Tag Archives: the symbolic language of the unconscious

A Mid-life Perspective: Preface — Part II

“Everything psychic is pregnant with the future.” — Carl Jung

“Ego and Intellect

The identification of ego with intellect contributes to this problematic conception of nature. It long slumbered in Christian theology as identification with an otherworldly God and a disdain for natural life: an image of self-rejection – one of the reasons guilt weighs so heavily in traditional religious ideas. Both are compounded through this identity, the idea of a Deity now yielding to science as it dissolves the metaphysical projections. For all our rational knowledge, we remain driven by the repressed “natural man” who serves the sensual world of material desire – just as he did many thousands of years ago. He personifies the unconscious need for a wider psychological perspective than just an intellectual one – and the internal guilt we never came to terms with because we never understood the reasons for it.

The uneven advance of self-knowledge finds no adequate ideas that would relate us to the ancient symbols and their functions, their irrational truths repressed for lack of understanding. They sink back into the unconscious where they become hostile adversaries. Due to changes in consciousness, they resurface in different guise today, though we remain possessed by their “suprapersonal” powers – paradoxically more distant now than ever. As our relation to ourselves is no longer expressed in the old images, the humbling effects of a higher authority dwindle into vague personal beliefs with no real emotional experience to support them. The result is a “puffing up of the ego-sphere” and the “brutish egotism” to which Neumann referred: an exaggerated urge to individuality which has lost its relation to itself and the world.

From the scientific perspective, religious images are only fantasies. For the less developed intellect of the past, they served to influence thought’s exclusive tendencies. The objective trend today requires a new interpretation of the values they represent. The conflicts of the soul, the emotional tensions determining our deepest relations in the context of a greater whole, are projected onto fractional interests and ideologies with ever more threatening consequences.

Only the hard work of introspection can free the individual from the self-flattering and contradictory influences of ego. The recognition of a higher inner authority beyond will and intellect is a philosophical and religious process meant to bind us to humanity and our natural environment. For science to serve those greater purposes, its aims must be subject to a broader conception of psychic life.

Causality and Purpose

The causal thinking which orients our perception is opposed to the heavy, symbolic language of the unconscious. The one leads backward in time to a cause that produces effects, and the other leads forward to a purpose or goal without conceiving a cause. As a concept, the latter allows the thoughts, feelings, and intuitions evoked by images and symbols to shape themselves; to relate their associations to the pursuit of aims beyond conscious preconception.

Jung saw the idea of time as a primitive concept of energy, a gradient of potential, in that it flows forward in an irreversible way. This is an approximate analogy for his model of psychic energy and the reason time is capitalized in the text when referred to by the figures representing the unconscious. We can reverse it in our minds as in casual thought, but we should be aware that we are projecting subjective ideas onto the objective behavior of processes outside consciousness.

Each individual sees the world a little differently according to his/her personal interpretations: Jung’s “subjective factor”. He stressed that it is “one of the necessary conditions under which all thinking takes place.” We may agree on certain general ways of thinking, but this in no way relieves them of their subjective quality. It is conscious thought which subjectivizes the ideas we associate. The historical advance from collective thinking to individual differentiation accentuates this subjective influence. The tendency toward specialization and the proliferation of “isms” attests this movement. Though still veiled by symbolic mythical influences, the undeveloped seeds of individuality are gradually emerging through the dense fog of collective history – or at least attempting to.

The opposition between causal thought and the forward movement of the unconscious, along with the projection of subjective viewpoints, create contradictions in our thinking. When looking inward, one of the most perplexing ones is the backward flow of dream-images as they draw on past experience. This paradox reflects the double meaning inherent in unconscious imagery, just as it is the basis of the causal view. The opposites are still fused together in the unconscious; it is the discriminating effect of consciousness that splits the original image and reveals only the partial aspect of its focus. Only the two forms of perceiving combined can give us a wider sense of who we are beneath our one-sided presumptions.

Past, present, and future are a single dynamic process in the unconscious. One of the functions of dreams is to express this creative flow through analogies with present circumstances. Since analogies describe how different sets of experiences conform, dreams often express immediate concerns through memory-images. They reveal the conformities of past and present events, our reactions to them, and the anticipations of tendencies which shape our futures. Jung stated: “Everything psychic is pregnant with the future.”

Next post: Religious Images, Alchemy.


