The Age of The Orphan Part 6: The Spirit of the Depths

“But the supreme meaning is the path, the way and the bridge to what is to come.”

Carl Jung – The Red Book

In the first post in this series, we talked about how the English word “learn” has its original meaning in path or way. It is no coincidence that the path or the way is a metaphor used in numerous religions to describe the spiritual experience. In fact, this use of the path metaphor might be a universal of human experience. The Chinese “Tao” also means way or path. In Australian Aboriginal society, as we’ll discuss later, there is the “walkabout”. This is not a random stroll through the bush but a fixed path retracing the steps of the ancestors.

Whatever path you are on, you are hopefully learning things. Sometimes you learn technical details and skills that allow you to get things done. Sometimes you learn things about yourself. Let’s take a common example. You decide to learn guitar. You take your first step onto the path of the guitarist. At the end of the path stand the mythic figures of the instrument, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Yngwie Malmsteen, to inspire your journey.

Normally what happens is you get a period at the start where everything seems to go incredibly well. Call it beginner’s luck. You’re a lot better at guitar than you were expecting. You can even play some famous songs competently well. You start to think that you’re a natural at the instrument. Others who overhear while you do a passable version of The House of the Rising Sun say things like “wow, you’ve got natural talent”. Life is good.

Then you hit the first bump in the road. You try to play something more advanced and your technique breaks down. It’s your first real failure and two things usually happen. Firstly, you get disappointed. Secondly, you start thinking about it. You try to use your conscious mind to fix the issue. You concentrate really hard on the notes and what kind of mistake you’re making. You become like the caterpillar who is trying to think which foot to put in front of the next. Like the caterpillar, you fall over. Not only can you not play the new, more difficult, song that you’d hoped to learn, you can no longer even play The House of the Rising Sun. Hell, you can’t even play a major scale any more without making several stupid errors and the more you concentrate on it the worse it gets. You feel completely useless. You start to think that you’ll never be able to play guitar. You start looking for excuses to quit. Clearly, you’re just not cut out for this guitar playing business. Maybe your fingers are not long enough. Yeah, that’s it. You’re physiologically incapable of playing guitar. Better stop wasting time and stick to what you’re good at.

What you are dealing with at this point is nothing to do with the external world. It’s not about your technique, even though that is the root cause of your problem. What you are facing is your desire or we might call it your will or we might even call it your soul. You are asked the question: do you really want to play guitar? Do you really want to keep walking the path of the guitar player? At this point you have learned just enough to see how long the road ahead of you is, how far is the distance between you and Jimi Hendrix, how improbable it is that you will ever get there.

If you happened to have an Elder present, somebody versed in the mythological lore of the guitar gods, that elder might tell you that however far you are from Hendrix, you are still closer than Hendrix himself was when he started out. Hendrix was born into a broken home. The family was so poor that he played a broomstick for years pretending it was a guitar. One day, he found a one string ukulele in the trash. He would sit on the couch with it and copy the music he heard on television using just a single string. Much later he would finally get the cash to buy an acoustic guitar with all six strings. After fruitless efforts to try and front a band playing an acoustic guitar, Hendrix finally secured an electric guitar but then got into trouble with the law and was forced to join the army. When he got out, he spent years playing in crappy bands in even crappier venues. The story goes on from there. The point is that there was nothing in Hendrix’s early life that could have possibly led anybody to know that he would become Jimi Hendrix. That’s how life is. To walk the path is to take a leap of faith and that leap of faith is absurd.

The confrontation with the absurd, what I have also been calling individuation in this series, can start anywhere and at any time in life. It can happen to a teenager who’s halfway through butchering a rendition of Wish You Were Here. It can happen in midlife. We’ve all heard of the midlife crisis where somebody, usually a man, jumps up from the dinner table, grabs the car keys off the bench and ends up three states away with a bellyful of whisky about to get into a fight for trying to chat up the local bikie gang leader’s girl in a dingy bar on the edge of a town in the middle of nowhere.

Existential crises can also manifest in other ways. Arguably, it was such a crisis that led the Buddha to go and sit under a tree and start a new religion. Great works of literature can come of it too among which count Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Augustine’s Confessions and, most importantly for this series of posts, Jung’s Red Book.

“If you take a step toward your soul, you will at first miss the meaning. You will believe that you have sunk into meaninglessness, into eternal disorder. You will be right! Nothing will deliver you from disorder and meaninglessness, since this is the other half of the world.”

Carl Jung – The Red Book

Although not much more than half a century apart, the society that Jung came of age in was in many respects the polar opposite of the society that the boomers would come of age in as described in the last post in this series. Stifling and suffocating are two adjectives which come to mind to describe the Victorian era. From what we know of Jung’s family situation, it resembled the plays of Henrik Ibsen where there are dark secrets hiding behind the monotonous domestic façade. Jung’s father was a priest. His mother had health problems that were almost certainly psychological at root. In some sense, it’s not a surprise that Jung would become first a doctor and then move on to psychiatry. He had the perfect upbringing for that and it was the treatment of those psychological side effects that were so common in Victorian society that would catapult him to fame.

The experiences that formed the Red Book came later after Jung’s reputation was established and while he himself had a family. He had, by his own description, achieved as much as he could have hoped for in the world. But then a series of visions, dreams and other psychological events threw him off balance. He thought he was going mad until the outbreak of World War One reassured him that what he had been experiencing were premonitions of the war. Obviously such an idea is completely contrary to the materialist dogma of our time, what Jung called “the spirit of this time”. In The Red Book, Jung talks of another spirit which is the one he was encountering in his visions. He called it The Spirit of the Depths.

Rather than bottle up the subconscious parts of the psyche like so many others of the era (and this era too), Jung seems to have been in contact with them from a young age. At 12 years old, there is a story of him feeling a connection with the divine while having a vision of God taking a dump on a church (I think it was in Zurich). He understood this to mean that the living God was objecting to the “dead” religion of which Jung’s father was a representative. Jung already understood the difference between the exoteric, as embodied by the church, and the esoteric as he himself was experiencing. Later at university, he would get involved with the burgeoning occult scene that was popular at that time in Europe as well as his psychological studies. It seems he was fated to undertake the task of individuation.

“Therefore the spirit of the depths forced me to speak to my soul, to call upon her as a living and self-existing being. I had to become aware that I had lost my soul.”

Carl Jung – The Red Book

I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that this “spirit of the depths” matches the elder role in the story of The Orphan. Many of the experiences Jung had during this time involved conversations in his mind during sessions of what he called active imagination. For example, there are extended conversations with his “soul” who he represented as a woman (technically, the anima. For a woman, the soul would be male, the animus). Was Jung living out the story of The Orphan? In a society which was barren of esoteric spiritual content, Jung was what you could call a spiritual orphan. If that’s true, then it’s also true that we can think of the experiences that Jung describes in The Red Book as his initiation. Jung self-initiated because there were no other options available to him at the time. In the absence of a real world elder, he made one up in his mind and called him the “spirit of the depths”. The depths are, of course, the subconscious mind; the thing that Victorian society completely ignored.

Jung is very clear, and in this he and Stephen Jenkinson are in complete agreement, that the path down into the depths is not pleasant, it’s not fun, it’s not something anybody would do of their own choice. You must be called down into the depths and that call can come while you’re eating breakfast or it can come on the outbreak of a world war. Most people reject the call and, in the absence of anybody to guide them through the process, this is probably for the best. Just like it’s safer to experiment with psychedelic drugs in the presence of somebody who is experienced (Hendrix’s first album is called “Are you experienced?” and he also almost certainly died of a drug overdose, by coincidence), the confrontation with the soul is a risky proposition for the inexperienced. Jung noted that he could have easily ended up going crazy. He believed that is what happened to Nietzsche after the writing of Zarathustra.

The elder’s role is to be the guide on the journey to the depths. In The Matrix, Neo had already been called. He had an intuition about The Matrix but didn’t know what to do with it. It was for Morpheus to let him know that he was on the correct path and to safely guide him through the start of the journey. Jung didn’t have an elder. He had to guide himself through it, although his psychological studies and practice must have helped him substantially.

It was in the late 1800s that Europeans were starting to hear about other cultures and Jung realised that some of the practices he had discovered for himself were part of those cultures including the hunter gatherer societies of Australia and America. Although I’m not aware if Jung or anybody else has dealt with this idea in any detail, it seems to me that the initiation ceremonies of the hunter gatherer tribes were exactly the kind of spiritual initiation that Jung put himself through.

As noted earlier, the Australian Aboriginal culture has an initiation poorly translated into English as “walkabout”. This was a six month journey undertaken by young men around the time of puberty. They were not walking about randomly, rather they were retracing the “songlines” of their culture. Surviving by yourself in the Australian landscape requires real skill. For this reason, the young men were trained by the elders prior to the journey. They had to learn how to hunt and cook, how to find water, what plants could be used medicinally and other kinds of bushcraft. The songlines were there to help navigate the land which was another important part of the training.

Apart from the practical aspects of the walkabout, there was an explicit spiritual aspect that was tied into mythology and ancestor worship. As a young man, Jung had noted that he had no myth of his life and he felt this detached him from his ancestors. A number of the stories in The Red Book are about imagined experiences meeting with the elders of Western civilisation. While on walkabout, the young aboriginal man is retracing the steps of his ancestors encapsulated in a living myth, a myth which is renewed with each new generation. He is walking the same path as his ancestors in much the same way that people walk on religious pilgrimages. Australians to this day do something similar when they travel to Gallipoli on Anzac Day or retrace family histories in Europe or other countries.

The walkabout is a combination of spiritual and physical challenge. It represents the man’s coming of age in what we might call an economic sense. By proving that you are able to hunt and navigate in the bush, you are now ready to take up a role in the tribal economy. But that education could be done in numerous other ways. The solitary nature of the walkabout speaks to the spiritual journey of The Orphan. We see similar practices in American Indian tribes and even in monasteries and nunneries where the spiritual work is often done alone and the communal work is the economic work of growing food and carrying out other chores.

Jung undertook his spiritual journey in the evenings after his work and family obligations had been met. The experience took place entirely in his mind. Unlike the walkabout, which is combination of spiritual journey and also a test of physical strength and skill, those of us living in civilisation have our economic lives detached from the spiritual and both are detached from the land in a way that was impossible in Aboriginal society. The process of this division maps onto Spengler’s distinction between pre-culture, culture and civilisation. It’s the increasing separation and specialisation of activities. One’s spiritual life can even be “outsourced” to the local priest. When even the priest disappears, there is nothing much left. That is where we are in modern society.

It took a savant such as Jung to rediscover these things. Jung himself realised how completely improbable it was that a man in the staid Swiss society of the Victorian era would accidentally recreate spiritual practices that had been taking place for millennia on the other side of the world in a completely different kind of society. It was partly this that led him to the universal nature of the collective unconscious. That’s also why I think the story of The Orphan is a universal archetype. It is as valid in hunter gatherer societies as it is in big, modern cities even if the latter has no use of it.

“…the spirit 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.”

Carl Jung – The Red Book

The encounter with the spirit of the depths is the encounter with nonsense, absurdity, the inexplicable, the paradoxical, the shadow, the inglorious, the unheroic, the small, the insignificant, the mysterious and the ridiculous. Many of these are perfect descriptors of our society in the last two years. Perhaps the spirit of the depths is knocking on our door. And the knocking is getting louder.

All posts in this series:

The Age of The Orphan Part 1: The Path of Learning

The Age of The Orphan Part 2: Defining the Archetype

The Age of The Orphan Part 3: A Short Theoretical Introduction

The Age of The Orphan Part 4: Initiation, culture and civilisation

The Age of The Orphan Part 5: Ok, boomer

The Age of The Orphan Part 6: The Spirit of the Depths

The Age of The Orphan Part 7: The Metaphysics of Archetypes

The Age of The Orphan Part 8: The Current State of Play

The Age of The Orphan Part 9: How to learn to stop worrying and love The Matrix

The Age of The Orphan Part 10: Work is our religion

The Age of The Orphan Part 11: The Missing Link

The Age of The Orphan Part 12: Conclusion

20 thoughts on “The Age of The Orphan Part 6: The Spirit of the Depths”

  1. So, initiation/Orphan’s journey is essential in hunter-gatherer societies, but not in modern ones? I guess it makes sense… Our modern culture is highly specialized, which means each individual needs to get pretty good at some fairly narrow set of skills, but can outsource most things that are necessary for keeping a human being alive. In a hunter-gatherer society, everyone needs to be able to do more or less everything, though the sum total of that “everything” is much less than it would be in a highly complex society such as our own. But presumably, being able to do “everything” (even if that everything is rather limited by modern standards) requires a certain level of spiritual development and maturity, which one can, in turn, easily manage without in a modern society. (In fact, I suspect that taking the time to develop in this way will make you worse at whatever narrow domain you’ve chosen for yourself, if for no other reason, then because of the opportunity cost.) On the flip side, though, when you get to a point where most people (especially most people who make important decisions) cannot see beyond their own nose except in an increasingly narrow domain, your entire society becomes brittle and prone to collapse.

    BTW, I’ve never learned to play a musical instrument (alas!), but what you say about the guitar sounds an awful lot like learning to speak a new language. 😉

  2. Irena – Jung would have agreed. He said that individuation is for the few and most people are better off treading the “outer path”. I’d be curious to know what the attitude was in hunter gatherer societies. Was initiation compulsory for all or would the elders know that certain individuals were not up to it? I spent some time trying to find out but didn’t come up with much. Is it just me or is it getting harder and harder to find useful information via search engines?

  3. Simon – from what I’ve read I’m pretty sure the Shaman/medicine man path would only be for the few who really tapped into the inner, more spiritual realms, and this person would be far more specialised than others. The Kurdaitcha man (a sort of sorcerer/assassin) was trained in this manner and was a very feared member of the Australian indigenous community. My family has some indigenous heritage and one of the family heirlooms my grandfather told me about was the ‘bone’ that was used to point and curse people with. Everyone was too scared to keep it so it was lost over the years.

  4. Skip – interesting. Do you know if the walkabout initiation was done by everybody or just people who were considered able to handle it?

  5. I’m pretty sure things like walkabout was for everyone, but Indigenous culture was very sex differentiated, so it differed for men and women, and it also differed between different cultural groups. Also in a lot of indigenous cultures each person had their skin which determined certain familial relations and their Totem, which was a body of lore that was only taught to those of that totem. For example, if you were of the fire totem, you were initiated and taught how to do things like the mosaic burning that was practiced across the continent, or if you had a certain animal totem you taught things like how to hunt it and also how to protect it. Obviously it was a lot more complicated than this and there was a deep spiritual element that went with the practical knowledge, as the culture didn’t separate the two things.

    I’m probably not the best person to ask as my knowledge is only second hand, as my indigenous ancestry is a fair way back and I’m not really very involved with it. It’s also hard to tell what was going on in places like Victoria and NSW before white settlement as a lot of our knowledge comes from Northern cultures and they may not have been as relatable as we think.

    Tyson Yunkporta’s book Sand talk is great to read if you want to get more first hand knowledge.

  6. Really enjoyed this one, Simon (so what’s new).

    Have posted a review of The Devouring Mother on Goodreads. I guess Jordan Peterson’s rise has made it abundantly clear how un-PC the subject of Jung is. 🙂

  7. Skip – Thanks for that. I’ll check that book out.

    Shane – Thanks for the review. Much appreciated. I guess both Peterson and Jung are dealing, at least in part, with growing up and that’s one thing our culture is determined not to allow.

  8. Simon, this may be a tangent, but you mention Jung’s chats w/ his anima… Do you have any thoughts on the anima-animus dynamic w/ regard to, say, same-sex relationships &/or trans & nonbinary individuals? What are they to make of Jungian theory 101? Could the accelerating breakdown of gender norms be an example of ‘the paradoxical’ – the unconscious manifesting in high-profile literal form because our culture no longer holds space nor spares time for the unconscious & its contents? Not saying that’s my take on it; just trying to imagine – What would Victorian-era-reared Jung say?

  9. Shane – that’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. I’m still working slowly through my Jung reading list and am not sure what he said on the subject. Possibly nothing as the trans/non-binary issue is a recent phenomenon in public discourse. Given the highly politicised nature of the whole debate, I’m not sure anything reliable can be said about it at the moment.

    P.S. Anima is used more broadly to denote “the soul” so it may be that the gendered nature of it is different to the use of anima/animus as the development of sexual orientation. That might have been my error in this essay. Haven’t been able to find a quick answer to that so will keep an eye out for it in future reading.

  10. Shane – the breakdown of gender norms has been written about as a symptom of of late civilisation, it happens pretty regularly and predictably. China’s Eunuchs are a good example from another culture. Ivan Illich wrote an essay called Gender that is worth reading.

    Although this doesn’t get into the psychological reasons for its emergence, it is worth nothing that it is not unique to our place or our time.

  11. Re: same-sex/non-binary and animus/anima — JMG has fielded some questions about this on a Magic Monday post, I think, and his response related to the current quicker turnover of human reincarnation, so souls are unable to fully process the lessons of the previous life and that can confuse matters in the current life. I am not able to search past posts right now but it was several months ago at least that I remember coming across those comments.

  12. Skip – I believe there is some evidence from the animal kingdom of sexuality becoming more muddled when population pressure emerges. Almost like an instinct not to reproduce. That could be a related factor.

    AM – thanks for that. JMG had a fascinating post on ecosophia some time ago of how gender plays out at the different levels in occult philosophy. According to that we each have a gender on the material, etheric, astral and mental planes. I’m not sure which of those maps to what the Jungians call the “soul”. I have a feeling it’s the mental and the mental plane is usually female for a biological male which would explain Jung’s perception of his soul as a woman.

  13. “I believe there is some evidence from the animal kingdom of sexuality becoming more muddled when population pressure emerges.”

    John Calhoun’s mice ‘utopia’ experiments demonstrated this pretty well after the population peaked.

    From wikipedia: “Among the aberrations in behavior were the following: expulsion of young before weaning was complete, wounding of young, increase in homosexual behavior, inability of dominant males to maintain the defense of their territory and females, aggressive behavior of females, passivity of non-dominant males with increased attacks on each other which were not defended against.

    After day 600, the social breakdown continued and the population declined toward extinction. During this period females ceased to reproduce. Their male counterparts withdrew completely, never engaging in courtship or fighting and only engaging in tasks that were essential to their health. They ate, drank, slept, and groomed themselves – all solitary pursuits. Sleek, healthy coats and an absence of scars characterized these males. They were dubbed “the beautiful ones.” Breeding never resumed and behavior patterns were permanently changed. ”

    Not sure how well mice behaviour can be mapped to human behaviour but I can certainly see similarities.

    PS Enjoying this series. Thanks Simon

  14. Hi, Simon. Been seriously enjoying your writing over the last year. Thought I’d offer a little a little (hopefully helpful) advice 😉

    One of the things that reliably lands one in perplexity when trying to assimilate a system of occult teachings into ones worldview, is that many concepts change meaning over time, as words are borrowed and used to express something different from what they previously meant. One out many good examples is how we use the word “spirit” to refer to the transcendent, whereas in the renaissance occult philosophy to which it originally belonged the term was coined to refer to the etheric body.

    Similarly the word “anima” was, in those same teachings of renaissance occult philosophy, the term used to refer to the astral body. And many occultists, myself included, tend to use “soul” as the generic label to refer to the astral body/mental sheath (and sometimes the etheric body thrown in for good measure) as a whole, i.e. that which is “above” the body, and “below” the spirit.

    Now, what is important to keep in mind is that there is no direct one-to-one correlation between this, on the one hand, and what Jung describes under the term “anima” within the context of his highly idiosyncratic system of thought. Here it specifically refers to the contrasexual aspect of the self, and it must be understood as such when contemplating Jung, because firstly, it has some very distinct properties that must be clearly understood, and secondly, it is a very difficult entity to deal with, both in oneself and others. Much of this is due to the entity’s immaturity, a man’s anima is basically a seven year old girl acting out…

    The anima within Jung’s system of thought is a sub-personality, not a subtle body. It’s just that a term coined to describe the latter was borrowed to give it a name, so don’t contract unnecessary headache believing you need to bridge some gap by trying to make the one into the other (a common error for any aspiring occult philosopher, might I add…). Jung discusses the anima and its properties in “Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious”. Also, Violet Cabra did some seriously good writing on the topic on her Dreamwidth blog a while back.

  15. Minako – thanks for that. Yes, that does sound eerily familiar. Who knew that mice have Karens too?

  16. Sven – many thanks for that very clear explanation. I’ll check out Violet’s blog when I have a chance. I believe other Jungians like James Hillman view the soul as also being between the body and spirit. English seems to be missing a word or two on this topic and, of course, it doesn’t help that the modern West reduces everything to body and so we lack the background cultural understanding by default.

  17. Indeed, English is poorly stocked with adequate vocabulary with which to contemplate these matters, though we make due as best we can 😉

  18. Simon – Jung came from a deeply conventional background. And he sometimes comes out w/ gobsmacking stuff (assuming a trustworthy translation), e.g., from Aion: ‘No matter how friendly and obliging a woman’s Eros may be, no logic on earth can shake her if she is ridden by the animus. Often the man has the feeling–and he is not altogether wrong–that only seduction or a beating or rape would have the necessary power of persuasion.’ (?!?) I can see how this could derail a reader not already on board w/ his anima theory etc., even if only because he’s lumped seduction, beating & rape together. 🙂

    Skip – thanks for the Illich recommendation; much food for deep thought. Late civilisation (or late anything) implies, to me, breakdown & degradation, but perhaps also advanced development. What would make sense to me would be less rigid gender norms w/ growing self-awareness & greater integration of polarities. Yet so much of the current discourse on gender revolves around identity, as if the issue is outer recognition, not inner wholeness.

    AM – please forgive my naivety, but once the soul is out of the body (& this dimension), how does time, as in speed of rebirth, apply? Also, I’m wary of attributing all the confusion to the anomalous individual – what if society is confused in expecting outward conformity w/ gender stereotypes?

  19. Shane – the Victorian era was in many ways vastly different to ours. One thing to note, though, is that Jung was known for being regularly surrounded by women and had a number of women as his closest collaborators. They clearly didn’t have a problem with his views.

  20. Shane – to take an extremely cynical view, there is an argument that late civilisation and it’s massive urban systems has an emergent requirement to tear down the differences between the masses so as to make them undifferentiated competing cogs to fit in the machine. This is what Illich is getting at I think. It’s similiar to castrating animals, in that it takes out the source of unpredictable behaviour and makes them more subservient workers. The Eunuchs of China I mentioned earlier were all workers of the state.

    To take a less cynical view, it could be that vast urban civilisations have their day to day needs taken care of remotely, and therefore have more freedom to explore different ways to live without the strict roles needed for sustainable tribal/peasant living.

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