The Interplay Between the Unconscious and Conscious – and Why It Matters
In order to grasp the nature of consciousness, the scope of exploration needs to include our experience of everyday reality and the material realm, as well as the realm of the unconscious and the dynamic forces that are hidden from—yet fundamental to—consciousness.
This essay explores various theories that explain the dynamics between the “outer” world, the “inner” realm and consciousness.
This exploration may serve to better understand ourselves and the influences that affect our perception and behaviour. Carl Jung, from a psychoanalytical starting point, and Wolfgang Pauli, from a background in quantum physics, demonstrated the ways in which these seemingly distinct paradigms in fact frame a spectrum of various models of the nature of reality and our understanding of consciousness (Main, 2014).
The Relationship Between the Unconscious and Consciousness
It is unfortunate that the term “unconscious” is likely to denote a less significant or unknowable form of consciousness. Whilst the contents of the unconscious may not be known directly, they may be revealed through analysing their effects on consciousness. The interpretation of reality is fundamentally influenced by schemas which are often part of the hermeneutic unconscious—the unconscious that allows for interpretation, giving meaning to our experiences and supporting self-reflection and understanding (Woody & Phillips, 1995).
The potentially therapeutic process of bringing these unconscious influences to conscious awareness allows them to be understood and modified, changing our perception of reality. For example, an individual experiencing self-sabotage often undermines their own development and fails to implement strategies that could support their healing. By exploring their patterns of behaviour, they may realize certain related unconscious schemas, including self-doubt, a sense of worthlessness and a fundamental distrust of others. These schemas can then consciously be modified in order to change the individual’s belief system, replacing their self-sabotaging behaviour with self-healing.
When addressing the relationship between mind and matter, it is pertinent to consider that according to quantum physics, physical entities are more similar to the mind than they are to matter (Stapp, 2009). The unconscious mind conducts complex mental processes that are not usually available for conscious consideration, and provides images and thoughts to the conscious mind, which then perceives what is considered everyday reality (Oschman & Pressman, 2014).
Whilst psychological barriers separate consciousness and the unconscious (Oschman & Pressman, 2014), it is important to realize that these barriers are fluid and dependent on our level of self-awareness and on the ability to recognize the impact of the unconscious in our conscious experiences. That the unconscious can affect the material realm is significantly demonstrated by conversion disorders (Freud, cited in Oschman & Pressman, 2014), in which repressed information manifests as physical symptoms, which in turn may bring this information into consciousness. Examples of conversion disorders may include suppressed anger that is stored in the unconscious mind, manifesting in the physical body as tight hamstrings or unaddressed psychological trauma manifesting as stuttering.
According to Jung, the collective unconscious gives rise to the personal unconscious and consciousness (Frentz, 2011). The collective unconscious is comprised of information that was never conscious and owes its existence to heredity (Ko, 2011). The personal unconscious contains the adaptive unconscious, which processes vast amounts of information necessary for daily functioning, as well as information that was once part of the person’s conscious and has since been forgotten or repressed (Oschman & Pressman, 2014; Frentz, 2011).
Jung regarded the contents of personal consciousness as limited in comparison to that of the collective unconscious (Ko, 2011). Whyte (1962) agrees that the unconscious is more general and inclusive. Athletes may engage with hypnosis, visualization and psychotherapy in order to perform at their optimum level whilst requiring minimal conscious effort. This peak experience is an example of conscious preparation that can trigger unconscious processing (Pressman, 1977, 1979, 1980a, 1980b).
The unconscious includes archetypes—inherited instincts of the psyche which predispose individuals to perceive, think, feel and act in certain ways. Archetypes are common to all humans and support individuation—the process of optimizing one’s psychological state (Frentz, 2011). The etymology of the word “archetype” is revealing: “arche” refers to that which is “primal” or “dominant”, and “type” refers to “form” (Jacobi 1959, cited in Stevens 2015, p 52). The archetypes are psychoid—to use the term coined by Jung—in that they consist of and structure both the psyche and matter (Frentz, 2011). These structuring principles, in turn, change according to information from both the psychic and material realms.
The archetypes connect the collective unconscious to the individual consciousness, and the psyche connects events in the physical realm. Archetypes become evident as thoughts and images that contain emotional states (Oschman & Pressman, 2014), so that when an archetype is activated, the related emotions are experienced. These emotions influence our perceptions, and consequently, our behaviour and experiences (Hauke, 2014).
Whilst the archetypes cannot be known directly, their images, which are influenced by culture and the individual who experiences them, can be experienced directly within the material realm (Frentz, 2011). The archetypal images make complex information from the unconscious realm available to consciousness. The activated archetype may illuminate the connection and ultimate unity of the psyche, or inner state, and the material realm, or outer reality. The influence of the archetypes structures all spiritual forms of religion, art and science, as well as all forms of matter (Card, 2000).
