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

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Since the beginning of time man, with his wholesome animal instinct, has been engaged in combat with his soul and its demonism. If the soul were uniformly dark it would be a simple matter. Unfortunately this is not so, for the anima can appear also as an angel of light, a psychopomp who points the way to the highest meaning... .
Jung (1968a:29)

When we do enter that forest, we enter the domain of the Wild Mother (i.e., the chthonic unconscious, the thoroughly chaotic and undifferentiated domain of Eros). We encounter both mythical beasts and domesticated animals, demons of every sort and description, and eventually the positive and negative aspects of the contrasexual anima/us. As we emerge from each encounter, we are impressed with the living reality of the archetypes -- entities in the depths of the psyche that seem not only to be alive and enduring, but also marked by something approaching consciousness.

Jung’s writings appear at times to be ambiguous with respect to whether or not the archetypes are actually conscious, and in particular how conscious may be the anima/us. He speaks at times as though the anima only attains consciousness by interaction and integration with the ego (e.g., Jung 1959:24-25), and at other times he speaks of the anima as the ego’s psychopomp in its exploration of the unconscious, and of having a personality of its own (e.g., Jung 1997:1215-1216). However, this apparent ambiguity is not actual. A closer reading of Jung, accompanied by the requisite direct experience, may lead to a better understanding of the subtle distinction between being conscious of something in the normal ego sense, and the active, living presence and intention of non-ego mediated archetypes. The archetypes do compete for trophic resources, for after all they are living cells within the central nervous system (see Laughlin 1996a). Being organizations of millions of cells, the archetypes will “do their thing” so to speak in a very active way. But just because structures in the unconscious are living systems, compete for trophic resources, and may eventually become entrained to conscious network,19 this does not mean that the archetypes themselves are conscious. Rather, as Jung suggests: “It is as if you cut off a little finger and it continued to live quite independently; it would then be a little finger personality, it would be a he or a she, it would give itself a name and talk out of its own mind” (1997:1216).

The struggle of “I-ness” among the complexes is achieved through the competition of organized societies of cells for entrainment to conscious network – in this respect I come down heavily on Jung’s side rather than James Hillman’s more metaphysical views (see Hillman 1989:31, Collins 1994:13). So far as I can tell, the archetypes are not conscious in the commonsense way we all mean by the term – a term defined primarily upon the qualities of awareness and intentionality that we experience in ourselves every day. But when the archetypes engage consciousness by way of imagery, they do become involved to some extent in consciousness, and in a certain sense “become conscious.” As Jung repeatedly emphasized, however, the archetypes are autonomous, and cannot be known directly, but only by way of their sensory productions. So causation from consciousness back to the archetypes (so to speak) is constrained by the fact of the unconscious nature of archetypal processing (1966: 97). The unconscious, and especially the collective unconscious, is largely free from the intentionality of consciousness. Yet, at the same time, the process of assimilation of archetypal materials by the ego does exercise a certain limiting effect upon subsequent transformations produced by the archetypes, and the role of the ego in generating distinctions and discriminations among archetypal elements arising in consciousness is fundamental to the effect of the archetypes on our experience.

The most common medium for encountering the anima/us is in our most intimate contrasexual relationships, beginning of course with our cross-sex parent (Ulanov and Ulanov 1994, Schwartz-Salant 1998). There is fascinating evidence from pre- and perinatal psychology that we are born as social beings, cognizing and participating in social events, and knowing our mothers. Not only is the world of physical objects archetypally "already there" to neonatal perception at, or before birth, so too is the world of socially significant objects and interactions -- objects that include speech sounds or vocal vibrations, interactive gestures, emotional expressions and faces, and especially the face, gestures, feelings, smell, physical touch, breasts and speech of its mother (Field 1985, Murray and Trevarthen 1985, Butterworth and Grover 1988). In other words, we are born with certain nascent proclivities to project socially relevant meaning upon significant others.

