The Journey into the Unconscious — Introduction

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“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me”. (Psalm 23 v4)

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This is the beginning of a series of articles exploring the theme of the inner psychological journey. This has been described variously as:

  • a confrontation with the unconscious (by Carl Jung)
  • a descent into the underworld (or hell), as found in ancient hero myths — for example Odysseus, Aeneas, and Hercules
  • the crossing of an expanse of water, an ocean. The best known expression of this is the Night Sea Journey. Also the Taoist book of wisdom and oracle the I Ching, says that “it furthers one to cross the Great Water”.

My reason for wanting to do this is as follows. After a long period of depression some time ago, I experienced what one would call a spiritual awakening. The various ingredients of this all came straight from Jungian psychology: personal analysis, big dreams and their interpretation, ESP, powerful synchronicities, and a mind-blowing encounter with the I Ching — a book which Jung found very interesting, and for which he wrote a foreword (in Richard Wilhelm’s translation). I have therefore developed a lifelong interest in Carl Jung and his ideas.

During that period I read his Memories, Dreams, Reflections, including the chapter ‘Confrontation with the Unconscious’, which described his extraordinary inner journey. This was the first time that I had ever come across such material, and I took the term at face value, not seeking to think more deeply about it. It was only later that I came across commentaries by others less keen on Jung which described this period as madness, a psychosis, or sometimes more generously as a ‘creative illness’. As Frank McLynn, one of his biographers, says: “Those hostile to Jung have suggested that he was certifiably schizophrenic from 1913–1918, and we can therefore discount his post-Freudian ideas, as they are the product of madness”¹. Jung himself said, on the contrary, that this inner journey was highly significant for his inner development, and the inspiration for the remainder of his life’s work.

We now know that he documented this inner journey in his Red Book, which he never wanted to have published during his lifetime, if at all. It was eventually published in 2009². His account there is extraordinary and much more detailed than the one found in Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

I had always believed that book to be Jung’s autobiography. It was a surprise therefore to find that Peter Kingsley, in his book Catafalque³ which I read recently, repeatedly called it a biography. It seems that Jung, late in life, dictated his recollections to his follower Aniela Jaffé, acting as his secretary. This is important because she apparently edited some of what he said, in order to tone down the content, make it less shocking to the average reader. He says that this was a policy also widely adopted by Jung’s family, and others among his followers (Kingsley is not very keen on Jungians).

Especially interesting and revealing on that theme is the Epilogue in Deirdre Bair’s biography of Jung⁴ entitled ‘The So-called Autobiography’. There she reveals that “the family insisted upon major changes”; “they were insisting upon deletions and changes throughout the entire Collected Works as well as to the MDR”. She talks about “the power plays”, and notes Jaffé’s reference to “this whole madly complicated and schizoid situation”.

The picture we have of Jung is therefore a false one, incomplete. The purpose of Kingsley’s book is to acquaint us with the true Jung. He says that we would know him far better by reading the Red Book, rather than Memories, Dreams, Reflections. That will also partly be my purpose in this series to follow.

Some themes to be explored are:

  • an exploration of what Jung’s ‘confrontation with the unconscious’ actually was, and what relationship this inner journey has to those forms of madness called schizophrenia and psychosis. Was it ‘madness’, or was it one form of the spiritual journey, or was it both? Might it be a journey that we all need to take, in order to heal ourselves and the planet, and contribute to the ongoing evolution of human consciousness? In that context the work of psychotherapists like R. D. Laing and Stanislav Grof will be relevant.
  • how does such a period of inner exploration relate to the descent into the underworld that is a recurrent theme in ancient hero myths?
  • other ways of describing the inner journey, rather than a descent into the underworld/hell. As mentioned above, it is sometimes described as an ocean journey. Another example is the labyrinth, which in the myth of Theseus is an obvious symbol of the unconscious psyche, where one can easily get lost, but which he has to enter in order to kill the Minotaur living deep within.

Before beginning, it’s worth noting that, when Jung described his inner journey as a ‘confrontation with the unconscious’, this was a new term, so that one might conclude that he was the first to undertake such a journey. There is, however, a long history of similar inner journeys. Further themes to explore therefore are:

  • shamanism
  • pre-Socratic philosophers, for example Parmenides and Epimenides
  • the ancient hero myths which involve a descent into the underworld. It would seem that this journey was a necessary stage of the spiritual journey of Odysseus, Aeneas and Hercules.
  • more recent figures, for example Emanuel Swedenborg, who had visions of heaven and hell, and William Blake
  • literary examples: Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Goethe’s Faust whose pact with Mephistopheles (the Devil) we can interpret as an allegory of his descent into the darkness of his own psyche, his own personal hell. As Jungians might say, Mephistopheles represents Faust’s shadow. Jung himself had a lifelong fascination with the play Faust, and actually identified with the figure.

There are also those who have undergone experiences similar to that of Jung in modern times. For example, in his book High Weirdness, Erik Davis explores the lives of three figures: Terrence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K. Dick. According to Medium writer Jules Evans: “All of them had spiritual experiences in the 1970s which were extremely messy, quasi-psychotic and baffling, so baffling that they came back to them again and again, trying to make sense of them for the rest of their lives”⁵. That sounds broadly similar to Jung’s adventure, so might be worth exploring. Along similar lines, Elyn R. Saks describes her book The Centre Cannot Hold as “a memoir of my schizophrenia”, which could also be relevant.

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I’ll conclude this introduction with quotes from Jung’s Red Book, which will give some idea of the material we will encounter:

“When the desert begins to bloom, it brings forth strange plants. You will consider yourselves mad, and in a certain sense you will in fact be mad. To the extent that the Christianity of this time lacks madness, it lacks divine life. Take note of what the ancients taught us in images: madness is divine… It is unquestionable: if you enter into the world of the soul, you are like a madman, and a doctor would consider you to be sick. What I say here can be seen as sickness, but no one can see it as sickness more than I do… Know that there is a divine madness which is nothing other than the overpowering of the spirit of this time through the spirit of the depths” (p238).

Be silent and listen: have you recognized your madness and do you admit it? Have you noticed that all your foundations are completely mired in madness? Do you not want to recognize your madness and welcome it in a friendly manner? You wanted to accept everything. So accept madness too. Let the light of your madness shine, and it will suddenly dawn on you. Madness is not to be despised and not to be feared, but instead you should give it life…If you want to find paths, you should also not spurn madness, since it makes up such a great part of your nature…Be glad that you can recognize it, for you will thus avoid becoming its victim”⁶.

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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 and ). My most recent articles, however, are only on Medium; for those please check out my profile.

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Footnotes:

1. Carl Gustav Jung, Bantam, 1996, p240

2. The Red Book, edited and introduced by Sonu Shamdasani, W. W. Norton & Company

3. Catafalque Press, 2021

4. Jung: a Biography, Little, Brown and Company, 2003

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