Dancing Our Prayers: Dance, Technology, and the Art of Inquiry with Elizabeth Nelson, Part I of II

Dr. Elizabeth Nelson teaches courses in research design, process, methodology, and dissertation development as well as dream, archetypal psychology, and technology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Her latest book is The Art of Inquiry: A Depth Psychological Perspective, and she also brings a background in somatics and dance. I’m delighted to speak with this eclectic scholar and hear more.

Angela Borda: You’ve had an extremely eclectic education and career path, and have the unique qualification of having had a career in IT before you entered the field of psychology. What did that arc look like? What prompted you to go from step to the other?

Elizabeth Nelson: I’ve never been practical. I’ve always followed Eros, whatever subject fascinated me. I did a double major in Economics and Political Science at UC Davis, my Master’s degree was in English literature, and my Ph.D. was in depth psychology. Makes no sense. I was living in the Bay Area and got interested in computers at a time when Silicon Valley was heating up, in the early 80s. I started working with a startup company, which I loved, then I worked with HP for a few years, and then went back to working with startups. I was fascinated by the engineers who were building this stuff. An eclectic group of people. And incredibly bright, that’s a given. For about 18 years, I was a professional writer and editor because in the startup environment, it’s important to identify yourself and describe who you are to investors.

It was pretty uncommon for women to be involved in high tech but I’ve been a pioneer most of my life. My mom always told me to “go for it” whenever I came up with hairbrained ideas as a kid. The only idea she didn’t like was mountain climbing.

Angela: At Pacifica, you teach a course titled “Psyche, Soma, Cyborg” that is described thusly: “In an age that has decisively dissolved the human-machine interface, few people in the first world can live without their technology, be it smart phone, laptop, Facebook page, or Twitter feed. How does Mary Shelley’s fictional creature foreshadow our 21st-century creatures—the internet, mobile digital devices, and social media—who exceed the control of their creators?” How do you see A.I. as it relates to the field of depth psychology and the psyche? In a future sense, do you think it will ultimately have the same fate as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?

Elizabeth: I’ve been teaching Frankenstein for more than twenty years, and “Psyche, Soma, Cyborg” for ten years. I love the class, and the students do too. Using Mary Shelley’s novel as a way of understanding our relationship to technology is important because the relationship between the creator and the creature is deeply problematic, amoral, and unethical.

One of the biggest conversations about mobile digital technology and about AI has to do with whether or not our technological education is outstripping our moral education. It goes back to what Victor Frankenstein did not ask. He asked, “Can I be the father of a new race, a new god?” He never asked himself “Should I be?” Just because we can do it, should we? What are the moral or ethical guardrails for creating new technologies?

Angela: Is AI an archetype? If so, what kind?

Elizabeth: An interesting question. I would say that the cyborg—the merging of flesh and circuitry—is an archetype. And to the extent that AI is an extension of the cyborg, then the answer is yes, perhaps.

However, it’s important not to conflate technology with AI, since “technology” is a very broad term describing many kinds of tools. To the extent that our mobile digital technologies allow us to offer better services in remote areas, I think it’s a good thing, but I’d never want to say that meeting a doctor or therapist via Telehealth is the same as meeting them in person. There are significant differences between screen relationships and embodied relationships, and yet the expansion into underserved areas is very important. The question for depth psychologists is how can Telehealth serve the soul of the patient? What can we do to enhance the digitally mediated environment so that it is as soulful as possible?

Angela: I was impressed by how eclectic your interests are, so I hope you’ll be okay with a rather eclectic set of questions.  You’ve written a book titled The Art of Inquiry: A Depth Psychological Perspective, which contains your favorite quote, “IN THE REALM OF PSYCHE, ALL AUTHORS ARE CO-AUTHORS.” And you describe yourself as being “committed to scholarship infused with soul: guided by and centered on the autonomous psyche.” I hadn’t heard the term “autonomous psyche” before, and I wondered what the distinction is there, and also how the art of inquiry informs attempts to understand our psyche?

Elizabeth: The autonomous psyche is an idea that features strongly in Jung’s work, where he describes the figures of the unconscious as alive, independent of his will—not splinters of the ego that he controlled. In his memoir he describes walking up and down the garden with these figures. That’s the sense in which I mean the term “autonomous.”

The Art of Inquiry asks, “Why is research centered on the psyche so incredibly alive and vital? And why it is so difficult?” Joe Coppin and I hadn’t read anything that answered these questions in straightforward terms. So we began working on the book in 2002 and self-published the first edition in 2004. Then James Hillman’s press published the second 2005 edition, and in 2017 a third expanded edition came out.

Joe and I meant to write a modest little book about research and the psyche. But it turns out people were reading it as an introduction to depth psychology and a guidebook to a psyche-centered life. We were astonished.

We were strongly influenced by Hillman’s work with archetypal images. Images for Jungians and archetypal psychologists are alive, the experience of them is frequently numinous and transformative. We develop relationship with images and cultivate them over decades. A numinous dream, for instance, that you had thirty years ago can still be with you today and continue to unfold its meaning. We don’t control the psyche.

One of the things I discovered while teaching The Art of Inquiry at Pacifica, is that nearly always there’s an autonomous image at the heart of student’s research topic and part of what they do is come into relationship with that image. The image is a co-author, if you will. I don’t think I’ve ever see that not happen.

Angela: What happens in a therapeutic setting, talking with an autonomous image that is not you? How is that possible?

Elizabeth: There’s the personal unconscious and then the objective psyche. A dream image can arise out of my personal unconscious, but in my experience the more vital images arise out of the collective or archetypal layer of the psyche. The experience of such images is paradoxical. They’re both mine and not mine. You might think of it as a friend of yours; Hillman speaks about the importance of befriending the dream images, paying attention without trying to control them or analyze them. But the image is not your creature.

Cats are an example. My husband and I have two wonderful cats and they’re ours in a way. But they are definitely their own creatures. Dream images are similar, cat-like. In a therapeutic setting, I’ve seen that the cultivation of a relationship with these images or figures can be a source of spiritual renewal and soulful meaning. It can be one of the more profound psychological relationships of a person’s life.

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Dr. Elizabeth Éowyn Nelson teaches courses in research design, process, methodology, and dissertation development as well as dream, archetypal psychology, and technology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Her books include Psyche’s Knife: Archetypal Explorations of Love and Power (Chiron, 2012) and The Art of Inquiry: A Depth Psychological Perspective (Spring Publications, 2017), coauthored with Joseph Coppin. She is currently writing a new book, co-authored with Anthony Delmedico, The Art of Jungian Couple Therapy (Routledge, 2025). Dr. Nelson teaches and speaks internationally and has published numerous scholarly papers and book chapters on subjects including animals, dreams, feminism, film, mythology, research, somatics, and technology. She has been a professional writer and editor for 40 years, coaching aspiring authors across multiple genres.


Angela Borda is a writer for Pacifica Graduate Institute, as well as the editor of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Her work has been published in Food & Home, Peregrine, Hurricanes & Swan Songs, Delirium Corridor, Still Arts Quarterly, Danse Macabre, and is forthcoming in The Tertiary Lodger and Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Vol. 5.