September 7, 2002

1. The World Behind

A. Psychic Phenomena

I ate dinner recently at a big, buffet-style restaurant. (Buffet-style restaurants seem to be gaining popularity in the U.S.) The person I was eating with asked me about my writing, I responded, and we got on the subject of psychic phenomena. I said, “if I’m killed in a car accident while driving home tonight, my mother, who is more than a hundred miles away, will feel that something is wrong, that something is wrong with me, perhaps will feel that I’ve died, perhaps even will feel that I died in a car accident.”

The other person said, “I actually experienced something of that sort. My cousin, whom I was close to, was seriously ill for a long time. One day, I had a pain in my eye, it felt like a needle sticking into my eye, I couldn’t even move my eye. Later, I learned that my cousin died that day, about the same time that I had the pain in my eye.”

I said, “if you told that story to everyone in this restaurant, they would all be interested, and they would all have similar stories to tell. But if you told that story to academics — to a group of Harvard professors, for example — most of them would scoff at it, and none of them would regard it as a subject that cried out for more research.”

Academics have a strong aversion for parapsychology. They have a habit of rational thinking, and rational thinking is at a loss to understand parapsychology. “If I can’t understand it or explain it, it must not exist.”

B. Jung

Perhaps no one has come closer to understanding parapsychology than Jung. In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung describes an incident similar to the one described above (I’ll add my own comments in brackets):

“The relationship between doctor and patient, especially when a transference on the part of the patient occurs, or a more or less unconscious identification of doctor and patient, can lead to parapsychological phenomena. I have frequently run into this. [An unconscious connection can occur not only between doctor and patient, but between any two people. It often occurs between relatives, especially mother and child.] One such case which was particularly impressive was that of a patient whom I had pulled out of a psychogenic depression.... I had arranged with him that he was to get in touch with me at once if he observed his spirits sinking. He neglected to do so.... I had been awakened by a feeling of dull pain, as though something had struck my forehead and then the back of my skull. The following day I received a telegram saying that my patient had committed suicide. He had shot himself. Later, I learned that the bullet had come to rest in the back wall of the skull. This experience was a genuine synchronistic phenomenon such as is quite often observed in connection with an archetypal situation — in this case, death. By means of a relativization of time and space in the unconscious it could well be that I had perceived something which in reality had taken place elsewhere. The collective unconscious is common to all; it is the foundation of what the ancients called the ‘sympathy of all things’.”1

“What does he mean by ‘a relativization of time and space in the unconscious’”? This means that time and space have no absolute existence in the unconscious, the unconscious can leap over the boundaries of time and space, and perceive things that happen at different times and places. As Kant would say, time and space are merely categories of the human mind, they don’t exist in the “thing-in-itself”.

What Kant called the “thing-in-itself” is very similar to what Chinese thinkers called the Tao. One might call it The World Behind the World — more concisely, The World Behind. Doubtless it resembles what some Western thinkers mean by the term God, though I would avoid the term God, since it has too many associations, too many overtones of a personal God. The World Behind can be thought of as an essence, a spirit, but it pervades the visible world, hence it is as much material as spiritual. As Jung said, all reality is “grounded on an as yet unknown substrate possessing material and at the same time psychic qualities.”2 This “unknown substrate” is what Chinese thinkers called the Tao.

C. Physics and Biology

This “unknown substrate”, this World Behind, is the intersection of psychology and physics. “Microphysics is feeling its way into the unknown side of matter,” wrote Jung, “just as complex psychology is pushing forward into the unknown side of the psyche.”3 Psychologists and physicists are like two teams exploring North America, one from the West, one from the East. Their explorations began at very different points, but they’ve met in the middle, they’ve met at the intersection of matter and spirit. The physicist Wolfgang Pauli collaborated with Jung on a book called The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche, a book that explores The World Behind.