As I have argued elsewhere (Laughlin 1990), the psychological attributes projected upon the feminine are non-arbitrary, and are grounded in our pre- and perinatal experiences of both the woman as the world, and the mother or female care giver as a powerful mediator between the perinatal child and the world. Because of this heavy archetypal loading, followed by early experiential identification of the feminine with Eros, the Logos faculties of the higher cortical functions that generally develop later than the experiential-emotional faculties become invested in the masculine. Of course the extent of opposition between feminine and masculine attributes in the adult will depend upon the personality, enculturation and age of the individual. Nonetheless, there exists a recognizable cross-cultural and non-arbitrary regularity to gender projections.

The whole of the self is never projected upon the Other, nor can we rely solely upon tracking our projections onto Others in the outer world to learn the full breadth and depth of our anima/us manifestations (Jung 1959:19; cf. Schwartz-Salant 1998:Chap. 10). This is because living people often draw projections they in some manner resemble relative to our anima/us imagery. But no one person can resemble all of our anima/us. In my case, my anima will generate one set of attributions upon a small, dark, compact and moody woman who becomes for me a chthonic nixie 20-- a woman vaguely resembling my mother in her youth, and a creature of the oceanic depths, inarticulate and seductive in her ways, emotionally chaotic and often destructive, and if my gaze were to become trapped by her, I would be led into a tumultuous and chaotic roller coaster ride which would inevitably end in torment and self-denigration -- a siren of monumental proportions in my phenomenology, indeed.

But also my anima will project another set of attributions upon a taller, fairer, more slender and more intelligent woman -- a female Other of radiance and loving countenance who may act as both nurturing lover, fellow spiritual companion and psychopomp. The anima qualities that I “recognize” in the Other will be somewhat different, depending upon the archetypal category to which the woman penetrates.21 And of course, no living person can live up to these projections entirely, if at all -- be they positive or negative. If one holds tenaciously to these projections and attempts to ignore or explain away the anomalous qualities of the real person, then the relationship, so long as it lasts, is doomed to acted-out psychopathology and/or oblivion.

When it comes to relationships with the opposite sex, we are caught between the horns of the proverbial dilemma -- and the dilemma is wired into our neurophysiology. On the one hand we are designed to track and model reality in a veridical way. This is important in the interests of adaptation. Psychotic hunters would not last long in the jungle. On the other hand, we are propelled by an inner urge to organic unity -- to organize the bits and pieces of our psyche into a coherent whole. When we become engaged in tracking our anima/us, we find out that the same person in the real world – our significant Other – is the object of the drive both for verity and for an anima/us projection device (or APD). The same person becomes both a real object in the world, and a mirror of our own unconscious processes.

As I have mentioned already, much is made in the literature about real relationships being the principal locus for the anima/us work (e.g., Schwartz-Salant 1998). While this is probably true for most people who work within a Jungian frame, full engagement with the anima/us requires neither a real person, nor is a real relationship sufficient for completing the work. In order to optimize our encounters with our anima/us, we must learn to track our dream, fantasy and other imagery directly -- we must learn to quiet the mind and contemplate spontaneous visions, and explore themes and scenarios in active imagination. In so doing we may come to explore our anima materials freed-up from projection upon people, and in their natural settings – that is, within the internal field of our own “theater of mind.” In this way we accumulate the data necessary to discern patterns in the imagery, and thus begin to make cognitive distinctions based upon the recurrent form of the imagery, recurrent context of presentation and typical emotional and intuitive loading.


For example, one of the earliest and most profound experiences of psychic energy I have ever had was during a weekend "loving kindness" retreat in 1979. Part of the work we were assigned was to imagine a rose in the heart region while repeating the famous mantra, Om Mani Padme Hum, associated with the Tibetan deity, Chenrezig (Skt: Avalokitesvara). Numerous visual images spontaneously arose during the retreat, including a red sun emitting radiant rays of rose light, two rose planes, one above me and one below me, formed by conjoined bubbles, a bush sprouting innumerable red roses, blue tubes spewing rose energy, and a long lake between mountain peaks with a golden mountain at the end of the lake -- all of which may be interpreted as Eros-related symbolism; that is, symbols expressing the intensification of Eros energies in my body.

