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When Great Symbols Lose Their Content by Anne Pickup

08 Feb 2016 12:32 PM | JSW Team (Administrator)

Jung states: "Our intellect has achieved the most tremendous things, but in the meantime our spiritual dwelling has fallen into disrepair.”  And, again, Jung reminds us, that, “When great symbols lose their content and their meaning for us, we are in great danger of losing our souls.” 

- Carl Jung, CW91


I realize the magnitude of the issues facing us in the coming years concerning our very survival on the planet are great, yet my personal scale tilts towards the side of hope and a few glimmers of light in what appears to be a very dark situation.  What is “alive” for me is the reality of the “inner life” and the sense of kinship the journey offers the individual within the ongoingness of human history.


Evident in our society is the sense that the center is not holding, a theme that I have observed in the dreams of young adults in my practice.  Though their lives may not be outwardly traumatic enough to occasion dreams of an apocalyptic nature, some are struggling with bigger than life themes without adequate life experience or ego strength with which to cope. It is as if they are coming into adulthood with a life task that requires a bigger world- view than the typical collective identification that the first half of life affords.  Born at a time when the culture is unstable and traditional religious values have failed them, living the “norm” is not an option. Perhaps they are seeking a new vision. Joseph Campbell has observed that it is as if “science has cleaned house of our old beliefs – now the individual must live with the myth of one’s own life.”


So how does one bridge the world of nature and myth, to the world of science and intellect and everyday life? How do we move from the generalized question of, to quote Edinger, “What is the meaning of life, to what is the meaning of MY life?”  Edinger, Ego and Archetype.


For example, a young woman comes into analysis with the following dream:  She is observing / participating in a process of dragging large animals into a tar pit and watching them sink to their death in the gooey muck.


The dream is stark and her very life will depend upon her willingness to descend into the depths of her own soul to retrieve the lost libido of her life in order to live authentically. Her outer world of superficial persona, “fitting-in” will no longer be an option for her. She is disconnected from her instinctual side and has attempted to be rid of the big feelings and affects. They fall into the unconscious – the tar pit, holding ancient, archetypal energies. She now, however, has a symbol, an image to begin her process of understanding the vague feelings of deadness in her life. She must make a descent into the depths of her own psyche in order to release the losses and grief that led her to bury the ancient instinctual energies of her life.

This descent is the opposite from the spiritual tradition which emphasizes the ascent – the climb to the heights.  However the psychological journey, the experience of the psyche rather than a dogma, nearly always begins with a descent.


The notion that “spirit” comes from above and everything that is worthless comes from below is a comfortable position for the conscious mind.  However the unconscious has a different ordering.  When this second attitude comes into conflict with the first, one may experience a depression, a sense of disorientation, anxiety, or on the outer level some relational crisis may develop.  While it may be possible to avoid this confrontation with the unconscious by projecting everything negative into the environment, one is left with a “half-life” and the fullness of the psyche will never be experienced.  One has the feeling that something is missing in relationships, dreams may present disturbing images, or feelings of deadness may hover over the unlived life of the individual.


For those who risk the descent and the process of “Individuation” there is hope.  The experience of great loss has sometimes been called the “infinite desert of pain” and as Jung teaches, when the ego is able to preserve and endure the ensuing ordeal in the search for meaning, there is a rewarding insight into the transpersonal psyche. The poet Rumi assures those who are crushed that the time will come when such pain has spent its force. “At the end of pain// a quiet white exhaustion. Your ghost sits down// to take my head in its hands.”  The burning away has transpired and we become aware of the stillness within and without.  The ashes of loss flicker back into fire and the realization that as Rumi says, “In the end a person tires of everything except heart’s desiring soul’s journeying.”

Anne Pickup is a licensed psychotherapist in D.C. and Maryland with a Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She received her Diploma in Analytical Psychology from the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles.  She is a founding member of the C.G. Jung Study Center of California, past president of the Philadelphia Association of Jungian Analysts, and current president of the Jungian Analysts of the Washington Area.  She is a member of the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts, and is secretary of the Kairos film project; preserving Jung.


Anne has lectured and taught in N.Y. Calif., and D.C. on themes of separation and loss.   She lives in V.A. and has a private practice in D.C.



  • 21 Feb 2016 7:41 PM | Judy Capurso
    Lovely article, Anne, thank you!
    Link  •  Reply

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