Symbolic Amplification in Psychotherapy as a Path to Gnosis
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
This essay explores the process of working with symbols in therapy as a path to inner wisdom.
It was submitted in December 2020 as a final reflection paper in a course toward my masters degree in counseling psychology with an emphasis in marriage and family therapy, professional clinical counseling, and depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute.
Disclaimer: this article may feel therapeutic but it is not therapy. This article and/or astrology readings cannot substitute for legal, medical, business, or financial advice, or professional mental health care.
Symbolic Amplification in Psychotherapy as a Path to Gnosis
December 9, 2020
The psychotherapeutic process of exploring and elaborating upon the symbols presented in dreams and waking life is a path to improve mental health through the integration of psyche by enhancing self-knowing and deepening connection to something greater than oneself. In Penelope’s Loom, psychologist Stephen Mitchell (1988) said psychotherapy “allows the [client] to recover, reconnect with, and fully experience aspects of himself previously disclaimed, hidden, disavowed” (p. 289). The utilization of symbols toward this end is at the core of depth psychotherapy where the therapist provides a container to experience symbols as they arise within the client. In my personal experience, working with symbols helped me understand myself and integrate parts of myself that I was not aware of, that lead to practical improvements in my life. Even further, psychoanalyst Andrew Samuels (2005) said, amplification of symbols helps the client “reach beyond the personal content to the wider implications” (p. 67). This refers to the connection with universal symbols present in humanity throughout time and space. Though the concept of collective symbols can be problematic if the therapist lacks adequate cultural awareness, this can be mediated through effort, study, and intentional multicultural awareness. Ultimately, working with symbols is a lifelong path of study that I plan to incorporate in my future practice as a psychotherapist to provide a space for my clients to have a deeper experience of themselves.
Symbols are best articulated by the following words from the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu in the Tao Te Ching (Mitchell, 2006) where he described the paradoxical nature of the Tao, “The more you use it, the more it produces; the more you talk of it, the less you understand” (p. 5). This speaks to my personal experience of symbols. They are everywhere; when I pay attention and think symbolically about mundane events, symbols present themselves with heightened volume and intensity. Yet, the more I pursue this path of symbolic thinking the more I realize how much I do not know. Despite this unknowingness, I find symbols to be a gateway to deeper awareness. As discussed by professor Ifat Peled (2020), a symbol is a representation of something unknown, it essentially expresses more than it is. Applying symbols to the context of psychotherapy, the role of the therapist is to observe all things as symbolic in the therapy room: from the client’s clothes to the stories and situations they speak about. Peled (2020) said this approach assists the therapist in connecting to what is most meaningful in the moment. Whatever is presented by the client (directly or symbolically) is not random, it is meant to be taken in at that time for the greater purpose of the therapy process.
An example from my own life is a symbol that appeared while I contemplated going back to school to get my undergraduate degree as a first step toward a career change from real estate to psychotherapy. I wrote in a journal, “feeling hesitant about going to college. But I thought about it a long time…and it seems truly in line with what I want” (Author’s personal journal, April 2017). Later, I performed a divination with animal oracle cards to inquire how I may experience the process of going back to school. The randomly selected card had a black and white image of a crocodile’s side profile with a golden eye. I wrote, “the crocodile scares me. I get the sense that school will be an underworld journey of my soul” (Author’s personal journal, April 2017). My personal associations with crocodiles were of darkness, going underwater into the dark muck, stagnation of a swamp, devouring, predatory behavior, and massive but secretive strength. I sensed a correlation between the dark, watery, marsh habitat of crocodiles and depth psychology where the essence of the work is exploring unconscious parts of psyche that are destructive – like a crocodile seizing its prey.
