Mandalas, Nixies, Goddesses and Succubi: a neuroanthropologist Looks at the Anima

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[C.G. Jung Society version – April 27, 2001 -- .rtf version]

Mandalas, Nixies, Goddesses and Succubi:

A Neuroanthropologist Looks at the Anima

Charles D. Laughlin, Ph.D.1

Carleton University


International Consciousness Research Laboratories (ICRL)2

Abstract: Men past their midlives become involved in a dialog with their own unconscious. This dialogue often takes the form of female and female-related imagery and feelings that represent hidden mental processes in the self. C.G. Jung called the producer of these images and feelings the anima (or the animus in women), the harbinger of the contrasexual aspects of our being. We often come to know the anima by becoming aware of the qualities we project upon our contrasexual Other. The author, a neuroanthropologist, explores his own thirty-plus years of encounters with his anima, beginning with spontaneous and ecstatic “mandala experiences,” and proceeding through decades of explorations by way of meditation and study in the traditions of Tibetan tantric Buddhism, the Western mysteries and Navajo religion. He argues that engagement with the anima is a hermeneutic process, and that traditional societies often have an intact, mystical cycle of meaning within which such experiences make sense. Euroamerican contemplatives however are frequently in the position of having to create their own cycle of meaning, because their enculturation does not inform their personal anima experiences. The role of culture in mediating anima/us related interpretations is discussed, and a model presented that may help guide practitioners to a better understanding of how their mind-brains work relative to both their conscious-unconscious and their psyche-cultural interactions.

Not all the contents of the anima and animus are projected... . Many of them appear spontaneously in dreams and so on, and many more can be made conscious through active imagination. In this way we find that thoughts, feelings, and affects are alive in us which we would never have believed possible. Naturally, possibilities of this sort seem utterly fantastic to anyone who has not experienced them himself, for a normal person “knows what he thinks.” Such a childish attitude on the part of the “normal person” is simply the rule, so that no one without experience in this field can be expected to understand the real nature of anima and animus.
Jung, Aion (1959:19)

It all began nearly 40 years ago when I awoke early one morning staring at the world through a mandala. I don’t mean mandala in a metaphoric sense, but quite literally. I came out of sleep and into waking awareness in a state of bliss and looking at my room filtered through the most exquisitely complex and colorful mandala. It was a living thing, and pulsed in synchrony with the rhythm of bliss energies I felt coursing through my body. The experience only lasted for a few minutes, and then subsided. The mandala image faded as the bliss energies faded. It is hard to describe the complexity of the image, for no matter how proficient an artist I might have been, there is no way I could have ever rendered the image accurately on paper. It was made up of hundreds of thousands of fine, radiant colored lines, like a multi-colored, pulsing doily or circular lacework made of pure energy hanging in front of my eyes. The ambient light in my bedroom was dim, but I could discern the normal objects in the room through the gauze-like filter of the mandala.

This experience scared me. In fact I became furious with a friend with whom I had coffee the night before, thinking that she had spiked my drink with some kind of drug. That was before I myself had explored psycho-active substances, and I was very naive about such things. Of course my friend had not inflicted any drugs on me, nor was she the kind of person who would have done such a thing. As it turned out, this was the first of many such mandala experiences that I was to have over the years, and I quite naturally became very curious about their phenomenology. The experiences in those early days were always spontaneous, and I had no notion that I could wilfully produce them. They were essentially hypnopompic images and they all shared a common structure:

(1) The Visual Aspect. An intense visual experience consisting of an intricate pattern of bright colored, infinitesimal lines -- the total configuration corresponding to a classical mandala (i.e., manifests a definite center, is symmetrical about that center, is circular while at the same time "quaternary;" see Argüelles and Argüelles 1972). The pattern is so intense that it may be perceived for a few minutes or longer after awakening with the eyes open or closed, even in a lighted environment.

(2) The Affective Aspect. An intense and active state of euphoria not associated with the ingestion of drugs. This affective state corresponds in intensity and decay rate with the visual aspect, and is a similar state as that experienced under deep meditation or trance.

