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The Significance of Jungs Seven Sermons to the Dead at the Dawn of a New Millennium

Presented at CMRC by http://www.canonbury.ac.uk/speakers.htm - Baring on 22 Nov 2000 I am starting with this picture of the astronomers exploring the starry cosmos because it gives such a vivid image of the longing for knowledge that lies behind all our attempts to understand ourselves and our universe. But there are many different kinds of knowledge, among them the knowledge that grows from visionary experience. I imagine that some of you may not have heard of Jungs Seven Sermons to the Dead and others may not have read them, so I thought I would tell you the story of the events leading up to them, then move on to consider their significance at the dawn of this new millennium. But first, if I may, a short introduction. I think every culture needs a vertical axis as well as a horizontal one. That is to say, I think that we need to feel related to a transcendent principle or image related to something beyond ourselves in order to orient ourselves in this physical dimension of experience. Otherwise, we are liable to lose ourselves among the ten thousand things as the Taoists put it. 350 years ago God was the centre of the universe; no-one in Europe could imagine existence without belief in God. Today, however, the supreme value is the human mind. We do not, as a culture, recognize a dimension of reality beyond the physical universe, nor any form of consciousness transcendent to our own. So there is nothing to connect us with something beyond ourselves. We have exiled Soul and rejected Spirit. Naturally then, true poets and visionaries and artists who have in the past connected us to soul and spirit have no place in our culture. This makes it difficult for people to understand Jung, for Jung, like Dante and Blake, was a visionary. His greatest longing, like theirs, was to build a bridge between the reality we see and know and another unseen reality that has always been called Soul or Spirit or God. I think it was Francis Bacon who said: Let the mind, so far as it can, be open to the fullness of the Mysteries; let not the Mysteries be constrained to fit the narrower confines of the mind.[i] Jung would have agreed with this directive. He once said in a letter: I find that all my thoughts circle around God like the planets around the sun, and are as irresistibly attracted by

Him. I would feel it to be the grossest sin if I were to oppose any resistance to this force.[ii] Jungs great contribution to our understanding of ourselves is that he discovered that the psyche was accessible, like physical reality, to scientific exploration and that it had a vast unexplored hinterland that he called the collective unconscious. He knew that the modern psyche was in a state of suffering and alienation because the conscious mind knew nothing of this other side, its deeper ground. He defined sickness or neurosis as a state of incompleteness; and health as a state of wholeness brought about through the reconnection of our left- hemispheric mind with that unrecognized and essential counterpart of itself. The more critical reason dominates, he wrote, the more impoverished life becomes; but the more of the unconscious, the more of myth we are capable of making conscious, the more of life we integrate. Overvalued reason has this in common with political absolutism: under its dominion the individual is pauperised. [iii] In the prologue to his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections he writes: In the end the only events in my life worth telling are those when the imperishable world irrupted into this transitory one. That is why I speak chiefly of inner experiences, among which I include my dreams and visions. These form the prima materia of my scientific work. They were the fiery magma out of which the stone that had to be worked was crystallised.[iv] So what were these inner experiences and how did Jung come to write the Seven Sermons to the Dead? Jung broke with Freud in 1912 when he was 37. During the next seven years from 1913-19 when he was trying to develop his own orientation to the treatment of his patients, he deliberately provoked a near-overwhelming eruption of visions, dreams and fantasies. It is important to note that this experience took place just before and during the First World War, whose catastrophic effects he had foreseen in a series of visions during the autumn and spring of 1913-14 (see autobiography). He called this period his Nekyia a Greek word which describes a descent into the underworld. This picture he painted is of Philemon, the being who was his guide to the unconscious, rather as Virgil was guide to Dante. In order to communicate his vision to others, the visionary has to translate the archetypal images he has seen into the terminology of his time. His conscious mind, struggling to contain the overwhelming power and numinosity of the experience, will interpret it according to the level of his understanding and the needs of the age in which he or she lives. Jung describes this in his autobiography:

The knowledge I was concerned with, or was seeking, could not be found in the science of those days. I myself had to undergo the original experience, and, moreover, try to plant the result of my experience in the soil of reality.[v] Some have seen this experience as a psychotic episode; others, including myself, see it as a shamanic initiation into the direct experience of another order of reality. There are dangers attendant on this experience and Jung had the greatest difficulty in maintaining his psychic and emotional balance during this time: My science was the only way I had of extricating myself from that chaos I took great care to try and understand every single image, every item of my psychic inventory, and to classify them scientifically so far as this was possible and, above all, to realise them in actual life.[vi] During these years, which were tumultuous and extremely stressful for himself and his family, he took care to allow plenty of time for solitude, reflection, writing down and painting his dreams and fantasies, often brooding by the lake close to his home and building villages out of the stones on the beach. Only his wife and children would have known the tremendous strain he and his family were under as he struggled to assimilate the meaning of the images and words that flooded into his consciousness. He continued to work with his patients throughout this time. At this time when I was working on the fantasies, I needed a point of support in this world. It was most essential for me to have a normal life in the real world as a counterpoise to that strange inner world. My family and my profession remained the base to which I could always return, assuring me that I was an actually existing, ordinary person.[vii] Jung recorded his experience in over 1,000 handwritten pages and illustrations, some of which he later bound together in what he called the Red Book (not published). He comments on his Nekya experience that it was ironical that he, a psychiatrist, should, at almost every step of his experiment have run into the same psychic material which is typical of psychosis. This, he says, is the fund of unconscious images which fatally confuse the mental patient. But it is also the matrix of a mythopoeic imagination which has vanished from our rational age.[viii]

Then, one day in the summer of 1916, as he describes it in his autobiography, certain paranormal experiences occurred, among them dreams and disturbances told him by his children and the repeated ringing of the doorbell when no-one was there: The house was filled as if it was crammed full of spirits he writes, and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe. For Gods sake, he said to them, What in the world is this? And the spirits cried out in chorus: We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought.[ix] And that is how the Sermons begin. Jung wrote down what he heard that evening and on the two subsequent ones. It is not an exaggeration to say that the material which came to him during these seven years and, in particular, during those three evenings, was the fount and origin of all his future work. It has taken me, he wrote near the end of his life, virtually forty- five years to distil within the vessel of my scientific work the things I experienced and wrote down at that time The years when I was pursuing my inner images were the most important in my life in them everything essential was decided. It all began then; the later details are only supplements and clarifications of the material that burst forth from the unconscious, and at first swamped me. It was the prima materia for a lifetime's work.[x] Jungs courage and tenacity in risking insanity to experience this unexplored dimension of consciousness sums up his lifelong determination to devote himself, as he put it, to the scientific exploration of the soul to listen to its voice, decipher its language and its imagery, become receptive to its attempts to communicate with the conscious mind. Some of you here may have already been to see the Blake exhibition at the Tate. There you have a man from another age who also listened to the soul and recorded what he heard and saw in words and images. He, like Jung, was thought to be mad by those who could not understand what he was talking about. Jung passionately loved life and he was passionately interested in the soul. Like many titans of innovative thought who are ahead of their time, he has been reviled, ignored and to a large extent, misunderstood, notably by members of his own profession. But Jung revived, extended and deepened the concept of soul for the whole culture, rescuing it from the obscurity and neglect into which it had fallen. I am convinced that the discoveries he made in relation to the realm of the soul may one day be considered as crucially important for the understanding of our psychic universe as was Copernicuss discovery for our understanding of the physical one.

