The Journey Beyond The Mask
On the stage, when the performer dons the mask, the primary function is to unite the indwelling wearer with the character, who they are embodying. The mask however is only the intermediary between the projected persona of the character and the true identity of the wearer (Mitchell, 1985). In other words, it is a medium of exchange between the ego and the archetype. The focus of this article is not the mask but rather, it is about the path to our true self, the one which lies at a much deeper level. The masks that we wear can be cultural, geographical, religious, or even based on gender, however, the true identity goes beyond these transient titles we assort ourselves into. This journey towards uncovering the self explores the universal patterns that influence our behavior along with the various aspects of all the roles we play; how they may influence, impede or even interfere with one another.
Origin of the Blueprint
“Myths come alive as it enters the cauldron of evolution, itself drawing energy from the storytellers who shape it.” - Elizabeth Fuller
Thousands of generations of storytellers have sought to discern the manner in which people interact with each other and the roles they inadvertently adopt. Simply by studying these myths and religious stories of the past and present, it becomes increasingly evident that many of them share similar patterns, themes, and symbols. As a result, without anyone ever realizing or intentionally trying, the stereotypical characters of fiction turned out to be perhaps the most accurate representation of the basic problem-solving processes we all possess, and these processes are manifested in the externalized expression of our very own minds (Phillips, 2017). To put it simply, these recurring patterns exist in stories because they existed in our minds, first.
These patterns prevail as a result of the identical psychic structures that are common to us all. Just as the body evolved over long periods of time, so has the psyche developed certain predispositions and inherent tendencies, throughout our vast evolutionary lineage. They are, therefore, said to be universal and hereditary structures or templates that influence the way all humans experience the world (Academy of Ideas, 2017). The story of the Great Flood seems to be a frequent trope often used to represent a great cleansing or rebirth of humans. A modern-day example of this would be the American science fiction film, ‘2012’, directed by Roland Emmerich. It portrayed a series of apocalyptic events threatening to decimate all life on earth while focusing on attempts, of how humanity tried to escape and survive. The ancient myth of the flood is present in almost every culture across the world along with a few variations such as Noah’s Great Ark, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Greek myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha, and the countless other Norse, Indian, Aztec, and Chinese tales. It usually follows the pattern of incurring the wrath of God or Deity, then the catastrophic flooding, creating a massive ark, and finally the repopulation of the Earth by the chosen few who survived. Yet how is it possible that all of these cultures despite being separated by time, space and language share the same stories? Despite having little to no contact with each other, how did humans spread all across the world come up with such similar tales? A possible answer to this question may be the collective unconscious. Rejecting the notion that the human mind is a blank slate at birth, it basically asserts that the contents of the unconscious mind are primordial and the human consciousness is linked to one another (Cherry, 2020). It might seem fairly outlandish but evolutionary psychology offers a bit of perspective here.
Take the example of petrification. At the thought of being turned to stone by some beast, which creature leaped to your mind first? Was it Medusa, the Basilisk, or the Cockatrice? When encountering a dangerous creature such as a bear or tiger we have the option to either fight or flee, however, our very first instinct is to “freeze” and assess the situation (Señor Kozak, 2018). Similarly, with the example of the flood stories, the common thread that connects them all together, is that every civilization from which these tales originated was based on the banks of great rivers. Where floods and changes in the course of the rivers were quite likely and subsequently used to cause severe damage to the settlements. (Keep, 2020). Tsunamis and heavy flooding in the present day can hamper everyday routines while putting several lives at risk. The same in the past was like hitting the restart button with its sheer power of destruction. Regardless, people followed their survival instinct and found ways to endure and carry forward these tales in the form of myths, poetry, and art. Unknowingly, shaping them into the countless archetypes we recognize today. These universal templates, after all, are the accumulation of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity. Thereby, connecting us to all other humans who ever have and ever will live.
