Jung on the Immortality of the Soul

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.  Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.

 

Jung on the Immortality of the Soul

 

“It is naturally quite out of the question that we shall ever be able to furnish a proof of the immortality of the soul. On the other hand, it does seem to me possible to establish certain peculiar facts regarding the nature of the soul which at least do not rule out the immortality affirmed by religious belief. …in the deeper layers of the psyche which we call the unconscious there are things that cast doubt on the indispensable categories of our conscious world, namely time and space. …It is clear that timeless and spaceless perceptions are possible only because the perceiving psyche is similarly constituted. Timelessness and spacelessness must therefore be somehow inherent in its nature, and this in itself permits us to doubt the exclusive temporality of the soul, …we know that a door exists to a quite different order of things from the one we encounter in our empirical world of consciousness. This is about all that science can contribute to this question. Beyond that there is still the subjective psychological experience which can be in the highest degree convincing for the individual even though it cannot be shared by the wider public.”[1]

 

“… the rest of the psyche, the unconscious, exists in a state of relative spacelessness and timelessness. For the psyche this means a relative eternality and a relative non-separation from other psyches, or a oneness with them….”[2]

 

“… our psyche reaches into a region held captive neither by chance in time nor by limitation of place. In that form of being our birth is a death and our death a birth. The scales of the whole hang balanced.”[3]

 

“… whether I believe in personal survival after death or not. I could not say that I believe in it, since I have not the gift of belief. I only can say whether I know something or not. I do know that the psyche possesses certain qualities transcending the confinement in time and space. … the psyche is capable of functioning unhampered by the categories of time and space. Ergo it is in itself an equally transcendental being and therefore relatively non-spatial and ‘eternal’.”[4]

 

“The only scientific approach to the question of survival is the recognition of the fact that… the two elements of time and space, indispensable for change, are relatively without importance for the psyche. In other words: the psyche is up to a certain point not subject to corruptibility. That’s all we know. …for those people not possessing the gift of belief it may be helpful to remember that science itself points to the possibility of survival.”[5]

 

“So we can only ask: is there a probability of life after death? … the psyche … exists in a continuum outside time and space. … what is outside time is, according to our understanding, outside change. It possesses relative eternity.”[6]

 

For over fifty years[7] Carl Jung received letters asking him about life after death and the immortality of the soul. Ever the empirical scientist, Jung consistently replied that these are topics about which scientific objectivity is impossible.

As he noted in his February 17, 1933 letter to Pastor W. Arz, Jung felt it would never be possible “to furnish a proof of the immortality of the soul.”[8]–“proof” here being what rigorous science would find convincing in replicability, predictability, and objective analysis by multiple investigators. Jung spent his lifetime jousting with the rationalist materialists who denied that the psyche was real,[9] and he knew that he would never convince these “positive ignoramuses”[10] of even telepathy, much less of the timelessness of the psyche.

From his own work with his patients, his experiences with his own dreams, and his years-long correspondences with his friend J.B. Rhine,[11] Jung knew the human unconscious is a realm that transcends the limitations of our ordinary consciousness. In his parapsychology experiments at Duke University, Rhine demonstrated repeatedly that “a door exists to a quite different order of things from the one we encounter in our empirical world of consciousness.”[12] Specifically, Rhine and Jung identified the qualities of timelessness and spacelessness as features of the psyche.

We all have experienced these features of the psyche in our dreams: Aunt Dot, dead some 30 years, appears in a dream, recognizable in appearance and setting, or we dream of being in our current home and then are immediately in Paris. It is common for a mother to wake up in the middle of the night knowing her child has an emergency–a fact confirmed hours later.

Having heard thousands of similar dreams of his patients, as well as his own dreams of his long-dead mother and father,[13] Jung knew that the psyche exists in a realm that is “held captive neither by change in time nor by limitation of place.”[14] In other words, we can turn a skeptical ear to those who insist on the “exclusive temporality of the soul”[15]–that when we die, we’re dead, body and soul. Rigorous scientific experiments by Rhine (confirmed decades later by Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne in their parapsychological investigations and Ian Stevenson in his explorations of reincarnations)[16] allow us to doubt the materialists in their denial of immortality.

Six month after his near-death experience in 1944,[17] a woman wrote to Jung asking about the afterlife. As is the case with most NDEs, Jung’s was memorable and inspiring–leaving him with recollections of feeling free of the limitations of time and space, opening up potentials for learning and discovering more aspects of intangible reality.[18] His reply may reflect his joyous experience, for he wrote back that “What happens after death is so unspeakably glorious that our imagination and our feelings do not suffice to form even an approximate conception of it….”[19]

Jung continued to describe his experience of the afterlife eight months later in a 1945 letter to Kristine Mann, one of his former students and an analyst at the Jung Institute in New York.[20] Kristine was dying of cancer, and Jung sought to console her and to share with her his “glimpse behind the veil…”[21] which becomes possible

“When you can give up the crazy will to live and when you seemingly fall into a bottomless mist, then the truly real life begins with everything which you were meant to be and never reached. It is something ineffably grand. I was free, completely free and whole, as I never felt before…. It was a silent invisible festival permeated by an incomparable, indescribable feeling of eternal bliss, such as I never could have imagined as being within reach of human experience.”[22]

Then Jung suggested that Kristine regard her illness as a “good ship that carries you through the darkness of your second birth, which seems to be death to the outside… Be patient and regard it as another difficult task, this time the last one.”[23]

To Hannah Oeri, whose husband Albert had recently died (and who was Jung’s childhood friend), Jung wrote that

“The dead are surely not to be pitied–they have so infinitely much more before them than we do–but rather the living who are left behind, who must contemplate the fleetingness of existence and suffer parting, sorrow and loneliness in time…. our birth is a death and our death a birth.”[24]

Jung shared Hannah’s grief, in his case, grief from, in part, the loneliness that comes upon the very old as their long-time friends die before them.[25]

In 1951 one of Jung’s former students, Esther Harding, wrote him asking about the phenomenon of spooks. Jung had no idea how to explain spooks. It did not seem to him to be explainable in terms of psychology, but perhaps it related to the human soul. Jung wrote that he was

“inclined to believe that something of the human soul remains after death, since already in this conscious life we have evidence that the psyche exists in a relative space and in a relative time, that is in a relatively non-extended and eternal state.”[26]

As a Jungian analyst, Esther would have been familiar with the psyche and its qualities from her own and her analysands’ dreams.

Multiple people wrote to Jung for his thoughts on suicide. Typical of him, Jung did not provide a dogmatic reply. Instead, he wrote of his sense of death:

“… I am not at all sure what will happen to me after death. I have good reasons to assume that things are not finished with death. Life seems to be an interlude in a long story. It has been before I was, and it will most probably continue after the conscious interval in a three-dimensional existence…. I cannot advise you to commit suicide for so-called reasonable considerations.”[27]

Besides the fact that Jung did not know what would happen, he was also dubious about the act of suicide since he saw our purpose in living being

“… to attain the greatest amount of spiritual development and self-awareness…. [since life is] an experiment which we have not set up. We have found ourselves in the midst of it and must carry it through to the end.”[28]

To a man who asked Jung if he believed in an afterlife, Jung wrote back that he did he had “not the gift of belief. I can only say whether I know something or not.”[29] Then Jung proceeded to tell the man that he knew (not believed) that

“the psyche is capable of functioning unhampered by the categories of time and space. Ergo it is in itself an equally transcendental being and therefore relatively non-spatial and “eternal.”[30]

To another correspondent Jung put this idea another way: “the psyche is up to a certain point not subject to corruptibility.”[31] This fact led Jung to conclude that “science itself points to the possibility of survival.”[32]

Jung ventured to suggest that we humans “may simultaneously exist in both worlds, and occasionally we do have intimations of a twofold existence. But what is outside time is, according to our understanding, outside change. It possesses relative eternity.”[33] This is as close as Jung came to making a claim for the immortality of the soul.

 

Bibliography

 

Jung, C.G.  (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1965), Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Jahn, Robert & Brenda Dunne (1987), Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Tart, Charles 2009), The End of Materialism. Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications.

 

[1] “Letter to Pastor W. Arz,” 17 February 1933; Letters, I, 117.

[2] “Letter to Pastor Frtiz Pfäfflin,” 10 January 1939; Letters, I, 256.

[3] “Letter to Hannah Oeri,” 23 December 1950;” Letters, II, 568-569.

[4] “Letter to H.J. Barrett,” 12 October 1956; Letters, II, 333.

[5] “Letter to Mrs. Otto Milbrand,” 6 June 1958; Letters, II, 445.

[6] “Letter to Frau N.,” 30 May 1960; Letters, II, 561.

[7] I.e. from 1906 to 1961.

[8] Letters, I, 117.

[9] Collected Works 11 ¶757.

[10] “Letter to Pastor W. Arz,” 17 February 1933;” Letters, I, 117.

[11] Cf. Letters, I, pp. 180-182, 190, 321-322, 378-379, 390, 393-395, 495; II, 106-107, 126-127, 180-181,

[12] “Letter to Pastor W. Arz,” 17 February 1933; Letters, I, 117.

[13] Jung described these in his memoir; Jung (1965), 96ff, 315.

[14] “Letter to Hannah Oeri,” 23 December 1950; Letters, II, 569.

[15] “Letter to Pastor W. Arz,” 17 February 1933;” Letters, I. 117.

[16] Cf. Jahn & Dunne (1987) and Tart (2009), 283-284, 287-288.

[17] Jung had his NDE after a severe heart attack which left him close to death for several weeks. Letters, I, 343, note 1. For his own description of his NDE, see Jung (1965), 289-292; I quote his description at length in the essay archived on this blog site “The Art of Dying Well.”

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Letter to Frau N.,” 11 July 1944; Letters, I, 343.

[20] “Letter to Kristine Mann,” 1 February 1945; Letters, I, 357.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 357-358.

[23] Ibid. 359.

[24] “Letter to Hannah Oeri,” 23 December 1950; Letters, II, 568-569.

[25] Ibid. This loneliness from being the last of one’s generation was something my aunt noted; she died at age 96, having outlived 13 siblings and all her childhood friends.

[26] “Letter to M. Esther Harding,” 5 December 1951; Letters, II, 29.

[27] “Letter to Anonymous,” 10 November 1955; Letters, II, 279.

[28] “Letter to Anonymous,” 10 July 1946; Letters, I, 434.

[29] “Letter to H.J. Barrett,” 12 October 1956; Letters, II, 333.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Letter to Mrs. Otto Milbrand,” 6 June 1958; Letters, II, 445.

[32] Ibid.

[33] “Letter to Frau N.,” 30 May 1960; Letters, II, 561/