I read the news today, oh boy… we seem to be living in an age of craziness, all around the world. I am reminded of the famous psychologist, Carl Jung, and his notion of psychic epidemics. He was born in 1875, as the Industrial Revolution was turning many societies inside out. It was a gold rush for psychologists, because mental illness was soaring in advanced societies.
Urbanization led to the “insectification” of city dwellers, which fueled the emergence of mental imbalances. The human mind evolved to function nicely in small groups, not large crowds. The neurotic urban hordes bore no resemblance to the Pueblo Indians that Jung had met in New Mexico. He was fascinated by his encounter with these shockingly sane and content humans, and he spoke fondly about them throughout his life. “Such a man is in the fullest sense of the word in his proper place.”
Three issues spooked Jung. The world wars, with their new and improved technology, took death and destruction to unimaginable new levels. Nuclear war was a big threat, but it was avoidable, in theory. What scared him most was population growth, a runaway train with no brakes. World population nearly doubled in his lifetime. It had soared to almost three billion when he died in 1961. “Masses are always breeding grounds of psychic epidemics.”
Jung was horrified by the rise of Hitler. “The most dangerous things in the world are immense accumulations of human beings who are manipulated by only a few heads.” Germany suffered from an inferiority complex following its defeat in the First World War. The collective unconscious of the Germans begged for a savior, a Messiah. Hitler helped them compensate for their shame by leading them on a heroic adventure in megalomania. He had a remarkable ability for bringing the nation’s unconscious into his conscious awareness. He told the people exactly what they wanted to hear.
After Hitler’s defeat, Jung concluded, “The phenomenon we have witnessed in Germany was nothing less than the first outbreak of epidemic insanity, an eruption of the unconscious into what seemed to be a tolerably well-ordered world.” I don’t believe that this was “the first” such epidemic. Many, like the Inquisition, preceded the Nazis.
Jung died 55 years ago, before the first Earth Day. Since his death, population has more than doubled again, and continues to soar. Climate change is getting warmed up for unleashing centuries of big surprises. The sixth mass extinction is now officially recognized. The list of ongoing catastrophes is long and growing. On his deathbed (1961), Jung had a disturbing vision. In 50 years (2011), “I see enormous stretches devastated, enormous stretches of the earth. But, thank God, it’s not the whole planet.”
Jung warned that, “It is becoming ever more obvious that it is not famine, not earthquakes, not microbes, not cancer, but man himself who is man’s greatest danger to man, for the simple reason that there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes.”
Jung was perplexed by the notion of consciousness, a slippery concept. Consciousness includes being aware of what our senses are telling us about the here and now. It allows us to think about people and events in different times and places, and share this knowledge with others. We are very self aware, and know that we will die. We can think in words, and use words to assemble reasoned concepts and abstract ideas.
Among our wild ancestors, the development of consciousness was minimal. They had what Jung called the “original mind.” A wild lad could put on a lion mask and literally become a lion, in his mind. Modern insurance salespeople can’t do this, because they have been trained in the differentiated consciousness of civilization, which makes the original mind unconscious.
Jung believed that consciousness in humans developed slowly over a very long time. By 4000 B.C., consciousness in civilized societies was approaching its modern form. He noted that primitive people were less conscious than we are. At the same time, even in its advanced form, consciousness remained highly unstable, far from finished. Consciousness is merely the mind’s thin surface, floating on an unconscious ocean. Throughout every day, our minds flutter in and out of consciousness, frequently drifting off into daydreams and fantasies. Conscious thought is tiresome, requiring deliberate effort, while fantasyland is effortless.
Education factories indoctrinate students with the notion that reason is the guiding force in our nation’s affairs. But our ability to reason is flimsy. Like the Germans of the 1930s, we are always vulnerable to slick talking advertisers, politicians, and woo-woo hucksters. Those with skills for prodding unconscious fears, doubts, and desires will find many sitting ducks to corral and exploit. Here’s my favorite Jung line: “Our present lives are dominated by the goddess Reason, who is our greatest and most tragic illusion.”
Jung was an important pioneer in exploring the unconscious, home of the ancestral soul, which stores content that is millions of years old. We drift into the unconscious whenever we dream, or daydream. When we remember dreams, we can bring unconscious content into the realm of our consciousness. This content can provide important guidance, or solutions to inner conflicts. Instinct can often see the elephant that the conscious mind blocks out. Instinct is our ally.
Jung believed that, “Loss of instinct is largely responsible for the pathological condition of contemporary culture.” We are cut off from our roots, making us childish and infantile. Some primitive people remain connected to their ancient instincts, and are therefore more stable. Their dreams guide them through life. They inhabit a reality that is sacred, beautiful, and alive with wonder.
Non-human animals obviously have some degree of consciousness, but a form far different from that of the glowing screen people. Unlike many domesticated critters, wild animals are not neurotic basket cases. Nor are primitive people, who do not suffer from advanced stages of consciousness. People with advanced consciousness have conquered the Earth, but Jung wasn’t sure if “this is an advantage or a calamity.” He could not escape the paradox that consciousness is “both the highest good and the greatest evil.”
Sometimes, Jung wondered if the solution was to deliberately pursue the further development of consciousness, complete our unfinished quest, and become perfectly reasonable. But based on his long experience with many damaged souls, this notion seemed to be ridiculous and impossible. At the same time, “we cannot develop backwards into animal unconsciousness.” But we are, in fact, animals. When we squirted out of the womb, our standard issue equipment included an animal mind, with an excellent instinct collection. This mind was fully capable of spending its entire existence operating without words, tools, fire, or clothing, like all other animal minds.
In both wild kids, and kids born in captivity, rudimentary self-aware consciousness (ego) emerges when a child is about four. Kids born in civilization go on to absorb a highly unstable civilization-grade form of consciousness. It’s fascinating to contemplate children who did not receive consciousness programming, like the girls raised by wolves, or the wild boy Tarzancíto.
For Jung, the magic word was individuation, which means becoming who you are, like a unique acorn develops into a unique oak tree. Every newborn is a unique being, not a blank slate. The mass mind of industrial society could care less about that unique being. The mass mind expects everyone to become mindless status seeking robo-consumers. But the ancient original mind expects us to use our gifts, and pursue our calling. Individuation allows us to develop a strong and healthy relationship with the rest of the family of life, so we can avoid being swept away by psychic epidemics.
Individuation does not happen automatically, it requires effort to set foot on your own path. Our ancestors benefitted from initiation ceremonies, in which adolescents received important visions that revealed their identities and destinies. Modern society provides no such assistance, hence the mobs of robo-consumers.
“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls.” The path to healing requires looking inward. Deliberately move away from the torrents of distractions that bombard our society. Seek solitude and nature. “Imagination and intuition are vital to our understanding.” Intuition is perception via the unconscious. It opens channels to the unconscious, and draws up the life. Humankind has enormous conflicts to resolve. The experts of our society are largely out to lunch, still lost in toxic hallucinations of perpetual growth and material wealth.
So, Jung does not give us the secret formula for mass enlightenment and a heavenly utopia. Instead, he gives us a mirror. Humankind can only heal individual by individual. There are mountains of books describing the ecological damage we cause. Far less attention has been given to the psychological twists and turns that have brought us to the brink. Maybe we don’t need to study Mars.
The Earth Has a Soul is an excellent book that presents Jung’s commentary on our relationship with nature. In Man and His Symbols, he explains his core ideas to general readers. Jung wrote the autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections. C. G. Jung Speaking presents a series of notable interviews and letters. Diagnosis: Psychic Epidemic is an essay by Paul Levy.