Jung gets a bad rap sometimes for over-psychologizing religious experience. While the accusation is true enough, it obscures important dimensions of his work. While popular understandings of Jung were skewed by the way they became popular around Joseph Campbell’s use of his work to explain and interpret world mythology, the core of Jung’s method remained active, hands-on. To get at that, I want to look at Jung with different eyes, scrub off some of the accretions that came to define and distort his work.
That starts with getting back to the centrality of dream and vision for Jung. That is where his necessary break with Freud resides and what constitutes the substance of his lengthy spiritual hermitage. The elision of that spiritual hermitage is especially problematic. This is the time period when his dreams and visions were so intense that he felt no other good option but to meet them on their own terms and cooperate with them.
That was a synchronicity-rich period for Jung and arguably forms the basis for his later (over)formulations of the concept. What startled Jung about so much of his work was the manner in which it constantly manifested in or intersected with his waking life. When he began to work with a teaching spirit with the wings of a kingfisher? He found a dead kingfisher bird, though he had never seen one in his region before. When the dead became a key feature of his work? Well, the dead pretty much marched in and through his house for a spell.
Besides these appealing stories, what else do we get by focusing on this period? For me, the most important aspect of the period is how dream work takes precedence over dream interpretation. When Jung is in the midst of his visionary period, he is trying to explain the material, no doubt, in interpretive terms, but that interpretive effort is secondary to a complex engagement with the material through art, ritual, prayer, and even architecture.
Jung’s experience of undertaking that work forms the basis for his later, more theoretical, and therapeutic tool of active imagination. I want to bracket that later formulation and set it to the side. I don’t want to deny its therapeutic applications (it is one of the more vibrant aspects of Jungian and post-Jungian psychology), but they do seem to conceal a wider spiritual application. When Jung engages his dream and visionary material, he isn’t just amplifying them. He isn’t even just dialoging them, giving them an equal claim on truth as his own ego. No, he is actually submitting to a lengthy process of translating his own understanding into the world in which they seem to exist.
This ties the work to a family of American Indian practices centering around dreams and the working with a dream. While it has become trite to speak of ‘vision quests’ (in scare quotes, with an eyeroll), I want to keep in mind that Jung identified his conversations with Zuni Indians as central to the reorientation of his psychological work. Jung could see in Zuni understandings of dream something that matched his own experience and which forced him to shift his assumptions outside his own European background.
I want to be careful here. Conversations are just that. Jung’s work isn’t ‘American Indian’ even though that encounter may have been an absolutely essential component of his intellectual and spiritual development. It may open up potential lines of inquiry comparing and navigating between various sorts of American Indian and ‘Jungian’ conceptions, but it doesn’t presuppose much more than that.
I am talking about all of this to highlight an important dimension of my sort of spiritual work, the sort that criss-crosses dreams and visions frequently. While we can talk about dream incubation and dream interpretation as a broadly Old World technique, it does seem like the American influence rests on a different set of principles. I don’t have a good way to talk about it yet, but I’m working on it.
The dream manifests a form of understanding that directs our attention toward a subtle aspect of our reality defined by an alien form of causality. The work that follows out of the dream entails preserving and extending those connections according to the logic of that subtle order, an order of which the dream is just one expression. The broad and diverse entheogenic tools of the Americas seem to have supported this, providing a way to negotiate that parallel aspect of our own world, but they don’t seem to be exactly necessary.
(Please, do not mistake the assertion that they aren’t precisely necessary with a fidgety moralism that says you shouldn’t use them.)