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  • Writer's pictureAdam Jogen Salzberg

Looking Out Of Whose Windows? An Intro to Archetypes In Spiritual Practice

".. In this life a true mirror is the rarest thing, dissolved by the slightest breeze..."

- Jane Hirshfield

It's wild to me to think that, given who I was before I came into Zen practice, in a matter of just a few years, I became my own idiosyncratic version of a monk. Just a few years before, I had no interest in spiritual practice. Let's say there was a border that I crossed and that two years before crossing that border, there was nobody in my family, that I know of, that ever pursued spiritual interest. I had only ever casually met a monastic or a spiritual practitioner. No one like that was a part of my life and I had never considered such a life. Yet, I became my own one-sided version of a monk. One of the ways I make sense of what happened was that an archetype captured me. I got drawn up, dreamed up!, into the archetype.

To articulate a sense of what archetype is is a deep subject, but just to give some working definition, we could say they are patterns of being, Ways, parts in the drama that we play or parts we are played by. You can think of an archetype not as something that you embody, but that embodies you forth. The understanding that depth psychologists have is that basically there are the Gods, the myriad forces that are larger than mortal life, and they find their manifestation within us and through us. I like to think that the universe likes to shape forth as the archetypes. Why? Because they happen and keep happening. That is an aspect of what makes archetype archetype- every culture tends to have their own iteration of each archetype. They're ‘cosmic grooves’, in Ken Wilber speak.They keep happening across cultures, across time. A mainline Buddhist angle would be that archetype is collective karmic tendency that has become a style of being with its own attraction force. The realm of Hungry Ghosts, for example, would be the tendency of strong craving become archetypal-attraction-force, a groove the needle of our consciousness can slide into and thus play a common song.

Its is kind of avant Dharma to talk about archetypes. If you think about historical lineages of practice, there was no idea of an archetype as such, but definitely, the archetypes are found and danced with throughout the Zen Buddhist koans. And herein lies the value of this contemplation: dharma is about seeing freely and loving freely and each of the archetypes are a particular way of seeing and serving the universe.When we're in them, they're a Way that we are seeing, deep and cohesive. When we're outside of them, we can see the archetype as a pattern of being and get some perspective on that perspective, on that pattern. Seeing freely makes possible being freely, the theory goes.

Archetypal energy will start to act on us and act in us in spiritual practice at a certain intensity of engagement. In other words, if you get really into contemplative life, these start to pull on you in some way. In our practice we can touch into archetypal energy and we can be touched to the point of what Jungian’s call archetypal possession. In my case, I got taken up by the vision and sensibility of Monk. I became possessed with it to the point where in many ways I lost perspective.

Now, losing perspective is not always a bad thing. We only think of losing perspective as a bad thing if we cling to clarity, the deity Apollo gazing with disdain and superiority at Dionysus, a God not about purity and order. Yet what if losing perspective is the consequence of entering anything deeply? You fall madly in love. Why are you mad? You’ve lost perspective. That's one reason you're mad in your beautiful madness. We need madness and we accept certain kinds of madness. The spectrum ranging from touching into archetypal energy all the way to archetypal possession may never happen to you or it may have already happened to you at some point in your life.

Ideally, we would encompass archetypes in practice, rather than being encompassed by them. It's not so easy. Archetypal seeing-being tends toward becoming off-the-radar attachments, identities that not seen in wisdom. Consider the righteousness that attends so many committed practitioners of spirituality and activism - righteousness being an excessive pride and confidence that my way of seeing and doing is the right way. You can’t be right without others being wrong.

Why does this loss of perspective happen in meditators, the people we hope are most self-aware? In meditation, one can see the spaciousness and inter-arising of all that one takes to be personal among the elements of identity. One can shine through those with awareness and abandon identity forming. Yet the archetype, because it is not personal, is larger than the personal elements of oneself, doesn't show up on our radar of mindfulness. And therefore we have people in identity with their roles and/or not being able to see through what they're seeing through, the archetypal way of seeing-being they’re in, despite their intensity, devotion or dedication to being awake. So….

Now I'm going to touch on some of the specific archetypes that come up in spiritual practice. There are many, including the opposites that become invited when we take up a discipline ( Dreamer, Child, Rebel…), so what follows is an initial survey of some important and interesting Ways to name.

