We live in a world of symbols.
A symbol can be any word, image, object, animal, or person that represents an idea or connotation outside of its ordinary meaning. For example, a “snake” in mythology is a common symbol for treachery, sneakiness, and dishonesty. In the story of Adam and Eve, it’s a snake that convinces Eve to eat fruit from the forbidden tree.
Many people like to believe they’ve escaped from the world of symbols and mythology. Modern man prides himself in being an empirical, logical, and scientific thinker, who only pays attention to the world of senses and doesn’t concern himself with mysticism.
However, in the classic psychology book Man and His Symbols, Carl Jung illustrates that we are still embedded in a world of symbols and they are a natural part of man and how his mind works. There’s no escaping them.
Religion, politics, art, and business are all areas in life where symbols are everywhere, whether it’s a political flag that represents a social ideal, or a corporate logo that represents a product or service, or a spiritual symbol that embodies an important value in our lives.
These symbols aren’t just byproducts of our world, they influence our attitudes, behaviors, and choices in life – often without us even realizing it.
If you’ve been a consumer of a certain brand for a long period of time, you’ve likely fell into a type of “spell” with a symbol. Sure, you could eat somewhere else, but you go to McDonalds because it’s a brand you’re familiar with and it’s a brand you see advertised all the time. The “M” made of golden arches becomes a symbol you associate with a delicious Big Mac and fries.
We all fall into a “spell” with the symbols in our lives. Our minds are constantly interpreting things and building associations that we aren’t consciously aware of. We aren’t just passive observers of our reality – soaking up the facts and regurgitating them out – our minds add meaning to our experiences.
Our minds are meaning-generating machines. Because we can’t possibly understand everything in the universe, we are often driven to “fill in the gaps” and symbols are one way our minds accomplish this.
Popular concepts like “freedom,” “society,” “happiness,” and “success” can also be considered types of symbols. They often refer to abstract concepts and ideals we strive for, but don’t always understand in completely concrete terms.
These terms often come with different connotations depending on the person you’re talking to. “Success” might be an important ideal with positive connotations (like “hard work” and “achieving goals”), while another person might see “Success” as having negative connotations (like “selfishness” or “only caring about money.”)
One of the biggest symbols is the conception of “God,” which attempts to explain something unexplainable, yet everyone has different interpretations of this concept. Some may see God as a personal entity while others see God as an impersonal entity (like a force of nature).
Symbols permit us to communicate ideas that are otherwise difficult to communicate. They can also help us expand beyond the limitations of words, logic, or rationality, which may not properly encapsulate the meaning we wish to express.
Dreams, Symbols, and Insights
One of the most common ways our minds create symbols is through the form of dreams.
Dreams are a complete product of our minds, and while they may draw from our everyday experiences, they often create characters, environments, and situations that our completely new and foreign to us.
According to Carl Jung, studying dreams can be a very valuable tool for achieving insight and creating more “psychological balance” in our lives, by exposing us to ideas and impulses that may be boiling below the surface of consciousness.
Like other aspects of our unconscious, dreams are a way for our brains to think about problems and generate ideas outside of our awareness. This taps into the more intuitive parts of our brain, similar to the fast, automatic, emotional “System 1” of our minds described by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow.
Scientists, philosophers, and artists have been known to be inspired by dreams and visions from the unconscious.
Famous examples include James Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA (a double helix) when he dreamt of a spiral staircase, Albert Einsten’s theory of relativity which was inspired by a dream of him riding down a hill at the speed of light, and Srinivasa Ramanujan who derived many mathematical formulas with the help of dreams, including the infinite series of Pi.
Dreams don’t only have the potential to lead to insight and creativity, they may also help us deal with deep psychological and spiritual conflict.
In one fascinating study, it was shown that “end of life” dreams during the final weeks of people’s lives can often provide comfort and security. This fits perfectly with Jung’s theory that dreams can play a complementary role in balancing our minds and teaching us to accept ideas we may have suppressed or neglected.
How do dreams lead to insight? Is it a deliberate act of the subconscious, or a divine force, or just mere coincidence?
The answer to this question isn’t as relevant as the value of dreams in themselves. No matter what their origins are, it’s evident that they can still be a source of insight and inspiration – and that alone makes them worth paying attention to.
Many dreams may be completely random and nonsensical, and perhaps they have no meaning whatsoever except for the meaning we assign to them. But if you wake up from a dream and it leaves a strong impact on you, that’s the only thing that really matters.
It’s also important to remember that because symbols are only meaningful to the individual, we can never follow a strict guideline when interpreting dreams. Many books and articles attempt to create guides on how to interpret certain symbols, but you have to take into account the individual’s own experiences and beliefs.
Man and His Symbols is one of Carl Jung’s most famous works in psychology. It explores our inner world of symbols and how they can help guide our lives and reconcile psychological conflict. It shares wonderful insights into how art, religion, symbols, and mythology often fuse together to influence our dreams and unconscious minds. It also includes in-depth analysis on how these teachings can be applied to certain people and patients.
