When the Signs Are Right
“It’s up to each individual consciousness to develop its own symbol or symbols; its own symbolic universe.” - From the unpublished notes of writer and philosopher Henry Corbin
When I studied ceremony and ritual at the Celebrant Foundation & Institute, we were assigned to figure out and present to the class a symbol that was important to us. If I remember correctly, there were hearts and trees and moons. One person chose a flamingo. I picked a spiral.
Spirals have always fascinated me. I have been doodling them forever in the margins of my notebooks. I think, at first, I just loved their hypnotic nature. But in middle school, when I became obsessed with mythology, I started seeing them in photos of ancient ruins all over the world. There they were carved into stone in Ireland, Colorado, and the islands of Spain, and painted into countless aboriginal works from Australia.
I researched the meanings and found that the spiral represents many things including life, creation, birth and rebirth, evolution, awareness, and growth. Awesome, positive associations!
I kept doodling.
Years later I was listening to a talk by a rabbi who said that he’d heard too many times that life was a circle. He disagreed. I will paraphrase his words. “Life is seasonal, so I understand why people compare it to a circle. But it’s just not correct. Even when we come back to something, be it a holiday or a milestone like the birth of a child, we are different. We have grown, evolved. We are in a different place. Rather than a circle, life is a spiral.”
That resonated with me. The same events may happen, but WE are not the same. This is what I shared with the class. But for days afterwards I kept thinking about it. Creation. Awareness. The passage of time. I wanted to do more with this than just understand it. I wanted to incorporate it into my life. But what could I do with the spiral? I could get a spiral necklace, but I already had jewelry that I wore every day. It could be a tattoo. I have one tattoo but was not ready for another one. Maybe one day.
A few days later, an idea popped into my brain: physical movement. Many faith traditions have hand and body movements that are connected to a prayer or meditation. The sign of the cross in Catholicism. Bowing and swaying during parts of Jewish services. Tai chi is a physical representation of Taoism. I decided to create my own movement using a spiral.
That was a year and a half ago and now when I notice that I am feeling anxious or a little down, I make a spiral with my fingers over my heart. And I say to myself, “As I was, as I am, as I will be.” It reminds me that life is a combination of change and return. I always feel a bit more grounded and connected when I do this. Finding this symbol and using it has enhanced my spiritual life.
This past weekend I did a one-evening workshop on discovering your personal symbology at Float Haven Spa in Pitman, NJ. It was a small group, but two participants had an unexpected and delightful coincidence. It was a woman and her teenage son. We had gone through our discussion of letting your imagination go in search of a relevant symbol. Writing or drawing in stream-of-consciousness. Mining your memories. Noticing the things that continue to capture your attention.
We also started discussing using a favorite fairytale, story, or song as a jumping off point. I suggested that Harry Potter might choose his lightning-shaped scar as his symbol. But what would it mean to him? The heavy responsibility of being a hero? Or that love can protect you from the worst actions? I reminded the participants that they might not find their "forever" symbol at that moment; that they could repeat the exercise when they were at home and feeling more centered.
Then we started to work. Calming music from my phone (Spotify’s Binaural Beats playlist) set the mood. Task one: imagine what your symbol might be. Use words or images. Set down as many as you can, so you have a good list to choose from. Task two: Once you have settled on a symbol, draw or write it in the center of your paper and begin exploring why you chose it. What does it mean to you? What memories is it connected to? How does it make you feel? The room had that "hum" of people thinking and writing.
Finally, the time was up. I asked if anyone wanted to share. (If people don’t want to share, that’s totally OK.) The mom and son were open to speaking. They had not been sitting close, so they could not see what the other’s paper.
Mom went first. She had drawn a large tree. She had written phrases like "Provides a safe space," "Has strong roots and the ability to bend," "reaches for the sunlight." It was lovely.
Then it was her son’s turn. But she caught sight of his paper before he started speaking. “Oh wow, look at this,” she squealed happily.
Her teenage son had drawn a sapling. He had drawn a tiny tree and next to it, “This is a story beginning ... it will lead to strong roots and a strong core ...but it has the potential to touch the sky itself and protect people from the rain and be a shelter for the weak."
These two people had not simply identified their symbol. Through the symbols they also identified how they were connected to each other. The symbol of a tree also displayed their shared values and hopes. They both cherish strong foundations, reaching for their dreams, and protecting others.
The moment had turned from merely lovely to deeply meaningful.
“Far more powerful than money, or even land or violence, are symbols. Symbols are stories. Symbols are pictures, or items, or ideas that represent something else. Human beings attach such meaning and importance to symbols that they can inspire hope.” – fantasy author Lia Habel
If you are interested in exploring your own symbols and personal spirituality, contact me about a one-on-one ritual counseling session or a workshop for your organization.
Remember to create, celebrate, and gather.
(I hope what I write here on Celebrationism.net is helpful. But I know that it cannot replace actual therapy. If you are dealing with serious emotional challenges, please seek out a mental health professional.)
This blog post was originally published in Celebrationism.net