Swiss psychologist and major contributor to psychotherapy, Carl Jung (1875 – 1961) cultivated the ability to have visions from deep imagination. Some would label these explorations as mystical experiences while others would say they are more akin to the sort creative thinking artists do. In addition to these experiences, Jung had several spontaneous visions when he was recovering from a heart attack when he was 69. All of his visions are described in detail in his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections.
Sick Bed Visions (1944)
“It seemed to me that I was high up in space. Far below I saw the globe of the earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light. I saw the deep blue sea and the continents. Far below my feet lay Ceylon, and in the distance ahead of me the subcontinent of India. My field of vision did not include the whole earth, but its global shape was plainly distinguishable and its outlines shone with a silvery gleam through that wonderful blue light…the sight of earth from this height was the most glorious thing I had ever seen…
Something new entered my field of vision. A short distance away I saw in space a tremendous dark block of stone, like a meteorite. It was about the size of my house, or even bigger. It was floating in space, and I myself was floating in space.
An entrance led into a small antechamber. To the right of the entrance, a black Hindu sat silently in lotus posture upon a stone bench…I knew that he expected me. Two steps led up to this antechamber, and inside…was the gate to the temple. As I approached the steps leading up to the entrance into the rock, a strange thing happened: I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me—an extremely painful process. Nevertheless something remained; it was as if I now carried along with me everything I had ever experienced or done, everything that had happened around me. I might also say: it was with me, and I was it. I consisted of all that, so to speak. I consisted of my own history, and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am. I am this bundle of what has been, and what has been accomplished. This experience gave me a feeling of extreme poverty, but at the same time of great fullness.”
Over the next few weeks, Jung would feel gloomy by day, sleep the early evening to midnight and then awaken to a feeling of ecstasy. “It was as if I were in an ecstasy. I felt as though I were floating in space, as though I were safe in the womb of the universe—in a tremendous void, but filled with the highest possible feeling of happiness. Everything around me seemed enchanted…Night after night I floated in a state of purest bliss, thronged round with images of all creation.”
During this time, Jung has visions of several images of “mystical marriage.” Mystical marriage is a complex concept that has been expressed in the writings and artwork of alchemy, kabbala, Gnosticism, and some major religions. The marriage occurs when two powers, such as the Chinese yin (the feminine) and yang (the masculine) are brought into harmony; in this case to form the Tao. Since yin and yang represent many different attitudes and ways of comporting ourselves in the world, a marriage indicates that we have the power to be in balance with these two powerful forces. We are the “whole” person, not limited to one side of the coin but instead enlightened enough to be able to employ whatever attitude or behavior is appropriate in the moment. To Jung and Jungians, this was a vision of tremendous importance and of a high achievement.
(For a full retelling of these visions, see chapter 10 of Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections.)
Memories, Dreams, Reflections pulled together Jung’s autobiographical recollections from his lectures, letters, and conversations. Published after his death, this book provides an inside view of Jung’s own experience with Active Imagination. In Chapter 6, “Confrontation With The Unconscious,” we learn how Jung is thrown into his inner world when he finds himself out of his mentors world. In his mid-thirties, he has a falling out with Freud and finds himself out on his own without the professional connections he enjoyed through Freud’s connections. With time on his hands and with enough understanding of the inner world, Jung decides to go as deeply as possible. Here, in very summary format, is what he experiences.
First Recorded Active Imagination Experience – December 12, 1913
Jung sits at his desk and decides to “just let himself drop.” He finds having the sensation that the ground has literally given out under his feet. He plunges into the dark depths. Not too long in his fall he lands on soft ground, actually a “sticky mass.” Once his eyes adjusts he begins to see some details in the near darkness. Before him is an entrance to a cave, in which stood a dwarf with leathery skin. Jung squeezes past this person and soon begins to wade through icy water which is knee deep. At the other end of the cave he sees, on a projecting rock, a glowing red crystal.
