About a decade ago, I became aware of some tendencies in my creative process that were both confusing and disturbing. In this paper, I attempt to explain a mysterious pattern in my creative experience by using a few concepts articulated by the psychologist Carl Jung. By analyzing my creative behaviors through the lens of Dr. Jung’s depth psychology, I have found a new perspective on my creative process. The concepts presented here are just the tip of the iceberg. My intention behind sharing this story is to spark interest in the work on creativity by Carl Jung.
My story begins in 2001. I was a freshman studying in a fine art program at the Kansas City Art Institute. One day, I found myself drawing circles—but not for any specific reason. I filled several pages of my sketchbook with rows and rows of circles. At the time, I could not make sense of it, but I would come to be reminded of this experience later, while reading on the concept of instinct in The Portable Jung. Jung said, “Instinctive action appears to be a more or less abrupt second occurrence, a sort of interruption of the continuity of consciousness” (Jung, 1976, p. 48).
After reading about instinct, it would all begin to make some sense. And yet, even before reading Jung, I intuitively felt that the circles must mean something important—I even asked one of my art teachers for his thoughts on my circles. There were many difficult things I had to deal with going on in my life at the time that could have prompted a need for an emotional outlet. College was not without its social challenges, and I had serious pain from a rather mysterious, serious back injury. Yet, it is difficult to know what, if anything, triggered my sudden need to draw circles so compulsively.
Thinking back on the dreams I had been experiencing at that time, however, gave me more insight into the possible psychological meaning of my circle drawings. One recurrent dream was particularly memorable. In these dreams, I would awaken repeatedly but find myself incapable of getting up. Ultimately, I would end up screaming until I would actually wake myself up. Although I was 18 years old at the time, I believe Jung’s view on children and disruptions in their consciousness speaks to my experience:
If the development of consciousness is disturbed in its normal unfolding, children frequently retire from outer or inner difficulties into an inner “fortress”; and when that happens, their dreams and symbolic drawings of unconscious material often reveal to an unusual degree a type of circular, quadrangular, and “nuclear” motif. (Jung, 2012, p. 196)
There are several terms in the above quote that are specific to the work of Dr. Jung that I would like to address now. The term unconscious relates to the structure of the psyche. According to Jung, “We must distinguish three psychic levels: (1) consciousness, (2) the personal unconscious, and (3) the collective unconscious” (1976 p. 38). In this paper, I will be discussing how my creative experience connects to this concept of psychic levels. In particular, I will be elaborating on the influence of the collective unconscious on my symbolic circle drawings.
When I use the term ‘symbolic’ to describe my circles, I mean that the circles represented something more than just a simple habit of drawing. Another way to describe the drawings is to refer to them as archetypal. Jung defines archetypes according to their relationship with instinct. He states:
The relation between instincts and archetypes: what we are properly calling instincts are psychological urges, and are perceived by the senses. But at the same time, they are also manifestations themselves in fantasies and often reveal their presence only by symbolic images. These manifestations are what I call the archetypes. (Jung, 2012, p. 58)
Initially, I had no idea why I was drawing circles or what they meant, but with Jung’s concept of symbolic images, I see that the circle as the manifestation of an archetype. The instinctual behavior I exhibited at the time was being influenced by the collective unconscious; the repetitive drawing of circles was evidence of that. According to Jung:
The instincts and the archetypes together form the “collective unconscious.” I call it “collective” because, unlike the personal unconscious, it is not made up of individual and more or less unique contents, but of those which are universal and of regular occurrence. (1976, p. 52)
It is safe to say that the circle is indeed a common and universally known form. Another clue to understanding the nature of my circles is how I felt about them, in that I had a strong emotional reaction to the circles, indicating their symbolic quality. Jung describes: “The way in which archetypes appear in practical experiences: They are, at the same time, both images and emotions. One can speak of an archetype only when these two aspects are simultaneous” (Jung, 2012, p. 87).
I had strong feelings about my circles. Still, the questions remained regarding why that particular archetype was influencing me at that time in my life and what it meant. I had to circle back to my dreams for understanding because, “[Jung] found that, on the whole, they [dreams] seem to follow an arrangement or pattern. Jung referred to this pattern as ‘the process of individuation”’ (Jung, 2012, p. 159). According to Jung’s view, in repetition, I was building my own unique identity. Looking back, this seems to make sense, as I was at an age where I was attempting to intentionally establish my identity, free of outside influence.
