Man’s existence throughout history is dotted with symbols – images and objects that have defined and inspired the continuous battle to survive and make sense of our world. From the carved wooden totems of ancient tribes, to the prayer beads of Buddhist monks, the use of objects to remind us of what is important and true is a time-tested method by which we can connect.
Religious and social institutions have refined and reinforced many of these symbols, and their widespread acceptance is a testament to their functionality. A cross worn around the neck or a wedding band on the left hand is a constant, physical reminder of a non-physical truth; a choice made, a promise kept, a philosophy thought out. These symbols serve a purpose, and the institutions which propel them are more than aware of the importance they have in keeping their bearers conscious of their meaning.
A few months ago I met with a friend who, during the course of our conversation, changed the bracelet she was wearing from her right to left wrist, and half an hour later, back again. When I asked about the bracelet she confessed that while the piece of jewelry itself was nothing special, she had determined to wear and use it as an experimental reminder. She went on to tell me that she was trying to train herself out of certain mental habits – mainly, self-critical thoughts – and had found that by changing the bracelet each time one of these thoughts arose, she necessarily had to acknowledge the thought, process it and consciously let it go.
We all have changes we want to make, and one need only look to the queue at the tattoo parlor to see people striving to make such lasting changes to themselves, by permanently attaching symbolic reminders to their bodies. The various and multi-cultural symbols for infinity, karma, balance and acceptance, are just a few examples of tattoos created daily in an attempt to bring people closer to their goal of making daily, tangible life changes.
It’s common to think we are too deeply rooted in our own existence to be able to ‘trick’ our subconscious into changing its patterns, but we are perhaps not as far above Pavlov’s dogs as we would like to think.
Neural pathways are easily formed with relentless repetition, meaning mental habits are just as malleable and quick to form as physical ones. If you’re trying to be a better listener, think more positively, or be more generous, for example, and need some help to keep the reminders coming daily, applying a symbolic reminder can help manifest the intention in a practical and grounded way.
Images and symbols can be anything, as long as the association is strong. Experiment for a couple of days with any action or physical addition to your mental process that flags what you’re trying to keep an eye on, and see how quickly you can change it.