An Archetypal Perspective on Clinical Practice: A Summary of an Introductory Teleseminar Lecture by Jungian Analyst Michael Conforti

Recently I attended a teleseminar wich I found valuable and provocative and which inspired me to summarize it here. Please note that that this synopsis is based on my own understanding and interpretation of what was said on the call, and has not been reviewed by the presenter, Dr. Michael Conforti.


Whether you are a clinical psychologist or psychotherapist, or simply an individual who had experienced therapy, the capacity to use an archetypal perspective is critical and greatly enriches the treatment, stated Dr. Michael Conforti in his introductory teleseminar in the Master Lecture series, “An Archetypal Perspective on Clinical Practice” on November 5, (2012).


Dr. Conforti, a Jungian analyst himself of some thirty years, began the session reminding us that Jung was once a Freudian, a fact we may tend to forget. The infamous break between Jung and Freud occurred because Jung no longer found himself able to boil human instincts down to the singularity Freud seemed determined to make them. Jung perceived things on a broader level. Take sex, for example: Freud is widely known for his theory that many psychological issues could be reduced to issues around the sex drive. Jung, by contrast, observed a bigger picture in which sex is a physical act on one end of a spectrum, but on the other (archetypal) end, it is a spiritual coniunctio, a desire for union with the divine.

Generally speaking, psychotherapy—regardless of the approach—often looks at “what’s wrong with a life.” Jung realized the archetypal forces at work are inclusive of the history of humanity. The voices of our own past and humanity’s past are what shape our lives. As a clinician, Conforti says, you can hear it from your clients. These threads make a tapestry that is transpersonal.

Post-Jungian James Hillman wrote in The Soul’s Code about the shaping of a life, a concept referred to as acorn theory. The oak tree is not physically in the acorn, but somehow the blueprint is. There is a teleological aspect in which the future oak tree seems to be pulling the acorn forward to its destiny. In the book, Hillman relates a number of stories which some of the most successful individuals in their fields had to overcome the very thing that they later mastered, pointing to how our greatness lies in the root. For example, someone who became a master orator struggled with a severe speech impediment as a child. Similarly, Conforti reminds us, Jungian Edward Whitmont wondered if our traumas and issues reveal the destiny of a life, what each of our individual journeys is about.

Using an archetypal lens gives us a broader lens, Conforti said, allowing us to look at the field an individual is brought into when they experience a significant event. For example, if someone is orphaned, they don’t simply change status: they are ushered into a field of “orphan” which has a correlating set of data and rules that all provide context and meaning to what it means to be an orphan. Looking at the broad archetypal picture when working with clients reveals a teleological pull, allowing us to ask archetypal questions. If someone is orphaned, how can someone with that kind of trauma have a dramatic experience of the deep unconscious, like when powerful synchronicities occur in their life?

Dr. Conforti pointed to one clinical case about a man who had been orphaned at a young age. This man had an uncanny ability for accessing psyche: his dreams often came true, he consistently won the lottery, and had a remarkable connection to music and art. As an orphan, this man had been abandoned by his mother. In the absence of the maternal holding and the absence of being able to feel secure in this world, he shifted into an oceanic sort of holding, to a world before the mother. Jungian disciple Erich Neumann wrote about how in the beginning of creation, there was sort of an oceanic bliss: a one-ness. That oceanic aspect is the unconscious. The orphan, whose developmental process of being held and mirrored was interrupted, found himself in a personal world fraught with terror. With the orphaning came an interruption of the “normal” trajectory of a life, of grounding and holding. He was left without a firewall and vulnerable to overwhelm by the unconscious. In moments of terror, we invent alternate realities. The world of archetypes and the transcendent is primary universe for all of us, but when there are interruptions in that trajectory from the world of the transcendent into the world of matter, we become (or remain) adrift and disoriented.

The motive forces of psyche and Self are the motive forces that shape your life—not the forces of this life, of making a living or having a home. Psyche places us in fields: it has a destiny factor for all of us. Each of us has a different journey, but what’s universal is that we all have a journey, certain nodal points we must traverse—markers which humanity has had to pass since the beginning of time. In the archetypal journey, there are certain familiar universal motifs transitions, initiations–certain points the “hero” has to pass. In every journey there comes a time when we must enter into relationship with another, to commit to another—whether person, belief system, etc. If we are not in a relationship to an “other,” or if we are not paying our dues to humanity, not using our gifts, we remain dependent on others and never fully arrive into our own. There’s an archetype of morality that requires us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, “Am I doing my work?”

