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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD candidate, DPhil., MA (Psychology), MA (History)

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The Lower and Higher Unconscious

Paul Kiritsis - Monday, August 05, 2013

According to Assagioli, the region known as the middle unconscious is sandwiched between two other psychic strata–the higher unconscious and the lower unconscious–filled with mental content not directly accessible to consciousness. And from where might this mental content come from? Well, all human beings are born with the inherent capacity to express an expansive continuum of progressive impulses like altruistic love, philanthropic action and application of will, spiritual insight, and an appetite for critical inquiry. Everyone is a bundle of playful curiosity when left to develop within an unconditioned environment. The key word here is ‘unconditioned’; lamentably, the fact that social environments are all underpinned by a cultural ethos favouring certain qualities, propensities, and values over others means that only a small proportion of the entire gamut of human expression will be assimilated into the autonomous patterns and infrastructures that contribute to self-awareness and perception. During the course of our development we continually test the environmental waters, so to speak, or express authentic aspects of our innermost being that may be overlooked, scornfully derided, and outrightly rejected by our guardians and superiors or by the cultural and religious conventions of our epoch. Fixed ideas based on such real-time events become traumatic memories that inflict damage to our self or self-worth and interfere with conscious functioning. As a consequence an egoic defense mechanism is activated by the psyche which thrusts memories of the traumata as well as the instinctual drives perceived to give rise to them into the lower unconscious where they remain until the personal conscious encounters salient reminders of the fixed idea or trauma.

Repression, it seems, is something of a double-edged sword to the plasticity of self because the memories and underlying drives purposively jettisoned are also fundamentally connected with cosmic expressions of the sublime–with joyfulness, love, creativity, and feelings of empathic nurture towards all things great and small or living and inanimate. Hence while the ego-conscious intends to act in the service of the total psyche and circumvent potential catastrophe, it’s limited perspective precludes it from cogitating upon the higher dimensions of human experience to which the traumata are unconsciously coupled–the mystical and blissful dissolution of ego boundaries that propels one into meaningful communion with the divine and incites feelings of interconnectedness with other creatures and the cosmos at large- and it ignorantly locks these away into the higher unconscious. Left unaddressed, defense mechanisms will continue acclimatizing the personality so that it becomes a survival contrivance with a severely restricted experiential range, indeed one that does itself an injustice by reducing the channel of communication with the authentic ground of its own being for the sake of social approval and acceptance. The will, the missionary yearning to be seen for whom we truly are, is in the final analysis aborted for fear of disenfranchisement. In talking about the nature of the higher unconscious, Assagioli made it clear that it should not be understood as a doorway to worlds beyond or alternate realities; it was simply the discarded elements of a perceptual inheritance that allows for a deeper, expanded, convivial, and numinous experience of the world. Any subsequent interactions with outer reality that intrude upon traumatized territory create a psychological osmosis directly beneath the sphere of consciousness that releases mental content from the lower and higher unconscious synchronously, allowing phenomenological opposites to be expressed together. An individual unshackled by the need to repeat self-damaging behavioural patterns by reliving the underlying trauma that gave rise to them may also find that she sometimes loses ground to periods of euphoric ecstasy or joy. Unleashed from their ephemeral quiescence, opposites always emerge into the light of consciousness together.  

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