Here is a definition of symbols, their value, effect and usage in psychotherapy, by Roberto Assagioli, from his book Psychosynthesis, p. 173-75, 1965:
TECHNIQUE OF SYMBOL UTILIZATION
The purpose of this technique is to utilize the enormous and by far not yet realized potency of symbols in the dynamics of the psychological life. Symbols are constantly being used by everyone but generally in an unconscious way and often in unconstructive and even harmful ways. Therefore one of the urgent needs of therapy—and of education—is the realization of the nature and power of symbols, the study of the many classes and kinds of symbols, and their systematic utilization for therapeutic, educational, and self-realization purposes.
Apart from and in addition to this general, one could almost say universal, purpose of symbols in human life, there is a specific purpose for their use in psychosynthesis, because there are symbols which have a specific psychosynthetic integrating value and therefore directly serve the purpose of bringing about psychosynthesis, both in the individual and in groups.
The rationale of the use of symbols is based on their nature and on their function, or rather functions. I.et us first consider symbols from the psychodynamic standpoint.
Their primitive and basic dynamic function is that of being accumulators, in the electrical sense, as containers and preservers of a dynamic psychological charge or voltage. Their second function, a most important one, is that of transformers of psychological energies. A third function is that of conductors or channels of psychological energies. From the qualitative point of view symbols can be considered as images or signs of psychological realities of many kinds. (In C.G. Jung, Psychological Types, p. 601, Jung makes a distinction between signs and symbols.)
Symbols as accumulators, transformers, and conductors of psychological energies, and symbols as integrators, have most important and useful therapeutic and educational functions. And this can be considered also in reference to psychodynamics because integration is really a function of energy, specifically the function of what has been called syntropy as contrasted with entropy. Syntropy means a heightening of the tension of the voltage of psychological and also biological energy. The whole principle and theory of syntropy has been well expounded by the mathematician Fantappie.
In a sense it is a complete system of ingathering, storing, transforming, and finally of utilizing energies. The normal succession of the psychodynamic efficiency of the symbol is that of attracting psychological energies, storing them, subsequently transforming them, and then utilizing them for various purposes—particularly for the important one of integration.
Coming back to the qualitative nature and value of symbols it is well to make as c lear as possible the relationship between the symbol and the reality which it represents. This relationship is based mainly, if not exclusively, on analogy. Analogy, we might say, is an important psychological link or connection between outer and inner realities. Analogy can be and has been much misused, or used in exaggerated and unreal ways. This was especially so during the Middle Ages, and this has produced a reaction, a devaluation, and even a rejection of it especially in scienc e. But as it is a normal and really unavoidable psychological activity, the result has been—to use a colloquialism —“to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” to renounce a precious avenue for knowledge.
One of the ways in which analogy can systematically be used is in attempting to find new and unusual relationships and to find hypotheses—or ways of looking at things—which one did not have before. It is a method which is full of rich possibilities for creativity, not only in an artistic sense and from a humanistic viewpoint, but also from a scientific standpoint. Of course, it needs to be followed by a systematic use of analytical thinking in order to check the value of the analogy. One can use analogy as a method for getting new and fresh slants on almost every subject. It can be systematically carried out and pays rich rewards, provided one is not carried away by the process. It is linked with that part of the creative process which one might call the “loosening stage,” when one allows the unconscious to bring new and creative relationships; and then it has to be followed by a “tightening” process of checking and analytical thought. We cannot go further into this at this point since it finds its proper place as one of the techniques for creativity. But to put it in other words, every scientific hypothesis and every scientific model is in reality a symbol based on analogy, and the best modern scientists are well aware of this. Analogy is heuristic in function and nature, and gives a relative and not a “photographic” or exact picture of reality—which we never have anyway!
The possible and desirable integration of the various fields of knowledge by the method of analogy, and the methods of verification, systematization and incorporation of the body of knowledge, is quite parallel to that between intuition and intellect. In fact intuition is, among other things, an organ for the discovery of analogies.
The effect and unavoidability — if one can use such a word—of symbols is brought vividly to our consciousness by the direct recognition that all words are symbols. They are, so to speak, stenographic, condensed symbols. This is clearly shown by two words much used in psychology and in religion: “anima” and “spirit.” “Anima” comes from the Greek “anemos” which means “wind.” It is interesting to note that the word “spirit” has just the same symbolic meaning. “Spirit” comes from the Latin “spiritus,” which originally meant “breath” or “wind.”
Part of the rationale of symbol utilization is to revive symbols, to recognize the dynamic possibilities of words and images, which normally are taken at their face value instead of having the function of evoking the hidden realities behind them. The universal rationale of symbols was clearly condensed by Goethe in his famous verse at the end of “Faust”:
Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis.
(All which is temporary is only a symbol.)
Another aspect of the rationale of symbol utilization is their effect upon the unconscious. Symbols can be visualized and this sets into motion unconscious psychological processes. This is an effective means for the transformation of the unconscious. To address the unconscious in logical terms is not particularly effective. In order to reach the unconscious, as in reaching any person—especially women and children, as Jung pointed out — we have to speak in its own terms. One should attempt to use the mode in which the unconscious normally operates, which is by way of symbols.
Besides the fact that symbols in themselves have integrating value —in other words, integrate within the unconscious itself — the technique of consciously utilizing symbols by visualizing them achieves a further integration between the conscious and the unconscious elements of the personality, and to a certain extent between the logical mind and the unconscious non-logical aspects of the person. Jung has said that symbols are transformers of psychic energy. This may be correct not just as a metaphor but in terms of actual psychological energies. Therefore, what we can do is to observe the results of the presentation of certain symbols to the unconscious of our patients, and then see if the setting in motion of certain unconscious forces produces a transformation of the outer personality.”