The Self as Hidden Treasure in Jungian Psychotherapy
Jungian case studies and Jungian analysis put a high value on the uniqueness of the individual, and on the treasure that is the inmost Self. Jungians see symbolic reflection of the motif of the Self as hidden treasure in many texts from the world’s artistic, religious, spiritual and philosophical traditions. For instance, in the Gospel of Matthew, and also in the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, there is the famous parable comparing the “kingdom of Heaven” to a hidden treasure. A Jungian psychological interpretation of this saying would portray the “kingdom of Heaven” as, broadly speaking, a symbol of the Self:
‘The kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field
which someone has found; He hides it again,
goes off in his joy, sells everything he owns and buys the field.
Matthew 13:44, The New Jerusalem Bible
The motif of the Self as hidden treasure also permeates alchemy, that esoteric pre-scientific approach to matter and the world, in which Jung took such an interest in the later part of his life. The goal that the alchemists sought was not to create ordinary gold from lead, but to create something called “the philosophers’ stone”, an absolutely incorruptible and indestructible substance.
Jung acknowledges that, from a scientific point of view, the way the alchemists went after this goal made no sense, but what gripped him was the underlying symbolism. Jung saw in the “philosophers’s stone” a potent symbol of the Self, in this case, hidden in matter and awaiting discovery, a treasure guarded in secrecy by the alchemists. Jung believed that some of the later alchemists such as Gerhard Dorn came to realize that what they were seeking in their alchemical work was not a physical, but a psychological reality, and that it was that reality that the symbol of the philosphers’ stone or “son of the philosophers” as it was sometimes called was pointing.
The Core of the Self
At the base of all this symbolization there lies a profound and precious truth about human existence. It is a truth about the nature of the human self. At the core of each of us, there is that element in us, an awareness, that is unique and precious, that defines what we most fundamentally are. Sometimes that is represented symbollically as a hidden treasure, sometimes as a gemstone, sometimes in a variety of other ways.
This is the core of ourselves, symbollically represented. And there is a bit of a paradox about its nature. Certainly, symbollically, it is often presented as something that is so precious because it is incorruptible, even indestructible. Yet, there is a danger concerning the self to which symbol and myth point. It seems that it is possible for us to lose this treasure, to have it taken away. Somehow it needs to be guarded and treated with vigilance — like the individual in the parable who joyfully finds the treasure, but then hides it carefully again, until such time as he can go and buy the land in which it’s buried.
Self Protection, Self Possession
This issue of the core of the self, protecting it and keeping it, is one that I meet with on a very regular basis in case studies practice. It is something with which, in one way or another, very many people. It is a sad truth that very many people have learned, one way or another, and very often early in life, that their self — their true uniqueness — can be stolen or devalued by others
Sometimes, people learn this lesson as a result of the guilting, shame or ridicule of those who are close to them. Sometimes what happens really does look like a theft of the self: for instance, a young person will get the message very directly that a parent or other significant person cannot tolerate or deal with who the young person really is, and so that person (often unconsciously) manufactures a false self tp placate the other. Sometimes a person will give themselves whole-heartedly in relationships — and then find her- or himself deeply betrayed.
Learning to Hide the Self Away
As a consequence, these people learn — sometimes unbelievably well — that the true self has to be hidden away, that they cannot dare reveal who they really are to the people closest to them. It is then very easy for this lesson to get generalized out to take in the whole world. It can be come a reflex to feel that nobody wants me, or wants to know who I really am. Then the only way I get through life is to “keep my head down”, in despair, and just try and keep my joys, my needs — anything at all about me — from getting noticed, and that any encounter of another with me will only result in guilt, rejection and shame.
As is very often the case, it seems to me, when you are looking for someone to express some aspect of modern consciousness, you very often cannot do better than the Beatles. Here they are, singing a song that is profoundly “on the money” about the need to hide the true self — “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away“.
Getting the Self Back
For such an individual, getting the self back, and spontaneously living out of it, is a key priority. The reason for that is that, without that sense of acting and reacting out of our actual self, our life simply doesn’t feel real to us.
Psychotherapy with the right therapist may be an essential part of this self-recovery. An effective psychotherapeutic approach will allow you to get at the deeper reasons for hiding the self. Many of those reasons may reside in the unconscious, and it may be that only as a person uses the therapy as a “laboratory” for exploring him- or herself, that they can begin to develop a sense and a comfort for what it is to live out of the self.
Most people at one time or another have had to wrestle with the feeling that who and what they are is not acceptable to others. Has that feeling ever been a part of your experience? If you would be willing to share your experiences, either in a comment or an email, I would welcome the opportunity to share and dialogue with you.
Wishing you a fuller and fuller encounter with your deepest treasure, the Self, as you move forward on your personal journey to wholeness,
Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst
PHOTO CREDIT: Rembrandt “Parable of the hidden treasure” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
MUSIC CREDIT: © Lennon / McCartney, EMI Music, 1965
© 2011 Brian Collinson
Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive, Oakville, Ontario (near Oakville / Mississauga border)