Essay: Everything is a Symbol of Itself
Thoughts On Our Capacity for Truth
When I look at something, the lenses in my eye actually flip the image, so it projects upside down on my retina. The photoreceptors in my retina then translate this image into a code—like a computer code—and the code travels along my optic nerve into my visual cortex. My visual cortex translates the code and makes sure I understand the image “rightside up.”
It’s interesting that everyone’s code for a specific image is the same. So if I’m looking at a cup of coffee, and then I get up and you sit in my chair and look at the exact same cup of coffee, your eye is probably going to create the same code as mine did.
If you sat next to me, however, and looked at the cup of coffee, your code would be a little different because you’re seeing things from a different angle. But the main part of the code would still translate in your brain as “cup of coffee.”
Understanding this process is giving rise to the development of prosthetic eyes that act like little video cameras. The images taken by the tiny cameras are fed into an encoder chip, where they’re turned into codes the visual cortex can recognize as a particular image. A prosthetic eye like this can work even for people who have no photoreceptors in their eyes.
The way our eyes work, basically as little cameras and computers, reminds me that when I look at something, I’m not actually seeing it as it is. I’m seeing a copy of it. I’m seeing a video of it, translated into code and then untranslated by my brain. (And who is to say my brain doesn’t have a bit of code wrong? Who is to say that what my brain translates is what’s really there?)
Everything I see is a symbol of itself.
Don Miguel Ruiz has expressed this sentiment in a really lovely way in a few of his talks and interviews. In this one, he talks about how when you look at your parents, you’re not really seeing your parents. You’re seeing copies of them . . . however, your parents really are there.
You just don’t experience them as they really are. You experience a copy of them. Your brain translates the code for “mom and dad,” and then another process goes on wherein your brain attaches memories, meanings, and a whole slew of other interpretations onto the code. This triggers emotions in your limbic system.
So if your parents really are there . . . how do you experience the truth of them? Beyond symbol?
This is difficult. This is a spiritual practice. That is why symbols are so sacred. They point to the truth of a thing (but they are not the truth of the thing).
Language is another set of symbols we use.
Actually, language is more obviously a set of symbols than the physical things we interact with every day. It’s easier to explain that a series of sounds, or a set of lines shaped into letters, strung together into words, sequenced into sentences (and paragraphs, and articles, etc.) are symbols of ideas. The only reason you and I can communicate using these words on this screen is because we have agreed that each letter and word has a specific meaning. (Millions of people all over the world have agreed with us, too. Isn’t it nice to feel like so many people agree with you?)
In this way, symbols allow us to communicate and connect with one another. They allow us to understand our world . . . but they are not the truth of our world.
Language is a different kind of symbol, and it activates different areas in our brains than images do. The symbol of written language especially helps us understand things in a linear, logical way. Whereas the image symbol of “mom” is taken in and understood as “mom” at a single glance. So multiple parts of our brains are engaged in working with symbols.
Language takes a little more time, and leads our minds through a set of ideas. Image is a gestalt, processed and interpreted all at once. (A book has been written about this written language/image thing, and about the way they activate the masculine and feminine sides of our minds. It’s called The Alphabet Versus the Goddess . . . I love the ideas in this book!)
Neither language nor image are actually the things they represent.
And yet, the things they represent are really there.
So what is the truth of the symbols we see?
Well . . . um . . .
I’m going to quote Don Miguel Ruiz here again. “The truth is unknowable. And the biggest fear that we have is the fear of the unknown. But we are really the truth.”
If we fear the truth of ourselves, it’s no wonder we associate reality so closely with the symbols we see.
I can’t say what the truth is. I can say that remembering that I’m looking at (and listening to) symbols gives me a deep sense of unity with everything. It’s as though everything, including myself, is just a bubble rising to the surface of water. It is not the water, but it comes from the water. (In fact, the bubble is nothing. Just air.) It means we are all the same thing. (But we already knew that…right?)
I’ll close with this bit about A Course in Miracles.
A Course in Miracles offers daily lessons and meditations as part of a spiritual practice. It’s interesting that the opening of the Course starts with a series of meditations designed to deconstruct our complete belief in the things we see around us.
The first lesson in A Course in Miracles is: Nothing I see in this room means anything.
The second lesson is: I have given everything I see in this room all the meaning it has for me.
The third is: I do not understand anything I see in this room.
ACIM goes on to offer a myriad of other lessons that help to open us to a higher experience of consciousness, but the Course revisits these first few sentiments again, and again, and again. It really wants to help open our eyes to the idea that what we think we experience as reality can never be anything more than an interpretation, because everything is a symbol of itself.
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