Jung had a superb education which, in addition to his medical and psychiatric training, included knowledge of Greek and Latin and a thorough grounding in philosophy and history. He had a brilliant innovative and intuitive mind as well as the intellectual and psychiatric knowledge to ground his discoveries in empirical observation. He had met William James and was familiar with what he wrote in his Varieties of Religious Experience, first published in 1902: our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence, but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they are there in all their completeness No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. [xi] Any attempt to understand the Sermons presents a considerable challenge. It is essential to know about the stream of human experience which flowed from the city of Alexandria in Egypt into the writings of the early Christian Gnostics, the Hermetic Tradition, the Alchemists, and the transmitters, both Jewish and Christian, of the ancient tradition of Kabbalah. This largely ignored stream of esoteric teaching is the complementary and missing counterpart of the official Christian one. It is an essential yet unrecognized part of our psychic inheritance. It is also helpful to know about shamanic traditions lost to Western civilization: traditions which speak of unorthodox methods of healing; visionary experience; travelling to other dimensions of consciousness; encountering and speaking to the souls of the dead. All this material belongs to the history and evolution of human consciousness. Prior to 1945 and the discovery of the 52 Gnostic texts buried at Nag Hammadi in Egypt, there were few Gnostic texts available, but by 1912 Jung was already familiar with them and with the work of German scholars who had studied them. This enabled him to grasp the significance of the images, fantasies and dreams that presented itself to him during these seven years and, in particular, in the Sermons. He would have known that he was writing in the Gnostic tradition of listening to the voice of the soul and that what he was experiencing was similar to what the gnostics and kabbalists had recorded of their own visionary and auditory experiences But, and this is crucially important, he also knew that he had to grow into the meaning of what he had heard and interpret its intention and that this could become the foundation of a new approach to psychotherapy. He had firm professional ground as a psychiatrist to stand on, and prior experience of the unconscious through his psychotic

patients. He also had an exceptional woman as a wife who was an absolute rock of stability, practicality and common sense. Without these, he might easily have become a religious fanatic or have gone the way of Nietzsche. The Sermons speak with the voice of a prominent Gnostic teacher a man called Basilides who taught in Alexandria from 125-140 AD. The opening words of the First Sermon read: The dead came back from Jerusalem where they found not what they sought. They prayed me to let them in and besought my words, and thus I began my teaching.[xii] How can we understand these words? Who are the dead? Jung writes that the dead are the voices of the Unanswered, the Unresolved, and Unredeemed the souls who look to us for the answers they were unable to discover in their lifetime. The dead come to Alexandria to seek out the Gnostic tradition, the conventional Christian tradition (represented by Jerusalem) having apparently failed them. With these Sermons, Jung opens the door to psychic contents and psychic needs which have been neglected and repressed for centuries and which he, as a potential carrier of consciousness for the whole culture, needed to be aware of. He writes that these conversations with the dead formed a kind of prelude to what I had to communicate to the world about the unconscious: a kind of pattern of order and interpretation of its general contents.[xiii] No wonder he was filled with excitement as he began to decipher their strange language and imagery and to realise the implications of what they were saying. In the First Sermon Basilides speaks of the Pleroma which he describes as a boundless, indefinable and totally transcendent dimension of being which nevertheless permeates our created world in the way that sunlight permeates air (compare the scientific description of the quantum vacuum). This image of the Pleroma led Jung, after many years of reflection, to the conclusion that what we call body and mind, or matter and psyche, are two aspects of a single underlying order of reality which has these two vehicles of expression. The dead ask to know about god. Where is god? Is god dead? And in the last Sermon they ask to be taught about man. What is man? they ask. Basilides teaches them that man is the gateway between the macrocosm and the microcosm, the greater infinity and the lesser infinity. He describes God as eternal creative power and man as the creator and destroyer of his own world. He says of God that he shines like a Star at an immeasurable distance and that this Star is the goal of man. Out of this experience Jung was able to develop his insights into both the divine and the daemonic aspects of the archetypes, the dual nature of the self, the

shadow, and the power of the imagination as the key to relationship with this archetypal ground. When Nietzsche proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century, he was describing not the literal death of God but the decay of an image of spirit that was worn out, because it was no longer numinous and therefore relevant to millions of people. Jung realized that that the problems of our time are rooted not only in the birth of scientific materialism in the seventeenth century but above all, in the loss of a living myth and the increasing polarisation between the conscious mind and the unconscious, between thinking and feeling, mind and soul. He saw that the dissociation of the rational mind from what he called the primordial or instinctual soul presented a growing and unperceived danger to humanity. The more we emphasized reason and the supremacy of the rational mind, the more instinct would drive, possess, betray and overwhelm us. Jungs work was focussed on creating a marriage between the conscious and unconscious elements of our psyche. He introduced the words introvert and extravert, animus and anima, and shadow into our vocabulary, and tried to convey the idea of a wholeness which was available to us through the creation of a relationship with a deeper centre of consciousness that he called the self. All this grew out of his need to understand his visions and the material of the Seven Sermons to the Dead. He knew it was essential to balance the predominant masculine character of our culture with its emphasis on power and conquest with a recognition and revaluation of the neglected feminine principle: nature, matter, soul, body, feeling and instinct and the establishment of a conscious relationship with these different aspects of it. He knew that religious teaching had not preserved the vital knowledge that nature and instinct are an expression of spirit. In splitting nature from spirit, and emptying matter of soul, an essential part of our wholeness has been lost. Hence he gave great significance to the Papal Bulls of 1950 and 1954 which promulgated the dogma of the physical ascension of the Virgin Mary into heaven and named her Queen of Heaven. Jung anticipated that this would lead to a new attitude to nature and matter and the rediscovery of soul. He wanted to help us to develop spiritual insight through the establishment of a dialogue with the unconscious, to learn to use the eyes of the soul as well as those of the mind. What he offered was not a belief system but the path to a spirituality grounded in self- knowledge and insight, a spirituality of ethical responsibility towards life in all its aspects, seen and unseen.

He knew that at the deepest level what each individual does affects the whole The fate of the world hangs by a thin thread, and that thread is the psyche of man. [xiv] We are living at the end of a great trajectory perhaps five million years or more which has brought about the gradual differentiation of human consciousness from purely instinctual and unconscious behavior, and the development of the capacity for reflection and self-awareness as well as a highly developed intellect. But in the very process of developing these our being has been fractured mind has become separated from body and instinct, spirit from nature. We have lost the ancient sense of participation in a sacred cosmos. Yet now we are engaged in reconnecting with what we have become separated from. This process is arduous; it involves a death and rebirth; a dissolution of old belief systems and the formulation of a new vision of reality. For countless millions of people murdered or left destitute and traumatized by human barbarism, the last century was a dark night of the soul, the culmination of living for millennia with this deep unconscious split in our nature. But, from another perspective, the last 50 years may be viewed as a rite of passage between the dissolution of an outworn vision of reality where the human mind identified with spirit was believed to stand outside and above nature, and the formulation of a new one based on a totally different understanding of our relationship to nature. This represents a huge advance in consciousness for all of us if we are able to accomplish it. What I believe we are witnessing today is what might be called the awakening of the soul. People are beginning to realize that spirit is not something separate from ourselves but is the life process itself in all its aspects, visible and invisible. Nor is nature something separate from ourselves. We are becoming aware of the interconnectedness of all aspects of life (for example, David Attenboroughs television series, The State of the Planet, transmitted November-December 2000). I would like to read you these words of Einsteins: A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.[xv]

This new vision of reality requires a new ethic of responsibility towards life, grounded in the perception that the life of this planet is sacred and precious. Jungs emphasis on the rehabilitation of the feminine value and his contribution to the formulation of this new paradigm is immeasurable and cannot yet be assessed because we are in the midst of this transformation. What is consciousness? Is the universe conscious? Can we enter into dialogue with that greater consciousness of which our own is a part? These are the great questions at the dawn of a new millennium. On the one hand reductionist science offers us a universe without life or meaning. On the other, to quote the physicist Paul Davies, there is the vision of a selforganizing and self-complexifying universe governed by laws that encourage matter to evolve towards life and consciousness. [xvi] Is our consciousness as Francis Crick would have it only an epiphenomenon of the brain or is it embedded in a greater field or matrix of consciousness that we may call the divine ground or the unconscious or spirit or God? Is the separation of our conscious mind from this invisible cosmic matrix an illusion, as Einstein suggests, built up over centuries of belief in our separateness and an instinctive defense against the terror of the unknown? Who or what sees through our eyes, Who or what is the life that is our life, our longing, our intelligence? Who or what is helping us to make the astounding discoveries which are changing our view of the universe? Who or what is urging us to look at life in an entirely different way? Jung felt that the psyche extends into a world beyond time and space and therefore there is a continuity between this world and the world beyond death. He thought it essential, while living in this world, that we know ourselves to be connected with the infinite. Does my life have meaning? Does God exist? What happens after I die? Will I see my loved ones again? What is the source of evil? Does the universe care that I exist? These are the deep questions we ask now as we did thousands of years ago. Since the nature of consciousness is the key to our being able to answer these questions, they invite a study of consciousness which excludes no aspect of it: a study which welcomes the insights of every one of us and which includes visionary experience and the nature of the imagination, as well as feeling, instinct and thinking as categories or aspects of consciousness. Such a study would embrace parapsychology and the many new and unorthodox methods of healing. It would include the discoveries of neuro-psychiatrists, neuro- physiologists and scientists working in the fields of biology and physics. Jung saw this

