Consciousness and Summer Hikes by Stephen Foster, Ph.D.


“We stand on a peak of consciousness, believing in a childish way that the path leads upwards to yet higher peaks beyond. That is the chimerical rainbow bridge. In order to reach the next peak we must first go down into the land where the paths begin to divide.” (CW 12, Paragraph 75)

South B PeakC.G. Jung spent a great deal of time in nature, and used his observations and experiences in natural settings as metaphors in his psychological work.  He also drew from alchemical writings because alchemists were detailed observers of nature. But Jung had a particular gift for incorporating myth, alchemy and metaphoric language to convey insights with many layers.  And the above quote from Psychology and Alchemy is a good example.

Hiking in the Rocky Mountains brings one in touch with the reality of the effort required to summit a mountain, and I am sure that hiking in the Swiss Alps gave Jung time to consider mountain analogies.  Jung’s metaphor of reaching a peak of consciousness can also feel like a tremendous feat.  Once we become conscious of a particular aspect of the human psyche, particularly our own, our ego feels that insights into consciousness abound, or as Jung says, “upwards to yet higher peaks beyond.” And yet it is a fantasy to gain insight so easily.

Jung is incorporating the Norse idea of the rainbow-bridge, Bifrost, which is the bridge that connects Asgard, the world of the Aesir tribe of gods, with Midhard, the world of humanity. So by reference he suggests that the ego has the fantasy that we can simply, without much effort, cross over Bifrost from the land of humans to the land of the Gods; a short cut for the human ego to God-like wisdom.

I was reminded of this quote and Jung’s nature analogy this past weekend when I looked across the short distance from South Boulder Peak to Bear Peak. Hiking across the saddle between the two peaks requires first heading down from South Boulder Peak into the now charred trees and burned out landscape from last year’s forest fire that threatened Boulder about this time last year. This nature analogy suggests we often have to pass back down through the burned out landscape of our past experiences, which is a powerful aspect of psychological work, a process that provides deep and lasting insights. On the mountain, amongst the downed blacked trees and charred earth, patches of green plants are pushing their way up from the black soil. The patches of green can be seen as areas of repair amongst the fire ravage trees.  They represent glimpses of awareness (or consciousness) in the shadow.

Bear PeakJung might suggest that acquiring consciousness often requires going down through shadow material, back into the blackened places in our lives to find the green areas of new psychological growth. And yet in his quote Jung also warns us that consciousness is not gained easily. Limited awareness can be deceptive because it gives us the illusion that we are more conscious than we actually are.  He is suggesting that we have the fantasy that higher consciousness is gained easily and simply.  This is the “chimerical rainbow bridge.”

In reality, gaining consciousness requires the process of going down (inside) to the depths of our experience, to where our path crosses the paths of others, because this work leads us towards consciousness of another kind; metaphorically to another peak. I believe it is the process of going down and coming back up via another path that gives us consciousness.  For Bear Peak, crossing the saddle is easier than going down the 3000 feet of vertical gain and coming up another path.  But if we take the easy path we rarely gain the consciousness we actually need on this journey of life.