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Galahad by George Frederic Watts

The sense of the numinous generated by the unconscious mind can lead us on a great quest for self-discovery and lifelong self-realization. (Photo: Wikimedia)

Many people who work with, or are simply aware of, the unconscious see this portion of the mind in a reverential way. Jungian psychologist Helen M. Luke called it the “mystery within.” This inner mystery is thought to harbour all sorts of powers, some wonderful, some potentially dangerous. For Luke, one wonderful power was dreams. All her life she assiduously recorded and analyzed her dreams, and used them as a guide. Reading her journals and diaries, we acquire the distinct impression that her dream life meant more to her than her waking one. Luke also venerated the unconscious powers of creation that inspired her writing.

A potentially dangerous power of the unconscious mind is its ability to irrupt and destroy (or impair) aspects of the ego. Luke saw turning inward as risky, a move that might stir the overwhelming power of the unconscious and bring on a serious mental disorder.

Other Jungian analysts have been more perceptive about the destructive side of the unconscious. Luke failed to garner author and analyst John Layard’s insight that where the unconscious destroys, it is destroying what has become a problem. That is, the unconscious only irrupts when the conscious mind is malfunctioning. Luke’s “let sleeping dogs lie” attitude towards some parts of the unconscious adds yet another layer to the psyche, a permanently dark zone in the unconscious that one must wall off. This is counter-productive, a perpetuation, and enshrining, of ignorance. She is not alone in wanting some parts of the unconscious left untouched. Another well-known Jungian analyst, June Singer, also feels that exploring some regions of the unconscious is counter-productive.

Why would these professional analysts want to leave some unconscious contents unanalyzed and unintegrated? The answer reveals a key problem we humans have when dealing with the less conscious facets of our mental functioning. There is a tendency to assign godlike powers to the unconscious.

What Luke experiences as alluringly yet frighteningly mysterious is what creativity researchers refer to as “feeling tone.” For Luke, something mysterious evokes a pleasing feeling tone. The same is true for June Singer. Revealing the mystery removes the desirable tone, so to preserve the pleasure, there must always be a mystery. The trouble here is obvious: to preserve a mystery is to preserve ignorance. The savouring of feeling tone is interfering with what needs doing. The potent feeling tone that prompts these decisions to leave some stones unturned is the sense of the numinous.

Numinous refers to anything that suggests religion or spirituality. It hints of the presence of a deity. Yet numinosity, like all other feeling tones, is a product of the unconscious. It is not divine in origin; it is merely a feeling tone. Let us come down to earth. What we are talking about here is the unconscious, home of the usually unknown self, and nothing more than that.

The important thing to note here is that Luke and Singer want to preserve the sense of the numinous rather than exploring what has generated that feeling. This is an extremely serious error. Numinosity, like all feeling tones, is a dynamic guide. It is alluring precisely because it is supposed to entice us into exploring something that matters. We are meant to focus on what has prompted the feeling tone, not the feeling tone itself. Creative people are wiser than these analysts. They know the value of exploring feeling tone. Luke and Singer’s preservationist stance short-circuits the feeling tone’s function as an inner guide.

For numinosity to do its work, we must keep going, keep digging. It is true that once we have explored something that generates the numinous feeling tone, the sense of numinosity will decline, for the simple reason that it has served its purpose. It has drawn us to, and prompted us to examine, whatever has given rise to the feeling tone. It is at this point that the likes of Luke and Singer become worried about losing their sense of the numinous. In reality, there is no need to fear. Any decline is only temporary. Numinosity, as a natural product of the unconscious mind’s functioning, is never in short supply. We do not need to conserve it.

When we have explored something well enough, the feeling tone will attach itself to some other thing, something which is the next step along a path, or part of a larger pattern perceived by the unconscious, but perhaps still unseen by the more limited resources of consciousness. If we follow the numinous steps, exploring each one as we go, we can make a remarkable inner journey, work out the solution to a difficult problem, or complete a complex creative project.

This is not a mystical notion. This is merely the way in which the limited human mind functions. Nothing here has anything to do with God or supernatural powers of the unconscious mind. Looked at in this way, the remarkable feeling of numinosity is seen to be of human origin and of human scale. Yet, if we are willing to follow where it leads, it can perform its powerful natural role as incredibly perceptive inner guide. No wonder some mistake it for the guiding hand of God.