Owning up

Untangling polarisation and conflict

 

The collective unconscious plays an enormous role in history and international relations. It behaves non-logically, yet it has its own coherence. To perceive this one must shift attention to an intuitive way of seeing.

Carl Jung, who developed the idea of the collective unconscious, died in 1961. Just a few years later, the collective unconscious erupted like a gusher: the mid-Sixties. Ideas, perspectives and innovations bore little logical relation to what went before, as if to demonstrate what Jung was talking about.

One concept Jung talked about was synchronicity. When two things happen simultaneously or in close sequence, the connection is significant, even if it makes no sense. In the language of the unconscious it makes perfect sense.

Unconscious imagery speaks in short, pertinent, meaning-rich statements, with no explanations or reasons given. Left in its own domain, it retains its multi-dimensionality, filling any life-scenario
with meaning and context. Taken out of its domain, it seems crazy and insignificant.

The unconscious talks through two major mechanisms - instinct and symbolism.


An instinct is an unpremeditated, gut-level response - it lashes out when threatened or reaches out to save a child in danger. It can involve a 'feel' for things, a gift or magic touch, an animal intelligence that helps us do the right thing at the right moment - or helps us avoid danger.

If instincts are aberrated, perhaps by fear, traumatic memory, conditioning or education, distorted responses can ensue. Unconscious associations bring up painful or charged memories that pollute our experience and activate inappropriate responses. This happens in geopolitics. It's a major cause of war.

A symbol is a shared unconscious image or scenario stuffed with meaning or charge, often inherited from collective lore, history, deep-memory or shared imagination.

A few suggestive examples: the fairy godmother, the Pyramids, Auschwitz, a crusader, Attila the Hun, Queen Victoria. Their imagery or mythology convey archetypal meaning, feelings or pictures.

Interpreting symbols varies because different people have different dispositions and past experience. 'Christmas' to most Westerners brings up warm feelings and associations, while 'Ramadan' evokes something different - and generally these responses will be opposite for Muslims.

The unconscious emotional charge attached to a symbol affects our responses to situations. Osama bin Laden carried symbolic qualities of Attila the Hun, the Old Man of the Mountain and even Jesus - a mixed bag of imagery that confused many people.


Slavery or mastery

 

We do not have to be slaves to the unconscious. We can experience psychic or emotional charge and acknowledge it without having to impulsively act it out.

We can accept things as they are, using the imagery within situations to gain added insight. This brings solutions.

In geopolitics, this is important: nations and peoples need to acknowledge their charged feelings and associations as their own, to better understand their and others' responses to situations and to reduce trouble.

Terrorism symbolises a war in the unconscious - you cannot tell when, where and how it will happen, and the threat is just as effective as the bombs themselves, and equally scary. Responses to terror are often instinctive and irrational.

Today we have a fear of epidemics - ebola, SARS, avian flu, MRSA - because they threaten to devastate, and they're unpredictable and uncontrollable. This fear arises from an unconscious feeling that we modern people have gone too far, and we risk comeback and retribution.

Symbolism makes up much of the furniture and wallpaper of our cultural cosmologies. It isn't thought through - it's just there, sourced indistinctly from a long-forgotten past.

We look up to presidents, royals or popes, and down on outlaws, paedophiles or criminals, regardless of the merits of what they actually do, in each individual case. Women can unconsciously seek knights in shining armour and men can seek sleeping princesses to kiss awake.

Symbolism gets woven into facts, tinting our experience. Once, America represented all that was good, modern and free, and now it represents what we don't want, what's passing.

Symbolism has a way of turning around and biting back. It has a life of its own, and it cannot be held down - only recognised and befriended. Our ghosts and ghouls then become glimmers of insight.

Yet we invest reality with symbolism and often form our judgements and decisions around it.

If we are to get to grips with the issues of our day, we need to see beyond the surface and strip out emotional charge, to see things as they are and make good decisions. Fact is, terrorists can be gentle and democracy can be tyrannical. Crises can bring solutions, and security can create nightmares.


The paradoxical logic of the unconscious

 

One can predict certain events without being a seer, simply by observing the unconscious crazy logic of events.

One law of the unconscious says: chickens come home to roost or, what we sow, that too shall we reap. When watching tanks assaulting a refugee camp, something in us says "This will lead to no good". It all turns around.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, each side fulfils the other's worst nightmares. Both sides refer back to the past to justify current actions, without remembering that current actions affect their own future fortunes. It's not a war on the 'enemy': it's really a war on peace, humanity and decency.

This conflict is self-justifying, a vortex from which there is no escape until a change of attitude takes place on both sides: the other side is not the main cause of our problems, and hurting them does not remove our pain.

An ancient Judaeo-Christian teaching says: treat others as you would have them treat you. The full implications of this are enormous. Why don't we practise it?


There are two kinds of communication: intended messages, spoken through words, and unintended messages spoken through body-language, tone of voice, hidden nuances and unconscious self-betrayals. Frequently, double messages are broadcast and the public accepts the explanations given while knowing, deeper down, that they are untrue.

"I did not have relations with that woman" said president Clinton, under oath. Oh, yeah? - the public rumbled it and simply knew the truth was otherwise. Loads of reasons were given by president Bush for invading Iraq in 2003, but much of the public didn't believe him - they knew otherwise. They knew there was a hidden agenda.

It is easy to project imagery on others. Some public figures wear it well. Saddam Hussein tipped Osama bin Laden from the top spot in 2002. Previous bearers such as Castro and Gadaffi slipped into the background. Does this mean they weren't so bad after all?

This is demonisation. Saddam Hussein was dangerous and despicable. But there are more like him, and many other countries had WMDs too. All countries demonise others to make themselves look good.

Demonisation covers up wider truths - it covers the tracks of the accuser. But there is a predictable risk that the tables will turn. The spotlight can fall on the accusers - their own hands are usually dirty.

Shimon Peres, Israeli foreign minister in 2002: "We made an error by giving up our traditional position that says you have to negotiate while fighting terror and fight terror while negotiating. When you decide not to negotiate until terrorism ends, terrorism never ends and the negotiations never begin".


Alternating currents

 

Communication signals thus travel down two separate wires, speaking separately to different parts of our psyches. "Osama bin Laden has evaded detection, and we don't know where he is." Hidden message: "Osama helped us justify invading Afghanistan and, now it's done, we no longer need him".

Keep your antennae up, because official statements betray hidden messages. This is problematic. We need to see through propaganda and disinformation. But education and civilised living teach us to overlook our deeper knowings, disbelieving our instincts and 'uncanny feelings'.

'The media defend freedom of speech' - no they don't, they set out to make profits and serve their owners' interests. Freedom of speech is not a licence to offend, oppress and demonise people.

There's a deeper problem: values and judgements change over time. Old beliefs can be invalidated. Today, growing numbers of people no longer consider warfare, slavery, violence, pollution or fanaticism to be acceptable - yet they were accepted not long ago. The tables turn, and formerly respectable people suddenly turn into criminals and suspects.

This is fine, but today's public hectoring and pillorying can also conceal enormous collective hypocrisies: it is easier to blame a bad guy than to change society and quit demonising. The public needs to take responsibility for its shifts of feelings and blame, with less projection on public figures. Accusing others does not clear us of our complicity.


The world is riddled with double standards. Britain and USA are prudish over sexuality while hosting sizeable pornography industries. Tits-and-bums and pornography are defended on a basis of freedom of expression. Is this not an abuse of freedom? A sad admission of lack of genuine love in society? The British are conservative over sex education in schools, yet UK has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. There's a bulging, throbbing hypocrisy here.

Double standards are not always hypocritical, since they can reflect changing values. Italy, home of the Catholic church, has one of the world's highest abortion rates and lowest birth rates - public values have changed and the Church lags far behind. Either Italians are rampant sinners or the Church needs to moderate its teaching.

Sweden, one of the world's fairer and most peaceful countries, has one of the highest suicide rates. This arises from long, dark winters and the way Swedes internalise their dark side and bury their spirituality. These are genuine and deep national issues which aren't just simple hypocrisy.

Paradoxes such as these symptomise deep dilemmas in nations' souls - areas of sensitivity they feel unable to resolve alone.

