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Carl Jung’s Fantastical Retreat

I open Deep Work with the story of a stone tower that Carl Jung built on the shores of the upper lake of Zurich, near the small town of Bollingen. Jung would retreat to an inner sanctum inside the tower, modeled after meditation rooms he had seen on a tour of British controlled India, to think deeply about his breakthrough work on psychiatry and the collective unconscious.

It always struck me that Jung’s Bollingen Tower, as he called it, seemed almost purposefully fantastical, as if Jung was using its form to induce states of deeper creativity. The other day, while reading Anthony Steven’s insightful guide, Jung: A Very Short Introduction, I learned my instinct was right. As Stevens explains:

“The fantasies and rituals common to childhood assumed a heightened intensity for [Jung], and they influenced the rest of his life. For example, his adult delight in studying alone in a tower he built for himself at Bollingen on the upper lake of Zurich was anticipated by a childhood ritual in which he kept a carved manikin in a pencil box hidden away on a beam in the vicarage attic. From time to time, he visited the manikin and presented him with scrolls written in a secret language to provide him with a library in the fastness of his attic retreat.”

I really enjoy stories of deep thinkers who build elaborate work environments to help extract more creativity and quality from their brain, it’s a classic example of the deep life in action.

For more case studies like Jung’s tower, see these two posts, which look at elaborate work spaces designed by J. K. Rowling, Neal Stephenson, Michael Pollan, David McCollough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Hans Zimmer, and Gustav Mahler. Also relevant is my post on how virtual reality might bring these same style of brain-boosting environments to a much wider audience.

9 thoughts on “Carl Jung’s Fantastical Retreat”

  1. Cal, topic idea: How to determine the correct balance between reading vs. doing. Or reading broadly, reading narrowly (research), vs. working on projects.

    Don’t read enough, risk re-inventing the wheel or doing things the hard way.

    Read too much (me), risk wasting time and not executing enough valuable projects.

    • Good points – Have the same issues that James Clear mentions in his book Atomic Habits in which he goes over the difference between motion versus action. He mentions Motion is planning / preparation / procrastination and leads you in a direction, whereas Action builds and completes it. I spend too much time in motion (reading “how to”) and not enough time in action (“get it done”).
      I spend time reading books that are recommended versus those that are helpful and “speak to me” and my concerns. Also end up “going down the rabbit hole” reading books associated with the recommended book.

    • I don’t think there’s a correct balance. It all depends on your goals and priorities.

      Let’s say that both reading and working on valuable projects are priorities for you. But for some reason you’re doing one of them more than the other. I think your first task is to identify that that is what’s happening. And, your second task is to put the systems in place that will help you change your behavior and hopeful solve your problem.

      “If you’re having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves not because you don’t want to change but because you have the wrong system for change. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” ~ Atomic Habits, James Clear

      So for e.g. If you want to work on valuable projects (as defined by you) then you need to start scheduling time for it and you need to start honoring that time. Start small (15-30 mins) and as you’re able to show up and do the work you can start scheduling more time until you’re happy with the amount of time you’re spending on it.

      • It could also be a matter of where you are in your career. If you’re a PhD student, like I am, you have to do a ton of reading before your dissertation. If you’re a professional in your field, like I also am, you’ve got to have the ability to quickly digest new information and put it into action as well as read like crazy to figure out which areas to build your skills in.

  2. Prof. Newport, would you consider writing a book with time management and other advice for PhD students in continuation of your high school and college book series? Many PhD students and other professionals who do creative works for an extended period of time, could be benefited from it. Thanks.

  3. I am reminded of the ‘cubiculum’ or small upstairs inner room of the Carthusian monks. They spend most of their time here in study, meditation, prayer, and take their meals there as well. I had the good fortune to spend some months at the Grande Chartreuse in France, the mother house of the Carthusian Order of monks.

  4. Professor Newport,

    Your thoughts on the minimally-connected life have had a profound impact on many aspects of my life, from studies to work to faith and spirituality. I’m currently struggling to find the right mix of tools for use in managing my relationships effectively.

    You previously wrote in a post that you’re ‘terrible about texting’.. How do you manage to pull that off without alienating close friends and family (when they can’t get a response from you) and coming across as though you haven’t quite got a grip on modern life to everyone else?

    Thank you for all your invaluable insights that help us to build a meaningful life.

    • I’m not great at texting. I go long periods without my phone. I often miss questions sent to me via text. But I’m fiercely loyal to my family and friends in other ways. This latter piece offsets my general lack of ability with texting. Actions speak louder than (texted) words…


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