Living symbols—such as the sky, a flame, flowers, or the moon—directly transmit the nature of reality to us. How can we relate to living symbols in our practice? A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi
We can remember the old adage as above so below. Everything here is being manifested within the self, within that one subjectivity that fills all of existence, that is existence. And everything that's here is the self expression of that supreme subjectivity—nature.
So just like you, as an artist, everything that you create is somehow a reflection of you, your feelings, your nature, your imagination, your creative capacity. I mean, it's kind of a funny, weird thing to think about, but you couldn't make something that was absolutely not a self expression [laughter].
You are kind of condemned to expressing yourself through art.
So the supreme self is the same. You are an aspect of the supreme self, and the supreme self is the same. Everything that appears is a self expression of that alive, aware, base state of reality.
Everything here is also limited in some way on a relative level.
So just as I've talked about before, in order to create art, we have to limit things. That's just part of creating art. There's no way, for instance, to paint a painting with all colors in all of existence, you have to limit your choice of colors in order to make something intelligible.
And so that's what God is doing. And in fact, Lord Shiva has been called the artist in the scriptures, and also even a magician creating all these magical things to appear.
And so that means that everything that we're experiencing on a relative sense is limited. On an absolute sense it's not limited at all because it's full of that supreme self. But we're just talking on a relative sense now.
So that means that things like the sky are expressions of something about God, you could say, but it's more limited. When we're looking in space, like the space around our planet, or the space of our galaxy, or the space in a room, we're experiencing something that is related to the nature of the self but in a more limited way.
So I call that a living symbol—things in this world that are the microcosm of that supreme self. But are living symbols in the sense that they are coming out of the self, they're full of self, so they're alive. But they're also kind of symbolic.
So space itself is a living symbol of the vastness of the mind of God.
There actually is no space in the sense that we think of it, like physical space. There is awareness. So space is a living symbol of the unbound, infinite awareness of this supreme self, of mind, the vast space of the mind, which isn't really physical space.
Just like you could have a dream that you're walking through mountains and in your dream you are experiencing a large space. But that space is in your mind. So it's the same thing.
The supreme self is not exactly dreaming us, but creating us in that same way out of its energy, out of its mind. And so space itself is like the space in a dream. But it is a living symbol of the mind of God.
The blue of the sky is a living symbol of unconditioned nature of the self, that the self has infinite potentiality. That's what the blue color is the living symbol of.
That's why we do sky gazing to invoke a feeling of that unlimited potential in ourselves. We can invoke that feeling directly by gazing at the sky. That's what makes it a living symbol. It can transmit the actual nature of the self or some aspect of the nature of the self.
When Ma said she couldn't turn around, which is the second part of your question, she meant that the self fills everything. That the self is everything. So there's nothing outside of the self. And what she was saying was, I am so identified with that supreme self that I feel everywhere and there's nowhere, there's not even a place where I'm not.
So that's what she meant by not even having the space to turn around. All spaces are her.
Could you say more about living symbols? I don't feel like I've ever heard you define them in just that way before. Just, you said it's like, so living symbols are like as above so below. And so it's kind of like the thing that's showing up below is reflection.
Yeah. The things that are showing up here are connected to their more enlightened, cosmic, universal aspects. So there is awareness everywhere, and the vastness of space, of physical space, is limited. Like, it seems vast to us, but it's still limited. But it is reflecting the nature of the mind directly to us.
But it also has to do with the fact that when we contemplate living symbols, we receive knowledge. We receive direct transmission of wisdom—if we have that capacity, some people don't.
I just read something funny. Oh, yeah from the Mahabharata, somebody was talking about Duryodhana, and how he's so dense he could walk right by Krishna and just think Krishna was an ordinary person. So it's more of a collaboration. Right?
That's why we do sadhana—so we can be in a more subtle condition and have more fun knowing what things like living symbols mean. Right?
Like—oh, right! Because what I'm saying about the sky being a living symbol of the vastness of the mind of God—I didn't know that ten years ago. It's just one day, oh, right! Okay [laughs].
And that's from doing sadhana that your perceptions become open. Not just open to, like, perceiving more in an ordinary way, but open to the transmission of wisdom that's happening from the things of our world.
So living symbols transmit to us the nature of this reality, the nature of the self. And that's why we practice with them, like a crystal or a flame or the blue sky or big, wide open spaces.
I mean, I've never thought it was an accident that a tradition like Dzogchen would be originating in Tibet where there's such incredible spaciousness. And the sky is so predominant.
It reminds me of something I've been thinking about recently about how I really like finding references to the round world in plain sight, in normal everyday language. And you mentioned Tibet with the big open spaces. And it's like a trope—that spiritual speakers go to mountain tops, right? It's just what you're saying. There's something to that.
Going to the mountaintop.
Exactly. Having a big view. Yeah. Right.
Absolutely. So about the round world, some of you haven't been around that long. You might not know what she's talking about. But it's a phrase that I use to describe the experience and view of people who understand that there is more here than just what we see with our ordinary eyes. And that we live in a reality populated with all kinds of beings and magic.
So it's the opposite of the flat world, which is the world of what you see is what you get, of scientistic rationalism, materialism, etcetera.
So the other thing about living symbols that I could say is that there's a deliberateness to them, like we're being given these symbols.
There have been some times when, particularly within these esoteric encounters with Ma, where I just experienced and saw with my eyes and felt my entire body was made of multicolored light. That's like That shining through appearances. So that's what the gold is shining through the sky, and sky is shining through the ocean—works both ways.
It means that we can see the origin of all these appearings in the absolute, and we can see the incipient potential for creating all these appearing within the absolute. And we can see the absolute shining through the appearings.
So does that mean that there's nothing that's not living symbol?
Living symbols are pretty specific. So I would say there's nothing that could not transmit the nature of the self if we were so inclined. But then there are specific languages of symbols, specific genres of symbols in different traditions that are given to us specifically to recognize specific things.
So there's both that sort of general everything is alive and aware. And then there's, well, here in this tradition, we have crystals and flames and flowers and whatever other symbols we use—oceans, the sun, this living symbol of prakasha, the light of consciousness, the moon.
So each tradition has their own symbols, but like a specific language. Or the language of the Yi Jing. That's a specific language about pointing toward wisdom, just like everything else.
And those, all the specificity is enabling all of these different beings in their unique dimensions to receive knowledge of the self.
So once having created all these diverse, crazily, diverse beings, then this alive aware reality was like, “Oh, God, now I'm gonna have to create all these symbols and spiritual traditions for all these different kinds of beings [laughs]. I didn't realize what I was getting into!” [laughs]
It's like how there’s a bird for every kind of flower.
Yeah. A bird for every kind of flower and a flower for every kind of bird. Exactly. You could think of all these different traditions and their symbols and scriptures and sadhanas as different spiritual ecosystems. I think that's very useful. And then different kinds of animals make their home there.
It's really fascinating to me that just by, like imagining a moon we can create an effect inside of ourselves, like just that that works.
As above so below, right?
Well, the energy that you work with as an acupuncturist is shakti, right? But it's also totally imbued with awareness and can be moved just with the mind. You don't actually need needles, at some point or another, right? Because they're completely connected. Mind and energy, completely connected.
Yeah. There’s a saying like, “where the mind goes qi follows.”
Exactly. And it's kind of great because when people first start practicing, or maybe for a long time because everybody comes in in a different condition, right? Some people just don't feel subtle energy. And the beautiful thing about that is, well, if they just move their mind in the channel, the energy is moving, whether they feel it or not. So they can still have benefit, even though their senses are not subtle enough yet.
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