The West and the Muslim sphere each cannot accept the other's hypocrisies. Muslims say Islam is a religion of peace, yet Westerners frequently see Muslims fighting. Westerners dogmatically advocate their own kind of freedom, while directly supporting repressive regimes and contributing to deprivation and conflict in the Middle East. Double standards.


Internal conflict resolution

 

To relieve ourselves of the guilt of living by double standards, we suppress the negative in ourselves, projecting it onto others, and then we take the moral high ground.

Something in the other party then interlocks with us, and they project back characteristics they do not wish to acknowledge in themselves. It becomes an action-reaction game, a loop of escalating conflict.

By projecting, each side protects itself from owning its own reality, shoving the faults over to the other side. This goes against the longterm interests of everyone and it costs the world dearly.

Yet humanity is locked into a game of mutual projection in which dishonesty and conflict are valued more highly than truth and peace-building.

Conflict resolution through owning our projections threatens to reach down into the dungeons and sink-holes of our societies' souls, where few dare to tread.

Yet confronting our collective ghosts and ghouls is rarely as bad as expected. Often it brings great relief.

The alternatives - war, corruption, disaster and difficulty - are not easier options. Humanity is perversely addicted to difficulty and suffering: our big collective fear is mutual love, respect, support, trust and tenderness. We avoid them like the plague.

Knotty issues are frequently fought out in war. But, as Bertrand Russell once said, "War does not determine who is right, only who is left".

War and violence are indicators of serious social or national failure, arising from low collective integrity, fear and mutual sabotage. They are a death-dealing addiction worse than heroin, and too easy to shoot up. War is a legitimised collective madness in which sane behaviour is suspended. Whipping up war requires dehumanisation and demonisation of the enemy. This, in the fullness of time, dehumanises everyone.

In any conflict, both parties are right and wrong, and they'd better own up to it. There is no absolute right or wrong, only consequences - and we had better choose the consequences we really seek. In war, too many people die before their lives are complete, and too many people's lives are diverted onto sidetracks.

This is a planetary issue affecting everyone. Some might have 'a good war', but this overlooks the silenced dead, injured people and landscapes that have had 'a bad war'. Conflict would disappear if the full costs were reckoned up. We would quit projecting.

What upsets us about 'the enemy' concerns our own behaviour. We might not be doing precisely those things we condemn in others, but what they're doing reminds us of something we are deeply ashamed of. Our upset is proportional to the errors and evils we're covering up.

If we had no need to cover our tracks, others' actions would activate little emotional charge. We would see situations for what they are and deal with them more appropriately.


The war between the conscious and unconscious

 

In USA, 9-11 shook something deep and genuine in American hearts. To people around the world, the scale of the fuss was difficult to comprehend: when thousands die in Guatemala, Bangladesh, Zambia or Ukraine, few tears are shed.

Thoughtful Americans became aware that their country readily bombed others and thus could expect terrorist assaults. This didn't cause the US government to change its foreign policy, and thoughtful Americans were clamped down on too.

It is difficult for a nation to face its shadow and take ownership of its shame. USA faced this challenge in 9-11: a direct hit that brought enormous implications for American society. It brought an eruption of pent-up imagery and pathos, offering an opportunity for healing. This was not taken up - instead, wrath was projected on Afghanistan and Iraq.

This was followed by gut-wrenching scenes from Afghanistan - humanitarian crises, drought, refugees, medieval-style warriors bearing AK47s and high-tech bombs falling on humble villages. When the Taliban fell, public attention subsided in relief - Afghanistan was soon forgotten.

Many people were compassion-fatigued, needing to switch off. Events had activated deep feelings. But lessons from 9-11 and Afghanistan were not really learned, and the 'clash of civilisations' was not resolved. Instead it was put off until another day.


If the message is not understood or processed and the wounds of the unconscious are not healed, then further events will sooner or later hit home to raise such feelings again. We need to learn this and get things right first time around.

The unconscious is an educator, presenting important lessons to come to terms with. It has remarkable ways of undermining our defences and catching us unprotected.

If we don't get the lesson first time around, it tries again. If we don't get it second time, it changes strategy, striking directly at our blockages against learning.

