The Swiss mystic and his big Red Book: the secret world of Carl G Jung

As Carl Jung’s mysterious masterpiece, The Red Book, is finally published, a new biography portrays the psychologist as a modern-day mystic.

Carl Jung For much of his life, pioneering psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) presented himself to the world as a rational, no-nonsense scientist. If he appeared to have any interest in mysticism or the occult, it was purely academic: just a way to help him understand the symbolism appearing in his patients’ dreams.

In truth, however, Jung was every inch the modern mystic.

(And in terms of the Michael Teachings, Jung was an Old Priest soul and therefore almost bound to be attracted to a spiritual teaching role.)

Jung The MysticA new biography, Jung the Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teachings, highlights Jung’s a life-long fascination with the otherworldly and transcendent aspects of human experience. It rightly places Jung in the context of other major mystical seekers and teachers, such as Rudolf Steiner, G. I. Gurdjieff, and Emanuel Swedenborg.

Gary Lachman
Gary Lachman

The book’s author is Gary Lachman, a widely respected writer on esoteric themes (as well as a founding member of the 80s rock band Blondie!). Lachman explores how, as a professional adult, Jung tended to hide and even deny this spiritual/esoteric/occult aspect of his life. Two dramatic personal experiences, thirty years apart, were to finally transform Jung into an openly mystical psychologist and an inspiration for today’s transpersonal movement. And between those two experiences came the creation of his great masterpiece, a hand-written book which for decades was virtually unknown outside his immediate family: The Red Book. In 2009, the Red Book was finally allowed to be published for the first time, an event which continues to generate a lot of buzz. Some see it as a work of literary genius, others see it as evidence of a psychotic breakdown. I’m with Lachman — I think it is a good idea to see The Red Book in the context of the current of mysticism and other-worldly weirdness running throughout Jung’s life. Lachman shows that even as a child, Jung was immersed in a world in which spirituality and the paranormal were the norm.

Young Jung

Carl Jung (age 6)
Carl Jung (age 6)

Jung’s early life was steeped in supernatural phenomena. His grandfather was constantly visited by spirits of the dead, and kept a chair in his study for the ghost of his deceased first wife, who often came to visit him. His mother Emilie likewise believed that she was visited by spirits every night. Emilie was also a trance medium — by entering a trance state, she could communicate with the dead. Another trance medium was Jung’s cousin Helene, who channelled not only their late grandfather but also her own higher self, ‘the real Helene’. This was a mature, confident and intelligent character, the person Helene might eventually grow into, in contrast to the rather dim teenager she appeared to be at the time. This gave Jung some insight into the nature of human potential that would inform his later theory of individuation, the process of ‘becoming who you are’. At the age of twenty-one, Jung had unusually vivid dreams in which his recently deceased father appeared to him. In a later dream, Jung’s father asked him for marital advice, as he wanted to prepare for his wife’s ‘arrival’. Jung took this as a premonition, and indeed his mother died soon after. Jung was also possibly influenced by a recent past life. He was convinced from the age of twelve that he had two personalities — one, the Swiss boy he appeared to be, and the other (identified only as ‘the Other’), a dignified, authoritative and influential gentleman from the eighteenth century, dressed in white wig and buckled shoes. The two personalities were in some sort of conflict, this Other holding the boy Jung in contempt.

Closet mystic

Throughout his early career, Jung kept this other-worldly dimension to his life private and presented himself publicly as a non-believer. For instance, for his medical dissertation he undertook a psychological study of séances, calling it On the Psychology and Pathology of So-called Occult Phenomena, but omitted to mention that he himself had participated in the séances and that the subject, “S.W.”, was in fact his cousin Helene. In 1906, Carl Jung struck up a close friendship with Sigmund Freud.

Freud & Jung
Freud & Jung, 1909

For a while, Jung became one of Freud’s willing disciples, eagerly helping to spread the good news about psychoanalysis. Over the next six years, however, it became apparent that Freud and Jung had fundamentally different ideas about psychology, psychotherapy and human nature. Iceberg (Wikimedia Commons)Freud saw the human psyche as something like an iceberg, with a small, visible top representing the conscious mind and a much larger, submerged bottom representing the unconscious mind. Almost everything driving a person stemmed from the bottom of the iceberg: their repressed emotions, memories and conflicts. Jung, in contrast, saw a great influence on human nature coming not only from the iceberg but also from the ocean itself — from humanity’s collective unconscious. In addition, Jung’s work on himself and his patients had convinced him that psychoanalysis should have a positive, growthful, uplifting purpose, enabling people to achieve their higher potential. In contrast, Freud — a materialist and a sceptic — believed that life is meaningless and that psychoanalysis can only bring people to ‘ordinary misery’ at best.

In 1912 Jung went public with his theoretical divergence from Freud. There followed a catastrophic breakdown in their relationship, each stating that the other was unable to admit he could possibly be wrong.

And Freud, appalled by Jung’s interest in esoteric matters, publicly accused him of ‘occultism’, implying that he was too irrational to be taken seriously.

After this falling-out, Jung went through his first pivotal psychological transformation — a painful process that was to last several years.

Confrontation with the unconscious

In the years following his break with Freud, Jung retreated from many of his professional activities to further develop his own theories. During this time he experienced considerable isolation in his professional life. In 1913, at the age of thirty-eight, Jung entered into a profound dark night of the soul, sinking ever deeper into an hallucinatory world of visions and voices. One of his early visions seemed to be a premonition of the coming of the First World War in 1914.

