The primacy of experience – ‘my soul, where are you?’

Into the underworld: Gustave Doré, The Gate of Hell, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

‘My soul, my soul where are you?’ so wrote Carl Jung after his acrimonious split with Sigmund Freud. This occurred at a point in his life when he had achieved ‘honour, power, wealth, knowledge and every human happiness’, but in doing so felt he had lost desire for these superficial trappings of life. After the breakdown in the relationship with Freud in which so much had been invested, Jung ‘chose’ to have a breakdown and to search for the path to the divine by ‘wandering with his soul’ away from social interactions and acceptable achievements into solitude. He writes that one must turn one’s desire away from outer things if one wants to reach the soul. And Jung embarked on a strange and frightening journey deep into his inner world – all experiences with the intent of raising the divine spark and finding God and his soul or Self.

In these explorations of the inner world, Jung used the Christian story to help with the most difficult part of his journeying into what he called the underworld. The image of the suffering and dying Christ gave Jung an image to help him with his own grief at this time, and the awareness that he had to suffer it consciously, and, voluntarily, in order to reach a sense of what was real about life. Christ, Jung realized, is a symbol of the innocent one – the Lamb who must nonetheless suffer the agony of direct traumatic experience in order to become completely human. Conscious suffering he found brings God down into this world – innocence acquiring experience; but the experience of conscious suffering also elevates the human to its divinity. From holding the tension of these two apparent opposites, what Jung calls the transcendent function emerges – for Jung an image of the divine child.

In 1937 at a talk to the Analytical Psychology Club of New York, Jung spoke knowingly about what Christ had experienced. He said:

‘the utter failure came at the crucifixion in the tragic words “My God, my God , why hast Thou forsaken me?” if you want to understand the full tragedy of those words you must realize that they mean that Christ saw that his whole life, sincerely devoted to the truth according to his best conviction, had really been a terrible illusion. He had lived his life absolutely devotedly to its full and had made his honest experiment, but … on the cross his mission deserted him. But because he had lived so fully and devotedly, he won through to the resurrection body.

We must all do just what Christ did. We must make our experiment. We must make mistakes. We must live out our own version of life. When we live like this we know Christ as a brother and God indeed becomes human, i.e. God becomes human in ourselves.’