STRESS Month: A Patchwork Approach to ‘Religious’ Experience

A patchwork approach to “religious” experience:

I’ve been attending a series of lectures at the Hammer Museum in Westwood California around Carl Jung’s Red Book. The lectures are actually dialogues between an interesting person (e.g. actor, writer, artist, scholar, religious leader, etc) and a Jungian analyst or scholar around The Red Book and the process of inward investigation of mind (what the Red Book represents). All the events have been over-subscribed, standing room only, and a huge success. In the Q and A period following each Dialogue, a common question emerges “Why Now?”

For those not familiar with The Red Book, it’s Carl Jung’s personal journey into his mind. Created over a series of many years, he would meditate each evening and explore his mind, writing text and drawing images of what he experienced.

Why are people so curious in the Red Book and discussions around it? The consensus of presenters and audience members alike seems to be an endorsement of a societal ‘need’ or “thirst” for inward discovery. By inward discovery I mean a turning in toward oneself, a time for reflection and contemplation, for stillness in the busyness and doingness of life. In a culture focused on outward activities — science, technology, politics, media and entertainment — there is often too little attention (and value) paid toward inward such investigation. The Red Book provides an object for such discovery — by experiencing it through the eyes of its author.

It seems to me that that is what religions as institutions were designed to provide — a refuge or time set aside for contemplation, reflection or inward discovery, and a means of transcending oneself and connecting to something larger by whatever name that experience is designated.

But for many today, organized religions are not providing the experience described above; perhaps it is because there is too much attention directed toward the interpretation of ancient texts or to rules, dogma and doctrine that make such institutions not conducive to the contemplative experience itself. Or perhaps it is the division that arises from the contrast and compare that arises within various religions that makes their commonalities — as places for contemplative insight to be nurtured – less obvious.

I’ve been thinking that the beginnings of religions are rooted in the words of someone who has experienced a transcendent insight and who conveys this insight to others through words and actions, inspiring others to continue to build around the teachings until an institution forms in its wake. In many ways it is what happened to Carl Jung’s own “transcendent insight” and its integration into Jungian psychology and a following by now Jungian psychoanalysts.

While some institutions (and frameworks) emerging from such insights are fleeting; others last many millennia. The stories or parables or words used to describe such transcendent experiences and insights shift and change to meet the ears of new generations; when successful in such efforts, it is likely that the institution continues to grow. Jung’s work on dreams, the collective unconscious, synchronicity, and individuation are greeted eagerly by many in the 21st century unable to connect with other systems of inward study.

It’s likely also why meditation — as an experiential practice for investigating the mind and available without reference to any religious orientation — is 3000 + years old and emerging in medical settings across the country, as well as educational, political and business settings. Meditation is a powerful means for inward investigation of the mind if one is open and curious in the process. As Jung discovered on his own journey, it can be frightening at times and without a sense of unlimited ‘love of self’ (not a narcissistic love but rather self-compassion), it might even be a dangerous process.

I took a young man (about 30 years old) to one of the dialogues and we talked about it afterward. His take on it was that we each must find the best route to inward discovery and its integration into our day to day lives. He thought it quite obvious that we each may borrow a teaching from various religions, psychologies, or other systems and use whatever we find most useful for us on the way. I noted that his view may be somewhat atypical because at its core was a profound sense of trust in himself to know what to select and discard along the way. Many people don’t have such a strong sense of trust, something that emerges with self-compassion. But then I thought of my own three kids (now young adults) and noticed they have that strong sense of trust as well.

It made me wonder if the Red Book and other methods of inward study — like meditation — may be growing in popularity today because a new generation of youth — perhaps more self-compassionate and trusting — are choosing diversity (many tools, many approaches) to guide them on their life adventures (outward and inward). It is a patchwork approach to “religious” experience. In this case I define a “religious experience” as one of self-transcendence where one experiences a sense of connection to something larger than oneself (whether that something is called humanity, the evolutionary process, ultimate reality, Spirit or God).

(for free guided meditations, go to and click on ‘Mindfulness Meditations’)