One message of 2001 was that times of indifference are over. Indifference caused these events. It's now time to feel for our fellow humans, and keep that empathy open. Otherwise, harrowing scenes and further disasters are guaranteed.

The collective unconscious stage-manages collective experience to get ideas and home-truths through to us. Events exist objectively and are caused by objectively traceable causes, yet they interlock magically with deeper unconscious agendas too. They evoke symbolism.

The objective causes and our responses to them are coloured by our inner predispositions - pride, hate, inferiority, defensiveness. These affect national policy and strategy, amplifying reactivity to a degree that further exacerbates the train of events.

There is more interactivity between the-world-out-there and our inner world than we would prefer to believe. This is true personally and collectively. Even 'chance' factors connect with our deeper psyches, whether or not we see that connection.


The bigger chess game

 

We are all part of a much larger chess-game. This is the ongoing, unfolding movie of the world's soul.

We become unknowing victims of this chess-game by denying the deeper meaning of our experiences, failing to see the bigger picture. To change future history we must acknowledge truths when they face us. This heals conflicts between the conscious and unconscious, reducing the need for storms, quakes and wars.

We see ourselves as free individuals, yet this is a myth. We are part of something much larger, and our choice lies between intentional and unconscious participation in it.

Too often our actions are clouded by unconscious factors that we deny, suppress and have lost control of. Thus we sacrifice our free-will.

To heal the world of its ills, we have a lot of owning-up to do - becoming more conscious. If there is a problem, the solution starts with us, not with the people over there.

The world is a complex interactive organism and, if something happens over here, something will happen over there. Shopping in your local supermarket affects Antarctica.

The consequences of our actions touch people we'll never know or even hear of. Westerners caused what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq and, reciprocally, Afghans and Iraqis cause things in our lives too.


Afghans have wanted for food because we over here have excesses of food. This isn't just a material polarisation. Excess in one place creates deficiency in another, psychologically too. Iraqis have wanted for freedom and security because we abuse and waste them. They suffer surfeits of weaponry because we export arms and conflict to proxy countries, so that we may live in peace.

We have not resolved war, but shunted it on someone else, further away. This is 'dumping'. So, in 2001, while we got upset about hungry, defenceless Afghans for genuinely compassionate reasons, the Afghan scenario also drew our attention to something inside us - our own social undernourishment and vulnerability. An awkward deficiency was exposed. We were being asked to 'own' something.

We are but wriggling cells in a heaving mass of transpersonal psychic-emotional activity, planetary in scale. When we think of the Earth, we think of continents and oceans, but shift your vision and see a writhing ball of thought-and-feeling stuff emitted by billions of people. This is Earth the being.

We are bit-part players in an enormous epic movie, with a vast cast and an unknown director. We believe we're film-stars, but actually we're just bit-parts in an enormous crowd-scene.

The world psyche is one being, and we're its eyes, ears and hands, feeding data into an oceanic repository of experience. It feeds experience back to us, through our inner feelings and the mysterious power of events.


One world, one humanity

 

Afghans live their lives on our behalf and we live our lives on theirs. Thus the world psyche optimises its total experience. TV and mass media intensify this interactivity, bringing faraway experiences home to us.

What is the underlying aim of this interdependence? The world psyche seeks perpetually to become whole in itself. Where there is imbalance, it creates counter-balance.

If some people get ridiculously rich and indifferent, someone else gets ridiculously poor, unsupported and isolated. As wealth disparities grow, rich and poor feel less included in each others' lives - their worlds separate.

Re-balancing often happens through the agency of things going 'wrong' or by the law of unintended consequences. It should happen by human decision.

To heal the world's extremes and make the world a better place - to lessen the polarity - the extremes need to befriend and reincorporate each other. Crises and disasters, fraying our psychological defences, assist this reincorporation process. Strangely, things going 'wrong' are, in the fullness of time, actually going 'right'. They offer healing opportunities.


There is a further twist to this: when we witness the pathos and pain of others (such as Afghans), they become our teachers. Most countries are not at war, but our societies and our psyches are nonetheless battle-zones. The suppressed feelings amassed in this tumult shift to other places - places susceptible to open conflict - and conflict duly breaks out. Then it becomes our 'theatre', where our inner battles are acted out.

