How much power do you feel you have over your world? To what extent do you believe that you can create the world in which you live? How much do you feel that your world is the same as the world in which your family members, friends and neighbours live? And what forces outside of you may be shaping the world in which you, and they, live?

We are often told by motivational teachers that we create our own world. All we have to do, we are told, is visualise the world we want to live in and then we will almost automatically bring it into being. I don’t think this is completely wrong. But I do believe that it oversimplifies things to a deceptively unhelpful degree.

OUR VISUAL REALITY

I don’t know whether all human beings think in images. But I do know that we all have the capacity to imagine things that do not yet exist, or to envision new forms of existing realities. It’s significant that ideas like ‘imagination,’ ‘vision,’ and ‘projecting ourselves into the future’ all use visual language for our capacity to think ahead or differently. Although there are exceptions, it seems that most of us experience our dreams visually or in (moving) pictures. This means that, beyond our basic sense of sight, our ability to ‘see’ what is not visible or not yet in existence is an important and evolutionary advantageous skill.

The importance of this capacity is enhanced when we realise how important symbols are for so many of us. For as long as human beings have existed, we have used symbols to communicate, prepare for successful hunting and other endeavours, and for religious rituals. And in today’s world, hundreds of companies trust in the power of their symbols (logos) to influence us. Would Nike have the same appeal without their famous ‘tick’ or Apple have such loyal and passionate customers if the fruit in their logo was whole?

WHAT SYMBOLS DO

Symbols are not meaningless images. They carry meaning and have the capacity to influence us on a subconscious level. Nations use flags and other symbols, political parties choose their colours and symbols carefully, and religions all have significant symbols that are intended to hold meaning for devotees. None of this is by accident. By bypassing our conscious minds and connecting with our subconscious, these symbols can influence us deeply. And I believe that this applies to visualisations, metaphors, and significant objects—all of which have symbolic meaning for us.

This means that there is definitely some truth to the belief that visualising the life we long for can help us to create that life. It also means that the symbols, metaphors, images and objects that fill our lives can influence how we perceive and experience our world. There is some truth to the idea that we can change our experiences simply by changing our symbols and metaphors. 

But the challenge with symbols is that they can influence us without us even noticing. There are symbols everywhere in our world, and we pass most of them by, oblivious to their presence. But this doesn’t mean that they don’t affect us. This means that it is not enough to simply change our symbols and metaphors in order to change our lives. We also need to become more attentive to the symbols and metaphors around us and how they impact our view and experience of the world.

CONNECTING CONSCIOUSLY WITH SYMBOLS

For the last few weeks we have been exploring what it means to live on purpose, to set intentions for the year so that we can be more deliberate in creating a meaningful and vibrant life. We’ve explored visualising our future selves and being more intentional about the stories we tell and the language we use about ourselves and our world. These can all be powerful practices in our quest to show up authentically and courageously in our lives and relationships. But they are incomplete if we don’t also do the same intentional work around our use of symbols, metaphors, gestures, and significant objects.

So how can we utilise our connection with symbols and metaphors to live on purpose in a deeper and more meaningful way? Here are a few suggestions to start with:

  • Do an audit of the symbols and metaphors that you use. To what extent have you chosen to give these symbols a place of influence in your life and to what extent have they come into your life unnoticed? Ask yourself if these symbols are helping you or hindering you.
  • Begin to be more intentional about the symbols that fill your life. Choose symbols and objects that support you, inspire you, strengthen you, and speak to your soul. Use metaphors that are more aligned with how you want to see and experience your world and be deliberate in how you use significant objects.
  • Finally, as you go through your day, try to be more aware of the symbols and metaphors that surround you. Make their influence conscious and give yourself the space to make a choice about whether you want to allow that symbol to influence you or not. It’s impossible to filter every symbol you will encounter, but as you begin to practice being more conscious of symbols and metaphors, so you will find yourself automatically identifying the symbols that jar for you and those that feel good to you.

USING SYMBOLS INTENTIONALLY

Almost two decades ago, after years of feeling conflicted and disconnected from my creative soul, I learned that in some cultures dragons are a symbol of creativity. I was learning to release my fear of creativity—developed over years in a religious culture that treated artists with suspicion—and embrace my creative self, and so I found a dragon statue to remind me that my creativity was an important, valuable, and life-giving part of me. That dragon still lives in my studio where I work every day, and it has often been a source of comfort, strength and inspiration to me. It is not an exaggeration to say that it has helped me in my own quest to create an authentic and meaningful life.

What do symbols and metaphors mean to you? Do any symbols hold meaning for you and are any unhelpful? What difference do you think it would make to you if you were more intentional about the role of symbols in your life? Which symbols and metaphors would you want to embrace more consciously to help you set your intentions and live more deliberately this year? Please share your experiences in the comments. I’d love to hear how symbols have worked in your experience. 

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