in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

Podcast #845: Magic, Archetypes, and the Mysteries of the Unconscious

There are two parts of the mind: the conscious and the unconscious. While the former dominates your attention, the latter actually occupies far more of the brain, influencing your mood, generating inspiration, and making you who you are, all behind the scenes.

My guest would argue that to become all you’re meant to be, you have to make your unconscious mind your ally and that this may be life’s most important task.

His name is Daniel Z. Lieberman, and he’s a psychiatrist and the author of Spellbound: Modern Science, Ancient Magic, and the Hidden Potential of the Unconscious Mind. Today on the show, Daniel first offers an overview of the nature, function, and study of the unconscious. From there we discuss Carl Jung’s perspective on the unconscious, and his ideas around its archetypes and shadows. We then get into the way that things which are connected to magic and the supernatural, like fairy tales and tarot cards, can be seen as manifestations of the energy of the unconscious and as age-old attempts to confront and understand it. We end our discussion by talking about the quest for individuation, which requires bringing together the conscious and unconscious minds, and how to go about tapping into the power of the unconscious to become a kind of magician yourself.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. There are two parts to the mind; the conscious and the unconscious. While the former dominates your attention, the latter actually occupies far more of the brain, influencing your mood, generating inspiration and making you who you are all behind the scenes. My guest would argue that to become all you’re meant to be, you have to make your unconscious mind your ally, that this may be life’s most important task. His name is Daniel Z. Lieberman, and he’s a psychiatrist and the author of Spellbound: Modern Science, Ancient Magic, and the Hidden Potential of the Unconscious Mind. Today on the show, Daniel first offers an overview of the nature, function, and study of the unconscious. From there, we discuss Carl Jung’s perspective on the unconscious, his ideas around its archetypes and shadows. We then get into the way that things which are connected to magic and the supernatural, like fairy tales, tarot cards can be seen as manifestations of the energy of the unconscious and as age-old attempts to confront and understand it. We enter discussion by talking about the quest for individuation, which requires bringing together the conscious and the unconscious minds, and how to go about tapping into the power of the unconscious to become a kind of magician yourself. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

Alright, Daniel Lieberman, welcome back to the show.

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Thanks so much for having me.

Brett McKay: So you are a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at George Washington University, and we had you on the podcast a few years ago to talk about a book you co-authored called The Molecule of More, which is all about dopamine and its influence in our lives. You got a new book out and it’s called Spellbound, and in this book, you explore the unconscious in our lives and its connection to, and this is interesting, a magical world view. So how did you go from dopamine to the unconscious and fairy tales and mystical numbers and things like that?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Well, it’s all based on the work I do as a psychiatrist. It really follows the aphorism on the temple of Delphi, which you’re probably familiar with, and that is: Know thyself. I got a lot of wonderful feedback about The Molecule of More, in which people said that it enabled them to better understand what was going on in their brain and not necessarily identify with all of those thoughts, all of those desires. That they had the opportunity to evaluate them, judge them and decide what’s best for them. In Spellbound, I take that to the next level, because there is so much going on in our head that comes out of our unconscious, and we have a tendency to either ignore it or to identify with it, but I think, in fact, the most important thing is to recognize that in some ways it’s coming from an alien place, we need to learn to understand it and to accommodate it.

Brett McKay: Okay, so your whole… The dopamine book kind of helped people understand there’s something going on in their brain, it’s like why they wanna do things and why they get tired of things that they once enjoyed, and this led to this idea of the unconscious. I think all of us… This idea of the unconscious has filtered into the popular culture and we know about it, but I don’t think a lot of people understand it from what you do, this research-backed approach to the unconscious. So as a psychiatrist, what is the unconscious?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: The unconscious is any brain activity that we’re not directly aware of and that we don’t have direct control over, and that spans a very wide range of things. So it can be as simple as the parts of your brain that control your blood pressure, your heart rate, and your hormone secretion, or it can be as sophisticated as the parts of your brain that generate inspiration in which it hands you incredibly complicated knowledge that seems to come out of nowhere.

Brett McKay: And how does this unconscious differ from conscious thought?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Conscious thought, it tends to be very linear. It’s based on language. When we think in our own head, we generally think with language, and it’s rather slow, and it’s good at solving problems with logic. It’s really what makes us human, what sets us aside from the other animals. The unconscious, on the other hand, is very, very fast. It does all kinds of different things in parallel, and it doesn’t use language, it’s more likely to use emotion. And the unconscious is really the animal part of human beings. And I think this split really emphasizes the strange aspects of the human condition; that we are part angel, part animal, and I think that those track pretty nicely with the conscious and the unconscious minds.

