Jung’s Tower: simplicity and the inner life

Jung's Tower House, Bollingen, Switzerland, by Andrew Taylor, 2009.  CC BY-SA-2.0

Jung’s Tower House, Bollingen, Switzerland by Andrew Taylor, 2009. CC BY-SA-2.0

Recent news of technological incursions into consciousness itself (virtual reality and altered memories); almost daily revelations about NSA spying; suggestions that social media “isolates people from reality;” it’s enough to make you want to unplug all the gadgets – at least for a while!

Renowned psychologist, Carl Jung (1875-1961) did just that, for months at a time, in a tower-house complex he started building in 1923 and continued to work on for the rest of his life.  He often spent months each year living as simply as possible, without electricity or running water.  It’s easy to think he lived in a simpler time and couldn’t have imagined modern complexity, but consider these words he wrote in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, published in 1961, the year he died:

“We rush impetuously into novelty, driven by a mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction, and restlessness.  We no longer live on what we have, but on promises, no longer in the light of the present day, but in the darkness of the future, which, we expect, will at last bring the proper sunrise.  We refuse to recognize that everything better is purchased at the price of something worse; that, for example, the hope of greater freedom is canceled out by increased enslavement to the state, not to speak of the terrible perils to which the most brilliant discoveries of science expose us.
…new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and in any case dearly paid for.  They by no means increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole.  Mostly they are deceptive sweetenings of existence, like speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time than ever before.”

The tower, phase 1, 1923.  Creative Commons

The tower, phase 1, 1923. Creative Commons

Ten years before starting the tower, Jung had a painful break with Freud that precipitated a period of disorientation and a huge uprush of the kind of unconscious contents he had witnessed in schizophrenic patients.  Feeling that his experience was purposeful, he chose to submit to the unconscious with writing, art, and the effort to understand.  Out of this phase of turmoil and uncertainty, his unique psychological insights were born.  Paper and ink, he said, did not seem “real” enough to represent his discoveries, so in 1922 he purchased land on Lake Zurich for a “representation in stone” of his “innermost thoughts.”

Phase II, 1927.  Creative Commons

Phase II, 1927. Creative Commons

Jung wrote at length of the parallel developments of his inner life and the tower, over more than three decades, saying things like:

“At Bollingen I am in the midst of my true life, I am most deeply myself”

“At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the plashing of the waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the procession of the seasons.”

“I pump the water from the well.  I chop the wood and cook the food.  These simple acts make man simple; and how difficult it is to be simple!”

Jung pumping water at Bollingen ca. 1960.  Library of Congress

Jung pumping water at Bollingen ca. 1960. Library of Congress

While drawing inspiration from Jung, an obvious question becomes, how do I connect with this kind of depth in the midst of my own too-hectic life?  The good news is, we don’t need a tower to live in for months at a time.  The bad news is we need to unplug every day and tune into activities that nourish the soul; this is often hard arrange.  It takes focus, intention, and experimentation to find those things that center us and we are drawn to.  Any number possibilities come to mind:

  • “Spend an hour a day in a quiet room by yourself reading old stories that you find nourishing.”  That’s what Joseph Campbell said when Bill Moyers asked this question during the “Power of Myth” interviews.
  • Meditation, of almost any kind.  This my own core practice.  Zen teacher, Cheri Huber said, “If you start by watching your breath for as little as five minutes a day, it can change your life.”
  • Sports that allow one to get in “the zone,” especially walking, running, or bicycling.
  • Keeping a dream notebook.
  • Writing, though I suspect most bloggers will have the same difficulty I have in putting words at the service of psyche – how do I turn off the writing sophistication I’ve worked so hard to gain?  Can I ever truly use words in a “purposeless” manner, allowing them to go where the wish, without thinking, “Gee, this would make a good blog post?” For any chance of success, I need a definite strategy, like writing fast with a rollerball pen in cheap notebooks.
  • Visual arts or crafts.  Training or skill is not required for this kind of work, and in fact, can get in the way.  Those with artistic training may find it useful to paint or draw with the non-dominant hand.  Jung had no formal art training, but his private journal, The Red Book, only recently published, gives an idea of what may emerge if one is determined to honor the psyche.
Red Book, p. 131.  Courtesy Ox Aham, Creative Commons

Red Book, p. 131. Courtesy Ox Aham, Creative Commons

When I truly examine my own habits, it’s clear that I fritter away enough time with gadgets each day to find the space for this kind of exploration.  It doesn’t need to be with the kinds of activities I outlined above.  I find it’s ok to schedule “time for inner work” the way I schedule time at the gym, but the most powerful new discoveries seem to emerge from those quiet voices at the edge of consciousness, the tiny impulse it is so easy to overlook in our busy lives.

