Whether we think about it much or not, symbols are very much a part of our life. From our dreams at night (and daydreams too for that matter) to the advertising we see on the way to work in the morning; from the red stop-light to the clothes we wear (to make a statement) and the cars we drive, and even language itself - the working of symbols runs throughout our lives.
There are different categories of symbols - we’ll get to that a little later, but first, what exactly is a symbol? As a working definition, first, in its most general sense, a symbol is an object, or an image that represents something else. Think of the red stop-light, for example, or the flag of a country.
Often we come to associate the symbol so closely with what they represent for us that we almost never think of how most of our symbols are of our own invention. The same holds true for words, and perhaps it’s easier to explain my point here using language as an example: if I hold up a pen and say, ‘This is not a pen’, you’d probably think I was stupid or crazy. But here we can see something that’s true about many symbols - that their meaning is based on our agreement about them (we all agree, for example, that a red light means ‘stop’).
Two more points here: we have the saying that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, and everyone who uses images or symbols effectively, advertisers, storytellers, and teachers, all recognize this truth: that we can say more, more quickly with a single potent image than with words that go on and on…
A symbol is a concentrated form of communication. Because of how our mind is made, more is said to us, more quickly - we might even say immediately - through an image than with language. A person’s posture, or their physical gestures can communicate to more us on a conscious or subconscious level than what they actually say.
Which brings me to my second point - that images or symbols work and effect us on a deeper, pre-verbal level, whether we realize it or not. We are influenced by the images we are surrounded with, and those we hold in our mind. For better or worse, images effect our emotions and how we experience the world. They can shape our values as well. For example, in advertising, politics or education, our culture holds up images of who we should be, of how we should live our lives, images that we are told (over and over) represent ‘success’, or happiness.
When we become more conscious of the power of symbols, we can choose what values we want to emphasize, and what ideas we wish to fill our minds with. Of course, it may not be easy, for, as I said earlier, images work on a deeper level, and in modern society, symbols are all around us.
I often think of my father’s photography, the images in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition, and the pictures I have of friends and family. And I know that, at their best, images can be encouraging, inspiring, transforming, enlightening and healing.
Much more than the rational mind is engaged by symbols. They have the power to engage the emotions and to stir the will to action.
Unfortunately, images can also be used to deceive, or to negatively influence people, and that’s when they are at their worst. Misused, symbols can be powerfully destructive things. In fact, I’ve come to think that the power of symbols is very greatly underestimated. Otherwise, why would there be so much carelessness in their use?
Some images can be powerfully negative - literally ‘out of harmony with our human nature’ - violent images, for example. Exposure to them can create numbness, or indifference, or dis-harmony in the viewer, especially repeated viewing over time. I don’t need stacks of ‘scientific studies’ to tell me it’s so. My own experience and observation over the years is enough evidence for me…
Symbols represent ideas, and these ideas can be life-affirming, or they can create ignorance, or desire in people. They can be misleading. I can point to a couple of examples:
The reason so much of advertising and politics is evil is because it is not based on true values. An ad for example says ‘Buy this and you will be happy, or successful’ (show image of happy person) - as if they are actually concerned with truth and human happiness. It’s much more likely they are just after your money, and they’ll use any method they can to influence you to buy their product.
Politicians, also, wouldn’t be around for long if they told people their real motivations - which is usually representing those in society with wealth and power. And they are using images all the time - images that stir up fear, or our worse instincts. If you need a clear example of the negative use of images, watch and listen to politicians. Look at history, or our modern times and you can see what I mean. For example, when people are misled to go to war, it’s mostly done through the power of symbols, not reason.
As a society, we ought to demand that great care be taken with the use of images, that they be used honorably, in life-affirming ways. In the wrong hands, as we see today, the misuse of symbols can cause untold harm.
To go a little further: There are different categories of symbols. On one end of the spectrum, there are those new images that are being produced today - I think of modern iconic photographs that quickly come to represent social movements - such as the photo at Kent State (an anti-war protest) or the person standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square in China…
Then there are what may be called ‘National Symbols’ - images that have a great meaning for a particular country. National symbols can represent a political movement, or a particular virtue, such as courage, or unity. They can be longer or shorter lasting, and the longer they last, the more powerful symbols can become. This is a key point people consider when they want to use images effectively. Like older words, sometimes the older symbols have more power to create an effect.
Then there are some images that are as old as humankind, and are recognized and their meaning understood in every place and time. (For example, the sun is a universal symbol for life… The Tree of Life is found in a great many cultures, and a smile is everywhere recognized as happiness, … other gestures or facial expressions can also be seen as universal…)
Universal symbols are like the ‘gold standard’ in terms of their value. Their meaning and value for human beings are constant.
I’ve been trying to think of a working definition of the word ‘archetype’ - and here’s what I have so far:
An archetype is an aspect of the universal soul, that can be represented with an image. (for example: the archetypes of strength, or wisdom…)
The universal soul is our own nature, in us at a certain level of depth - deeper than moods, or personality, and deeper than culture and the time we live in.
Just as an aspect of one’s personality can be expressed through a symbol - a strong body, standing proudly; or a thoughtful person, attentively listening, thumb and two fingers on their cheek - an archetypal energy, or one of these aspects can also be represented by an image.
For example, when a time comes in a person’s life for them to withdraw from outward activity and to do some inner exploration, to find deeper truths, we can say that the archetype of a searcher has awakened in that person’s life. It can be represented in many ways, one of which is the Hermit in the Tarot cards.
When we look at our lives we should be able to see what archetypes, or what major, universal forces are surfacing, or are at work now in our lives. Having a set of symbols representing aspects of our universal soul can help us in this regard. This can be a religion, or a story, or mythology, or a system of thought. These can help us a great deal to make sense of what’s going on in our lives.
One other interesting aspect of archetypal symbols is that they can be used consciously. When we focus on an image or an idea, we can awaken that quality in our lives. For example, we can meditate on a symbol for love, or patience, and increase that quality in our own mind and feelings.
Reading or listening to a story can have the same effect. It can be consciously chosen. And then the virtues represented by the story can develop in us.
We can say that a symbol is a manifestation of a state of consciousness. And that a sequence of images - such as a story told - can also be a symbol. Meditating on the symbol can create in us the same state of consciousness as the source of the symbol. We can observe this in our own life - that whatever we dwell on increases in our inner life.
Try it and see - take, for example an image you like, such as the image of Strength or Patience, or Healing, and set it in front of you for a while. Perhaps leave it out for you to look at from time to time throughout the day. Bring the positive image to mind whenever you can. And notice what kind of effects this has.
The idea that meditating on images can awaken a quality as needed, to bring balance, or to strengthen a quality in oneself is as old as tradition. This has always been a part of religions, and of social education.
We do have the power, and the material to shape our lives, if not to match perfectly what we wish for, then at least to go in the direction we wish, for ourselves and for our world.