It is important to have a secret, a premonition of things unknown. It fills life with something impersonal, a numinosum. A man who has never experienced that has missed something important. He must sense that he lives in a world in which in some respects is mysterious; that things happen and can be experienced which remain inexplicable; that not everything which happens can be anticipated. The unexpected and the incredible belong in this world. Only then is life whole. For me the world has from the beginning been infinite and ungraspable.
- Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 356.
In this passage, taken from Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung lays open a life spent in active engagement with underlying, transpersonal streams of mystery. A Jungian analysis aims to deepen our awareness of those transpersonal currents that fashion our life-course, most often outside our awareness. We engage this mystery through “the symbolic function”—our natural inclination for image-making, symbolization, and the enactment of ritual patterns that stem from the unconscious psyche.
More generally, the term “spirituality” describes our intentional participation in mystery. Spirituality keeps us in conversation with the transcendent but ever present Other within and without. We may promote this dialogue through dream-work, writing or reflection; through relating to the natural world as a subject rather than an object; through creative works; through attending to our emotions and the images that spring up out of the depths; through meaningful conversation, storytelling, prayer and ritual practices within or outside of a faith community. The symbolic function, a uniquely human capacity, makes this engagement possible.
Like the seasonal cycles and the planetary courses, the symbolic function belongs to nature. The symbolic life thus represents life lived in a way that is naturally human. Our receptivity to symbolic expressions of meaning “illumines the self” in Jung’s sense by connecting us with the web of life. We attain a more comprehensive self by surrendering the illusion that self and world can be fully known or understood in a purely rational way. Jung’s psychological theory gave place to our religious and symbolic inclinations outside the category of pathology. Still today, Jungian psychology not only respects the irrational dimensions of the psyche, it observes the invaluable role played by the symbolic function in the journey toward wholeness.
Melanie Starr Costello, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, historian, and graduate of the C.G. Jung Institut-Zurich, holds a private practice off Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. She earned her doctorate in the History and Literature of Religions from Northwestern University. A former Assistant Professor of History at St. Mary's College of Maryland, Dr. Costello has taught and published on the topics of psychology and religion, medieval spirituality, and clinical practice. Her study of the link between illness and insight entitled, Imagination, Illness and Injury: Jungian Psychology and the Somatic Dimensions of Perception, is published by Routledge press. Currently her work explores archetypal currents running through the collective psyche in our times—a topic she takes up in her workshops on the Stranger, Aging and Spirituality, and on Dream Cosmologies.