on Self-realization

Self-realization as revealed in art, symbol & sacred text: Analytic psychology meets Eastern philosophy

Religion and the Unsayable

William Turner, Shade and Darkness: the Evening of the Deluge- 1843. US Pubic Domain via wikimedia.

William Turner, Shade and Darkness, the Evening of the Deluge- 1843. US Pubic Domain

“This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.” -Søren Kierkegaard

Through conscious awareness human beings have created a field of shared symbols. We call this field of shared symbols a ‘language’. Most of us take language for granted. We use language to express our desires, feelings, thoughts. We use it to navigate our world and get what we want, focusing only on what we know and can name and speak. Few of us ever think about what is unsayable or unrepresentable.

If we imagine the symbolic as a dimension of mind which we are used to inhabiting, then we may imagine another dimension: an unsayable dimension. This dimension of the mind represents all that cannot be said.

The unsayable dimension so deeply saturates our perception that it is, in fact, very hard to get a hold of, to grasp. We simply cannot represent it with words. Yet it remains within every given moment, saturating it, providing a ground for all conception and experience.

And so, we may say that there are two dimensions of experience. One is affirmed through our capacity to speak about it and the other is negated because it is unsayable. We have an affirmative and a negative. For the most part human beings understand their reality through that which is affirmed. But the negative exists nonetheless.

The negative may be seen as the ground of our perceptual experience. And when I say that the negative is the ground, I also mean that all perceptions arise from and in relationship to this ground. If all things arise from the negative, then it, paradoxically, something which deserves to be affirmed.

In reading Carl Jung, one is introduced to the religious dimensions of the psyche. The religious dimension includes archetypes and symbols that exist within the depths of the psyche. Images which are neither sayable nor unsayable, but paradoxical, point at that ‘something that thought itself cannot think.’ It is here, in the religious dimension of the psyche, that we encounter the unsayable as veiled in religious arcana.

If God is the Divine Father, representing the most affirmed: ‘the most high’, ‘the mighty one.’ Then the divine mother becomes the negated, the negative, the hidden. While that which is most high can be represented by the number 1. That which is negated has no representation, except as we give her the notation of 0. Thus representing the primal binary pair of mind: 1 and 0.

It is from this primal dialectical tension that the life of the mind arises. It is the archetypal father and mother: God hovering over the deep.

16 comments on “Religion and the Unsayable

  1. anpadh
    November 4, 2013

    All things arise from no-thing. Negation is a thing.

  2. Gary
    November 4, 2013

    What may be unsayable or unspeakable is the experience with pure evil. “When it [shadow] appears as an archetype…it is quite within the possibility for a man to recognize the relative evil of his nature, but it is a rare and shattering experience for him to gaze into the face of absolute evil.” – Carl G. Jung Shattering enough to leave one dumb?
    How can we conceive absolute evil? It must rather have elemental good within, one begs. Does not “spiritual wickedness in high places” still serve a divine and mysterious purpose? Was the creation of evil a necessity? The problem of evil is not just going to go away by becoming “enlightened.” The problem becomes more immanent. The light shines in the darkness, does not eliminate it. Overcome evil with good? The absence of evil sounds too much of a utopian humanist project for my liking.
    The act of Creation is divisive. It is a worthy thought by Jenna that the negative is creative. How is transformation even feasible without the struggle between absolutes?

    • Jenna Lilla MA, PhD, BCC
      November 4, 2013


      When viewed from a moral vantage we see good and evil. Here we may see good as positive and evil as negative. In fact, we often speak of things which are bad in terms of being ‘negative.’

      From a Jungian perspective we may need to add nuance to our understanding. We may start by taking into account the psychological concept of projection: We project into others that within ourselves which we cannot tolerate. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein posited that, for example, the baby projects into the mother (the breast) their intolerable fears. In a similar way we may project into the negative what is intolerable. In turn, the negative becomes spectral. Dark shadowy figures arise: demons and ghosts come back to haunt us.

      This is not to say there is not evil in the world, but when we are speaking from a Jungian point of view we release enough of our moral fervor to get at psychic truth and archetypal patterns: in this instance, the archetypal mother and father.

