Analytical psychology as a bridge to the East
In a letter from Carl Jung to the Indologist Wilhelm Hauer, ahead of a lecture series in 1932 addressing The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga, Jung tells Hauer, “I am aware of the profound congeniality between my view and Yoga” (Jung, XXXVI). Prior to this series in 1929 this congeniality led to a psychological commentary on The Secret of the Golden Flower, translated by Richard Willhelm, and would later lead to yet another commentary introducing The Tibetan Book of the Dead ahead of Tibetan scholar, W.Y. Evans-Wentz. All of which proceed from the roots of Yogic philosophy. In translating these Eastern systems of thought to the language of psychology, the aim of each of these commentaries had the stated goal of making the text intelligible to the Western mind. A task which, according to Jung is fraught with considerable difficulty because of the basic differences in psychic orientation from East to West. “They [Eastern symbols] are a foreign body in our system - corpus alienum - and they inhibit the natural growth and development of our own psychology” (14).
In light of these commentaries and other subsequent work on myth, the fundamental question guiding this paper is, to what degree can Carl Jung’s analytical psychology be used as an interpretive method to aid the Western mind in understanding Eastern mythology? In order to answer this question, the paper will first outline fundamental concepts necessary for grasping Jung’s treatment of myth. The discussion then proceeds to address the criticism of analytical psychology as an interpretive method and then finally ends by addressing the difficulty and dangers that the Western mind has in trying to assimilate Eastern ideas - in essence addressing the question as to why a bridge is needed in the first place. In order to accomplish this end, I will weave the above-mentioned commentaries into various sections of the paper, thereby demonstrating the application of the psychological method to Eastern mythology.
Fundamental concepts for the psychological interpretation of myth
The overarching idea which provides coherence to Jung’s theory of myth is his notion of the collective unconscious. “Just as the human body shows a common anatomy over and above all racial differences, so too, does the psyche possess a common substratum. I have called the latter the collective unconscious” (qtd. In Wilhelm 88). As a theorist, Jung argues for what is called ‘independent invention’ implying that individuals and cultures who have no way of knowing about each other see similar motifs and symbols appear in their mythology because they are all drawing from this same substratum. For Jung, this points to the primary function of mythology which is psychological in nature: “to reveal the unconscious” (Segal, 17). “Myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious happenings” (Jung, 154). What this means in practice is that the various mythologies of the world can be utilized to make sense of the unconscious contents arising in the dreams, fantasies, and visions of individuals. Jungian scholar Sonu Shamdasani, who edited Jung’s lectures on Kundalini says that what would otherwise be seen as the meaningless byproduct of a disease process could be understood as a meaningful symbolic process [arising from the unconscious] (xxvi). This, of course, means that the process also works in reverse: psychology can be used to ground ideas emerging in mythology. It should be noted that Jung did not view mythology as solely psychological but rather limited his treatments of various myths to the field of psychology so as not to overstep the bounds of his empiricism:
“To understand metaphysically is impossible; it can only be done psychologically I, therefore, strip things of their metaphysical wrappings in order to make them objects of psychology. In this way, I can at least get something comprehensible out of them and can avail myself of it. Moreover, I learn psychological conditions and processes which before were veiled in symbols and out of reach of my understanding” (qtd. In Wilhelm 129).
To my mind, his care in this matter is what made him so precise in his psychological assertions.
It is from this collective unconscious that everything in myth proceeds, including two key Jungian terms: archetype and symbol. Archetypes are forms or patterns of reality that emerge from the pre-rational psyche and as such, express themselves psychically. “Among these inherited psychic factors there is a special class which is not confined either to family or to race. These are the universal dispositions of the mind, and they are to be understood as analogous to Plato’s forms (eidola)” (qtd. In Evan Wentz 17). The use of psychological terms such as archetype helps Jung explain, for example, the visions described in the Bardo Thodol without having to wade into metaphysical claims about the nature of the experience. Helpful for a Western person who has no real concept of reincarnation and if they do, likely see it from such an ego-centric place that their perspective of it is vastly different than what is referred to in the text.