When we watch Israelis and Palestinians wrecking each others' lives, these people help us become aware of issues inside ourselves of which we would otherwise not be aware.

If we truly wish to help them, it helps to look at our own issues and work out our own conflicts.

In doing so we contribute to reconciling polarisation across the world. We do this by reducing the total amount of conflicted feeling within the world psyche.

The resolution we create in our own lives and neighbourhoods gets passed on down the line. If the world as a whole took such an approach, things would change fast. We can build conditions favouring peace.

One of the best things we can do is make contact with people living in circumstances that contrast our own, to bear witness to their situation and allow them to bear witness to ours.

This knits a web of reincorporation, bringing together the disparate bits of the world psyche. The universe seeks balance, and we can help this.


De-polarisation

 

Afghans don't have to live in dire circumstances, just for us. We don't have to live in privileged circumstances to compensate their poverty. This is a state of extremity and imbalance - we need to adopt a middle way.

Comfort and security charge their price: colourless, passionless and stultifying, they spread suffering thinly, making it quiet and insidious. At least with acute pain you can identify and grapple with it. But pervasive, surreptitious pain - the pain of wealth, false security and worry - is difficult to pin down. We call it stress.

From the viewpoint of the soul, it is debatable whether comfortable people are happier and poorer people are unhappier. The soul doesn't judge, it just experiences and bears witness.

Today, humanity has reached a zenith of polarisation, indifference and separation. It doesn't have to be like this.

It arises from a collective paradox in which peaceable people suppress their mutual differences and conflict-ridden people suppress their mutual understanding. Yet the value of such polarised extremity is that it makes us aware of the value of balance and re-bonding in the human family.


We live on the same planet, but polarisation means we live in extremely different worlds. In richer countries, we send aid to disaster victims without realising that they send us aid too - ours is material and theirs is human and socially enriching.

They live lives we don't live, and they give us life-experience we lack. The aid that Afghans send us is human feeling, pathos and poignancy, real-life intensity and an aliveness of spirit.

To bring Afghans back from the edge, we need to take on some of these qualities, investing less in protecting ourselves and more in being truly alive.

We need what Alan Watts once called 'the wisdom of insecurity'. Reciprocally, Afghans need relative security, regularity and enough to live on. But they don't need burger bars.

Economically and psychologically, the world does not have to be acutely polarised. When we see footage of refugees and war victims, whatever stirs or upsets us signals something to us, about ourselves.

Humanitarian concern confronts us with deeply existential questions. We have an unconscious need to witness confrontations in Afghanistan and Iraq to help us raise uncomfortable issues in ourselves, giving us opportunities for compassion, concern and understanding that we lack in our own daily lives.

Don't take such an idea too far, but there's truth in it.


Planetary transformation

 

By looking at our unconscious role in creating the equation of conflict, something shifts.

This has enormous geopolitical consequences, exercising a longterm transforming effect on policy-making, conflict-resolution and the state of society.

Conflict transformation. True development. The adoption of true civilisation.

If we deplore terrorism, what role does terrorism play in our own histories? What terror do we foist upon others? What are we a part of that permits terrorism? Does our economy profit from weapons and the creation of hardship for others?

What have we done that we regret? What do we do that others don't like? What can we do to unmake polarisation? Healing ourselves and helping others are part of the same equation.


In the 1980s, USSR realised it could no longer sustain its part in the Cold War. Both sides had undergone massive militarisation, diverting immense resources from other uses.

USSR spent 25% of its GDP on military expenditure, and the domestic consequences were enormous. This mutually assured destruction weakened both sides together: the Soviet bloc suffered shortages and the West suffered pot bellies and saturation - two sides of the same coin.

USSR decided to stop playing. It calculated it had less to lose by stopping, and that it would survive. It did not need USA's agreement.

Suddenly the situation was resolved. Rather quietly, the Cold War ended.

This is called facing truth and making things easy. We need a lot more of this.


Plagues and epidemics

 

The collective unconscious is stocked with bundles of imagery and energy. Different bundles match every kind of human experience, stacked with kaleidoscopic significances.

