Psyche and the Symbolic Life: How do Symbols Transform You?

Sometimes events occur that naturally captivate our attention, arresting us mid-stream in our daily lives and returning to our thoughts with increasing intensity. While there is no obvious initial explanation for why these events seem to grab us, if we turn our awareness to them, create a container in which they can unfold, and allow them to speak to us through image and emotion, they can provide powerful messages about our personal lives, our psyches, and our relationship with the culture and cosmos around us.

C.G. Jung believed these captivating events and images are manifestations of the unconscious, which are imbued with numinosity. Jung believed in the idea of a collective unconscious, which is vast and inexhaustible; limitless, unknowable, and indefinable. It is made up of what Jung called archetypes, autonomous patterns or instincts that organize the contents of the unconscious and connect it, at its deepest levels, to nature.

Archetypes in the unconscious express themselves in numinous images or symbols providing a sense of what Jung called the Self, an ordering, regulating harmonizing and meaning-giving agency of the psyche. The Self, per Jung is an inner guiding factor, and the totality of the psyche. It is this central archetype around which we circumambulate and gain experience, instinctively seeking wholeness in a process called individuation (Storr, 1983).

A symbol stands for something unknown; a mystery, which can never be exhausted in meaning but is contextually significant to a particular individual. Jungian analyst, Edward Whitmont (1969), contends that symbols allow the emergence of themes from the unconscious in an attempt to reconnect us with a mode of experiencing from which we have become disconnected. He suggests we experience both external objects, things we can detect with our senses and which have meaning for us in a specific context we have learned, and we also experience inner objects that we can’t necessarily know or recognize. Both are represented by images, and “the same images which present themselves to us as representatives of the outside world are subsequently used by the psyche to express the inner world” (1969, p. 29).

Thus, the external object that represents some unknown inner object becomes a symbol, which is “the best possible representation of something that can never be known” (Hopcke, 1999, p. 29). Intuiting the meaning of this object beyond what we already understand it to be is the idea of symbolic thought (Whitmont, 1969). Ryan (2002) calls the symbol both the guiding force that opens the portal to the archetype as well as a vehicle to navigate the deeper parts of the unconscious. Jung (1964) strongly promoted living the symbolic life: taking symbolic experiences seriously.

“In psychological development,” says Jungian analyst and author Patricia Damery in Farming Soul, “the ability to symbolize is paramount in the development of soul. Symbolic work with an image is the mysterious process of seeking the essence of an image and understanding its subjective impact upon oneself, as meaning. Jung lamented that modern man is in deep need of the meaning symbols offer through their resonance with the unconscious” (p. 70).

One of the most powerful ideas behind depth psychology is the idea of what Jungian and archetypal psychologist James Hillman called “seeing through,” in order to discover what lies beneath, behind, or beyond the surface level in order to notice patterns that resonate with understanding of one’s own self. Symbols surround us every minute of the day—and many reach out and grab us, begging us to notice them and tap into the rich wisdom they hold in store. What would happen if you focused on a symbolic image each day–a dream image, something given to you by psyche (because you asked!), or something that grabs your attention and won’t let it go? How might you be transformed by these powerful messages from psyche simply by tuning in and paying attention?


Damery, P. (2010). Farming soul: A tale of initiation. Monterrey, CA: Fisher King Press.
Hopcke, R. H. (1999). A guided tour of the collected works of C.G. Jung. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
Ryan, R. E. (2002). Shamanism and the psychology of C.G. Jung: The great circle. London: Vega.
Storr, A. (Ed.). (1983). The essential Jung: Selected writings. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Whitmont, E. C. (1969). The symbolic quest: Basic concepts of analytical psychology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.