Connecting With Your World of Symbols
Our world of symbols is a very unconscious phenomenon. To better understand the symbols that influence our lives, we have to work to bring the unconscious into the conscious.
Here are healthy suggestions to grow a better understanding of your world of symbols:
- Study your cultural background – We are first exposed to symbols at a very early age, and these symbols have likely been passed down from multiple generations in one form or another. Carl Jung put great importance on learning the history of culture and mythology when trying to decipher the importance of symbols. For example, if someone comes from a Christian background, those symbols are still likely to play a role in a person’s mind even if they no longer identify with that religion or tradition.
- Keep a dream diary – A dream diary can be a great way to become more aware of your dreams and use them as a potential source for insight and inspiration. Try to keep a small notebook by your bed so you can record your dreams as soon as you wake up. Just writing a few sentences of what you remember (and a small interpretation) can be a very valuable exercise. And if you don’t remember your dreams on a particular night, just record your current thoughts and mood in the morning. If you stick with this habit, you are likely to begin finding certain patterns and themes within your dreams.
- Listen to your archetypes – In the book, Jung shares his popular concept of “archetypes.” Archetypes are described as a personification of a certain psychological tendency that exists in our mind. One common example used throughout the book are the “anima” and “animus,” which represent the feminine and masculine instincts that exist in all of us. Archetypes often present themselves in dreams in the form of other people and living things. Remember that every character created in your dream originates from your mind, so even if you dream of someone you know in real life (a friend or a family member), it’s often a reflection of your own psychology. Archetypes can lead us to lessons about our lives that our unconscious is trying to bring into light.
- Find an artistic endeavor – Art and creativity are an excellent avenue to become more familiar with your inner world of symbols. Painting, sculpting, poetry, and music are all ways to become more in-touch with your unconscious and the feelings and instincts you experience which may be too difficult to communicate in a strictly verbal or rational fashion. I strongly believe everyone should have an artistic endeavor in one form or another; you don’t even have to be skillful or talented, just the simple act of “creating” is a healthy and worthwhile goal for becoming more connected with your inner world. Jung is often cited as a popular influence on art therapy, and the book is filled with pictures of artworks to elaborate on the importance of visual symbols.
- Be comfortable with your shadow – Often when exploring your mind, you’re likely to discover ideas and instincts that you may consider to be “dark” or “negative.” According to Jung, we all have a “shadow” that exists inside us, and a big part of reconciling psychological conflict is learning to be more comfortable with the “darker sides” of ourselves. By giving our shadow attention, we can learn to direct its energy in a more constructive way. But if we ignore or neglect our shadow, it can often become hostile and manifest itself in destructive ways. Knowing how to reframe your dark side can be an important tool in self improvement.
- Be mindful of the symbols in your daily life – As we mentioned earlier, our world is full of symbols in politics, religion, business, art, and many other domains of life. There’s not a day that goes by when you aren’t looking at some type of symbol. Even the icons on your computer, internet memes, and the emoticons you use in text messages, are all forms of symbols we use to convey our ideas on a non-verbal level. There’s no escaping this world of symbols, we can only become more aware of it. You should pay special attention to symbols that elicit strong emotions out of you, because that’s a sign that they mean something to you (at a conscious or unconscious level).
- Appreciate moments of synchronicity – Synchronicity is when an external event happens to us that we find personally special and meaningful. One of the most common examples of this is when we are thinking about a person and they happen to call us on the phone at that exact moment. While there’s no proof that these events are magical or divine in anyway, the fact that we find them awe-inspiring should be enough to allow us to enjoy and appreciate the moment for what it is, especially if it leaves a psychological impact.
These are just a few starting points for becoming more connected with your world of symbols.
There are a lot of valuable insights throughout Man and His Symbols that I didn’t get to mention here. The book was written for a general audience, but it weaves together a wide-range of ideas that can’t be easily glossed over in a single article.
Carl Jung puts a great importance on “looking inward” at our minds. He considers it an important tool in our lives that is unfairly ignored and neglected:
- “In a period of human history when all available energy is spent in the investigation of nature, very little attention is paid to the essence of man, which is his psyche, although many researches are made into its conscious functions. But the really complex and unfamiliar part of the mind, from which symbols are produced, is still virtually unexplored. It seems almost incredible that though we receive signals from it every night, deciphering these communications seems too tedious for any but a very few people to be bothered with it. Man’s greatest instrument, his psyche, is little thought of, and it is often directly mistrusted and despised. ‘It’s only psychological’ too often means: It is nothing.”
I highly recommend you check out this book if these ideas interest you and you want to learn more. These ideas are still very new to me, as I’ve always focused on cognitive, behavioral, and social aspects of self improvement. The idea of paying more attention to my dreams and “inner world” of symbols has always seemed a bit daunting to me, but I think there’s a lot of potential value to it.
Stay updated on new articles and resources in psychology and self improvement: