BookREVIEW: Balancing Heaven and Earth
Robert A. Johnson, Jerry M. Ruhl
Harper Collins 1998
Reviewer Simon Howes
After a period of withdrawal from writing life, in the mid-1990s Robert A. Johnson, the noted Jungian analyst and author of several well known and bestselling books including She, He, and Owning Your Own Shadow, agreed to collaborate with his friend and colleague Jerry M. Ruhl in the creation of a memoir about the inner and outer events of his life. Their intention was not that Johnson write an autobiography, but that instead that the book be ‘a story of the unfolding of consciousness within one individual’ in the spirit of Carl Jung’s own earlier work Memories, Dreams and Reflections. This book became Balancing Heaven and Earth – A Memoir of Visions, Dreams and Realizations, which I recently read.
On the surface, there are many parallels between Jung’s book and Robert Johnson’s – the inclusion of dreams the authors had and the meanings they interpreted from them; the story of the dawning of recognition in both of a world of meaning that exists outside rational thought; extended passages on visits to distant continents and countries and an analysis of the cultures and stories they found there (in Jung’s case, principally parts of Africa, and in Robert Johnson’s case, India). For me though the greatest parallel was the feeling sense that the books evoked in me. I remember very clearly how Jung’s book lit a fire in me when I read it as an undergraduate – a fire of recognition, in that I could empathise with Jung’s own experience of his internal world, and also a fire of intense passion, as I knew instantly upon reading it that I wanted to become a professional therapist. The book spoke to me personally, in the way that very few books do, as if in the mere act of reading it I was following a pre-ordained task. Robert Johnson’s text evoked a similar feeling in me, but now, as a practicing therapist, instead gave me a confirmation and reassurance of the choice of field I am working in as opposed to the more explosive inner experience I felt upon reading Jung’s autobiography at the time.
There are various themes that are repeated throughout Robert Johnson’s book, one of which, as the title suggests, is the realisation for Johnson that for him throughout his life the ability to live fully has necessitated a balance between both the more heavenly and ethereal elements of human experience, and the more grounded or earthly aspects of daily life. Early on in the book, Johnson talks about a near-death experience of a heavenly ‘Golden World’ whilst being operated on after a car accident, a ‘Golden World’ that he desperately sought for again and again throughout his adolescence. It is only as the book progresses and he becomes more grounded as a result of various incidents, that he is able to re-experience this ‘Golden World’ and integrate and incorporate it in a more embodied way. In fact, one of the great joys of the book lies in Johnson’s ability to implement the same beliefs he uses in his client work, and one has a sense upon reading it that for Johnson the search for consciousness outweighs all other considerations.
Although I found most of the book an excellent read, and especially enjoyed how he interspersed various Jungian ideas amongst the key events of his life, above all I was captivated by the story of his meeting with Dr Jung. Through an unlikely chain of events, Johnson ended up being enrolled in the first classes ever offered in the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, and was called to meet Dr Jung in person after a dream he had shared whilst undergoing therapy with Jung’s wife. For anyone with a passing interest in Jung, Johnson’s description of their encounter is absolutely fascinating, including the advice that Jung offers to him which he recognises later in life was very true.
If there was any downside for me to the book, I found the final chapters on Johnson’s experience in India a lot slower and more abstract, very similar in fact to how I felt about Jung’s writings on Africa, so I acknowledge also that this could be down to my own personal taste. However, the book as a whole is an excellent and inspiring read, and I feel it was not only an interesting narrative, but also a good refresher and application of Jungian thought, and it has subsequently inspired me to introduce more Jungian ideas in my work with clients. Although many of Johnson’s psychological texts are well known, from talking to other therapists it seems that his memoir is not, and so I would strongly recommend it as a thoughtful, enjoyable and accessible read.
Simon Howes trained as a transpersonal psychotherapist and is a Registered Member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (MBACP). He has a private practice based in Northampton (www.northamptoncounselling.co.uk).