Birth Of a Shaman * The Near-Death Experiences Of Psychiatrist Carl G Jung

One of the most intriguing and, for many, most convincing sources of knowledge about “the Other Side” and the meaning of life here on earth is the Near-Death Experience, known as the NDE.  People almost invariably report similar experiences, including learning about the meaning of life, the illusory nature of death, and the fact that we live not one but many lifetimes.  Above all, the message is one of love and endless patience with each slowly but surely evolving human being.

Here, I reproduce large sections of Carl G. Jung’s own description of his near-death experience which took place while he was very ill (very typical of NDEs) and which in many ways represents the real Jung, as opposed to the more mainstream psychiatrist and cross-cultural explorer.  What we find here are many landmarks of the journey into shamanism, a journey almost never sought, but one which can seldom be evaded.


“As a child I felt myself to be alone, and I am still, because I know things and must hint at things which others apparently know nothing of, and for the most part do not want to know.” Carl G. Jung.

Carl G. Jung kept much of his private life to himself, since his early break with Sigmund Freud had already placed his reputation in some jeopardy. We know now, though, through work published late in his life and after his death, that his private life was the origin of his public work. What the world saw – the observations as a psychiatrist about schizophrenia, personality types, and subpersonalities, the study of dreams, astrology, comparative mythology, archetypes, and the resultant depth psychology which arose from all these – was almost window-dressing.

For Jung’s work had little to do with the extant theories of the emerging field of psychiatry. As he says himself, it was the intense psychic experiences – visions and, in particular the near-death experience excerpted below – which guided his evolving body of work. These experiences, in turn, arose early in Jung’s young life and, as so often happens, seem to have been triggered by traumas such as extreme inner conflict and/or physical illness.

As Jung himself has said, he was lonely to the point of alienation, deeply aware that he was different in ways so profound as to almost make of him an alien, one might say, here on Earth. His childhood seems to been a Gothic nightmare in which his parent’s unhappy marriage, his social isolation, dark religious terrors about Jesuits and Catholics generally in his Protestant, Swiss mental world – and his own inordinately precocious sensitivities, all added up to strains in the personality bordering (some psychiatrists and others have observed) on a very early schizophrenic or schizo-affective state.

In fact, his later joy and creativity become inspiring, against the dark, lonely, nightmarish background of a childhood marked by fear of the apparently unbalanced mother, worries about the parents’ unhappy marriage, sexual terrors, school years in which he was ruthlessly bullied without believing he should defend himself, and so on.

Shamanism by Mircea Eliade, Now a Princeton Classic

But these are all well-known early-childhood preconditions, at least, if not outright causes, of dissociative personality traits, common to many of us who find ourselves spontaneously travelling in the wilds of the Psyche. If one survives these travels, they often lead in turn to the birth of the Shaman, but there can be no question of turning back, of becoming “ordinary” in any sense of the word. Jung’s body of work, early and late, cannot be neatly separated from his own complex, mystical, inner world, nor from his steady evolution towards “the Shaman” as his closest friends, late in life, called him.

In this context, one of Jung’s biographer’s has emphasized that Jung believed himself to have been initiated into the Sacred Mithraic Mysteries as a God, and that Jung’s work was in fact a thinly-disguised religion/cult presented behind the mask of simple, largely respectable “psychology” and cross-cultural studies.. It seems that Jung’s “deification” has been distorted by this author, and that Jung actually warned against such literalism when working with the psyche in Active Imagination. Shamanic initiation, rather than a literal deification, seems obviously to be the unconscious process behind that early vision.

In any case, with childhood behind him, though still a young man, 1907 and 1913 especially, Jung was now experiencing the near-madness of raw, amateurish encounters with his own unconscious – a situation he could not control and which he feared might be the beginning of insanity. It seems evident that his earlier childhood traumas were now triggered and amplified by two new, agonizing, conflict-laden, guilt-inducing life situations .

One was the bitter, public break with Freud which was a violent emotional, as well as professional, loss. The other is not so well-known, and is almost never acknowledged for its great strain on Jung’s psyche, and that is his lengthy, passionate, secret love affair (as a married man) with a beautiful brilliant woman who was, at first, his patient, and then a gifted psychiatrist in her own right.

These were all potent forces tearing at the fabric of Jung’s inner life. Yet this combination of powerful forces is precisely what would have opened up Jung’s chakras and awakened the kundalini – both profound neurological experiences with dramatic impact upon the Psyche and physical body. These developments, I believe, facilitated the primal spiritual and psychological encounters which propelled Jung through a spontaneous initiation as a Shaman. Once this Path opened up, Jung’s work unfolded before him like a Book already written (and he notes this himself). As Shaman, he became a Bridge between the Collective Unconscious and the emerging Conscious human Psyche.