Lifting the crystal he sees that that there is a hole in the ground allowing him to see down to a river. He soon sees a corpse floating by (a boy with blonde hair). He is followed by a gigantic black scarab and then by a red, newborn sun, rising up out of the depths of the water. Blinded by the sun, Jung wants to replace the crystal in the hole to block the sun’s rays but a fluid starts to pour out of the whole. It is blood. Blood pours out and Jung feels nauseated. On it pours until finally, it comes to an end. Jung’s Active Imagination ends.
Second Recorded Active Imagination Experience – No Date Given
Jung uses a visual technique that he has found helps him go deeper into Active Imagination. This technique is a realistic visualization of descending a great distance. In this experience he figures that he has descended about a 1000 feet. There he discovers a “cosmic abyss.” Next he sees something like a moon crater and then he has the feeling that he is in the land of the dead. Near the steep slope of a rock he catches the sight of two people, one an old man and the other, a beautiful young girl. He summons up his courage and approaches them. He listens carefully to what they say. The old man turns out to be the biblical figure Elijah and the girl, Salome. “What a strange couple,” he muses. But Elijah tells Jung that he and Salome belong together for all eternity. Along with the two is a third, a large black snake. Jung sticks close to Elijah and keeps his distance from Salome.
Over time, Jung holds conversation with Elijah who eventually changes into another figure, Philemon. Philemon teaches Jung about the nature of human consciousness. Jung begins to see how autonomous inner figures can act. It is the inner figure that seems to hold this knowledge, not Jung. (p.183). Again, Jung’s inner figure changes. This time it alters to take on the form of the Egyptian notion of spirit, Ka. (p.184-185, Vintage edition of Memories, Dreams, Reflections).
For an extended treatment of Jung’s mystical side, here is a fascinating book:
“For those familiar with the work of famed thinker Carl Jung, author Gary Lachman has written a challenging but worthwhile biography. In Jung the Mystic: The Exoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teachings, Lachman explores the perception of Jung as a mystic, rather than as a man of science and disciplined reason, paying special attention to a number of pivotal events, experiences, and relationships that helped form Jung’s approach and beliefs.
Jung’s work includes such relatively well-known ideas as the self, the collective unconscious, mandalas, psychological types, and archetypes. His formulation of each, along with other lesser-known elements of his teachings, is mapped out in Jung the Mystic against the life of a man who experienced a continual struggle between his tangible world and his spiritual one.
Jung himself was apparently much at odds with the characterization of his work as mysticism. However, as Lachman digs deeper into Jung’s growth to adulthood, we see his position becoming somewhat more complex regarding this controversy. Jung ‘seemed to have two minds about the supernatural: a public one that wanted to understand it ‘scientifically,’ and a private one that acknowledged ghosts, visions, and premonitions as part of the essential mystery of life.'”
A very thoughtful commentary on the above text, entitled The Swiss mystic and his big Red Book: the secret world of Carl G Jung, can be found here:
The following are some excerpts from that article:
As Carl Jung’s mysterious masterpiece, The Red Book, is finally published, a new biography portrays the psychologist as a modern-day mystic. For much of his life, pioneering psychologist Carl Gustav Jung presented himself to the world as a rational, no-nonsense scientist. If he appeared to have any interest in mysticism or the occult, it was purely academic: just a way to help him understand the symbolism appearing in his patients’ dreams. In truth, however, Jung was every inch the modern mystic.
A new biography, Jung the Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teachings, highlights Jung’s a life-long fascination with the otherworldly and transcendent aspects of human experience. It rightly places Jung in the context of other major mystical seekers and teachers, such as Rudolf Steiner, G. I. Gurdjieff, and Emanuel Swedenborg.