      To being to realize the ‘mother of all’ we need to distinguish the negative (as the unrepresentable) from the shadows and hell realms we project into it. It is only through a process of pulling back our projections, reclaiming our own shadow, that we may begin to experience the negative in-and-of-itself.

      This requires that we move our view beyond good and evil. Or at least that we tolerate the evil within our own nature, and accept ourselves shadow and all. Through this process we may also learn to love others in their complexity, in their fullness, light and shadow.


      “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
      there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

      When the soul lies down in that grass,
      the world is too full to talk about.
      Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.”

      • Gary
        November 15, 2013

        I wonder about “spiritual problems” and was encouraged by it being your PhD dissertation. Part of my wonder has to do with a possible problem God has with evil and the problem of “divine hiddenness” also. I wonder how much of “evil” is hidden from our consciousness. Oh yes, we can see the relative evil in ourselves and in the heinous crimes against humanity; but what was Jung really talking about when having “a real and shattering experience of gazing into the face of absolute evil”? The Christian scriptures refer to a struggle not against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness in heavenly places, and also refer to God creating evil. Where else did Jung reference the ontological issue of spiritual as opposed to human animated evil. James Hillman was perplexed by the spiritual problem of evil, no? This is in direct paradox to the mystery of godliness, imo. Not to belabor the point, but perhaps this aspect of spirituality has a high numinous dimension to it, which is hidden deeply in even God’s unconscious, if the first and the last, the beginning and end has an unconscious. Or perhaps it’s all absurd speculation. If we embrace mystery and mysticism, can we deny the spiritual dimension of absolute evil? Or can there be a spiritual synthesis/alchemy of absolute good and absolute evil to bring forth a new creation which transcends both?

        • Jenna Lilla
          November 15, 2013


          Your ponderings on the nature of good and evil are beautiful. You have touched upon the paradox of God, and also the dialectical struggle which the opposition between good and evil creates. It is an opposition which none of us will escape: we will encounter it both inside and outside of ourselves.

          While I eventually want to allow Jung’s words to enlighten our understanding, I will offer a few personal thoughts. Without good and evil, without generosity and greed, life lacks spiritual tension. To trust in life, is to trust in the powerful psychic forces such tensions creates, and to struggle with such tensions.

          Some have said that the tension between good and evil provides for the concept of ‘freedom.’ Only when there is good and evil do we have the freedom to choose good. But again there is a tension, those who call themselves ‘good,’ may be hiding the ‘evil’ which lies within. So the true ‘good’ is knowing ourselves, being honest with who we are, and struggling with our own ethics. Such a struggle provides a ‘vale of soul making.’

          • Gary
            November 15, 2013

            Well written. Gets into the whole objective of finding meaning to life. Depth psychology at its best, Jenna. Thanks for putting it into the dialectic of struggle and tension. I enjoy your accuracy and focus.

  3. 1weaver
    November 4, 2013

    this puts me in mind of the fabric of space. we now know its there and integral to all else. the ‘zero’.
    appreciate your follow-up comment, too, as that adds clarity.

    not sure who said it but ‘the universe doesn’t care about good and evil; it cares about balance and imbalance’. we, in our tribes, find it necessary to classify morally.

    love that rumi segment!

    • Jenna Lilla PhD
      November 4, 2013

      Good to hear from you Weaver.

      I am fond of the idea of a ‘verse without a uni.’

  4. ArtsLivres
    November 5, 2013

    The unsayable should not be equated with “the negative”, first because it isn’t, secondly because it strengthens public avoidance, and thirdly because even CG Jung doensn’t resort to it.
    In fact, Laozi’s very first two sentences ( “dao ke dao…” and “ming ke ming…” ) are rendering of the same unspeakable, much as their Wuwei is…

    • Jenna Lilla PhD
      November 5, 2013


      Preconceptions exist. Avoiding something does not make it go away.

      A fundamental realization of the analytic model is that we must bring out, make clear, that which was previously buried. Buried within Jung’s work is an entire Gnostic-hermetic tradition, for example. And buried within this tradition is a long line of thinkers travailing to understand ‘the hidden.’ And buried within the hidden are truths which we may call the negative.

      Something is negative in relationship to that which is affirmed. A foreground is known against a background, the finite against the background of the infinite, the temporal against the background of the eternal, the conscious against the backdrop of the unconscious.

