Images and Symbols

Our life is laced with images. They are the basic unit of consciousness. Images were the first language of humankind, in place and driving our survival millennia before we learned to speak. Imagery probably produced language, arising from the grunts and gestures of semi-apes trying earnestly to communicate what they were experiencing in their heads. Today, images are still the language of the unconscious mind and the language of the soul. All day and all night, images flow through our minds like pearls on a string, each entering, floating through and exiting, to be succeeded by the next. They are the continuous thread of our consciousness.

Imagery is not highly regarded in our culture. Perhaps because our lives are awash with images, from magazines, newspapers, movies, television, the web, advertisements and ten thousand other sources, we do not usually consider them to be very important. The exception, of course, is the advertising industry, which carefully uses imagery in order to sell us things. Generally, however, we do not consider images to be crucial. We fail to realize that they can be dynamic. They can make things happen. We generally do not distinguish between junk images, from mass media and pop culture, that contain nothing of importance, and significant, important images that could potentially change our lives.

Carl Jung did the deepest, best work on images and symbols. His students and successors have added much good information to elaborate what he started. Jungian therapy today is primarily a study of the client’s imagery, from dreams and waking visions, hopefully emerging from the unconscious level. Jung was vitally interested in the deep, usually symbolic imagery carried in the human unconscious. This imagery formulates our perceptions, interpretations and responses to life, tracks the arc of our lives as we move through it, and is the source of the shifting, changing transformations that we may experience.

A symbol is a very special kind of image. Image is the generic term, but when we say symbol we mean something very specific. A symbol must be distinguished from a sign. A sign is a basic equivalence. A stands for B. You know what A is and you know what B is. An example is the cross, which stands for Christianity. There is no mystery in the meaning. It’s just a simple equivalence. When you see the cross you know you’re talking Christianity. Signs are totally within the framework of consciousness and rationality.

A symbol, on the other hand, comes from beneath the threshold of the conscious mind. It comes wrapped in mystery. We cannot see where it comes from, and we probably will not know what it means. It comes laden with meaning. Sometimes it comes with multiple meanings, all of which may be simultaneously true. The symbol is a vein of richness in consciousness. If we can tap into that vein, we can learn things that we need to know. The symbol points beyond itself. It points beyond what is known or knowable. It reaches down into regions of vastness, infinity and mystery. It relates to the human search for significance and meaning. Symbols don’t create meaning in the mind. They simply open meaning in consciousness. Symbols very often relate to the sense of sacredness, the sense of majesty in the universe. The Sufi definition of sacredness is: “Meaningfulness perceived with the heart.”

Symbols cannot be constructed. They cannot be forced. They must be approached on their own terms. They simply arrive. They are an act of grace, a gift of information. They are not rational. They arise out of the darkness of the depths. But, they can be crucial to our lives. All we can do with symbols is wait expectantly, and catch them if they arrive. Man has been called “the Symbolic Animal.” Eli Sagan said: “A human need as powerful as sex or aggression, a need that can be denied the psyche only at the cost of severe psychic disorder, is the need to create symbols and live in a symbolic world.”

Symbols are numinous, or lit up. They are mysterious and compelling to the human personality. Although we may not know what they mean, they compel and constellate our attention. They are magnetic, attracting our attention and curiosity. We sense something deep and rich in them, and we are eager to excavate it. Symbols arrive with the conviction that there is something extraordinary here, something that is veiled, true and can only partially be seen. And, as their influence deepens, they can become very dynamic and cause human behavior to change. They can occasionally become a molder and moving force in consciousness.

One cannot talk intelligently about images and symbols without mentioning the Mithal. The Mithal is one of the great ideas of Ibn Arabi, (12thcentury Arab Spain). Ibn Arabi postulated that between the level of invisible, absolute Being and the level of the material world is an in-between realm that he called the Mithal. It is totally image. The images in this realm have their own reality and manner of working, their own idiosyncratic dynamics, which is totally unlike that of the material world. However, the images penetrate our world and our consciousness. They play a large and vital part in our lives. They appear in our consciousness with potentially powerful effects.

Because the Mithal is an interface, an in-between zone, the material world can leak up into it and become a little spiritualized. We call that idealization. Pure Being, which is unseeable, can leak down into the Mithal, enabling us to have images of spiritual realities that cannot be seen otherwise. Examples are the images of Shiva dancing his eternal dance of destruction, and God touching the finger of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. These spiritualized visions have become the basis for all the world’s great religions. The Mithal is a mysterious, in-between realm, with some access to Being and some access to the material world, both realms leaking into it. The imagery that floats through our minds every day is emerging from the Mithal. It comes, perhaps, through the filter of our own personality and our own worldview, but the imagery itself comes from the Mithal.

Science, of course, would sneer at this idea but, as a matter of fact, Einstein expertly used images to arrive at his conclusions. He called them “thought experiments.” For his part, Carl Jung credited many of his ideas to Philamon, a Pagan old man with a beard and wings, who existed in Jung’s imagination. At a certain stage in his life, Jung spent a great deal of time talking in his mind with Philamon. He later said “I owe my career to Philamon.” There is something strange at work here, quite outside our worldview. Jung is conversing with an image in his mind, getting information that he didn’t have before, which proved crucial to the development of his ideas.

A very similar process was reported by Ibn Arabi. He described how he imagined himself walking around and around the Ka’aba in Mecca with Sophia, the Goddess of Wisdom. She was in the guise of a young girl. As they circumnavigated the Ka’aba in his mind, they talked at length. Like Jung, Ibn Arabi credited this imaginal friend as the source of many of his most important ideas.

These examples show that we should not be derisive about the imagination. The imagination is a powerful tool for determining reality, particularly if the subject matter is too vast or too small to be seen with the eyes. If something is real but invisible, how else would you perceive it? Imagination, in some circumstances, can be a source of truth about reality. Here’s what Maria Von Franz, the foremost pupil of Jung, said about imagery: “A dream (image) comments on the person’s situation. It can vivify something which is happening in a person’s life. It gives a sense of the problem as having a hidden meaning even though the meaning may not be clear. The knowledge from the unconscious is the water of life. Having drunk of it, the person will feel that something is flowing and the period of stagnation is over. Working in this way is the uniting of the conscious with the unconscious.”

This is a testament by a brilliant mind to the power of imagery. We need access to our deep imagery in order to live our lives fully. We need our dreaming sight in order to be whole. Henry Corbin said: “Once we lost sight of the imaginal nature of certain realities, the true import of a great body of mythic and religious teachings slipped from our grasp.” Reality is so much richer and more complex than we imagine it to be. Images and symbols are a central feature of that rich layering. They are gifts to us of in-depth meaning. At this stage in our evolution, we know very little about where they come from, or how, but we can say with conviction that they are connected to Reality, connected to the depths of our consciousness, to our livingness, and to the depths of Being itself.

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