Symbolic Thinking


By that so frequently used word “spirituality” we mean a willingness to suffer for truth, a yearning for a happiness more stable than the sensual gratification that the modern world offers so easily. We sense a significance even if obscure that is beyond crude self-aggrandizement. It’s this aspiration mixed with confusion that makes us ripe for misdirection by illusion and false authority.

It’s easy to be satisfied with mere forms and appearances, willfully forgetting that these are meaningless in themselves. We’re quite happy to be lulled to sleep in this way, fondly dreaming we’ve reached the destination. And why not? The road to reality can be difficult to travel, ambiguous to discern and is uncertain even when we’re on it. 

In their defense symbols are often useful; a higher level of abstraction can often free insight by clearing the clutter around the hidden central structure.  Avoiding symbols entirely is obviously not desirable or even possible – these words themselves are symbols – but it may help to know when and how we’re using them so their handling can be more precise, almost mathematical.

Is the symbol a guide to reality or a substitute for it? To be satisfied with the superficial, with shallow explanations, to indulge in the symbolic is to fail to get to grips with the reality underneath. The symbol by its very nature points away from the subject to simplify in contrast to analogy that uses comparison to gain a closer insight.

Symbolic perception is to place a buffer between subject and object to make it a second-hand experience. Those who filter experience through symbols are robbed of both direct experience and the corresponding response it generates. The quintessential example may be the academic who skillfully employs symbols as a more malleable substitute for reality but every modern person does this to some degree.

One may get an abstract excitement from poring over trail maps but the experience is only real and complete when we actually get outside and start walking.

Romance and sentimentality too aim to replace the actual present with the symbols of a comfortable if imaginary past; it’s a drug that offers an easy route to supposed happiness.

There’s no need for westerners to shave their heads, chant mantras, wear saffron robes or any of that nonsense; these are markers of the unserious, those who’ve colossally missed the point. Even for those brought up in the Buddhist culture, it must be that any wisdom gained is despite this uniformity and not because of it. Orthodoxy and insight are inherently opposing processes.

There are still aspects of this culture to admire if not fawn over. Regardless of the shaky theory one has to respect the thousands of hours spent as practitioners and the superhuman ability to suffer. Unlike most of us they do actually get out into the landscape of the mind to explore even if the maps they use are dubious.

Pseudo “holy” texts are useless as guides. Any intelligent conscious human already knows the basic truths of life and what has to be done but as with healthy eating just can’t turn theory into practice. We are dilettantes who only play at self-discovery and change, pretenders who take the easy option every time. It’s by our own free will that we muffle ourselves.

I’ve practiced Hatha yoga all my adult life and extol its physical effects on posture, muscle tone and breath but any search for “deeper” psychological or “spiritual” meaning  – though it offers analogies for the mind – has a limited payoff.

In attempting to change only the outward behavior of an otherwise continuous self we set ourselves up for failure. Like someone trying to cross a powerful river to a new country while weighed down with family heirlooms we awkwardly span two worlds. True and lasting transformation is only possible when we leap fully over to the other side, holding on to nothing from before.

Insight as art and science