Dali - Face of War

Although he worried at times that he was losing his mind, he decided to trust the process and even developed a deliberate reverie technique known as active imagination to induce waking dreams. He also made it a rule never to let a figure that he encountered leave until they had told him why they had appeared to him. [1] He later referred to the whole episode as a kind of experiment, a voluntary confrontation with the unconscious. We might also call it a midlife crisis (or “the fourth internal monad” in terms of the Michael teachings), the time at which a person feels called upon to achieve authenticity and balance through the process of individuation. When Jung emerged from this period of crisis, he brought with him his theory of various archetypes — universal patterns or forces that shape our inner lives. These included the anima (the feminine side of a man) and animus (the masculine side of a woman), the wise old man (inner wisdom), and the shadow (the repressed, negative aspects of the personality).

The Red Book

Jung's Red BookAt first, Jung recorded his bizarre experiences in small journals. But he then set about transcribing his notes into a huge, red leather-bound book, on which he worked intermittently for sixteen years. What is now known as The Red Book, or Liber Novus (‘New Book’) to give it its original title, is a 205-page manuscript written and illustrated by Jung between approximately 1914 and 1930. Here is a video about it: Though it was written for public consumption, Jung eventually decided not to publish the Red Book and put it to one side. After his death in 1961, his family hid it away and denied access to all outsiders, even scholars. The book was kept locked up in a Swiss bank vault for the next forty years. But after years of dialogue with the Jungs, as well as painstaking scanning, translating and editing, a facsimile of The Red Book has finally been published


Red Book cover

The book is written in calligraphic text and contains many illuminations. It looks like the handiwork of some ancient wizard, and would not look out of place in a Harry Potter film.

To the modern reader, the result recalls an allegorical-mythological amalgam of Nietzsche’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” Blake’s illuminated poems, Renaissance Neoplatonic dialogue, Eastern scripture, Dante’s “Inferno,” Yeats’s “A Vision” and even the biblical book of Revelation. Jung’s pictures sometimes resemble simplified versions of Georgia O’Keeffe’s flower paintings and sometimes the symbol-laden images in treatises about alchemy (a subject that Jung was soon to study intently). Throughout, one finds illuminated capitals, interlaced roundels that call to mind stained-glass windows, stars, half moons, swords, crosses, dying animals. Jung also drew circular patterns that he later recognized as versions of the mystical shape called the mandala.

— The Washington Post

According to its editor, The Red Book presents “the prototype of Jung’s conception of the individuation process.”


Throughout it, Jung describes and draws the various entities he repeatedly encountered in his inner world. There were Elijah and Salome, two figures from the Bible, who were accompanied by a snake. There was also a guru figure whom Jung called Philemon, and whom he painted as a bald, white-bearded old man with bull’s horns and the wings of a kingfisher. No-one is quite sure if these are meant to represent real entities, such as Jung’s spirit guides, or archetypal aspects of the psyche.

Brought back

“What happens after death is so unspeakably glorious that our imagination and feelings do not suffice to form even an approximate conception of it.” — Carl Jung [2]

After the Second World War, Jung came out of the closet (as it were), revealing himself to be a modern-day mystic steeped in esoteric mysteries, experiences and practices. The turning point for him, according to Lachman’s book, was a near-death experience. One winter’s day in 1944, the 68-year-old Jung slipped on some ice and broke his leg. Ten days later, while in hospital, he suffered a heart attack. Treated with oxygen and camphor, he lost consciousness but then had an out-of-body experience.

He found himself floating 1,000 miles above the Earth. Seas and continents shimmered in blue light and Jung could make out the Arabian desert and the snow-tipped Himalayas. He felt he was about to leave orbit, but then, turning to the south, a huge black monolith came into view. It was a kind of temple, and at the entrance Jung saw a Hindu sitting in a lotus position. Within, innumerable candles flickered, and he felt that the “whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence” was being stripped away. It wasn’t pleasant, and what remained was an “essential Jung”, the core of his experiences. He knew that inside the temple the mystery of his existence, of his purpose in life, would be answered. He was about to cross the threshold when he saw, rising up from Europe far below, the image of his doctor in the archetypal form of the King of Kos, the island site of the temple of Asclepius, Greek god of medicine. He told Jung that his departure was premature; many were demanding his return and he, the King, was there to ferry him back. When Jung heard this, he was immensely disappointed, and almost immediately the vision ended. He experienced the reluctance to live that many who have been ‘brought back’ encounter, but what troubled him most was seeing his doctor in his archetypal form. He knew this meant that the physician had sacrificed his own life to save Jung’s. On 4 April 1944 – a date numerologists can delight in – Jung sat up in bed for the first time since his heart attack. On the same day, his doctor came down with septicæmia and took to his bed. He never left it, and died a few days later. — Gary Lachman [3]

Following this experience, the spiritual or transpersonal dimension became an explicit element of Jung’s work. Unlike Freud, who held that spiritual experiences were nothing but fantasies, Jung now regarded spirituality as vital to our well-being.

‘A Challenge to Freud’: Jung on the cover of Time magazine in 1955

The publication of The Red Book has stoked a renewed interest in Jung’s more esoteric ideas. Jung the Mystic, at the same time, reveals a complex individual whose groundbreaking work was informed as much by his love of science as his fascination with the paranormal. This carefully researched biography lays bare a critical but frequently misunderstood aspect of one of the greatest thinkers of our modern era.


[1] Barbara Hannah: Jung: His Life and Work, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1976, p. 115. [2] Quoted in Vincent Brome: Jung: Man and Myth, Scientific Book Club, 1979, p277. [3] Gary Lachman: ‘The Occult World of CG Jung‘, Fortean Times, FT265.


Further Reading

Gary Lachman’s other works include Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work, and A Secret History of Consciousness.

The Red Book

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