Such an impulse woke me one night at 1:00am one morning.  Instead of going back to sleep, I got up and wrote down a sentence.  That led to a paragraph, and then a page, and then another.  That was the start of the first (and so far only) novel I’ve finished.

Something similar happened to Jung at his tower.  He gave the stonemason at a quarry precise measurements for blocks he needed to build a new wall, but one of the stones arrived in error; it was square, about 20″ on each side.  When Jung saw it, he said, “That is my stone, I must have it!”  Over time, he carved a testament to his life and work on stone which “stands outside the Tower, and is like an explanation of it.  It is a manifestation of the occupant.”

Bollingen stone, main face, CC-BY-SA-3.0

Bollingen stone, main face, CC-BY-SA-3.0

In a seminar in 1939, Jung said:

“We have no symbolic life, and we are all badly in need of the symbolic life. Only the symbolic life can express the need of the soul – the daily need of the soul, mind you! And because people have no such thing, they can never step out of this mill – this awful, banal, grinding life in which they are “nothing but.”

The Bollingen Tower became a vital way for Jung to live the symbolic life, but he would have been the first to insist that we don’t need to carve stone or build houses to find it for ourselves.  All we need is the hunger.  And the will to begin.

32 thoughts on “Jung’s Tower: simplicity and the inner life

  1. Beautifully written! I actually live in Zurich, which is not far from Bolingen. Once I went by ship past Jung’s tower and saw it from a distance. Unfortunately, it is closed for visitors and cannot be approached from land. Pity.


    • I ams shocked to see Jung’s Stone for the first time. As I was reading Joe Campbellell and Jung and the Jungians to help me through the depression of midlife crises 25 years ago – I could see a pattern of characters on any textured surface, carpet, some walls… – I didn’t know what language it was – maybe some combination of Greek and Egyptian? The image I could see back then are the characters I now see today on Jung’s Stone. Wow. Symbol Reader – do you have any thoughts on this strange occurrence? Synchroicty? No…then what?


      • Synchronicity for sure and quite amazing but I think Jung would not be surprised because the unconscious has access to all the knowledge and even is atemporal.


    • Sometimes there’s sheer necessity, in an era where companies try to do more and more with fewer and fewer people. You can’t argue with that, but for myself – do I really need check the email on my phone as often as I do during the day? And nowadays it’s fun to consider that leaving the phone at home while walking the dogs is a subversive act, making it harder for the NSA to track my whereabouts!

      Though I joke about things like that (to keep from crying?) I do find that I cannot do real free writing as a means of discovery if I’m on the computer. The habit of sprucing up a paragraph or saving a piece to the blog folder is just too strong…


    • What struck me, in re-reading comments Jung made 50-70 years ago – aside from how relevant they still are – is where is the ongoing critique of what passes for “norms” in our culture?

      I can think of various reasons. One is that it’s not very useful to point out a problem when you can’t offer up a solution. Perhaps that’s one reason that writers on climate change have trouble gaining traction (are my energy-efficient lightbulbs and hybrid honda really going to help in the face of hurricanes and typhoons?). But when Jung critiqued our culture, he did offer up solutions, using his own life as his laboratory, balanced between science and spirituality, so I find his words no less inspiring now than when I first read them back in college.


  2. Morgan, very interesting and necessary to consider. i’m really on the fence here because in principle i do believe getting away from the gadgets (and blogging) is a discipline we should observe. i often feel panicked and driven to catch up with what everyone else is writing. and i feel periods of self-imposed isolation are good for the soul. on the other hand, blogging is much more that gadgetry and provides for many of us an atmosphere of open and honest sharing, and in some ways is almost a confessional booth. it becomes thought provoking and spiritually creative to share in a manner not found in everyday life. though sitting on a blog and computer all day would be draining. basically, i think we are too dependent on technology, but also enriched by the possibilities it otherwise brings. bob


    • You’re exactly right about blogging being thought provoking, spiritually creative, a means of discovery, honest sharing, and so on. But even there, I find balance is required. For instance, some of my “discoveries” come in private notebooks that I don’t show anyone. My imagination of that is that the psyche requires that “privacy guarantee” for access to some contents.

