"Let us then imagine archetypes as the deepest patterns of psychic functioning, the roots of the soul governing the perspectives we have of ourselves and the world."

"But one thing is absolutely essential to the notion of archetypes: their emotional possessive effect, their bedazzlement of consciousness...."

James Hillman: Re-Visioning Psychology

Discerning Untruth: Creative Reflection and the Path to Freedom

This is the fourth in a series of five posts on the jour­ney of unlearn­ing roles and life-scripts that inter­fere with effec­tive lead­er­ship and per­son­al ful­fill­ment. If you like, you can hear me read this post.

The oth­er posts are:

In the last two of these I have sug­gest­ed a fair­ly log­i­cal approach to sep­a­rat­ing from the roles by first describ­ing and nam­ing them, and then assess­ing their costs and ben­e­fits. But this bare­ly scratch­es the sur­face, and may not “loosen” the script from the per­son suf­fi­cient­ly to effect real change. Tran­scend­ing a role depends on rec­og­niz­ing its fun­da­men­tal untruth, and the untruth of the behav­iors that sup­port it. For exam­ple, if I clear­ly see myself repeat­ed­ly play­ing out the role of “weak prince” in a series of jobs, see­ing it also in my cur­rent COO posi­tion, I still may not be able to free myself. Even if I look hard and hon­est­ly at some of the behav­iors that are tied to this role, such as blam­ing oth­ers for my inabil­i­ty to cre­ate change, mak­ing promis­es I can­not keep, or giv­ing away my author­i­ty, I can­not sim­ply snap my fin­gers and exit the role. This is because the role has some ben­e­fits (well, I do get to be a prince, after all) and it is ingrained, mean­ing the role is a very famil­iar path­way for me. It’s part of my com­fort zone, and it is also at least part­ly uncon­scious.

If I do want to go deep­er, I can do so through a process of cre­ative reflec­tion. I invite into aware­ness what the behav­iors and the role they sup­port mean about how I see myself, and how deep these beliefs go. To get to this lev­el requires more than log­ic. It requires astute self-obser­va­tion and the per­son­al will and open­ness to dis­cov­er what is as yet unknown to me. For exam­ple, as weak prince, I might notice how per­son­al­ly pow­er­less I feel; how envi­ous I am of those with more charis­ma. I might notice how dis­hon­est I am with oth­ers and then reflect on how dis­hon­est I have been with myself about my effec­tive­ness. I begin to ask myself with a kind of ruth­less curios­i­ty how I actu­al­ly see my self in the world. As I pur­sue this inner space and mean­ing, I increas­ing­ly become a mir­ror for myself. It’s not at all unusu­al for things that are hap­pen­ing in the world to sud­den­ly become bet­ter mir­rors to me, too. This is a mat­ter of syn­chronic­i­ty.

Weak Prince.jpg

I real­ize more ful­ly than ever that if I main­tain my under­ly­ing beliefs, I will con­tin­ue to play the role in a pat­terned and unsat­is­fy­ing way. The role, like a mask I can’t take off, will be liv­ing me rather than the oth­er way around. This is the jump­ing off place into more impor­tant reach­es of reflec­tion. In fact, with­out the next leap, noth­ing is like­ly to change, for the next move is to invite the uncon­scious or sub­lim­i­nal con­tent of the role “right into the liv­ing room” of aware­ness, to make a space for it. This can be done in a myr­i­ad of ways, all inter­pre­tive, all sym­bol­ic in the begin­ning, but lat­er, with increas­ing evi­dence, into a firm under­stand­ing of the role’s nature and essen­tial untruth. The role and how it is played out begin to look like a trea­sure chest part­ly buried in the sand. If it can be ful­ly dug up and opened it will reveal a for­tune in jewels. 

The “myr­i­ad of ways” is pri­mar­i­ly artis­tic. But not in the sense of accom­plished or refined art; sim­ply as a means to offer oth­er­wise uncon­scious mes­sages a bet­ter chance to make them­selves known. This is entire­ly with­out regard to the “skill” lev­el of a per­son. Paint­ing, music, poet­ry, (even blog­ging!), undi­rect­ed jour­nal­ing, “guid­ed med­i­ta­tion,” dream analy­sis, and med­i­ta­tion — all these and more may be effec­tive so long as there is the clear inten­tion to explore in depth the nature of the role, what­ev­er it is. The weak prince, might cre­ative­ly decide, for exam­ple, to write him­self a series of let­ters from an unnamed “king.” All this is com­plete­ly imag­i­na­tive but often quick­ly reveals that there are mes­sages to be received from an unknown source, a psy­cho­log­i­cal “you’ve got mail” from an unknown sender (who turns out to be you). And so, in a way, the real per­son deal­ing with the role dives head­first into the pool of what is mean­ing­ful, although not nec­es­sar­i­ly lin­ear or logical. 