In Europe, The World Behind was discussed centuries ago by the alchemists, who were part physicists, part psychologists. Jung had a deep interest in alchemy, and Jung helped to discover (or rather, re-discover) the significance of alchemy, which had been neglected and ridiculed for centuries. The alchemists spoke of unus mundus, one world, the union of matter and spirit. They also spoke of “subtle bodies” (or “breath bodies”), which are part physical, part spiritual. The concept of “subtle bodies” has been used by Jungians to explain psycho-somatic phenomena in the field of medicine.4

In the last chapter of my book Conversations With Great Thinkers, I set forth a theory of history, a theory of renaissance and decadence. I argue that a renaissance results from a shared life-instinct (shared by everyone in a particular society), and a decadent period results from a shared death-instinct. I first developed this theory about twenty years ago, and I’ve scarcely modified it at all since then. The concept of “subtle bodies” is congenial to me because I’ve been dealing with the “subtleties” of my theory of history for a long time. My theory of history is “subtle” in two ways:

  1. life- and death-instincts are “subtle bodies”, mysterious, half-physical half-spiritual
  2. the sharing of an instinct by a society is “subtle”, mysterious, half-physical half-spiritual

The life- and death-instincts bring us to the field of biology. Like physics, biology encounters The World Behind when it reaches the frontier of knowledge. Freud’s theory of life- and death-instincts is akin to Schopenhauer’s theory of a will to life, Bergson’s theory of “élan vital”, George Bernard Shaw’s theory of a “Life Force”, etc. Shaw and others believed that the evolution of species could not occur without some sort of Life Force, or life instinct, to propel it. Such an instinct is elusive and mysterious; most biologists would prefer to ignore it — to leave it to philosophers, metaphysicians, and mystics. But the deepest thinking in the field of biology will always come back to a mysterious force or energy, will always come back to The World Behind.5

D. China and India

Now let’s look at the Tao, as described in Lao Zi’s famous Tao Te Ching, and let’s see if the Tao, like The World Behind, like subtle bodies, is half-physical half-spiritual. Is the ancient concept of the Tao similar to the world-view of those who are on the frontiers of psychology and physics?

Lao Zi begins by saying, “There was something vague before heaven and earth arose. How calm! How void! It stands alone, unchanging; it acts everywhere, untiring. It may be considered the mother of everything under heaven. I do not know its name, but call it by the word Tao.”6 While people in the West often imagine God making the world, the Tao doesn’t make the world, it produces the world through spontaneous growth: “The Tao’s principle is spontaneity.”7 The Tao isn’t the master of the universe, as God is, and the Tao isn’t a conscious being, as God is:

The great Tao flows everywhere,
To the left and to the right.
All things depend upon it to exist,
and it does not abandon them.
To its accomplishments it lays no claim.
It loves and nourishes all things,
but does not lord it over them.

Indian philosophy resembles Taoism so closely that some scholars believe there must have been direct influence between them. Alan Watts points out that the Hindu term “‘Brahman’ is from the root brih-, ‘to grow,’ since his creative activity, like that of the Tao, is with the spontaneity proper to growth as distinct from the deliberation proper to making.”8 According to Indian thinkers, the multiplicity of the world is illusory, is created by the mind; in reality, the world is One, all is Brahman, just as the Chinese believed that all is the Tao.

One is reminded of Kant, who believed that the phenomenal world, the visible world in space and time, is a creation of the mind; Kant believed that true reality, the “thing-in-itself”, is beyond the reach of human cognition. Kant’s disciple, Schopenhauer, was an avid student of Indian philosophy, and he saw the close resemblance between Indian philosophy and Kantian philosophy. Schopenhauer argued that the ultimate reality, the “thing-in-itself”, is will — a blind urge for life, self-preservation, reproduction, sex. “How does Schopenhauer’s ultimate reality differ from what you call The World Behind?” The World Behind is a kind of intelligence that suffuses the universe, not a blind urge that should be overcome.

E. Synchronicity

In the evening, I sometimes turn on the tv, and see what’s on the public television stations; these stations often have excellent documentaries. A favorite topic of these documentaries is the House of Windsor (the British royal family). I recently saw a documentary that discussed the period when the current queen (Elizabeth II) acceded to the throne. In 1952, Elizabeth was touring the colonies in East Africa; her father, King George VI, was too sick to travel. Elizabeth and her entourage spent the night at Treetops, which overlooks a watering-hole and is popular with tourists. One of Elizabeth’s aides tells how an eagle flew directly over their lodgings at about the same time that George VI died; the eagle, a symbol of sovereignty, appeared when Elizabeth became sovereign. If only you could see the astonishment on the face of this level-headed English bureaucrat! Nature is a poet, and synchronicities are her metaphors.

