Approaching the Unconscious - Part 2

Why do symbols grip us?

How do they open our horizons toward the acceptance of a different attitude toward life and everyday action in the world, towards a greater respect for and relatedness to the mystery of our own souls?

Is it because symbols seek our dedication to the primal mystery of life that’s forever beyond our rational grasp and control, which has a meaning, purpose, and power of regeneration all of its own?

How can our unconscious depths feed us with feelings and intuitions that inspire us into incarnating ways of being that are compensating and complementary to the directions our rational consciousness would prioritize?

Is it because they spontaneously generate emotionally-charged images that rise into consciousness to connect us to a dimension of being from which our life becomes separated at the price of cosmic sterility?

We can disregard or repress our symbolic functioning, and the instinctive urge for transpersonal meaning that it serves. Yet like every basic function it continues to operate, consciously or unconsciously. When ignored or repressed it can pathologize and degenerate, or be weaponized by the malevolence of others.

Why reject your capacity for symbolic functioning?

Rational functioning can be biased towards asserting that concepts are the basic functional elements of the psyche, and that the images of symbolic functioning are only secondary distortions; the result of the repression of concepts.

One reason for this is that a lot of early psychology tended to base the evaluation of normalcy on the observations of disturbed psychology.

But is this true? From the perspective of Analytical Psychology, what are images? What is their function? Theodor Abt writes:

“The word image is used simply in the sense of a representation. Perception of the outer world — the interpretation of all the impulses of the sense organs by the brain — occurs via representations, via images. The neurobiologist Gerald Hüther, in the course of his research concerning the power of images, speaks of the union of what is seen in the outer world and then overlaid with the inner as the transformation of the outer image into a new, specific see-image; what is heard is transformed into an inner hear-image; what is smelled becomes an inner smell-image; what is touched an inner touch-image. If the emotional impact of these images is strong enough, they reach consciousness. Whatever becomes conscious first appears as an image. A psychic entity can be represented — and thus become a conscious content — only if it has the quality of an image. Images are central to the process of becoming conscious.”

Sense perceptions are inherently affectively charged, and are neurophysiologically and neuropsychologically organized into charged representations/images; affectively-charged images are the basic psychic vehicles that bring ‘contents’ to consciousness.

Their charge will trigger reactions that influence and determine behavior; sometimes this needs to happen very quickly. Our responses to affects — emotional and motivational impulses — are primordial ways we react to and adapt to the promptings and signals of the environments we live in.

The direct experience of these images is a primary mode of human functioning; these affectively-charged representations are what everyone wakes and dreams in — images are the drops that run together and form the the stream of consciousness.

Edward Whitmont offers an incisive challenge to the assertion, gained from observations of disturbed patients, that concepts are the basic functional elements of the psyche:

“To what extent and under what safeguards is it justifiable to accept the testimony of pathology as a standard for normalcy?

Certain phenomena may be first or even most readily observed in abnormal states, and yet this does not necessarily justify the conclusion that they are in themselves nothing but abnormal. Abnormal states may exhibit phenomena which in themselves are parts of normal functioning. For instance, the accumulation of white blood cells as pus in states of inflammation does not prove that white blood cells are themselves abnormal products. Even their accumulation in inflammation is not abnormal but is rather a healthy defense reaction, a compensation for the noxious invasion of germs. And indeed a failure of white blood cell production and accumulation would threaten the organism with breakdown.

Thus it is inadmissible to base one’s understanding of normal human functioning only upon one’s observations of the pathologically disturbed. To do so would be equivalent to attempting to understand walking posture (the human gait) by regarding and trying to understand it as nothing but prevented falling. Walking is a function of its own, subject to its own form, elements, rhythm, laws, etc., which in turn may also be interfered with, or be in conflict with other functions, or become subject to exaggeration, thereby exhibiting what we may call pathology. This may result in falling because of disturbed walking. But walking is more than merely prevented falling; our understanding of its functioning cannot be derived from its own pathology. The normal — the broad spectrum of general human tendencies and possibilities in its balanced state — has to be our standard of understanding, even though it does not lend itself to a definition in rigid terms, and even though, by virtue of the polarity of all functioning, it carries within itself the possibility of abnormal functioning, without which there could be no concept of normalcy.”

Our understanding of our symbolic functioning shouldn’t be purely or mainly derived from its own pathology. A more broad range of its tendencies and possibilities should inform our standard of understanding.

“It fell to Jung to correct the error of early psychiatry and to point out that the attitude of the introverted individual, for whom adaptation to outer reality is secondary and inferior in development compared to their concern with inner experience, is not necessarily pathological.

Nor are the means for such inner experience — non-conceptual experiencing in terms of revelatory images and undirected thinking — necessarily pathological. Quite the contrary. Not only is the presence of the image not pathology, but the loss of awareness of the image dimension (which is the loss of contact with inner reality, as we’ll see) gives rise to pathology, just as the loss of external adaptation (the fixation in early fantasy states which is not compensated by logical thought) gives rise to pathology.

While the results of the loss of external adaptation are seen in the familiar clinical psychoses, the loss of internal adaption results in a loss of connection with one’s emotions and imaginative and intuitive faculties, and a dissociation between the now isolated intellect and the emotional world of meaning — the very source of life — which validates transpersonal reality.

The one-sided hypertrophy of exaggerated rational functioning leads to depersonalization; abstraction (Latin ab-trahere, to pull away) is in this case an attempt to “objectify” by pulling away from emotional and intuitive psychic reality.”

“On the other hand, the symbolic mode of functioning approaches that area called the forever unknowable “thing in itself”, by sensing and intuiting an ultimate trans-logical meaningfulness that is not bound by time, space, and linear causality, which can be most wholly represented and hinted at by symbols. A symbol is a part of the human world of meaning. Man may be defined as Homo symbolicum.

A question now arises as to the origin and functional importance of perception in symbolic functioning. If their appearance in pathological states is not to be taken as evidence of the primitiveness, inferiority, and pathology of image experience per se, why are we served images and not concepts? And what is the functional relationship between image and concept?

Examples from the clinical practice of analytical psychology can readily answer the second question. The renewal of psychic life that follows an analysand’s acceptance of what particular symbolic images portend for them shows that the images function in a compensatory or complementary way.

The images arise as carriers of messages which are lacking — at times dangerously lacking — in consequence of the one-sided views and convictions of ego consciousness. The rising pressure of images is the defense reaction of a self-regulating, balancing psychic system which is quite analogous to the biological process of the accumulation of white blood cells. Just as the blood cells are normal and basic constituents of biological functioning, the images are basic constituents of psychic functioning.”

“But why images rather than concepts? Why, if the one-sided or exaggerated positions of ego consciousness are formulated in conceptual terms, is the compensating reaction not delivered in similar terms? Why do we usually dream images rather than logical thoughts? Why does the psyche bother us with seemingly irrational or at least difficult to comprehend symbolic fantasies if it wants us to overcome our impasses? Might the purpose not be accomplished more easily if dreams and fantasies were expressed in plain, understandable, logical, everyday language?

To understand this we must renounce another cherished prejudice, namely the notion that consciousness and its concept-based, abstract frame of reference is the totality of the psyche, or even the standard pattern or standard unit of psychic functioning. It is more accurately a late-coming upstart. Not only are conscious concepts partial aspects of the psychic totality, but consciousness based upon conceptualized mental functioning is a relatively recent, secondary form of mental development. The basic or original unit of mental functioning is the image. Concepts are pulled out of images through the activity of abstraction, which is a thought process. One abstracts, or pulls away, one’s awareness from the original psychic reaction, which is emotionally charged, towards de-emotionalized concepts.

The unit of basic psychic operation is the emotionally-charged image. Conceptualization as a process can be compared to the creating of safety islands that consciousness has to build for itself, in the midst of the cross-traffic of emotionally-charged image-centered impulses, in order to establish a seemingly independent stand.”

“This activity of consciousness — the establishment of control in the outer world of things through conceptualization, rational thought, the development of discipline, and the abstractive repression of emotions — is an utterly vital and indispensable phase of psychic development. It leads from psychic infancy to adulthood.

Mythological traditions liken this development to the creation of the world from the original chaos, and the establishment of a foothold on dry land away from the threat of drowning in the flood waters.

Yet it is not the “dry land” of rational consciousness that contains and supports the ocean, but the opposite; the waters of the ocean contain the dry continents, and life upon them depends upon the waters.

Similarly, it is the unconscious organism, the unconscious psyche, that gives rise to and maintains the world of consciousness. Consciousness, with its concepts, is a relatively minor part of the totality of psychic functioning, and in terms of dynamics certainly not the most powerful one. It establishes fixed points of rational reference — but at the price of a loss of emotional connection.

Images, on the other hand, express, associate, and constellate emotional and imaginative qualities, and thus reconstitute a connection which the abstractive process severs.”

In general, rational functioning is more consciously directed; it pursues aims that are present to the ego of the individual. It tends to be more focused on adapting to and influencing external reality.

Symbolic functioning is unconsciously revelatory; it pursues aims that aren’t necessarily present to the ego of the individual. It tends to be more focused on adapting to the complex and non-linear structure and dynamics of the psyche as an unfolding whole.

Rational functioning is conceptual and causally logical, concerned with making the world as a place of material things usable as tools.

Symbolic functioning is associative and analogically logical, concerned with making the world as a forum for human action bloom with meaning.

Life calls for adaptation to external and internal reality, to what an individual is “meant to be” in terms of the purposive pattern of wholeness that Analytical Psychology posits as the Self; the super-ordinate governor of personality who encompasses and meaningfully directs both conscious and unconscious functioning.

How can we individually and collectively regain an adequate appreciation of the dynamic importance of symbolic functioning?

How can we develop an appreciation for adaptation to our interior reality, and to the complex and non-linear structure and dynamics of the psyche as an unfolding whole?

How do we balance symbolic and rational functioning in our lives?

How do we remember that vision is real?

I want to integrate affective neuroscience, ecological and depth psychology, and narrative therapy, as a way of catalyzing human optimization and antifragility.