Any tool may be used, as long as it rep­re­sents the cre­ative voice of the role com­ing for­ward. My per­son­al exam­ple is the book of med­i­ta­tions and pho­tographs I offer in the right side­bar, called This Raft of Self. In it I explore the role of “the Fer­ry­man” and come to a real­iza­tion about how that role frag­ments me. The process is one of tak­ing my gifts for writ­ing and pho­tographs and lit­er­al­ly div­ing into the role; exem­plif­ing the role through this piece of work. And that, I believe, is exact­ly the path. Be the role in a high­ly cre­ative way so that what becomes clear are all its bound­aries and con­straints, and per­haps its dra­ma, too — though that may be more about me that you!

Let me share just one exam­ple of what I mean regard­ing cre­ative reflec­tion. At co-facil­i­tat­ed work­shops in the past, I have asked par­tic­i­pants to each draw a man­dala, using Judith Cor­nel­l’s beau­ti­ful book as a gen­er­al guide (see also the right side­bar). Draw­ing man­dalas is a well-known method for self-dis­cov­ery with ori­gins in Carl Jung’s extra­or­di­nary work as a psy­cho­log­i­cal explor­er and theoretician. 

Once they had cre­at­ed their man­dalas, we then asked par­tic­i­pants to explain their draw­ings to one anoth­er. Amaz­ing dis­cov­er­ies have often come out of this process. A can­di­date for pres­i­den­cy of a com­mu­ni­ty col­lege saw how small he made him­self in com­par­i­son to his world. The leader of a social ser­vices agency saw her need for con­trol in the fence she’d drawn around her cur­rent role. And a man­u­fac­tur­ing man­ag­er tear­ful­ly dis­cov­ered that he could­n’t “out­fox” the exer­cise — one that he thought was “non­sense” — for what he soon saw in his ran­dom scrib­bles was how he had uncon­scious­ly drawn a pic­ture of his own fam­i­ly mem­bers and the emo­tion­al dis­tance he had moved away from them. 

The mes­sages were all there, but some­thing else was present: a com­mu­ni­ty of peo­ple, all sim­i­lar­ly engaged in self-learn­ing, to help inter­pret and offer feed­back. With­out that com­mu­ni­ty, my belief is an indi­vid­ual can eas­i­ly get lost or stuck. It’s not impos­si­ble for insight to come while alone, but the process is like­ly to move much faster when a vari­ety of oth­er view­points implic­it­ly chal­lenge the abso­lutism of the role and the beliefs beneath it. The roots of these scripts, I am con­vinced, are unknown to us unless we dig them out of the ground, and we can almost always use some helpers for that work. 

The beau­ty of this artis­tic self-dis­cov­ery process lies in the fact that the draw­er and what is drawn are not dif­fer­ent. In this way a man­dala — or a poem or a pho­to­graph — can become a rev­e­la­tion. Because all roles rep­re­sent reduc­tions of a human being, the mes­sage is uni­ver­sal: you are not just x, what­ev­er behav­ior or role is called out. X by itself is untrue, some­times even ludi­crous. You are not, weak prince, with­out charis­ma (how­ev­er unformed it is today); you are not, can­di­date for pres­i­den­cy, too small for the job; you are not, dis­con­nect­ed man­ag­er, too far from your fam­i­ly (though you may need to take action lest you lose them — “And look here, you’ve drawn a vine that still con­nects all of you — tell me, what is that vine?”). These mes­sages are not just intel­lec­tu­al ones. Those were appar­ent from the begin­ning. These are the emo­tion­al and spir­i­tu­al mes­sages, just out of aware­ness, that are final­ly capa­ble of pen­e­trat­ing the essen­tial wound­ed­ness of our under­ly­ing beliefs. In a moment, the beliefs can bring up all their numbed-out pain and also reveal their essen­tial fic­tion. The essence of this jour­ney is the unlearn­ing of a self that no longer works. The man­dala often dis­plays both the life script and the door­way out. 

I recall a work­shop in which some­one point­ed out to anoth­er par­tic­i­pant that a par­tic­u­lar­ly firm line in her man­dala looked like it was immutable, as if there was no escape from the life she had drawn. At this the par­tic­i­pant bris­tled and became angry, but not at the oth­er par­tic­i­pant, just her­self. She could see imme­di­ate­ly, visu­al­ly, how she’d allowed old hurts to con­tain her life in a way she no longer want­ed. That moment more than shift­ed her entire expe­ri­ence of her­self at the work­shop. It was an moment of dis­rup­tion, of dis­lodg­ing a boul­der, of mov­ing out of an old self.


For those of you who may be skep­ti­cal, please feel free to hold onto your skep­ti­cism. This process, pre­cise­ly because it is organ­ic if not a lit­tle mag­i­cal, does not work every time for every per­son. This is not a machine, not “soft­ware,” only a prin­ci­ple of inner explo­ration. Whether the appli­ca­tion of that prin­ci­ple will pay off depends on many things, includ­ing the readi­ness of a per­son to allow the mes­sages and their inter­pre­ta­tions to come through. And if not today; if not with this par­tic­u­lar medi­um, then another. 

It should be point­ed out that all mes­sages from the unknown, those that come up “out of nowhere” in the process, and those that may be received from a mem­ber of a learn­ing com­mu­ni­ty, must still be test­ed against real­i­ty. Ulti­mate­ly, the mea­sure of the effec­tive­ness of the method is whether a per­son expe­ri­ences a high­er degree of free­dom and self-affir­ma­tion while retain­ing a strong ground­ed­ness in “what is.” The test, in fact, is whether one is released from fan­ta­sy. This means the weak prince might dis­cov­er for him­self that:

…I have pow­er above and beyond cleverness
…I have a pres­ence I am just begin­ning to understand
…I am not essen­tial­ly weak
…I am oper­at­ing in a com­plex world, not a pure­ly treach­er­ous one

And most impor­tant­ly the mes­sage is that “I am not the weak prince I thought I was. I play that role only if and when I choose. I retain my skills, but am able to open into new pos­si­bil­i­ties. I am free only if I give up the ‘infla­tion’ of believ­ing I am a prince — who was I ever to think I was one?” There may be clues here why sim­ply focus­ing on pos­i­tive self-mes­sages in per­son­al learn­ing process­es is not enough. We can­not over­turn the hid­den voic­es of our roles by sim­ply singing to our­selves loud­er about how good or deserv­ing we are. We must first see through the old songs, see how par­tial and even emp­ty they tru­ly are, while acknowl­edg­ing their neces­si­ty to growth. Indeed, when dis­cov­ery comes, we see imme­di­ate­ly how an old role has helped us, even pro­tect­ed us against things that were too big to deal with from any oth­er stand­point, how it was a way to illu­mi­nate and deploy our emerg­ing gifts. We are grate­ful for the help the old role pro­vid­ed, in the way we might be grate­ful for a crutch that helped us get through the world while injured. And we are also grate­ful for know­ing that we have anoth­er life to live.

The psy­chol­o­gy involved here is based in Jun­gian views of com­plex­es and the found­ing pat­terns of human expe­ri­ence called arche­types. What’s most impor­tant about this ter­mi­nol­o­gy is that it lets us under­stand how to build a bridge to free­dom by learn­ing how to stand at the por­tal between unknown and uncon­scious worlds and known, con­scious ones. And hav­ing escaped old roles, which are real­ly a form of pos­ses­sion by what is uncon­scious, we are now ready to open up our lives in new ways.

How­ev­er good that moment of self-dis­cov­ery is, it often brings up anoth­er pro­found ques­tion: if I am not that, what in fact am I? We wait at that moment for what J. Krish­na­mur­ti called the “strange bene­dic­tion [that] comes when it will,” the bene­dic­tion that “brings with each vis­i­ta­tion, deep with­in … a trans­for­ma­tion; it is nev­er the same.”

More in the next and final post in this series on the jour­ney of unlearning.

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  • I am so glad to see you back, and thanks for your com­ment on my blog. My good­ness, but you have been engaged! I will read with inter­est this and your pre­vi­ous posts, James Hill­man and Jung fan that I am. All the best.

  • Thank you, Karen, all the best in your new job. The weath­er in Ver­mont sounds like a sign of the times.…

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