I sat down this morning with the intention to write about a seminar I attended Friday evening in London: the topic was “The Red Book”. Those of us from a certain generation will no doubt be thinking ‘Eamon Andrews’ and his jumping out on poor unsuspecting celebrities to reveal their life stories. But that isn’t the book I am referring to – this seminar was introducing the magnum opus of Carl Jung. I have found it a struggle to get going on the post. Maybe its the depth of the work and the awareness that I could not hope to describe or explain the text? Indeed, the speaker on Friday night started out by explaining she had spent 7 years studying the text in a book group! The material in Jung’s Red Book was created in between 1913 and 1930. It makes up over 400 pages of beautifully handwritten text and 53 stunning images. Many sources describe this work as Jung’s “confrontation with the unconscious”, a period of his life that might well have ended up a psychotic event. It is interesting to consider what makes the difference between a breakdown and a breakthrough. Most psychological systems that embrace the transpersonal – like Jungian analysis and indeed Gestalt – explain the difference to be ‘support’. The therapeutic environment offers relational support in times of crisis; whilst for Jung, it was his creative endeavour that helped him create meaning.
I was given a copy of the Red Book, only published in 2009, by a dear friend and mentor to mark my wedding back in May. The gift felt so precious, and it remained in its plastic wrapping until last weekend – 6 days before I knew I was attending the seminar in London. That afternoon, I carefully lifted the book on to the coffee table poured myself a glass of red wine (what else?) and pored over the pages. I felt deeply touched – a combination of connecting with such a generous gift, the sense of meeting Jung, and the way in which Jung was able to articulate the enormity of what he was going through. His courage to go this deeply in to the unknown, the time and energy AND to share his world on paper (and to know ultimately, it would meet an audience). I felt greatly humbled. I spent an hour with the book, and yet I cannot tell you anything about it other than the impact it had. I was greatly excited to learn more about it at the seminar.
…which I didn’t really! This is not a criticism of the speaker – it was clear that she too was still grappling with the book’s meaning having spent 7 years with it. And, she only had an hour and a half to present ideas to those of us gathered at the College of Psychic Studies. What Friday did do was leave me inspired to study it more – I don’t even know if ‘study it’ is even possible. All I can offer here today are a few ideas that have come up for me on immediate contact with the volume of work…
The journey of Self
I am fascinated by the journey that Jung chose to undertake. His analytical psychology undertook to describe the full psychological journey that goes beyond our personal domain: how can use our life to find wholeness. As a therapist, this can be one of the most rewarding aspects of the work – to be alongside someone as they toil not only with the mundane aspects of life: issues at work, relationships but somehow go beyond those externals and connect to something deeper; they share with me what it is like to be them – their dreams, their internally lived experience. We sit together and explore what it means to be human, and that being then connects to others and something more. There is an understanding that life cannot be perfect, that they cannot be ‘fixed’ and rather there is a journey toward ‘wholeness’ that takes in the light and shadow of their experience. I’m reminded of Sheldon Kopp’s work, and being fellow pilgrims on a journey.
Understanding is limited, knowing is the aim
Clients often come to me wanting to know ‘why’ life is the way it is, ‘why’ they ended up being the person they are today. “What happened?”, and trying to make sense of how that plays out in their life today. That is an understandable aim in therapy, and our work together will honour that. There is much to be gained with understanding and insight. But in my experience its not the whole answer, in fact its not “necessarily necessary”. Insight in to the past and how it presents now (the presenting past as we call it) can provide a useful hook upon which we hang awareness of those patterns playing out now. As a Gestalt therapist, like Jung, my hope for the client (and what becomes MY role) is to help the client feel what it feels like to be them; to know their experience. Take one client, Kate – she found herself repeating a pattern in relationships – in her family, at work, with partners. She worked really hard in therapy – re-telling me stories and examples of what had happened, relaying the consistent pattern. It was only when I helped her experience that ‘trying hard’ in the room with me – the body tightening, eyebrows frowning, the circles of narrative that she was able to know the fear of letting go to an other, and how her ‘trying’ kept others out and blocked intimacy with them. To understand is one thing; to truly know is another.
There is only one way and that is your way
Jung was adamant in reminding us that we only have our path – it is not for us to follow what he did, or what others command us to do – even if by inspiration rather than coercion. To read the Red Book is not to think we must do the same – that would be incredibly intimidating. This reminds me very much of the path of the Buddha. Neither Jung nor Buddha wanted “Jungian” or “Buddhism”. The Red Book details an exploration Jung made in this way. Having worked very closely with Freud in his formative days, there came a time when the two men’s ideas started to diverge. Rather than living the restricted journey of the scientific psychologist, Jung was opening to the more mystical and transpersonal – a great risk when you want to be taken seriously in the field, and something Freud was discouraging. In the Red Book, Jung describes how he knew he must “kill the hero” as he became aware of how the hero archetype had become inflated within him. Jung had often experienced two parts of his self, and in a vision he experienced “shooting blond Siegfried”, thus escaping the myth of the young hero, the part of himself that was selling out in pursuit of ego concerns. It was in this move that he stopped following in Freud’s shadow and found the courage to tread his own journey. Jung recognised how this impulse is observed in many cultures, the need to create some kind of superhuman version of ourselves. I imagine many of us know our we “sell out” at the expense of living a more authentic life. Escaping this myth as Jung did is a journey we can share, but ultimately we need to do it for ourselves and not follow someone else’s ideas. I think this is one way in which therapists need to take care: firstly with disclosure and secondly in retaining a “not knowing” attitude with clients. I know for myself how easy it is to see the similarity in the journey clients are taking with my own. I need to know the difference between using my own experiences as ‘skilful means’ but not projecting them on to the client with subtle advice and instruction.
I’m looking forward to some more time with the Red Book in the coming weeks. Certainly this time of year encourages that kind of turning inward – as well as the lure of evenings in, open fires, red wine and a good book!
The Red Book is quite something. You might like to dip your toe in with one of the texts that aim to introduce Jung’s ideas and the imagery. Drob’s “The Red Book: An Interpretive Guide to C.G. Jung’s Liber Novus” is a good one.
I’d also recomend simply googling “Jung Red Book images” and taking time to luxuriate in the metaphor and symbols.