Something visible that by association or convention represents something else that is invisible
Symbols are very important to us as humans, aren’t they? The symbols themselves aren’t the thing that is important but what they represent.
They’re just things that trigger different thoughts and emotions, but nonetheless carry great power, and unfortunately here we are back at the word power again! The religious symbols are powerful, the political symbols are powerful, and the social symbols are powerful.
Imagine for a moment, the flag of your country waving around in the breeze, or seeing the presidential palaces or the king’s castle, or walking into a cathedral – what emotions are triggered as you imagine these scenes? What about seeing the man driving past in his expensive italian sports car? What thoughts are going through your mind at the time? Are you thinking: “Wow, look at that car, I wish I had a car like that, I bet he’s rich, I bet he’s got a big house,” or even “look at that flash bastard showing off!”
Whatever you are thinking, the symbol has done its job! The car is a status symbol, and the meaning that the car (although it’s just a bit of metal, and wires) is supposed to convey is “I’ve made it, I am successful, you should envy me.”
It’s incredible, isn’t it? How something so innocuous as a car has some invisible meaning behind it, but it works the same in reverse as well, and if you see a man driving a beaten up old “banger” (A car that is old and unreliable) what do you think of him, what is the car silently conveying to you? Is it conveying that the person inside will be sharply dressed, and be successful, or is it saying this man driving is a bit of a loser, probably earns no money, and probably doesn’t care about his appearance?
Unfortunately, you would probably be right in your snap judgement of the man, and that’s the annoying thing about symbolism. You see, if you look at a huge house behind big gates with security guards and dogs, what is that trying to convey to you – that the man is modest, and has simple tastes, or that the man is very important and very rich?
So symbols are everywhere, we know that. We also know that most people are using the symbols consciously to convey a meaning of power, and status, and riches, but there are those who use symbolism to convey the opposite. Take for example the dreadlocked guy walking down the street in hemp clothing. Does he have his hair like that because he likes it that way, or is he trying to convey something deeper?
What I see is someone who is silently telling us he is “concerned with the environment,” or does not want to be part of the corporate culture, but he is just trying to make a statement so you will know what he cares, or doesn’t care about. It doesn’t tell us who he really is. And that is the point I am trying to convey to you.
All of these symbols are meaningless until we ourselves attach meaning to them, until our brain remembers what we have been told they are supposed to represent, otherwise a flag is just a bit of material, a presidential palace is just a load of bricks, and dreadlocked hair is just hair.
But we can’t be content just to be, oh no, we have to convey a deeper meaning to everybody! We have to let people know that there is more to us than meets the eye. That the pile of bricks represents our nation’s power and wealth over others, that the dreadlocked hair represents a man who does not want to be part of the consumer society, or that the monks habit (a distinctive attire worn by a member of a religious order) represents freedom from attachment to material things.
The bottom line is, we all want to be noticed! We all want people to comment on us, on our clothes, our cars, our public buildings, our cathedrals. We want people to know that we are different to them, that we are superior, that we are not content with being what we are but need to present an image that “represents” something else! If Man is supposed to be the most intelligent species on earth, I fail to see where the intelligence is.
We are constantly in a state of comparison, albeit, sometimes subconsciously. You see, even the monk who has given up all of his worldly goods, and takes a simple robe to wear every day, is engaged in symbolism. He knows that when you see him, you see, not a man like yourself, you see the robes (clothe formally; especially in ecclesiastical robes) and know that here is a man dedicated to the spiritual, dedicated to god. He wants to stand out from the crowd. He knows that if he was to wear jeans and a t-shirt like you (which after all, are just clothes) you would not notice that he was different to you. You would not notice that he was a “man of god,” and would merely pass him by.
Do you understand?
But isn’t true intelligence where you see that all of these outward symbols mean nothing? That these symbols are the mark of a man who still desires recognition, who wants to be noticed, who wants to stand out? Once you see that these symbols are only keeping us trapped in a state of becoming, as opposed to a natural state, where you just are, the need for symbols, whether status, religious, or political will naturally drop away, and you will realise how estranged form nature we have become.
The symbol, misconstrued
One thing a symbol can never do, is give you access to the mind behind the man who is hiding behind it. How can you tell that behind the fast red italian sports car, and the designer suits, lies a man who is in turmoil, who has addictions, who has problems with his marriage? The simple answer is, you can’t. How can you tell behind the doors of the presidential palace lies a leader, who is unhappy with his life, who suffers from depression and anxiety, who secretly wishes he had chosen a more simple career? You can’t. How can you tell behind the large cathedral that the priest is starting to question the existence of god.
Do you understand?
We all hide behind these protective symbols, but the symbols are not who we really are. They are not our thoughts and our emotions, and they are not living, they are dead, yet we carry on using them without a second thought.
I want to ask you a question. If you see a man who is living on the streets with one set of clothes, who is he? Is he a poor wretch of a man who has no intelligence, who has no hope of making anything of his life, or is he a man who having been through the process of attachment, and desire got insight into the nature of all things and decided to live this way? You may say, “No man would choose to live this way,” but how do you know? Can you see inside his mind?
The symbol that is being represented is one of poverty and desolation, of sadness – that this poor man has nothing, but in his mind he might be free as a bird, and extremely happy, having seen what can happen to people who are always trying to become something more than they are. He is now happy just to be. But we attach a label to him, and say: “Down and out,” we never think to question any further than that. The symbol is speaking volumes about who he is, but it is only who we think he is, do you see?
I have a friend who keeps plastic bags of all shapes and sizes, and washes them out so they can be used again. I thought that as she cared about the environment, this was some symbolic gesture to show how wasteful we all are in the world, but when I questioned her about it, she said, “No, it’s because freezer bags are expensive, and I don’t have a lot of money.” The symbolic gesture of saving the bags had a different meaning to me as it did to her. My understanding of it was environmental, and for her, it was financial. So you see you can never know what’s truly going on in someone’s mind, and it is the mind we have to understand, not the symbol.
Breaking the symbol
I know we all love our symbolic representations; you have to look no further than art to see it put to good use. “Actually what this hammer represents, is the state’s oppression of the people,” and that’s fine in art, but it is time we started to use our very large minds to see what is behind the symbols in real life, and to deconstruct them; we must challenge our thinking when we see symbolism, and watch our thought processes very carefully, to ensure we are seeing what is really there, and not some invisible meaning.
Ultimately breaking symbols has nothing to do with tearing down the physical, remember that the real symbol is just an imprint on your mind.
When we see a monk, we should just see a man
When we see a church, we should just see some bricks and art
When we see a presidential palace, we should just see some bricks
When we see a sports car, we should just see some metal and some wheels
When we see a man in a designer suit, we should just see a man
When we see a flag, we should just see some material with some colours
When we see a man lying in the street, we should just see a man
Do you understand? Because it is so important that you do. Once we can see that these are just items made up of atoms which are everywhere, the symbol loses its power. A brick is a brick, a car is a car, a flag is a flag, that is all. They have no hidden meaning.
The molecules in the golden cross that the priest carries are just molecules, and they will return to the earth one day, the same as every other symbol. It’s time to let go folks. Symbolic meaning is not a universal force, it’s just yet another man-made idea. It’s time to see through it NOW.
by alan macmillan orr
“The natural mind – waking up”