Alan Watts – In My Own Way

Alan Watts meets Carl Jung and they discuss the unconscious

Some days later I went out to Jung’s home at Küsnacht and met the old master in his summerhouse on the edge of the lake, where we talked for two hours about everything from Sanskrit words for the unconscious to the sex life of swans.

I found Jung an even greater, more intuitive, more humorous, and deeper person than I had expected from his writings.

He asked me how I was getting along at the Institute, and was careful to explain that he himself was not a Jungian and that he had had no intention of promulgating a particular system of psychotherapy.

He had simply followed his intuition and written down his findings as they came along, never intending that his concepts should be more than heuristic devices in a work where the living individual counts for more than any technique.

As our conversation turned to his interest in Oriental philosophy, he told me of his difficulty in finding any term in Hindu or Buddhist philosophy exactly parallel to the idea of the unconscious.

I suggested that the nearest thing would be the Mahayanist term alaya-vijñana, the “store-consciousness,” which, somewhat like his collective unconscious, was the supra-Supra-Supra-individual origin of those archetypal forms or concepts which we use in making sense of the universe.

I pointed out that Suzuki had sometimes used the phrase “the unconscious” in a very different way, to translate the Japanese mushin (“no-mind”) which, so far from being unconscious, was a highly aware unself consciousness.

He was so open, eager, and twinkly-eyed in his comments and questions that I had the temerity to tell him that I thought the very term “the unconscious” was unfortunate, and went into the whole linguistic problem of using nouns for processes and having verbs caused by subjects.

I said that I thought he was confusing things by considering the ego the center of consciousness because, even sticking to his own terminology and the noun-verb system of grammar, he would surely have to say that consciousness was a function of the unconscious, and that therefore you couldn’t very well call it “unconscious.”

The difficulty was rather that the light of consciousness doesn’t illumine its own source; that it is a scanning process, like a thin beam, which can only focus on one small area at a time—and how could we call to memory things we had never noticed unless the unconscious were in some way conscious apart from the scanning beam?

He seemed intensely interested in this, probably because, as I understood, he had rather recently had his own experience of cosmic consciousness transcending the ego (this inelegant terminology is only for shorthand), which he mentions at the end of Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

The discussion of linguistics and scanning led us into the subject of the influence of communications theory and computer mechanics on American psychology—a question raised still more fully a few days later in a conversation with Professor Benedetti of Basel.

Jung, Benedetti, Boss, and several others had the feeling that American psychology had always a tendency to be brashly mechanical and lacking in those “finer feelings” which Europeans commonly accuse Americans of ignoring.

I interposed, however, that those who made really thorough studies of mechanical analogues of the mind, such as Bateson and Wiener, were the first to recognize their limitations.

Several years later I could have cited the case of John Lilly, who went so deeply into the computer analogy, and with such a gifted intellect, that he came to a ne plus ultra of intellectual formulation and had to save his sanity by passing into occultism, though keeping his scientific wits very much about him.4

But Jung could have predicted the uncritical “Uprush of unconscious contents” which now both fascinates and confuses American youth as an inevitable reaction to the cult of conscious control in technology and behaviorism.

When it was time for me to leave we walked out of the summerhouse and looked at the swans on the lake.

“Isn’t it true,” I asked, “that swans are monogamous?”

“Oh yes,” he said, “but there’s a funny thing about their mating for the first time. They invariably begin by picking a fight until they discover what they are supposed to be doing. “Yes,” he added, “the swans here have been of great help to some of my female homosexual patients.”

Thinking back, I am trying to remember what Jung told me, for I was tremendously impressed by his warmth, his intelligence, and his sense of fun.

But I realize that he spent almost the whole time asking questions, which was natural for a great psychotherapist.

The same kind of thing happened when my friend Margaret Tilly, the San Francisco pianist, went to him to discuss therapy with music.

He asked her to go straight ahead with the therapy, using him as the patient.

Shortly afterwards, Jung’s daughter said to Margaret, “Perhaps you don’t realize that you did something very important for me and my father. I have always loved music, but he has never understood it, and this was a barrier between us. Your coming has changed all that, and I don’t know how to thank you.” Watts, Alan. In My Own Way: An Autobiography (pp. 318-321).