Light and Shadow

Challenges in religious and spiritual life

More Than Words: Five Ways to Unleash the Power of Symbols

How can we amplify those profound experiences that can't be captured in words?

More than words…more than words…more than words… 

I almost always seem to have a song running through my head. Usually it’s something that I’ve heard in the past few days. During this past month, though, my mind was doing something mysterious: It kept going back to an old song that I hadn't heard in a long time. The song is a 1991 acoustic ballad called More than Words, performed by the rock band Extreme

When I finally gave some attention to this long-lost song that was echoing inside my head, I wondered why it was making such an impression on me, seemingly "out of the blue." I also noticed that the melody was having a positive effect on my mood. Curious by now, I searched online and located a link to the video. I found that the performance touched me, offering something fresh and new even after these many years. (Click here if you’d like to see the video.)

We humans sure do love our words. We read. We write. We chatter with friends and family. If things get too quiet, we’ll turn on the radio or TV to hear others talk. Even inside our own heads, we seem to keep a constant monologue going.

Yet words often fall short when we try to describe deeply personal, emotional experiences. There are times when something feels very close to the heart, perhaps even mystical or sacred. It might be a dream that lingers in memory, a powerful image that pops into your mind, or a song that brings an unexpected burst of tears. Words just can’t capture exactly what these experiences mean to us. We seem to be picking up some deeper meaning, something symbolic that points the soul beyond the limits of human language. 

How can we make the most of what these symbols have to offer us? Here are 5 suggestions.

1) Pay attention. First, we need to notice ideas that come to us in symbolic forms. If you see, hear, or sense something unexpected that stirs your emotions, allow yourself to really notice it, rather than rushing past the experience. Or if you've just awakened from a vivid dream, give yourself a few moments to recall it. It will be easier to glean meaning from symbolic messages if we open ourselves to their potential importance and pay attention. 

2) Savor the experience. When we encounter a symbol, there can be a sense of pressure to figure out exactly what it means...and right away! But there's much to be said for giving yourself some time to experience the symbol in the moment. If it's a song, listen a few times and let it sink in. If it's an image, take some time to gaze. You may find it useful to jot down some thoughts and feelings in response to your symbol. It's possible that you will have a clear sense of what the symbol means to you in the present moment. But this might not happen, and that's OK. 

3) Reflect--but don't dissect. When confronted with a powerful symbol, the analytical, verbal part of our brain may leap to action: “Here’s something interesting and important, but I don’t understand it. So I need to figure it out.” After some initial reflection on our thoughts and feelings, some of us are quick to push further. We don't just reflect on the experience, we dissect it. We open the whole thing for scrutiny, and we inspect every little piece to see what leads to what. We use lots of words in an attempt to pin things down: "This means this" and "that means that." Although we can gain valuable insights through such a process, it's possible to go overboard with analysis. And when we overanalyze a symbolic experience, especially early on, we may unintentionally strip the symbol of its power. If we don’t use a gentle, patient touch, the symbol may lose its emotional impact. In short, we may feel as though we've analyzed it to death. 

4) Expect many layers. It can be tempting to search for a single, literal interpretation of a symbol. Yet one of the most powerful aspects of symbols is that they often hold many layers of meaning. Different layers may be relevant to our lives at different times. By forcing a single interpretation, we may cut the process short by stopping at an outer layer, thinking that this is all that the symbol has to offer.

There seems to be a certain humility in recognizing that we may never fully understand a symbol in a complete and thorough way, one that allows us to check it off the list and fully explain its total meaning. If it could all be captured in words, would we really need the symbol?

5) Use reminders. I've filled my home office with reminders that have symbolic meaning for me. As I look around the room now, I see a flowering tree with birds, a rug featuring pictures of ripe fruit, and a scrapbook with images of big-wave surfing. I also see representations of animals: a sea turtle, a butterfly, a camel. And not everything is visually oriented: Some CDs and scented candles carry symbolic meaning for me as well. I chose these items for my office intentionally, to remind me of certain ideas or insights that don't fit neatly into words. 

After this reflection, I'm still not 100% sure why "More than Words" has been running through my head. One thing, at least, seems clear: This experience has given me something that feels fresh and personal to share with you this month. And I'm still enjoying the melody, which even now continues to echo in my mind. I trust that if this song holds more layers of meaning that are important for my life, I'll discover them when the time is right.

Julie Exline, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. She is a licensed psychologist and a certified spiritual director.

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