The Stereotypical Characters We Embody
Just as a body is made up of organs that are largely developed prior to birth, similarly, the mind consists of psychic organs which help structure it. Furthermore, just as the physical organs operate without conscious awareness, these psychic structures function unconsciously as well. The psychic structures, unlike the physical organs, cannot be perceived directly. The existence of these structures is revealed by the patterns they produce in the unconscious, particularly through the manifestation of symbolic imagery, such as myths (Neumann, 2014).
As expressions of the deepest layers of the unconscious, myths are thought to reveal timeless truths about the desires, fears, dreams, and ambitions common to every individual. They have served an important role in different cultures across time. One of its main functions has been to provide a template or a prototype of sorts, to assist individuals in their psychological maturation and development (Jung et al., 1981). These patterns or archetypes can be better understood as a magnetic field. When a magnet is placed under a sheet of paper it cannot be seen, however, when iron filings are placed on top of said paper, they take the shape of the magnet below (Woodman, 2010). Similarly, our actions and behaviors are shaped and influenced by the magnetic pull of these universal patterns.
Some of the common examples would be the Mother, Father, Jester, Lover, Sage, and the most well-known, the Hero. These are just a few of the possible prototypes we may embody within us. The number of templates however is not fixed or restricted to just these. Instead many of these archetypes may overlap or even combine with one another. Perhaps, one of the easiest to recognize would be the Hero. Often portrayed as the “chosen one”, the courageous and sacrificial protagonist who fights evil and makes sure justice prevails. Present in almost every story as the lead character, for example, Harry Potter from the popular Harry Potter series, Percy Jackson from the Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games, and pretty much every single protagonist from popular superhero franchises, such as Wonder Woman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc. (Neill, 2018). Archetypes, however, are not restricted to just people and behaviors but they also include places like cemeteries, places of worship, and pilgrimage sites, or they could also refer to events in history like world wars, pandemics, and festivals. All of these exhibits the same characteristics of an archetype, that is they are inherent, universally recurring symbols, templates, or motifs of human behavior and experience.
Two Sides of the Same Spectrum
The gender-specific term father and mother may prompt us to visualize them as belonging purely to the realm of male and female respectively. However, human individuals irrespective of gender consist of both the masculine and the feminine. The dominance of either of them in the psyche is dependent on the socio-cultural norms and gender roles governing the individual (Toub, 2013). For example, the mother is often considered to be a woman who is perceived as someone who is caring and nurturing. By that definition, all of us have been a mother at some point of our lives or another. Regardless of our sex, gender, or even age, we have all mothered someone or something, whether it was a pet, a plant, or even a relationship with a person.
Every creative idea or project that we give birth to and develop is formed as a result of our innovation and thought, therefore it is referred to as our ‘brainchild’. Thus, all genders and ages are capable of fulfilling the role of the mother. In fact, the same applies to all the other archetypes as well.
Perhaps it is easier to understand it from an androgynous perspective. Androgyny is not about trying to manage the relationship between the polarities of masculine and feminine, but rather to leave it fluid and simply flow through the spectrum. Femininity does not necessarily equate to being a female and neither does masculinity to being a male (Singer, 1977). This shift towards neutrality and androgyny frees each gender from the ‘straitjacket’ of culturally predetermined gender roles. Maybe if society did not insist on sticking to its heteronormative view and expanded its perspective to consider beyond just the binary code, the LGBTQ+ community would have received a lot more support and acceptance. The motif of the lover, for example, is not just about romance but also encapsulates all other kinds of love, such as familial, parental, spiritual, and platonic. It is undoubtedly a template that is common to us all, regardless of sex or sexuality because love, after all, is not gendered.
The Dichotomy of the Paradigm
When discussing the various aspects of these universal patterns, it is of immense necessity to distinguish between the archetype the person embodies and the actual role which they play in their life. The simplest of examples to help differentiate between the two is a flower. The flower may vary in shape, size, and color, however, we are able to recognize it as one, regardless of whether it is blooming, wilting, or falling from a branch. This is because we are aware of the basic template of the flower as a recurring object. The role of this flower, however, depends on how it is used. It can be used as a garland on the idols of Gods, a bouquet gifted to someone, or placed at a grave and it can also be used as a centerpiece decoration. Although the imagery of the flower may vary, the overall template of it remains constant. However, the roles that it may play remains diverse.
