Graham Pemberton
8 min readFeb 27, 2023

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The Ideas of Carl Jung in Relation to Other Traditions — Part 1, Sufism

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This is the latest in a series. In the two previous articles I discussed what Jung considered wrong with Christianity — the lack of a Divine Feminine, and the understanding of God as the Summum Bonum (the Great Good). Now I’ll turn to how his ideas relate to other spiritual traditions.

As far as I can tell, Sufism seems to be the esoteric tradition the closest to the ideas of Jung. I wrote one article on that theme last year. Here I’ll add some new material.

Jung tried to present himself to the world as a psychologist/scientist and an empiricist. The irony about this position is that the ideas that he was seeking to convey to the modern world were revelations, gifted to him by various spiritual entities, whom he encountered during his so-called ‘confrontation with the unconscious’, as recorded in his Red Book.

Most important was Philemon, whom he describes as “a pagan (who) brought with him an Egypto-Hellenic atmosphere with a Gnostic colouration… Philemon and other figures of my fantasies brought home to me the crucial insight that there are things in the psyche which I do not produce, but which produce themselves and have their own life. Philemon represented a force which was not myself. In my fantasies I held conversations with him, and he said things which I had not consciously thought. For I observed clearly that it was he who spoke, not I… Psychologically, Philemon represented superior insight. He was a mysterious character to me. At times he seemed to me quite real, as if he were a living personality. I went walking up and down the garden with him, and to me he was what the Indians call a guru”.

Philemon’s main teaching was “psychic objectivity, the reality of the psyche”. “He said I treated thoughts as if I generated them myself, but in his view thoughts were like animals in the forest, or people in a room, or birds in the air, and added, ‘If you should see people in a room, you would not think that you had made those people, or that you were responsible for them’ ”¹.

Above Jung referred to “other figures of my fantasies”. An example of what he meant is provided by Jacques Mabiti²: “In The Red Book Jung himself, when reporting on his conversations with spirits during his exercises of active imagination, relates this surprising passage where spirits claim, without much illusion, to be recognized as beings in their own right:

Elie: ‘You are free to qualify us as symbols, with the same right that you can also qualify your fellow human beings as symbols, if you want to. But we are exactly as real as your fellow human beings. You do not deny anything and do not resolve nothing by calling us symbols’. Me: “You put me in a terrible confusion. You claim to be real?” Elie: “Of course we are what you call real. We are here, and you have to accept us”.

Mabiti then notes that “in his conference of 1935, Jung evokes the ‘world of the subtle bodies’ inhabited by beings possibly possessing a form of corporeality but also by immaterial beings, the border seeming difficult to him to specify”.

All this is important because the reality of the psyche is also a fundamental belief of Sufism. As mentioned in the earlier article, Jung was a close friend of Henry Corbin, arguably the greatest Western scholar of Sufism. As Peter Kingsley notes in Catafalque, Jung said “in no ambiguous or uncertain terms that Henry Corbin was the one person who understood him far better than anybody else”, that Corbin had given him “not only the rarest of experiences, but the unique experience, of being completely understood”. It was presumably the correspondence between Jung’s thinking and Corbin’s extensive knowledge of Sufi ideas which allowed this deep connection between them.

Corbin, in Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sūfism of Ibn ‘Arabī³, elucidating the Sufi mystics, talks about “a universe endowed with a perfectly ‘objective’ existence and perceived precisely through the Imagination”. “The world is ‘objectively’ and actually threefold: between the universe that can be apprehended by pure intellectual perception (the universe of the Cherubic Intelligences) and the universe perceptible to the senses, there is an intermediate world, the world of Idea-Images, of archetypal figures, of subtile substances, of ‘immaterial matter’. This world is as real and objective, as consistent and subsistent as the intelligible and sensible worlds”.

These Sufi mystics believe therefore in the objective existence of an intermediate world “where prophetic inspiration and theophanic visions have their place”. I submit that this intermediate world of the Sufi mystics and its reality is the same realm as that described by Philemon and Elie in the quotes above, and the world that Jung entered in his confrontation with the unconscious. (The above quotes are extracts from longer ones in the earlier article on Jung and Sufism.)

Buddhists might argue that, like the material world, this intermediate realm is also an illusion. Sufis might counter that it is at least as real, no more no less, than the material world.

