“The Red Book” Uncovered: Explorations into Carl Jung’s Active Imagination, Sessions 1 & 2

The following posts are guest authored by Peter Rinko, a Portland writer, and a participant in my recent seminar on Jung’s Red Book, held through Literary Arts in collaboration with The Portland Art Museum.


[Guest post by Peter Rinko]

Ahhhh, the midlife crisis.

Dads rekindling their youth with flame-red sports cars, much younger second wives, diamond-stud earrings winking at you from a freshly pierced lobe, the horror of ponytails blowing in the wind as they chase a deep-seated mental-emotional need for one more dance with summer before the lights go out.

Today the term seems more like a jab than a prognosis, poking fun at the costume-change of self that overtakes even the most loveable older relative, colleague, or spouse as they carpe diem through the shadow side of life in a perfect storm of impulse purchases 30 to40 years in the making.

But the term wasn’t always so clownishly consumer culture-based or so tragicomically youth-obsessed. It was a real existential threshold (still is in some remote parts of the Empire), and it had everything to do with Soul. And it’s here, in this quest for Soul, that we meet Jung at the start of The Red Book.

“[I]n the fortieth year of my life, I had achieved everything that I had wished for myself. I had achieved honor, power, wealth, knowledge, and every human happiness. Then my desire for the increase of these trappings ceased, the desire ebbed from me and horror came over me.” (RB, p. 127)

We should note that it’s not only prestige and creature comforts that have lost their thrill for Jung. By 1913 he’s lost his mentor, friend, and surrogate father-figure, Freud. In short, they’ve had a major falling out over differing views on the unconscious, and after six years of being one of Freud’s star acolytes, Jung is taking some big solo first steps out into bold new territory—that of himself.

If there’s a pinpoint from which the schism emanates, it’s in 1909 when the pair voyage to America to give lectures at various societies and universities. During this trip Jung has a kind of the-emperor-isn’t-wearing-any-clothes moment with Freud as he witnesses the master’s own neurosis. In the following excerpt from his memoir he talks rather candidly about the profound effect this experience would have on the future of their relationship:

“Freud himself had a neurosis, no doubt diagnosable and one with highly troublesome symptoms, as I had discovered on our voyage to America. Of course he had taught me that everybody is somewhat neurotic, and that we must practice tolerance. But I was not at all inclined to content myself with that; rather, I wanted to know how one could escape having a neurosis. Apparently neither Freud nor his disciples could understand what it meant for the theory and practice of psychoanalysis if not even the master could deal with his own neurosis. When, then, Freud announced his intention of identifying theory and method and making them into some kind of dogma, I could no longer collaborate with him; there remained no choice for me but to withdraw.” (MDR, p. 167)

He holds this inside but starts to distance himself from Freud and his scene. But by 1912, as he’s finishing the final chapter of The Psychology of the Unconscious (a chapter tellingly titled “The Sacrifice”), he knows that the ideas he is announcing will be the end of his relationship with his friend and mentor (and the whole world of which Freud is at the center). “For two months,” Jung writes, “I was unable to touch my pen, so tormented was I by the conflict. Should I keep my thoughts to myself, or should I risk the loss of so important a friendship?” (MDR, p. 67).

Imagine if he did back down, if he didn’t publish this work. Or worse, if he self-censored, kowtowed and then reshaped his ideas to fit within Freud’s system of thought? We certainly wouldn’t be reading The Red Book right now, or much else with Jung’s name on it. “After the break with Freud, all my friends and acquaintances dropped away,” Jung remembers. He’s immediately branded a “mystic” and his book written off as total “rubbish” by the Freudian community. Looking back on this painful but necessary moment of departure he writes,

“I had foreseen my isolation and harbored no illusion about the reactions of my so-called friends. That was a point I had thoroughly considered beforehand. I had known that everything was at stake, and that I had to take a stand for my convictions. I realized that the chapter, “The Sacrifice,” meant my own sacrifice. Having reached this insight, I was able to write again, even though I knew that my ideas would go uncomprehended.” (MDR, 168)

In this bold act wherein Jung asserts his individuality, he is already taking the first steps towards reclaiming his Soul. And as we read within the opening pages of The Red Book, the Soul interacts with two very distinct Spirits: the Spirit of the Times (S.O.T.) and the Spirit of the Depths (S.O.D.).

