Flecting and Reflecting
The use of symbols has come to define the very essence of being human, and that which we have become. Examining the impact of symbols and symbology on human civilization could easily be a lifelong task, but with a sense of fearlessness, I will attempt to capture a few cogent thoughts on how our fascination with symbols has much to do with creating the world as we know it today.
Some symbol systems are obviousmusic notations, astrological and occult signs, international signs and traffic symbols, religious symbols, shorthand. Some are less obvious, only because they are so pervasive that we have stopped regarding them as symbols. Language itself is one; currency is another, time is yet another, as is mathematics. Often we get so caught up in our use and misuse of symbols that we become captive to them and the mindsets they create. Language, time, and currency are the chief offenders in this regard, although for those who use mathematics, it becomes a trap of sorts as well.
There are many physicists and other physical scientists who believe (or act as if they believe) that mathematics are somehow inherent in the structure of the universe itself, and that the physical world must somehow conform to mathematic principles. In fact, this is often the basis for rejecting new ideas or non-ordinary realms of experience. When the math falls short, these individuals believe that either the experience itself is invalid, or it is because the math is bad and that some new math will inevitably sweep the problem away. They fail to remember that it is only a human system to explain (or attempt to explain) great mysteries, and put them in a context that human beings can understand. At best, it is but one way to understand, and any understanding is necessarily incomplete.
Similarly, many have come to regard time as embedded in the structures of reality. It is largely ignored that time is an invented system to measure processes of nature. Since the beginnings of civilization, man has marked the passing of the seasons, phases of the moons, and other natural processes that enabled early civilizations to accurately forecast the best times to plant crops, find the running of fish and other migrating animals, and accumulate firewood or find a warmer abode for the coming cold weather. Gradually, time gained additional meaning and a higher place in the hierarchy of human thinking. Today, we even measure vast distances by means of time (light years), and the most accurate of time is defined by a set of vibrations from piezo quartz when bombarded with radiation. Combined with the importance placed on language, time defines much of our current mental processes.
Language itself is both a bold symbology and an inadequate one. As language can fairly accurately capture logical processes, but falls short at accurate emotional or intuitive description, we tend to base our thinking in logical or pseudo-logical processes, and have given short shrift to these other areas. Because of cultural bias, most of us are unwilling to consider realms of thought occurring outside the province of language. This has led to an atrophying of what may have been at one time powerful intuitive and emotional energies, energies that may have been (and still be) far more accurate guiding principles to living a fulfilling and successful life. If success were merely a logical state, wouldnt logic dictate a simple set of principles to achieve it? Success is a truly subjective state, and, as in everything of deeper meaning, it must be directly experienced.
Even what the majority of human beings today regard as the thinking process is in fact a series of unending internal dialogues, and we even attempt to convert nonverbal impulses into verbal thoughts and internalized images before we allow ourselves to act. Is it any wonder that so many shamanic and mystical traditions, and even the discipline of yoga, teach that to experience a higher presence and the peace it can provide, we must first shut down or control this process? Without practicing these precepts, we end up identifying our entire existence through means of internal dialogue, and the symbolic descriptions it provides.
We each have our own world that we live in, primarily because that world is a product of this internal self-dialogue. The way each of us may describe the same thing will vary greatly, depending on our past experiences, our use of language, and even the specific language that we use. Most are aware that Eskimos have about 200 words to describe snow. There are many languages that have no words to describe certain ideas or concepts, while others have many. There are nuances, shadings and colloquial meanings that vary greatly from language to language. Because words convey a reflective condition, language is better at describing reaction and reflection than process or experience.
If one really listens to their own internal dialogue, rather than allowing it to race untended, one soon reaches the conclusion that much of what we tell ourselves is either meaningless patter, or has no bearing on the specific situation that we find ourselves in now. Worry is an excellent example of unbridled self-talk, and fear is usually another product more of self-talk than the real situation we are in. We can easily work our selves into a state of worry or panic when we are lying in bed, or engaging in other non-threatening behaviors. This use of internal dialogue, combined with our preoccupation of time, has come to determine the very nature of most of what we believe is thought. Our memories are of the past, our imagination is of the future, and little if any energy is dedicated to living in the specific moment of beingNOW.