Just as the unconscious influences our conscious experience and the material realm, so our level of consciousness affects the unconscious. Pauli recognized the importance of understanding the psyche of the observer as much as that which is observed (Stevens, 2015). Wheeler (1981) acknowledges the observer-participatory nature of the universe, in which consciousness may affect both matter and psyche. Ko (2011) expands this model to include the life force movement that connects, and ultimately unifies, the mind and nature—a central concept in divination systems, such as the I Ching. Being aware of the potential influence of the unconscious on our conscious experience encourages the observation of our behaviour and the exploration of the related areas of the psyche. Consciously creating space and allowing for previously unconscious elements to move into consciousness offers the potential to develop our self-understanding, as well as an understanding of the influence of the collective unconscious in our lives.
Synchronicity involves an image that was unconscious being experienced directly (as a literal event) or indirectly (as a dream, thought or idea), and a seemingly objective event reflecting the same image (Jung, 1969, cited in Frentz, 2011). Jung (1960) defined synchronicity as a “meaningful coincidence” (p. 10) or an “acausal connecting principle” (p. 5), implying that there is not a direct cause that links the two events. Perhaps there are subtle causes or causes rooted in the unconscious of which we are consequently unaware.
The emotion-laden experience of synchronicity is usually accompanied by the activation of an archetype (Marlo & Kline, 1998), which may serve to fulfil an underlying need (Stevens, 2015), and which may be experienced positively or negatively. Perhaps the person in need directly triggers the occurrence of a synchronistic experience. This may be explained through a process in quantum mechanics in which the observer (in this case, the person in need) causes the event (in this case, the synchronistic experience) to manifest. This process of actualizing the properties of particles through observation is also known as the collapse of the wave function. Within the natural order of things, there may be a special order of things—the subjective process of connecting two seemingly unrelated events in order to add meaning to life. This would reveal valuable, but previously unrecognized insights, to the psyche, including needs, desires, and fears.
This process may explain the unique meaning that synchronicities hold for those experiencing them—something Jung recognized when considering the value of events that do not necessarily have a causal connection, but that are connected through the meaning they hold for those experiencing them (Main, 2014). An example may be a man who, after much deliberation, decides to buy an engagement ring. Just a few minutes after his decision, he receives an e-mail notification that a jewellery store that has the perfect ring is having a sale. While his decision to buy a ring and the jewellery sale do not seem causally connected, the man may interpret these events as confirmation that he has made the right decision. Indeed, encounters with the archetypes are often described as numinous, or having spiritual or divine qualities (Hauke, 2014).
Pauli recognized that the observer influences that which is observed, and that the observer is changed by their observation (in Main, 2014). This two-way transformation seems to hold weight in the argument that synchronicity seems more prevalent in the lives of those who actively seek it. This implies that the experience of reality is dependent on the intentions of the observer (Stapp, 2007).
A pertinent consideration may be whether evidence of a synchronicity validates the event even if the person experiencing it does not find it meaningful. Consider the example of a woman who has a dream about her estranged father with whom she has not had contact for years. The day after the dream, whilst on a road-trip, she notices a sign saying, “Eagle’s Nest,” which is also the name of her father’s house.
Later that day she receives an unexpected message from her father’s brother, whom she has not seen for years, saying that he is in town and would like to see her. She could experience these events as synchronistic, relating the dream to both the sign and the message from her uncle, causing her to explore the deeper meaning thereof. She may even recognize a previously unconscious need to reconnect with her father. Would she have noticed the road sign were it not for the dream? Was the message from her uncle motivated by the same unseen forces that created the dream? Or, were these events entirely unrelated? Does the value of synchronicity depend solely on the meaning ascribed to it by those who experience it, or is there an objective valuation simply by its occurrence? Storm’s (1999) argument that synchronicity finds validity in those for whom it is meaningful seems well-founded.
It may be argued that the experience of synchronicity fulfils our innate need for cosmic specialness (Becker, 2014). However, Peat (cited in Frentz, 2011) argues that the experience of synchronicity offers insight into the implicate order—a deeper level of reality in which everything is connected and from which our everyday reality unfolds. Peat explains that information gives form to energy in order to create matter. This model invites the notion that the archetypes structure consciousness to create the material realm.
Likewise, it could be speculated that matter transfers information to the unconscious in order to evolve the archetypes. Peat (n.d.) describes the notions of the inner, subjective world (including thoughts, dreams and spirituality), and the outer, objective world (including energy, matter and science). Perhaps the real, objective, consistent world is the inner one and the subjective, ever-changing, self-created world is the outer one.
