Symbols and the Transformation of the Psyche

Murray Stein, Ph.D.

My personal physician in Thun recently complained about the many patients he sees who are perfectly healthy but come to him doubled up in pain and complaining about their symptoms. “They are crazy,” he said throwing up his hands in frustration. “Perfectly healthy people, but not able to live with their health! On the other side I have patients who feel as healthy as can be, and I have to tell them they have six months to live because of a recently discovered lymphoma. I’d like to send the healthy ones to the moon! They’re nuts!” 
His complaint reminded me of the opening pages in Jung’s 1936 Terry Lectures at Yale University entitled “Psychology and Religion.” There he is telling the audience about the power that a neurosis can have over patients’ lives. For instance, he says, a man imagines he has cancer, but there is no physical evidence of cancer in his body. He then feels at a complete loss and becomes convinced that he is crazy. So he consults Jung, a psychiatrist. “Help me, doctor. I think I’m dying from cancer but this is nonsense, yet I can’t stop it!” What does the psychiatrist Jung do with this imaginary cancer? “I told him that it would be better to take his obsession seriously instead of reviling it as pathological nonsense. But to take it seriously would mean acknowledging it as a sort of diagnostic statement of the fact that, in a psyche which really existed, trouble had arisen in the form of a cancerous growth. ‘But,’ he will surely ask, ‘what could that growth be?’ And I shall answer: ‘I do not know,’ as indeed I do not. Although… it is surely a compensatory or complementary unconscious formation, nothing is yet known about its specific nature or about its content. It is a spontaneous manifestation of the unconscious, based on contents which are not to be found in consciousness… I then inform him… that his dreams will provide us with all the necessary information. We will take them as if they issued from an intelligent, purposive, and, as it were, personal source…. The symptom is like the shoot above ground, yet the main plant is an extended rhizome underground. The rhizome represents the content of a neurosis; it is the matrix of complexes, of symptoms, and of dreams. We have every reason to believe that dreams mirror exactly the underground processes of the psyche. And if we get there, we literally get at the ‘roots’ of the disease.”  
The delusional idea of a cancerous growth in a healthy body, then, is a symbol, which can provide a point of entry into the unconscious realm of complexes, processes, and hidden conflicts. And just as a physical cancer will suck the life out of a living organism if it is allowed to grow and remains unchecked, a psychic cancer too will drain a person’s life of psychic energy and produce a state of hopeless stagnation and eventually even psychic death. Symbols have the power to do just that. They collect, hold, and channel psychic energy, for good or ill. 
In one sense, this psychic symptom is a metaphor, in that it is borrowing the language of physicality (cancer, illness) and applying it to the psychic domain. This transfer of language from one domain to another is what poets do when they employ metaphors. The psyche is involuntarily acting in a poetic fashion by stating, “I am sick with cancer,” when the person, were he more conscious of his psychic suffering, would say, “I am in profound despair,” or “I have no energy,” or “I am in hopeless conflict and it’s eating me alive!” But this patient cannot say that. He can only say: “I am convinced I have cancer, and I can’t get this irrational idea out of my head!” He is an unwilling poet. He has not chosen this symbol consciously or voluntarily; it has chosen him. He is unfree to dismiss it and unable to interpret it. So he goes to the analyst, and he confesses that he is possessed by a symbol and doesn’t know what it means. Understandably, he is humiliated by the stupid symptom and its unyielding grip on him. Jung says that such morbidity is usually shameful, and the patient is embarrassed to admit this weakness. He is in the grip of a complex, and this psychic factor – powerful, autonomous, and unconscious – is symbolized as a cancer. It must be analyzed and made conscious so that the very real suffering caused by the symptom-symbol can be transformed into psychic suffering. Perhaps other psychic resources can thus also be constellated, which will assist in bringing about the free flow of energy (libido) into more life enhancing tasks and goals.

What is a symbol?

As Jung understands and employs the term symbol, it is different from a metaphor in that what it is communicating or presenting to consciousness is utterly untranslatable into any other terms, at least for the time being. Symbols are opaque and often bring thinking to a standstill. Metaphors are transparent and must be so if they are to do their job. They help us think in creative ways “outside the box.” If a poet writes, for instance, that a bridge leaps (“vaulting the sea”) and addresses it as a “harp” and an “altar,” as the American poet Hart Crane does in his famous poem, “To Brooklyn Bridge,” the reader can with diligence puzzle out a sense of what the poet means to communicate. We know what a bridge is, and we know what “vaulting” signifies and what “altars” and “harps” are, and we can think along with the poet and appreciate what he is getting at with these metaphors. The image all refer to sense data in the material world, and reflection will yield interesting ideas about how they belong together and what this unique concatenation signifies. But if a patient says, “I am convinced that that I have a cancerous tumor in my body but there is no evidence, what does this mean?” the psychotherapist must confess, with Jung, “I have no idea what it means, but we can explore the image. By looking at your life, your history, your dreams and fantasies, we may be able to discover something that at this moment is locked out of consciousness and is analogous to a cancer.” It is an important difference. The link between signifier and signified is totally opaque in the case of symbols; with metaphors, on the contrary, this link is evident even if often very complicated and at first glance puzzling.
Jung relates the symbol to an understanding of psychological dynamics, and this sets his view apart from other definitions of symbol and the symbolic, such as philosophical or literary ones. His is a psychological definition and is meant to serve the purposes of grasping the meaning of symptoms and images as they appear irrationally in the experience of patients in particular but also in people the world over generally. He defines the symbol as follows: “The symbol is not a sign that disguises something generally known – a disguise, that is, for the basic drive or elementary intention. Its meaning resides in the fact that it is an attempt to elucidate, by a more or less apt analogy, something that is still entirely unknown or still in the process of formation.” A symbol presents an unconscious content making its way toward consciousness. As an analogy, it presents something that is otherwise completely unconscious. 
The patient with the delusional idea of having a cancerous growth in his body cannot at the moment express his suffering in any other or better way, or in a more accurate and psychologically descriptive way. He is therefore speaking in symbols and without any conscious understanding whatever of what the symbol might be saying. His judgment is that it is simply a delusional idea, a crazy thought that he can’t shake. Nor does the doctor know what it means. With symbols one knows only that they are presenting something by analogy, that there is much more here than one can readily grasp consciously, and that there is something deeply hidden and obscure. The Jungian psychoanalyst will have faith that there is something meaningful in the symbol, but for the moment that is all. Once a symbol is understood cognitively – be it as an expression of an outgrowth of childhood trauma, as an image of intrapsychic or interpersonal conflicts, as a block to creative potential, or whatever else the meaning may turn out to be – it can be put aside as a symbol. Here is a statement of Jung’s hermeneutic: “A view which interprets the symbolic expression as the best possible formulation of a relatively unknown thing… So long as a symbol is a living thing, it is an expression for something that cannot be characterized in any other or better way. The symbol is alive only so long as it is pregnant with meaning. But once its meaning has been born out of it, once that expression is found which formulates the thing sought, expected, or divined even better than the hitherto accepted symbol, then the symbol is dead, i.e., it possess only an historical significance… An expression that stands for a known thing remains a mere sign and is never a symbol.” Thereafter the symbol becomes a sign, and signifier and signified are then both out in the open and clearly linked. It becomes an historical marker: “I used to think I had cancer, but what I found out was that my libido was blocked because of trauma, childhood conflicts, and consequent lack of self confidence,” the hypothetical patient might declare. Once the necessary psychic suffering has been discovered and made conscious, the symbol becomes a “sign” and can be used then as a metaphor by consciousness if the patient chooses to be poetic. 
One chief therapeutic goal of analysis is to convert symbols into signs and possibly into metaphors and so to free the patient’s consciousness from the grip of the autonomous complexes and to unblock the flow of libido into more satisfying channels of living, loving, and creating. So my physician in Thun should, instead of sending those crazy patients to the moon, send them to a good psychotherapist!
So far so good, but is this enough? Jung and most Jungians today too would, I venture to say, object to stopping at this good but rather limited goal for analysis. To find this sufficient would mean being satisfied with turning unconscious suffering into conscious suffering and achieving what the American psychoanalyst Elizabeth Zetzel defined as psychic health: “Psychic health demands successful initiation and later integration of those capacities which will facilitate throughout life, first, passive recognition and tolerance of limitations, losses and threats, and equally, active efforts towards finding and obtaining available objects and personal goals which permit both passive gratification and active achievement” This is, of course, a highly desirable outcome for a therapeutic analysis, but it is stops short of what Jung saw as the full potential for the psychic development that analysis is intended to foster.
Some differences between Jung and Freud
I will speak now briefly of some differences between Jung and Freud and how they led to significant differences between the two fields they engendered psychoanalysis and analytical psychology. 
With regard first to the term “libido,” the chief difference was that Jung chose to use the term in the more general sense of “psychic energy” and did not limit its meaning, as Freud did, to sexual desire or sexual impulse/instinct exclusively. For Jung, libido became a generic term covering all specific types of psychic energy manifestations. At first this may have seemed like a small difference, but in time it really did make a big difference in their theories about the psychic economy, about motivation, and for the practical application of these theories in clinical work. As Jung continued his explorations of the personal and collective unconscious in the years following the break with Freud, he picked up on an early intuition he had already in his pre-Freud period and evidenced in his book on schizophrenia, The Psychology of Dementia Praecox. He elaborated the idea that the psyche has a forward-moving and creative function and that when symbols become activated they serve to organize the structures and patterns that libido follows. In this view, symbols play a dynamic role in potentially moving the psyche forward in a development toward greater wholeness, rather than holding it back. 
The most immediate cause of the sharp and decisive break between Jung and Freud was Jung’s work Symbole und Wandlungen der Libido (1912-13) and of course Freud’s cool reception of the revisionist ideas that Jung was putting forward there. Already at that time Jung was using the term libido in the more general sense of psychic energy or simply “interest,” rather than as sexual energy or desire specifically. Going further, he interpreted the incest wish and the incest taboo as the wish to remain infantile (a kind of wish for paradise) and the prohibition against fulfilling this wish as a psychic imperative toward development and maturity. In this work, Jung was groping toward a formulation of the psyche as a self-regulating system and one aimed toward the goal of full development of potentials. That is, he regarded the psyche as purposive and goal-oriented toward development. Hence the title Wandlungen der Libido (Transformations of Libido). The transformations of libido he was speaking of here had, in his view, a purpose and a goal, and symbols played the leading role in this process. At that time, Jung had not yet sufficiently worked out what would become the theory of archetypes to explain this teleological feature of the psyche’s life. He was groping in the dark, hence the rather chaotic nature of the text. However, when he revised this book for publication in 1952 and gave it a new title, Symbols of Transformation, he added extensive passages that explained and grounded the work in archetypal theory. Thus, in a new passage he writes of symbols as follows: “The symbols it [i.e., the psyche] creates are always grounded in the unconscious archetype… The symbols act as transformers, their function being to convert libido from a ‘lower’ into a ‘higher’ form. This function is so important that feeling accords it the highest values. The symbol works by suggestion; that is to say, it carries conviction and at the same time expresses the content of that conviction. It is able to do this because of the numen, the specific energy stored up in the archetype. Experience of the archetype is not only impressive, it seizes and possesses the whole personality… the prime task of the psychotherapist must be to understand the symbols anew, and thus to understand the unconscious, compensatory striving of his patient for an attitude that reflects the totality of the psyche.” Here he proposes the idea that symbols transform libido in an “upward” direction. This is similar to Freud’s “sublimation” but does not indicate a defense mechanism, nor does Jung see this as leaving the famous Freudian residue of “discontent.” One could say that symbols are the means by which psychic energy is sublimated because they can mold and channel libido and send it surging into pathways that result in “higher” i.e., more complex and filled-out, motivations, activities, attitudes, and states of consciousness. Without the symbolic capacity, humans would be much simpler creatures and devoid of mind and culture. The human capacity to receive symbols and to do something with them for Jung belongs to the very definition of what it means to be human. Symbols reshape matter! 
In this passage (and in many others as well), Jung links symbol closely to archetype. This is extremely important in Jungian theory. Archetypes are archaic and deeply unconscious potential patterns of psychic functioning. Unconstellated, they are extremely diffuse and vague. They become more chiseled and precise as they emerge into psychic life as patterns of perception, behavior, motivation, and attitude. Archetypes are innate in the sense that they are sourced in psychic regions that are prior to and much more general than the individual’s precise personal experiences and acquisitions. The belong to the collective unconscious, which is not personal, just as culture is not personal. One is born into it. Archetypes are not inherited memories or ideas but rather potential patterns of motivation, action, and reaction (defense), which emerge in a variety of human situations as responses to challenges and to environmental fields that call for adaptation – the mother/infant and other family relationships, the call to heroic action in peer groups and society, the chance for love, the threat of death, etc. 
Archetypes can look much like “instincts” in a biological matrix waiting to be “triggered.” Sometimes Jung will speak of them this way, as “innate patterns of behavior,” and many Jungians have followed this model. The danger in this view is, however, that symbols then become reduced to mere representations of specific unconscious structures that exist somewhere in the biological substructure (e.g., in the brain). This reductionism is not so different from Freud’s well known biological reductionism. The contemporary Jungian analyst Jean Knox has written: “In this sense, both psychoanalysis and analytical psychology…can actually therefore be seen to be reductionistic, in so far as psychic life is reduced and objectified by attempts to explain its functioning in terms of bodily processes. So this similarity between Freud and Jung is one which contemporary psychoanalysts and analytical psychologists should join together in rejecting, which I think would re-vitalize both our disciplines” Knox goes on to advocate “a view that a stream of current experience constantly re-shapes and guides the development of the human mind and brain… [I]nfant studies… demonstrate the crucial role played by intimate relationships in the development of the human psyche.” 
If we understand archetype in a psychologically dynamic sense, however, perhaps as Knox would also advocate, it can be conceived as a broadly flexible potential pattern of motivation, attitude, action and reaction to critical human situations, or, as Jung defined the term in a letter to Wolfgang Pauli, as statistical probability: “…the archetype represents nothing else but the probability of psychic events.” Archetypes then are understood as probable emergent modes of psychic operation rather than as fixed and inherited entities waiting to be triggered. Symbols, in this understanding, have two functions in relation to archetypal patterns: 1) to express them in a graphic and succinct way, making them visible, memorable, and imagistically concrete, and 2) to attract libido and further energize the emergent archetypal patterns and in this way to transform and channel libido. Because the archetypal patterns are subject to the rules of emergence, they remain partially or largely unconscious until they become fully operationalized, hence the rationale for the view that symbols are the best possible present expression of a pattern that is still largely unconscious. Symbols therefore anticipate the fully emerged patterns. Once the patterns are active and completely unfolded, consciousness can put names and cognitions in place that capture their meaning and interpret them effectively. When this is done, symbols become signs and are emptied of their numinosity and their suggestive, mysterious, and also compulsive quality. Symbols have a sort of midwife role in the psyche.
Symbolic processes
Let us return now to our hypothetical patient with the delusional idea that he had cancer. Taking this idea as a symbol, we would say that some unconscious content was trying to emerge due to a crisis in the patient’s life and that the symptom was both a cry for help (“Doctor, doctor, I’m dying!”) and the psyche’s attempt at offering a solution to the crisis in which the patient presently finds himself. A Jungian approach to treatment in this case would be create as full a picture of the patient’s life context to date as possible, including his life history, his major previous developmental deficits and unresolved conflicts, his present conscious situation in life (with respect to intimate relationships, to work, to meaning), and then to add to this consciously established and created context the unconscious material derived from dreams, fantasies, projections, transference, and so forth. Once one had this picture, one would presumably begin to understand the meaning of the symptom, why cancer was chosen as the symbol, why cancer of this organ and not that, why the precise set of symptoms that manifested. However, this would be just the beginning of the analytic process.
What Jung and most Jungians following him and his methods have been most keenly interested in is not primarily getting rid of symptoms or even understanding their symbolic meanings but rather in the symbolic process that opens up and reveals itself when the unconscious is actively engaged in analysis. What is important here is not just a symbol, but a symbolic process that reveals an invisible and hard to discern but all important and life-giving tendency in the psyche that is intent on creating meaning in the large spiritual sense of that word. Only symbols can convey this content, only symbols can present it, only symbols can contain it and make it available to consciousness. It is a process that pulls libido powerfully in its train and in the end transforms life radically and decisively.
In the Terry Lectures, where he speaks of a hypothetical patient with this delusional idea of having cancer, Jung unexpectedly drops this figure and turns to another one, now to a real patient whom he knew well and followed over a long period of time. He says: “I propose to choose another case as an example of how dreams reveal the unknown inner facts of the psyche… The dreamer was [an] intellectual, of remarkable intelligence and learning. He was neurotic and was seeking my help because he felt that his neurosis had become overpowering and was slowly but surely undermining his morale… I set him the task of observing and recording his dreams himself. The dreams were not analysed or explained to him and it was only very much later that we began their analysis” This man was a well known scientist and academic in Zurich who had landed in a midlife crisis. Today the personal details are quite well known by scholars, but I will not mention them here. Suffice it to say, he was brilliantly successful in his academic life but a miserable failure in his personal and intimate life and suffered from “anxiety states, psychogenic alcoholism, and general moral dissipation.” The dreams he produced after an initial meeting with Jung and while in treatment with one of Jung’s students fascinated Jung because of the suggestions they offered about “possible sources of information about the religious tendencies of the unconscious.” Jung sums up the conscious attitude of the patient toward religion and the spiritual as follows: “Religion was of no concern to my patient and he certainly never expected that it would concern him in any way. But he had come to me because of a very alarming experience. Being highly rationalistic and intellectual he had found that his attitude of mind and his philosophy forsook him completely in the face of his neurosis and its demoralizing forces. He found nothing in his whole Weltanschauung that would help him to gain sufficient control of himself.” What the dreams brought to the patient’s attention was, in Jung’s view, “the problem of a religious attitude,” which in effect meant the problem of meaning on a more than simply personal level.
