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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Depth Psychology and Heuristics

Personal experience plays an absolutely essential and inescapable role in depth psychological research and theory, because when we deal with the psyche, personal experience is really all we have. We compare our own personal experience with another’s to see how it fits or what is missing. Like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle or map, we seek to add new pieces and to fill in uncharted areas. From the beginning of depth psychology, the personal experience of its founders figures prominently. Freud’s experiences led him to focus on instincts and the father, while Jung’s experience led him to bring the autonomy of the psyche, the collective unconscious, and the spiritual dimensions into the picture. Melanie Klein brought her experiences as a mother to Object Relations theory which stresses the importance of the mother/child relationship. Heuristic research, although it is ultimately subjective and personal, can open us up to the universal, the transpersonal.

Slater (2002, lecture) notes that since the specific and personal cannot ultimately be separated from the archetypal, by sticking to the uniqueness of the situation one can see through to the archetypal dimension. Grof’s work with holotropic nonordinary states of consciousness brings the birth process and transpersonal dimensions into focus, and in this way, mirrors the heuristic project, which is

to go through the complex to archetypal material and the universal on the other side of personal experience. One of the miracles of heuristic research is that the most personal is also the most universal and if you work it in the right way, you are also working with the universal. (Slater, 2002, lecture)

After amassing thousands of cases in his research with holotropic states, (both his own personal experience and that of co-researchers), Grof discovered that these experiences grouped themselves around different core experiences which he termed COEX systems (systems of condensed experiences). From his own personal experience with LSD, Grof became aware of other realms of the psyche and different levels of consciousness. Later, Grof used these different experiences to create his cartography of the psyche. The transpersonal dimensions he charted are reflected by verifiable postnatal and perinatal experiences of others (Grof & Tarnas, 2002, seminar).

The personal experience of the founders of the different schools of depth psychology is central to and has shaped these schools. Because of this variety in personal experience, the different schools view the world differently. Hocoy (2002, lecture) reminds us:

You can’t escape your lens, and what you see is what you elicit, so it’s not objective. You elicit what someone else wouldn’t, which is necessary for your unique eye’s view and for consciousness itself to be more fulfilled or to know itself more. So we are ultimately subjective, but if we are honest about it and show our lens, then others can check the validity and resonance.

People’s personal experience affects what they are drawn to and helps explain why their theories looks the way they do. At the same time, in my case at least, I have experienced the calling of “something unknown pulling me into the future” as Hillman’s daimon from The Soul’s Code suggests (Slater, 2002, lecture). But whether we are beckoned from the future or are a product of our past, it seems that people are almost “magnetized” and draw things to them, and see things in a unique way that is different from their predecessors. In this way we get different perspectives on the psyche and the world. As in the old story of the blind men and the elephant, each person describes the part of the elephant that he is in touch with, and whereas each gives an accurate account of his part, the whole is much more than any individual part.

Based on my personal experience as a bricoleur, I advocate combining different pieces of the different schools of depth psychology to give a richer view than any single theory offers. Some theories are better at describing different things and we bring into play whatever is the most useful to us at a particular time. I like to hold ideas from all of the different schools together loosely and rotate them to see which one is most useful at the time and which helps me see things more clearly. The process is similar to visiting the optometrist and having your vision checked by the machine where they try different lenses and ask you, “Which one is better?”

Quantum physicist Amit Goswami (2001a, lecture) had a vision during his research that “we are each one eye in the big Eye of consciousness.” We each have something unique to contribute—our own personal perspective. This idea of personal knowing corresponds to the Hindu idea of the “play of consciousness,” where the Divine, to know itself, has split up into all of creation in order to have different experiences.


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