The central arbiter of truth is not personal jurisdiction or values, it’s the unconscious. What happens, then, when transgression occurs, to patients whose parents have been criminal or to those individuals who have been betrayed and harmed by caregivers? The Self will alert you to transgression. Something is there to mitigate.

Our lives are forever marked by trauma. The majority of psychological approaches to life and to psychotherapeutic treatments are oriented to the unfolding of personal dynamics and an explanation of life based on antecedent events. Therapists are trained to look at life from the lens of “what came before.” ‘We are what we are because of what came before…” In the autobiography of Elie Wiesel, he refers to his mentor Sol Lieberman who told Elie it was time for Elie to “have a life”—to “make a life.” Lieberman meant it was time for Elie to enter in the archetypal (sacred) field of marriage; a new phase in his journey.

An archetypal approach allows you to see the temporal but sense the archetypal unfolding of a life—not just an individual life but the unfolding of a soul. This goes against psychotherapeutic tradition in which you’re “not supposed to tell clients what to do.” When you begin to accept an archetypal approach to treatment you go against the grain of the conventional teachings of psychotherapy. The patient does not have all the answers—the patient’s soul has answers. Conforti quoted Jungian John Beebe who said the act of interpretation is building a bridge between the internal truth of the patient and their ego

Jung’s psychology transcended personal experience. What those early Jungians saw in the temporal was an expression of the eternal. It’s not simply an issue of making a living or a career, but a matter of finding your place in the tribe, in the world. Indigenous peoples have traditionally identified and honored an individual’s gifts early on, whether the capacity to be a great hunter because they could see the subtle tracks, or a healer or a medicine woman, etc. They looked at the big existential issues in life.

An archetypal approach is looking at the existential aspect of life: what you’re meant to be. An archetypal lens in therapy shows what a life can be, and can tell you what a life journey is about. That’s why we must learn to read the symbols of Self and soul; learn the language that the whole Self and soul have to offer. You can’t approach the transcendent and transpersonal through the lens of a singular life, a behavioral psychology, or a pathology. What we view as pathology is actually an expression of the Self. There are things soul and psyche are expressing through the symptoms. This is a spiritual approach; it reveals the spiritual issues of one’s life and the journey a person is on. In many ways the archetypal clinician works a bit like a homeopath, Conforti believes: he offers “remedies”—not “fixes” but rather, what a person needs, just as if someone is lacking protein and is given protein, or requires potassium and is given potassium, for example. What do each of us individually “have to have” in our lives to make us complete? Something archetypal is calling us and looking archetypally can reveal what we each need for the journey.

It’s like the way you see more of the night sky when you look up; you’re not so confined, Conforti offers. It helps move past fears that prevent you from being who you are When you enter the world of archetypes you leave the outer world of space and time. The archetypal world is not bound by space and time: it’s not just about your mother and father but also about archetypes that encompass the world of mothers or fathers. It’s an orientation, a destiny.

milky way in starry sky
milky way in starry sky

In closing, Dr. Conforti shared the story of working at a center for seriously developmentally disabled child who was emotionally “gone” when indoors, but who transformed dramatically each day when he went into the garden, where he ran about picking flowers, weaving them into a crown and placing it on his head. The act of putting that crown of flowers was symbolic, and his relationship to it as a symbol somehow transformed him. Something happened. When in that space, the child was transported to another world. It gave him something.

boy with dandelion crown

Jung’s work is all about how our relationship to symbols can change our life: they offer us things we need to incorporate into our journey every single day. There are transpersonal movers and shapers that change us. Every one of us is transformed in the presence of certain fields that are unique and meaningful to each of us—whether it’s staying in touch with deep cultural or family traditions, or opera, or dancing, dinners with friends, gardening, cooking, etc.

To finish, Dr. Conforti addressed a question about how, as a therapist, one can recognize markers that suggest he or she is on the right track in identifying archetypal patterns at work. The psyche is interactive, Conforti said. It will reveal its process. Developing a sensitivity to universal process and universal markers, having an ethology that allows us to tune into natural patterns, and having an ongoing relationship to the unconscious are important to the process.