is his concept of the collective unconscious; that part of our psyches that is unconscious and shared by all of us – humanity as a species.
The collective unconscious according to Jung is visual, and composed of archetypes that have recurred throughout the thousands of generations of our species. It’s humanity’s common memory, evoking how the Eleusinians saw eternity in the fresh green fields of spring.
Archetypes are symbols. Many correspond to the roles we play in the course of our lives as humans. These archetypes are seen in Greek gods and goddesses and their stories, which individuals across time and cultures can relate to, and structure our understanding of the world.
Jung regards the collective unconscious as inherited, like instincts. Some instincts are ancient, though more recent ones may have reached us through epigenetics. For instance, trauma can leave markers on the genes of their offspring, and be passed down to the next generation, creating transgenerational trauma. Similarly, Jung theorizes that certain patterns and characters are repeated throughout humanity’s history and marked on our genes or stored in our cerebellum in the collective unconscious, which finds expression in stories and religious mythology.
Jung roots much modern neuroses in the absence of religious and mythological forces that express these archetypes, and condemns the efforts of psychiatry to individualize mental health problems:
“In numerous cases of neurosis the cause of the disturbance lies in the very fact that the psychic life of the patient lacks the co-operation of these motive forces. Nevertheless a purely personalistic psychology, by reducing everything to personal causes, tries its level best to deny the existence of archetypal motifs and even seeks to destroy them by personal analysis. I consider this a rather dangerous procedure which cannot be justified medically.”
“Since neuroses are in most cases not just private concerns, but social phenomena, we must assume that archetypes are constellated in these cases too.”
The individualization of mental health
Jung was right to be skeptical of a psychology that reduces everything to personal causes. Most neuroses are social phenomena.
As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, in a society where wealth equals power, we are necessarily disempowered. These symptoms are then pathologized and collectively called “mental illness”. As if it’s our fault for not being richer, and we all could be if we just tried hard enough. When we are threatened with eviction, underpaid, overworked, or undervalued because of our relative poverty, not only are our livelihoods under threat, but there is a very clear message being handed down: that we do not matter. This is a crucial, overlooked aspect of our collective mental health crisis.
At the same time, through the media, the very wealthy proclaim themselves our archetypal gods.
Similarly, a first step in overcoming the inferiority complexes transmitted to us by the media and a culture controlled by the wealthy is simply to reject these cultural values. We can start with a healthy disrespect. Don’t accept their measures of success, or who other people tell you who you are.
While we need large-scale changes and solutions, one way of overcoming the precarity of our economic system and its associated stresses is by getting to know and organizing with people in our communities. This could be by creating neighborhood support networks, community gardens, child care cooperatives, or unions. Or dinner parties with speeches, and elaborate rituals involving psychedelics. Possibilities will arise.
Smartphones & fossil fuels, or LSD & dinner parties?
Technological progress at some point became synonymous with progress itself. So it’s common for us in the 21st century to think of ourselves as somehow more advanced than those that came before. However this is just semantic confusion disguised as common sense.
In American society we’ve not been able to create a culture, having been disconnected from each other by a confluence of structural factors. There’s the media, which controls what we know and what we value. Work culture, which is precarious, competitive, and often sucks out of us the very life force which we might otherwise use to create good in the world. Then there is the physical structure of society, of cars and suburban homes that isolate us, and screens that are supposed to replace the need for human connection. We are not expected to create culture, but consume it. And we’ve been increasingly fed a culture of bad movies, endless news cycles, and social media. In the end, it is less culture than propaganda.
A life with more storytelling, rituals, ceremonies, initiations, mythology, dinner parties, philosophy, and nature begins to sound like a really good deal in exchange for my smartphone and Google. After 11 months of quarantine, I want to tell stories with my neighbors, invite my friends to dinner to give speeches about love, and share my thoughts with them. I don’t want to Google my doubts or read another Wikipedia article. I want to ask my family, my friends, or my neighbor what they think.
I’m partial to Diotima’s vision of love: that we’re transformed through collective creation. Ceremonies, rites of passage, celebrations, secret rituals, and dinner parties. These – along with an equitable society where basic needs are guaranteed in a system of mutually owned production – are the foundations of a good human society.
Since our culture is lacking in ritual, we must create it for ourselves. Whether it’s dinner parties, hiking trips, brewing kykeon, searching for artefacts among ruins or sitting in the square contemplating eternal life with our neighbors, who are also philosophers, or have the potential to be.
Let the people be the philosophers, and the millionaires, and the psychonauts. Let us all be philosophers and millionaires. It’s your experience, choose. Like a good trip, this task – of being who you are and pursuing what you want, of determining your own experience, of self and collective transformation – is at once very heavy and very light.
And if the economy plays a huge role in our mental health, the environment plays an unseen one. Like Jung’s collective unconscious, nature is visual, and it’s constantly at the back of our minds.
If these butterflies escape us, if our transformation eludes us, so may eternal life escape humanity. Though Demeter’s grass may still turn green, where will the souls go? What will they eat? And what if the river’s water has turned to poison?