Brett McKay: I think you talk about in the book, the conscious thought is typically top-down, right? So we are dictating how our attention is directed. Unconscious thought is bottom up.

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Yep, that’s right. We say top-down because conscious thought seems to arise in the frontal lobes, right behind the forehead, and the commands that we make to our body and other things, they flow downwards, whereas the unconscious represents deeper structures and those come upwards into the prefrontal cortex where we become aware of them.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned unconscious though. We use that for bodily functions; breathing, heart beating, sleeping, just reflexes, but you said they can get really sophisticated. What are some examples of more sophisticated uses of the unconscious?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: I think that one we’re all familiar with is the gut feeling. Think back to when you were choosing a college to go to. You visited a bunch of them, you read the literature and you were probably absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of variables that you had to sift through: How well it was rated, what you thought of the dormitory, the dining hall, etcetera. But at some point you probably got a gut feeling about which one was right for you, and you probably had enormous amount of confidence in that gut feeling, but you had no idea where it came from.

Brett McKay: And I think The Gift of Fear guy, Gavin de Becker, he did studies on firefighters. They can look at a building and they can tell whether this building is about to collapse and it’s based on… There’s nothing really top-down going on, it’s just based on years of experience. They say, “Well, the fire is doing this, the building looks like this. I better avoid going to that building ’cause it will probably collapse on me.”

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Yeah. And it’s the same with doctors, we call it pattern recognition, that we think that we’re applying information we got from lectures and textbooks, but in fact, the best doctors are ones who have seen the most patients and unconsciously, they recognize patterns and that gives them the answer in terms of treatment.

Brett McKay: So the conscious thoughts, typically, starts top-down, so like the prefrontal cortex or the prefrontal cortex is the part that developed last in our evolution?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Yes.

Brett McKay: And that’s where conscious thought typically is that, where is unconscious thought taking place at?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: All the rest of the brain. Consciousness represents a tiny sliver of our brain activity. You may have seen the metaphor of the iceberg where you’ve got a tiny bit floating above the surface representing the conscious mind and then the vast majority of it underneath the water. And, in fact, it’s been estimated that the unconscious mind is able to process information a half a million times more rapidly than the conscious mind and that’s why it uses such a large part of the brain compared to the conscious mind.

Brett McKay: ‘Cause it’s doing things in parallel, correct?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: It’s doing things in parallel, yeah. It’s got the heart rate, it’s managing literally millions of muscle fibers to maintain your posture, and is doing a whole bunch of other things besides.

Brett McKay: So this idea of the conscious and unconscious was first developed, rather made popular by Freud. What was Freud’s idea of the conscious and unconscious and how they interact with each other?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Freud viewed the unconscious mind as essentially a place where the conscious mind put things that were unacceptable to it, and so primarily sexual urges. Freud really tended to trace everything back to the sexual drive, but also things like anger and hatred and murderous feelings. And so for Freud, the unconscious was really the cesspit of the very worst of humanity.

Brett McKay: And then one of his students was this guy named Jung, and he took Freud’s idea of the conscious and unconscious, but he did something different with it. How did he change this idea?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: So Carl Jung also realized that we tend to do this, we tend to reject the worst parts of us and push them down into the unconscious, and he called that aspect of the unconscious the shadow, but he realized that there was far more to it. Whereas Freud derived all of unconscious behavior from the sex drive, Jung looked at other animals and he looked at the complexity of their instincts. For example, ants form colonies and they’re farmers, they raise lichen that they eat. They’re ranchers, they raise aphids that produce a sugary liquid that they can get nutrition from. He looked at the weaver bird, which weaves these incredibly complex nests, and he said, “If these animals have such complex instincts, it’s just not reasonable to think that human instinct all flows from the simple sex drive.” And he began exploring human instincts, and just as the human brain is far more complicated than animal brains, he found that human instincts are also far more complicated, and he realized that the unconscious encompassed so much more than what Freud thought.

Brett McKay: And since then, Freud and Jung, they’re looked… I guess today they’re looked at as scans, they think… Okay, they had some interesting ideas, but it’s theoretical, it’s almost like metaphysical, philosophical, there’s nothing, there’s really no hard data. What’s the state of the research in the unconscious today?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: The researchers are approaching the unconscious the way any good scientist does, and that is you collect data and you approach it from an empirical standpoint before you begin to put together theories. Freud and Jung didn’t have access to the same kinds of research tools that we have today, and so really the only data they had to go on was their experience with their patients. And so they did a lot of theorizing and a whole lot less data collection. Today it’s the opposite. And it’s very, very helpful to have that data. And I included a significant amount of it in the book, but the problem is that even today, hundreds of years after Freud and Jung, our ability to study the brain empirically is still extremely primitive. People have said that the human brain is probably the most complex structure in the entire universe. And so psychiatrist as a science is a little bit behind some of the other specialties like cardiology, for example, simply because our organ is so complicated. So neuroscience has shed some light on the unconscious, but it’s still at a very early stage.

