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  • Jungian Psychotherapy Symbol Book: A Personal Journey

    The other night I watched the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?” again.  It’s one of my great favourites, for any number of reasons: it’s the directors, the Coen Brothers, at their finest; I think it’s as funny as can be; the music is wonderful; the cast is as talented as it gets; and, it’s — loosely — based on one of the greatest works of the human poetic imagination, Homer’s Odyssey.  But the number one reason I appreciate this movie is that it’s based upon the symbol and myth of the journey, which is one of the greatest of all human archetypal patterns, and one that is of great importance for case studies.

    The Journey Symbol

    Artistic and religious symbolism worldwide reflects the archetype of the journey.  It’s one of the most universal expressions of the human condition and development of the course of human life.  It is central to the Hebrew Bible (Exodus), the Christian Bible (journeys of St. Paul), Islam (the Haj) and countless other religious traditions.  A vast amount of literature, poety and art reflects this theme.  Jung himself, when he sought to characterize the two great movements in human life, referred to them, by using this symbol, as “the hero journey” and “the night sea journey”.


    The whole point of a journey is that it has a destination.  In both the Odyssey and O Brother, Where Art Thou? , the whole process may seem chaotic, but the process is actually moving somewhere, toward a specific end — imaged as the journey home.  That is what the journey symbol conveys to us: if life is imaged as a journey, it is going somewhere.  It has a specific end.  Our lives are capable of having a meaningful direction, even if the present circumstances are completely disorienting.  This is a constant theme in human myth, and it embodies a psychological truth.  There is something in us that knows the way, even when our conscious ego does not.

    This can be a very important thing to know in therapy, and in human life in general.  But it must be something other than a glib platitude.  Vague assurances that “it’s going to be OK” will acheive very little for suffering, struggling people.  What people need is assurance, as they struggle, often with very deep, dark things that may have surfaced in their lives.  They need to know that, out of real chaos, something meaningful and healing can emerge.  The real therapist is someone who can go with the client on her or his journey, who can be right with the client, because the therapist knows, in some way that is deeper than merely intellectual, that this process has an inner meaning in the end.

    Just for fun, here’s the official trailer from O Brother, Where Art Thou?:

    What About Your Journey?

    Do you ever think about your life in terms of it being a journey?  Are there times when you’ve been particularly aware that it is a journey?  Have there been times when it really feels as if you’ve lost the way?  If you have, or you are, I would welcome hearing from you via  a comment or through a confidential email.

    Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst



    PHOTO CREDIT: © Holger Karius |

    TRAILER CREDIT:  © 2000 Touchstone Pictures and Universal Studios.  This trailer is the property of Touchstone Pictures and Universal Studios and is used here in the fair use context of critical discussion.

    © 2010 Brian Collinson
    Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive, Oakville, Ontario (near Oakville / Mississauga border)
    1. Viv


      November 24, 2010 at 12:27 pm -

      Sometimes it is the feeling of our actions/inactions having no meaning that makes the journey so hard to go on with at times, though I would disagree that the assurance that things are going to be ok is useless. If it comes from a respected and trusted person, it can mean the world. When it comes down to it, the words of 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich(I live 35 miles from her hermitage cell) “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well,” still resonate through the centuries and yet, it is the force of the experience that prompted those words that carries forward to being more than just a vague assurance that everything will be ok. Words have power sometimes beyond the mere saying of them.
      I shall be back.
      thank you.

      1. Brian C
        November 27, 2010 at 3:10 pm -

        Thank you very much for your post, Viv. I would certainly agree that the assurance that things are going to be OK is far from useless. As a therapist and Jungian Analyst, I’m very aware that re-assurance at the right time can have tremendous importance to the individual. What I took issue with was glib assurances. To offer assurance without actually looking at the difficulties and pain in someone’s life, for instance, is glib. It’s also irresponsible and a horrible thing to do to another human being. I do think that assurances can make a tremendous difference when they come from a respected and trusted person, if that person is truly deserving of the respect and the trust.

