Working with Symbols: manifesting Health, Wholeness and Meaning

Working with Symbols: manifesting Health, Wholeness and Meaning

21384741_sIn the Jungian system, there are four ways of using symbols in order to create meaning and depth in your life. The first way is as a tool for dialogue with unconscious content and its integration it into consciousness. The second way is to heal experiences of trauma or loss. The third way is to use symbols to imbue your life with meaning and magic. And the final way is to use symbols to resolve conflict and manifest conscious intent.

Symbolising unconscious content in order to make it conscious

Symbolic meaning is found in the external world through projection of unconscious content onto various objects. Objects here refer in the broadest sense to anything that you project onto, whether it is a person, a movie, a picture, a vase, a song, a company, event or anything really. When there is an emotional response to something, e.g. you really like it or you really hate it or it stays with you for days/weeks/months, this usually indicates that there is unconscious content within your psyche that has found meaning in that object. The object represents more that what it appears to be “objectively”. There is something unconscious within you that you have placed outside of yourself because you have not taken conscious ownership of this idea/concept/belief/dream/goal.

To use a simple example, imagine you are walking through a market and find a stone carving. You hold it in your hand and it seems as if it is vibrating with energy. You love the shape and colour. You simply have to buy it. If you don’t buy it, the loss seems to remain with you for a long time. This object is a symbol. The meaning is a mystery since it is unconscious. If you worked with this symbol and used your imagination to play with it, you will realise some of the unconscious content that you have projected onto it. It may represent any number of things that you desire – meaning, power, individuality, identity – anything really. The magical process here is in uncovering this symbolic meaning and integrating it into consciousness.

This is part of the process of individuation, Jung’s ultimate goal. To become yourself, unique and whole, requires this type of symbolic work since it unearths hidden truths and desires about yourself which will help you to understand and ultimately manifest who you really are: the most authentic, whole and complete version of your individuality.

Using symbols for healing 

Symbols can play a powerful role in the process of healing and recovery. The human condition is littered with experiences of loss and trauma. Everyone will experience losing a loved one, or losing themselves or losing their health. That is inevitable. In this world nothing lasts forever. Yet, we are not prepared when it happens and we often have no idea how to process it. It certainly cannot be fixed by going on a weekend workshop.

People who have suffered the loss of a loved one or loss of health and find themselves stuck and unable to shift, need to move through the loss and distress to find meaning and purpose. This movement requires a symbolisation of their experiences. Carl Gustav Jung said that we yearn for meaning to escape the awful, grinding banal life where we are reduced to “nothing but”. He further stated that an invaluable tool in creating meaning is symbolisation. What does this mean though? How do we symbolise our experiences to take meaning from them?

The most basic form of symbolisation is the act of speaking about your experiences. Just telling your story to someone else is cathartic and healing. The act of speaking moves the pain and trauma from yourself and your own experience to a story that is both unique to you and also part of the collective condition of being human. The act of speaking about it  makes your feelings and emotions in about the experience conscious. Emotional pain isolates and no one can really know or understand how you feel, but in telling your story of your pain, you will express it, compare it to something, give it words and a name and a description. This process is an act of symbolisation.

Take the following passage by Jonathan Safran Foer, for example.

He awoke each morning with the desire to do right, to be a good and meaningful person, to be, as simple as it sounded and as impossible as it actually was, happy.
And during the course of each day his heart would descend from his chest into his stomach.
By early afternoon he was overcome by the feeling that nothing was right, or nothing was right for him, and by the desire to be alone.
By evening he was fulfilled: alone in the magnitude of his grief, alone in his aimless guilt, alone even in his loneliness.
I am not sad, he would repeat to himself over and over, I am not sad.
As if he might one day convince himself.
Or fool himself.
Or convince others–the only thing worse than being sad is for others to know that you are sad.
I am not sad.
I am not sad.
Because his life had unlimited potential for happiness, insofar as it was an empty white room.
He would fall asleep with his heart at the foot of his bed, like some domesticated animal that was no part of him at all.
And each morning he would wake with it again in the cupboard of his rib cage, having become a little heavier, a little weaker, but still pumping.
And by the mid-afternoon he was again overcome with the desire to be somewhere else, someone else, someone else somewhere else.
I am not sad.

Of course this was written by a gifted writer, but you can see the power in the symbolism of the imagery. He is explaining something that many people experience but cannot express. The writing contains the isolation, sadness, anguish and physical distress that this person is dealing with on a daily basis. In his telling of his narrative, he doesn’t cure it, but he names it, describes it, and comes to understand the physical and emotional impact and quality of his experience. The words themselves take on symbolic meaning. It is now possible for him to relate to this experience in a different way, because he has changed his perspective on it. He has created something from his pain and in sharing this he empowers others who may be able to relate to these feelings.

A further step to using symbolism for healing is to find a symbol that can pull you through your current experience of distress. Any event experienced that has a profound impact on us has a physical/material and obvious element to it, but it also affects us on a more subtle unconscious level. This unconscious trauma takes its toll on us in many ways and it is often impossible to consciously realise the effects of this trauma. When you are in distress, your psyche will naturally be attracted to a symbol that can heal you and move you through your distress. Jung said that the most serious psychological crises cannot be overcome but only outgrown. This is the goal of the symbol. Many people find this solace in nature, or being with animals. Some have a dream or a numinous experience. But it can be anything: any object that transports you to another place, another time and a different way of being that contains this magical elixer of healing. The symbol helps you to move beyond your current experience into the future.

The following passage from Clive Barker is a beautiful description of this type of symbolisation.

I remember a window in a farmhouse in North Wales which had a sill of whitewashed stone so deep I could sit sideways in it at the age of six, hugging my knees to my chin. From that spying place I had a view of the orchard of apple trees behind the house. The orchard seemed large to me at the time, though in retrospect it probably contained fewer than twenty trees. In the heat of the afternoon the farmyard cats, having exerted themselves mousing, went there to doze, and I went to hunt through the unkempt grass for eggs laid my nomadic hens. Beyond the orchard was a low wall, with ancient, mossy stile. And beyond the wall an expanse of rolling meadow, grazed by sheep, with the sea a misty blue prospect.
I have little way of knowing how accurate these memories are; well over forty years have passed since I was small enough to sit in that window niche. The photographs my parents took of those distant summers are still pasted in the musty pages of my mother’s album, but they are tiny, black and white, often blurred. There are, it’s true, a couple of pictures of cats dozing. But none of the orchard, or the wall, or the meadow. And none of the windowsill where I sat.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter how accurate my memories are; all that matters is how powerfully they move me. I still conjure that place in my dreams, and when I wake I have the details clear in my head. The smell of the night-light my mother set on the dresser in my bedroom, the dapple beneath the trees, the warmth and weight of an egg found in the grass and carried into the kitchen like unearthed treasure. The dreams are all the evidence I need. I was there once, blissfully happy. And though I cannot tell you how, I believe I will be there again.

Not only does the writer describe a happy memory, you can see the level of magic and meaning he imbues the memory with. He also relays how he will be there again. This memory contains the elements of happiness and contentment that he desires. A simple story saturated with symbolism that will help him to overcome obstacles he would otherwise struggle to move through.

Using Symbolism to create meaning and magic

Jung said that universal human experience is shared and relayed through story and myth. Each of us are living our own myths and there are experiences and events that shape our myth. As a human being we are confronted by situations that are archetypal in nature. These events occur, sometimes only once, other times repeatedly. Depth psychology attempts to help an individual to bring the unconscious influence and beliefs into consciousness. When we speak of depth psychology, in other words psychology that deals with the unconscious component in our psyches, we talk about therapy that address this unconscious component and its effects on the individual. Jung offers a way of exploring these archetypal patterns and experiences through symbolisation.To symbolise your unique experience in the world, you can relate your story to a myth, a song, a movie, a book, a picture, a painting or even a dream. This form of symbolisation transforms your personal experience from a pedestrian meaningless story into a myth, containing a magical, numinous quality. It will contain your experience and your story in a deeper more layered way filled with potential and meaning. Myth contains this layered meaning as well and the power of myth is found not only in the stories from Greek and Roman mythology, but in modern day stories as well. Any story that stays with you contains something which you are unable to consciously express. These are wonderful gifts from the unconscious.

To explain this concept by the way of example, I would like you to think of a movie that you have seen or a book that you have read that you often think of. It could even be from when you were a child or a young adult. Reflect on the similarities between that story and your own life. What about the characters in that story. Who do you relate to, who are the allies or enemies of the main character. Are you the main character or do you relate to someone else in the story? There are so many ways to delve into the meaning of this story and you may be surprised about what it reveals to you about yourself and the path that you are on in your own life.

Using Symbols for manifestation of goals and conflict resolution

The final aspect of symbolisation is the active engagement with your unconscious in order to receive from it symbols for specific goals or resolution of problems. This is not to be confused with signs. In other words, creating a symbol is not the same as the positive thinking approach to goal achievement e.g. making collages of your dream house or driving the Porsche you want.

Working with symbols allow the unconscious aspects in yourself to be accommodated within your conscious goals. The symbol also contains the unknown aspects of a problem that you may be dealing with. So for example, a typical situation that you may want to use a symbol for is to resolve conflict with a colleague at work. The first step with this type of symbol creation is to know what you want consciously. Depending on the situation, what is the ideal outcome that you want? Once you have decided what it is you want, you keep this objective in your mind and then wait for the unconscious to give you a symbol. This is usually an image, but it could be a song or object too. It is very important to note that you cannot assign a symbol but need to receive it from the unconscious. This usually happens within seconds of the conscious intent being stated, you will see it in your minds eye, even if it is just a flash, grab hold of it. If you get a symbol that you don’t like, don’t try to change it. This is the correct symbol and you need to work with it. The symbol itself contains information about your problem and reflection on it often reveals something to you that may change our perspective on the situation.

The symbol contains a resolution that is appropriate and takes into consideration the unconscious, unknown factors that have an effect on your situation. In this example, you may not know what is going on with the other person who is giving you a hard time. They are projecting something onto you or dealing with a personal situation that is causing them to behave the way they do. The symbol takes this into consideration. Something else that you can consider is interacting with the symbol through an active imagination. I will write another post about this at a later stage. You do not need to reflect on or keep the symbol alive by thinking about it constantly. Once it has been identified through consciousness, it is unstoppable. There is a warning here, do not create symbols unless it is really important. They are powerful and will affect your reality. Use with discretion.

I challenge you to try this and share with us the resolution or outcome. You are also welcome to ask any questions you may have in the comments section below.

Working with symbols in any of these four ways will add value, meaning and depth to your experience of yourself and the world.


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Comments (25)

  • wanda nowak Reply

    This has been an amazing post! Thank you. .
    So well explained on a topic that could at first feel daunting. I miss my classes so much!

    November 3, 2014 at 2:34 pm
  • Veronika Bond Reply

    Thank you very much for this interesting and inspiring article. I have used symbols a lot in my life, for all the purposes you describe here. But I haven’t seen all the applications presented together in such a concise, well written, and accessible way. It’s always good to be reminded of this powerful tool – and I already know in relation to what I want to ask for a symbol today…

    November 3, 2014 at 5:38 pm
  • Cheyne Smyly Reply

    Thank you for such a brilliant blog. Very inspiring 🙂

    January 5, 2015 at 7:29 pm
  • Lyndel Reply

    Loved this. My issue is my relationship in terms of the way forward. My symbol a golden padlock. Will work with this.. Thanks..

