Most of what transpires in analysis is slow, quiet, and humble. Months can pass where all seems stuck on both an inner and outer level. Often the unsticking happens so slowly that it is barely perceptible. But occasionally, patient and therapist alike are rewarded with something striking and dramatic. Sometimes, this occurs in the form of a remarkable dream that speaks from the mysterious depths what Jung called the collective unconscious.
According to Jung, we are all connected by this deep, underground substrate from which all of our individual psyches grow as mushrooms from a single rhizome. Because we are connected to this subterranean river of universal patterns, we all have deep within our unconscious access to the same vast storehouse of symbol and imagery. The theory maintains that this is the reason why strikingly similar themes appear again and again in myths and fairy tales from different times and places.
According to Jung’s writings, the idea of the collective unconscious came to him after hearing about a psychiatric patient at the Burgholzli in Zurich who hallucinated that the sun had a long, upright tail that caused the wind to blow. Jung found a remarkable parallel in Mithraic liturgy that explained that the ministering wind originated from a pipe hanging from the disc of the sun.
Though recent scholarship has disproven Jung’s original assertion that the patient could not possibly have heard of this Mithraic text, Jung’s idea continues to find new support, such as recent research on hallucinogenic mushrooms. According to an article in The Guardian, researchers “have so reliably been able to induce mystical experience that they have empirically proven Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious – the idea that there is archetypical imagery we all share, regardless of our culture.”
Recently, an analysand brought in a dream that she experienced as deeply affecting at a time of deep distress and peril. The dream draws on mythological imagery previously consciously unknown to either myself or the patient. With the patient’s permission, here is the dream:
A young, 20-something-ish woman is in the dream. She is foreign, possibly from an Eastern European country, and is very fair-skinned and slender. She is staying or living in a house that belongs to someone I know slightly. When I first see her she is wearing a white t-shirt with some sort of design on it, but no underwear, nothing else. Her pubic hair is entirely shaved; the whole area is very pale and entirely visible. I feel startled and somewhat disgusted. Someone tells me, later on I think, that this woman eats her own feces as some sort of health or sexual practice. I feel more disgusted, repelled. But the woman is also compelling and it’s interesting to me that she is so beautiful; she has a sort of pure, innocent look about her, and very milk-white skin.
Upon hearing the dream, I fell under the influence of its haunting mood. The imagery was provocative and full of feeling, but I had no sense of where to begin to pull it apart, so I did something that I don’t often do. After checking to make sure it was okay with my patient, I pulled out a symbol dictionary. Both of us were struck by the aptness of the symbol to her personal experience and situation. I was amazed to find such a close parallel between this patient’s imagery and a mythology totally foreign to her. This parallel called to mind Jung’s theory, and made it seem more than merely theoretical.
Below is the passage I read to my patient:
“The filth that the goddess Tlazolteotl is seen endlessly swallowing and excreting in Aztec codices paradoxically polluted and purified her, for her own bodily waste emerged as a flower, a Central American glyph symbolizing female sensuality and, by suggestion, childbirth, over which she presided. The human waste that Aztecs collected to fertilize their fields decayed into humus or tlazollalli (“earth filth”) that they believed generated in her bowels in the subterranean land of the dead, an unspeakable place that ironically gave birth to life-sustaining corn. Her name derives from the root tlazolli, meaning not just filth, but also vice and disease, since the Aztecs confessed their sexual misdeeds to her on their deathbeds, shameful stories that she greedily consumed in the form of excrement. The Aztec’s word for disgrace literally meant to be smeared in excrement, yet their words for “gold” meant “divine excrement” or “the sun’s excrement.” With similar paradox, alchemy claimed, and psychology supports, that the gold of transformation “is found in filth,” in the very aspects of one’s substance the ego tends to dismiss as inferior.”
My patient was at a critical juncture in her life just at the moment that she had this dream. Like many women, she had suffered a lifetime of shame and disgust about her body and sexuality. She had long expressed a desire to heal this wound, but did not know how to go about doing so. At the point when this dream occurred, she was in a very dark and vulnerable place. She was considering opening herself up to new sexual experiences, but at the same time, on a conscious level she was convinced that no positive outcome would be possible were she to do so.
The psyche presented a solution to this dilemma in the form of this dream, which avails itself of Aztec imagery. The shit-eating, purifying goddess invoked in the dream addressed precisely the psychic challenge faced by my patient at that time. The archetypal energy awakened at this critical time in her life was capable of transforming her self-disgust and shame about her body and her sexuality, and using this as fertile material to give birth to new life of the highest value (gold). For my patient, the dream showed the possibility of a process of purification, a redemption of the female body and sexuality from shame through a process of consuming and digesting precisely that thing that has long been held as most repulsive.