This is article No 7 in a series of early articles that I have called my ‘book blog’ series. These articles were originally written for incorporation into a book project which was to be called ‘Mandala of Love: Consciousness, Ethics and Society’, which I abandoned in favour of publishing on this website.
A prime expression of the mandala archetype, and a good way for us to embark upon an exploration of mandala imagery, is the arrangement of the four classical physical elements, Earth, Air, Water, and Fire, into a four-fold pattern, which resembles the four directions of the compass rose. In Western thought, Fire and Earth, are often found opposed as the north and south quadrants, while Water and Air are opposed in the western and eastern directions respectively. In this mandala of the physical elements, the unifying element, Ether, is often included. Ether, which symbolises the space of Consciousness in which the four classical physical elements arise, takes the central position as the quintessence.
Words are Symbols
Carl Jung had a very keen understanding of the way in which all language is symbolic – that all words are symbols. In particular, he understood that in the pre-modern world-view the concrete physical world was (and is) felt to be, not just symbolically, but actually, connected with inner psychological and spiritual principles. Hence the four elements, which we still find in belief systems around the world from North America to Tibet, are usually associated with ancient and deeply insightful systems of psychological and spiritual thought. In these systems of thought, physical elements are either associated with personality types, or have recognised symbolic associations with psychological and spiritual principles, or components of the creative process.
Four physical ‘elements’ symbolising Four Functions of Consciousness
Those who have some familiarity with Western Astrology will be aware of way that the elements are used as symbols of perceptual-psychological functions, so that in the Western thought, Air is associated with Thinking; Earth is associated with Sensation; Water is associated with Feeling; and Fire is associated with Intuition / Volition. Each of these words: Thinking; Sensation; Feeling; and Intuition / Volition, are themselves symbols – each one contains worlds of meaning.
It is important to distinguish between the levels, or layers, of symbolism. In India, the Himalayas, and in the indigenous cultures of North America, the associations are different: Water is associated with Thinking; Earth is associated with Sensation (as in Europe); Fire is associated with Feeling; and Air is usually associated with Intuition / Volition. While it is very important to notice the way the first layer of language and symbolism is culture-bound, it is even more important to engage with the universal perceptual-psychological principles underneath.
An understanding of these universal perceptual-psychological principles – the Four Functions of Consciousness as Carl Jung called them – is of enormous practical value for our understanding the creation process and all forms of communication and psychological and social dynamics. It is especially valuable in the dynamics of collaborative work in organisations; in intimate relationships; in education; and in psychotherapy. It is essential information for understanding self-empathy, meditation, for self-inquiry. I hope to be showing some of the many application of this knowledge in the blog posts on this website.
A Collective Unconscious
In modern times, these associations between the four physical elements and the four perceptual-psychological functions, which we find in the mandala images around the world, are often seen as esoteric and mysterious, but Jung recognised that they are actually experienced universally, and are embedded, usually unconsciously, in our everyday language and cultural imagination – and in the way people from different cultures think, feel, imagine and dream. Jung spoke of this phenomenon of the unconscious interpenetration of our lives with cultural symbols, as manifestations of a ‘collective unconscious’, and his gift to the world was a conceptualisation of this important dimension of human psychology.
A Phenomenological Approach to Psychology
Because the material that Jung was studying is subjective and bound in the matrix of culture and language, it is insufficiently acknowledged that Jung’s approach to psychology was that of a scientist. He was investigating phenomena that cannot be measured, and which are symbolised differently in different cultures, but which can nevertheless be objectively and universally observed. This psychological perspective, which aims to directly approach the most subjective and individual, or culture-bound manifestations of mind, in a scientific and objective manner is called the ‘phenomenological’ perspective. This approach has the enormous advantage of being able to examine qualitative, subjective, and difficult-to-define, aspects of mind that other psychological perspectives are forced to ignore.
A Psychology of Soul and of Consciousness
While Jung’s phenomenological approach was, to the extent that it could be, intellectually rigorous, logical and scientific, the archetypal psychology that he revealed in the course of his life, paradoxically bears witness to Soul – that rich, inwardly experienced dimension of human experience, which is associated with Consciousness. In contrast with the thrust of psychology in recent decades, which has been towards more limited and limiting theories based on materialist assumptions about how the brain processes information, and more recently towards the utilisation of brain scanning technologies, Jung used the data of his own perceptions, of his patients dreams, and of the literature of all of recorded history. By drawing on this much larger database in his research, he was able to show us a much more comprehensive psychological perspective – a perspective which, for want of a better word (Jung was careful to avoid the term) we can call a spiritual psychology – a study of the poetic, mythic and collective, dimensions of mind.
I have had a great love of science since childhood, and my wish in my writing, is to strike the same balance that I believe Jung achieved – to approach the material of our experience with the instincts of a scientist, while adopting a phenomenological approach which gives equal value to that which can only be observed inwardly and subjectively, as to that which can be objectively known and measured.
The Challenging Implications of Quantum Mechanics
Carl Jung had a close friendship with Wolfgang Pauli (1950-1958). They corresponded and bounced ideas of each other for 25 years in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Indeed it was the influence of Pauli, that persuaded Jung to publish Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle (1960), which was a very brave and ground-breaking book for its time.
If Jung had lived on and was still alive today, he would have been fascinated by the developments in our understanding of weird world of Quantum Mechanics, and would perhaps have found more widespread scientific validation for his phenomenological observations – which he did not experience in his lifetime. The materialistic assumptions, which have provided a foundation for science and medicine until very recently, are now being challenged. The implications of Quantum Mechanics are enormous, and are in many ways very difficult for science to integrate, because it is so much more complex and mysterious, and so deeply incongruous with the Classical Physics world that we are used to. In the coming decades however, I believe we will witness this integration – and an expansion of the scientific world-view to include phenomena that it has previously rejected.