The book’s author is Gary Lachman, a widely respected writer on esoteric themes (as well as a founding member of the 80s rock band Blondie!). Lachman explores how, as a professional adult, Jung tended to hide and even deny this spiritual/esoteric/occult aspect of his life. Two dramatic personal experiences, thirty years apart, were to finally transform Jung into an openly mystical psychologist and an inspiration for today’s transpersonal movement. And between those two experiences came the creation of his great masterpiece, a hand-written book which for decades was virtually unknown outside his immediate family: The Red Book.
In 2009, the Red Book was finally allowed to be published for the first time, an event which continues to generate a lot of buzz. Some see it as a work of literary genius, others see it as evidence of a psychotic breakdown. Lachman sees The Red Book in the context of the current of mysticism and other-worldly weirdness running throughout Jung’s life. Lachman shows that even as a child, Jung was immersed in a world in which spirituality and the paranormal were the norm.
Jung’s early life was steeped in supernatural phenomena. His grandfather was constantly visited by spirits of the dead, and kept a chair in his study for the ghost of his deceased first wife, who often came to visit him. His mother Emilie likewise believed that she was visited by spirits every night. Emilie was also a trance medium — by entering a trance state, she could communicate with the dead. Another trance medium was Jung’s cousin Helene, who channelled not only their late grandfather but also her own higher self, ‘the real Helene’. Jung was also possibly influenced by a recent past life. He was convinced from the age of twelve that he had two personalities — one, the Swiss boy he appeared to be, and the other (identified only as ‘the Other’), a dignified, authoritative and influential gentleman from the eighteenth century, dressed in white wig and buckled shoes. The two personalities were in some sort of conflict, this Other holding the boy Jung in contempt.
Throughout his early career, Jung kept this other-worldly dimension to his life private and presented himself publicly as a non-believer. For instance, for his medical dissertation he undertook a psychological study of séances, calling it On the Psychology and Pathology of So-called Occult Phenomena, but omitted to mention that he himself had participated in the séances and that the subject, “S.W.”, was in fact his cousin Helene.
In 1906, Carl Jung struck up a close friendship with Sigmund Freud. For a while, Jung became one of Freud’s willing disciples, eagerly helping to spread the good news about psychoanalysis. Over the next six years, however, it became apparent that Freud and Jung had fundamentally different ideas about psychology, psychotherapy and human nature. Freud saw the human psyche as something like an iceberg, with a small, visible top representing the conscious mind and a much larger, submerged bottom representing the unconscious mind. Almost everything driving a person stemmed from the bottom of the iceberg: their repressed emotions, memories and conflicts. Jung, in contrast, saw a great influence on human nature coming not only from the iceberg but also from the ocean itself — from humanity’s collective unconscious. In addition, Jung’s work on himself and his patients had convinced him that psychoanalysis should have a positive, growthful, uplifting purpose, enabling people to achieve their higher potential. In contrast, Freud — a materialist and a sceptic — believed that life is meaningless and that psychoanalysis can only bring people to ‘ordinary misery’ at best.
In 1912 Jung went public with his theoretical divergence from Freud. There followed a catastrophic breakdown in their relationship, each stating that the other was unable to admit he could possibly be wrong. And Freud, appalled by Jung’s interest in esoteric matters, publicly accused him of ‘occultism’, implying that he was too irrational to be taken seriously. After this falling-out, Jung went through his first pivotal psychological transformation — a painful process that was to last several years.
In the years following his break with Freud, Jung retreated from many of his professional activities to further develop his own theories. During this time he experienced considerable isolation in his professional life. In 1913, at the age of thirty-eight, Jung entered into a profound dark night of the soul, sinking ever deeper into an hallucinatory world of visions and voices. One of his early visions seemed to be a premonition of the coming of the First World War in 1914. When Jung emerged from this period of crisis, he brought with him his theory of various archetypes — universal patterns or forces that shape our inner lives. These included the anima (the feminine side of a man) and animus (the masculine side of a woman), the wise old man (inner wisdom), and the shadow (the repressed, negative aspects of the personality).
