Any cursory reading in psychology leads one to understand that the human psyche is deeper than what one thinks, senses, and feels. And perhaps the bulk of all psychological work done from the mid nineteenth to early twenty first century revolves round explaining the works of that which is deeper than our thoughts, sensory experiences, and feelings.
But the working mechanisms of something are different from its nature.
Pioneers such as Sigmund Freud gave that nature a name, and connected its works (mechanisms) to the experiences and feelings we register ‘at the surface’. Avantgarde thinkers who had emerged from Frued’s cloak but took vastly different approaches, chief amongst them Carl Jung, delved deep into that inner world and gradually over decades, tried to describe it.
Giving a name to that inner world helped. It signified that what is below the surface is different from what we perceive as us ‘at the surface’. Giving a name to that inner world made it “scientific” for us to think of ourselves as comprising different aspects, different layers.
Attempts at delving into that inner world revealed that it is much more complicated than our ‘surface’ thoughts, experiences, and feelings. It became clear that our inner world contains not only suppressed fears, desires, and traumas, but also definitions and beliefs and conceptions our conscious (surface) selves are not even aware of.
This was problematic. This is because knowledge is supposed to be based upon inputs we have received over our lifetime. Some of that knowledge is registered ‘at the surface’, some stored ‘below the surface’, in our depths. Still, all of our knowledge, including the desires, fears, and sense of ‘knowing’ that we have within us, are supposed to be from experiences we were exposed to and inputs we took in. It follows that definitions, conceptions, and beliefs are supposed to be based upon what we have registered, or what we have been exposed to. How come, then, we form conceptions based on knowledge we supposedly have never been exposed to.
Here we encounter different explanations of that inner world, our depths. There is the personal: those, such as Jung, who attempted to sail in it to try to understand it. And there is the cultural: the higher teachings of several Asian philosophies, that give macro explanations of what our inner world essentially is.
Both, however, lead us toward an important idea: that of a living entity: an inner self that is not old accumulated fears and desires affecting us in the same way as the bottom of the ocean affects sea currents which in turn affect ships – no, rather as a living entity affects another living entity.
For the vast majority of people the interaction between the two entities does not alter, does not divide, our conception of ourselves. The two entities are one, a whole.
Still, the word “interaction” is crucial, for that interaction is constant and decisive in its shaping of our lives. Shaping, not influencing .. shaping.
Interaction denotes dynamism in each of the sides. Our conscious self (the surface) is obviously dynamic (we think, feel, and react). But also the inner self is dynamic. Its different components are in constant movement, interacting with each other, and sending the results of these interactions to the surface, which in turn determine what the ‘surface’ will decide upon, do, say, and behave.
These inner interactions take place whether or not one is conscious of their existence and work. But we can be aware of some of them, and with courage, and importantly with a desire for growth, we can try to delve into that inner space to get an understanding, even if a basic one, of some of these interactions.
The journey in is marvellous, often scary, potentially dangerous, ultimately rewarding. But it is inevitable. We are all on it. The only difference between the journeys of different people are the speed, sense of having a direction, and of whether there are hands on the wheel. For the vast majority of people, the journey in means being on the receiving end of the results that materialise ‘at the surface’: our feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. For a few, the journey in is an attempt at understanding. And for those who persevere and have self-control, the journey in could mean reverse-influencing: healing the inside, educing from it that which is real and beautiful and valuable, so as to make the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours ‘at the surface’ more refined. For those few, they work on - and control - themselves so as to educe goodness from within so as to effect goodness without. Controlling the within leads to shaping the without.
Perhaps the fundamental question one has when he/she begins to delve into that inner world, that depth, is, again, its nature. If we have already known that its components are interacting with each other, and that it is alive (in the sense of having dynamism), then we want to know whether there is a whole here that encompasses the different components, a whole we can attempt to think about its nature, or are the components of that inner world of different nature, not related to each other.
Know that there is a whole that encompasses all components. The components are parts of a coherent entity. Nothing is separate within you.
How then can we conceptualise that whole?
This is a crucial question, because if we accept that that inner world, that depth, decisively shapes what takes place ‘at the surface’, then its nature is of paramount importance to us – to our lives, as well as to how we understand ourselves.
Many tales and stories have given us ways to conceptualise the nature of the inner depth. From the prodigal son to Alice in Wonderland to tens of other stories, we were subtly told of many features of that nature; and we were indirectly informed about many of its dynamics.
Most of these tales and stories talked of journeys: a hero (or a young woman) ventures out, away from his/her comfort zone, faces dangers, undergoes challenges – and as the great mythologist Joseph Campbell put it – meets “guardians at thresholds” whom he/she must convince or conquer so as to pass the gates they guard.
And in most of these tales and stories, there are caves to be explored, oceans or seas and foreign lands (with forests, deserts, jungles) to be crossed, and strange peoples and cultures to be negotiated with.
In his conceptualisation, Jung dispensed with the analogies. He gave us his description, his analyses, largely visually: often drawing what he ‘saw below the surface’ (in some cases, reminding us of the drawings of William Blake), often using words to describe scenes of struggles we undergo in our inner depths, struggles that shape our lives, yet we hardly register, let alone understand.
Robert Moore put what I find to be an apt conceptualisation. For him, the inner world, the depth, is a dragon. As many myths tell us, dragons are massive; they are intelligent, as in they have access to a source of intelligence that many myths show to be vast. We may fail to understand how these colossal entities connect to that source of intelligence. But the dangerous failure would be to underestimate their intelligence (the functioning of that inner depth, and the reasoning behind that functioning). Indeed the dangerous failure would be to ignore the dynamism there and its immense power which shapes our lives. This immense power is another reason the dragon is an apt conceptualisation here. As many myths tell us, those who access the powers of dragons may use them for good, creating for themselves and for others great good, or may use them otherwise, invariably bringing destruction to themselves and others.
In some tales, we have a combination of the hero (or heroine) and the dragon. We have the protagonist of the story undergoing a long journey, finally reaching the cave where the “treasure” he/she is looking for (or the person he/she wants to liberate) is kept. But for he/she to get to the treasure (or to liberate the captive), he/she must fight the dragon guarding the cave.
The stories are nothing but allusions to delving into our inner world, our depth. The stories are guidebooks to the journeys we embark on in the inner world – journeys full of awe, peril and immense promise.
Entering the cave, seeing the dragon, we see the power available for us there. We encounter the possibility – and the temptation - of our remaining ignorant and enslaved to our ignorance if we fail to tame the dragon. We also get a glimpse of the immense potential that we could achieve if we are to know how to tame it and ride it.