I have been slow in finding time to work on a blog for December. I could use the usual excuse about the holiday season, but I will not. Instead, I will go straight to sharing my progress in creating a new set of stories inspired by Carl Jung’s, The Red Book. This is where I have been busy. The script is about seventy percent finished. It is impossible to do justice to all of the ideas about the human soul that Jung explores in the book. The best I can do in preparing a two hour performance is choose one or two ideas that I can frame in stories.
One idea is that we live in multiple realities. Jung not only gave full credence to his dreams, he developed a way to tap into his non-rational reality when awake. He called it “active imagination”. For him, it was the best way to start a conversation between the conscious and the unconscious, between the ego and the self. He even suggested that it helped to create a relationship between the human and the divine!
The problem, for me and many other people, is that I am not always open to experiencing a non-rational reality. I think about my dream life, but I know that I remember, or bring to a level of consciousness, only a very small percentage of my dreams. And active imagination is something I have experience only a couple of times. Reading The Red Book and creating stories from it, is another way for me to explore a non-rational reality in my life.
Below is a story that I have created from Jung’s The Red Book. It should be understood that I am not sharing the story as it appears in his writing; rather, I am simplifying and adding my own ideas to turn Jung’s journal entry into an oral story that I can perform before an audience.
My act of imagination began on a wooded hill overlooking a river valley. It was springtime and the trees had not leafed out. A view was clear before me. Below in the valley, the setting sun turned the river into a flow of molten gold. The trees around me were alive with the sounds of birds; and, from a distance, I could hear a chorus of spring peepers.
On the bank of the river below me lay a village of some size. Feeling tired and hungry, I started down the trail that led to the village. By the last light of day I came to a building at the edge of the village. I could not determine its purpose. It was larger than a private home, and more ornate than a house of religious worship, and still not so grand as the castle of a lord. When I approached the door, I could see that it was ajar and welcoming to me. I looked about expecting to meet a denizen of the village who might know if this place provided lodging, but the village street was deserted.
I went to the door and called out a greeting, but received no answer. Deciding this building was a common house where I might sleep the night, so I entered boldly. There I found myself in a kind of vestibule. I called out again and received no response. Before me I could see that there were two doors that offered further access to the building. I chose the right door, and without announcing myself this time, I opened it and entered what appeared to be the reading room of a lending library. The room was quite large with many books. There was a man seated at a desk. He was thin and pale, and even before he spoke a word, I sensed an air of scholarly conceit. He looked up from his book and asked: “What do you want?”
I was somewhat embarrassed because I had no ready answer. I looked down to the floor and shifted my body. Words came out of my mouth without my reckoning: “I would like Thomas A Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ.”
He looked at me somewhat astonished, as if he could not imagine me reading this book. Nevertheless, he called across the room to a young assistant to get the book..
I do admit this man irritated me and I was perhaps spoiling for an opportunity bring him down a peg or two. “Are you surprised that I am requesting Thomas’ book?”, I asked.
“I would not have expected it from one of your kind”, responded the man, “being religious that is”.
“Well I do value science”, I responded, “but there are actually times when science leaves me empty. At times like that, Thomas means very much to me since it is written from the soul.”
“But it is so old fashioned”, responded the man, “so full of Christian dogmatism, so religious.”
“For myself”, said I, “I find when irreligious people have gained a modicum of education, they tend to be as dogmatic as any religious person.”
Luckily at this juncture the assistant arrived with a copy of the Thomas book. I thanked the young man, and left the room with my book before they inquired if I had a proper library privilege.
Back in the vestibule I thought to continue outside until my eye glanced to the right and fell upon the second door, and I could not resist the temptation to discover what intriguing mystery lay behind it. With bold anticipation I did not hesitate in opening the door and going into the second room.
By all rights one might have expected it to be another room related to the library, but when you release the hounds of imagination into the world to explore the meaning of soul, most interesting and unexpected discoveries result. I found myself walking into a room that was the complete opposite of the musty book room.
The smell of baking bread filled my nostrils as I looked into a kitchen equal the size of the library. On the outside wall a large red brick oven and chimney dominated the room. Two heavy wooden tables with benches occupied the middle of the room. Opposite the brick oven, the whitewashed wall was lined with iron hooks that held an army of cooper pots and pans. A rather plump, red faced woman was busy taking fresh baked loaves of bread from the oven.
When she saw me standing just inside the door, she smiled and spoke without an ounce of guile, “You look starved. Come sit down and enjoy some of my fresh baked bread on the table.”
This genuine and earthy invitation was received without reservation. I sat down and enjoyed a large slice of still hot bread with a generous slab of creamy, yellow butter to gild my taste buds.
The cook went back to her work while I enjoyed my repast. When I finished eating, I took the Thomas book from my pocket and started to read it. I noticed the cook was glancing up from her task to see what I was doing. Finally, she finished the immediate work and came over to the table where I was sitting and said, “Excuse me sir, are you perhaps a clergyman?
“No”, said I, “why do you ask?”
“It is nothing”, said the cook, “except that when my dear mother died, the priest carried such a book with him. He read from it to comfort her as she neared the end.”
I smiled and she returned to her work. For a while I read from the Thomas book, and then I found myself suddenly feeling tired and sleepy in the warm and pleasant kitchen. Like a school boy exhausted from a day of playing outdoors, I laid my head down on the wooden table and fell asleep.
You may find this strange, or a bit mad as our reasonable self suggests, but I found myself dropping into a deeper level of the unconscious through my act of imagination:
I found myself now standing inside a school, or perhaps a small church. It was springtime and a window was open. Suddenly in a tree outside the window I saw a flock of blackbirds land. They seemed in an agitated state, fluttering all about. I listened to their squawking and thought I could make a word of human language and some human characteristics to their heads.
On an intuitive impulse I called out, “who are you and where are going?”
One answered back, “we are dead Christians headed to the holy land, but we have lost our way. Can you help us?”.
Again on impulse, I responded, “yes, you have lost your animal soul, that is why you cannot find your way”.
As suddenly as these lost souls had appeared, they hurried off toward the east. I turned back to the inside of the church or school, and saw two men standing there observing me talking with a flock of blackbirds.
One said to me, “To whom were you speaking?”
Sheepishly I drew my Thomas book to my chest and said, “a band of dead Christians headed to the holy land, I think.”
“Ah”, said the man, “symptoms of hallucinations and hearing voices. What is that you have in your hand?”
I looked down now at my hands, “Ah, it is my Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ.”
The man now shook his head and said to his partner, “Now there you have it, a form of religious madness, perfectly clear, religious paranoia”.
At this moment I felt a hand on my shoulder and a gentle shaking. “Wake up young man, you must have had a dream”. It was the cook with a look of concern on her face.
I felt happy to again be in this warm and good smelling world of the cook. Still I felt a bit groggy from my sleep. I stood up and thanked her for the wonderful bread to eat and a place to rest for a period of time. As I left the kitchen she was still singing the praises of the Thomas book that was read beside her mother’s death bed.
I closed the door to the kitchen gently and turned to leave the building. Then I remembered the Thomas book and the library. I decided it was only proper to return the book to the library. Perhaps the cook would take it out to read when her time to die was near.
The library had not changed since my last visit. The man was still sitting at the desk where I left him. I walked up to him and said, “I have come to return the Thomas A Kempis book. I had a chance to read it while visiting in the kitchen next door.
The man’s smile had not changed from the same look of misplaced confidence, “I am happy the cook looked after your needs.”
“I cannot complain about my reception,” I said, “I even had a helpful sleep over the Thomas book.”
“That does not surprise me” he responded,, “prayer books are always boring.”
“The cook does not agree with you”, I said as I considered how to bring him down another peg or two, “she finds the book very edifying.”
“Well what would you expect from a cook?”, he said with disdain.
I gently laid the Thomas book on his desk and turned to leave, but from over my shoulder I made a suggestion. “You might profit from spending more time in the kitchen next door -perhaps an imaginative sleep or two would waken the animal soul in your scholar’s body.”
Carl Jung was first and foremost a man of science, a man of reason. He practiced the scientific method. He put forth a theory, or hypothesis, and then tested and measured the results to confirm or deny his theory. The difficulty arose because his subject was the human psyche. You could not run a simple litmus test to see if your subject turned a different color. The human psyche does, on one level, function rationally; but on another level, it is influenced by this energy called the unconscious. And this unconscious operates in a non-rational reality. Jung found that if he wanted to study and understand the unconscious, he had to often create his theory, or hypothesis, in a non-rational reality and carry out his experiment in that realm. His practice of active imagination was often the way to experiment in this other reality, to expose the white-hot magma, that he would allow to cool before applying the tools of reason and clear thinking to make sense of his communication from the unconscious. Or perhaps this is another way of saying it: we all have to learn to function in the lending room of the library and the kitchen. Life requires that we season our pot of animal soul with a certain amount of intellectual skepticism to create a whole person!