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Reply To: THERE and BACK AGAIN,” with MythBlast author Stephen Gerringer”

Robert Juliano


I agree with the critical importance of direct experience. This was an essential theme in Joseph Campbell’s book Creative Mythology and he saw it as an important aspect of any Western spiritual path. And I was very moved by this when I did a close reading of this book 20+ years ago. In 1915, two years after the “confrontation with the unconscious” began, Jung strove to find other cultures who had the same experiences as he. From his readings, he discovered that the ancient Gnostics had and this discovery led to the recognition that his experiences were not just personal to him, but were far more broadly applicable. Crucially, the Gnostics greatly valued direct experience and direct revelation.

In the German version of Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung wrote of his Black Book experiences “The first imaginations and dreams were like fiery liquid basalt; out of them crystallized the stone that I could work.” Jung’s subsequent work lasting more than four decades would be to give shape to that stone, a shape that would be meaningful to him as an individual as well as being amenable to the thinking and academia of his time (“give birth to the old in a new time”).

In 1935, Jung gave a series of lectures at the Institute of Medical Psychology (Tavistock Clinic) in London. These lectures were delivered to an audience largely made up of medical professionals. There he said the following:

To decide when to apply the one or the other method rests with the analyst’s skill and experience. Practical medicine is, and has always been an art, and the same is true of practical analysis. True art is creation, and creation is beyond all theories.

And then Jung followed up with an incredibly important piece of advice:

That is why I say to any beginner: Learn your theories as well as you can, but put them aside when you touch the miracle of the living soul. Not theories, but your own creative individuality alone must decide.

Thus, we see here the need for both theory and a focus on direct experience. This reminds me of the art of medieval and early modern Latin alchemy. There was a part of the practice where the adept, with the proper state of mind, carried out their alchemical operations in the laboratory, and there was a part of the practice for the theoria. This theoria was not just conceptualization, but a critical thinking activity just as important as the activity of the imaginatio which Jung described as “the active evocation of (inner) images.” Crucially, this theoria greatly influences what is called the dynamics of speculative thinking, part (or much) of which happens unconsciously. Giegerich held that the experiences of the alchemists could be explained, not as a result of projection of unconscious contents onto matter, but on the dynamic activity of unconscious speculative thinking. Giegerich writes:

But why could it not be that the alchemists’ experiences were genuine first-time productions, on-the-spot inventions? In other words, instances of creative speculative thought? The products of an active, lively mind? Production instead of ‘projection of contents’? Living thought (as the activity or process of thinking)?

Thus, theory and theorizing is an exceedingly important activity and does not have to be considered as mutually exclusive with respect to direct experience. This is why Jung said in German “This ‘theory,’ however, is a form of existence belonging to my life, it represents a way of life as necessary to me as eating and drinking.”

As a multidisciplinary scholar and corporate professional who comes from fields which require significant abstraction – theoretical computer science, discrete and combinatorial mathematics, complexity science – I have experienced the dry desert of relying solely on pure thought and thought on such a high abstract level. However, I also appreciate the strength that such abstraction and forms of thinking possess – the cultivation of mental discipline that is a result of such thinking. An analogy for such discipline is the imagining in tantric Tibetan Buddhism where immense focus is done on imagining specific things, such discipline and experience combining to allow the achievement of higher realization.

Theory does not have to be a soul-sucking activity. Instead, it can be lively and life-giving – it can give a certain kind of life to one’s experiences. And it can shape our hermeneutic of those experiences as well as (critically) shape the future experiences that we have. It can also serve as a protection for us when experiencing difficult psychic events of immense power.

The view of inner and outer certainly has its important uses. The reason I’m revisiting this decision is not for theory’s sake, but to explore ways that the modern mind can see the unconscious. And one of the things that has been made clear to me, reinforced by Giegerich’s work, is that Jung made decisions which resulted in a positivistic model of the unconscious. Such a model has its strengths and weaknesses. I am currently working on a conceptualization which lessens the degree of positivization. But the inner/outer conceptualization also has impact on our approaches. For example, it leads to seeing depth psychology as only being applied to the psyche of the individual in the context of the therapy room, something with which James Hillman disagreed.