S.O.T. rules everything of a contemporary nature—it is near-sighted. And while it changes like the fashions do with every subsequent generation, it is continually dedicated to the here and now, to use and value, to sensible, tangible, knowable things. It finds virtue only in great accomplishments and seems to only understand and value ideas and actions that are powered by human reason and logic. Everything else is hooey. In reading Jung’s descriptions of S.O.T. it’s hard not to see a rigid, tight-laced and corseted outline of the Victorian era itself. And it’s even harder not to see within it a parallel outline of the highly orthodox, dogmatic world of turn-of-the-century psychoanalytics as it was then under the firm dominion of King Freud.

If S.O.T. is near-sighted and rock-solid, S.O.D. is far-sighted and titantically ephemeral. “[T]hat other spirit,” Jung writes, “forces me… to speak, beyond justification, use and meaning… [T]he spirit of the depths [is] from time immemorial and for all the future [and it] possesses a greater power than the spirit of this time, who changes with the generations” (RB, p. 119). S.O.D. is beyond reason and logic, sense and sensibility, humans and humanity. Encountering this deeper, more mystical spirit, Jung writes,

“He [S.O.D.] took away my belief in science, he robbed me of the joy of explaining and ordering things, and he let devotion to the ideals of this time die out in me. He forced me down to the last and simplest things.” (RB, pp. 119-120)

As he swims deeper and with greater frequency into the Spirit of the Depths, he confronts the limits of language and thinking itself, and so he turns to painting:

“My speech is imperfect. Not because I want to shine with words, but out of the impossibility of finding those words. I speak in images. With nothing else can I express the words from the depths” (RB, p. 123).

A huge part of Jung’s strength at this time is his vulnerability and his dedication to it. He didn’t feel something he couldn’t reasonably understand and just shake it off. So when he starts having apocalyptic visions in the autumn of 1913, he listens, he watches, and he writes it all down. The structure and science he learned from his days as an A+ student of the Spirit of the Times could at least provide a net to dip into the waters of the S.O.D. and catch some of its phantom creatures for study. And of course he’s scared—of the visions themselves and of the psychosis they might represent—but he forces himself to spend more time with them, and to simply observe. “I said to myself, “Since I know nothing at all, I shall simply do whatever occurs to me.” Thus I consciously submitted myself to the impulses of the unconscious” (MDR, p. 173).

There’s a beautiful moment in the memoir, right before he starts The Red Bookproject. He’s lost, he’s depressed, he’s isolated. He has no confidence, no connections to his old colleagues and the prestigious world of psychoanalysis. It’s like any new adventure: the thought goes through your head, “Am I really doing the right thing here? Did I fuck up? Is it too late to go back?”

Jung feels the weight of just how beyond he has gone and he’s starting to freak out. For no logical reason he starts collecting rocks along the shore of the lake by his house. He doesn’t know why, only that it brings him great comfort and dissipates the anxiety. Then more and more with each outing he starts remembering how as a little boy he used to do just this, and how collecting rocks of all shapes and sizes brought him so much joy back then. Nervous at first, he starts to spend all of his free time collecting pebbles and rocks, then building pretend cities from them just as he did as a boy. And it is through this meditative retreat into the world of play and pretend, as well as working with his hands, that his new path begins to become clear to him. Like the above quote says, he will be the observer of the unconscious and he won’t question its impulses. He will not try to justify it or explain it. He will just sit with it and observe and try to get closer and closer to all the tiny details.

*        *        *

A day after I finished Liber Primus, I bumped into a great interview with the poet Eileen Myles. She’s asked if she reads her poems aloud as she’s composing them, to which she replies, “No. That seems obscene to me.” The interviewer asks her to explain:

“I don’t want to hear the sound of my own voice. It’s the sound of something in me, but it’s not my voice. It isn’t a literal voice—at all. But there is a murmuring. I have some very… I don’t know if “sentimental” is the word, but I have some thoughts about what poetry is and how old it is and what it means and what it could be.”

With a head full of Jung’s notions about the Supreme Meaning and the Spirit of the Depths, obviously all sorts of bells and whistles are going off. Myles continues:

“I feel like it’s this old thing mumbling inside of me. When I first started to write, in my twenties, I did associate poetry with being fucked up, and poetry definitely managed something for me—the dissonance between the world just as we’re being invited to enter it and that whole world inside of you and what to do with that gap. I had a mentally ill grandmother who I had, and have, a deep attachment to. She kind of mumbled and had a weird little West Ireland accent, and when I started to write I’d swear it was her. I felt this grrrrr, like something inside of me that was not me. It’s very weird—I feel like I’m working for Eileen or something, like I have this job being her performer, learning this argot of hers, finding it. But I think it’s older than me and it’s older than my grandmother.”

(The Paris Review, No. 214, pp. 47-48)

Now, I’m all for coincidences. And the Paris Review is certainly not too far afield from Jung in ethos. But when you read such an elegant account of the Spirit of the Depths written by a very smart middle-aged man in 1913 Switzerland, and he’s going out of his mind trying to tell you about this bigger, weirder, wilder, more “!!!!!” world that’s beyond our senses, yet it’s in our senses, and then you bump into the very same idea coming from a Boston-born, NY-based lesbian poet in 2015… Well, you can only smile and know that something BIG is indeed up and you’re not alone.


[Guest post by Peter Rinko]

In Week 1’s essay, I explored the internal and external tensions that brought about Jung’s mid-life crisis—an attempt to understand and illustrate the energies that catapulted him into the adventurous confrontation with the unconscious that is The Red Book. In this post I’d like to investigate the main practices through which he explored his inner world, a technique he called “Active Imagination”.

To recap, the fall of 1913 was not the easiest autumn on record in Jung’s life.

He has broken with the Freud camp, been labeled a “mystic” by the majority of the international psychoanalytic community, and as if ostracization wasn’t enough he has become prone to apocalyptic flood visions prophesying a global calamity, which would soon prove true in the outbreak of World War I. The damn has broken and the waters of change cannot be stopped. “An incessant stream of fantasies had been released,” he writes in Memories, Dreams, Reflections,

“and I did my best not to lose my head but to find some way to understand these strange things. I stood helpless before an alien world; everything in it seemed difficult and incomprehensible. I was living in a constant state of tension; often I felt as if gigantic blocks of stone were tumbling down upon me. One thunderstorm followed another. My enduring these storms was a question of brute strength. Others have been shattered by them—Nietzsche, and Hölderlin, and many others. But there was a demonic strength in me, and from the beginning there was no doubt in my mind that I must find the meaning of what I was experiencing in these fantasies. When I endured these assaults of the unconscious I had an unswerving conviction that I was obeying a higher will, and that feeling continued to uphold me until I had mastered the task” (MDR, p. 177).

In reading this section, it’s hard not to see Jung at his wits’ end, shaking and sweating, pacing and panting, covered in worries, fears, and all the stress-lines of an erupting psychotic break. “I was frequently so wrought up,” he writes,

“that I had to do certain yoga exercises in order to hold my emotions in check. But since it was my purpose to know what was going on within myself, I would do these exercises only until I had calmed myself enough to resume my work with the unconscious. As soon as I had the feeling that I was myself again, I abandoned this restraint upon the emotions and allowed the images and inner voices to speak afresh.” (MDR, p. 177)

One gets the sense here, quite clearly, that he’s learning to play with fire. He’s opened the door to the unconscious, and like Dante approaching the Gates of Hell, he’s pitched on a ledge overlooking the inner Inferno of Self. There’s no Klonopin or Valium yet to help soothe the tensions of these attacks, so he’s doing what he can with yogic breathing exercises and a stern practice-makes-perfect approach. But then, in this same passage, he reveals something else, something altogether incredibly profound:

“To the extent that I managed to translate the emotions into images—that is to say, to find the images that were concealed in the emotions—I was inwardly calmed and reassured. Had I left those images hidden in the emotions, I might have been torn to pieces by them…. As a result of my experiment I learned how helpful it can be, from the therapeutic point of view, to find the particular images which lie behind emotions” (MDR, p. 177).

This is pretty much a spot-on description of a psychotherapeutic technique, developed in the 1980s, called Clean Language. Through it therapists help PTSD sufferers develop metaphors to gain hold of the emotional impact that the lingering trauma has over his or her life. The metaphors are, at first, very basic, sometimes even just a color or a vocal sound. But through repeated session work the patient begins to develop the metaphor and is soon plunging deeper into its depths, unpacking it and developing whole storylines and characterizations, the end result of which is empowerment over the traumatic event itself and the emotional disturbances that emanate from it. Armed with this psychological tool and deep self-awareness, he or she learns to control the emotion by objectifying it through imagery and story.

In his book I Is An Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World author James Geary recounts the story of a grade-school-aged child who is prone to violent outbursts at home, in the schoolyard, and in the classroom. In working with the child, the therapist uncovers a common underlying detail in these outbursts: the color red. As the child goes into a rage he quite literally hears, sees, feels, even tastes the color red. The color is so powerful it overtakes him—it blinds him and casts him into a fugue state, wherein he is detached from himself as the violent energy storms within and without like a hurricane. In identifying this, the therapist employs the Clean Language technique and begins to help the child become aware of this color, of its presence, and to engage it as an object, and then even as a character or persona. As the child becomes more familiar with it as a presence, as a form, as something tangible, he is able to notice it when it arrives, then distance himself from the violent “red” energy. The child is able to see it as something other than himself, and through that distance—that objectification—control it and keep it from growing and overtaking him.

In his initial confrontations with the unconscious, Jung is baffled, offended and terrified by the imagery and the voices just as much as he is inspired, amazed, and enlightened. But what he realizes is exactly what the Clean Language kid above learns. “The essential thing,” Jung writes, “is to differentiate oneself from these unconscious contents by personifying them, and at the same time to bring them into relationship with consciousness.” He continues,

“That is the technique for stripping them of their power. It is not too difficult to personify them, as they always possess a certain degree of autonomy, a separate identity of their own. Their autonomy is a most uncomfortable thing to reconcile oneself to, and yet the very fact that the unconscious presents itself in that way gives us the best means of handling it.” (MDR, p. 187)

This is a very important point, one that reminds me of my own experiences with breathing meditation. As one meditates one sees and feels all sorts of imagery and emotions, memories and fantasies, projections and introspections. It is very easy to follow some of these, to get sucked into their line of focus. But the main tenet of breathing meditation is to get out of that river of imagery and emotion, to learn to stand on its shore and just let it flow by, to observe it and go, “That is a thought. That is a feeling. That is a memory”. To keep you from falling in, you stay focused on your breathing, numbering each exhalation, starting at 1 and working your way up to 10, then beginning at 1 again, and so on and so forth (e.g. Breathe in, Breath out: 1, Breathe in, Breathe out: 2, etc.). The one simple rule being: ALWAYS COUNT. If you lose your place because you’ve begun to drift in the imagery river or get distracted by the check-off list of daily things to do, you stop and go back to 1 again and focus on the breathing.

What I believe Jung is describing above in terms of this autonomous character of the unconscious’s imagery is, indeed, this very river-like quality of content that flows through our psyches—it is within us, but that doesn’t mean it is us. Active Imagination, then, is learning to surf with the content, to observe the colors, textures, shapes and smells of its metaphors, to feel their power, to walk with their truths (and their fables), but to never fall overboard and drowned in their depths.

So how do we get there? What is the way in? Is there a Driver’s Manual for Active Imagination?

“It was during the Advent of the year 1913—December 12, to be exact—that I resolved upon the decisive step,” Jung writes,

“I was sitting at my desk, once more, thinking over my fears. Then I let myself drop. Suddenly it was as though the ground literally gave way beneath my feet, and I plunged down into the dark depths. I could not fend off a feeling of panic. But then, abruptly, at not too great a depth, I landed on my feet in a soft, sticky mass. I felt great relief, although I was apparently in complete darkness. After a while my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, which was rather like a deep twilight. Before me was an entrance to a dark cave, in which stood a dwarf with a leathery skin, as if he were mummified. I squeezed past him through the narrow entrance and waded deep through icy water to the other end of the cave where, on a projecting rock, I saw a growing red crystal. I grasped the stone, lifted it, and discovered a hollow underneath. At first I could make out nothing, but then I saw that there was running water. In it a corpse floated by, a youth with blond hair and a wound in the head. He was followed by a gigantic black scarab and then by a red, newborn sun, rising up out of the depths of the water. Dazzled by the light, I wanted to replace the stone upon the opening, but then a fluid welled out. It was blood. A thick jet of it leaped up, and I felt nauseated. It seemed to me that the blood continued to spurt for an unendurably long time. At last it ceased, and the vision came to an end.” (MDR, p. 179)

Red Book.portland psychotherapy

This painting appears in Chapter 5 of the illuminated version of The Red Book, entitled The Descent into Hell. It is, without a doubt, a direct representation of this first fully intentional experiment with Active Imagination as it is described above. And so what we see here in Jung’s technique is a process of deep meditation, followed by careful observation, and then once back on the shores of self he paints out the scene, or writes it all down, or more often than not both.

I believe this is why Jung was so adamant about not categorizing The Red Book’s paintings as “art” but rather as artifacts. As beautiful and technically intriguing and masterful as many of these works are, they are above all meant to be reports—illustrations produced through Active Imagination, a  visual reportage from the front-lines of the Unconscious. To Jung, this was not “art”, this was revelation in its purest sense—a world being revealed.

After putting The Red Book to rest and setting himself the task of explaining, in conceptual thinking, all that he encountered in this journey through self, Jung would continue studying comparative practices of Active Imagination throughout history and from allover the world, such as “the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, Patanjali’s Yoga sutras, Buddhist meditational practices, and medieval alchemy” (RB, p. 89). But perhaps the most compelling point of fact is that he instructed his own patients how to engage in the practice of Active Imagination, going so far as to encourage them to create their own Red Books. One such patient was Christina Morgan, and I would like to close this post with two excerpts from an interview she did that further illuminates Jung’s A.I. technique. The first illustrates a kind of how-to guide to Active Imagination. The second adds some more details to the overall technique, as well as underlying just how strongly Jung believed in the process.


“You use the retina of the eye at first in order to objectify. Then instead of keeping on trying to force the image out you just want to look in. Now when you see these images you want to hold them and see where they take you—how they change. And you want to try to get in the picture yourself—to become one of the actors. When I first began to do this I saw landscapes. Then I learned how to put myself into the landscape, and the figures would talk to me and I would answer them… People said he has an artistic temperament. But it was only that my unconscious was swaying me. Now I learn to act its drama as well as the drama of the outer life & so nothing can hurt me now. I have written 1000 pages of material from the unconscious (Told the vision of a giant who turned into an egg).” (RB, Introduction, pp.75-76; footnote reads: July 8, 1926, analysis notebooks, Countway Library of Medicine. The vision referred to at the end is found in Liber Secondus, ch. 11, p. 295 below.).

Red Book.Izdubar

“A fantasy takes up no space! Why did this thought not occur to me earlier? I return to the garden and with no difficulty squeeze Izdubar into the size of an egg and put him in my pocket. Then I walk into the welcoming house where Izdubar should find healing. Thus my god found salvation. He was saved precisely by what one would actually consider fatal, namely by declaring him a figment of my imagination.” (RB, p. 295)


Again Morgan recounts a session with Jung, wherein he encourages her to start her own Red Book as a way of engaging with and creating her individual mythology:

“I should advise you to put it all down as beautifully as you can—in some beautifully bound book. It will seem as if you were making the visions banal—but then you need to do that—then you are free from the power of them. If you do that with these eyes for instance they will cease to draw you. You should never try to make the visions come again. Think of it in your imagination and try to paint it. Then when these things are in some precious book you can go to the book & turn over the pages & for you it will be your church—your cathedral—the silent places of your spirit where you will find renewal. If anyone tells you that it is morbid or neurotic and you listen to them—then you will lose your soul—for in that book is your soul.” (RB, Introduction, p. 77)


During the revising of this post, I bumped into this quick little interview with Jung about the power of the imagination and shared it with a friend, writing:

I want to keep him in my shirt-pocket, then take him out and place him on my shoulder so he can lecture on and on about things like this as we walk around town together. That, actually, would be a fun little cartoon project (working title FOREVER JUNG).”


“When you observe the world you see people, you see houses, you see the sky, you see tangible objects. But when you observe yourself within—you see moving images, a world of images, generally known as fantasies. Yet these fantasies are facts. You see, it is a fact that a man has such and such a fantasy. And it is such a tangible fact, for instance, that when a man has a certain fantasy another man may lose his life, or a bridge is built. These houses were all fantasies. Everything you do here… everything was fantasy to begin with. And fantasy has a proper reality. That is not to be forgotten. Fantasy is not nothing. Of course it is not a tangible object, but it is a fact nevertheless. It is a form of energy, despite the fact that we can’t measure it. It is a manifestation of something. And that is a reality that is just as much a reality as, for instance, the Peace Treaty of Versailles or something like that. It is no more, you can’t show it, but it has been a fact. And so, the psychical events are facts, are realities. And when you observe the stream of images within, you observe an aspect of the world… of the world within.”

[Guest post by Peter Rinko]


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