In my last piece I had a bit to say about the conscious and unconscious minds. Specifically, I suggested that the unconscious mind is much more powerful, more creative and generally wiser than the conscious (ego) mind. I also suggested that trance – be it seidh related or something else – helps us to disable the conscious mind so that the unconscious mind can run the show for a while.
But I didn’t exactly define what I mean by unconscious mind, and this term is not exactly something which I’ve prized from historical seidh lore.
Before I answer this question I want to take a moment to reflect on various authors’ attempts to reconstruct a map of human psychology using old Heathen terms. Folks talk about the fetch, the hyde, önd, ödr, the hamr, and so forth. There is hugr (mind), related to Old Norse hugrunes, and it is tempting to speculate about Old Norse minni (memory) too.
Edred Thorsson even constructs a whole model in his book Runelore that is based on Jungian ideas. This approach gets some flack from other Heathens for quite shamelessly crossing different traditions/ideologies, but you have to admit it has a daring ambition to it – and some of Jung’s ideas are not so far from Heathenism, either.
Bearing all this in mind, I am personally hesitant to speculate on what a full ‘Heathen psychology’, cobbled together from old words/concepts, might look like. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that in modern Western cultures there are a vast number of ‘psychologies’ and often they use the same terms in different ways. Given how varied the religion and culture of old Europe was I am a little hesitant to say “this is how these old psychological terms fit together”. I’d rather give myself the freedom to be a little open-ended.
You find a useful analogy with the runes. We talk about Elder, Younger, and Anglo-Saxon Futharks as though these were very clear, discrete scripts. Nevertheless, no two Futhark carvings from days of yore that I have seen have been exactly the same. There are general trends over time and space of course (e.g. Younger Futhark scripts appearing in the latter Dark Ages in Scandinavia), but not the tight delineations that only really make sense if you are used to a mechanised and fairly abstract modern world.
As a result it’s easy to spot modern rune authors (or modern speculators on Heathen psychology) who are just making up a load of codswallop – but very hard to decide who is right about specific details when comparing authors who have done their homework. I don’t want to spend my time splitting hairs, I want to spend my time doing rune and seidh work!
In any case, all reconstructed systems are likely to fail sooner or later. There is almost always going to be some kind of exception or ambiguous circumstance and we easily risk trying to force reality to fit our (more or less) abstract model if we only have one set way of understanding things. Of course, it is very helpful to learn about as many different models as you can – you’ll have access to lots of different perspectives. This goes for both modern psychology and for reconstructing Heathen psychological ideas.
So having cleared the ground, what do I mean by the unconscious?
I’m using the term unconscious in a very broad way. It can refer to any of the following, and lots of other things
* Autonomic nervous system
For example regulating breathing and heartbeat.
* Immune system
Did you know that hypnosis can significantly improve your immune response? Its been clinically proven over and over again.
* Sympathetic nervous system
For example the fight/flight reaction which can put you into some very interesting states in which you can do things you normally wouldn’t be able to.
* Digestive system
In fact I’ve read that the area around your gut lining has the most neural connections of anywhere in your body other than the brain. This might be why constipation and other stomach problems are often associated with depression or (in my and a few other people’s subjective experience) with magical/spiritual ordeals.
* Subterranean reasoning
I sometimes solve answers to rational problems by asking my unconscious to figure it out. When it is ready I just get an ‘aha!’ moment and there’s the solution. This might not work for everyone; and for some, such as my brother who is a mathematician, the conscious mind might well be able to get to the answer easily enough without deeper assistance.
* Subterranean skill development
When I want to learn new musical techniques, for example, I rarely practice much. I instead strongly intend for the skill to develop, then forget about that intention. It tends to organically emerge in the course of my usual jamming and rehearsing of existing material. In this way I’ve learned to do quite a few things as a bassist and guitarist that at first seemed impossible.
* Root source of inspiration
That part or aspect of my brain and body which can make me see new wholes out of fragments, new angles on old problems, or synthesise music in ways that I can subsequently analyse to see how it works but which I could never have consciously invented
For example, when I was younger I had several very bad experiences with manipulative magical demagogues. I started to realise that each of these people caused a sense of unease in my mind when I first met them. Since then I’ve learned to listen to these kinds of messages. Sometimes they’re wrong; other times they’ve given me valuable fore-warning and I’ve been able to avoid or minimise a lot of pain. Also, people that emit these warning signals tend to recognise if you’re picking up on them and that can also help keep you safe because they can tell you are onto them.
* A source of meaningful or prophetic dreams
* The parts of me that don’t over think things and are therefore much better at designing and activating magic spells (with runes this is assisted also by spending many years chanting runes, meditating on runes, memorising rune poems, etc, so there are plenty of seeds buried in my mind).