Just like the Sun in our Solar System, the template possesses its own gravity and therefore exerts its influence on the mind. The template typically denotes certain general roles and functions; in most cases, there is ample space for variation within each role, but what happens when the role clashes with the archetype they are manifesting (Beemgee, 2015). Take the example of a Prime Minister of a country. Their role requires them to put in a lot of effort and remain dedicated to the welfare of the country and its people. However, they are influenced by the archetype of the Jester resulting in them constantly playing the fool and leading a hedonistic and frivolous lifestyle centered around themselves, instead of the country. Therefore, the dichotomy between these two aspects can result in complete disorder for everyone around them as well and hampers the realization of their complete potential.
The Impact of these Prototypes While Growing Up
Children truly flourish when they get to experience a stable and healthy relationship with people around them, especially their parents. Early childhood, according to studies, is a phase during which a child learns a great deal from their surroundings and the people they interact with. This is the child's learning window, which will have an impact on their growing years ahead. During the first five years of a child's life, the synaptic networks in their brain are still developing. At this age, children are very responsive to human contact. Therefore, the archetypes that the child may or may not be exposed to, will definitely play a crucial role in defining their future selves (Lee, 2020). The prototype of the father and mother are the two most prominent influences on the character of the child. The exposure to various archetypes is crucial in molding the child’s personality. They introduce and educate them on a lot of the roles that they will have to play in the future. However, the influence of these models extends roughly up to only the first ten years of the child.
Presence of the archetype
Parallels can be drawn between the impact of these universal figures and the Greek myth of Prometheus. He was referred to as the Titan God of fire. Prometheus was credited with the creation of humanity by shaping them out of clay. Apparently, he loved humanity so much that he even stole fire from the Olympian Gods and gifted it to humans instead. In doing so he gave humanity the power to transform into a mighty civilization (Cartwright, 2013). The existence of these recurring figures in the period of our growth has a tremendous impact on molding and expanding various aspects of our potential. The presence of strong parental figures, like the mother and father, play multiple roles in a child’s development including all facets like, social, emotional, cognitive, and physical.
Absence of the archetype
The absence of these universal models, however, can also result in the development of certain negative traits. For example, the lack of a parental figure in life, such as the mother or father may end up producing deep insecurities. Thus, making them partake in self-deprecating and antisocial behavior. Perhaps, due to lack of trust or maybe because they have not learned the appropriate social skills required, they tend to have problems connecting and relating with other people. The void created by the missing models may tend to cause trouble in the development of the proper psychological maturation of the psyche. Therefore, leading to high-risk behavior and overly dependent toxic relationships (Krisch, 2021). The absence and presence of these universal figures certainly do exert considerable influence on the growing child, but is it still possible for the individual to transform their persona at a later point in life? Perhaps not as a result of external characters, however, just like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly, the possibility exists.
The Journey Inwards
“Be the main character of your own life”. This single sentence, which has recently been revived as a trend to romanticize and appreciate one’s own journey, has set many people down the path of retaking control of their own lives. This journey of the main character or hero inevitably involves adversities and overcoming them, experiencing pain and anguish, and ultimately, confronting death. Death in this context, however, has nothing to do with the literal definition and in fact, refers to the transformation and metamorphosis of the psyche (Allison et al., 2019).
