To understand the collective unconscious, we must begin with the personal unconscious. Most people in the western world have a basic understanding of the parts of our human mind that are hidden, unknown or deeply mysterious. We call this the unconscious mind. And while rooted in psychology, the notion that we have an unconscious mind is a part of our day-to-day experience, showing up in the media and pop culture.
We have no way of really knowing that such a thing exists, but its presence is revealed to us through behaviors we can not justify, choices we make that we don’t understand, reactions to events that do not energetically match the event itself or slips of the tongue that embarrass us because they reveal desires we hadn’t planned to expose. It is considered by many to be a frightening aspect of the human mind.
Beyond the disquieting notion of powerful but hidden forces that lurk below the surface of our thinking, the unconscious is also home to intuition, imagination, creativity and spontaneity. This vibrant and fascinating realm is also, of course, the home of our dreams. When seen in this light, it is much easier to make the leap to understanding what the collective unconscious is.
The collective unconscious goes even deeper than the unconscious mind. It is a realm of experience that exists in all human beings and connects each individual to each other in life and back through history to the beginning of time. Because it is not something that can be isolated or touched, we only know of its existence through the evidence that reveals a commonality that all human beings share collectively.
Jung made this discovery through observations during his extensive travels all over the globe. He found that all cultures, no matter where they existed on the planet or how ancient their history, shared vast arrays of similar mythologies, beliefs, artistic expression and much to his surprise, dreams.
What Jung recorded that was so shocking to him was that the native populations that he studied in Africa and Asia were having the exact same dreams as his patients in Switzerland. Impossibly removed from each other by geography and culture, these third world peoples dreamed routinely of flying, falling, loosing their teeth, being chased and other commonly reported imagery just the same as his well-to-do Caucasian counterparts thousands of miles away. Granted the natives were being chased by lions as opposed to assailants with guns, but the essential content and theme were the same.
Because of the existence of the collective unconscious, we powerfully connect to symbolic meaning that we may not have any conscious awareness of. In this way, the importance of accepting the existence of the collective for the modern day dreamer will feature prominently in the process of interpreting dream imagery.