We have all heard of the South Seas islanders who belong to bizarre cargo cults. The cults got started shortly after WW II when the Americans pulled out of their many military bases scattered across the Pacific. It was cheaper to leave large quantities of supplies and gear behind than to transport them home so, as is so often the case with the Americans, they generously donated the materiel to the inhabitants of the islands. Having seen all this abundance arrive in airplanes, but not understanding where it came from, the less sophisticated natives decided they could get more of this cargo (and thus secure eternal peace and happiness) by simply luring passing planes from the sky. All they had to do was clear a rough runway, build a wooden plane for a decoy, and set up some homemade landing lights by making fires lined up in neat parallel rows.

Douglas C-47 Cargo Plane

Not all cargo cults have to do with South Seas islanders and US supply planes. The West has its own peculiar cargo cults. (Image: public domain)

This sounds completely stupid to Western ears, yet we ourselves are, in fact, guilty of similar practices. Our airplanes loaded with free cargo are none other than our own unconscious minds. We have numerous ways in which to get the “cargo.” The power of positive thinking is perhaps the best known. In this variation, all you have to do is decide what you want, make a clear statement of what you have decided, and then “hold that thought” while believing completely in the mystical power of the unconscious mind to “attract” or “engineer” the desired outcome. You can get money, a sexy mate, a new car, a better job. You can even stay young. All you have to do is visualize and think positive thoughts. What’s not to love?

Another variant is the automatic writing caper. In this one the practitioner sits down in a chair, grabs a pencil or a pen, lays their hand on a piece of paper, and just lets the words flow out from their unconscious mind with no conscious effort required. That is the important part: no effort required. You will be a wonderful writer in no time flat without breaking a sweat or cracking a single how-to-write book. Perhaps a great, but dead (well hopefully), author will channel through your unconscious and you can turn out prose like Charles Dickens reborn.

These ideas are vivid examples of the ludicrous overestimation of the unconscious mind increasingly prevalent in the West. The unconscious has become the source of all good things, the locus of psychic powers, the place where numinosity is found (and must be carefully preserved), the home of God in the human psyche, our link to the cosmos or universal mind.

The trick in properly dealing with the unconscious is not to overvalue it in this way. The unconscious is nothing more than a natural part of our minds, the part that just happens to be below the threshold of conscious awareness. It is entirely human in scale and scope. It contains memories and repressed thoughts, desires, and character traits. It is home to the set of emotionally important ideas we call the self and is therefore the source of will. It processes our sensory inputs. Nothing in the unconscious is mystical or supernatural. No human being has superhuman powers.

A realistic view of the unconscious has considerable benefits. Such a view averts unnecessary fear, inappropriate worship, and foolish cargo cults where people believe a near magical unconscious can, if they line up their fires and decoys properly, get them anything they want.

8 thoughts on “Cargo Cults of the Unconscious Mind

  1. While not a rationalist on this, I agree that many New Age thinkers take a belief in ‘Positive Thinking’ to ridiculous extremes. I find the Hay House phenomenon quite alarming. Lol, while it is a matter of taste, re Dickens, I never have thought much of him as a writer; automatically writing like Joseph Conrad, that would be a different thing…

  2. I must confess that, as a young man, I used to read books like *Think and Grow Rich* and *The Power of Positive Thinking* (and many more) always finding them strangely alluring, yet never – as a staunch sceptic and rationalist – quite able to believe in them. Having found religion useless as a comfort, I employed the magical thinking books as cheer-me-ups whenever I felt depressed. Sometimes I wonder if others are doing the same.

  3. The New Agers are often silly, but I think the majority of people see this and steer clear. We are in no danger of being overwhelmed. The movement survives because there is always a supply of cranks and fruitcakes to keep it going. For some of these, the whole thing is merely an amusing lark or a way of getting attention. Since you describe yourself as an irrationalist, Lucinda, yet seem sceptical of the New Age movement, just what do you believe in? (If you don’t mind my asking.)

    With Conrad, you are (I believe) the victim of an old error. Conrad has been described as an *auto-translator* rather than someone who employs automatic writing. I have not read a full-scale biography, but Miranda Seymour in her book, *A Ring of Conspirators: Henry James and His Literary Circle* does include Conrad, and mentions nothing about automatic writing. Literary critics describe Conrad as a careful craftsman. His native tongue was Polish and he was completely fluent in French, so English was his third language. The idea that he was an auto-translator suggests he thought in Polish or French and translated those thoughts into English before putting them down on the page. If you know more than this, I would like to hear about it.

  4. Lol, I didn’t even realise Conrad was thought to be an auto translator, Thomas! Now there’s some synchronicity. No, I just meant his writing is wonderfully strong, in his third language.

    My spiritual beliefs are complex; I’m sceptical of much of the New Age movement for a certainty, though, and much of it is purely ridiculous. I’m also appalled that some of its proponents suggest that any form of criticism of anyone is somehow immoral – would they apply that to paedophiles and Nazi’s?

  5. My apologies for the Conrad mix-up, Lucinda. I mistook your meaning. I’m making you more of an irrationalist than is warranted! I agree with you that the idea of never criticizing anyone for anything is going excessively far. This is carrying to the extreme the old Christian idea of not casting the first stone. But then, the New Agers need to promote such a policy in order to forestall criticism of themselves.

  6. No offence taken, Thomas, I like a stimulating debate, but had never heard that of Conrad. Mind you, I have neglected reading more literary criticism of him than I found in the prefaces to my readings of ‘The Heart of Darkness’ ‘Youth’ etc… Not like me, that, now, with regard to criticism of ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ , I’ve read all there is generally available, but it’s thin on the ground (looks about, wildly). I suppose there is a wealth for ‘The Heart of Darkness’ and the book on the Narcissus (yes, well, best not quote it’s full insulting name) and others.

    The Christians seem more sensible than New Agers in that they recommend distinguishing between the person and their acts, and condemning the acts but not the whole person. Injustice should be condemned, not glossed over.

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