As humans, symbols are as much of a part of us as language itself. Symbols instantly convey messages, in every area of our lives. Symbols transcend time, age, distance- the collective unconscious recognizes the universal archetypes and the symbols related to the figures that appear through out the history of people-kind, and the more colloquial symbols in our regions, countries and cultures.
Symbols work with the most powerful piece of sophisticated and ancient equipment we have access to- the super machine brain. If the brain is a super-computer, symbols are access to the cloud- the password that access all the information associated with the image. Symbols are code.
Like most things, symbols can be useful and not useful, depending on how they are used. There are symbols that have become associated with great evil, and even if the origin of the symbol had a different meaning, symbols can be tainted by misuse. The swastika is the obvious example of this, crosses burning, etc. The opposite can also be true- V for victory transitioning to a symbol for peace.
Symbols are language, and language is meant for communication- which doesn’t happen in the presence of hate, bigotry, racism, ignorance, so for these reasons, it is important to treat symbols like anything else- and go with the latest best idea. It is important not to cling to symbols of the past, if their meanings have become repressive to some people over time.
To be mindful in thought, and to understand your own system of beliefs (imperative if you intend to change them, and the behaviors resulting from them) means that we must examine the symbols in our life, the symbols we defend, and learn what they mean to us, and whether they should be kept or dismissed as no longer useful.
Symbols, beside their potential for harm, can also be used for great good. Stories are filled with symbols, and stories have primarily been the means of relating information, morals, ethics,societal contracts, warnings, threats to all of people-kind, since the beginning of communication. The bible is a story composed of symbols, as are the advertising campaigns we see every day.
I rely on my use of symbols to understand what my unconscious is trying to tell me. I do not believe in any particular mysticism associated with symbols. They are a key to information- the information already held inside of me. If I am reading into a symbol, that is a clue to what I am working on in my deep self, or what I need to consciously look at- not because of the symbol itself, but because of my brains extensive and intensive and reflective and vast library of information that I possess both consciously and much more so, unconsciously.
My brain doesn’t just have bits of information, it has webs, semantic maps. My brain makes incredible connections and forgets nothing. It’s this amazing machine, and I have no idea how to use it to it’s full advantage. I have no idea what it’s capable of.
What I can do, is trust it. I may feel my instincts in my gut or in the wrench of my heart, but they stem from the vast categories of my experiences, both lived and learned, imagined and realized.
It is a basis of my practice to consciously use symbols to train and hone my instinct, and to access the parts of my brain that I don’t know how to access consciously.
When I am using symbols, or, in a practical example, when I am studying, growing, working with, and using plants for skincare, I am working with the knowledge I know I have. I understand the balance of emollient and what role antioxidants play in fighting free radicals, and how the various nourishments in plants are water or oil soluble. I work closely with my partner esthetician, and work in absolute terms. We determine what works, how and why.
On the other hand, when I work with plants for grounding sprays, it’s an entirely different body of knowledge I am accessing- and I am using what may be the same plants, in an entirely different way. The plant doesn’t change, there is no magic beyond the incredible, unbelievable, beyond conceivable magic of our natural world, what I can do with the plant depending on how I chose to use the symbols that are buried in me and hold clues to everything in me that may need healing, or loving, or revealing.
I study plants and their physical and healing properties, and I read as much as I can from a variety of sources and cultures. I do the same when trying to understand scientific concepts, as well as mystical ones. I understand the science to tell me what is- the most current best idea of why things work the way they do, or how I can predict them to work, and I understand the stories to give me insight into the how things are. They are pieces of the human experience treasure map.
I know more about chamomile than I can read in a book, I know more than I could see in a chemical break down. I know how chamomile smells when the aura of the tea has followed my grandmother into my room. I am three, she is making me tea to soothe my stomach. I understand more about soothing through chamomile. To this day, I can breath deeply of chamomile and feel deep comfort. I know that distilling chamomile and applying the resulting florasol to my skin will deliver vitamin c and reduce redness, and it will also apply a sense of comfort to my brain- a long held symbol that cues my autonomic nervous system to calm down, help is near, care is near. The brewing of chamomile is symbolic proof that love is there. Chamomile is given in love, for care and comfort and soothing. When I am working in my deep self on the concepts associated with Chakras, and what the root chakra symbolizes to me, the ideas and experiences and beliefs I explain in these terms that are so ancient as to be universally understood, the use of chamomile to ground myself in the moment of meditation is a deep cue to my brain that I am working on specific issues, assigned clearly with symbols top associate, and that I am seeking and applying comfort, relief, love, soothing. I trust my instincts to make the associations I need to do the healing I am seeking.
In this way, symbols can be used to trigger ancient associations, and use concepts deep in my beliefs that I may or may not fully understand my experience and relationship to. If I try to explain the smell of a mango, for instance, in terms of what it triggers in my olfactory, I wouldn’t get very far. Even “sweet” doesn’t narrow it down. It’s because the scent of mango is intrinsically- and only- linked to my experiences and the conclusions I’ve drawn from them.
At the same time, I am understanding that this aligns with my conscious, educated belief system, in which I look to understand the most recent advances in understanding provided by science, because I also can’t ignore that truth, or what would result would not be authentic. I can’t feel the sacred in my chamomile if I am not expansively truthful and self-aware of why it is sacred to me.
I encourage you to look for the symbols you accept, what is meaningful for you, and how you can use it to your benefit, and to stop using symbols and stories in ways that hold you or others back.
There is no need to exclude one body of knowledge to use another, it just takes a thoughtful and frequently updated assessment of how and why we are using the information.