At a certain point while in a state of deep absorption and blissful peace, the image of a beautiful blond female figure dressed in a red shift appeared walking away from me in my left visual field. At first I intended to ignore her as I routinely did with all other distractions from the object of my meditation, but then I intuited that "she" was an archetypal expression of my anima. So I sent her a blast of loving feeling visualized as a laser beam of rose light emanating from my heart. As the laser beam of light connected with the image, both the image of the woman and my bodily self-awareness instantly exploded into a rapidly expanding sphere of rose energy. Within a split second, my consciousness was in a state of intense absorption upon boundless space filled with pulsing, shimmering rose particles and ecstatic bliss. There then followed the eruption of a soundless scream and another energy explosion from the depths of my being that culminated in the awareness of the visual image of a tunnel or birth canal. When corporeal awareness gradually returned, I spent a couple of hours in complete tranquillity, either contemplating the essential attributes of mind, or in absorption upon this or that symbol as it arose before the mind's eye.

A number of elements of this experience are significant to our discussion of pure anima visions:

(1) Perfection of the image. Contemplatives come to understand that images freed from the imposition of external perception tend to perfect themselves. From my point of view, the female form was utterly perfect. The sense is that no living human being could ever be that beautiful. Or if it is a negative anima image, nothing in the world could be that repulsive or terrible. In both Eastern and Western meditation training, an external object like a bowl of water or a flower or the painting of a deity or guru is frequently used to activate an image that is then internalized in the “mind’s eye” and meditated upon as an eidetic image.22 Those who do this work notice that the internalized eidetic image or “visualization” tends to perfect itself. It will lose any flaws present in the external stimulus, and will perfect the ideal geometry of relations in the form. The deity may become translucent and even radiant as though it were backlit. In this manner one may learn that no object in the real world could ever completely match the perfection of the inner archetypal imagery. As a matter of fact there actually exist tantric texts in the East describing the physical qualities to be looked for in finding the ideal lama consort. It is clear that these instructions are for the purpose of finding a lover who simulates as close to the perfect dakini23 on the inner plane as is possible. And with such an experience, one may learn where our notions of gods and goddesses derive – from the projections onto our sensorium, and from our sensorium onto the world of the perfect productions of our unconscious.

(2) Intense affective charge. Pure anima images may be entrained to intense libidinous energies. Indeed, the affective charge may become so intense as to constitute a warp driving the consciousness into an altered state – perhaps a hyperintentional state of absorption. This pairing of the anima image and intense affect may confirm and animate our interpretation of the feminine principle. In the East, this energetic principle is associated with images of the dakinis, young naked females dancing in the flames of transformation. The image of the blond woman in the red shift was my very Western vision of the dakini – perhaps a Western version of Dorje Pagmo (Skt: Vajravarahi), a young female figure, approximately16 years old, that is paired (yab-yum) with the male deity Korlo Demchog (Skt: Chakrasamvara) – forming a typical syzygistic image in the Tibetan tantric system. After the peak experience, I was able to meditate with great concentration and energy for a considerable number of hours.

(3) Coniunctio. With the amount of love that had been generated doing the “loving-kindness” penetration work, there transpired the explosive dissolution of both ego consciousness and alienation from the Other, thus producing, for a few moments at least, a coniunctio oppositorum (Jung 1959:31, 1968a:175-177), the mystical resolution of the tension of syzygistic duality. Loving or positive, blissful psychic energy is the universal solvent which, when it fills the crucible containing the opposites, dissolves the boundaries and creates union. I suspect that the closest most people come to this experience is during orgasm, a relatively brief state which is mediated by the simultaneous discharge of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The meditative coniunctio experience is probably energized in a similar fashion, but without the involvement of the sexual organs. I should note that the coniunctio experience was many times as intense as any orgasm I have ever experienced., thus adding to the sense of the sacredness and numinosity of the joining.24

Girls, Girls, and Not a Drop to Drink!