Our obsession/fixation on self-talk opens another, more sinister door into our minds. The simple act of ongoing self-description removes us at least one step from direct experience, that is, as we are experiencing something, we are simultaneously describing it to ourselves, and it is most likely this description that we will carry with us in our memories. This also allows others to implant ideas in our minds, guiding and directing our thoughts and actions both subliminally and overtly. The validity of direct experience has been swallowed by our self-described world, and the words and images of others can compete with our own words and images far more effectively than with our experience. Gestalt psychology is based on the foundation of self-talk (and external talk) absorbed into our consciousness unthinkingly, causing us to adopt directions that may or may not be in our own best interests. The rift between the experienced world and the described world is referred to as cognitive dissonance. Our brains attempt to influence the external world to bring it into congruence with our internal world, so powerful is the might of these internalized symbols. This is with mixed results, as usually it is an unconscious process.
Most of us identify the real self as the one doing the thinking, this sub-vocal verbal articulation. If that is the case, who is doing the listening? Nearly everyone (not just so-called schizophrenics) has more than one voice going on, a call and response if you will. There are different levels of the persona that have different stakes in the thoughts passing through the brain. Perhaps the observer/listener is a closer approximation to the true self, a shepherd for the flock of voices. Consider that as long as this prattle continues, it drowns out the subtle magic that is inherent in our everyday world. We have confused reality with the symbol systems chosen to represent it.
As potentially dangerous and damaging as symbol systems can become, they at least have enough redeeming qualities to justify long-term integration into the human experience. The change language has wrought on the human condition has caused an evolutionary process to unfold from pre-linguistic hominids. The next sensible step would be to create a more accurate awareness of the role of symbols in human lives and society, and to reintegrate the pre-language abilities that have been tossed aside in favor of the grosser impact of self-talk and language in general.
Currency is a symbol system that probably started innocuously enoughan attempt to represent an arbitrary and at least somewhat objective value system for other objects or possessions. It allowed merchants to buy and sell items for this agreed-upon convention, and allowed the early consumer to go to market without an overloaded cart of pelts, grains, and animals, hoping to trade items that were wanted. It allowed unburdened travel and simplified many aspects of everyday life. Over the course of human civilization, the system adapted and changed, adding elements undoubtedly unforeseen by its early adherents. Interest, usury, and other terms specific to the monetary symbol system were added, as some individuals became caretakers of the symbols, and put themselves into the advantageous position of charging additional symbols for services related to using these symbols.
By the time this system reached our era, currency (like other symbol systems) had outstripped its early vestiges to take on a life of its own. Today, there are thousands who may go hungry or cold to protect their symbols. It goes without saying that possession or desire of these symbols has led to millions of needless deaths, broken families, and corrupted dreams. This system is so alluring that today, those with the greatest number of these symbols are looked upon as the power brokers of our age, and are in many instances able to dictate the very values and mores of society. As with the other symbol systems discussed above, it has surpassed its designation as a symbol to become an end unto itself, and is regarded by most as a phenomenon embedded in reality. And it is, if one insists on regarding the described reality as reality.
In each of these cases, the symbol systems were developed with the idea of making our existence easier, learning and understanding more of the natural systems that surround us and are a part of us, and enhancing the experience of life. In each instance, they have in many ways supplanted that experience, or co-opted the value that can be found outside of their realms. For the broad masses of humanity, the context has flipped 180 degrees: instead of being served by these symbols, most often we serve them. I would respectfully suggest that perhaps it is time to put them into their proper perspective. It is quite amazing that in order to do so, we must only learn to be truly quiet and let ourselves experience the wonders of the universe. Until we learn about life outside of symbols, we are captive to our own creations, truly limited and confined by the mindsets created by these systems.
© 2002 Doug Fulcher
Doug Fulcher works as a sales director, freelance writer, and musician, and lives on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State with his wife and their three dogs. Doug can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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