One thing that unites analytical psychology and Yoga is that phenomena are explained as arising from within the individual. In light of this fact, myth can be properly understood as the projections of archetypes onto the physical world. This is vastly different than the Western religious understanding which emphasizes the transcendent aspects of the divine far more than the imminent. The Western person must be careful here not to oversimplify. As an example taken from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Jung interprets the “Karmic illusions” that appear in the bardo state as archetypal projections but cautions the enlightened European not to dismiss them as something “unreal”. To understand the use of projection in this sense one must adopt a dialectic worldview. Real and unreal cannot exist in opposition or the point of the visions will be lost completely. Because psyche is taken to be real, the metaphysical assertions in the Bardo Thodol are “in the highest degree, psychological” (11). Psyche is not only “the condition of all metaphysical reality, it is that reality” (12). It is as if, in order to understand this Eastern perspective, a new category must be added to the Western mind beyond both real and imaginative. This new category of understanding includes and supersedes both real and imaginative in ontological reality, meaning it is ultimate in nature. Here we see a major difference between Western and Eastern thought. “For the Western mind, the metaphysical is purely abstraction. “For example, to the Indian, the brahman or perusa is the one unquestioned reality; to us it is the final result of extremely bold speculation” (Jung 69).
Such ambiguity is not welcomed by Western theology or philosophy, hence the power of using this method to show where our own limited conceptions reach their end in helping us understand the East. This gap in understanding is magnified by the fact that because of their emphasis on imminence, the East has been mapping out the unconscious far longer than the West. Jung came to understand Yoga as a natural process of introversion. Because of this a Westerner is likely to feel confused and turned around when first exploring the ideas.
Symbols for Jung, unite the individual with the unconscious because they have a conscious aspect, the image itself while coming from and representing the unconscious. They are often known to illicit a “magic effect” because through primitive analogy they speak to the unconscious. I.e. symbols have a transformative effect on the consciousness of the individual.
“The word symbol comes from the Greek word symballein, to throw together. It has to do with a heap of things thrown together which we take as a whole. We can view them as “something viewed as a totality”, or as “the vision of things brought into the whole” (60). This idea approximates the Western philosophical idea of gestalt. This means also that symbols cannot be grasped in their entirety by the conceptual mind because, by definition, they reach into the world that lies beyond its outer limits. Rather, they can be partially interpreted and followed into the unconscious. This ‘following’ is made possible by tracking the dynamic movement of libido which is represented and contained in the symbol. Hence Jung’s assertion that “The unconscious can only be reached and expressed by the symbol, which is the reason why the process of individuation can never do without the symbol. The symbol is, on the one hand, the primitive expression of the unconscious, while, on the other hand, it is an idea corresponding to the highest intuition produced by consciousness” (108). This “highest intuition” is the “innate urge to produce an individual as complete as possible” (4). That is, we all possess in us from birth the urge to become who we really are. This perspective on the symbols of mythology and their movement is helpful in illuminating Eastern ideas such as the Kundalini Chakra system which is made up entirely of symbols. In essence, Jung understands Kundalini as an effort to give a comprehensive, symbolic theory of the psyche.
Criticism of analytical psychology as a valid method for the interpretation of myth
In order to understand the critique leveled against Jung, a continuation of his interpretation of Kundalini is necessary. Shamdasani says “The symbolism of the chakra enabled Jung to develop an archetypal regional topography of the psyche and to provide narration of the process of individuation in terms of the imaginal transit between these regions” (xlv). Each chakra then is indicative of different levels of consciousness ascending upward toward individuation. We see here that Jung understood Kundalini partly in terms of his own individuation myth, which completed itself at the level of the heart, the chakra known as Anahata. For Jung, to speculate on the levels of consciousness beyond this level was to wade into what reality might be like beyond the three-dimensional experience of everyday consciousness. A superfluous project considering that those who have not traversed this psychic terrain have no idea (literally no concept of) what it might be like. Kundalini itself then represents the impulse to individuate which arises from the unconscious. “To activate the unconscious means to awaken the divine, the devi - Kundalini - to begin the development of the suprapersonal within the individual in order to kindle the light of the gods” (68).
