Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.
How to Anticipate and Watch for the Unifying Symbol
“Reason must always seek the solution in some rational, consistent, logical way, which is certainly justifiable enough in all normal situations but is entirely inadequate when it comes to the really great and decisive questions. It is incapable of creating this symbol, because the symbol is irrational. When the rational way proves to be a cul-de-sac – as it always does after a time – the solution comes from the side it was least expected.”
“An expression that stands for a known thing remains a mere sign and is never a symbol. It is, therefore, quite impossible to create a living symbol, i.e., one that is pregnant with meaning, from known associations. For what is thus produced never contains more than what was put into it.”
“The redeeming symbol is a highway, a way upon which life can move forward without torment and compulsion.”
“A political, social, philosophical, and religious conflict of unprecedented proportions has split the consciousness of our age. When such tremendous opposites split asunder, we may expect with certainty that the need for a savior will make itself felt. Experience has amply confirmed that, in the psyche as in nature, a tension of opposites creates a potential which may express itself at any time in a manifestation of energy. Between above and below flows the waterfall, and between hot and cold there is a turbulent exchange of molecules. Similarly, between the psychic opposites there is generated a “uniting symbol,” at first unconscious. This process is running its course in the unconscious of modern man. Between the opposites there arises spontaneously a symbol of unity and wholeness, no matter whether it reaches consciousness or not. Should something extraordinary or impressive then occur in the outside world, be it a human personality, a thing, or an idea, the unconscious content can project itself upon it, thereby investing the projection carrier with numinous and mythical powers. Thanks to its numinosity, the projection carrier has a highly suggestive effect and grows into a savior myth whose basic features have been repeated countless times.”
“Every advance in culture is, psychologically, an extension of consciousness, a coming to consciousness that can take place only through discrimination. Therefore an advance always begins with individuation, that is to say with the individual, conscious of his isolation, cutting a new path through hitherto untrodden territory. To do this he must first return to the fundamental facts of his own being, irrespective of all authority and tradition, and allow himself to become conscious of his distinctiveness. If he succeeds in giving collective validity to his widened consciousness, he creates a tension of opposites that provides the stimulation which culture needs for its further progress.”
In the previous essay, “Jung on Having Hope for the Future,” we noted how a “redeeming symbol” develops in times of tension “that is destined to resolve the conflict.” Jung urged his students and readers to watch for this symbol. This essay explores how to do this, first by explaining why we can’t just “figure it out,” then by considering what spotting the symbol entails, and finally, why bother?–why we, as people with an interest in Jung, should be on the lookout for the “uniting symbol.”
Why We Can’t Figure Out or Create the Symbol
There are two types of reasons for why we–as smart, logical and determined as we might be–are unable to create the “uniting symbol:” the nature of the symbol and the nature of our Western civilization.
The nature of the symbol. Symbols have a “numinous character” and “an extremely complex nature.” By “complex” Jung was referring to the fact that “data from every psychic function” goes into making a symbol. So symbols are neither “rational nor irrational,” and they have “a content which is at bottom incomprehensible.” With their “paradoxical quality” symbols “present [themselves] in a form that is neither a straight ‘yes’ nor a straight’ no,’ which often (in my experience teaching a symbology course) induces a mind cramp in our Jungian Center students.
The “redeeming symbol” comes “from the place where nothing is expected, [and] it also appears in a form that has nothing to recommend it.” The “place” Jung refers to here is the inferior function, that part in us we disparage or disdain, and the “form” often is surprising, unexpected, even embarrassing.
The sense of a symbol “is often something that could just as well be called ‘nonsense,’ for there is a certain incommensurability between the mystery of … human understanding” and the nature of the symbol. Symbols get created in
“processes steeped in mystery; they pose riddles with which the human mind will long wrestle for a solution, and perhaps in vain. For, in the last analysis, it is exceedingly doubtful whether human reason is a suitable instrument for this purpose.”
Why so? Because, Jung reminds us, “No one can know what the ultimate things are,..”, the “psyche cannot know itself,” and the essence of the symbol “cannot be perceived by the senses or thought by the intellect.” Intellectual smarts, sharp logic and all the determination to “figure it out” will get us nowhere in our efforts to create a “reconciling symbol.” This is very frustrating given the nature of our Western way of living.
The nature of Western civilization. We live in a society that “undervalues” the unconscious and the psyche, which is the source of symbols. We put a premium on reason and as rationalists we treat “the unknown part of the psyche … as nothing.” Using reason we “seek the solution [to our problems] in some rational, consistent, logical way,” which Jung admits
“is certainly justifiable enough in all normal situations but is entirely inadequate when it comes to the really great and decisive questions. It is incapable of creating this [i.e. the uniting] symbol, because the symbol is irrational.”
The result is that “the rational way proves to be a cul-de-sac–as it always does after a time [and] the solution comes from the side it was least expected.”
Our bias toward rationality is one reason we cannot figure out or create symbols. Another is the long history in our culture of the “suppression of individual symbol-formation.” The powers that be “for many centuries” actively discouraged individual efforts to create symbols, recognizing that, because of the numinosity of symbols, symbol-formation can spawn heresies. No fan of organized religions, Jung indicted “the guardians and custodians of symbolical truth,” i.e. religious leaders, for thwarting the training of people in generating and working with symbols. At the same time Jung recognized that religious leaders now “have been robbed of their efficacy by science.” And this is another reason why we cannot “figure” symbols out.
Ours is a scientific society. Our modern “civilized life today demands concentrated, directed conscious functioning,” and the result is what Jung called “a considerable dissociation from the unconscious.” Few in the scientific community are “in a position to follow a purely psychological argument, since they either take it too personally or are bedeviled by philosophical prejudices,” often dismissing Jung as a “mystic”! The situation is no better among the general public: Many people get caught in a fruitless debate about whether symbols are “…’true’ or ‘correct’.” Jung recognized that truth is relative, and saw a far more useful criterion in whether something was useful. Using this standard, Jung knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that symbols are very useful in promoting healing and well-being.
A final feature of our contemporary culture that makes it difficult for us to handle symbols properly is the polarization of our society. Jung saw this in 1916 when he noted that
“The present day shows with appalling clarity how little able people are to let the other man’s argument count, although this capacity is a fundamental and indispensable condition for any human community. Everyone who proposes to come to terms with himself must reckon with this basic problem. For, to the degree that he does not admit the validity of the other person, he denies the “other” within himself the right to exist – and vice versa. The capacity for inner dialogue is a touchstone for outer objectivity.”
With partisanship these days so fraught that we often refuse to listen to “the other side,” Jung reminds us that this has implications for our personal wholeness: Rejecting the “other” means we refuse to admit the existence and value of our own shadow and the wealth of other inner energies that live within. We truncate our identity and foster our own fragmentation when we do this. If we hope to “come to terms with” symbols, we have to be ready and willing to engage in inner dialogue, to make the acquaintance of the inhabitants of our “inner city” and to appreciate “the highest values of symbolic truth” while resisting the temptation to figure them out.
This begs the question: If we can’t resort to our usual default mode of using logic and reason, how do we recognize and handle symbols, especially the “redeeming symbol” that offers resolution of conflicts?
What Spotting the Symbol Entails
When the police go about looking for a suspect they will sometimes put out a notice to the public with a description of the person. Likewise, we can “describe” some features of a “reconciling symbol” that can catch our attention. The first and most important of these is its “numinous character.” This feature is first because numinosity is “fascinating” and powerful. It also implies a host of other features: This type of symbol is “convincing,” “overwhelming,” and transforming, converting energy “from a ‘lower’ into a ‘higher’ form. Uniting symbols contain a numen, divine energy, which arises spontaneously and can release us “from bondage and world-weariness.” The numinosity in the redeeming symbol also “seizes and possesses the whole personality,” and helps “to prevent the libido from getting stuck in … material corporeality…”. In short, a uniting symbol is hard to miss because it arouses strong feelings and “touches a corresponding chord in every psyche.”
And especially in the psyches of poets. Jung was explicit that poets can
“… fathom and read the collective unconscious. They are always the first to divine the darkly moving mysterious currents and to express them, as best they can, in symbols that speak to us. They make known, like true prophets, the stirrings of the collective unconscious or, in the language of the Old Testament, “the will of God,” which in the course of time must inevitably come to the surface as a collective phenomenon.”
So Jung urges us not to
“… be indifferent to the poets, since in their principal works and deepest inspirations they create from the very depths of the collective unconscious, voicing aloud what others only dream. … The poet who has the greatest and most immediately suggestive effect is the one who knows how to express the most superficial levels of the unconscious in a suitable form.”
Poets can articulate what most of us miss, unless we are diligent explorers of our inner realm, our “inner city.”
Just as would-be police personnel learn how to spot suspects, so we can learn to be more adept in spotting “uniting symbols” via immersion in depth psychology. While analysis is ideal for this, it is not essential: Anyone willing to take the time can make note of “spontaneous fantasies” and dreams suggestive of the Self, e.g. images of
“…star-strewn heavens, as stars reflected in dark water, as nuggets of gold or golden sand scattered in black earth, as a regatta at night, with lanterns on the dark surface of the sea, as a solitary eye in the depths of the sea or earth, as a parapsychic vision of luminous globes, and so on.”
We can also learn how to take advantage of moods, and especially of depressions, which Jung felt can, by their very nature, bring us closer to the unconscious. Jung described this process in his essay “The Transcendent Function:”
“… he must make the emotional state the basis or starting point of the procedure. He must make himself as conscious as possible of the mood he is in, sinking himself in it without reserve and noting down on paper all the fantasies and other associations that come up. … Since the depression was not manufactured by the conscious mind but is an unwelcome intrusion from the unconscious, the elaboration of the mood is, as it were, a picture of the contents and tendencies of the unconscious that were massed together in the depression. The whole procedure is a kind of enrichment and clarification of the affect, whereby the affect and its contents are brought nearer to consciousness, becoming at the same time more impressive and more understandable. This work by itself can have a favorable and vitalizing influence. At all events, it creates a new situation, since the previously unrelated affect has become a more or less clear and articulate idea, thanks to the assistance and cooperation of the conscious mind.”
Rather than try to repress or avoid negative feelings Jung would have his patients explore them for the richness, and unifying possibilities they held.
By familiarizing ourselves with our inner city and techniques for working with its energies, we can hone our intuition and be more open to revelations. Both flashes of intuition and moments of revelation are features of uniting symbols.
Other features include meaningfulness: redeeming symbols are “pregnant with meaning.” They have “a redemptive significance” and occur “just when one is least expecting it, and in the most improbable of places.” So they tend to surprise us. In my experience these symbols show up when I am at the end of my tether, just about to give up, worn out with frustration at how things are going in life. And they revitalize, with their “life-giving and life-enhancing effect.” They offer “a new expression of life at its most intense,” an expression that “no longer points back, but forward to a goal not yet reached.” In these times in my life, I have felt renewed and confident that there was some purpose or value in the hard time I was living through.
And this is another feature of redeeming symbols: They tend to be situational, i.e. occurring amid “agonizing” conflict, “disunity,” “destruction and devastation,” or when things seem to be at a “standstill.” When all our logic, technologies, algorithms, and rationality have come up short, when there seems to be no end of misery and no way out of a hopeless mess, then the “uniting symbol” is likely to appear. In such moments those who are conscious may recognize “a certain condition of psychic need, a sort of hunger,” bespeaking the limitations of the ego mind.
A final way is one quite alien to our Western temperament and especially to our American penchant for speed and action: wu wei, “action through non-action.” Jung had great appreciation for Taoism, Master Lao-Tzu and the Tao Te Ching, reflected in his writing a commentary on his friend Richard Welhelm’s translation of the Chinese alchemical text The Secret of the Golden Flower. In this commentary, Jung described the simple, yet difficult wu wei technique that can foster our recognizing and taking up the healing energies in the redeeming symbol:
“As far as I could see they did nothing (wu wei) but let things happen. As Master Lao-tsu teaches in our text, the light circulates according to its own law if one does not give up one’s ordinary occupation. The art of letting things happen, action through non-action, letting go of oneself as taught by Meister Eckhart, became for me the key that opens the door to the way. We must be able to let things happen in the psyche. For us, this is an art of which most people know nothing. Consciousness is forever interfering, helping, correcting, and negating, never leaving the psychic processes to grow in peace. It would be simple enough, if only simplicity were not the most difficult of all things.”
Almost as difficult is trust: We need to trust in the Self or the benignity of the Universe that it will produce the reconciling symbol. Given that the timetable for this is not under our control, and that the situation is usually dire, the “art of letting things happen” tests our patience. Fortunately, we need not sit idly by: We can learn about symbols, read poetry and note contemporary artists’ creations, watch our dreams for images, tend to our moods, discover and explore our inner city and its energies, be open to revelations and intuitions, and recognize those times of devastation when our “psychic hunger” is extreme.
Why Make the Effort to Anticipate and Watch for the Redeeming Symbol?
We can address this question on two planes, the personal and the collective. As individuals we do well to watch for redeeming symbols because they resolve conflicts, relieve the tension of opposites that often crop up in life, and liberate us from “stuckness.” Reconciling symbols free our libido (psychic energies) and “offer it a new gradient,” helping to move us forward on our life path in accordance with our soul’s intention. As I have seen repeatedly in my own life, this process of liberation often results in a new path I would never have consciously chosen (my ego mind was far too limited) but which proved ultimately to be far more satisfying and meaningful than my old way. I’ve come to understand why Jung calls the uniting symbol “a bringer of salvation.” These symbols are great gifts from the unconscious, if we recognize them.
On the collective level, they are equally helpful, even necessary, especially now, given our highly polarized reality. Jung recognized this:
“A political, social, philosophical, and religious conflict of unprecedented proportions has split the consciousness of our age. When such tremendous opposites split asunder, we may expect with certainty that the need for a savior will make itself felt. Experience has amply confirmed that, in the psyche as in nature, a tension of opposites creates a potential which may express itself at any time in a manifestation of energy…. Between the opposites there arises spontaneously a symbol of unity and wholeness, no matter whether it reaches consciousness or not. Should something extraordinary or impressive then occur in the outside world, be it a human personality, a thing, or an idea, the unconscious content can project itself upon it, thereby investing the projection carrier with numinous and mythical powers. Thanks to its numinosity, the projection carrier has a highly suggestive effect and grows into a savior myth whose basic features have been repeated countless times.”
Jung’s description comes with a warning since he saw how Hitler exploited the desperate Germans’ need for a savior. We must be careful that, rather than project the “savior” on to some egotistical man and invest him with totalitarian power, we should make our “projection carrier” an idea or ideal that so inspires us that it heals the conflict, brings warring camps together, and achieves the apokatastasis, or restoration, that follows after the apokalypsis, which we see now with all the leaks and revelations of secrets. In this lies our best hope for the future.
Jung, C.G. (1961), “Freud and Psychoanalysis,” Collected Works, 4. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1956) “Symbols of Transformation,” Collected Works, 5, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1971), “Psychological Types,” Collected Works, 6. Princeton: Princeton University Press
________ (1960), ”The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche,” CW 8. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1959), ”The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1959), “Aion,” Collected Works, 9ii. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1953), “Psychology and Alchemy,” CW 12. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1967), “Alchemical Studies,” CW 13. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1963), “Mysterium Coniunctionis,” CW 14. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lachman, Gary (2010), Jung the Mystic. New York: Penguin Books.
Otto, Rudolf (1958), The Idea of the Holy. New York: Oxford University Press.
 Collected Works 6 ¶438. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 Ibid. ¶817.
 Ibid. ¶445.
 CW 10 ¶784.
 CW 8 ¶111.
 Jung used several terms for the unifying symbol: the “reconciling symbol” (CW 9i ¶523 note 15), the “redeeming symbol” (CW 6 ¶s438,442,446, 453 & 458; and the “uniting symbol” (CW 8 ¶396, 9i ¶523 note 15, 9ii ¶304 & CW 10 ¶s 734 & 784). To provide variety I use all three of these terms in this essay.
 CW 9i ¶285.
 CW 6 ¶823.
 Ibid. ¶171.
 CW 10 ¶27.
 CW 9i ¶285.
 CW 6 ¶440.
 CW 12 ¶516.
 Ibid. ¶564.
 CW 11 ¶167.
 CW 10 ¶779.
 Ibid. ¶774.
 CW 18 ¶603.
 CW 6 ¶449.
 Ibid. ¶438.
 CW 8 ¶92.
 For a detailed discussion of Jung’s attitude toward organized religion, see my book, The Spiritual Adventure of Our Time, 11-28, 53-71.
 CW 5 ¶336.
 CW 8 ¶139.
 Ibid. ¶191.
 Jung denied being a mystic; CW 18 ¶1502; cf. Cf. CW 7, ¶s 231,260,324; CW 9i, ¶s 92,240,258,292,
295,419,662; CW 13, ¶s 116,257,390,482. But as recently as 2010 books were still being written labeling Jung a mystic, e.g. Lachman (2010).
 CW 8 ¶192.
 Cf. CW 4 ¶578 and CW 18 ¶686. In his focus on usefulness Jung was displaying his empiricism.
 CW 8 ¶187.
 Ibid. ¶67.
 CW 5 ¶339.
 CW 9i ¶285; cf. CW 12 ¶s 557 &584.
 Otto (1958), 17,23,31,37,140. For a fuller discussion of Jung and the numinous, see the essay “Jung and the Numinosum” archived on this blog site.
 CW 6 ¶442.
 Ibid. ¶325; cf. CW 8 ¶88.
 CW 6 ¶435.
 CW 5 ¶344.
 Ibid. ¶510.
 CW 6 ¶820.
 Ibid. ¶321.
 Ibid. ¶323.
 Jung used the term “inner world” to describe the multitude of energies we have within (CW 7 ¶s 317,325-327); Jungian analyst Daryl Sharp calls this our “inner city,” and named his Jungian publishing house for it.
 CW 16 ¶474.
 CW 8 ¶396.
 Ibid. ¶167.
 Ibid. For more on how Jung handled depression, see the essay “An Example of How Jung Handled a Mental Problem,” archived on this blog site.
 Ibid. ¶92.
 CW 6 ¶817.
 CW 9i ¶285.
 CW 6 ¶438.
 Ibid. ¶819.
 Ibid. ¶319.
 CW 9i ¶293.
 Ibid. ¶285.
 CW 6 ¶446.
 Ibid. ¶824.
 CW 12 ¶328.
 CW 13 ¶20.
 CW 5 ¶510.
 Ibid. ¶335.
 CW 10 ¶734.
 CW 10 ¶784.
 Jung wrote at length about the apocatastasis; cf. CW 6 ¶s444 &459; CW 9i ¶316; CW 9ii ¶s 73,260 & 410; CW 11 ¶401, 814; CW 12 ¶415; CW 13 ¶372; CW 14 ¶474; CW 16 ¶455; CW 18 ¶s 527 &528.
 For more on the apocalyptic nature of our time, see the blog essay “Our Apocalyptic Time” archived on this blog site.