Heidekolb's Blog

Psychosis Revisited-In Defense of Madness – The Red Book Reflections, C.G.Jung | December 6, 2009

Psychosis is the great other in Western civilization. Insanity, craziness, off-the-wallness is what frightens us the most. And for good reason, for one it is terrifying. And if that were not enough, we also run the risk of being immediately (over)medicated, hospitalized and stigmatized with that awful descriptive of having a “mental illness”. To be fair, there are of course psyches that are so fragile that they are hopelessly and helplessly flooded by what Jung refers to in the Red Book (RB) as the spirit of the depth. Much of this individual suffering can be alleviated by proper medication and designated caring environments. The psychiatric wards of most hospitals these days are not “caring environments”, but the problem is a systemic one and generally not the fault of the well intentioned but overworked and misinformed personnel of these wards. But the needs of this relatively small group of the population are not what I am addressing here. I am talking about you and me. The chances are that if you are reading this, you qualify for this much larger segment of the population, the reasonably well functioning average neurotic. What we generally deny is that we also have psychotic pockets in some of the more hidden corners of our psyche. Often a source of great fear and shame, these raw, uncontrollable spots in our inner landscape may also connect us to a divine, transpersonal reality.

A good working definition of psychosis is that the boundaries between inner and outer world have become blurry or non-existent. Remember the last time you completely lost it? Had a melt-down? Were so caught up in a personal complex that outer reality became skewed? This is where the other side begins. No problem as long as you can bounce back.  The ability to recuperate from a moment, or days, or weeks, or even years of insanity is the real marker for psychic health and not having no knowledge of madness and therefore seeing (projecting) it only onto others. “It is unquestionable: if you enter into the world of the soul, you are like a madman, and a doctor would consider you to be sick”, Jung writes in the RB.

“I am seized by fear, but I know I must go in” he says, “the spirit of the depths opened my eyes and I caught a glimpse of the inner things, the world of my soul, the many-formed and changing”. The descent into the depths can be maddening and dangerous, but what is remarkable is that Jung also sees a form of madness looming when a person never leaves the surface. In other words, when a person is entirely identified with waking life and ego consciousness. In Jung’s words, “the spirit of this time is ungodly, the spirit of the depths is ungodly, balance is godly”. There is great wisdom in these three words, “balance is godly”. There is a time to be lost and there is a time to find oneself again. We fall apart and we are put together again. We breathe in and we breathe out.  To accept the good and the bad.  Life and death. Each cycle leaving us slightly changed. The secret of transformation lies in moving to this rhythm, consciously. “Depth and surface should mix so that new life can develop”, Jung writes.

Consciousness is related to awareness, but also to meaning. Without finding meaning in events, especially in our mad episodes, whether they take the form of a suicidal depression, a panic attack or an outburst worth a wrathful god, no light, no consciousness can be wrested out of it. “The meaning of events is the way of salvation that you create”, Jung writes.

The editor of the RB, Sonu Shamdasani, remarks in a footnote that what Jung is developing here in the Liber Primus is the connection between individual and collective psychology. What that means is that if we, as Jung did, look inward, give credence to our dreams, visions, fantasies and moods, when we dive into them versus running away, we will unavoidably come in contact with the forces of the collective unconscious and that can  be terrifying and overwhelming. “My knowledge has a thousand voices, an army roaring like a lion, the air trembles when they speak, and I am their defenseless sacrifice”, Jung writes.

What is being sacrificed here? Jung suggests that it is our own head that needs to fall. Growth and new life are subjectively experienced as something most dreadful and even evil, like our own execution. “You thought you knew the abyss? Oh you clever people! It is another thing to experience it”, Jung writes. Our head is also sacrificed, when we let go of our judgment, when we accept experiences for what they are: expressions of the soul’s life regardless of how psychotic they might be. I know this is easier said than done, but Jung for one has walked the talk before us. The Red Book is proof, it can be done.


  1. OMG. Beautifully written. Thank you.

    The tension that moves between the Spirit of the Times and The Spirit of the Depths can easily move into Psychosis.

    There were hints of this in Jung’s “Seven Sermons to the Dead”

    I read Stephan Hoeller’s book, “The Gnostic Jung and the Seven Sermons to the Dead” many years ago and was so Impressed that I made my own copy of the “VII Sermones Ad Muertos” with a picture of Jung on the front and of snakes and pyramid shapes on the back. Inside is the original German of the “Seven Sermons to the Dead” and ends with the mysterious






    Comment by Charles Kress — December 6, 2009 @ 10:35 pm

    • Charles,

      You are right, when the tension becomes too much and the container (the individual human psyche) breaks then psychosis can be the result. Therefore all Jungian work aims at strengthening the ability to withhold the tension.

      Comment by heidekolb — December 7, 2009 @ 1:44 pm

  2. “My knowledge has a thousand voices, an army roaring like a lion, the air trembles when they speak, and I am their defenseless sacrifice”, Jung writes.

    Hi Heide, I’m curious–did Jung write about an internal “witness” or “witnessing presence” that kept him tethered to his “normal” waking consciousness during his descents into the spirit of the depths?

    Thanks for this post, it resonates well with my practice and has sparked some new reflections. I can’t wait to get a hold of the Red Book.

    Comment by Thomas — December 26, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

    • Hello Thomas,
      you bring up an important question. What Jung is documenting in the RB is the development of a technique known as “Active Imagination”. It is a dialogue with “otherness”, ie. the images and voices he encountered in his journey into the depth. He was very adamant about holding on to one’s ego, which he defined as the center of consciousness and not give too much power to the visions.In the context of your question, I would say that he insists on being one’s own witness, holding one’s ground while being in dialogue with otherness. The new development comes out of a synthesis of the two standpoints.
      He also noted at other occasions that he could pursue this work only because he felt well grounded and rooted in his family life. They provided a necessary safe haven of normalcy.

      Comment by heidekolb — December 29, 2009 @ 2:21 am

  3. Thanks for the reply, Heide. I enjoy your twitter stream, thanks for that too.

    You write that Active Imagination “is a dialogue with “otherness”, ie. the images and voices he encountered…” I wonder if the practice of Active Imagination has a kinesthetic or “felt sense” component? My contact with “otherness” emerges from a practice of deep listening into the subtle neurological shimmerings and pulls of sense impulse, allowing these impulses to move me into a slow flowing dance of odd postures and contractions. From these movements emerge “beings” that I deeply experience, observe and sometimes engage with. Voices and images might arise, but often it’s only a sensing into motion. Does that make sense? Did Jung write about sense impulse and movement in Active Imagination?

    Comment by Thomas — December 31, 2009 @ 12:56 am

  4. I’ve not read much of the Red Book yet, just enough to know it puts his Collected Works in the shade. I’ve read most of them and been confused quite often by terms he used. One of the greatest contribution Jung made was through authors who were affected by his writing and took the ideas, tranforming them into simpler language, more accessable to us.

    I’ve found Ira Progoff’s books, The Symbolic and the Real, and his The Dynamics of Hope to be a life raft in life, and I remember reading the first one when I had no idea what symbolism was about because I don’t have dreams like others’ report. The function that creates dreams must work in other ways in waking life, and that function may produce the ‘psychotic thinking’ that seems to be ‘meaningful coincidence’ unrecognized as a process of individuation.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Comment by queridia — January 21, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

  5. Heidi, that you have written on a subject so often addressed in a stereotypical way is admirable. I appreciate the Jungian perspective, or any perspective for that matter that challenges how we see and define mental illness. It truly baffles me that so many people aspire to be “normal” when what passes for “normal” is often far more pathological than what passes for “crazy”.

    In my humble opinion, if society at large were a little more forgiving (and open to) a little madness in our lives, and hearts, we would be a much saner society. It was Marsilio Ficino who said, “The soul is filled throughout with discord and dissonance, and so its first need is poetic madness.” There is a very thin line between madness and creativity. A psychotic break can offer an enormous opportunity for major life change and self discovery, if it were treated differently; if people were given the proper support to work through it, re-group and find the grounding they needed.

    So thank you for writing on this important subject. I blog about matters related to the soul, and what living a life with soul might mean, if folks would consider visiting me:


    I have long had this fantasy of a crazy house, a place where folks could come if they had one of these breaks, or felt a little mad, and get support from people who’ve been through it — a “midwife” model rather than a “doctor/fix-it” model — and mostly, just paint, or talk, or make sound, or do whatever they needed to do in that crazy place until they felt safe enough, and solid enough, to re-integrate into society. No one would be medicated unless they wanted to be.

    Ah, but I need to find myself a millionaire first.


    Comment by Jesse Mendes — June 13, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

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