On the Archetypal Nature of Bad Trips and Freakouts
A Review of : “Confrontation With the Unconscious: Jungian Depth Psychology and Psychedelic Experience” by Scott J. Hill
Danny Wedding, Peter H Addy
PsycCRITIQUES, June 16, 2014, Vol. 59, No. 24, Article 4
© 2014 American Psychological Association
In 1967 Scott J. Hill had a terrifying and traumatic experience after taking LSD, experiencing “the depths of madness and hell” (p. xiii). He became suicidal and dissociated, and he wondered whether he had gone insane. Over the next four decades, he struggled with the terror he felt during that experience; he could not come to terms with it. In Confrontation With the Unconscious: Jungian Depth Psychology and Psychedelic Experience, Hill extolls the healing potential of LSD and other psychedelic drugs. He states that they can be used to transcend and integrate trauma, and he outlines in theoretical terms of Jungian
depth psychology the mechanisms that make this possible. His conclusions are particularly interesting in light of his personal experience.
Regardless of his experience and conclusions vis-à-vis psychedelics, Hill provides a cogent and accessible overview of Jungian theory. Many experiences, he explains, can lead to a lowering of the threshold of consciousness. This lowering (or abaissement) is most apparent and most extreme during overwhelming emotional experiences that necessitate a radical change in one’s life organization, such as when a person fears for his or her life or experiences a catastrophe. This overflow of emotionality lowers the threshold of consciousness, allowing personal and collective unconscious content to enter into consciousness.
The personal unconscious contains psychological elements from a person’s own experiences, whereas the collective unconscious consists of archetypes, seemingly independent patterns that manifest in consciousness as images, visions, and excessive raw emotionality. The conscious mind can sometimes become overwhelmed by this, and being overwhelmed can sometimes lead to acute or prolonged psychosis. A person can learn to rebalance the relationship between conscious and unconscious processes by confronting this unconscious content and integrating it into consciousness. This integration process requires a stable ego, hard work, and often a supportive therapist.
Hill’s message to Jungian analysts is that there is nothing unusual about the experiences facilitated by psychedelic drugs, especially the difficult experiences. In short, abaissement is the mechanism by which psychedelics produce their unique effects, and integration is the mechanism by which psychedelic therapy may facilitate lasting change. Psychedelic experiences produce their profound and unique effects via the exact same mechanism, abaissement, that produces the effects of psychosis, fever, visions, dreams, and so forth. As such, analysts can make use of psychedelic states of consciousness in the same way that they use dream imagery or active imagination. It is the same underlying process, and so we
can apply the same techniques to help a person integrate his or her psychedelic “confrontation with the unconscious” into day-to-day conscious life.
What is unusual about a Jungian approaching psychedelic therapy, and what can be acutely dangerous, is the relative force by which psychedelics bring unconscious content into consciousness. It is very sudden and cannot be easily terminated, and if the client does not have an adequate preexisting stable ego, he or she can be disrupted. During his life Jung expressed distrust of psychedelic therapy. He read Aldous Huxley’s Heaven and Hell (Huxley, 1956) and believed that psychedelic experiences could be overwhelming, leading to long-term disruptions of conscious experience by unconscious processes, resulting in psychoses. (Hill makes clear that there is no indication that Jung ever personally
experienced psychedelic drugs.)
Hill’s message to psychedelic therapists is that Jungian theory and analysis provide useful tools for helping clients navigate and integrate difficult experiences. In one of the more interesting sections of the book, Hill directly contrasts Jungian emphasis on integration with Stanislav Grof’s (Grof, 2009) use of abreaction. As Hill notes, Grof, psychedelic therapist par excellence, feels that when one encounters traumatic memories during psychedelic therapy, the thing to do is reexperience them in every detail in order to “work through and complete” (p. 57) the experience. This is painful and scary, to say the least. Alternatively, Jung advocated consciously and purposively bringing these memories into organization with the psyche, which is possible only through a strong working alliance with the analyst.
Hill gives a clear and well-structured overview to a subject that is often shrouded in mystery and imprecise language. In my opinion, much of Jung’s writing is disjointed, wandering, gratingly vague, and nebulous. Jung (and most Jungian writing) relied on imagery, metaphor, parable, and the annoying habit of not operationally defining his terms. Of course, this is a requirement. Topics such as the collective unconscious, synchronicity, and the shadow are by their nature outside the realm of rational understanding. It is, by definition, not possible to explain these concepts logically or to precisely define terms and boundaries. Hill acknowledges these necessities of the territory, and he does his best to
make these topics accessible to the average reader.
Confrontation With the Unconscious is written mainly for Jungian analysts and psychedelic therapists. Hill does devote attention to outlining how psychedelic experiences can lead to profound healing from trauma and stress, and he presents some of the research that supports that assertion. However, I doubt that the book was written to convince anyone of the potential benefits of psychedelic therapy. (For that purpose, I recommend The Psychedelic Renaissance by Ben Sessa, 2012, and its review by Fadiman and Addy, 2013, in PsycCRITIQUES). Hill starts from this position. He is already a believer in the healing power of psychedelics because he experienced it firsthand. Thus, for a skeptic who believes these experiences to be nothing more than chemical intoxication and delusion, this book has little to offer. If you already agree with Hill, you will enjoy his discussion. If you already disagree with him, you will not be persuaded otherwise by reading this book.
Fadiman, J., & Addy, P. (2013). Cleansing the doors of misperception [Review of the book The psychedelic renaissance: Reassessing the role of psychedelic drugs in 21st-century psychiatry and society, by B. Sessa]. PsycCRITIQUES, 58(14). http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0031741 PsycINFO →
Grof, S. (2009). LSD: Doorway to the numinous: The groundbreaking psychedelic research into realms of the human unconscious. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.
Huxley, A. (1956). Heaven and hell. New York, NY: Harper.
Sessa, B. (2012). The psychedelic renaissance: Reassessing the role of psychedelic drugs in 21st century psychiatry and society. London, England: Muswell Hill Press. PsycINFO →