Tag Archives: coming to terms with the unconscious

The Hidden Language of Symbols

Jung’s historical studies are a sturdy, empirical foundation for uncovering the hidden meaning in dreams and fantasies. His comparative method produces real results and provides essential tools for interpreting the strange picture-language of unconscious functioning.

I remember my confusion when I first applied myself to his concepts. I could understand every word in sentences I couldn’t yet comprehend. For my causal thinking, even the notion of symbols baffled me. Many conceive them as signs or metaphors, but Jung discovered that symbols and the associations they give rise to are images concealing unconscious ideas.

Often, however, they’re embedded in an historical context which isn’t accessible by association. As Jung showed, the collective unconscious contains images of instinctual processes which are only partially translatable to consciousness. Its depth, like nature, is impersonal and inexhaustibly creative, and it works unceasingly to inform us of where we are.

As an example, I’d like to relate how I became aware of this symbolic language. In the course of studying Jung at mid-life, I was compelled to write a song, a parody of today’s culture. After going over it for months, it dawned on me that it had also created another picture beyond my intent.

Consciously, it was about our evolution; the fascination with technology, our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, growing obesity, and artificial viewpoints. I wanted to paint a satirical picture of future possibilities and like all psychic products, it can be read symbolically. Hidden in the song was an unconscious description of what was happening in me.

The end of the first stanza reads: “When all of nature’s circumstances quietly concur/Consider all the prospects which this process can incur.” Then the chorus: “My genes it seems got carried away with me!/ Help! I’m evolving into something I can’t see!/Is it fate or choice or probability/That’s turned me into what I seem to be?”

The second stanza goes: “My eyes are getting bigger from all the things I watch/From TV’s to calories to clocks./My body hair has yielded to my shirts and pants and socks/And all of these anxieties are thinning out my locks./My pelvic girdle’s widening, my girth is growing round/From the gravitational pull of sitting down./My legs are short and stunted, the circulation’s poor/As they dangle from the chair’s edge and never touch the floor.”

The third stanza: “My mouth’s become a cavern of enormous shape and size/From all the pull and pressure it withstands./My functions of ingestion are so greatly mechanized/That prudence must be practiced in not swallowing my hands./My arms are long and wiry from reaching out to grasp;/Their joints are more elastic I can vouch/From the constant craning motions for all the things I ask/To gratify my cravings without getting off the couch.”

The last stanza begins: “Well, nature’s got the best of me, I readily admit./Like some modern Humpty Dumpty, here I sit…” The conclusion describes a humanity which is consuming the world that sustains it. At the time, I had no notion that it also referred to the deeper process consuming me. Unaware of it, I projected it onto society, the body, even genes.

As I considered earlier dreams, I began to relate associations. I’d dreamed of a man pointing at me penetratingly, “It’s time for you to have a baby!” I thought I was crazy, until I read an alchemical parable of a king “who had a baby in his brain.” Psychologically, pregnancy and birth symbolize new psychic contents: my widening pelvic girdle, my growing girth, and the gravitational pull of the unconscious.

I thought of how the song depicted my legs, my emotional foundations: short and stunted, unable to reach the floor: the depth of an unconscious reality. As I compared and collated the ideas, they began to form a broader image.

The third stanza found me ravenous, consuming everything within reach, my arms exaggerated tools for grasping hands to feed the enormous cavern my mouth had become. Around that time, a friend told me: “I dreamed you were stuffing food into your mouth feverishly, eating everything in sight! It was crazy!”

Erich Neumann wrote that eating in dreams is an analogy for the digestion of unconscious contents. My friend’s unconscious had taken note of what was happening in me and described it in his dream.

The idea of self-consumption is expressed; the mouth as a cavern, an entrance to the dark internal depths, Jonah and the whale, the ancient idea of self-fertilization, the alchemical serpent with its tail in its mouth to form a circle: all symbols of nature’s transitional cycles. The core of these ancient ideas evolved into the ritual of Communion: the eating of Christ’s body and the drinking of his blood as the symbolic taking in of the spirit.

Another dream found me in the kitchen of a restaurant amid the rush of workers busily preparing meals. At the entrance, a man was was taking reservations. He looked at me uncannily, “You need to finish your art project!” He tossed me an egg which fell out of my hands and broke on the floor. There was nothing in it.

It was the Humpty-Dumpty of the last stanza, the egg of potential which, filled with personal experience and nurtured with devotion, brings the spirit to birth. “And all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty together again.”: a reference to the individual nature of coming to terms with the unconscious.

These processes are embedded in the history of symbols, and only when we understand their impersonal context can we connect with the personal realities they express.

Jung and Neumann meticulously described how symbols reveal the history of our functioning. Psychological knowledge and reflection can bring these realities into consciousness. The wider our exposure to ideas, the greater our ability to understand what’s working in us.

For an example of mid-life development and the symbolic elaboration of ideas using Jung’s comparative method, read more.

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Individuation and the Conflict of Opposites II

A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious

Up to this point, ego has been turning in circles in its efforts to relieve the tension created by new contents pushing into consciousness. Page 88 continues this roundabout process which now leads to the first real attempt to establish a dialogue with the unconscious; the religious function has reached a pressure and intensity that can no longer be repressed. As the story of Job illustrates, this conflict is not resolved through external relations or collective forms. 

 
THE DARK PRINCE.  
 It’s not a flight of fancy — it’s a real opposition;
His individuality prepared its recognition.
He’s stumbled on the purpose of internal tension:
To redefine and separate his thinking from the herd.
The individual is grounded in its reinvention                         
          Of the rigid values the collective has incurred.
It’s the burden of the past and the future it creates;
It puts a man at odds with what his soul relates.
Though by its own design it will ultimately lead
This man to re-evaluate the nature of his need.
          But his conflict must be further etched into relief
Before he can examine it in more detail.
He must court relations with the god beneath his grief
For any chance to see the man behind the veil.
 
THE ODDLY SHAPED MAN.  
 How will I get to know you?  What depth must I reach?
What fearful things will I do?  What laws must I breach?
You sit in darkness hid beneath the very thought
The light of knowledge fancied it could make appear.
Indirect emotions that but half-imagined brought
Your half-imagined purposes so faintly near
Are suddenly redoubled in a flood of dark concern
For the power you’ve awakened through the strange veneer
Of images my thought can only half-discern.
Old unfathomed riddles lie before me still
Staring starkly at the weakness I disdain;
Mocking the illusion of my conscious will
As I yet pretend to master what I can’t explain.
In fitful ways your mystery is living through me;
No wiser for it I am much less wise against it.
Are self-disdain and misery the light you’ve given to me
To illumine my fantasies had I but sensed it?
To cast a glow on shadow-worlds that hide your grace
From a man-child’s half-perception of reality?
Who only made himself unfit for your embrace
By clinging to a make-believe morality?
All your ways frighten me I cower and evade
Yet time and again misery exceeds my fear;
And the little light in me that once a heaven made
Again must suffer its bright world to disappear.             
You seemed insane though it was I who didn’t understand;
I fear I’m failing still and you will lose your patience.
There seems no let in all the crazy things you’ve planned
          To symbolize the sickness of my aberrations.
You’re only guiding me I know this in my brain —
Yet what a gaping wound now bleeds within in my heart!
Though I know it’s not your guidance filling me with pain
But my own desire sundering my life apart.
I can’t know your purpose through the fantasies I’m seeing;
Your piercing admonitions are my only light.
If somehow I could peer inside the deep well of being
I’d surely see the marvel of my own pretentious sight.
Your monstrous grace and its privilege I must entreat
For the only useful product it creates in me;        
Otherwise obscured by the harlequin of self-deceit
Ever stealing round the walls of thought’s credulity.
          Can I touch you in time?  In mind’s distant sphere?
When you tear these lovely veils of pretense from my eyes?
Will you be there?  Or only darkness circumscribe my fear
And my thinking then replace you with another form of lies?
I felt you once around the corpse of my dearest friend
And somehow through my agony you gave relief;
Though just enough for me to grimly apprehend
A wondrous thing beneath my agony and grief.
I know not how these enigmatic things occur —
Your living paradox is safe from modern thought.
As stupid and unwitting as my own intentions were
I then was only following what I was taught.
I’m sorry for it now — it was the only way I knew;
I feel its wrongness secreted within my soul.
But, for all the mystery in everything you do
I fear my misery’s the only thing I know.
 