The archetype at the heart of Buddhism is the Sage. Zen in particular is a practice that says you are Buddha already, actually, so stop pretending that you're not. Stop haphazardly playing with the drama of personality and embody the Sage that you are already. Because the Sage sees that an unconscious drama of personality hurts and emits hurt. The Sage is hawk-eyed, not surprised by anything, sober about the ferocity and the generosity of the Universe, seeing through. Try connecting now with the feeling of the Sage- that quality in you that you cannot be fooled and is not surprised by anything that unfolds. Nothing is soecial, everything is exactly what the Universe does. Connect with your own version of this deep sobriety. See and see through. How does it feel energetically, physically? What kind of thoughts does a Sage think?

There is a flavor of the Sage that could come with a certain loss of innocence, hawk-eyed with a clarity that edges into harshness and dryness. We could lose playfulness. So here we get into the one-sidedness (neurosis) of archetypal capture with the potential for possession. Jungians correlate the Sage with the Senex, who is correlated with Saturn, the God of structure and discipline and sobriety. This kind of energy tends to reject excitement and innovation and mistrust anything other than “The Ancient Ways” Therefore there is a tendency to cling hard to tradition or a literalized appreciation of what is true. For example, the Sage might regardless of context, quote the Buddha or other authority verbatim with a “Buddha said it, I believe it, that settles it” kind of quality.

Naturally, the next archetype is the Fool. If you get really into wisdom or if the Sage captures you, you would likely marginalize foolishness. That's something you would not want to be as Sage, you don't want to be fooled or foolish. Your value, meaning and status would be threatened. You might believe you can't be fooled as a Sage but the Fool is altogether free from the need for knowledge, understanding, status and competency. One shadow of the Sage is it often likes to be recognized as such, yet, when you're in the space of the Fool, self image isn't important. You don't care how you're perceived. Hearing how you’re perceived may itself be a cause for laughter. It is humorous, and more than a bit sad, how the perceptions of others, which are truly weightless, weigh so heavy in the heart. What is, actually, someone’s perception?

As the Fool there is room in the mind for fresh seeing, for naivete that seems close to an awakened quality of perception. There's something about humor, laughter and levity that are non-options in a life of wholeness. If you think about an environment often dry or heavy handed, like an office or a classroom, there's always a Class Clown. The archetype always finds a way to come in. The same thing is true of ashrams, temples and monasteries- my experience is that someone always shows up who gets the joke and shares that particular light.

Any system where it leans too hard on knowledge, structure and order, the Fool finds a way to come in. That might happen in the course of our practice, rigidity will actually bless us with a trip into foolishness. There's a famous painting of Han Shan and Te-shan, two old Chinese practitioners, laughing together. People love that image because it really resonates the archetype. As far as we know, these people worked really hard and became Sages. And at some point, we can imagine there was a mutation or a transition. It's the opposite of the saying “those who persist in their folly become wise”. If you persist in your wisdom, you become a Fool.

There is a challenge in letting this archetype really come through us because if we put a lot of energy into anything, if we've really invested in something in our lives, we tend to want to wear it as a badge, to get some status out of it. It's hard to let go of being an authority. But this would mean that after years and years of spiritual practice, you would not wield your experience as authority. ‘One Who Has Had the Experience’ has been shed.

I’ve been painting the positive side but of course the Fool can be foolish. There can be an ignorance and dismissal of cause and effect, a disregard for what supports harmony. There can be laziness, an inability to honor the gravity of situations, a frivolity. A season of Fool sometimes has the Sage come knocking on our door bringing balance.

The next archetype I'll touch on is the Servant or the Attendant. In American culture nobody likes to think of themselves as a servant. That's the worst thing. We want to be number one. Or we don't even want to play in any system that has a number one. We avoid any kind of situation where there is a hierarchy because we would like to deny that there are such things as Sages and Fools, Wisdom and Ignorance. If it's not coming from a Pleaser, flavored with resentment or driven by compulsion, one of the most potent means to forget ourselves, i.e. ways to be relieved of the pain of egocentricity, is to be animated by the Servant.

