from The Theosophist Oct 1980

Symbols for a New Age

Hugh Shearman

As we stumble through the crises which are awakening us to a "new age", or at least one that is very different from what we have known in the past, are we not feeling a need for new symbols?

There are many people who feel that they can do without symbols and are even a shade contemptuous of other people who talk about symbols or pay any attention to them. But this comes only from a failure to understand what symbols - real symbols - are.

The word "symbol" comes from the Greek and means a bringing together or a throwing together. And what is brought together by a symbol, or in a symbol, is a concentration of emotive forces - forces such as hope, fear, attraction, desire and indeed all else that the human heart is capable of. The source of these forces is to be found at various levels in our own natures.

We may not pay much conscious attention to the conventional symbols with which our various cultures provide us; but we cannot escape from symbols, for they come welling up form inside us and embody themselves in our dreams, our choices and our involuntary acts.

Although obsessive hunting for symbols and symbolic meanings in life and literature can become a shallow and pointless intellectual game, it is true that we do create meaningful symbols within us, and they sometimes deserve our attention.

Beyond the merely personal interests of life, there are deeper levels in humanity which have been perceived through symbols of vast antiquity. Some of these emerge as archetypal human figures: the wise old man, the eternal youth, the consoling mother. Others take forms that are not human, such as the scarab beetle or the serpent. And others, perhaps from a yet deeper level, take the forms of objects rather than living organisms, although these also can be vividly alive. Examples are the pentagram, the cross, the chalice, that is, various objects in ceremonies.

Symbols and ceremonies

The basis of ceremony is that symbols - these concentrations of emotive power are objectified in some way, through objects or actions or through enacted relationship; and, since all that is objectified comes really from within ourselves, the ceremony by which these symbols are manipulated in various ways has a deep effect inside us.

The difficulty in ceremonies is that those who promote and conduct them often do not know what they are doing; and the enterprise easily becomes trivialized or perverted in some way. Since they are concerned with the emotive aspect of life, the driving forces in our lives, symbols are not primarily concerned with the rational and logical part of our natures. They are either sub-rational or supra-rational, according to the attitudes they evoke in us. The creation and right conduct of ceremonies has to be brought about by a sensitive intuition rather than by some process of reasoning. At the present day, however, they are often liable to be stultified, not so much by being degraded into expressions of the sub-rational and the passional, as by being subjected to the deadening interference of reasoning, often a reasoning based on some platitudinous principle.

A very large proportion of our best known symbols are expressive of concentration. They indicate a centre. They tend to take, in some fashion, the form of a mandala. They lead one's eye, and hence one's feeling and thought, inwards towards a centre. We have the symbol of the cross, the star, or the converging lines of a building which lead one's attention to an altar or some figure which is to be an object of devotion or a source of inspiration.

Concentration can contain all. Dr. Arundale once commented that an infinity of concentration is as valid and real as an infinity of extension. Infinity can be a point just as much as it can be endless space.

Symbols of defined location

Yet the thought that has prompted this article is the speculation that we may be entering a time when our symbols will speak to us less of concentration and more of diffusion.

A great part of our psychological endeavour in life is devoted to the creation, assertion, protection and enhancement of a "me", a separate personal self. When enlightenment begins to touch us, we come to accept the truth that this "me" is not a real self, but a secondary thing that we have brought into being in order to achieve self-consciousness, and that it has in the end to be supersede by a deeper selfhood.

A great barrier to our urge to get beyond the "me", to become awake in a primary and no longer a merely secondary way, is that all our language and our symbolism has been created by "me". We talk and think of ultimate Reality as a very large and exalted "myself". Mind, and even consciousness, of which mind is a specialized development, is fixated to this personal "me", to which we have attached our identity since infancy. We are therefore concerned with symbols of exact location. We want to have a centre. We think we need one and may somehow fall to pieces if we do not have a centre.