Furthermore, the traumatic events I experienced at that time in my life align with Dr. Jung’s descriptions of the individuation process as well. He said, “The actual process of individuation—the conscious coming-to-terms with one’s own inner center (psychic nucleus) or Self—generally begins with a wounding of the personality and the suffering that accompanies it” (Jung, 2012, p. 169).
The fact that I felt out of control, compelled to draw the circles is further evidence that the circles are connected to my individuation process. Jung said, “The individuation process is more than a coming to terms between the inborn germ of wholeness and the outer acts of fate. Its subjective experience conveys the feeling that some supra-personal force is actively interfering in a creative way” (2012, p.164).
I certainly felt the circles were a force interfering in my life. They say that hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, I can see the connections, but for many years, the meanings of my creative impulses were completely hidden from me. Jung said that everything in the unconscious is also called the shadow (von Franz, 1995). That is to say, shadow is a mythical term for the unconscious. Furthermore, our creative impulses or inspirations come from the unconscious, or the shadow. Despite the negative connotation of the term ‘shadow,’ which implies darkness and is mostly associated with evil, the unconscious contains both good and bad qualities. For me, the archetypes that emerged in my dreams and art facilitated the individuation process—driving me on my journey toward fulfillment and life’s purpose.
In time, my circle drawings evolved into something with a more recognizable form. In 2004, I was completing my final year of college. The largest and most meaningful art piece I presented for my senior project was a spiral vine painting. I titled the piece Outside living inside. The title was inspired by my growing collection of indoor plants–filling my need for life during Missouri winters. I was not aware of the psychological implications of the title when I came up with it. After graduation, I continued to have a special fascination with vines and leaf spirals.
Sometime around 2007 or 2008, I had a random thought that I should draw flowers, beginning a new phase in my creative life that was unlike any other. Every time I sat down to draw, I found myself creating flowers. I began with a dot in the center and then drew the petals around the center. The flowers were very similar, centered and always drawn from an overhead point of view. I was very literal and focused on the material of my art and unaware of any possible deeper psychological meaning behind the images I was making. Applying Jung’s concept of symbolic images I now see the flower drawings as mandalas. The mandala has a rich and deep history in many cultures and is based on patterns found in nature. I recently purchased a book devoted to mandala patterns, and it begins by stating:
The pattern found within the mandala can help describe the nature of our being as well as the nature of our cosmos. The study of mandalas often includes contemplating the core of reality, what is as the “true center” of the world in which we live. (Cunningham, 2010, p. 2)
As before, I was not consciously aware of why I was drawing a particular image so repetitively, this time flower mandalas. It actually became somewhat infuriating to me. It was as if I had lost control over my own body. For the next few years, I primarily drew flower mandalas. Ironically, the act of drawing them led to a mixed bag of emotions for me. These mixed emotions seemed to be fruitless, in that these mandala drawings did not seem to serve any purpose. According to Jung, however, the mandala has a specific purpose:
The mandala serves a conservative purpose–namely, to restore a previously existing order. But it also serves the creative purpose of giving expression and form to something that does not yet exist, something new and unique. The second aspect is perhaps even more important than the first, but does not contradict it. For in most cases, what restores the old order simultaneously involved some element of new creation. The process is that of the ascending spiral, which grows upward while simultaneously returning again and again to the same point. (2012, p. 247)
This description of the collective meaning of the mandala, in light of my history with circles, spirals, and flowers, led me to examine his ideas on the Self archetype. I found the following quote that connects the central circle of the mandala form with the Self archetype:
The organizing center from which the regulatory affect stems seems to be a sort of “nuclear atom” in our psychic system . . . Jung called this center the “Self” and described it as the totality of the whole psyche, in order to distinguish it from the ‘ego,’ which constitutes only a small part of the total psyche. (Jung, 2012, p.162)
It is clear to me that my drawing patterns were related to the Self archetype. According to Jung, “A round stone is the symbol of the Self” (Jung, 2012, p. 218). The basic circle shape itself establishes the connection. It is also clear to me that the Self archetype continued to play an influential role in my life, based on the forms that emerged in my art for many years. The patterns, which appeared in my artwork, remained a mystery to me for many years until I looked at them from the point of view of their symbolic nature.
I believe my impulse to draw circles, spirals, and flowers began with a natural instinct to grow and to heal myself. Jung says, “The symbols are natural attempts to reconcile and reunite opposites within the psyche” (Jung, 2012, p. 90). This is evident in my art, in which the Self manifested in a direct and literal form as a circle, announcing my journey toward individuation and causing me to question what and why I was drawing. “There is no difference in principle between organic and psychic growth. As a plant produces its flower, so the psyche creates its symbol. Every dream is evidence of this process” (Jung, 2012, p. 53).