Harold coward, an opponent of analytical psychology as a valid method for interpreting Kundalini offers a scathing criticism. He says it is doubtful that Jung’s “rope trick” of standing Kundalini on its head and then lopping off the last two chakras as “superfluous speculations with no practical value” would be accepted (xliii). For Coward, the series did little more than provide additional insight into Jung’s theory of individuation but taught nothing of the actual system of Kundalini.
Similar critiques are often brought up against those who use a hermeneutic that has not been approved by tradition. Biblical scholars, as an example, often complain that the text is “psychologized” with this method, preferring instead to stick with typical exegesis which seeks to situate the meaning of the text in the context that it emerges out of. The weariness of “universalizing” a text is often the byproduct of those who have a vested interest in a particular meaning or interpretation.
It is not clear, however, that contextual meaning can not sit side by side with its psychological meaning. Their ideals are not competing. Analytical psychology as a method of interpretation seeks to illuminate the psychic structure that gives rise to the phenomena in question. This not only has a therapeutic benefit as earlier discussed but also helps those who approach tradition from the outside (which is virtually every single person today who seeks to contemplate ancient wisdom) assimilate the teachings. Further, it helps them to see where their own frame of reference must be reconfigured in order to grasp the wisdom being conveyed.
Differences between Eastern and Western thought
In examining the differences between Eastern and Western philosophical perspectives, the real value of the analytical psychological method is illuminated. For in its absence, the differences remain unconscious and affect our actions without our knowing. In this case, it is as if the ego is possessed and gripped from behind but by what, it does not know. “If we do not try hard and dare to commit many errors in assimilating to our Western mentality, we simply get poisoned. For these symbols have a terrible clinging tendency. They catch the unconscious somehow and cling to us” (14).
The difference in orientation is glaring when one considers the starting point of Western thought with that of the East. As an example, we will consider Indian orientation. Whereas the Westerner thinks in terms of ego first and then progresses upward, the Hindu thinks from the general first and then progresses down to the individual ego (67). This point shows the difficulty in looking at the chakra system without any inclination as to its psychological meaning. “The East, and India especially, has always tried to understand the psyche as a whole. Because it has an intuition of the whole, it sees the ego and consciousness as more or less unessential parts of the whole” (61). A feat quite difficult for us in the West whose understanding of reality is always in relation to the ego. Thus, because of the Western preoccupation with the foreground of the psyche, symbols that represent the background (such as the chakra symbolism), or the totality beyond ego (the Self in Jungian terminology), we run the risk of identifying the symbolism with only the foreground and trying to inflate it to the size of the whole. This is the “poison” that Jung often refers to when trying to assimilate Eastern ideas into the Western mind. Kundalini is the rising of the impersonal and thus it should not be considered personal development. “He [Jung] explains that what takes place is impersonal and must be observed from a stance of detachment” (Mahaffey 145). If this point is not understood it is increasingly likely that the ego will identify with what it finds in the unconscious and will then succumb to ego inflation. Such a person will see themselves as that which is rising, rather than as a part of the whole. “When a person is lifted, they are likely to be put down in a most disagreeable way. It is wise not to identify with these experiences but to handle them as if they were outside the human realm” (Jung 27).
Psychologically speaking, “you can approach the unconscious in only the right way. Namely, by a purified mind, by a right attitude, and by the grace of heaven” (20). Purity in this sense is analogous to detachment while the right attitude is one that is grounded in humility. Together, these help keep the spiritual aspirant from falling into participation mystique; a term coined by French scholar Levy-Bruhl that refers to the inability to differentiate between subject and object. “In so far as the difference between subject and object is not conscious, unconscious identity prevails” (124).
Jung posits the idea that psychologically speaking, the chakra system cannot be understood in its normal bottom-up perspective by the Western mind. Consider the movement from the root chakra (Muladhara) to the second chakra (svadhisthana). The former is representative of the earth and thus, normal everyday life where the ego believes itself to be supreme. In this state, the gods are asleep. The latter is indicative of the unconscious and is thus represented by water. Here we find the symbolism of the baptismal font which initiates a person into the unconscious in the ancient mystery cults. Note, “they have the unconscious above, we have it below. Everything is just the opposite” (16). Herein lies the danger of not grasping the psychological structure underlying Hindu thought. For us, we experience this movement as sinking below into the unconscious but in the chakra system of development, it is an upward movement. In his Secret of the Golden Flower commentary, Jung makes the point that “Western consciousness is by no means consciousness in general, but rather a historically conditioned, and geographically limited factor, representative of only one part of humanity” (136). Thus the comparisons are not as straightforward as they might first seem. It is really only in applying the analytical psychological method, however, that these differences become apparent.
The Western mind tends to view consciousness as coming from the Ajna chakra in the head. This, however, is the space that only enlightened masters have reached according to the movement of Kundalini. Thus “because we experience consciousness in the head, we see ourselves as enthroned, dominant over nature. Our identification with consciousness means we talk about the “subconscious” and we fall down into Manipura (our emotional center). A sort of built-in fear of sinking downward cuts us off from the wisdom of the body, which lives below the level of Manipura. In societies heavily influenced by puritan values, the body, like animals, is considered unholy. The profundity of this should not be lost - the movement of the psyche according to the chakra symbolism must begin in a place that is utterly unacceptable to Western sensibility. Thus, not only is there a danger of inflation but there also exists a danger of simply bypassing the necessary steps needed for the holistic expansion of consciousness toward individuation. In this case, one is not transcending their current consciousness, rather they are fragmenting. In order to keep from this, we must remember that “the step to higher consciousness leads away from all shelter and safety” (95). And Further, “the new thing contradicts deeply rooted instincts as we know them” (92). Yet, this is so because psyche moves toward totality and does not care at all for the sensibilities of the conscious personality. Keeping this in mind will surely help the Western-minded person integrate Eastern wisdom.
According to Barbara Hannah who was present for Jung’s psychological lectures on Kundalini, “because the East has been at it for so long they have many more symbols than we do and it’s hard to relate to them. Jung delivering a psychological commentary helped get everyone at the lectures re-oriented to the material and thus, out of confusion” (XXXIII). Of course, confusion is the best-case scenario for the Western mind encountering foreign ideas. At least in confusion is the impulse and opportunity to remain humble and open. More dangerous is the belief that one is not confused, that they do know where they are when in fact they do not. For it is here that all manner of neuroses emerge and take hold of the conscious ego.
In the almost 100 years since Jung began to publicly write about Eastern ideas, they have no doubt grown in popularity. This growing embrace should be understood alongside of the fact that the basic predisposition of the Western mind has not changed and if anything has grown more entrenched in its basic belief in the power and dominance of conscious will. This is particularly destructive because without trying to view psyche in its totality as Jung suggests, the will of the individual is often strengthened against the unconscious thereby creating a worse reversal in the future. Analytical psychology provides not only a bridge to the symbolism of the East but further provides a path for the Western person to understand their own system of belief by helping them come to terms with the limits of their own perceptual lens.
Evans-Wentz, W. Y. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.
Jung, C. G. The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga. Princeton University Press, 1996.
Jung, C. G., and Robert A. Segal. Jung on Mythology. Princeton University Press, 2021.
Mahaffey, Patrick. Integrative Spirituality. New York: Routledge, 2019
Wilhelm, Richard. The Secret of the Golden Flower. New York: Harcourt Publishing Company