A Little Bit of Symbols: An Introduction to Symbolism - Henry Reed (2016)
Chapter 3. LET THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN: EMRBACING A UNIVERSAL SYMBOL
The mind’s search for meaning is where symbolism comes into play.
Outside of ourselves exist the “facts” available to our sense perception. These “facts” are objectively observable. Most other people using the same method to observe the world will agree on these facts. It’s within us, however, that we explore the intuitions of meaning concerning our experiences.
It’s one thing to look around and study how the universe functions. But it’s another thing to wonder about why the universe has come to exist or about the purpose or meaning of our experiences.
Let’s start at the beginning. The beginning is a big mystery! How did it all begin? Where did we come from? How did we get here? Why are we here?
How have we explained this mystery to ourselves? What’s the story?
The science of physics, with its atoms and forces, provides an explanation of the big bang! Out of apparently “nothing” there was an explosion of stars that then spread out in all directions to form a universe. But that’s all about “things” moving, colliding, and changing. What about the fact of awareness itself, consciousness, that mystery that distinguishes sentient beings from inanimate things? Our knowledge of the big bang provides some answers to the question “How does the universe work?” But it doesn’t answer the question “Why is it here?”
To answer the question “What’s the story?” we have old myths. We understand that creation myths are full of symbolism. To gain a deeper understanding of creation myths, let’s use our imagination to explore the symbolism of a symbol that is pervasive throughout these stories—the circle.
Let’s imagine creating a circle by opening our arms, bending our elbows, and joining our fingertips, as if we were wrapping our arms around something big. Notice how the arms embrace all that is within that circle. Imagine the space created by our encircling arms and how that space is empty. Get a feeling for the circle we have created as suggesting two different things simultaneously—it contains everything and it is empty at the same time.
Employing physical empathy for the circle with our arms allows the circle symbolism—its emptiness but also its potential—to begin to cast its spell. The best way to think symbolically is not to think in terms of interpretation—what does it mean?—but to instead ask, “Where does it take me?” In what other way might we use our body to express the idea of the circle? By going inside of ourselves, meditatively and with intent, we can reap the reward of inner knowledge that the symbol elicits.
Begin to think of yourself as a circle, empty but containing everything. When I begin to pretend that I am a circle, I want to look around. Then the phrase comes to me: “all around.” When I think about a circle, phrases occur to me such as “the circle of life” or “the great round of being.” I think about the circle having a center, and everywhere around it is the edge of its being. Making a complete circle, coming full circle, the cycle of the seasons, the cycle of life. The circle seems to enclose everything.
I see people standing in a large circle, holding hands. I see people dancing in a circle. The circle suggests that we are all connected as a single being.
There are many examples from the world’s cultural heritage that express aspects of the circle’s symbolism. When I begin an Internet search for “circle symbolism,” there is one image result that is quite striking. It is that of the snake biting its tail to form a circle. The name given to this symbol is ouroboros. It expresses an intuition about what the world was like before there was any awareness of it.
The ouroboros symbol expresses a certain realization about creation as a self-contained cycle of one physical thing transforming through ingestion into something else. It is a picture of the circle of life as a giant food chain feeding on itself, yet “empty” of awareness—nobody is home but the mechanisms and instincts needed to keep the circle going. The ouroboros shows us that there is a difference between the operation of the physical universe and the awareness of its existence.
What is the source of such a symbol? In a book inspired by the perspective of Edgar Cayce, Sacred Geometry and Spiritual Symbolism: The Blueprint for Creation, Donald B. Carroll describes that source as the universal unconscious mind, deep within us all. I use Edgar Cayce’s term and call this mysterious source the Mind-of-God. It’s my way of noting a special correspondence between the intelligent design apparent in the physical universe and patterns in the mind. It also reflects accumulating wisdom that this source has the intent and purpose to become more conscious by reflecting on its action via symbolism.
The ouroboros symbol is a communication from the Mind-of-God suggesting a creation that existed before time as we know it began. If we were to continue our online research into the circle symbolism, we would encounter ideas such as the circle being the symbol for the divinity.
Here are some interesting aspects of the circle that are divinely suggestive. First, God has been known to be centered everywhere and extending beyond forever. In this perspective, the circle expresses aspects of God that are beyond thinking, that are irrational. Mathematicians discovered long ago that to calculate the area contained by a circle, we must resort to the “irrational” number pi, suggesting that we can only get so far with objective thinking about God, and then we must turn inward to the subjective imagination.
When symbolizing wholeness, there is also implicit in the circle the notion of the cycle, the eternal return. There is the cycle of the seasons, which makes creative growth possible. So the theme of death and rebirth is present as well. It’s all there in the circle; wrap our arms around it all, and we get the feeling for the circle’s symbolic pull.
What makes a symbol universal is that it has many diverse examples. The circle “archetype” expresses itself in many diverse ways across time and cultures. The archetype is the underlying, unifying source of the symbol’s many expressions. As the mythologist Joseph Campbell noted, the “hero” (that’s the archetype) has a “thousand faces” (those are the various symbols expressing some aspect of the archetype). The circle—whether a ball, a clock, a wheel, an egg, a hat, a flower, or a flying saucer; whether unbroken, broken, crossed, divided, spun about, and God knows what else—makes more than a cameo appearance in our explorations of symbolism. As a universal symbol, it’s a major player.