One role for this in the spiritual universe is the attendant for the teacher. Any teacher worth their salt will know the position exists not for them. It might help them functionally, but it's really an opportunity for the person to be expanded and matured by Servant. I experienced this firsthand, as a selfish 20-something. To ‘have to’ attend to my teacher reflected all the varieties of my selfishness back to me. We need a means, a context, to express love -the same thing as saying that we need a means to get outside of our egocentricity, which is pain. You can't do it just by sitting there meditating. Woven into spiritual practice is that we have to have something we're in service to. We may generate meditative states without that, but the energy of that will just stagnate because it's not being expressed as love, which is the deep and mysterious point of it all.

What's amusing about the Servant is if you are in False Autonomy or Hyper Individuality, you look at somebody in this archetype and you feel disgust for them. ‘How could you be that way, worrying after the teacher’s tea or dishes…?’ or whatever. The devotion of somebody to another person, or devotion to anything other than oneself, for that matter, is revolting to False Autonomy.The gift of the Servant is that much of our perceived needs may not actually be needs. They may be things the mind has wrapped itself around as The Solution, The Medicine because in the whirled confusion of ego, sometimes we don't know what we need, we don't know what we want.

Yet for the Servant, the primary need is to love rather to be loved. That's its wisdom. Seeking to be loved by others in a world without constancy will always be stressful, interrupted and rough. It is a rough ride because human beings cannot love unconditionally without interruption. The Servant is the opposite of the feeling-belief that the universe should serve me to the orientation of loving and caring for what one feels is worthy of love and care. I remember when I was a young monastic, on my scarce free time, cleaning my teachers’ room and being so happy to do that.

We must take care of our basic needs. Beyond that, what in our lives are we serving? So many of us have much dissatisfaction about our work serving corporate, cold, uninspiring means, like ‘f__k, my life is my job and it is not meaningful…I work for Target or I work for Wienerschnitzel…’ The cry out for meaning could be compassionately read as the Servant in us wanting to find a worthy outlet for our energy.

Next, The Monk. It is helpful for us as lay Buddhist people to think about the Monk archetype because we're engaged in a tradition that is monkish. With the Monk, a word related to mono, single, only, there's a desire for undiluted purity. The monk archetype is coming through when we want the practice to be the Real Thing, nothing inauthentic mixed in, a desire for single-heartedness.

You can see this as about freedom from complication. There's a desire that life be pared down, freed from the non-essential. That would be the right way to go about it. So the Monk's vision is that we should uncomplicate life as much as possible. You don't need hair. You don't need more than one or two pairs of clothing. You don't need sex, you don't need that much food. You just need a place to sit down and meditate. That's all that's necessary. And as far as what is pure or impure, right or wrong to do, when animated by Monk that is felt as crystal clear, rightly distinguished. Like, there's no question that we should stop drinking and stop watching Netflix, and not spend so much time just hanging out on the couch with our dog. There's no question because there’s only one thing that matters.

The Monk archetype wants to do it right. I believe people are drawn into this archetype because of thinking like this: ‘if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it in such a way that I don't leave room for error…’ Behavior is meticulously engaged. Again, back to the foundations of Buddhism, it wasn't long before the Buddha had 250 something rules for his ordained practitioners, a very meticulously manicured life. That is not a life where you do what you want to do, where you can act freely in the American sense, not at all.

When we're outside of the Monk archetype, we may look at all this as rigid etc. but for Monk, it's cause and effect meticulously engaged. ‘There is truly a pure way to live. People are taking in and doing harmful things with their body, speech and mind, things that don't actually help them’ thinks Monk. ‘I'm going to stop doing that and if someone asks me, i'll recommend doing the same thing. Don't do x, because it doesn't lead to becoming a Sage’ The Monk infuses one with a desire to just cut off the sources of unneccesary suffering and distraction. The most likely experience of the Monk rising in you is as a love of silence, a love of simplicity. You may find yourself in retreat and feel that you could stay there forever. This is it. Why don't I just disappear into this? Crisp, pure, quiet. And all the rules are brilliant, absolutely necessary ways to support that.