Brett McKay: So how do you research or study the unconscious, because the unconscious you’re not aware of it, right? I can see there’s studies where you can study the conscious. Everyone knows the “marshmallow test” which is basically a study in self-control, which is the study of the conscious. You put a marshmallow in front of a kid and you tell them, “Well, if you don’t eat that marshmallow for a certain amount of time we’ll give you more marshmallows,” and so you can actually see what’s going on. But the unconscious, how do you tell what’s going on in the unconscious when you can’t… The person doesn’t even know what’s going on?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: It’s difficult, it’s difficult. There’s been different ways that it has been approached. Often it involves tricking the conscious mind to make it think like the task is something other than is actually being measured. And then with the conscious mind doing something else, what you’re really measuring is what the unconscious mind is coming up with, but they’ve come up with other ways as well. As I mentioned, the conscious mind has a pretty small bandwidth, and so another thing that scientists do is they overwhelm the bandwidth of the conscious mind so that only the unconscious is free to work through a problem or a task.

Brett McKay: Are there any studies that stand out to you that can kind of exemplify what they do to look at this unconscious stuff?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: One that comes to mind is what I call the Amsterdam apartment study. This was a study in which they use the strategy of overwhelming the conscious mind. They showed volunteers, I believe it was four apartments, and they gave them a whole list of features of each apartment and more than a dozen for each one, and then they asked them, “Which apartment do you think is the best?” Now, the way that they had set it up was that one was objectively better, one was objectively worse, and the other two were in between. And what they did was they divided them up into three groups. The first group, they said, “Okay, read the descriptions and then bam, make a snap decision right away.” And they didn’t do very well. They picked the undesirable one as often as the desirable one, it was really random chance. The second group, they allowed the conscious mind to work on it. They said, “Read the description. Now we’re gonna give you three minutes to work your way through the problem, try to figure out which is the best one.” They had the same experience as the snap deciders. It was basically at random. The third group, after they had them read the descriptions, they distracted them by having them solve anagrams. That’s a word jumble. You jumble up the letters and you have to figure out what the original word was. That takes up all the bandwidth of the conscious mind.

And so in that case, for those three minutes, only the unconscious mind could work on the problem, and those people chose the desirable apartment at a rate better than chance.

Brett McKay: So it’s interesting. It sounds like the conscious is really good at simple linear problems, but the unconscious, it’s better at solving those problems that are really complex when there’s a lot of factors involved.

Daniel Z. Lieberman: That’s right. The other advantage that the conscious mind has is that it can come up with precise answers. The answers the unconscious mind come up with tend to be impressionistic. For example, if you’re thinking about entering into a business venture with someone, you might ask your unconscious mind, “Can this person be trusted?” And you’d get an impressionistic gut feeling kind of an answer, but you’d want your conscious mind to calculate the potential return on your money.

Brett McKay: And those gut impressions, they’re based on… Its pattern recognition. You think back, “Well, is this person matched up with trustworthy people that I’ve experienced in the past?”

Daniel Z. Lieberman: That’s right, and the unconscious is picking up on all kinds of things that the conscious mind is missing. The unconscious mind might be noticing the people who hold their head in a certain way or walk in a certain way are more or less trustworthy. And we have no idea what kind of data it’s working with, but we do know that the stuff it comes up with is often better than what the conscious mind can come up with.

Brett McKay: What point you made is that in our materialistic world where we put a primacy on the conscious, which is again, the conscious mind is great. It allows us to do a lot of great things, but we downplay the unconscious, but what research is showing is that by downplaying the unconscious and how we interact with the world, it actually makes understanding the world harder, even the scientific world. And you give this… I thought that was really interesting. Scientist who are researching animals or even just objects, there’s this tendency you wanna be just focused on the data, and you don’t wanna anthropomorphize the animals, think that they’re Disney creatures, that they have personalities, but the research shows that when they don’t do that, they actually make worse decisions or worse conclusions about the data. What’s going on there?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Yeah, the unconscious mind does have this tendency to anthropomorphize, to treat things as if they were human beings. A lot of people talk to their cars, if you have a favorite shirt, you might not want people to mistreat it, not because it’s gonna get damaged, but because you have this kind of unconscious sense that it has feelings. And we do that with animals more than anything else. And some scientists wrote that… They said anthropomorphizing animals is actually the cardinal crime of the animal researcher, and the reason is that animals’ brains simply don’t work the way human brains do, and if we assume that they do, we are going to make all kinds of mistakes. And so these primate researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, famous center, decided that this was a reasonable criticism.

