How Spiritual Symbols and Rituals Work

J. Malek

A sensible person might ask, “What on Earth does Magic, Tarot, or Ritual have to do with spiritual awakening? How does studying number and color and tone help me on this spiritual path? What does the Tree of Life have to do with anything? It doesn’t even look like a real tree!”

Why symbols and rituals? Well, because spiritually-minded people are a bunch of grown imbeciles who like to play dress up and stare at absurd abstractions, right? Those spiritual types are just suckers for all sorts of silliness and pageantry… or maybe not.

Taken on a purely superficial level, what are rituals and symbols? Complete and utter nonsense — gibberish. And for adults to concern themselves with these things in a superficial or literal way is lunacy on stilts. So why use them? Why all the nonsensical images and pageantry? The answer to these questions might be a bit more practical than one would expect. Properly understood, spiritual symbolism is among the most powerful tools one can wield on his quest for awakening.

Just as an analogy, think of Helen Keller. She was deaf-blind and unable to communicate. However this didn’t mean she lacked intellectual capability — quite the opposite. She simply lacked the means to directly receive ideas from other people, as well as the means to send her own ideas out into the world. Spiritually we, as beginners, are deaf-blind. We each have spiritual insight; we each receive flashes of spiritual intuition. However, we don’t yet speak the “language” of this intuition. We have no ordered way of structuring our subconscious insight.

Our conscious minds communicate through concretizing abstract ideas into words. Our words, at best, serve as a crude estimation of the abstract ideas we wish to convey. The more sophisticated our vocabulary, the more clearly we can communicate our ideas. Similarly, our subconscious also communicates abstract ideas and concepts. However we, being limited by our five senses, require these abstractions be codified — made palatable. They must be flattened, much like the painter who creates the illusion of a 3D object on his 2D canvas. The artist can only give the suggestion of a 3D object; he is not actually creating a 3D object.

So how does our conscious mind receive these abstract impressions from our subconscious? What is the means our subconscious mind employs to impart information to our conscious mind? Imagery. That is the language of our subconscious. Through imagery, our subconscious mind “flattens” abstract concepts so that we may perceive them. As I alluded to above, this imagery — much like written and spoken word — is itself a language. Our ability to perceive and comprehend this imagery is contingent upon our structuring of these images into an orderly system. Our limited minds require a visual vocabulary, a lexicon of abstraction, so that we may come into contact with wisdom that lies beyond the boundaries of our limited, waking consciousness.

To borrow some more commonly known terminology popularized by the late Carl Jung, we each share in a collective unconscious. This collective unconscious is something we’re each born with, much the same way a newborn fawn is born with the innate knowledge of how to walk. Our collective unconscious — or subconscious mind — has embedded within it archetypal imagery: imagery the subconscious just intuitively understands. Our collective, intuitive understanding that the color red represents “heat,” “passion” or “love,” is one very basic example of this phenomenon. However, the images of the Tarot and Kabbalah relate to qualities of a much deeper nature.

Back to the original question: why use “nonsensical” images and pageantry to spur spiritual growth? Because our subconscious mind communicates through “nonsensical” images and pageantry — at least that’s how it might appear when viewed from a purely superficial, outward perspective.

The conscious mind is largely the slave of the subconscious mind. Accordingly, there are many New Age streams of thought that acknowledge the dominion of the subconscious over the conscious. Often these New Age philosophies endeavor to consciously define and identify the subconscious source of a particular emotional problem — but they, then, go about dissecting this subconscious problem, and attempt to affect change, through purely conscious, analytical means. This is like trying to fix the foundation of a house while standing in the attic. If we understand our base behaviors to be rooted on the subconscious level, we must affect change on the subconscious level.

Any cure for an ailment of the subconscious must also be administered at the level of the subconscious. While the conscious mind can be used as a tool to influence subconscious patterns, today’s most popular “spiritual” methods for curbing unwanted patterns of subconscious behavior come in the form of self-recognition techniques. The ability to critically observe one’s own behavior is — without a doubt — a sign of emotional maturity and can be a highly useful exercise. However, “being mindful” of one’s flaws and, then, simply abstaining from ever acting upon these flaws is not a solution for removing these unwanted subconscious patterns. It’s an agonizing diet of thought and behavior. It’s masking a symptom — not getting at the disease.

But there’s a small paradox here: once again, it is possible to alter the subconscious mind through the influence of the conscious mind. However, supreme clarity of focus is needed. In other words, one must sharpen his conscious faculties. But achieving that sharpened conscious faculty of focus first requires altered subconscious patterns of thinking… But, once again, to alter subconscious patterns of thinking, it requires a higher level of focus on the conscious level…

How do we break this cycle? Where’s our point of entry, so to speak?

To overcome the hurdle of the untrained conscious faculty of focus, and affect change on the subconscious level, the solution is to meet the immature conscious mind on its own terms. How? Through the use of outward visual representations of subconscious imagery. These visual representations — these symbols — make it so the immature conscious mind has no trouble focusing on and internalizing these abstract concepts. Spiritual symbols and rituals serve, in part, as “training wheels” for our conscious mind. Ritual and symbol not only provide a means for the conscious mind to perceive abstract concepts communicated from the subconscious, they also accommodate our underdeveloped conscious mind by bypassing the need for supreme clarity of focus. When an abstract concept is plainly displayed in the form of a symbol, focus and comprehension are much less of an issue. By using these “training wheels,” we affect change in our subconscious patterns of thought, which in turn leads to maturation of our conscious minds, leading to a greater degree of focus; a greater degree of understanding of the symbols on the subconscious level; and to a further peeling back of the veil that shrouds ineffable, experiential wisdom.

The abstract, intuitive imagery contained in the Kabbalah and Tarot  — for instance — can also be seen as just one example of how the western esoteric path might better serve a western spiritual aspirant. To some extent, the imagery called to mind by certain archetypal concepts can be skewed by cultural conditioning. For example, for many westerners — even non-religious westerners — the term “Divine Mother” immediately calls to mind an image along the lines of the Holy Mother Mary. Even if, afterwards, we’re able to call to mind other visual representations of the “Divine Mother,” for many westerners the image of Mary is the most “instinctual” — the most immediate. And even if this example doesn’t hold true for everyone, what’s important is to recognize this principle of “subconscious immediacy.” What are the first images that are called to mind when we conceive of particular abstract concepts? The western path taps into this quality of “subconscious immediacy” through its symbolism, and uses this quality toward maximizing the effectiveness of its teachings.

This is probably the simplest and most practical way to understand the purpose of studying Tarot and Kabbalah and other spiritual symbolism on the western esoteric path. By internalizing this system of spiritual imagery — as well as the corresponding abstract concepts linked with each individual image — a path is beaten through the overgrown brush that stands between our own conscious and subconscious minds.

And that is why we study at the beginning of our spiritual path: to cultivate the tools that eventually grant us access to higher insight. This promotes a higher degree of emotional intelligence and balance, which eventually leads to an emotional realignment, in which we understand ‘genuine connection with the Divine’ to be the only pursuit even capable of satisfying our inner desires. In the western path we work to shift the aim of our desire nature toward something Higher — we don’t deaden it. And one of the most crucial steps on this transformational journey is the practical study of spiritual symbols.

Yes, spiritual symbols and rituals appear to be nonsense on stilts — until you learn
to see them from a new perspective.