At first, Jung recorded his bizarre experiences in small journals. But he then set about transcribing his notes into a huge, red leather-bound book, on which he worked intermittently for sixteen years. What is now known as The Red Book, or Liber Novus (‘New Book’) to give it its original title, is a 205-page manuscript written and illustrated by Jung between approximately 1914 and 1930. Here is a video about it:
Though it was written for public consumption, Jung eventually decided not to publish the Red Book and put it to one side. After his death in 1961, his family hid it away and denied access to all outsiders, even scholars. The book was kept locked up in a Swiss bank vault for the next forty years. But after years of dialogue with the Jungs, as well as painstaking scanning, translating and editing, a facsimile of The Red Book has finally been published. The book is written in calligraphic text and contains many illuminations. It looks like the handiwork of some ancient wizard, and would not look out of place in a Harry Potter film.
A reviewer from the Washington Post wrote:
“To the modern reader, the result recalls an allegorical-mythological amalgam of Nietzsche’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” Blake’s illuminated poems, Renaissance Neoplatonic dialogue, Eastern scripture, Dante’s “Inferno,” Yeats’s “A Vision” and even the biblical book of Revelation. Jung’s pictures sometimes resemble simplified versions of Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings and sometimes the symbol-laden images in treatises about alchemy (a subject that Jung was soon to study intently). Throughout, one finds illuminated capitals, interlaced roundels that call to mind stained-glass windows, stars, half moons, swords, crosses, dying animals. Jung also drew circular patterns that he later recognized as versions of the mystical shape called the mandala.”
After the Second World War, Jung came out of the closet (as it were), revealing himself to be a modern-day mystic steeped in esoteric mysteries, experiences and practices. The turning point for him, according to Lachman’s book, was a near-death experience. One winter’s day in 1944, the 68-year-old Jung slipped on some ice and broke his leg. Ten days later, while in hospital, he suffered a heart attack. Treated with oxygen and camphor, he lost consciousness but then had an out-of-body experience. Lachman writes:
“He found himself floating 1,000 miles above the Earth. Seas and continents shimmered in blue light and Jung could make out the Arabian desert and the snow-tipped Himalayas. He felt he was about to leave orbit, but then, turning to the south, a huge black monolith came into view. It was a kind of temple, and at the entrance Jung saw a Hindu sitting in a lotus position. Within, innumerable candles flickered, and he felt that the “whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence” was being stripped away. It wasn’t pleasant, and what remained was an “essential Jung”, the core of his experiences. He knew that inside the temple the mystery of his existence, of his purpose in life, would be answered. He was about to cross the threshold when he saw, rising up from Europe far below, the image of his doctor in the archetypal form of the King of Kos, the island site of the temple of Asclepius, Greek god of medicine. He told Jung that his departure was premature; many were demanding his return and he, the King, was there to ferry him back. When Jung heard this, he was immensely disappointed, and almost immediately the vision ended. He experienced the reluctance to live that many who have been ‘brought back’ encounter, but what troubled him most was seeing his doctor in his archetypal form. He knew this meant that the physician had sacrificed his own life to save Jung’s. On 4 April 1944 – a date numerologists can delight in – Jung sat up in bed for the first time since his heart attack. On the same day, his doctor came down with septicæmia and took to his bed. He never left it, and died a few days later.”
Following this experience, the spiritual or transpersonal dimension became an explicit element of Jung’s work. Unlike Freud, who held that spiritual experiences were nothing but fantasies, Jung now regarded spirituality as vital to our well-being, and based on his own Near Death Experience, he wrote:
“What happens after death is so unspeakably glorious that our imagination and feelings do not suffice to form even an approximate conception of it.”
In a rare video clip, Carl Jung speaks about death, and consciousness that transcends space and time:
For an engaging and informative interview with the author of Jung the Mystic: The Exoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teachings, Gary Lachman, see:
In the following excerpt, Alan Watts speaks about the time he met with Carl Jung. Topics they discussed included approaching Eastern Philosophies as a westerner, Jung’s ability to distill ancient wisdom in modern psychological terms, the collective unconscious and more.