And so that they decided that for a period of two years, they were not going to do any anthropomorphizing at all. They were just going to simply record the behavior straight, and they were pretty surprised at what happened. Their brains were not able to make sense of the animal’s behavior, they could no longer distinguish individual animals and understand their behavior. When they allowed themselves to go back to anthropomorphizing, everything fell into place, and once again, things became intelligible. And so I think that the takeaway lesson from that is that our unconscious mind is not perfect, it’s going to lead us into errors, it’s gonna make us see the world in a way that is not always factually true, but this is what we got, and if we try to reject it because we want a perfect understanding, the opposite is gonna happen and our understanding is gonna completely fall apart.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you even highlighted engineers and physicists will do this with objects or particles, like, “Well this particle is acting weird or cranky,” and it helps them understand what’s going on in the data they’re seeing.

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Yeah, that’s right. Particle physics, when they have trouble finding a particle they call it shy. Meteorologists, talk about raging storms. Doctors talk about stubborn infections and aggressive tumors. When I was a resident, there was a faculty member who tried to get other doctors to stop doing that, because they said, “Look, if you call this tumor aggressive, you’re gonna jump to conclusions that aren’t true, you need to understand it from a bio-chemical point of view,” and everybody said, “Yeah, what you’re saying is logical.” But in fact, based on what we know today, he was wrong, because what he was doing was handicapping his own brain by not allowing it to function at its best.

Brett McKay: So again, the unconscious, it can lead you astray, but it can provide useful insights, and the goal is, I guess what the research is suggesting is learning how to tap into the unconscious without being led astray.

Daniel Z. Lieberman: I think so, or I think maybe a more provocative way of putting it is that we have to accept the fact that we will be led astray, just like nothing is perfect, and we don’t expect perfection from things, and the unconscious mind is the same. If we don’t rely on it, we’re not going to be using our full brain, we’re not gonna achieve our full capacity, if we do rely on it, we are gonna make occasional mistakes, but we don’t really have much of a choice.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. So let’s get into this magic part of your book, Spellbound, and so what you do is you take a look at the work of Jung and see how this idea of the unconscious is connected to a magic world view. How did Jung see the unconscious and sort of the, I’m gonna call it the magic world view, how are they connected?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: So I think it’s helpful if we start by reviewing some of the things we talked about that the unconscious does. So the unconscious is responsible for emotion. It can make us the happiest person in the world, it can throw us into a rage, it can make us hate the people that we love. The unconscious is responsible for inspiration. It can inspire a work of art, it can inspire a scientific breakthrough. Traditionally, these kinds of experiences have been attributed to the gods, they’ve been attributed to supernatural creatures; gods and goddesses, spirits and demons. And so Jung’s insight was that all of these stories we have about magic, myths, folklores, fairy tales these are actually stories that shed light on what goes on in the unconscious mind, and because they’ve been refined over millennia, these are actually the most sophisticated tools we have to understand the unconscious mind and learn how to come to terms with it.

Brett McKay: Okay, so what he did is he looked at the cultures around the world; the stories, the myths, the religions, etcetera, to see what they all had in common, and then from there, you can kind of make these conclusions about, well, maybe this is something about the unconscious?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: That’s right, it’s highly suspicious when you have cultures that are different in so many ways telling stories about the supernatural that have lots and lots of things in common. And what Jung concluded was that just as all human beings have a common physiology; we’ve all got two arms, two legs, one nose, one mouth, etcetera, we also have a common psychology. Our brains are all based on pretty much the same DNA, and that leads to a common psychology, and so based on that, it’s not surprising that the most important themes that stories were made about are the same in all cultures.

Brett McKay: Is this what he called the collective unconscious?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Exactly, the collective unconscious and the themes of the archetypes.

Brett McKay: Well let’s like about archetypes, for Jung what is an archetype?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: An archetype is a kind of an instinct. It’s a pattern of thought that we’re born with that we don’t have to learn. It’s part of the common physiology that we all share. Now, the way that the archetypes manifest themselves, though, are going to be different for each person, and so Jung compared the archetype to sort of a water course. This directs the direction of the water, but the water itself is going to be different for everyone. So the archetypes are the basic psychological instinctual foundations that all humans have in common.