Over the years I have spoken with a few people who have had similar experiences of mandalas in their waking consciousness -- usually during meditation sessions -- and many more people who recall mandala motifs arising in their dreams. The direct experience of spontaneous, eidetic mandala imagery while people are awake, however, appears to be a fairly rare event. I am still not clear as to whether or not the mandala experience occurs in all persons during their dream life, or merely in a significant few. But that it is experienced by some people in all societies is quite likely, for the mandala motif in company with other images expressing the wholeness of the self is – as Jung noted in Aion – a virtual cultural universal. The appearance of the mandala motif in religious and non-religious symbolism is very wide-spread among the world's societies. It is present in the iconography of all of the Buddhist sects, for the Australian aborigines, for various plains Indian groups, as well as for Western Christianity, to mention but a few examples.

Jung and the Mandala

Jung was, of course, fascinated with the mandala. But I was unaware of Jung or of his interest during those early years of spontaneous transpersonal episodes, and later drug-induced explorations.1 My first encounter with Jung and his interest in mandala symbolism was profound and significant. A decade after my own first mandala experience, I was browsing in a book store and found a copy of Jung’s Mandala Symbolism (1972). As I leafed through the plates, I was struck by the remarkable similarity between four of those images and my own mandala experiences. So I bought the book, and only later did I discover in an editorial footnote that the four plates I had identified were the very four, and the only four, that Jung himself painted from his own dream recall.2 This remarkable correspondence naturally led me to study closely all of Jung’s writings pertaining to the mandala.

In a number of places, C.G. Jung (1964, 1969) points to the scientific significance of the mandala motif in dreams and religious symbolism around the world. Jung described the phenomenon as follows:

The Sanskrit word mandala means "circle" in the ordinary sense of the word. In the sphere of religious practices and in psychology it denotes circular images, which are drawn, painted, modeled, or danced. Plastic structures of this kind are to be found, for instance, in Tibetan Buddhism, and as dance figures these circular patterns occur also in Dervish monasteries. As psychological phenomena they appear spontaneously in dreams, in certain states of conflict, and in cases of schizophrenia. Very frequently they contain a quaternity or a multiple of four, in form of a cross, a star, a square, an octagon, etc. In alchemy we encounter this motif in the form of quadratura circuli. (1972, p. 3)

Jung firmly believed in the existence of the universal or “collective” unconscious, as well as in the fundamental tendency of humans to reason by constructing binary oppositions, or antinomies. Jung felt the mandala to be the key to human symbolism because it is a primal archetype,3 and as such it often represents both the self and the unification or nexus of all possible oppositions (Jung 1959:31). Among other media, the mandala is encountered by the conscious ego through dreaming. But one thing that impressed me from the beginning is that, although Jung did encounter mandala motifs in his dreams, and in his automatic painting exercises, he apparently did not encounter eidetic mandala imagery in the waking state in either hypnagogic/hypnopompic states or contemplative visions. This difference in our respective experiences of the mandala turns out to be crucial, for so far as I can tell, Jung never fully appreciated the mandala as a type of anima imagery, or as a doorway into the anima. His interpretation of mandala images was limited to an expression of the wholeness of the self archetype.

Mandala As Anima

Let me continue with my own mandala saga and I will return to this point in a moment. In working with these spontaneous mandala experiences, I learned that I could gain some measure of control over the experience by the exercise of concentration upon the center of the image. The more intense and unbroken my concentration became, the longer I could hold the image and the ecstatic affect that accompanied it. In effect, what I was learning to do was to prolong the hypnopompic by stabilizing what is normally an evanescent warp of consciousness between the dream world and the waking world into a more enduring state of consciousness.4 I initially hit upon this technique unaided, but I later discovered it is used to good effect in Tibetan dream yoga for the alteration of the hypnagogic/hypnopompic warps in order to retain awareness during the dream phases. In this fashion, I was able to stabilize the imagery and affect for up to 30 minutes or more at a time.5

