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Signs, Symbols, Sigils, and Totems: Hints and Pointers on the Path of Life

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Image courtesy of the author

This is another musing for contemplation . . .

Recently I’ve been reflecting once again upon the trail of breadcrumbs that life leaves for us to follow, and looking at my practice in a slightly different way.

There are times when divine intervention appears undeniable and beyond inquiry. A personal experience beyond the veil of this reality, with divinity, or with any other-than-earthly entity, is arguably a different conversation from this one. However, the door is left open for the probability that the quiet voice from what we call the unconscious is often actually how we hear messages; our psychic link to worlds beyond our own as they filter through our pineal gland and into our consciousness.

As spiritual practitioners, whether following the Vajrayana path or another tradition, when we practice deity yoga and meditate on a yidam,* it is inevitably with the intention to invoke the essence or attributes of that particular energy or, as some may term it, psychological archetype. Vajra pride is the egoless expression as we identify as the deity in question. But what does it mean to us when a specific deity feels like it’s calling for our attention instead of summoning us in?

A fascination with each present moment offers the awareness of a strong unconscious attraction to a particular something that we find ourselves noticing. It is a reflection of the signs, symbols, subjects, totems, and colors to which we are drawn. And how an attraction and adherence to specific deities and practices on our spiritual journey can be more of a reflection of deeper personal messages and needs, rather than something that we consciously and actively want to call in. And how these captivations can act as markers on our direction and evolution, and/or things we need to address. 

Canadian-born author, astrologer, and mystic Manly P. Hall (1901–90) informed us that with “. . . symbols men have ever sought to communicate to each other those thoughts which transcend the limitation of language. . . . The Mysteries thus chose symbolism as a far more ingenious and ideal method of preserving their transcendental knowledge. In a single figure a symbol may both reveal and conceal for to the wise, the subject of the symbol is obvious, while to the ignorant the figure remains inscrutable.” Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928)

But at another level, “symbols” says indigenous leadership consultant Ron Martinez Looking Elk “are a reflection of spirituality.”

Briefly determining the difference between signs and symbols, totems, and sigils, will help further our understating of how these things can affect us in different ways, and how the attractions can be subjectively significant.

Signs: a sign is literal, informative, and considered something that we can follow.

Symbols: a symbol is a lateral representation meaning something other than what it is.

Sigils: a drawn symbol created to hold or emit an intention, typically considered magical. To this end, the markings of seed syllables, for example, can be considered akin to a sigil.

Totems: an animal or natural object that is considered to have a symbolic and spiritual meaning.

But as we shall see, all of the abstract can be a sign.

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The Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung (1875–1961) spent much of his life in profound personal research, contributing to the burgeoning understanding of human consciousness in the West, both subjectively and collectively. One of his fascinations was with life events and the deeper meanings that apparently arbitrary events may infer. Jung felt that certain events occur simultaneously in ways that feel significant and indicative of a message relative and potentially insightful to that person. Jung called these events “synchronicities.”

A very common example is when we are thinking of buying a new car and we begin to see the same model all around in our daily life. While this is not generally considered a synchronicity, it is the other-than-conscious mind recognizing the car as significant. The subjective interpretation is how we tend to determine the difference between the familiar, the arbitrary, and synchronicity.

Most of us will have also experienced some version of the following: for example, for no apparent reason, our eyes continuously catch glimpses of a particular color. In the landscape of our view, flecks of that color snag our eyes in ways that we can’t reason away. Or a particular icon seems to be everywhere we look, jumping up and down, waving at us to grab our attention, although its locality may have nothing to do with the icon in question. A shape or fascination with an ideogram. An animal. A tree. A subject. A moment in history or society. The list goes on.

As we become more mindful and aware of the way our quiet mind communicates with us, the more we will listen. The symbols, colors, signs, and totems have effectively been chosen by our other-than-conscious mind, as it recognizes them as significant. In this way the intuitive mind won’t allow our ego mind to cheat. These images therefore speak directly from our inner self to our conscious brain.

It’s at this point that looking into some of the deeper meanings becomes interesting and possibly very relevant to us.

A few years ago, the female Buddha and dakini Vajrayogini blasted into my awareness. One of my fascinations and compulsions to research and paint was happening again. This queen dakini was strong in my world. One day, as I was driving, I heard the question, “Are you sure? Really sure?” I deliberated for about two seconds and made a private agreement. “It won’t be easy,” was the ensuing caveat. “I know.” The only thing I humbly requested was that no harm come to others for me to “evolve,” providing that I did the work and paid attention. No harm did come, but the rest put me through the mill. It was all needed in my life.

Was I already aware that things needed a radical shake up and so essentially invited her in? Or was the unexpected fascination with her simply my subconscious telling me that things needed to dramatically change?

Change was indeed needed, and it was not comfortable. But I paid attention and it was done. Life transcended.

On another occasion, the bodhisattva Guan Yin was similarly strong to me. As were the teachings of the Tao. The message was clear to me: cultivate greater gentleness, compassion, and flexibility to unfolding events and relinquish the illusion of control.

I also became consumed by Usui, Tibetan Reiki, and the Dumo symbol, into which I was compelled to incorporate a simplified phoenix. It was a reminder to rebirth myself through meraki at a soul-calling level.**

Owls reminded me to be illuminated by wisdom through the dark night of delusion and ignorance; as it turned out I was being lied to by someone I wanted to trust. Corvids are currently a fascination of mine as is the Red Thread of Destiny that connects us. Lost things are found and magic is in the air. Beware the trickster!

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So I postulate that it may well behoove us to pay attention to those fascinations of ours and consider what messages they may have to offer.

Is Bhaisajyaguru the Medicine Buddha letting you know that there may be health issues somewhere that may need attention? Are ghost stories from ancient times asking you to let go of your analytical present and embrace the mysteries? Is Prajnaparamita asking us to see it (whatever “it” may be) for what it really is, and from the perspective of a metamind? Are the mountains reminding us to be still, grounded, and constant? Or is the dorje asking you to clarify your mind and act with diamond precision?

While not everything always needs to mean something, it is also possible that life really does hand us clues. Signs that, if we pay enough attention, may point us in the right direction.

* A type of deity associated with Tantric Buddhism.

** Meraki is a Greek word meaning, to do something with soul, creativity, or love.

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