        I agree with you entirely that Dame Julian of Norwich would fit the bill there. Julian was an anchorite. What that means is that the individual was effectively bricked into a small cell, where they would remain for the rest of their lives. I think that to the average person, such a life might well seem completely horrifying and terrifying. Many people would find it so. So when a person has come through years upon years of this type of experience, and says, with conviction, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”, it does carry weight. This is because the individual has been through something, has seen something, has suffered, and can still say it. This is no small thing. However, the key thing here is that the individual is talking out of her experience. That is what makes the difference between glib and authentic. You can’t take someone somewhere that you haven’t been yourself. I agree that words can have tremendous power. It’s not that there is any magic in the words per se. It’s that they convey the conviction and experience of the person who speaks truly out of their experience.

        Thanks very much for your comment, Viv. I hope that you’ll come back and visit again!

    2. Viv


      November 27, 2010 at 3:31 pm -

      Hi Brian,
      I was hoping to be able to really engage with this one but certain health matters(I collapsed a fortnight ago and was recovering) overtook me before this reply. I’m not sure right now if I am going to be OK in the long term but largely worrying about not being able to fulfill a work assignment that is to take me to France next week (the idea of winding up in a French hospital is NOT appealing)
      Julian is a personal hero; I visit her cell regularly and her spirit/whatever inspires me.
      I have an aversion to the glib and a built-in bullshit monitor that goes “wheepwheepwheep” whenever BS is offered.
      I shall be around from time to time. I like what you write.

      1. Brian C
        November 28, 2010 at 10:19 am -

        Thank you for commenting back, Viv. I hope that your health concerns resolve themselves soon, and in a very good way. Thank you for your comments, and I hope that we’ll be able to dialogue more in the near future.

        Wishing you all the very best.

    3. jamenta


      November 28, 2010 at 4:07 pm -

      What I find powerful about Jung is his analytical psychology is based on direct experiential observations of the unconscious – both in his own life and that of his many clients and colleagues.

      As you study his work you will find this to be true. He disliked intensely being labeled as “metaphysical” or “spiritual” – often the accusation of his detractors – who even went as far as denying the existence of the unconscious despite the clear amount of evidence available.

      That analytical psychology thrives today, and in fact has been found to be among the most effective of therapeutic approaches (markedly better than drug therapy which IMO is being pushed moreso for profit motives) is a tribute to the authenticity and veracity of Jung’s discoveries and subsequent theories about the psyche.

      Perhaps Jung’s greatest discovery about the unconscious is that it is autonomous, objective and is teleological in nature. It is not just a repository of hidden impulses and denied hopes if “wish fulfillment” as Freud theorized.

      However Jung was also adamant about accepting the suffering in our lives and that we must integrate that suffering as part of our individuation and meaning. This didn’t however mean you must not struggle against it and attempt to better your life and conditions, but it did mean not running away from the suffering or denying it altogether – i.e. it meant taking responsibility for the obstacles and challenges in your life, becoming more aware of the goals of the unconscious by listening to your dreams and synchronistic phenomenon, and integrating the direction of the unconscious at an ego level – and having faith that the direction the unconscious wants to take you – is the ultimate fulfillment and meaning your life can and will offer you. Even death is something eventually sought out by the unconscious, and though it appears meaningless and terrible by the ego, to the unconscious it is a great moment of change – of harvesting what was gained in a lifetime of ego experience.

      This comment is just my opinion – and my understanding of Jung may not be as accurate as Brian’s! hehe. But this is my take right now.

      1. Brian C
        November 28, 2010 at 10:14 pm -

        Thanks for your comment John! I find your understanding of Jung’s basic approach to be pretty much “right on the money”. In particular, I agree with your succinct characterization of Jung’s findings about the unconscious, that it is “autonomous, objective and teleological in nature”, “teleological” being a great word for “having a direction”. Absolutely! And it is the combination of these attributes of the unconscious that give the symbol of the journey its particular power. For the journey in human life is not something that we simply consciously embark on. It is a journey that the unconscious is going on , whether the conscious personality decides to cooperate with the process or not. I think many people have had the experience of times in their lifes when it has felt like the conscious personality was just “along for the ride”, and something else within the person was unfolding in a manner that it understood and knew, and that had its own wisdom, which was far different –often far wiser– than the calculated projects of the ego.

    4. jamenta


      November 29, 2010 at 12:20 am -

      Thanks Brian. You always are able to sum up and then insert your own Jungian pearls of wisdom whenever I make a comment. I appreciate that quite a bit.

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