“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: