Jung, the Red Book, and Mindfulness Meditation

From Susan Smalley, Ph.D:  Psychology Professor, UCLA

The other night I attended one of the Red Book Dialogues at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, California. The Dialogues are a series of discussions between a celebrity (that night was Helen Hunt) and a psychoanalyst or Jungian scholar (that night was James Hillman) around The Red Book, Carl Jung’s personal journey into the mind.

At one point in the dialogue, Hillman and Hunt were pondering how ‘meditation’ may be similar or different to Jung’s process in the creation of the Red Book…  Hillman felt meditation was beyond his scope of knowledge and at a loss for words to compare the two…

There are many types of meditation; Hillman thought meditation was about ‘clearing the mind’ and while there are likely meditations designed for that purpose, many are not. At MARC we teach mindfulness meditation — a practice of being present with experience in a curious and open way .
Mindfulness meditation is a means of exploring the mind (not clearing it) and in this way, there are parallels between Jung’s creation of the Red Book and mindfulness. One thing that may arise with practicing mindfulness meditation is that there is an increasing clarity of mind, a finer and finer ability to see the mind and understand the origins of one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensory experiences; perhaps in that way one could say it is in some way a ‘clearing’ of the mind, but not by a process designed to ’empty’ it.

…  I’ve heard that Carl Jung put himself into a transcendental state as he wrote his Red Book over the many years it took to do so. How he entered his meditative state is unclear (as far as I know) but he learned to explore his mind with in its process, and in that way, his exploration is not unlike an exploration of the mind that might arise using mindfulness meditation.   (more)

It is a bit surprising to me that Hillman was allegedly not that familiar with meditation; it is so prevalent in the culture and so important to so many spiritual practices.

Dr. Smalley also does not mention “Active Imagination”, Jung’s way of encountering the Unconscious through dialogue:

Active Imagination is a meditation technique wherein the contents of one’s unconscious are translated into images, narrative or personified as separate entities. It can serve as a bridge between the conscious ‘ego’ and the unconscious and includes working with dreams and the creative self via imagination or fantasy. Jung linked Active Imagination with the processes of alchemy in that both strive for oneness and inter-relatedness from a set of fragmented and dissociated parts.

Active imagination is such an important part of Jung’s way of working psychologically that it certainly deserves mention when one is talking about meditation techniques; the Red Book is the best example of how absolutely powerful it can be.


Image: Philemon, from the Red Book

2 Responses to Jung, the Red Book, and Mindfulness Meditation

  1. I would love to read the Red Book and thank you for posting this excert. I regularly meditate and also participate in active imagination. I love both but think they are quite different. I work on an Acute Ward in a Psychiatric Unit and facilitate groups using both techniques and the response from patients varies considerably. However, I feel that both have more of a more lasting effect than medication.

  2. This coming January I turn 70 years old. When I was 38, by chance I ‘found’ a Jungian therapist; she had me continue drawing daily, since I’ve always done drawings, daily since I was a little girl. My therapist told me that when you draw, it is in harmony with the subconscious (according to Jung and my father always believed the same thing); since I’m not an expert on Jung, I felt very confident that what my therapist was saying was right ‘on the mark’.

    All I know is that, even now, if I don’t draw for a while, I can feel my inner self become confused; that’s a signal for me to go back to drawing.

    The daily ‘journal’ that I keep are drawings. Also, I can tell what state my mind is in by looking at the drawings after I’m done with them.

    I purchased the Red Book recently and those drawings reminded me of the ones that I do, too.

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