The power of symbols
By Mark Neppo
If you truly hold a stone, you can feel the mountain it came from.
A caveman picking berries was cornered by a wild and now extinct creature, and when he was spared by the snap of a tree limb that scared the beast off, he took a piece of the fallen bough as a good luck charm. And so the story of symbols began.
People have always saved scraps of their experience to help remind them of the forces of life that can’t always be seen. Filled with the timeless rhythm of the ocean, we pocket a shell and carry it thousands of miles to know that presence of ocean when we are hours from the sea. It is why we treasure certain songs, why we save ticket stubs and dries out flowers.
Symbols are living mirrors of the deepest understandings that have no words. I know of two friends who made it through Vietnam. They were rehabilitated in Italy, and before coming home, they split a copper lire, each holding dear the other’s half, as if it were the break of heart forever left in that godforsaken jungle.
We ask the smallest items of everyday life to carry unbearable meaning for us, and the dearest ones work like Aladdin’s lamp. All we have to do is rub them slowly, and feelings and times long gone come and live again, or basic truths hard to keep in view return.
As a boy, I remember visiting my grandfather’s house. He had a milk-white bowl filled with M&M’s. It was a simple magical treasure to me. No matter how often I reached on tiptoe, it never emptied. It has been thirty years since he died, and now when depressed, I hold that milk-white bowl in my lap and eat a few M&M’s.
And I feel better. This isn’t illusion or escapism, but rather using the milk-white bowl filled with M&M’s as a living symbol that can call into my moment of sadness a deeper sense of plentitude and generosity that is always there, but not always accessible.
This is the proper use of symbols, not to coldly represent ideas, but to call into being all that lives in us and about us. They help us bear witness to the painful mystery of living, and whether a crucifix, a small weeping Buddha, or a broken shell from a long-forgotten sea, they help us bear the days.
Recall a special moment in growing up.
Meditate on the feeling of that moment until the scene comes into view.
Slowly feel your way about this special moment and focus on a detail – a certain chair or smell of lilac or a rainy piece of glass.
With reverence, lift up this detail as a living symbol of all this special moment means to you.
The next time you feel less than, bring yourself in contact with this very personal symbol.
Let it open you to gifts you don’t always remember.
Before my mother died, I asked if a rose could be our symbol.
She looked at me, touched my cheek and said, "everything will be alright".
When life is tough, I see the roses. She is there in this symbol saying, "everything will be alright".