Brett McKay: So what are some examples of archetypes?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: I think the most important archetype is the mother archetype. And one of the things about archetypes is that they are so big, so powerful and so influential that it’s not possible for us to consciously apprehend the archetype in full. And I think we can see that with the concept of motherhood. Think of all the books, all the stories that have been told that involve mother and how each one of them reveals a different aspect of one’s relationship to one’s mother. The symbolism of mother includes nutrition, it includes love, it includes encouragement, it also includes things like criticism and restrictions and being smothered, it’s an enormous concept and it’s impossible to delineate all of the things that it represents.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned a word… You mentioned symbols, I think sometimes when people hear the word archetype, they think it’s a symbol of something bigger, but you actually… There’s a distinction between symbols and archetypes, so what’s the difference been the two?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: So a symbol in a way is something that we can see with our senses, but is connected to the archetype. It’s like an energy transformer that takes the energy of the archetype and makes it available to the conscious mind. So one example I give in the book is a wedding ring, and I should mention, and I think it’s helpful actually to start by distinguishing symbols from signs. Signs are things that have a very clear meaning and they have a one-to-one correspondence with the things that they signify. So for example, the letters O-R-A-N-G, that signifies the fruit orange. Everybody knows exactly what it means. The Golden Arches signify McDonalds. There’s no ambiguity about what that is. Symbols, on the other hand, point to archetypes, and archetypes are unknowable. And so what the symbols symbolize are also unknowable. It’s not something that we can fully capture in words or fully understand. So let’s think about a wedding ring. There are things about the wedding ring that we can understand, but the kinds of feelings it provokes are often things that can’t be put into words. So for example, if somebody lost their wedding ring, well, they could just go to the store and buy another one, but it’s not that simple. There are some things about the wedding ring, some feelings that it triggers that go beyond simply a band of gold. It taps into the unconscious, and as a result, it’s a very potent symbol, a very potent magical object in some ways.

Brett McKay: So I’ve read the books, I’m sure some of the listeners have read ’em by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette it’s King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, and it’s like Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine, and that’s kind of shaped my idea of what I think about archetypes. And they had different archetypes, like the king archetype represented the power and potency and creation and order. And symbols of that archetype would be things like a crown or a sceptre or something like that, is that… Are we on the same page? Is that kind of what you were talking about here?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Yeah, absolutely. And think how it must have felt to King Charles to have that crown placed upon his head. I think it must have triggered incredibly intense feelings that he could not fully understand. So I think the crown is a great example of a symbol.

Brett McKay: Alright. So yeah, archetypes is like it’s energy or [0:26:49.1] ____ thought patterns and are unconscious. Symbols allow us to kinda tap into that sort of like… I think you actually have that example, the unconscious is sort of like an oil well or an untapped water reservoir, and then the symbol allows… It’s sort of like drilling into there and letting that stuff come into the conscious mind.

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Yeah, another example is the flag. We hear all kinds of stories of a demoralized army, somebody picks up the flag, waves it around, and suddenly everybody is full of energy, they’re ready to go and they win the battle. The flag was a symbol that allowed them to tap into this power in their unconscious that allowed them to turn the tide of the battle.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned, according to Jung, our unconscious has a shadow part. Is the shadows the same thing as an archetype?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: It’s not, no. The archetypes are part of the collective unconscious that we all have in common. The shadow is a more superficial part of the unconscious, closer to consciousness, and that’s part of what Jung called the personal unconscious, and it contains things that were once conscious but we pushed away.

Brett McKay: Okay, and so what are the problems of the shadow, how do they manifest in our lives?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: So the shadow is the worst of us. It’s all the parts of us that we don’t want to admit exist and so we push it down into the unconscious, and we think that we’ve fixed the problem, but in fact we haven’t. Because what happens is that we lose control over it. Once they go down into the shadow, they become autonomous. And that’s why we hear about people who will often behave in extremely uncharacteristic ways, in ways they can sometimes destroy their careers, destroy their marriages, destroy their life. And the way we talk about it, I think harkens back to this idea that we tend to link the unconscious with a supernatural, that we say, “What on earth possessed him to do that?” I love to use the word possession. Right? What possessed him to do that? It’s almost as if the person were taken over by some demon, and, in fact, they were, because demons are just the way we talk about agents in the unconscious, and they were taken over by this agent in their shadow that they unwisely pushed away from consciousness.

Brett McKay: So what do you do with the… How do you deal with that? If you push it down and it just kind of erupt in a place that’s maladaptive, what do you do with the shadow?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: We all behave in ways that we don’t like, right? On a daily basis, we will snap at people that we love and feel bad about it afterwards, and there’s two ways to deal with that. One way is to try to forget about it and think about something else because it’s painful, but the other way is to really embrace it and say, “This is a part of me. This is a part of me I don’t like, and this is a part of me that I don’t have control over,” but the more that we accept it, the more that we can control it. And so I think the trick is to allow ourselves to feel these negative feelings; the anger, the envy, the jealousy. If we allow ourselves to feel them without pushing away, we’re less likely to act on them. And so we give them full access to our mind, to our consciousness, whereas we give them no access at all to our behavior.

