The Symbolic World

What do we mean by that so frequently used word “spirituality”? A willingness to suffer for the truth, a yearning beyond the sensual gratification that the modern world offers so easily? A meaning even if obscure that is apart from crude self-aggrandizement? It’s this aspiration mixed with confusion that makes us ripe for misdirection by illusion and false authority.

It’s too 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 we set out for. And why not? The road of reality can be difficult to travel, ambiguous to discern and is uncertain even when we’re on it. 

Forms and symbols can have their use; by clearing clutter they allow a glimpse of the essential. 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 and we’re not mistaking abstraction for the reality they’re depicting. 

Reality can have many aspects and the act of abstracting is simply to look at one of them at a time. It may be convenient and sometimes insightful to do so but we have to remember we are at a lesser level and removed from reality. 

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

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 simplification and evasion that by its nature the symbol offers must be frankly acknowledged.

To perceive merely symbolically is to place a buffer between subject and object and make it a second-hand experience. Those who filter their senses through symbols are robbed of the exhilarating nature of direct experience. 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.

Intellectual activity can provide equipment for a difficult task but is not the activity itself. So many have tried but no one has ever read themselves into enlightenment.

It’s tempting to avoid a perception that is direct and out of our control in favor of one through an intermediary that we can manipulate but the price of this safety is an inauthenticity that clouds our judgment and thwarts our senses.

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. Religion is stuffed full of the false solemnity of orthodoxy and symbols; the weight of the past. 

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.

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.

In attempting to incrementally change only outward behavior 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 let go of everything we held tightly before and leap fully over to the other side.

Understanding as art and science