- By Chuan Zhi
- Nov 16
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In physics we talk about forces. Without forces, there would be no physics because nothing would happen. In fact, there would be nothing at all because it is forces that create things. A rock is held together by the strong and weak nuclear forces. It slides down the side of the mountain because of the force of gravity. Forces are what make things happen. If we take a rock to be real, we are also acknowledging that the forces that make it behave like a rock are also real. So, if we get, say, angry and consider that anger to be real, we must also consider the force behind that anger to be real. We can name those forces anything we want … the name isn't important, but their existence is. The archetypes are every bit as real as that rock.
"Are the archetypes real?" he asked me as we stepped across a large boulder bridging the gap between two nearly vertical walls of rock. The drop down was only a few feet, but the boulder offered an easier route along the almost invisible path up the mountain. I had met him a few weeks earlier and, as he had expressed an eagerness to learn about Zen, we decided to schedule a hike up one of our favorite mountains. We had been climbing since daybreak and it was only a couple hours until the sun reached its zenith. We had needed the early start in order to reach the summit and return before sundown.
During most of our hike that morning we had listened only to the birds, wind, and our own steady breaths and footfalls; but we didn't have a conversation until my friend stumbled on a rock, painfully twisting his ankle. He cursed the rock as if it had deliberately placed itself in his path. After massaging his ankle for a minute, he suddenly picked up the rock and, still cursing it, hurled it down the mountain. I hoped there was no one below in its path.
As his angry voice faded into a distant echo, we sat down together. We both knew that as long as there was no tear in the ligaments the pain would subside to a dull ache. We drank water and rested for a few minutes. Then my friend got up and gave an optimistic, "It's fine - let's go!" which set us on our way again.
"I wish I wouldn't get so angry all the time." He mused, half to me, half to himself. "If that rock had been a person, I likely would have bloody killed him."
"The enemy shadow" I laughed, "knows no mercy." He turned and looked at me quizzically, wanting me to continue the thought.
"It's that force of behavior encoded into our DNA," I explained. "It exists solely to increase the odds of our survival when we encounter a threat. A man attacks us; we get angry; our adrenalin increases; our muscles tense; and our heart-rate increases, pumping oxygen to our muscles at higher concentrations. All this prepares us for a fight, one that we hope to win. I doubt we would be here today if our ancestors had been without this important archetype."
"I've read about the archetypes," he said, "but what's the use of getting angry at a rock? It can't do anything to promote the continuation of our species?"
"No." I agreed with him. "But archetypes act on their own. They don't evaluate a situation and decide to act or not. They are autonomous as long as we are unconscious of them. They act on impulse. When we suddenly feel pain or maybe fear, the enemy shadow leaps up to bite off the head of the one with whom we associate our pain or fear. It doesn't matter if it's a man, a friend, or a rock." The archetypes serve a purpose, but they can go awry if we're not watchful; and when they do, we quickly find ourselves acting out one or more seven deadly sins: pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. The only way to avoid sinning is to become conscious of the forces that lead us to sin in the first place. Those forces are most often the archetypes of the enemy shadow and the ego or persona. We've all got them." I concluded.
"Why don't I ever hear you get angry?" he asked. I laughed, "Because you haven't heard me at the right moment!" But then I explained, "Integrating the archetypes is the most important task in Zen. Until we become conscious of the forces that are hard-wired in our genetic code, we are no more than robots acting out some pre-programmed set of instructions … instructions that have been assembled out of past experience. Once we're conscious of, say, the enemy shadow, it no longer has the ability to act without our conscious consent. We may get angry but this anger is usually spontaneous, brief, and justified by circumstance. It isn't the result of a desire to make a personal attack on someone. Spiritual growth, or evolution of the Self, necessitates that consciousness expand. The direction of expansion is always inward, toward the unconscious."
"That sounds kind of silly." My friend said. His tone was thoughtful rather than condescending. "Consciousness expands towards the unconscious. Isn't that just saying that what was once unknown, or unconscious, becomes known … conscious?" "Yes," I agreed. And he continued "but how can I become conscious of what is unconscious? This sounds like an oxymoron. When it's unconscious it's unknown so how do I know it exists? But when it's known it's not unconscious so it exists. The unconscious can't exist then, can it?"
"We can't know what we don't know." I agreed, "but that doesn't mean that what we don't know doesn't exist. To think that we know everything there is to know would be foolhardy. We think we see things clearly and are fully conscious because that's the only perspective we have. But consciousness, in this context, is always relative to our awareness, our ability to perceive. It isn't an absolute. Children grow in consciousness in ways that we can clearly see and watch day-by-day, but when we become adults, that process often gets arrested. We think we've 'arrived' at some destination that's been fixed in our imagination. Our self-created expectations terminate our continued growth as human beings. We act like all-knowing gods, our ego responsible only to itself."
We continued hiking and after a bit stopped for a brief rest and some water. It was then that he asked me if the archetypes were real. It took me by surprise because I could not see how they could not be real. I had to consider my answer carefully, for as long as we were in the context of a thoughtful discussion, it would be all too easy to mistake the words for their meaning - the classic Zen problem illustrated by a monk pointing his finger at the shining moon. I decided to revert to a subject I knew something about.
"In physics" I began, "we talk about forces." Without forces, there would be no physics because nothing would happen. In fact, there would be nothing at all because it is forces that create things. A rock is held together by the strong and weak nuclear forces. It slides down the side of the mountain because of the force of gravity. Forces are what make things happen." I pointed to a rock near our feet. "If we take that rock to be real, we are also acknowledging that the forces that make it behave like a rock are also real. So, if we get, say, angry and consider that anger to be real, we must also consider the force behind that anger to be real. We can name those forces anything we want … the name isn't important, but their existence is. The archetypes are every bit as real as that rock."
He said he had never thought about it that way before. Then he asked, "How many archetypes are there? You've mentioned only one or two."
I returned to physics. "We know about gravity and electromagnetic forces. These are the common ones we're all taught about in grade school and high school. We also know about the strong and weak nuclear forces. As scientists have increased their awareness of smaller and smaller constituents of matter, they have deduced a number of other forces as well. This is the way it seems to work in the spiritual domain as well. We first learn about the enemy shadow, the persona, the ego, the friendly shadow; but as our awareness expands, we learn about others which we call 'the divine archetypes': the Wise Old Man or Wise Old Woman, the Anima or Animus, the Mercurial Child, and others. Each one is an aspect of ourselves and, as we cultivate the Chan heart, we strive to integrate each of these. With each success we become more complete in our human nature. We progress from a fractured state to a state of wholeness … oneness."
I told him that a large portion of our website was devoted to archetypal integration and suggested that he explore the site if he was interested. He said he would. We resumed our hike in rhythmic silence for the rest of the day and made it back down well before sundown.