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The Symbolic Life

Carl Jung

A seminar talk given by Carl Jung in 1939 to the Guild for Pastoral Psychology, London

You see, man is in need of a symbolic life - badly in need. We only live banal, ordinary, rational, or irrational things . . . but we have no symbolic life. Where do we live symbolically? Nowhere except where we participate in the ritual of life. . . . 

Have you got a corner somewhere in your house where you perform the rites, as you can see in India? Even the very simple houses there have at least a curtained corner where the members of the household can perform the symbolic life, where they can make their new vows or their meditation. We don't have it; we have no such corner. We have our own room, of course, - but there is a telephone that can ring us up at any time, and we always must be ready. We have no time, no place.

We have no symbolic life, and we are all badly in need of the symbolic life. Only the symbolic life can express the need of the soul - the daily need of the soul, mind you! And because people have no such thing, they can never step out of this mill - this awful, banal, grinding life in which they are "nothing but." . . . Everything is banal; everything is "nothing but," and that is the reason why people are neurotic. They are simply sick of the whole thing, sick of that banal life, and therefore they want sensation. They even want a war; they all want a war; they are all glad when there is a war; they say, "Thank heaven, now something is going to happen - something bigger than ourselves!"

These things go pretty deep, and no wonder people get neurotic. Life is too rational; there is no symbolic existence in which I am something else, in which I am fulfilling my role, my role as one of the actors in the divine drama of life.

I once had a talk with the master of ceremonies of a tribe of Pueblo Indians, and he told me something very interesting. He said, "Yes, we are a small tribe, and these Americans, they want to interfere with our religion. They should not do it," he said, "because we are the sons of the Father, the Sun. He who goes there" (pointing to the sun) -- "that is our Father. We must help him daily to rise over the horizon and to walk over heaven. And we don't do it for ourselves only; we do it for America; we do it for the whole world. And if these Americans interfere with our religion through their missions, they will see something. In ten years Father Sun won't rise anymore because we can't help him any more."

Now, you may say, that is just a sort of mild madness. Not at all! These people have no problems. They have their daily life, their symbolic life. They get up in the morning with a feeling of their great and divine responsibility; they are the sons of the Sun, the Father, and their daily duty is to help the Father over the horizon - not for themselves alone, but for the whole world. You should see these fellows; they have a natural fulfilled dignity. And I quite understand when he said to me, "Now look at these Americans; they are always seeking something. They are always full of unrest, always looking for something. What are they looking for? There is nothing to be looked for!" That's perfectly true. You can see them, these traveling tourists, always looking for something, always in thee vain hope of finding something. On my many travels I have found people who were on their third trip around the world - uninterruptedly. Just traveling, traveling; seeking, seeking. I met a woman in central Africa who had come up alone in a car from Cape Town and wanted to go to Cairo. "What for?" I asked. "What are you trying to do that for?" And I was amazed when I looked into her eyes -- the eyes of a hunted, a cornered animal -- seeking, seeking, always in the hope of something. I said, "What in the world are you seeking? What are you waiting for? What are you hunting after?" She is nearly possessed; she is possessed by so many devils that chase her around. And why is she possessed? Because she does not live the life that makes sense. Hers is a life utterly, grotesquely banal, utterly poor, meaningless, with no point in it at all. If she is killed today, nothing has happened, nothing has vanished - because she was nothing! But if she could say, "I am the daughter of the Moon. Every night I must help the moon, my Mother, over the horizon" - ah, that is something else! Then she lives; then her life makes sense, and makes sense in all continuity, and for the whole of humanity. That gives peace, when people feel that they are living the symbolic life, that they are actors in the divine drama. That gives the only meaning to human life; everything else is banal and you can dismiss it. A career, producing of children, are all maya compared with that one thing, that your life is meaningful


What I have spoken of is, alas, to a great extent the past. We cannot turn the wheel backwards; we cannot go back to the symbolism that is gone. No sooner do you know that this thing is symbolic than you say, "Oh, well, it presumably means something else." Doubt has killed it, has devoured it. So you cannot go back. . . . My psychological condition wants something else. I must have a situation in which that thing becomes true once more. I need a new form. When one has had the misfortune to be fired out of a church, or to say, "This is all nonsense," and to quit it - that has no merit at all. But to be in it and to be forced, say, by God to leave it - well, then you are legitimately extra ecclesiam. But extra ecclesiam nula salus; then things really become terrible because you are no more protected, you are no more in the consensus gentium, you are no more in the lap of the all-compassionate Mother. You are alone and you are confronted with all the demons of hell. That is what people don't know. Then they say you have an anxiety neurosis, nocturnal fears, compulsions - I don't know what. Your soul has become lonely; it is extra ecclesiam and in a state of no-salvation. And people don't know it. They think your state is pathological, and every doctor helps them to believe it. And, of course, when they say, and everybody holds, that this is neurotic and pathological, then we have to talk that language. I talk the language of my patients. When I talk with lunatics, I talk the lunatic language, otherwise they don't understand me. And when I talk with neurotics, I talk neurotic with them. But it is neurotic to talk when one says that this is a neurosis. As a matter of fact it is something quite different; it is the terrific fear of loneliness. It is the hallucination of loneliness, and it is a loneliness that cannot be quenched by anything else. You can be a member of a society with a thousand members, and you are still alone. That thing in you which should live is alone; nobody touches it, nobody knows it, you yourself don't know it; but it keeps on stirring, it disturbs you, it makes you restless, and it gives you no peace.

