March 15 – The Power of Symbols – Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

If you truly hold a stone, you can feel the mountain it came from. 

A caveman picking berries was cornered by a wild and now extinct creature, and when he was spared by the sudden snap of a tree limb that scared the beast off, he took a piece of the fallen bough as a good luck charm. And so the story of symbols began.

People have always saved scraps of their experience to help remind them of the forces of life that can’t always be seen. Filled with a timeless rhythm of the ocean, we pocket a shell and carry it thousands of miles to know that presence of ocean when we are hours from the sea. It is why we treasure certain songs, why we save ticket stubs and dried out flowers.

Symbols are living mirrors of the deepest understandings that have no words. I know of two friends who made it through Vietnam. They were rehabilitated in Italy, and before they were home, they split a copper lire, each holding dear the other’s half, as if it were the break of heart forever left in that godforsaken jungle.

We ask the smallest items of everyday life to carry unbearable meaning for us, and the dearest ones work like Aladdin’s lamp.  All we have to do is rub them slowly, and feelings and times long gone come and live again, our basic truths hard to keep in view return.

As a boy, I remember visiting my grandfather’s house. He had a milk-white bowl filled with M&M’s. It was a simple magical treasure to me. No matter how often I reached on tiptoe, it never emptied. It has been thirty years since he died, and now when depressed, I hold that milk-white bowl in my lap and eat a few M&M’s.

And I feel better. This isn’t illusion or escapism, but rather using the milk white bowl filled with M&M’s as a living symbol that can call into my moment of sadness a deeper sense of plentitude and generosity that is always there, but not always accessible.

This is the proper use of symbols, not to cold represent ideas, but to cal into being all that lives sinus and about us.  They help us bear witness to the painful mystery off living and whether a crucifix, a small weeping Buddha, or a broken shell from a long-forgotten sea, they help us bear the days.

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