* The part of me which dips into the web of Wyrd and provides a rope up which gods and spirits can climb; and which can interface directly with the imaginal realities of the world around me while my ego just spins around in a stew of its own garbage.
* The part of me that can draw strange non-rational (as opposed to irrational) patterns in the shape of my life at times, and which helps me therefore to understand my place in the web of Wyrd.
Ok, so it’s evident that some of the things in this list I could refer to by archaic or mythological names if I wanted to, and that in fact might be an interesting way to make richer magical practices. But I am resistant to just labelling these various aspects of my unconscious for fear of limiting myself and for the reasons already discussed above.
I do think about and seek out experiences characterised by önd and/or ödr – but I wouldn’t declare these to be the only real or true experiences of such things because there is no unbroken tradition for me to draw upon to make such a claim. There’s just my subjective experience which seems to fit with what these words might have meant to my ancestors.
Laterally-minded (a sign of a well-fed and active unconscious!) readers will be wondering how all of this fits with the debate over whether gods and the like ‘really’ exist as independent beings with their own agendas or whether they are part of some kind of collective unconscious, archetypal structuring principles of human experience.
I think this whole debate misses the point personally.
The thing is that archetypes in Jungian and post-Jungian theory seem to have independent wills of their own, just like gods. Conversely, gods affect the individual psyche in a way very similar to the way archetypes do.
Jung offered various definitions of “archetype” but I’m sure that at least once he suggests that they are not just structures of human consciousness or experience, but indeed are inherent structures of reality (or if you are a transcendental idealist, perhaps they are some kind of formal structure which comprises enabling conditions for the existence of consciousness in the world). In any case saying that the gods are inherent structuring principles active throughout reality seems like a pretty ‘hard polytheist’ description to me. So the debate could well be just a dispute over arbitrarily assigned names.
Jan Fries wins the prize for me (he often does). Considering that even recently invented deities can have a good deal of power (witness the Wiccan Goddess), he suggests that things are much more complicated that we can really understand and that while the gods might in fact be illusions, we humans are nevertheless still more illusory. Actually I should clarify – Fries attributes this point of view to something Loki suggested to him. It does sound a lot like something Loki would say. I think Fries is less interested in virtually irresolvable abstraction and more interested in spending time going to meet the gods, whatever their ontological status might be. What a great role model!
One of the richest explorers of ‘polytheistic consciousness’ I have encountered is the post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman. Hillman’s writing is astoundingly deep. I daresay he understands and feels the character of divine beings much more deeply than most hard polytheists (or even most theists), despite the fact that from his point of view he is ‘just’ taking about archetypes.
The lesson on this front is once again that belief is cheap (see my previous post)! Do your opinions help you
understand and relate to the gods, or hinder you? Learn all you can about archaic Germanic psychological lore and learn all you can about your own seidh/magical/trance experiences. Explore your consciousness and unconsciousness. But make sure you spend more time practicing than you do theorising (at least once you have sufficient grounding in the mythology and history). You’ll have a lot more fun, and frankly our ancestors probably spent more time practicing than theorising too.
Jan Fries has popularised the term Deep Mind. This can refer to any of the aspects of the unconscious I have suggested above, plus it can refer to the imagination, to spirits, to gods, indeed to the Axis Mundi itself. It is a psychological term which opens up into things that are far beyond the merely psychological. I think this is a really helpful concept. It keeps us on the path of opening into magical experience and new horizons of consciousness.
Given the extent to which I’ve been assassinating the reputation of the conscious or ego self, I feel I should mention something about this. Its not that I think the conscious ego self, which finds itself in its feeling of subjective separateness and language-bound narrative, is all bad. Following Nietzsche, however, I regard it as the more recent part of human conscious and consequently the least well developed. I think the only way to develop it is to get it into a harmonious relationship with both the unconscious and the world around it (remember that natural world thingy outside our smoke-choked cities?).
This will eventually lead to the conscious/unconscious split dissolving. At that point we might get to dial direct to the well of Mimir via the graceful branches of Yggdrassil (see Bil Linzie’s amazing writings for more on this). Sounds good to me.
Also, your unconscious is sensitive to what you feed it. If you feed it a steady diet of bad TV, fast food and consumerist “I want it yesterday” mentality then it will get sick and your conscious ego will suffer too. It might be helpful to treat it like a high-maintenance and very loving pet which can nevertheless eat you if you mistreat it.
Well this has been a lot of pontificating now and I really should be practicing what I preach. I’m going to try to discipline my garrulous mind and make the next few posts specifically practical in character. Of course for me writing can easily slip into a flowing, inspired consciousness in which one word leads to another word. So even this pulpit sermonising silliness is a kind of magical experience and practice. Jormangand, I suspect, likes to gnaw on his own tail when he gets the munchies.
Til next time!