. . .

From my observations I learned that the modern unconscious has a tendency to produce a psychological condition which we find, for instance, in medieval mysticism. You find certain things in Meister Eckhart; you find many things in Gnosticism; that is a sort of esoteric Christianity. You find the idea of the Adam Kadmon in every man - the Christ within. Christ is the second Adam, which is also, in exotic religions, the idea of the Atman or the complete man, the original man, the "all-round" man of Plato, symbolized by a circle or a drawing with circular motifs. You find all these things in medieval mysticism; you find them all through alchemical literature, beginning with the first century after Christ. You find them in Gnosticism, you find many of them in the New Testament, of course, in Paul. But it is an absolutely consistent development of the idea of the Christ within; and the argument is that it is absolutely immoral to allow Christ to suffer for us, that he has suffered enough, that we should carry our own sins for once and not shift them off onto Christ - that we should carry them all. Christ expresses the same idea when he says, "I appear in the least of your brethren"; and what about it . . . if the least of your brethren should be yourself - what about it then? Then you get the intimation that Christ is not to be the least in your life, that we have a brother in ourselves who is really the least of our brethren, much worse than the poor beggar whom you feed. That is, in ourselves we have a shadow; we have a very bad fellow in ourselves, a very poor man, and he has to be accepted. What has Christ done - let us be quite banal about it - what has Christ done when we consider him as an entirely human creature? Christ was disobedient to his mother; Christ was disobedient to his tradition; . . .[but] he carried through his hypothesis to the biter end. How was Christ born? In the greatest misery. Who was his father? He was an illegitimate child - humanly the most miserable situation: a poor girl having a little son. That is our symbol, that is ourselves; we are all that. And if anyone lives his own hypothesis to the bitter end (and pays with his death, perhaps), he knows that Christ is his brother.

That is modern psychology, and that is the future. That is the true future, that is the future of which I know but, of course, the historical future might be quite different. . . . But I do not care for a historic future at all; I am not concerned with it. I am only concerned with the fulfillment of that will that is in every individual. My history is only the history of those individuals who are going to fulfill their hypotheses. That is the whole problem; that is the problem of the true Pueblo: that I do today everything that is necessary so that my Father can rise over the horizon. That is my standpoint. 

(C.G. Jung, CW 18, The Symbolic Life, Chapter III. "The Symbolic Life," § 625 - 630, 632, 638, & 639.)

. . .

The truly religious person . . . knows that God has brought all sorts of strange and inconceivable things to pass and seeks in the most curious ways to enter a [person's] heart. He therefore senses in everything the unseen presence of the divine will. This is what I mean by "unprejudiced objectivity." It is a moral achievement on the part of the doctor who ought not to let himself be repelled by sickness and corruption. We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate; it oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condemn, not his friend and fellow sufferer. I do not mean in the least to say that we must never pass judgment when we desire to help and improve. But if the doctor wishes to help a human being, he must be able to accept him as he is. And he can do this in reality only when he has already seen and accepted himself as he is.

Perhaps this sounds very simple, but simple things are always the most difficult. In actual life it requires the greatest art to be simple, and so acceptance of oneself is the essence of the moral problem and the acid test of one's whole outlook on life. That I feed the beggar, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ - all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all beggars, the most impudent of all offenders, yea the very fiend himself - that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of my own kindness, that I myself am the enemy who must be loved - what then? Then, as a rule, the whole truth of Christianity is reversed: there is no more talk of love and long-suffering; we say to the brother within us, "Raca," and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide him from the world; we deny ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves, and had it been God himself who drew near to us in this despicable form, we should have denied him a thousand times before a single cock had crowed.

(C.G. Jung, CW 11, Psychology and Religion: West and East, Chapter V, "Psychotherapy or the Clergy," § 519-520)


C.G. Jung, on "Dream Analysis" in Modern Man in Search of a Soul

Dreams are the direct expression of unconscious psychic activity (p. 2).

The dream gives a true picture of the subjective state, while the conscious mind denies that this state exists, or recognizes it only grudgingly (p. 5).

It is the way of dreams to give us more than we ask (p. 5).

[B]ringing to light the parts of the personality that were previously unconscious and subjecting them to conscious discrimination . . . is . . . a call to arms that must be answered by the whole personality (p. 10).

The dream is specifically the utterance of the unconscious. . . . It is imperative that we do not pare down the meaning of a dream to fit some narrow doctrine (p. 11).

Dreams give information about the secrets of the inner life and reveal to the dreamer hidden factors of [the dreamer's] personality. . . . There must be a thorough-going, conscious assimilation of unconscious contents. By "assimilation" I mean a mutual interpenetration of conscious and unconscious contents (p. 16).

The psyche is a self-regulating system that maintains itself in equilibrium, as the body does. Every process that goes too far immediately and inevitably calls forth a compensatory activity. Without such adjustments a normal metabolism would not exist, nor would the normal psyche. . . . The relation between conscious and unconscious is compensatory. This fact . . . affords a rule for dream interpretation. It is always helpful, when we set out to interpret a dream, to ask, "What conscious attitude does it compensate?" (p. 17).

The dream content is to be taken in all seriousness as something that has actually happened to us. . . . Every dream is a source of information and a means of self-regulation; . . . dreams are our most effective aids in building up the personality (p. 18).

Theoretically, there do exist relatively fixed symbols . . . . If there were no relatively fixed symbols, it would be impossible to determine the structure of the unconscious (p. 21).

I . . . regard the symbol as the announcement of something unknown, hard to recognize, and not to be fully determined (p. 22).

It is only through comparative studies in mythology, folk-lore, religion, and language that we can determine these symbols in a scientific way. The evolutionary stages through which the human psyche has passed are more clearly discernible in the dream than in consciousness. The dream speaks in images and gives expression to instincts that are derived from the most primitive levels of nature. Consciousness all too easily departs from the law of nature, but it can be brought again into harmony with the latter by the assimilation of unconscious contents. By fostering this process, [one comes to] the rediscovery of the law of one's own being (p. 26).


Lionel Corbett's, The Religious Function of the Psyche

The premise of this book, based on clinical practice, is that any emotional difficulty is seen as an attempt of the Self to draw the individual toward greater Self-consciousness. One way to the experience of the Self is by means of our psychopathology, since an archetypal strand of the Self is found within it (p. 110).

We can carry our own wounds with the realization that they both derive from the Self and are healed by the Self. Our struggle now is for conscious participation in this process rather than for vicarious sacrifice; each individual must make his or her own sacrifice as demanded by the Self (p. 111).

[S]pirit, soul, and body can be considered to be different aspects of consciousness that are experienced at different intensities and with different degrees of familiarity. The soul is then an aspect of consciousness that extends, or incarnates, into the human being; consciousness as spirit extends far beyond the individual. Much of our therapy carries with it the implicit assumption that, not only does spirit manifest itself within and by means of the human body and psyche, it also seeks its own continuing development therein (p. 118).

From the intrapsychic perspective [of Job's problem], Satan, or the dark side of the Self in the story of Job, can be regarded as a severe neurosis that persecutes Job and colors his image of divinity. Job has developed a depression; his superficially righteous behavior actually belies a serious unconscious problem. His situation exemplifies the idea that, because of the overpowering numinosity of the archetype at the center of a painful complex, emotional disturbance is an important manifestation of the divine for the sufferer (p. 130).

Within Job's psyche (or that of the collective consciousness he represents), the unconscious, dark side of the Self (personified as Satan) causes inexplicable suffering, like any complex that is autonomous and unintegrated. Of crucial importance, Job maintains his own orientation to his suffering and ignores the collective approaches personified by his "comforters." He seeks to understand what has happened and develops the belief that his misfortunes must have some transpersonal meaning and are not random or necessarily the result of some unacknowledged sin. He is eventually rewarded in this position by a new vision of consciousness of the divine - that is, a new Self image, or a more conscious God (p. 131).

The Religious Function of the Psyche, published by Brunner-Routledge (1991), is available through Amazon (e.g.), used and new, from $11.65.


C.G. Jung, on the Religious Function of the Psyche

There are no longer any gods whom we can invoke to help us. The great religions of the world suffer from increasing anaemia because the helpful numina have fled from the woods, rivers, mountains, and animals, and the God-men have disappeared underground into the unconscious. There we suppose they lead an ignominious existence among the relics of the past, while we remain dominated by the great Déesse Raison, who is our overwhelming illusion. 

. . . . . . . 

We are so captivated by and entangled in our subjective consciousness that we have simply forgotten the age-old fact that God speaks chiefly through dreams and visions.

. . . . . . .

Whatever else the unconscious may be, it is a natural phenomenon that produces symbols, and these symbols prove to be meaningful.

. . . . . . .

At a time when all available energy is spent in the investiga-tion of nature, very little attention is paid to the essence of [human-kind], which is psyche, although many researches are made into its conscious functions. But the really unknown part, which produces symbols, is still virtually unexplored. We receive signals from it every night, yet deciphering these communications seems to be such an odious task that very few people in the whole civilized world can be bothered with it. [Humankind's] greatest instrument, psyche, is little thought of, if not actually mistrusted and despised. 

This modern standpoint is surely onesided and unjust. It does not even accord with the known facts. Our actual knowledge of the unconscious shows it to be a natural phenomenon, and that, like nature herself, it is at least neutral. It contains all aspects of human nature - light and dark, beautiful and ugly, good and evil, profound and silly. The study of individual as well as collective symbolism is an enormous task, and one that has not yet been mastered. But at last a beginning has been made. The results so far gained are encouraging, and they seem to indicate an answer to many of the questions perplexing present-day [hu]mankind.

-CW 18, § 598, 601, 603, 605, 607

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Images of mandalas throughout this site were created by Carl Jung's patients between the years 1926 and 1945.

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