The Chinese have long believed that a ruler’s death is accompanied by a disturbance in nature, such as an earthquake. In the year of Mao’s death (1976), there was an enormous earthquake in the Chinese city of Tangshan.9

According to Jung’s theory of synchronicity, there are meaningful coincidences between the human realm and the natural realm, between the psychic realm and the physical realm — meaningful coincidences that have no causal connection. Jung called synchronicity “an acausal connecting principle”. Synchronistic events, in Jung’s view, come from an archetype that is both psychic and physical, hence those events themselves can be psychic or physical. In other words, The World Behind produces meaningful coincidences between the psychic realm and the physical realm because The World Behind is itself both psychic and physical.

Here is how one of Jung’s disciples, Marie-Louise von Franz, describes synchronicity: “If I bought a blue frock and, by mistake, the shop delivered a black one on the day one of my near relatives died, this would be a meaningful coincidence.... As soon as we notice that certain types of event ‘like’ to cluster together at certain times, we begin to understand the attitude of the Chinese, whose theories of medicine, philosophy, and even building are based on a ‘science’ of meaningful coincidences. The classical Chinese texts did not ask what causes what, but rather what ‘likes’ to occur with what. One can see much the same underlying theme in astrology [in which Jung had a keen interest], and in the way various civilizations have depended on consulting oracles and paying attention to omens. All of these are attempts to provide an explanation of coincidence that is different from one that depends on straightforward cause and effect.”10

The most well-known Chinese oracle is an ancient book, perhaps the world’s oldest book, the I Ching or Book of Changes. To consult the I Ching, one tosses coins, and this apparently random procedure points one to a particular commentary. Jung had great respect for the I Ching, which draws upon an affinity between the physical world (the falling coins) and the human world, just as Jung’s theory of synchronicity draws upon an affinity between the physical world and the human world.

Jung felt that one should approach the I Ching with a serious question, as one might approach a psychotherapist. I recently consulted the I Ching (using a book called The Illustrated I Ching), and I found that the coin tosses pointed me to commentary that was relevant and wise. Furthermore, I was impressed by the I Ching from a literary standpoint; it can be read simply as literature. The most popular and respected version of the I Ching in the Western world is Richard Wilhelm’s version, but I find that version complex and confusing, I prefer The Illustrated I Ching.

F. Ibsen

In a recent issue of Phlit (8/5/02), I discussed Ibsen’s Wild Duck. In this play, the idealistic Gregers brings about the suicide of a young girl, but he doesn’t bring this about directly and deliberately; rather, he brings it about indirectly, and probably unconsciously. I wrote as follows: “Some critics argue that behind Gregers’ mask of idealism dwell negative feelings, evil feelings, sadistic feelings, and these feelings (of which Gregers himself may be unaware) produce the play’s tragic climax. Jung used the term ‘shadow’ to refer to man’s dark side, and Jung said that the shadow arranged things so as to bring about a crisis, an explosion, that would force one to see, to acknowledge, to come to terms with, the shadow. Perhaps it is Gregers’ shadow that ‘arranges’ the play’s tragic climax. Gregers is probably not conscious of this ‘arranging’.”

This “arranging” is a kind of synchronicity, it’s a “meaningful coincidence” between events in the psychic realm and events in the physical realm. Let’s look at other examples of unconscious “arranging”. Marie-Louise von Franz, Jung’s disciple, said “by nursing secret destructive attitudes, a wife can drive her husband, and a mother her children, into illness, accident, or even death. Or she may decide to keep the children from marrying — a deeply hidden form of evil that rarely comes to the surface of the mother’s conscious mind. (A naive old woman once said to me, while showing me a picture of her son, who was drowned when he was 27: ‘I prefer it this way; it’s better than giving him away to another woman.’)”11 These remarks seem relevant to the case of Gregers, and they increase our respect for Ibsen’s psychological genius. Ibsen understood that the mind can (in the words of an alchemist) “bring about ‘many things of the utmost profundity outside the body.’”12

