Symptom or Symbol?

Most of us spend our lives as Victor Frankl said, “in search of meaning”. That is because a life without meaning spawns a sense of futility, worthlessness and depression. Almost any difficulty can be met if we can simply understand its significance. Meaninglessness is our greatest threat. We spend an inordinate amount of time and wealth looking for someone (or thing) to provide us with a sense of meaning. What we often fail to realize however, is that there is a pathway to meaning always available to us. It's called turning life's symptoms into symbols.

Several years ago I took into my dream world the question, “Who am I?”. That night, I awakened to hear a voice distinctively saying one single word, “Kali”. Being half asleep, I just scribbled the word on the notepad I kept next to my bed, and went back to sleep. I didn't connect the word I'd received with my previous evening's question until the next morning while writing in my journal. Once I did make the connection however, I was stunned.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Kali, she is the infamous Hindu goddess, known for her destroyer nature. On first glance, she doesn't seem to have a whole lot of positive qualities. So you can understand why I wasn't exactly thrilled to be identified with her! Needless to say she wasn't what I would've chosen to represent me, even in one of my more candid moments. So it was with some hesitation that I began to investigate the significance of my late night message. As the day went on, I was given another hint. While visiting the home of a friend, I was introduced to her pregnant house-keeper, a very bright and attractive woman who was close to full term. This young mother-to-be informed me that it had been determined that her unborn was a girl. I asked if she had a name picked out.


“Yes,” she replied, “we've decided to call her Kali Ann.”!


I couldn't believe my ears! There it was again …that word, Kali! She elaborated further, that indeed the name was chosen in honor of the Hindu goddess, Kali, and she then proceeded to tell me some of the more positive attributes of the goddess. Absolutely struck with the synchronicity of my encounter, I struggled to fully comprehend its import. Perhaps I was being given the opportunity not only to learn something about Kali, but about my own nature as well. Later, after doing some research, I realized that Kali represents an energy which clears away the old (a kind of house-cleaning) in order to make way for birth of the new. What could be a better metaphor for Kali energy then a pregnant housekeeper? I then was able to apply the image to myself as being a kind of professional “Kali”. Afterall, it is my job to support clients in clearing away self-limiting patterns which keep them from a more authentic life expression. It dawned on me that the word “Kali” might well be a symbolic representation for that aspect of my own nature. Since then, Kali has continued to be an important image in my journey of self-understanding. I had asked my psyche to broaden my understanding of who I am, and had been given both a symbol, in the form of a word and then a living metaphorical example as an answer. This is one way our Higher Self works to communicate with us; by helping us to develop a symbolic life.


Many of us however, live symptomatic lives. Addiction and destructive acting out, as well as physical problems, all indicate serious internal disharmony. People spend most of their time trying to “get over” whatever it is which they perceive is causing their pain or discomfort. It is true that symptoms are cause-effect related. However, we do ourselves a disservice when we limit our signs of distress to the physical realm only. Rarely does it occur to the average human being that the symptom they are trying to eliminate might serve as a doorway into a bigger life story! It's just a matter of beginning to consciously understand our symptoms symbolically.


Let's explore further what is meant by the term “symptom”, in order to better differentiate it from the idea of symbol. A symptom is a disturbing state of mind or body that may cause us to feel out of control. It is an indicator of trouble. The temptation is to feel invaded by or even at the mercy of our symptoms. We especially want to get rid of them because they seem pointless. In other words, symptoms emphasize the lack of meaning from which we are already suffering. But they can play a sacred role in life. What is needed is a shift in perspective. We simply begin to see our bodies' and mind's attempt to communicate something of deeper significance. Our symptoms then become a vehicle for making our internal discord visible. If we fail to “get the message”, our life continues to feel empty. However, when we use symptom as an indicator of internal strife, we begin the shift towards a symbolic life.


What do I mean by a “symbolic life”? Whereas symptoms are the result of some inner conflict which has been projected out, symbol is the native language of the psyche. Connection to our Higher Self is the purpose and sacred function of symbol. It's the way our Innermost Self converses with us in an effort to move us towards understanding and meaning. Within each of us is a receptor site which links us to our Original Source. Myth, image, vision, and metaphor are all methods for connecting our ego selves to that Source. This, in turn brings about a psychological state of being which affirms life. Once we are open to this dialogue, the journey towards wholeness begins. Symbolism thus provides an awe-inspiring personal relationship to life. Understanding who we truly are, heretofore essentially unknown, becomes possible. We begin to glimpse our internal vastness.


Unfortunately, we often either reduce or literalize the psyche's attempt to converse with us. We tend to suffer from the “it's just …” syndrome. For example, “It's just that I ate too much pizza before I went to bed, that's why the word “Kali” came to me”, or “it's just my imagination, it doesn't mean anything anyway”. These are examples of ways we downplay or degrade our symbolic life. We reduce the meaning right out of our Greater Self's attempt to communicate with us! Another commonly used reductive measure is to interpret a symbol as standing for something with which we're already familiar. In the same way an acronym stands for the first letters of a name, or the word dog stands for a four-legged animal with a wagging tail, we decide that the symbol we've received merely indicates a known thing. In other words, we minimize its meaning.


It's worth remembering that a sign stands for something known, while a symbol provides understanding and meaning. Forgetting this causes many to complain that their lives feel hollow and senseless.


Another danger is the tendency of some to literalize their symbols. I once worked with a female client who had spent her adult life working as an accountant and “doing the right thing”. She complained of chronic depression. I began to use imagery as a way to help her reconnect with her passion for life. Through the imagery, she discovered her “Aphrodite” nature. It was most disconcerting to me, however, when she began to dress up as this inner “love-goddess” in a long-haired wig and provocative clothing for “nights on the town”. She had literalized her image! It would be as if I, when presented with my previously mentioned night image, had decided that I was Kali. This has been a hazard with myths and proverbs down through the ages. There are those who take them as physical, concrete truths, rather understanding instead that they are psychic truths. Another point worth remembering … truth is not just a physical manifestation, there is a whole other arena where truth resides, in the subjective world of psyche!


Whereas minimizing symbolic life stems from a rationalistic, purely scientific approach, literalizing is a form of maximizing or “acting out” the symbol. Either extreme may limit the effectiveness of symbol and leaves us instead, in the throes of a symptom filled life.


As in all things, there is a “middle way” of relating to symbol. We take our dreams, images and symptoms seriously through conscious dialogue with them. We ask them, through association and imagery, to tell us who they are and what they mean. Once we initiate a conscious relationship with Source then a wonderful process of self-discovery takes us right smack into the middle of our vast and unexplored inner terrain. The journey from symptom to symbol is the inner road trip home.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.