Words are symbols for everything. Some symbols are links to powerful psychological triggers. That’s why you need to learn about symbols. They affect your life.
“This is an important point about symbols: they do not refer to historical events; they refer through historical events to spiritual or psychological principles…”
— Joseph Campbell
Stories are Symbols
Most people think of symbols only as objects. However, objects aren’t the only symbols. In fact, our language is a world of symbols. So, words create pictures in the mind. And, pictures are symbols. These moving pictures are stories. Many popular stories contain themes which connect to our primal psyche. For this reason, you’ll find the same themes in religions and popular stories.
So, what are the story themes which connect to these powerful spiritual principles? The most powerful themes share the following. First, a person who is special either physically or spiritually or both. Thus, they become a default hero. Second, this hero then battles an evil foe. And against the odds, the hero wins. The time and place are different and the characters of the story change names, but the underlying themes are the same. This is the story theme of Jesus in the Bible. It’s the story of Luke of the Star Wars story. And it’s the themes of the movies The Avatar and Harry Potter. Look closely at the story. It’s the same theme just different characters.
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” — Joseph Campbell
What’s more, these associations work in the background below the conscious level of awareness. Therefore, they are ripe for exploitation. Anyone with knowledge and access can use these triggers to manipulate our thinking. So, this is why you need to learn your own psychological triggers. And, how to break unhealthy patterns of thought you associate with certain symbols. Plus, you can help others to see them and break their power.
Symbols as Psychological Principles
Words to Image
As mentioned earlier, words create images in the mind. However, the same word can create different images for different people. For example, if someone says apple, one person might think of the fruit on a tree. On the other hand, for another person, the word apple creates the image of a large corporation that sells computers. Therefore controlling the meaning of the image or brand is so important.
What affects the collective meaning of an object? It all starts with our worldview. A number of things influence our worldview. However, the biggest influence comes from the dominant cultural narrative in our lives. This is the worldview that governs our thoughts and values. This depends on two things. First, the exposure time to the programming, and secondly the level of integration it has in your life.
For instance, people expose themselves to large amounts of unconscious programming by leaving the TV on in the background. This is especially true for news or religious programming because it is primarily propaganda. The more often you hear something, the more likely you are to accept it. These types of programming distort thinking whether we know of it or not. Also, the level of integration increases as people engage in actions that reinforce this programming. For example, you hear an advertisement for a product, then go out and buy it. So, the more exposure to the programming, the more likely people follow through. This increases the power of those in control of the message. It works just as well with ideas.
Together words and symbols paint a picture of the connections to our thought patterns, values, beliefs, memories, and dreams. It’s all tied together, symbols as psychological principles are secret levers. So, this is how it is possible to manipulate thinking through triggering these levers. Get the picture?
Leverage Brand and Psychological Link
The basis of advertising is creating a problem and then providing a profitable solution. For instance, the cleaning product, “Mr. Clean” showed a dirty floor that only it’s cleaning solution could solve. This model comes directly from Western religion. Create the problem, an afterlife in hell and then offer heaven as a solution for followers.
The discovery of how symbols access our core thinking processes is the key. So, by controlling the story, then you can also control the person. And, if you can reach critical mass acceptance of this message, you can use it to persuade large groups. In this way, it’s possible to leverage the brand so that people suspend common sense and logical reasoning. They will accept any message coming from the source controlling their values and beliefs.
Choosing a symbol with the greatest ability to manipulate requires two things. First, the symbol needs to have a powerful psychological tie to a primal instinct like fear or anger. Second, it’s easy to recognize and copy. These traits make brand recognition possible. For example, simply look at the icons of the world’s largest religions. The cross is the brand of Christianity. Islam uses the crescent moon and star as a brand. And the Star of David, a six-pointed star, is the brand of Judaism. These are symbols as psychological principles that communicate multiple messages.
The Doorway to Fear
The power of the symbol to trigger or manipulate thinking depends on the level of exposure to the propaganda. Therefore, religions focus on storytelling with symbolism. Stories can contain several types of symbols. Constant repetition of these powerful themes bonds the person to the belief system. This bonding often extends to the authority figures of the system. Once assimilation is complete followers will adopt almost any ideas that the leaders of the system want. And, it can mobilize people to act in ways that defy logic and basic moral instinct.
“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result, we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts. And, we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”
— Joseph Campbell
So, it is an error to mistake metaphors for facts. This leads to mistaking mythology as fact. On the other hand, it is a mistake to discount metaphors as powerless word pictures. Metaphors and analogies are symbols within the themes that connect to our primal psychological triggers.
The most powerful psychological principles center around our fears. These fears come from four main sources:
- Primal mind
If you learn about your fears you can deal with them. And, at the same time, keep others from using them. This how you can overcome the tactic of groupthink manipulation. So, learning to face your fears becomes a gateway to freethinking. Any of these fears can lead you to an existential crisis known as the dark night of the soul.
The Enneagram Personality Profile is a powerful tool for learning about the default mechanisms of our Ego. It is a written test that helps you understand your personality and instincts. Each of the nine core personality types has its own basic fear trigger.
- Type one fears corruption or viewed as defective
- Twos fear rejection
- Threes fear worthlessness
- Type fours fear of being just average and not unique
- Fives fear incompetence
- The Type Six fear lack of loyalty and support
- Type sevens fear missing out
- Eights fear not being in control
- Type nines fear the loss of connection
Each of the Enneagram instinctual variants that underlay the dominant personality also have core fears. These core fears are:
- Self-Preservation dominant stack fear their essential needs will not be met
- Social dominant stack have a general fear of rejection
- Passion or sexual dominant stack fear a dull existence or missing something exciting
Fears of our Primal Mind
Our primal mind or monkey brain houses our autonomic nervous system. This controls largely unconscious activities such as the heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, eye pupil response, urination, and sexual arousal. These primal brain activities are something we share with many creatures.
Groupthink manipulation enables the linking beliefs and values to our fight, flight or freeze response. One accomplishes this by creating a Scapegoat. A Scapegoat is who or what you blame for something. This is the focal point of negative emotions like fear and anger. These emotions are powerful motivators that override rational thinking. See Cultural Fears below.
The fears of the dominant culture are the home of religious belief. They center around the following main issues:
- Fear of Death
- Fear of Afterlife
- Loss of loved ones
- Lack of material necessities (food, water, shelter)
- Health issues
- Bias and prejudice of religious belief (God), ethnic, race, and gender
These fears and insecurities provide opportunities to create customers.
The example for this article is the Hamsa. It’s a symbol in use across many cultures. Judaism calls it the hand of Miriam the sister of Moses. Christianity calls it the hand of Mother Mary. In Islam, it is the hand of Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter. The origins of this symbol go back to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. In these cultures, it represents protection against evil spells, specifically pointing to “the evil eye.”
The “All-Seeing Eye” is one of the main themes here. You can find this symbol in many cultures. Christians call it the “Eye of Providence.” However, it originates before recorded history. Some say it comes from Egypt and the “Eye of Horus.”
There are several secondary symbols here as well. For instance, the rainbow, spiral, and the dots around the perimeter, and the hand. The meaning for all of these will depend on the cultural context. The rainbow is an excellent example of how meaning changes based on cultural context. Consequently, the meaning differs depending on who is using it.
In general, the message the Hamsa communicates is the opportunity for everyone to enjoy a spiritual awakening. It’s an invitation for people of all backgrounds to blossom spiritually. However, depending upon your worldview, you may see a completely different message. Please let us know how you relate to this symbol.
Preparing for Research
Above all, this exercise is an excellent tool for developing our awareness. On the surface, it seems like an analytical exercise. However, this is serious inner work. This exercise will show you how symbols affect your own thinking and values. Sorting out these connections may take more than one session.
Preparation is key to getting the best results. First, use a spiritual journal to record your findings. It’s a good practice to record as you go along. Your research will show you important connections to other things like reoccurring dreams or habitual thought patterns.
Second, brush up on logical reasoning and the scientific process. This will ground you in the process of the practice.
Next, familiarize yourself with the Enneagram Personality Profile. You’ll need to go beyond just knowing your personality type, tri-type, and instinctual stack. Learn about the different triads, dynamic variations, etc. Moreover, this system can yield important insights if you know enough to recognize them. The more you know the better.
If this is your first venture into symbolism, pick a one from outside your own religion. It’s best to avoid encountering any idea that will trigger your fight, flight or freeze reaction. This causes the mental condition of cognitive dissonance. If this happens your research session is over. For this reason, choose a neutral symbol or topic.
Use Emotional Checks
Anytime you engage in spiritual research we recommend the use of emotional checks. This is a process to help you stay as unbiased as possible.
Emotional checks will reduce stress and increase the accuracy of our research. So, think of it as a safety net. It will catch us when we fall into emotional distress. This is because when we face ideas conflicting with our current opinion it creates a dilemma. We instinctively react to protect our sacred ground. You don’t want to conduct research while in a state of distress.
Last but not least, use the public library. You can find a variety of valid historical sources for this research. The subject of symbolism will take you to texts known as Bestiaries. We’ll discuss these in more detail below.
Exercise Connecting Symbols to Psychological Principles
You can do this exercise on your own. However, this exercise works best with a partner. Ideally, someone on the same quest. Also, someone you can talk with openly without filtering your answers. Again, be sure to jot down the main points of your discovery in your journal. Things may come up that don’t seem important until after you’ve had time to ponder your answers.
- First, find several different sources. Use different authors and publishers. Using a diverse number of resources will help you come up with the best overall meaning. It will show a general historical meaning for the symbol. Bestiaries are rich sources for this type of data (see below for information about this source).
- Next, use the Enneagram Personality Profile. Find your personality type and instinctual stack. Then, find the connections between historical meaning and your fears.
- Last, use the repeating question exercise to explore your fears. The goal is to drill down below the superficial answers. You want to find the connections between symbols and your fears. Examples of repeating questions include, “tell me how this fear shows up?” It’s important to realize our tendency is to give superficial answers first. But, by repeating the question you’ll eventually get down to the truth about the fear. You might spend 5 minutes on just one question to get to the root. So, be patient.
These three steps are serious inner work. However, if you use them they will show you truths about your nature. Some of the books that will help you on this quest include:
- The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology, David Kravitz, 1975
- Bulfinch’s Mythology, Illustrated Edition, Thomas Bulfinch 1978 Edition
- An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J. C. Cooper, 1987
- The Catholic Encyclopedia and International Work (1907) See below.
You can trace the meaning for almost every symbol to the ancient texts known as Bestiaries. Their availability varies. These contain the root associations for animals, plants, and rocks. Similarly, these texts include fictional creatures or anthropomorphic beings. Here too you can find the links to many superstitions of Western theology. Sometimes they show how the meaning changed over time. After all, no one really knows the exact origin of the oral traditions.
In the Middle Ages, the Bestiaries became popular as curiosities. In this way, private collectors were able to save many of these works from mass book burning events. Christians were burning other similar books as evil or demonic.
The Catholic Encyclopedia
The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic history and Christianity in general. It’s a reference text for internal Church use. So, it reveals some interesting facts. The 1907 version is extremely enlightening. Volumes 13 and 14 of the 15 volume set discuss where the Church obtained the objects, symbols, and dogma.
In summary, understanding symbols as psychological principles helps us to recognize their power in our lives. We learn words are symbols that may have several levels of meaning. What’s more, some symbols are powerful cognitive links. And, the study of symbols shows the true motives behind the image. For example, the typologies of rebirth and resurrection are powerful symbols in our culture. They are the motives that sell afterlife beliefs.
Interested in spiritual exploration? Check out the blended learning process at the core of our teaching process. It reflects what Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey. Our learning options include both face-to-face and virtual learning sessions. Please consider donating and supporting our mission. This helps others learn the knowledge for developing their own path.
Joseph Campbell & Joseph Campbell’s Book The Hero’s Journey, Wikipedia
The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Mythology, David Kravitz, 1975
Bulfinch’s Mythology, Illustrated Edition, Thomas Bulfinch 1978 Edition
An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J. C. Cooper, 1987
The Catholic Encyclopedia and International Work (1907)