The Riddle of the UFO
“We continue to dream in waking life beneath the threshold of consciousness, especially when this activity is conditioned by a repressed or otherwise unconscious complex. It should be said in passing that unconscious contents are by no means exclusively such as were once conscious and, by being repressed, have later grown into unconscious complexes. Quite otherwise, the unconscious has contents peculiar to itself which, slowly growing upward from the depths, at last come into consciousness. We should therefore in no wise picture the unconscious psyche to ourselves as a mere receptacle for the contents discarded by the conscious mind.”
—C. G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul
It has often been noted how specific elements of UFO experiences often appear first in fiction, and only later emerge as (alleged) fact. I think this relates to the UFO as a crucial fiction, that is, a way for the collective psyche to deal with the unknown, by turning it into something familiar, using familiar images, words, concepts, and beliefs. These fictions then become “real,” in a partial sense, because they generate their own evidence.
UFO lore as we know it began at least as far back as the 1940s. So there are almost no researchers today who didn’t grow up in a cultural milieu suffused with such lore, via movies, comic books, TV shows, coffee mugs, stuffed toys, pop songs, etc., etc. We belong to those generations which have been conditioned to believe (or at the very least, to want to believe) in the UFO; even those who disbelieve in it disbelieve in something they once believed in, as kids—i.e., the idea that UFOs are physical craft from elsewhere, etc., etc.
Insofar as it acts as a surrogate for real knowledge and understanding, belief in anything at all is an obstacle to truth.
I was first drawn all the way into UFO-land by Whitley Strieber’s 1987 book Communion. That lead me to John Keel and Jacques Vallee and eventually to my own apparent quasi-memories of alien contact. There was even a period in which I may have believed, or at least suspected, that the “beings” in question were of extraterrestrial origin. It’s hard to say what I believed because, as I say, belief doesn’t take hold of us consciously, by choice, but through conditioning and as a response to deep (unconscious) psychological needs. We might even venture that the only reason we believe anything is out of a need to do so. If so, then the degree to which we are unconscious of that need determines the degree to which we are enslaved to that belief, and the degree to which we take it as certainty, as “fact.”
At one time in my life I needed to believe in UFOs and aliens as having some sort of “out there” existence that would someday transform my own existence from the mundane into something more magical—and which, to that extent, was already doing so (by promising to do so). In later life, probably around the time I turned forty (which Jung marks as the time in which our attention should naturally move from the outer world to the inner), I became less and less interested in UFOs and aliens as an “out there” thing, yet without losing interest in the psychological implications of my belief in them, and even the (I think irrefutable) reality of people’s experiences. That was the time, not coincidentally, that I wrote my first study of Whitley Strieber, in 2008.
You might say that, ever since I first let the UFO into my life (into my imagination), I have been struggling to come to terms with it, to find common ground on which we—the alien and I—could meet and make peace. I believe I have finally found this ground, and, perhaps no surprise, it’s the ground that was always there: the ground of the psyche and of my own body.
My position is now both complicated (many-faceted) and very simple: the UFO, in all its manifestations, emerges from the human psyche itself, and, in secondary but no less significant ways, in and through the body. This is not to dismiss the UFO or alien abductions as mere fantasy, however (or even phantasy), because my understanding more and more is that the psyche and the body are all that there is to existence, and that, to a certain extent, everything emerges through them. C. G. Jung makes this point emphatically in Modern Man in Search of the Soul:
Does there exist for the psyche anything which we may call “illusion”? What we are pleased to call such may be for the psyche a most important factor of life—something as indispensable as oxygen for the organism—a psychic actuality of prime importance. Presumably the psyche does not trouble itself about our categories of reality, and it would therefore be the better part of wisdom for us to say: everything that acts is actual.[i]
The UFO, by its nature, is a riddle that, like the existence of God, has driven men and women to the edges of sanity to find an answer. This is why I think it’s worth giving our special attention—not as scientific question so much as a psychological and philosophic one.
Elsewhere in the same work, Jung makes the point that it’s impossible to understand dream content without being familiar with the daily circumstances of the dreamer. While the symbols that emerge from the unconscious have some degree of universal meaning, they also adapt themselves to fit the conscious awareness of the dreamer. In other words, consciousness is the context—the only one we have—for interpreting the unconscious. I’d suggest that the same can be said of the UFO: that it can’t be approached separately from the circumstances and personality of the experiencer whose life it has entered into and/or emerged from. Yet generally, UFO researchers assume that the UFO represents a cosmic, universal phenomenon that is wholly external, rather than allowing it to (also) be an individual and internal event, one that can’t be separated from the inner and outer life of the experiencer—any more than an animal can be studied outside of its natural environment.
This idea, though it might seem radical, doesn’t actually go against even a more conventional view of the “alien” as an actual other, “out there,” because many abduction reports (and the nature of the phenomenon itself) are highly personal and individual. There are no “White House lawn landings” in UFO lore, only a series of intimate, often one-to-one, encounters.
[i] C. G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, trans. W.S. Dell and Cary F. Baynes, Harcourt, Brace, and Company, New York, 1933, p. 72-3.