Babies and cavemen … we are born with a desire to express ourselves no matter how crudely. We’ve acquired tools to be more sophisticated, elegant, realistic. But before language and beyond language, symbols have been used to express ideas with authenticity and often startling insights.

In a perfect world, inspiring and revealing symbols would be at our beck and call to make magic, visual analogies and poetry in our writing and art, opening up new worlds of language and expression.  They can come to us through dreams or spontaneously, “happy accidents”, especially if we’re in a state of Flow (a balance between skill and challenge). They may come to us more easily through a habit of practicing self awareness and expression.

Symbols may be shared or unique. Jung wrote a great deal on the collective unconscious, sharing an innate symbolic language; psychologists often use a tree in a child’s art as self representation; and Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote extensively of butterflies as a symbol of death and rebirth (eg drawn by children on the walls of concentration camps).

Personal symbols may relate to your culture or religion; or the familiar objects/shapes/colors that you associate with loved ones or memories. Developing a language of personal symbolism comes through practice and heightened awareness.

A quick and easy way to identify and use symbols is through one of the following activities.

  • Look around you – your desk, office, room….   What object in that room represents you, now.   How does it represent you, now?
  • Reach out and touch the inanimate object closest to you without making a conscious choice.       How does that represent you?       How does it represent how you’d like to be? (And other questions as appropriate…. much potential for self revelation….).

The point of the exercise is not in the object that is chosen – it is in the way that your subconscious chooses to interpret it.   These exercises are a tool to let go of conscious thought and old “scripts”, and express what is relevant now, simply and honestly.  

Creativity is the arrangement of familiar elements in novel ways, opening the door for clarification, intuition and insight.   Facing a novel situation through a challenge that restricts conventional thinking or familiar response facilitates creativity. Flow and a creative state of mind is most likely to occur when a comfortable level of skill is challenged.

  • In a group, present an object…perhaps a rock, plant, crystal or book……   Ask each member of the group to introduce themselves by sharing how that object might represent them.   Each group member is given the opportunity to express how they perceive themselves as authentically as possible.   This is also a good exercise at the beginning of a weekly group as the same object is likely to be described differently, relevant to the frame of mind at that time.
  • Fun and games.       Fill a cup with pieces of paper, each person contributing a symbol that applies to them; group members can draw a piece of paper randomly and discuss how it might relate to them.       Again, this exercise is just an opportunity for the subconscious to come into play and make novel interpretations. Or make up a chart of your own symbols using words, movement or images;   tell a story as much as possible in analogies and symbols.


The seed is a household object but at the same time it is a revolutionary symbol.

Ai Weiwei