Some symbols are links to powerful psychological triggers. That’s why you need to learn about them because 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
Symbols and Cognitive Links
Most people think of symbols as innocent objects. But symbols represent words and concepts. Words create pictures within the mind, and these pictures connect to memories and fears in the subconscious. Many famous stories contain the same central themes related to our primal psyche.
For this reason, you’ll find the same themes in religions and popular stories. They often contain the cognitive links that trigger fear or anger. Both emotions are powerful motivators.
What are the story themes that connect to these powerful spiritual principles? The most influential spiritual stories share the following characteristics. First, the story has a hero, a focal point. They are special either physically or spiritually or both. Second, this hero then battles an evil foe. And against the odds, the hero wins.
The time and place are different, and the story’s characters change names, but the underlying themes are the same. The above typology is the central theme in the New Testament, with Jesus as the champion. And, it’s also the same typology we find in Star Wars with Luke Skywalker. We see the same theme in The Avatar and Harry Potter. Look closely at the elements of the stories. It’s the same theme, just different characters.
They hide the story’s object in the symbols that trigger subliminal messages.
“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. The cognitive links work behind our level of conscious awareness. Thus, 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 psychological triggers. Learn how to break unhealthy patterns of thought you associate with certain symbols. Plus, you can help others to see them and break their power.
The Symbols That Trigger Fear
Words Become Images
As mentioned earlier, words create images within the mind. However, the same term can create different images for different people. For example, if someone says apple, one person might think of the fruit on a tree. 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. Many things influence our worldview. However, the most significant influence comes from the dominant cultural narrative in our lives. It’s the worldview that governs our thoughts and values, and it depends on two things. First, the exposure time to the programming and 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. It is especially true for news or religious programming because it is primarily propaganda. The more often you hear something, the more likely you will accept it. These types of programming distort thinking. Most of the time, we don’t know it’s happening.
The integration level increases as people engage in actions that reinforce this programming. For example, you hear an advertisement for a product and then buy it. So, the more exposure to the programming, the more likely people follow through.
Words and graphic designs 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. And this is how it is possible to manipulate thinking by triggering these levers. Get the picture?
Leverage Brand and the Cognitive Links
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 its cleaning solution could solve. This model comes directly from Western religion. Create the problem, an afterlife in hell, and then offer the solution, heaven.
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. If you can reach critical mass acceptance of this message, you can 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 most significant ability to manipulate requires two things. First, the graphic representation 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, 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 Power of the Symbols that Trigger 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 and the 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 want. They can mobilize people to act out 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. Religious mythologies purposely misuse metaphors treating them as fact. So, it is a mistake to discount metaphors as powerless word pictures. Metaphors and analogies are typologies that are psychological triggers. People can use these triggers to program almost anything.
“You believe in a book that has talking animals, wizards, witches, demons, sticks turning into snakes, burning bushes, food falling from the sky, people walking on water, and all sorts of magical, absurd and primitive stories, and you say that we are the ones that need help?” ― Mark Twain
The most potent psychological principles center on our fears. These fears come from four sources:
3) 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 group hypnosis or think 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 a specific fear trigger.
- Type one fears corruption or defective.
- Personality type two fear rejection.
- Threes fear worthlessness.
- Type fours fear being just average and not unique.
- Fives fear incompetence.
- The Type Six fear lack of loyalty and support.
- Type sevens fear missing out on something.
- Eights fear not being in control.
- Type nines fear the loss of connection.
There are three basic instinctual types in the Enneagram system. They each have corresponding fears. These core fears are:
- Self-Preservation dominant stack fears that their basic needs will not be met.
- The “social stack” has a general fear of rejection.
- Passion or sexual dominant stack fear a dull existence or missing something exciting.
Fears of our Primal Mind
Our monkey brain houses our autonomic nervous system. The control center regulates much of our body’s unconscious activities, including heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and eye pupil response. These primal brain activities are something we share with many creatures.
Groupthink manipulation enables 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. It’s 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 on 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.
“Religious people claim that it’s just the fundamentalists of each religion that cause problems. But, there’s got to be something wrong with the religion itself if those who strictly adhere to its most fundamental principles are violent bigots and sexists.” — David G. Mcafee
It’s important to remember that religions exist to make generational customers. If you are a follower of one of the major religions, chances are you underwent indoctrination as a child. The cognitive links of your faith are a part of your cultural narrative. It is this programming that is the fear trigger. Fear is behind anger. It’s what propels ordinary people to act with violence. The motivation comes from the programming embedded in the symbols. These are the psychological tools of Western theology.
The example for this article is the Hamsa which is a symbol we see in 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, the Hamsa is used as protection against evil spells, explicitly pointing to “the evil eye.”
The “All-Seeing Eye” is one of the key 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 these will depend on the cultural context. The rainbow is an excellent example of how meaning changes based on cultural context. The definition differs depending on who is using it.
In general, the Hamsa communicates that spiritual awakening is available to everyone. It’s an invitation for people of all backgrounds to blossom spiritually. Depending upon your worldview, you may see a 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 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 may show you essential connections to other things like dreams or habitual thought patterns.
Second, brush up on logical reasoning and the scientific process. It will ground you in the process of the practice.
The Enneagram Of Personality
Next, familiarize yourself with the Enneagram Personality Profile. You must go beyond just knowing your personality type, tri-type, and instinctual stack. Learn about the different triads and dynamic variations. Dig into the fears and motivators that are a part of your psyche. 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 one from outside your religion. It’s best to avoid encountering any idea that will trigger your fight, flight, or freeze reaction, which 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 using emotional checks. It’s a process to help you stay as unbiased as possible. It helps you control the things that trigger fear.
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. 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 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 your 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. But this exercise works best with a partner—ideally, someone on the same quest. Find someone you can talk with openly without filtering your answers. Be sure to jot down your discoveries in your journal. Things may come up that don’t seem important until after you’ve had time to ponder your answers.
1) First, find several sources. Use different authors and publishers. Using a diverse number of resources will help you develop the best overall meaning. It will show a general historical significance for the symbol. Bestiaries are rich sources for this type of data (see below for information about this source).
2) Next, use the Enneagram Personality Profile. Find your personality type and instinctual stack. Then, find the connections between historical meaning and your fears.
3) 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 we tend 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.” But, if you use them, they will show you truths about your nature. Some 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. You can find the links to many superstitions of Western theology. Sometimes they show how the meaning changed over time. After all, no one knows the exact origin of oral traditions.
In the Middle Ages, the Bestiaries became popular as curiosities. In this way, private collectors could 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. It’s a reference text for internal Church use. So, it reveals some interesting facts. The 1907 version is enlightening. Volumes 13 and 14 of the 15 volume set discuss where the Church obtained the objects, symbols, and dogma.
Understanding the power of symbols helps us recognize when they are being used to trigger our emotions. We learn words are symbols that may have several levels of meaning. Also, some symbols are powerful cognitive links. And, the study of symbols shows the real motives behind the image. For example, the typologies of rebirth and resurrection are potent symbols in our culture. They are the motives that sell afterlife beliefs.
Are you 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.
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)