      Poles reverse: if we look into the negative for long enough it may be affirmed. But, if we avoid it, and only seek the affirmed, then the negative may appear overwhelming, or possibly empty, like the void or the abyss.

      The collective has avoided the negative for long enough, in fact for most of history. Except for a few heretics and visionaries, who risked being burned at the stake or slaughtered for their views. This history of denial has culminated in an intense inner void in culture, in history, and in our individual lives. Such a void is not the negative as I mean it, but an inner lack that is exploited by Gurus and Sales people and will not go away if we do not face it. And we, as individuals and as a collective, are drawn to face it.

      If you look to the United States, for example, you will see that the most watched television show is about Zombies, creatures that are neither living nor dead. They are undead, empty, driven only by a hunger to fill a void. If you look to Worldwide consumer capitalism, you will see people attempting to fill the void through shallow identifications. We buy brands to know who we are. Never confronting the emptiness inside. We shop to fill a hunger. It is so prevalent that if a vanguard of folks suddenly woke up from the delusion and stopped all the shopping, the entire economic system would collapse. We are in the late stages of capitalism, and we have all the material things we could want, but we are often empty. In order to shift this, we first have to look at it. We have to peer into the void in all its senses.

      Now, the negative that can be explained is not the true negative. We have layered so much onto it, we have dumped all of our collective trash onto the negative. It is a labor to attempt to clarify it. To do this we have to work with our delusions directly. We have to confront the abyss, the void, the emptiness, the evil we layer onto the Negative. It is only then that we may discover the true, divine, nature of the negative.

      What is going to make this endeavor even more challenging is that I am going to takes us into the path of ‘the mother.’ We are going to have to look at how Western culture has turned the feminine into the representation of the negative. Jung speaks of ‘the inferior function.’ We are going to have to look at our fear of regression to ‘oceanic experiences’ and the womb. We are going have to look at our envy of the breast. These are complex and difficult analytic concepts. And not for everyone. It is going to take the capacity to work with paradox and tolerate tension.

  5. Anonymous
    November 5, 2013

    Ruminations…not exactly thought out…

    The writer Alan Moore made the observation that if “gods” exist anywhere they at least exist in human conciousness. He was talking about a particular goddess figure he was interested in. But it made me think of the controversy around Jesus. Some argue that he is a completely made up figure. But if that’s true, does that significantly diminish his impact? We can picture Jesus, we can draw him, and talk about what he did or didn’t do. So it “may” be that text and icongraphy created him and inserted into our consiousness, but now he is there and can be passed from person to person and the text only is needed to amplify what’s in our consiousness.

    • Jenna Lilla PhD
      November 5, 2013


      Yes indeed, and Jung said ‘God is a psychic fact.’ But this does not diminish the significance of God. I believe it allows us to know just how close we are to knowing God. God is immanent to our psychic life.

      I like your thoughts on Jesus. I would say that the messiah is also immanent to psychic life. The messiah represents something relevant to our psycho-spiritual growth and development. This something is vitally important but not easy to determine, and thus, there is a need for symbolic representation.

  6. David R
    November 5, 2013

    Yea!!!! for the “journey into the depth.” I have a ticket. :-)

  7. nz
    November 8, 2013

    An important question to ask is, “Do I have my own ‘unspeakable’ experiences or am I relying on the unspeakable experience of those who have come before me?” There is a big difference between operating (unthinkingly) out of the cultural background of values and meaning vs. seeking out the immediacy of the moment for myself and using it to form my own relationship with G-d and the world around me.
    The Amidah (Standing Prayer) is the central prayer of Jewish devotion. In the opening section it addresses the G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob. The question is raised by the Jewish commentators, “Why doesn’t the prayer just say G-d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” The answer is because each of the Fathers had to form their own, unique relationship with the Eternal – based on their own experiences of the “unspeakable.”
    Living according to tradition is important but it should never be done unconsciously and it should always be complemented by one’s own seeking out the unspeakable.

    • Jenna Lilla PhD
      November 8, 2013


      Thank you for reminding us that we can seek out a personal relationship with the eternal through the unspeakable.

    • Pastor B
      November 15, 2013

      Lovely. I will ponder this a while. Thank you.

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on November 4, 2013 by in Carl Jung and tagged .

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