integrated exploration of consciousness as the science of the future. This science is precisely what we might be able to bring into being at the dawn of a new millennium if we could let go of our fears and prejudices, our desire for power and control and work together to discover who and what we are. What we see is only 1% of what exists. We are a minute excitation on the surface of a great sea of being. This great sea of being expresses itself in this phenomenal world as nature, matter and the incredible creative pulse of human consciousness. We exist in this sea of being like a bird in the air or a fish in water. Our cosmic source needs to be borne in mind when we come to study the soul. We are at the very heart of the universe: every galaxy, every star, every planet, every cell of our being is the place where the universe flares forth into existence from that invisible sea of being. Even in the darkest region beyond the Great Wall of galaxies, even in the void between the super-clusters, even in the gaps between the synapses of the neurons of our brain, there occurs an incessant foaming, a flashing flame, a shining-forth-from and a dissolving- backinto. [xvii] So often the dreams of people today offer the image of a ruined or unexplored house or a neglected, overgrown garden. These images reflect the neglected soul. I feel that our need for relationship with the supernatural, the transcendent, the numinous, is rooted in our profoundest instinctive needs. It can never be outgrown; only re- discovered. The Greek philosopher Heracleitus said that we could never discover the limits of the soul, even if we travelled by every path to do so so profound is its meaning. Jung would have agreed with him. He believed our task was to increase or extend our consciousness through becoming conscious of the contents that press upwards from the unconscious asking for recognition.[xviii] In the last paragraph of Modern Man in Search of a Soul, he writes: The living spirit grows and even outgrows its earlier forms of expression; It freely chooses the men [and women] in whom it lives and who proclaim it. This living spirit is eternally renewed and pursues its goal in manifold and inconceivable ways throughout the history of mankind. Measured against it,

the names and forms which men have given it mean little enough; they are only the changing leaves and blossoms on the stem of the eternal tree. [xix]

Recommended reading
1. Henri Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious, New York (Basic Books), 1970. 2. Robert Segal, The Gnostic Jung, London (Routledge), 1992, (currently reprinting). 3. Stephan A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead, Wheaton (Quest Books), 1982, (highly recommended, obtainable from Watkins Bookshop, London). 4. Ronald Hayman, A Life of Jung, London (Bloomsbury), 1999, (the only biography worth reading). 5. C. G. Jung, Man and his Symbols, London (Aldus Books), 1964, (now available in paperback from Picador). 6. C. G. Jung, Word and Image, Princeton (Princeton University Press), 1979. 7. C. G. Jung, Civilization in Transition, Collected Works vol. 10, London (Routledge & Kegan Paul) 1974, (includes The Undiscovered Self, pp.247-305).

Notes
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[i] Quoted in Stephan A. Hoeller, The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead, Wheaton (Quest), 1982, p.202. [ii] C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, London (Collins), 1979, p.13. [iii] Ibid, p.333. [iv] Ibid, p.18. [v] Ibid, p.217. [vi] Ibid, p.217. [vii] Ibid, p.214. [viii] Ibid, p.213. [ix] Ibid, pp.215-216. [x] Ibid, pp.224-225. [xi] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, London (Penguin), 1985, p.388. [xii] For these and following quotes from Jungs, Seven Sermons to the Dead, see Hoeller, op cit. [xiii] Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p.217. [xiv] Quoted in C.G. Jung, Psychological Reflections, London (Routledge & Kegan Paul), 1971, p.14. [xv] Quoted in Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything, Boston (Shambhala), 2000, p.136. [xvi] Paul Davies, The Fifth Miracle, London (Penguin), 1999, p.256. [xvii] Brian Swimme, The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos, London (Orbis), 1996, p.101. [xviii] Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p.358. [xix] C.G. Jung, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, London (Routledge & Kegan Paul), 1959, p.282.