Here is an excerpt from a set of visions Jung had during several near-death experiences over a period of several weeks in hospital, triggered by a critical illness (my notes are in italics):

(On finding himself high above the earth as his near-death set of visions begin)

“Later I discovered how high in space one would have to be to have so extensive a view – approximately a thousand miles! The sight of the Earth from this height was the most glorious thing I had ever seen. After contemplating it for a while, I turned around. I had been standing with my back to the Indian Ocean, as it were, and my face to the north. Then it seemed to me that I made a turn to the south.

“Something new entered my field of vision. A short distance away I saw in space a tremendous dark block of stone, like a meteorite. It was about the size of my house, or even bigger. It was floating in space, and I myself was floating in space.

(Here Jung encounters something common to most near-death experiences – some kind of heavy dark stone, mountain, or wall. Usually the person finds a way into it or through it)

“I had seen similar stones on the coast of the Gulf of Bengal. They were blocks of tawny granite, and some of them had been hollowed out into temples. My stone was one such gigantic dark block. An entrance led into a small antechamber. To the right of the entrance, a black Hindu sat silently in lotus posture upon a stone bench.

(Jung meets a figure – again, a common element of near-death experiences – appearing as a “Wise Old Man” – and Jung later says he thinks this was his Higher Self. Jung feels, as is often the case, that his arrival was somehow expected. The presence alone of this wise figure seems to be enough to trigger in Jung many recognitions, for he apparently says nothing directly to Jung in this experience…)

“He wore a white gown, and I knew that he expected me. Two steps led up to this antechamber, and inside, on the left, was the gate to the temple. Innumerable tiny niches, each with a saucer-like concavity filled with coconut oil and small burning wicks, surrounded the door with a wreath of bright flames. I had once actually seen this when I visited the Temple of the Holy Tooth at Kandy in Ceylon; the gate had been framed by several rows of burning oil lamps of this sort.

(This next part also presents archetypal elements of near-death experiences, in which a remarkable shift in perspective and understanding floods over the person, and in Jung’s case, a precognition of the death of the Ego-Self.)

“As I approached the steps leading up to the entrance into the rock, a strange thing happened: I had the feeling that everything was being sloughed away; everything I aimed at or wished for or thought, the whole phantasmagoria of earthly existence, fell away or was stripped from me – an extremely painful process.

“Nevertheless something remained; it was as if I now carried along with me everything I had ever experienced or done, everything that had happened around me. I might also say: it was with me, and I was it. I consisted of all that, so to speak. I consisted of my own history and I felt with great certainty: this is what I am. I am this bundle of what has been and what has been accomplished.

(This is a remarkable and valuable description of the way we keep only the essence of all our time(s) on Earth, yet feel somehow fuller and more complete…the sense of loss that Jung records is not as commonly noted, but reminds us that cultivating the habit of “letting go”, during life, will be very helpful when the time comes to board our Flight…)

“This experience gave me a feeling of extreme poverty, but at the same time of great fullness. There was no longer anything I wanted or desired. I existed in an objective form; I was what I had been and lived. At first the sense of annihilation predominated, of having been stripped or pillaged; but suddenly that became of no consequence.

“Everything seemed to be past; what remained was a “fait accompli,” without any reference back to what had been. There was no longer any regret that something had dropped away or been taken away. On the contrary: I had everything that I was, and that was everything.

(Now Jung has the wonderful experience he seems to almost have been anticipating, and certainly had been longing for – the explanation that everything about him and his extraordinary life – which he describes elsewhere as extremely, and unavoidably, lonely – actually makes sense in a larger reality).

Near Giza, Egypt — Camel and Rider — Image by © Larry Lee Photography/CORBIS

“Something else engaged my attention: as I approached the temple I had the certainty that I was about to enter an illuminated room and would meet there all those people to whom I belong in reality. There I would at last understand – this too was a certainty – what historical nexus I or my life fitted into. I would know what had been before me, why I had come into being, and where my life was flowing.

(Here it seems to me that Jung hints at his never-fully voiced beliefs about having lived before. The problem of one’s life seeming to be a fragment out of context suggests reincarnation is the only rational philosophical framework for human life...)

“My life as I lived it had often seemed to me like a story that has no beginning and end. I had the feeling that I was a historical fragment, an excerpt for which the preceding and succeeding text was missing. My life seemed to have been snipped out of a long chain of events, and many questions had remained unanswered. Why had it taken this course? Why had I brought these particular assumptions with me? What had I made of them? What will follow? I felt sure that I would receive an answer to all the questions as soon as I entered the rock temple. There I would meet the people who knew the answer to my question about what had been before and what would come after.

