Systema munditotius: a Master SymbolStephen Farah
The question, “who am I?” lies at the heart of psychological and spiritual practice. It is the origin of self-inquiry. In Jungian psychology it is both the foundation stone and telos of individuation, the art of becoming oneself. The idea that there is indeed an answer to the question of one’s true nature is axiomatic to self-reflection and inquiry. Albeit that the answer is frequently maddeningly elusive and may lead the subject to either abandon the search or to be seduced by some form of deconstructive or apophatic strategy. It is, in other words, arguably, an unanswerable question. Simultaneously, however, one might argue that sans answer it is an unlivable life.
In the field of depth psychology, the creative genius and founder of analytical psychology, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), addresses this question in the Western philosophical tradition dating back to Plato. Jung’s opus, much of which directly addresses this question of authentic identity or the search for what Jung came to term “the Self”, stands out as an iconic intellectual and cultural achievement of the 20th century. Jung’s Collected Works number some 18-volumes written over a lifetime of focused scholarly and empirical research in his practice as a psychologist, attending physician at the Burghölzli psychiatric hospital, his extensive travels, close association with Sigmund Freud in the early days of psychoanalysis, his Eranos seminars and his study of Eastern and Western mysticism.
Jung’s approach to this question of self-identity although multifaceted and layered is also remarkably consistent. I’ll attempt to explain this framing of self-identity as simply and succinctly as I can.
In essence Jung’s view was that the subject’s identity, or in Jungian parlance: the subject’s individuation, transcended the boundaries of the conscious ego identity to encompass the unconscious self, typically hidden from consciousness. “Typically,” i.e., for the most part. Not entirely however, otherwise a discourse between the two registers of psychological activity: conscious and unconscious, would be entirely impossible. As such, we might read the term “unconscious” as it is used in psychoanalysis, as relatively rather than completely unconscious. The boundaries of conscious awareness can be extended to encompass portions of what was previously unconscious, thereby fertilising, and amplifying consciousness.
At the center of the personality, transcending both the conscious and unconscious aspects of the subject’s psychology is the Self. This Self, sometimes referred to as the ‘self-archetype’ is then the candidate and conceptual center of the subject’s identity and that toward which any serious inquiry as to the nature of one’s true identity is oriented. It is the telos of the question, “Who am I,” at least from the Jungian perspective.
The challenge and the virtue of psychology as a branch of philosophy, is its therapeutic focus or telos of therapeia. In other words, psychologically speaking, simply providing a conceptual, rational and intellectual understanding of an idea is inadequate to the task of therapeia. In order for the subject’s soul or psyche to be recovered and redeemed it is necessary for the abstract idea to become a living reality in the subjects psyche. To use a current situation to illustrate the point, there is a difference between watching the war unfolding in the Ukraine from the comfort of one’s living room, or to be on the ground fighting the war there. Both aforementioned subjects “know” about the war in the Ukraine, but clearly not in the same sense.
In addition to the need to move from pure theoreia to therapeia there is the not insignificant challenge in establishing a relationship between consciousness and the unconscious, or between the ego and the Self. The unconscious and the Self cannot be represented in consciousness in the same way conscious content can be. These terms, as I have attempted to explain, refer to something not directly knowable or conscious, i.e., un-conscious. To this effect and by way of addressing this issue, a monumental breakthrough Jung made for depth psychology was his reframing of symbols and the symbolic perspective that establishes or, more modestly, at least, amplifies, the epistemology of the unconscious. Jung situates symbols as a special and unique kind of signification, where symbols refer to something only partially known. Even if the limit of this partial knowledge is only the symbol itself, “as expressions of a content not yet consciously recognized or conceptually formulated.”
These symbols can be universal or cultural in character. The way certain symbols have significant meaning for all human beings, symbols such as the sun and the ocean, as two obvious examples. Altenatively, symbols can be more personal, where some phenomenon, which is ordinary regarded as mundane or prosaic, takes on a numinous quality for the individual subject. That said, depth psychology demonstrates that even where a symbol has universal or mythological significance it also has a personal subjective dimension for the subject and the inverse, personal symbols also have a universal meaning. Both of these elements are important in understanding the significance of a symbol for the subject.
An example of this is the symbol of the mandala for Jung, which has a long cultural and archetypal history, and which also came to Jung as a personal intuition, and in both contexts symbolises the Self.
It is now to this symbol of the mandala and Jung’s interpretation of the symbol we turn for its capacity to further illuminate the inquiry into our essential nature or self-identity, and answer to the question, “who am I?”
The mandala as a symbol of the Self
The mandala was an important symbol for Jung, possibly his most important symbol. The word “mandala”, from the Sanskrit meaning literally “circle” has its origins in in the Hindu mystical tradition. That said, it represents something archetypal, i.e., universal, and instances of mandalas or magic-circles can be found across cultures and historical periods.