At some point in this development, the intricate, lacy mandalas began to morph. At first they only became geometrically dynamic -- much like the ever-changing image in a child’s kaleidoscope -- but with the difference that the geometric imagery appeared to emerge from the center of the mandala and flow outwards to the edges of the visual field. Later on this process of emergence began to take on a three dimensional quality and became one of rushing down a long, geometrically intricate tunnel. If my concentration was sufficiently intense, the tunnel experience would open out into some other kinds of visions, either of bright lights, or of some scenario like a lucid dream (I would not be asleep, however, and was very much awake and aware). By the later 1970s, or about a decade and a half after the first mandala experience, I had learned a lot about formal meditation, and during one weekend retreat, and while meditating upon my breath,6 the mandala experience again arose and I experienced myself flying down the usual tunnel with ever-increasing bliss, and into a light that became brighter and brighter until brilliant white light pervaded my entire consciousness and the bliss had increased to the point of almost unendurable ecstacy. When I slowly returned to the awareness of my tingling and twitching body and surroundings, I found I was laying on the floor, curled up in the fetal position, ten feet from the chair I had been sitting in when the experience had begun. I retained no memory of how I had gotten there.

As it turned out, this was the first time that the mandala experience had morphed into a birthing experience, an initiation as it were into an exploration that was to unfold for some years afterwards, especially during meditation retreats. These experiences brought me back into contact with my birth and with the trauma associated with that event. For some years, I could not do breath work without triggering birthing experiences, associated either with or without mandala imagery.7

On top of this, during the latter 1970s and early 1980s I was intensively doing the Tibetan tantric Buddhist foundation practices (ngon-dro), one of which is called the “mandala practice” or dkyil-'khor (Beyer 1973: 437ff, Cove, Laughlin and MacDonald 1984). This practice involves the repetitive construction of a mandala-like form out of rice atop a round, mirror-like surface and immediately wiping the surface clean. The practitioner concentrates on the operation of assembling and disassembling the rice-form while repeating a chant that speaks of the construction of the mandala-like mystical cosmos surrounding the mythical Mount Sumeru. This operation is repeated, often for hours at a time, at least a hundred thousand times during the basic introductory work prior to advanced tantric practice.8 It is not surprising that this practice deepened and elaborated the spontaneous experiences of mandalas, and mandala associated birthing experiences, and underscored the significance of the mandala as a “calling” as it were from the anima – the mandala taking on the characteristics of “the womb of form” – out consciousness produces an experiential surround with ourselves in the middle (Namgyal Rimpoche 1981).

Parenthetically, it is precisely this kind of experience that is used to empirically support the view of death and birth as depicted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead (or Bardo Thodal, Tib: bar-do’i-thos-grol; see Fremantle and Trungpa 1975). The Tibetan term bardo refers to the space or gap between things, between events. A bardo is a point of transition between one state and another. With respect to the stream of consciousness, bardo is equivalent to our biogenetic structural concept of “warp” between “phases” or states of consciousness.9 With respect to death, the bardo refers to the warp between the end of this life and the beginning of the next life – in other words, re-birth. And some of the phenomenology arising during the bardo is said to involve whizzing down tunnels into light and other lucid phenomena.

Thus the mandala experience as I have described it is a type of anima experience, or may morph into anima-related imagery. In terms of psychodynamics at least, mandala motifs may constitute anima expressions which vary in their function and their interpretation according to their distinct geometry and dynamics. I would suggest at least three types of spontaneous mandala experiences, as well as their functions:

(1) Static, two-dimensional mandalas. In their two dimensional form without much morphing, mandalas may emphasize union or relations among antinomous structures. They may constitute a “calling” from the self to greater union, or a warning that the ego is off center in some significant way.

(2) Dynamic, two-dimensional mandalas. In their more dynamic, kaleidoscopic, but two-dimensional form, mandalas may express the antinomies that arise and pass away within the ongoing stream of consciousness. The warning here from the self may be to attend the stream of consciousness and position the awareness in the middle between the demands and productions of binary structures – e.g., between ego and shadow aspects.

(3) Dynamic, three-dimensional mandalas. In their dynamic and three-dimensional “tunnel-like” form, mandalas may represent the recurring transformation and “re-birth” which is required for the ego to become sufficiently flexible to incorporate both shadow and anima materials into its increasingly dynamic organization. This recurring process may express the alternating coniunctio and negrido phases of psychic growth that Jung emphasized (see Schwartz-Salant 1998:Chap. 7).