G. Proust

Let’s look at another example of unconscious “arranging”, the death of Proust’s beloved chauffeur, Albert Agostinelli. Before Agostinelli died in an airplane accident, before he had even begun to fly, Proust seemed to anticipate his untimely death: “may the steering-wheel of my young mechanic remain for ever the symbol of his talent, rather than the prefiguration of his martyrdom!”13 When Agostinelli went to southern France to learn flying, Proust anticipated that he would die, and wrote him: “you can tell your wife that if (which heaven forbid) you should have an aeroplane accident, she will find in me neither a protector nor a friend, and will never get a halfpenny from me.”14

In Proust’s novel, Albert Agostinelli is metamorphosed into Albertine, who flees from the Narrator’s possessive love, and meets untimely death. The novel was written before Agostinelli’s airplane accident; the accident existed in Proust’s mind before it existed in the external world. As the alchemists would say, the mind can accomplish many things by imagining them. Proust felt that he had brought about Agostinelli’s death, Proust felt that he was guilty of murder.

It is one of the oddities of human nature that a part of us bitterly regrets what another part of us has brought about. Proust was distraught over Agostinelli’s death, and said, “I knew what it was to hope, every time I took a taxi, that an oncoming motor-bus would run me over.”15

H. Psychic Phenomena

Before we conclude this discussion of The World Behind, let’s return to the topic that we started with — psychic phenomena. I said, “if I’m killed in a car accident while driving home tonight, my mother, who is more than a hundred miles away, will feel that something is wrong, perhaps will feel that I’ve died.” When Heinrich Mann’s sister committed suicide, he heard her call him, though she was in Germany and he was in Italy. “I was strolling,” said Heinrich Mann, “all was still; then I was called; from the house, I thought. So little prepared was I, that in the first moment it did not occur to me: no one here calls me by my given name.”16 Many more examples could be given.

The concept of The World Behind helps us to understand such things because it erases the distinction between the psychic and the physical. Once we erase this distinction, the transference of a thought between Boston and Beijing is no more surprising than a phone conversation between Boston and Beijing. The only difference is that science can explain a phone conversation, but doesn’t even try to explain the transference of a thought. Perhaps the power of the psyche will someday be harnessed and controlled, just as the power of electricity, which was once considered occult, has been harnessed and controlled.

The concept of The World Behind not only erases the distinction between psychic and physical, it also erases the distinction between past and future. In The World Behind — as in Einstein’s universe and Kant’s thing-in-itself — time and space are relative, not absolute. Jung often explains psychic phenomena in terms of “the relativization of time and space in the unconscious.”

There are innumerable examples of the unconscious anticipating future events. Jung had a waking dream (a hallucination) of World War I before it started. Goethe once anticipated an event that happened eight years later: after leaving a woman named Friederike, he “saw his double riding towards him, ‘not with the eyes of the body but of the spirit’... Eight years later Goethe rode back along the same way to visit Friederike, wearing, to his own amazement, the same attire, ‘smoky grey with some gold,’ that had struck him on encountering his double.”17 Such anticipations of the future do not occur frequently; they seem to occur only when one’s emotions are at a high pitch. This is true of psychic phenomena in general, and this is why, in ancient times, prophets used various techniques to raise their emotions to a high pitch.

Visions of the past also occur, though apparently less often than visions of the future. In 1901, two English schoolteachers visiting Versailles had a hallucination of Versailles at the time of the French Revolution; “they observed details of the layout of the garden... which could subsequently be verified from the old plans and charts.”18

The World Behind has preoccupied thinkers from all over the world for thousands of years. Western man ignored it during the Age of Reason, but now it is once again becoming a preoccupation of thinkers in many different fields. We’re surrounded by mysteries.

2. Closing Comments

A. Jung

Perhaps the best way to approach Jung is not by reading Jung’s own books, but by reading “peripheral” books such as these:

  1. From the Life and Work of C. G. Jung, by Aniela Jaffé. Delightful, profound, intimate. Especially good on parapsychology, in which Jaffé had a strong interest (she wrote a book called Apparitions and Precognition). The only dull chapter is the chapter on Jung and Nazism. I recommend the later version, which contains a chapter called “The Creative Phases in Jung’s Life.”
  2. Man and His Symbols, by Jung and his disciples. A readable and comprehensive introduction to Jung’s work. The hardcover version abounds in illustrations, some of which are useful.
  3. Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Jung’s autobiography, dictated to Aniela Jaffé. An easy introduction to Jung’s ideas. Perhaps it falls short of being a great autobiography, however, because it pays too little attention to outer life.

B. Book Group

Our book group recently read The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts. It’s the only book that we’ve read twice. I loved it the first time I read it, but this time I found it difficult to read. The last 30%, which deals with Zen directly, is a delight to read, and made my earlier reading of the book a very positive experience. But the first 70% deals with the roots of Zen, the philosophy behind Zen, and it’s not a delight to read. Watts makes a heroic attempt to summarize thousands of years of Indian philosophy. Every paragraph is interesting and profound, but you often feel that you don’t completely understand. Perhaps Watts covers too much ground in too brief a space. The book is not enlivened with humor, anecdote, or personal reminiscence. It’s too dry, thorny and theoretical to serve as an introduction to Zen, but it’s good for someone who is already acquainted with Zen, and wants to deepen his understanding.

Now our group is reading The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell. Unfortunately, we’re reading the un-illustrated version, which is only $12.95; the illustrated version is $29.95. One reason that I chose this book is that I was very impressed with Campbell’s Myths To Live By, which we read last year. Another reason is that we’re embarking on a study of mythology, and Campbell’s Power of Myth seemed like a good place to start. We’re planning to continue our study of mythology with Beowulf (in the Norton Critical Edition, translated by Seamus Heaney), Heinrich Zimmer’s Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, and The Grail Legend, by Emma Jung (wife of the famous psychologist) and Marie-Louise von Franz. We’re going to take a rest from non-fiction by mixing in some fictional works — perhaps Kundera, Shakespeare, or Dostoyevsky.

C. A Presentiment

A few weeks ago, when I was about to brush my daughter’s teeth, I had a strong presentiment that we would have a big quarrel. I brushed the lower teeth. No quarrel. Then I brushed the upper teeth. No quarrel, all was well. Then I did a few final “brushstrokes” — on the outside of the teeth, etc. Done! We had finished brushing, and there had been no quarrel. Then I spotted some dental floss on the counter...

© L. James Hammond 2006
visit Phlit home page
make a donation via PayPal

1. Memories, Dreams, Reflections, ch. 4 back
2. Aniela Jaffé, From the Life and Work of C. G. Jung, ch. 2, p. 70 back
3. quoted in From the Life and Work of C. G. Jung, ch. 2, p. 69 back
4. ibid, p. 73 back
5. Some Jungians have argued that evolution doesn’t occur through random mutations, but rather through synchronicity; “a species of animals, under great pressure or in great need, could produce ‘meaningful’ (but acausal) changes in its outer material structure.”(Man and His Symbols, Conclusion, p. 306) back
6. The Way of Zen, ch. 1 back
7. ibid back
8. ibid, ch. 2 back
9. In the Gospels, the death of Jesus is immediately followed by an earthquake.

The Crown, a Netflix series about the House of Windsor, seems to refer to the eagle episode. About 26 minutes into Episode 2, Season 1, a large raptor, perhaps an eagle, alights on a rail near Elizabeth, just after her father (King George VI) dies. back

10. Man and His Symbols, part 3, p. 211 of hardcover edition back
11. Man and His Symbols, part 3, p. 191 of hardcover edition; see also page 50, which discusses an unconscious destructive impulse directed against oneself. back
12. Aniela Jaffé, From the Life and Work of C. G. Jung, ch. 2, p. 75 back
13. Marcel Proust: A Biography, by George Painter, vol. 2, ch. 10 back
14. ibid back
15. ibid back
16. Richard Winston, Thomas Mann: The Making of an Artist, 1875-1911, ch. 16 back
17. Aniela Jaffé, From the Life and Work of C. G. Jung, ch. 1, p. 21 back
18. ibid back