THE DARK PRINCE.  
Through Time and effort he will soon begin to see:
What draws this image to the surface is his misery.
But he must step outside the circle of his Christian past
And resist his childish notions of the Devil;
For the psychic chains they represent now bind him fast
And prohibit him from searching on a deeper level.
Though he long ago pronounced such things a fairytale
They still form the basis of his valuations.
This defines the very point where intellect will fail:
          The Christian myth describes emotional foundations.
 
A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious 
 

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Re-Thinking Mid-Life

I recently came across an article by Dr. John Grohol on the Psych Central website: Three Things You Didn’t Know About About Carl Jung’s Psychosis. I appreciated it because it brings into relief certain misconceptions about Jung’s psychology; about unconscious life in general and mid-life in particular.

Depth psychology refers to Jung’s ideas of the unconscious and individuation, because he most clearly conceptualized them. But, these facts of experience are common properties of humanity. It was only (!) Jung who arranged them into an empirical picture.

He outlined the spiritual nature of the mid-life process, and the urge to wholeness implicit in it can be a severe test for a partial ego. The unconscious has a disintegrating and devouring quality which can frighten and overwhelm. It’s a reality so foreign to consciousness that nobody chooses it. Nonetheless, it’s the fate of many to try to come to terms with it.

However suddenly, subtly, or eventually the unconscious may directly insinuate itself into some lives, its indirect influence on consciousness forms humanity’s deepest contradictions. Few in an outer-directed culture see such effects as anything as fantastic as a demand for inner development (or the repression of it), and many have no need to see it. Symptoms mean disease, and the need to live according to our natures remains an idea we can’t conceive until we’re confronted with the experience.

One’s sensitivity to it is a matter of degree, which even in the extreme is less pathological than simply human. “Pathological” and “psychotic” may evoke images of lunatic asylums, yet entire cultures exhibit symptoms so widespread as to be normal from their own perspectives. Another vantage-point could as well view them as crazy. Who sees war as a mass psychotic outbreak or racial hatred, a collective form of schizophrenic paranoia?

Not only does Dr. Grohol’s article serve up on a plate mainstream psychology’s misunderstanding of the causes and purposes of mental “disease”, it exposes the fear and anxiety inherent in the direct experience of its demands. Science can only rationalize the effects of emotional processes it can neither experience nor evaluate. A century ago, however interpreted, spirit was a living reality. The mystery it once circumscribed no longer speaks to the new intellect. It sinks back into the unconscious and, as in a dream, re-emerges in strange forms.

Though extremes exist at either end of the spectrum of how mental health is defined, there’s no real dividing line between normal and pathological, conscious and unconscious — even you and me, if we have some working concept of the projections entangling subject and object; more so if the object is as abstract as the idea of psychosis in a subject as certain of it as a doctor.

A thing is what we think it is until we learn more about it, and there are some things we don’t want to learn more about. It would seem that the direct experience of the unconscious might qualify as such a thing — a psychosis according to popular psychology. At least, Dr. Grohol thinks it is. It was the crux of Jung’s psychology. He discovered that consciousness is subject to (and relative to) unconscious functions which seek their own destiny. The more ego opposes them, the more problems it experiences.

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” This intuitive truth, revered for millennia by those who felt it, were in fear and awe of the mystery it alluded to, has now re-emerged in psychological parlance as a “psychosis.” The fear of God is rationalized; Job’s suffering, a moot point.

I give Dr. Grohol credit for the reserve in his third premise: “Jung’s unconscious journey probably wasn’t the same as the unwanted psychosis people experience today.” Well, it was Jung’s — but he didn’t want it any more than anyone wants it. It happened to him. It was an unconscious need born in a mind destined to reveal a new way of looking at ourselves. But, does that mean it didn’t spring from the same well — and for the same purposes?

Dr. Grohol said that while “Jung described his visions as a type [my italics] of “psychosis” or “schizophrenia,” those terms meant something different a hundred years ago than they do today.” Indeed. The way Jung saw them is even more relevant because of that. The problem is that it required volumes to define them.

Outside the limitations of “pop” psychology, they’re not really definable except through a kind of philosophy grounded on empirical fact: an understanding through experience. “Today,” wrote Dr. Grohol, “the terms describe a specific constellation of symptoms, one of which is the meaningful and significant interruption the disorder makes upon a person’s ordinary, daily life.”

But — that’s the purpose of mid-life: “the meaningful and significant interruption the disorder makes upon a person’s ordinary, daily life.” It has all the symptoms of compulsion, obsession, depression, even a “type of psychosis or schizophrenia.” How else could we be shaken to the core from ego’s illusion enough to feel the mystery drawing it to a fate beyond its comprehension?

For an exploration of the unconscious which goes beyond traditional ideas of pathological/normal in search of a more natural truth, see: A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious.

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A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations with the Unconscious

A Subjective Study of Science, Religion, and Consciouness

A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious

For those interested in new interpretations of old ideas, this post describes a very different kind of book, many years in its development. If you choose to read it, if you’re interested in the relations between conscious and unconscious, between man and nature, science and religion, it will be among the most original books you’ll ever read. It will likely upset your ideas of what your mind is for, just as it upset mine when I was forced by my own illusions (and those I inherited) to come to terms in some way with the unconscious.

It’s well known that new and original ways of looking at things take time to sink in, at least for those revolving around the self-flattering notions of who we think we are — or should or would be. Centuries-old religious ideals convince us even today that we can be who we “should” or would be, simply by believing it. This is the age-old way of ego, and most will remain convinced of its illusion as a defense against the unconscious — or, if you prefer, a God who makes demands on us and not just a comforting image of wishful thinking in times of despair.

The scientific view is equally convinced of this same illusion, having inherited it as duly as one is born with eyes and ears. Though, with no conception of a Deity but only an unconscious will to power, it seeks to “conquer” an external nature without taking serious note that she also works within; and dangerously so, for the double-sided hubris of humanity has been recorded since biblical times. The artificial reality we’ve spent millennia to achieve has become so toxic today, however, the current form of education will not much longer support it…

Based on the psychology of C. G. Jung and inspired by Goethe’s Faust, this book is a poetic description of the change in perspective prompted by the mid-life transition. For many, it will be only an odd curiosity. But for those who are deeply moved by this process, to confront the strange, symbolic figures which lead into the collective unconscious, this book will serve as a living example of the ideas and emotions encountered when an exchange, a dialogue, is entered into with the other side.

The subtitle, A Subjective Study of Science, Religion, and Consciousness, reflects the spiritual character of the philosophical depths to which these figures point; for as Jung wrote: because the unconscious consists of a living history of our mental functioning, any serious inquiry into it leads straight into the religious problem.

This problem is grounded in the opposites, and old religious ideas of good and evil still form the foundations of our world-views, whether we accept them consciously or not. They’re how we secretly see ourselves; how we relate to a greater whole both within and without, formed over centuries of intense concentration on the puzzling contradictions of subjective thought.

A major shift in values marks today’s fascination with science and technology, and the spiritual/emotional functions it ignores and represses only multiply the unforeseen consequences they create. The wisdom required to comprehend them is not accessible to the blind quest for rational facts — as if they alone would reconcile the inner division which is our fate.

Lacking an orientation to the inner counter-pole of the unconscious, we can only relate to it through the old concepts. But, these no longer suffice the complexity, the subtlety and diversity, the relativity of the changes taking place today. Without serious re-examination of our repressive view of nature and the psyche, we are only led deeper into the hidden snares which threaten from the dark shadows of an unconscious earthly reality.

Today, information and knowledge have become compensations for wisdom. The paradox is that the wisdom we need is secreted away in the knowledge we’ve repressed: the undeveloped soul of a human animal who yet sees nature as an antagonist and cannot accept the double laws of her demands. As a return for that, we’ve become our own greatest problem — and nature’s as well.

This book isn’t a remedy for this problem. It’s a way to identify and accept it; to find new ways to confront it; to enter a new psychological stage in nature’s ceaseless urge for development.

See Amazon.

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