Jung On the Anima

Jung’s discovery of the anima (Latin for “breath,” “soul,” “shades”) in males and the animus in females is one of the main distinguishing features of his view of psychodynamics.10 The anima/us is a:

...natural archetype that satisfactorily sums up all the statements of the unconscious, of the primitive mind, of the history of language and religion. It is a ‘factor’ in the proper sense of the word. Man cannot make [the anima/us]; on the contrary, it is always the a priori element in his moods, reactions, impulses, and whatever else is spontaneous in psychic life. It is something that lives of itself, that makes us live; it is a life behind consciousness that cannot be completely integrated with [consciousness], but from which, on the contrary, consciousness arises. For, in the last analysis, psychic life is for the greater part an unconscious life that surrounds consciousness on all sides – a notion that is sufficiently obvious when one considers how much unconscious preparation is needed, for instance, to register a sense-impression.

Jung (1968a:27)

The anima/us performs the bridge or mediator function between the ego and the collective unconscious (Jung 1997:127, Steinberg 1993:183) – that vast field of archetypal structures that we inherit by virtue of having human brains (Jung 1968a:27-28; see also Laughlin 1996a).11 Jung noted that there were as many archetypes as there are species-wide, typical perceptions (1968a:48). Archetypes of the collective unconscious are in a certain sense indistinguishable from the instincts (1959 [1951]:179), and it is from the archetypal structures that the more developed, differentiated and mature structures of experience grow (Steinberg 1993:182-185). The archetypes are living tissue, and whether or not they grow, they are alive and will at every opportunity “do their thing,” usually outside the bounds of our ego consciousness.

The anima/us is also one of the most controversial of Jung’s notions,12 due primarily to (1) the difficulty of operationalizing the term in the kind of crisp, inclusive-exclusive form that science requires, and (2) the cultural stereotypes evident in Jung’s definition of male and female attributes. Jung never intended the concepts to be other than phenomenological ones, covering as they so usefully do the very fuzzy natural categories of our experiences of the collective unconscious:

The empirical reality summed up under the concept of the anima forms an extremely dramatic content of the unconscious. It is possible to describe this content in rational, scientific language, but in this way one entirely fails to express its living character. Therefore, in describing the living processes of the psyche, I deliberately and consciously give preference to a dramatic, mythological way of thinking and speaking, because this is not only more expressive but also more exact than an abstract scientific terminology, which is wont to toy with the notion that its theoretic formulations may one fine day be resolved into algebraic equations.

Jung (1959:13)

The anima/us cannot be pinned down to a crisp theoretical formulation, for to attempt to do so, as many “Jungian” systematists are wont to do, is to rob the term of its essentially phenomenological power. Indeed, natural categories of transpersonal experiences are by their very nature fuzzy (see Laughlin 1993 on this issue). As Jung notes in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1965), the notion of anima/us arose as a consequence of his experience of his parents, the experiences of his patients, and especially in his own internal process of individuation. Considering this rich symbolic material, Jung suspected at first that the anima/us is in relation to the unconscious as the persona is in relation to the external world of objects (Jung 1966:304). But being open to his own experiences, he later came to see that the same-sex shadow performs that filtering process with the unconscious, and that the anima/us involves the direct apprehension of the unconscious by the ego – a relationship that may nonetheless be distorted by shadow responses to contrasexual content. Indeed, it was Jung’s view that it is through incorporating the shadow, or the personal unconscious, that one comes into a more direct and effective interaction with the anima/us. For this reason, he argued (Jung 1959:22) that the anima/us should be encountered within the context of actual human relationships in order for the contrasexual elements of the psyche to be integrated into consciousness. As we shall see, while this is the most common course of integration of anima/us materials, especially for individuals undergoing analysis, the enactment of the syzygies13 in actual relationships is neither necessary nor sufficient for individuation. Were this not true, then Eastern paths like tantric Buddhism would be ineffectual.

Unfortunately, most people never come to understand that many of the attributes they project upon their contrasexual opposites derive from qualities of their own psyches that their enculturation14 has caused to be alienated from their consciousness. In blind ignorance of their own psychodynamics, most people fail to perceive the many and varied ways they project themselves upon other people (Jung 1959:19, 1997:4-5). Nonetheless, experience teaches those with the eyes to see that we frequently become ensnared by our own projected psychic materials:

The Anima determines man’s relationship to women, and in the encounter with a woman, man experiences and recognizes the essence of his own soul. Wherever he projects his soul upon a woman, a kind of magic identity is established. This expresses itself in the guise of overwhelming emotions, especially with the intense feeling of “falling-in-love.” Thereby the Anima becomes fate-shaping. When one’s own soul is projected, one feels unable to separate oneself any longer from the object of the projection. When one believes he has found, at long last, one’s complement, one does not want to lose this “other half.” Thus the Anima drives the young man towards the realization of his yearnings.

Brunner (1986:xxi-xxii)

We unconsciously yearn for unity with our self, but because we are outer-oriented, we project the contrasexual aspects of ourselves upon the Other and then feel compelled to interact with them in a manner Jung (1997:6-7; after Lucien Levy-Bruhl 1923) called participation mystique, or the kind of magico-mystical involvement in which we can become trapped when possessed by unconscious materials. Such possession states are frequently highly charged with psychic energy (i.e., libido; see Jung 1956:Part 2, Chap. 2) and the object of our obsession numinous, bordering on the sacred. Because the state of participation mystique is a special kind of hyperintentionality (samadhi or “absorption-state” in Buddhist psychology; see Laughlin, McManus and d’Aquili 1990:118), the experience is of at least a partial dissolution of ego boundaries and a sense of more or less union with the Other.

Culture and the Anima

It is quite possible for any of us to learn how our own psyches work. To accomplish this, however, requires that one develop a contemplative turn of mind. Armed with contemplative skills (Laughlin, McManus and d’Aquili 1990:Chap. 11), it is possible to understand the mechanisms of consciousness by studying one’s own mental acts -- even as they are operating upon objects and events in the world. And sooner or later this process of internal study brings us into contact with our anima/us. As I mentioned above, Jung suggested the term anima/us to cover the experiences we all have of the contrasexual archetypes, the material appropriate to the opposite sex that we inherit as humans and suppress during our development.15 For me, as for other males, this relationship with the unconscious is often mediated by feminine imagery, as well as by reflection upon my relationships with real women. That is, aspects of my unconscious self are frequently represented by female motifs in dreams, fantasies, episodes of active imagination, spontaneous visions (Skt: nimitta) during meditation, and in projections upon actual females with whom I am in relationship (Meier 1995:103). Those Eros qualities that in the course of my own enculturation were considered female – qualities like nurture, emotion, sensitivity to nuances of relationship, mood, softness, intuition and spiritual awareness – were for a long time suppressed in my quest for a male identity.16 But because that quest had drawn my ego way off center from the self, the self began to call the ego back into its fold with imagery that hooked my attention and awareness – the first and foremost call being the mandala experience. My path of individuation, as is perhaps the case with everyone, has been idiosyncratic – a reflection of my own distinct life-course (Ulanov and Ulanov 1994:19). In addition, my path has also reflected both cultural and genetic elements -- my life-long enculturation and the array of archetypal structures I inherited as a human with a very typical human nervous system.

Much has been made of Jung’s presumed ignorance of the fact that his experiences as a contemplative and as a healer were culturally loaded. But this view is pretty much the result of a superficial reading of Jung. In fact he was perfectly aware that the anima/us experiences of people from other cultures would be different and conditioned by their upbringing. Moreover, as the archetypes themselves are never experienced directly, and are really structures, not contents, an infinite variety of images and themes may be mediated by the anima/us, depending upon personal and cultural factors (see Ulanov and Ulanov 1994:16-18 for a nice discussion of this issue).17 Keep in mind that Jung was as avid a reader of the ethnography of his day as was his teacher, Freud, before him. Indeed, his appreciation of cross-cultural variation was at the root of his suspicion of Eastern yogic and spiritual practices as appropriate for Euroamericans.

As for myself, because my masculine ego-ideal, as well as the field of underdeveloped archetypes comprising my unconscious, were heavily impacted by my upbringing, it is clear to me that just what constellation of archetypes comprises the anima for me will vary from that of other males in my society, and is demonstrably influenced heavily by culture. Culture clearly influences the extent to which a male identifies with the variety of functions of the psyche -- with emotion, with intuition, and with other attributes of self. Thus the path of self-discovery for each of us is as much an encounter with our cultural background and personal development as it is with the deeper and instinctual collective unconscious.18 As is sometimes said in the Western mysteries, each knight must enter the forest at the place darkest to him (or her).

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