"Youare old, Father William," the young man said...

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Imprintings& THE Levels of Unconscious

WhatAre “Imprintings of Our Unconscious”?

What are “imprintings”?  How do they getinto our unconscious?  And how do they impactour behavior decades later?

Think of your unconscious as being a tough little baby that doesn't take on just anyimpression.  A good way to imagine it is like aslab of marble that’s tough enough so most experiences slide off and don't leave much ofa mark.  But when an experience comes along with enough emotional energy– it uses the power of that emotional energy to engrave itself in the marble. In engineering we call this making a template; in psychology we say this engravingforms an “archetype" in the unconscious.  Oncean “archetype” is formed, it then shapes how we will experience events with similarcharacteristics in the future.

KonradLorenz, the famous biologist, demonstrated the phenomenon of imprinting in an ingeniousway:

In1935 Lorenz described learning behaviour in young ducklings and goslings. He observed thatat a certain critical stage soon after hatching, they learn to follow real or fosterparents. The process, which is called imprinting, involves visual and auditory stimulifrom the parent object; these elicit a following response in the young that affects theirsubsequent adult behaviour. Lorenz demonstrated the phenomenon by appearing before newlyhatched mallard ducklings and imitating a mother duck's quacking sounds, upon which theyoung birds regarded him as their mother and followed him accordingly.  (Thanks to DavidB. Johnson, MD)

Forthese little ducklings, Lorenz became their “archetype” of mother. Our unconscious is full of such archetypes, and they drive our behavior throughoutour lives – sometimes helpfully, but often foolishly, too.

WhatAre the Levels of the Unconscious?

Here'sa simple explanation of how our unconscious is formed. Imagine the conscious and unconscious are like an iceberg. The tip that shows above the ocean surface is the conscious part of us, the "I”. This is the part of us we often think is all of us. This is a big mistake.  Most of thepsyche (the unconscious) is below our surface just as nine-tenths of an iceberg is belowthe surface of the ocean.  And of course, asthe arrogant designers of the Titanic learned, that is where the real danger (and power)lies.

  © Archetype Discoveries



Inour psyches, there are three levels of the unconscious that are distinct from one another:the Personal, the Cultural and the Species.  ThePersonal Unconscious means just what its name implies; it’s unique to each personbecause it is formed by uniquely individual experiences that we alone have had, andtherefore are not shared or “imprinted” by others.

ThePersonal Unconscious:  IndividuallyUnique

Here’san example of how imprinting of the Personal Unconscious happens. Imagine you're three years old and out in the backyard just having a wonderful timeplaying by yourself.  The neighbors arrive homewith a new black Labrador puppy that stands just about as tall as you, and when they open the back door of thestation wagon, it bounds out, sees you and, in its eagerness to play, dashes toward you. Your back is turned so you don't see it coming, but suddenly you hear somethingakin to an approaching stampede.  The nextthing you know you are knocked flat on your back, there's a mass of black fur over you,frightening warm breath, a moist tongue going slurp, slurp, slurp across your face – andTERROR!  Theenergy of the terror is what imprints this experience in your unconscious.

Now,let's say you're about seven years old playing in the living room, and Aunt Elizabethcomes to visit wearing a black fur coat.  Sheenters the living room quietly (you don't see or hear her coming), swoops you up frombehind against the black fur coat, breathes in your face and gives you a big moist kiss– and you go bonkers!  Why? Because you're not with Aunt Elizabeth; you're re-experiencing the terror that camefrom the imprinting of the constellation of black fur, warm breath and moist tongue yearsago.  Mom, who's the on-site manager in thissituation, says, "You be nice and give your Aunt Elizabeth a hug." Mom can't manage because she doesn't understand you are in a totally separate anduniquely personal reality at that moment.

Thisis the difficulty of the Personal Unconscious.  Becauseit is so unique and personal, we don't know when another’s behavior is being directedfrom that level of the unconscious.  The bestwe can do is become close enough to those we care about so we can gain some understandingof what archetypes live in them and when those archetypes get triggered. This requires an investment in intimacy and connection, of which psychotherapy is acommercial example and helpful to many.  Sadly,in patriarchal cultures, women have developed far greater skills of intimacy than men, andso understand and work with the Personal Unconscious far more effectively than their malecounterparts (thank God mothers do most of the raising of our children!). This massive macho liability is what MatthewFox was referring to organizationally in early 2003 when he asked and answered:

Q:  “What do Enron, the Roman Catholic Church and the Bush Administration have incommon? 

 A:   “They suffer from an excess of patriarchy.”

  © Archetype Discoveries

TheCultural Unconscious:  Shared Conditioning

The Cultural Unconscious, as might be expected by its name, is culturally conditioned and shared.  This is because people who grow up in shared locations, religions and schools also share similar values and the imprintings that lodge these archetypes deep in the unconscious.  The "excess of patriarchy" mentioned above is such a conditioned value and imprinted archetype in most, but not all, cultures.

The "Protestant Work Ethic" is another well-known example.  Bascially, it values work for itself - even when the results produced are dubious and even destructive.  For a humorous, and true, story about this, see Performance Appraisal & Unconscious Imprinting.

  © Archetype Discoveries

TheSpecies Unconscious:  Glimpsed in Symbols

TheSpecies Unconscious is much harder to know.  Forsome, it’s as real as the notions of the ego, personality or soul. For others it's a fairy-tale fantasy mainly traceable to Carl Jung. One way the Species Unconscious can be glimpsed is through interpretation ofsymbols.  Jung and others have found there arecertain symbols (such as the circle) that elicit similar meanings from the unconscious nomatter where you go.  Whether you show thecircle to an aborigine or to a cynical New Yorker, it evokes meanings of completeness,wholeness and "holiness” (as in the use of the halo).

Ithink Jung was right about a deeper collective and foundational layer of the unconsciousthat is passed on as part of our genetic membership in the species. I won't try to prove or defend this; it's simply what I believe - feel free todisagree.  The main reasons I choose to believein the Species Unconscious are because I experience it in myself and it gives me hope forthe continuing evolution of our species – it opens possibilities for communicationacross cultures and across language differences that can open doorways of sharedunderstanding, caring and love… 


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