Brett McKay: Are there benefits to the shadow? Like there’s down sides, obviously, but do they come with it… Does it come with benefits?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: It does. There’s an enormous amount of primitive energy in there. I told a story about a doctor who became infuriated with a colleague and that fury enabled him to write a protocol that would prove his colleague was absolutely wrong. You know, many of us know about the energy and kind of the joy that can come to breaking the rules. If you sneak up on the roof where you’re not allowed to be at night to watch the city lights, you’re full of energy, you’re full of excitement, that’s coming from the shadow, that kind of thing only comes when you break the rules. So even though the shadow contains a lot of ugliness, it also contains a lot of beneficial stuff, the primitive energy that we can really make use of.

Brett McKay: So you have this chapter about fairy tales can be used as a way for us to tap into the power of the unconscious, walk us through this idea.

Daniel Z. Lieberman: So as I mentioned, when people were trying to make sense of the unconscious, it was so powerful and so alien that they conceive them as supernatural creatures, and that’s what fairytales are about. Fairytales are about magic, about creatures that possess super human power. And what’s interesting is that in a lot of cases, these magical creatures are animals, and that makes so much sense because the unconscious is the bestial part of the human mind. And in many cases, it is the character in the fairy tales who able to make friends with the magical animals who win out in the end. And a lot of times, these characters are not the smartest, they are certainly not the richest, and they may not even be the strongest, but what they are is the most trusting. They find these magical creatures, the magical creatures often give them advice that doesn’t make any sense, but the ones who trust them and do what they say are the ones who win their kingdom in the end.

Brett McKay: Is there a fairy tale in particular that you think really highlights the power of story in helping us kind of confront and manage our unconscious?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: One of the ones I like is The Golden Bird. That’s a story about three brothers who go off in search of this golden bird that will renew the kingdom, and along the way, each of them meets a magical fox that give them advice. The two older brothers are self-sufficient, they don’t need the advice of the magical help, they say how stupid it would be for me to take advice from a lowly animal. But the third brother who is a little bit weaker, he’s the youngest, he’s not quite as bright, but he’s very kind. He says, “Okay, little fox, let’s be friends. I’ll help you, you help me.” And what happens is that the fox gives him advice about finding this bird, and the boy thinks the advice doesn’t make any sense, and so he keeps doing the opposite of what the fox says. And the fox gets frustrated with him, but the fox doesn’t give up. The fox keeps trying and trying and trying to establish this trusting relationship. Eventually he does, and then everything goes well. And I think that what that tells us is that establishing a working relationship with our unconscious mind is not easy because it’s so different from consciousness, it’s so alien.

It’s going to take time but that’s okay. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. We don’t have to get it right the first time. I think that coming to terms with our unconscious mind is probably the most important thing we do in life, and so it would be naïve to think that it would be simple or something we would get right on the first try.

Brett McKay: Yeah, okay, so I think a lot of the fairy tales are about that, and I think in modern times, poets like Robert Bly back in the ’80s, it’s like the Iron John thing, it was all about the unconscious becoming integrated with the conscious, and stories can help you do that. You also explored other ways that people have tried to tap into and to understand the unconscious, often unconsciously. They don’t know they’re doing it. And that includes things like alchemy and also tarot cards. Jungian psychologists, they’re also known as depth psychologist, past and present, they’ve used tarot cards to explore archetypes and things like that. I also know Jordan Peterson, he’s used tarot to explore psychological concepts and archetypes. But I think when most people think of tarot, they think of mystical old ladies telling you your fortune or they think about the occult, but they weren’t initially used for that. So how can tarot cards be seen as a sometimes a conscious attempt to explore the unconscious?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Yeah, the tarot was created just simply as a deck of cards, and it was just created to be used for fun. There was nothing special about it, there was nothing about the supernatural. But it was created in Italy during the Renaissance, and naturally, they wanted to make these cars look pretty. So what they did was they put philosophical and mystical symbols on them, because it was during the Renaissance that the ancient Greek philosophy had been rediscovered in Europe, and everybody was very, very excited about it, you see these symbols in all kinds of Renaissance art.

