Jung on enlightenment and the unconscious

Carl Jung to his great credit was fascinated and curious about religion and religious experiences as part of analytical psychology and he struggles to make sense of mystical experiences from both the Christian and Buddhist traditions. He writes about how a transformation experience isn’t that something different is seen but that one sees something differently – it is as though the spatial act of seeing were changed by a new dimension. (c.f. ‘Something like scales fell from his eyes, Acts 9:18).

Jung in his foreword to the Suzuki book refers back to the story of Gensha (see previous post) and says that the master when he asks, ‘do you hear the murmuring of the brook?’ obviously means something quite different from ordinary hearing. Perhaps this is when an earlier form of contemplation becomes endowed with a richer and deeper level of contemplative prayer – in other words there are layers of contemplation.

In such a way mystical Christianity meets in Zen Buddhism but is far removed from the mainstream church – for example Meister Eckhart was condemned by the Church for his ideas on all this. And perhaps it can seem sometimes rather heretical because it is a breaking down of established structures and concepts. So in following the methodology of the Zen koan Jung sees that the aim is to destroy – completely destroy the rational intellect. In other words you’re not allowed to think about it or consciously think about it, but as Jung points out that won’t stop the unconscious or as he puts it an answer from Nature, and he uses a capital N. The answer to the paradoxical koan comes from the depths of one’s being from the unconscious. The answer cannot be present in the world of consciousness which is full of restrictions and very one-sided; but below is what Jung calls a ‘total exhibition of potential nature’. If there is a focus on emptiness or on the paradoxical koan then this increases the readiness of the unconscious contents to break through. Jung has always made much of the compensatory relationship between the conscious and the unconscious which certainly comes through in dreams, and he sees this as a similar thing that happens in meditation with the conscious emptying of the mind. He also of course sees the unconscious as much more than the personal unconscious which he describes in this foreword a bit oddly as ‘a lumber room of dirty secrets’ for of course he is interested in the collective unconscious which includes mythology and philosophy. So Jung understands the breakthrough as a result of many hours/days/months/years of emptying the mind when the only true answer comes from Nature itself.

Jung remained unconvinced about how this could all work in the West doubting our ability to believe in the possibility of such paradoxical transformation let alone trust in a master and his incomprehensible ways! I did find myself at this point thinking of the trust that develops in analysis where the patient commits themselves often to years and years on the couch usually paying a lot of money and wondering where, when and how the experience will end! And Jung does see that here is a connection – for neither what the long-term patient in analysis nor the long-term meditator is doing can be explained to others nor be understood in the wider culture – and sadly not even in the church who as Jung wryly notes has the function to oppose all such extreme experiences.

The whole thing is to do with seeking, awareness and reflection: and the transformation is to become whole/ to become real and that involves spiritual and psychological depth.