Over 120 years since “The Father of American Psychology,” William James, wrote Varieties of Religious Experience, mysticism remains on the periphery, as psychology recovers from an imbalance toward pathology. Mainstream theory and therapies have done incredibly well at mapping the shadow. Much less attention is paid to the light, the potent force known as the superconscious.
There’s an understandable tentativeness when psychology enters so-called spiritual territory. The stumbling block with integrating the superconscious is its metaphysical associations. Mysticism, the idea that union with the divine is an experiential possibility, contradicts the dominant ideology of materialism.
And yet, to comprehend the light, you have to see beyond the individual, and beyond the biological. To avoid losing credibility or coming across as unscientific, mysticism has to be implied or whispered, to rock the boat without capsizing. Pioneers have dared to risk capsizing the boat, including James and Jung. But each had to speak the language of the dominant paradigm, and insights are lost in translation, ink diluted to soften the blow.
Only full comprehension of light and dark, and its repercussions on the psyche, will support people through the varieties of religious experience. This is a modest attempt to provide an overview with the framing of unconscious and superconscious, including the gifts, hazards, and qualities of both.
The Unconscious and the Shadow
“You must understand that when you approach the unconscious you are dealing with one the most powerful and autonomous forces in human experience.”Robert A. Johnson
The shadow is an aspect of the personal unconscious that contains the repressed and rejected parts of the self, which hide behind the scenes, but influence behaviour. The unconscious, by default, is outside of conscious awareness. There’s a function to this process; imagine trying to live in the world if you had access to every memory, registered every sensation, every thought — all at once. You’d be rendered catatonic.
In Jungian psychology, the ego is directly related to consciousness. It has many functions, not least bridging consciousness and unconsciousness. The function of a healthy ego is to adapt. Repression, however, forces psychic content into the unconscious, blocking the natural flow of psychic energy. The ego denies its presence. Through its need to escape, that energy is “projected” onto “the other” — people, situations, groups, the world, or cosmos at large.
Projections have to be reclaimed, as unclaimed psychic content contributes to psychological, emotional, and spiritual turmoil. Repressed content has to be carefully brought into conscious awareness, understood, digested, re-integrated into the ego, the conscious sense of self. This is the journey toward wholeness. For Jung, a highly developed person isn’t aware of everything all at once, but has a harmonious relationship between conscious and unconscious.
Many people end up in therapy because repressed contents have taken on a life of their own, and become intrusive and destabilising. While for many this is spontaneous, certain practices poke the contents of the unconscious. In attempting to extract honey, the beehive is shaken, potentially inducing swarms of repressed content into the fresh air of consciousness. As Jungian analyst Johnson warns, the unconscious shouldn’t be messed with.
Caught in the desire for spiritual revelation, practices such as meditation, psychedelics, or breathwork release the grip on the unconscious, allowing content to surface into the conscious mind. As trauma-informed therapy illustrates, if this happens all at once, it can be too much to hold, re-traumatising or sparking an emotional crisis. Working through deeply ingrained samskaras takes courage and dedication. The light, and the dark, can transform or harm. It’s crucial to discern the difference.
The Superconscious and the Light
Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli’s model of psychosynthesis is an explicit attempt to integrate the superconscious. Created in the 1960s, he defines the superconscious as “higher potentialities which seek to express themselves, but which we often repel and repress.” Assagilio’s other term, higher unconscious, points to the overlap of Jung’s model and the golden shadow, the Earth-shattering potentials we repress through fear of their magnitude.
My understanding is that Jung’s unconscious captures the superconscious; they’re qualities that aren’t easily accessed by the conscious mind, aren’t integrated into the ego, and are responsible for numinous experiences. These experiences are religious or spiritual, exquisite and unique from the day to day, and can induce awe or terror in equal measure, but either way, catalyse transformation. Jung went as far to say:
“The main interest of my work is not concerned with the treatment of neuroses but rather with the approach to the numinous. But the fact is that the approach to the numinous is the real therapy, and in as much as you attain to the numinous experiences, you are released from the curse of pathology. Even the very disease takes on a numinous character.”
