"In a similar manner that the medieval alchemists projected their psyche into matter, Jung felt that modern man projected his inner state into the heavens. In this sense, the UFOs became modern symbols for the ancient gods which came to man's assistance in time of need." --John Fraim The Symbolism of UFOs and Aliens
In 1958 Carl Jung published a short text entitled Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. In this piece I want to re-examine that text. My aim is to try to “right size” Jung’s thoughts on the UFO phenomena. In many ways his insights have either been ignored on the one hand or over-inflated on the other. Jung’s work on UFOs is rarely, if ever, looked at in light of his own theoretical framework. My aim in this piece is to do precisely and in so doing argue that Jung's writings on UFOs are of a piece with his entire theory (for both good and ill in my view).
So first we need to get a sense of Jung’s overall framework, admittedly in a very abbreviated form, and then apply those broad parameters to his reflections on the UFO phenomena.
Gary Lachman’s book Jung the Mystic is in my view the best single volume introduction to Jung. What Lachman’s biography captures so clearly is a core duality and contradiction between Jung the (semi)closeted mystic and Jung the rationalist/scientist.
Lachman reveals that Jung was, from his youth on, an experiencer of the realm of high strangeness, the weird, and the shamanic. Jung’s mother was a medium and conversed with beings from the otherworld. As a boy Jung had multiple shamanic initiatory type dreams and experiences. Much later in his life Jung revealed publicly that he regularly practiced divination using the ancient Chinese system of the I-Ching. Jung recorded multiple precognitive dreams throughout his life (not to mention a multitude of similar such scenarios among his clients). Only decades after his death was Jung’s journal The Red Book published. That text reveals Jung at his most shamanic (for lack of a better term). Becca Tarnas’ work shows the way in which Jung’s practice of active imagination should be seen in light of imaginal realms and shamanic journeying especially as detailed directly in the Red Book.
Those realms include elements of the human psyche but also go far beyond them. Jung the mystic experienced that reality. So while Jung at various points in his public career eschewed the term mystic, Lachman shows conclusively that Jung was definitely one.
Then on the other hand we have Jung the writer, the would-be scientist of the human psyche, and analytical psychology as an interpretive framework. Lachman’s argument (which I’m in agreement with) is that the system of analytical psychology ultimately boxes in Jung the experiencer. I would go perhaps a bit farther and say that Jung’s system of psychology is not adequate to his own experience. While Jung himself was going through his own ontological floods, his interpretive theory for making sense of those experiences tended to dry up the ontological well a bit. (For those interested I’ve covered the crucially important relationship between the facts of high strangeness and the interpretive frameworks here.)
To be more precise it’s not that Jungian analytical psychology is wrong per se. It’s more that it “flattens” and objectivizes (“distances”) mystical experience. Jung took what was superconscious or truly transpersonal experience and then interpreted it as aspects of the human psychological unconscious, even if a collective unconscious.
Jung wrote on alchemy, kundalini yoga, the I-Ching, and astrology. In each case he turned these traditions and processes into a symbols of individuation and psychological integration. Again that’s not so much wrong as (I believe) it is reductive. Those forms of practice are ultimately not about creating individuated integrated human psychological wholeness but rather journeying into superconscious realms of the mystical. They are not symbols of a psyche trying to find integration but rather codes for realization beyond the psychological level of human identity and expression as such. These traditions and practices can have the effect of bringing such psychological wholeness (in some cases) but I don't believe that was their original intent (contra Jung). Again Lachman’s thorough detailing of Jung’s own practice and experience in those realms demonstrates that assertion.
Probably the most problematic and yet influential version of the way in which Jung’s system didn’t do justice to interpreting and embodying his own realization would be his central notion of the archetypes. As Ken Wilber has argued (persuasively in my view) Jung the theoretician fundamentally misunderstood archetypes. Archetypes in the traditional sense, as for example in Plato (The Forms), are the highest forms of the subtle domain. They are the first manifestations from the formless causal ground. The archetypes are therefore the initial forms of manifestation from the unmanifest. The archetypes then in turn influence “downward” causation into the most densely expressed aspects of the manifest realm.