To better understand the concept, consider the Egyptian Myth of the Sun God, Ra. It is said that Ra created the 12 hours of the day by sailing across the sky in a burning boat from the East to the West, illuminating the world and providing all creations with a chance to flourish under his rays. Once he reached the Western horizon, he was consumed by the Sky Goddess, Nut. In death, he would then leave the Earth in darkness for 12 hours of the night, as he sailed through the underworld, illuminating the dead, eradicating enemies of creation, and finally regenerating himself by merging with Osiris, the God of resurrection. Every morning, Nut gave birth to Ra, who would then reappear in the Eastern horizon at dawn, in the form of either a falcon known as Horus or as a scarab called Kheper. By midday, the Sun-God was again Ra, and by sunset, he became Atum, an old man who had completed his life cycle and was ready to disappear to be regenerated for a new day (Haikal, 2021).
This is just one of the many myths which attempt to explain the cyclical patterns of birth and death, ascent and descent. This simple myth is not just an allegory of objective occurrences, such as day and night or the seasons, but rather it is a symbolic expression or metaphor of the inner and unconscious drama of the psyche (Mr. Purrington, 2020). The Underworld represents the dark abyss, emotional hell, identity disintegration and depression. However, Nut in this story is also portrayed as a bringer of transformation in this story. The underworld becomes a place to confront ourselves, our hubris, and our weakness and to come to terms with the uncomfortable feelings it brings to light (Dryza, 2020). The journey signifies the death of a narrow, immature way of looking at the world and the beginning of a broader, more enlightened perspective on life. There is no process of growth, that does not demand a sacrifice, however, transformation does not simply imply removing or fixing past traumas. Instead, the point of this process is to heal and make ourselves whole.
The purpose of the hero’s journey is to provide a context or a map of sorts for generating such radical changes in the psyche. The question remains, however, why do we need such life-changing growth? The theory is that people are born “incomplete” in a psychological sense and will remain so until they encounter challenges and receive exposure to various kinds of universal figures and situations. Challenges result in suffering and require sacrifice to resolve. Therefore, transcending these obstacles enables the individual, as the hero, to realize their true potential and undergo a major transformation of their psyche and consciousness (Campbell, 1988). When we tap into the defining archetype, which may be either the one that is dominant or even the one that is missing, only then are we able to connect with the essential truth of “Who am I?”.
Reprogramming the Prototype
At some point in life, all of us have searched up Buzzfeed quizzes in an attempt to figure out whether we are a Griffindor or a Hufflepuff, what kind of elemental magic we possess, or even which Marvel or anime character we are the most similar to. Each of these quizzes revolves around the same concept, that is, discovering which stereotypical character or aesthetic fits our personality the best. All of these characters behave as a prototype or standard containing certain universal structures and traits that we already identify with or at least wish to. This urge to model and embody such patterns of behavior is what connects NLP with archetypes. Neuro-linguistic programming is essentially the structure to build structures. Although discovering one's untapped potential is an important milestone, it is not the conclusion of the journey. One must still figure out how to nurture these potentials and bring them into the world. This can be really challenging. This is why neuro-linguistic programming comes into play here.
The archetypes are nothing but, universally recurring structures which is why NLP is interested due to its ability to form these structures. The whole point of neuro-linguistic programming is to restyle the patterns of our thoughts and behavior to help achieve our desired outcomes and ambitions. It makes use of behavioral, perceptual, and communication tools to help model certain desirable traits of personalities and figures that are inspiring and beneficial to us (Kandola, 2017). A perfect example to illustrate how NLP may function is the character Mulan, from the 1998 Disney animated film, “Mulan”. As it may be obvious, the story is centered around a plucky Chinese teenage girl called Mulan. When the country is being invaded by the Huns, the emperor calls for all the able-bodied men to fight and defend the country. Unfortunately, this also includes Mulan’s old and feeble father. So she resolves to take his place and secretly enlists into the army under the guise of a young man. Initially, she is not much of a soldier and can barely lift the sword (Ebert, 1998). However, as she is being trained along with her fellow soldiers under the guidance of Captain Li Shang, she begins to remold herself into the archetype of the warrior. By modeling Shang and the masculine energy he possesses, she transforms into a brave and competent soldier; ultimately defeating the invading Huns with her strength and quick thinking.