Jung’s genius was his intuitive gift at understanding the language of the unconscious, in turn giving voice to the numinous, most notably through symbols. But even symbols are mere translations. The superconscious is embedded in Eastern philosophy, translated in symbols, experienced through practice. It’s the source of spiritual qualities, the “highest good,” moments of almost superhuman ability.
The superconscious is the source of wisdom, the calm reason or clarity that perforates waking consciousness. Clues to its presence are joy, peace, awe, curiosity, optimism, love, compassion. Sri Aurobindo, an Indian yogi and philosopher, describes how the superconscious illuminates intellectual, ethical, sensational, and emotional realms, along with “words of revelation, unveiled as if by lightning flashes.” He writes:
“There are concealed heights, there are hidden gulfs, there are crowded spaces behind the front wall, below the threshold, in the unseen mental environment. There is a vast inconscient below us, an infinite superconscience above us. All these are part of a secret consciousness in the world, but also part of our own hidden being of which we are not aware or only intermittently and ignorantly or only, in our ultimate evolution, eventually aware.”Sri aurobindo
As part of his wider philosophy, Aurobindo suggests humans evolve physically and spiritually. Through inner work, awareness of the light becomes brighter, more stable. If unprepared, the superconscious is a lightning bolt to the ego and the body. Get too close to the source, and you may get burned. The light, like the dark, has to be integrated at a gradual pace.
Higher Energies and Spiritual Emergency
“The light that illuminates the madman is an earthly light, but I do not believe it is a projection, an emanation from his mundane ego. He is irradiated by a light that is more than he. It may burn him out.”R.D. Laing
Like the unconscious and repressed contents, the superconscious’ lightning bolts of spiritual energy must be treated with respect. The need to understand the superconscious is emphasised by R.D. Laing; sometimes what we assume as mental illness is, in fact, caused by a transcendent power, a divine madness. These are distinct from mental illness rooted in the shadow.
Hinduism has masculine and feminine energetic principles to illustrate the light’s dual nature. Shakti is the feminine principle. Shiva is the masculine principle. Shakti’s dual purpose is creation and destruction. The briefest glimpse can send shockwaves through your psychology, emotions, worldviews, beliefs, attitudes, desires, and relationships. Shiva is the unchanging backdrop of pure awareness. This is a dance where electricity meets stillness.
The emergence of higher energies often causes a spiritual emergency. These transformative crises require support and understanding, both of which are lacking in Western culture. It’s a significant task to integrate higher spiritual energies. The body may struggle to hold those frequencies. They may be accompanied by a potent influx of divine imagery and symbolism, out-of-body or trance states, mania, deep depression, panic. All of which may be spontaneous or induced by poking the unconscious.
If a person’s psychology or emotional landscape hasn’t matured, the surfacing of dormant traumas and samskaras may be overwhelming. If the person identifies with those energies, a spiritual ego will develop from the messiah complex, and their growth stunted. If a person hasn’t matured ethically or morally, their newfound power may be abused. Just look at how many “enlightened” gurus end up traumatising followers through unseen projections and an unintegrated shadow.
But through resilience, determination, an authentic spiritual practice, and ideally mentorship and peer support, the dual destructive and creative force can transform a person for good; elevating them beyond what they’d previously conceived was possible, with new insight, moral standing and awareness and embodied wisdom that may take the conscious ego by surprise. This is a transformation old-school psychology wouldn’t dare dream of.
Completing the Picture
Shadow and light have to be integrated, over and over. Convince yourself you lack either, and you’ll live in self-deceit. Drench the trenches with light, and smear the Godlike in mud. That divine contradiction is a lot to hold, a responsibility few are prepared to take on in its fullness. Are you? If so, how will you prepare?
Will you treat shadow and light with the reverence it warrants, and take on the responsibility with diligence and care? Will you avoid temptations of masochism and grandiosity, to hold the tension of opposites and walking paradoxes?
You don’t have to. You can turn your back on the profundity and still live a life worth living. But there are a select few who are compelled, and if that includes you, follow the call, but do so with the full knowledge of the journey you’ll embark on.
120 years since James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, mysticism remains on the periphery, a collective repression of humanity’s potential. Don’t let it stay there, place it front and centre, let it lead the harmonisation of conscious, unconscious, and superconscious, let it lead transformation you wouldn’t dare dream of, let it surprise you.