The Language of the Unconscious, I: Symbols

My previous two posts presented an overview of dreams and active imagination, and discussed the role dreams and active imagination play in the psyche. This post, and the following post, define how the psyche speaks to an individual in dreams and active imagination: through symbols and archetypes (personifications of unconscious material) that dramatize the conflict in which an individual finds her-/himself.


Jung defines symbols as spontaneous images or representations (i.e., terms or names) with which we may be familiar, but whose meaning and appearance announce the presence of something hidden or mysterious within the psyche.[1] Jung emphasized the unknown, obscure, indeterminable quality of a symbol,[2] a character that cannot be expressed through our common verbal language.[3] Despite the difficulty of articulating something beyond our knowledge, the symbol represents the best expression of what is unknowable, or “not yet knowable,” to the conscious.[4]


Symbols are significant for an individual because symbols perform a transformative function within the psyche.[5] Life unfolds in emotions and symbolic ideas, Jung notes, ideas that are not always observable or immediately discernible to us.[6] Symbols guide an individual through these ideas and to the underlying unconscious elements that influence the emergence of these ideas. Such guidance results in the transformation (and transcendence) of conscious experience.[7] In other words, symbols help ease psychic conflict in the conscious realm that results when conscious elements are either not fulfilling their psychic obligations, or are being ignored because confronting these attitudes is too difficult.[8]


Symbols help keep unconscious material “constantly present” and available to the conscious as a resource through which psychological wholeness may be achieved. In light of our tendency to push undesirable experiences of daily life to the background of our psyche, these unconscious elements become forceful enough to affect consciousness, and emerge in symbolic form. Understanding the message these symbols communicate requires a conscious willingness on the part of an individual, and patience to decide on an appropriate interpretation of the symbols.[9]


Symbols have a multitude of meanings, and express various motives and functions from person to person and situation to situation.[10] An individual encounters symbols when s/he enters an “impossible situation” that requires knowledge or ascension to a “higher consciousness” to overcome the problem.[11] During this disorienting situation (in which unconscious and conscious collide), the unconscious produces symbols to help mend the split between conscious and unconscious.[12] Symbols that appear in an individual’s psyche, therefore, depend on the type of situation in which s/he finds her-/himself.[13]


A symbol first operates along unconscious channels, at a level too far below our consciousness for us to understand its meaning,[14] Symbols next emerge in consciousness, where they disrupt an individual’s mental life and shock the psyche, which then decides whether to avoid or incorporate the symbol into conscious awareness.[15] When the psyche rejects a symbolic encounter, the psyche moves an individual toward neurosis, a temporary stage that illustrates the psyche’s vacillation between disorder and wholeness.[16] If symbols are not assimilated into the conscious, the forces they exert on the individual’s psyche can increase to a dangerous level.[17]


To reach wholeness, and bridge the split between the disturbing unconscious and the disturbed conscious, symbols must be deciphered and integrated into consciousness. Once understood and acknowledged by the psyche, the symbol ceases to be distressing and becomes part of an individual’s lived experience.[18]


Integration of symbolic material into consciousness requires a great deal of responsibility, and is an individual task that few accomplish.[19] Humanity is more dependent than we realize on these symbolic messages, because they profoundly affect our conduct and demeanor.[20] Our attempt to understand symbols not only involves a confrontation with the symbol before us, it requires a confrontation with our wholeness as “the symbol-producing individual.”[21] Once we accept and face our psychic symbols, we follow those symbols toward whatever adjustment our consciousness requires to reach psychic balance.[22] As Edward F. Edinger writes, an encounter with symbols reveals our “missing part,” returns us to “our original totality,” and “heals our […] alienation from life.”[23]


For Jung, a true symbol:

  1. illustrates an “intuitive idea” that finds expression either in speech[24] or in thought,[25] and
  2. is capable of being accepted into the psyche.[26]

Although we are unable to express the meaning of a symbol verbally, we routinely speak using symbolic expressions and images understood within the confines of specific circumstances (i.e., ecclesiastical language).[27] Because psychic harmony is possible only when we live in accordance with symbols, we must explore their meanings.[28]


Examples of common dream symbols include:

  1. Symbols of Rebirth: illustrating “inner transition” and rejuvenation in another form of ourselves whom we encounter as an “inner friend of the soul.”[29]
  2. Symbols of Opposition: fire and water, hot and cold, love and hate, light and dark.
  3. Symbols of Union: (particularly a union of opposites) seen in marriage, in an androgynous figure, or in dual symbols that appear in a single figure (such as a Yantra, or a bi-sexual image of man and woman, for example, the Hindu image of Siva as half Siva, half Sakti).[30]
  4. Symbols of Nature: for example, flora and fauna, animals, or water.[31]
  5. Religious Symbols: appearing whether or not an individual is affiliated with a particular religious institution and regardless of whether they are believers.
  6. Cultural Symbols: alluding to eternal truths emphasized in a specific culture, its worldview and/or its religious outlook.[32]
  7. Pursuit: action indicating that an instinct has split from consciousness and needs to be returned.[33]
  8. Dismemberment: imagery of body parts or broken objects.


Despite their effectiveness, symbols alone cannot bring psychic wholeness.[34] The psyche also manifests as figures that Jung called archetypes, personifications of unconscious elements that confront the psyche as autonomous personalities.


Next time: The Language of the Unconscious, II: Archetypes



[1] See C. G. Jung, “Approaching the Unconscious,” in Man and His Symbols, ed. C. G. Jung (New York: Dell, 1968), 22-3; C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 8 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), par. 47; C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 18 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 416.

[2] C. J. Jung, Collected Works: Practice of Psychotherapy, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 16 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), par. 340.

[3] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Psychology and Religion, West and East,trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 11 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), par. 292; C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 9.1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), par.84; Jung, CW 8:644.

[4] Murray Stein, Jung’s Map of the Soul (Chicago: Open Court, 2009), 82.

[5] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Symbols of Transformation, trans. R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 5 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), par. 344.

[6] Jung, CW 18:571.

[7] Jung, CW 5:114.

[8] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Alchemical Studies, trans. R. F. C. Hull. Vol. 13 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976) par. 397.

[9] C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Civilization in Transition, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 10 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), par. 25-29.

[10] Mary Ann Mattoon, Jung and the Human Psyche: An Understandable Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2005), 142.

[11] Jung, CW 9.1:82.

[12] Jung, CW 9.1:82; C. G. Jung, Collected Works: Aion: Researchs into the Phenomenology of the Self, trans. R. F. C. Hull, 2nd ed., Vol. 9.2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), par. 304; 16:252.

[13] Jung, CW 9.1:82.

[14] Jung, CW 8:93.

[15] Jung, CW 18:665.

[16] Jung, CW 18:665. See also Jung, CW 8:93 and Edward F. Edinger, Archetype of the Apocalypse: A Jungian Study of the Book of Revelation (Chicago: Open Court, 1999), 113.

[17] Jung, CW 10:451.

[18] Jung, CW 16:252.

[19] Jung, CW 10:451.

[20] Joseph L. Henderson, “Ancient Myths and Modern Man,” in Man and His Symbols, by C. G. Jung, ed. C. G. Jung, (New York: Dell, 1968), 98.

[21] Jung, CW 18:574; “Approaching the Unconscious,” 81-2.

[22] Jung, CW 10:34.

[23] Edinger, Ego and Archetype, 130. See also Stein, Jung’s Map of the Soul, 82.

[24] See C. G. Jung, Collected Works: The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature, trans. by R. F. C. Hull, Vol. 15 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), par.105.

[25] Aniela Jaffé, “Symbolism in the Visual Arts,” in Man and His Symbols, by C. G. Jung, ed. C. G. Jung (New York: Dell, 1968), 281.

[26] Jung, CW 11:280.

[27] Jung, CW 18:416-18.

[28] Jung, CW 8:784.

[29] Jung, CW 9.1:23.

[30] See Jaffé, “Symbolism in the Visual Arts,” 267.

[31] See Jaffé, “Symbolism in the Visual Arts,” 267.

[32] Jung, CW 18:579.

[33] Jaffé, “Symbolism in the Visual Arts,” 266.

[34] Jung, CW 9.1:400.




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