Once you understand symbolism, the secrets of different cultures and religions also can start to open up.
I studied the symbolism of Hinduism and Buddhism in India, Thailand and other cultures, and finally came full circle back to the Christian scriptures of my own culture. Suddenly everything fell into place. Reading, for example, the Book of Revelation literally, I could not make sense of it at all. But when I took time to study and understand the symbolic meaning, I found this text very closely linked to the Kundalini Yoga system.
In India, there are carvings and wall paintings on the temples and in the famous caves of Ajanta. The Divine images are not meant to be decorative, but rather to communicate knowledge in the most accessible way because written language had developed slowly and was available only to a few. And writing itself is symbolic. Each letter is an abstract symbol that combines with others to form a word. And behind each word is a myriad of ideas, open to interpretation by every reader. I think as long as we use words, the best we can do is to use symbol and metaphor.
Symbols have many levels of meaning and you have to stay with them until you begin to understand their meanings. When you increase your awareness through the study of symbols, you will recognize that your needs are more than just on the physical, emotional and intellectual levels. You will find out what enriches your life and what gives you a new incentive to live fully. The self-knowledge you gain will provide a wonderful protection against being manipulated by others and by yourself.
In the Eastern way of teaching, you are given as much opportunity to discover by yourself as possible. Only through that discovery comes the strength, the joy and the interest to pursue further. Listening, obedience and surrender are necessary in the beginning to develop receptivity. Once you are receptive, you become a self-generating force.
The emphasis in my teaching is on self-examination and self-inquiry. I use familiar Western terms, but in a kind of Eastern psychology that explores each person’s individual symbolism and use of metaphor, and teaches the practice of awareness.
A walking meditation technique, which I now call Straight Walk®, is tremendously symbolic from the very first step, and originated from an experience I had in Thailand. I was there visiting a monastery and the disciplinary Buddhist monk said to me, “Walk from here to there, observe everything, and tell me what you observe.”
I put my foot out to take the first step and he said, “No, no, no. Back you go.”
Again he said, “No, go back,” offering no help. In the West, we want to be spoon-fed. We want everything explained so we can understand it right away, and even then we cannot see it most of the time. In the East, you find out for yourself.
As I stood, I realized that when I was still, the weight of my body was evenly distributed and I was in a state of equilibrium. This state is symbolic of the equilibrium I sometimes felt in my life, but I knew that no one can stay in that position forever. Life is motion and development. So before I started, I realized that in order to move, I must make the decision to upset the equilibrium and change my situation.
When I expressed this insight, the monk let me take the first step. I observed how my weight shifted and my balance was thrown off. Once I completed the first step, I immediately began to take the second, but the monk stopped me.“No, no, you go back and start all over again.”
Gradually I realized that when I brought my foot down and was ready to shift my weight, there was a split second when equilibrium was re-established. I understood that this was symbolic in life for re-establishing balance between any two steps, between two events or even between two thoughts. But we have to recognize that the moment of balance exists in order to take the opportunity for rest and renewal. That is very important to understand and is usually missed in the West, because life is fast. We don’t take the time to observe, and then we pay a high price.
Understanding and working with symbolism is a learning process where we find out for ourselves. Each of us can change our situation in life and live with more awareness. Symbolism is a key, but it is up to each person to put the key in the lock and open the door. That door leads to a new freedom. If you want it, it is all yours.
Swami Sivananda Radha (1911-1995) was a pioneering force in bringing the ancient wisdom of yoga to the West. Initiated in 1956 by her guru, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, India, she went on to establish Yasodhara Ashram in British Columbia, Canada, and author classic books on yoga including Kundalini Yoga for the West and Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language.