Archetypal Experiences

Aztec birthing figure

Aztec birthing figure

There are a number of human experiences that, because of their universality, find their way into our dreams and religious myths. This is indicative that they are not just personal experiences that enter our consciousness once we have personally encountered them but that they have been such a part of human experience for so many generations that they have entered in our collective unconscious (the inbuilt programing of our brains). Experiences such as dying and birthing, of being abandoned and of being chased become religious motifs which carry the same numinous energy that archetypal images arouse in us and an examination of these archetypal experiences helps us to understand and enter more deeply into our spiritual lives.

Archetypal experiences are in a synergistic relationship with the archetypes themselves. Jung described the archetypes as “deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity” which are “grounded in the peculiarities of the living organism itself” (C. G. Jung, On the Psychology of the Unconscious, CW 7, 109.). So for example, the mother archetype is laid down in the human collective unconscious by millions of generations of birthing and in turn exposure to the archetype creates in the individual young woman a longing for and a shaping of the experience of motherhood. This makes the archetypes stable but not static and enables them to respond to changes in the pattern of experiences over time. Like evolving DNA they can change over time while preserving positive adaptions to the local environment.

This is terribly important when it comes to the sphere of spirituality. Archetypes will trigger experiences within us. An encounter with the archetype of the compassionate Christ or Buddha has triggered many a young person to pursue a career in a caring profession. It is particularly challenging in periods of religious change when the old archetypal images seem to lose their currency in the culture – there is then a period of unsettling transition until the archetype finds a new expression. What will be the modern archetypes which trigger self-giving patterns in our young?

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