THE TREES, RIVERS, AND MOUNTAINS: SYMBOLS OF OUR INNER NATURE - A Little Bit of Symbols: An Introduction to Symbolism - Henry Reed

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


As part of our estrangement from Eden, we experience nature as external and separate from ourselves. We are, nevertheless, an integral part of nature, and we cannot help but express its truths. Our bodies are made of earth. Our biological being is part of the web of life. It should be no surprise, then, that humans have perceived objects from nature to symbolize aspects of the human experience on the planet. Many of the oldest civilizations valued the close observation of nature as the key to wisdom.

We and nature are one, and we can find in every item in nature a sacred mirror in which we may see aspects of ourselves. We can begin with the fundamental building blocks of nature, such as the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Taking a lesson from the children’s dance of the evaporating raindrops, we can use our body to take us into our imagination, and within it is our ability to unite with any and all our relations in nature. Such practices can feel like a reunion.

As an example, let’s take water. A common definition is that it refers to the origin of life in the ocean and our origin in the womb. Dark and foreboding, the ocean depths remind us of all we do not know. Let’s explore it with the light of our imagination. Let’s create water dances. Imagine being water flowing in a river, and move like it. Imagine being water as big and deep as the ocean, and move like it. Imagine water falling as drops from the sky—what’s the ride like? Does water feel wet to itself? Slippery? Can water be happy? Can it be angry? What aspects of ourselves can we recognize as we imagine being water in its various expressions?

Carl Jung, the turn-of-the-century psychiatrist who uncovered the kind of evidence to make the study of symbolism most productive, proposed that the four elements may be analogous to frames of mind. Like opposing directions on a compass, he envisioned them as pairs of opposing mental functions: perceiving versus judging on the one hand, and looking inward versus looking outward on the other. He further refined these pairs as thinking versus feeling—the judging functions—and intuition versus sensation—the perceiving functions. In this way, the aspects of the world that are available to us, that we can become aware of and have a relationship to, depend upon the method or means—the frame of mind—by which we approach them.

Take Earth, for example. What does it mean to be “grounded”? Imagine being Earth, solid and heavy. What do those experiences have to do with being attentive to the senses or to being perceptive? Simultaneously exploring these differing dimensions of the symbol takes us deeper into the consciousness that symbol evokes.

Nature inspires. History documents that fact. We ourselves can affirm the rapture nature creates. It inspires because it draws us in. Somehow we participate in nature. We have an aesthetic relationship with nature; we imagine being in it, of it. Scientific studies have confirmed that nature excites our imagination. Being able to see nature out a window makes us feel better.

Our brain on nature is very similar to our brain on symbols. We are transported, moved, taken to places within, as symbolism stimulates the imagination.

Stories of adventure take place in an environment of nature, with mountains to climb, caves for shelter, rivers for travel, and many vistas for view. All these natural environments suggest, symbolically, aspects of our experience moving through life, with its obstacles, opportunities, and moods. So many folks have had recurrent dreams of moving in a certain natural environment with a particular view or vista, pregnant with meaning.

Imagine how standing on the edge of a deep, dark forest is both inviting and intimidating at the same time. Moving into the unknown has many aspects and qualities.

Imagine standing on top of a mountain. What is it like to be so high up there, closer to the sky? The gods that resided on Mount Olympus in ancient Greece are now scattered among several cloud-covered peaks, inviting folks to risk their lives to become one with such a heightened consciousness. If we can begin to feel the pull of a lofty mountaintop, we are engaging the symbolism of the mountain.

Where are you at? What kind of space are you in? These colloquialisms for inquiring about a person’s state of mind both use suggestive environmental symbolism in forming the question.

Symbols from nature can help us resolve dilemmas that are otherwise difficult to think through. As a case in point, how do we decide how much of ourselves we can give to others, and what do we need to keep for ourselves? It’s a very difficult dilemma to resolve. Consider moving the dilemma to the symbol of a tree. As a tree, my purpose is to grow fruits to share, which will also spread my seeds. I want people to eat my fruit. But please, do not tear off my leaves, as I need them to grow my food. Please do not molest my blossoms, as they are in the early stages of my gifts. But please do eat of my fruits and share them with others.

Here’s a simple crafts project that is a fun way to create symbolic self-portraits of our personal qualities. Take a walk in nature with a meditative intention. Expect to be “greeted” by various elements in nature. Assume the element is mirroring a personal quality. Dialogue with the nature object to discover the meaning or connection. Collect permitted souvenirs of these encounters and arrange them into a design to suggest important attributes of creation. Meditate on this nature collage as if to realize, “This is me!” Pay attention to the thoughts, daydreams, and memories that pass by during the meditation, as such notions may bring important insights.


Behind the clouds

When it rains, it …

You are growing like a tree!

Which do you prefer? The rainbow or the clouds?


Someone is beginning to flower.

Just around the bend

Keep on keeping on—you’ll get there!

Good to the last drop