“There was a sort of twinkle in Jung’s eye that gave me the impression that he knew himself to be just as much a villain as everybody else. There is a nice German word, hintergedanken, which means a thought in the very far far back of your mind. Jung had a hintergedanken in the back of his mind that showed in the twinkle in his eye. It showed that he knew and recognized what I sometimes call the element of irreducible rascality in himself. And he knew it so strongly and so clearly and in a way so lovingly, that he would not condemn the things in others and would therefore not be lead into those thoughts, feelings, and acts of violence towards others which are always characteristic of the people who project the devil in themselves upon the outside – upon somebody else – upon the scapegoat.
Now this made Jung a very integrated character. In other words, here I have to present a little bit of a complex idea. He was man who was thoroughly with himself – having seen and accepted his own nature profoundly. He had a kind of a unity and absence of conflict in his own nature which had to exhibit additional complications that I find so fascinating.
He was the sort of man who could feel anxious and afraid and guilty without being ashamed of feeling this way. In other words, he understood that an integrated person is not a person who has simply eliminated the sense of guilt or the sense of anxiety from his life – who is fearless and wooden and kind of sage of stone. He is a person who feels all these things, but has no recriminations against himself for feeling them.
And this is to my mind a profound kind of humor. You know in humor there is always a certain element of malice. There was a talk given on the Pacifica stations just a little while ago which was an interview with Al Capp. And Al Capp made the point that he felt that all humor was fundamentally malicious. Now there’s a very high kind of humor which is humor at one’s self – malice towards one’s self. The recognition of the fact that behind the social role that you assume; behind all your pretentions to being either a good citizen or a fine scholar or a great scientist or a leading politician or a physician or whatever you happen to be – that behind this façade – there is a certain element of the unreconstructed bum. Not as something to be condemned and wailed over, but as something to be recognized as contributive to one’s greatness and to one’s positive aspect; in the same way that manure is contributive to the perfume of the rose.
Jung saw this and Jung accepted this and I want to read a passage from one of this lectures, which I think is one of the greatest things he ever wrote. And which has been a very marvelous thing for me. It was in a lecture delivered to a group of clergy in Switzerland a considerable number of years ago and he writes as follows:
‘People forget that even doctors have moral scruples and that certain patient’s confessions are hard even for a doctor to swallow. Yet the patient does not feel himself accepted unless the very worst of him is accepted too. No one can bring this about by mere words. It comes only through reflection and through the doctor’s attitude towards himself and his own dark side. If the doctor wants to guide another or even accompany him a step of the way, he must feel with that person’s psyche. He never feels it when he passes judgment. Whether he puts his judgments into words or keeps them to himself, makes not the slightest difference. To take the opposite position and to agree with the patient offhand is also of no use but estranges him as much as condemnation. Feeling comes only through unprejudiced objectivity.
This sounds almost like a scientific precept. And it could be confused with a purely intellectual abstract attitude of mind. But what I mean is something quite different. It is a human quality: A kind of deep respect for the facts – for the man who suffers from them and for the riddle of such a man’s life. The truly religious person has such an attitude. He knows that God has brought all sort of strange and unconceivable things to pass and seeks in the most curious ways to enter a man’s heart. He therefore senses in everything the unseen presence of the Divine Will. This is what I mean by unprejudiced objectivity. It is a moral achievement on the part of the doctor who ought not to let himself be repelled by sickness and corruption. We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate. It oppresses. And I am the oppressor of the person I condemn – not his friend and fellow sufferer.