Next, the archetype of the Wanderer, related to the Pilgrim. I suspect the universe wants to manifest as beings without agenda because too may beings with fixed agenda clog the universes’ creative flow. There is so much agenda in our minds. There's so many designs on how our life is supposed to unfold. There is a famous Tibetan teacher, who died only recently named Chatrul Rinpoche. Chatrul Rinpoche had a reputation as a great and genuine yogi and he wouldn't take anyone as a student, unless the student agreed to not make any life plans more than three months ahead. Because he felt that anything more than that was a fixed, fearful agenda for how life should unfold.

I'm struck by the times in my life, when I've been in other archetypes, that meeting the Wanderer is disturbing. The manifestation of the Wanderer is an affront to all of the effort we put into securing a nest- the college degree, the career, courting and pinning down a mate, securing the building that we think we own, saving for retirement.…So if you see someone animated by Wanderer, especially if they’re in their nest building years, it's a profound thing. And yet this orientation to life can arise through us nest-builders for periods of time.

The Wander is making it possible for the universe to reach us outside of fixed patterns. If we never break fixed patterns, then we leave limited room for discovery outside of our own closed loops. We might think we explore things on the internet, for example, but we really don't get outside of our own view. It's the same habitual karma that types in the searches, the algorithms present to us exactly how we already think and see and feel. Dwell on that . Wandering is one of the only ways to break the closed loop and to broaden our universe. And this is as simple or as accessible as having a day off where you make no plans, but you say ‘i don’t know, maybe I’ll try going that way for once?’. And you go that way. Wandering means the agenda is suspended enough that you might encounter something or someone outside of the closed loop.That necessitates of a degree of insecurity.

Sometimes Wanderer will erupt in our lives when there's a disruption in life- somebody dear dies, we get laid off, all the different kinds of significant disruptions- they open the possibility of a pattern shift. If we don't try to reassemble and re-cohere our life so quickly, Wandering as an enlivening thing can come through. But we and everyone around us always tries to re-cohere our life into a familiar pattern as soon as possible. Think about how long most of us allow before we start dating somebody after our previous relationship ends. We can't bear the absence of that pattern and perceived security.

Another aspect of the Wanderer that you might find arising is allowing yourself to wonder around and seek the sacred. Sometimes we do this in the small and possibly surrogate ways, like browsing spiritual books and mystical poetry on Amazon. It’s a little bit of trying to find our way into a new encounter with the sacred. It's sad if it stops there, yet, it is a glimmer of a taste.

So to wrap this up this introduction, we can fall into one of these grooves and on one hand be empowered, connecting to archetypal lineage. Every one of these ways of being has juice, has deep family, a kind of kinship beyond time and space. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people, maybe even in galaxies we can't even conceive of, have wandered, have gone to Mecca in some form. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people have been animated in the archetypes that arise when we do deep practice.

Archetypes are transparent, like all things. They’re dreamlike, these patterns, and yet they're solid. Because your whole life can be shaped by them. We might shift through them momentarily or we might find ourselves in them for long, or too long, stretches of time. So this question is an important starting place- who’s windows are we looking out of? We can ask through work with a teacher who has made enough mistakes to spot them, we can ask through parts work and voice dialogue, we could do the playful and rigorous dance of koan work. We could ask our partners or another dear one to honestly reflect back to us our style of being.

Other crucial questions remain for exploration, no doubt, such as the notion of choice around archetypal embodiment and the trouble of the many-fold Gods and Goddesses that tug and whisper within our time and space limited life. Therefore, if you found this writing meaningful and would like to contemplate this theme in more depth, please let me know!

545 views4 comments


Alexandra Heller
Alexandra Heller
Jul 11, 2023

Found this so interesting and helpful, thank you. Seeing so much of my tension right now arising between the wanderer, who's primary, and the servant, who wants to come through.


May 31, 2023

An excellent, insightful and thorough survey of "archetypes", how they connect and influence us; well written, too.


Michelle Bussard
Michelle Bussard
May 31, 2023

You know I’ve known you nearly from the start of your Great Vow days and am feeling extraordinarily blessed to have watched the young wanderer I met become someone I am honored to call Teacher.


Michelle Bussard
Michelle Bussard
May 31, 2023

Pithy and juicy—thank you🙏🏼

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