Semiotics. How we make meanings.

Late one night a bat flew into the large hall where a group of us were meeting before a night-long ceremony with our South American curandero friends. It flew once around the room in a wide circle then flew back into the night. The shaman asked me, “What does it mean?”

Perhaps, for the shaman, the bat was a portent, perhaps he was testing me, to discover what meaning the bat might have for me. I suggested that the bat was a beautiful creature of the night – the spirit of the night – paying respects to the people who had travelled so far to join us for this ceremony.

Semiotics recognizes that all the images, symbols, and forms that make up our every-day experience are as specific and meaningful as words and language. Our world is infused with the meanings and nuance of a myriad images. Some of them have been with us for millennia, while others enter our collective consciousness through art, through the forms of nature, through commercial branding, or simply through repetition in the media.

A bat of course, is just a bat, but through continuous human contact with them, bats, like countless other animals, plants, landscapes, objects, and events, have taken on a wealth of meanings and associations.

The scientific fundamentalism that has pervaded our thinking for the past several centuries and which has come to be accepted in the dominant culture as the de facto ‘truth’ would declare that a bat is simply a winged rodent, driven by basic instincts.

But a tension exists between our mechanistic explanation of the world and the reality of our associative consciousness that has absorbed the richness of mythological and semiotic meaning.

An indigenous shaman divining whether it is auspicious to conduct a ceremony might have very specific associations for a bat, or a snake, or a tree growing in a certain way, or a pattern in the clouds. That’s how divination works. It’s also how semiotics works. We make meanings, and from those meanings we derive a context-specific reality, a truth.

“We are meaning-making machines,” says Richard Bandler, the co-creator of NLP. We are continually extrapolating meanings from our experience. We have to, in order to make sense of it all. If we didn’t, the world would be an incomprehensible soup of random pieces of unrelated information.

Neurologically speaking, we’re wired to make patterns. It’s how our brains make intelligible images from the fragmented bits of information it receives from our eyes and our visual cortex. It’s how we organize memories, thoughts, sounds, tastes, smells, and the wealth of somatic occurrences, all within the dynamic neural network that we construct and experience as our senses, our bodies, our life.

We experience the world as a vast neural network that is continually prompting us to make patterns, stories, and meanings.

No wonder then, that we sometimes get our wires crossed, or compromise ourselves with outdated or inadequate information. No wonder, given our propensity for seeking what is familiar and safe, that most of us resist change of any sort, and avoid disturbing the patterns by which we have comfortably interpreted the world, and our experience of it, for a lifetime.

This tension between the mechanistic-rationalist worldview, and our ability to transform what appears before us into archetypal representations, is exactly why constellations are effective. It opens a door to a part of our psyche which has laid dormant for generations.  It’s as if we hunger for a pretext to open to the realm where we can make fresh meanings about our life, where we can see with fresh eyes, where we can understand something about what ‘we know but don’t yet know that we know’, where we can trust our intuition.

The new meanings may be as fragile and unverifiable as a cloud in the sky foretelling the future, or as the diviner’s cards thrown down on the table, but that doesn’t make them any less true or useful. Perhaps their fleeting evanescence makes them all the more real, by reflecting the chimera-like nature of the world.