Understand Your Symbols

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by Michael Maciel

According to Joseph Campbell, proper symbols activate subconscious powers that directly affect our consciousness. We might not be able to articulate what they mean, but we can definitely feel the energies they unleash.

There are two types of symbols (there might be more, but let’s start with these two):

1) pictorial symbols, such as Christ on the Cross or the Blessed Mother with the baby Jesus

2) diagrammatic symbols, such as the circle, triangle, and square

(There is a subclass of diagrammatic symbols used in astrology, but this is more of a shorthand notation that combines basic elements to describe the relationships of powers.)

Pictorial symbols tell stories. Christ on the Cross is the iconic description of Buddha’s proclamation that “all life is suffering.” In the Judeo-Christian interpretation, it is the culmination of the story of Abraham and Isaac, where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son. This story has deep psychological and evolutionary significance. It describes the very nature of sacrifice itself, how it emerged as a result of self-awareness and the knowledge that each of us will someday die, a realization that separates us from the rest of the Animal Kingdom. We are the only animals who can bargain with the future by denying ourselves immediate gains in order to secure long-term benefits. In this way, we sort of invented the future, something no other species seems to have done. (Peterson)

The Mother and Child symbol is profoundly archetypal. More than simply extolling the sanctity of motherhood, this icon posits an orientation towards human life that has led to everything we have come to know of as civilization. Whereas animals are limited to a world of pre-existing conditions, we humans have the ability to see the world as infinite possibility, and we continually live into it. We are not content to merely exist – we must transcend! Everywhere we look, we see what might be, not simply what is. Out of the chaos of the womb of nature, we have called forth our highest ideals – cities, ships, beauty, and adventure. Each new generation enters the world with hope and the expectation of a better life. This is not a philosophy but an orientation – our True North. We subvert it to our very great peril.

Diagrammatic symbols do not tell stories. Instead, they evoke the movement of psychic energies – the powers of mind – the same forces that SPEAK stories into being. They represent the forces of nature as they manifest within the human psyche, not just the Laws of Thermodynamics but the Laws of Creation as well. They are the mechanics of volition, the very proof of sentient life.

The foundational diagrammatic symbols are three in number: the circle, the triangle, and the square. Not only are they the basic building blocks of all other symbols, they describe the nature of reality itself, from the microcosm to the macrocosm. They are visual depictions of universal laws. Let’s briefly touch on each one:

1) the circle: The easiest way to connect with a symbol is on the gut level. The circle reveals itself in the way it makes us feel. Simply standing in the middle of one can make us feel centered, focused, and empowered. Standing under one, such as a rotunda, feels like it draws us upwards into the infinite. The sky itself, bounded by a circular horizon, IS the cosmos, the dome of heaven. When we expand our circle, we feel exaltation. When we condense it, we discover the spiritual nature of Fire. And everywhere we live in the midst of invisible circles – sound waves, heat waves, electromagnetic waves. Circles are the generators of Life.

2) the triangle: It’s easy to feel the energy of a circle when we stand in one or see one above us. But there are few tangible representations of the triangle in the world of nature, except at the microscopic level. The best way to visualize triangularity is to stand with two other people. As sentient beings, we are the agents of creation. We live into the possibility that surrounds us, both physically and psychically. When we stand in a triangle with two other people, we are simultaneously all three stages of the creative act – we are cause, we are medium, and we are effect. We are both creator and created. We are the Holy Family (in its geometric interpretation) – Father, Mother, Child. As such, the triangle symbolizes relationship in its universal creative activity. It is the abstract, invisible pattern through which we live our lives.

3) the square: The circle and the triangle seem wild in their never-ending movements – revolutions, evolutions, and relational flows. But the square feels like what happens when these energies come in for a landing. The mind, having drawn all the lines and connected all of the dots, fixes itself on the outcome and anchors itself to it. The square is the energy of tethering, of stability, and consolidation, without which nothing can advance, either in the world of solidity or the world of ideas. We need a starting point and a destination, a launching pad and a landing field. Nothing can begin unless it has first ended – Alpha and Omega and the Cross of Christ. Stability constitutes the foundation of our lives. We must rally our energies to a fixed platform before we can establish a firm foothold from which we can further expand our base of operations. Our growth is both iterative and cyclical – the upward trajectory of our lives is punctuated by periods of rest and consolidation. Inner and outer structures are constructed layer by layer, piece by piece. And firm foundations provide strong dwellings. This principle is true for individuals, cultures, and civilizations. Violating it will inevitably lead to disaster.

Much more can be said about both kinds of symbols, the pictorial and the diagrammatic. This article is merely a synopsis and an incomplete one at that. You can find more in my book, World Priest, Bringing Heaven to Earth, available through Amazon. Thanks for reading!

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