Of Sense and Synchronicity: A Practical Approach to Esoteric Thinking
Posted Sep 14 2008 1:25pm
There was an interesting post at Shamblog recently in which Steve Salerno commented that people who live a faith-based existence seem, in his experience, to simply be "nicer" people than the secular humanists he has encountered. Personally, I know some nice secular humanists, but I have experienced a parallel in respect to differences I have observed in those I would term "literalists" vs. "symbolists".
Literalists, for purposes of my discussion here, are those who generally view life as a series of cause-effect relationships. They see themselves as sensible, responsible and grounded (and may very well be). They think strategically and practically about life, and value the "realistic". Rooted in the concrete, "material" plane, they may be tend toward linear thinking (if you are lost and need directions, ask a literalist). Life is regarded as a WYSIWYG series of events. They may have a religious orientation, but it tends to be more dogmatic and rule-based with fairly clear guidelines for behavior and what constitutes "good" or "bad". In the extreme, they tend toward fundamentalism.
Symbolists, on the other hand, tend to be of the notion that "there is more going on here than meets the eye." They tend to be drawn to the language of metaphor and are more comfortable considering information from sources that would make many literalists cringe such as employing the use of astrology, Tarot, feng shui or other esoterica when making significant decisions. Synchronistic events are deemed noteworthy and given careful regard whereas a literalist might simply pass the same off as a "funny coincidence" with no further practical value. Symbolists, who are interested not only in "horizontal" or linear "Point A to Point B" progressions, but who are also drawn to look for "vertical" or transcendant themes and patterns in daily life, tend to be non-linear thinkers.
I make no comparison between these two groups in terms of intellectual prowess or their likelihood of being able to achieve worldly success and meet the material demands of existence. I do, however, believe that the symbolists seem to fare far better than the literalists when coping with difficulties and losses, particularly in regard to unanticipated events.
As you may surmise, I count myself strongly among the symbolists and it is from this perspective that No Safe Distance is written. I will confess that, as many symbolists tend to gravitate toward the fringes of mass society, I was closeted (to a degree) in my worldview out of a concern that readers might question my groundedness and ability to be of good, practical service to them. All the while, behind the scenes, I have been immersed in symbolist framed discussions with many of the most compelling and well-adjusted people I have ever known, as well as being continually engaged in study of work by others of this bent, and the evidence is that the symbolists appear to be far more resilient, positively engaged with life and energized on the whole, particularly in the face of adversity, than their literalist counterparts.
I will contend that one can be a symbolist regardless of spiritual or religious affiliation. I do believe, however, that a symbolist worldview implies some sense of the spiritual in life, or at least a contention that there is some over-riding order to the Universe. If we are to look at such things as synchronicity, symbolic and metaphoric occurences in life, by definition these events refer to something beyond themselves. That transcendant or "meta-space" is one that I personally refer to as spiritual but I encourage you to term it in whatever way fits your outlook the best.
It is important to realize that a symbolist view has a very practical aspect. At least it will as you see me discuss it here. I have known far too many individuals who are drawn to esoterica, going to psychics, astrologers and palm readers, for example, but then do absolutely nothing with the information they get. Self-soothing with the stars is absolutely NOT what I am espousing here. For me, the practical, personal usefulness of a symbolist viewpoint is a certainty. For the many of you who have asked me how I can always keep a sense of humor, retain my optimism and stay passionately engaged in life this is it. I am spilling the beans completely here. However, regardless of what I do or do not practice in this arena, I will never suggest that you explore any forms of divination or ask you to adopt a belief system from any schools of thought I present.
All I ask is that you remain open. Entertain the possibilities suggested by different perspectives. Then pay attention to what occurs in your daily life, use your discernment and draw your own conclusions.
What we are talking about here is simply a language. Symbolic and metaphorical languages have been employed by the human race for millenia and are used by all of us as a normal matter of course. If you have ever refered to someone as a "breath of fresh air" or have felt like a "scapegoat" you have been dipping your toe into the world of metaphor. (See what I did there?) One of my tasks at No Safe Distance is to take the symbolic and metaphoric and expand it for you, breathing life into it, as it were.
Why would I want you to be more aware of symbol and metaphor in your life?
Because symbolic language is illuminative. Cultivating increased awareness of symbolism, metaphor and synchronistic events in your life has practical implications for how you live. It will add richness and depth to your life. It will help you get through difficult times. It will breed courage and provide comfort. Understanding a bit about mythology and archetypes, which may seem an arcane subject matter on the surface, can directly translate into your living a more rich and rewarding life.