    January 11, 2015 at 8:00 am
    • Anja Reply

      Thanks Lyndel. Super symbol. Where/what is the key? So much meaning in your symbol.

      January 12, 2015 at 10:03 am
  • Susan Reply

    Hi Anja

    Thank you for this article, I recently lost my best and long time friend. She did not want to face some of the things that I was facing because it activated her wounds. But something very funny happened with me, I started craving olives (her favourite snack) I never had any need to eat those vile tasting tit bits.
    But I went through large bottles for months. I realised that somehow I was missing her so much that craving olives was obviously my way of dealing with a broken friendship without any closure.
    Please could you give me some more information on this strange phenomenonsymbol.
    Thank you

    June 11, 2015 at 3:27 pm
    • Anja Reply

      Hi Susan, I am so sorry for your loss. Yes, symbols are often given to us from the unconscious in order to heal us. If you had seen the movie Wild with Reese Witherspoon, she finds herself at a chemist when she is at her lowest and she is drawn to a information guide to the Pacific Crest Trail. This turned out to be her healing symbol, and the process of going through it is what heals, almost as if you need a ritual in order to heal.

      September 19, 2015 at 9:52 am
  • Hannah Gerber Reply

    i loved reading this, thanks so much. i have been wondering something and feel i finally have someone to ask. do my dreams’ symbols carry the same significance if say…. i dreamed i was in a hotel in germany, but i know this idea of hotel and germany came from a discussion i had just before bed with someone i know in germany in a hotel and we were discussing it? i discount what little imagery i can remember as i always seem to be able to link it with something i saw on tv( i limit my tv to a great deal) or heard about on NPR or was told about by friends, or saw online(limited visuals for myself here too).

    September 18, 2015 at 4:55 pm
    • Anja Reply

      Hi Hannah, yes, this is absolutely correct. The unconscious makes connections and selects images for concepts or ideas. If you can reflect back on what you were discussing in relation to the person in Germany, your unconscious selected Germany as the symbol for this concept or idea. Lets say for example that you were discussing someone leaving a job, then this act of leaving, starting anew, changing direction (or whatever it may mean for you) is symbolized in the dream by Germany. The idea of the hotel is the same thing – what does that hotel symbolize for you? – perhaps it is temporary relief, or a secret escape, etc. The unconscious needs images and it will use past experiences, people you know, metaphors, anything that is available to it. This way it communicates either a criticism on your ego perspective or the truth about how you are feeling regarding situations in your life.

      September 19, 2015 at 10:15 am
  • CathyAnn Dee Reply

    I had this experience back in February when I wanted to know about a beau I let my subconscious guide me it gave me a yes to the number 7. I’m working with it.

    September 18, 2015 at 9:50 pm
    • Anja Reply

      That is interesting Cathy-Ann. I would love to hear more on how you engage your unconscious to give you these symbols.

      September 19, 2015 at 10:16 am
      • Elva Kroucamp Reply

        Absolutely inspiring. I would love to know more. Thank you

        September 14, 2016 at 11:43 pm
  • Sankana Reply

    I wake up every morning to watch my peers learning how to swim, some drown, some are nervously waiting for approval and some graduate to the vast much anticipated ocean where everyone longs to swim and hunt with the great white beast that travels 600 km in search of that one purposed filled moment, a moment of greatness which provides gratitude, pride and fulfilment of the journey leading to this precious hunt with great white shark.

    I patiently wait, filled with zest to one day conquer the ocean.

    September 14, 2016 at 11:52 am
  • Carol Metcalf Reply

    Oh dear – I lost the message that I wrote in this space!

    Off topic for this thread, but I’d like to thank you for the Archetypes Guide. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to doing so.

    Like all the CAJS materials and Facebook posts on the CAJS Facebook page, it’s beautifully laid out. I admire and appreciate how you always find such beautiful and appropriate pictures to accompany the text.

