THE FOUR DIRECTIONS ON EARTH: THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A SYMBOLIC SPACE - A Little Bit of Symbols: An Introduction to Symbolism - Henry Reed

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


Symbolism tells a story. It’s a story of the human experience, of us becoming conscious and creation becoming conscious of itself through us. It is not the story told by bones, pottery shards, carbon dating, or electron analysis; nor is it the story of the changes in life-forms on the planet. Symbolism tells the story about something that is invisible to the eye, somewhat insubstantial yet available to our feeling within, or intuition. Symbolism tells the story about what it’s like to become aware as a living being within a physical world.

We use feeling and imagination to empathize with symbols so that we may become aware of the stories symbols tell. What is it like to be suddenly born into awareness? What is it like to go from sleep to wakefulness?

Our brief experiment turning on awareness of breathing gives us a simple everyday example of what the symbols of duality suggest: Creating by dividing into two has implications and consequences. Waking up into being? What’s the story on that?

Once we come into being, it’s only natural to look around. Let’s try it and see.

There’s the world out there in front of us. Turn around. There’s a world behind us. One arm points to the right, while the other arm points to the left. Duality repeats itself, both with forward and backward motion, and with right and left. In terms of directions on a map, there are four cardinal points. There are also topographical distances—an up and a down—that exist outside the confines of the printed page. These divisions occur frequently in the literature of human understanding. For example, in the biblical story of Eden, after the earth is separated from heaven, Eden is found to be the center of four converging rivers on Earth.

The circle divides into two. Each half divides again to form four segments. We’re getting the Earth plane mapped out, structured by the compass points of north to south, and east to west. Life in the material realm seems to happen within a total and self-contained system that is continually cycling and recycling through the play of opposites. An opposing pair of opposite twins provides a foursome material space—a square dance!

Among the Lakota tribe of Native Americans, for example, the space in which life happens stretches out in four directions toward certain pillars, or stable qualities that support the possibilities for life to happen. In his book Seven Arrows, author Hyemeyohsts Storm explains this aspect of Native American spirituality. He points to north as the place of wisdom, west as the place of introspection, south as the place of innocence, and east as the place of illumination. Each corner has associated with it a color and an animal. In this worldview, the entire circle, or “sacred hoop,” is a mirror of each of us individually, and also mirrors creation as a whole. Human development, according to this native spirituality, requires a trip around the circle to develop a balanced repertoire in all four quarters of existence.

The compass is a good image of the symbolism we have been exploring here. The magnetic pull of Earth gives the compass its standard north—an objective, material foundation to the intuitive impression of the “straight ahead” direction. From such an anchor, the other directions fall into place. As we look around the compass, opportunity is calling from all four directions. Whichever way we go, we are destined to meet ourselves. The cross, made by the twin polarities, and the opportunities they provide, will be cause for our later exploring “mandala” symbolism, whereby the circle is not divided by the cross but is fulfilled by it.

There is something about the four-sided square that suggests reliable integrity. The expression “fair and square” dates to a Masonic tradition related to building. Here we can trace a figure of speech referencing a particular symbol back to specific facts. The mystic mason intuited a connection between how God created the universe and how man should build his home. The square, a shape created by the relationship between lines creating a perfect ninety-degree angle, provided a matrix for building that had reliable and highly valuable qualities. We can build on it with the same degree of confidence with which God builds the world. Its four corners provide a space for exploration.

This world that we can now explore, what is it made of, what do we see? In the early Western tradition, the material world was made of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. The symbolism of the four directions as opportunities for experience now morph analogically to four qualities of the substance of experience. How might we explore inwardly the meaning of these very rudimentary symbols?

Becoming one with what we wish to be intuitive about seems to come naturally to children. Here is an exercise I like to do when I teach children: I ask the kids to put on a performance, suggesting, “Do a dance for us that will show us grown-ups how it feels for a raindrop to evaporate into a cloud.” It’s really fun to watch the kids perform this event from nature. They move about, using their faces, arms, and legs to suggest some process of dissolving, maybe floating, or even, by some of the peaceful expressions, slipping into some kind of comfortable restfulness. How do they do it? Ask the kids and they tell us right away: They pretend to be raindrops, and the rest is easy!

Imagine then the unfolding story of the birth of creation. Through its symbol-making process of communicating with itself, the creative imagination feels a circle opening into the dance of two. The dynamic, creative tension in this dance awakens the presence of awareness itself, and the world comes into conscious being. Everything that happens afterward is under constant surveillance. This new awareness discovers the light it shines in four directions. This new awareness encounters experiences of four different substances of material being. With so many factors at play, the story can now branch out in many directions and support the actions of many players in the dance of life.


When you know where North is, you …

Right here!

Right in the crosshairs

Four square is right on …


Out of the Earth

Full of air …

What gets you fired up?

You are all wet!