Why Jung Is Important

More than anyone else in the 20th century, the psychologist Carl Gustav Jung is responsible for our wide, grassroots interest in what we can call "inner directed spirituality." Unlike his one-time friend and mentor Sigmund Freud, Jung saw the unconscious mind as a kind of hidden treasure, not a basement or cellar where we hide away everything about ourselves we'd rather not face. For Jung, the unconscious was a positive, life-giving part of our psyche and we ignored it at our peril.

Jung's conviction about the creative role of the unconscious came to him during a traumatic psychic upheaval that followed his break with Freud. Jung charted the course of this "creative illness" in his legendary Red Book, a mysterious tome filled with fantastic watercolor paintings and intricate calligraphy, that Jung kept secret for many years, and which was published for the first time only in 2009, nearly 50 years after Jung's death. Overwhelmed by powerful emotions, fears and a sense of impending doom, Jung healed himself by consciously entering into a dialogue with his unconscious. In a sense, he let himself go mad, and in this way, we can see Jung as a kind of "wounded healer."

As I point out in my book, "Jung the Mystic," the result of this harrowing "descent into the unconscious" was that Jung found that by simply allowing the unconscious a voice, and by paying heed to what it said, instead of repressing it, he achieved a kind of balance, a "wholeness," a psychic health that was greater than his previous "normality." This wholeness became the aim of what Jung calls "individuation" -- the slow, often painful process of "becoming who one is."

Freud was concerned with helping neurotic individuals adjust to the demands of life, but we can see Jung's psychology as starting where Freud left off. Most of Jung's patients weren't troubled by repressed sexual desires or adolescent frustrations; they were mature, accomplished, well-adjusted adults who nevertheless felt something lacking in their life. What was missing was a sense of meaning. In earlier times, religion had provided this, but in the modern world, religion no longer sufficed, and science, which had taken religion's place, couldn't provide it either. Although he wasn't the only one to take this journey, Jung was the most influential person in the 20thth century to follow the path within. At the time of his death in 1961, the west was embarking on what we can see as a "spiritual revival" that drew in an entire generation. By the mid-'60s, the most famous people in the world, the Beatles, were dipping into the Eastern mysticism that Jung, through his many introductions, prefaces and commentaries, had introduced into popular culture; evidence for this is Jung's appearance on the cover of the seminal psychedelic album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Since that time, many people have taken the interior voyage with a copy of one of Jung's books in their hands.

We may not agree with everything he says, but that isn't important, and Jung himself always encouraged people to think for themselves. But by showing us how to look within, Jung introduced us to the most mysterious thing in the universe: ourselves.