When a mystic takes “the way back up” from the denser realms towards the formless Source, they encounter the intermediate realms of the subtle (aka the true archetypes). The archetypes in this case reveal themselves in the mysticism of light and sound, angelic visions, sacred geometric realizations, and the like. Jung however took these subtle manifestations and translated them “downwards” into prototypes of collective human psychological integration. Again not wrong per se but by calling them archetypes he “flattened” and “sucked the juice” out of the true subtle archetypes.
In sum, Lachman eloquently argues that Jung’s work is rooted in his mystical experience and yet at the same time fails to hold the intensity of those experiences. The Jungian system (analytical psychology) neuters and dilutes to some degree the ferocity of Jung's own realization.
The proof in the pudding is Jung’s own private cloaking of his mystical insights throughout his life. I would argue that The Red Book deeply seriously undermines Jung’s theoretical edifice which is probably why he kept it hidden. The Red Book shows Jung’s mysticism in full concentration, no dilution.
JUNG AND UFOs
That is all by way of context setting so that we may explore the main topic of this piece: namely re-examining Jung’s writings on the flying saucer/UFO phenomena. And I’ll do so specifically in light of Lachman’s key insight of Jung the experiencer versus Jung the theoretician and how at many points the theoretician was hamstrung to truly communicate his own experience because of the somewhat restrictive nature of his theoretical architecture (analytical psychology).
Knowing that context to Jung’s own work (and his person), we can very easily predict where his writings on UFOs are headed, both positively and negatively. It’s important to look at Jung’s writings on UFOs in light of Jung’s own theoretical system of analytical psychology because it's all of a piece. Jung’s writings on UFOs are actually very influential in the history of Ufology but ufologists aren't necessarily Jungian scholars and Jungian scholars (on average) tend to downplay Jung's writings on UFOs in an attempt to make Jung appear more mainstream.
For example, MJ Banias, an important contemporary writer on the subject of UFOs, did a quick video here with his Top 5 UFOs books. It’s a solid list; Banias’ interestingly includes Jung’s Flying Saucers text. Banias is right to point out that Jung's book is an important and oft-overlooked text in the history of Ufology, so I appreciate him including it. It's particularly relevant in terms of its impact on the great Jacques Vallee (written about elsewhere on this site here).
In a letter written in 1957 just before the publication of Flying Saucers Jung wrote to then New Republic editor Gilbert Harrison summarizing his basic stance on the question. Jung states that his approach will not be to investigate whether the UFO phenomena is real or not but rather what he calls it's "obvious legendary and mythological aspect", that is as a phenomena of the human psyche.
This stance reflects the overall trajectory in Jungian thought whereby he both simultaneously dances in the realm of the ontological flood in his personal life but then is still too enamored with the notion of appearing “scientific” in his public writings and consequently doesn’t really convey the radically of his true insights.
The short version of which is that Jung treats UFOs as archetypes—in the Jungian sense, i.e. as prototypes—principally as mandalas. The circular mandala for Jung is the image of wholeness with it's total completeness and unification. It is also an image of eternity for the circle has no beginning and no end.
In Jung's therapy he noted very often that clients had dreams about mandalas when they were coming up against a major point of crisis and the need for a higher degree of unification. For Jung the UFO represents the collective unconscious of humanity crying out for unification and integration in an era of increasing fragmentation, dissolution, and chaos. Jung believed in the "conjunction of opposites" as a way to reach a higher synthesis of unity whereas in his day the geopolitical order was one of the "bifurcation of opposites" into the Cold War polarization of capitalist West vs. the communist East.
In this way Jung saw the UFO as a species of his larger theory of synchronicity. He defined synchronicity as an acausal relationship of meaningful coincidence between the inner psychic world and the outer material world. In other words he was not saying that the human psyche manifested the UFO phenomena either as a mass psychotic hallucination or as an actual objective entity. He was merely pointing to the strange co-arising and matching/unity between the inner turmoil of the collective human psyche and the arising of symbols of unity and integration in the skies, literally "up above" and "higher" than the plane of human affairs.
