C.G. Jung was a master explorer and deep observer of the human psyche, of the complex relationship between conscious daylight life and the vast darkness of the unconscious. The former is the place of control, planning and mastery. It is the zone of wakefulness where we direct our lives, or think we do. The latter is the storehouse of memory, instincts and emotions and forms the structural basis of the psyche. It is pure nature within us. These two aspects of our inner lives must live in accord with each other. Often, they don’t.
The ego, the central eye of consciousness, is an indomitable and arrogant will sitting upon a thin surface of rationality. It is has crafted a map of understanding, a science of the visible world. But ripples from “below,” from the unconscious, can disrupt and distort that carefully articulated surface, changing straight lines to undulating curves. The more disruption there is, the less the ego is sure of its nature, of its supposedly firm identity. Doubt creeps in. The pathways of life become difficult to navigate, or blocked entirely. One suffers the world instead of finding one’s place in it.
C.G. Jung spent his life trying to understand this kind of personal suffering, in himself and in his patients. He worked to elucidate the contents of the psyche and articulate the meaning at its core. His main technique was to listen in a careful and unprejudiced way to the unconscious. He saw in case after case that its disruptions were essentially the “voice” of nature trying to correct an imbalance in consciousness. He observed that dreams, instincts, emotions, and certain kinds of visions, spontaneously manifested themselves in the psyche as a corrective to one-sidedness, the sound of unfulfilled aspects of the personality speaking up.
If one listened carefully to such things, mapped them out and studied their meaning, they could be understood and integrated. Bringing this understanding carefully to light for his patients served to clarify their inner worlds and set them back on a path that was in accord with their essential nature. The result was an expanded consciousness and the birth of a more complete individual.
Jung found that this was not only a therapeutic technique in modern psychology, but it was also a way to understand the “night sea journey” of mythology, the rituals of rebirth and renewal in religion, and the great epics of mankind. His comparative study of the historical archives of man revealed symbols of transformation that recurred throughout history. He dubbed this imagery and its related narratives the archetypes of the collective unconscious. This rich symbolism essentially told the same story over and over again, that of the hero who overcomes great difficulties in pursuit of a treasure of inestimable value — immortality, alchemical gold, rebirth, renewal, salvation.
In psychological terms, this treasure was the “self,” the impersonal centre of one’s being. Jung articulated it in his concept of individuation, of the ego’s relationship and guided transformation as it came into contact with the depths of the unconscious. The varied and rich history of mysticism, religion, mythology and esoteric philosophy was thus understood and re-interpreted as allegorical descriptions of psychological self-discovery. In approaching a wealth of material in this way, Jung opened up his patients and his readers to a new interpretation of human personality, one that embraced the mythological as intimately connected to the personal, to the reality of our everyday lives. He forged a new psychology of mind and personality.
Jung once described a series of dreams and visions as only a small piece of a larger human story, as a “transverse cut through a continuity.” I intend to make such a cut here. This essay is an attempt to go through one of Jung’s seminars from 1932 in order to get a glimpse of how he interpreted seemingly esoteric material through the matrix of his psychology. In the same way that extracting a selection of dreams from a larger series is necessarily inadequate to the whole, one lecture cannot be representative of a lifetime of work. I hope, however, that it can provide some insight into the way in which Jung’s approach broadened the scope of psychological understanding.
The lecture we will focus on forms a part of Jung’s series of English Seminars, which ran from 1923 until 1939 and were published eventually as part of an Addendum to the Collected Works. They are transcripts of Jung speaking and there is a sense when reading them that one is present in the room, part of Jungian psychology at its most dynamic and engaging. William McGuire, who deftly edited the 1928-1930 seminar on Dream Analysis, describes with eloquent precision what made the sessions so compelling:
Altogether, the seminars give us a Jung who was self-confidently relaxed, uncautious and undiplomatic, disrespectful of institutions and exalted personages, often humorous, even ribald, extravagantly learned in reference and allusion, attuned always to the most subtle resonances of the case in hand, and true always to himself and his vocation.
Held on Wednesday mornings from nine until noon at the Psychological Club in Zurich, they were attended by an inner circle of “Jungians” — mostly individuals who had been in analysis with Jung himself, and others who were part of exploring and disseminating the ideas of his psychology. The seminars reveal Jung’s spoken voice conveying in an unvarnished fashion his passion and commitment to the material before him (dreams, visions, texts) and how such material could be intimately related to the psychological states of participants, and hence to people in general.
In the seminar we are looking at here, Jung’s subject was the spiritual practice of the Kundalini Yoga, with a particular focus on the first four chakras.
Wikipedia describes the Kundalini as “a spiritual energy or life force located at the base of the spine, conceptualized as a coiled-up serpent.” In practice, the yogi in deep meditation is “supposed to arouse the sleeping Kundalini Shakti,” represented as a serpent, “from its coiled base through the 6 chakras, and penetrate the 7th chakra, or crown.” Chakras are “energy points or knots in the subtle body,” allegorized in the form of the physical body. In ascending these centres, the goal is “to cultivate the creative spiritual potential of a human to uphold values, speak truth, and focus on the compassion and consciousness needed to serve and heal others.” It is a journey of refined enlightenment.
As Jung describes the movement through these centres, this awakening and rising of the Kundalini from the base of the spine to the top of the head, he references not only individual psychology and the therapeutic journey of individuation, but also connects it tentatively with the entire history of mankind in its slow awakening to greater consciousness. His seminar is a consideration of such practices as representing fundamental and universal aspects of psychological awakening. It is not a commentary “true” to the original practice of yoga; rather, it is a reinterpretation of it within the framework of his psychology.1
Jung begins with the muladhara chakra, which represents the lower basin or abdomen centre of the subtle body, “a symbol of our conscious personal earthly existence.” It is illustrated by an elephant (“the carrying power”) sitting within a square that represents the earth. The Kundalini serpent here is a mere germ in the centre of the chakra, a “sleeping beauty.”
So that indicates a position in which man seems to be the only active power, and the gods, or the impersonal, non-ego powers are inefficient — they are doing practically nothing. And that is very much the situation of our modern European consciousness.
From the Western perspective, this chakra would be the outer world of our conscious life, whereas in the Hindu commentary, it is deep within our body, in our abdomen:
And to be in the abdomen would mean most probably that we were in the mother, in a condition of development or beginning. That point of view would throw a peculiar light on our symbolism. It would convey the idea that our actual existence, this world, is a sort of womb; we are mere beginnings, less than embryos, we are just germs that have still to become…
There is a correlation here between this bit of Eastern philosophy and Christian and Islamic religion, in which our personal existence is seen as an illusion, as merely transitory, and the true existence is in the afterlife and eternity. In speaking of a modern, secular individual, Jung notes that “we have to take for granted that this is the world where the real things happen, and perhaps there is nothing beyond — at least, we have no experiences that would prove it to us.”
You see, it is utterly important that one should be in this world, that one really fulfils one’s entelechia, the germ of life which one is. Otherwise you can never start Kundalini; you can never detach.
You must believe in this world, make roots, do the best you can … If nothing happens of this kind, you have not realized yourself; the germ of life has fallen, say, into a think layer of air that kept it suspended. It never touched the ground, so it could never produce the plant. But if you touch the reality in which you live, and stay for several decades … then the impersonal process can begin.
This impersonal process is represented by the sleeping Kundalini serpent. In waking it — “the unconscious contents which we feel down below in our abdomen … slowly [rise] to the surface and [become] conscious” — the yogi serves “to separate the gods from the world so that they become active,” bringing to light “a world of eternity, totally different from our world.”
For us, the muladhara world is our conscious personal existence, the “culmination of a long history and a long evolution.” But from another perspective, the “standpoint of the gods,” it is a mere beginning, a nursery, and the important things are high above it and still to come.
I insist upon this particular symbolism because it really can give you an incomparable opportunity to understand what is meant by the impersonal experience, and by the peculiar duality, even duplicity, of the human psychology, where two aspects form a bewildering crisscross. On the one side the personal aspect, in which all the personal things are the only meaningful things; and another psychology in which the personal things are utterly uninteresting and valueless, futile, illusory.
It is this play of opposites, of fundamental conflict, that gives one the possibility of separating things and making discriminatory judgements.
So people who have problematic natures with many conflicts are the people who can produce the greatest understanding, because from their problematical natures they are enabled to see other sides and to judge by comparison. We could not possibly judge this world if we had not also a standpoint outside, and that is given by the symbolism of religious experiences.
In waking the Kundalini, or turning one’s attention to the impersonal unconscious and its contents, Jung warns of inflation, of identifying with such contents, but “you must not identify with the unconscious; you must keep outside, detached, and observe objectively what happens” even though the impersonal things “have the very disagreeable quality that they cling to us, or we cling to them. It is as if the Kundalini in its movement upward were pulling us up with it, as if we were part of that movement, particularly in the beginning.”
In India, this is a process they never identify with.
...they can experience the divine because they are so deeply conscious of the utter difference of God and man. We are identical with it from the beginning because our gods, inasmuch as they are not just conscious abstractions, are mere germs, or functions, let us say. The divine thing in us functions as neuroses of the stomach, or of the colon, or bladder — simply disturbances of the underworld. Our gods have gone to sleep, and they only stir in the bowels of the earth.
This is an indication both of the deep divide between East and West when it comes to the impersonal factors, as well as indicating the basic affinity between the theological cure of souls and the emergence of psychotherapy, modern man’s attempt to deal with these disturbances from the depths of the psyche.
In describing this process of an upward movement of consciousness, Jung relates a story from a Pueblo cosmogonic myth about climbing up through dark caves over an extended period, seeing bits of light expand as one climbs up, until the surface is reached and a brilliant light is fashioned into the form of the sun and the moon. This myth “depicts very beautifully how consciousness came to pass, how it rises from level to level.” This is the “awakening out of muladhara” and the movement between the chakras.
The next chakra after muladhara is svadhistana, represented by a huge leviathan in the sea, the threatening power of being overwhelmed by the unconscious. Jung touches on this chakra briefly, noting that in Christian theology, this is the immersion in the waters of baptism. “Christ receives his mission and the spirit of God in his baptism in the Jordan.” After this point, he is “twice-born” and becomes a “symbolic personality” who “belongs to the whole world.”
The light of deification follows baptism in the form of the next chakra, manipura, or the “fullness of jewels,” the “fire place” where one is born into a new existence.
So manipura is the center of the identification with the god, where you become part of the divine substance, having an immortal soul. You are already part of that which is no longer in time, in three-dimensional space: you belong now to a fourth-dimensional order of things where time is an extension, where space does not exist … where there is only infinite duration — eternity.
This is worldwide and ancient symbolism, for instance in Egypt where “the dead Pharaoh goes to the underworld and embarks on the ship of the sun.”
The Pharaoh climbs into the sun bark and travels through the night and conquers the serpent, and then rises again with the god, and is riding over the heavens for all eternity.
This movement from baptism, through the fire of manipura, to a twice-born, “eternal” state is symbolism echoed in an array of initiation cults. Jung notes that it it is very difficult to explain this material in psychological terms, to delineate “what will follow when you have made your acquaintance with the unconscious.”
Baptism is “being pushed into the unconscious,” often represented by a going down into the depths of water, “for the sake of renewal.” It is a fundamental stage in analysis. But what is the psychological interpretation of moving into the fire of manipura? How does it manifest itself? Jung challenges the seminar members to provide an answer, without being too abstract and theoretical. After a few unsatisfactory responses, somebody offers that this is “desirousness,” the “shadow aspect” of our natures. Jung:
Yes, desire, passions, the whole emotional world breaks loose. Sex, power, and every devil in our nature gets loose when we become acquainted with the unconscious. Then you will suddenly see a new picture of yourself. That is why people are afraid and say there is no unconscious, like children playing hide-and-seek.
After baptism, you get right into hell — that is the enantiodromia.
Jung notes here that in the East, this fire is also (paradoxically) the fullness of jewels, because “a man who is not on fire is nothing; he is ridiculous; he is two-dimensional.”
He must be on fire even if he does make a fool of himself. A flame must burn somewhere, otherwise no light shines; there is no warmth, nothing. It is terribly awkward, sure enough; it is painful, full of conflict, apparently a mere waste of time — at all events, it is against reason. But that accursed Kundalini says, “It is the fullness of jewels; there is the source of energy.”
It is the fire of which Buddha speaks in his sermon in Benares where he says, The whole world is in flames, your ears, your eyes, everywhere you pour out the fire of desire, and that is the fire of illusion because you desire things which are futile. Yet there is the great treasure of the released emotional energy.
Psychologically, when people enter this state, “they flare up, they explode, old buried emotions come up, and they begin to weep about things which happened forty years ago.” These are things that had been buried, like embers under the ashes, but they are found to still be there, still burning, when one touches the unconscious — “as it is said of pilgrims going to Mecca: they leave their fires buried under the ashes, and when they return the following year the embers are still glowing.” In reacquainting ourselves with these old emotions, we can attempt to deal with them, to understand what they mean, and then move beyond them.