It is stocked with heaps of charged emotional gloop, amassed from centuries of unresolved history. These heaps activate other heaps too, in a chain reaction.

The package called 'war' is ready and waiting for anyone with the necessary pent-up feelings to call it up. Events or figureheads raise dormant ghosts, setting in motion trends which inexorably become war - unless someone stops it.

People are quickly infected, and a war epidemic breaks out. People are drawn in, as perpetrators, accomplices, victims or innocent bystanders.

With global media coverage, infection nowadays spreads rapidly. Each nation and person weaves an interpretation and response. War becomes a psychic storm, on and off the battlefield. Nightmares are acted out in a localised 'theatre', yet they disperse and are processed worldwide.

Even in crises we hardly hear of - such as the civil war in Congo, in which 4m people died - we're still unconsciously involved.

This localising factor hits the most unsuspecting places: Beirut and Sarajevo were once known for their cosmopolitan, multicultural atmospheres, yet they came to host the worst kinds of inter-ethnic, factional war. As if light attracts darkness.


Defining moments are important. They jolt the collective unconscious into motion. A fermentation bubbles up to the surface. Questions are raised that no one dared ask. Tsunami-like consequences radiate outwards.

The most definitive moments are those that no one thought possible. Multiple hidden connections are suddenly revealed. The context of life shifts. Poignant contrasts stare us in the face. People suddenly see things quite differently.

A lot is packed into a few hours, days or weeks. It's like a wildfire, flood, seepage, side-swipe or quake. People living up mountains and on islands, unaware of the latest events, are also affected.

Quirky side-effects happen. In the midst of a horrendous crisis can come the most touching, classic moments, times of deep humanity.

A hurricane in Panama can set off earthquakes in the insurance industry elsewhere. Empathies can cross unexpected boundaries, for very strange reasons: when Europeans watched destitute Afghans, Kurds and Kosovans, murky memories of European wars, refugees and pogroms reared their heads.

Empathic connections are made: millions pray, worry and feel for victims. Such focused thought builds up a resonant thrum of collective feeling and attention, a ruminant psychic power unlimited by geography. When millions feel this together, its power multiplies enormously. Women play a big part in this.

It resonates through psycho-space, fired by commonality of feeling. Sometimes a collective shift of values can change everything.


Infection pathologies

 

Different people and countries have different levels and kinds of susceptibility to symbolic events. It depends what sits there in their collective psyches.

A technology breakdown such as the sinking of a ferry is, for Sweden, enormous, because the nation has an issue about perfection, safety and control. But in Greece, well, these things happen, and life goes on - Greeks have other neuroses.

To Greeks, anything to do with Turkey brought up centuries of resentments until, in 1998, both nations suddenly suffered devastating earthquakes. There was a paroxysm of mutual sympathy, support and forgiveness. The earthquakes re-framed Greeks' and Turks' feelings, and a miracle happened.

If we let them, such miracles do happen. But we must say Yes when the situation and opportunity comes. And often, the opportunity comes in the form of things going 'wrong'.

This is how deeper ideas, feelings, truths and changes travel. They infect humanity from within, from the heart of humanity's group psyche.

They do so through the agency of events and their symbolism, and through people who embody or give voice to nascent ideas and feelings lurking in the collective cloud of unknowing. The meaning of these events and figureheads lies inside us, and this is where humanity's evolution really takes place.

All cultures have their own way of creating peace. Peace - ending the diversion of war and polarisation - is where the deep reintegration of humanity starts.

To restore the world's extremes of wealth, power and happiness to saner proportions, humanity's heart needs to beat more in tune. It's a process of being virally infected with the liberating disease of oneness, sharing and commonality. Defining moments are the catalysts of this epidemic. Let's get it up to pandemic proportions.

The collective unconscious seeks to heal itself and raise our awareness. Today's stirring events have intensified not only because of globalisation, technology and the media, or because population growth means more people are affected by disasters, and more are emotionally involved.

They have intensified because humanity's psychological change-process has accelerated. Events shout louder and come at us more frequently.

Why? Because we're on the edge of something.

 

NEXT: Times of Healing


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