(Now Jung encounters the very common, archetypal, “authority” who explains that the near-death experiencer must return to earth and to everyday life. Like others, Jung experiences bitter disappointment at the news that he cannot remain in this much more “real” world with its vastly expanded field of information and vibration of warm welcome and belonging.

“While I was thinking over these matters, something happened that caught my attention. From below, from the direction of Europe, an image floated up. It was my doctor, or rather, his likeness – framed by a golden chain or a golden laurel wreath. I knew at once:

Aha, this is my doctor, of course, the one who has been treating me. But now he is coming in his primal form, as a “basileus of Kos.” [1] In life he was an avatar of this basileus, the temporal embodiment of the primal form, which has existed from the beginning. Now he is appearing in that primal form.”

(Note: Basileus was the king (i.e. “basileus”) of Kos – a small Greek island on the Aegean Sea. The island of Kos was famous in antiquity as the site of the temple of Asklepios, and was the birthplace of Hippocrates.)

“Presumably I too was in my primal form, though this was something I did not observe but simply took for granted. As he stood before me, a mute exchange of thought took place between us. The doctor had been delegated by the Earth to deliver a message to me, to tell me that there was a protest against my going away. I had no right to leave the Earth and must return. The moment I heard that, the vision ceased.

“I was profoundly disappointed, for now it all seemed to have been for nothing. The painful process of defoliation had been in vain, and I was not to be allowed to enter the temple, to join the people in whose company I belonged….

(Jung marvels on his return, as so many do, about the completely different world that lies beyond, that is our destination. He grapples with the understanding that linear time, which breaks up experience into seemingly unconnected pieces, gives way to something like “eternal time” in which all events come together in a meaningful Whole – something we catch a glimpse of when we experience synchronicity.

Jung describes it thus: “We shy away from the word “eternal,” but I can describe the experience only as the ecstasy of a non-temporal state in which present, past, and future are one. Everything that happens in time had been brought together into a concrete whole. Nothing was distributed over time, nothing could be measured by temporal concepts. The experience might best be defined as a state of feeling, but one which cannot be produced by imagination. How can I imagine that I exist simultaneously the day before yesterday, today, and the day after tomorrow? There would be things which would not yet have begun, other things which would be indubitably present, and others again which would already be finished and yet all this would be one. The only thing that feeling could grasp would be a sum, an iridescent whole, containing all at once expectation of a beginning, surprise at what is now happening, and satisfaction or disappointment with the result of what has happened. One is interwoven into an indescribable whole and yet observes it with complete objectivity….

Like most near-death experiencers, Jung’s approach to life now changes, as he concludes that, literally the Whole is greater than the parts we see around us. He realizes that, indeed, “everything happens for a reason”, that even our so-called ‘mistakes’ play their part. He decides that it is best to live one’s life courageously as it unfolds, as it is given, without certainty and without striving frenetically to manage or control it.

…”Something else, too, came to me from my illness. I might formulate it as an affirmation of things as they are: an unconditional “yes” to that which is, without subjective protests acceptance of the conditions of existence as I see them and understand them, acceptance of my own nature, as I happen to be.

“At the beginning of the illness I had the feeling that there was something wrong with my attitude, and that I was to some extent responsible for the mishap. But when one follows the path of individuation, when one lives one’s own life, one must take mistakes into the bargain; life would not be complete without them. There is no guarantee not for a single moment that we will not fall into error or stumble into deadly peril. We may think there is a sure road. But that would be the road of death. Then nothing happens any longer at any rate, not the right things. Anyone who takes the sure road is as good as dead.

Here, Jung seems to be echoing Joseph Campbell’s mantra “Follow Your Bliss” – which is much harder than it sounds! Accepting life as it unfolds does not mean passive fatalism, but a heroic and courageous willingness to affirm the Self, or Ego, even knowing it is a limited form. It is only in affirming that our life has meaning – despite what others may believe about us, and though that full meaning cannot be known here and now – that we can make the journey at all. And yet we hear once again the cautionary note from Jung – that maintaining our sense of Self and personal worth is not at all the same as attempting to manage, or be too curious about, what our life holds for us…

“It was only after the illness that I understood how important it is to affirm one’s own destiny. In this way we forge an ego that does not break down when incomprehensible things happen; an ego that endures, that endures the truth, and that is capable of coping with the world and with fate. Then, to experience defeat is also to experience victory. Nothing is disturbed neither inwardly nor outwardly, for one’s own continuity has withstood the current of life and of time. But that can come to pass only when one does not meddle inquisitively with the workings of fate”….

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