An especially significant example of this comes from Taoist alchemy and came to Jung when he received Richard Wilhelm’s translation of ‘The Secret of the Golden Flower’. Jung recognised in the microcosmic orbit meditation described in the text that is was an instance of the mandala symbol. Encountering this alchemical text was a breakthrough for Jung in his understanding of mandalas and also provided an independent precedence, which gave him the confidence to speak about his own research and experiences with mandalas.
“The text gave me an undreamed—of confirmation of my ideas about the mandala and the circumambulation of the center. This was the first event which broke through my isolation. I became aware of an affinity; I could establish ties with someone and something.”
“Our text promises to ‘reveal the secret of the Golden Flower of the great One’. The Golden Flower is the light, and the light of heaven is the Tao. The Golden Flower is a mandala symbol which I have often met with in the material brought me by my patients. It is drawn either seen from above as a regular geometric ornament, or as a blossom growing from a plant. …The ‘enclosure’, or circumambulatio, is expressed in our text by the idea of a ‘circulation’. The ‘circulation’ is not merely motion in a circle, but means, on the one hand, the marking off of the sacred precinct, and, on the other, fixation and concentration.”
“The union of opposites on a higher level of consciousness is not a rational thing, nor is it a matter of will; it is a psychic process of development which expresses itself in symbols. Historically, this process has always been represented in symbols, and today the development of individual personality still presents itself in symbolical figures. This fact was revealed to me in the following observations. The spontaneous fantasy products we mentioned above become more profound and concentrate themselves gradually around abstract structures which apparently represent principles’, true Gnostic archai. When the fantasies are chiefly expressed in thoughts, the results are intuitive formulations of dimly felt laws or principles, which at first tend to be dramatized or personified. (We shall come back to these again later.) If the fantasies are expressed in drawings, symbols appear which are chiefly of the so-called mandala type. ‘Mandala’ means a circle, more especially a magic circle, and this symbol is not only to be found all through the East but also among us.”
Mandalas feature prominently in Jung’s visions, captured in the mystical text Liber Novus.
Jung’s first, and possibly most important mandala, that he termed “Systema Munditotius” , drawn in 1916 and related to his visionary experiences of that time described in Sermones ad Mortuos (Seven Sermons to the Dead). The mandala is a accompanied by some explanatory notes.
We see an earlier draft of the Systema Munditotius in Jung’s personal journals, later published as The Black Books. ( Black Book 5, page 169) In this draft Jung adds an icon legend to the mandala.
The symbol of the mandala is also apparent in this early modelling of the psyche from a lecture Jung gave in 1925, and has become an iconic model of the psyche by Jung.
After many years of fascination with and drawing mandalas Jung had what we can call a big dream that occurred around the time of his receiving the Secret of the Golden Flower,
“I found myself in a dirty, sooty city. It was night, and winter, and dark, and raining. I was in Liverpool. With a number of Swiss—say half a dozen. I walked through the dark streets. I had the feeling that there we were coming from the harbour, and that the real city was actually up above, on the cliffs. We climbed up there. It reminded me of Basel, where the market is down below and then you go up through the Totengasschen (Alley of the Dead), which leads to a plateau above and so to the Petersplatz and the Peterskirche. When we reached the plateau, we found a broad square dimly illuminated by streetlights, into which many streets converged. The various quarters of the city were arranged radially around the square. In the center was a round pool, and in the middle of it a small island. While everything round about was obscured by rain, fog, smoke and dimly lit darkness, the little island blazed with sunlight. On it stood a single tree, a magnolia, in a shower of reddish blossoms. It was as though the tree stood in the sunlight and were at the same time the source of light. My companions commented on the abominable weather, and obviously did not see the tree. They spoke of another Swiss who was living in Liverpool and expressed surprise that he should have settled here. I was carried away by the beauty of the flowering tree and the sunlit island, and thought, “I know very well why he has settled here.” Then I awoke.
On one detail of the dream, I must add a supplementary comment: the individual quarters of the dream were themselves arranged radially around a central point. This point found a small open square illuminated by a larger streetlamp, and constituted a small replica of the island. I knew that the “other Swiss” lived on the vicinity of one of those secondary centres.
The dream represented my situation at the time. I can still see the grayish-yellow raincoats, glistening with the wetness of the rain. Everything was extremely unpleasant, black and opaque – just as I felt then. But I had a vision of unearthly beauty, and that is why I was able to live at all. Liverpool is the “pool of life.” The “liver,” according to an old view, is the seat of life, that which makes to live.”
