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& Symbols

It is the role of symbols to give a meaning to the life of man.
                                 -Carl Jung


Much of human behavior is based on symbolism. Language, for instance, is made up of words that are symbols for objects, actions, etc. Human beings use word symbols even when thinking silently. Complete lack of symbolism would make true thinking practically impossible.

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For him who does not believe in signs, there is no way to live in the world.

~Proverb, (Russian)

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Signs and Symbols
Signs generically denote an existence or presence of something not immediately evident or obvious. This allows for a whole range of forms, each having their own discriminatory use; for example a road-sign may indicate a hidden danger. Signs are mostly indicators or pointers while symbols are representations. The ritual will use both but it is the symbol that is the most prevalent. The spiritual ritual requires the use of symbols extensively, because of its inherent transcendental and metaphysical nature.

Symbols are anything that represents something else either by association, resemblance, or convention. Quite simply, they are allegorical storage units. Symbols are used and shared in order for us to communicate and construct an archetype of the ambiguous and the abstract. Symbols are multi-interpretive, therefore, to avoid misunderstanding, the symbol needs to be in context and the partaker needs to have a working knowledge of this context. It is very important that what is attempted to be shared with the "symbol" is what is perceived conclusively. When successful, the symbol, itself, becomes a ritual.


What does this aniconic ideogram mean to you? What do you perceive as the context?

Something to contemplate ...
If you had to design or choose a symbol to represent "truth," what would it be?

It can get a bit confusing, so here are a few terms that one may see when dealing with symbols.

Semiotics- is the theory and study of signs and symbols, especially as elements of language or other systems of communication, and comprising semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics.*

Icon- is any picture, image or representation. Iconic icons are those that have some perceivable likeness to what they denote while aniconic icons don't.

Ideogram- is a graphic symbol that represents an abstract idea or concept.

Pictogram- depicts a picture or icon representing a word or idea, for example a hieroglyph.

Logogram- is a symbol representing a word without expressing or limited to its specific pronunciation or spelling. For example: 5 can mean fem, cinco, cinq, or vijf.

Sigils- are signs or images that are considered magical.

-Hypatia Hyland

*The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

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Symbols are cool!  INFJs aren't about identifying pre-existing symbols so much as creating new symbols -- latching onto things and endowing them with meaning.  Sometimes these images are ways of accessing introverted iNtuition.  (Sometimes they wear out -- so symbols require frequent renewal.)

In this realm, there is a intriguing mandala called the Shri-Yanta Mandala.  It is supposed to facilitate use of one's intuition.

Here's what it looks like.  Notice how it sucks you into its center and "aims" you toward a future?  It's a cool effect!



I like the abbreviated version too.  It only features the centerpiece.

This is a nifty way to focus your concentration and get lost in your mind, if you need help doing that.  It seems mandalas are an interesting tool for jump-starting Ni.  (I say more about mandala work below.)

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Everything has a beginning -- both in time and in space. This beginning is the ‘starting point,' and from one point, before the next beginning, all is unknown, everything is possible. We create symmetrical patterns and expect repetition but within the mandala are both difference and sameness, movement and stillness. Each point is both the beginning and the end.

The mandala is to be experienced from the precise center, a pure point beyond space and time. This point is the present moment, infinite and eternal.

The stupa is designed to draw the mind in from the general surroundings to the base, toward the center of the dome and then lead one’s gaze upwards to the apex, to the point. This is the development of two spiritual activities:

  • concentration (through being focused),

  • insight (by investigation and reflection on the process).

These two qualities are developed in the practice of meditation and contemplation -- aspiring to the letting go and transcendence of worldly concepts and all views of one’s self.

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Following is a provocative article about symbols until I get around to writing my own:

Dealing With Symbols

What is a symbol? It depends upon whom you ask. In our society, symbols are viewed with disdain. Someone is likely to say, "It's only a symbol," and by this he or she means that you should disregard it. But what is a symbol? Why should we disregard it? A symbol is a concrete object that makes present an invisible Reality. Do we wish to disregard invisible Realities? Let's explore the question before reaching a decision.