This experience proved to be a profound one for my development, but was by no means a solitary event. In fact many hundreds of images have emerged out of the mist in dreams and visions that have provided information about the breadth, depth and various attributes of the anima. Often these images reflected the ego-shadow ambiguities relative to the feminine. There was one phase during which, in meditation retreats, numerous meditative visions and dreams were replete with more than the usual sexual imagery. For example, sometimes the entire visual field would be taken up by a landscape of rocks and boulders, with hundreds of naked and lascivious male and female figures draped over rocks as far as the eye could see, involved in every conceivable posture of sexual abandon. Such visions were accompanied by intense sexual arousal that would at times persist for hours.

It was during this period that I learned of the unitary source of psychic energy. I hit upon this fact quite by accident, for becoming bored with all the lascivious imagery and sexual arousal, I tried willing those energies to rise up the central channel, rather than out via the genitals. And it worked! Playing with this experience, I discovered that there exists something like a psychological “tap” by which one can willfully shunt psychic energy outward as sexual arousal, or upward into the heart as pure loving-kindness (Skt: metta; see Laughlin 1985), and further upward into the “third eye” region of the head, thus leading to intense clarity and penetrating awareness (see Laughlin 1994 on kundalini and Tibetan dumo practice). There is an experience in which one may flip back and forth between outward and upward shunting, and during this flipping back and forth, the imagery changes in appropriate accord. If for example one is focussed upon a radiant female deity as the object of meditation, the psychic energy directed from the heart may lead to ecstatic union, whereas if the energy is directed outwards through the genitals, the imagery may shift to coitus. A central point to make here is, so far as my phenomenology can tell, as goes the structure of psychic energy (or libido), so goes the imagery. The image and the affect appear to be two aspects of the same underlying structure.

With respect to the shadow, and its impact upon experiencing the anima and its productions, one must keep in mind that we are dealing with the interplay between two levels in the development of the brain – one being the conditioned “personal” unconscious and the other being the deeper, more primordial and relatively unconditioned “collective” unconscious – the latter in my view being the nascent, genetically inherited organization25 of the human nervous system, while the former are the more developed, antinomous adaptations that have emerged during enculturation and ego-identity formation of the individual. In my case, there has existed a strong draw towards, complemented by a fear of and aversion to, the female Other. This ambiguity was layed down in my infancy, and was acted out in the world for years by a neurotic alternating attraction and aversion to the same woman.

In the experience of pure anima imagery, the duality expressed itself at times as female figures that would morph from sexually attractive forms into repulsive, fearsome forms, and vise versa. For example, during one retreat I had a vision in which I was sitting behind a picket fence looking out at a vast and dismal landscape. In the distance a female figure appeared – a manikin really – with a naked lithe body which shone like she was covered in chrome. As she came nearer, she smiled seductively and reached out and opened a gate in the fence. As she passed through the gate she morphed into a dark, frightening figure with leathern wings and demonic countenance, and then took flight and passed over my head.

The affect during this episode was revealing and typical of many of my encounters with anima figures. The affect was ambivalent -- of sexual attraction or interest on the one hand and anxiety on the other, the ego/persona associating itself with the positive attraction to the feminine, while the shadow was in fear of engulfment and possession by the Terrible Mother. To the shadow, woman takes on the aspect of the succubus,26 one of “Kali’s minions.” This episode shows that the anima may be experienced both positively and negatively, as both good and evil, as radient light and order, or darkness and all engulfing chaos, depending upon the filter of affect and attitude intervening between consciousness and the archetypes (Jung 1968a:28-36). Of course the normal state of consciousness of one encountering the anima is primarily that of ego involvement with imagery while repressing the various shadow elements. Hence, for most of us, we are conscious primarily of positive affect relative to contrasexual Others upon whom we project our anima. Our shadow attributions and affect remain in the subconscious and act out their values and intents in devious ways, including projection upon people often more distant from us than loved ones. But in meditation states the shadow may become far more conscious and be capable of penetrating into conscious network such that one is aware of both complexes simultaneously. As Jung put it:

The relative autonomy of the anima- and animus-figures expresses itself in these qualities. In order of affective rank they stand to the shadow very much as the shadow stands in relation to ego-consciousness. The main affective emphasis seems to lie on the latter; at any rate it [the ego] is able, by means of a considerable expenditure of energy, to repress the shadow, at least temporarily. But if for any reason the unconscious gains the upper hand, then the valency of the shadow and of the other figures increases proportionately, so the scale of values is reversed.

Jung (1959:28; emphasis mine)

Of course in meditation work, the unconscious may well gain the upper hand, at least for a while, for the deepening tranquillity that develops in mature contemplation, as it were, pulls the energy rug out from under the repressions. Arising anima figures may be greeted by ambiguous feelings and conflicting attitudes, depending of course on the distinct pattern of enculturation and personal development of the individual psyche -- that is, depending upon the ego-shadow configuration and its limbic and cognitive-perceptual associations.

Anima possession can no doubt be dangerous to the stability of an individual’s daily adaptation. But possession does have its lighter side. The funniest encounter with anima possession I ever experienced occurred during a lengthy retreat in Scotland. During that retreat I was working on the symbolism of the Tibetan tantric deity Demchog (in Tibetan Buddhist terms, the yab). Demchog’s consort is Dorje Pagmo (the yum), the young naked female figure mentioned above. The two are depicted in the text and in pictures as dancing in flames while in sexual union -- that is, in so called yab-yum posture. One of the techniques used in this practice is to imagine oneself alternately as the male deity embracing the female, then as the female deity embracing the male. Naturally it was far easier for me to identify with Demchog than with Dorje Pagmo, so I spent a lot of time working on being a young, vivacious, red-skinned female. While identifying with the yum, I would take on a certain submissive relationship27 to the yab, and would imagine quite successfully being entered by “his” phallus. Meanwhile, during this retreat I was wearing the long flowing red robes of the Tibetan monk, and I would daily take long walks out on the moor where all I ever saw were herds of sheep in the distance and the occasional shepherd. There came a point in these meditations when the female image penetrated deeply into my unconscious and I began to act out the part, and on several occasions found myself dancing lightly across the moor singing tunes like “I’m a girl! I’m a girl!” at the top of my lungs. Part of my observing mind was fascinated with these transformations, while another part drew amusing associations with Julie Andrews in the movie, The Sound of Music.

Simplification of the Anima Images

Other less entertaining, but no less informative things were learned during this retreat, among them being the discovery of the inexorable simplification of the core symbolism involved in

Tantric meditations. Those who have done this kind of work will know that eventually the deities “come alive” in the sensorium, and instead of one struggling to hold an eidetic image, the meditation becomes one of watching the eidetic figures “do their thing” in the mind’s eye.28 Much of the behavior of these yab-yum images was dancing. But how the yab and yum interacted with each other within the dance began to reflect the state of my consciousness at that moment relative to watcher and unconscious. Not only that, but within a few days, the Demchog-Dorje Pagmo humanoid figures had transformed into two simple bindus,29 or bubbles, colored respectively blue and red. The dance between the red and blue bindu-ized yab-yums became the dance between my male and female self, and when the state of consciousness was one of opposition between the male and female elements of my consciousness, the bindus would remain distinct and relating to each other by differential size and complementary activity. But when my consciousness was experiencing ecstatic union, the two bindus would become part of a larger symbol, with the blue male bindu in a red field and the red female bindu in a blue field, and the two fields swirling around and around, intertwining with each other. Thus it was that I learned firsthand the phenomenological origins of the Taoist yin-yang symbol.

I also learned that:

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