In the same manner then that Jung (mis?)interpreted the I-Ching or Astrology or Alchemy into a symbolic system for psychological wholeness and individuation, he does the same with UFOs.
Here are some quotations from Jung's Flying Saucer text on precisely that point:
"The psychological experience that is associated with the UFO consists in the vision of the rotundum, the symbol of wholeness and the archetype that expresses itself in mandala form. Mandalas, as we know, usually appear in situation of psychic confusion and perplexity."
"As we know from ancient Egyptian history, they are manifestations of psychic changes which always appear at the end of one Platonic month and at the beginning of another. Apparently they are changes in the constellation of psychic dominants, of the archetypes, or 'gods' as they used to be called, which bring about, or accompany, long-lasting transformations of the collective psyche. The transformation started in the historical era and left its traces first in the passing of the aeon of Taurus into that of Aries, and then of Aries into Pisces, whose beginning coincides with the rise of Christianity. We are now nearing that great change which may be expected when the spring point enters Aquarius."
In true analytic psychological fashion, Jung concerns himself with the symbolic import of the UFO phenomena. I do think so far as that analysis goes, it’s a valid one. Jung did pick up on the way in which Cold War paranoia was (mis)shaping the context for interpreting the UFO phenomena. He was one of the first thinkers to make that observation which has only been reconfirmed many times over in the decades since.
Jung also correctly predicated that humans would inevitably filter their experience of UFO phenomena—whatever it was—through the lens of mythology, typically unconsciously. Decades of supposedly channeled texts from ETs, flying saucer cults, sci-fi films and TV shows exploring the religious implications of the phenomena, plus the same cliched materialist atheist critiques of the phenomena that are used against religion and mysticism generally, all buttress Jung’s assertion.
Nevertheless there’s still something for me a bit unsatisfying in Jung the theoretician (not the mystic). It’s like a tasty appetizer but without the main course. Jacques Vallee took the torch from Jung and really deepened the thread. It’s worth noting in that same video Banias also lists Vallee’s classic Passport to Magonia in the Top Five (and rightly so). Valle showed that UFOs—or as he prefers to call them UAP Unidentified Aerial Phenomena—are only the most contemporary version of a long running encounter with high strangeness and the uncanny in the human experience.
For example, Vallee famously noted the overlap between modern UFO flying saucer accounts and apparitions of the Virgin Mary as well as the folklore surrounding the fairy folk. Vallee further showed that key themes like lights in the sky, telepathic communication, strange buzzing or high pitch frequencies, beings descending from the sky upon magical vehicles, time loss experiences and the like have replicated throughout history. Literally for Vallee there’s nothing new under the sun (or right the night sky).
Vallee in a certain sense inverted Jung’s argument. For Vallee the UFO phenomena throughout history is not necessarily a sign of needed integration and perfect circular, mandala-like integration and wholeness. But rather for Vallee is a technology that could well be distorting consciousness. Jung, it should be said, wrote before the rise of the UFO abduction lore. Had Jung lived long enough to see that perhaps he would likely have interpreted those dynamics as shadow archetypes.
More recently scholars like Joshua Cutchin and Diana Walsh-Pasulka have taken Vallee’s line of thought even further, showing in exquisite detail for example just how incredibly great are the number of overlaps between the UFO phenomena and that of the fairy folk or the jinn or how deeply UFO lore is penetrating into contemporary consciousness.
But this bring us full circle (full saucer?) to Jung. Jung’s theoretical obsession, as detailed by Lachman, was to show the scientific/rational basis of his work. Jung believed the archetypes of the collective unconscious were a kind of objective genetic inheritance of the human species. It’s debatable whether Jung was successful in his own lifetime in persuading his audience of that thesis but certainly in the years since that attempt utterly failed. Consequently what remains is a somewhat idiosyncratic notion of inner symbols and inner personal integration.