Jung goes on to offer a glimpse into the symbolic process that unfolds in this patient’s extensive dream serious. About a dream series as such, he says: “there is probably …a continuity of unconscious processes – perhaps even more than with the events of consciousness… If we want to shed any light on the deeper reasons for the dream, we must go back to the series and find out where it is located in the long chain of … dreams.” The idea here is that there is a symbolic process at work in the unconscious, which if understood and correctly interpreted will reveal the deepest and most hidden intentions of the human psyche. What are they?
In breaking with Freud, Jung disputed the prime, even exclusive, centrality of sexuality and the sexual drive in psychic life. In fact, he concluded that for Freud the theme of sexuality itself was a symbol, a numinous power based on archetypal energies and patterning, which had grasped Freud’s consciousness and controlled it. For Freud, he felt, sexuality was a religion. And like all religions, it gave his life direction and meaning. As a symbol, it offered meaning and an infinite prospect for further elucidation. In the symbolic process that Jung was studying in the dream series of the Zurich intellectual, the creation of symbols that would offer meaning also seemed to be the goal. The symbolic process is aimed at creating images and themes that give ultimate meaning to the individual’s life. That is why he thought of this process as spiritual development, as a kind of sacred pilgrimage. His difference with Freud was a based on an understanding of sexuality as a symbol (Eros), not as only a physical and biological pressure or drive. But he considered this but one symbol among many possibilities, not necessarily for everyone the most important one. In that sense, he was not a monotheist but rather a polytheist. As there are many myths, many gods and goddesses, each with its own sacrality and numinous drawing power, so there are many symbols and symbolic processes. For the Zurich intellectual, meaning would be presented in quite a different symbolic statement, not in images of sexual union as the final fulfillment and satisfaction, but in images of complex harmony that united rhythms in three grand movements, as presented in the World Clock image he discovered in a vision: “There is a vertical and a horizontal circle, having a common centre. This is the world clock.” The clock moves in three great rhythms or pulses: a small pulse, a middle pulse, and a great pulse. Jung comments on this as follows: “All these dreams lead up to one image which came to the patient in the form of a sudden visual impression. He had had such glimpses or visualizations on several occasions before, but this time it was a most impressive experience. As he himself says: ‘It was an impression of the most sublime harmony.’ … The vision was a turning point in the patient’s psychological development. It was what one would call – in the language of religion – a conversion.”  
Such is the transformative power of the symbol. 

C. G. Jung, Psychology and Religion, in The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 11 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936/1969), paras. 35-37.  
C. G. Jung, “The structure of the unconscious,” in Collected Works, Vol. 7 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1928/1969), para. 492.  
C. G. Jung, Psychological Types, in Collected Works, Vol. 6 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1921/1971), paras. 815-817.  
Elizabeth Zetzel, The capacity for emotional growth (London: Maresfield Library, 1970), pp. 283-84. 
C. G. Jung, Symbols of transformation, in Collected Works, Vol. 5 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950/1970), paras. 344-346.  
In a letter to Kurt Plachte, 10 January 1929, Jung writes: “A religious experience strives for expression and can be expressed only ‘symbolically’ because it transcends understanding. It must be expressed one way or another, for therein is revealed its immanent vital force. It wants to step over, as it were, into visible life, to take concrete shape. (The spirit shows its effective power only in the reshaping of matter.)” C. G. Jung, Letters, Vol. 1, selected and edited by Gerhard Adler (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 59. 
Jean Knox, “Who’s afraid of sexuality? Self, object, drive and desire – a contemporary Jungian view.” Unpublished paper, p. 4. Ibid., pp. 4-5. 
C. G. Jung, Letter to Wolfgang Pauli, 13. January 1951. In The Jung-Pauli Letters, edited by C.A. Meier (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 69. 
Jung, 1936/1969, para. 38. 
Ibid., para. 55. 
Ibid., para. 39. 
Ibid., para. 51 
Ibid., para. 53. 
Ibid., para. 111. 
Ibid., para. 110.