    September 14, 2016 at 1:04 pm
  • Rebecca Reply

    In your research have you found that it is also possible for a conflict resolution symbol to arrive through a dream?

    September 14, 2016 at 2:16 pm
  • Dostow Reply

    Thanks very much for to share this article! I find it quite interesting, and from now i will start to pay more attention to this symbolisation process :-), how is it possible a symbol can be created including what other people are passing through? Is there any sort of connection of our unconscious?

    September 14, 2016 at 3:42 pm
  • Erika Hattingh Reply

    Using Symbols for manifestation of goals and conflict resolution:

    I have grown spiritually and emotionally (forced circumstances) so much this past year, things i could of only dreamt about previously are happening for me. I am desperately wanting to find a way to go for the last driving lessons and go write my test (and PASS!) before the end of December. First thought I had was a key. Second the song called “Be still” by The Fray. Now we wait 🙂

    September 14, 2016 at 4:14 pm
  • Lori Crystal Reply

    I love Jungian ideology and have used his self-actualization model in my master’s thesis on eco-psychology and sense of place. Being immersed in nature is my magical elixir for healing and, more recently, gardening, cooking and canning since my brother’s passing. I feel close to him while engaged in trying new recipes, as he was an inspirational chef.

    September 14, 2016 at 4:33 pm
  • Mandy Reply

    Thank you for sharing these wonderful gifts. I am going to try using symbols to bring about the changes that I need.

    September 14, 2016 at 5:11 pm
  • Gill Andrew Reply

    Dear Anja, thanks so much, a very fascinating article, much to think about and some to try. Xxx

    September 14, 2016 at 8:21 pm
  • Vida P. Reply

    This is a great article. I was wondering if the numbers I see on a clock such as 11:11 and 3:33
    mean something deeper. For many years I have always seen the number 11:35 or 11:53 appear on the clock am and pm hours. My child hood home address is 1135 also. Resently, I have been noticing 11:11 and 3:33. My mom’s birthday is 11/11. I know these numbers mean something deeper but I can’t put a finger on exactly what they mean to me!

    September 16, 2016 at 3:32 pm
  • Leanne Reply

    Very timely article for me. We recently lost a very loved and cherished pet to a terrible disease over a period of 3 days. The magnitude of my grief has stunned me. This pet was a very small dog with big innocent eyes and a huge personality. I read in some literature from a site about pet loss and bereavement that one reason losing a beloved pet is so devastating is because they represent an innocent, pure part of ourselves that we hide from the the world. This made sense to me and has helped me heal a bit. I also am having the urge to write some poetry again, I loved writing poetry in my youth but havent written any in years. I’m 66 now and the realization has also started in my mind that the grief I feel so deeply might also have to do with feeling my own mortality very sharply for the first time in my life. Recognizing clearly that I will be dealing with loss more and more over the coming, declining years.

    September 16, 2016 at 5:31 pm
  • Maria Wilkinson Reply

    I found this write up to be profoundly moving & enlightening in its simplicity & uncluttered presentation. Thank you.

    September 17, 2016 at 11:43 am
  • Elva Kroucamp Reply

    Absolutely inspiring. Tools of life. Thank you

    September 18, 2016 at 8:28 pm
  • Desiree Reply

    I have a sense of an elusive but ever present driver in my mind, or maybe it is my ego, my seeker, survival- or sense- making guide. What emerges is a forceful urge to integrate my ongoing experiences into a mind picture, a shield that holds me up, shelters me from inertia. My private life libido, life force, central organizing drive that pulls me into searching for meaning, into life and brings energy for living. Maybe that is a piece of universal ‘god’ within me. I feel empowered by this connection in a mysterious way, ‘ in tint with the infinite, so to speak , when accessing depth within and in this frame of mind

    November 6, 2016 at 5:24 am

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