This dream brought with it a sense of finality. I saw that here the goal had been revealed. One could not go beyond the centre. The centre is the goal and everything is directed towards that centre. Through this dream I understood that the self is a principle and archetype of orientation and meaning. Therein lies its healing function. For me, this insight signified an approach to the center and therefore to the goal. Out of it emerged a first inkling of my personal myth.
After this dream I gave up drawing or painting mandalas. The dream depicted the climax of the whole process of development.”
Jung pursued this question and goal his entire life. As he put it, “My life has been permeated and held together by one idea and one goal: namely to penetrate into the secret of the personality. Everything can be explained from this central point and all my works relate to this one theme.” (MDR, p. 206)
It is with the symbol of the mandala that Jung seems to get closest to a a satisfactory answer.
Later in MDR, Jung goes on to say,
“More than twenty years earlier (in 1918), in the course of my investigations of the collective unconscious, I discovered the presence of an apparently universal symbol of a similar type—the mandala symbol. To make sure of my case, I spent more than a decade amassing additional data, before announcing my discovery for the first time. The mandala is an archetypal image whose occurrence is attested throughout the ages. It signifies the wholeness of the self. This circular image represents the wholeness of the psychic ground or, to put it in mythic terms, the divinity incarnate in man.” 
Jung describes the mandala as “Formation, Transformation, Eternal Mind’s eternal recreation. And that is the self, the wholeness of the personality” In the mandala the opposites are united, and the Self is symbolically represented. In the centre of the mandala the Self is represented, “One could not go beyond the centre.”
With the symbol of the mandala Jung provides us with a way of signifying (representing) the answer to the question “who am I?” This answer is symbolic, which is the only way a meaningful and truthful answer can be provided to this question.
To experience the psychic and spiritual gravitas of this symbol it needs to be engaged with and experienced. Merely understanding it as an intellectual concept is inadequate to experiencing its archetypal and symbolic impact. To put this another way, you need to work with the symbol of the mandala yourself in order to understand its impact and be transformed by it.
To provide you with a prescription for doing this here would be an injustice to the concept and would reduce this profound idea and symbol to a prosaic and limited method of practice. What I can say though is the mandala is a type of master signifier and master symbol. It is a meta-symbol and is able within the radius of a single circle encompass the “system of the whole (world/cosmos)” which is exactly what Jung does with Systema munditotius in 1916. It is a symbolisation of the prevailing psyhco-cosmology. Suffice to say, beyond the various esoteric and spiritual practices that utilise this symbol, which are myriad, there is nothing stopping you from finding your own way into the magic circle. Jung blazed a trail to a real and meaningful answer to this profound existential question and illuminated a way which we can follow, amplify, be guided or simply inspired by.
Until we speak again,
 More commonly referred to simply as “Jungian Psychology”.
 Excluding the general index and bibliography as part of the Collected Works, and then the additional Red and Black Books, letters, Memories Dreams Reflections, and various published Seminars.
 1900 and 1909
 1907 to 1913
 1933 to 1943
 Possibly arguing for the idea that the term “sub-conscious” largely relegated to the scrap heap of redundant signifiers, was unwisely so relegated. Its downfall is its structural connotation, situating the unconscious as a basement area to the conscious mind, which proves an unhelpful and very limiting way to conceive of the unconscious, which, research in the field suggests, is a much more significant aspect of the psyche pre-dating and transcending the more limited function of consciousness. Nevertheless, what is missing in the replacement of “sub-conscious” by “unconscious” is the denotation of an area neither fully conscious or unconscious, but in a liminal register, able to move between the two.
 My framing, psychology although including elements of and being influenced by philosophy is not usually conceived of as branch of philosophy.
 care, attention, healing
 CW16 ¶ 339. For more on symbols https://appliedjung.com/symptom-or-symbol/ and https://appliedjung.com/man-and-his-symbols-synopsis/
 A mandala (Sanskrit: मण्डल, romanized: maṇḍala, lit. ’circle’, [ˈmɐɳɖɐlɐ]) is a geometric configuration of symbols. In various spiritual traditions, mandalas may be employed for focusing attention of practitioners and adepts, as a spiritual guidance tool, for establishing a sacred space and as an aid to meditation and trance induction. In the Eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Shintoism it is used as a map representing deities, or especially in the case of Shintoism, paradises, kami or actual shrines. A mandala generally represents the spiritual journey, starting from outside to the inner core, through layers.
 C. G. Jung, ‘Memories, Dreams, Reflections’, (1961/1989) (p. 197)
 From Jung’s commentary on ‘The secret of the Golden Flower’
 Jung, C. G., ‘Memories, Dreams and Reflections’, (1961/1989) page 223
 Ibid, p. 335
 Ibid, p. 196