The archetypal energy in my life, as a compulsion to make art, was good and bad. To some degree, I believe that, for a short period, the flowers became dangerous. It sounds somewhat ridiculous to say, but for me it is true. For a time, I lost my sense of identity and connection to real life. I became obsessed by the flowers—or, if I were to borrow from von Franz, the flowers possessed me. “Possession means being assimilated by some numinous archetypal image” (von Franz, 1995, p. 155). According to Jung, these supernatural psychic energies can impact our lives as much as any physical object.
Very often it is assumed that an experience is subjective because it takes place within the mind of a subject, but it is not then necessarily in opposition to objective, because the images of the collective unconscious, from their collective character, are just as truly objects as things outside the psyche. (Jung & Shamdasani, 2011, p. 57)
In my case, I was consumed by a God-like power which showed up frequently in my life in the form of flowers. How this manifested as something dangerous in my life, was that I had a disregard for reality, my feelings, and the limitations of my body. I worked too hard. From one point of view the archetypal energy was good, because it pushed me to grow and to evolve. Jung’s thoughts on the ego seem to support this view. He said, “The ego must be able to listen attentively and to give itself, without any further design or purpose, to that inner urge toward growth” (Jung, 2012, p. 164).
The danger for the individual is in the possible fixation that leads to paralysis. After a few years of drawing flowers, I felt stuck on repeat, both creatively and in aspects of my life. von Franz clearly explains the problem: “In the archetypal experience of evil, evil powers are seen as a crippled human, or as a distorted thing . . . evil entails being swept away by one-sidedness, by one single pattern of behavior” (1995 p. 182). I had become suck in one pattern of drawing.
Somewhere in the journey, I had stopped growing. It took a few years of highly conscious effort to become unstuck. I had to consciously change the flower by drawing different perspectives and including other objects. Intuitively, I had stumbled upon the concept of active imagination to deal with my flower mandala compulsion. Jung’s concept of active imagination is an analytic method based on the imagination and its natural healing properties (Jung, 1976). In Shadows and Evil in Fairytales, von Franz explains that she used active imagination to deal with frightening thoughts before they became dangerous: “Whenever such an inner image came up, I wrote it down and dealt with it in active imagination, and then there was complete peace” (1995, p. 186).
So far, I have identified the influence of the collective unconscious in one aspect of my creative life. In particular, I have taken notice of the evolving pattern of the mandala symbol over a period of 12 years as it has manifested in my art—first as the circle, then the spiral, and finally, the flower. In analyzing the recurring symbolic imagery in my drawings and the impact that they have had on me, I have come to realize the danger of getting stuck in one psychological pattern; however, I have also identified the active imagination technique for getting unstuck. By reviewing this personal experience, I have brought one aspect of my shadow Self into consciousness. This is the essence of the psychic growth process on my journey toward individuation.
By exploring my past and decoding meaningful patterns in dreams and art, I have, in a sense, changed my perspective on the world around me and myself. This change in perspective has a real potential to change my life. Consider, for example, that modern science is continually making new discoveries about the way that thoughts affect the physical world. I recently read an inspiring and related book on the topic of epigenetic research.
Epigenetics is the science of how environmental signals select, modify, and regulate gene activity. This new awareness reveals that our genes are constantly being remodeled in response to life experiences. Which again emphasizes that our perceptions of life shape our biology. (Lipton, 2013 p. xii)
Our conscious and unconscious perceptions impact more then just our moods–they change our biology. In conclusion, by considering my own creative expression through the lens of depth psychology, I have been able to gain a better understanding of the deep symbolic nature of my thoughts. Additionally, I have achieved a new understanding of the powerful psychic energy in the world around and within me, as envisioned by Jung. This new perspective of the world and knowledge of myself enables me to make more conscious decisions about my life. Ultimately, I see that I am on a spiraling journey of expanding conscious awareness, changing not only my thoughts, but also my biology, and that I will always circle back to my true Self.
Cunningham, L. B. (2010). The Mandala book: Patterns of the universe. New York, NY: Sterling.
Jung, C. G. (1976). The portable Jung. J. Campbell (Ed.). (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). New York: Penguin Books.
Jung, C. G. (2012). Man and his symbols. New York: Dell.
Jung, C. G., & Shamdasani, S. (2011). Introduction to Jungian psychology: Notes of the seminar on analytical psychology given in 1925. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lipton, B. H. (2013). The biology of belief (Kindle ed.). Hay House.
Von Franz, M. L. (1995). Shadow and evil in fairy tales (Revised ed.). Boston: Shambhala.