One’s understanding of the unconscious may be a determining factor in the view one takes. The fundamental separation of the inner and outer worlds is based on the assumption of duality and begs the question of whether synchronicity can serve as a bridge between the two worlds. Adopting a position of neutral monism, in which mind and matter are manifestations of a neutral basis and are not essentially distinct (Silberstein, 2009), allows for an explanation of synchronicity that is based on causality. Seemingly distinct events reflect a reality in which subject and object (or the individual and the world) define each other and cannot exist separately.
If we considered matter as an expression of mind, and body as an expression of spirit, and consider the possibility that these relationships involve a two-way, dynamic exchange of information, then the need for a bridge would be absurd. The theory of synchronicity then becomes the exploration of the workings of a global system that transcends such distinction (Peat, n.d.). Synchronicity may be regarded as moments of insight into this fluid interplay and ultimate unity that is the fabric of the universe.
Bell’s theorem (Capra, 1999) implies a holistic model of the universe in which everything, known and unknown, is indivisible. The external, material world of science and rationality would then be one and the same as the internal, imaginal world of intuition and the psyche. From this perspective, it would seem that synchronicities are not unusual or special events that signify something outside of the experience, but rather represent opportunities for awakening into the profound holism of the universe.
Morphic Field Theory
Sheldrake’s (2014) theory of morphic fields resonates strongly with the theory of Jung’s archetypes. These higher level organizational patterns that determine the quantum potential of “reality” (Sheldrake, 2014) may be considered a field of propensity and the structuring influence of the psyche and the material realm. Whilst archetypes are limited to the human experience, morphic fields apply to the entire physical realm. These information fields of various levels exist within each other, and their influence can be top-down or bottom-up. An example may be the morphic field of a gene influencing the entire organism through genetic expression, and that of the entire organism, in turn, influencing the gene through epigenetics, the study of “how external forces, such as one’s environment and life experiences, trigger on-off mechanisms on the genetic switchboard” (Psychology Today, para. 1).
The theory of morphic fields remains controversial (Shermer, 2005) and there is much disagreement about the research findings that may support it (Blackmore, 2009). According to Sheldrake, one of the reasons for this is that the beliefs of the observer affect the outcomes of the experiment (Shermer, 2005). An exploration of the unconscious and the material realm would, however, be incomplete without considering the possible explanation that morphic field theory offers for the existence of collective memory (Sheldrake, 1997).
Sheldrake explains that we are most similar to previous versions of ourselves, and therefore resonate strongly with our past selves, perpetuating this resonant “essence” of self. On a collective level, we may resonate with others of similar resonance, tuning into their lived experiences and psyche, forming a collective unconscious (Sheldrake, 2013). The establishment of just such a morphic field, or family constellation (Meyburgh, 2005), may explain intrinsic memories and patterns of behaviour that are perpetuated through generations. This is an example of how information may be held in the unconscious, whilst the effects are evident and impact the material realm. This may also provide an explanation of the Hindu belief of karma (Sheldrake, 2014), which is a trace of memory that is stored in the unconscious as an impulse and which holds the potential to influence one’s actions (Coward, 2003). Since nature is all-encompassing, it follows that nature creates and embodies its own structure and habits which evolve (Stapp, 2009), supporting the theory of morphic fields.
While the theory of morphic resonance is not substantially supported by scientific data, it is yet to be disproved and provides an insightful model for considering the dynamics of the unconscious, conscious experience and the material realm. Potential therapeutic benefits may include identifying and understanding patterns of thinking and behaviour, which could then be changed. By increasing one’s awareness of the fundamental dynamics of such influences, the unconscious information that sustains the field may be altered. This could explain information that is carried from one generation to the next without conscious transference, but with significant effects, including certain propensities, psychological disorders and physical diseases.
Morphic fields could also explain our level of engagement with an activity or person. Common expressions such as “not being able to get into a book” or “being tuned into another person” may reflect an intuitive understanding of resonance. Morphic resonance could provide an explanation for certain dynamics in my therapy practice, including working with a child with challenging behaviour: at first, there may be resistance to therapeutic intervention, but through setting clear intentions and being fully present during the therapy session, I am able to engage with the child and resonate with them, resulting in a harmonious interaction. This echoes the Zen practice of resonating with one’s reality in order to experience harmony (Austin, 1998). While other possible explanations may exist, the widespread applicability of morphic field theory makes it a suitable basis for further exploration of the relationship between the unconscious and the material realm, and suggests that further research is due.
The Quantum Hologram Theory
Bohm’s theory of holomovement places primary importance on the implicate order, the realm of potentiality in which everything is enfolded. Events unfold and are actualized into the explicate order (the reality that we can experience directly) and enfold back into the implicate order (Frentz, 2011). This supports the idea of a fundamental unity of the unconscious and consciousness, the psyche and the material realm. This holistic, complete order of all things may be reflected, as a hologram, in the essence of space and time, and permeates all that arises.
Mitchell and Staretz (2011) consider the quantum hologram as a system of storing and retrieving information that is based on quantum phenomena that affect both the macro and micro levels of existence. Quantum emissions from an organism, for example, would contain information about the organism as a whole. There is increasing evidence that every physical entity resonates with a unique holographic image that contains holographic memory, much like an individual may be considered resonant with certain archetypes (Mitchell & Staretz, 2011).
The quantum hologram is non-local and it is possible to resonate with another entity’s quantum hologram, which would support the experience of synchronicity, as well as certain psi phenomena, like psychic healing (Mitchell & Staretz, 2011), healing prayer (Dossey, 1993), and telepathy (Sheldrake, 2017). This would provide insights into the nature of reality and the consciousness that experiences it. The theory of a quantum hologram regards information, energy, and matter as equally fundamental, and as nature’s information storage and transference system. The very idea of the quantum hologram resonates with the idea of the collective unconscious (Mitchell & Staretz, 2011) and the workings of the archetypes.
Not only does this shift the emphasis in our search for meaning in life away from the material realm when considering the influences and meaning of energy and information, but this concept alters the way in which matter may be perceived. It is indeed a form of energy and information, and reflects the unconscious forms with which it resonates. An example is the traditional way in which Chinese medicinal herbs are cultivated: the area in which they are grown is carefully chosen, as the energy of the site fundamentally affects the structure and medicinal properties of the herb. Herbs grown in another area or under contrived conditions will contain different information, which will impact their effectiveness.
With this holistic understanding, it is possible to experience a fundamental shift in our perception, and conception, of reality. While the theory of a quantum hologram may not reflect Pauli’s hope for a neutral terminology that addresses both physics and the archetypes, it may reflect Jung’s idea of “Unus Mundus,” a transcendent unity, as well as Pauli’s belief that this unity could be rooted in science through quantum physics (Oppenheimer, n.d.).
While many of the theories addressed in this essay are scantly supported by experimental data, their value in contributing to a coherent model that deepens our understanding of the unconscious, conscious experience, and the material realm deserves acknowledgement. Limiting the realm of scientific exploration to that which finds validity in a laboratory would neglect the fundamental influences of context, relativity and the dynamic between the researcher and that which is researched. Just as Pauli experienced, science itself remains a barrier to further exploration of these theories and would do well to consider quantitative, as well as qualitative data and to expand its range of interpretive lenses to include intuition alongside intellect (in Oppenheimer, n.d.).
The implications of understanding consciousness as it relates to the material realm and the unconscious necessarily affects every aspect of our lives, including wellness practices and medication options, the organization of our homes, our work environments and relationships. The practice of yoga may be regarded as a physical, mental and energetic practice, affecting both the conscious and unconscious realms. The organization of one’s home may deeply influence one’s psyche and energy levels, since the house, furniture and space are expressions of energy and information that resonate with unconscious forms. Furthermore, Whyte (1962) believes that the unconscious is a source of spiritual knowledge and inspiration.
The unconscious, consciousness and the material realm may be viewed as a spectrum. Peat (1987) suggests that matter is the material realization of the archetypes. Card (2000) reiterates this by stating that mind and matter are complementary aspects of a holistic, unified reality. Therefore, Oschman and Pressman’s (2014) call for a multidisciplinary approach to advancing our understanding of both consciousness and of the unconscious is well-founded. Indeed, an understanding of consciousness without consideration for the relationship between the unconscious and the material realm would be superficial and unsatisfactory.
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Chantal le Roux, MSc, MEd
Chantal has a background in transpersonal psychology, special needs education and holistic healing.
As a South African who lived in China for many years, she has a deep respect for diverse cultures and values both traditional and contemporary healing modalities. She is a qualified Vinyasa yoga instructor and certified Applied Kinesiologist, and is passionate about transformation through integral practice.
She works with clients to create an individualized programme that addresses the emotional, mental, physical and spiritual dimensions through her therapy practice, which she runs online and from home in Cape Town. Research interests include the transformative potential of movement practices, such as yoga, Nia and spontaneous dance, factors and practices that facilitate sustained healing from a spiritual crisis, and the transpersonal nature of self-compassion.
You can learn more about Chantal on her website.
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