That is represented by the next chakra, anahata, the heart or air centre, a dynamic movement of the wind (spirit) lifting you “up off your feet into the sphere above the earth.” Here, according to the Egyptian symbolism, “you rise above the horizon” with the sun. Psychologically, this upward movement is a process of detachment from emotions, of the emergence of thought and judgement.
You begin to reason, to think, to reflect about things, and so it is the beginning of a sort of contraction or withdrawal from the mere emotional function. … You stop yourself in your wild mood and suddenly ask, “Why am I behaving like this?”
Anahata is “really the centre where psychical things begin, the recognition of values and ideas.” The importance of such values “becomes clear to us only when we consider them as compelling forces in our lives,” as something “beyond the mere blind action of the manipura fires of passion.” 2
People lose themselves in their emotions and deplete themselves and finally they are burned to bits and nothing remains — just a heap of ashes, that is all. The same thing occurs in lunacy: people get into a certain state and cannot get out of it. They burn up in their emotions and explode. There is a possibility that one detaches from it, however, and when a man discovers this he really becomes a man.
In “making a difference between yourself and that outburst of passion … you discover the self; you begin to individuate.”
In anahata you behold the purusa, a small figure that is the divine self, namely, that which is not identical with mere causality, mere nature, a mere release of energy that runs on blindly with no purpose.
The approach to the purusa, or the self, brings with it the danger of an ego inflation. The ego can fall prey to identifying with the self. You then become a “philosophically distilled egotist.” This is individualism, not individuation and “an individualist is a man who did not succeed in individuating.” Individuation is “becoming the thing which is not the ego, and that is very strange” for “in your self you are not your self — that is what you feel.”
The self is the impersonal centre of the psyche and in approaching it your life is objectified, as if your existence is a calling that is being fulfilled, a strangely circumscribed path you must inevitably follow.
Or, as St. Paul expresses it, “But it is not I that lives, it is Christ that liveth in me,” meaning that his life had become an objective life, not his own life but the life of a greater one, the purusa.
Psychologically, this is understood as a state of balance and completeness, of an individual becoming what they are supposed to be in the world. This was the central idea in Jungian psychology.
In the next session, a week later, Jung says that “we could finish here,” as “mankind as a whole has about reached anahata.” But he goes further, providing a tantalizing glimpse of the increasingly abstract, higher centres that follow: visuddha (“the world of abstract ideas and values … where the psychical reality is the only reality”), ajna (“the psychical is no longer a content in us, but we become contents of it”) and sahasrara (nirvana, a “philosophical concept” that is “beyond any possible experience”); noting their mythological aspects and, of course, providing clues to a psychological interpretation.
In speaking of anahata as the stage that mankind has reached now, he notes that World War I
has taught practically everybody that the things that have the greatest weight are the imponderabilia, the things you cannot possibly weigh, like public opinion or psychical infection. The whole war was a psychical phenomenon.
Jung would later write about the extraordinary importance of understanding the psyche as a way for man to be inured from the mass infections that he saw burn nightmarishly across Europe.3 It was clear to him that resistance to mass delusion, to dogma and fundamentalism, resided in a thoroughgoing understanding of one’s nature. Thus was the world improved and made impervious to darkness in its many manifestations — by the continual refining of consciousness; by the Jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel work of individuation; by the approach to the centre of one’s being, a sort of sacred space where the mythological treasure of an incorruptible value can be found — ourselves, the self.
1. Sonu Shamdasani, in his introduction to The Psychology of the Kundalini Yoga, Notes of the Seminar Given in 1932 by C.G. Jung, provides a detailed context for this yoga practice, its emergence in the West, and Jung’s approach to it. ↩
2. These quotes are from the following week’s lecture (October 26th, 1932). ↩
3. The Undiscovered Self (1957) is a short book dealing specifically with this topic. As Jung wrote in a letter to the theologian Victor White (April 30, 1952): “…Good is always an effort and a composite achievement, while Evil is easily sliding down or falling asunder.” ↩
Alan Moore‘s explorations of magic and creativity, a fundamental part of his work since the mid-1990s, touches on the archetypes of the collective unconscious. I take a look at Moore’s work in my review of Gary Spencer Millidge’s book Alan Moore Storyteller. I also talk about Jung’s concept of the self in relation to the film Sophie Scholl in my piece The Faces of Justice.