The Symbolic Dimension of Our Lives

A Pero Manescu (Q-Art) conceptual analog photography

The part of us that lives in the unconscious is hard to sense yet easy to find. Jung coined the evocative image of “the Shadow:” banal, somewhat hidden, ever-present, often overlooked, at times sinister. Where there is light, there is a shadow. If a light is on, there is a shadow somewhere. Just behind you, under your fingers, in the places you aren’t seeing. We only have to shift our attention. Some folks experience this kind of work with a natural, intuitive instinct, knowing that attention to those dark unknowns can lead to transformation, freedom, and greater self-power. I think this is true personally and socially: what we deny as a culture keeps us sick. We see this in our most painful scandals: the cover-up might be worse than the crime, compounding an already awful wound with lies and manipulation. The evils we refuse to acknowledge in our hearts, families, and communities become toxic and connected to greater evils in our culture.

One useful way of accessing the unconscious dimension of awareness comes from viewing life as rich with symbolic meaning, most easily discovered in dreams, daydreams, nervous habits, patterns of speech, repetitive relationship patterns, physical illnesses, accidents, family histories, and more. Any event, image, or behavior might point toward other subtle truths. This “pointing toward” is difficult to grasp rationally. A dream of driving a car off a cliff might suggest that our life’s course is dangerously off track, or we need to let go of control and move into a terrifying situation, but we should avoid interpreting it as a literal instruction. If the guidance seems harmful to your health, life, and wellbeing, or that of others, then keep working! The interpretation is not workable.

The evolving Self can nourish and sustain itself and become a fountain of generosity, love, and wisdom, but we become sick and parasitic when divided, seeking from others what we cannot find within. From a psychodynamic perspective, human motivation is paradoxical. Examples: pushing away the people we love because we are so desperate for love and terrified that we’ll be hurt. Acting like a doormat because we’re afraid of hurting people. Accusing others of the things we hate about ourselves; loving in others what we want to love in ourselves.

From a Jungian perspective, the waking sense of “who I am,” the ego, is a narrow and limited comprehension of life, accompanied and compensated by the unconscious, which offers the guidance and inspiration we need when we are suffering. Suffering arises when our ego’s defenses reject the wisdom of the unconscious. I often record my dreams, and commonly will reread them and think, “That doesn’t make any sense at all.” When I bring the dream to therapy or a dream group, I find that the dream is speaking to one of my blind-spots, the place where I most need to grow to transform my current problems. Thinking I immediately know what the dream means often comes from a self-reinforcing and limited ego belief. Diving into the complex symbol brings growth.

Attention to stories, myths, visual arts, liberal arts, and dreams can enhance the symbolic view of life, but we each must accept the responsibility to develop our own personal maps of the unconscious. Dream dictionaries and pithy summations from others, even the most wise and profound of us, are always reductions of the unlimited wealth that symbols offer. A symbol is a fountain of meaning and our relationship to those symbols evolve over time. Symbols also connect us to the collective mind, the gathered wisdom of generations codified in our stories and art. We benefit greatly when we take on spiritual teachers, psychotherapists, or wise partners who can help us to plumb the meanings of the unconscious mind, and we receive the greatest blessings if those mentors and friends encourage us to own our explorations. Each of us has a unique contribution to that well of collective wisdom.


Mann mit Sonnenkopf auf einer Sonne stehend. Woodcut from Johann Sternhals Ritter-Krieg, Erfurt, 1595.

A symbolic view of reality approaches a Hermetic view, where we exist in an embedded world of meaning. The unconscious inner world operates according to different laws than the conscious outer world. Coincidence and paradox are norms, not miracles. Time and space are non-linear. The motion of planets from the Earth’s perspective looks like an archetypal clock that corresponds to certain trends and forces in our lives. Here the wholly rational person gets off the train, if they haven’t already.We do not transcend the laws of our material, temporal bodies, but our inner lives take on richness and complexity that evades comprehension by the rational, scientific worldview. Holding the irrational, symbolic view of the world in addition to the rational, scientific perspective can enrich our lives.



Take in a deep, slow breath, and exhale completely. Notice how your body feels right now, notice each sense. Think of a daydream you’ve had recently, or a fantasy, or a worry you can’t let go. Get a piece of paper or a word processor and ask yourself the following questions, then write out whatever comes to mind as the first response. If you think of a few different responses, include those as well. Don’t try to find “the answer.” Find at least three answers.

What could be the core desire, or core fear?

What could I be wanting?

What could I be avoiding?

What is the opposite of this worry or fantasy? 

What is missing from this worry or fantasy?

Does this feel familiar? What is the emotional quality?

Does this remind me of other stories or images?

Drawing a picture of, or write a story about, the worry or fantasy. You can do this even if you think of yourself as uncreative or a bad artist. No one else needs to see this. If you have time, try doing this exercise from different angles; if you worry that someone will become angry at you, write a story from that person’s perspective as well as yours.

What does this work tell me about what I want or what I fear?

Does this suggest an action I can take to bring more of what I want into my life?

If more questions come up, please continue to explore. Leave your story or picture somewhere that you can revisit it in a week or two. Share it with someone you trust who might be able to suggest other interpretations. Think of it as a work of art to be read in many ways, but listen to that inner sense of knowing whether an interpretation “feels” right or wrong. If an interpretation leads to more discomfort, doubt, or conflict, there’s a need for more work. If an interpretation leads to enthusiasm or relaxation, you might be moving in the right direction.