THE EVOLUTION OF ENLIGHTENMENT: SYMBOLS FROM SPIRITUAL TRADITIONS - A Little Bit of Symbols: An Introduction to Symbolism - Henry Reed

A Little Bit of Symbols: An Introduction to Symbolism - Henry Reed (2016)


Spirituality concerns the expansion of consciousness, from local to universal, and the typical transformations or stages of development in that growth toward a life of conscious interrelationships. Mythologies, stories constructed from symbols, describe the spiritual path as one of awakening and a transformation from darkness and illusion to one of light and conscious harmony with creation.

The senses are perfect for interacting with the material world. As long as “nobody’s home,” the transformation of energy moving through the ouroboric cycle of physical life is sufficient unto itself. What happens when something “wakes up” and finds itself as a living spirit embedded in this ongoing physical creation? What’s next? How do we deal with the contradictions of being a free spirit trapped in a physical body?

The award of being the designated “oldest known human-made symbol” goes to one with a tainted reputation. The oldest known symbol, etched in stone, shrouded in mystery, suggestive to the imagination, is the swastika.

Scientists do not know how far back in history the image goes or toward what idea or realization those swastikas were symbolizing—certainly not the idea of a political party or nation state! The image emerged in a prehistoric period and spread most everywhere.

The swastika is a riff on the symbol of the cross as earthly compass and suggests the circle in which the cross is contained. Each end of the cross is bent or turned, traditionally toward the right, or clockwise. The cross begins to move, to circulate. Into the four directions of space there arises movement, circulation. It’s easy to empathize with the image and feel movement within, excitement.

The urge, notion, or realization prompting the creation of swastikas evolved with time into expressions that provided more clues about the meaningful force behind the image. One of my favorites comes from the iconography of the ancient Maya and Aztec peoples, whose many variations on the simple swastika form suggest more of its nuanced intent.

The glyphs most swastika-like in these cultures are those identified as specifying the Aztec god Ollin Tonatiuh, translated from the Nahuatl language as “movement of the sun.” Movement suggests getting things going—animation. How does this happen? One of the interesting things is that their glyphs for Ollin, when simplified, reveal a pattern very similar to the yin and yang symbol.

Movement happens by, or is equivalent to, the splitting of one into two opposing but complementary parts. It seems to be portraying the notion that God is vibration! Hermes Trismegistus, for example, declared as a basic principle that all is vibration. Edgar Cayce, an American mystic and psychic, described God as being of two complementary but opposite qualities: impersonal and physical, as in lightning; and personal and spiritual, as in the experience of “I am.” If God is Love, then perhaps the pair of complementary and opposite experiences making up the “love vibration” might be “I am you” versus “I am not you.”

The yin and yang has within it also the notion of each of the opposing pairs transforming into their partner: There is a dot of white in the largest black area, and a dot of black in the largest white area. So the opposition is not really opposing, but taking turns; it is cyclical and, thus, one. Here the symbol is giving us more informational details about the divisive split needed for creativity. Although the sound of No! can seem quite destructive, the yin and yang symbol suggests that it will turn into a Yes! later on, so that the estrangement or separation is really illusory. The notion of movement also hints at the later realization by Albert Einstein of the “relativity” that exists between time and space.

The oneness in the play of opposites receives special symbolization in the image of the mirror. Looking into the mirror, will we fall in love with that person in the mirror, as Narcissus did, or will we recognize the image as being a reflection of ourselves? Or is there yet another secret here?

In the Shinto religion indigenous to Japan, for example, a mirror is placed in the temple in the same way a Christian church would place a cross: as a focal point in front of the adherents who have gathered to worship. The cross brings two opposites together, man and God, nature and spirit. How then might a mirror do the same thing? The student who is ready will ask, “How can mirroring oneself to oneself reveal the God within?” The answer also lies within.

If the simple creative principle of the dance of opposites receives any further amplification, it comes from the Hermetic principle “the Many are One.” In this case, the principle suggests that the many parts of creation are actually a unity, and each part is holographically reflecting the whole. Imagine a leaf from a tree: The veins in the leaf give the impression of a tree!

As a symbol of how All are One, I believe the best example is that of the World Tree, a pervasive motif that occurs throughout many cultures. One of my favorite expressions of this symbol is the Norse version, the Yggdrasil. We see the levels of the tree above and below ground—the circle of life is contained in a spherical display of expression. A remarkably similar expression from another culture is the Mayan tree of life.

An interesting project in personal symbolism is to create your own tree of life. Imagine being a mirror of creation as a model for the world tree. Imagine an animal, often a reptile, that’s closest to the earth, like a snake or turtle. Choose a bird for the top of the head to communicate with heaven. On the left side, place something of the female principle. On the right, put something of the male. There would be at least seven branches of the tree, perhaps in pairs. The pairs might represent polar opposites in the expression of that branch. Imagine, the Many are One, and a personal mirror as well!


There’s as much underground as above.

What goes around comes around.

What is in heaven?

Now things are beginning to move.


Mirror, mirror on the wall …

To see yourself as others see you

What is above is also below.

Mirror in the temple