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World in Transition

A major shift in perspective accompanies today’s fast-paced super-highways of information. Jung’s and Neumann’s comparative studies of consciousness revealed patterns — evolutionary swings in its focus throughout history. They saw such shifts as reflections of unconscious organizing and centering functions. Their purpose is to re-orient us at certain critical stages to the more diffuse aims of spiritual and psychological development. Until recently, those aims were the province of religion and philosophy. That has changed. The beginning of the new stage is marked by a revolutionary discovery in the trend toward objective inquiry: the old metaphysical images proved to be the symbolic language of an unconscious psyche.” — A Mid-Life Perspective: Conversations With The Unconscious.

As much of my effort concerns what I see as the increasing relevance of Jung’s work, this quote from the preface of my book is a continuation of my last post on the cultural changes taking place today. While it’s important to reflect on their origins and effects, this often reinforces the causal thought that only drags us further into the rut of conscious reasoning responsible for an increasing unconscious opposition — the more threatening the more we depend on it. Few took note in 1954 when Erich Neumann wrote:

Typical and symptomatic of this transitional phenomenon is the state of affairs in America, though the same holds good for practically the whole Western hemisphere… The grotesque fact that murderers, brigands, thieves, forgers, tyrants, and swindlers, in a guise that deceives nobody, have seized control of collective life is characteristic of our time. Their unscrupulousness and double-dealing are recognized — and admired. Their ruthless energy they obtain at best from some stray archetypal content that has got them in its power. The dynamism of a possessed personality is accordingly very great, because in its one-track primitivity, it suffers none of the differentiations which make men human.

A scant generation later, the dire conditions of WWII the New Science created but was also expected to save us from finds us in the wake of effects which threaten in different ways than the old ideological perspective of good vs. evil. That view is gradually giving way to a new stage of psychological awareness. The consciousness of today is more diverse and complex than ideological absloutes can sustain. Neumann:

Not only power, money, and lust, but religion, art, and politics as exclusive determinants in the form of parties, sects, movements, and “isms” of every description take possession of the masses and destroy the individual.

What “takes possession of the masses” is an expression of human need, though in unconscious forms so undefined and inarticulate that good and evil no longer express life as we once conceived it. The understanding of symbols, however — because they’re also individual and express personal needs — is relative to subjective interpretation (as if no one ever knew what religious thought was for). I stated in the preface to my book:

Our ideas of religion are changing, and there is no return to the old ways. Deep in the throes of unseen psychic forces, consciousness is being pushed in a new direction. The possibilities for further development hidden in the older ideas require a re-interpretation of the peculiar language of the depth from which they spring and the symbols it produces.

Not only are they changing in the West, but in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, too. It’s not really remarkable that Neumann’s observations on the greed and opportunism which for centuries defined the unconscious opposite beneath Christian ideals have finally become apparent to the rest of the world.

Beyond politics — the subjective clash of “isms” reflecting the opposed nature of unconscious regulating processes — what are the unseen forces pushing conflict in the Middle East? Radical extremism is a new awareness, not of its own religious history, but of the West and its exaggerated moral superiority; the underside of its professed principles: negative projections which bind opposed yet inter-penetrating ideas of progression and regression into mutual conflicts. But, the unconscious intent is to destroy such attitudes as repress its creative aims. When projected, they’re lived concretely.

The purposes revealed in the current forms of ideological idolatry can’t be seen through the lens of ego, reason, and belief. Listen to the “rational” solutions today’s leaders offer: they lead only deeper into conflict. The reasoning hasn’t changed — only the consequences.

Conscious objectivity cannot reason itself out of its subjective prison without a sense of purpose beyond temporal desire. Whether some see progress only through a single aspect of their personalities or are completely consumed by spiritual regression makes little difference. The fact is: all will be drawn into the conflicts for their own material investments in them: the nature of a global consumerism. History attests its primitive collective nature.

I quoted Philip Wylie in my last post: “It is the individual of whom the mass is composed, and if he is of poor character, the group will have that quality… The individual represents the whole. To be changed, he must change himself.”

For a literary example of how one begins the psychological process of coming to terms with the unconscious, visit Amazon.

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Gnosis, Diagnosis, and Prognosis

Psychogenic disturbances, quite unlike organic diseases, are atypical and individual. With growing experience one even finds oneself at a loss in making a diagnosis. The neuroses, for example, vary so much from individual to individual that it hardly means anything when we diagnose…” Jung —  The Practice of Psychotherapy.

Jung’s inner experiences enabled him to recognize the need for broad concepts which could include ideas about what we don’t know of the psyche. His concept of the unconscious was open-ended enough to leave room for the mysteries and not shut them out with preconceptions.

Though his approach was intuitive, his method was empirical. The breadth of his concepts allowed him the flexibility to see connections between assumptions and facts, certainties and mysteries. The medical field knows that symptoms are natural attempts at healing, yet many professionals still treat psychic symptoms as if they were organic:

“It is generally assumed in medical circles that the examination of the patient should lead to the diagnosis of his illness, so far as this is possible at all, and that with the establishment of the diagnosis an important decision has been arrived at in regards to prognosis and therapy. Psychotherapy forms a startling exception to this rule: the diagnosis is a highly irrelevant affair since, apart from affixing a more or less lucky label to a neurotic condition, nothing is gained by it, least of all as regards prognosis and therapy.”

The psyche speaks a symbolic language which tends forward, and its hidden aims and purposes are often misinterpreted, if they’re even considered. Causal, statistically-oriented medical psychologies dismiss them as too fantastic and subjective to be of value; and that’s a problem: its language generally appears in intimate personal images which naturally reflect individual circumstances. The personal aspects, however, are only the surface of a deeper level which forms the historical background of an impersonal psychic context.

Regardless of accidental or unique circumstances, we will respond to them in distinctly human ways. Instinctual functions give shape and form to the personal images, and the disparity between the forms and the direction and content given them by the conscious attitude decides the conflict: if consciousness is tending in a direction which deviates from its natural functioning, then the unconscious creates negative consequences. Jung demonstrated this process empirically.

It’s an illusion that psychological diagnosis can be objective in the medical sense, as it presupposes a knowledge of the individual it can’t possibly have at the outset. Psychiatry in particular still operates under the tangled assumption that psychic problems can be successfully treated through drug therapies which alter brain chemistry:

“Nor should we gloss over the fact that the classifications of the neuroses is very unsatisfactory, and that for this reason alone a specific diagnosis seldom means anything real. In general, it is enough to diagnose a “psychoneurosis” as distinct from some organic disturbance — the word means no more than that… The Greco-Latin compounds needed for this still seem to have a not inconsiderable market value and are occasionally indispensable for that reason.”

If they were only occasionally indispensable in 1945, today this exclusive dialect of disease is the oil in the engine of a profession so closely bound to it that conscious norms (and “market value”) are their most basic criteria; though, as Jung stated, because of the relativity of individual values, Normal is more a social concept than a psychological one.

The collective orientation not only smuggles ethical value judgments into “sick” and “diseased” vs. “normal”, it believes this unconscious “morality” to be objective. But, it’s the knowledge of symbols and the work of reflection that circumscribe the natural values the psyche attempts to reveal through its symbolic language. The focus on scientific objectivity, if it sees it at all, sees the subjective factor as irrelevant, though it not only conditions our thinking as absolutely as any so-called objective factor, it is itself an “objective” factor in the psychological sense.

Jung has also suggested that a “neurosis” contains the seeds of a profound urge to individual consciousness beneath collective values. The conflict becomes an unconscious attempt to drive one inward to reflect on an inner nature which has been neglected or misunderstood. The ethical implication is that “neurotic” behavior is unacceptable to a prescribed norm and perceived as “bad” in keeping with our unconscious interpretations of life (and nature, too!) in terms of right and wrong.

Jung showed “neuroses” to be objective responses to psychic conditions beyond the moralistic valuations of consciousness: subject to an unconscious reality. Who is more or less driven to seek this greater reality consciously is one of nature’s great mysteries. The profound mystery of our current “neurotic” conflicts are signals that nature is calling us to pay attention to her. 

Accordingly, they represent functions which have been deprived of their natural expressions and seek their aims “in a wrong form” — misinterpreted because the symbolic language of the unconscious is not understood. To understand a “neurosis” is to break its form apart by reflecting on the symbolic ideas it contains and relate them to the associations the unconscious further provides to elaborate its aims — an intensely personal task.

Though the conflict is acted out concretely, symbolic behaviors describe natural functions that have a far different meaning than appears on the surface. At the deeper levels, it’s usually a religious or philosophical one, because that’s the historical form in which the unconscious expresses its urge to consciousness. How many psychologies would themselves qualify as neurotic if viewed from this natural perspective? How does a culture measure it’s own sanity by its own artificial criteria?

Continue reading for an example of the symbolic process of re-connecting to the psychic depth below the collective values which describe our current cultural neurosis.


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