Therefore, the whole point of the journey to uncovering and realizing the true potential of our archetypes and psyche is futile unless we learn how to bring them out and reintroduce these abilities into the world. Bringing the boon back can be even more difficult than diving down into your own depths in the first place (Campbell, 2004).
The Interplay of Various Patterns in the Psyche
As we view the Moon from the Earth, across a span of thirty days, the Moon cycles through different phases. At each phase of its cycle, it displays a different appearance each time and continues to exhibit these recurring stages every month. Regardless of its varied appearances, the Moon still continues to be the same, Moon. Similarly, our psyche consists of various patterns. Some which may overlap while others may clash with one another. Despite this, all of them, as a whole, make up our psyche. The interplay and movement between these phases and patterns are what brings Gestalt to connect with the concept of archetypes.
To explain it in simple terms, gestalt is a school of thought which maintains that we do not focus on small individual components, but rather perceive them in their entirety as a whole. Gestalt, however, goes even beyond this. During the journey of transformation that we inevitably undergo, the changes in the structure are gestalt. The interplay between the polarities, the light and shadow side of the archetypes, and dance and cohesion of the masculine and the feminine energies, all of these are gestalt (Cherry, 2021). The whole point of the archetypal journey is transformation, and an authentic experience of transformation is only possible when we learn to balance order and chaos. Take the example of music. The notes, “Do Re Mi Fa So”, are universally recurring patterns that we have identified. Now, melodies consist of notes. By combining these notes in various patterns we can create new melodies. Regardless of which key or octave, the melody is played in, the melody would continue to remain the same. Gestalt is the key to generating music that is pleasing to our ears by balancing the archetypal notes and perceiving these melodies as complete (Staufer, 2018).
Everything that exists possesses dualities as well as polarities. It has its own pair of opposites which are identical in nature but different in degree; where like and unlike are one and the same. The universal figures we embody include both a light and a dark side (Zeteticus, 2012). Such as the example of the Great Mother. She can be the good mother who is protective and nurturing or she can also be the devouring mother who may be abusive towards her children. A mother who is loving can also be deadly. The birth of the polarity took place the second first polarity was born. Just like the mama bear, she is willing to kill anyone who poses a threat to her cubs who she loves so dearly. The shadow after all is proof of the existence of the light. Similarly, the effective flow of current requires an equal and opposite charge of both the positive and the negative. Following this principle, unity gives way to duality and because of this, the individual is made aware of their own capacities and abilities (Sameer, 2011).
After all, this overload of information about templates and motifs, roles and structures, and finally how gestalt and NLP are involved, the question still remains. ‘“What is the point of actually discussing these topics?” The answer is simple. The next time we meet and interact with people, we are not meeting their role or their mask, instead what we are introduced to is their archetype. Through this archetype, we learn about their values, beliefs, what is and isn’t of importance to them, what they want to nurture and protect, and what they want to abandon, what is negotiable, and what is not. It gives us a whole load of data and material about them and even ourselves when we identify the dominant archetype in ourselves. All of this information is present to us once we meet, the one, behind the mask.
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This article on 'Archetypes' has been contributed by Aalia Passanha who is a student of Psychology from Sophia College, Mumbai. and peer reviewed by Ishita Vashisht who is a psychology student from Keshav Mahavidyalaya, Delhi University
Aalia and Ishita are both part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP), which is mentored by Anil Thomas.
Aalias's future plan is to raise awareness regarding mental health and diversity.
Ishita hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in psychology and understand human behaviour, their attachment styles and clinical disorders through her own lens.
GIRP is an initiative by (International Journal of Neurolinguistics & Gestalt Psychology) IJNGP and Umang Foundation Trust to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.
Anil is an internationally certified NLP Master Practitioner and Gestalt Therapist. He has conducted NLP Training in Mumbai, and across 6 other countries. The NLP practitioner course is conducted twice every year. To get your NLP certification