I do not in the least mean to say that we must never pass judgment when we desire to help and improve. But, if the doctor wishes to help a human being, he must be able to accept him as he is. And he can do this in reality only when he has already seen and accepted himself as he is. Perhaps this sounds very simple, but simple things are always the most difficult. In actual life, it requires the greatest art to be simple. And so, acceptance of oneself is the essence of the moral problem, and the acid test of one’s whole outlook on life. That I feed the beggar – that I forgive an insult – that I love my enemy in the name of Christ – all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least amongst them all – the poorest of all beggars – the most impudent of all offenders – yea the very fiend himself – that these are within me? And that I myself stand in need of the arms of my own kindness. That I myself am the enemy that must be loved. What then?
Then, as a rule, the whole truth of Christianity is reversed. There is then no more talk of love and long suffering. We say to the brother within us: Rocca, and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide him from the world. We deny ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves. And had it been God himself who drew near to us in this despicable form, we should have denied him a thousand times before a single cock had crowed.'”
In All Chaos There Is a Cosmos
“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order. Every civilized human being, whatever his conscious development, is still an archaic man at the deeper levels of his psyche. Just as the human body connects us with the mammals and displays numerous relics of earlier evolutionary stages going back to even the reptilian age, so the human psyche is likewise a product of evolution which, when followed up to its origins, show countless archaic traits.
A more or less superficial layer of the unconscious is undoubtedly personal. I call it the “personal unconscious.” But this personal layer rests upon a deeper layer, which does not derive from personal experience and is not a personal acquisition but is inborn. This deeper layer I call the “collective unconscious”. I have chosen the term “collective” because this part of the unconscious is not individual but universal; in contrast to the personal psyche, it has contents and modes of behaviour that are more or less the same everywhere and in all individuals.
The great decisions of human life have as a rule far more to do with the instincts and other mysterious unconscious factors than with conscious will and well-meaning reasonableness. The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases. Each of us carries his own life-form—an indeterminable form which cannot be superseded by any other.
We are living in what the Greeks called the right time for a “metamorphosis of the gods,” i.e. of the fundamental principles and symbols. This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing, is the expression of the unconscious man within us who is changing. Coming generations will have to take account of this momentous transformation if humanity is not to destroy itself through the might of its own technology and science.
My interests drew me in different directions. On the one hand I was powerfully attracted by science, with its truths based on facts; on the other hand I was fascinated by everything to do with comparative religion… In science I missed the factor of meaning; and in religion, that of empiricism.
Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves… We should not pretend to understand the world only by the intellect; we apprehend it just as much by feeling. Therefore, the judgment of the intellect is, at best, only the half of truth, and must, if it be honest, also come to an understanding of its inadequacy.
Motherlove… is one of the most moving and unforgettable memories of our lives, the mysterious root of all growth and change; the love that means homecoming, shelter, and the long silence from which everything begins and in which everything ends. Intimately known and yet strange like Nature, lovingly tender and yet cruel like fate, joyous and untiring giver of life-mater dolorosa and mute implacable portal that closes upon the dead.
Mother is motherlove, my experience and my secret. Why risk saying too much, too much that is false and inadequate and beside the point, about that human being who was our mother, the accidental carrier of that great experience which includes herself and myself and all mankind, and indeed the whole of created nature, the experience of life whose children we are?
The grasping of the whole is obviously the aim of science… but it is a goal that necessarily lies very far off because science, whenever possible, proceeds experimentally and in all cases statistically. Experiment, however, consists in asking a definite question which excludes as far as possible anything disturbing and irrelevant. It makes conditions, imposes them on Nature, and in this way forces her to give an answer to a question devised by man. She is prevented from answering out of the fullness of her possibilities since these possibilities are restricted as far as practible.
For this purpose there is created in the laboratory a situation which is artificially restricted to the question which compels Nature to give an unequivocal answer. The workings of Nature in her unrestricted wholeness are completely excluded. If we want to know what these workings are, we need a method of inquiry which imposes the fewest possible conditions, or if possible no conditions at all, and then leave Nature to answer out of her fullness.”