As is well known, dream interpretation is the central feature of Jung’s psychotherapeutic method. It would seem that, of all the major spiritual traditions, Sufism places the greatest emphasis on the significance of dreams and their interpretation. I am happy to be corrected, but am not aware of any similar emphasis in Buddhism, Hinduism, or Taoism. It seems that it is only in indigenous cultures that dreams are considered important. (One exception would be Swami Sivananda Radha who wrote Realities of the Dreaming Mind⁶. According to the back cover: “Initiated in 1956, she was the first Western woman to become a swami”. She says, however, that “it was Hugh Lynn Cayce, on his visit to our very simple ashram in the early 1960s, who first inspired me to look for the divine messages in my dreams and eventually led me to pursue my study of Dream Yoga”. It would seem therefore that her devotion to dreams was not something she learned from her Hindu guru.)

In modern Sufism, one figure who finds a deep connection with Jung’s ideas, especially the importance of dreams, is Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, who has written two relevant books. The first is entitled Catching The Thread: Sufism, Dreamwork & Jungian Psychology⁴, which I’ll discuss here. The second is entitled Return of the Feminine and the World Soul. The title suggests that it has strong connections with Jungian thinking, although I haven’t read it (Jung frequently referred to the anima mundi [soul of the world], and recognised the urgent need for the revival of the Divine Feminine, as discussed in this earlier article.)

A big influence on Vaughan-Lee is Irina Tweedie, who wrote the foreword to his book, and whom he frequently quotes. The publisher’s introductory notes to her The Chasm of Fire⁵ says: “Born in Russia in 1907, Mrs. Tweedie was educated in Vienna and Paris. Eventually she moved to England where she was happily married to a naval officer. Distraught by his premature death in 1954, she looked for consolation and meaning in her life… Eventually her search took her some five years later to India where, in 1961, she found her way to a Sufi Master who was to change her life forever. She returned to England after his death in 1966. Until her retirement, Mrs Tweedie held meditation meetings in her home where her group worked extensively with dreams, as her Teacher had done”. I was fortunate to attend those meetings for a while, and confirm that each session began with a sharing and interpretation of our dreams. (As an aside, it was also extremely interesting that she was in communication with her deceased teacher, who was guiding the group from ‘the beyond’. She said that he had taught her how she would be able to achieve this while he was still alive.)

She wrote the foreword to Vaughan-Lee’s book, and in his introduction as his epigram he quotes her: “Dreamwork is the modern equivalent of the ancient Sufi teaching stories”.

In a chapter entitled ‘The Alchemical Opus I: The Transformation of the Shadow’, Vaughan-Lee opens with a well known quote from Jung as his epigram: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular”. He then quotes Tweedie, describing what this process was like for her: “I had hoped for instructions in Yoga, expected wonderful teachings, but what the Teacher did was mainly to force me to face the darkness within myself, and it almost killed me. In other words he made me ‘descend into hell’, the cosmic drama enacted in every soul as soon as it dares lift its face to the Light”.

This introduces another strong connection between Sufism and Jung since the descent into the Underworld (Hell) or ‘confrontation with the unconscious’ is an essential ingredient of his individuation process, as I’ve been discussing in another ongoing series of articles.

Vaughan-Lee has chapters on ‘The Transformation of the Shadow’, ‘The Pain of the Collective Shadow’, ‘The Inner Feminine and Her Dual Nature’, and ‘Symbols of the Self’. There are also three chapters on ‘The Alchemical Opus’. He also reports many dreams which refer to what Jung would call the individuation process. All this establishes strong connections with Jung’s thinking.

In the next article in the series I’ll turn to a discussion of the relationship between Jung and Eastern traditions, beginning with Taoism.

Carl Jung

I hope you have enjoyed this article. I have written in the past about other topics, including spirituality, metaphysics, psychology, science, Christianity, politics and astrology. All of those articles are on Medium, but the simplest way to see a guide to them is to visit my website (click here and here). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my lists.

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Footnotes:

  1. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Collins Fount Paperbacks, 1977, p207–8

2. Jung, His Inspirers and the New Age

3. Princeton University Press, 1997, originally 1969

4. The Golden Sufi Centre, 1998, Third Printing 2012

5. Element Classic Editions, 1993. There is also Daughter of Fire: A Diary of a Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master, which is described as the complete unabridged (over 800 pages!) edition of The Chasm of Fire.

6. Shambhala, 1994

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Graham Pemberton

I am a singer/songwriter interested in spirituality, politics, psychology, science, and their interrelationships. grahampemberton.com spiritualityinpolitics.com