The unconscious: 100 years old, and spiritual

This piece is in the new edition of the Church Times.

THE unconscious is 100 years old this month — counting the publication of Sigmund Freud’s seminal essay “The Unconscious” as its birthday. Of course, the unconscious is as old as the psyche, and Freud, too, had been working on it for some years before 1915. His investigations into dreams and hypnosis, hysteria and neurosis demanded it, and he felt that a systematic model was needed.

It is striking how much of Freud’s 1915 description has a religious feel to it. For example, he argues that the processes that take place in the human unconscious have a timeless quality. “They are not ordered temporarily, are not altered by the passage of time.”

They are eternal, in the strict sense — outside time. Freud had stumbled across an experience of life that matched the psalmist’s description of God: “A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday” (Psalm 90.4).

Human beings do not live for millennia, but they do live for decades, and psychoanalysis was showing that, in the human mind, the experiences of decades ago have as much vitality as those of yesterday. We have an eternal dimension, too.

It is a finding subsequently substantiated in John Bowlby’s attachment theory: how we experience love and holding in our earliest years, which we cannot consciously remember, influences how we experience love and being held as adults.

This is one reason why, in spite of Freud’s antipathy to religion, psychoanalysis has always had a spiritual feel. Psychodynamic therapy puts the individual in touch with a side of himself or herself which is utterly mysterious to a materialist frame of reference. Yet there is no doubt that it is real.

ANOTHER remarkable observation that Freud makes is that one unconscious can communicate with another, without either individual necessarily realising it. Freud did not know what to make of this aspect in 1915. It subsequently became one of the keystones of psychotherapy, in “transference”: the unspoken felt exchanges that take place between client and therapist, which the therapist has learnt to notice and interpret.

For the spiritually minded, Freud’s observation offers one way of understanding how the immaterial and material worlds interact. It is as if we live in fields of psychic energy which affect us as much as the fields of electromagnetic energy which surround us, also known as darkness and light. We exist in webs of feeling and meaning, for good or ill. We become who we are in response to those who are physically and psychically close. Roughly speaking, communications from benign sources develop the soul; malignancy makes the soul contract.

IT IS clear from research in transgenerational trauma that our ancestors have an impact on us, too. The dead do not simply die. The unconscious can be a way of conceptualising how God and even the angels might shape us as well.

As the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, preached at Michaelmas this year: “Thoughts and notions may come from outside us: our lowest, our destructive ideas, from the source of evil; our highest, our saving notions, from the message of the angels, from our loving Father God.”

That is not language that Freud would use; but he did go on to posit death and life drives, welling up from the unconscious.

Another remark in his 1915 essay carries echoes of how mystics have conceptualised the divine. Opposites and paradoxes are present without contradiction in the unconscious, Freud observed. It is why in dreams we can fly, and why there is a part of us more amenable to poetry than reason.

Theology, too, is full of opposites and paradoxes. God is three in one. The divine can be conceived of simultaneously as creator, shepherd, fire, wisdom. “It might be fruitful to offer the model of the unconscious as one which does better justice to the notion of God within his creation, to the intimate closeness of the infinite which faith also values,” proposes Rodney Bomford, the author of The Symmetry of God (Free Association Books, 1999).

Yes, there are significant differences between God and the unconscious. Freud’s unconscious often feels a dark, oppressive place — although his erstwhile disciple, Carl Jung, realised that the unconscious has an expansive and liberating energy, too. God is not the unconscious. Yet studying the unconscious helps the imagination to open to the divine mystery.

FINALLY, the unconscious can assist in understanding pastoral aspects of spirituality. In a footnote to his essay, Freud writes: “The unconscious act exerts on somatic processes an influence of intense plastic power which the conscious act can never do.” To use other terms, the unconscious may lie behind psychosomatic illnesses.

Whatever the causes, which are hotly contested, somatising disorders are widespread: one recent study estimated that the NHS spends £3 billion each year on unexplained symptoms. The unconscious will not account for it all, but there is an urgent need to acknowledge its reach.

Churches and other spiritual buildings are important here. They are known as “brick mothers” in psychotherapeutic circles — structures that transmit feelings of safety and healing. They can be thought of as places that precipitate, and even store, the curative powers of the unconscious, much as buried trauma can conversely cause such psychic and somatic distress.

It helps to explain how churches can assist in supporting improvements in mental health, such as the one promoted by the Recovery Friendly Church course, an initiative developed in a collaboration between St Mary the Virgin, Lewisham, and the Recovery College of the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust.

The founder of psychoanalysis is not often thought of as a friend of religion. But read him more closely: his curiosity concerning the dynamics of the human soul produces reasons for confidence in, as well as the development of, the insights of generations of people of faith.

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