The Symbol and the Reality

In certain areas of thinking and living, Western culture has brought about a radical shift in the way we see our personal life. Although this shift began with the Greek culture, it has developed beyond those beginnings. In older cultures, and still in much present personal assessment or religious thought, we see the use of symbolism. People writing about Native American beliefs for instance, still encourage the reader to explore and remain in symbolic worlds of experience.

Present religious teachings too still refer their followers to symbolic figures such as Christ or God. They suggest living in hope while suffering, sickness and deprivation eat away at people’s lives. Symbols of holy figures hold people is systems of thought that are like a dangled carrot, keeping them chasing a rainbow, the foot of which they never arrive at.

In this way a whole lifetime can be spent living in misery that is excused, covered up, or explained away by religious faith, misdirected spiritual seeking, hope and trust. These are such subtle things and thus so deadly.

Such symbolic living, like dreams whose meaning we allow to remain hidden within their imagery, never confront us with the birth trauma, with childhood hurts and sexual abuse. They never really transform the base of our being where such real emotional and even physical pain exist buried and avoided. In fact symbolic living is a way of maintaining the avoidance.

As an example of the way we use symbolism to hide reality, it is interesting that both the Australian aborigines, and the American indigenous people, have a profound belief that they were born from the soil of the land they now live in. They believe that a Creator or creative process formed them out of the land in which they live. But findings arising from DNA sampling in regard to moving populations show that neither the Australian aborigines, nor the native American people were indigenous to the area in which they now live. So in this sense there belief is a symbolic one. Or if not symbolic, then it refers to a much earlier age in which all human beings, life itself in fact, emerged out of the substance of this planet.

But many such uses of symbolism are much more personal. St. Theresa gives a wonderful example of this in saying:

Now that I have recorded some temptations and secret, inner disturbances aroused in me by the devil, I will describe certain others which he inflicted on me almost in public, and in which it was impossible not to recognise his agency.

Once when I was in an oratory he (the devil) appeared on my left hand, in a hideous form. I particularly noticed his mouth, because he spoke to me, and it was terrifying. A great flame seemed to issue from his body, which was intensely bright and cast no shadow: He said to me in a dreadful voice that I had indeed escaped his clutches, but that he would capture me still. I was greatly frightened and made shift to cross myself, whereupon he disappeared, but immediately came back again. This happened twice and I did not know what to do. There was some holy water near by, some drops of which I threw in his direction, and he did not return again.

Here St. Theresa symbolises her inner psychological and probably sexual struggles as the Devil. Nowhere in past times was sexual struggle associated with experiences of meeting the devil. Yet in modern psychotherapy, when people are helped to meet their vision of the devil, they break through to a meeting with sexual repression and fears, or trauma occurring during their birth. Such early traumas, because they act as inhibitors on the full development of the person, also often inhibit sexual ease and flow. (For further information on this see Grof’s Realms of the Human Unconscious by Grof.)

An interesting insight into what the avoidance of going beyond the symbol might lead to has been given by Ralph Frenken Ph.D. in his review of Christian mystics. He believes that, “The psychodynamics of mystics, their symbol formations and their actions are based on excessive early trauma. . . . There is evidence that medieval mystics were deprived and also emotionally and sexually abused as children.”

To bring this more into the present times, Robert Van de Castle, in his excellent book Our Dreaming Mind, quotes from Norma Churchill’s experience of using active imagination.

“Help me” I beg the serpent. He rears back, giving me a steely look with his mysterious sky-blue eyes. Then, he swiftly strikes my crippled foot and bites it with his powerful jaws. I nearly faint at the pain of it, and both my feet and legs turn black and rotten. I look at the serpent in astonishment.

One half of me glows with light, the other half is putrid and black with rot. Then in a flash, my legs and feet turn to diamond and light up my forehead.

This is typical of the way many people arrive at some form of symbolism about their inner life and seem satisfied to leave it in that form — symbolic. What, in terms of Norma Churchill’s everyday life, are diamond legs? What is the serpent she meets in personal human experience?

Often the things that emerge in a dream or in self observation of one kind or another, are very much like a myth or fairy tale. The person using the technique meets dangers and triumphs as in a mythological encounter. So in continuing their self exploration without going beyond the symbols, they may even create a sort of personal myth.

One of the early books – Woman by Rix Weaver – in describing the experiences of a person using a method of interior exploration outlines just such a personal myth, and is rather like reading a story. This may clarify or extend a dream or a question about oneself, but nevertheless it has not arrived at any real connection with ones own here and now existence. What it does do is to give the person an indirect relationship with important issues in their life via the symbols. Thus the monstrous serpent in Norma Churchill’s early sessions does not become real knowledge of her own history or genesis. Nowhere does the person have to actually bring to the surface childhood pains, the depths of real psychological sickness, or the misery of feeling deserted or unloved.

The real heroine or hero of the inward journey does not remain in this symbolised version of themselves. They do not accept the Devil as an exterior agent, or Christ as an outer and perhaps historical character. They do not accept their dreams at face value, but are ready to face themselves with the courage necessary. For it is an uncomfortable journey to actually see oneself. It is a demanding climb to have ones awareness stretched and widened beyond ones personal limitations in order to include a vaster experience of oneself. Therefore there are inbuilt or personal resistances to actually having direct insight. It is easier to remain at a symbolic level rather than discover the wonderful or uncomfortable truths about oneself. (For a detailed description of someone breaking through symbols to direct experience see Active Imagination)

One of the difficulties we face in discovering ourselves is the belief that direct experience is not possible. Strangely, Carl Jung, despite his extensive exploration of dreams never talks of direct personal experience of, for instance, a traumatic childhood experience, or of birth. Freud, linking dreams more directly with a person’s real history, still remained at an interpretive level rather than moving to direct experience. It was only later workers such a Reich, and Grof, who describe people experiencing their history in detail.

Stanislav Grof, chief of psychiatric research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Centre and an assistant professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in particular writes about verifications of an individuals ability to find in themselves direct information about their own origins and past. Grof originally worked in Prague exploring the connection between psychotherapy and the spontaneous experiences provided by LSD. Working with thousands of patients he found that by studying each person’s many therapeutic sessions, “Rather than being unrelated and random, the experiential content seemed to represent a successive unfolding of deeper and deeper levels of the unconscious.”

Writing about this in his book The Holographic Universe, Michael Talbot says, “It quickly became clear that serial LSD sessions were able to expedite the psychotherapeutic process and shorten the time necessary for the treatment of many disorders. Traumatic memories that had haunted individuals for years were unearthed and dealt with, and sometimes even serious conditions, such as schizophrenia, were cured. But what was even more startling was that many of the patients rapidly moved beyond issues involving their illnesses and into areas that were uncharted by Western psychology.”

In previous times such human ‘disorders’ were all dealt with in a symbolic manner and given symbolic names. It is therefore important to state that one of the great leaps forward in human culture is this recognition that there is a reality underlying the symbol. Older religions and methods of self realisation such as Shamanism, yoga and occultism did not in general move beyond the symbolic presentation or approach to the human condition.

One of Grof’s earliest insights was that many of his patients relived experiences connected with their birth and of life in the womb. At first he saw these as something the patient had imagined, or part of a fantasy dealing with their difficulties. But as these experiences continued he came to see that the knowledge the patients expressed far outstripped their education of embryology and the processes of foetal development and birth. Patients described specific details concerning blood circulation in the placenta, and even details about the various cellular and biochemical processes taking place. They often exhibited awareness of actual events, thoughts and feelings experienced by the mother during the pregnancy.

Whenever he could Grof investigated the reality of these insights and in many cases found them to be correct.

But there were levels of experience met that were far beyond these womb and birth memories. Patients often described what it was like to be ancient animals, as if they had lived as such at one period of their evolution. Such descriptions were often verified as to details of the creature’s body and habits. (See The Ten Day Voyage)

Patients recounted experiences in which they were able to tap into the consciousness of their distant relatives. One such person accurately described an event her mother met at the age of three, along with a description of the house her mother lived in at that age. Some of these memories were of ancestors living centuries beforehand. These verifiable experiences are what one meets when we burst through the symbol into the reality.

At times people experienced what were more racial memories of past periods of time, recounting accurate ‘memories’ of being bushmen, of Aztec rituals, Egyptian burial rituals, and many other such insights into the past.

Once again, to return to the point, these direct insights or experiences lie within or beyond the symbol. The inner is always directly related to the outer. There is no higher or lower, better or worse in this scheme. If we cannot connect our inner world directly with our outer present and our history, then there is a link missing somewhere. The symbols of our dreams and visions are the icons on the desktop of our awareness. We need to click on them if we wish to access the treasure of direct experience they connect with.

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