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Jung’s Confrontation with the Unconscious and Its Relation to Psychedelic Experience

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The following is excerpted from Confrontation with the Unconscious: Jungian Depth Psychology and Psychedelic Experience, published by Muswell Hill Press.

At a crucial point in his life, Carl Gustav Jung found himself besieged by a persistent series of especially intense dreams, fantasies, and visions. One day, fighting off fears of madness, Jung resolved to open himself to the strange impulses surging up from the depths of his unconscious mind. “Suddenly,” Jung recounts, “it was as though the ground literally gave way beneath my feet, and I plunged down into dark depths. I could not fend off a feeling of panic.”[1]

In his ensuing vision, Jung lands in a sticky mass enveloped in darkness, and he encounters a dwarf with dry, shriveled skin at the entrance of a cave. He squeezes through the cave’s narrow opening and wades through icy water until he comes to a glowing red crystal. He lifts the crystal and finds a hollow with running water. In the water, he sees the corpse of a boy with a head wound, an enormous black beetle, and a red sun rising out of the depths, before blood starts to flow out of the opening for an unbearably long time. Attempting later to engage himself fully in these images, Jung imagined trying to get to the bottom of a steep descent. On one such attempt, he found himself at the brink of an abyss, a vision that opened him to a crucial series of images that transformed his life’s work. “It was like a voyage to the moon, or a descent into empty space,” Jung writes. “I had the feeling that I was in the land of the dead. The atmosphere was that of the other world.”[2]

While enduring what he referred to as his “confrontation with the unconscious,” Jung became convinced that he was “obeying a higher will” and that he had encountered an independent psychological force that represented superior insight. He also recognized the irony that he, a psychiatrist, would encounter the same kind of terrifying imagery that so fatally con- fuses the insane. He appreciated nevertheless—in a way no one before him had appreciated—that such alien imagery arises from a vital universal source. This fund of unconscious images, Jung explains, “is also the matrix of a mythopoetic imagination which has vanished from our rational age.”[3]

This mythopoetic imagination, Jung understood, has vanished only from our conscious mind. Dismissed, ignored, forgotten—it is always there, if we care to look. But, Jung says, “it is both tabooed and dreaded, so that it even appears to be a risky experiment or a questionable adventure to entrust oneself to the uncertain path that leads into the depths of the unconscious. It is considered the path of error, of equivocation and misunderstanding. . . . Unpopular, ambiguous, and dangerous, it is a voyage of discovery to the other pole of the world.”[4]

Many who have had psychedelic experiences appreciate the extraordinary realms of inner perception and vision depicted in Jung’s account. Consider, for instance, the similarity of Jung’s report to Maria Estevez’s description of her second psilocybin experience during a clinical study conducted at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Feeling the initial effects of the psilocybin, Ms. Estevez said to her two medical monitors, “I’m going down.” The two helped her with eye shades, headphones, and a blanket; and then, she reports, “I began to sink into another world. The descent seemed even rougher than the previous time, a rattling, lurching, high-speed roller coaster ride straight downhill through tingling geometric shapes and tunnels of textured blackness.”[5]

Ms. Estevez felt assaulted and helpless during this dark and eerie descent. Despite her apprehension, she retained her intention and stayed open to what the experience presented her. As the session unfolded, she felt guided by a transcendent spiritual intelligence, and she subsequently had a vision. “It was as if all the cylinders in the lock somehow fell into alignment, the door swung open, and I found my consciousness being flooded with brilliant Light,” she recounts. “I had arrived at a transcendental state, and was awestruck at the discovery. I felt a sense of joyous expansion as it opened fully to me, like entering a splendid palace.”[6] Maria Estevez’s psychedelic experience left her with a sense that, at the age of sixty-two, she had for the first time understood familiar religious principles. “It was as if the Light were revealing to me the innermost workings of the universe.”[7] Speaking of the sacredness revealed to her, she concluded, “Previously I knew it only intellectually, but now I am certain it is real.”[8]

In view of Jung’s radically inquisitive approach to the psyche, his extraordinary personal confrontations with the unconscious, and his mystical sensibility, it’s not surprising that people turn to his work for insights into their psychedelic experiences. Jung’s understanding of the psyche, or mind, and its transformation has also earned the respect of eminent investigators of psychedelic experience and psychedelic-enhanced psychotherapy. The most prominent researcher in the field, Stanislav Grof, finds in Jung’s psychology an exceptionally strong correspondence to the domains of psychedelic experience he has mapped in his own extensive investigations.

Jung knew, of course, that his explorations were outside the realm of accepted psychiatric practice. In the closing passage of Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, he explains that he didn’t expect his readers to follow his conclusions because “the experiences which form the basis of my discussion are unknown to most people and are bound to seem strange.”[9] He was less concerned with how others would understand his observations than he was with introducing what he referred to as “a wide field of experience, at present hardly explored.”[10]

Summarizing Jung’s influence on the psychology of religion, David Wulff, author of Psychology of Religion, characterizes Jung as one who conveyed an attitude of openness that challenged the limits of conventional psychological inquiry, with its focus on behaviour, cognition, and the conscious mind. Jung was open especially to the irrational and the mysterious, to that which lies beyond logic and measurement, says Wulff, because he recognized “the infinity that stretches far beyond our understanding [and] the powers that lie outside our comprehension and control.”[11] In this respect, Wulff adds, Jung also conveyed an attitude of humility and awe.

Jung maintained that psychology must go deeper than the intellect because “the totality of the psyche can never be grasped by intellect alone.”[12] Like it or not, “the psyche seeks an expression that will embrace its total nature.”[13] As a young man, Jung’s goal had been to advance conventional scientific study of the psyche. Then, he reports, speaking of his confrontation with the unconscious, “I hit upon this stream of lava, and the heat of its fires reshaped my life. That was the primal stuff which compelled me to work upon it, and my works are a more or less successful endeavor to incorporate this incandescent matter into the contemporary picture of the world.”[14]

Some who find their psychedelic experiences validated in Jung’s writings suppose that, at one time or another, Jung must have tried psychedelics himself. He was reportedly an acquaintance of the mescaline researcher Kurt Beringer, so he could have experimented with mescaline in the 1920s, they suggest; or perhaps he tried peyote when he spent time with Native Americans in New Mexico. Many also point to Jung’s Red Book paintings as evidence that he had used psychedelics. The imagery and themes in these paintings certainly reflect a psychedelic sensibility. Yet there’s good reason to believe Jung when he says he never used psychedelic substances nor gave them to anyone else. Jung’s psychology is remarkably relevant to psychedelic experience because psychedelic substances such as LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and ayahuasca open one to the same extraordinary realms of the psyche that Jung so courageously explored and so thoroughly elucidated—without psychedelic substances. Indeed, Jung vehemently questioned the value of psychedelics for personal growth, and he uncompromisingly opposed their therapeutic application, namely recognized as psychedelic therapy.

Unfortunately, Jung’s adamant disapproval of psychedelics has led to an enduring taboo against the study of psychedelic experiences by Jungians. Consequently, despite the exceptional relevance of Jung’s psychology to psychedelic experience, Jungians have paid little attention to the subject. In this book, I address the important issues that Jung raises by considering the limitations as well as the wisdom of his critique. And I explore the penetrating insights into psychedelic experiences that are implicit in his approach to the psyche’s structure and dynamics. I place special emphasis on Jung’s unique understanding of a person’s challenging yet potentially transformative confrontation with the archetypes of the collective unconscious. I demonstrate in particular how archetypal levels of experience associated with trauma, psychosis, and the shadow (the denied aspects of one’s nature), as elucidated by Jung, can help us understand especially challenging psychedelic experiences and their transformative potential. I also show how this knowledge can lead to substantial improvements in psychedelic-enhanced psychotherapy.

One of the most important ideas within the field of psychedelic studies is integration, the means by which potentially life-changing insights gained during psychedelic-induced states of consciousness become more than transient experiences and actually lead to concrete positive changes in one’s life. Yet discussion of the integration process itself in the psychedelic literature is strikingly superficial. Jung’s nuanced theory and thorough method of therapeutic integration offer, therefore, especially valuable insights into this critical aspect of psychedelic experience.


1. Jung, C. G. (1963). Memories, dreams, reflections. Recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffé. Translated by R. & C. Winston. New York: Vintage Books. p. 179.

2. Ibid., p. 181.

3. Ibid., p. 188.

4. Ibid., pp. 188–189.

5. Estevez, M. (2010). High light: When a psilocybin study leads to spiritual realization. Scientific American, November 23. Retrieved July 6, 2013, from

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Jung, C. G. (1966e). The relations between the ego and the unconscious. In The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 7, pp. 123–241). (Original work published 1928). p. 240, para. 406.

10. Ibid.

11. Wulff, D. (1997). Psychology of religion: Classic and contemporary. New York: John Wiley & Sons. p. 470.

12. Jung, C. G. (1966a). On the psychology of the unconscious. In The collected works of C. G. Jung (Vol. 7, pp. 1–119). (Original work published 1917). p. 119, para. 201.

13. Ibid.

14. Jung, 1963, p. 199.


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