The Self and its corresponding figures and symbols

Carl Jung calls the totality of our being the ‘Self’. The Self includes the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious mind is represented by the ‘ego.’ The Self includes the unconscious, but is more than just the unconscious. Jung used the word ‘supraordinate’ to describe the Self. The Self, in this sense, includes the totality of the conscious and the unconscious. Jung says:

“I usually describe the supraordinate personality as the “self,” thus making a sharp distinction between the ego, which, as is well known, extends only as far as the conscious mind, and the whole of the personality, which includes the unconscious as well as the conscious component. The ego is thus related to the self as part to whole. To that extent the self is supraordinate.” (Carl Jung, CW 9i, para. 314-315)

Jung further says that the Self is felt or experienced as an object of our consciousness and not as the subject of awareness. He says:

“Moreover, the self is felt empirically not as subject but as object, and this by reason of its unconscious component, which can only come to consciousness indirectly, by way of projection.” (ibid)

This implies that we have some distance from our ‘Self’. Because of this distance we cannot experience the Self directly, instead it becomes the object of our contemplation. Jung felt that the Self was not necessary directly accessible or subjectively experienced. Instead, it is the aspect of our being that we have to get to know ‘by way of projection.’ That is, unconscious images of the Self are projected outward, appearing in imagination, dreams, art and our everyday idealizations.

This is a different approach than we see in Vedanta, where the Self is given as immediately present. In Vedanta one knows the Self as far as one experiences the Self through meditation and spiritual practice.

At the same time and on another level, this direct awareness is not available to all beings. Many are far from directly experiencing the Self as ground of awareness. In this case, the Self is known through symbols and figures that are projected outward into the field of awareness. This is where Jung is a great guide in knowing the Self. Jung showed how the Self appears to the conscious mind (ego) as archetypal images and forms. Jung says:

“Because of its unconscious component the self is so far removed from the conscious mind that it can only be partially expressed by human figures; the other part of it has to be expressed by objective, abstract symbols. The human figures are father and son, mother and daughter, king and queen, god and goddess. Theriomorphic symbols are the dragon, snake, elephant, lion, bear, and other powerful animals, or again the spider, crab, butterfly, beetle, worm, etc. Plant symbols are generally flowers (lotus and rose). These lead on to geometrical figures like the circle, the sphere, the square, the quaternity, the clock, the firmament, and so on.” (ibid)

From the perspective of the conscious mind, the self is always incomprehensible, unassimilable. Archetypal images emerge as representations of that which is inarticulable. Jung says:

The indefinite extent of the unconscious component makes a comprehensive description of the human personality impossible. Accordingly, the unconscious supplements the picture with living figures ranging from the animal to the divine, as the two extremes outside man, and rounds out the animal extreme, through the addition of and inorganic abstractions, into a microcosm. These addenda have a high frequency in anthropomorphic divinities, where they appear as “attributes.” (ibid)


  1. Jung, C. G., The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious – CW 9i  (1934–1954) (1981 2nd ed. Collected Works Vol.9 Part 1)

4 thoughts on “The Self and its corresponding figures and symbols

  1. I see this in Picasso’s art especially. He seemed conscious of it in his statement that “Every human being is a colony”.

  2. During a ’93 traditional Vision Quest I received an interesting ”moving picture” of the Self.I saw 2 hawks circling(one male the other female)as they often do in nature.Then,they fused into one greater hawk and the vision closed.Now,some 19 years later and within the throes of the Dark Night,the deeper meaning is considerably more appreciated.

Comments are closed.