      The list of technological wonders I’m grateful for and enjoy is endless, so maybe the best analogy is with any tool, even a saw or hammer – use it badly and you hurt yourself. Here we are still finding out what “using it badly” means.

      Thanks for your comment.


  3. My local library has a copy of The Red Book, and I’ve been going in to read sections. Someone else discovered it and they must have checked it out, so I’ve had to take a break. That’s fine since it’s pretty intense. It doesn’t seem spontaneous or exploratory: Jung rendered the passages as if they were a medieval manuscript, so I would guess they are careful edits of other journals. He devotes a lot of time to interpreting his dreams, convinced that he is on a vision quest in the service of humanity. Classic psychoanalysis gave so much weight to dreams; maybe Jung got tired of the banality of most of his patients’ dreams and wanted to show us how a pro does it. On the way, he creates some beautiful artwork. It’s amazing he didn’t do that for a living instead of travel the world lecturing on psychology. But then, he trained as a medical doctor. It’s hard to leave that behind. Anyway, your post on Jung’s tower gave me new perspectives on his work. Thanks.


    • Very interesting comments, thanks. It’s been quite a while since I’ve read through all of Jung’s autobiography, so I checked Wikipedia which says Jung worked on what became the Redbook over the period from 1914-1930. He began the written part in black notebooks – dream journals and spontaneous writings, so it makes a lot of sense that the finished product is not spontaneous, and indeed resembles a medieval manuscript. By the time he started the calligraphy (at least 81 of 200 pages are pure calligraphy), he had recovered personal equilibrium, developed his key theories, and I think he wanted a beautifully crafted record or testament to that period of his life.

      I do recall him writing that while he was working on the art, he experienced a feminine voice whispering, “You are an artist!” Jung wrote of being sorely tempted, but in the end, concluding the voice was a seductive, siren aspect of the anima, weaving a deceptive fantasy. Later, James Hillman cited that episode to demonstrate that Jung and the first generation of those who followed, were influenced by 19th century attitudes toward women. However much he remained a product of his time, on the whole, I think he made the right choice of calling.


  4. Morgan, this is a wonderful post. I loved reading ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’. Jung’s theories have had to give way in the face of the inexorable rise in popularity of Cognitive Therapy but in doing so something very valuable has been lost. Jung was right about the need for symbolism in our lives. Each of us has to build our own mythology and Cognitive Therapy does not have the tools to help us in this regard. Jungianism does.


    • Thanks, Malcolm.
      Jung’s theories still reside in a couple of places in the mainstream. The Myer-Briggs personality profile, based squarely on his theory of types, and the very terms, Introvert and Extravert.

      For the rest, I’ve come to see the different schools of therapy in light of structures like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Some behavioral/cognitive approaches seem effective for more basic skills, e.g., desensitization in the treatment of agoraphobia. Another big factor is that the vast majority of people who seek out therapy now do so with insurance which favors “brief” approaches for clear financial reasons.

      On the high end, in early 20th century Switzerland, there were no disciplines of contemplative spirituality, while now we have an abundance of riches.

      For all of that, Jung has been one of the most important and enduring influences on my life, which I think even a cursory look at my blog makes clear.


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  11. Finding Jung in 1981 brought the implicate order of life into view for me, i felt that i’d encountered God. A Jungian dream therapist sent me on a merry chase, 6 years of working on ‘activating the Animus’ – which resulted in my discovering an exciting, introspective art technique I taught for 20 years. I’ve kept the website http://www.PsychesMirrors.com available for following directions, seeing examples, and information about the technique. A quick experience can take an hour; the process has expanded to include ancient wisdom traditions. When I discovered the technique I created a set of Fantasy Characters for each of the action cards in Tarot’s Major Arcana, and experienced myself in the Egyptian 22 parts of the soul – at that moment on time!


  12. as a lifelong dairy farmer I concur I see boys today that don’t know which end of a hammer to use. Hell I taught myself to weld when I was 12. Young men especially need to understand the basics, being unable to do even the basics damages the soul, leads to a feeling of total helplessness, maybe that has something to do with the sudden popularity of socialism, no sense of self worth, I need mommy daddy to do it for me. Just feel that they cannot do “it” on their own


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  15. I love this quote from Jung that you included in your post. “I pump the water from the well. I chop the wood and cook the food. These simple acts make man simple; and how difficult it is to be simple!” There is something absolutely restorative about physical interaction with the world that brings us back to a place of wholeness, whether it be cooking, biking, swimming, carving, digging or drawing. In these activities we become one with what we’re doing and we can see how we connect to a larger reality.


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