Joseph Anderson

Soul Cartography: the Use of Symbols

The sacred use of symbols and the imagination is a time-honored and effective way to find healing and purpose, and live a fuller, richer, and more connected life. I think it’s central to Soul Cartography work, so it will help to define “symbol” and look at how symbols operate in the psyche.

Semiology – the study of signs and symbols – is a good place to start. The first thing to notice is that “sign” and “symbol” are two different things. The common ground they share is that they are both bridges between a “signifier” and a “signified”. A signifier is a visible manifestation in the physical world; the signified is a meaning to which the signifier refers..

A “sign” is simple: a signifier that points to one and only one meaning. So a red, hexagonal traffic sign means one thing “stop!”. There is really only one possible interpretation.

A symbol, by contrast, is a signifier that points to multiple possible meanings. As an example, in the classic short film The Red Balloon, the balloon is a symbolic presence: and within the film we can easily see that it has many meanings – freedom, vulnerability, innocence –  and even more so as we consider the variations in our individual response to the image of the balloon, layered onto our own individual experiences of balloons (say through half-remembered birthday party tragedies or joys).

We are surrounded by symbols, in culture and art of all kinds: rich images that resonate with meaning but don’t yield simplistic correspondences. We get in a bit of trouble when we try to squeeze the richness of symbolic meaning into the narrow confines of a sign – in other words to assign a single meaning to an image in our lives that doesn’t want to be made simple.

The relationship between signifier and signified means that a symbol is a form of transformation. What exactly does a symbol transform? In other words, why don’t we just call things by their real names in the first place?

C. G. Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, has a brilliant theory about this, and it rings very true to me. When the unconscious aspect of our psyche gets into a start of disharmony and its energy is blocked or stuck, symbols manifest themselves in our awareness, calling attention to the imbalance. These may appear as dreams, or as a variety of encounters in waking life. These images are recognizable by their vividness and their insistence: for they are in fact the psyche’s method for helping bring healing and restoration to us. The nature of this healing may be entirely non-linear and beyond the reach of language – but through the power of symbols we can gain access to a deeper wisdom, negotiate the mysterious shifts our lives are demanding of us, and find our way to a new and wiser balance.

In the Jungian therapeutic model, when such a symbol emerges the work is to engage with it, focus on it, allow its energy to bloom and manifest itself, and thereby transform blockage into new possibilities. This Jungian model really resonates with my experience working with shamanic practice and helps give a language and a theory to what I have found to be profoundly true in the healing work I have done. When we get in touch with what those potent symbols are that rise up in our psyches; when we feed them, honor them, sing and dance with them, make art of them…then we can benefit from what they have to offer us.

This symbolic understanding is core to Soul Cartography work as well. One of the benefits of these exercises we are doing in the class is to help you identify some of the core symbols in your life. Let’s dig a little more into how that might work for you in the context of the exercises.

  1. Mandala. In this exercise I ask you to identify a whole host of items that give you a sense of power and energy. The intent of the exercise is to help your mind and spirit understand how rich and vast the resources are for you to work with, and to begin to reflect on where within that awesome protective aura you might begin to focus your attention for further transformative work. It’s my view that you could pull on any one of these threads, with enough clarity of intention and the appropriate amount of effort, and untangle all the mysteries of your life. But having a field of symbols helps us stay engaged, I think, and helps address the many moods we move through. I encourage you to work with those items within your mandala that feel especially powerful and valuable to you.
  2. Inventory and Life Path. In this exercise I ask you to articulate the contents of your autobiographical memory, and then to shape those memories into a coherent story. From this work can emerge a clarity about the major arcs and sweeps of your life – the ways in which a deep inherent purpose is seeking to manifest itself. That is very valuable in itself. But symbol comes into play when one of those arcs begins to crystallize into a simple image or phrase that can then be worked with consistently. For me one of those phrases has been “learning to share”. It just popped out so self-evidently as part of the exercise process. Since I did that work I have been turning the phrase over in my mind, and using it quite deliberately to shape my choices and help me understand my responses to what life offers me. If you’ve seen the film “Singing in the Rain” you remember the wonderful sequence about “dignity”. Even though in that case the term was not quite accurate, the exercise of leaning one’s life against such a concept and its symbolic overtones brings much useful clarity.
  3. Patterns. In this exercise I ask you to look at patterns of recurrence or repetition in your life narrative, by looking at a variety of patterns in the natural world. Each of these patterns (spiral, crack, foam, tiles, web, wave) has its symbolic overtones, its resonances with our sensory experience. Recognizing the patterns is very valuable (“hmm, I always seem to keep doing X – why does that keep happening?”). If we can go one step further and marry that awareness with a willingness to engage with the underlying symbol (are the cracks a desert floor? a dried-up lake bed? is the meander a river? a snake?), then new layers of richness can emerge. We can develop practices, ritual, imaginative exercises to continue to deepen our awareness, surface transformative possibilities, speak to the depths of our soul, and listen to it in return.
  4. Landscape. In this exercise I ask you to map a future aspiration onto a physical landscape of some kind, and to use your imagination to identify obstacles and ways to overcome those obstacles. There are symbols galore in this exercise, and ample opportunities to work with them to unearth their deeper and more powerful aspects. Mountain, canoe, streetcar, ogre, magic sword – all these things are rich and resonant and invite you to explore them more deeply to unlock their power in an ongoing and consistent way.