In practice, if a psychotherapy client presented the above referenced situation and crocodile symbol to me in a session, I would first ask the client to describe the image and exactly what in the image was most striking to them. I would then further amplify the symbol by inquiring what other associations the client had with the image, while tracking their language and nonverbal cues for additional symbolic information. As discussed by Peled (2020), the therapist’s role is not to introduce symbols but rather to listen in a symbolic fashion. In the client role of this example, what drew my attention most was the crocodile’s bright yellow-golden eye. It was haunting, I felt the eye “watching” me knowingly. I also remembered that crocodiles are ancient creatures and have been around for about 80 million years (National Geographic, 2009). Acting as the psychotherapist, I would say, “I hear this crocodile is a symbol of a watchfulness from something ancient. . . what could this be saying about your going back to school?” As a client, I would have said there is a wise and knowing part of me that is moving me in this direction toward a vocation as a psychotherapist; but I have to be careful because this force could be more than I can handle. In this example of symbol amplification, the client’s inner conflict was brought forward for further exploration.
In the above example, the individual was feeling compelled from a deep place within (ancient crocodile with a knowing eye) but there was hesitancy because of the magnitude of the venture (destructive capacity of the crocodile). In my personal experience in the client role, these associations gave me comfort that there was something greater than myself moving me toward the shift in vocation as well as an awareness of the fear of confronting unconscious behaviors that may be self-destructive. As Carl Jung (1969) said in the Foreword to Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism, “Every invasion of the unconscious is an answer to a definite conscious situation” (p. 10). In this example, the personal associations with the symbol of crocodile were investigated. Explored further, the symbol amplification may lead to universal associations present within groups of humanity.
The therapist is a space holder for whatever arises in the therapy room, especially for material that appears to have roots below conscious awareness. Jung (1954/1968) differentiated unconscious material into two categories: personal and collective. Psychologist Richard Sharf (2016) said the personal unconscious consists of “experiences, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions” a person is not consciously aware of, and they arise from that individual’s personal experience (p. 89). In therapy, personal symbols may be tangled with collective symbols. Jung (1954/1968) defined the collective unconscious as the “part of unconscious . . . not individual but universal . . . everywhere and in all individuals” (p. 4). He elaborated that the collective unconscious is made up of themes called “archetypes” that are “universal images that have existed since the remotest times” (p.4). Sharf (2016) said that archetypes are seen “through symbols [images] that occur in dreams, fantasies, visions, myths, fairy tales, art”. The crocodile as mentioned in the personal example above could be seen as an archetype if its presence in mythology were explored – potentially adding another layer of experience in the therapy room. Literature professor Joseph Campbell (2008) said, “myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life” (Moyers, 2018).
Continuing in the therapist role with the example mentioned above, after exhausting all personal associations the client had with crocodile as a symbol, I may mention a mythological crocodile symbol. For example, in Egyptian mythology, crocodiles were symbols of power, strength, but also destruction. Egyptologist Geraldine Pinch (2004) said, “Crocodiles could be symbols of the life-giving power of the primeval waters or the forces of chaos who tried to swallow up and destroy life” (p. 126). Alternatively, I may mention that Jung (1954/1968) said sometimes in dreams mother figures may be present as a “monster of the underworld like the crocodile” (p. 184). These are two different references which may not necessarily resonate with the client at the time and place the symbol is shared. This brings up a challenge of archetypal symbol amplification: how to know what archetypal symbol brings a meaningful archetypal image to the client. Peled (2020) explained that over time a depth psychotherapist will get a sense for what the unconscious “smells like”. From my perspective, symbol amplification is a skill as well as an art that develops over time. In my experience, I know the amplification of a symbol is meaningful when I feel an immediate “click”. I have witnessed this phenomenon in others as well. My partner and I often share dreams in the morning over coffee. Occasionally, when amplifying a symbol in my partner’s dream, their face lights up with emotion and they say, “yes, of course!” In that moment of recognition, the symbol was a meaningful one.
An example from my own life of an archetypal symbol is in a dream I had the day before my final session with a depth psychotherapist I had worked with for several years. In the dream, “I’m visiting my therapist in her home. It’s night and cool out. I go inside and we sit down. I pay her $4 for the therapy session. Then, as we start the session, I see an image of the Virgin Mary in the room and know she is there to protect me. I go downward into another chaotic world–it’s over in a flash! When I come back up, my therapist is holding me. I tell her I am afraid. She says that’s good! I leave the home and walk outside, feeling calm and assured.” (Author’s personal journal, April 2019). At the time, I felt this dream was a commentary on my work with the psychotherapist because the dropping down into the chaotic world described my perception of my process in therapy over the years (chaotic yet strengthening). In this dream, the Virgin Mary from Christian mythology was a symbol of the mother goddess archetype (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2020). I was surprised by her appearance in my dream because I had no personal connection to Christianity. At the time of the dream, I was stopping therapy due to schedule constraints. Though I felt ready to take a pause, I was saddened by the separation from my therapist who I perceived as having a loving maternal quality. I considered the Virgin Mary’s presence in my dream as a symbol of the maternal nurturing and support always with me. This was comforting and reassuring. Later that year I happened to visit a Roman Catholic church in Sedona, Arizona while sightseeing. I had a spontaneous and intense meditative experience while sitting on a pew and was mesmerized by a beautiful painting of the Virgin Mary. I purchased a small card-size print of the painting to place on my alter and offer prayers her. The print and prayers are an example of symbol amplification originating outside the therapy room which could be brough into a session for therapist and client to further explore the dream symbol.
Symbolic amplification is a method of working with unconscious material that can also be done anytime without the use of dreams – this is one of its strengths and especially helpful for clients who do not remember dreams. Further, the process of thinking symbolically awakens new possibilities within the client to broaden awareness of their inner and outer world. As Mitchell (1988) said, the process of therapy “is a self-healing in which a corrective environment makes it possible for false, defensive, compensatory adaptations to collapse and thereby allow the stalled development of the true self to begin anew” (p. 287). This process of self-healing occurs through experiencing of the unconscious. Peled (2020) explained that we cannot consciously interface with the unconscious directly, so it is experienced through myths and fairy tales, synchronicities, altered states such as dreams or meditation or imagination. Symbols are the language of these experiences and therefore an essential component for the process of self-healing.
A limitation of symbolic amplification is the therapist’s own cultural bias. Unless a therapist continuously studies different cultures, myths, and origin stories, their understanding of symbol will be limited by their personal subjective bias. Some may say that training at a Jungian Institute would provide diverse symbolic understanding. However, unless the therapist cultivates an anthropological mindset to view culture and symbols from a perspective within the culture itself, their understanding of symbols will be colored by their own cultural bias. In the therapy room, this could be ineffective or even destructive if the therapist and client have radically different cultural backgrounds. For example, anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1989) writes in Death Without Weeping about the maternal practices in the town of Bom Jesus da Lapa, Bahia, Brazil where, because of the extreme poverty in this region, infant mortality is so common that mothers purposefully neglect and emotionally detach from an infant with any hint of weakness or illness. In fact, infant mortality is so common that children are typically not named until about 1 year of age. Scheper-Hughes (1992) writes that this maternal neglect is really a form of maternal love to cope with the devastation of frequent and unavoidable infant death. If a woman from Bob Jesus da Lapa came to a primarily Eurocentric therapist and was observed lacking grief after the death of her infant, she may be seen as having a negative mother complex because that response is abnormal in most other cultures. However, Scheper-Hughes (1992) notes, “Mother love is . . . a matrix of images, meanings, sentiments, and practices that are everywhere socially and culturally produced.” (p. 341). This would seem to mean there are situations where emotional detachment must be included in the positive mother archetype when it is necessary for emotional survival based on the environmental conditions. Without knowledge of this unique cultural situation, a therapy client could be unconsciously judged or incorrectly pathologized into a negative mother complex.