Archetypes in my life and art
by Marieke Cahill
January 19, 2022
Recently, a simple request for resources turned into something much bigger. My request in the academic forum led to me experiencing transphobic micro-aggressions and in-depth debate over gender essentialism (the idea that gender isn’t a social construct, but is rather solely based on biological sex).
Why the heck would I, a trans nonbinary person, spend my time participating in a debate about a topic that harms me and my community, knowing full well I may not change anyone’s mind? Well, it started out as a response in solidarity with another nonbinary scholar, to a recognition the value in practicing my academic communication skills, to then trying to understand why someone would feel so strongly about gender and biological sex, and ultimately to pondering the concept of transcendence.
In the process, I started to see something else emerge within the discussion and within my own psyche.
Dream with me for a moment… What would the world look like if we could truly connect and see the full humanity in other people? If we recognized that we are all connected in ways we don’t fully understand, even when another person feels completely alien to us due to the yawning canyons of differences in ideals? It can be hard to imagine, especially if you experience direct harm from others who disagree with or are antagonistic towards integral parts of who you are.
The concept of transcendence has multiple meanings, but the common theme between them all is the idea of something beyond what is known or ordinary. It comes from the Latin word transcendere, meaning to climb over or beyond. The word implies a journey across a threshold or obstacle.
Now I’m gonna get a little nerdy for a moment here. In the early 19th century, German philosopher Immanuel Kant formed a system of knowledge and understanding the world that placed intuitive ways of knowing above objective ways of knowing that existed outside individual human experience. He called it transcendentalism and these ideas were ground-breaking at the time. In essence, rather than divinity existing outside humanity and separate from it, it resided within humanity and the natural world. In other words, we are capable of finding transcendence within ourselves. These ideas paved the way for psychology, particularly depth psychology, to emerge.
Here’s where transcendence finds its way into archetypes. In the 20th century, depth psychologist C. G. Jung formulated his ideas about the conscious, unconscious, and archetypes within the human psyche (or soul and mind). The conscious is the part our psyche that we are aware of and can identify; the unconscious is the part that operates without our awareness; and archetypes are primordial elements universal to the human experience that we see in images, experiences, and patterns. The conscious and unconscious are both archetypes in and of themselves. Like every other archetype, we can only identify them by their effects in our lives.
As a psychologist who worked primarily with schizophrenics, Jung saw how unconscious patterns could negatively impact people’s lives. His work with dream images helped people identify where the unconscious was trying to speak to them and bring what was unconscious into their conscious awareness. The coming together of the unconscious and the conscious is what Jung called the “transcendent function”.
The transcendent function is the place where two seemingly opposite things conjoin. There is a journey in the process of recognizing patterns in one’s life and when you reach that conjunction, a threshold is crossed. In crossing that threshold, it’s possible to see where things that were seemingly opposite were actually two sides of the same coin, two poles of the same globe, two sides of the same hand, or two parts of the same psyche.
As I was reflecting on the transcendent function in relation to the debates about gender, I created this painting. The ocean represents the unconscious and the stone circle represents the whole of humanity (including consciousness). The pieces of the stone that rise up represent individual people who are part of the whole of humanity, yet separate. The essence of both elements rise up and swirl around each other until they blend together in an alchemical process, cross the threshold of transcendence, and become a gold disk – a precious whole with no end and no beginning. In the process of painting this, I was not fully conscious of the alchemical metaphor. It wasn’t until later that I recognized the alchemical imagery, so the transcendent function was working during the painting process!
Now, I find myself seeing the sacred humanity of others more deeply, even when those people’s ideas are harmful to me and my community, or to other communities. In seeing their humanity, I retain my own sense of connection. There’s a difference I can feel in my body: a softness and openness, even while maintaining a strong centered presence – a deeper sense of integrity.
So while I experienced these micro-aggressions, I was able to move through them and find points of connection. I may not have changed the minds of some people, but others reached out and expressed gratitude, and still others wanted my thoughts and ideas to be shared with wider audiences and gave me the opportunity to do so. Transcendence may not have been reached collectively, but the transcendent function was doing its work.
What seemingly oppositional forces are at work in your life? Where might the transcendent function be able to do its alchemical work?
If you’d like support in learning how to work with archetypes to support your creativity and life, join me in ABC EASe, a 3-month program to support your creative life.
A note of acknowledgement:
What I have discussed here is within the context of Western ideology, philosophy (questions of existence, knowledge, language, reason, values, and mind), ontology (ways of being), and epistemology (ways of knowing). Much of what I’ve discussed is present, and has been present, in Indigenous and Eastern spiritualities, philosophies, ontologies, and epistemologies, and often appropriated from them through the effects of colonization, globalization, and Western imperialism.