One of the most import books of this century was begun a hundred years ago. It is a documentation of Dr. Carl Jung’s encounter with the collective unconscious, a journey that was initiated by his vivid dreams prior to World War I. These were horrific, reoccurring dreams in which all of Europe was covered by a sea of blood and filled with the horrors of masses of dead bodies and horrible suffering. As a psychiatrist working at the Burgholzi clinic for the mentally ill in Switzerland, he feared that he was about to have a mental breakdown.
When the war broke out, he realized that all of his dreams had foreshadowed this calamitous event. It was a culmination of an awareness that he had had all of his life of other dimensions in the psyche, but which he had never tried to formulate. In Memories, Dreams and Reflections he wrote:
“ On August 1, the world war broke out. Now my task was clear: I had to try and understand what had happened and to what extent my own experience coincided with that of mankind in general. Therefore my first obligation was to probe the depths of my own psyche…..”
He continues in a later passage:
“ From the beginning I had conceived my voluntary confrontation with the unconscious as a scientific experiment which I myself was conducting and in whose outcome I was vitally interested. Today I might equally well say that it was an experiment which was being conducted on me.”
As a man of great pioneering courage and enormous spiritual strength, Jung also realized that if he could not have a conscious encounter with this side of life, he couldn’t be as of much service to his patients. He embarked on a conscious descent for an encounter with what he later called The Spirit of the Depths. Although critics later questioned whether or not he was having a psychotic break at the time that he wrote The Red Book, the fact was that he carried on with all his tasks in the outer world – as a psychiatrist, professor, renowned author and lecturer, husband and father.. However, in the evenings and on the weekends, Jung would allow himself to enter into the depths, and he recorded the journey. No one having a psychotic break could possibly manage what he did.
He later said that everything he subsequently wrote about the nature of the psyche and the collective unconscious in his vast Collected Works had its genesis in this prolonged encounter with the depths of the psyche. One of Jung’s key revelations and the point which he said was most often misunderstood about his approach was The Reality of the Psyche. In other words, psyche is not imagined; not a hypothesis or a speculation. He did not believe in God or religion. He was beyond belief because knew God, and he knew the reality of the depths of the psyche.
He came to understand that in the same way our DNA carries the encoding from our ancestors, the deep psyche lives and carries all that came before us and is yet to come. It is timeless and eternal, like a great living, breathing sea. He called it The Spirit of the Depths. However, he realized that most people today are caught up in this dimension and have little or no awareness of these depths. They are living in what he called The Spirit of the Times. This spirit is transient and changes with the passage of time. We know this to be true when we consider how different our lives are now from the lives of people living even 200 or 300 years ago.
The Spirit of the Times that we are in now is all about utilitarianism, and it is ignorant of the reality of the psyche. At the beginning of Liber Primus in The Red Book Jung writes:
“….I have learned that in addition to the spirit of this time there is still another spirit at work, namely that which rules the depths of everything contemporary. The spirit of this time would like to hear of use and value. I also thought this way, and my humanity still thinks this way. But that other spirit forces me nevertheless to speak, beyond justification, use and meaning. Filled with human pride and blinded by the presumptuous spirit of the times, I long sought to hold that other spirit away from me. But I did not consider that the sprit of the depths from time immemorial and for all the future possesses a greater power than the spirit of this time, who changes with the generations. The spirit of the depths has subjugated all pride and arrogance to the power of judgment. He took away my belief in science, he robbed me of the joy of explaining and ordering things, and he let devotion to the ideal of this time die out in me. He forced me down to the last and simplest things.” fol.i (r)/i (v)
Referring to his attitude at the beginning of his night journey, Jung said,
“I still laboured misguidedly under the spirit of this time, and thought differently about the human soul. I thought and spoke much about the soul. I knew many learned words for her. I had judged her and turned her into a scientific object. I did not consider that my soul cannot be the object of my judgment and knowledge; much more are my judgment and knowledge the objects of my soul. Therefore the spirit of the depths forced me to speak to my soul, and to call upon her as a living and self-existing being. I had to become aware that I had lost my soul. From this we learn how the spirit of the depths considers the soul: he sees her as a living and self-existing being, and with this he contradicts the spirit of this time for whom the soul is a thing dependent on man, which lets herself be judged and arranged, and whose circumference we can grasp. I had to accept that what I had previously called my soul was not at all my soul, but a dead system. Hence I had to speak to my soul as to something far off and unknown, which did not exist through me, but through whom I existed.” fol.ii (r) /ii (v)
On how the soul speaks to us, Jung continues on:
“I must learn that the dregs of my thought, my dreams, are the speech of my soul. I must carry them in my heart, and go back and forth over them in my mind, like the words of the person dearest to me. Dreams are the guiding words of the soul. Why should I henceforth not love my dreams and not make their riddling images into objects of my daily consideration? You think that the dream is ungainly? What is clever? What is foolish? The spirit of the time is your measure, but the spirit of the depths surpasses it at both ends. Only the spirit of the time knows the difference between large and small. But this difference is invalid, like the spirit which recognizes it.” fol.ii (r) / ii (v)
The average modern person in the Western world lives on the surface, exploiting whatever resource or situation is available in order to amass power for itself. We live on a horizontal axis until something from the depths comes up and grabs us, forcing us into an encounter with ourselves. When we do not listen to the promptings of our depths, which come in the form of dreams, intuitions or synchronistic events, the vertical pull of the soul will force an encounter. It does not want you to waste the precious opportunity of this life, and if that feels harsh, so be it. In other words, this type of encounter might involve a lot of pain and suffering, but hopefully it will open you to your depths. Now the cross is alive in you and there is the potential for something new to be born.
The Hero’s Journey always tells this story, because it is one that is essential to humanity. Across cultures, this same story is told in many different ways. The hero stumbles along in an unconscious way and then is forced through some hardship or challenging encounter to break through his little egoic bubble and learn something of importance, something from the depths of his soul that will infuse the rest of his life with meaning. It is interesting to me that a close colleague recently had this dream image and encouraged me to share it when I mentioned that I was writing a post on the Red Book. He was wandering in the dream landscape, on some sort of a journey, and suddenly he noticed a bookshelf with many large red books with shiny covers (he associated this with the Red Book). When he looked at these books more closely, he saw the title, which was: The Holy Bible. Jung wanted us to understand that we live in two worlds at the same time, and that we ignore the Spirit of the Depths at our own peril.
Listen to Sonu Shamdasani, editor of The Red Book:
an in-depth account of The Red Book, from the Library of Congress, Sonu Shamdasani:
Jung’s voice and words from Liber Novus:
Face to Face – a film in which the elder Jung is interviewed about his life and philosophy: