How I started reading Jung

The story of how I started reading Jung is strange — at least till you start hanging out with other people who read Jung. Then this kind of thing is commonplace.

My story starts with a lingering headache. I’ve had it for weeks. Not a constant pain but an uncomfortable pressure that comes and goes.

One morning, while cooking stir-fry, I notice something strange: If I lean close to the stove and concentrate — on the orange carrots and green broccoli, the rising steam, the smell of sizzling sesame — the headache goes away, instantly. It makes me wonder, what sort of headache is this that can be so affected by the turning of the mind?

This mind trick is no solution. I can’t manage it for more than a few seconds and besides, you can’t go through life concentrating on colors and smells like some unthinking antenna anyway.

That afternoon I try taking a nap in hopes that this headache, or mind-ache I’m calling it now, might finally go away. I’m only half asleep when the thought comes to me that I should make a phone call. I realize now that this thought has been pestering me all day but that I’ve been pushing it away. I pick up the phone and call.[1]

The conversation isn’t easy and doesn’t go that well. I hang up the phone, half regretting the call, when it hits me: the pain in my head is gone. Not only is it gone, I feel great.

The change is so dramatic that I wonder if I’ve just discovered the formula for happiness. I theorize: each of us keeps a list deep down of things that we must do. We can ignore this list and avoid these tasks but only for so long. Happiness can be attained by facing these tasks, no matter how unpleasant and difficult.

Maybe, but there’s something I don’t understand. If I am trying to avoid this list, then who is so diligently keeping it for me? If I am trying to keep these tasks buried, who keeps trying to dig them up and put them in front of me?[2]

It’s been a long day and I go to bed that night expecting to sleep well. But shortly after I lie down the pressure in my mind returns and for an hour I toss and turn as my discomfort grows. Then an idea comes and pulls me entirely out of my fitful sleep. I sit up, turn on my bedside lamp, and pick up a book lying next to my bed. I open it and begin to read.

The book is a copy of C.G. Jung’s autobiography. I’m half surprised to see it there and can only vaguely remember checking it out while at the library several weeks before. It’s my first time reading Jung and I’m on the second page. He’s explaining that he didn’t want to write his autobiography but that he began to experience pain in his mind. Only by sitting down and writing the book would the pain go away. I finish reading this sentence and realize the pain in my head is also gone.[3]

A formidable stunt, to say the least. To guide me by a pain in my head to read about a man with the same pain in his head. A man whose life was defined by his encounters with an intelligence residing in the depths of every human mind; an intelligence that had decided it was time to introduce me to Mr. Jung, and more importantly, to introduce itself to me.[4]

[1] The call is to a distant relative of whom I had only recently become aware. Three months later she died.

[2] I suspect many others have similar mind-aches but disregard them as ordinary and meaningless, and that we all have faint suggestions floating in our minds of things we ought to do that we continually evade.

[3] You might have thought after all this that I would devour the rest of Jung’s autobiography. Instead I did the opposite. I stopped reading it altogether. I simply had no desire to read more and felt no pressure to. Some days later the unconscious would put another book in my hands.

[4] That we are not alone in our minds was, at the time, a startling realization. Now it seems like the most obvious thing. Whenever we try to stop thinking and clear our minds we will find ourselves flooded by a myriad of thoughts and images that come unbidden. Each night we are pulled into fantastic and often unpleasant dreams. That these are the thoughts and dreams not of our own intellect and imagination but of the other members of the psyche now seems plain to me.