Symbols are the "stuff" that dreams are made of. Erich Fromm, the psychologist, points out that "all myths and all dreams have one thing in common, they are all 'written' in the same language, symbolic language." What, then, is symbolic language? Fromm continues:

Symbolic language is a language in which inner experiences, feelings and thoughts are expressed as if they were sensory experiences, events in the outer world....It is the one universal language the human race has ever developed, the same for all cultures and throughout history (The Forgotten Language).

Fromm's point can be put in this way. Our experiences of concrete objects in the world outside can, and often do, become metaphors through which we experience the invisible realities of the human soul or psyche.

How are dreams and myths related? A dream is a private myth. A myth is a social dream. The Greek word myth means "a telling word," a language picture by which we tell about our experiences of invisible realities. We do not create these pictures. They arise out of our Unconscious, that part of the universal human mind that we all share, according to Carl G. Jung. When such a language picture is discovered and shared within a community as a way of picturing what Reality is, we call it a myth. When such a language picture occurs only to the individual, we call it a dream. In either case it is governed by the laws of symbolic language. We can extend this comparison even more. A myth reveals the deep and hidden structures of the universe in which we live to a community. A dream reveals the deep and hidden structures of the universe as we experience them personally in our psyche or soul.

Symbols must not be confused with signs. Signs, like the red octagon mounted on a post beside the highway, are created by social agreement. Governments throughout the U.S. decided that all states would use the red octagon as a shorthand message to drivers telling them to come to a full stop. If you live outside the U.S., the red octagon would either have another meaning or no meaning at all. Fromm calls such a sign a conventional symbol. A sign stands for a rationally stated set of instructions which you must learn before the sign is meaningful.

Symbols are innately understood through the action of the psyche or soul regardless of the culture one lives in. They have universal "meaning" because the life and structure of the human psyche are the same in all times and in all cultures, just as all people have the five senses of taste, touch, smell, hearing, and seeing. If we elect to neglect symbols, we are choosing to neglect our souls. We are choosing to live as self-mutilated humans. Would any of us go through life with a clothes pin on our nose?! Or, with our right hand tied behind our back? Yet, modern men in overwhelming numbers have chosen to ignore the soul (psyche) and focus entirely on the life of the body in relation to the outside world. Ancient man, and people living in traditional cultures today, would find us to be very strange creatures. Traditional man fears loss of soul as acutely as moderns fear loss of bodily life.

As a sign, the Christian cross has a meaning that must be learned. But let us consider the cross as a universal symbol. We will discover levels of "meaning" that cannot be taught must be experienced through the powers of the soul (psyche).

Consider the "cross (+)." As a sign it says, by cultural agreement, perform addition on the two numbers it connects, i.e., 5+4. It may also be experienced as a symbol, which speaks to us of the experience of wholeness and healing, something we feel or intuit; it may prompt us to consider the way in which all parts of the universe form a connected whole so that the outer and the inner aspects of Space and the past, present and future aspects of Time interpenetrate. This would take the form of a Cross of Reality:

                                    |   Inner
 TIME       Past  _________+__________  Future
                                    |    Outer

Now consider that Christianity identifies this experience of wholeness with the concrete object, the Roman cross used for executions, on which Jesus died. Suddenly, it is clear that we have moved well beyond the region of signs. We are contemplating the claim that the physical cross on which Jesus died makes present the invisible Reality of Heaven, Earth, and Hades coming together in his body to form a new pattern of wholeness and healing.

Fromm makes this amazing observation:

That a phenomenon of the physical world can be the adequate expression of an inner experience, that the world of things can be a symbol of the world of the maid, is not surprising. We all know that our bodies express our minds... Indeed, the body is a symbol -- not an allegory -- of the mind. Deeply and genuinely felt emotion, and even any genuinely felt thought, is expressed in our whole organism. In the case of the universal symbol, we find the same connection between mental and physical experience. Certain physical phenomena suggest by their very nature certain emotional and mental experiences, and we express emotional experiences in the language of physical experiences, that is to say, symbolically. (17)

The discipline known as the History of Religion has shown that virtually every object in the outside world has at one time or another functioned as an metaphor through which man has communicated the inner life of the soul (psyche).

Symbols are not thoughts. We must not "think" about them. Symbols evoke sensory and feeling responses. Consider this word picture "water." Ask yourself, what do I feel on the surface of my skin when I imagine water? What do I hear? What taste does the image of water leave in my mouth? What smell comes to mind? What associations do I notice hovering around the fringes of my awareness? These are the questions we must ask if we wish to respond fully and consciously to symbols. Now that you have contemplated water, try this: "cool, clear water." Ask the same questions? How does your experience change?

My answers are as follows. My skin feels lighter as if supported. It feels cool. I can feel reassuring undulations as if I am floating. I can smell the sea and hear the gentle roar of the waves breaking on shore. Hawaiian music wafts on the air. It is warm and peaceful. If I contemplate the "cool" water, the sense of well-being intensifies. I can hear the incomplete but reassuring popular song from my childhood sung by a male singer but all I can make out is the phrase "cool, clear water." Healing, wholeness, peace, unity with nature, the womb are terms that come to mind. But there is another side. I start to move on writing; I see the image of drowning flash across my vision. Darkness falls, waves churn and roar, fear and death suggest themselves. Water is clearly a multi-valent symbol. The sensations, feelings, and associations evoked change with the context that I find. Water is life, at the beach on vacation and I am re-created. Water is death in the storm at sea and I am destroyed. Water suggests the mystery of death and rebirth.

Consider this biblical passage as an example. A Samaritan woman comes to the well and finds Jesus. "He said to her, 'Give me a drink.'" (John 4:7). The woman focuses her attention on the fact that Jewish men don't speak to Samaritan women. She thinks to herself, "Why is this guy acting so abnormally?" Jesus' reply, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water" (Jn 4:10).

Notice the associations: "water... gift of God... Jesus... living water." We have just considered our feelings about "water." Ask each of your five senses how it responds to "gift," to "gift of God," and to "living water." My associations with "gift" are:

warmth, joy, excitement, jumping up and down as a child in front of the Christmas tree, security, carols, and Happy Birthday Song, smells of cake and fir trees, the taste of Lane Cake and gingerbread men, Julie Andrews in Sound of Music singing "My Favorite Things."

My associations with "living water" are:

immortality, rebirth, healing, forgiveness, energy, the womb, sweetness, pine needles, tingling, hugging a friend whom I haven't seen in a long time.

What interpretation am I to make of the scene in the Gospel of John? I am struck first by the reality that one must be thirsty before one feels the need to drink. The woman stands in the presence of the Word made flesh, the instrument through whom God created the world, but she feels no need of communion, no need of a spiritual draught. The door to ultimate wholeness could be opened and unity with God achieved but the woman never notices. She is preoccupied with social conventions and provincial prejudices. A sadness pervades this scene of missed opportunity. I am forced to ask myself, "Has this happened to me, to the world I live in? Is the dark state of the world as portrayed on the evening news, all because we stand in the presence of the Word made flesh among us in the form of the Stranger or in the form of our Enemy and ask limited and limiting questions about who and what we are?

A question that often troubles modern people is this, "What if there never was a woman at the well?" Would the "meaning" of this passage really change? The longing for Life and not Death is real. The promise of water and satisfied spiritual thirst is real. Christian saints have testified through the centuries that through Jesus they found rebirth, peace, joy, renewal. Their testimony is real. The point is this. Historical questions, by and large, have to do with our experience of the outside world as experienced by thinkers who try to sort out what objectively happened as opposed to what people imagined. This is a valuable and worthy task. It helps us to recognize the difference between objects and situations as facts and those same objects and facts when they function as metaphors to express the life of the soul (psyche). Myths, dreams, fairy tales, and stories of all sorts speak to us of the life of the soul, but they give us very little information about the factual status of the physical world. They are of little value to historians but of immense value to those who seek spiritual guidance.

In summary, remember that symbols are concrete objects that make present invisible realities experienced by the soul (psyche), like "truth," "love," "justice," "evil," "God," and many others. We must interpret symbols by asking ourselves what we sense in response to them. What do I smell, taste, feel, see, or hear? What associations hover in the background of my consciousness as I contemplate the symbol?

-by Charles T. Davis

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In a symbol lies concealment or revelation."
                               – Carlyle

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additional symbols as topics?:



Dolphin images

Celtic knots, representing individuation, and how we naturally "spiral" through our life

mandalas (link to kaleidoscopes)

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