Some thinkers, like Jung and Sheldrake, see individual human consciousness like an island in a huge ocean in which there are countless other islands. Above the surface of the water – waking self-awareness – there is a sense of separate existence, with definite boundaries where the shore meets the sea. Beneath the surface however, one island is connected to all other islands. The land stretches away under the waves and rises here and there into other islands. So, it is thought, personal awareness, beneath our everyday consciousness, shades off into a connection with a collective unconscious we all share. Through this connection we may be able to arrive at insights into other people otherwise denied to us.
In recent years there has been a lot of research very strongly suggesting that the quantum level of the universe is such a universal memory and consciousness. (See The Field by Anne McTaggart).
Jung describes the collective unconscious as the ‘inherited potentialities of human imagination. It is the all controlling deposit of ancestral experiences from untold millions of years, the echo of prehistoric world events to which each century adds an infinitesimal small amount of variation and differentiation. These primordial images are the most ancient, universal, and deep thoughts of mankind.’
However, such ideas have been stated long before Jung and modern psychology. Eastern philosophy has talked of the akasha, the fundamental substance that holds in it memory of all that has happened. In Western occultism levels of awareness have been defined for hundreds of years. At the end of the 19th century Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke wrote about Cosmic Consciousness that was described as having the same universality as the collective unconscious.
A lucid experience describes this very clearly:
Now it seemed as if my awareness went beyond the frontier. This was a very visual experience. I was seeing a vast desert and I knew this represented immense periods of time, perhaps what we call eternity. So it could be called the Desert of Eternity. Here and there in the desert were huge rock formations, a little bit like what one sees in Monument Valley in Arizona. But these rock formations were not plain or slightly coloured rock. Also they were immense. They had the appearance of massive mosaics – brightly coloured mosaics. But the mosaics did not form illustrations or patterns. However, some pieces of the mosaics were larger than others. And each piece might be in itself multicoloured and a sort of miniature pictograph.
As I looked at these massive formations I understood that they had been carved or created through events in the passage of time. Each mosaic, each part of the overall mosaic, had been formed by enormous creative acts, or by long-standing actions. So these latter were like ideograms or archetypes. So, for instance, mother creatures have cared for, fought for, died for their young. This pattern of behaviour has been so enormously potent and perhaps we can use the word successful, that it has created, shaped aspects of eternity. It has left its pattern, its artwork, on time itself. Thus eternity honours that pattern by giving it a place in the very structure of itself. No one being created such a mosaic in the formations. Such a mosaic was large and had in it the essence of all the lives that formed it.
So the rock formations and the mosaics on them represented influences that will flow into the future. They were sources of power or influence that shaped the phenomenal world. They were the body under the coat so to speak.
This explains some forms of intuition, as one person’s mind is said to connect to all others beneath the surface in the unconscious. In this way, questions or inquiry about a particular person will draw information pertaining to them from the enormous collective unconscious. In fact Einstein said that “Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust – we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper”. So our individual consciousness is rather an outcrop of a huge and ancient collective consciousness.
Edgar Cayce discovered in his adulthood, that he could put himself at will into the state of mind in which he could tap this unconscious reservoir of knowledge. Because he could diagnose people’s illness without examining them, his work was supported by doctors. Investigators of psychology and philosophy also sought him, and he dictated 14 million words while in this state of wider awareness. His findings suggest that we all have this ability to tap the wealth of unconscious information – truly a collective unconscious – but few of us can bring it to waking awareness. His biography, There is a River, and Seer Out of Season, are astonishing and inspiring books to read. See: Edgar Cayce.
We see this markedly in animals that are largely instinctive. Birds have no present memory of how to fly or build a nest, yet when the time comes they draw on something that enables them to express the collective experience of their species.
I am a Child of the Universe
If this connection is a fundamental part of everybody’s life, the waters of self and the waters of the ocean are not separated. Jung called this universal consciousness the collective unconscious. Other cultures have given it other names – the ocean of Brahm for instance in Hinduism. Within Buddhism there is also the phrase, ‘the dewdrop slips into the shining sea’. Australian Aborigines call it The Dreamtime.
The image of the dewdrop slipping into the ocean illustrates the individual becoming aware of melting the boundaries of their personal awareness, and becoming aware of the ocean of sentience within which they exist.
When we first begin to ‘hear the voice of God’ again – i.e. feel the immense power of the collective unconscious, the foundation of our awareness – we are often afraid, even terrified, as the story of Adam and Eve depicts. The fear arises because whether we admit it or not, we feel we might be swallowed up, be lost in the immensity. Basically it is a fear of death.
Looking back at the psychological history of humanity, at their emergence of identity out of an animal level of awareness, all consciousness was originally merged, as it were, in a great ocean or pool. At that point no creature had crawled out of that pool. Nothing had arrived at self-awareness. No sense of separateness or identity had emerged. Then out of that ocean onto the shore of self-awareness, perhaps for moments only at first, a daring creature crawled and said – ‘I am’. Doing so they left a mark – footprints, two stones rolled together, scratches on a rock, a cave painting. And those creatures still in the ocean looked out upon them and wondered, until a spark was struck in them too. Perhaps struggling for a closer view they emerged and gasping also exclaimed – I am – and added another rock.
So the ocean is the world of sleep, babyhood, life of the nameless herd, consciousness immersed completely in the streams of instinct, reproduction, eating, sleeping and the senses, the collective unconsciousness. But the shore is the pathway of consciousness, the spoken word, art, drama, music, education and questioning enquiry. We all take this path if today we can say ‘I am’! We too, in our infancy, emerged from the collective consciousness. We too were given a soul, an identity, when we were given a name and speech. You too stepped out of the great waters of life – and will meet them again at death.
As already quoted, Jung describes this as the ‘inherited potentialities of human imagination. It is the all controlling deposit of ancestral experiences from untold millions of years, the echo of prehistoric world events to which each century adds an infinitesimal small amount of variation and differentiation. These primordial images are the most ancient, universal, and deep thoughts of mankind.’
What this means in practical terms is that through our dreams, or through any of the ways people access this immense reservoir of human experience, we can find patterns of behaviour – archetypes – and whole memories of people who have lived through and found solutions to the problems we face, or defined the understanding we are seeking. Also, Cayce found actual details of medicines and techniques that had been used successfully in the past and were part of the memory within the collective unconscious.
In trying to present this to sceptical colleagues and intellectuals and scientists of his time, Jung tried to explain his observation of a strata of being in which individual minds have their collective origin in a genetic way. This seems unlikely, and Rupert Sheldrake sees it as a mental phenomena. Dr Maurice Bucke called it Cosmic Consciousness. J. B. Priestley saw it as ‘the flame of life’ which synthesised the experience of all living things and held within itself the essentials of all lives. If we think of it as a vast collective memory of all that has existed, then we can say the life of Edgar Cayce exhibited a working relationship with it.
Such a collective level of mind would explain many things, such as telepathy, out of body experiences, life after death, which have always been puzzling because it is difficult to explain them using presently known principles. Mostly this difficulty has been because our language and the concepts arising from it insist of a duality of mind and body. However, researches into the nature of fundamental particles – quantum – show us that such divisions do not exist, except in our limited sensory view of the world.