So we talk of trying to find a "still centre" within us, or we speak of a "divine spark" existing somewhere inside us. We want to "follow a star". If we turn our gaze towards a cross, it is perhaps partly because we feel that "X marks the spot". It is a symbol of defined location.

A new symbolism

There can be little doubt that these ancient symbols will continue to speak to us for many thousands of years to come. It will be long indeed before "the bright and morning star" has nothing more to tell us or to evoke in us. Yet is there not a new kind of symbolism also coming to the surface within us, once that can no longer indicate a centre and serve as projection of "me"?

An old member of the Theosophical Society one told of an experience which he had clearly found disconcerting. He had tried to look into himself, as deep inside as he could. What he expected to find is not clear: probably he thought it might be something such as is described in the language of certain mystical books, which is still, of course, the language of "me". What he actually found was emptiness.

Surely, from the point of view of our outer personal selves, that is what ought to be found inside us. If there could be found within us something defined, that could be portrayed in terms of the sense data of "me", it would at least be disappointing.

If we try to find a "centre" within us, that centre inevitably present a resistance to reality. It has for us an identity which we attach to the "me". Accordingly, we involve it in the secondary level of existence and make of it a barrier to the liberation into primary reality of that consciousness which has been temporarily fixated to this secondary self, the personal "me". Seeking a "centre" thus often leads to disappointment and frustration.

Science and symbols

We are also beginning to come under pressure to change our symbolic goal for reasons that are not psychological or mystical but quite material and, as we say, practical. Science is increasingly discovering that what used to be regarded as separate things and events have to be recognized as one thing and one happening, including consciousness itself. There is less and less place in modern physics for an independent observing eye, a vantage point; for consciousness itself is inseparable from the total movement of things which is perpetually one happening. Even materially, life is a river without banks. We cannot stand and watch it flow past, for we are in it and of it, inseparable from it, one with it.

Our understanding, more and more, demands that we should stop having what we call a "point of view". The movement and relationships of life cannot be understood from a point. Hitherto we have stood at what we imagined was a stable situation and have evaluated everything other than the "me" by the criterion of whether it was pro- or anti- me, until we have an opinion about everything that confronts us and about many things that do not. But we are perceiving that there is no understanding from such a stance. To approach situation from a point of view, a centre, is to get into conflict, for the centre is a resistance to that total movement which is life's wholeness.

Symbols of width and movement

But perhaps an apparent emptiness inside is still too bleak and frightening for us. An admirable symbol which might appeal to many appeared recently over the door of a Chinese eating establishment. The little shop was named "The Wide Blue Sky".

If we must have something inside us, but are beginning to feel that a centre is too fixed, that a little peaceful interior shrine is too static and segregating, it might be worthwhile entertaining for a while the notion that inside us is a vast blue sky, full of sunlight and movement, alive with the continuous thrust and flow of airy forces, continually creating splendid clouds, tiny ice particles, great storms of rain. It might release something in us if we could interiorize the atmosphere and ambience of Shelly's poem on the cloud. But it is necessary to become open to the whole and not lose it through pursuit of its component particularities.

In the Christian scriptures it is recorded that when the Holy Spirit descended upon the followers of the Christ, "there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind" and it manifested itself in a form like living flame, "cloven tongues, like as of fire".

We are told that this is an age of the Holy Spirit and also that we are entering an era that is pervaded by the influence of an airy astrological sign. Certainly there are many of reasons for claiming that this is a "space age". Be that as it may, symbols to express our emotive selves in this age can no longer be altogether static or centred. Symbols are now seeking to emerge in us that are wide, pervasive and full of movement, conveying intimations of "that All Presence which is sensed by the opened eye of Dangma". . Evolution is bringing us to a perception that there is more security in width and movement than in confinement and resistance to movement.


Dr. Hugh Shearman is an honours graduate in history and the author of some twenty books which include The Passionate Necessity , The Purpose of Tragedy and Modern Theosophy. He was chief executive officer of the T.S. in Northern Ireland for many years.

1) Dangma - a Purified Soul, an Adept (Tibetan)


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