Jung psychologized the UFOs. Of course for Jung psychology was a science but later critics were able to retain the psychologized framework that Jung left and jettison the notion of objective genetic archetypes. What remains in that case would be a purely subjectivized framework for understanding UFOs. Basically UFO and contact experiences could then be interpreted as fantasies. This would apply even with the Vallee corollary to the Jungian view of UFOs—namely that people have been having some kind of collective psychosis or hallucination repeatedly over human history.
So while Jung’s reflections on the UFO phenomena make some crucially valid points, there are also serious limitations in his approach. The restrictive quality of the analytic psychological framework really bound him in his interpretation. To give Jung his (partial) credit, he was the first to really start taking the consciousness side of the UFO equation seriously. Up until that point “nuts and bolts” UFO literature was overly focused on finding crafts or some other form of physical evidence of extra-terrestial contact and really did not take into account the actual experience of people claiming encounters. It was basically an extension of materialist, atomistic, scientistic worldview to a phenomena that clearly (whatever it is) undermines that very framework itself.
Jung’s use of symbols and archetypes (prototypes) did open the door to later writers (especially Vallee) to explore the continuity of this experience over time and it’s replicating motifs. Nevertheless it is at this very point that I propose Jung’s articulation also falls short—it creates a faux-objective distancing and psychologizing to what is otherwise a phenomena of high weirdness.
When it comes to UFOs, Jung only dipped his toes in the ontological waters of the highly strange and then immediately retreated, rather than fully diving into the ontological flood. He dipped his toes insofar as we are talking about his writings. In his personal life, thanks to Lachman, we now know that Jung very much went full ontological flood in all manner of areas (e.g. the I-Ching divination practice and the Red Book shamanic journeying).
Given that we now know that Jung himself was more mystically inclined than he let on publicly, this opens a different pathway around UFOs. Instead of treating them as symbols of psychological wholeness arising at the end of one era, prophesying the ending of that era and the need for a new unity, might we treat them more as mystical phenomena?
As Wilber argued Jung mislabeled archetypes. Jung’s archetypes are more often prototypes. Jung’s analysis of the UFO phenomena is then in reality an analysis of the symbolic prototype of the UFO. As I’ve been saying throughout this piece, so far as that limited frame goes, Jung makes some very insightful points. But as Wilber has shown real archetypes are phenomena of the subtle realm, a realm that Jung was himself well versed in other instances (a la Lachman’s biography). The gap between the experience and the interpretive framework is crucially important to keep in mind.
An analytic psychological approach to UFOs would be to gaze upon images of flying saucers as images of wholeness. Perhaps to draw mandala-like saucers, to imagine feeling the emanated heat of their light, and to experience more alignment in oneself as a result (or in Jungian terms one’s Self). Contemplating images of crop circles—again whether they are “real” or hoaxed is not important for this purpose—would be a variation on this theme.
As it would apply to the more threatening or fearsome versions of UFOs—stories of genetic experimentation, abduction, amoral/robotic grey aliens, etc.—these would opportunities for shadow work in a classic Jungian sense. One would approach them as aspects of consciousness that have been denied and marginalized, only to return in loathsome monstrous forms. By embracing your own inner "alien(ated)” parts then you could come again back to wholeness.
There could be (partial) value in that practice but again notice how this approach creates a bit of safety and domesticates the wildness and weirdness inherent to the phenomena itself. It makes what is archetypal (in the true Platonic sense), prototypical. It takes what is trans-psychological and makes it psychological. It’s an ontological toe-dip rather than an immersion.
Compare that to Jung’s own mystical forays as detailed in the Red Book. The Red Book has Jung facing straight into the high strangeness. There is no domestication of the wild and mystically weird in that text. In fact the total opposite. There are very ambivalent as well as very dark aspects to the work, in addition to the beautifully luminous passages.
What we need is a Red Book for UFOs. It’s to that possibility we’ll explore in future posts on this all important subject.