A Very Short Theory of Symbols
(or Boxes within Boxes within Boxes ...)
© 2000 Bernd Wechner - Please respect his efforts and avoid plagiarism (namely uncredited copying of this page).

Symbols are amazing things. They rule our lives. When we overestimate their power, we suffer, when we underestimate their power we suffer. Just what is a symbol and why are they so important us?

Symbols are all we have to communicate with one another, to share our ideas and feelings. Deeper still, they form a great part of how we talk to ourselves, that is, how we think, process and summarise our ideas and experiences.

A symbol is like box with a label on it. You put things into it, you carry the box around with you. The inside of the box is very personal and hard enough to browse through on our own, but quite impossible to share with anyone else. The box probably has other boxes in it, with labels on them, other symbols that is, in which case we can pull them out and share them around - the labels anyhow, the boxes remain mysterious. It's only labelled boxes we have for sharing, the insides are impenetrably personal. Even the labels on boxes within boxes are obscured to us forcing us to look long and hard to decipher them! The outer box obscures everything ...

Why every word you use is a symbol, nothing more, nothing less. Much art deals with symbols, ultimately becomes symbolic even if it stood in defiance of our addiction to symbols. Religion deals with symbols, in ways very much more profound than most would imagine. Zen is a religion dedicated to both the attack on and appreciation of symbols.

I love symbols. They allow me to pack a whole lot of feeling and idea into a small box, pass it on to someone else for them to unpack in their own way. Of course they can't unpack it can they? The insides are quite personal. Therein lies the beauty and danger of symbols. They can only read the label and infer what's inside, project their experiences, expectations, dreams and desires into the box, with the label as a guide.

We can help them a little. We look inside our own box, mull around a little, and pull out many smaller boxes, all with labels of their own. "Ah," the receiver of boxes says, "that's what you meant!". But the little boxes remain as mysterious as the box they were in, only their labels are open to us, the insides remain mysterious and obscure. As ever we project our own experiences into the little boxes as best we can, with the labels as guides.

This goes on, and on and the boxes get smaller and smaller but no less personal and obscure. That's the game of communication, the exchange of symbols, bouncing back and forth between us. As they bounce they pick up meaning, shared meaning, the glimmer of understanding. It's fraught with danger, it's enticing, it's hard work, it's fun, everything about communication is symbolism at work. Symbolism and projection.

Enjoy the symbols around you and learn how to use them and life will be that much more worthwhile.