I saw this happen in a very dramatic way when I first presented the " Dragon Slaying" metaphor to my clients. That metaphor changed the manner in which my clients related to their difficulties in a profound way and led to concrete actions and forward progress, to a degree I had not anticipated. The metaphor gave us all a way to conceptualize and externalize the problem so that it could be approached. And since we all have lots of the green scaleys to contend with, it also universalized the challenges. It's much easier to be brave when you can look over (not to mention back in time) and see other people also in battle. For those of my clients who have had occassion to meet each other, a sort of "warrior bond" was easily formed. And with the bond came not just courage, but humor.
When you can laugh in the face of fear (even while screaming), you have changed everything.
And that was just ONE metaphor, from one page in one book (Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra ). I'd like you all to have a bigger metaphorical vocabulary than that.
The greater your symbolic awareness and "vocabulary" the more intriguing life becomes. It takes on the quality of a riddle to be solved or a treasure hunt to follow. Too whimsical for you? Well, I just happen to be agreeing with a greater head than mine. As John Maynard Keynesobserved, it was Sir Isaac Newton himself who
"saw the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God...hid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher's treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood."
What's the riddle? The meaning of (your) life.
The treasure? Your own evolution (or spiritual growth if you resonate with that language).
A few years ago I wrote an essay entitled " Life is Empty and Meaningless". The irony is that, for a symbolist such as myself, life is anything BUT empty. It is teeming with meaning and significance. It bursts at the seams every time I walk out the door.
This is why I disagree strongly with Eric Maisel on the issue of whether we must "force" our lives to mean.
Life seeks life.
Life loves life. It's just the nature of the beast.
Life engages with life. THAT is what the whole law of attraction is based on. (On that subject, there is so much snake oil out there on that little subject that you will not find me talking in those terms here. Too much fad and misconception abound and I just can't try to rescue that baby from the bathwater right now.)
As anyone who has ever been around a child can attest, life wants to be engaged with itself. Learning and the desire to evolve is innate. We want to know "why" and "how". Our desire to know what things mean is part of our programming. Kids assume that there are underlying reasons for everything and they intend to have them all explained. This is one reason I find children such a joy to be around and never stop their flow of quiestions no matter how many they toss at me and how their parents try to "rescue" me. I love watching life fall in love with itself. THAT is what curiousity is and it just tickles me. So, if it is in our human nature to assume the existence of "reasons", I would suggest that so is it our nature to seek "meaning" (which is just a variation on the question "why?").
Maisel, who identifies himself as an atheist, suggests that while we may assume meaning, many an existential depression has arisen for those who have gone searching and come up empty-handed. My experience has been just the opposite. While I have observed and experienced my fair share of existential depression, the cure for it has never been born of "forcing" a meaning. That approach may appear to be successful for some in the short-term but who wants to have to continuously engage in the kind of a forcing Maisel suggests "creatives" are going to have to suck it up and do?
Isn't there a way of living that is less about forcefully willing something to be and more about joyful engagement with the flow of life?
I absolutely believe the answer is "Yes." The most joyful, well-adjusted and vibrant people I have ever known (personally, professionally or by their work) have not gotten that way by forcing, but rather by shedding non-useful beliefs and "programming". (A nice reference is The Four Agreements if you want more on this subject.) This is not to suggest that they never misstep or that you should hold any of them up as an example of perfect living. I am talking about their ability to flow with and maintain enthusiastic engagement with life even in the face of sometimes extreme challenges.
Joyful people get that way by travelling light. Paying attention. Taking note of what shows up and respecting its significance. They have eyes bigger than their backpacks.
For the symbolist, life is an ongoing, engaging, and instructive multi-layered conversation. Guides, allies and "course correctors" abound announcing their presence in dreams, in nature (like Kate's Birthday Elk ), through chance meetings with strangers, and in unexpected opportunities and unexpected obstacles.
Where a literalist may see disaster, a symbolist may reply, "All is well."
What we mean is not that the situation in question will turn out well in the worldly sense but that we are still growing as a result of it; that the lessons are still coming and we are still evolving as a result. We have a fundamental belief that nothing is wasted, even if we can't catch it all right away, and that we cannot fail in the ultimate development of our character if we continue to show up and be engaged with our "lesson plan". We have an undying faith in ourselves and the inherent value of our lives, no matter how small the scale of our impact. We see ourselves acting in collaboration with life. As the Indigo Girls sing in " Virginia Wolf", we believe, "Each life has its place." Therefore the conversation we have with life is ultimately a benevolent one even if it involves great suffering in the worldly sense.
This is an extremely difficult concept for many to understand and certainly not one that our culture provides guidance with as a whole. And yet, for those who can grasp it and learn to actively engage with life in this way, it is possible to cultivate qualities that often mystify those who suffer less in the worldy sense but are plagued by doubt and dissatisfaction with life.
That one can suffer and yet be playful and buoyant is a paradox that we will explore throughout the writings here as we take a spin around this Grand Kaleidoscope of Life.