It is well known that Carl Gustav Jung had a keen interest in mysticism and in Eastern thought and spiritual practices, and that he thought very highly of the ‘wisdom of the East’. The feelings were reciprocated, for instance by Osho, who praised Jung for the discovery of synchronicity, which was received well in other parts of Asia, too.
He could not avoid noticing contradictions between Indian approaches to ‘healing’ through spiritual techniques such as yoga and meditation, and his own convictions after decades of analyzing and healing patients and, above all, himself.
In their recent volume dedicated to the relationship between Jung and India, Al Collins and Elaine Molchanov have addressed the conflict between Jung and Indian approaches to mental health, which he had come to know during his lifetime. After decades of engaging with Eastern philosophies and psycho-spiritual therapeutic techniques, Jung discerned a stark contrast between their understanding of the soul, including the purpose of human existence in this world, and his own:
India wants to annihilate the ego and put in its place a one-sided and inflated ‘self’ that may be no more than the product of a temporary mystical enthusiasm. Jung, to the contrary, seeks reflection and dialogue with the self as archetype of wholeness, a lifelong process of individuation rather than a momentary enlightenment.
Along the same lines, Harold Coward has noted a certain incompatibility between Jung’s understanding of the mystical experience and that of Patañjali:
Jung correctly recognized that there was a fundamental disagreement between himself and Patañjali over the degree of ego loss involved in mystical experience. Whereas in Jung’s view the mystic experience of reality required the continued existence of an ego in order to be known, for Patañjali’s yoga the ego was nothing more than a limiting and distorting emotional obscuration which had to be removed if the real was to be fully known. [. . .] In Jung’s analysis, mystical experience, although it may begin with intuition, necessarily also involves the other psychological processes of feeling, thinking, and sensing. For Patañjali, the processes of emotion and thinking had to be purged until only pure perception remained.
Healing from a Jungian point of view means living in harmony with one’s nature. Regardless of what society expects from us, there is an ‘inner law’ that we need to follow, otherwise we fall ill or become neurotic. This requires a careful observation of the events that occur in our lives, and of our internal processes, which are taken as signs and symbols that need to be interpreted for us to find individual guidance. Jung views the personal unconscious as our inner voice, which is an expression of this inner law. It is that elusive, immaterial organ known as the ‘soul’ through which God is believed to reveal himself (or at least, that mysterious entity we have chosen to call ‘God’ for lack of a better word). This appears to be a rather individualistic understanding of human life that might be difficult to realize in a society that prioritizes family traditions and social duties over individual self-realization.
Experiences of mystics from around the world have been communicated through similar concepts and imagery (Meister Eckhart’s mystical experiences of Seligkeit and Liebeswonne seemed to correspond to the Upanishadic understanding of absolute Brahman, ānanda), confirming the existence of a divine essence that we could tap into, what German Romantics would refer to as Weltseele (world soul). Jung’s project introduces a level of active reflection that is meant to offer meaning and guidance to individuals at a time where traditional social structures are collapsing and dissolved by processes of modernization.
According to Ludendorff, yoga and meditation amounted to ‘self-hypnosis’ leading to stultification, as they made false promises of bliss and salvation whilst avoiding a confrontation with real life. Her idea of spiritual growth revolves around the idea of ‘Selbstschöpfung’ (self-creation), which is somewhat comparable to Jung’s understanding of the development of one’s personality through ‘individuation’, by actively embracing the totality of life with all of its positive and negative aspects, and by increasing our awareness in this world through reflecting and learning from each and every experience, which is unique for every one of us. With this approach, Jung and Ludendorff are firmly placed in the German intellectual tradition that had one of its most powerful spokespersons in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to whom many early twentieth century innovators such as Jung, Ludendorff and Rudolf Steiner were explicitly indebted. They looked at the world and all life, including human life, as an organic process, as exemplified in Goethe’s famous poem Urworte. Orphisch:
As stood the sun to the salute of planets
Upon the day that gave you to the earth,
You grew forthwith, and prospered, in your growing Heeded the law presiding at your birth.
Sibyls and prophets told it: You must be
None but yourself, from self you cannot flee.
No time there is, no power, can decompose
The minted form that lives and living grows.
Ludendorff ‘s objection was that spiritual practices helped avoid dealing with questions that could actually lead to an increased awareness about the self, the realization of our unique talents and sense of responsibility in the world. Ludendorff expressed the view that different ethnic groups and individuals followed their very own ‘God-song’17 (i.e. creative and cultural expression), each in their own way, depending on the musical harmony in which their souls were tuned according to the myriads of micro-experiences that had given shape to their existence.
According to both Jung and Ludendorff, personal development and creative expression could only be realized if life was experienced and processed fully without ideological or doctrinal blinders. Like Jung, Ludendorff emphasizes individual responsibility and self-reflection. Although she was by no means an atheist, she thought that the majority of spiritual techniques
In India, the concept of maya captures the fickleness of the human mind and its propensity to deceive us by fabricating illusions, which prevents us from seeing things as they are. As far as I can see, maya has a much wider currency in everyday thinking about the world in India than ‘projection’ in the West. However, despite the much more common acknowledgement of the tricks played by the human mind in India, the spiritual-therapeutic techniques from India which Jung had come across did not seem to go any further, e.g. by encouraging practitioners to inquire into the individual meaning of a particular projection. In Jungian therapy, in contrast, one of the crucial steps during psychological crises – frequently the result of major disappointments and the collapse of illusions, e.g. about partners or careers – is to reflect on our projections and to withdraw them, i.e. to adjust our assessment of reality according to new insights gained after reflection and increased awareness. Understanding why we project what we project is an essential part of the Jungian healing process, leading to deeper self-knowledge and self-awareness, and creating a deeper understanding of our essential needs, desires, emotional programs and convictions imparted to us by our parents, teachers, and the culture we belong to.
Although it has not been widely acknowledged as a spiritual and even therapeutic technique in the same way as yoga and meditation, diary-writing as a means of self-examination was an important aspect of Protestant spirituality in various communities throughout Europe from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries – especially among those communities influenced by more radical reformed Christianity.
Diary-writing in the sense of self-scrutiny was never a major influence on Catholic spiritual practice, perhaps because ‘confession’ (in the sense of confessing one’s sins and evil thoughts to a priest) was and still is, of course, one of the key rituals in Catholicism. Even more than diary-writing, this ritual has been acknowledged as an early form of psycho-hygiene, preceding the therapeutic conversation established by Sigmund Freud.
Among cultural theorists, the psychological consequences of different doctrines in Catholicism and Protestantism have been subject to debate, and one could argue that the heightened emphasis on ‘conscience’ in Protestantism must have had a major impact on the way in which people henceforth looked at themselves and their relationship with the world, including the degree to which they were ready to engage in self-scrutiny.
However, the dialogue with the internal self not only focussed on moral transgression and sins, but also on finding out what God wanted from us, which appears to be precisely the concern for Jung as well, when he insists that the whole point of engaging in psycho-spiritual therapies is about ‘looking for what the self wants you to do in the world’.