Articles, Education Committee, Lectures

The Power Of Symbols

Lect 1

Masonic legends often claim a lineage stretching back to the Knights Templar or to the Egyptians or even beyond that. They also claim knowledge of a process that can change a person. Other names for this process are alchemy (Greek khemia: “art of transmuting metals”) and theurgy (Greek theos: “god” + ergon: “work”).

The Masonic process is said to “make good men better” or in other words to bring men closer to God. What is this process? Master Masons have all been through at least 3 initiations. These initiations are the basis of the process. What happens during these initiation?

We are brought to a door and presented with a variety of sights, sounds, sensations, perhaps smells or even tastes. We are also presented with many new ideas that we may not have heard about, or heard about in the context that they are being presented during the initiation.

We are presented with the symbolism of the lodge and of Solomon’s Temple, the tools of masonry and architecture and are told that these symbolize the processes inside the human mind, heart, body and soul.

We are given explanations of some of the symbols we are presented with, but these are just superficial and belie the true power of symbols:

  • Symbols are alive and move us. They cause changes in our mind and in our emotions. They cause us to take actions and to have feelings that persist.
  • Symbols are like seeds that are planted in the gardens of our minds. Each mind is a unique entity and what grows out of it is also unique.
  • Symbols can mean very different things to different people.
  • Symbols can have children – other ideas and thoughts.
  • Symbols spread from mind to mind like a virus.

Some symbols can so take over the mind that they compel a person to kill themselves. The idea of God may cause one person to dedicate their lives to selfless service and may compel another person to blow themselves up in a crowded marketplace. What causes such different reactions to the same symbol between different people?

To understand the power of symbols we must take a look at the three parts of a symbol:

  • a material part – something that comes through our senses or that appears in our minds,
  • a spiritual part – the electrochemical patterns that a symbol or symbol sequence evokes, and
  • a consciousness to mediate the processing of a symbol.

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Figure 1 – The Anatomy of a Symbol

When a symbol enters the mind, it basically cleaves a set in two. Every symbol has things to which it applies and things that it does not apply to. When I say “coin” it invokes an image in your mind of what a coin is, but it also implies that some things aren’t coins.
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Figure 2 – Symbols Cleave a Set in Two

The mind is a symbol processing machine and each symbol that it reads in from its senses or which is thought in the mind changes the mind. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You can never step into the same stream twice.” Every experience we have changes us irrevocably.
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Figure 3 – The Stream of Consciousness Changes Us

Helen Keller described in her autobiography the moment she grasped the idea that symbols stand for things. The first symbol she grasped was water:

“As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”

Helen Keller – “The Story of My Life”

Before the “living word” awakened within Helen Keller, she lived more of an animal existence which was timeless. You could say that this “Helen Keller” moment, which we have all experienced but likely do not remember, is when we “became human.” It is the subsequent symbol processing stream of consciousness mechanism that distinguishes us as human beings.

Masonry is a progressive science. Knowledge is attained by degrees. Language and the symbolic processing of the mind make it possible for a human mind to be led through a series of symbols that hopefully lead us to a greater understanding of ourselves, of our relationships to other, and ultimately to our relationship with God.

Masonry helps create a fertile ground for this type of growth to occur by exposing a candidate to a rich symbol set and requiring memorization and repetition in order to lock the spiritual element in place. Study and meditation on the deeper meaning of symbols is necessary to create fertile ground for these symbolic seeds to take root and grow thereby making a lasting change in the life of the aspirant.

The end result of this initiatory process is to hopefully bring the candidate into contact with higher and higher realizations of God – the ultimate symbol – a symbol that refers to everything. Symbols divide a set by including some characteristics and excluding others, but the symbol of God includes ALL… which makes it unlike every other symbol.

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Figure 4 – The Stairway to Heaven

What can we call this unique symbol that isn’t really a symbol? Any symbol we use is inadequate to express the totality of what this symbol represents. The Masons refer to this enigma as the “Lost Word” and much of their literature describes an aspirant’s pursuit of it, as do the holy books of all people. For example, the Tao te Ching begins with:

“The Tao (way) that can be named is not the true Tao.”

God has as many names as there are languages and ideas of the ultimate, but there is only one true reality. All these names are merely representative of aspects of the ultimate reality. The ultimate reality is the “Eye in the Triangle” that sees all and is immanent in everything we do and everything that is. This is the ultimate relationship that we all seek and the finding of it is through the power of symbols.

See Also:

The Education Committee Page

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