And so the card makers just grab these symbols from art and they decorated their cards with it, not really giving it a second thought except to say, it’s pretty and it’s fun. Now, what happened was, it turns out that these symbols were actually incredibly powerful, and that’s why they lasted the thousands of years between the classical period and the Renaissance. And the mystical symbols worked on people’s unconscious mind. Over the years, different tarot decks were designed by different people, and what they would do is they would retain the things that were psychologically most powerful, throw away the things that didn’t work, and so it became this crowdsourced work where over the years, little by little, it evolved into something more and more psychologically powerful until finally it started became so powerful psychologically, people began to think it had magical powers and began using it for divination.

Brett McKay: So what are some examples of the symbols in the tarot?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Alright, so the first card is called The Fool. And you look at it, and it’s hard to say why it’s a fool. It’s a very handsome young man. He’s got a bindle on his shoulder. He’s going on a journey. He has a dog next to him. And he’s about to step over the edge of a cliff. The symbolism of this… I think one way to interpret it is it represents un-fallen man. It’s this young man who’s beautiful and represents perfection. He has an animal companion representing that he is fully aligned, he’s fully friendly with the animal side of himself, the unconscious mind. But another thing about this picture is his eyes are closed. Adam and Eve before the fall weren’t fully conscious. It was only after they ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil that their eyes were fully opened. And so, like Adam and Eve, this young man is going to walk over a cliff. He’s going to take a fall. It’s going to bring him into the world of imperfection. It’s gonna bring him to a point where he is no longer comfortable with that animal side of him. He no longer has this easy perfection, but his eyes will be opened. And so he will need to seek this unification again on a higher level, on the level of consciousness.

Brett McKay: It’s, yeah, that card symbolizes this archetype of the fool, right? I mean it’s sort of this energy of being naïve, but it comes with downsides. But also there’s like… I mean you have to be a fool sometimes to take on new ventures and to grow.

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Yeah, that’s something that Jordan Peterson talks about a lot. He says that if you’re afraid of being a fool, if you’re afraid of embarrassing yourself, of looking like an idiot, you can never start something new. Because when you start something new, you’re coming in at ground zero. And so we need to be comfortable with embarrassment and shame and looking like an idiot. Otherwise, we won’t be able to grow.

Brett McKay: Yeah, another one is The Magician. It’s a really evocative-looking card. You got this magician who’s pointing up and then down at the same time. What’s going on there?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: That is from one of the most famous alchemical aphorisms, “As above, so below.” And what that meant was that the things in the macrocosm, the universe, the planets, the stars, the gods and the goddesses, those are reflected in the microcosm down on Earth. And so they believed that the gods inhabited metals. The Sun god was in gold. The Moon was in silver. Venus was in copper, etcetera. And so, “As above, so below.” In modern times, we can interpret that as what happens in the unconscious mind eventually makes its way into consciousness and shapes our world. And so it’s really an acknowledgement that there is this link between what we can see and what we can’t see.

Brett McKay: It’s, yeah, a way for describe the magician is scientists are kind of magicians, right? They have this idea of theory, and the goal is to hopefully make it concrete through the scientific process. And then the magician’s got tools. He’s got wands and swords and things he’s using. Same sort of thing. We might have this idea for a business, or what we want, like a… I don’t know, just some project we want to. And we see what it looks like in our brain, but the goal is to use our talents and to make it real in the actual world.

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Yeah, exactly. I mean what is magic? Magic is when the material world is invaded and occupied by things from the spiritual world. So for example, if you’ve got a magic lamp, while there’s a genie inside of it. If you drink a magical potion, it’s not just wine or lizard eyes or whatever it is. There’s some force that’s invaded that thing, that transforms the human being. And in a sense, human beings are magicians, exactly as you describe. We take these incorporeal thoughts, an idea for a new business, and through the magic of the human mind, the human brain, those thoughts are able to influence the material world in terms of our moving our body. And that may mean digging a ditch. It may be filling out an application for a bank loan. But somehow, the incorporeal ideas in our head are translated to the material world in the form of a new invention, a new business. And in a way, that is a form of magic.

Brett McKay: So Jung, he thought fairy tales, these myths, alchemy, tarot, magic numbers; it’s a way for us to understand our unconscious. And he thought one of the reasons why we need to kind of deal with or enact the unconscious is so we can start this process of individuation. What is that for Jung? What is individuation?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Individuation is the process of bringing together the conscious and the unconscious minds. And individual really has two meanings. One meaning is indivisible. You bring them together and you get a complete whole that cannot be cut apart. And of course, then there’s the more common meaning of being different from everybody else. And it’s only by bringing these two things together that we can be individual. If we are 100% conscious, all we are is logical, rational, and reasonable. And all logical, rational, reasonable people are pretty much the same. Logic always comes up with the same answers. If we just count on our unconscious mind, it kind of brings us down to the level of animals, animals living strictly by instinct, and they’re not all that individual either. But when you combine the two, that’s when the magic happens, and that’s when you get a true individual person who’s unlike anyone else who ever lived.

Brett McKay: And how does individuation lead to what Jung called transcendence?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: So transcendence is something that we typically associate with sages or gurus, but scientific studies have found that it happens to ordinary people. For many people, transcendent qualities increase as we get older. And transcendence really has two major qualities. One is that we have less dependence on the outside world for our happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction. So for example, transcendent people don’t need a whole lot of material goods to be happy. Transcendent people don’t need to be told by others how good they are. Transcendent people don’t need to have titles and expensive cars, etcetera, etcetera. They can draw off of their own solid sense of who they are for that kind of reinforcement. The other aspect of transcendence is a growing capacity to love. It’s the ability to extend our love. We all have self-love, and then to extend that beyond ourselves to perhaps our family, spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, and then beyond that to strangers, the entire human race, all living things, and the universe as a whole. As we become more and more transcendent, our ability to love grows and it spreads out.

Brett McKay: So how do we tap into that? I mean any practical things we do. Is it just a matter of, okay, I’m gonna go buy a tarot deck and start reading fairy tales? Or how do we begin this process of individuation and transcendence by tapping into our unconscious?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s probably, as I said, the most important thing we do in life. And it’s very, very hard. There’s not one way to do it. There’s probably an infinite ways to do it. Probably, everybody does it in their own particular way. But there’s a few ways that have been developed. I think that the starting point is that if you wanna develop a relationship with another person, the first thing you wanna do is get to know them. You meet someone you wanna be friends with, you say, “Hey, where are you from? Where did you grow up? What kind of work do you do? What are your interests?” It’s the same with the unconscious. The first step is simply paying attention to what the unconscious is doing. Pay attention to the emotions that happen, to the weird memories of childhood that often pop into our mind, to the funny thoughts that we have that come out of the blue, gut feelings, inspirations, all those kinds of things. And it’s not an easy thing to do. It takes a lot of energy. It takes a lot of focus. And it takes time. A lot of these things are gonna appear irrational, and even random at first. And it’s going to take a long time before they start to come together in an understandable way.

Another thing we can do is to read fairy tales and other ancient literature about the supernatural. And I don’t think we necessarily want to analyze it. We don’t need to ask, “What does this mean? How can I understand this in a psychological way?” I think, really, we just need to let it work on us. Many have had the experience of reading a fairy tale and feeling a little bit off for a few days, feeling maybe a little bit psychologically off-balance. For some people, it’s so intense that they won’t read fairy tales, especially the classic fairly tales like the Brothers Grimm, that have both the light and the dark of the unconscious. Those can be very, very upsetting. So trying to read some of this literature and allowing it to do its thing.

A more practical approach, I would say, is meditation. Meditation does a couple of things. Meditation, because it’s an exercise in focus and concentration, strengthens the conscious mind. That makes the conscious mind stronger, and so it’s better able to pay attention to the things that are going on, the kinds of experiences the unconscious is producing inside the head. And also, the raw instincts of the unconscious are so powerful that if we’re able to strengthen the consciousness through meditation, it makes it a little bit safer to open up the door and have confidence that we won’t be overwhelmed.

Brett McKay: You do clinical psychiatry. Do you do some of this stuff with people you see?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: I do. I do. I recommend meditation to a lot of people, and it seems to help a lot. In terms of moving towards individuation, I don’t do that with the people that I see. And the reason is that the people I see are sick. And individuation is a difficult and a very dangerous endeavor. When you start to open up the channels that separate the conscious from the unconscious, a lot’s gonna come through there, a lot of really good things, but also a lot of really bad things. And so I think that individuation is something for healthy people to do, and that sick people need to wait until they get healthy before they start that process.

Brett McKay: Okay, so if you are healthy, just start paying attention to those unconscious things that pop up, read fairy tales. You know who does a really great job, if you don’t wanna read, that kind of, I think, taps into a lot of archetypes: The Twilight Zone.

Daniel Z. Lieberman: Oh, yeah.

Brett McKay: A lot of those episodes, they kind of make you feel disturbed for a couple of days, and they tap into mother archetypes and just different stuff like that. I think Twilight Zone’s another great one for that. And then meditation. Well, Daniel, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Daniel Z. Lieberman: They can go to my website,

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Daniel Lieberman, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Daniel Z. Lieberman:Brett, thank you so much for having me.

Brett McKay: My guest here was Dr. Daniel Lieberman. He’s the author of the book Spellbound. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, Also check out our show notes at, where you can find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.

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